Question: “My question is in regards to Bible verses such as Acts 22:16 and Acts 2:38 that seem to suggest a person has to be water baptized to go to heaven. I believe that a person does not have to be water baptized to go to Heaven bc of incidences such as the thief on the cross. However, how do I explain these verses to others when I’m trying to tell them all they have to do is Believe in Jesus and verses such as these arise when having a conversation?”
Answer: Excellent question. When things like this arise, I always abide by a bible hermeneutic I learned in college. Interpret unclear verses with clear verses. Let’s use that approach here.
I’m going to focus on Acts 22:16 because I have addressed Acts 2:38 in my video about the word repent. Acts 22:16 does seem to say that the washing away of one’s sins is achieved by water baptism. What is the context of this verse? Paul is recounting his salvation experience from Acts 9:1-18 to the people at the temple where he was just arrested. I believe he is clearly speaking about water baptism as the symbol of what had already occurred when he believed on the Lord for salvation. I hold this confidently hold this view because of 1 Peter 3:21. Peter clearly states that water baptism, the putting away of the filth of the flesh, is not salvation. Rather, salvation is being placed (baptized) into Jesus Christs resurrection.
So, were Paul and Peter at odds about what saves a person? No, in fact Galatians 2 details how Paul and the apostles had agreement on the gospel, specifically recall Galatians 2:7-10. Paul says in Galatians 2:16 that justification occurs by faith in Jesus, not by any works of the law. A person getting baptized would be a work and therefore cannot be accepted as a part of their salvation. He continues this theme of justification by faith throughout the entire book. Take special note of Galatians 3:22 where Paul clearly states that those who believe on Jesus will be given the promise of faith which was first given to Abraham. No mention is made regarding water baptism being necessary. In fact, Romans 4:5 makes the best point about salvation. It is given to him that doesn’t work but believes on Jesus Christ.
Now, hang on tight for this one. A strong point is to be made with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 1:14-17. There was so much division in the Corinthian church that Paul made special note to state he was glad he only baptized a few of them! Then, verse 17 brings it all home. The gospel and water baptism are two different things. Paul says he is focusing on the gospel. One cannot look at this verse and say water baptism saves. If it did save, then Paul would not have separated them so clearly in 1 Corinthians 1:17!
So, why does Paul say what he said in Acts 22:16? I believe he was speaking of water baptism as a symbol. His audience was clearly upset with him before this statement because they caused the riot because of his appearance at the temple! The church was growing at this time, and many were opposed to the teachings of Jesus Christ. People were being water baptized as a picture of their faith in Jesus Christ for salvation. People were converting from Judaism to Christianity every day and sometimes by the thousands. My point here is that those who heard him understood his words. I do not think Acts 22:16 is a proof that baptism washes away sin. It is Paul speaking symbolically of what had already occurred when he believed on Jesus for the salvation of his soul.
When someone brings water baptism for salvation to you, I would shift the point back to the age-old issue; is our salvation by our work of water baptism or is it by the grace of God demonstrated to us by Jesus Christs death? Romans 11:6 says its one or the other. If it is water baptism, then we should have been able to see that clearly throughout the Bible. Instead, we see grace everywhere we look regarding salvation.