how people are saved in the book of acts

A reliable way to learn how we are saved from sin is to study different instances of conversion in Acts, the New Testament history book. The inspired writer Luke supplies us with at least seven detailed conversion stories. The first concerns a great crowd of visitors to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. Thousands of them respond to Peter’s sermon. That’s in Acts 2. The second and third instances of conversion are in chapter 8, where Philip preaches Christ to the people of Samaria and, later, to an unnamed government official from Ethiopia. The conversion of the persecutor Saul of Tarsus (later the apostle Paul) is in chapter 9. In chapter 10 we see Cornelius, a Roman soldier, accepting Christ. Chapter 16 records how Paul and Silas make the first two converts in Europe, a merchant named Lydia residing in Philippi of Macedonia, and a jailer, also unnamed, in the same city.

Would you please read these passages right now?

Here’s a very common practice: taking a single favorite verse out of all this material and announcing, “That’s how to be saved.” This is not the right approach. Everything that God requires isn’t explicitly mentioned in each conversion account. The Holy Spirit gave us multiple examples so that we might read, compare, and obey them all. And then, of course, we have to make sure that what we get from Acts matches up with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament.

This is not as complicated as it sounds. To become a Christian in the manner of the book of Acts, one must...


Be taught the gospel.

In Acts the saving message is always shared person to person. In the instances we’re looking at, the apostle Peter, the evangelist Philip, a disciple named Ananias, and the missionaries Paul and Silas serve as Christ’s messengers of hope.

Today a person may hear about Jesus from parents or friends or neighbors, in Sunday school classes or worship services, or by means of radio, television, or online studies. However it happens, others are always involved. When we read the Bible privately at home we depend on those who translated it and published it, and either sold or gave away that copy.

The point is that salvation in the Bible does not come “out of the blue.” It does not come directly and unexpectedly from heaven upon one who is totally ignorant of Jesus.

The risen Lord appears to Saul on the road outside Damascus, striking him temporarily blind. But Saul does not get saved from sin on the Damascus road. When he asks the Lord what to do, the voice tells him to go on into the city. There he will be told what to do (v. 6).  Later Ananias, who has seen Jesus in a vision giving him instructions, visits Saul and lays hands on him. Then Saul is baptized and connects with disciples in Damascus (9: 1-19).


Believe in Jesus as God's Son.

Hearing the gospel does no good unless we believe it. We must accept its basic idea: that Jesus is the Son of God and our Savior.

When the jailer of Philippi asks what to do to be saved, Paul and Silas tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31). Then they speak the word to him and to all who are in his house so that they can believe (v. 32). Before the night is over the whole family is baptized (v. 33). The people of Samaria believe Philip’s preaching concerning Jesus and the kingdom. Then they are baptized (8:12). Peter tells Cornelius and friends that “whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43, all quotations from the New King James Version). 

Belief or faith is not mentioned each time. Yet we know that belief or faith is always present. Lydia hears the message and the Lord opens her heart to give heed to it (pay attention to it). When Peter tells the Pentecost crowds that they have crucified the Lord of heaven, they are “cut to the heart” and cry out, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” (2:37). They have come to believe that Jesus of Nazareth is God’s Son,  but they are not yet His disciples, and they are still in their sins.


Repent of Sins.

When the people ask Peter and the other apostles what to do, he tells them to “Repent….” This seems to be the only time repentance is explicitly commanded in the stories we are focusing on, but altogether the words “repent” and “repentance” appear about 11 times in Acts. Acts 17:30 says that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent.” That’s about as plain as it gets.

To repent is to turn away from a sinful lifestyle and turn to Jesus as Savior and Lord. More is involved than just being sorry for past sins. The soon-to-be converts in Acts 2 are already sorry about their role in crucifying Jesus before Peter tells them to repent. Repentance is not groveling before God, begging Him for mercy; it is part of God’s merciful, heaven-sent cure for the guilt and power of sin.

Where repentance is not mentioned, it is implied. In chapter 10, for example, Peter’s remarks to Cornelius say nothing about it. But repenting must be what Cornelius does, because the next chapter refers back to what happened at his house as God granting the Gentiles “repentance to life” (11:18). God in His grace and mercy has bestowed on the Gentiles the opportunity to repent and be saved.

Already before his repentance Cornelius is a God-fearing man who gives liberally to the poor and prays constantly (10:2). He may not need to turn from a sinful lifestyle, but he needs to turn to Jesus Christ to receive eternal life.


Confess Faith in Christ.

Confession means saying aloud that Jesus is the Son of God, our Lord and Savior. As Philip preaches Jesus to the official from Ethiopia, the African notices some water and asks if he may be baptized in it. (His request shows that baptism was part of Philip’s teaching about Jesus.) Philip tells him that he may be baptized if he believes with all his heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. The traveler, who has heard only one gospel sermon, affirms that he does indeed so believe (8:36, 37 KJV and NKJV only).  They both go down into the water, both Philip and the eunuch, and Philip baptizes him (v. 38).

Some of the old manuscripts of Acts don’t have chapter 8, verse 37. Most modern English and foreign language versions put the verse in a footnote. This is not the place to discuss whether it is genuine, but for the sake of argument let’s say that it is doubtful and therefore that no salvation requirement should be based on it alone. Let’s admit also that in none of the other six instances of conversion does the text tell us in so many words that a convert confesses Jesus. Why then do we say that confession is necessary?

To baptize someone who doesn’t have a genuine personal faith in Jesus Christ would be wrong. To baptize an unconscious or intoxicated person, someone too young to understand what the gospel means (a baby), an individual who seems to be compelled by others to change religion, or anyone who can’t give informed consent, would be wrong. A heartfelt declaration of faith by the candidate helps the one who does the baptizing ensure that he or she is a fit subject.

Another reason we know that Christ requires us to confess Him is the emphasis in this book on the name of Jesus. Baptism is in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). Acts 4:12 reads, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” The apostles rejoice to be “counted worthy to suffer for His name” (5:41). Saul of Tarsus goes to Damascus with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who “call on” Jesus’ name (9:14). Ananias tells Saul, “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (22:16).

A few verses later in chapter 22 Paul, retelling his conversion story, admits that during his persecuting days he went into every Jewish synagogue to imprison and beat those who believed in Jesus (22:19). Much was at stake for Jews who named Jesus as the Christ, as well as for those who did not. Jesus Himself announces during His personal ministry that this situation will arise. He says that He will confess before the Father whoever confesses Him before men, and He will deny before the Father whoever denies Him before men (Matthew 10:32, 33).

Romans 8:9, 10 removes all doubt about whether verbal confession should be considered a requirement for salvation. “If you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” 

So even if Acts 8:37 is a later addition to the original text (and this is not a certainty), we can be sure that the verse as it stands in the traditional text accurately represents the practice of evangelists in New Testament times. Philip simply would not have baptized the eunuch unless the man believed in Christ.


Be baptized.

In every one of the seven instances, the climax of conversion is the baptism (dipping or immersion) of the candidate in water. Baptism is not merely implied or suggested; in each instance it is plainly stated. Earlier we referred to Acts 2:38 in part. The whole verse reads, “Then Peter said to them, `Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

Peter’s hearers must decide. They can either do nothing, thus remaining in their sins, or repent and be baptized, thus receiving remission of sins and the Holy Spirit. They are devout (Acts 2:5), but they are spiritually lost. Peter continues to exhort and encourage, and some 3000 of them receive his word, are baptized, and take their place as new disciples of Jesus (Acts 2:40, 41).

The chapter recording the conversion of the soldier Cornelius ends with the report that he and his relatives and friends are baptized in water in the name of the Lord (10:48). Lydia and her household are baptized also, perhaps in the river near where the missionaries first meet her engaged in prayer (16:13-16).

The baptism of the jailer and his household is the result of a midnight earthquake that rocks the jail. Amid the chaos, fearing that he is ruined because his prisoners have escaped, the jailer starts to kill himself.  Paul stops him, assuring him that everyone is accounted for.  The jailer tremblingly asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved. This is when they tell him to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ (16:31). Since he cannot believe without hearing, they speak the word of the Lord to him and all who are in his house. The jailer washes their stripes, the historian tells us, “the same hour of the night.”  This shows his repentance. His heart has changed. Then he and all his family are immediately baptized (v. 33).


Remain Faithful.

Let’s summarize what we have learned from these instances of conversion in Acts. It always begins with exposure to the good news about Jesus. Not all who hear of the Savior believe, but all who believe do so because they have heard. A faith that saves is strong enough to propel the individual to turn away from a sinful lifestyle and to cling to Jesus as the only hope for eternal life (repentance). One who is in a state of repentance is glad to say aloud that Jesus is Lord (confession) and to be immersed (baptized) in the name of Jesus Christ for remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is God’s plan of salvation, and it is taught just as clearly in the rest of the New Testament.

Of course conversion is only the beginning of our following Christ. We have to grow in the Lord and remain loyal to Him. Acts is probably not the best place to start to learn in detail how to live as a Christian. The New Testament letters written to churches and individuals are a better choice. But since we have been restricting ourselves to Acts as far as possible, here’s a short summary of what just the first 16 chapters of Acts tells us about the Christian way of life:

Followers of Jesus are to continue steadfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread (Lord’s Supper), and in prayers (2:42). They gladly share their possessions with one another (2:45) and are obedient to God in the face of opposition (5:29). Those who are able to do so teach others about Christ (5:42). Believers rejoice in their salvation (8:39). They make every effort to be part of a local church (9:26) where opportunities for good works arise (9:36). Hospitality is a hallmark of their association with each other (10:48). Christians feel responsible to send aid to their brothers and sisters in distant place (11:29). They support and encourage those who spread the gospel (13:3). Whatever happens they strive to continue in the faith (14:22). In addition to praying, they sing hymns to God, even in the most painful and trying circumstances (16:25).

We could go on, but this is enough. Do you see how to be saved and how to live as a saved person? Do you agree that this is what the Bible teaches? Have you done what God's Word directs?


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