Does this text teach that baptism is necessary for salvation? Was Ananias telling Paul that the act of being baptized, and being immersed in water, washes away sins? I think both of those assumptions are seriously erroneous. Let’s consider why.
We’ll begin with considering the immediate context. Notice the instruction that Ananias gave Paul: “Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” The phrase “calling on His name” modifies the previous phrase “wash away your sins.” It’s not through baptism that a person’s sins are washed away but through calling on the name of the Lord. In fact, that’s the same idea that Paul communicated in his letter to the church at Rome when he said, “Whoever calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” (Rom. 10:13). Granted, water baptism was an illustration of that reality, but water baptism did not produce or substantiate that reality (just as Peter argued in 1 Pet. 3:21); the confession of faith in Jesus Christ is what washed away Paul’s sins. Furthermore, Paul believed before being baptized because the Holy Spirit came upon him before his baptism (compare Acts 9:17 and 9:18). Remember, if any man does not have the Spirit of God he does not belong to God (Rom. 8:9). Therefore, seeing that Paul received the Spirit prior to being baptized illustrates that (a) he belonged to God, and (b) “having believed [he was] sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise” (Eph. 1:13b), all before he was baptized in water.
Now you would think that if Paul had his sins washed away via baptism he would have inevitably shared this information with others. It would have been something that would have been on the forefront of his mind and ministry. But that’s not what we see. In Acts 16:31, after being asked by the Philippian jailer, “What must I do to be saved?” Paul responded by saying, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” He told his hearers in Antioch in Pisidia that by Jesus, “everyone who believes is justified from all things from which [they] could not be justified in the Law of Moses” (Acts. 13:39). To use language from Paul’s epistle to the church at Rome, this was the word of faith that Paul preached (Rom. 10:8); particularly,
“That if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.”
If Paul was instructed by Ananias to be baptized so that he could have sins forgiven, or substantiate the reality of forgiveness, we would expect him to make baptism synonymous with the Gospel. After all, if the act of being baptized could wash away sins than it would be exciting and essential news that he would place of first importance right alongside the Gospel. Instead, we see him labor to expound justification by faith in places like Galatians 2:16 through Galatians 3:26 and Romans 3:21 through Romans 5:1; we see him teach about it in 1 Corinthians 1:21, Ephesians 2:8-9, Philippians 3:9, Colossians 2:12, 2 Thessalonians 2:13, and 2 Timothy 3:15; he is recorded as emphasizing it as being the way of forgiveness over and over again in Acts (13:39; 16:31; 20:21; 24:24); and he doesn’t even recall these words of Ananias in his other recounts of his personal testimony. And, as it relates to baptism, he wrote to the church of Corinth,
14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 lest anyone should say that I had baptized in my own name. 16 Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas. Besides, I do not know whether I baptized any other. 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect. (1 Cor. 1:14-17)
This kind of language would be peculiar if baptism was an instrument that God chose to give or substantiate salvation. The main distinction came in verse 17 where Paul said, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” Baptism and the Gospel were not one and the same. If baptism had any part in being the means of appropriating forgiveness, it would have been part of the Gospel. Granted, we are accustomed to thinking of justification by faith plus works as a false gospel but if the Scripture said that we could experience forgiveness with the holy God that we’ve transgressed via faith and baptism that would have been good news. We would have been so thankful that we, sin-laden human beings, were given ways to obtain peace with God. If water baptism could wash away sins, it would be part of the Gospel but it is not. Paul made that important distinction. The good news of the Gospel is what saves. Baptism is an ordinance that is commanded and it wonderfully depicts the believer’s union with Christ, but it’s not what saves; it’s not the Gospel.