Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (January-March 1996) 53-62.

          Copyright © 1996 by Dallas Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.

 

 

 

             BAPTISM AND FORGIVENESS

                             IN ACTS 2:38

 

                                        Luther B. McIntyre Jr.

 

            Those who insist on the necessity of water baptism for

salvation rely heavily on Acts 2:38, "Repent, and let each of you be

baptized, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your

sins."1 Das says of this verse, "This has been a pivotal verse for

the Lutheran, sacramental position."2 The exegetical arguments

almost without exception have focused on the interpretation of the

word ei]j (rendered "for" in the New American Standard Bible).

Those favoring the doctrine of baptismal regeneration under-

stand ei]j as purposive or causative. The usual evangelical posi-

tion is stated by Robertson, who pointed out that another valid in-

terpretation is that ei]j may mean the basis or ground on which

baptism is performed.3 Both positions find support in the New

Testament. Discussing Luke's usage of ei]j, Davis has shown that

the evidence favors purpose rather than "basis or ground."4 His

arguments are persuasive, and will not be repeated here.5 In-

stead, conceding that ei]j is purposive in Acts 2:38, a more funda-

 

Luther B. McIntyre Jr. is a Bible teacher in Louisville, Kentucky.

 

1 Acts 2:38 is, of course, only one of several proof texts used by those who advocate

baptismal regeneration. For a survey of other related passages with an excellent

and balanced treatment of their respective merits and deficiencies see Lanny

Thomas Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," Journal of

the Grace Evangelical Society 3 (Spring 1990): 27-52.

2 A. Andrew Das, "Acts 8: Water, Baptism, and the Spirit," Concordia Journal 19

(April 1993): 108.

3 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Nashville:

Broadman, 1930-33), 3:35.

4 J. C. Davis, "Another Look at the Relationship between Baptism and Forgive-

ness of Sins in Acts 2:38," Restoration Quarterly 24 (1981): 80-88.

5 One should be careful not to press the point too much, for John said that he

baptized in water ei]j repentance (Matt. 3:11). Yet surely no one would argue that

water baptism results in repentance.

 



54    BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / January—March 1996

 

mental question must be addressed: To which verb—metanoh<sate

("repent") or baptisqh<tw ("be baptized"—the only occurrence of

this third person imperative in the New Testament)—does the

prepositional phrase "for the remission of your sins" refer?

            The natural inclination for the reader of an English version

of the Bible is to impose English rules of syntax on the text. In Acts

2:38 this would mean associating the phrase "for the remission of

your sins" with the command to "be baptized" because of word

proximity. However, Greek is not constrained with rules of word

order in the same ways as English. "The freedom of the Greek

from artificial rules and its response to the play of the mind is

never seen better than in the order of words in the sentence."6

Turner has shown that in Greek oratory the effect of unnatural

word order may be even more pronounced: "Interruption of the

normal order to give oratorical effect may result in ambiguity."7

This article therefore addresses not word order but the question of

which verb is associated with the phrase "for the forgiveness of

your sins," based on syntax and grammar and a New Testament

canonical analysis.

 

                 THE ANTECEDENT OF u[mw?n ("YOUR")

 

            Acts 2:38 has two imperatives, "repent" and "be baptized."

The first is second person plural, and the second is third person

singular. The New Testament has many sentences with multiple

verbs not all in the same person and/or number. Osburn has

demonstrated that the two function in concert in the Septuagint as

well as the New Testaments Acts 2:38 also has two occurrences of

the word u[mw?n; both are second person plural in the genitive case.

The first occurs in the phrase "each of you," in which u[mw?n func-

tions as a partitive genitive, indicating the group from which

each person derives.9 The second occurrence is in the phrase "for

the remission of your sins," in which u[mw?n is a subjective genitive

indicating whose sins are involved in the remission.10 The basic

rule of concord stipulates that a personal pronoun (in this case

 

6 A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of His-

torical Research (Nashville: Broadman, 1934), 417.

7 James H. Moulton and Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, 4

vols. (Edinburgh: Clark, 1906-76), 3:350.

8 Carroll D. Osburn, "The Third Person Imperative in Acts 2:38," Restoration

Quarterly 26 (1983): 81-84.

9 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical

Research, 502.

10 Ibid., 499.

 



                   Baptism and Forgiveness in Acts 2:38                 55

 

u[mw?n) agrees with its antecedent in gender and number." In di-

rect discourse, as in Acts 2:38, concord should be extended to in-

clude person. Robertson describes concord as existing between

subject and predicate, where "predicate" is broadly defined to in-

clude pronouns.12 The pronoun points back to some other substan-

tive to which it refers (its antecedent). Clyde describes the word

endings in the Greek as "marking by outward signs inward re-

lations, i.e. in Greek of marking by word-endings the relations

which exist among ideas in the mind."13 Concerning concord

with respect to person, "only ignorance would allow one to mix his

persons in the use of the verb."14 While Robertson does note some

exceptions, none of them apply to Acts 2:38. Polhill hints at the ba-

sic issue involved when he says, "The usual connection of the for-

giveness of sins in Luke-Acts is with repentance and not with

baptism at all."15 The concord between verb and pronoun requires

that the remission of sins be connected with repentance, not with

baptism.16 However, if one associates forgiveness with baptism,

the verse translated into English with due accord to person and

number, would read, "let him [third singular] be baptized for the

remission of your [second plural] sins." The folly of ignoring

concord then is obvious.

            Osburn attempts to demonstrate that the second and third per-

son imperatives can be used together. Unfortunately he fails to

address the problem of concord between verb and pronoun. Never-

theless the examples he cites demonstrate exactly the agreement

in both person and number called for by the rule of concord.17 One

 

11 James A. Hewett, New Testament Greek (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986), 36.

12 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical

Research, 401-3.

13 James Clyde, Greek Syntax with a Rationale of the Constructions (Edinburgh:

Oliver and Boyd, 1876), 126.

14 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical

Research, 402.

15 John B. Polhill, Acts, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992),

117.

16 For purposes of this paper the word "concord" is used to describe agreement in

endings with respect to person and number between subject and substantive. A

subject may appear explicitly in the sentence or may be determined by the verb

ending. In general, concord also extends to gender. The concept of concord is re-

ferred to variously as agreement, congruence, or government. Clyde distinguishes

between concord and government, depending on which part of the sentence is the

controlling element (Greek Syntax with a Rationale of the Constructions, 126).

Substantive here means any noun, pronoun, or adjective, or any unit functioning as

one of these. See H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the

Greek New Testament (New York: Macmillan, 1927), 32.

17 The word "rule" here is not used to mean some artificially imposed mechanism,

but rather the observed syntactical conventions of the Greek writers.

 



56   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1996

 

passage he refers to is Exodus 16:29, "You [second plural] shall

stay each in your [second plural] houses, no one shall go out [third

singular] of his [third singular] place." While this verse does in-

deed contain both a second and third person imperative, it also

demonstrates concord between verb and pronoun. One clearly

sees the "observed rule of concord" as to person and number: The

second person plural imperative "you shall stay" is associated

with a second person plural pronoun (u[mw?n, "your"), and the third

person singular imperative ("no one shall go out") has an asso-

ciated third person singular pronoun (au]tou?, "his").

            Osburn also appeals to Zechariah 7:10. "Do not oppress

[second person plural imperative] the widow, fatherless, so-

journer, or poor, and let no one of you devise evil [third person

singular imperative] against his brother!"18 Associated with the

third person singular imperative is the pronoun "his" (au]to<j).

Again, the verb and pronoun maintain agreement in person and

number. In comparing the above passage to Acts 2:38 the syntacti-

cal difference is apparent. The third person singular clause in

Zechariah 7:10 is associated with a third person singular pronoun

in the genitive, whereas the third person singular clause in Acts

2:38 has no personal pronoun in concord. Instead, the pronoun in

Acts 2:38 is second person plural; therefore that pronoun must re-

fer back to the verb "repent."

            Osburn does not include "your" in the phrase "remission of

sins." This is because, admittedly, u[mw?n does not appear in all

manuscripts. This absence in those manuscripts may be because

of a tendency to follow the shorter rendering "forgiveness of sins"

(a@fesin a[martiw?n), not "forgiveness of your sins," in Matthew

26:28; Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3; and 24:47.19

            In these four occurrences in the Gospels the word "sins" oc-

curs without the article and without a pronoun. In Acts 2:38, how-

ever, "sins" has the definite article and is followed by the pronoun

u[mw?n.    [Amartiw?n occurs in the New Testament 12 times with the

definite article. In 9 of those 12 a personal pronoun in the genitive

is associated with it. In Romans 7:5 a[martiw?n is used adjectivally,

in which case a pronoun is not indicated. In Acts 3:19 and 22:16

the articular ta>j a[marti<aj occurs with a personal pronoun in the

genitive. In every case in Luke-Acts the articular "sins" also has

a personal pronoun in the genitive. The evidence supporting the

inclusion of u[mw?n in the phrase "for the forgiveness of your sins"

in Acts 2:38 is thus quite strong.

 

18 Osburn, "The Third Person Imperative in Acts 2:38," 84.

19 James H. Ropes, The Beginnings of Christianity, vol. 1: The Acts of the Apos-

tles (London: Macmillan, 1926), 22.

 



                 Baptism and Forgiveness in Acts 2:38                57

 

            Davis includes "your" in the "remission of sins" phrase, but

he does not discuss the incongruity of associating a second person

plural pronoun with a third person singular verb.20 This is an

odd omission in view of the emphasis he places on grammatical

and syntactical rigor. Das equates repentance and baptism when

he says, "The people should repent, that is, be baptized in order to

receive the forgiveness of sins and the promise of the Spirit."21

Das also writes that "Beasley-Murray concludes elsewhere that

the Spirit is given through baptism."22 Unfortunately Das has

misrepresented Beasley-Murray, for Das should have continued

by stating that Beasley-Murray wrote, "The new life of the Spirit

is given in baptism according to Tit. 3.5, Jn. 3.5, but to faith in Jn.

1.12-13."23 Beasley-Murray's position is better understood in his

own words: "Naturally, God does not bind the impartation of the

Spirit to the rite of baptism, any more than He binds His other

gifts to it or to any other rite."24

            Acts 2:38 in fact demonstrates perfect concord between pro-

noun and verb in the case of both "repent" and "be baptized." The

passage can be diagrammed as follows.

                       Repent [second person plural]

                                    be baptized [third person singular]

                                    each [third person singular] of you

                       for the remission of your [second person plural] sins.

This structure illustrates that the command to be baptized is par-

enthetical and is not syntactically connected to remission of

sins. When Peter commanded the people to repent, he was speak-

ing to the crowd. Then the command to be baptized was directed to

each individual. In the "remission of your sins" phrase, Peter

again directed his words to the crowd collectively. Toussaint ad-

vocates this interpretation as well.25

 

20 Davis, "Another Look at the Relationship between Baptism and Forgiveness of

Sins in Acts 2:38," 85.

21 He seems to be following Bruner's assertion that "repentance is [equal to] being

baptized" (Frederick Dale Bruner, A Theology of the Holy Spirit [Grand Rapids:

Eerdmans, 1970], 166; cited in Das, "Acts 8: Water, Baptism, and the Spirit," 166).

22 Ibid.

23 G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (New York: St. Martin's,

1962), 273.

24 Ibid., 107.

25 Stanley D. Toussaint, "Acts," in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Tes-

tament, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1983), 359.

 



58   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1996

 

            Tanton, however, criticizes the parenthetical insert position

on four points.26 First, he says that no comparable structure exists

in Luke's writings or other Greek writings. While this may be

true, it is nonetheless a weak argument. The absence of a similar

structure neither strengthens nor weakens a particular interpre-

tation of that structure. Furthermore a New Testament structural

parallel is evident in Ephesians 4:26-27.

            • Be angry [second person plural imperative]

            and do not sin [second person plural imperative]

                        do not let the sun set [third person singular imperative,

                                    "sun" being the subject] on your [second person

                                    plural] anger

            a do not give place [second person plural imperative] to the

              devil.

 

            "Anger" belongs to the subjects of the second person plural

imperatives ("be angry" and "do not sin") because "your" (u[mw?n)

is a second person plural pronoun. Similarly in Acts 2:38 the sins

being forgiven refer back to the subject of the second person plural

imperative, "repent."27

            Second, Tanton says that connecting forgiveness with repen-

tance leaves the purpose of baptism "unexpressed." However, the

purpose of repentance becomes "unexpressed" if one associates the

forgiveness of sins with baptism. Third, Tanton states that the

more natural” reading connects forgiveness with baptism based

on word proximity. This point about word proximity has already

been addressed. Tanton's fourth argument against the parenthet-

ical reading of baptism is grammatical. He says,

            This position rests upon a difference in number between the two

            verbs and the prepositional phrase. This is something which the

            standard Greek grammars do not address. While the grammars do

            discuss the agreement of subject and verb, they do not discuss the

            idea of agreement between verb and prepositional phrases.28

 

Tanton has confused the issue here. Agreement, or concord, ex-

ists between verbs and subject, not between verbs and phrases.

Greek also demonstrates agreement between subject (or even ob-

 

26 Tanton, "The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study of Acts 2:38," 40.

27 Another example where the personal pronoun refers back to a subject other

than that of the most immediate verb is in Luke 22:42: "not My will but Yours

[second singular] be done [third singular imperative]." The word "yours" (so<n)

refers back to the subject of the first clause.

28 Ibid.

 



                   Baptism and Forgiveness in Acts 2:38                 59

 

ject) and other substantives, such as pronouns and adjectives.

The issue in Acts 2:38 is that of agreement between the personal

pronoun u[mw?n and its antecedent.

            It is important to distinguish between the personal pronoun in

the genitive case and the possessive pronoun. The pronoun in the

genitive is by far the more prevalent means of indicating posses-

sion or attribution in the New Testament. Concord demands that

the personal pronoun agree with its antecedent in gender, num-

ber, and person. The ending of a possessive pronoun, on the other

hand, agrees in number with the object possessed.29 The posses-

sive pronoun agrees with its antecedent in person. The plural as-

pect of u[mw?n does not therefore refer to sins (plural). If one wanted

to emphasize "your sins"' (plural sins), the possessive pronoun

(u[mete<rwn) would be used instead of the personal pronoun. Stan-

dard Greek grammars give little attention to this distinction.

 

                         CANONICAL ANALYSIS

 

            The solution to the problem of Acts 2:38 can also proceed by

canonical analysis. As discussed, one must not impose English

word order rules on the Greek text. In English the phrase "for the

forgiveness of your sins" may be connected to either "repent," "be

baptized," or both. However, a study of the relationship between

repentance, baptism, and forgiveness elsewhere in the New Tes-

tament helps resolve this issue.

 

JOHN THE BAPTIST AND BAPTISM

            The first mention of baptism in the New Testament is that of

John the Baptist (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). Both verses have the phrase

baptisma metanoi<aj ei]j a@fesin a[martiw?n ("a baptism of repen-

tance for the forgiveness of sins"). Davis attempts to use these

passages to suggest that even John's baptism resulted in forgive-

ness.30 However, he should have asked whether forgiveness is

connected with repentance or with baptism. Both passages may be

understood in one of two ways. First, John may have proclaimed

a baptism following repentance for forgiveness of sins. Or John

may have proclaimed a baptism of repentance resulting in for-

giveness. If the latter is assumed, then one is obliged to address

the question, "What is a baptism of repentance"?

            There are two revealing clues as to how this is to be under-

stood. The first clue is Luke 3:7-8. John said to the crowds coming

 

29 William G. MacDonald, Greek Enchiridion (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986),

98.

30 Davis, "Another Look at the Relationship between Baptism and Forgiveness of

Sins in Acts 2:38," 86.



60   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January-March 1996

 

to be baptized, "’You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from

the wrath to come? Therefore bring forth fruits in keeping with

repentance.’" Clearly John expected repentance to precede bap-

tism. A second clue is that Josephus reported that John expected

spiritual cleansing to take place before baptism. "They must not

employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as

a consecration of the body, implying that the soul was already

thoroughly cleansed by right behavior."31

 

LUKE 24:47

            After His resurrection Jesus said that repentance and for-

giveness are to be preached among all nations. Some

manuscripts use ei]j to connect repentance and forgiveness, while

others use kai<. The two have essentially equal external attesta-

tion, but the reading preferred by the United Bible Societies Com-

mittee is ei]j.32 If one takes ei]j as the reading, then the meaning is

"repentance results in forgiveness." However, if one takes kai< as

the connective, the meaning is identical by understanding the kai<

as epexegetical. While baptismal regeneration is at best an in-

ferred doctrine, the New Testament directly connects repentance

with forgiveness (John 3:16; Acts 3:19; 10:43; 13:38-39; 16:30-31).33

 

ACTS 3:19

            Davis uses this passage in a convoluted way to equate repen-

tance with baptism.34 He argues that the sequence in this verse is

repentance, turning to God, and forgiveness, whereas in Acts 2:38

the sequence is repentance, baptism, and forgiveness. By seeing

the verses as parallel, he equates baptism with turning to God.

This argument may be challenged in several ways, but perhaps

the easiest is to note Paul's words in Acts 26:18. Paul stated that a

part of his mission is the "turning" (the same word used in 3:19)

of the Gentiles. Yet Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that

Christ did not send him to baptize. Since Paul's mission did in-

clude turning but did not include baptizing, it can hardly be in-

ferred that the two are equivalent. Again this seems to be a case of

Davis's theology driving his interpretation.

 

31 Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 18.5.2.

32 Bruce Metzger, ed., A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, cor-

rected ed. (Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, 1971), 188.

33 While some passages place faith or believing in the place of repentance, that

does not present a problem, for repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin.

To paraphrase Peter in Acts 3:19, repentance is turning to and believing in Jesus.

34 Davis, "Another Look at the Relationship between Baptism and Forgiveness of

Sins in Acts 2:38," 85.

 



                  Baptism and Forgiveness in Acts 2:38               61

 

ACTS 16:30-31

            Paul's words to the Philippian jailer are a classic declaration

of the gospel. Yet these verses are rarely cited by those who advo-

cate baptismal regeneration. The jailer's question was simple:

"Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" Paul and Silas gave an equally

simple answer: "Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be

saved." Of course, the jailer was baptized, but Paul did not say it

was a prerequisite to being saved. Nor did the baptism occur im-

mediately; it was preceded by the jailer's washing of Paul's and

Silas's wounds.

 

ACTS 22:16

            This passage is usually translated as "arise, and be baptized,

and wash away your sins, calling upon his name." The Greek

sentence has two participles and two imperatives: "Arising, be

baptized and wash away your sins, calling upon his name."

Many English translations include two conjunctive "and's," but

the Greek text has only one kai<. The construction is participle-

verb-kai<-verb-participle. MacDonald suggests that the best ap-

proach to this verse is to associate each participle with its nearest

verb.35 This is entirely consistent with what Robertson calls the

adverbial use of the participle.36 Based on the Greek construction

the washing away of sins is connected with "calling upon his

name," not with being baptized. This agrees with Peter's own ap-

peal to the prophet Joel in Acts 2:21 that "everyone who calls on the

name of the Lord shall be saved." As Polhill says, "The overarch-

ing term, however, is ‘calling upon the name of the Lord,’ the pro-

fession of faith in Christ that is the basis for the act of baptism."37

            There is reason, however, to suppose that in Acts 22:16 Ana-

nias was speaking of a symbolic washing, having recognized

that Paul was already converted. When Jesus told Ananias to go

to Paul, Ananias referred disparagingly to Paul as "this man"

(Acts 9:13). Yet later Ananias addressed Paul as "brother" (9:17).

Though a]delfo<j ("brother") is not limited to fellow Christians, the

word is frequently used to refer to fellow believers. Brother "is a

term adopted by the early disciples and Christians to express their

fraternal love for each other in Christ. . . . Christ and the apostles

 

35 William MacDonald, "The Acts of the Apostles," in Believer's Bible Commen-

tary: New Testament (Nashville: Nelson, 1990), 469.

36 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical

Research. 1109.

37 Polhill, Acts, 461.

 



62   BIBLIOTHECA SACRA  / January—March 1996

 

gave the name ‘brother’ to all Christians."38 The significance in

Ananias's words is in his shift from "this man" (Acts 9:13) to

"brother" (v. 17).

 

THE GOSPEL JESUS PREACHED

            Paul said that the "gospel is the power of God for salvation"

(Rom. 1:16). Exactly what constitutes the gospel is nowhere ex-

plicitly stated, except perhaps in 1 Corinthians 15:1-11. Paul made

no mention of baptism there as a part of the gospel. Moreover, Je-

sus preached that people should "repent and believe in the gospel"

(Mark 1:15). This was at the beginning of Jesus' ministry, and

there is no evidence that baptism in the name of Jesus was insti-

tuted before the resurrection. If it is indeed the gospel that saves,

then according to Mark 1:15 and Paul's own testimony in 1

Corinthians 15 there is no justification for adding a requirement

of water baptism as a condition for attaining salvation.

 

                                     CONCLUSION

            The best textual evidence supports the presence of u[mw?n as a

modifier of "sins" in Acts 2:38. New Testament syntax supports

this position as well. Concerning the antecedent of u[mw?n, there is

no evidence to support the contention that "forgiveness of sins"

modifies the command to be baptized. In other New Testament

passages on forgiveness, repentance, and water baptism, it be-

comes increasingly difficult to find support for the doctrine of

baptismal regeneration. Of course this does not dilute the signifi-

cance of Christian water baptism, for as Bruce says, "the idea of

an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New

Testament."39 Today, as then, baptism remains a unique testi-

mony of the life-transforming change brought about by the regen-

erating work of the Holy Spirit in the believer. In water baptism a

believer identifies with Jesus Christ in an action that symbolizes

the shared experience of death and resurrection with and in Him.

 

38 D. M. Pratt, "Brother," in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1 (1979):

550.

39 F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,

1954), 77.

 

This material is cited with gracious permission from:                               y

Dallas Theological Seminary

            3909 Swiss Ave.

            Dallas, TX   75204          

www.dts.edu

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu