Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (January-March 1996) 53-62.
Copyright © 1996 by
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,
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-
B. McIntyre Jr. is a Bible teacher in
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
Broadman, 1930-33), 3:35.
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
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
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
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
13 James Clyde, Greek Syntax with a Rationale of the Constructions
Oliver and Boyd, 1876), 126.
14 Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical
15 John B. Polhill, Acts, New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman, 1992),
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.
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
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
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 [
Eerdmans, 1970], 166; cited in Das, "Acts 8: Water, Baptism, and the Spirit," 166).
23 G. R. Beasley-Murray, Baptism in the New Testament (
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
• a do not give place [second person plural imperative] to the
"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
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.
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
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.
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
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),
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
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
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
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.
Sins in Acts 2:38," 85.
Baptism and Forgiveness in Acts 2:38 61
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
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
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"
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.
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):
39 F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts (
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