Where the world comes to study the Bible

Does the Greek construction in Acts 2:38 show that baptism has nothing to do with the remission of sins?

Baptism does not save, nor is it essential for salvation. Otherwise, why would Paul say in 1 Cor 1 that he was called to preach the gospel and not to baptize? Paul makes a distinction between the two, implying that one is just a picture of the other. At bottom, if we add to the work of Christ, then we take away from the sufficiency of the cross.

Below is the discussion of Acts 2:38 in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, Exegetical Syntax:

1. Causal Ei in Acts 2:38? An interesting discussion over the force of ei took place several years ago, especially in relation to Acts 2:38. The text reads as follows: Pevtro deV pro aujtouV metanohvsate, fhsivn, kaiV baptisqhvtw e{kasto uJmw'n ejpiV tw'/ ojnovmati jIhsou' Cristou' ei a[fesin tw'n aJmartiw'n uJmw'n … (“And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized—each one of you—at the name of Jesus Christ because of/for/unto the forgiveness of your sins…”).

On the one hand, J. R. Mantey argued that ei could be used causally in various passages in the NT, among them Matt 3:11 and Acts 2:38. It seems that Mantey believed that a salvation by grace would be violated if a causal eij” was not evident in such passages as Acts 2:38.

On the other hand, Ralph Marcus questioned Mantey’s nonbiblical examples of a causal eij so that in his second of two rejoinders he concluded (after a blow-by-blow refutation): It is quite possible that eiv is used causally in these NT passages but the examples of causal eij cited from non-biblical Greek contribute absolutely nothing to making this possibility a probability. If, therefore, Professor Mantey is right in his interpretation of various NT passages on baptism and repentance and the remission of sins, he is right for reasons that are non- linguistic. Marcus ably demonstrated that the linguistic evidence for a causal eij fell short of proof.

If a causal eij is not in view, what are we to make of Acts 2:38? There are at least four other interpretations of Acts 2:38. 1) The baptism referred to here is physical only, and eij has the meaning of for or unto. Such a view, if this is all there is to it, suggests that salvation is based on works. The basic problem of this view is that it runs squarely in the face of the theology of Acts, namely: (a) repentance precedes baptism (cf. Acts 3:19; 26:20), and (b) salvation is entirely a gift of God, not procured via water baptism (Acts 10:43 [cf. v 47]; 13:38-39, 48; 15:11; 16:30-31; 20:21; 26:18).

2) The baptism referred to here is spiritual only. Although such a view fits well with the theology of Acts, it does not fit well with the obvious meaning of “baptism” in Acts—especially in this text (cf. 2:41).

3) The text should be repunctuated in light of the shift from second person plural to third person singular back to second person plural again. If so, it would read as follows: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized at the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins…” If this is the correct understanding, then eij is subordinate to metanohvsate alone, rather than to baptisqhvtw. The idea then would be, “Repent for/with reference to your sins, and let each one of you be baptized.…” Such a view is an acceptable way of handling eij, but its subtlety and awkwardness are against it.

4) Finally, it is possible that to a first-century Jewish audience (as well as to Peter), the idea of baptism might incorporate both the spiritual reality and the physical symbol. In other words, when one spoke of baptism, he usually meant both ideas—the reality and the ritual. Peter is shown to make the strong connection between these two in chapters 10 and 11. In 11:15-16 he recounts the conversion of Cornelius and friends, pointing out that at the point of their conversion they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. After he had seen this, he declared, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit…” (10:47). The point seems to be that if they have had the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit via spiritual baptism, there ought to be a public testimony/acknowledgment via water baptism as well. This may not only explain Acts 2:38 (viz., that Peter spoke of both reality and picture, though only the reality removes sins), but also why the NT speaks of only baptized believers (as far as we can tell): Water baptism is not a cause of salvation, but a picture; and as such it serves both as a public acknowledgment (by those present) and a public confession (by the convert) that one has been Spirit-baptized.

In sum, although Mantey’s instincts were surely correct that in Luke’s theology baptism was not the cause of salvation, his ingenious solution of a causal eiv lacks conviction. There are other ways for us to satisfy the tension, but adjusting the grammar to answer a backward-looking “Why?” has no more basis than the notion that eij ever meant mere representation (see prior discussion).

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation), Scripture Twisting, Baptism, Grammar