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 doesnt 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
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,
The meaning of "For."
According to Websters 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. Manteys 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 Jonahs 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
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,
Jonahs 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 Jonahs preaching or in order to comply
with Jonahs 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.)