A very cordial and kind denominational preacher visited our church web site and had questions about the page teaching that baptism is essential. He had two good questions about what we were teaching. The first centered around why, if baptism is necessary, people filled with the Holy Spirit in Acts ten needed it. He sought to reconcile this with Acts 2:38. Second, he wondered about the thief on the cross and why he was saved without baptism. How would you answer that? No doubt many of you could do far better than I did, but here is what I said.
(1) Acts 2:38 and Acts 10:48. I want you to notice that nowhere in Acts is anyone commanded to receive Holy Spirit baptism. It is always mentioned as a promise, blessing or gift. In the same context of Acts 2, Peter says, “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call” (39). In proper interpretation of scripture, one of the questions we must ask is, “To whom is the speaker or writer speaking?” The answer here is, “To Jews” (see Acts 2:22). Also, Jesus had told them to start in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and then the uttermost parts of the world (Acts 1:8-11). The promise of Acts 2:39 is the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The “you and your children” would most logically refer to Jews. Who would “them that are afar off” reference? Well, in New Testament terminology, there were only two groups-Jews and Gentiles. Jesus intended for the gospel to go to the Jew first, but also to the Greek (i.e., Gentiles) (Rom. 1:16). Cornelius is often cited as the first “Gentile convert.” Why would the Holy Spirit come upon this Gentile household in Acts 10? The context tells us. The Jews are amazed because this gift of the Holy Spirit came on them ALSO (Acts 10:45-46). After this occurs, Peter asks the logical question, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit the same as we have?” (Acts 10:47). Incidentally, baptized was then commanded of them (Acts 10:48). In Acts 11:14-15, Peter said they were told words whereby they should be saved. Those words must have included instructions to be baptized. You will notice that throughout Acts, baptism was part of the instructions for salvation (Acts 2:38,41; Acts 8:12-13; Acts 8:36-38; Acts 16:14-15; Acts 16:31-34; Acts 22:16). Other books show us the role of baptism as part of God’s plan to redeem us (1 Peter 3:21; Romans 6:1-12; Galatians 3:26-27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Corinthians 12:13).
(2) The thief on the cross. We’ve got to remember that baptism is part of God’s plan under the new covenant. There can not be a change of the testament without the death of the testator (i.e., the one who creates a will)(Hebrews 9:16). We must remember that Jesus and that thief died under the old covenant, the Law of Moses. In fact, Jesus nailed it to the cross when dying there (Colossians 2:14). Also, while Jesus was on earth, He had the power to forgive sins (Mark 2:10). The thief, then, is not a good example for how we come to salvation today. He was subject to a different covenant and enjoyed a different circumstance, having Jesus there with Him to forgive His sins. In light of all of those passages already mentioned telling us how to be forgiven, we must conclude that the terms of pardon are different from us than it was for this penitent thief.
I am sure this is an honest, searching man interested in knowing the truth. What a reminder that there are those who are willing to open their hearts to scripture. May we ever be that way, too. And, let us all be ready to fulfill 1 Peter 3:15 in all its component parts.