What is "baptism unto the remission of sins"?

What do passages like Acts 2:38 and 22:16 mean?

Three passages speak of "baptism unto the remission of sins." They are Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, and Acts 2:38, all three relating to Jews. Two of these concern John’s baptism. In Acts 19:1-6, 12 individuals had been baptized with John’s "baptism of repentance," but they were not saved, having never received the Spirit (Romans 8:9). In fact, Paul states (Acts 19:4) that the purpose of John’s baptism and ministry was that people should believe on the coming Christ. When the people were baptized by John, they turned from their nation’s characteristic resistance to God’s message (Acts 7:51, 52). This prepared the way for their faith in Christ.

In the third passage (Acts 2:38), Peter repeatedly exhorted his Jewish listeners to save themselves "from this perverse generation" (v. 40, JND). Thus when they personally repented and "gladly received his word" (v. 41), being baptized as believers served two purposes: submission to the authority of Jesus Christ ("baptized in [lit., upon] the name of Jesus Christ"); renunciation of their nation’s resistance to God’s message.

Being "baptized unto the remission of sins" was only possible therefore for a Jew. John’s baptism prepared them for faith in Christ. The baptism in Acts 2 proclaimed that they already had faith in Christ. In both cases, the baptism did not remove those sins before God, but renounced before others their previous disobedience. It testified against the nation’s rejection of Christ and released them from any relationship to the coming national judgment that rejection would bring.

The statement in Acts 22:16 is to be understood in the same way. Paul was already saved when Ananias spoke to him about baptism (Romans 10:9). He had resisted God’s message and opposed the name of Jesus (26:9). Now as he called on that name and identified himself with the Lord Jesus in baptism, he repudiated his zealous participation in his nation’s rejection of Christ.

D. Oliver