Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
In part one, it was argued that while many take the preposition for (εἰς) in the verse above as telic, indicating goal or outcome, such an interpretation is problematic since it would indicate that baptism is a necessary part of salvation. In contrast, a case can be made that the preposition is causal, leading to the translation, “repent, and [having done that]…be baptized in response to the forgiveness of sins.” There are two objections to interpreting the preposition for (εἰς) as causal, however. In the first part of this series, we addressed one of the problems (see here). In this part of the series, we will address the second.
The second objection is that in the four other NT uses of the prepositional phrase “for the forgiveness of sins,” the preposition appears to have a telic force, indicating purpose or goal.
In response, it should be noted that in two of the uses, Matthew 28:26 and Luke 24:47, water baptism is not mentioned. While a telic force of the preposition may be granted in these two verses, the lack of correspondence with the construction in Acts 2:38 lessens the significance of these verses for the interpretation of Acts 2:38. Of the remaining two uses, Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3, water baptism is mentioned. In these, the text reads “a baptism of repentance for (eij”) the forgiveness of sins.” As such, there is correspondence between these verses and the construction in Acts 2:38.
Having said that, the interpreter is faced with the same options for the prepositional phrase in these two verses as in Acts 2:38. Is the preposition in these two verses telic or causal? From the discussion above on Matthew 3:11, it can be argued that the preposition in these two passages has a causal force, not a telic force. In fact, the construction in both Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3 is somewhat parallel with the construction in Matthew 3:11.
All three are describing John’s baptism. In Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3, it is called a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins.” In Matthew 3:11, it is referred to as a baptism “for repentance.” The conclusion drawn above with Matthew 3:11 was that a baptism “for repentance” meant a baptism based on repentance. The same can be argued for Mark 1:4 and Luke 3:3. In other words, a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins” can mean a baptism “based on the forgiveness of sins.” There is nothing in the immediate context of Mark 1:4 or Luke 3:3 that argues against this sense. Furthermore, the analogy of faith clearly points in the direction that forgiveness, like repentance, precedes water baptism.
While neither of the two interpretations of the prepositional phrase in Acts 2:38 is free of questions, the interpretation that takes the preposition as causal poses the least number of problems and is deemed the superior interpretation. Peter’s first command is to repent; implied in the command is the exercise of saving faith. His second command, the command to be baptized, is best taken as the response of those whose sins are forgiven rather than as a condition for forgiveness.
While water baptism is important as a step of obedience and as a public affirmation of saving faith, faith alone saves. Peter’s words, when properly interpreted, do not argue to the contrary (For a more detailed discussion, see my article, “Water Baptism and the Forgiveness of Sins in Acts 2:38,” Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary 4 [Fall 1999]: 3–32).