“One Baptism for the Remission of Sins”

“Repent,” Peter said to them, “and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

-Acts 2:38, Holman Christian Standard Bible

I have argued that the church should place more emphasis on baptism.  Just how should the church understand the role of baptism?  I ended the last post by asking a question: how does baptism relate to forgiveness of sins?  Over the years, Christians have had different opinions of how baptism “works”. Here are most of the major views:

Baptismal regeneration – Baptism functions effectively to bring new spiritual life to the recipient (e.g. Catholic, Orthodox, Churches of Christ, etc).

Baptism as effectual means of grace for the elect – The Westminster Confession of Faith declares that baptism is a “sign and seal of the covenant of grace” and that it effectively works regeneration for the elect, although the regeneration may not occur at the moment of baptism.

Symbolic view of baptismThe Baptist Faith and Message holds the following: “It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus.”  Baptists affirm that baptism must be received with the recipient making a confession of faith.

I argue that there are elements of truth in each of these views, but that no single view captures the truth by itself.  In the context of Acts 2:38 (Peter’s sermon), the problem for his Jewish audience is that they are convicted of their sin and their deserved judgment.  They want to know if there is a solution to their guilt. Peter calls them to respond with a two-faceted action (repentance and baptism resulting in forgiveness), not two conceptually separate actions (repentance resulting in forgiveness which should be followed by baptism).  The proper translation of Acts 2:38 should be “Repent and be baptized…in order to be forgiven of your sins.” However, several questions arise if this is the proper sense of the text:

  • What is the nature of the forgiveness to which repentance and baptism lead?
  • Is baptism required for forgiveness of sins?
  • Is baptism simply an ordinance (something that you do out of obedience)?  Or should baptism be understood more fully as a sacrament (with actual grace conveyed through it)?

*For those who want to know exactly how I arrive at my translation of Acts 2:38, here is some additional background:

A “word for word” translation of Acts 2:38 reads as follows:

“And Peter to them, ‘Repent and let each of you all be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ eis [Greek] forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’”

The Greek word eis connects repentance and baptism with forgiveness.  How should we understand the meaning of eis? Common English translations translate eis: as “unto” (as in the American Standard Version) as “for” (King James Version, New International Version) as “so that” (as in “so that your sins may be forgiven”) (New Revised Standard Version). The Greek word eis has the following attested meanings (with a possible gloss in italics):

1. extension involving a goal or place, into, in, toward, to

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized toward the forgiveness of your sins”

2. extension in time, to, until, on

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized until you have been forgiven of sins”

3. marker of degree, up to  

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized to the point at which you experience forgiveness”

4. marker of goals involving purpose or result, into, to

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized for the purpose of having your sins forgiven”

5. marker of a specific point of reference, for, to, with respect to, with reference to

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized with reference to the forgiveness of sins”

6. marker of instrumentality, by, with

Example sentence: “repent and be baptized with the instrument of the forgiveness of sins”

As you can tell from the example sentences, some meanings do not make sense.  The most likely senses of the word are in definitions 4 and 5.  For definition 4, the sense would be: “repent and be baptized…for the purpose of having your sins forgiven.”  For definition 5: “repent and be baptized…with reference to forgiveness of sins.” Of these two, the most likely meaning is that of definition 4.  Forgiveness is the result of repentance and baptism (definition 5 is not specific enough).  There have been those who argue for a causal sense of the preposition.  That would be translated: “repent and be baptized…because your sins have been forgiven.”  However, the causal preposition should grammatically also apply to “repent”.  However, it would make no sense to say: “Repent…because you have been forgiven.”

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