Baptism in Acts 2:38 (Part 2)

A second possible interpretation of Acts 2:38 is that the prepositional phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” modifies only the command to “repent” and not the command to “be baptized.” For this reason, it is said, only repentance is a prerequisite for the forgiveness of sins, and baptism comes afterward.


The main argument for this view involves a subtle grammatical distinction between the two commands in Acts 2:38. “Repent” is a second-person plural imperative, while the command to “be baptized” is a third-person singular imperative. Because the pronoun “your” in the prepositional phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” is second-person plural (like the command to “repent”), this phrase is said to refer only to repentance and not to baptism. In this way, the second command in Acts 2:38—“and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ”—is viewed as parenthetical. Therefore, according to this view, the meaning of Acts 2:38 is this: “Repent [in order to receive forgiveness of your sins] and let each one of you [who has repented and been forgiven] be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”


Although this interpretation of Acts 2:38 is possible, its subtlety and awkwardness make it highly unlikely. In the words of A.B. Caneday, this reading of Acts 2:38 is “clumsy and strained, and therefore doubtful.” Furthermore, as Robert Stein suggests, if the apostle Peter had “wanted to demonstrate that the forgiveness of sins was associated with repentance only, he could have said, ‘Repent for the forgiveness of sins and in addition be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ,’ but he does not.” In fact, as Stein writes,


If anything the wording of Peter’s command associates forgiveness with baptism even more closely than with repentance, for the expression “for the forgiveness of sins” is separated from the verb “repent” by “and be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (nine words in the Greek text).


Furthermore, the closest antecedent to the plural pronoun “your” in the phrase “of your sins” is not the plural subject implied in the command “repent,” but rather the plural pronoun modifying the subject of the second command: “Let each of you [plural] be baptized…for the forgiveness of your [plural] sins.”


It is better to understand Peter’s change to the third-person singular as a way for him to stress that his command was directed to each and every one of his listeners. In fact, as Carroll D. Osburn has demonstrated in her 1983 article in Restoration Quarterly, evidence indicates that the use of a third-person singular imperative in conjunction with a second-person plural imperative was a common idiom which allowed “the speaker addressing a group to address members of that group individually.” This construction enabled Peter to emphasize to his hearers that not a single member of the group was exempt from the command to be baptized.


To be continued Thursday with part 3.


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

5 responses to this post.

  1. Repent is a 2nd person plural aorist active imperative.
    Be Baptized is a 3rd person aorist passive imperative.

    One is something you do and the other is something you allow to be done to yourself. Seems like Peter is saying for your sins to be forgiven you need to change your ways (repent) and allow someone else to baptize you. You are right on the money when you said trying to say it is one or the other basically takes a series of awkward hoop jumps that just don’t seem to be intended by Peter in this passage.

    The problem here is we often form rigid theology that reinterprets the text rather than letting the text speak for itself. So if you come to the text thinking there is basically nothing you can do to be a part of the salvation process then you have to sneak in a way to say that isn’t what Paul meant. Basically makes the text into our personal theological image rather than letting the text shape us.

  2. Posted by Matt Waymeyer on September 3, 2008 at 11:29 am

    Thanks Matt, for your input. But just to be clear to our readers, my desire in this series is not at all to call into question the motives or hermeneutical integrity of those who may disagree with my interpretation of Acts 2:38. This is definitely a difficult verse, and one that I have struggled with for nearly 20 years. I’m just hoping that I might be able to provide some help for the one who is in the midst of that same struggle.


  3. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for the hard work you put into what you wrote here. It is valuable.

  4. Posted by peterpreached on September 9, 2008 at 10:14 am

    Matt Waymeyer wronte on September 3, 2008 “This is definitely a difficult verse, and one that I have struggled with for nearly 20 years. I’m just hoping that I might be able to provide some help for the one who is in the midst of that same struggle.”

    I’ve struggled with this verse too for awhile. In desparation I went to God for help. And I believe he’s helped me. There is another interpretation of Acts 2:38 that MANY have overlooked. I got my own blog on the topic for (because) I’m writing a term paper. I’m sure you can find it if you try.

    Briefly though, (there’s so many ways I can start!?!? …uh ..okay) there is an assumption that BOTH sides have made, the ‘Faith-Only’ and the ‘Water-works’ crowds. Both have ASSUMED that Acts chapter 2 is dealing with LOST people. I know it sound crazy at first. It’s like hearing for the first time that the Sons of God might have been angels or the gap theory in Genesis. Your first reaction is, “What!!!! That’s Nut’s!!!!” I’m not saying I’m a gapist. I’m just saying that most have never considered this (way of looking at Acts 2:38).

    I’ve read ALOT of both sides grammatical interpretation of Acts 2:38. And in all honesty, after hearing scholars and experts on BOTH sides, I’d say we (the baptist) have lost. I don’t buy it. I’ve chosen to give them the grammatical battle. We don’t need that battle to see that baptism is for God’s people. If you take a step back and forget your assumptions, whether it is faith-alone or baptismal-regeneration, and take an honest literal approach to interpretation, you’ll see that the grammatical, immediate, historical, and biblical context all come together and demonstrate that baptism doesn’t save.

    I can write about 20 pages on this, so I’ll stop here. God bless y’all.

  5. Posted by peterpreached on September 9, 2008 at 10:18 am

    I’m sorry. Let me add that in that last paragraph I wrote, I am speaking SPECIFICALLY about Acts 2:38. This is a foundational verse for the ‘water-works’ crowd and establishes a precedent in the interpretation of the entire book of Acts. That’s why it’s so important. It’s the Baptist Iwo Jima. We can’t lose that ground.

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