December 12, 2017

Acts 2:38 and Baptismal Regeneration

Wally Morris

The question of whether baptism is necessary for salvation is a question with which many Christians struggle. The connection between baptism and Christian testimony is ingrained in the culture of many people. For example, if you ask someone if they are a Christian or if they think they will be in heaven one day, their response will often mention a time when they were baptized.

On a more theological level, some churches believe that baptism regenerates the person being baptized, and, depending on the church, completes salvation or begins the process of completing salvation. The Catholic Church and most Anglican churches believe in baptismal regeneration. Some Lutheran churches, Churches of Christ, and Christian/Disciples of Christ churches also believe in baptismal regeneration. Doctrinal statements are not always a reliable guide to a church’s belief on this issue. Even though the official Anglican catechism affirms baptismal regeneration, some Anglican churches and individuals would not affirm that belief (James Packer, for example). Some Churches of Christ will affirm baptismal regeneration, some will not. Some individual Churches of Christ have a mixture of both beliefs.

Advocates of baptismal regeneration use several verses as evidence of their belief. The verse that is usually used is Acts 2:38. The crowd watched the results of the filling of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus Christ. People are puzzled and skeptical about what is happening, assuming these followers of Christ are drunk. Peter corrects this wrong assumption by applying the words of the prophet Joel to this event. Then Peter connects Jesus to these events by emphasizing that Jesus, whom they crucified, is Lord and Messiah. Many listening come under conviction by Peter’s preaching and want to know what to do. Peter then issues his now famous words concerning repentance, baptism, forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit. Three thousand people responded that day and trusted Jesus of Nazareth as Savior and Messiah.

I want to focus on a part of Acts 2:38, the words “be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” Advocates of baptismal regeneration believe that these words essentially mean that someone must be baptized in order to receive remission/forgiveness of sins. Admittedly, a basic reading of these words, without any knowledge of any other Biblical teaching, could result in holding to that understanding.

Those who reject baptismal regeneration offer many explanations of this verse. Some of the explanations used to explain Acts 2:38 are so nuanced and confusing that most Christians will not understand the point. For example, some explanations include analyzing details of the Greek syntax and structure, which, of course, careful exegesis requires. Yet some explanations rely so heavily on the Greek syntax that the explanation seems artificial. Other explanations rely on dispensational analysis, which also seems artificial. The simplest explanation is usually the best, although not always possible.

One approach is to look carefully at the English and Greek texts and compare those texts to other, similar uses in the New Testament. This is not a complete solution to explaining this verse, but I think it offers help, especially for those who read the Bible only in English or another translation. I offer two examples here.

Compare Acts 2:38 with Matthew 3:11:

clip_image002Acts 2:38 uses the same preposition as Matthew 3:11. Prepositions have a wide variety of meaning and to base a major doctrinal belief only on prepositions is risky. However, prepositions have their place in exegesis. If we take the reasoning of supporters of baptismal regeneration in Acts 2:38 and apply that same reasoning to Matthew 3:11, then John the Baptist baptized people so that they would receive repentance or that they would repent. Actually, John refused to baptize people until they demonstrated some evidence of repentance (Matthew 3:8). In other words, John baptized people because they had already repented or when they demonstrated evidence of repentance. Their repentance became the basis of John’s baptism. So the example of Matthew 3:11 helps us understand what Peter is saying in Acts 2:38: “Repent, and be baptized because you have been forgiven” (causal use of the preposition)[1] or “repent, and be baptized when you have been forgiven (temporal use of the preposition).

Another example is Matthew 12:41, where the same preposition is used: clip_image004

The scribes and Pharisees want Jesus to give them a miraculous sign to prove He is who He says He is. The only sign He promises is the sign of Jonah (39-40). Then Christ tells them that the people of Nineveh will one day condemn that first century generation because the citizens of Nineveh repented “at the preaching of Jonah”, but they did not repent when someone greater than Jonah was in their presence. If we take the reasoning of supporters of baptismal regeneration in Acts 2:38 and apply that same reasoning to Matthew 12:41, then the people of Nineveh repented in order to receive the preaching of Jonah, an explanation which is illogical. The people of Nineveh didn’t repent in order to hear Jonah preach. The people of Nineveh repented as a result of (because of, causal) Jonah’s preaching or, alternatively, when Jonah preached (temporal use). The practical result is the same: Jonah’s preaching occurred first, then repentance. Using the same reasoning, Peter is not telling people to be baptized in order to receive forgiveness, but, instead, he is telling people to be baptized as a result of (because of) forgiveness or when they had been forgiven.

More can be done with the Greek text of Acts 2:38 than I have done here. Yet, carefully comparing the English texts of Matthew 3:11,12:41 and Acts 2:38 can yield the same conclusions, causal or temporal use. The problem we have is taking what was clear in the Greek text to native speakers of Greek and expressing that thought/concept to people who do not speak Greek. I imagine those who spoke Greek understood Peter’s meaning very well. Greek prepositions can be vague and difficult to translate into another language. When comparing Acts 2:38 to Matthew 3:11, 12:41, what Peter said at Pentecost can easily be understood as not supporting baptismal regeneration.

Mark 16:16, John 3:5, Acts 22:16, Titus 3:5, and 1 Peter 3:21 are other verses supporters of baptismal regeneration use to defend their belief. Some of these, such as John 3:5 are difficult to understand and have a variety of possible interpretations. I suspect that, if we were honest, we would have to admit that we just don’t know what some of these verses are teaching. Then there is another problem supporters of baptismal regeneration have: Inability to find undisputed teaching to confirm their belief. They have to rely on unclear verses, interpreted in a specific way, as the foundation for their belief.

Robertson, in commenting on the limits of syntax, said, “After all is done, instances remain where syntax cannot say the last word, where theological bias will inevitably determine how one interprets the Greek idiom. … When the grammarian has finished, the theologian steps in and sometimes before the grammarian is through.” (Grammar Greek NT, 389). Grammarians engage in perpetual analysis of texts, and, sooner or later, interpreters have to make decisions about what a text means. Thus, theology inevitably affects how we understand disputed texts. If clear texts determine correct theology, then correct theology may help us understand the unclear texts. We may never know what some unclear texts mean, but correct theology helps us know what some unclear texts cannot mean.

Although the Greek text and basic interpretation principles are helpful in answering advocates of baptismal regeneration, the most important problems with baptismal regeneration are theological. Paul stated clearly and forcefully in Galatians 1:8-9 that God made only ONE gospel. Logically and theologically, there can be only ONE gospel, not two, three, or more. Either baptism regenerates or baptism does not regenerate. Both cannot be true. One of these beliefs is a false gospel and deserves condemnation, and that condemnation rests on baptismal regeneration. Advocates of baptismal regeneration are promoting borderline heresy (I am tempted to call it just plain heresy). It doesn’t matter that they are sincere or have large churches or even that some are our relatives. An apathetic approach to this issue reflects unconcern for the integrity and purity of the gospel and unconcern for the souls of others. The salvation of a person who believes in baptismal regeneration can always requires individual evaluation. The concern is the purity and clarity of the gospel.


Some helpful resources:

Boyce W. Blackwelder, Light From the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1958), 82-98.

J. R. Mantey, “On Causal EIS Again,” Journal of Biblical Literature, 70:4 (Dec., 1951), 309-311. (Mantey answers those who dispute possible causal uses of εἰς)

Luther B. McIntyre, Jr., “Baptism And Forgiveness In Acts 2:38”, BibSac 153 (Jan-March 1996): 53-62

A. T. Robertson, The Minister and His Greek New Testament (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1977), 50-52.

Lanny Thomas Tanton, “The Gospel and Water Baptism: A Study Of Acts 2:38,” Journal of the Grace Evangelical Society (Spring 1990): 27-52. (Tanton’s article is helpful for 2 reason: He used to believe in baptismal regneration, but now rejects that belief, and his article reviews several different approaches to Acts 2:38. His personal view reflects the influence of Zane Hodges and the Grace Evangelical Society.)

Nigel Turner, A Grammar of New Testament Greek: Syntax (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963), 266-267.

Daniel Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996), 369-371

Richard A. Young, Intermediate New Testament Greek (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 93-94.


Wally Morris is pastor of Charity Baptist Church in Huntington, IN. The church blogsite is amomentofcharity.blogspot.com. He has also published A Time To Die: A Biblical Look At End-Of-Life Issues by Ambassador International.

  1. Greek grammarians debate the causal use of the Greek preposition εἰς, especially in Acts 2:38. (See Dan Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond The Basics, pp. 369-371. Wallace questions the causal use of εἰς, but the causal use or temporal use make good sense in Acts 2:38 and Matthew 3:11; 12:41, even though the causal use is rejected by many. His four options seem strained. He calls the use of causal εἰς an “ingenious solution” that “lacks conviction”, and he doesn’t list the causal use even as a possibility in his grammar.) Yet, what we call “use” is our observations of how words and phrases are arranged in sentences for meaning. The Greeks didn’t think about what “use” they were “using”. They just spoke or wrote, just as we do. A causal or temporal “use” of the preposition εἰς in these references is simply our attempt to explain what they said. A particular “use” has to start somewhere. Matthew 3:11 shows the possibility of causal or temporal use of the Greek preposition and, therefore, the possibility in Acts 2:38. One of my intermediate Greek teachers at BJU (Dr. Charles Smith) said “To know any use in Greek, you have to know every use.” A. T. Robertson wrote about Acts 2:38: “One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not.” (Robertson, A. T., Word Pictures in the New Testament [Acts 2:38], Nashville: Broadman Press, 1933). []

Comments

  1. Excellent article, Wally! Thanks very much. Prepositions only get you so far; you have to make an interpretive decision based on context, and what clearer passages teach about baptism. Very well said.

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