Faith and repentance are not easy. Submission contradicts the natural disposition of the human heart. And the transforming and sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit is often uncomfortable and difficult.
Salvation would be so much more inviting and enticing to our human understanding if it didn’t require humility, repentance, and the transformation of your entire being. Why can’t it simply be the product of a one-time activity?
For those looking to bypass the difficulty and discomfort of salvation, 1 Peter 3:21 seemingly provides a shortcut in the form of this simple declaration: “Baptism now saves you.” This and a select few other verses are often used to promote “baptismal regeneration”–the view that teaches that one is saved (regenerated) though water baptism.
However, not all proponents of baptismal regeneration see baptism as a shortcut to salvation or a quick fix to the problem of sin. Many view it as a necessary element—in addition to repentance and faith—that completes the work of salvation. And as a proof text, they point to Peter’s words in Acts 2:38, “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’” (emphasis added).
So what should we make of that—was Peter the first proponent of baptismal regeneration? And moreover, does that mean that no one is truly saved until they’ve been baptized?
To find the answers to those questions, we need to consider what it meant to become a Christian and make a public declaration of your faith in the earliest days of the church. In his commentary on Acts, John MacArthur sheds some light on the issue:
It is difficult for modern readers to grasp the magnitude of the change facing Peter’s Jewish hearers. They were part of a unique community, with a rich cultural and religious history. Despite long years of subjugation to Rome, they were fiercely nationalistic. The nation had rejected Jesus as a blasphemer and executed Him. Now Peter calls on them to turn their back on all that and embrace Jesus as their Messiah.
By calling on each of them to “be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” Peter does not allow for any “secret disciples” (cf. Matthew 10:32-33). Baptism would mark a public break with Judaism and identification with Jesus Christ. Such a drastic public act would help weed out any conversions which were not genuine. In sharp contrast to many modern gospel presentations, Peter made accepting Christ difficult, not easy. By so doing, he followed the example of our Lord Himself (Luke 14:26-33; 18:18-27). Baptism was always “in the name of Jesus Christ.” That was the crucial identification, and the cost was high for such a confession.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12 (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 73.
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 premise 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. As John MacArthur explains,
[Baptismal regeneration] ignores the immediate context of the passage. As already noted, baptism would be a dramatic step for Peter’s hearers. By publicly identifying themselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, they risked becoming outcasts in their society (cf. John 9:22). Peter calls upon them to prove the genuineness of their repentance by submitting to public baptism. In much the same way, our Lord called upon the rich young ruler to prove the genuineness of his repentance by parting with his wealth (Luke 18:18-27). Surely, however, no one would argue from the latter passage that giving away one’s possessions is necessary for salvation. Salvation is not a matter of either water or economics. True repentance, however, will inevitably manifest itself in total submission to the Lord’s will.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, 73-74.
Moreover, the idea of baptismal regeneration represents a significant contradiction to other passages of Scripture that clearly teach salvation by faith alone. In Acts 16:31, Paul and Silas tell their jailor how he can be saved, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” In Galatians 2:16, Paul unmistakably denies salvation by works with these words:
Nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. (cf. Romans 3:28)
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. As John MacArthur puts it, “After condemning the ritualistic religion of the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord would hardly have instituted one of His own.”  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, 74.
John MacArthur describes another reason Peter’s words cannot be read as an endorsement of baptismal regeneration:
This interpretation is not true to the facts of Scripture. Throughout the book of Acts, forgiveness is linked to repentance, not baptism (cf. 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 were saved with no mention of their 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 the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44-46), that they were baptized (Acts 10:47-48). Indeed, it was because they had received the Spirit (and hence were saved) that Peter ordered them to be baptized (v. 47). That passage clearly shows that baptism follows salvation; it does not cause it.  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, 74.
So why do Peter’s words in Acts 2:38 read as an endorsement of baptismal regeneration? The confusion likely stems from the way the Greek preposition eis is translated. While it is often translated “for the purpose of,” it can also mean “because of”—that’s clearly the sense it conveys in Matthew 12:41, as Jesus described how the people of Ninevah repented after hearing Jonah’s preaching. That’s the sense we ought to see in Acts 2:38—Peter exhorted the people to be baptized because of the forgiveness of their sins.
As John MacArthur explains, that understanding is in keeping with the pattern presented throughout Scripture.
The order is clear. Repentance is for forgiveness. Baptism follows that forgiveness; it does not cause it (cf. 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 church it was inseparable from salvation, so that Paul referred to salvation as being related to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5).  The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Acts 1-12, 75.
With that in mind, how do we make sense of the simple declaration we began with: “Baptism now saves you” (1 Peter 3:21)?
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)
As John MacArthur explains in his commentary on 1 Peter, it’s illegitimate to use Peter’s words to make a case for salvation through water baptism, because that’s not even the kind of baptism Peter has in mind here.
“Baptism” (from baptizō) simply means “to immerse,” and not just in water. Peter here uses baptism to refer to a figurative immersion into Christ as the ark of safety that will sail over the holocaust of judgment on the wicked. Noah and his family were immersed not just in water, but in the world under divine judgment. All the while they were protected by being in the ark. God preserved them in the midst of His judgment, which is what he also does for all those who trust in Christ. God’s final judgment will bring fire and fury on the world, destroying the entire universe (cf. 2 Peter 3:10-12); but the people of God will be protected and taken into the eternal new heavens and new earth (2 Peter 3:13).
Peter made clear that he did not want readers to think he was referring to water baptism when he specifically said “not the removal of dirt from the flesh” (1 Peter 3:21). That he was actually referring to a spiritual reality when he wrote “baptism now saves” is also clear from the phrase, “an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (v. 21). The only baptism that saves people is dry—the spiritual one into the death as well as the resurrection of Christ—of those who appeal to God to place them into the spiritual ark of salvation safety (cf. Romans 10:9-10).
Just as the Flood immersed all people in the judgment of God, yet some passed through safely, so also his final judgment will involve everyone, but those who are in Christ will pass through securely. The experience of Noah’s family in the Flood is also analogous to the experience of everyone who receives salvation. Just as they died to their previous world when they entered the ark and subsequently experienced a resurrection of sorts when they exited the ark to a new post-Flood world, so all Christians die to their old world when they enter the body of Christ (Romans 7:4-6; Galatians 2:19-20; Ephesians 4:20-24). They subsequently enjoy newness of life that culminates one day with the resurrection to eternal life. . . .
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 rite, including water baptism.  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 works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).