Often, Acts 2:38 is a go-to passage for Christians who want to give biblical support for the belief that baptism is more than a symbol. The verse reads:
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.
Many argue this verse proves the spiritual efficacy of baptism: it brings about the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit. And if that’s the case, then baptism isn’t just a symbol—it’s a sacrament, which is a sense-perceptible sign that affects that which it signifies.
But some Christians disagree. For example, Protestant apologist Ron Rhodes argues that baptism in this passage is not the cause of the salvation experience, but follows the salvation experience. He bases his argument on a particular reading of the Greek preposition eis, translated as “for.” As Rhodes rightly points out, eis “can indicate causality (‘in order to attain’) or a result (‘because of’).” An example of the causal sense is, “I’m going to the office for (in order to get) my paycheck.” An example of the resultant sense is, “I’m taking an aspirin for (because of) my headache.”
Rhodes asserts that in Acts 2:38 eis is used in the resultant sense: Peter is not saying, “Repent, and be baptized in order to attain the forgiveness of sins” but rather, “Repent, and be baptized because you’ve been forgiven.” For Rhodes, rather than baptism being a cause of salvation, it’s something we do once we’re saved.
Let’s see how we might respond to this challenge.
First, Rhodes gives no argument from the verse itself or the immediate context as to why eis should be interpreted in the resultant sense in this passage. He simply asserts it. Therefore, anyone who interprets it in the causal sense would be entitled to simply assert the contrary position without argumentation.
As a backdrop to Acts 2:38, Rhodes appeals to Acts 10:47, where Peter instructs Cornelius and a group of Gentiles to be baptized after they receive the Holy Spirit. But as I argue in Meeting the Protestant Challenge, someone can reasonably interpret this reception of the Holy Spirit not as an instance of salvation, but simply a visible confirmation that membership in God’s family is extended to the Gentiles.
Second, Acts 2:38 is not the only information we have concerning the relationship between baptism and the forgiveness of sins. In the same book of Acts, baptism precedes the removal of sins. Consider Acts 22:16, where Ananias tells Paul, “Rise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on his name.” Notice what Ananias doesn’t say, “Rise and be baptized, because you’ve been forgiven your sins.” Clearly, baptism precedes the removal of sin and is ordered to bringing about such an effect.
The early Church fathers also viewed baptism as bringing about the forgiveness of sins. For example, the Letter of Barnabas, not written by the apostle Barnabas although it does date to around A.D. 75, reads, “We descend into the water full of sins and defilement, but come up bearing fruit in our heart, having the fear of God and trust in Jesus in our spirit” (11).
Hermas of Rome, in his work The Shepherd, which dates to about A.D. 80, says it’s “sound doctrine” to say a person receives the remission of his former sins in baptism (2:4:3). He then alludes to Paul’s teaching in Romans 6: “They go down into the water dead, and they come up alive.”
If baptism is seen as an instrumental cause of the forgiveness of sins elsewhere in the Bible, as well as in the teaching of the early Church fathers, then we have good reason to interpret “for” in Acts 2:38 in the causal sense.
Third, the data in the verse itself, along with its immediate context, gives credence to a causal interpretation of “for.” In the subsequent verses, you’ll notice that nowhere does it say those listening to Peter were forgiven their sins before they received baptism. That’s an assumption that Rhodes makes.
Verse 37 merely tells us the crowd mourned Peter’s indictment of their sin of crucifying their Messiah and asked what they must do. Peter responds by instructing them to repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins in verse 38, speaks of the promise to their children in verse 39, and further exhorts them to save themselves from their crooked generation in verse 40. Verse 41 then tells us three thousand people received Peter’s word and were baptized. Nowhere does it say they were forgiven of their sins before they were baptized.
Since there’s no evidence that their sins were forgiven before they received baptism, and we know Peter links baptism with the forgiveness of sins, the natural reading of the text is that the forgiveness of sins occurs with the reception of baptism.
Also, consider that Peter links the reception of the Holy Spirit with baptism as an effect to a cause. He says, “Repent, and be baptized . . . and you shall receive [Greek, lēmpsesthe—future tense] the gift of the Holy Spirit” (v. 38). For Peter, the reception of the Holy Spirit is an effect of baptism.
This supports the causal interpretation of “for” with regard to baptism and the forgiveness of sins. The reasoning is as follows: 1) If Peter thought baptism is to be received because one is already forgiven, as Rhodes contends, then Peter also would have thought the Holy Spirit was already given prior to baptism, since the forgiveness of sins is brought about by the Holy Spirit. 2) But it’s clear from the text that Peter doesn’t think the Holy Spirit is already given prior to receiving baptism. 3) Therefore, Peter doesn’t think baptism is to be received because one is already forgiven. In other words, we shouldn’t interpret the preposition “for” in the resultant sense.
Finally, Rhodes’s interpretation entails unnecessary mental gymnastics when reading the flow of Peter’s instructions. Rhodes would have us envision repentance as something in the future, conceptually move back in time when we come to the forgiveness of sins, and then move forward again to the future with regard to baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. That’s a strained reading to say the least. The more natural reading of the text is simply to take all the parts as referring to the future: repentance, baptism, and with it the forgiveness of sins and the reception of the Holy Spirit.
There is no evidence in Acts 2:38 or its surrounding context to support Rhodes’s interpretation. And since we have positive evidence that proves the opposite, we can conclude that the passage stands as a legitimate passage to use for biblically proving the relationship between baptism and the forgiveness of sins as one of cause and effect.