Baptism in Acts 2:38 (Part 1)

Shortly after being commissioned to make disciples of the nations by baptizing and teaching them, the apostles began to carry out this mandate. On the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, Peter preached the death and resurrection to the Jews who had gathered before him, concluding his sermon with the astonishing claim that “God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36). His listeners were pierced to the heart, and they cried out to Peter and the other apostles: “Brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). Peter responded to them, saying:


Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38).


This verse is difficult to interpret because it seems to indicate that water baptism is a prerequisite for the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Since the Bible clearly teaches that man is saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, how can Peter imply that baptism is a condition for salvation? There are three primary ways that evangelicals have answered this question.


The word translated “for” in the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” is the Greek preposition eis. The first possible solution to the difficulty of Acts 2:38 is to say that eis is causal and should be translated, “because of.” According to this view, Peter is exhorting the Jews to be baptized because their sins have already been forgiven: “Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ because of [eis] the forgiveness of your sins.” For example, A.T. Robertson writes, “I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.” A popular way to illustrate this interpretation is the idea of someone being “wanted for murder.” Such an individual is not wanted so that he can commit murder, but rather because he has committed murder. In this case, the English preposition “for” has a causal meaning.


Although this interpretation solves the apparent theological dilemma, I believe it is unlikely for four reasons. First, despite claims to the contrary, there is little or no precedent for the causal use of eis either in the New Testament or in extra-biblical literature of the time. In fact, of the 1,607 uses of the preposition in the New Testament, only three are possibly causal (Matt 3:11; 12:41; Luke 11:32), and even these are questionable. At the outset, then, there is a heavy burden of proof against this interpretation.


Second, a causal use of the preposition eis simply does not fit the context of Acts 2:38. As Jack Cottrell writes:


We must remember that Peter’s statement is part of his answer to the Jews’ question of how to get rid of the guilt of their sins, especially their sin of crucifying Christ. They specifically asked, “What shall we do” to get rid of this guilt? Any instruction Peter gave them would have been understood by them in this light, and must be so understood by us today. When he told them to repent and be baptized “eis the forgiveness” of their sins, the only honest reading is that baptism is for the purpose or goal of receiving forgiveness. This meaning is actually demanded by the context.


As Cottrell explains further, the instruction to be baptized because their sins have been forgiven “is the exact opposite of what would be expected and required in the situation. The whole point is that the Jews’ sins are not forgiven, and they are asking what to do to receive such forgiveness.”


Third, baptism is connected with forgiveness in Acts 2:38 in the same way that repentance is. Therefore, it would seem that if repentance is for the purpose of bringing about forgiveness, so is baptism. Consequently, if the causal view is correct, Peter is instructing his hearers to repent because they have been forgiven, an interpretation that neither makes sense nor corresponds to biblical teaching elsewhere.


Fourth, in the other four uses of the phrase “for the forgiveness of sins” in the New Testament, the preposition eis appears to indicate purpose or result rather than cause (Matt 26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; 24:47; cf. Acts 3:19; 11:18). Jesus’ use of the phrase in Luke 24:47 is especially relevant, for there He tells His disciples that “repentance for [eis] forgiveness of sins” is to be “proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 is the very first example of this proclamation of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.


To be continued Wednesday with part 2.


This article was adapted from chapter 6 of A Biblical Critique of Infant Baptism (The Woodlands, Tex: Kress Christian Publications, 2008).

2 responses to this post.

  1. I always wonder why people have trouble with baptism being necessary. Isn’t repentance necessary? I mean, you can believe in Jesus but if you don’t repent you won’t be saved. The devil believes. What is even more interesting to me is that repent (which Peter also calls for here) is something you do – an action you take. Baptism is something that is done to you and is almost always in the passive in the Greek (English = “be baptized”). So it is not even something you do to earn salvation (which no baptism advocates would say anyway). It is something you submit to that God does to you. I don’t really get why that is a problem. If anything would be a problem wouldn’t it be repentance…because that is something Peter here is saying YOU have to do whereas, again, baptism is done to you.

    I look forward to part 2.

  2. Thanks for this series. I am looking forward to reading all of them. I do believe that you have sets up a straw man in how you have framed the debate. The Bible says we are saved by grace, through faith through Christ. Absolutely. Your addition of the three “alones” make a nice slogan, but are the first two are not found anywhere in scripture. I do not remember that there are ANY scriptures that put it the way you have worded it.

    If that false assumption (alone…alone…alone) is set up, then you DO have a baptism problem. But if you recognize that we are saved by grace, through faith, through Christ at baptism, most of the exegetical problems fade away.

    As I said, however, I look forward to reading your entire series.

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