Perhaps there is no verse in the New Testament so misinterpreted and misunderstood as Acts 2:38. Those who would add works to salvation that is by faith alone seem to use Acts 2:38 as their proof text, especially those who teach water baptism is necessary for salvation. They try to use Acts 2:38 to support their view.
What does Acts 2:38 really say? "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 (Acts 2:38)."
The word "repent" must be defined. Repent comes from the Greek word "metanoeo" which means a change of mind. The Greek word for repentance does not mean to turn from sin or sorrow for sin as is so often taught. Repentance in salvation means a change of mind from any idea of religion that man might have to accepting God's way of salvation. Nowhere does the Scripture use the phrase "repent of sin" to be saved. Scripture does say in Acts 20:21, "Repentance (change in mind) toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ." Saving faith includes the change of mind which is repentance.
In Acts 2:38, the repentance is a change of mind about "Who is Jesus?" Peter had concluded his message in Acts 2:36 by saying, "Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, whom ye have crucified, both the Lord and Christ." The point made was that the Jews had crucified Jesus because they thought he was a fraud, an impostor, and not the Savior that the Scriptures had promised. Peter is saying that the very same Jesus that they had crucified had proved by his resurrection that he is both Lord (Jehovah) and Christ (Messiah) in Acts 2:36.
When Peter asked for repentance, he was asking them to change their mind about Jesus and acknowledge that Jesus Christ is God in human flesh and the promised Savior of the Bible. It was afterwards that Peter said, "…be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost."
The word "baptized" must be defined as "to wash, to cleanse, to fully whelm," coming from the Greek word baptizo. The word baptize does not always mean with water. In fact, often it is used when there is no water involved at all. There are at least ten different baptisms taught to us in the New Testament and many involve no water.
1. Baptism of John the Baptist Matthew 3:11
2. Baptism of Fire Matthew 3:11
3. Baptism of Death Matthew 20:22
4. Diverse Baptisms of the Old Testament Hebrews 9:10
5. Baptism of Believers Acts 8:36-39
6. Baptism of the Holy Spirit Matthew 3:11
7. Baptism of Jesus Christ Matthew 3:15-17
8. Baptism of Moses I Corinthians 10:2
9. Baptism of Pots and Pans Mark 7:4
10. Baptism in the Name Acts 2:38
The context of a passage alone will sometimes determine whether it is water or not.
Most people immediately think of water when they think of a baptism, and that is a mistake, as can be seen by studying the above list of baptisms. We should be careful not to jump to the conclusion that we are talking about water in Acts 2:38.
Note carefully that the verse reads, "...and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ." Could not this verse read, "…and be baptized (washed, cleansed, fully whelmed) every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ." Isn't there cleansing power in the name of Jesus Christ? The answer is yes! Note I Corinthians 6:11 where we read, "And such were some of you: but you are washed, but you are sanctified, but you are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God."
In other words, could we not say, "Repent (change your mind about who Jesus Christ is), and be baptized (washed, fully whelmed) every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost?" I believe we can read the verse this way and that this is the correct interpretation.
The best way to interpret Scripture is to compare Scripture with Scripture. Can we do this with Acts 2:38? Yes, we can! Note Acts 10:43-48 where we have a passage that matches Acts 2:38. Comparing both passages phrase for phrase, you will conclude both offer salvation by faith only.
Notice that the result of salvation in both passages is the remission of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The two conditions of salvation are also the same in both passages. First, both Acts 2:38 and Acts 10:43 demand a change of mind about who is Jesus Christ. Acts 10:43 says He is one to whom all the prophets gave witness. What Peter says demonstrates the same truth in Acts chapter 2 by quoting the prophets Joel and David to prove his point. Secondly, Acts 10:43 has "…through His name whosoever believeth in Him" as a condition of salvation. This is equivalent to the condition of Acts 2:38 to "be baptized (washed) in the name of Jesus Christ." So we find the phrase "Be baptized (washed) in His name," means the same as "through His name believe in Him."
Also, please notice that Acts 2:38 tells us the Holy Spirit is received as the gift of God. If we had to do anything of ourselves to receive the Holy Spirit, it would not be a gift. Remember Ephesians 2:8-9, "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."
To insist upon a repentance that in any sense includes a change of conduct either toward God or man is to add an element of human effort to faith. This would contradict all clear Scripture on this matter such as Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 4:5; Galatians 2:16; and others.
To insist upon water baptism in Acts 2:38 would make the remission of sins and the receiving of the gift of the Holy Spirit dependent upon the human work of water baptism. This would be inconsistent with Acts 10:43-44, where the remission of sin and the gift of the Holy Spirit are received as the result of faith only. The Bible would contradict itself and we would be left confused.
Have you recognized Jesus Christ as the Savior which died for your sins, was buried and was raised from the dead? Have you been washed of your sins in His name? (See I Corinthians 6:11). If not, then trust Jesus Christ as your Savior today and receive the remission of your sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.