Sunday, July 24, 2016

Acts 2:38 on baptism

To a restorationist, Acts 2:38 is one of the most simple verses in the Bible. The verse very clearly makes repentance AND baptism conditions for forgiveness of sins.
And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38, RSV)
To an evangelical, Acts 2:38 is one of the most difficult verses in the New Testament. I am often amazed to witness the efforts evangelicals will exert to neutralize the force of the verse. The doctrine that baptism is a requirement for salvation cannot be tolerated by an evangelical.

The motivation behind this article is that I recently heard yet another effort at refuting the clear meaning of Acts 2:38. I hope to present the most common arguments; but first I will share with you the new (to me) offering.
Peter uses two imperative verbs "repent" and "baptize". But these verbs are not the same. Repent is 2nd person plural, and Baptize is 3rd person singular. From this it should be seen that the the preposition is really the adverb of repent. The clause "be baptized each one of you in the name of Jesus" is the governed clause of "repent that you might be forgiven of your sins". So it would really read like this: "Repent (and be baptized each one of you upon the name of Jesus Christ) that your sins may be forgiven and receive..." (quoted from a Facebook thread).
This argument borders on the ludicrous. This person is suggesting a sentence structure for Peter’s answer so complex that it wouldn’t have possibly made any sense to the hearers. How many ways can I butcher a straightforward sentence to make it say something different than what it was intended to say?

Anyway, the usual attack on Acts 2:38 has to do with the preposition “for” (eis, in Greek). The usual understanding of eis is as follows. A sentence, “A eis B” is translated “A for B.” It means “A results in B.” There is a rare way to understand “A eis B” and that is “A because of B.” Evangelicals want to read Acts 2:38 as “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ because of the forgiveness of sins....”

The only motivation to read this verse with the reverse meaning of eis is because the altered reading safeguards the evangelical doctrine of salvation by grace alone. There is, however, some support that can be dragged out of near obscurity.

The Enhanced Strong’s Dictionary by OliveTree Software has this to say.
If you saw a poster saying “Jesse James wanted for robbery”, “for” could mean Jesse is wanted so he can commit a robbery, or is wanted because he committed a robbery. The later sense is the correct one. So too in [Acts 2:38], the word “for” signifies an action in the past. Otherwise, it would violate the entire tenor of the NT teaching on salvation by grace and not by works.
In other words, the above writer sees a doctrinal problem with the plain meaning of Acts 2:38; so in order for it to harmonize with what he understands as the “teaching of salvation by grace” he argues for an awkward and contextually unrequired reading. Furthermore, the wanted poster example does not even use similar language as Acts 2:38.

There are, however, a few verses in the Bible that almost certainly require the reverse meaning of eis. Matthew 3:11.
"I baptize you with water for [eis] repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
In this passage, John says he baptizes for (because of, not resulting in) repentance.

Another somewhat persuasive comparison is with Matthew 12:41.
The men of Nin'eveh will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at [eis="for" meaning "because of"] the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
In these cases, the reverse (and rare) meaning is required by the context.

You see, people generally see baptism as a work; and salvation is not by works (Ephesians 2:5, 8). This assumption (that baptism is a work) seems to force the reverse meaning of eis in Acts 2:28. That recasting of the verse is not necessary. Baptism is not a work - at least in the sense that it somehow earns something. Salvation is indeed by grace alone. The Biblical doctrine that baptism is necessary does not come close to implying that baptism is sufficient for salvation.

The question for us is, how would Peter’s answer have sounded in the ears of those people who asked, “Brethren, what shall we do” (Acts 2:37)? Those people had not been through the Protestant Reformation and they did not know about “salvation by grace alone.” What did they hear?

Consider the following crystal clear example:
for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for [eis] the forgiveness of sins. (Matthew 26:28)
Was the blood poured out because of or for the forgiveness of sins? The meaning is very clear (even in the New World Translation)!

What did the people in Acts 2:37-38 hear? They heard exactly what we plainly hear. Repentance and baptism are for the forgiveness of sins!

There is yet another very common argument. That is, the Philippian Jailer was told to “believe.”
and brought them out and said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?" And they said, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household." (Acts 16:30-31)
The natural conclusion (if these are the only two verses you read in the entire book of Acts) is that belief alone is all that is needed. However, all it takes is a little careful reading. Why wasn’t the jailer given the same answer Peter gave in Acts 2:38? Clearly, the jailer didn’t even believe in Jesus! What would have been the point of repenting or being baptized into a name he didn’t even believe in? I could ask the same question about Acts 2:37-38. Why didn’t Peter tell the crowd, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved?” The people in Acts 2 interrupted the lesson to ask what they must do. They were acting on their belief by announcing their eagerness to do something! There is a logical progression to salvation and the progression involves objective steps. It would have been absurd for Peter to tell the people to “believe.” They already believed. It would have been absurd for Paul and Silas to tell the jailer to repent and be baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus—a name the jailer had yet to believe!

Incidentally, to argue that salvation comes by believing also imposes a requirement upon the one who desires salvation. If salvation is by grace alone (which it is!) then why is belief required? Is not belief a work? It is, but not a work that earns salvation. Neither is baptism a saving work. Belief, repentance and baptism are necessary but not sufficient.

Another criticism of baptism as being a condition for salvation is that it smacks of being overly symbolic. Baptism is definitely symbolic (Romans 6:3-5). While baptism symbolically unites us with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, it also gives certainty of our part in the final resurrection (Romans 6:5, 8). We are comfortable with many symbols (worshipping on a particular day of the week, taking the Lord's Supper/Eucharist) but many are uncomfortable with baptism since it has a very strong symbolic component to it. I don't know what to tell you. The doctrine of baptism is very prominent in the New Testament; but Reformationism has rejected works so strongly that many Reformists outright reject direct Biblical teaching. If we are honest, we are rejecting Biblical teaching in favor of Reformist conclusions.

It is fascinating to me that baptism(s) is one of the doctrines the Hebrews author calls a "basic teaching" (Hebrews 6:1-2); but sometime around the 15th century, it got complicated.

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