MEANING OF ‘EIS’ IN ACTS 2:38 AND MATTHEW 12:41: prospective or retrospective?

When debating the necessity of Baptism, some of our religious friends say that Baptism is done “because” (a retrospective meaning) one’s sins are already forgiven. The other side argues that Baptism is done “with a view to” (prospective) forgiveness of sins. The argument hinges on a little Greek preposition EIS (pronounced “ice”, or “ace”) and whether it has a prospective or retrospective meaning.

The Greek preposition EIS is always prospective (looking forward), never retrospective (looking back) which means that forgiveness follows Baptism. The diagram above shows numerous prepositions including EIS which not a static preposition like HUPO or HUPER which describe locations above or below. Instead, EIS shows movement “into” and it always does. In Acts 2:38 repentance and baptism are INTO forgiveness of sins.

That the direction of the preposition EIS is always prospective is the opinion of Greek scholarship. Consider the following:

“In 1996, Dr. Daniel B. Wallace, an associate professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, published his new book, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan). It is a scholarly volume of more than 800 pages. In his discussion of eis, Wallace lists five uses of the preposition, and among them “causal” is conspicuously missing!

Prof. Wallace explains the absence. He says that an “interesting discussion over the force of eis took place several years ago, especially in relation to Acts 2:38.” He references the position of J.R. Mantey, that “eis could be used causally” in this passage. Wallace mentions that Mantey was taken to task by another scholar, Ralph Marcus (Marcus, Journal of Biblical Literature, 70 [1952] 129-30; 71 [1953] 44). These two men engaged in what Dr. Wallace called a “blow-by-blow” encounter. When the smoke had cleared, the Dallas professor concedes, “Marcus ably demonstrated that the linguistic evidence for a causal eis fell short of proof” (370).

Though Wallace did not come to believe that baptism is necessary for salvation, he clearly refutes the causal “because of” meaning in Acts 2:38.1

In Acts 2:38 EIS is not looking back at one’s forgiveness and in Matthew 12:41 it is not looking back at Jonah’s preaching. The reason I address the Mt. 12 usage is because it’s the one place that Baptist turn to as “proof” that EIS can have a causal, or retrospective meaning. More on this in a second. Since the preposition EIS is ALWAYS prospective, at baptism one is looking forward to being forgiven and Nineveh was looking forward so it wouldn’t be destroyed. Nineveh repented “with a view to” (prospective) avoiding being overthrown in forty days (Jonah 3:2,3). Jonah was preaching salvation, which he resisted doing at first, and Nineveh understood and turned to God with ashes and sackcloth.

So as to remove the necessity of Baptism, many of our Baptist friends have taken to explaining Acts 2:38 in ways never depicted in a single translation of the Bible. That’s significant! They say that the Greek preposition EIS, that says, “repent and let each of you be baptized FOR the remission of sins” may have a causal (read retrospective “because of”) meaning which would support their position that salvation precedes baptism (regretably for them, if this were true, salvation would also precede repentance since they argue that only ‘belief’ is necessary). In their view, one’s baptism looks back to one’s first point of salvation. However, the meaning of EIS, translated in the English as “for” never has a causal, retrospective meaning.

Repentance and Nineveh, Mt. 12:41

In Matthew 12:41, where it says the people of Nineveh repented EIS the preaching of Jonah, our Baptist friends say this is a passage that shows a causal meaning for EIS. They believe it is saying the following:

The people of Nineveh repented because Jonah preached to them.”

The NASB translation say “Nineveh repented ‘AT’ the preaching of Jonah.” The “because of” interpretation is a clear misunderstanding of Jesus’ words. Jonah’s “preaching” was about judgment that was coming in 40 days: Nineveh repented “with a view to” something in the future, not “because” Jonah preach in the previous days. That Nineveh repented upon hearing Jonah’s preaching is true, but it’s not the point of the text. It wasn’t the act of Jonah’s preaching that was in mind in Matthew 12:41. What was in mind was the consequence and promised threat that Jonah spelled out in his preaching that was in mind. We know that Jonah preached first and Nineveh repented second, but the preaching of Jonah related to future judgment and potential blessing if Nineveh repented.

Someone might say, “But there’s no promise of blessing in Jonah’s preaching, just destruction.” Wrong, don’t forget that Jonah did not want to preach to Nineveh because he knew that God was forgiving and would relent if Nineveh repented. The preposition EIS in Matthew 12:41 is correctly prospective as Jesus meant that Nineveh repented and responded with a view to (prospective) the blessings or curses spelled out in Jonah’s preaching. They repented in order that they might not be destroyed.

Despite the evidence, many will continue to perpetuate the error – what else can they do or they would have to close shop on their denominations. The prospective meaning of EIS is strongly supported by Greek scholarship, even refuting J.R. Mantey who originally said it might have a causal meaning. Our “faith only” friends need to change their position on the purpose of Baptism.

Some of the misunderstanding might be rooted in the use of the English “for”, which has both a retrospective and prospective meaning. The English word “for” can be used when looking back at something or looking forward to something. But, and this is an important but, the Greek word in question, EIS, does not have that characteristic – as has already been pointed out. A better English word for EIS (which could be used in Matthew 12:41 or Acts 2:38) might be “to”, “so that”, “with a view to”, “unto”, as it found in some translations. No translation uses an English word like “because” that would demand only a retrospective understanding.

Let me make another point. If Jesus was saying in Matthew 12:41 that Nineveh repented “at” or “because” of Jonah’s preaching, He would not have used the Greek EIS, the preposition in question. He would have used another that would allow a retrospective meaning. And if that were the case and one wanted to draw a parallel between Matthew 12:41 and Acts 2:38, the correct parallel would be that the Jews in Acts 2 were pricked in their hearts “at” or “because of” the preaching of the Peter and the other Apostles. Such would be true, and it would be a completely new point: but not the one the inspired Apostle had in mind when he answered their question (Acts 2:38), saying, “repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ FOR (EIS, which is prospect always, meaning “with a view to”, DM) the remission or forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

When Saul was praying, fasting, and blind, Ananias said to Paul, “And now why do you delay, arise and be baptized and wash away thy sins, calling on His name” (Acts 22:16). It is obvious that since Saul was washed and saved in Damascus, he was not saved on the road to Damascus. This example and many others (see Galatians 3:26,27; Colossians 2:12; 1 Peter 3:21) shows that forgiveness by God’s saving grace is first appropriated in the water of Baptism. The meaning of the Greek preposition EIS supports the view held by conservatives in the churches of Christ. And those who teach otherwise are misleading many people.
1. Christian Courier, Ralph Marcus against Mantey position on EIS
2. “Greek Construction of Acts 2:38” This is a denominational article that gets baptism wrong, but accurately dismisses causal meaning of EIS.
3. Hugo McCord on EIS
4. Repentance is real change beyond believing only
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Categories: Acts 2:38; prospective, Eis, Matthew 12:41

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