Baptism For The Remission Of Sins

by David Padfield

Just seven weeks after Christ's death on the cross the first gospel sermon this side of Calvary was preached. After Peter accused his audience of crucifying the Son of God, they cried out "What shall we do?" (Acts 2:37). Peter announced the terms of Divine pardon: "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). This passage makes an inseparable connection between baptism and the remission of sins. It makes the remission of sins depend upon baptism in the same sense as it is made to depend upon repentance. Through the years, many attempts have been made to negate the force of this passage.

I have never understood how Baptist preachers can make repentance a condition for salvation and then exclude baptism. They usually claim that repentance is "for" ("in order to obtain") the remission of sins and baptism is for ("because of") the remission of sins. However, the preposition "for" cannot express two different relationships to the two words-what it means to baptism it means to repentance. If repentance is essential to salvation, then so is baptism.

In several debates with Baptist preachers I have illustrated this verse with a chart showing two box cars on a train track. "Repentance" is one car and "baptism" is the other. They are joined by a small coupler—the word "and." Because these cars are joined by the coupler, whatever direction one car travels, the other has to move in the same direction. If baptism is "because of" the remission of sins, then so is repentance. If repentance is "in order to obtain" the remission of sins, then so is baptism.

A parallel passage can be found in Acts 3:19, "Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out." Repentance occupies the same place in both passages. In Acts 3:19 "be converted" occupies the place that "be baptized" is given in Acts 2:38. They are therefore identical in act and purpose-whatever baptism is for in Acts 2:38, conversion is for in Acts 3:19.

We have all been told "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." Some commentators have apparently followed this advice when dealing with Acts 2:38. A. T. Robertson, the world renowned Baptist scholar, sought to avoid the issue in his Word Pictures In The New Testament (Broadman Press, 1930). In Volume III, on pages 35 and 36, while commenting on the phrase "for the remission of sins," as used in Acts 2:38, he wrote, "This phrase is the subject of endless controversy as men look at it from the standpoint of sacramental or of evangelical theology ...One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not." But, while explaining the same phrase in Matthew 26:28, he wrote in Volume I, page 210, "This passage answers all the modern sentimentalism that finds in the teaching of Jesus only pious ethical remarks or eschatological dreamings. He had the definite conception of his death on the cross as a basis of forgiveness of sin. The purpose of the shedding of his blood of the New Covenant was precisely to remove (forgive) sins."

Another smoke screen often used to get around Acts 2:38 is the argument that since the words "repent" and "be baptized" are different in both person and number in the original text, the phrase "for the remission of sins" cannot refer to both verbs.

A few years ago I wrote to several prominent Greek scholars to see if the above line of reasoning was valid. The question I sent to them was as follows: "Is it grammatically possible that the phrase 'eis aphesin hamartion,' 'for the remission of sins,' as used in Acts 2:38, expresses the force of both verbs, 'repent ye and be baptized each one of you,' even though these verbs differ in both person and number?" The following men responded to my inquiry. I will give their qualifications along with their response to my question.

Bruce Metzger was the editor of the Textual Commentary on The Greek New Testament, published by the United Bible Societies. He is currently teaching at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey. He wrote, "In reply to your recent inquiry may I say that, in my view, the phrase 'eis aphesin hamartion' in Acts 2:38 applies in sense to both of the preceding verbs."

F. W. Gingrich was a professor of New Testament Greek at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Gingrich, along with William Arndt, published A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature in 1957. He wrote, "The difference in person and number of 'repent' and 'be baptized' is caused by the fact that 'repent' is a direct address in the second person plural, while 'be baptized' is governed by the subject 'every one of you' and so is third person singular. 'Every one of you' is, of course, a collective noun."

Arthur L. Farstad was the chairman of the New King James Executive Review Committee and general editor of the NKJV New Testament. The NKJV was translated by over 120 Greek scholars, many of whom teach in Baptist schools. He wrote, "Since the expression 'eis aphesin hamartion' is a prepositional phrase with no verbal endings or singular or plural endings. I certainly agree that grammatically it can go with both repentance and baptism. In fact, I would think that it does go with both of them."

John R. Werner is the International Consultant in Translation to the Wycliffe Bible Translators. He was also a consultant to Friberg and Friberg with the Analytical Greek New Testament. From 1962 to 1972 he was professor of Greek at Trinity Christian College. He said, "Whenever two verbs are connected by kai 'and' and then followed by a modifier (such as a prepositional phrase, as in Acts 2:38), it is grammatically possible that modifier modifies either both the verbs, or only the latter one. This is because there is no punctuation in the ancient manuscripts, so we don't know whether the author intended to pause between the first verb and the 'and.' It does not matter that, here in Acts 2:38, one of the verbs is second person plural ("y'all") and the other is third-person singular ("is to"). They are both imperative, and the fact that they are joined by kai 'and' is sufficient evidence that the author may have regarded them as a single unit to which his modifier applied."

Barclay Newman and Eugene Nida edited The Translator's Handbook On The Acts Of The Apostles. This book, published by the United Bible Societies, says on page 60: "So that your sins will be forgiven (literally 'into a forgiveness of your sins') in the Greek may express either purpose or result; but the large majority of translators understand it as indicating purpose. The phrase modifies both main verbs: turn away from your sins and be baptized."

The New Testament plainly teaches that accountable people have to be baptized into Christ in order to have their sins remitted. Have you been baptized for the remission of sins? "And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord." (Acts 22:16).

For further study

remission of sins"For The Remission Of Sins." A few years ago David Padfield wrote to several prominent Greek scholars and posed this question: "Is it grammatically possible that the phrase 'eis aphesin hamartion,' 'for the remission of sins,' as used in Acts 2:38, expresses the force of both verbs, 'repent ye and be baptized each one of you,' even though these verbs differ in both person and number?" This booklet contains photocopies of their responses and explains the phrase "for the remission of sins" in a very detailed manner (PDF File size: 640k).