THE IMPERATIVES OF ACTS 2:38
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, September 16, 2011 at 1:21pm
QUESTION: Some interpreters of Acts 2:38 make a big deal of the difference between second person imperative for the verb “repent,” and third person imperative for the verb “be baptized.” My systematic theology professor says that “be baptized,” as third person imperative, is not a command as such but is rather “a strong plea.” His basis is the same usage in Galatians 1:8, where Paul says “let them be accursed,” which is not really a mandatory command to God but a strong plea. What do you think of this approach?
ANSWER: The first thing I think when I read this is that the Zwinglian “faith-only” advocates will go to any conceivable length, no matter how desperate, in order to avoid the clear and straightforward teaching of Acts 2:38 on the connection between baptism and salvation.
The second thing I think of is that this is the second “creative” attempt I have seen to manipulate the form of these two verbs in order to negate what the verse clearly says about baptism. The first is the argument that the verb “repent” is plural, but the verb “be baptized” is singular; therefore only the former can be connected with “for the forgiveness of your [plural] sins.” I explained and refuted this view in a note posted August 15, 2010, called “Answering a False Interpretation of Acts 2:38.” This present question leads me to attempt to do the same with this second argument.
There is no question about the forms of the verbs. One is second person (“you repent”) and the other is third person (“let each one be baptized”), but both are imperative mood. The major use of an imperative verb is to issue a command. Usually the command is positive (“do this”), but sometimes it is negative, i.e., a prohibition (“don’t do that”). It is true that sometimes the imperative mood is used to convey a request, an entreaty, or a plea. This is usually the case in a prayer to God, as in the model prayer, Matt. 6:9-11: “Let your name be hallowed”; “let your kingdom come”; “may your will be done”; “give us our daily bread”; “forgive us our debts.” These are all imperatives, but as prayers to God they are certainly not commands. They are definitely entreaties.
So then, how do we decide whether an imperative is a command or an entreaty? The questioner’s professor (above) apparently says it depends on whether the imperative is second person or third person. A second person imperative, such as “repent” in Acts 2:38, is a command because it is second person. But a third person imperative, such as “let each be baptized” in Acts 2:38, is only a strong plea because it is third person. This is absolutely false. What actually makes the difference between a command and an entreaty is WHO is uttering the imperative, and TO WHOM it is addressed. When an imperative is addressed to one’s superior or to someone of a “higher rank,” it is an entreaty or plea. When an imperative is addressed by the superior to one over whom he has authority, it is a command. It makes no difference whether the form is second person or third person.
In the verses from the model prayer, for example (Matt. 6:9-11), some of the imperatives cited above are third person (e.g., “let your name be hallowed”) and some are second person (e.g., “forgive us our debts”). Since both are addressed to God as prayers, they cannot be commands but must be requests.
Likewise, there are many examples of third person imperatives that are addressed by God (or Jesus) to us his disciples and can by no stretch of the imagination be regarded as mere requests or even as strong pleas. For example, in Matt. 5:16 Jesus says to us, “Let your light shine.” This is a third person singular imperative. So is the formulaic “let him hear” in Rev. 2:7, 11, etc. These are all commands because they are uttered by the one in authority over us, regardless of whether they are second person or third person.
When we apply this to Galatians 1:8 (and 1:9), literally, “let him be a curse,” we should immediately see that this is not a prayer or a plea from Paul to God, but an imperative declaration from Paul in his apostolic authority (speaking FOR God) directed toward the false teacher. I found one commentary that says that here Paul “expresses the wish that God’s judgment will fall upon them” (John R.W. Stott, Only One Way, 24). But this is ridiculous. This is not a mere “wish,” but an imperative imposition of judgment. H.N. Ridderbos is quite correct: this imperative is “not a wish merely, but a solemn affirmation of what certainly shall be” (The Epistle of Paul to…Galatia, 50).
The imperative in Gal. 1:8,9 is esto, 3 person singular imperative of eimi. Here are four other places in the NT where the identical word is used: Matthew 5:37; 18:17; James 1:19; and 1 Peter 3:3. Here are two NT texts where the same form is used, only in the plural rather than the singular (estosan): Luke 12:35; 1 Tim. 3:12. All one needs to do is take a quick look at these texts, and he will immediately see that this verb form lays a moral requirement on those whom it addresses. These are commandments uttered by Jesus, and by the authoritative authors of Holy Scripture.
How does this apply to Acts 2:38? The data we have seen shows that “repent” being second person while “let each be baptized” is third person is completely irrelevant. Both imperatives are uttered by the same individual, namely, the inspired apostle Peter, who was speaking in the name of God with divine authority, and were both addressed to the same audience. Both imperatives are authoritative commands imposing a moral requirement upon all who heard them then and all who have heard them since.
The imperative “let each be baptized” is parallel in authority to “repent” in every way. It is no less a moral requirement than the command to repent. The change from 2 person imperative (“repent”) to 3 person imperative (“let each one of you be baptized”) actually makes baptism a MORE EMPHATIC command than repentance. It emphasizes the all-inclusiveness of the requirement: let each one of you–no exceptions, even if you have already been baptized by John–be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins!!!!