Does God Forgive Sins in Christian Water Baptism? Part 1
Among evangelicals today, there are a number of viewpoints on the purpose of Christian water baptism.
Many believe that baptism is essentially a symbolic way of making a public declaration of Christian faith. Those who take this view don’t think that God really does anything profound to the new Christian in the act of baptism. Instead, they see baptism as mainly for the benefit of people who witness it.
Another common view is that being baptized is a means by which God gives grace in some way to the new believer, but not to the extent of actually granting forgiveness to them.
Another, less common, view is that God’s normative procedure, i.e., His standard way of doing things, is not just to give grace to the new believer in baptism, but to actually grant them forgiveness of sins. Those who take this view usually believe that there are exceptional times when God forgives before baptism. But they believe that God normatively forgives new Christians in the act of being baptized.
In what follows, I will argue in support of this third option. I think most evangelicals have seriously misunderstood what baptism is all about. The Bible seems to suggest that it is an act in which God normatively grants forgiveness to those who have come to Christian faith.
When we accept that granting forgiveness in baptism is God’s standard pattern, we can take a number of biblical passages at face value instead of giving them unnatural interpretations. It also makes sense of why in the Bible we consistently find that new Christian converts are baptized as soon as they become believers. And it makes sense too of why, whenever Christian baptism is referred to in Scripture, there is rarely, if ever, any suggestion in the text that it functions as a public declaration of faith.
BIBLICAL PASSAGES SUPPORTING NORMATIVE BAPTISMAL FORGIVENESS
In part two of this article I will answer some objections to the view that God normatively grants forgiveness to new Christians in baptism. However, first I want to provide some biblical support for this view.
There are many passages that have a bearing on this topic, and I can’t hope to comment on all of them and keep this article to a manageable length. I will therefore limit my discussion to some of the most important passages.
The following texts are especially relevant:
In Acts 2:38 Peter tells the crowd listening to him on the day of Pentecost:
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis] the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
The Greek word that underlies the English “for” in “for the forgiveness of your sins” is the preposition eis. The first thing we need to do is determine what eis means in this sentence.
It is sometimes argued that it means “because of,” and that the sense is “be baptized because of the forgiveness of your sins.” If eis did mean this, forgiveness would be portrayed as something that precedes baptism.
However, this interpretation of eis should be firmly rejected. Eis was an extremely common word in first century Greek and is used nearly 1800 times in the New Testament. There is, however, no solid evidence that it ever meant “because of.” Even if, improbably, it did ever have this sense, it would have been an exceptionally rare use of the word.
Importantly, when words are used in a very unusual way, it is essential for the context to make that clear. Otherwise, if there are much more common meanings of the word that would fit the context, as there are for eis in this verse, the reader would never guess that the unusual meaning is intended, and we can expect the writer, Luke, to have recognized this. The idea that eis means “because of” in this verse is therefore extremely implausible.
Others claim that eis in Acts 2:38 means “with respect to,” and that Peter is saying “be baptized with respect to the forgiveness of your sins.” In this case, he would not be specifying the relationship between the baptism and the forgiveness, and he could easily understand forgiveness to precede baptism.
It is true that “with respect to” is an attested use of eis, albeit a fairly unusual one. Nevertheless, a far more common meaning of eis is “for the purpose of getting,” which can be translated in English by “for.” And this is a sense that fits the context far better:
In v. 37 the people have just become convicted over crucifying Jesus, and they have asked the apostles what they should do. Then in v. 38 Peter tells them what to do to be forgiven. If eis means “with respect to” in this verse, Peter would not explicitly be telling the crowd what to do to get their sins forgiven. Instead he would just be implying that repenting (and faith, understood) would result in forgiveness, which looks very awkward and much less natural than if eis means “for the purpose of getting.”
We should therefore understand eis to mean “for the purpose of getting” in this verse. Importantly, a large majority even of those scholars who believe that this verse is not portraying baptism as anything more than a symbol nevertheless agree that this is what eis means here.
Once we accept that eis means “for the purpose of getting” (which can be translated by “for”), there are three ways logically in which this verse can be understood:
(1) Peter is telling the crowd that they need to repent and that they need to be baptized, and he means that the repentance and baptism in combination will lead to forgiveness:
“Repent and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
(2) He is telling the crowd that they need to repent, and he is also telling them that they need to be baptized for forgiveness:
“Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.”
Note the comma after “Repent.” The difference in overall meaning between (1) and (2) is negligible, since even under (2) Peter would see repentance as a necessary prerequisite for forgiveness, even though his words don’t explicitly express this.
(3) He is telling the crowd that they need to repent for the forgiveness of their sins, and that they also need to be baptized:
“Repent (and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ) for the forgiveness of your sins.”
In interpretations (1) and (2) baptism leads to forgiveness. In interpretation (3) baptism does not lead to forgiveness.
The fact that in the Greek “and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” comes immediately before “for the forgiveness of your sins” makes (3) a less natural interpretation than (1) or (2). There is no indication in the text that “and let . . . Jesus Christ” is parenthetical. If this is what Peter meant, we would expect him much more probably to have said:
“Repent for the forgiveness of your sins, and let each of you be baptized.”
Furthermore, if (3) is correct, the main command in the sentence would be “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins.” In the New Testament, however, the key requirement for becoming a Christian is faith in Christ, so the absence of a requirement for faith in the main command for becoming a Christian in Acts 2:38 is rather awkward. However, if (1) or (2) is correct, then the main command includes a command to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Because baptism in the name of Jesus Christ implies faith in Christ, the main command of the sentence therefore doesn’t contain the awkwardness found in (3).
Even if we accept that (1) or (2) is correct, and that Peter is telling the crowd that being baptized leads to forgiveness, some argue that Peter doesn’t literally mean that being baptized leads to forgiveness, but that he just means that the faith which accompanies baptism leads to forgiveness.
It is true that we are supposed to understand that faith accompanies baptism. Nevertheless, it is much more natural to take the words at face value and to understand them to be saying that (if someone has genuine Christian faith) baptism itself leads to forgiveness. If the idea is just that faith leads to forgiveness, we would expect Peter to say something like:
“Repent and believe in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and let each of you be baptized.”
All things considered, then, Acts 2:38 provides a significant piece of evidence that God normatively grants forgiveness to new believers in baptism.
In Acts 22:16 Ananias tells Saul (later, Paul):
“So why are you waiting? Get up and be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on His name.”
I don’t want to make much of the fact that in this verse Ananias refers both to baptism and to sins being washed away. This would fit well with baptism being a means of forgiveness, but it would also fit well with baptism being a mere symbol of sins being washed away. So the fact that Ananias refers to baptism and the washing away of sins in the same sentence is not significant evidence that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism. I accept that.
However, the fact that the instruction to be baptized comes before the instruction to have sins washed away, i.e., be forgiven, is significant. This order makes most sense if God is envisaged granting forgiveness to Saul in the act of baptism. If God did not actually forgive him in his baptism, then the forgiveness he received would have led to his baptism, both temporally and logically. So we would more naturally expect a reference to forgiveness to come before a reference to baptism. We would expect Ananias to have told Paul to call on the Lord and then be baptized.
Even if we understood the forgiveness and baptism to be so close in time that there is no discernible temporal distinction between them, there would still be a logical distinction. So it would still be more probable that forgiveness would have been referred to first.
This verse therefore counts as significant support for the view that God normatively grants forgiveness in the act of baptism.
In Romans 6:3-4 Paul says to the Roman Christians:
“3 Or do you not know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4 Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
The first thing we need to do is determine what sort of baptism Paul is referring to in this passage.
There are some who claim that it is baptism in the Holy Spirit.
This is very doubtful:
First, in v. 3 the verb “baptize” (Greek: baptizo) is used without any further qualification, and the same is true of the noun “baptism” (Greek: baptisma) in v. 4. In the New Testament, when this verb and noun are used without qualification, they typically refer to water baptism.
Second and more importantly, there is no reference to the Holy Spirit in the context, and it therefore seems very unlikely that Paul would have thought that his readers would think that he was referring to Spirit baptism. If he had wanted to speak about Spirit baptism, we would expect him to have worded things differently.
It is very unlikely, then, that Paul is referring to baptism in the Spirit.
It is sometimes said that in this passage Paul is not referring to water baptism or Spirit baptism, but that he is just using a metaphor of being immersed in Christ.
This is improbable:
First, as I have just mentioned, in the New Testament “baptize” and “baptism,” without any qualification, typically refer to water baptism.
Second, “we were buried with Him through baptism” in v. 4 looks most naturally like a reference to the immersion of Christian water baptism. And if so, it would make sense to see a reference to water baptism in v. 3 too.
It is therefore unlikely that Paul is simply using a metaphor of being immersed in Christ.
It is not probable, then, that in this passage Paul is referring to Spirit baptism or using a metaphor of being immersed in Christ. Instead, it is much more likely that he is referring to Christian water baptism, as a large majority of biblical scholars agree.
However, there are many who say that Paul is just portraying water baptism here as a mere symbol of a new Christian being united with Christ in His death, burial and resurrection.
This also seems more than a little unlikely. When Paul says, “all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death” and “we were buried with Him through baptism into death,” he seems to be referring to what actually happens in the act of baptism. If he believed that being united with Christ in His death always occurs simply through the faith of the believer, it would have been much more natural for him just to have said this without mentioning baptism at all.
In response to what I have just said, someone might want to argue in this way:
Although Paul sees baptism as no more than a symbol, the reason he refers to baptism in this passage is so that he can use the image of going under the water in baptismal immersion to help make his reference to burial with Christ in v. 4 more vivid.
It seems unlikely, however, that burial with Christ is a key part of Paul’s theology here. The fact of dying with Christ and walking in newness of life are essential to his argument, but he could probably have made his theological point without referring to burial at all. Instead, it seems more likely that it was the reference to baptism that led to Paul speaking about burial rather than vice versa.
Probably, then, in this passage Paul is saying that new Christian converts (at least normatively) die, and in one sense rise, with Christ in the act of baptism. If this is correct, it would fit well with the view that God normatively grants forgiveness to believers in baptism.
In short, Romans 6:3-4 stands as a fairly strong piece of evidence that God normatively grants forgiveness in the act of baptism.
In 1 Peter 3:20-21 Peter says:
“20 . . . in the days of Noah, while the ark was constructed, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. 21 Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you – not the removal of the dirt of the flesh, but the appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
This is a difficult passage. To begin with, I need to say something about what this passage says baptism is equivalent to. As I have translated the Greek, baptism is equated to “the appeal to God for a good conscience.”
There are, however, other ways of translating this phrase. The Greek word that I have translated as “appeal” could potentially mean “pledge.” And the phrase I have translated as “for a good conscience” is literally “of a good conscience,” and might possibly mean “proceeding from a good conscience” or “to maintain a good conscience.”
The most likely options for the whole phrase are: “the appeal to God for a good conscience,” “the appeal to God that proceeds from a good conscience,” “the pledge to God that proceeds from a good conscience” or “the pledge to God to maintain a good conscience.”
Some of these options support seeing baptism as an act in which God normatively grants forgiveness, and other options count against seeing baptism in this way. However, since these options all make good sense of the Greek, for my purposes in this article it would be logically invalid to translate in a certain way and use that as support for baptismal forgiveness (or to translate in a different way and use that against baptismal forgiveness). Hence, the wording of this phrase is not something that really counts either for or against my thesis in this article.
Despite the difficulties of knowing how to translate this phrase, there are two basic alternatives in how we understand what Peter means when he says “baptism now saves you – not the removal of the dirt of the flesh, but x y z.”
The options are baptism:
(1) “now saves you, actually not baptism itself but what baptism symbolizes.”
(2) “now saves you, not the external action of baptism but the spiritual dimension of baptism.”
Neither option looks strained in the context, but on balance it seems right to prefer (2). The text explicitly says “baptism saves you,” so it seems more natural to understand it to mean that God actually forgives sins in the act of baptism.
Despite its difficulties, this passage therefore seems to provide some support for the view that God normatively grants forgiveness in baptism.
There are other passages too, which point in this direction. To prevent this article becoming too long, however, I will just cite the most important of them without making any comments:
“Truly, truly, I tell you, unless someone is born of water and Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
“For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ.”
“. . . so that He might sanctify it [the church], having cleansed it by the washing of water with the word.”
“. . . having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead.”
The passages I have commented on provide pieces of biblical evidence, some of them quite significant, that God’s standard way of doing things is to forgive the sins of new Christians in the act of water baptism. And the other passages I have just listed add to the weight of evidence.
In part 2 of this article I will answer some objections to the view that God normatively forgives new Christians in baptism.
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