A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. But it can be thought provoking, too. I am no scholar of Greek; I know just enough to get myself in trouble, and to get me thinking, which are often the same thing.
Many years ago I noticed the strange construction of the phrase in Luke 3:3 -- that John was proclaiming a baptism of repentance that had something to do with the forgiveness of sins. It was the relationship between the two -- baptism / repentance and forgiveness -- that caught me short. The Greek preposition is "eis" which is generally translated "into" but here is usually translated "for." Does it make any difference?
Being baptized "for" the forgiveness of your sins implies causality. Because you are baptized, you are assured that your sins are forgiven, or maybe even because you are baptized, your sins are now forgiven, as some of the more sacramental strains of Christianity would have it. "For" sounds like "for the sake of" or even "so that you might possess ..." Is that consistent with the rest of John's work, or even Jesus' proclamation, death, and resurrection?
To complicate things even more, I noticed something else. I was tempted to just write this off as a strange phraseology that wasn't very important, but then I found that this phrasing occurs exactly one more time. It is also in Luke, in the very last chapter of the gospel, when Jesus says to his disciples that "it is written that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (24:46-47). So this phrase -- "repentance into the forgiveness of sins" -- bookends Jesus' proclamation. In Luke 24 the little preposition "eis" is translated in the ESV as a simple conjunction, "and," implying that these two topics of repentance and forgiveness are part of the same bundle but saying little or nothing about the relationship between the two. Yet this verse lies at the heart of the church's proclamation. In other words, this is important. Jesus goes on to say "You are witnesses of these things," and in Luke's second volume, Acts, we'll see this same commissioning take shape in "Jerusalem, and all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). The other thing to note here is that in Luke 24, Jesus doesn't specifically mention baptism but he does include repentance. For the early church these two -- baptism and repentance -- were inextricably linked. Baptism came to include more: new birth, commissioning, bestowing of a new identity, renaming. But repentance, the act of turning away from the old life and receiving a new life, is right at the heart of it all. It is turning from an old way of life, a way in obedience to the things of this world, to things that lead to death, and turning toward Jesus, toward the abundant life he gives.
What would happen if we translated that little preposition in its most common way -- "into"?
Baptism / repentance into the forgiveness of sins. Hm. Sounds a little like forgiveness is a country where we are called to live, and baptism / repentance is the port of entry. Or forgiveness is the house, and baptism / repentance is the front door.
When you start thinking about forgiveness in this way, there is so much to say. For example, why -- from Genesis 3 onward -- does God seem disturbingly unconcerned to prevent his people from sinning, but deeply concerned through the sacrificial system and so much else (note that Adam and Eve are not taught how not to sin, but rather are given garments of skins -- requiring death and shedding of blood -- to cover their shame) to provide forgiveness? Is it possible God is not so concerned about the existence of sin, and instead much more concerned to take away the power of sin to alienate us from one another and from God? "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow" God says through Isaiah. Why not create a training program, empowered by the Spirit, to help us not to sin? That never seems to be high on God's agenda. Okay, the rabbit hole goes deep here -- why was that pesky tree in the garden of Eden in the first place? And why didn't God build a fence around it, or at least show up while Eve was chatting with that snake? Perhaps his plan is to create a community in which forgiveness is immediate and potent so that sin has no power to separate.
If this is true, that God wants us to live in the forgiveness of sins like living in a beautiful, welcoming home, then our obsessive focus on not sinning might be diverting us from what God intends.
Note that Paul walks right up to this line in Romans 5, to the extent that at the outset of Romans 6 he has to anticipate the objection of his readers (much like as I write this I am concerned to anticipate the objections of my own readers) -- "Shall we go on sinning so that God's grace may abound? By no means!" Paul's expression here was a colloquial Greek profanity ("me geneto") which translates literally as "may it never have existed" and functions in Greek roughly the way we say in English, "hell, no!" It is remarkably strong language. With Paul, I am not excusing sin. But I want to understand God's agenda and his priorities. Like Paul goes on to say, as much as I wish sin was not present in my life, I seem unable to exorcise it (see Romans 7). The solution? Accept God's solution. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). It's almost as if the whole argument of Paul in Romans 5-8 is that rather than living in a strict moralistic, sin-preventing system, we should live in and by God's grace and mercy. He goes on to paint this business of living in the forgiveness of sin and what it means in remarkable terms in the rest of Romans 8.
Repentance into the forgiveness of sins. Both in Luke 3 and in Luke 24, this idea is tied to the witness of the prophets and the entire Old Testament. Maybe this has been what God is up to all along.