The Limits of Telic EIS in Acts 2:38

From: Danny Andre' Dixon (
Date: Fri Mar 17 2000 - 19:02:05 EST



Before placing this post, I want to say in advance that it is not listed in
order to stir up any sort of theological debate. I am eager and willing to
do that off-list. However, I do think that, whatever may be the particular
theological perspectives of those on this list regarding the teaching in
Acts 2:38, there are definitely some things that one may NOT do with that
text from a lexical, grammatical point of view. I hope the foregoing
presentation will "loosen the torque," so to speak relative to that

EIS has been translated "for the purpose of," and "because of"
(questionably)in this and other passages (Danker in <I>Multipurpose Tools
for Bible Study</I> has questioned why it is not so translated in Matthew
26:28, but again, that is not my present concern.) I am only wanting to
place before you some of the fruits of my research in sources that you all
have available to consider why it would NOT be expedient to take any firm
hard theological lines given the paucity of context from a simple lexical
perspective. It's always been my point of view that if the context is vague
on a potential usage of case or definition, there is no need to take any
sort of stand (and certainly no need to judge the perspective of others who
have chosen any particular point of view lexically or grammatically. Read
the following with profit, and interact on the required lexical-grammatical
plane that is worthy of the discussion on this list.

Danny Andre' Dixon
M.A. Bible and Related Studies,
Abilene Christian University

Does Acts 2:38 teach that a person must be baptized with the required
purpose in his mind that he will receive remission of sins? Does the passage
teach that he must know--have purpose in his mind--when he is being
baptized, that forgiveness of sins follows baptism? To ask the question
another way: "Is the phrase, <I>eis aphesin ton harmartion humon</I> ("for
the forgiveness of your sins" )in Acts 2:38 part of a command that intends
to define the kind of baptism to which one must submit? Or put specifically,
does Peter essentially say the following in that text:

<I>"You guys must repent, and you must be baptized with a baptism that has
this thought in your minds--forgiveness of sins about to be received--and
upon so doing you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit"?</I>

It is relevant to note that the tiny Greek preposition eis is capable of two
similar, but not identical meanings in a context like Acts 2:38. "The
preposition denotes the direction of an action to a specific end," we
observe comfortably enough from an article noting a significant distinction,
believing as we do that "forgiveness of sins" follows baptism. However, the
article goes on to note "Whether this is incidental or intentional must be
deduced from the context and is not always clear" (A. Oepke, s.v. <I>eis</I>
in the <I>Theological Dictionary of the New Testament,</I> 1964, p. 429).
The text further notes on the same page regarding the two distinctions: "In
many cases the one [intentional usage] merges into the other [incidental
usage], so that a precise differentiation is impossible." The confirming
observation about "probably distinctions" regarding eis ought to be
acknowledged: "Often, however, the categories of purpose and result may
merge, for a result may be a designed consequence. Therefore it is sometimes
impossible to determine which is intended especially when a divine action is
spoken of" (M.J. Harris, "Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New
Testament," <I>New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology,</I>
Vol. III 9 (1979, p. 1187).

Rightly so, there has been adequate discussion correcting the idea that Acts
2:38 taught that baptism was to be done because one had received forgiveness
of sins (See J.R. Mantey's "The Causal Use of <I>eis</> in the New
Testament," <I>Journal of Biblical Literature</I> 70 (1951):45-58; and "on
Causal <I>eis</I> Again," <I>JBL</> 70:309-311; and Ralph Marcus "On Causal
<I>eis</I>," <I>JBL</I> 70:129-130; "The Elusive Causal eis," <I>JBL</I> 70
(1952): 43-44. But after correcting that perspective, perhaps legitimate and
due attention has not been given to the equal and possible distinctions of
purpose or result in the passage. Nor does the evidence and context allow
the conclusion that any idea of purpose intended need be in the mind of the
individual being baptized. The primary lexical data demonstrates that the
text can equally show that the intention is actually in God's mind once
obedience has occurred.

<I>Result as the Meaning of the Greek Preposition</I> <I>eis</I>

The use of eis to represent result has been the translation in other
passages, e.g. Romans 10:10: ". . . for with the heart man believes,
resulting in (<I>eis</I>) righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses,
resulting in (<I>eis</I>) salvation" (New American Standard Bible). In Acts
2:38, if we take the incidental rather than the intentional approach, Peter
did not command the hearers to be baptized while understanding that it is
done "in order to receive" the forgiveness of sins. That they might receive
it might well be the incidental result. Whether they were to have
preknowledge and intention to receive it would not be a part of Peter's

<I>Result or Intention--So What? Example as Precedent</I>

One might argue that the discussion consists of a point without
significance. The assumption is that the goal of baptism, remission of sins,
intended or incidental, was stated by Peter. So, it is maintained, that
purpose or result must be stated in any context where the gospel is
preached. It is sufficient to say, however, that Peter does not clearly
order or command his listeners to know what would follow their respective
baptism. It might seem obvious that they would know that forgiveness would
follow their baptism (especially if we preclude a causal use of <I>eis.</I>
But there was much apparent truth (obvious to the modern student of the
biblical text) that was not inherently intact with potential disciples of
Jesus, even in the face of very clear explanation. As an example of this
perspective, note that even Jesus's handpicked apostles did not understand
God's economy of kingdom dispensation as far along in his ministry as
moments before the ascension itself (Acts 1:6-7).

That the gospel was to extend beyond the borders of Judea to the dwelling
places of racially blended Jews and Gentiles seems to be obvious as Jesus
observes in his commission that the disciples would be his witnesses "both
in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of
the earth" (Acts 1:8). But God was content to allow Peter to grow into the
understanding of the necessity (note: the necessity of sharing the gospel
with Gentiles. Peter emphatically tells the Roman centurion who had summoned
him in Acts 10: "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is
acceptable to him" (American Standard Version, Acts 10:34-35).

<I>Even Repentance Does Not Require Full Knowledge</I>

Furthermore, consider that the Ephesian converts' conception of repentance
was certainly deficient in Acts 19:18, when individuals who had already
become believers--such is the force of the Greek perfect active participle
pepisteukoton--and are instructed to repent even beyond that which they had
done in earlier coming to the faith.

Finally, returning to the point at hand in Acts 2:38, even if they did
believe that forgiveness of sins would follow their baptism, were the Jews
on Pentecost required to know it? What would the Greek speakers among them
have understood when they heard "eis aphesin ton harmartion humon"? And how
would one lexically demonstrate with certainty what was their understanding?
Again, one would seem to have to "prove" the point on the basis of something
other than what the present text exclusively taught.

<I>Linguistic Options: Doctrine and Implications</I>

Perhaps we are inclined to get people to conform to doctrinal norms so that
we can feel more comfortable in extending fellowship to them. On the
contrary: if the language in a text does not prove our point, we ought not
force the text to say what it may not. Nor should we submit to the
temptation to require conformity to a doctrinal perspective that is specious
with respect to a supposed proof text that, lexically speaking, is capable
of at least one legitimate alternative conclusion.

The evidence proves that the Greek text in Acts 2:38 equally permits the
concepts of purpose (intention) and result (incident). With respect to the
concept of intent, the purpose can even be considered in God's mind and not
only the human acting in obedience to the commands given. Regarding
incident, there is no linguistic requirement that one understand the result,
even if it is forgiveness of sins.


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