Is Acts 2:38 Heresy?

by Tommy Thornhill

“Jesse L. Sewell was born in Overton County, TN in 1818. He grew up in a Baptist community and became a Baptist preacher of some note in his native county. In the course of time, he learned the truth about Acts 2:38 (i.e. that baptism was in order to obtain remission of sins) from reading the New Testament. He began preaching this and it caused considerable confusion in the Baptist church. A Baptist preacher by the name of Jenkins Thompkins began to discuss Jesse Sewell's departure from Baptist doctrine, and this resulted in a discussion of the errors taught by the Baptists. “

“Finally, the Baptist association brought charges against Sewell. He was convicted and excluded from the Baptist church. The clerk asked how to make the record of the charges in the minutes of the association? The moderator told him to write "for teaching heresy." To this, Sewell replied that would be recording a falsehood and that they could not make a true record in any other way than by stating that he was excluded for preaching faith, repentance, and baptism, for the remission of sins, as taught in Acts 2:38. After some discussion, it was finally agreed that the record should be made as Sewell suggested, hence he was excluded from the Baptist church for preaching Acts 2:38. The minutes so record it.” - H. Leo Boles in "The Christian Journal."

The above story is true. The same things happened to my grandparents. They were members of the Mount Olive Baptist church near Polk City, FL. In 1908, they had occasion to attend a gospel meeting being held in the area, and one evening during the meeting, both obeyed the gospel, and that same night were baptized into Christ for the remission of their sins as per Acts 2:38. As a result the Baptist church they had been attending took action to exclude them from the Baptist church. According to the minutes of the meeting held to exclude them from the Mount Olive Baptist church, they were voted out of the Baptist church. What was the reason given and recorded in the minutes of that meeting? "Lucious and Missouri Thornhill are excluded from the Baptists because they have departed from both the Bible faith and the Baptist faith."

In both stories people were excluded from the Baptist church for believing and teaching that according to Acts 2:38 a person had to repent and be baptized in order to gain remission of sins, not because his/her sins had already been forgiven. According to Baptist teaching this is heresy. BUT, this is not true. It is the Baptist teaching that is heresy! An inspired apostle wrote there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Ephesians 4:5. Yet, the minutes concerning my grandparents exclusion from the Baptist church mentions two faiths, the Bible faith and the Baptist faith. The minutes name two faiths. One has to be wrong since the Bible say there is only "one faith." I prefer to believe an inspired man, rather than an uninspired one. See I.Peter 4:11. Which one will you believe?

Most religious people will freely admit that Jesus taught baptism in Mark 16:16 and Acts 2:38, but deny that one is baptized in order to be saved. They "see" baptism as important, but cannot "see" how baptism can be for the remission of sins because the Bible says Jesus shed His blood for the remission of sins. Billy Graham, a world-renown Baptist preacher says that baptism is important, but not essential to salvation. Note the following:

“Baptism is a conclusive act of obedience and witness to the world that we are Christ's . . . To one who has received Christ, baptism is a necessary and meaningful experience . . .As the scripture is reviewed, the place of baptism will surely be discovered. If baptism were a requirement for salvation, we would certainly say that. But you couldn't support that knowing, for example, that the thief on the cross had no opportunity for baptism or church membership. Yet, on his confession salvation was secured." [Billy Graham, "Is baptism necessary for salvation?", Billy Graham Evangelsitic Association]

But what people "see" or "don't see" is a far cry from what Jesus and His inspired apostles "said." Just what does Acts 2:38 teach? "Then Peter said to them, 'repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.'" The conclusion is plain enough. even by a casual reading. One who repents and is baptized will obtain remission of sins. Be honest. Isn't that really what this passage teaches?

With what has been written, I can just hear some preacher say, "Oh, no! That is not what it says." He then turns to the prepositional phrase "for the remission of sins" and pointing to the preposition "for" exclaims, "Peter is saying that one is baptized 'because one has already been saved, not in order to be saved.' " It is true the word "for" in English sometimes means " because of," but the "sometimes" is not true of Acts 2:38. Every reliable translation I know renders the phrase "for the remission of sins" as meaning "in order to" or "to obtain." remission of sins. None of them translates it "because of." The message conveyed in this passage is that one must repent and be baptized in order to receive remission of sins.

To further prove that the phrase "for the remission of sins" means "in order to" and not "because of" turn to Matthew 26:28. "For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins." In the Greek, the phrase "for the remission of sins" is exactly then same as the one in Acts 2:38. And, here in Matthew it certainly doesn't mean that Jesus shed His blood because people already had remission of sins. He shed His blood in order that man might obtain salvation. It shouldn't take a genius to understand that whatever the phrase means in Matthew 26:28 it means the same thing in Act 2:38.

People sometimes quibble by using faulty parallels to justify translating '''for the remission of sins" as "because of remission of sins," so as to deny the essentiality of baptism to be saved.

QUIBBLE: A person is hanged for (because of) murder. You don't hang him for (in order to) murder. He is hanged because he committed murder.

ANSWER: For the quibble to be parallel with the phrase "for the remission of sins" in Acts 2:38 one must say, a person is hanged for punishment of murder.

Let me make a second illustration.

QUIBBLE. A man takes an aspirin for a headache. He doesn't take the aspirin to get a headache. He takes an aspirin because he has a headache.

ANSWER: To be parallel with the phrase "for the remission of sins" in Acts 2:38, one takes an aspirin for the relief of a headache.

Peter's audience on Pentecost were not composed of critics seeking to justify a doctrine of "faith only." Rather, they were simple, humble people who understood what to do. "Then those who gladly received his word were baptized, and that day about three thousand souls were added to them" (Acts 2:41).