Saul of Tarsus, also called Paul (Acts 13:9), received the forgiveness of his sins by Jesus’ blood (Ephesians 1:7). At some point, Saul was baptized (Acts 9:17,18).
Those who believe the Bible is God’s word accept these facts without hesitation. There is a disagreement among Bible believers, however, on the question of when Paul’s personal salvation came. Many believe that he was saved before he was immersed in water. If that be the case, then water baptism was not a condition of his initial salvation, and since those who are saved today are saved in the same manner that Saul was, then that would mean that water salvation is not a condition of forgiveness today, either. Thus, the timing of Saul’s salvation is not a trivial question.
I want to mention five of the arguments which I personally have encountered from those who affirm that Paul was saved before he was baptized. This topic often arises as we discuss the topic of salvation and the purpose of water baptism. I am not suggesting that people do not use any other lines of reasoning, simply that these are the five with which I am most familiar. Also, please note that each of these arguments is connected directly with the conversion of Saul and may not always be brought into our discussions of other conversions. We will number the five.
(1) Saul called Jesus “Lord” before he was baptized, so he was saved prior to baptism. When Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul asked, “Who are You, Lord?” (Acts 9:5). At that point, Saul used the word “Lord” as a matter of respect/ honor, not knowing at the time whom Jesus was. After Jesus told him, “I am Jesus” (9:5), Saul’s response was, “Lord, what do You want me to do?” (9:6). Saul knew that if Jesus was talking to him, then He was risen from the dead and still alive! Yet, simply calling Jesus “Lord” is not all that there is in doing the Father’s will (Matthew 7:21). Saul was making progress, but, no, he was not yet saved.
(2) Ananias called Saul “brother” prior to his baptism, so that mean’s Saul already was a saved brother in the Lord. Not at all. It is undeniable that Ananias called Saul “brother”: “And Ananias . . . said, Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus . . . has sent me . . .” (9:17). The truth is, Ananias and Saul both were Jews, meaning they were brothers in the Jewish race. We frequently read in the book of Acts that Jewish disciples of Jesus called non-saved Jews “brethren,” and vice versa. The multitude of Jews called the apostles “brethren” on Pentecost (Acts 2:37), Stephen called the Jewish leaders “brethren” (7:2), and so on.
(3) Paul prayed before he received baptism (Acts 9:11,18), so he must have been a saved man before his immersion. First, other verses will show that he was not saved by praying. Second, many people pray who are not in a saved relationship with God (Proverbs 28:9). A praying person is not necessarily a saved one.
(4) He received the Holy Spirit before he was baptized, and God only gives the Spirit to those who already are His children. There is no proof that Saul received the Spirit prior to his baptism. Ananias told him, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized” (9:17,18). Saul’s sight returned to him when Ananias laid hands on him. The Bible does not say that he received the Spirit when Ananias laid hands on him. All that Ananias’ statement indicated about the Spirit is that Paul would receive Him as a consequence of Ananias’ coming. As Jesus did with the other apostles, He would supply the Spirit to Paul at a time which He would choose, but it did not come about by the laying on of a non-apostle’s hands.
(5) Paul said he was justified by faith, not baptism. He did write that he was among those who were justified by faith (Romans 5:1). His faith was the foundation of his decision to turn to and serve the Lord, but before that faith would save him, it had to be manifested in repentance and baptism (Acts 2:38).
Just why was Saul baptized? He was told to do it to wash away his sins (Acts 22:16). Paul was baptized into the Christ to have newness of life (Romans 6:3,4). Before his baptism, he was still outside of Jesus – still outside of redemption and still lost. Saul was saved in Damascus, not on the road leading to it.
— Roger D. Campbell