In Acts 2 Peter preached that Jesus, who had been crucified by those listening, was the Christ their Lord. We read this in Acts 2:36, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both Lord and Christ.”
When the people listening to him heard this, the Bible says they were “pricked in their heart.” They believed the things Peter was preaching about Jesus. Their belief that they had indeed been party to the crucifixion of the very Messiah they had hoped for led them to ask Peter what they should do. We can read this in Acts 2:37, “Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
It was a question worthy of being asked. The Jewish people had waited a long time for their Messiah to come. They had hoped for him with great anticipation. Then when he came, they did not believe in him. They crucified him. Peter was explaining this to them in his sermon, and many of those listening believed. What could be done now? This was the question posed to the apostle Peter.
Peter answered their question, and we can read his answer in Acts 2:38-39. These verses say, “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”
This answer was faithful to the teachings of Jesus. Jesus told the eleven apostles who had been faithful to him what he wanted them to do in Matthew 28:19. He said, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”
We read of Jesus telling them the same thing in Mark 16:15-16. This passage says, “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
This seems to make the answer to whether it is belief or baptism that saves us simple. Jesus said both were called for. However, some believers turn to passages such as John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Does this passage not teach that salvation is offered to those who believe?
John 3:16 is not the only passage that teaches belief. We can turn to the story of the Philippian jailer also. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas have been in a Philippian jail. They are freed by an act of God, when the earth quakes and the doors of the jail are opened. The jailer thinks his prisoners have escaped, and he prepares to commit suicide. Paul cried out to him not to hurt himself. No one has escaped. This jailer falls down before Paul and Silas and asks for salvation. This is recorded for us to read in Acts 16:29-30, “Then he called for a light, and sprang in, and came trembling, and fell down before Paul and Silas, and brought them out, and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’”
We would think the answer would be the same as Peter’s in Acts 2:38, but it is not. The answer here is recorded in Acts 16:31, “And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”
Are there two different answers to this question? Why does Peter tell the Jews to repent and be baptized, and Paul and Silas tell this jailer to believe? Does the Bible contradict itself? Does Paul preach a different gospel than Peter?
The answer, I believe, is best found by looking not at the question, but at the one(s) being asked the question. Think about these two events. In Acts 2, the Jewish people who heard the gospel believed it. The Bible tells us that “they were pricked in their heart.” In other words, the gospel had penetrated their heart. It had found its mark, and these hearers were moved to believe.
Hebrews 4:12 reads, “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” The gospel is the good news of what Jesus has done for us. He has paid the debt we owe. In him, God will forgive us of our sins. It is supposed to penetrate the heart, and turn the heart to God. It had done this in Acts 2. These hearers had believed. That is why they asked, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
There was no reason for Peter to answer by telling them to believe. They had already believed. And it was not enough that they believed. There was more to do. They needed to repent or turn away from their sins. They needed to be baptized for the remission of their sins.
The Philippian jailer, on the other hand, had not yet been taught. He needed to hear the gospel and believe it. Notice that Paul and Silas tell him to believe in Acts 16:31, and then they teach him what to believe in Acts 16:32, “And they spake unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house.”
We do not ask a person to repent and be baptized when they have not yet heard the gospel. Notice too that once this jailer and his household had heard the gospel in Acts 16:32, they were baptized in Acts 16:33, “And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway.”
We may rightly conclude from these examples that one must first hear the gospel and believe it and repent of his sins and be baptized for the remission of his sins, and the forgiveness or remission of sins is salvation. Therefore the answer to the question, is it belief or baptism that saves us, is that God calls for the gospel to be taught, heard and believed, which will lead a faithful heart to confess, repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins.
We see forgiveness following baptism in Acts 2:38, which we looked at earlier in this article. Peter said, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins…”
We see it also in the account of Paul’s conversion to Christianity. Jesus appeared to Paul as he traveled to Damascus. Paul believed in Jesus and asked what he should do. We read this in Acts 22:10, “And I said, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ And the Lord said unto me, ‘Arise, and go into Damascus; and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do.’” So Paul went into Damascus, and God sent a man named Ananias to him. Ananias told him that God had chosen him to be a witness unto all men. And he told him in Acts 22:16, “And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
If Paul’s sins had not yet been forgiven, he had not yet been saved. His salvation came when he was baptized, washing away his sins. Peter compares this to the sins of the world being washed away by the great flood in the days of Noah. The waters of the flood lifted the ark up and saved the eight souls who obeyed God. Peter writes of the flood and baptism in 1 Peter 3:21, “The like figure whereunto baptism doth also now save us…”
The gospel must be preached, and forgiveness is given to those who hear, believe, confess that belief, repent of their sins and are baptized.