There are some churches that build their doctrine around Acts 2:38, which says, "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." They use this verse as proof that baptism is necessary for salvation. To this they often add Mark 16:16, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." Sounds pretty convincing.
I have always been of the opinion that God did not intend His Word to be complicated. I always look for the simplest explanation. Don't unnecessarily complicate things.
We would all agree that God's Word does not contradict itself. It does not teach salvation by works in one place and salvation by grace without works in another place. We have scriptures that clearly teach that our salvation does not come by our works. A couple of examples would be Ephesians 2:8-10, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them." and Titus 3:5, "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost;" We could add to these many, many verses (Like John 3:16, 18, 36; 5:24, etc.) that plainly show that salvation comes through faith and does not mention baptism or any other work.
Is all of this even important enough to discuss? I believe it is because it could be the difference between eternity in heaven or eternity in hell. If a person is depending on his good works to be saved, then he is not trusting Jesus to save him. It cannot be both ways.
We must either make the many verses that teach that salvation is by grace without works somehow agree with the few verses that seem to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation. Or, we can examine the few that seem to teach that baptism is necessary for salvation and see if they do in fact agree with the many verses that teach that salvation is by grace without works.
Let's examine Acts 2:38 and see exactly what it is about. It took place on the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came on the church to empower it to be a witness to the uttermost part of the earth. Speaking in different languages came with the Holy Spirit that day to allow the disciples to preach to Jews from all over the known world. Acts 2:5 tells us, "And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven." People from all over who came to Jerusalem for Pentecost heard the disciples preach in their own language.
When the people saw all that was happening and heard Peter preaching, they asked, "what shall we do?" It was to these people that Peter spoke Acts 2:38.
Most of the time when I have heard someone quote this verse to prove baptism necessary for salvation, they leave off the last part of the verse: ". . . and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost." Notice the two things, 1. repent and 2. be baptized and the two results, 1. remission of sins and 2. receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. I don't recall ever hearing anyone who believed that baptism was necessary for salvation mention anything about the Holy Ghost. (Holy Ghost and Holy Spirit are exactly the same, both translated from the same Greek words.)
To make this verse easy to understand, all we need to do is look at Acts 19. Coming into the city of Ephesus Paul finds twelve disciples and asks them if they had received the Holy Ghost since they believed. They replied that they did not know anything about the Holy Ghost. Paul did not question their salvation. They were already called disciples. He questioned their baptism. He was told that they were baptized unto John's (the Baptist) baptism. It does not say that John baptized them, but that they had been baptized by someone who had been baptized by John. (The baptism of John the Baptist was valid baptism. All of the Apostles were baptized by John.) Paul did not question the fact that they were saved before they were baptized or that they had been immersed, he questioned the authority behind their baptism. When they heard this they were all baptized by Paul, after which he laid his hands on them and the Holy Ghost came on them and they spoke with other languages and prophesied. The reason the Holy Ghost had not come on them since they had believed was that their baptism was not valid.
Simply stated, repentance means to change your mind and go in a different direction. If someone cheated you out of some money and came to you to ask your forgiveness, their coming indicates they have had a change of heart and have repented of their wrong.
Before we are saved, the sin we must repent of is the most despicable, horrendous, terrible and appalling sin of all--rejection of Jesus Christ as our Savior. By repenting we have a change of heart and turn from our unbelief and turn to Jesus by faith, trusting Him to save us. Repentance, not baptism, brings remission of sins. If baptism is necessary for the remission of our sins, then some of us would need to be baptized every day for the rest of our lives.
That sheds a lot of light on Acts 2:38. The repentance was for the remission of sins and then the baptism put them in a position to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. This verse does not teach that baptism is necessary for the remission of sins. This verse then, lines up perfectly with all the verses that clearly teach we cannot be saved by our good works. I like it when it is simple.
Just for fun, let's look at Mark 16:16 that seems to teach baptismal regeneration. It says, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned." If I were going to teach baptism necessary for salvation I would not use this verse. It clearly says that if a person believes and is baptized he shall be saved, not may be saved or could be saved, but shall be saved. You see, when you start down the works for salvation path, you never know for sure you are saved. You may be baptized and still not make it to heaven. You must keep up the good works until you die. You could be saved one day, lost the next and saved the next. You could never go to sleep at night knowing for sure you would go to heaven if you died in your sleep. I'm glad I don't have to live that way.
Notice in this verse what it takes to be damned--not believing. It does not say "he that is baptized not shall be damned." A person should be baptized after he has been saved. It is the first act of obedience. A person that believes and is baptized shall be saved, but it is not the baptism but the believing that brings salvation.