Is There Forgiveness of Sins In Baptism? Taking A Closer Look At Acts 2:38

674PX-~1“And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Acts 2:38-39

Acts 2:38 is a very popular Bible passage among Christians. If one does a Google search on this passage, they will find themselves immersed in 3.5 million hits pertaining to this passage. So, what is the fascination with this passage? Typically this passage is brought up in conversations and debate over the issue of baptism.  Yes, indeed it is a very controversial text in regard to the issue of the efficacy of baptism.

As a Lutheran, I obviously have strong opinions on the doctrine of Baptism. These strong opinions are rooted in passages like Acts 2:38 and 1 Peter 3:21. With that said, the accusation could be stated that I am reading my Lutheran presuppositions into verses like Acts 2:38. If this is the case, how can I, and you as the reader, be aware of these presuppositions? After all, we are called to be Biblical Christians. One of the ways to discover and reveal presuppositions is to go deeper into the text. In other words, when we delve into the Scriptures and implement the rules of grammar the original meaning will come forth.  If there are non-Biblical presuppositions, the text will collide with the presuppositions and force a worldview and/or epistemological crisis.  The more one descends into a text, the more obvious presuppositions should become. So, in the spirit of this article, let’s do just that. Let’s descend into the text (for those who don’t know Koine Greek, don’t worry, we’ll take this slow)

Πέτρος δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς, Μετανοήσατε, φησίν, καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν, καὶ λήμψεσθε τὴν δωρεὰν τοῦ ἁγίου πνεύματος· ὑμῖν γάρ ἐστιν ἡ ἐπαγγελία καὶ τοῖς τέκνοις ὑμῶν καὶ πᾶσιν τοῖς εἰς μακρὰν ὅσους ἂν προσκαλέσηται κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν.

In this passage the key area is what to do with the prepositional phrase ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ (i.e., εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν). In other words, how does this prepositional phrase function in the sentence?  First, we need to acknowledge that prepositional phrases are typically tied to the closest verb in the sentence. That being said, there are two verbs in which this prepositional phrase can be attached to.  However, both of the verbs are joined by the word καὶ (i.e, and).  Therefore, it can be argued that ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ could be attached to ‘be baptized’ alone or both verbs ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized.’  While this article could delve into whether the prepositional phrase should be attached to ‘be baptized’ alone or both ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized,’ one thing is for sure, it is not reasonable to attach the prepositional phrase to the word ‘repent’ alone.  Yes, what some individuals attempt to do is to bypass the verb ‘be baptized’ and attach the prepositional phrase ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ to the word ‘repent.’ However, as previously stated, it is not appropriate to skip the verb ‘be baptized.’ According to a good friend of mine: “If someone is going to argue that ‘for the forgiveness of sins’ refers to ‘repent,’ they need to explain why baptism is placed in between.”  In other words, it very difficult to disregard the verb ‘be baptized’ and attach the prepositional phrase to ‘repent’ only, without some other Greek markers.  Indeed forgiveness of sins is attached to baptism.

In regard to baptism, it is important to note in this passage that ‘be baptized’ is in the passive voice. Otherwise stated, the command from Peter is not for the hearers to baptize themselves, but to be baptized.  So, the hearers of Peter’s sermon are commanded to be baptized ‘for’ the forgiveness of sins. Baptism is something that will happen to them with the prepositional phrase attached to baptism.

Looking more closely at the prepositional phrase, ‘for the forgiveness of sins,’ one needs to ask the question, “What does the word ‘for’ indicate?” The word ‘for’ in the original Greek is the word εἰς. How should this be translated? A.T. Robertson argues in his work Word Pictures in the New Testament that the word εἰς can be translated ‘causally.’ Thus, Acts 2:38 can be read as, “be baptized . . . because of the forgiveness of sins.” This translation reverses the flow of the text, making the flow of the text go from ‘forgiveness of sins’ to ‘be baptized.’ This was also the stance taken by the grammarian J.R. Mantey. Both Robertson and Mantey take this stance arguing that faith is the point of forgiveness of sins and not baptism. [1]  So, is this word εἰς to be translated causally (i.e., because of)? According to Ralph Marcus it is not. It is rather to be translated in a way to show purpose, aim, and prospective. It is to be translated in a way to show movement from ‘be baptized’ to ‘the forgiveness of sins.’ Thus, a proper translation of εἰς would be ‘for’ or ‘into.’

Now, here is where the rubber meets the road. Who is right on the way to translate the word ‘εἰς’? Is it to be translated in a causal manner like the Baptist linguists state or should it be translated with aim, purpose, and prospective as argued by Ralph Marcus?  This three letter word may seem insignificant, but it is of utmost importance due to it being brought up in debates on this passage.  The meaning of this three letter word has drastic consequences. Daniel Wallace sheds light on this subject in his book, “Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics,” saying,

Acts238Wallace_2 (537x330)

What does this mean?  Simply stated, J.R. Mantey was taken to task by Ralph Marcus. When the dust settled, Wallace concedes that Marcus, “ably demonstrated that the linguistic evidence for a casual εἰς fell short of proof.”  Now, what makes Wallace’s insights on this so valuable is that he makes this observation not from a Lutheran perspective.  Wallace  is not only the founder and executive director of The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts, but a former graduate of Biola University and a professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, a non-denominational Evangelical Seminary. Thus, it is reasonable to say that Wallace rejects translating εἰς in the causal sense not on the basis of a so-called bias Lutheran theological lens but on the basis of solid linguistic criteria. Keep in mind though that Wallace is not saying that baptism is essential for salvation but he does assert that the argument of translating εἰς as ‘because of’ is not linguistically feasible. All of this said, a proper rendering of Acts 2:38 is that Peter is calling forth for his hearers to repent and be baptized ‘for’ the forgiveness of sins, not ‘because.’

While the debates will continue on the issues of baptismal regeneration, the one clear thing is that Acts 2:38 shows that Peter is calling forth for his hearers to be baptized ‘for’ the forgiveness of sins. Yes, forgiveness of sins is connected to baptism, for the promise is for them and for their children and for all who are far off.

Is there forgiveness of sins in baptism? Yes, according to Acts 2:38 there is.

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[1] Wayne Jackson, “Dallas Professor Rebuffs Common Quibble on “Eis”” https://www.christiancourier.com/articles/395-dallas-professor-rebuffs-common-quibble-on-eis (20 August 2013).

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