Acts 2:38 and the Early church

38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

Acts 2:38-42

Some people are struggling with an interpretation of Acts 2:38 and an argument from church history that asserts that since non-Protestant historical churches (early catholic first 500 years, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox (Coptic Church, Miaphysites), and the Assyrian Church of the East (known as the “Nestorian Church” by many in history) – the argument that all of those churches believed that water baptism actually causes regeneration and causes the forgiveness of sins – that they are right about that.  It is actually not that clear that that was the dogmatic belief before 325 AD or 381 AD or even 451 AD.  (see below)    Sam Shamoun recently has been struggling with this issue and now claims he is open to the non-Protestant historical churches.   

He has had many other podcasts / videos recently where he has Roman Catholics on his online shows, and they present their apologetic against Protestant / Evangelical principles and doctrines.

Acts 2:38 and the early church

It is one thing to understand water baptism and church membership as part of discipleship and church planting (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 2:38-46; 1 Corinthians 12:13; Romans 6:1-7; Galatians 3:27) -a natural result of true faith and evidence of true faith and the pattern of NT discipleship, but it is quite another thing to claim that water baptism causes regeneration and forgiveness to actually take place. (ex opere operato = “from the working of the act, it works” – means that the bare motions of the ceremony in the right form actually cause grace, forgiveness, and regeneration to take place. – An unBiblical notion.)

For a bunch of articles on the early church and baptismal regeneration, by Timothy Kauffman, see here. 

At the same time, someone who says, “I believe in Jesus, I realize I am a sinner, I repent and trust Christ to save me, but I refuse to get baptized and join a church” – that communicates that that kind of confession is not true faith.  We Bible believing Protestants would agree with that – you must follow the Lord in baptism and local church membership in order to be a true disciple of Jesus Christ.   Just as true faith in Christ results in good works (James 2:14-26; Ephesians 2:10 is the result of 2:8-9), so also true faith in Christ will result in a desire to be baptized in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and to join that church that does the baptizing.  This is what Acts 2:38 points to – baptism is the result of repentance and faith, which brings forgiveness, but baptism is the not the act that actually causes forgiveness of sins.

Recently I had discussion/debate with Allan Ruhl at his blog.

Allan is a traditional Roman Catholic from Canada.

What follows is an edited version of most of my comments there.  For Allan’s comments, see his blog and the comboxes.

Nicene Creed – the original creed in 325 AD did not have “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”, rather that part was added later in either 381 AD – the Nicene – Constantinopolitan Creed, or more likely, 451 AD.  The part about the Deity of the Holy Spirit seems to have been added in 381 AD, but the rest about “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” is not in the records of history until 451 AD at the Council of Chalcedon.  J. N. D. Kelly points this out in his book, “Early Christian Creeds”.

J. N. D. Kelly points out in his book, “Early Christian Creeds”, chapter 10, pages 296-331 that the part about “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” is absent from 381 AD to 451 AD (Chalcedon) records; and that only in a letter of Gregory Nazianzus (Epistle 102), he mentions that the Council of 381 supplemented the part about the Holy Spirit to the original Nicene Creed of 325 AD, but as far as we know, the other additions to the original Nicene Creed were absent from recorded history from 381-451 AD. The first place we get the records of the 381 AD creed are not until 451 AD.

“The third and most impression objection is the seemingly absolute silence regarding a Constantinopolitan Creed which apparently reigned from 381 to 451.” (Kelly, ibid, page 307)

See also the info on the letter of Gregory of Nazianzus on page 307.
“the silence about C [the Constantinopolitan Creed] between 381 to 451 is a puzzling problem . . . ” (ibid, Kelly, p. 322)

Allan Ruhl is a student of church history, and knows the primary sources of the early histories of Eusebius, Sozomen, Socrates of Constantinople, Venerable Bede, etc. and he did not offer any refutation of J. N. D. Kelly’s point and apparently agreed with this, even writing, 

“Okay, I’ll agree with you that at the time, the council of 381 had little impact. It wasn’t given near the attention that Nicaea had. It only became authoritative at Chalcedon.” Allan Ruhl (see in the combox at the link above.)

Me:  Even so, getting that phrase (“one baptism for the forgiveness of sins”) wrong in meaning does not mean that the entire church became apostate at the time. ( 381 or 451 AD) The phrase seems to come from Acts 2:38, but there are various good ways to understand that, in harmony with the many passages that teach that forgiveness of sins is on the basis of faith in Christ, true faith meaning that it includes conversion- repentance, turning from sin and one’s own pride and ability to save themself. (Acts 13:38-39; Luke 24:46-47; Acts 15:8-9; Acts 16:31; Acts 17:30-31; 1 Thessalonians 1:9)

Based on exegesis and the uncertainty of formal condemnation of Sola Fide between 381 to Trent (1545-1563), it seems to me to be too hasty to claim that we Protestants would agree that the whole church completely and formally apostatized in 381 AD. (As Allan Ruhl claims)  It still stands that that did not happen until Trent in 1545-1563.

Other articles on baptismal regeneration and sacramentalism are linked to within my article “Between Orange and Trent”,

but here is the one by Sam Storms on Acts 2:38.

There are also articles on John 3:5 and Titus 3:5. This one is especially good.

“forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you” (Acts 13:38)
“everyone who believes is justified / freed from everything which you could not be justified / freed by the law of Moses ” (Acts 13:39)
“cleansing their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:9)

From the time of Theodosius the Great, 380-392 AD (Sacral State-Church) to the Council of Orange 529 AD, there are other issues that come together in the greater church world in the west – the Sacral church, infant baptism becoming the norm, ex opere operato sacerdotal priestly powers to confer grace, and especially, combined with the debate on free will, Pelagianism, Semi-Pelagianism (Augustine vs. those southern French monks who objected to his doctrine of the bondage of the will and predestination – one of them, namely John Cassian, and others.
see canon 13 of the Council of Orange that claims that baptism frees / heals the recipient of the bondage of the will to sin.
This also the time of the beginnings of the state church (sacralism) and also ex opere operato (that by doing the work of the ceremony, the “sacrament” has inherent power to confer / cause grace, if the form is done properly.The Council of Orange in 529 AD says that the sinful will that is in bondage to sin is freed by baptism, so that the person can then be able to chose rightly. This is clearly false. This combined with infant baptism, sets up an entire culture of external religion and thinking that doing the motions of religion brings grace (baptism, penance, Eucharist, etc.) (see my article below with the quotes)
I need to update some of the links, but I wrote on “Between Orange and Trent” several years ago.
As 2 Protestant historical theologians demonstrated (see in my article below), Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at Orange, but came back around “in a roundabout way” by the time of Trent.
In chapter 7, entitled “Merit and Grace”, R. C. Sproul discusses the issues of merit and grace, Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, the Council of Orange in 529 AD and the council of Trent (1545-1463), which seems to affirm semi-Pelagianism.
“Rome has repeatedly been accused of condemning semi-Pelagianism at Orange [in 529 AD] but embracing it anew at Trent. Herman Bavinck held that “although semi-Pelagianism had been condemned by Rome, it reappeared in a ‘roundabout way’”. G. C. Berkouwer observed:
“Between Orange and Trent lies a long process of development, namely, scholasticism, with its elaboration of the doctrine of the meritoriousness of good works, and the Roman system of penitence . . . “
Bavinck and Berkouwer are cited by Sproul in Faith Alone, pages 140-141.

Danta and Mantey, Greek Grammar, page 103-104, on causal eis / εις = “for”, “into”, can also mean “because of” or “at”:

Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32 – “they repented at / because of the preaching of Jonah”.  This demonstrates that the meaning of Acts 2:38 “for the forgiveness of sins” means, “because of” the forgiveness of sins, and is tied more to repentance than the actual getting wet in water.  The water is a symbol of cleansing that pictures the reality of internal faith, just as 1 Peter 3:21 tells us. “not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience” (repentance)

Even if the early church in the 2nd century onward believed that water baptism causes regeneration and forgiveness of sins, this still does not mean that the church went completely off the rails – they can be wrong about something, but not that caused the whole church to become a false church, that did not happen until the Council of Trent, (1545-1563) when they formally condemned the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

So, from 381-451 AD and to 529 AD (Orange) was not a formal apostasy in the same way that 1545-1563 was.  Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, but Semi-Pelagianism was still being debated, in some areas, even though the Council of Orange condemned it.
But baptismal regeneration along with ex opere operato priestly powers, with the sacral State-church and infant baptism all hang together in a nexus of problems that eclipsed the heart of the gospel.
The Council of Orange in 529 AD officially condemned semi-Pelagianism, (but claimed that baptism frees the bondage of the will – it does not) and furthermore, from 529 to the Reformation, it entered back in through the state church, infant baptism, baptism regeneration, and ex opere operato sacramentalism. The development of Purgatory from 600s onward and Transubstantiation (1215 – Trent) also contributed to this – so at Trent, the RC became a false church formally.

Again, that era (381 to 451 and onto to Orange in 529 AD) is not a formal heresy and there is not such thing as “no gospel” when the Scriptures were there and God’s Spirit can convert people who read or hear at least the fundamental truths, say of 1 Corinthians 15:1-9; Romans chapters 3-5, etc.
confusion over Acts 2:38 and its meaning and the development of it at 451 to 529 AD does not make for a total apostasy. That still does not happen until Trent, 1545-1563)
But it is the forms, ceremonies, statues, icons, buildings, external trappings that hide or eclipse the gospel, for thinking that doing the form is what saves, rather than internal heart repentance and faith in Christ (Mark 1:15) – but those things do nothing to hurt Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18.
Matthew 16:13-18 has nothing to do with a bishop in Rome or ex opere operato powers, etc.
Jesus is saying that the “gates of Hades” (death) will not overpower “the Church” = (true believers that Christ purchased with His blood – Rev. 5:9; 7:9; Ephesians 5:25; Acts 20:28, 1 Cor. 6:19-20.
True believers are protected by the power of God so that the second death (hell) does not overpower them.
Revelation 20:6, 15
“the second death (hades, then thrown into hell, the lake of fire) has no power over them”
We all die physically, but the second death is judgement into hades and then into hell, the lake of fire.
Matthew 16:18 is only saying that spiritual death / second death / hades / hell, will not overpower true believers.
Protestants have more foundation in Peter’s confession because we go back to actual content of his faith and confession (and it’s harmony with the rest of the NT writings), rather than centuries later developed ideas that then anachronistically claim that the dogmas that were proclaimed in history, whether “529 or 553 (PVM) or “1215, or 1302, or 1545-1563 or 1870 or 1950” – those things are in seed form inside of Peter’s faith – a ridiculous claim.

Alan Ruhl wrote:

If you want to debate, stick to one topic at a time. If you throw out a cluster I’m going to stop responding. It’s up to you.

Dave Armstrong made that same argument with me for years at his blog, but they are a cluster that hangs together; they all hang together like Spaghetti and meal balls with all the ingredients and spices into one “thing” / entity.
This shows that we can be “deep in history”, better than RCs and John Henry Newman’s assertion / claim / “dictum” that Rome C. apologists use, is proven false.

Newman’s false dictum:  “To be deep in history is to be cease to be Protestant.”

No; we Protestants can also be deep in church history.
Of course you (Allan Ruhl) want to separate them out and take one at a time, because a Roman Catholic apologetic cannot deal with the “cluster” of issues that Protestants have with a fallible historical church that caused confusion from 451 AD (not the Christology of 2 natures of Christ, but other things – that infant baptism done in the right form actually causes grace and regeneration to happen) and 529 AD (Council of Orange) to the Council of Trent, etc.

Cluster of many Issues with the Roman Catholic Church:
*Denial of the heart of the gospel at the Council of Trent  (anathematizing the doctrine of Sola Fide)

* priests  (all believers are priests – 1 Peter 2:4-10)
* ex opere operato
* baptismal regeneration
* thinking that doing a form of eternal physical piety somehow brings grace down from heaven
*Infant baptism combined with baptismal regeneration and combined with State church / church roles / citizenship
*Marian piety, doctrines, dogma
* Transubstantiation  (developed from 800s to 1215, only became a dogma in 1215)
* Papal authority developed over centuries, then claims of infallibility in 1870 and then reading that back into Matthew 16:18

There were many true believers in Christ in the first 500 years; and Protestants who know church history do not condemn the early church or fathers and we have great respect for:

Clement of Rome


Justin Martyr
the Cappadocian fathers

I believe Anselm of Canterbury was a true believer.  (1033-1109)

I believe Johan Von Staupitz (Luther’s father confessor), was a true believer.

Perfection of doctrine does not save. No, the early fathers are not in hell; as some RCs accuse Protestant’s understanding of church history to imply.
True Faith in Christ saves completely.
“cleansing their hearts by faith” – Acts 15:9
Baptism and church membership and continuing in discipleship is the RESULT of true conversion, not the cause or condition of salvation.
So, no they are not in hell.
We can take them “as is” (warts and all; history is history, that is, what happened) and realize they were great in many ways and they are not infallible and may be wrong in some areas.

about Acts 2:38
Verse 41 is the key – water baptism & being connected to other believers in a local church is the result of true faith & repentance,
“received his word” = faith and repentance
“So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls”  Acts 2:41

There are too many other verses that say that forgiveness is on the basis of faith in Christ and repentance.
Luke 24:46-47
John 5:24
Acts 13:38-39
Acts 16:31
Since we have no clear record of that phrase “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins” that demonstrates it was there in 381 AD, it seems it was added in 451 AD.
It is just a matter of choosing the wrong proof-text for the creed, a wrong interpretation of all the Biblical data. Putting all the relevant verses together, repentance and faith in Christ alone brings forgiveness / justification (Romans 4:5; 5:1) and baptism and church membership are results of that, not pre-conditions or causes.
From 451 Ad, Chalcedon, to 529, the Council of Orange – the debate was over semi-Pelagianism vs. Augustine’s doctrine of Grace. (which the Reformation recovered)
Other issues such as 1. state church and 2. infant baptism and 3. ex opere operato priestly powers were soldified during this era. They all came together to form a 4 knotted entity. 4. water baptism causing forgiveness of sins and causing regeneration
The all hang together in church history and related to one another.

It was Augustine’s writings on grace and predestination, along with returning to the Greek NT, prepared by Erasmus and encouraged by Luther’s superior Johan Von Staupitz, that revealed or caused them to rediscover the truth that was there in the NT, but was eclipsed over by the traditions of man (Matthew 15; Mark 7) – the heart of the gospel to the Reformers. (Galatians 1:6-9; chapters 2, 3, 4; 5; Romans 1, 3, 4, 5, Philippians 3:9; Ephesians 2:8-9; Acts 13:38-39; 16:31; John 5:24; 3:16-18; 11:25; 6:37-45; 20:30-31, etc.)  See Nick Needham’s book, “The Triumph of Grace:  Augustine’s Writings on Salvation”.  

B. B. Warfield was right:
“For the Reformation, inwardly considered, was just the ultimate triumph of Augustine’s doctrine of grace over Augustine’s doctrine of the Church. (Warfield, Calvin and Augustine, p. 322)
by “doctrine of the Church” = ceremonies, sacraments, bishops, buildings, external rites, bishops, ex opere operato thinking – what the RC emphasizes for centuries over the reality of heart faith in Christ alone and the invisible grace of God working in the heart.

“Putting all the relevant verses together, repentance and faith in Christ alone brings forgiveness / justification (Romans 4:5; 5:1) and baptism and church membership are results of that, not pre-conditions or causes.”

 It is there in Scripture clearly. See all the verses I put up in earlier post.
The NT never teaches that words confessed over a baby and water getting them wet CAUSES them to get forgiveness of sins, or causes regeneration. Nor an adult – baptism and church membership naturally follow repentance and faith as results and proof that one has true faith in the first place. The forgiveness comes at the moment of conversion / faith & repentance; but someone who claims to have faith, and then says, “But I refuse to be baptised or join a Biblical church” – that indicates that the faith is not real or it is a temporary attitude of pride – a true believer will seek to follow the Lord in baptism – Matthew 28:19 and Matthew 3:13-17, etc.
This is the root of the problem.
Even Justin Martyr (in that famous passage in his First Apology 61, On Baptism) is clear that only after a person believes in Christ, do they then get baptized. There has to be adult understanding that they are a sinner so that they can repent and believe.
There are no babies there getting wet or having magic words said over them.
Colossians 2:11-12 clearly says that we get baptized when there is faith. “faith in the working of God, who raised Jesus from the dead”.

Canon 5 and canon 13 of the Council of Orange is wrong and unBiblical.
see my article, “Between Orange and Trent” (see above for the link)
The Council of Orange in 529 AD
Against Semi-Pelagianism
(but canon 13 and subsequent centuries from Orange to Trent made another form of semi-Pelagianism in the outward performance of sacramentalism, the main thing about Roman Catholicism; even to this day.

CANON 13. Concerning the restoration of free will. The freedom of will that was destroyed in the first man can be restored only by the grace of baptism, for what is lost can be returned only by the one who was able to give it. Hence the Truth itself declares: “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).

(Notice the verse they cite says nothing about water baptism setting the will free)
Correction: According to the Scriptures, getting wet and having works said over you does not free the bondage of the will in sin; rather it, the freedom of the will, can be only restored by the grace of God that He gives in repentance and faith in Christ. Acts 16:14; John 6:37-45, 65; Romans 6:22; Ezekiel 36:26-27; 2 Timothy 2:24-26; 2 Corinthians 4:5-6; Ephesians 2:1-10.

1 Corinthians 12:13 – we are baptized by one Spirit into the body of Christ – water baptism is the outward symbol of the internal repentance and trust in Christ.

Some of Canon 5 of the Council of Orange was wrong also.  the bolded phrase is wrong. I had to go back and re-read that. It is amazing that the claim is made that water baptism causes regeneration, and yet the verses they quote say nothing about water baptism, but only about grace and faith. But Canon 5 is correct about faith and repentance – it does not belong to us by nature – the desire to repent and believe in Christ comes from the gift of God’s grace. (Ephesians 2:4-5; 2 Cor. 4:6; Acts 16:14; John 6:37-45; 2 Timothy 2:24-26)

CANON 5. If anyone says that not only the increase of faith but also its beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly and comes to the regeneration of holy baptism — if anyone says that this belongs to us by nature and not by a gift of grace, that is, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit amending our will and turning it from unbelief to faith and from godlessness to godliness, it is proof that he is opposed to the teaching of the Apostles, for blessed Paul says, “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And again, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God” (Eph. 2:8). For those who state that the faith by which we believe in God is natural make all who are separated from the Church of Christ by definition in some measure believers.  (Canon 5 from the Council of Orange of 529 AD)

For an article I wrote in 2012 on Baptismal Regeneration, at James Swan’s blog, see here.

About Ken Temple

I am a follower of Jesus Christ. I am a sinner who has been saved by the grace of God alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Romans 3:28; 4:1-16), in Christ alone (John 14:6). But a true faith does not stay alone, it should result in change, fruit, good works, and deeper levels of repentance and hatred of my own sins of selfishness and pride. I am not better than you! I still make mistakes and sin, but the Lord is working on me, conforming me to His character. (Romans 8:28-29; 2 Corinthians 3:16-18) When I do sin, I hate the sin as it is an affront to God, and seek His forgiveness in repentance. (Mark 1:15; 2 Corinthians 7:7-10; Colossians 3:5-16 ) Praise God for His love for sinners (Romans 5:8), shown by the voluntary coming of Christ and His freely laying down His life for us (John 10:18), becoming flesh/human (John 1:1-5; 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8), dying for sins of people from all nations, tribes, and cultures (Revelation 5:9), on the cross, in history, rising from the dead (Romans 10:9-10; Matthew 28, Mark 16:1-8; Luke 24; John 20-21; 1 Corinthians chapter 15). His resurrection from the dead proved that Jesus is the Messiah, the eternal Son of God, the word of God from eternity past; and that He was all the gospels say He was and that He is truth and the life and the way to salvation. (John 14:6)
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