A Response to Calvin Beisner’s Explanation of Acts 2:38

E. Calvin Beisner in his book “Jesus Only” Churches (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998) writes:
“Acts 2:38 does not teach that baptism is indispensable to remission of sins,(a) Grammatically, the command to be baptized is not connected with the promise of remission of sins. (i) The Greek verb translated repent is second person plural and in the active voice. (ii) The Greek verb translated be baptized is third person singular and in the passive voice. (iii) The Greek pronoun translated your (in “remission of your sins”) is second person plural. (iv) Therefore, the grammatical connection is between repent and for the remission of your sins, not between be baptized and for the remission of your sins” (page 58). 
In response, I would like to point out that there are two things to consider in interpreting Acts 2:38. First is the textual evidence; second is the grammar.

As it relates to the textual evidence, the Textus Receptus (Received Text), upon which the King James Version and the New King James Version are based, does not include the second “your” (humon), nor does the Majority Text. The critical text followed by most modern English translations does include the second “your” in the phrase “for the remission of your sins.” This is interesting, for the critical text usually prefers the shorter reading. In this case, the longer reading is adopted by the critical text on the view that the shorter reading (without the second “your”) is “conformation to the solemn formula of the Gospels, not an original shorter reading” (see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [Stuttgart: United Bible Societies, Corrected Edition, 1975], 301).

If the Textus Receptus and/or Majority Text reflect the original reading, there is no textual basis to suggest that the phrase “remission of sins” is connected only to repentance. But if the critical text reflects the original reading, does that connect “remission of your sins” only to repentance?

Here are the grammatical facts:

Petros [Peter] de [then] pros [to] autous [them: accusative masculine third person plural pronoun] Metanoesate [repent: aorist active imperative second person plural verb] phesin [said: present active indicative third person singular verb] kai [and] baptistheto [let be baptized: aorist passive imperative third person singular verb] hekastos[each: nominative masculine singular pronominal] humon [of you: genitive second person plural pronoun] epi [in: dative preposition] toi[the: dative neuter singular definite article] onomati [name: dative neuter singular noun] Iesou [Jesus: genitive masculine singular noun] Christou [Christ: genitive masculine singular noun] eis [for: accusative preposition] aphesin [forgiveness: accusative feminine singular noun] ton [of the: genitive feminine plural definite article] hamartion [sins: genitive feminine plural noun] humon [of you: genitive second person plural pronoun]. NOTE: This follows the critical Greek text; the second humon is not in the Textus Receptus or the Majority Text; it is found in the critical text].

Is Beisner’s claim accurate?

One wonders if he is completely convinced by his own argument, for he goes on to write: “…even if water baptism is connected with remission of sins, the sense is not that baptism is in order to obtain but rather with reference to (i.e., as a sign of, or because of) the remission of our sins. In other words, eis would denote only that baptism is related somehow to the remission of sins; it would not tell us the nature of that relationship” (page 59).

It seems that Beisner is willing to allow eis to mean “in order to obtain” only if the phrase “for the remission of sins” is connected exclusively to repentance. If it is connected to baptism, he is willing to allow only the meaning “with reference to.”

There can be no guarantee that the critical text, with its second humon, is the original text. If it is not, Beisner’s argument that remission of sins is connected only to repentance fails. But let’s assume for the sake of discussion that the critical text is the original reading.

Beisner’s argument is based on the fact that in Greek grammar, pronouns must agree with their antecedents in number. If the antecedent is plural, the pronoun must be plural. Since the command to repent is in the second person plural, and since the command to be baptized is in the third person singular, he reasons that the pronoun “your” in the phrase “for the remission of your sins” must have the command to repent as its antecedent.

His argument fails on a simple point: The pronoun “your” [humon] in the phrase “for the remission of your sins” is the second pronoun “your” [humon] in the sentence. The first humon appears in all Greek texts in the phrase “let each of you [humon] be baptized.” In this phrase, the antecedent of humon is the phrase “let each…be baptized.” In other words, even though the command to be baptized is in the third person singular, the plural humon is used to show that this command is to all of those present, even though they are addressed individually. Everything Peter said in this verse was said to “them” [autous], a third person plural pronoun. The antecedent of the first humon is singular, but it is understood as plural because it refers to all present.

It may be that Peter used the second person plural in his command to repent because the Jewish people generally thought in corporate terms; the prophets frequently called for national repentance. As a nation, the Jews had rejected Jesus. This was evident in Peter’s sermon. As a nation, they needed to repent. Of course, if the nation repented, the individuals were repenting as well. But baptism is not something that can be done corporately. It is an individual thing. Still, all of them were to be baptized. Since the first humon in Acts 2:38 refers undeniably to the command to be baptized, there is no grammatical reason that the second humon must have a different antecedent. There is no rule of Greek grammar that requires this. In fact, although the Greek language does not depend on word order to establish meaning, the ordinary connection of a pronoun would be to the closest antecedent, so long as that is grammatically possible. In this case, it is possible, and the closest antecedent is the command to be baptized.

If Beisner’s claim were accurate, and if eis does denote “in order to obtain,” as he is willing to allow so long as it is connected only with repentance, the verse would nowhere address the issue of personal, individual sin. The meaning would be something like, “Repent corporately…for the remission of your corporate sins.” There would be, in this case, no purpose at all expressed for baptism; it would simply be an individual act of obedience.

To follow Beisner’s treatment of Acts 2:38 a bit farther, he writes: “(b) The phrase for the remission of your sins need not mean ‘in order to obtain the remission of your sins.’ (i) For translates eis, a preposition with many meanings.” [At this point Beisner inserts a footnote to support his statement that eis has many meanings; the footnote points to Bauer, Lexicon, 228-30.]

As I pointed out above, this seems to indicate that Beisner is not convinced by his own argument about humon. If eis does not mean at this point “in order to obtain,” nothing in the verse is connected with the purpose of obtaining forgiveness, including repentance. In this case, would the command to repent mean something like “repent…with reference to the remission of your sins”? It is contextually evident from the general tenor of Peter’s sermon that he is commanding his hearers to take specific action that will result in the forgiveness of their sins. At the point he made his commands, their sins were not yet forgiven.

What is especially fascinating about Beisner’s last quote above is that the very reference he offers to indicate that eis need not mean “in order to obtain” specifically offers Acts 2:38 as an example of eis being used to mean “for forgiveness of sins, so that sins might be forgiven.” This is an example of the use of eis “to denote purpose in order to,” according to Bauer. (See Walter Bauer, translated by William F. Arndt and F. Wilbur Gingrich, revised and augmented by F. Wilbur Gingrich and Frederick W. Danker from Walter Bauer’s Fifth Edition, 1958, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Second Edition [Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979], page 229, f.)

A.T. Robertson, one of the most highly respected Greek grammarians of the twentieth century, wrote concerning the phrase eis aphesin ton hamartion humon [for the remission of your sins]: “One will decide the use here according as he believes that baptism is essential to the remission of sins or not” (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Volume III, The Acts of the Apostles [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1930], 35-36).

Robertson did not believe baptism is essential to the remission of sins, but he recognized it as a grammatical possibility in the verse. There is nothing in the verse to require the connection of the remission of sins with repentance alone.

I think Richard N. Longenecker’s statement is accurate:

“Peter calls on his hearers to “repent” (metanoesate). This word implies a complete change of heart and the confession of sin. With this he couples the call to “be baptized” (baptistheto), thus linking both repentance and baptism with the forgiveness of sins” (Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. Ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, volume 9 [Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981], 283; at the time this commentary was published, Longenecker [A.B., Wheaton College; A.M., Wheaton Graduate School; Ph.D., University of Edinburgh (New College)], was Professor of New Testament, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto).
To summarize: If the second humon in Acts 2:38 is not original, Beisner’s argument ceases to exist. If it is original, there is no grammatical requirement that connects the remission of sins only to repentance. If the first humon is connected with baptism, and it is, there is no reason the second humon could not also be connected with baptism. In general, it seems best to understand everything Peter said to be addressed to the entire group present on the Day of Pentecost. All of them were to repent; each [another way of saying “all” with the emphasis on individual responsibility] was to be baptized, with both the repentance and baptism connected with the purpose of the remission of sins.