DOES ACTS 22:16 TEACH THAT WATER BAPTISM WASHES AWAY SINS?
by Shawn Brasseaux
“And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). Ananias told Saul of Tarsus these words shortly after the latter’s conversion. Is it really true that water baptism can wash away our sins (as in Roman Catholicism)? How are we to handle this part of God’s Word?! Not “For what saith the preacher?” or “For what saith the denomination?,” but rather “For what saith the Scriptures?”
In Acts chapter 22, the Apostle Paul is in Jerusalem giving his testimony before the Jews. Historically, his conversion occurred some 25 years earlier (in chapter 9), but we must go to chapters 22 and 26 to get further details. Notice the following in chapter 22:
“ And one Ananias, a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there,  Came unto me, and stood, and said unto me, Brother Saul, receive thy sight. And the same hour I looked up upon him.  And he said, The God of our fathers hath chosen thee, that thou shouldest know his will, and see that Just One, and shouldest hear the voice of his mouth.  For thou shalt be his witness unto all men of what thou hast seen and heard.  And now why tarriest thou? arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord.”
In order to understand verse 16, it helps to view it from the perspective of the speaker. Paul is quoting Ananias. Ananias, according to verse 12, is “a devout man according to the law, having a good report of all the Jews which dwelt there.” He is a believing Jew, someone who has recognized and believed on Jesus as Messiah/Christ. Ananias understands the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Read from Acts chapter 9 now: “ And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and to him said the Lord in a vision, Ananias. And he said, Behold, I am here, Lord.  And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prayeth,  And hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight.  Then Ananias answered, Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem:  And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.  But the Lord said unto him, Go thy way: for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel:  For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my name’s sake.  And Ananias went his way, and entered into the house; and putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.”
Ananias does not know Paul’s Gospel or any Pauline doctrine. He does not know about Calvary as good news—especially for Gentiles. He does not know any dispensational changes have occurred other than Saul being God’s chosen vessel to the Gentiles (verse 15). Saul was an idolater in the eyes of Ananias, and he needed to be cleansed from idolatry like Ezekiel said in Ezekiel 36:25, “Then will I sprinkle clean water upon you, and ye shall be clean: from all your filthiness, and from all your idols, will I cleanse you.” This is God promising to cleanse Israel of her idol worship. John the Baptist conducted his ministry under such instructions. This is the Gospel of the Kingdom. All Ananias knows is the Gospel of the Kingdom. Notice Acts 2:38: “Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” This was based on Jesus’ words in Mark 16:15-16: “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”
As far as Ananias is concerned, Saul needs to be water baptized for the remission of sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. This was all done for Ananias’ benefit rather than Paul’s. Paul was already a justified man (it happened outside of Damascus), but God had him visit Ananias (in Damascus) so as to show the Little Flock that Saul was now a follower of Jesus Christ. Such a radical transformation needed abundant proof. Paul, already a member of the Body of Christ, had the indwelling Holy Spirit and forgiveness of sins (Ephesians 1:13-14; Ephesians 4:30; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14). Ananias does not know this though—he knows nothing about the Body of Christ, nothing about the Dispensation of Grace, nothing about salvation and forgiveness of sins apart from Israel’s program. God will let Ananias operate with Saul in such a special way so as to not damage Ananias’ spiritual edification.
Remember, prior to Saul’s salvation, water baptism was simply something a believer in Jesus Christ did. John the Baptist, Jesus, Peter and the 11, et cetera, had all been water baptized and had ministries that endorsed water baptism. Unless Saul followed in like manner, he would be discredited (by either members of the Little Flock, believing Israel, or apostate Israel, unsaved Jews). Up to that point, water baptism had played an integral part of God’s program with Israel. To not be water baptized meant a person was expressing unbelief! (It would hinder Ananias unless he water baptized Paul, so God allowed Paul’s water baptism.)
Turn to Luke 7:29-30: “ And all the people that heard him [John the Baptist], and the publicans, justified God, being baptized with the baptism of John.  But the Pharisees and lawyers rejected the counsel of God against themselves, being not baptized of him.” Verse 30 was true of the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus during Christ’s earthly ministry (Matthew through John) and all the way until Acts chapter 9. Saul was an unbeliever, and all the Little Flock knew it because he refused to participate in John’s water baptism. When Saul met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts chapter 9), however, it only made sense for him to be water baptized. Acts is written for Israel’s benefit, that they see how God set them aside after they refused to believe His Son. Paul’s water baptism entered the record of Scripture in Acts so as to bear witness of his conversion.
“For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and of goats should take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). The blood of bulls and goats cannot take away sins, so is it possible for water to take away sins?! Of course not!! Physical water molecules cannot remove spiritual stains!! Even in Israel’s program (like ours), the shed blood of Jesus Christ is how sins are cleansed. “But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). “And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood” (Revelation 1:5). “Forasmuch as ye know that ye were not redeemed with corruptible things, as silver and gold, from your vain conversation received by tradition from your fathers; But with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19).
Water baptism for those in Israel’s prophetic program was the outward testimony of an inward trust in God. It was a symbol or sign of inward cleansing or purifying. It demonstrated to Ananias (and all other members of the Little Flock) that Saul of Tarsus was a believer in and servant of Jesus Christ, though Saul was saved apart from Israel’s program (more on this later). Again, this is highly important because Acts chapter 22 is Paul giving his testimony to the Jews in Jerusalem. When he shared that same testimony with Gentile King Agrippa in chapter 26, he made no such reference to Ananias and his water baptism. A Gentile did not need to know such information; however, a Jew did. God had Paul be water baptized so he could talk about it years later to Jews in Acts chapter 22.
John chapter 3 shows us water baptism conveyed the issue of purification: “ Then there arose a question between some of John’s disciples and the Jews about purifying.  And they came unto John, and said unto him, Rabbi, he that was with thee beyond Jordan, to whom thou barest witness, behold, the same baptizeth, and all men come to him.” The meaning behind water baptism is found in 1 Peter 3:21: “The like figure whereunto even baptism doth also now save us (not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God,) by the resurrection of Jesus Christ:….” Again, water baptism represents an inward issue. For those in Israel’s prophetic program, it was the outward testimony of an inward trust in God. It was an expression of their faith. If Saul were not water baptized, he would be perceived as (still being) an opponent of Jesus Christ. Go back to Luke 7:29-30 if necessary.
By the way, there is a strange idea in some theological circles that Paul was actually saved by two Gospels. It is argued, on the basis of Acts 22:16, that Paul was first saved unto eternal life following Acts 2:38 (the Gospel of the Kingdom). Paul was allegedly saved a second time, justified a second time, by believing the Gospel of the Grace of God. This is absolutely silly and completely unnecessary. If one is justified before God unto eternal life, there is no purpose in a second justification. One cannot be forgiven of all sins twice. This is impossible. Righteousness does not need to be imputed twice. That is downright foolish.
Paul was the first member of the Church the Body of Christ, and like us, he believed the Gospel of the Grace of God. Notice 1 Timothy 1:15-16: “ This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.  Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” Something new began with Paul. His salvation, justification, had absolutely nothing to do with Israel’s program. There was no New Covenant with him. There was no kingdom of priests for him. There was no earthly reign with him. There was no Law-keeping with him. Paul is our pattern; we are saved however he was saved. Have we been justified twice? Then neither was Paul justified twice! Have we believed two Gospel messages for salvation? Then neither did Paul believe two Gospels! Did water baptism wash away our sins? Then neither did it wash away Paul’s sins!
The “Jewish” events surrounding Paul’s salvation and Acts ministry were especially designed to communicate doctrine to Israel—particularly unbelieving Israel. Paul was water baptized, and he water baptized some of his converts. He spoke with tongues. He healed the sick and raised the dead. He physically circumcised Timothy. Why? God was proving to Israel that He was moving away from them and their prophetic program. Paul was God’s replacement for Peter (whose ministry had done those things). When the Acts transitional period ended, so did God’s provoking ministry to Israel. For more information, consider the studies linked below.
» Can you explain Paul’s “Acts” ministry?
» Why does the Book of Acts end so abruptly?
» Why was water baptism necessary in Israel’s program?