Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
First, let’s notice what the people had asked Peter that provoked his response in verse thirty-eight: “What must we do?” (vs.37b). Their question appears akin to the Philippian jailer’s question in chapter sixteen, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30b). To which Paul responded by saying, “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved” (vs.31). For starters, we shouldn’t think that Luke was unaware of this contrast when he comprised this volume. Although the language Peter used in Acts 2:38 is different than that of Paul in Acts 16:31, I would argue that both are saying the same thing using different language in different contexts.
Second, after the people asked, “What must we do?” Peter responded by saying, “Repent”, so that’s the first thing he said, and then he continued saying, “let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38b). In other places we have considered how faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. The act of true repentance has faith undergirding it. A person does not genuinely repent unless they have genuine faith; and, in turning from their sin and self-righteousness, and by turning to Christ, we see that genuine faith displays itself in genuine repentance. Hence the statement: faith and repentance are two sides of the same coin. Now, in light of this text, it’s important to see that baptism is put on the same side of the coin as repentance. It’s as though repentance is the immediate ‘negative’ form of obedience and baptism is the immediate ‘positive’ form of obedience. Just as it’s hard to imagine someone having genuine faith without repenting, it’s hard to imagine someone having genuine repentance without being baptized. And Peter’s call to baptism in this context appears to be synonymous with a call to both repentance and a declaration of faith.
Third, Peter is not being exact and sequential in Acts 2:38. Some can read this verse and mistakenly think, “Ah, you see, Peter is saying that you do not receive the gift of the Holy Spirit until you are baptized. After all, he said, ‘Repent… be baptized… and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (vs.38). But that statement would be wrong. In Acts chapter 10, for example, Peter was preaching Christ to a man named Cornelius (along with some other Gentiles) saying things like, “To Him [Jesus] all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43). As an aside, in that statement, there was no mention of baptism for the remission of sins by Peter, just faith. Nevertheless, continuing with the premise of the third point, listen to the very next words that Luke wrote: “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word” (vs.44). These believing Gentiles were granted repentance unto life (see Acts 11:17-18) and were given the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:17) before being water baptized. Such is why Peter asked, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). So the sequence of words in Acts 2:38 is not intended to give a strict chronology of how salvation happens. The men in Acts 10 believed and were given the Holy Spirit (an evidence that they belonged to God – Rom. 8:9b) before they were baptized.
Fourth, in Acts 2:41 those who were baptized are identified as those who “gladly received his word”, i.e. the words Peter spoke. What did Peter speak? Well, from verses 22 through 36 we see that he spoke of Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension; and he told those listening that Jesus was both Lord and Christ. That was the main thrust of the words that the crowd gladly received (vs.41). Furthermore, in the beginning of verse 44 the glad word-receivers are identified as those who “believed” (vs.44a). This identification of the converts is important because it corresponds to the abundance of Scriptural evidence that teaches justification by faith (Jn.1:12; 6:47; Acts 10:43; 13:38-39, 48; 15:8-9; 16:31; Rom. 5:1; 10:9-10; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Cor. 1:21; Gal. 2:15-16; etc.). Those who are saved are routinely described as those who believed, and these who believed in Acts 2:44 demonstrated that newly-granted saving faith by repenting and being baptized in the name of Jesus for the remission of sins.
Therefore, we conclude that baptism, while incredibly important, and a natural outworking of true faith, is not essential to salvation, nor is it the means by which a person is saved – faith in the person and work of Christ is.