“In the name of Jesus Christ”
Let’s begin by fixing the translation. When we modern Americans read “Christ,” we miss the point. Peter really said, “in the name of Jesus the Messiah” or even “in the name of King Jesus.”
In calling Jesus “the Christ,” Peter declared Jesus to be the true king of the Jews. Indeed, to submit to Jesus was very nearly an act of rebellion against Herod and Rome, because the Messiah was well understood to be a king. Herod considered himself “king of the Jews,” by appointment of Augustus Caesar. And the Jews couldn’t have but one king!
“In the name of” is literally “upon the name of,” a phrase appearing frequently in the Bible. For example, we encounter the phrase in —
(Gen 12:8 ESV) From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.
(Deu 10:8 ESV) At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD to stand before the LORD to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day.
(Deu 18:5 ESV) For the LORD your God has chosen him out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the name of the LORD, him and his sons for all time.
(Deu 18:20 ESV) But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’
(Deu 21:5 ESV) Then the priests, the sons of Levi, shall come forward, for the LORD your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the LORD, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.
(Jer 29:9 ESV) for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the LORD.
(Dan 9:6 ESV) We have not listened to your servants the prophets, who spoke in your name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land.
(Luk 21:8 ESV) And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them.
(Luk 24:47 ESV) and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
(Acts 4:17 ESV) “But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.”
In Genesis 12:8, the phrase means something like “to pray to God” or “to worship God.” But in all the other examples, including the ones in Luke and Acts, the sense of the phrase is “on behalf of” or, as lawyers would say it, “as agent for.”
To be baptized “in the name of” Jesus would mean that the person doing the baptizing does so as an agent for Jesus himself. It is, in effect, that hands of Jesus who baptize through the person of the administrator of the baptism.
- Does this mean that if baptize someone without faith he’ll be saved anyway?
- Does this mean that if we refuse to baptize a penitent believer, he’ll not be saved? In fact, one reason the Restoration Movement began is the practice of some churches of refusing to administer baptism to penitent believers who had no story of a conversion experience — a vision, a sign of being among the elect. Were those who were denied baptism damned? Will God save a penitent believer who comes to him for baptism and who is denied baptism by the church?
“For the forgiveness of your sins.”
It’s always struck me as odd that the King James Version says “remission” rather than “forgiveness.” There’s a reason. The Greek word, aphesin, means “release,” used metaphorically of forgiveness. But the color of the phrase is not just that we are forgiven from our sins: we are freed from our sins.
Inevitably, we must wrestle a bit with the preposition eis, meaning most literally “into.” Now, any student of a foreign language knows that prepositions are devilishly hard to translate. For example, “into” in English can be used in countless ways, such as —
“I’m going into the house.”
“I’ll look into that.”
“He’s really gotten deep into his studies.”
“I’m really into her.”
Hence, prepositions can be literal, as in “into the house,” or figurative, as in “into his studies,” or even so figurative that the image is nearly lost, as in “into her.”
In the Greek, eis has an even broader range of meanings. As a result, the old Zwinglian argument that baptism is a mere symbol of salvation that occurred immediately upon faith insists that eis means “for” in the sense of “because of,” so that forgiveness comes because of repentance and faith that have already occurred.
The Zwinglian would argue that baptism in Acts 2:38 is post-faith and so post-forgiveness. But the argument suffers from the fact that the baptism is “in the name of” Jesus — not the convert and not the church. Jesus himself is baptizing.
Finally, the argument suffers because the promise of the Holy Spirit is clearly stated to be as a consequence of repentance, baptism, and forgiveness. You “will receive” is in future tense, whereas the previous verbs “repent” and “be baptized” are aorist, imperative tense. In this construction, the aorist says nothing of time, but the imperative does. That is, the grammar is “Do X and Y will happen.” Clearly, Y follows X.
Therefore, it’s not really possible to credibly argue that forgiveness and receipt of the Spirit all precede baptism in Acts 2:38, regardless of what you do with the “for.” Indeed, this is why the arguments tend to be built on the meaning of eis — you can’t make the argument from the sentence as a whole.
Singular and plural verbs
While we’re dissecting the grammar, much has been made of Peter’s shift from plural to singular and back again, but it’s an overblown argument.
(Acts 2:38 ESV) 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent(plural) [and be baptized(singular) every one(singular) of you(plural) in the name of Jesus Christ] for the forgiveness of your(plural) sins, and you(plural) will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Obviously, “be baptized” is singular because it refers to “every one of you,” a singular phrase used in a collective sense. You might argue that the bracketed material is a parenthetical, so that “for the forgiveness of your sins” modifies “repent” but not “be baptized.” And yet “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” is still in the future tense, immediately following “repent” and “be baptized,” both of which are imperative.
If so, the construction would be “Do X (and Y) and Z will happen.” And yet “in the name of Jesus Christ” is still attached to “be baptized.” So I’m not convinced. How can be baptism be “on behalf of Jesus” and not be tied to salvation (in the normal case)?
Now, to eis. Eis does not mean “because of.” We start with Lidell’s Intermediate Greek Lexicon —
Radical sense, into, and then to:
I. of Place, the commonest usage, εἰς ἅλα into or to the sea, Hom., etc.:—properly opposed to ἐκ, ἐς σφυρὸν ἐκ πτέρνης from head to foot, Il.; εἰς ἔτος ἐξ ἔτεος from year to year, Theocr.:—then, with all Verbs implying motion or direction, ἰδεῖν εἰς οὐρανόν Il.; εἰς ὦπα ἰδέσθαι to look in the face, Ib.:—in Hom. and Hdt. also c. acc. pers., where the Att. use ὡς, πρός, παρά.
2. with Verbs which express rest in a place, when a previous motion into or to it is implied, ἐς μέγαρον κατέθηκε, i.e. he brought it into the house, and put it there, Od.; παρεῖναι ἐς τόπον to go to a place and be there, Hdt.
Notice, that “baptize” means “immerse,” which implies motion from out of the water into the water. The most nature preposition to follow “immerse” is “into.”
Indeed, the dictionaries never give “because of,” but they do give “for,” but only respect to time (e.g., “for” three hours).
a preposition governing the accusative, and denoting entrance into, or direction and limit: into, to, toward, for, among. It is used: …
1. of a place entered, or of entrance into a place, into; and a. it stands before nouns designating an open place, a hollow thing, or one in which an object can be hidden …
B. Used Metaphorically,
I. εἰς retains the force of entering into anything, …
II. εἰς after words indicating motion or direction or end;
1. it denotes motion to something, after verbs of going, coming, leading, calling, etc.,
3. it denotes the end; and a. the end to which a thing reaches or extends …
In short, eis means into. And we could translate “be immersed into the forgiveness of your sins,” which is quite a powerful translation — and gives us a better sense of what the water represents. Yes, it represents the Spirit — living water — but also forgiveness, because that’s one thing the Spirit accomplishes for us in our conversion.
Now, there is one other case where “for” can be a correct translation. Consider —
(John 9:39 ESV) Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
But here, “for” doesn’t mean “because” but “to result in” — that is, eis here refers to the intended result. Thus, Thayer’s gives as an alternative meaning —
3. it denotes the end; and a. the end to which a thing reaches or extends … b. the end which a thing is adapted to attain
Thus, “for the forgiveness of sins” means “to attain the forgiveness of sins.”
This is not to argue that the Zwinglian/Calvinist/Baptist understanding of baptism is insufficient to save — far from it! — but that it’s just really bad exegesis of Acts 2:38. In this verse, salvation occurs at water baptism.
There are, of course, many other passages that associate water baptism with salvation. And there are examples in Acts where the two appear separated. But in Acts 2:38 they are tied together. Indeed, the most natural reading is that we’re baptized into forgiveness.
- Does the fact that baptism is into forgiveness mean that forgiveness can only be obtained by a proper baptism?
- Does the idea that baptism is “into” forgiveness give a fresh meaning for baptism? In fact, if you think about it, how could baptism mean anything else? It could (and does) mean more, but surely the picture is of having sins washed away.
- John’s baptism was also “for the forgiveness of sins” (grammatically indistinguishable from Acts 2:38).
(Mar 1:4 ESV) John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
(Luk 3:3 ESV) And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
We often distinguish John’s baptism are being for “repentance” — which is true — versus Christian baptism as being for forgiveness. Well, that’s obviously not right! What is the difference? How is Christian baptism different from John’s?