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Acts 2:38 "baptism" analysis

(Garth D. Wiebe, Jan 2014, second paragraph added April 2015, png updated, other minor edits, multiple times in May 2015, Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38 explicitly quoted, and Acts 19 example added May 2017, video added Aug 2017, illustrative references to "drowning" removed Oct 2017 - Thanks, Robert, "reverse-eisegesis" back-translation examples added Nov 2017)

(Also see 1 Peter 3:21 "baptism" analysis.)

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It is important to know that the word "baptize" is just an English transliteration (letter for letter, sound for sound) of the Koine Greek word "βαπτιζω" ("baptizo") which simply means "immerse." It is not even a religious word. You can say, "Honey, you need to baptize the dirty dishes in that tub of soapy water for at least a few minutes if you want to get that dried-on tomato sauce off."

The transliteration (rather than translation) of the Koine Greek word can be attributed to the Roman Catholic Church in the fourth century, and particularly St. Jerome's Latin Vulgate translation of the scriptures in 405 A.D. Searching the Perseus online classical library, you will see that the Latin word baptizo did not exist until the late fourth century, and was only used in a religious context. By contrast, Latin already had a word for "immerse/immersion" and that was immergo, mergo, and related words. A simple Google Translate lookup can also show the English/Latin equivalents. About a thousand years later, John Wycliffe, who did not know Greek, but only Latin, translated the Latin Vulgate into English, transliterating it again. Later English translations would repeat this tradition. But if you do a similar search on the Greek word βαπτιζω in the classical literature, you will find that it is not an exclusively religious word.

Today we hear "baptize" and we think "religious." In ancient Greek you heard "baptize" and you thought "immerse" (like, "immerse those forks, knives, and spoons and let them soak for a while"). See Mark 7:4 and Luke 11:38, for example (the issue of "baptizing" before eating) where the Koine Greek word occurs, yet is not translated "baptize" in English translations. Using the word "baptize,"

"And from the marketplace, except they should be baptized, are not eating, and many other things which they accept to be holding, baptisms of cups and vessels and copper dishes and couches." (Mark 7:4)

"But the Pharisee, noticing that Jesus was not first baptized before the meal, was surprised." (Luke 11:38)
Not only that, what we do when we physically "baptize" people in water is more like the Greek word "βαπτω" ("bapto") = "dip" (a word used in Luke 16:24, John 13:26, Rev 19:13, LXX Ex 12:22, Lev 4:6,17, 9:9, and 14 other places in the LXX), which means to momentarily put something into and then bring it out of the liquid. If the scriptures really wanted to emphasize or limit the meaning to what we do in "water baptism" they would have used "bapto" = "dip," not "baptizo" = "immerse," because "baptizo" implies that you are immersing in order to cause some change in the thing you are immersing. The "-ιζ" part of the word in Greek works just like "-ize" on words in English. If I "dip" someone, then that's one thing, but if I "dip-ize" them, then you wonder what that did to them. Yet the sacrament of "water baptism" causes no permanent change to the physical body; the body isn't even under long enough to clean the physical dirt off!

Thayer comments,

"The clearest example that shows the meaning of baptizo is a text from the Greek poet and physician Nicander, who lived about 200 B.C. It is a recipe for making pickles and is helpful because it uses both words. Nicander says that in order to make a pickle, the vegetable should first be 'dipped' (bapto) into boiling water and then 'baptised' (baptizo) in the vinegar solution."
Note that the word "βαπτιζω" ("baptizo") fundamentally means "immerse," not "immerse and then un-immerse." When we get "immersed" into the various things that the scriptures are really talking about ("body of Christ," "pardon of sins," "death," etc.), we stay immersed.

At the risk of getting a little silly, allow me to invent a new English word, transliterated based on the Greek word "βαπτω" ("bapto") = "dip." My new English word is "bapt." So, did you get "bapted" in water? Did the person making a disciple out of you promptly "bapt" you in water when he decided that you believed? Did he follow the proper procedures when "bapting" you in water? Where did you get "bapted," in a church "baptry," or in a lake? What words did you recite, before and after you got "bapted?" Having been "bapted," do you think you will ever get "bapted" again?

You have to look deeper into the scriptures than just to say "I assume that's talking about water baptism." If you do hastily identify all those scriptures fundamentally with "water dipping," then you are reverting to an old covenant mentality of focusing on a ritual, with curses if you don't do it, or don't do it the right way, and blessings if you do it, and do it the right way. Are we truly free from the old covenant way of thinking, or are we left with one legal commandment, "Thou shalt 'bapt' and get 'bapted' in water"? Did Jesus say, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, bapting them in water??" (Matt 28:19 ??) Did John the Baptist say, "After me one is coming who is mightier than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not fit to untie. I "bapt" you in water, but he will "bapt" you in water again??" (Mark 1:7-8 ??). Or how about Acts 1:5 "For John bapted in water, but in a few days you will be bapting people again."?

Enough silliness. I'm not getting "bapt" into the English dictionary, "dipping people in water" is literally and physically what we do in the Christian sacrament, and the Greek word for "baptize" means "immerse." So the question becomes, what then do we "immerse" in? The Holy Spirit? The body of Christ? What? Well, you have to read each scripture in context.

Let's look at Acts 2:38, which is the #1 favorite "you-bet-your-water-baptismal-regeneration" proof-text of "water baptism is necessary for salvation" that sends shivers down a lot of people's spines.

The text is:

μετανοησατε και βαπτισθητω εκαστος υμων επι τω ονοματι ιησου χριστου εις αφεσιν αμαρτιων και ληψεσθε την δωρεαν του αγιου πνευματος
Transliterated into Roman font:
"metanoesate kai baptistheto ekastos umon epi to onomati iesou christou eis aphesin amartion kai lepsesthe ten dorean tou agiou pneumatos"
Literally, word for word,
"You(plural) repent (aorist active, imperative, 2nd person, plural) and let-be-immersed (aorist passive, imperative, 3rd person, singular) each of-you(plural) upon the name of-Jesus Christ into pardon of sins and you(plural)-shall-be-obtaining (future tense) the gratuity of the Holy Spirit."
What are each of them to be immersed (aorist tense) into here? Well, that's easy, because it says right there: "into" (Greek εις = "into") "pardon of sins." And when will that happen? When their minds/thinking change, using μετανοησατε ("metanoesate"), aorist tense, based on what he was just preaching to them about Jesus.

The indefinite, aorist verb tense in Koine Greek specifies state, not action, fact rather than act, what "is" rather than an event or process happening in time. It doesn't say when it happens, and it doesn't say that it will ever stop happening. It is time indefinite. "Aorist" was the ancient Greeks' definition for the verb tense, and not a modern scholar's definition (see LSJ "ἀόριστ-ος," definition II.3.). The word "aorist" is from Greek α-οριστος ("a-oristos"), where "a" = "without," and "oristos" = "defined boundary." Strong's G3724 (οριζω) is the verb form used in α-οριζω (a-[h]orizo). We get the English transliteration "horizon" from this Greek word (without the "a-"). A "horizon" is a fixed boundary that can be viewed a reference point. "A-orist" has no reference point. It is indefinite. Note in the above that the "-ist- part of the word obviously works like in English. (As an analogy, βαπτιζω/βαπτισμα/βαπτιστης (baptizo/baptisma/baptistes) = "baptize/baptism/baptist" would correspond to οριζω/οριον/οριστος ("[h]orizo/[h]orion/[h]oristos") = "bound-ize/boundary/bound-ist." So, "aorist" literally is the "a-bound-ist" verb tense, like John was a "bapt-ist.")

In English, if I said "I play the piano," you would say that "play" is present tense. But if we were having a conversation about music, and I wasn't playing the piano at the time, and I just interjected the statement "I play the piano," then you would understand that I am making a declaration to the effect that I am a piano player. I am not saying that I played the piano yesterday, that I am playing it now, or that I will play the piano tomorrow. "I play the piano" now becomes a statement of fact, an attribute that applies to me. In English, this would be an example of the Koine Greek "aorist," but there is no verb conjugation in the English grammar to specify it, whereas in Koine Greek there is! See this post for more detailed discussion of this.

In Acts 2:38 "metanoesate" (aorist tense) means that they are being told to have a change of mind, which will result in each of them being immersed (aorist tense) into "pardon of sins," and we understand that this is time indefinite. The state of change of mind ("repentance") causes a state of being immersed into "pardon of sins." A change of state occurred, not an action in time. Just like I am a "piano player," they are "immersed."

Again, just read the scripture literally. The declaration is that they become "immersed" "into" "pardon of sins." Not water (which they would soon be "dipped" into), but "pardon of sins." That is what the scripture says.

What's the context? Peter is addressing Jews attending the feast of Pentecost. What were they immersed in up to this point? The Law of Moses. 1 Cor 10:2 literally says εβαπτισαντο ("ebaptisanto") = "immersed [themselves]" (aorist, middle voice), εις ("eis") = "into," τον ("ton") = "the," μωυσην ("Mousen") = "Moses", which meant rule consciousness, which was meant to increase sin consciousness and guilt consciousness. In 1 Cor 10:2 the verb is "middle voice" which means that those people in the days of Moses immersed themselves. ("Middle voice," a construct which we do not have an equivalent for in English, means to act such as to be acted upon).

In fact, in the verse before Acts 2:38 they now realize their guilt when Peter says that they (not Pilate, but they, the people there at Pentecost) εσταυρωσατε ("estaurosate") = "crucify" (aorist tense) Jesus (Acts 2:36), and now are asking "what shall we be doing (present tense)" (Acts 2:37). The answer is μετανοησατε ("metanoesate") = a "change of mind/thinking (aorist tense)" which will instead result in them being βαπτισθητω ("baptistheto") = "immersed" (aorist tense) into "pardon of sins" (Acts 2:38).

The exact inflection in Acts 2:38 is:

βαπτισθητω ("baptistheto"): Aorist passive imperative
Note that it is not this:
βαπτισεσθω ("baptisestho"): Present passive imperative
He is not telling each of them to "get immersed" or that they must "be being immersed," but declaring the fact that it shall be, i.e. "let-be-immersed."

Nor does it say, "get dipped" or "be being dipped":

βαπτεσθω ("baptestho"): Present passive imperative
Nor does it say, "get dipped in water," or "be being dipped in water":
βαπτεσθω εν υδατι" ("baptestho en hydati")
Koine Greek had the words to say "let get baptized" or "let get dipped," and Koine Greek had a word for "water." The scripture could have said that.

But that's not what he said. He didn't say either "get immersed," or "get dipped," or "get dipped in water." He declared that they would "be immersed into pardon of sins." How? By repenting (having a change of mind/thinking).

There is even another point denoted by the grammar.

In English, we only have an imperative mood of a verb in the 2nd person ("you"). If we were to say, "Be immersed," then this statement would be directed at an implied "you" (singular or plural), as an implied subject of the verb: "[you] Be immersed." In Koine Greek, there is also an inflection, a verb conjugation, for the imperative mood in the 3rd person: "[he/she/it] Be immersed." (if singular), or "[they] Be immersed." (if plural). This is not exactly translatable, so that is why you see "let-be-immersed."

Again, the exact inflection of the word in Acts 2:38 is:

βαπτισθητω ("baptistheto"): Aorist passive imperative, 3rd person, singular
It is not this:
βαπτισθητι ("baptistheti"): Aorist passive imperative, 2nd person, singular
So, you can see that he is not even actually addressing those who will be immersed. He is declaring that it shall be so.

This point cannot be emphasized enough: The command is directed at the crowd (people, plural) to change their minds/thinking. It is a "declaration" by Peter that each of them will be "immersed" "into" "pardon of sins" by doing so.

Two verses before, in Acts 2:36, we see the context of what Peter hit the Jews at Pentecost with, and that in Acts 2:38 he was actually responding to a question that the Jews at Pentecost were asking.

What Peter actually said in Acts 2:36 was,

You εσταυρωσατε ("estaurosate") = "crucify" (aorist tense) Jesus
Peter did not say in Acts 2:36,
You σεσταυρωκατε ("sestaurokate") = "have crucified" (perfect tense) Jesus
They replied, in Acts 2:37, "what should we do?" This is using the word ποιησωμεν ("poiesOmen"), which means "do, make, practice, produce," which is a word denoting action or performance.

Peter replied in Acts 2:38,

[You] μετανοησατε ("metanoesate") = "change [your] mind/thinking" (aorist active, imperative).
The mis-translation "crucified" would imply an action in the past, whereas Peter was really describing their state. In other words, being under the Old Covenant, they were in an indefinite state of being responsible for crucifying Jesus. If he had said "have crucified" (perfect tense) then at least some number of them would have had a right to say, "We weren't there. Pilate and his soldiers crucified him, and we weren't part of the mob telling him to. So we are innocent of that conspiracy." Instead, Peter applies the guilty verdict to all of them.

They then respond with "what shall we do," implying that they wanted to know what works that they needed to perform as a consequence. This would be a natural question for someone to ask under the Old Covenant of the Law. Peter's response is to instead urge them to change their minds/thinking (i.e. "state").

This all applies to us now. Jesus paid for all sins, past, present, future. Either we are "immersed into pardon of sins" or we "crucify" Jesus, past, present, future, by going back into an Old Covenant, rule/performance mentality. Jesus paid for the guilt of the rules broken under the Old Covenant, and fulfilled the Old Covenant, making it now obsolete.

Being "immersed into pardon of sins," we obtained the "gratuity" of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), fulfilling the prophecy of Jer 31:33 that he would write the "law" of the New Covenant literally "in-within-of-them and-on heart-of-them."

Are you still immersed into "pardon of sins" right now? I hope so!

The state of your "baptism" = "immersion" into "pardon of sins" continues from the point that you changed your thinking, regardless of whether or not you were dipped in water by those who discipled you. You believe that Jesus pardoned all sins, and now you live like you believe, by the indwelling and power of the Holy Spirit, under the New Covenant.

Well, so much for Acts 2:38 sending shivers of fear of judgment down people's spines. ("Oh my! I must get baptized in water or else I have committed a sin of omission, a serious sin probably, am guilty, maybe not forgiven, maybe will be judged, maybe condemned..."). No! Did you change your mind and believe the good news that Jesus paid for all sins? Well, consider yourself immersed into "pardon of sins"!

Here's the ultimate irony of all the wrong thinking about Acts 2:38: If you are feeling guilty about not conforming to a rule or performing a ritual act, perhaps in fear of judgment, wondering if you have even committed an unpardonable sin of omission by not dipping or getting dipped in water, then that corresponds to NOT being "immersed into the pardon of sins." You are either guilty, or pardoned. Which is it? Decide! If you are "immersed into pardon of sins" then you must consider yourself "not guilty."

Therefore, Acts 2:38 implicitly speaks against the idea that water is somehow required in connection with the pardon of sins! The very scripture that some people evoke to legalistically create the rule speaks against the rule, and supports the teaching of what we have become in Christ, instead!

Were the Acts 2:38 audience also dipped in water? Well, we definitely assume so, even though water is not mentioned, because of the pattern, practice, and precedent already well established, besides that the act of water baptism is such a clear object lesson and public, physical, identification and representation of Christian conversion. But note that Acts 2:38 does not say "water."

Read the Bible. It is the Word of God. The Word of God in Acts 2:38 does not say "water."

Even if I lost you with all that Greek, Acts 2:38 does not say "water." Even if you didn't even learn or remember a bit of English grammar in school, Acts 2:38 does not say "water."

Acts 2:41, three verses down, is of the same issue. The word there is εβαπτισθησαν ("ebaptisthesan"), which is aorist passive. Scripture declares them to be in an immersed state.

If Acts 2:41 were meaning to be just a past action, the "perfect passive" inflection would be βεβαπτιζηνται ("bebaptizentai"), meaning that the action has been done and completed and is now the past. But scripture doesn't use that word, even though it could. And if it meant to say that they were "dipped" and that action has been done and completed and in the past, then that would be βεβαπτηνται ("bebaptentai"). But Scripture doesn't use that word, either, even though it could.

Again, even if I lost you with all that Greek, Acts 2:41 does not say "water." Even if you didn't even learn or remember a bit of English grammar in school, Acts 2:41 does not say "water."

I've had people cut me off and say that they only want to discuss what the English translation literally says. At that point I say that the English translation literally doesn't mention water, so the discussion about water baptism is literally over.

There's also the issue in Acts 2:38 of "εις" being translated "for" instead of "into" in most English translations. The figurative rendering of "for" for εις, instead of the literal rendering "into," presupposes water baptism. Obviously, if that were the case, then the "into" would be water, leaving "forgiveness of sins" to be somehow related to that water baptism. That is why translators who assume this point translate εις as "for." If you still insist on having it that way, I pointed out a long time ago in my older, 1995 article, that "for" can mean either "on account of" or "in order to accomplish" in English (e.g. "I bought him a lawn mower for his birthday," vs. "The lawn mower was for cutting the grass." The lawn mower does not cause the birthday that it is "for;" the birthday causes the lawn mower to come forth. However, the lawn mower causes the lawn to be cut.) And if you want to insist on "for" being read as "in order to accomplish," then it's still all messed up, because "each" of them can't be immersed to obtain the "forgiveness of sins" of all of them; he addresses the crowd (plural) about repentance and forgiveness but refers to "each" of them about being immersed.

It would be easy to back-translate into Greek what so many people are trying to make the scripture mean. Koine Greek is so simple, concise, and straightforward, that I have found this very easy to do in cases like this. Let's try this exercise of "reverse-eisegesis," so to speak.

For those who want to say that water baptism causes one to receive the forgiveness of sins:

βαπτισθητι εν υδατι ινα ληψεσθε αφεσιν αμαρτιων
baptisthenti en udati ina lepsesthe aphesin amartion

"be baptized in water so that you will receive the forgiveness of sins"
Here I changed the imperative "immerse" from third person to second person to match the normal English imperative, then added the prepositional phrase εν υδατι, "in water," then the conjunction ινα, which is causative and means "in order that (denoting the purpose or result)" -- see Strong's G2443 or any lexicon, then the same word ληψεσθε that was used in Acts 2:38 with regard to getting the gratuity of the Holy Spirit, and then αφεσιν αμαρτιων, "forgiveness of sins." Very simple. But the scriptures don't say that.

For those who want to say that water baptism is performed because of the forgiveness of sins:

βαπτισθητι εν υδατι περι αφεσιν αμαρτιων
baptisthenti en udati peri aphesin amartion

"be baptized in water concerning the forgiveness of sins"
Here I changed the imperative "immerse" from third person to second person to match the normal English imperative, then added the prepositional phrase εν υδατι, "in water," then used the preposition περι, which literally, geometrically, positionally means "around," but figuratively means "concerning" or "about" or "having to do with" (see Strong's G4012, for example), and then αφεσιν αμαρτιων, "forgiveness of sins."

So, whichever of those two traditional doctrinal stands people take, it would be easy to say in the Greek. Why didn't the Bible just come out and say either?

Regardless, no matter how you look at it, regeneration by water baptism (i.e. "get dipped in water in order to obtain the forgiveness of sins") doesn't work. Acts 2:38 is not a valid proof text for it. And you see that neither the text nor teaching of Acts 2:38-41 has anything at all to do with water baptism to begin with, even though we all assume and no one doubts that they all most likely did get baptized in water, all 3000 of them.

If you go through all the other "baptism" scriptures, you will find that there are similar issues with each one, if you try to take a legalistic or ritualistic, old covenant view of things, instead of a New Covenant view of things.

For example, a Jew named Apollos was teaching in Ephesus about Jesus, based only on the "immersion-effect of John" (Acts 18:24-25). (βαπτισ-μα: It is "immersion-effect" because of the μα "-effect" morpheme suffix.) Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained to him the way of God more exactly. Apollos then went to Corinth, and then Paul arrived in Ephesus, where he found some disciples, obviously taught by Apollos. Paul asked them if they had received the Holy Spirit upon believing. They responded that they did not hear that there was a Holy Spirit. Paul asked them, "into what are you immersed." The verb "immerse" here is aorist tense, which is time indefinite, fact, not act, not perfect tense, which would have denoted action completed, if the perfect tense was used, which it wasn't. Water is not mentioned here. John the Baptist was long dead. They were "immersed" into the message, teaching, and way of thinking of John the Baptist, by Apollos.

So, they responded, "into the immersion-effect (βαπτισ-μα) of John." Paul then said that John "indeed" (μεν, Strong's G3303, a word affirming and introducing a contrasting clause) immerses an immersion-effect (βαπτισ-μα) of repentance (change of mind) to the people, speaking into the one coming "after" (μετ, Strong's G3326, "meta," meaning a change or transition) him, that they should be believing into Jesus Christ. Hearing this, they are immersed into the name of the Lord Jesus (again, water is not cited here; the text says they are immersed "into the name of the Lord Jesus"). "Then Paul, placing his hands on them, the Holy Spirit comes upon them, they have been speaking in tongues and prophesying," as a result.

The above passage of scripture is often used to claim that those people were baptized in water a second time, or that the new incantation is now "in the name of Jesus" instead of "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," when water baptism is not even mentioned to begin with!

The Law of Moses did not produce a lasting result, as the book of Hebrews painstakingly explains, point by point, in detail. Likewise the act of "water dipping" does not produce a lasting result. The person is only temporarily immersed in water, then is un-immersed and dries off. How can he stay immersed in water? Yet in the New Covenant we have the once-for-all fulfillment of what this points to. We are indefinitely immersed into "pardon of sins," indefinitely immersed into "the body of Christ," indefinitely immersed into his "death," indefinitely immersed into the "Name," and so on. We stay immersed.

If the scriptures (or I) make a statement about being "immersed into 'pardon of sins'" or "immersed into the Name" or whatever, and that causes you to picture people getting dipped in water, then this is backwards thinking, using an old covenant mentality, like the "backwards church" so often does. The correct thinking is that when you see a person being dipped in water, then you picture "immersed into 'pardon of sins'" or "immersed into the Name," and so forth. That is "forwards thinking."

There is no scripture or teaching in the New Testament that says "Here is how and when and where to baptize in water." There is no explicit, intentional teaching about water baptism. We know that Jesus and the disciples baptized in water, so we do also. However, we have to get beyond the physical act, especially under the revelation of the terms of the New Covenant, to understand that the physical act is a representation and identification with a greater reality, however strong and good that representation and identification is.

From the point of the cross, going forward through the rest of the New Testament, there are only two literal, explicit references to water in connection with "baptism" in the scriptures (Acts 8:36-39 and Acts 10:47-48). Both of those are circumstantial; neither of them are in a context teaching about baptism in the first place, let alone water baptism! They just mention it. "Look! here is water." (Acts 8:36). "Can anyone forbid water?" (Acts 10:47). Each is a circumstance, not a teaching about essential doctrine.

Think about it: You've got people saying that you need to baptize in water this way or that way, debating whether to recite "in the name of Jesus" or "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," questioning whether they should find the nearest bathtub right now, as quickly as possible, or wait until they can get to a formal public ceremony in a church that has a baptistry. Then people who have been baptized in water are wondering whether their first baptism "took" or was valid, so they are wondering if they need to "get baptized" again, just to be sure ("sure" of what??). Yet you don't find any of this kind of talk in the Bible. No instruction, no formulas, no warnings, no blessings, even. Just circumstantial and anecdotal gleanings (as valid as they are) from scriptures that aren't fundamentally addressing water baptism, but something else, something more important.

The New Covenant and the New Man is about who you are in Christ, not ritual. The ritual serves the New Man; the New Man does not serve the ritual. The ritual does not initiate the New Man; the New Man initiates the ritual. We baptize in water because of who we are in Christ; we do not get baptized in water to make us who we are in Christ.

Note:  This article does not imply that the sacrament of water baptism is not important, or that it is not profound, or that it is not meaningful, or that we should not bother doing it.  This article shows, among other things, that Acts 2:38 is not speaking specifically about water baptism, contrary to those who try to use it as a proof text.  Yet water baptism is a profound demonstration of one's death, burial, and resurrection in Christ and, accordingly, is the proper thing that should be employed as a tangible act to demonstrate a person's conversion and new birth. See my article and video on this matter.

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