Baptism

Although the college does not have creeds or written doctrines on individual special topics of interest, some sense of the kind of views likely to be encountered may be deduced from professor publications.

The following is an article by Professor Richard Koffarnus:

BAPTISM AND THE FORGIVENESS OF SINS
By Richard Koffarnus

The relationship of baptism to the forgiveness of sins has long been a bone of contention between Bible-believing peoples. Some hold that one's sins are forgiven through repentance, prior to baptism, while others hold that one's sins are forgiven after repentance, in baptism. At first glance, the difference may seem inconsequential, but in reality, the very meaning and purpose of baptism is at stake.

If the first position is correct, then baptism is, at most, a sign of the believer's forgiveness and a symbol of his identification with the death and resurrection of Christ. If the second position is correct, then baptism is more than a sign. It is the point in time when one's sins are forgiven and one is united with Christ.

Not surprisingly, Acts 2:38 is a key verse in this debate: "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit."

One popular explanation of this verse follows the view of A. T. Robertson, who argued that the Greek preposition, eis (the "for" in "for the forgiveness of sins") can be translated causally as "on account of" or "because of." If Robertson is correct, then the first position mentioned above is clearly the Scriptural one. However, his argument has been effectively refuted and will not be discussed here.

More recently, an even older argument has been resurrected to support the notion that sins are forgiven through repentance, prior to baptism. According to this interpretation, Peter actually was telling his Pentecost listeners, "Repent for the forgiveness of your sins and be baptized, each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ..." There are three principal arguments given on behalf of this view:

  1. The Greek grammatical construction of Acts 2:38 demands it.
  2. Other passages, such as Acts 3:19 and Luke 24:47, link forgiveness to repentance, not to baptism.
  3. Acts 22:16, which seems to link baptism to the forgiveness of sins, is speaking symbolically of "washing away sins."

The first argument claims that a proper understanding of Greek grammar connects forgiveness with repentance, not with baptism. A basic rule of grammar says that pronouns should agree with verbs in number (singular or plural) and person (first, second, or third). In Acts 2:38, the verb "repent" is second person plural imperative, the pronoun "each" is third person singular, "be baptized" is third person singular imperative, and "your" [sins] is second person plural. Thus, the pronoun "your" [sins] agrees with the verb "repent," and the pronoun "each" agrees with the verb "be baptized." Luther McIntyre concludes: 

This structure illustrates that the command to be baptized is parenthetical and is not syntactically connected to remission of sins. When Peter commanded the people to repent, he was speaking to the crowd. Then the command to be baptized was directed to each individual. In the "remission of your sins" phrase, Peter again directed his words to the crowd collectively.

If McIntyre is correct, there is no way to connect baptism with the forgiveness of sins. However, the argument ignores the fact that idiomatic usages sometimes ignore the normal rules of grammar. An idiom is an accepted phrase or expression which is contrary to the regular patterns of a language. For instance, the German immigrants in my home town used to say, "where the streetcar bends the corner round," meaning "where the streetcar turns the corner." It was not exactly textbook grammar, but everyone (at least the locals) understood what they were saying. Concerning Acts 2:38, Roberts says, "The distribution of the plural subject in 'Ye Repent' by the use of the third singular hekastos ('each one') with a singular verb is such a natural and common idiom that a claim that they do not take the same modifier ['the remission of your sins'] is not worth noticing."

Carroll Osburn lists six different passages from the Septuagint (Exodus 16:292 Kings 10:19; andZechariah 7:10), the Apocrypha (1 Maccabees 10:63), and early Christian literature (Didache 15:3; Ignatius, Magnesians 6:2) that contain idioms parallel to the construction in Acts 2:38. Interestingly, McIntyre is aware of Osburn's work and tries to refute it. However, McIntyre mentions only two of the six passages and ignores the one closest in structure to Acts 2:38, Magnesians 6:2. Consequently, Osburn's conclusion appears sound: "In view of the abundance of such examples, there is no syntactical basis for the assertion that the second person plural imperative and the third person singular imperative cannot refer in Greek to the same subject."

The second argument claims that other Scripture passages, such as Acts 3:19 and Luke 24:47, make repentance, not baptism, the sole condition of forgiveness. This claim ignores two important facts: one, that the New Testament writers often condensed their historical accounts (including direct address), omitting repetitious details that either would have been understood by their readers, or were not essential to telling the story, and two, that the statements of New Testament writers and speakers sometimes implied details not specifically stated in the text.

Regarding the first fact, McIntyre cites, for example, Acts 16:30, where the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" To which Paul responds, "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved, you and your household." McIntyre argues, "Of course, the jailer was baptized, but Paul did not say it was a prerequisite to being saved." Note, however, that in Luke's account Paul does not mention repentance either. Are we then to conclude that Paul did not consider repentance essential to salvation?

To assume that because a Biblical writer does not mention baptism (or some other particular requirement for salvation) in a summary of a direct address, therefore the speaker could not have considered it important enough to mention, is an unjustified argument from silence. The fact that the Philippian jailer submitted to baptism indicates that it's importance was stressed by Paul, but that that part of the conversation was simply not recorded by Luke.

Regarding the second fact, there is no reason why the New Testament writers and speakers should state every prerequisite of salvation when the situation does not demand it. Thus, Peter does not tell the Pentecost crowd to "believe in Jesus" to be saved, because it was obvious that they already did. Concerning Acts 3:19, Bruce observes, "... nothing is said there about baptism, although it is no doubt implied (the idea of an unbaptized Christian does not seem to be entertained in the New Testament)."

In fact, McIntyre says much the same thing, claiming that the New Testament writers sometimes implied "repentance" when they said "faith." He says, "While some passages [such as John 3:16Acts 10:43] place faith or believing in the place of repentance, that does not present a problem, for repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Interestingly, most commentators see the same link between faith and baptism and between repentance and baptism that McIntyre sees between faith and repentance. For example, Beasley-Murray remarks: 

There is, indeed, much to be said for the contention independently advocated by theologians of varied schools, that in the New Testament faith and baptism are viewed as inseparables whenever the subject of Christian initiation is under discussion, so that if one is referred to, the other is presupposed, even if not mentioned.

Likewise, Bruce says of Acts 2:38, "It would indeed be a mistake to link the words "for the forgiveness of sins" with the command "be baptized" to the exclusion of the prior command to repent."

Now, if the New Testament links faith and repentance inseparably, and, thus, one is implied wherever the other is mentioned in connection with the forgiveness of sin, as McIntyre suggests, it follows that faith, repentance, and baptism are all linked inseparably, even when the link is not expressly stated. To state one as a condition for forgiveness is to imply all three.

The third argument claims that Acts 22:16, which seems to link baptism and forgiveness, is actually speaking symbolically "of washing away sins." McIntyre reasons that because Ananias addressed Saul as "brother" (Acts 9:17) after earlier referring to him as "this man" (9:13), Ananias now considered Saul a fellow Christian. Moreover, the argument goes, since the conversation took place prior to Saul's baptism (9:18), Saul was already forgiven of his sins when he entered the water.

Now, McIntyre admits that the use of the Greek word for "brother," adelphos, "is not limited [in the New Testament] to fellow Christians." In fact, even after his conversion, Paul repeatedly addressed the Jews as "brothers," indicating that they were his countrymen. If Paul could address a mob intent on killing him as "brothers" (Acts 22:1), then surely Ananias, reassured by the Lord (Acts 9:15), could address Saul the same way.

Finally, it is true that there is symbolism in the phrase "washing away your sins," but not as McIntyre understands it. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that our sins are washed away, not by water, but by the blood of Christ. Baptism is clearly symbolic of this cleansing, just as it symbolizes the burial of "our body of sin" with Christ (Romans 6:3-7). Symbolism alone, however, is not sufficient to explain the relationship of baptism to the removal of sin, for Peter declares, "...baptism now saves you..." (1 Peter 3:21), and Paul affirms, "...He saved us, not on the basis of deed which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and the renewing by the Holy Spirit..." (Titus 3:5). Cottrell explains the connection between baptism and forgiveness this way:

At the very least, expressions such as these and the one here in Titus 3:5 must be saying that baptism is the time during which God has saved us.

The language itself would warrant the stronger causal concept, but this is ruled out because (as we have already noted) neither water nor the physical act of baptism can literally cause the dramatic spiritual changes that occur in baptism, and because Scripture specifies that the actual causes of these changes are the blood of Christ and the Holy Spirit.... But there is no reason whatsoever why God could not appoint the act of water baptism as the time during which He promises to work these saving changes through these divine causes. And according to the abundant evidence of the New Testament, He has done this.

Beasley-Murray concurs:

If baptism be an 'instrument of surrender' by one conquered by the love of Christ, it is equally the gracious welcome of the sinner by the Lord who has sought and found him. Consequently, baptism is regarded in Acts as the occasion and means of receiving the blessings conferred by the Lord of the Kingdom. Admittedly, this way of reading the evidence is not characteristic of our thinking, but the intention of the author is tolerably clear.

If the purpose of baptism is clear, why is there so much debate over its relationship to forgiveness? Some Christians mistake baptism for the cause of forgiveness, which is the grace of God, expressed in the sacrificial death of Christ. This leads to a sacramental view of baptism. Other Christians over-react to this mistaken notion, denying baptism its proper role in salvation. I believe both Cottrell and Beasley-Murray correctly indicate the Scriptural view of baptism when they identify it as the time or occasion, and means of receiving forgiveness. Until both sides see baptism in its Scriptural light, the debate will continue unresolved.