We have forty questions in the inbox about Acts 2:38. There in the text, a bunch of seekers have gathered. And Peter says to them, “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). Indeed, three thousand people repent and are baptized. It’s an amazing sight! The text also appears to put water baptism prior to conversion or in the moment of conversion. Likewise, Paul was told to “rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). Dozens of listeners have written in to basically ask, “Are we saved after water baptism, before water baptism, or in water baptism?”
When Does Salvation Start?
I would first answer by making the question more precise, because the way I’d pose the question is “Are we justified before, in, or after baptism? Are we united to Christ? Do we become one with Christ, and does God become one hundred percent for us before, in, or after baptism?” Because in the New Testament, the word saved is used for what happens before, in, and after baptism.
- Ephesians 2:8: We “have been saved.”
- 1 Corinthians 1:18: We “are being saved.”
- Romans 13:11: “Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed.”
Being saved happened before, is happening now, and will happen finally in the future. The word salvation in the New Testament is broad and includes pieces of salvation. But what’s really being asked is “When did it all start? When was the first moment of union with Christ — the moment of justification, which is not a process like sanctification is, but is decisive?”
“God becomes one hundred percent for us in the instant that we have faith in Jesus.”
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31). When did that start? At what point does God count us a child — not a child of wrath, which we all are by nature (Ephesians 2:3), but a child of God, so that from that point on, he is one hundred percent for us, with no wrath? When did that happen? What was the decisive means that brought it about, that united us to Christ, that justified us? That’s my question. I think that’s really what they’re asking. I mean, they’re right to be concerned about it. There are texts that are puzzling.
Sole Instrument of Justification
So let me give my answer from texts and then show how that point relates to baptism.
- Romans 3:28: “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.”
- Romans 5:1: “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God.”
- Romans 4:5: “To the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.”
- John 3:16: “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
- Acts 13:38–39: “Through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed [justified] from everything from which you could not be freed [justified] by the law of Moses.”
On and on and on I could go. I had a bunch of others, but I thought for time’s sake I’ll just leave them out. Here’s my inference from those texts and many others like them: justification — being put right with God by union with Christ in the divine miracle of conversion and new birth — is by faith and faith alone on our part.
God uses faith as the sole instrument of union with Christ, and thus counts us righteous and becomes one hundred percent for us in the instant that we have faith in Jesus. That’s my answer.
What About the Water?
And now the question is, “How do you talk about baptism, and how do you understand those texts that were quoted that seem to connect baptism to that act, that beginning?” Let me give some answers to that.
The first thing I would say is that the thief on the cross was told by Jesus that that very day he would be with him in paradise. He was not baptized. I know he’s a special case. I don’t think you build a theology of baptism on the thief on the cross. But one thing it says is baptism is not an absolute necessity, because it wasn’t in his case.
“Baptism is the outward expression of calling on the name of the Lord in faith.”
Here’s the second thing I would say: Paul treats baptism as an expression of faith so that the decisive act that unites us to Christ is faith, and it is expressed outwardly in baptism. Now, here’s a very key text for me, because when I went to Germany, I was a lone Baptist in a den of Lutheran lions. They were loving lions. They just licked me; they didn’t eat me, but they did not approve of what I believed.
I remember taking a retreat with twelve little cubs and one big doktorvater, Leonhard Goppelt. We were talking about baptism the whole weekend, and this was my text that I put up. This is Colossians 2:11–12:
In him [in Christ] also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
You were buried with him and raised with him in baptism through faith. The burial with Christ in the water and the rising with Christ out of the water, it seems to me from that text, are not what unites you to Christ — that is, the going under the water, the coming up out of the water. That’s not what unites you to Christ. It is through faith that you are decisively united to Christ.
Water Pictures Cleansing
Here’s an interesting analogy since circumcision was brought into the picture there, and there’s kind of an image of circumcision in Colossians 2. If you go to Romans 4:11, Paul says,
He [Abraham] received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well.
If you just take the analogy — and that’s all it is; it’s just an analogy between baptism and circumcision — then this text would say that baptism is a sign of a righteousness that we have before we are baptized, because we have it through faith and through union with Christ.
“We are justified at the very first act of genuine saving faith in Christ, and then baptism follows.”
Then, we go to the relevant text in Acts that the questioner raised, Acts 22:16: “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins . . .” Now, if you stopped right there, you’d say, “Well, there it is. The water is the forgiving agent.” But that’s not where you stop. It says, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” The sense I think is the same. Baptism is the outward expression of calling on the name of the Lord in faith. It’s not the water that effects our justification or union with Christ. The water is a picture of the cleansing, but the faith in the heart, the call on the Lord from faith, is what unites us and forgives us.
Appeal from the Heart
Now, that’s the meaning that 1 Peter 3:21 actually picks up on when it says, in relationship to the flood and Noah’s rescue through the ark through the water, “Baptism, which corresponds to this [the salvation of Noah’s family in the ark and the flood], now saves you.”
That’s probably the clearest text for those who want to say that baptism is salvific — that baptism actually does the saving. It says baptism saves you, and then immediately, as though he knows he said something almost heretical because it would so compromise justification by faith, he says, “Not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal . . .”
Now we’re back to this call issue: “wash away your sins [by] calling on his name” (Acts 22:16). So 1 Peter 3:21 says, “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.” In other words, it’s the call of faith from the heart, not the water. Peter explicitly says, “not as a removal of dirt from the body.” In other words, it’s not the actual functioning of the water that does the saving. Even though he just said baptism saves you, what he means is that this outward act signifies an appeal to God that’s coming from the heart. It’s that faith that saves.
When John the Baptist or Mark calls his baptism “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4), it probably means a baptism signifying repentance, which brings forgiveness. Repentance is simply the way of describing the change of mind that gives rise to faith.
Don’t Miss Your Train
Now, here’s one last important text they’re raising. In fact, this is where you begin, Acts 2:38: “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.” It looks like this:
- Condition number one: be baptized.
- Condition number two: forgiveness will be given to you.
I’ve been arguing, because I think so many texts teach it, that, no, repentance and faith as one piece are what obtains forgiveness, not the act of baptism. Now, you might respond, “You disagree with this text, Piper? Who do you think you are?”
I think that text should be read something like this. I remember seeing this years ago and then finding it in other places. Suppose, Tony, that you want to go from Phoenix to LA on a train, and it’s about to leave. I say to you, “Grab your hat and run, or you’ll miss the train.” Now, I just gave you two commands like Peter gave two commands: repent and be baptized. But only one of them is a cause of getting to the train on time — namely, running. I said, “Run,” but I also said, “Grab your hat.” Grabbing your hat is an accompanying act, not a causative one. It may be very important now; there may be all kinds of reasons why you should have a hat. “Why did you tell him to grab a hat?” Well, I’ve got my reasons, all kinds of reasons. But grabbing the hat does not help you in the least get on the train on time.
Now, that’s the way I think we should hear Peter when he says, “Repent and be baptized every one of you, and make the train of forgiveness.” You get on the train of forgiveness if you repent and are baptized. The repentance, the change of mind that includes faith, gets you to the train. And baptism is important for all kinds of reasons, but it’s not causative in the same way that repentance is.
Here’s my bottom-line answer to the question: faith precedes baptism. That’s why I’m a Baptist. Faith precedes baptism and is operative in baptism. So we are justified at the very first act of genuine saving faith in Christ, and then baptism follows, and preferably would follow soon, as an outward expression of that inward reality.