Salvation in the Book of Acts
By Bob Wilkin
An article I wrote on Mark 16:16 led to a debate last January, as proposed to me by a minister who denies justification by faith alone.
In the debate I repeatedly referred to John's Gospel, the only book in Scripture whose purpose is evangelistic. My opponent was uncomfortable with this view. Instead, he asserted that Acts 2:38 and 22:16 proved that baptism and repentance, along with faith, are conditions for receiving salvation.
The Book of Acts, like the Gospel of John—and all Scripture—teaches that we are saved by faith alone in Christ alone. This can easily be shown.
The Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)
The evangelistic ministry of Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles led to a controversy in the church: Could Gentiles indeed be saved simply by faith in Christ, as Paul and Barnabas taught (Acts 13:39,48; 14:27; 15:1-2; 16:30-31), or did they also need to be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses? The Jerusalem Church convened a council to decide this important question.
Peter strongly defended the Gospel message of "faith-alone" as preached by Paul and Barnabas. He reminded the council that he was chosen by God to be first to take the Gospel to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Referring to the conversion of Cornelius, Peter declared, "Men and brethren, you know that a good while ago God chose among us, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. So God, who knows the heart, acknowledged them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He did to us" (vv 7-8). He continued by affirming that God "made no distinction between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith" (v 9). Cornelius had received the Holy Spirit when he believed the Gospel. He was saved by faith-plus-nothing. Peter makes no mention of turning from sins, of baptism, of circumcision, or anything else.
Peter specifically ruled out any role for works in our salvation, adding the powerful words, "Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved in the same manner as they" (vv 10-11). The position of Peter and Paul was upheld by the Jerusalem Council (vv 13-29). Salvation by grace through faith was officially established by the apostles as the one and only Gospel. Nothing could be added to faith in Christ as a means of obtaining eternal salvation.
The Philippian Jailer (Acts 16)
The famous question of the Philippian jailer is to the point: "…what must I do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30). Paul's answer is unequivocal: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved…" (Acts 16:31).
Paul states but one condition: belief in Christ. No other action is required.
Not turning from sins, not commitment, not willingness to serve Christ, not a promise to confess Him, not baptism, not obedience to God's commands, nor anything else. There is one condition only: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. All who do so will be saved in that very moment!
Cornelius (Acts 10)
The conversion of Cornelius is a spike in the heart of the argument that baptism, turning from sins, and confessing Christ are requirements for salvation. Peter proclaimed the Gospel to Cornelius and his family. Peter required only one condition: "…whoever believes in Him receives the remission of sins" (Acts 10:43; compare Acts 11:14). At that moment Cornelius and his household believed in Christ (compare Acts 11:17; 15:7-11). The result? "While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who heard the word" (Acts 10:44). Cornelius and his household were speaking with tongues and magnifying God (v 46). Peter then asked, "Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?" (v 47).
Cornelius received the Spirit when he simply believed. Those who say that Acts 2:38 teaches that eternal salvation requires water baptism and repentance overlook Acts 10:44-47. Cornelius didn't have to submit to water baptism in order to receive the Spirit. In fact, Peter commanded him to be baptized specifically because he had already received the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What, then, do Acts 2:38 and 22:16 mean?
Acts 2:38 and 22:16
Not surprisingly my opponent in the debate didn't bring up the Jerusalem Council, the Philippian jailer, or Cornelius. Rather, he cited two noteworthy crux passages: Acts 2:38 and 22:16.
In a survey such as this, there isn't room to explain both of these passages in detail. Some Free Grace people understand these passages differently than I do. However, I am convinced that the key to understanding these passages is a proper grasp of the subject. Neither Peter in Acts 2:38, nor Ananias in Acts 22:16, was referring to eternal salvation. Rather, they were speaking of fellowship with God and inclusion in the Body of Christ.
It must be remembered that Acts reports a transitional time. The Church was born in Acts 2. However, for a short time after the birth of the Church, people were not baptized by the Spirit into the Body of Christ at the moment they believed. New believers in Samaria (Acts 8) and believing disciples of John the Baptist (Acts 19) were baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ well after they were born again. Only in Acts 10 and the conversion of Cornelius do we see the baptism of the Holy Spirit occurring at the moment of faith.
Did you ever wonder why Peter didn't call his listeners in Acts 2 to believe in Christ when they asked, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (v 37)? The obvious reason is missed by many. Peter had just proclaimed that Jesus, whom his listeners had personally helped to crucify, was both Lord and Christ (vv 22-36). They believed Peter. In that moment they believed that Jesus is the Messiah, the One who gives eternal life to those who believe in Him (compare John 11:25-27 and 20:31). They weren't asking, "What shall we do to be saved?" They were already saved. They were asking, "What shall we do to escape the terrible shame and guilt of having crucified the Messiah?"
Palestinian Jews who had helped crucify Christ had to repent and be baptized to be included in the Church and have fellowship with God. (The forgiveness spoken of in v 38 is fellowship forgiveness, just as we see in 1 John 1:9.)
Acts 22:16 is parallel in thought. Saul of Tarsus was saved on the road to Damascus, as seen in Gal 1:11-12. Paul received his Gospel directly from the Lord Jesus and not from any man.
Ananias commanded Saul to be baptized so that he might receive the following: (1) forgiveness of his sins (Acts 22:16), that is, the same fellowship forgiveness seen in 1 John 1:9; (2) restoration of his eyesight (Acts 9:17); and (3) the filling of the Holy Spirit (Acts 9:17).
This explains why Ananias called Saul, "Brother Saul," and why he didn't command him to believe in Christ. Saul already believed in Christ for eternal life.
The Book of Acts freely offers eternal salvation solely upon believing in the Lord Jesus Christ, and there are no additional conditions for that salvation. This is clearly seen in the conversions of Cornelius and the Philippian jailer, and in the decision of the Jerusalem Council.
Following the debate of January 1996, thirty people who believe in salvation by faith plus works signed up for this newsletter. I'm praying for their salvation. Having myself been saved from that error, I'm keenly concerned for these souls. How wonderful it would be to hear that they have received the free gift of eternal life by simple faith in Christ.
Salvation is found only in Christ (Acts 4:12); He saves only those who believe in Him—and Him alone—for eternal life (Acts 15:7-11; 16:31).