“Repent, and be baptized every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. . . .” (KJV).

The United Pentecostals Church International (UPCI) uses this passage (among others) to support its view that water baptism MUST be done “in the name of Jesus” only to be valid. Since the UPCI theology holds to the idea that Jesus IS the “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit.” The UPCI’s position is clear: Peter commands new converts to (a) repent be water baptized and (b) be baptized only by way of the exact formula: “in the name of Jesus.” Therefore, as the UPCI asserts, the remission or forgiveness of sins is accomplished only by water baptism “in the name of Jesus,” and repentance. However, only by disregarding the historical context and particular grammar, can the UPCI hold to such a heterodox view. Furthermore, the doctrine of baptismal regeneration controverts the theology of Luke (e.g., Acts 10:43). Even so, UPCI leader David Bernard remarks on the necessity of water baptism, as he understands Acts 2:38:

We should remember that water baptism is administered because of our past life of sin; it is for the ‘remission of sins’ (Acts 2:38). Since the name of Jesus is the only saving name (Acts 4:12), it is logical that the name be used in baptism (The Oneness of God, 139).

In proper biblical interpretation: Context governs word meanings. This is a vital point in exegesis. In other words, whatever Acts 2:38 is saying, it cannot oppose the NT as a whole in which the constant theme is justification (salvation) is through faith (as the sole instrument), apart from works—any works, such as the work of water baptism (cf. John 5:24; Rom. 4:4-8; 5:1; 1 Cor. 1:17, 30-31; Eph. 2:8-10; 1 John 5:1 et al).   

Note, that there at least four acceptable interpretations of the passage. However, of the interpretations offered by competent Christian theologians, none provide for baptismal regeneration. Thus, Paul says: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel. . . .” (1 Cor. 1:17).  

For example, noted Greek grammarian J. R. Mantey offers one such acceptable interpretation. He argued that the preposition eis (“for”) could be causal, hence the passage could read: “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized—each one of you—at the name of Jesus Christ because of/for/unto the forgiveness of your sins.’” In other words, the preposition eis should be translated “because of,” or “in view of” not “in order to” or “for the purpose of” forgiveness of sins. But keep in mind there is at least four different interpretations of Acts 2:38. Mantey believed that a salvation by grace would be violated if a causal eis were not evident in such passages as Acts 2:38. This way of handling the text is also concurred by one of the world’s premium and most quoted NT Greek grammarians A. T. Robertson:

My view is decidedly against the idea that Peter, Paul, or any one in the NT taught baptism as essential to the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission. So I understand Peter to be urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented) and for it to be done in the name of Jesus Christ on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received (Word Pictures, 3:35-36).

There is also another grammatical aspect to be considered. There is a shift from second person plural to third person singular and back to second person plural. Notice below:

  1. The verb “repent” (metanoēsate) is second person plural and is in the active voice.
  2. And “be baptized” (baptisthētō) is third person singular and is in the passive voice.
  3. The Greek pronoun translated “your” (humōn) is in a second person plural.

 Therefore, the grammatical connection is: “repent” (active plural) with “your” (active plural) as in “for the remission of your [humōn] sins” and not “be baptized” (passive singular) with “for the remission of your sins.” Moreover, the same wording “for the remission of your sins” is used in reference to John’s baptism (cf. Luke 3:3; Mark 1:4) and that baptism did not save, it was a preparatory baptism and of the coming Messiah and a call to repentance, as we will deal with below. An additional view, however, is that baptism represents both the spiritual reality and the ritual which is an acceptable view that works well in the scope of the context.

Notwithstanding the different shades of interpretation, which in fact do not contradict, but only enhance—they are all in accord with good exegesis. Contrary to the UPCI position, which violates not only the theology in Acts (e.g., 10:43) but also the entire theology of the NT (e.g., John 6:47; Rom. 4:4ff.; Gal. 2:16).

Lastly, in Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics, foremost Greek scholar Daniel Wallace provides insightful comments regarding the four main interpretations of Acts 2:38:

  1. Causal εἰς [eis, “for”] in Acts 2:38? An interesting discussion over the force of εἰς took place several years ago, especially in relation to Acts 2:38. The text reads as follows:

Πέτρος δὲ πρὸς αὐτούς Μετανοήσατε, φησίν καὶ βαπτισθήτω ἕκαστος ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματι Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ εἰς ἄφεσιν τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ὑμῶν. . . . (“And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized—each one of you—at the name of Jesus Christ because of/for/unto the forgiveness of your sins…”).

On the one hand, J. R. Mantey argued that εἰς could be used causally in various passages in the NT, among them Matt 3:11 and Acts 2:38. It seems that Mantey believed that a salvation by grace would be violated if a causal εἰς was not evident in such passages as Acts 2:38.

On the other hand, Ralph Marcus questioned Mantey’s nonbiblical examples of a causal εἰς so that in his second of two rejoinders he concluded (after a blow-by-blow refutation): It is quite possible that εἷς is used causally in these NT passages but the examples of causal εἰς cited from non-biblical Greek contribute absolutely nothing to making this possibility a probability. If, therefore, Professor Mantey is right in his interpretation of various NT passages on baptism and repentance and the remission of sins, he is right for reasons that are non- linguistic. Marcus ably demonstrated that the linguistic evidence for a causal εἷς fell short of proof.  

If a causal εἷς is not in view, what are we to make of Acts 2:38? There are at least four other interpretations of Acts 2:38. 1) The baptism referred to here is physical only, and εἰς has the meaning of for or unto. Such a view, if this is all there is to it, suggests that salvation is based on works. The basic problem of this view is that it runs squarely in the face of the theology of Acts, namely: (a) repentance precedes baptism (cf. Acts 3:19; 26:20), and (b) salvation is entirely a gift of God, not procured via water baptism (Acts 10:43 [cf. v 47]; 13:38-39, 48; 15:11; 16:30-31; 20:21; 26:18).

2) The baptism referred to here is spiritual only. Although such a view fits well with the theology of Acts, it does not fit well with the obvious meaning of “baptism” in Acts—especially in this text (cf. 2:41).

3) The text should be repunctuated in light of the shift from second person plural to third person singular back to second person plural again. If so, it would read as follows: “Repent, and let each one of you be baptized at the name of Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of your sins. . . .” If this is the correct understanding, then εἰς is subordinate to Μετανοήσατε alone, rather than to βαπτισθήτω. The idea then would be, “Repent for/with reference to your sins, and let each one of you be baptized.…” Such a view is an acceptable way of handling εἰς, but its subtlety and awkwardness are against it.

4) Finally, it is possible that to a first-century Jewish audience (as well as to Peter), the idea of baptism might incorporate both the spiritual reality and the physical symbol. In other words, when one spoke of baptism, he usually meant both ideas—the reality and the ritual. Peter is shown to make the strong connection between these two in chapters 10 and 11. In 11:15-16 he recounts the conversion of Cornelius and friends, pointing out that at the point of their conversion they were baptized by the Holy Spirit. After he had seen this, he declared, “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit…” (10:47). The point seems to be that if they have had the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit via spiritual baptism, there ought to be a public testimony/acknowledgment via water baptism as well. This may not only explain Acts 2:38 (viz., that Peter spoke of both reality and picture, though only the reality removes sins), but also why the NT speaks of only baptized believers (as far as we can tell): Water baptism is not a cause of salvation, but a picture; and as such it serves both as a public acknowledgment (by those present) and a public confession (by the convert) that one has been Spirit-baptized.

In sum, although Mantey’s instincts were surely correct that in Luke’s theology baptism was not the cause of salvation, his ingenious solution of a causal εἰς lacks conviction. There are other ways for us to satisfy the tension, but adjusting the grammar to answer a backward-looking “Why?” has no more basis than the notion that εἰς ever meant mere representation.”

Final thoughts: the fundamental problem with the groups who embrace baptismal regeneration is that their view challenges Paul’s main thesis that “God credits righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6) and justification is through faith (sole instrument) alone (not by works). Although the “work” of water baptism is a biblical commandment, it is a work that man does. It does not contribute in any way, shape, or form to the atoning work of God the Son (gospel), which is the very ground (cause) of justification. So Paul says to the Corinthian church: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel. . . .” (1 Cor. 1:17).