Whether God makes exceptions is particularly significant when we consider the Christian dispensation, of course. It is undoubtedly true that the Epistles and the Gospels suggest that baptism is not only normative, but also essential. But Acts has several examples where baptism is either not mentioned as part of the salvation of a person or where a person was clearly saved without baptism.
The most obvious example is the apostles themselves. While all four of the Gospels record the baptism of Jesus, none record a baptism of the apostles. Indeed, they couldn’t have been baptized into Jesus until after his death, burial, and resurrection (consider Rom 6, for example), and yet the Gospels and Acts make no reference at all to their being baptized.
A fair reading of Acts 2 must lead to the conclusion that the apostles received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and yet they weren’t baptized other than by the Spirit. We know from John 3:22-26 and 4:1-2 that Jesus, through his disciples, baptized early in his ministry.
It has been argued that Jesus was baptizing in his own name so that Jesus’ baptisms were equivalent to Christian baptism. However, we know from Mark that Jesus concealed his nature as Son of God during the first part of his ministry. Mark 1:43; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9. It seems very unlikely that Jesus would have baptized into his own name at a time, early in his ministry, when He was not yet ready to reveal his divinity.
It has been argued that the apostles were baptized at this time. And yet the Bible just doesn’t say that. Given the extensive and repeated references in Acts to Paul’s baptism, why wouldn’t Luke (who also wrote Acts), at least, have recorded the baptisms of the other apostles — if they in fact had been baptized?
Some have objected to this interpretation, arguing that the apostles were baptized with the 3,000 baptized on Pentecost, and yet Acts 2:40-42 contradicts any such interpretation:
With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
Notice that the people baptized were “those who accepted his message.” Because the apostles had already accepted the message, they could not be included among “those.” This conclusion is verified by the next sentence, which declares that “they” devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. “They” refers to “those who accepted his message” and clearly cannot be the apostles themselves. And those who were baptized were “added to their number” — plainly indicating that the apostles were already saved.
It has sometimes been argued that John had baptized the apostles and that this baptism was somehow converted into Christian baptism at Pentecost, but there is simply no evidence of this in the Bible. There is evidence that some of the apostles were disciples of John, but this hardly proves that they all were.
And there is no evidence that John’s baptism was considered effective after Pentecost—indeed, all those present at Pentecost — other than the apostles — were baptized in response to Peter’s sermon. It is unlikely that none of the 3,000 had accepted John’s baptism. And the Acts 19 account of Paul re-baptizing the converts who had only received John’s baptism certainly seems to flatly contradict this theory.
Cornelius and his household received the Spirit before baptism (Acts 10-11). Recall that Rom. 8:11 teaches that everyone who possesses the Spirit is saved. And if the apostles were saved by receipt of the Holy Spirit without baptism, then we must conclude that Cornelius and his household were saved when they received the Spirit, before their baptism.
Indeed, Peter declared that “the Holy Spirit came on them as he had come on us at the beginning … So if God gave them the same gift as he gave us, who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I to think that I could oppose God” (Acts 11:15-17).
Peter’s order was that Cornelius and his household be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 10:48). In all other cases, when the New Testament writers speak of being baptized “in the name of” Jesus Christ, “in” translates “into” (eis in the Greek). In just this case, “in” translates “in” (en in the Greek). You see, the converts were already in Jesus, and so they couldn’t be baptized into Jesus — only in Jesus.
It must be noted, however, that Peter felt compelled to have Cornelius and his household baptized in water after they had already received the Spirit (Acts 10:47-48). It is far from clear why Peter felt compelled to have Cornelius and his household baptized after they received the Spirit while the apostles evidently were never baptized. This account strongly suggests that even if we conclude that there are people who are saved despite a faulty baptism, we should nonetheless urge them to be properly baptized, just as Cornelius was.
In Acts 18:24-28, we find that Apollos had faith in Jesus (he had been “instructed in the way of the Lord”) but had received only John’s baptism. Priscilla and Aquila “explained to him the way of God more adequately,” but there is no mention of rebaptism, even though the Ephesians, who had received only John’s baptism, were rebaptized in order to receive the Spirit (Acts 19:1-7). Either Apollos was never baptized into Christ or Luke felt it was unnecessary to so state.
It really is difficult to reconcile the Apollos account with the account of the Ephesians. In adjacent passages, we find one person baptized in John’s baptism not rebaptized, followed by an account of a group baptized in John’s baptism required to be rebaptized. There have been a couple of suggestions at resolving this dilemma.
One theory is that those who had been baptized in John the Baptist’s baptism before the death of Jesus were saved based on faith in Jesus afterwards, without re-baptism, but that baptism in John’s baptism after Jesus’ death was insufficient. Thus, it is suggested that the Ephesians had received the baptism of John after the death of Jesus while Apollos had had an earlier baptism.
This is a truly intriguing theory, but there is simply nothing in the Bible that says that this is true. Maybe it is, but our doctrine must be based on what the Bible says, not on guesses as to what might fill the silences of scripture. Nothing says when Apollos or the Ephesians were baptized in John’s baptism, and if the timing of their baptism mattered, one would think that Luke would have mentioned the fact.
And if this theory is so, why were all the converts at Pentecost baptized? Surely at least some of the 3,000 had been baptized by John.
Another theory is that Apollos was in fact re-baptized, this being implicit in his being better instructed. On the other hand, Acts contains so many baptism accounts that it surely seems odd that Luke would have skipped the re-baptism of Apollos — a very important figure in early church history — while describing in detail the baptism of the Ephesians, who aren’t even named, among so many others.
It seems most likely that the Ephesian disciples were not believers in Jesus — at least not in Jesus of Nazareth as Son of God. Luke uses “disciples” to refer to followers of John the Baptist (Luke 5:33) as well as to Jesus’ followers. If these men were already Christians, then why did Paul baptize them? And why didn’t they already possess the Spirit? After all, as Paul declares in Gal. 3:2, the Spirit is received based on faith in Jesus.
It seems likely that these 12 were followers of John the Baptist, expecting the Messiah, but not knowing Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah prophesied by John. Paul had to teach these men that John the Baptist “told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus” (Acts 19:4). Evidently they believed John’s prophecy but were unaware that Jesus of Nazareth had come and fulfilled the prophecy. Paul did not teach them baptism; rather he taught them Jesus, and upon their acceptance of Jesus, he baptized them.
On the other hand, Apollos was already a believer, and for whatever reasons, Paul seems to have felt no need to re-baptize him. Luke’s failure to explain this discrepancy is easily understood in light of Luke’s (and Paul’s) much greater emphasis on the receipt of the Holy Spirit. It was clear from what was reported about Apollos that he had received the Spirit, and thus inquiry into his baptism was not essential.
The Ephesians, on the other hand, gave no such evidence, and so Paul asked them, not whether they’d been baptized, but whether they’d received the Spirit.
Now, to a modern member of the Churches of Christ, this question is an absurdity. We would ask someone whose salvation was uncertain whether he’d been baptized. But Paul asked about the receipt of the Holy Spirit. Plainly, in Acts and in Paul’s thinking, the ultimate hallmark of salvation is whether the Holy Spirit has been received, not whether baptism has been received. This fact is plain from Acts 2, Acts 10-11, and Acts 18-19, not to mention Rom. 8.
Indeed, in Acts 8, when Philip converted and baptized the Samaritans, a problem arose “because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 8:14). Thus, water baptism was considered incomplete unless the convert had also received Spirit baptism. This is hardly surprising in light of John 3:5.
And so, where does this leave us? Ironically, Acts has been preached repeatedly in the Churches of Christ as teaching the necessity of water baptism of believers. And yet Acts is the very book that demonstrates the possibility of exceptions to the usual practice of the Spirit (and hence salvation) being received at the moment of water baptism.
Is the age of exceptions over? Are these exceptions limited to apostolic times? Did God make these exceptions for a limited purpose? Or is it God’s nature to make exceptions?
The bottom line is that there is only one truly general rule — “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). We have all been saved solely by the willingness of God to make exceptions — regardless of the dispensation or covenant under consideration.
In each dispensation God has establish a well-defined covenant as to how he will forgive the sins of those with faith in him — and in each dispensation God has repeatedly made exceptions, frequently granting forgiveness to those with penitent faith outside the specific terms of his covenant.