Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
On the surface, Acts 2:38 seems to be a straightforward, simple verse. Peter commands repentance and baptism in Jesus’s name. Those who obeyed in faith would receive the forgiveness of sins and the Holy Spirit. However, this simple interpretation contradicts what many have come to believe. Most of the evangelical world interprets Acts 2:38 thusly: “Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins so that you can repent and be baptized.” In other words, the Holy Spirit enters one’s heart, washes away their sins, and enables them to repent and be baptized. Thus, repentance and baptism are rendered advisable demonstrations of one’s faith but unnecessary in terms of one’s salvation. The validity of this argument hinges on two major assumptions:
- The word “for” is not causal here nor anywhere else in scripture.
- According to scripture, the forgiveness of sins does not come through baptism.
Since a conclusion is only as sound as what it assumes, let’s measure these in light of God’s word.
Assumption #1: The word “for” is not causal here nor anywhere else in scripture.
The phrase, “for the remission of sins” occurs four times in the New Testament: Matthew 26:28, Mark 1:4, Luke 3:3, Acts 2:38. Each occasion comes from the exact same Greek phrase.
Like most of this site’s readers and contributors, I am not a Greek scholar. But even an untrained eye can see that we are dealing with precisely the same language in each case. The argument against baptism’s necessity assumes that the word “for” (the Greek word “eis”) should never be interpreted as causal. In other words, whatever precedes “eis” is never the cause for an effect which presumably follows. Therefore, one who does not believe in water immersion’s necessity says that Peter does not mean “Repent (cause) and be baptized (cause)…for the remission of sins (effect), and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (effect).”
This becomes problematic in light of Matthew 26:27-28, “Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.’” Here is a case where “eis” or “for” is clearly causal. Jesus’ blood was shed (cause) for (“eis”) the forgiveness of sins (effect). One reasonably concludes that a cause-effect relationship straddles the word “for” since other passages corroborate that Jesus’s blood was shed in order to forgive man’s sins (e.g. Hebrews 9:14, Revelation 1:5).
In the case of Matthew 26:28, there occurs a clear cause-effect relationship when the word “eis” is used. While this does not offer definite grounds for interpreting Acts 2:38 similarly, it does expose a fault in the first assumption.
Assumption #2: According to scripture, the forgiveness of sins does not come through baptism.
Since interpreting a cause-effect relationship in Matthew 26:28 requires corroborating passages, one might wonder the same about Acts 2:38. There is ample, scriptural evidence that connects water immersion with the forgiveness of sins. The most obvious is Acts 22:16:
“‘And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’”
In this passage, Paul recalls his conversion. Ananias said these words to Paul (“wash away your sins”) though he had fasted and prayed for the previous three days (Ax 9:9,11). While he fasted and prayed Paul did not receive the Spirit (Ax. 9:17) nor were his sins forgiven. Ananias’s instructions are simple: you have been fasting and praying for three days. Why wait another moment? Come with me, be baptized and wash away your sins. In so doing you will call on the name of the Lord. A sinner’s prayer did not cleanse Paul of his sins nor did the Holy Spirit enter his heart. His sins were only forgiven when he faithfully obeyed the command to be baptized.
The same man whose conversion we just discussed wrote this inspired statement: “In Him you were also circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.” (Colossians 2:11-12) Paul calls baptism the antitype of Jewish circumcision. Like the removal of the male foreskin, God, in baptism, removes the sins of the flesh. The one who is baptized believes in God’s operation which not only cleanses the adherent of all sin, but also resurrects them from this spiritual death. Thus, baptism is:
- Not merely a symbolic ceremonial cleansing — as Peter says, “not the removal of the filth of the flesh”,
- Not the work of man since God removes the sins and resurrects the soul.
In light of both Acts 22:16 and Colossians 2:11-12, it is unreasonable to conclude that water immersion plays no role in the forgiveness of sins. Furthermore, both passages corroborate a reasonable, cause-effect relationship in Acts 2:38.
This article is by no means exhaustive or comprehensive. There are still many angles of this we could discuss, so I welcome your input and questions.