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Forward, Not Back

by Tim O'Hearn

I am not a Greek scholar. I have learned some Greek; perhaps just enough to make me dangerous. I do, however, know English grammar. During first year Greek classes when I was in college, the first part of the class was English grammar, figuring that even American students did not know enough about their grammar to understand Greek grammar. Although there are some minor differences, one who knows English grammar well can handle an understanding of the variations. That said, there is a common argument in Christian religious circles that just does not hold water because it is grammatically and linguistically incorrect.

Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. (Acts 2:38)

There are those who will argue that “for the remission” in this passage means “because of remission.” The argument continues that immersion in water is not necessary for salvation because it is something we do because we have been saved, if we do it at all.

If we were just dealing with English grammar, this might be a possible argument. The English word “for” can mean “because of” or “for the purpose of,” depending on context (which doesn’t help here). “I paid for the hamburger” can mean that I have already eaten the meal and am now paying for it, or it can mean that I paid in anticipation of receiving a sandwich. The context might depend on whether you were eating at Applebees or McDonalds. Other than that Peter was speaking to a group of people who had not previously put their faith in Jesus, we don’t have sufficient context to determine the precise meaning.

Enter language itself. The Greek word eis, translated “for” in this verse, is commonly understood to mean “unto,” “into,” or “toward.” In over 1,500 uses of the word in scripture, it never looks backward. It would be strange, indeed, if this were the only time among all those uses in which it would mean “because of.” Linguistically and grammatically it must mean here that baptism is for the purpose of, or to the end that, you may receive the remission of sins.

If this were the only verse linking something to salvation with the word eis, then this position, strong though it may be, could still be questioned. But when you look at other passages that use the same word, the argument is only strengthened. What else is “eis salvation?”

Paul says the gospel is “the power of God unto salvation.” (Rom 1:16) Does anyone claim that the death, burial, resurrection, and post-resurrection appearances of Jesus (which Paul says is the gospel) occurred because we already had salvation? If so, then his death is meaningless.

For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. (Romans 10:10)

While one might weakly argue that one might make confession because of salvation, it would be hard to argue that one believes because he is already righteous. If that were the case, then faith is of little value; you can be righteous without it. If faith looks forward, why not immersion?

Peter also talks about “faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Pet 1:5) If that salvation is “ready to be revealed,” it is not yet revealed and the faith must necessarily be looking forward, not backward.

Finally, Paul told the Jews in Pisidian Antioch that he and Barnabas were set as “a light of the Gentiles, that thou shouldest be for salvation unto the ends of the earth.” (Acts 13:47) If the Gentiles had already received salvation, then Paul could have saved himself stoning, beatings, shipwrecks, and imprisonments by staying at home. He was “preaching to the choir.”

No, in none of these cases does eis mean “because of.” How, then, can one say that baptism is because one has already received remission of sins? It makes as much sense as saying Millard Fillmore was elected because he was already President of the United States.