Therefore, God provides salvation because a sinner, by faith, is immersed into Christ’s death and resurrection and becomes His own through that spiritual union. Salvation does not occur by means of any ceremony, including water baptism. (the removal of dirt from the flesh), but by an appeal to God for a good conscience. John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: 1 Peter (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2004) 217-218.
There are no shortcuts or religious rituals that can achieve salvation—in fact, it’s not a product of human works at all. As Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of your works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).
Baptism doesn’t accomplish or seal your salvation; it’s a public declaration of the work the Lord has already accomplished within. So, the whole principle of baptismal regeneration defies the meaning and purpose of baptism. Not only that, the immediate context of Peter’s exhortation eliminates the possibility of anyone successfully using Acts 2:38 as an argument for baptismal regeneration. ‘’Even Christ Himself—in perhaps His most famous quote—denied the need for works to accomplish salvation’’: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). In fact, the need for baptism would contradict the entirety of Christ’s ministry.
“After condemning the ritualistic religion of the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord would hardly have instituted one of His own.”
This interpretation is not true to the facts of the Scripture. Throughout the book of Acts, forgiveness is linked to repentance, not baptism ( Acts 3:19; 5:31; 26:20). In addition, the Bible records that some who were baptized were not saved (Acts 8:13, 21-23), while some who were saved, where not mention of being baptized (Luke 7:37-50; Matthew 9:2; Luke 18:13-14). The story of the conversion of Cornelius and his friends very clearly shows the relationship of baptism to salvation. It was only after they were saved, as shown by their receiving of the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-46), that they were baptised (Acts 10:47-48). Indeed, it was because they had received the Holy Spirit (and hence were saved) that Peter ordered them to be baptised (v. 47). That passage clearly shows that baptism follows salvation; it does not cause it.
The order is clear. Repentance is for forgiveness. Baptism follows that forgiveness; it does not cause it (Acts 8:12, 34-39; 10:34-48; 16:31-33). It is the public sign or symbol of what has taken place on the inside. It is an important step of obedience for all believers, and should closely follow conversion. In fact, in the early churches, it was inseparable from salvation. Paul referred to salvation as being related to “one Lord, one faith and one baptism” (Ephesians 4)
As so often is the case in this series on Frequently Abused Verses, context is key. While those four words might seem to say one thing, a look at Peter’s complete statement makes his point abundantly clear.
When the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 3:20-21)