Dr. John Mark Hicks makes that claim that for the early church being a Christian meant one was baptized and that it was understood that if one was not a Christian one was not baptized. As well, Bruce contends, “the idea of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.” Yet, in recent years the same case cannot be made. Baptism has been reduced by many simply to an initiatory rite for church membership, membership into a local church body. Yet, looking at the biblical record shows baptism to be something more than just a rite of passage into a church membership. It has to be remembered that “church membership,” in its current/modern understanding is quite different than what it would have meant in Frist Century, Second Temple Judaism. While the Bible presents baptism as a salvific event, a sacrament, the modern church has reduced the salvific event to a prayer that is never found in scripture. The biblical record shows baptism, when coupled with belief, to be the event whereby salvation occurs.
Before diving into the waters of biblical baptism there are a few preliminary concerns that need to be addressed: The thief on the cross and the definition of church.
For most people “the thief on the cross” provides the test case for baptism not being an essential for the salvation event. Without rehashing a story known to all, a few brief details will be given to set the story given in Luke 23. The “thief” was crucified beside Christ. In his last minutes he asked Christ to remember him when he, Christ, comes into his kingdom. Christ answers by assuring him that he would that day be in paradise with Christ.
Two points of clarification are all that need be made about the thief to dispel that he represents salvation apart from baptism. First, the command for baptism was given by the risen Christ in Matthew 28. So, at the time of the thief’s death there was no command to be baptized. A second point, and a major point, is that the thief, just as Christ, died under the Old Covenant. The New Covenant was not in force until the death of its mediator, Christ: Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (Hebrews 9: 15-17).
Another argument could be put forth that it is known whether the thief was baptized or not. While some may argue that the thief did not have time to get off the cross and be baptized, it cannot be said that he was not baptized before going to the cross. It is biblical record that both the disciples of John the immerser and the disciples of Jesus were both baptizing. So it could well have been that the thief was a baptized person. This case is weak an unprovable, and the first two provide enough emphasis to disqualify the thief as a test case, a scriptural proof, that baptism is not essential for a true New Covenant conversion.
The experience of the thief would best be seen, as Schroeder writes, “When Jesus responds, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise,’ the ‘today’ focuses not only on what awaits the repentant criminal, but equally on what Jesus is accomplishing, namely, coming into his kingdom. ‘Today, Jesus is dying with sinners.” Instead of viewing the thief as a proof text for the lack of necessity of baptism, it is best viewed as centered on the work of Christ.
Of equal concern is the definition of the word “church.” The term is use almost without thought while its meaning seems to dangle in the undefined. For purposes of this paper church will be defined in two ways. Designated by a capital “C” it will represent the church universal: the entire body of Christ. When written with a lower case “c” it will represent the local church: the place where believers meet typically on, but not limited to, a Sunday morning. As some claim baptism to be an initiatory rite into one or both of these the definitions will aid in the understanding.
ACTS 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21
No matter who one interprets Acts 2:38, those who were baptized that day were added to the Church or the church.
After the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2, Peter, through a sermon, explains to those present what has just happened. After his sermon, he is asked what they must do now. Peter’s response, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2: 38). Without consulting commentaries or journals it seems that apart from baptism there is no remission of sin. Yet, many, in order to safeguard “salvation by grace alone, have diminished the phrase. Gaertner writes, “This position disregards the very common use of eis in the New Testament to mean ‘for the purpose of, in order to.’ In Matthew 26:28 where this exact phrase appears, Jesus says his blood is poured out’ for (eis) the forgiveness of sins. It would be absurd to argue that the phrase means ‘because of’ and that Jesus’ blood was poured out because sins had already been forgiven.” Gaertner continued writing, “Whatever Peter says about the forgiveness of sins follows from both imperatives. Just as repentance is needed “for the purpose of” the forgiveness of sins, so is baptism. This position need not rob the plan of salvation of its basis in the grace of God. Both imperatives expect action to be taken on the part of the sinner.  For Gaertner, whatever repentance means in the salvation process, baptism means the same.
Horton on the other hand, takes the position of baptism “because of … .” Horton writes, “That is, they must repent first, then [Peter] would baptize them. We are saved by grace through faith, not through baptism. After repentance, water baptism becomes a ‘pledge’ or testimony, of a good conscience that has already been cleansed.”
The problem with Horton’s assessment is he works to hard to protect a doctrine instead of letting scripture say what is says. Instead of allowing scripture to set doctrine, he is good with the idea of letting doctrine set what scripture says. As has been shown earlier the error in this line of exegesis, his outcome fails to take into account other scripture which declares that baptism does in fact now save.
Peter wrote, “Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). For Peter, salvation happened at the baptism event. Black asserts, “any view of baptism which finds it a rather embarrassing ceremonial extra, irrelevant to Christian salvation, is not doing justice to New Testament teaching.” This, a ceremonial act, it is what much of modern Christianity has reduced the sacrament of baptism to. Bock backs this statement writing, “The act of baptism portrays a washing and signifies what repentance produces, cleansing.” But, can repentance by itself produce such an event? A Radical Islamic Terrorist known for the murder of Christians may repent from murder; he may stop murdering. Yet, he has made no profession of Christ or been baptized. Has his repentance alone saved him? To answer this question one need look no farther than the case of the Apostle Paul.
Paul of Tarsus
Paul himself claimed to be the chief of sinners. Yet, on the Damascus road he had an encounter with the risen Christ. Two points need to be made here. First, Paul, or Saul as he was known at that time, was on a mission to persecute Christians. And, after his encounter with Christ that mission was thwarted. One need not look too far to see that there was repentance. If this was the only story available about Paul, the outcome would have to be that he had relented. But, the story of Paul goes a bit farther. Paul was told to go on to Damascus. When there, in his own words, “Ananias came to me, and standing by me said to me, ‘Brother Saul, receive your sight.’ And at that very hour I received my sight and saw him. And he said, ‘The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth; for you will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name’ (Acts 22:13-16, emphasis added).
For Paul, the sins were not washed away until the baptism. Paul’s account of his salvation affirms Acts 2:38:
Acts 2:38 Paul’s Salvation account
Be Baptized Was Baptized
Remission of Sins Sins Washed Away
These elements in Paul’s conversion can be found throughout the New Covenant writings as well as early church writings. And, it has to be remembered that it was Paul gave the doctrine of salvation by grace (Ephesians 2:8-10). Man, in an attempt to clarify what was never murky has come upon and taught something never taught or implied in scripture. If baptism is relegated to a “work” repentance has to be given the same status; Acts 2:38 presents them on an even keel where salvation is concerned. In all fairness to the question, repentance is much more of a work than baptism. One has to work at repentance; one simply submits to baptism.
The biblical case has been made that apart from belief AND baptism there is now salvation. At baptism sins are washed away. Apart from baptism there is no biblical case that can be made for remission of sins. All New Covenant conversions contain baptism either directly stated or implicit. As Cukrowski sums it up, “Luke’s exclusive mention of one of these three items is not a denial of the other two. Thus, in writing to a Christian audience, Luke presumes that his readers know an obedient response to God involves faith, repentance, and baptism.” The question now turns onto church membership.
Big “C” or Little “c”
Acts 2:41 reads, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” The question then that has to be answered, and is the subject and summation of a rather lengthy introduction of sorts, is simply, “where were they added?”
One could throw out all commentaries and writings and from a simple reading of Acts come to the logical conclusion that the souls added were simply added to the number of souls saved. There are roughly 15 language groups mentioned in Acts chapter 2. Each of these groups in Jerusalem for Pentecost. Pentecost being one of three feast that required the Jew to travel to Jerusalem. Logically speaking, if they traveled there, they would again travel home. If the souls added were added to a local church—if baptism was simply an initiatory rite into local church membership—which local church were they added to, the church in Jerusalem or the church from where they came?
The problem with this is there were no local churches from where they came—nor even in Jerusalem for that matter as this was the day the church was born! At best, Luke presents a beginning of sorts to a budding community of people who have repented and been baptized. But, the community that Luke follows at this point is one that remains in Jerusalem. While the others who were added would have went on their way setting up communities in their native lands. For Jervell these souls were added to the “flock of disciples.” Horton seems to agree using an upper case “C,” “we can be sure that all three thousand new believers were added to the Church received the of the Father as Peter said they would and were filled with the Spirit, speaking in other tongues as in Acts 2:4” (emphasis added). The second part of Horton’s quote cannot be defended and is in itself a research paper. The point though being, there was no church at this time for these souls to be added. Yet, there was a Church. If the doctrine is based on biblical record, from Acts 2:41 the only conclusion that can be drawn is baptism was into the Church, the Body of Christ universal.
Another biblical case against baptism being an initiatory rite in to local church membership presents itself a few chapters later.
In Acts 8 the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian is told. Phillip is sent by the Spirit to a desert place. Here he sees and Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah. When Phillip asked the Ethiopian if he understands what he is reading, the Ethiopian responds asking how can he if he has no-one to teach him. From here, Luke says, “Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). From Isaiah Phillip taught, or as the NASB translates it preached, Jesus. That alone is nothing to add to the current discussion. Yyet, what follows is. Luke wrote, “And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’ And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him” (Acts 8:36-38). One is left with the question, which local church was the Ethiopian baptized into membership with? He did not travel back to Jerusalem to be a part of the church there. There is one point to be made from the story: If Jesus is preached baptism is a part of the preaching. The only church in view is the Church universal. The pericope is not designed to show how one enters into a local church, but to show the spread of the gospel. As Polhill puts is a eunuch, a black, a Gentile is baptized into the Body of Christ. This helps to fill out the road map of the gospel laid out in Acts 1:8— But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (emphasis added).
There were no churches in Ethiopia at this time. So, the question that has to be asked is was the Ethiopian baptized into church or Church? The story of the Eunuch was never about local church membership. It is a story to show the growth of the gospel. It shows the spread of the gospel passing barriers. Salvation, and thus Church membership, is not limited to Jews, but is now open to all people. Paul says this is the mystery of the New Covenant, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6). Luke is not concerned with membership into some local country club called the church; his concern is the Body of Christ, the universal Church.
Looking back at the Apostle Paul’s own conversion leaves the question of which local church was his baptism an initiatory rite for granting entrance? Looking back, Paul was converted in Damascus. Yet, there was no church in Damascus at the time. Into which church then Paul granted membership?
The only answer in the case of Paul can be that his baptism put him in the Church universal, not a local church establishment—they were non-existent. At best, where Paul is concerned, local church membership could be argued for Antioch, and even this is a weak argument. Acts 13 shows a local body of believers called the church at Antioch. Luke writes, “Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off” (Acts 13:1-3, NIV). While the case can weakly be made that Paul could have been a member of the body at Antioch as they seem to be the sending church for the missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas, scripture shows Paul was not baptized to be a member there. It would be a much better explanation to say Paul was baptized into the universal Church and spent time with the local body at Antioch. The biblical record suggests that baptism is into the universal Church and the believer places his membership where he decides to worship.
A Few Loose Ends
Believer’s baptism should be accepted as the norm. Without belief baptism is simply getting wet. This should disavow any doctrine of infant baptism. If one is to believe and repent how can an infant participate?
If baptism is simply an initiatory rite for church membership why are people not re-baptized when they move from one city another and begin going to a new church? It seems this practice alone ‘shoots in the foot’ the doctrine that baptism is for local church membership. Iit alone suggests that there is something deeper in the ordinance of baptism; it suggest that baptism is into the Church Universal.
Common, modern, practice has relegated salvation to a stock prayer recited by the new believer. The prayer has come to be known as the Sinner’s Prayer. Yet, said prayer is nowhere to be found in the Holy Scriptures. This, though, is the common path to salvation. Baptism then is relegated as a secondary thought to gain admission into a local church fellowship. This differs vastly from the biblical picture that has been presented. For the biblical record does not view baptism as a rite or ordinance, but sees baptism as a sacrament. It is the only sacrament the Bible records.
No matter what ideas and doctrines man forms, the biblical record will always have precedence, as it should. From before the death of Christ, and the command to baptize, a thief was saved. He was saved just as any Old Covenant person would have been saved. After his resurrection Christ gave the command to baptize. And, on that first Pentecost after His resurrection the command was put into action. Yet, with no local churches it cannot be successfully argued that the command to be baptize was for admission into a local church. Numbers were added that day but not to a local church; numbers were added to the Universal Church, the Body of Christ.
From that first Pentecost the gospel spread, as Christ had said in Acts 1:8 it would. Starting with an Ethiopian, Christ was preached and he asked to be baptized. The argument cannot be made that it was into a local church as there were none in Ethiopia. He was baptized into the Universal Church, the Body of Christ.
Paul, formerly Saul, of Tarsus was encountered. On his way to Damascus he met the risen Christ. He repented and was subsequently baptized. His baptism was not for admission to a local church. The biblical record shows it was to wash his sins away. Paul’s baptism was not for entrance into a local church; his baptism was into the Universal Church, the body of Christ.
Baptism, when coupled with belief, is the salvific event. While man has formed doctrines to down play the event and make it an initiatory rite into local church membership, the Bible never places it in such a position. In the Bible baptism is never an ordinance or rite; it is always a sacrament. Too many, and too often, theologians have only looked at scripture through the lens of the Reformation theologians and endeavored to protect a doctrine of grace and faith alone. The Bible, on the other hand, puts forth the doctrine of grace and faith alone and has baptism as a part of that equation. Simply stated, baptism is not an initiatory rite into a local church membership, it is part of the salvation event into the Universal Church, the body of Christ.
Collect for Baptism:
Heavenly Father, by the power of your Holy Spirit
you give to your faithful people new life in the water of baptism.
Guide and strengthen us by the same Spirit,
that we who are born again may serve you in faith and love,
and grow into the full stature of your Son, Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit
now and for ever. Amen.
Until Next Time, May the Good Lord Bless and Keep You!
 John Mark Hicks, Down In The River to Pray (Abilene: Leafwood, 2012), 181.
 F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1954), 77.
 All verses Holy Bible English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.
 Edward Schroeder, “Luke’s Gospel through a Systematic Lens,” in Currents in Theology and Mission 3, no. 6 (1976): 340.
 Dennis Gaertner, Acts (Joplin: College Press, 1993), S Acts 2:38.
 Stanley Horton, Acts (Springfield: Logion, 1981), 79.
 Allen Black and Mark C. Black, 1 & 2 Peter (Joplin: College Press, 1998), S. 1 Peter 3:21.
 Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 142.
 Ken Cukrowski, “What Must I do To Be Saved?” in Fanning the Flames: Probing the Issues in Acts ed.
Mark E. Moore (Joplin: College Press, 2003), 297.
 Jervel quoted in Bock, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 146.
 Horton, 82.
 John Polhill, Acts (Nashville: Broadman, 1992), 226.