What Does "For" in Acts 2: 38 Mean?

(By Glenn Melton)

      "Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38 KJV). Did Peter tell the people to be baptized in order to have their sins forgiven or did he tell them to be baptized because their sins were already forgiven? Religious people have disagreed about this for many years. The points of discussion are (1) what the Bible says about "when an alien sinner is saved," (2) the grammar of Acts 2:38, and (3) the meaning of the word "for."

     When Is An Alien Sinner Saved?   Universalism says that all men will be saved. So really what difference does it make when an alien sinner is saved? If Universalism is true, it doesn’t make any difference. Others say that an alien sinner is "...justified by faith only..." (Methodist Discipline, p 73, 1948 edition) and "...solely through faith in Christ...." (Baptist Manual, Hiscox, p. 62), or at the point of faith (B. L. Sparks, Bonner/Sparks Debate), still others believe that the Bible teaches that the alien sinner is saved from his past sins when he is baptized (immersed) in water in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:38). Many passages teach the necessity of faith: John 3:16; John 8:24, Mark 16:16; Acts 16:30,31. Truly, alien sinners are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1). The question then comes: What believer is saved from past sins and when is that believer saved from past sins?

     The believer has the right to become a child of God (John 1:11,12) for Jesus is the author of eternal salvation to those who obey Him (Heb. 5:9; Gal.5:6). It is the obedient believer who will be saved. Hence, Jesus said, "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned" (Mk. 16:16). Further, Saul was told, "And now why tarriest thou? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away thy sins, calling on the name of the Lord" (Acts 22:16). Saul, believed on the road to Damascus, but had his sins washed away after he was in the city three days (Acts 9:9).

     The Grammar of Acts 2:38. In the Warren/Ballard Debate, Mr. L. S. Ballard introduced the idea that repent (second person plural) and be baptized (third person singular) "...cannot have the same subject or nominative....Peter was saying to all those who repented into life, ‘everyone of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins,’ not in order to obtain the remission of sins... " (p. 146). Consider the comments of some noted grammarians:

     "Marvin K Franzmann, Concordia Seminary, ‘As regards the expression in Acts 2:38, it is grammatically possible to connect ‘eis aphesin’ with both verbs." (Warren/Ballard Debate p. 163). 2. "J. W. Wilmarth, a great outstanding Baptist scholar, ‘This interpretation compels us"--that is, to try to separate the two verbs--"either to do violence to the construction, or to throw the argument or the course of thought in the context into complete confusion. Indeed we can hardly escape the latter alternative if we choose the former. For those who contend for the interpretation ‘on account of remission’ will hardly be willing to admit that Peter said ‘Repent’ as well as ‘be baptized on account of remission of sins.’ This is too great an inversion of natural sequence. Yet to escape it we must violently dissever ‘repent’ and ‘be baptized’ and deny that ‘eis’ expresses the relation of ‘repentance’ as well as ‘baptism’ to forgiveness of sins. But the natural construction connects the latter with both the preceding verbs. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part of it to the exclusion of the other, as Hackett says." (Warren/Ballard Debate pp 163, 164). 3. "Henry J. Cadbury, member of the Revised Standard Version Committee,...has this to say,...’The grammar of the sentence in Acts 2:38 is perfectly regular and better Greek than if the author had kept the second person plural ‘baptize’ after using the singular ‘each.’ I have no doubt that another author would have written ‘Do ye repent,’ and ‘be ye baptized,’ each of you. But this writer seems to have preferred the less loose construction. I think that there would be no essential difference in meaning.’ Whether you said ‘Do ye repent, and be ye baptized each of you,’ or as it stands exactly, there would be no essential difference in meaning." (Warren/Ballard Debate, p.164).

     The meaning of "For." According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, "for" has a number of meanings, two of which are (1) because of and (2) purpose. Note these examples: (1) He went to jail for (because of ) murder and (2) he went to the store for (in order to get) a loaf of bread. However, the word eis which is translated "for" (KJV) or "unto’ (ASV) in Acts 2:38 never looks backward, only forward, which gives it the concept of "purpose" in Acts 2:38.

     Consider carefully the definition given eis by recognized authorities: (1) Arndt And Gingrich, "f. to denote purpose in order to, to: ...for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven Mt. 26:28; cf. Mk. 1:4; Lk. 3:3; Ac 2:38...," (2) eis with verbs of motion, "But the usual idiom with eis was undoubtedly with verbs of motion when the motion and the accusative case combined with eis (‘in’) to give the resultant meaning of ‘into,’ ‘unto,’ ‘among,’ ‘to,’ ‘towards’ or ‘on,’ ‘upon,’ according to the context. This is so common as to call for little illustration." (Grammar, A.T. Robertson, p. 593), (3) Thayer, "...to obtain the forgiveness of sins, Acts 2:38..." (Lexicon, p. 94).

     What about the scholars who indicate that eis may mean "because of"? "5. Aim or Purpose." "...this is the idea in Mt. 26:28, ....eis aphesin amartion. But it by no means follows that the same idea is expressed by eis aphesin in MK. 1:4 and Ac. 2:38 (Cf. Mt. 10:41), though that may in the abstract be true. It remains a matter for the interpreter to decide." (Grammar, A.T. Robertson, p. 595). (2) Of Mt. 12:41, where the Ninevites "...repented at the preaching of Jonas...," Mr. Robertson says, "...it is absurd to take eis as ‘into’ or ‘unto’ or even ‘to..."(Grammar, p. 593). (3) Again, Mr. Robertson says of eis, "...that the preposition does not of itself mean ‘into’ even with verbs of motion. That is indeed one of the resultant meanings among many others." (Grammar, p. 593). (4) Mr. J. R. Mantey’s statement quoted in the Dana and Mantey Grammar where he said, "The sentence metanoesen eis to kerugmaion (repented at the preaching of Jonah. Also, note that metanoesen, third person singular, should be metanosan, third person plural, GM) in Mt. 12:41 and Lk. 12:32 (should be Lk. 11:32, GM) is forceful evidence for a causal use of this preposition. What led to their repentance? Of course, it was Jonah’s preaching." (P. 104). What is overlooked is the preceding paragraph where Mr. Mantey said, "When one considers in Ac. 2:38 repentance as self-renunciation and baptism as a public expression of self-surrender and self-dedication to Christ, which significance it certainly had in the first century, the expression eis aphesin ton amartion umon (unto the remission of your sins, GM) may mean for the purpose of the remission of sins. But if one stresses baptism, without its early Christian import, as a ceremonial means of salvation, he does violence to Christianity as a whole, for one of its striking distinctions from Judaism and Paganism is that it is a religion of salvation by faith while all others teach salvation by works."

     Question: Did the Ninevites repent "because of" the preaching of Jonah? Yes! Is that what Mt. 12:41 and Luke 11:32 teach? NO! Indeed, Jonah’s going to Nineveh and preaching helped bring about the repentance of the Ninevites. But, Matthew 12:41 and Luke 11:32 do not say that. They say that the Ninevites repented eis (unto or into) the benefits of Jonah’s preaching or in order to comply with Jonah’s preaching. Their repentance looked FORWARD to something NOT BACKWARD. What does "for" (eis) mean in Acts 2:38? It means "unto" or "in order to," NOT "because of."

     One last thought along this line and that is a reminder of what J. W. Wilmarth said as quoted above,"...those who contend for the interpretation ‘on account of remission’ will hardly be willing to admit that Peter said ‘Repent’ as well as 'be baptized on account of remission of sins.'" Whatever baptism is "for," repentance is "for." We simply cannot separate them. Therefore, "for" in Acts 2:38 means "unto," or "in order to."  (A related study would be, "Scriptural Baptism for the Remission of Sins," dm.)