by Matthew W. Bassford
If there is any verse in the Bible that is of particular significance to brethren, it is Acts 2:38. It says in so many words that the purpose of baptism is for the forgiveness of sins, a truth clearly taught in Scripture but rejected by much of the wider religious world. However, the rest of the verse causes us more perplexity. Peter says that those who are baptized for the forgiveness of sins will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What is that? Does this mean that everyone who is baptized will receive miraculous spiritual gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues the apostles displayed earlier in the chapter? Does it mean that all Christians will have the Holy Spirit personally indwell them? Or is something else going on here?
In order to understand the text, we first must acknowledge that the phrase “the gift of the Holy Spirit” does not necessarily mean that the Holy Spirit is the gift. For instance, when Jesus refers to “the gift of God” in John 4:10, He means a gift given by God (living water), not God given as a gift.
Second, we must recognize that Peter’s statement in Acts 2:38 does not exist in a vacuum. It is the answer to a question, the solution to a problem. The problem and question appear in the two preceding verses. Peter’s sermon has convicted his audience that they have crucified the Messiah, and they want to know how they can escape punishment.
In reply, Peter tells them that they can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Two verses later, he exclaims, “Be saved!” Thus, there is a strong textual presumption that the gift of the Holy Spirit has to do with salvation.
This presumption is borne out by the rest of the chapter, particularly Peter’s citation of the Joel 2 prophecy in Acts 2:17-21. There, Joel (speaking by the Holy Spirit, of course) predicts the advent of the miraculous gifts. He says these gifts will be a twofold sign: that the day of the Lord is coming, and that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
In Acts 2:39, Peter affirms that this promise is not merely for his audience on the day of Pentecost or even for their descendants, but for everyone whom God calls to Himself. Today, 2000 years later, we find ourselves in the midst of a generation no less corrupt than that one. If we want to be saved from the wrath to come, we too must be baptized for the forgiveness of our sins. If we are, we will receive the same salvation promised on that day — the gift of the Holy Spirit.