Matt. 3:11 is a difficult passage to understand as translated in most English versions. John the Baptist is speaking and I will quote here only that part of the verse that gives problems and makes for difficult understanding. I will use several translations for comparison and will add they are grouped the way they are for a reason:
ASV—"I indeed baptize you in water unto repentance."
KJV—"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance."
NKJV—"I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance."
MLV (Modern Literal Version)—"I indeed immerse* you* in water toward repentance."
CEV—"I baptize you with water so that you will give up your sins."
LITV—"I indeed baptize you in water to repentance."
LONT (Living Oracles New Testament)—"I, indeed, immerse you in water, into reformation."
YLT—"I indeed do baptize you with water to reformation."
GNB (also known as the TEV)—"I baptize you with water to show that you have repented."
ISV—"I am baptizing you with water as a token of repentance."
NLT—"I baptize with water those who repent of their sins."
NAS—"I baptize you in water for repentance."
ESV-- "I baptize you with water for repentance."
HCSB—"I baptize you with water for repentance."
NET—"I baptize you with water, for repentance."
NRSV—"I baptize you with water for repentance."
NIV—"I baptize you with water for repentance."
Here is the problem: repentance is a change of mind toward God and sin. It is a determination of the mind and will to turn away from sin, cease willfully committing sin, and turn to God in faithful obedience. It is preceded by godly sorrow. "For godly sorrow produces repentance to salvation." (2 Cor. 7:10 NKJV) It is godly sorrow over sin that leads to repentance.
But there is another kind of sorrow, the kind that does not lead one to God. We refer to it, because the Bible does, as "the sorrow of the world" (2 Cor. 7:10) and Paul says it leads to death. A man steals some money; he gets caught and is imprisoned. He is sorry but why? Without a turning to God all sorrow is worldly sorrow. Sorrow motivated by a worldly reason where God is not taken into the equation and that does not lead one to God is "the sorrow of the world" and leads to death.
So here is the question as regards Matt. 3:11—how does water, being baptized, lead a man to repentance? How can it be a stimulus to repentance, a catalyst to bring it about? Repentance occurs in the mind and heart of a man. Baptism is a material physical act of being immersed in water, not an act of the mind, heart, or will save only in an indirect way. The mind, the heart, and the will lead to baptism but are not baptism. The passage as translated seems to be saying that by being immersed in water that act alone will lead one to the that process of the heart in the inward man that we call repentance.
Now take a second look at the various translations as I have grouped them. Group A seems to be saying exactly what I said in the prior paragraph—that water alone will lead one to repent. Can that be? Isn't it always true that faith and repentance lead to baptism and not the reverse? Does not faith and repentance precede baptism and act as the catalyst for baptism? Did Peter on the day of Pentecost call for baptism first and then preach faith and repentance afterwards? Does baptism, without any prior faith and repentance, lead men to say, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" (Matt. 2:37 NKJV) One does not repent without first having developed faith. If repentance comes after baptism so does faith.
So, I think all can see the problem we have with the Group A series of translations that imply that baptism will lead you to repentance.
The Group B translations translate the Greek word "metanoia" as reformation rather than repentance. Alexander Campbell was behind the Living Oracles New Testament, that is the putting of it together, but the actual translators were from what I have read George Campbell, James MacKnight, and Philip Doddridge. The YLT translation is Young's Literal Translation.
All of my word study sources tell me the Greek word "metanoia" is best translated as repentance but if I did not have any word study sources available to me at all one could simply look at how the vast majority of Bible versions have translated the word and come to the conclusion that Greek scholars are in agreement that the word that best fits the meaning of the Greek word when translated into English is "repentance."
It is true that all genuine repentance results in reformation but the word reformation seems to be a commentary on the meaning of the Greek, as these translators saw it, rather than a translation of it. Evidently, the translators of these two versions felt this was what the text meant. There is always reformation of life after a genuine scriptural baptism and so the text becomes understandable but the question is whether this translation is reliable. There are serious doubts about that based on the number of Bible scholars who could have translated it the same way these two translations did but chose not to.
The Group C translations have a problem similar to those in Group B in that they make a translation that makes perfect sense, sounds reasonable as you read it the way they have translated it, but again is it reliable? One could read this verse in any of the translations listed in Group B or Group C and if he did not know there were other translations out there that differed he or she would never miss a beat or question a thing for both make perfectly good sense.
I might add the translations in this group are based on the dynamic equivalent theory of translation which means they attempt to give you the meaning of the original as they see it. They try and say the message found in the Greek as we would say it today in modern English, versus a literal word for word translation from the Greek into English. Of course the problem with that theory of translation is that it is sometimes difficult to know with certainty what the exact meaning of the original is for even the scholars differ.
The Group D series of translations revolve around what the meaning of the word "for" is as in "for repentance." The Greek word is "eis." It is translated in the Group A series of translations (the KJV, the NKJV, and the original ASV) by the word "unto." It is the same Greek word behind the word "for" in Acts 2:38 where the text says to repent and be baptized "for the remission of sins" (NKJV) with the word "for" meaning the purpose of.
When understood this way the Group A series of translations and the Group D series essentially are saying the same thing—that John the Baptist is saying he is baptizing them to get them to repent, for the purpose of getting them to repent. Yet, we know this cannot be the case. Repentance is initiated by faith, not by baptism. Furthermore, where does the desire for baptism come from unless there is first repentance? If it be said faith then I ask the question what kind of faith is it that goes directly to baptism without first repenting? Faith that does not repent does not desire nor seek baptism.
John's baptism was in water, he says as much (Matt. 3:11). It is described in Mark as "a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins." (Mark 1:4 NKJV) It is said of those who came to John's baptism that they confessed their sins (Matt. 3:6, Mark 1:5). His message prior to baptizing was, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" (Matt. 3:2 NKJV)
With this background information one must conclude that John's audience (1) heard his preaching which goes without saying, (2) believed it—the kingdom is coming and you need to repent, (3) repented and confessed their sins, and (4) were baptized for the remission of those sins. The motivation for baptism was faith in the message preached and the desire to have their sins remitted, just another way of saying they repented at the hearing of the message having had faith in that message. This led to a baptism for the remission of sins. It is either that way or you had a bunch of unrepentant people who did not repent until after they were baptized, people who had no motivation for a baptism that was for the remission of sins seeing as how they had not yet repented. Who can believe that or see any logic in it?
J. W. McGarvey saw the difficulty in this verse with the way it is worded and the various options as regards translation and used most of a full page of commentary on it in his Commentary on Matthew – Mark, pages 36-37. He would agree that those baptized by John repented prior to their baptism and that such repentance was a prerequisite. But, here is his idea in his own words on the passage.
"The inestimable blessing of remission of sins being attached to baptism (see Mark i. 4; Luke iii. 3), the desire to obtain this blessing would prompt those yet unbaptized to repent, so that they might be baptized. The words declare simply that the general purpose of John's baptism was to bring the people to repentance." Earlier he said, "The baptism was not in order to the repentance of the party baptized."
He is saying that when one individual sees the blessings being enjoyed by another individual, in this case the remission of sins by repentance and baptism, and no doubt the joy that would accompany that (did you ever see a person just baptized who was not joyful?) then this prompts within the heart of the other person a desire for the same thing leading to their own repentance. I think we can all see the sense in that.
In any case I will have to leave the reader to make up his own mind on a difficult passage the way it is worded. While it is difficult we can rest assured it need not overly trouble us as the scriptures are too plainly worded elsewhere as to leave any doubt about how salvation comes to the one who would come to Christ today. Christ's law overrides not only the Law of Moses but also anything John taught as well. Neither Moses nor John taught error but when Jesus came, died, and ascended back to heaven the new covenant of God came into effect leaving all else behind. Today we are to hear Christ.
[This is only one example of how difficult it can be to translate the scriptures.]