Is Acts 2:38 a “must do” for all Christians?

This was a hard blog to write because for years and years I thought Acts 2:38 was the benchmark scripture that defined Christianity and what people must go through to become Christians. Verse 38 was Peter’s response to the Jews asking what on earth they were supposed to do on realizing they’d killed the very person God had sent to save them (verses 36-37). And “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” 

For more than forty years I took that to mean the process all Christians must go through to be formally classified as Christians – first repentance, then water baptism, then forgiveness, then the giving of the Holy Spirit. To be forgiven, therefore, we must go through repentance and a water baptism first. And only after a water baptism would we receive the gift of the Spirit making us into card carrying Christians.

And what confirmed that in my mind was Acts 10:47, in Peter’s response to the Gentile Cornelius and his household suddenly receiving the gift of the Spirit in verse 44. Because Peter’s immediate reaction in verse 47 was: “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water?” So there it was again, the necessity of water baptism, even after the Holy Spirit had been given. The order of events may have changed – baptism after the gift of the Spirit, rather than before – but the required steps for becoming a Christian remained.

It looked like nothing had changed, therefore, between Acts 2 and Acts 10. To become a Christian it was the same process: what made Jews into Christians in Acts 2:38 was the same process for Gentiles becoming Christians too.    

But then came Acts 11:16, when Peter “remembered what the Lord had said, ‘John baptized with water, BUT you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’” This was the moment it dawned on Peter that the baptism required for people to become Christians wasn’t in water any more, it was baptism with the Spirit. 

And all it had needed for the Gentiles to be baptized with the Holy Spirit was “believing in the Lord Jesus Christ” too, verse 17. There was no repentance on their part required, no water baptism, and no need for forgiveness before receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit. It then dawned on the whole group listening to Peter that “God has even granted the Gentiles repentance unto life.” Repentance wasn’t something the Gentiles had to do, because that too had been given to them by God. 

The process for becoming Christians, then, isn’t Acts 2:38. But in context verse 38 was only meant for the Jews at that moment anyway, in response to them killing Jesus. The “repentance” being talked about in that verse was the awful sin of killing Jesus that the Jews needed to repent of and be baptized in water for. And only then, after being symbolically washed clean of that sin, would they be forgiven for the death of Jesus they’d caused, and only after that would they receive the promised Holy Spirit too.    

But none of this was required of any Gentiles, because none of them had been responsible for Jesus’ death. Only the Jews had been, who not only didn’t recognize the obvious signs from their own scriptures that Jesus was the promised Messiah, they had descended into a mad mob to have him killed too. 

The process in Acts 2:38 refers only to Jews at that point in time, therefore. It isn’t what we all must do – today or any day – to become Christians. 

Acts 15:8 then confirms that when Peter explains to all the apostles and elders in Jerusalem how God had made it abundantly clear to him that he, God, had “accepted the Gentiles by giving the Holy Spirit to them” for nothing more than hearing the gospel message about Jesus and believing it (verse 7). There’s no mention of the process the Jews had to go through in Acts 2:38.  

It’s how the Gentiles were converted to Christianity, therefore, that defines Christianity and how people in all ages since then become Christians. And like me, Peter had to come to that understanding gradually. For him that understanding came from his actual experience with the Gentile centurion Cornelius. For me it came from reading about his experience and the surprise Peter got when he too realized it’s entirely “through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved,” verse 11, and not by anything that we, Jew or Gentile, do.   

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