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Dr. Carroll Osburn On Baptism

By Stephen Wiggins

religion, articles, christianity

A few brethren are currently representing what is really rebellion against the Lord as merely a difference of opinion for which men will not be held responsible before God. A classic example of this is found in ACU Professor Carroll Osburn's recent book, The Peaceable Kingdom: Essays Favoring Non-Sectarian Christianity.

Dr. Osburn states, "There should be room in the Christian fellowship for those who differ on whether ... baptism is 'for' or 'because of' the remission of sins" (pp. 90-91). The allusion, of course, is to Acts 2:38 where the apostle Peter commands his listeners to repent and be baptized "for the remission" of their sins. The point argued by Osburn is that it is inconsequential as to whether one teaches the essentiality of baptism in gospel obedience.

Denominationalists have long controverted with God's people over the scriptural design of baptism. Much of this controversy has centered around the meaning and usage of the Greek preposition eis in Acts 2:38 where it occurs in the expression: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for (eis) the remission of sins."

What is the meaning and significance of eis in this passage? Is it retrospective or prospective? Does it look backward or point forward? Is one baptized because his sins are already remitted? Or is one baptized to receive remission?

The term cannot be used in two different senses at the same time in the same place. Its usage is either retrospective whereby it expresses cause and looks backward to a past result, or it is prospective whereby it expresses purpose and looks forward by pointing to an unreached end. The meaning must be one or the other. But it cannot be both simultaneously. Which is it?

In answer to this very question, the late brother G.C. Brewer offers these sentiments:

Eis does not mean 'because of.' It is never used in that sense. It always looks forward and not backward. It expresses motion forward and is most frequently translated by 'to,' 'toward,' 'unto,' or 'into.' Its radical meaning is movement from a place without to a place within. Hence, into is its primary and its ordinary meaning. When we translate it by the words 'in order to,' the idea is 'in order to' get into a place or state. Then the word has such rare meanings as 'concerning,' 'with reference to.' etc. It is sometimes translated by 'at,' 'on,' 'upon,' 'among,' 'in,' and 'for.' But it never means 'because of' (Contending for the Faith, p. 162).

Matthew 26:28

It is significant that the phrase in Acts 2:38, "for the remission of sins," is the exact same expression in both English and Greek as that found in Matthew 26:28. Jesus, when instituting the Lord's Supper, took the cup and said: "For this is my blood of the New Testament, which is shed for many for [eis] the remission of sins."

Here is a remarkable example of the usage of eis to denote purpose or aim. It is all the more impressive when we contemplate that the term is used here in connection with the "remission of sins," and within an identical construction parallel to that of Acts 2:38. In both cases the term eis points to a goal yet unreached, that goal being the "remission of sins."

The force of this becomes even more apparent when we consider the reason Jesus shed his blood. Was it because people had already received forgiveness of sin before the death of Christ? No. No one ever thought so. Rather, the Savior's blood was shed in order to or so people might have their sins forgiven.

It is no different in Acts 2:38. The expression "for (eis) the remission of sins" is a purpose clause clearly indicating the purpose for which persons are

to obey the command to be baptized. Just as Jesus shed his blood so that people might receive the remission of sins, the reason for one being baptized is to receive that same promise of pardon.


An analysis of Acts 2:38 shows that the passage contains a two-fold command. Peter tells his audience to "repent" and "be baptized." Further consideration shows that these two verbs are connected together by the coordinate conjunction "and." The inspired directive is to "repent and be baptized." Thus, both commands are joined together for the same purpose and both are to be obeyed to obtain the one and the same resultó"the remission of sins."

Others have recognized this relation that both repentance and baptism sustain to the remission of sins. Baptist commentator of a century ago, H.B. Hackett, in his Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (1879), makes the following comment on the passage under discussion:

In order to the forgiveness of sins ... we connect naturally with both the preceding verbs. This clause states the motive or object which should induce them to repent and be baptized. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part of it to the exclusion of the other (quoted from J.W. Shepherd, Handbook on Baptism, p. 348).

It is clear that whatever relation baptism sustains to the "remission of sins," repentance sustains the exact same relation. If one is baptized "because of" remission already received, then one is to repent for the same reason. This puts Peter in the predicament of commanding people to repent because they were already saved.

On the other hand, if one is to repent to receive the remission of sins, then one is to be baptized for the exact reason and to the exact same result. This clearly demonstrates that eis in Acts 2:38 cannot mean "because of" as suggested by Dr. Osburn as an alternative meaning. For our wayward brother's suggestion to have even a semblance of credibility, he must begin by presumptuously disconnecting what God hath joined together.


Modern scholarship has discovered nothing new in recent times that would alter the above. This is reflected best in translations of Acts 2:38 from some of the newer versions on the market. For example, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), copyrighted 1989. translates the passage: "Repent, and be baptized ... so that your sins may be forgiven."

Can Dr. Osburn produce even one standard, English version of the Bible which translates eis in Acts 2:38 as "because of"? This challenge is offered sincerely. For, to my knowledge, there is neither reputable lexicon nor version that renders eis as "because of" in Acts 2:38.

It is true that some respected grammarians have argued for a causal use of eis in Acts 2:38. Baptist A.T. Robertson, while acknowledging the preposition at times expresses aim, purpose, or design, opts for the causal usage which he thinks "just as good." He further postulates that one's interpretation as to whether or not Acts 2:38 teaches the essentiality of baptism is decided, not upon grammatical exegesis, but by one's theology (A Grammar of the Greek New Testament, pp. 389, 591- 592, 595; Word Pictures in the New Testament, pp. 35-36).

Robertson's theological bias is apparent, however, as he forces an interpretation into his preconceived mold of Baptist baptism. The meaning of a scripture must always be deduced from a grammatical analysis of the passage, rather than the criterion of "one's theology." Credit is extended to Robertson, though, in that he clearly conveys that eis in Acts 2:38 cannot express both purpose and cause simultaneously as our own Dr. Osburn naively supposes.

More of the same is offered by Baptist J.R. Mantey. His article, "Unusual Meanings for Prepositions in the Greek New Testament," Expositor (London) June 1923, is quoted in his A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament, p. 104, in an attempt to defend a causal usage of eis in Acts 2:38. Two other articles at a later date seek to bolster his initial attempt by piling up alleged causal uses of eis from non-biblical Greek sources: "The Causal Use of EIS in the New Testament," Journal of Biblical Literature 70 (1951): 45-48; "On Causal EIS Again," Ibid., 309-311. Reliable refutation is offered, however, by Ralph Marcus in "On Causal EIS," Journal of Biblical Literature 70 (1951): 129-130; "The Elusive Causal Eis," Ibid., 71 (1952): 43-44.

An interesting sidelight to the Mantey material that is not generally known is this: after Mantey's articles were written and sent to the Journal of Biblical Literature, but before they were published, Mantey became aware of an 1877 article written by Baptist J.W. Wilmarth entitled "Baptism and Remission," The Baptist Quarterly, July 1877, pp.296-321.

Within this article Wilmarth effectively uses the parallel construction from Matthew 26:28 and Acts

2:38 ("for [eis] the remission of sins") to show the' eis expresses purpose and that "remission of sins" is the end toward which the preposition points to as an end result. He further offers argumentation refuting a causal usage of the preposition within the passages. Wilmarth tenaciously defends his studied convictions despite objections he knew would be forthcoming from his Baptist brethren as to what the "Campbellites" might think (p. 304).

Whereas Mantey continued to believe the causal usage of eis is found in papyri literature and even in certain New Testament passages, he was convinced otherwise by Wilmarth pertaining to Acts 2:38. Upon reading the Wilmarth article Mantey states: "I agree with Wilmarth, however, that in Acts 2:38 eis denotes purpose and not cause."

(Manley wrote the preceding quotation on April 1, 1950. His Journal of Biblical Literature articles on the usage of causal eis were not published until 1951. I have gleaned part of this information from private correspondence that Mantey had with the late brother James D. Bales, a copy of which I possess, S.W.)

More Scholarship

The most respected lexica and word studies within the field of biblical studies unanimously confirm that eis in Acts 2:28 denoted purpose and not cause. For example, while Walter Bauer's Greek-English lexicon does acknowledge that some argue for a causal usage in some passages, within Acts 2:38 the preposition is said specifically "to denote purpose" and offers the translation, "so that sins might be forgiven" (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, & Danker, pp. 228-230).

A. Oepke, in his lengthy article on eis in Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, while noting an occasional causal eis, finds the preposition in Acts 2:38 to denote:" the direction of an action to a specific end." That is, it conveys purpose or design toward an unreached goal, and not cause of a past result (vol. II, p. 429). Further, it is significant that the premier lexical work of Liddell and Scott does not even list any causal uses of eis (pp. 491-492).

Relative to this so-called "causal eis," some may be wondering if indeed a causal usage is found in some New Testament passages other than Acts 2:38, thus contradicting what was said above by the capable G.C. Brewer? The answer is no. Murray J. Harris, author of the excellent appendix of "Prepositions and Theology in the Greek New Testament" in the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, edited by Colin Brown, asks, "If eis can be retrospective, giving the cause, as well as prospective, defining the purpose or result?" His answer: "Such a sense for eis seems unlikely in any one of the passages sometimes adduced." Harris goes on to state that even "Manley has not adduced any convincing example from extra-biblical Hellenistic Greek" (vol. III, pp. 1187, 1208).


It is inconceivable that Dr. Osburn could be unfamiliar with the information from scholarly sources cited within this article. Especially is this true in light of his being touted as "an internationally-respected New Testament textual scholar" in the back-cover blurb of his book.

No. It is not ignorance that causes our brother to make such radical statements with regard to the essentiality of baptism before a Unity Meeting in Dublin, Calif., on Jan. 15, 1985. Rather, it is purely a compromising disposition that is seemingly characteristic of all liberal-minded brethren seeking to achieve a pseudo-unity between the churches of Christ and the Independent Christian Church denomination.

Osburn's statement pertaining to baptism strikes at the very heart of the new birth, the very process by which an individual becomes a child of God. It further gives credence to a full-blown ecumenical conglomeration with all the sects within so-called Christendom. I am wondering just how heretical a teacher on the Abilene Christian University Bible faculty must become in his denials of fundamental truths before the board of directors will dismiss him from his position of influencing our young people?

Dr. Paul Southern, who faithfully served as the head of the ACU Bible Department for nineteen years, recently penned an article entitled "Winds of Change" wherein he deplored the fact that "some are beginning to doubt the importance of baptism" (Christian Journal, June 1995, p. 2). Yea, verily. Some brethren are not only doubting the importance of baptism but outright denying its essentiality. Such a one is Dr. Carroll Osburn of Abilene Christian University.

Published November 1995