In Acts 22:16, Ananias tells Paul, “And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). This statement allegedly proves that one must be baptized to receive forgiveness. However, both careful consideration of the assertion of the verse itself and study of its context demonstrate the falsity of this claim.
Since the verse associates baptism and the washing away of sins (although the verb “wash away” is actually connected to “calling on the name of the Lord,” not to “be baptized”), one must ask if baptism literally or figuratively washes sin away. If baptism literally washes sins away, then this verse would advance the cause of baptismal regeneration. However, the Bible indicates that the blood of Jesus Christ really takes sin away: “Jesus Christ . . . loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Revelation 1:5). Surely one cannot assert that the blood figuratively takes away sin, while baptism literally takes it away! But if baptism does not literally take away sin, it must take it away representatively or figuratively (cf. Matthew 26:26).[i] To teach that baptism figuratively takes away sin by representing what really does remove it is consistent with justification by faith alone. Baptism is a figure of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection (Romans 6:3-5) and a public testimony of the believer’s faith in that death and resurrection. One who at the moment of faith has had his sins literally removed by the blood of the Christ who died and rose again later represents, testifies, and symbolizes his salvation by baptism.[ii] Indeed, the tense of the verb “wash” in Acts 22:16 supports a figurative washing. In the Greek middle voice, it points to the idea that Paul washed his sins away himself in baptism.[iii] In contrast, Revelation 1:5, which states that “Jesus Christ . . . loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,” contains the word “washed” in the active voice.[iv] Christ really washes us from our sins in His own blood, and we consequently and representatively wash ourselves from sin in baptism. The Christian-killer Saul’s sins (cf. Acts 22:4) were literally washed away when he believed in the Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus—those same sins were figuratively washed away, so that believers would no longer need to fear him (Acts 9:26), in baptism. Acts 22:16 teaches that baptism washes away sin figuratively; Christ’s blood really washes it away.
The book of Acts definitively indicates that Paul’s sins were forgiven before he was baptized as mentioned in Acts 22:16. His testimony of salvation appears three times in Acts (chapters 9, 22, 26). A comparison of these three narratives indicates that Paul was born again and justified as he traveled on the road to Damascus several days prior to his baptism. In Acts 9, the Savior told Ananias that Paul “is a chosen vessel unto me” (v. 15), although the apostle had not yet been baptized. The Lord never reveals that any unjustified or unregenerate person is “chosen” or “elect,”[v] one of the “vessels of mercy, which he had afore prepared unto glory” (Romans 9:23). Before Paul was baptized, Christ had already commissioned him to “bear [His] name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15); such a commission is not God’s portion for one still lost and under Divine wrath.[vi] Before Paul’s baptism, Christ had set him aside as one who would “suffer for [His] name’s sake” (9:16). Can one who is a child of the devil, as all the lost are (Ephesians 2:1-3, John 8:44), really suffer for Christ’s sake? God accepted Paul’s prayers before his baptism (Acts 9:11).[vii] Since the prayers of the unsaved are an abomination to Him (Proverbs 15:29, 21:27, 28:9), and Paul already had access to God through the Lord Jesus, he was already justified (1 Timothy 2:5, Romans 10:12-14).[viii] Paul also received a prophetic vision before his baptism (Acts 9:12). After the Lord originally appeared to Ananias, He sent him to Paul, who had been blinded since he saw the Son of God’s glory on the Damascus road, to lay his hands on him, “that he might receive his sight” (v. 12). Christ did not tell Ananias to visit Paul in order that the apostle might have his sins forgiven—the Lord knew he was saved already—but that he might regain his vision. Ananias feared to go, for he did not know Paul was already converted; he called him “this man,” a contrast with Christ’s “saints” (v. 13). However, the Lord Jesus’ testimony about Paul’s participation in election and his commission to preach (v. 15-16) manifested to Ananias that Paul was no longer an enemy of the gospel but had been born again, so that when they met, Ananias’ address was not along the lines of “this man,” (v. 13), as before, but “Brother Saul”[ix] (v. 17). Ananias called Paul a brother in Christ[x] and in so doing indicated that the former persecutor was born again before his baptism. Paul was also filled with the Holy Ghost while with Ananias before his baptism (v. 17)—indeed, since “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost (1 Corinthians 12:3), his Damascus road declaration, “Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?”[xi] (Acts 9:6, cf. 22:10) is indicative of one already “born of the Spirit” (John 3:5, 6, 8), not an unsaved man. He also received his sight (v. 18) before his baptism. Furthermore, just as Christ did not state that Ananias was sent to baptize Paul (v. 12), Ananias did not state that his purpose of coming was baptism (v. 17), a circumstance inconsistent with baptismal regeneration. Paul’s salvation testimony in Acts 9 proves that he was already one of God’s people before his baptism.
The records of Paul’s conversion in Acts 22 and 26, along with his preaching elsewhere in Acts, evidence that he was justified before his baptism. It is mentioned, as in Acts 9, that Paul is already a Christian brother before his baptism (22:13). He is already “chosen” (v. 14), and already ordained as a witness (v. 15). The apostle calls Christians “them that believed on [Christ]” (v. 19),[xii] not “them that were baptized.” Moreover, as discussed earlier,[xiii] Paul was saved (Galatians 1:15-16) and received the gospel directly from Christ apart from the interposition of any man (Galatians 1: 11-12, 15-16) on the road to Damascus, but the Lord never said a word to Paul about baptism—He said salvation was “by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18). Paul almost persuaded Agrippa to become a Christian (26:28), although he said not a syllable about baptism in his salvation testimony (26:1-23), so one can become one without receiving the ordinance. Furthermore, while Christ sent the apostle to “open [men’s] eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in [Jesus]” (26:18), Paul tells us that “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel” (1 Corinthians 1:17), so men can be turned from darkness and Satan to light and God, and have their sins forgiven, by faith in Christ, without being baptized. The gospel Paul preached in Acts was “by [Christ] all that believe are justified from all things . . . believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 13:39, 16:31). The accounts of Paul’s testimony in Acts 22 and 26, along with his preaching as recorded elsewhere in Acts, show he was forgiven before his baptism.
Acts 22:16 does not establish baptismal regeneration. The verse itself demonstrates that the “washing away” of sins in baptism mentioned is representative and figurative, not literal. The record of Paul’s salvation in Acts 9, 22, and 26, his preaching elsewhere in Acts, and supplementary information supplied in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, clearly demonstrate that Paul’s sins were forgiven on the road to Damascus before his baptism, when he placed his faith in the risen Lord, Jesus Christ.
[i] A good number of the more thoughtful advocates of baptismal regeneration, recognizing that Scripture gives the power to wash away sin to the blood of Jesus, affirm that it is indeed His blood, not baptism, which washes sin away. However, they add that the blood only washes the sinner at the time he is baptized. Such an admission negates any possible value for Acts 22:16 as a proof-text for baptismal regeneration, for it concedes that the washing from sin mentioned in the verse is not literally, but only representatively or figuratively, the action of baptism.
[ii] As Alexander Campbell, commenting on Acts 22:16, said in his debate with McCalla, “The blood of Christ, then, really cleanses us who believe from all sin. Behold the goodness of God in giving us a formal proof and token of [forgiveness in] . . . baptism. . . . The water of baptism, then, formally washes away our sins. The blood of Christ really washes away our sins. Paul’s sins were really pardoned when he believed, yet he had no solemn pledge of the fact, no formal acquittal, no formal purgation of his sins, until he washed them away in the water of baptism” (see pg. 75, Campbellism: Its History and Heresies, Bob Ross; quote from pg. 116, Campbell-McCalla Debate). It is unfortunate that the “Church of Christ” and other denominations Campbell started reject his sound statement on Acts 22:16.
[iii] The verb is apolousai, an aorist imperative middle, 2nd person singular verb. [I]n our literature [it is found] only [in the] middle [voice], ‘wash something away from oneself, wash oneself’” (apolouo, pg. 117, BDAG). Note that “be baptized” in the verse also translates the middle voice baptisai; Here alone in the New Testament, out of 80 appearances (30 active, and 47 passive) of the verb, is the middle voice form used for Christian baptism (cf. Mark 7:4; 1 Corinthians 10:2 for the other two middle uses). The verse emphasizes Paul’s acting upon himself; he is arising, having himself baptized, and washing away his own sins. Compare Job 9:30, LXX (the only appearance of the verb in the Greek Old Testament): “For if I should wash myself (apolousomai, middle voice of apolouo) with snow, and purge myself (apokatharomai, middle voice) with pure hands.” A. T. Robertson discusses Acts 22:16 underneath the heading of the “direct or reflexive middle” (pgs. 807-808, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934). Compare also Josephus, Antiquities 220.127.116.11, where the middle voice is used for a man who “went as he was, without washing himself” (hos eichen mede apolousamenos). Also note the middle voices in Josephus, War 18.104.22.168-150, “it is a rule with them to wash themselves (apolousesthai) . . . they must wash themselves (apolousesthai).” Also Philo, Laws 3:89 (“washed themselves,” apolousontai).
[iv] The word is lousanti, an aorist active participle. Christ does the washing, and the believer is the one washed. The sense is “to cause to be purified, cleanse” (louo, pg. 603, BDAG).
[v] The word “chosen” (ekloges) in Acts 9:15 is translated “elect” in all its other appearances in Scripture (Romans 9:11; 11:5, 7, 28; 1 Thessalonians 1:4; 2 Peter 2:10).
[vi] Jeremiah 1:5 has been alleged to evince that salvation is not a prerequisite to a call to preach, since God said to Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations.” Since Jeremiah had not yet believed and so been converted when he was in the womb, it is argued that a call does not have to precede conversion, so the fact that Paul was called to preach on the road to Damascus does not indicate that he was justified before his baptism. However, this counter fails to undermine Paul’s pre-baptismal conversion. Jeremiah 1:5 refers to God’s eternal sovereign plan for Jeremiah: He “knew” him even before formed in the belly, for God “declar[es] the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:10), and “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11). The Lord therefore knew Jeremiah even before the foundation of the world. God also had “sanctified” Jeremiah, meaning that He had chosen him for his prophetic office in His unfathomable counsel. Jehovah also “ordained” him a prophet to the nations, in that He “gave” (the translation of the KJV margin for “ordained”) him to them in his timeless purposes. God knew and ordained all things in eternity past, including His purpose to call certain men to preach. However, this eternal call was revealed to Jeremiah in time (Jeremiah 1:1-10). At a particular moment “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon king of Judah, in the thirteenth year of his reign” (1:1), God revealed to Jeremiah His eternal purpose, stating, “I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant” (1:10). At this point in Jeremiah’s life, when he consciously received God’s call to preach (cf. the uses of the verb translated “set” here, paqad in the Hiphil, in Genesis 39:4-5; 41:34; Numbers 1:50; 2 Kings 7:17; Jeremiah 40:11), he was certainly already a child of God. God also certainly knew from eternity, and therefore from the time that Paul was in the womb (Galatians 1:15), what His plan was with the apostle, including his conversion and call to preach on the Damascus road. This fact does not prove that Paul was justified from eternity any more than Jeremiah was. However, at the time of his conscious reception and response to the Lord’s call as he traveled to Damascus, the apostle was certainly already a child of God, just as Jeremiah was at the time of his reception and response to God’s call. For Jeremiah 1:5 to undermine the evidence of Paul’s pre-baptismal salvation from his call to preach, the verse would need to state that Jeremiah consciously received and responded to such a call before he became a child of God. However, the verse does nothing of the kind. One also wonders how many ministers in denominations advocating baptismal regeneration would themselves affirm that they were called to the ministry while yet unbaptized and confessedly children of the devil.
[vii] Consider also that in Acts 22:16, “calling on the name of the Lord” employs an aorist participle which, of necessity, refers to time that is either antecedent or simultaneous to the verb “wash away.” In either case, further evidence that Paul’s prayers were accepted by God before the completion of the ceremony of baptism is provided. If the calling is prior to the time of baptism, Paul’s justification prior to his immersion is clear (cf. Romans 10:13). If the calling is temporally simultaneous with the figurative washing associated with the baptismal ceremony (cf. pgs. 1113-1114 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1934), for the aorist participle of coincident action), Paul’s prayers are still accepted before the time when, according to the theology of baptismal regeneration, he literally rises to new life as he comes out of the baptismal water. If one can pray and be heard by God as he goes into the waters of baptism, as he is placed under water, and while he is under water, he must of necessity be regenerated prior to the time that baptismal regeneration affirms he literally rises to new life and becomes a new creature by ascending out of the water. Thus, the aorist participle “calling” in Acts 22:16, whether antecedent or simultaneous action, confirms what is clearly stated in Acts 9:11—Paul’s prayers were acceptable to God before the time baptismal regeneration alleges one obtains new life by rising out of the waters of baptism.
[viii] Paul called on the Lord, and so was certain of heaven, before his baptism. Note that the “shall be saved” promise of Romans 10:13 guarantees eternal security for all who can (since they were justified upon believing, v. 14) truly pray to God.
[ix] At this point, the apostle is called “Saul.” This is his designation in Acts before his conversion (Acts 7:58, 8:1, etc.), during his time with the disciples at Damascus (9:19, 22, 24), during his later journey to Jerusalem (9:26), his ministry at Antioch (11:25-26), his service assisting the financial needs of the brethren in Judea (11:29-30, 12:25), his later ministry and call to church planting out of the church at Antioch (13:1-2), and during part of his first missionary journey (13:7). When he confronts Elymas the sorcerer (13:8), the book tell us that “Saul . . . is also called Paul” (13:9), and in all subsequent time periods in Acts he is designated as “Paul” (13:13, 16, 21, 43, 45, 46, 50; 14:9, 11). Since both names refer to the same person, this composition generally employs “Paul” as his more common and better recognized name.
[x] Since, in Acts, the phrase “men and brethren” (andres adelphoi) is used for unregenerate Jews (Acts 2:29, 23:1, 6, cf. 7:2, 22:1), and Jewish Christians twice address unsaved Jewish contemporaries as “brethren” (adelphoi, 3:17, 23:5), baptismal regenerationists have asserted that Ananias’ designation of Paul or Saul as “Brother Saul” does not prove that he was yet saved, only that he was a fellow Jew. However, the evidence of the verse is not so easily avoided. The strong majority usage of adelphos in Acts is for Christians (6:3; 9:30; 10:23; 11:1, 12, 29; 12:17; 14:2; 15:1, 3, 22, 23, 32, 33, 36, 40; 16:2, 40; 17:6, 10, 14; 18:18, 27; 20:32; 21:7, 17; 22:5; 28:14, 15), and believers in Acts never employ the articular form, “the brethren” (oi adelphoi), for unsaved Jews, only for fellow Christians (9:30, 10:23, 11:1, 12:17, 14:2, 15:1, etc.). In the epistles, 47 out of the 49 times the word “brother” (adelphos) appears in the singular, it refers to Christian brethren (the other two are physical brothers, Galatians 1:19, 1 John 3:2), and “brother” is never used for fellow Jews. Every time “brother” appears as a title (that is, not designating one with the same mother and father) with an associated name in the Bible, as it does in Ananias’ designation of Paul as “Brother Saul,” it refers to Christian brethren (e. g., “Quartus a brother,” Romans 16:23, “Sosthenes our brother,” 1 Corinthians 1:1, “Timothy our brother,” 2 Corinthians 1:1, “Titus my brother,” 2 Corinthians 2:13, “Tychicus, a beloved brother,” Ephesians 6:21, “Epaphroditus, my brother,” Philippians 2:25, “Onesimus, a faithful and beloved brother,” Colossians 4:9, etc.). Finally, the singular form of “brother” that Ananias used for Saul in Acts 9:17, 22:13 (Greek vocative, adelphe), is only used for saved people in Acts and the rest of Scripture (Luke 6:42 (cf. v. 20); Acts 9:17; 21:20; 22:13; Philemon 7, 20). Since the strong majority usage of “brother” in Acts is Christian brethren, saints in Acts employ the articular form “the brethren” only for fellow believers, the singular form of “brother” in the epistles refers almost exclusively to Christian brethren, and never to fellow Jews, the word “brother” as a title, with a name, is only used for Christian brethren in the Bible, and the exact form of adelphos that Ananias employed with Paul is only used in the Bible for saved individuals, the fact that Ananias addresses the unbaptized Paul as “Brother Saul” does indeed demonstrate that the apostle was already justified.
[xi] Note that his question was not “what must I do to be saved?” but “what wilt thou have me to do?” The Lord’s answer was not “what you must do is be baptized to have your past sins forgiven,” but “Arise, and go into Damascus, and there it shall be told thee of all things which are appointed for thee to do” (22:10). While it certainly was Paul’s duty to be baptized (22:16), the plural “all things” necessarily points to more than baptism, which was this was not the emphasis of Christ’s statement at all. The main point of the Savior’s statement was His call of Paul as the apostle to the Gentiles (9:15, 22:15, 26:16-18), which would include suffering for Christ (9:16), testifying of his view of the resurrected Lord (26:14-15), etc. To argue, as some baptismal regenerationists do, that since in Damascus it would be told Paul what he “must do” (Acts 9:6), one “must” be baptized to be forgiven ignores the contextual significance of the statement to the apostle’s entire future ministry to the Gentiles, not merely his baptism. The phrase “must do” in Acts 9:6 proves that baptism washes away sin just about as much as it proves the existence of little green men on the moon.
[xii] Note that these believers were still worshipping in synagogues (v. 19). Is it likely that all of them were baptized (John 9:22)?
[xiii] See the discussion of Acts 26, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians in the section “Other reasons to believe in justification by faith alone, not by baptism.”