Acts 2:38 and the Purpose of Baptism
When it comes to determining how Acts 2:38 informs the doctrine of baptism, there are two theological controversies: the relationship of baptism to forgiveness, and the meaning of eis. Let me describe and respond to both in turn.1
The Relationship of Baptism to Forgiveness
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you [humon] be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness [aphesin]
of your [humon] sins [hamartion], and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
A plain reading of the English text gives one the impression that both repentance and baptism are for the forgiveness of sins. This sits well with Oneness Pentecostal soteriology (OPS), but not with traditional Protestant soteriology (TPS). TPS maintains that forgiveness, and hence salvation, is obtained when one believes on Christ and repents of sin.2 Baptism-while important-is not salvific, and hence cannot be for the purpose of forgiving sins.
So how does TPS interpret Acts 2:38, then? Advocates of TPS argue that an examination of the Greek grammar demonstrates that forgiveness of sins is connected only to repentance, not baptism.3 They correctly observe that "repent" is second person plural in form, while "baptized" is third person singular in form. Furthermore, the pronoun, humon, translated "your" in "for the forgiveness of your sins," is second person plural. Since pronouns must agree in number and person with the antecedent they modify, it is argued that forgiveness of sins is grammatically tied to "repent," not "baptized."
Building on the grammatical observation above, some propose the following logical argument: individual baptism (singular form) cannot bring about corporate forgives (plural humon), so the second humon must be modifying "repent" (plural form). Greg Koukl represents this line of argumentation:
In Acts 2, the command to repent is in the plural, as is the reference to those who receive the forgiveness of sins (i.e., "All of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness"). The command to be baptized, however, is in the singular (i.e., "Each of you should be baptized"). This makes it clear that repentance, not baptism, leads to salvation, since an individual's baptism cannot cause the salvation of the entire group. Individual (singular) baptisms do not result in corporate (plural) salvation. As it turns out, then, the phrase "for the forgiveness of sins" modifies repentance, not baptism. A more precise rendering might be, "Let all of you repent so all of you can receive forgiveness, and then each who has should be baptized."4
How can the defender of OPS respond to these arguments? Several points should be made.
First, even if Acts 2:38 does not connect the forgiveness of sins with baptism, other passages do: 1 Peter 3:21, Acts 22:16, and Mark 16:16 (John 3:5 and Titus 3:5 also come to mind, but are not as clear as other verses).
Second, the argument hinges on a textual variant. In the Textus Receptus and Majority Text, the second humon is absent. If the Textus Receptus and Majority Text reflect the original wording at this point, the TPS argument crumbles into dust. Considering the fact that the entire case against the OPS interpretation of Acts 2:38 is grounded on this textual variant, TPS advocates need to demonstrate that the second humon is original to the text. For the sake of argument, however, I will assume the critical text is correct, and the second humon is original.
Third, the argument ignores a crucial point: the use of humon in "the forgiveness of your sins" is not the first appearance of humon in this passage. It is the second appearance. The first appears in let "each one of you be baptized." The antecedent to the first instance of the plural humon is clearly the singular verb, "baptized." Earlier I noted that pronouns must agree in number and person with the antecedent they modify. And yet here we have a plural pronoun modifying a singular verb. While an explanation for this anomaly is in order, it should not distract us from the larger point to be made: If the first instance of humon has a singular antecedent, why think the second instance of humon cannot have a singular antecedent? Indeed, the antecedent of a pronoun is usually the closest antecedent, and in this case, the closest antecedent of the second humon is the singular "baptized." It is accepted without controversy that the first instance of humon modifies a singular verb, so why should there be any controversy over the claim that the second instance of humon also modifies the same singular verb? Indeed, there is no grammatical argument to say Peter could do so in the first instance, but not in the second. The only grounds for objection are the theological presuppositions one brings to the text.
I have yet to explain this grammatical anomaly. Why does humon differ in number and person from its antecedent? The most likely explanation is that Peter used the plural pronoun throughout, regardless of the person and number of the verb, because everything he said was directed to all those present as a group. Of course one might wonder, then, why Peter switched from the second person plural when discussing repentance, to the third person singular when discussing baptism. One possible explanation is the Jewish perception of repentance as a corporate act, whereas baptism was viewed as an individual act. Whatever the reason for the shift in person and number, the fact remains that a plural pronoun modifies a singular verb in the beginning of the verse, and thus there is no reason to rule out the same phenomenon in the latter half of the verse when Peter discusses forgiveness of sins. The first instance is without controversy, and so should plural pronoun are used because everything Peter said applied to the entire group present.
Even earlier in Acts 2 we see an interplay of the singular and plural being used. Acts 2:6 reads, “When this sound occurred, a crowd gathered and was in confusion, because each one heard them speaking in his own language.” (NET) “Each one,” heis hekastos, is nominative singular masculine, corresponding precisely with “each one” in Acts 2:38. The verb “heard,” however, is third person plural. It would be just as fallacious to argue that the shift from singular to plural in Acts 2:6 means all the onlookers could not have heard the disciples speaking in tongues, as it is to argue that the shift from plural to singular in Acts 2:38 means baptism is not for the remission of sins.
The Meaning of Eis
Peter said to them, “Repent, and each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness [aphesin] of your sins [hamartion],
and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
The Greek preposition eis can mean “for the purpose of,” or “with reference to,” among other things. How it is being used here in the phrase, eis aphesin ton hamartion (“for the forgiveness of sins) largely determines whether OPS or TPS is the correct soteriology. If eis means “for the purpose of,” then baptism is causally connected to forgiveness of sins alongside repentance, and TPS is undermined (which holds that baptism is not part of salvation). If eis means “with reference to,” then there is no reason to think baptism is causally connected to the forgiveness of sins (at least in this passage). Only the context can determine the meaning. I will argue that the context clearly favors the OPS interpretation, but before I do, I think it would be instructive to read what some TPS advocates have to say about the meaning of eis in this verse.
In his book, "Jesus Only" Churches, Cal Beisner wrote, "Grammatically, the command to be baptized is not connected with the promise of remission of sins. [T]he grammatical connection is between repent and for the remission of your sins, not between be baptized and for the remission of your sins." (p. 58) He goes on to say, "[E]ven if water baptism is connected with remission of sins, the sense is not that baptism is in order to obtain but rather with reference to (i.e., as a sign of, or because of) the remission of our sins. In other words, eis would denote only that baptism is related somehow to the remission of sins; it would not tell us the nature of the relationship." (p. 59)
While Beisner thinks his grammatical argument shuts the door on the OPS interpretation, apparently for the sake of argument he considers how we should understand this verse if baptism is connected with the forgiveness of sins. If that were so, he insists eis should be understood to mean "in reference to." If eis is only connected to repentance, however, he is willing to define eis to mean "for the purpose of." This is an instance of one's theology dictating one's translation, rather than allowing the proper translation to dictate one's theology. As A.T. Robertson noted, "One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not."5 Beisner is doing just that. He is willing to admit a causal force to eis so long as it applies only to repentance, but if it is connected to baptism he rules a causal force out, and adopts a referential force instead. The reason for the shift is not grammatical or contextual, but theological in nature.
Some TPS advocates are more honest with the text. For example, Bauer’s lexicon cites Acts 2:38 as an example where eis donotes “purpose in order to.”
How should we understand eis, then; in a causal or referential way? Only the context can decide, and I argue that the context favors the causal interpretation. Peter had just finished proclaiming to the onlookers that they were responsible for crucifying their promised messiah. This realization convicted their heart of sin, prompting them to ask the disciples, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" They were not asking for an itinerary of the day's activities, but seeking to know what they could do to be forgiven of the sin they came to recognize they were guilty of. Peter's response is recorded in Acts 2:38. What were they to do? They were to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins, and then receive the Spirit. If eis means "in reference to," we must conclude that Peter never answered their question. As Daniel Segraves wrote, "If eis does not mean at this point "in order to obtain," nothing in this verse is connected with the purpose of obtaining forgiveness, including repentance. In this case, would the command to repent mean something like "repent with reference to the remission of your sins"? It is contextually evident from the general tenor of Peter's sermon that he is commanding his hearers to take specific action that will result in the forgiveness of their sins. At the point he made his commands, their sins were not yet forgiven." Only if eis expresses purpose would their question have been answered.
It is also noteworthy that the Greek phrase in question—eis aphesin ton hamartion—appears in Matthew 26:28, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Luke 24:47, Acts 10:43, and Acts 26:18, in which all agree that eisis being used causally to refer to the effecting of forgiveness.6 Why think, then, that in this one instance it does not carry this force?
One might argue that eis does express purpose, but restrict its application to repentance based on the argument that the pronoun and the verb it modifies must be in grammatical agreement. As we saw earlier, however, this argument is not sound. Peter used a plural pronoun with a singular verb earlier in the verse, and thus there is no reason to think he is not doing the same thing later in the verse. Furthermore, if eis refers only to repentance, then Peter never provided a reason to be baptized. This seems highly unlikely.
For these reasons I think it is best to understand eis to express purpose, to view repentance and baptism together as being for the purpose of the forgiveness of sins, and hence to prefer OPS over TPS.
1. The substance of this article is highly indebted to the work of Daniel Segraves in "A Response to Calvin Beisner's Explanation of Acts 2:38"; available from http://danielsegraves.blogspot.com/2005/01/response-to-calvin-beisners.html; Internet; accessed 05 March 2008.
2. Receiving of the Spirit is also said to be required for salvation, but TPS usually holds that one receives the Spirit simultaneous with initial faith.
3. Not all TPS advocates argue this way. For example, Richard Longenecker writes, "Peter calls on his hearers to 'repent' (metanoesate). This word implies a complete change of heart and the confession of sin. With this he couples the called to 'be baptized' (baptistheto), thus linking both repentance and baptism with the forgiveness of sins." See Frank E. Gaebelein, gen ed., The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 9 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981), 283.
4. Greg Koukl, "Proof-texting Perils", Solid Ground, November-December 2007; available from http://www.str.org/site/DocServer/11-12_SG_2007.pdf?docID=2381; Internet; accessed 22 February 2008.
5. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume III, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1930), 35-6.
6. These passages differ from Acts 2:38 only in that they lack the definite article (ton), but this is inconsequential to the meaning.
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