A Further Response to Calvin Beisner

Some time ago I wrote a response to Calvin Beisner’s explanation of Acts 2:38 as found in his book “Jesus Only” Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998). That response appears on this BlogSpot in the January 2005 archives.

Recently I discovered that Beisner has written a partial response to my comments as they appeared earlier on a web site at http://www.clc.edu/askdr/Archive/Acts238.htm. Although that site is no longer available, the essence of my comments there is incorporated into the article that appears on this BlogSpot. Beisner’s response can be found at http://www.equip.org/articles/does-acts-2-38-teach-baptismal-remission-.

In his article “Does Acts 2:38” teach baptismal remission, Beisner notes Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox insistence that water baptism itself remits sins. By contrast, he points out that Evangelical churches see baptism’s importance as the sign and seal of justification by faith and as the sacrament that initiates one into the visible church, but not as a means of remission of sins. Finally, he says that “[c]ertain cults and even some descendants of Protestantism . . . have embraced the sacerdotal views of Romanism and Orthodoxy and taught that sins cannot be forgiven apart from baptism, though they have insisted that baptism cannot be effective for remission of sins apart from faith.”

Beisner acknowledges that “[o]n the surface, in English, it seems that Peter [in Acts 2:38] meant that the purpose of baptism was to effect the remission of sins.” Then he quotes from two sources published by the United Pentecostal Church International. One of the quotes, from J. L. Hall’s The United Pentecostal Church and the Evangelical Movement (Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press, 1990) misidentifies the page number (Beisner’s footnote says it is from page 53; it is from page 33) and by being lifted from its context ignores Hall’s emphasis on the necessity of faith. Beisner presents Hall’s statement as follows: “United Pentecostals recognize that water baptism is ‘for the remission of sins’ (Acts 2:38).” The full statement by Hall adds important perspective:

Although United Pentecostals recognize that water baptism is “for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38), they believe that baptism is effective only by faith in Jesus Christ and by calling upon His name, for there is no salvation without faith and the name of Jesus Christ (Hebrew 11:6; Acts 2:21; 4:12; 10:43; 22:16).

Although he appeals to the rootedness of Evangelical churches in the Protestant Reformation, Beisner does not note Hall’s direct quotes from Martin Luther’s Small Catechism that confirm Luther’s belief that baptism “works forgiveness of sins” (Hall, 32). Nor does he acknowledge Hall’s reference to Luther’s recognition of the validity of the use of the words, “I baptize you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Hall, 32).

Beisner argues that lexical and grammatical considerations “undermine the value of Acts 2:38 as evidence for the doctrine of baptismal remission and point to another, more likely interpretation.” As it relates to what he calls “the lexical objection,” Beisner notes that the Webster’s New International Dictionary offers eleven possible definitions for the preposition “for.” He asserts that “baptismal remissionists” assume that “for” as used in Acts 2:38 means “in order to obtain the forgiveness of your sins.” He suggests, however, that one could just as well choose the definition that would mean we are baptized because our sins have been forgiven, so that baptism is a sign of the reality.

The discussion of the English language is interesting, but it is relatively pointless as far as understanding the issues here, since the inspired text is in the Greek language. Beisner moves from a consideration of the English translation to a discussion of the Greek text when he writes, “We can make a similar case about the Greek preposition translated for.” Then he notes that eis, translated “for,” has a variety of possible meanings, one of which is “to denote reference to a person or thing for, to, with respect or reference to” (Walter A. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 2nd ed., trans. William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, rev. F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979], s.v., eis, 230). Then he says, “If this is the meaning of eis in Acts 2:38—and the option cannot be ruled out—then the verse would indicate that baptism is performed with reference to, that is, as a sign or symbol of forgiveness of sins, not for the purpose of or in order to obtain forgiveness of sins.” Even though Beisner makes this point, it is only under the assumption that baptism is connected with remission of sins in Acts 2:38, a connection Beisner thinks unlikely.

What Beisner does not note in his use of Bauer’s lexicon is that the lexicon connects Acts 2:38 with the definition that “denote[s] purpose in order to”: “eis aphesin hamartiōn for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven Mt 26:28; cf. Mk 1:4; Lk 3:3; Ac 2:38” (Bauer, 229). [Throughout this article I am transliterating the Greek due to problems with posting the Greek font to BlogSpot.]

Beisner is of the opinion that the “plausibility of . . . alternative understandings of for reduces the evidential value of Acts 2:38 for the doctrine of baptismal remission of sins.” The article does not concern itself with the meaning of the identical Greek phrase eis aphesin hamartiōn in Matthew 26:28, Mark 1:4, or Luke 3:3 where it is certain that the meaning has to do with effecting the forgiveness of sins. The same phrase appears on the lips of Jesus in Luke 24:47, connecting forgiveness of sins with repentance in a significant anticipation of Peter’s words in Acts 2:38, further indicating the solidarity between repentance and baptism in effecting forgiveness. If the phrase eis aphesin hamartiōn in Acts 2:38 has nothing to do with effecting the forgiveness of sins, this is the only place in the New Testament where it does not. Contrary to Beisner’s opinion, this does not reduce the evidential value of Acts 2:38, nor does it, as Beisner claims, “dispossess the baptismal remissionists of Acts 2:38 as proof of their doctrine.” Instead, the consistent meaning of the phrase everywhere else it is found strengthens the evidential value of Acts 2:38.

But Beisner has another objection to the idea that Acts 2:38 connects baptism and forgiveness. In what he calls “the grammatical objection,” Beisner points out that the verb repent in Peter’s command is a second-person plural, whereas the verb be baptized is third-person singular. Although this is correct, the conclusions drawn are not.

To help his readers get the point of the significance of the second-person plural, Beisner adopts a Southern dialect in his translation, “Y’all repent.” He then points out that in the phrase for the forgiveness of your sins, the word your is second-person plural and offers the translation “for the forgiveness of y’all’s sins.” For Beisner, this means that it is repentance, not baptism, that is connected with the forgiveness of sins. [Since I have commented on this at length in the previous article “A Response to Calvin Beisner’s Explanation of Acts 2:38” which is found in the January 2005 archive of this BlogSpot, I will not deal with it further here, except to point out that his entire argument rests on a textual variant. The word translated “your” (humōn) in the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” appears in the critical text but not in the Majority Text. If humōn in this phrase is not the original reading, Beisner’s entire argument as it relates to excluding baptism from any connection to remission of sin collapses.]

Beisner writes:

Imagine the implications of ignoring this switch from second-person plural to third-person singular and back. Since the command be baptized is third-person singular, and the pronoun your in your sins is second-person plural, the sense would be that each one should be baptized for the forgiveness of not only his own sins but also for the sins of all the others there.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the second-person plural humōn is the original reading, Beisner’s comment begs the question as to what the implication is of making this switch. Using Beisner’s reasoning, the implication would be that all of those present should repent for the forgiveness of the sins of all of those present. This is certainly not Peter’s meaning. Although the ancient Jewish people tended to think in more corporate terms than individualistic cultures, what was done corporately required individual participation. According to Beisner’s perspective, all of those who heard Peter had to repent for the sins of all of those who heard him. Thus, repentance is a group event, whereas baptism is an individual response. That this is Beisner’s understanding is seen in the translations he offers:

In short, the most precise English translation of the relevant clauses, arranging them to reflect the switches in person and number in the verbs, would be, “You (plural) repent for the forgiveness of your (plural) sins, and let each one (singular) of you be baptized (singular) . . . .” Or, to adopt our Southern dialect again, “Y’all repent for the forgiveness of y’all’s sins, and let each of you be baptized . . . .”

Beisner does not note the context of Acts 2:38 in the overall scope of Peter’s message with its rootedness in the book of Joel. [See my paper “This is That: An Examination of Peter’s Use of Joel from the Perspective of Canonical-Compositional Hermeneutics” in the December 2004 archive of this BlogSpot.] Although Joel’s call to repentance was certainly a communal call (see Joel 2:12-13, where plural forms are used), it was a call that required individual participation (see Joel 2:32, where singular forms are used). If Beisner’s reading is followed, would the forgiveness of sins that is effected by communal repentance be invalidated if even one person who heard Peter’s command failed to repent?

It is at this point in the article that Beisner refers to my comments:

Some object to this reasoning by pointing out that be baptized is followed by every one of you (hekastos humōn), and that in that phrase you (humōn) is second-person plural. Wouldn’t it follow, then, that the connection is between this you and the forgiveness of your sins?

That ignores the grammar, too. In Greek, every one of you is comprised of the adjective for each (hekastos), which is used as a noun here, and the partitive genitive pronoun for you (humōn). . . . You identifies the class of which every one is a part. The command [let him] be baptized, moreover, is third-person singular, and its subject is not you but every one. For you to have been the subject of the command to be baptized, it would have to have been in the nominative, or subject, case (humeis), not in the genitive, or possessive, case (humōn), and the command be baptized would have to have been in the second-person plural (baptisesthe), not in the third-person singular (baptistheitō).

This is to over read the function of the partitive genitive. As Dana and Mantey point out, in the use of a partitive genitive, “A noun may be defined by indicating in the genitive the whole of which it is a part” (H. E. Dana and Julius R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955], 79). In another use of the same grammatical structure, Jesus said, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water?” (Luke 13:15, NIV). The word transliterated “hypocrites” is a masculine plural noun in the vocative case. The words translated “each of you” are the same as those found in Acts 2:38: hekastos humōn. Although individuals are addressed, they are addressed as part of a group.

It may be most helpful to understand this point by looking at the use of a similar grammatical structure earlier in Acts 2: “And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language” (Acts 2:6). In this verse, “everyone” is translated from heis hekastos. Heis is a nominative masculine singular, as is hekastos, both here and in Acts 2:38. But the verb translated “heard” (ēkouon) is a third person plural. Although this is not precisely the same grammatical structure as in Acts 2:38, it demonstrates how singular and plural forms can be used together. It is reading too much into the grammar of Acts 2:38 to separate baptism and its effects from repentance and its effects on the basis of singular and plural forms, just as it would be in Acts 2:6 to say that it could not have been all of those who heard the newly Spirit baptized believers speaking in their own languages because “everyone” is translated from singular forms.

This issue is well addressed by A. B. Caneday:

Peter’s double imperative presents the call of the gospel, requiring all to “repent and be baptized . . . for the forgiveness of your sins.” The fact that there is a shift of persons, from second person plural . . . to third person singular . . . hardly warrants restricting connection of the phrase “for the forgiveness of your sins” . . . to “repent” and not to “let each one be baptized.” Actually, the grammatical switch in person and number may intensify the bond between the two imperatives so that they should be read as joined—“repent and let each one be baptized.” Together they bring about what is expressed in the purpose statement, “for the forgiveness of your sins” (A. B. Caneday, “Baptism in the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement,” in Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ [eds. Thomas R. Schreiner and Shawn D. Wright; Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2006], 311-12).

As Beisner brings his article to a close, he mentions that he showed his translation of Acts 2:38 to the late Julius Mantey, who approved his translation and signed his name next to it in the margin of Beisner’s Greek New Testament. This is quite interesting in view of Mantey’s comment on Acts 2:38 in A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament.

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 tōn hamartiōn humōn] 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 works (Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar, 104).

In other words, Mantey recognized the possibility that repentance and baptism could be understood as both connected with the purpose of the remission of sins. His concern was apparently that when baptism was viewed without its early Christian significance as a mere ceremony that resulted in salvation, baptism was no longer a response of faith but a work thought to produce salvation.

Because of his concerns, Mantey suggested what he called an “unusual” meaning for the preposition “for” (eis). His idea was to read eis as “causal” in Acts 2:38. That is, baptism is because of the remission of sins, not for the purpose of remission of sins. (See Dana and Mantey, A Manual Grammar, 104.) Caneday comments:

Many have looked to Julius R. Mantey’s theologically controlled explanation of “unto the forgiveness of sins” . . . as authoritative. He admits that the expression may mean “for the purpose of the remission of sins,” but prefers to adopt what he calls an “unusual meaning,” “because of the remission of sins.” This understanding of the preposition eis (“into, unto”) is lexically doubtful. Murray Harris rightly views the causal sense as “unlikely” (Caneday, Believer’s Baptism, 310).

Beisner’s response to my observations does not settle the issue in favor of his perspective. Instead, it further demonstrates the inadequacy of the idea that Peter connected the forgiveness of sins exclusively with repentance. But if Beisner’s response had indeed proved his point, it would not necessarily have meant that repentance was instrumental in effecting forgiveness, for Beisner is apparently of the opinion that the word “for” (eis) may in Acts 2:38 mean “with reference to, that is, as a sign or symbol of forgiveness of sins, not for the purpose of or in order to obtain forgiveness of sins.” If this were the case, neither baptism nor repentance would have anything to do with forgiveness. Even repentance would be only a sign that our sins had been forgiven prior to repentance.