Most of Christendom has decided that water baptism is neither a prerequisite, nor necessary, to salvation. Influenced largely by the Protestant Reformation, people have become convinced that forgiveness of sin by the blood of Christ is achieved at the very moment a person “believes”—by which they mean when a person, in his or her own mind, “accepts” Christ as Lord and Savior. To them, the external act of water baptism is considered to be simply an after-the-fact outward “symbol” or “badge” that “declares” the Christian’s already-secured salvation. One passage used to support this thinking is the account of the conversion of the Roman jailer in Philippi (Acts 16). However, a careful study of the entire episode yields quite a different conclusion.
When an earthquake rocked the prison where Paul and Silas were fastened in stocks, the jailer assumed his prisoners had escaped. In view of the fact that Roman law would have required the jailer’s life as the penalty for losing the prisoners who had been placed in his charge (see Ramsay, 1897, p. 222; cf. Acts 12:19), he drew his sword and was about to take his own life. But Paul called out loudly, encouraging the jailer to refrain from harming himself, reassuring him that no prisoner had escaped. Calling for a light, he ran into the prison and fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then, bringing them out of the prison, the jailer asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).
What did the jailer mean by this statement? As a heathen Roman (cf. Alford, 1980, 2:184), he no doubt had been exposed to Greek/Roman mythology his entire life. Christianity had been introduced into Macedonia only days earlier when Paul arrived in Philippi (16:12; cf. Ramsay, p. 215). So it is unlikely that he possessed more than a cursory understanding of the Christian notion of salvation from sin. But events occurred in those days leading up to his conversion that may account for the jailer’s question.
Now it happened, as we went to prayer, that a certain slave girl possessed with a spirit of divination met us, who brought her masters much profit by fortune-telling. This girl followed Paul and us, and cried out, saying, “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation.” And this she did for many days (Acts 16:16-18, emp. added).
Observe that the demon within the girl announced to the citizens of Philippi over a period of “many days” the fact that Paul and Silas were representatives of the one true God, and that they possessed the information that would show people the way to salvation. In all likelihood, the jailer would have heard this declaration either firsthand or through the reports of friends, neighbors, relatives, or other townspeople.
When Paul finally expelled the demon from the girl, her irate masters assaulted him and Silas, dragged them before the magistrates of the city, and subjected them to the legal proceedings that ultimately landed them in the prison where they encountered the jailer. It is not out of the realm of possibility that the jailer was privy to these proceedings, which surely would have included reference to their alleged identity as “servants of the Most High God” who had information pertaining to “the way of salvation.”
A third means by which the jailer could have come into possession of sufficient information that would account for the phrasing of his question can be seen in verse 25: “But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.” The jailer may well have heard the hymns that Paul and Silas sang—songs that would have included references to God, Christ, and salvation.
These three circumstances may account for the jailer’s request to be informed about salvation—albeit, even then, his understanding must have been very piecemeal. Paul’s response to the jailer’s question was: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household” (vs. 31). What did Paul mean by this statement? If he meant what many within Christendom think he meant, that is, if the jailer already knew who Jesus was, and if Paul was urging him simply to believe (i.e., simply to “accept Christ into his heart as his personal savior”), then we should next expect the text to provide the jailer’s response—something to the effect that the jailer accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, or that he believed on Jesus right then and there and was saved.
However, to the contrary, the text says: “Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him” (vs. 32). Why? Didn’t Paul just do that by telling the jailer to believe? Apparently not! Paul later wrote that “faith comes by hearing...the word of God” (Romans 10:17). So the jailer needed to hear additional information that would enable him to know what it means to believe in Jesus. It follows, then, that the instruction, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” was simply a broad, sweeping statement intended to redirect the jailer’s then-present religious attachment to the pagan gods of Greek/Roman mythology toward the true object of belief—Christ. It was a way to reorient the jailer’s thinking in the direction of Jesus, as contrasted with his own pagan notions. But simply telling the jailer (or anyone today) to “believe on Jesus” does not provide sufficient information on how to believe. In other words, there is more to “believing on Jesus” than simply affirming in one’s mind that Jesus is Lord and Savior (a fact readily conceded even by Satan and the demons—Genesis 3:15; Matthew 4:3,6; Luke 22:31; Hebrews 2:14; James 2:19; Revelation 12:4ff.).
It was only in speaking the word of the Lord to the jailer that he could understand who Christ is, what Christianity is about, and the proper response to the preached Word—i.e., what it means to “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Since the jailer could not be saved before Paul spoke the Word of the Lord to him, observe the sequence of events that the text reports immediately after the Word was spoken to him.
(1) The jailer took Paul and Silas “the same hour of the night and washed their stripes” (Acts 16:33). Here is evidence of repentance (e.g., Matthew 3:8). Here is evidence that the jailer was convinced by the information that had been given to him, to the extent that he wanted to make things right. That is repentance—a change of mind resulting in appropriate outward actions (Matthew 21:29; 2 Corinthians 7:10).
(2) The text then states: “And immediately he and all his family were baptized.” Three aspects of this sentence are noteworthy. First, if baptism is unnecessary to salvation, why even mention it with regard to the conversion of the jailer? Why not simply proceed in the narrative to the outcome of conversion—i.e., some indication that he was now saved? If baptism is nonessential, instead of reading, “And immediately he and all his family were baptized,” one would expect the text to read, “And immediately he and all his family accepted Jesus as their personal Savior.” Second, where did the jailer get the idea that he needed to be baptized? It had to have been included in Paul’s “speaking the word of the Lord” to him. But if the jailer could not be saved until Paul “spoke the word of the Lord” to him, and if Paul included in that “word of the Lord” the doctrine of baptism, then it follows that the jailer’s salvation depended in part on baptism. Third, why “immediately”? Many within Christendom wait a week, a month, or longer before baptizing believers. Why was the jailer baptized immediately in the middle of the night? The implication is that baptism is more crucial and more urgent than many today think.
(3) At this point in Luke’s narrative, we are informed that the jailer brought Paul and Silas into his home, and then he set food before them. Next, we are informed that the jailer “rejoiced” (vs. 34). When does the text indicate that the jailer manifested signs of joy and happiness (that naturally follow conversion)—before or after baptism? After baptism! In fact, every time rejoicing is explicitly alluded to in the conversion accounts of Acts, it is always after baptism (e.g., 2:46—“gladness”; 8:39—“rejoicing”).
(4) Everything up to this point leads one to the conclusion that baptism was part and parcel of the jailer’s conversion, and preceded his salvation as the culminating act. But here is the clincher. Look carefully at the phrase in verse 34: “having believed in God.” Here is a clear, explicit indication that the jailer was now a saved believer. In the Greek, the expression “having believed” (pepisteukos) is in the perfect tense. There is no English tense corresponding to the Greek perfect. Consider the following brief explanation by Greek grammarians Dana and Mantey.
The perfect is the tense of complete action. Its basal significance is the progress of an act or state to a point of culmination and the existence of its finished results. That is, it views action as a finished product…. It implies a process, but views that process as having reached its consummation and existing in a finished state (1927, p. 200, emp. added).
Greek scholar Ray Summers offered another helpful explanation of the Greek perfect tense:
[I]t indicates a completed action with a resulting state of being. The primary emphasis is on the resulting state of being. Involved in the Greek perfect are three ideas: an action in progress, its coming to a point of culmination, its existing as a completed result. Thus it implies a process but looks upon the process as having reached a consummation and existing as a completed state (1950, p. 103, italics in orig., emp. added).
In light of the thrust of the Greek perfect tense, Luke was making the point that the jailer went through a process of several actions before it could be stated that he was in possession of a saving faith in God. His initial belief that came as a result of hearing the Word of the Lord preached to him, led to his repentance (as evinced by his attending Paul and Silas’ wounds), and then culminated in his baptism in water—bringing his faith to a completed result. Only at this point could the Greek perfect tense be used to indicate that the jailer now stood in a completed state of having believed. Luke was careful to refrain from labeling the jailer as a “believer” until all of the prerequisites to salvation had been completed, thereby bringing his faith to its finished state. This observation was acknowledged by R.J. Knowling while professor of New Testament Exegesis at King’s College in London: “[T]he word pepisteukos, perfect participle, shows that this fullness of joy was caused by his full profession of belief; it was the joy of the Holy Ghost which followed his baptism” (n.d., 2:353, italics in orig., emp. added).
This understanding of the conversion account of the Philippian jailer is in perfect concord with the other conversion accounts given in Acts (e.g., Acts 2:38; 3:19; 8:12-13,36-39; 9:18; 10:47-48; 16:15; 18:8; 19:5). The New Testament designates water immersion as the point in time at which God cleanses the sin-stained spirit of the penitent believer by the blood of Christ (cf. Acts 22:16; Romans 6:3-4).
Dana, H.E. and Julius Mantey (1927), A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament (Toronto, Canada: Macmillan, 1957 reprint).
Knowling, R.J. (no date), The Expositor’s Greek Testament: The Acts of the Apostles, ed. W. Robertson Nicoll (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Ramsay, William (1897), St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1962 reprint).
Summers, Ray (1950), Essentials of New Testament Greek (Nashville, TN: Broadman).
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