June 7 – The Importance of Repentance

Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.

Acts 2:38

No one can come to Jesus Christ unless he repents. Jesus began His ministry proclaiming the need for repentance (Matt. 4:17), and both Peter and Paul continued to proclaim it. Repentance is a conscious choice to turn from the world, sin, and evil. It is crucial!

If you came to Jesus Christ thinking all you had to do was believe but didn’t have to confess your sin or be willing to cut yourself off from the evil of this world, you have missed the point of salvation. Many people’s lives haven’t changed at all since they supposedly believed in Christ. For example, some acted immorally and still act immorally. Some committed adultery and continue to commit adultery. And some committed fornication and continue to commit fornication. Yet according to 1 Corinthians 6:9–10, fornicators and adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God. If you are really saved, you will make a conscious attempt to break away from the things of the world.[1]

2:38 Peter’s answer was that they should repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins. First, they were to repent, acknowledging their guilt, and taking sides with God against themselves.

Then they were to be baptized for (or unto) the remission of their sins. At first glance, this verse seems to teach salvation by baptism, and many people insist that this is precisely what it does mean. Such an interpretation is impossible for the following reasons:

  1. In dozens of NT passages, salvation is said to be by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:12; 3:16, 36; 6:47; Acts 16:31; Rom. 10:9, for example). No verse or two could conceivably contradict such overwhelming testimony.
  2. The thief on the cross had the assurance of salvation apart from baptism (Luke 23:43).
  3. The Savior is not stated to have baptized anyone, a strange omission if baptism is essential to salvation.
  4. The Apostle Paul was thankful that he baptized only a few of the Corinthians—a strange cause for thankfulness if baptism has saving merit (1 Cor. 1:14–16).

It is important to notice that only Jews were ever told to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins (see Acts 22:16). In this fact, we believe, is the secret to the understanding of this passage. The nation of Israel had crucified the Lord of glory. The Jewish people had cried out, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). The guilt of the Messiah’s death was thus claimed by the people of Israel.

Now, some of these Jews had come to realize their mistake. By repentance they acknowledged their sin to God. By trusting the Lord Jesus as their Savior they were regenerated and received eternal forgiveness of sins. By public water baptism they dissociated themselves from the nation that crucified the Lord and identified themselves with Him. Baptism thus became the outward sign that their sin in connection with the rejection of Christ (as well as all their sins) had been washed away. It took them off Jewish ground and placed them on Christian ground. But baptism did not save them. Only faith in Christ could do that. To teach otherwise is to teach another gospel and thus be accursed (Gal. 1:8, 9).

An alternative interpretation of baptism for the remission of sins is given by Ryrie:

This does not mean in order that sins might be remitted, for everywhere in the New Testament sins are forgiven as a result of faith in Christ, not as a result of baptism. It means be baptized because of the remission of sins. The Greek preposition eis, for, has this meaning “because of” not only here but also in such a passage as Matthew 12:41 where the meaning can only be “they repented because of [not in order to] the preaching of Jonah.” Repentance brought the remission of sins for this Pentecostal crowd, and because of the remission of sins they were asked to be baptized.

Peter assured them that if they repented and were baptized, they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. To insist that this order applies to us today is to misunderstand God’s administrative dealings in the early days of the church. As H. P. Barker has so ably pointed out in The Vicar of Christ, there are four communities of believers in the Book of Acts, and the order of events in connection with the reception of the Holy Spirit is different in each case.

Here in Acts 2:38 we read about Jewish Christians. For them, the order was:

  1. Repentance.
  2. Water baptism.
  3. Reception of the Holy Spirit.

The conversion of Samaritans is recorded in Acts 8:14–17. There we read that the following events occurred:

  1. They believed.
  2. They were baptized in water.
  3. The apostles prayed for them.
  4. The apostles laid their hands on them.
  5. They received the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 10:44–48 the conversion of Gentiles is in view. Notice the order here:

  1. Faith.
  2. Reception of the Holy Spirit.
  3. Water baptism.

A final community of believers is made up of disciples of John the Baptist, Acts 19:1–7:

  1. They believed.
  2. They were rebaptized.
  3. The Apostle Paul laid his hands on them.
  4. They received the Holy Spirit.

Does this mean there were four ways of salvation in the Book of Acts? Of course not. Salvation was, is, and always will be on the basis of faith in the Lord. But during the transition period recorded in Acts, God chose to vary the events connected with the reception of the Holy Spirit for reasons which He knew but did not choose to reveal to us.

Then which of these patterns applies to us today? Since Israel nationally has rejected the Messiah, the Jewish people have forfeited any special privileges they might have had. Today God is calling out of the Gentiles a people for His Name (Acts 15:14). Therefore, the order for today is that which is found in Acts 10:


Reception of the Holy Spirit.

Water baptism.

We believe this order applies to all today, to Jews as well as to Gentiles. This may sound arbitrary at first. It might be asked, “When did the order in Acts 2:38 cease to apply to Jews and the order in Acts 10:44–48 begin?” No definite date can be given, of course. But the Book of Acts traces a gradual transition from the gospel’s going out primarily to Jews, to its being repeatedly rejected by the Jews, to its going out to the Gentiles. By the end of the Book of Acts the nation of Israel had been largely set aside. By unbelief it had forfeited any special claim as God’s chosen people. During the Church Age it would be reckoned with the Gentile nations, and God’s order for the Gentiles, outlined in Acts 10:44–48, would apply.[2]

38. Peter answered them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.”

We make these observations:

  • Repentance. The people ask Peter and the rest of the apostles how they can receive remission of sin and find salvation. What does Peter tell them? He speaks no words of rebuke. Rather, he utters the same word spoken by John the Baptist at the Jordan and by Jesus during his ministry: “Repent” (see Matt. 3:2; 4:17). The imperative repent implies that the Jews turn from the evil they have perpetrated, have an intense abhorrence for the sins they committed, experience a complete turnabout of their lives, and adhere to Jesus’ teaching.

Repentance signifies that man’s mind is changed completely, so that he consciously turns away from sin (3:19). Repentance causes a person to think and act in harmony with Jesus’ teachings. The result is that he breaks with unbelief and in faith accepts God’s Word.

  • Baptism. Peter continues and says, “Be baptized every one of you.” In Greek, the imperative verb repent is in the plural; Peter addresses all the people whose consciences drive them to repentance. But the verb be baptized is in the singular to stress the individual nature of baptism. A Christian should be baptized to be a follower of Jesus Christ, for baptism is the sign indicating that a person belongs to the company of God’s people.

Repentance, baptism, and faith are theologically related. When the believer who repents is baptized he makes a commitment of faith. He accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior and knows that through Christ’s blood his sins are forgiven. Indeed Peter instructs the people that baptism must be “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” Forgiveness of sins takes place only through Christ in consequence of his death and resurrection (see Rom. 6:1–4). As forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist preached repentance from sin and then baptized the people who turned from sin (Mark 1:4).

  • Name. Peter asserts that the believer must be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” The instruction appears to go contrary to the words of the Great Commission, in which Jesus tells the apostles to baptize believers in the name of the Triune God (Matt. 28:19–20). Notice, first, that the term name includes the full revelation concerning Jesus Christ (see also 8:12; 10:48; 19:5). That is, this term points to his person and work and the people he redeems. In other words, Peter is not contradicting Jesus’ baptism formula; rather, he stresses the unique function and place Jesus has in regard to baptism and the remission of sins. Next, Peter uses the double name Jesus Christ to indicate that Jesus of Nazareth indeed is the Messiah. As Jesus fulfills the prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah, so the baptism in his name is a fulfillment of the baptism of John (see 19:1–7). John’s baptism was with water only, but that of Jesus is with water and the Holy Spirit (compare Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33; Acts 1:5).
  • Gift. “And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Within the early church, this text proved to be no contradiction to the words of John the Baptist: “I baptize you with water, but [Jesus] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit” (Mark 1:8, NIV). In the first century, Christians saw John’s baptism as the shadow and that of Jesus as reality. Accordingly, the person who was baptized in the name of Jesus pledged his allegiance to Christ, particularly with the confession Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3).

What is this gift of the Spirit? Peter puts the noun gift in the singular, not in the plural. By contrast, Paul writes to the Corinthian church about the gifts of the Holy Spirit, among them wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, tongues, and interpretation (1 Cor. 12:8–11, 28–31; 14:1–2). But to the people who were present at Pentecost Peter says that the baptized believer will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The expression gift appears in the passage about the outpouring of the Spirit on the Samaritans; Simon the sorcerer tried to buy this gift with money (8:20). The term also occurs in the account of Peter’s visit to Cornelius, who with his household received the gift of the Holy Spirit (10:45; see also 11:17). From these passages we are able to learn that this gift refers to the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit. Notice, however, that in 2:38–41 Luke makes no mention of the converts speaking in tongues (2:4) or of the apostles laying their hands on the converts so that they might receive the Spirit (8:17). We assume, therefore, that “speaking in tongues and laying on of hands were not considered prerequisites for receiving the Spirit.”

The context of the Pentecost account indicates that the gift of the Spirit is not dependent on baptism. The two clauses “be baptized” and “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” are separate statements. In a detailed study of this point Ned B. Stonehouse observes, “One may conclude with confidence that Acts 2:38 is not to be understood as teaching that the gift of the Spirit was conditional upon baptism.” A study in Acts on baptism and the gift of the Holy Spirit reveals that these two are related but do not necessarily follow each other. Hence, in verse 38 Peter instructs the people to repent and to be baptized; then he adds the promise (in the future tense) that they “will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

  • Promise. In the next verse (v. 39) Peter relates to his audience that “the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.”

What is the meaning of the word promise? Luke, who reports Peter’s words, refrains from providing details. The definite article preceding the noun promise seems to indicate that Peter has the specific promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit in mind. The promise refers to the prophecy of Joel 2:28–32, which was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost. Before his ascension Jesus tells the apostles, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the promise my Father made, of which you heard me speak” (1:4; see also Luke 24:49). And the exalted Christ pours out the promised Holy Spirit he received from God the Father (Acts 2:33).

The phrase for you and your children is an echo of God’s promise to Abraham to be a God to him and his descendants for generations to come (Gen. 17:7). Likewise, the promise of the Holy Spirit goes far beyond the Jews and their children who were present in Jerusalem at Pentecost. From the moment of arrival, the Holy Spirit remains among God’s people until the end of time. The Spirit leads believers to Jesus Christ and lives within their hearts, for their physical bodies are his temple (1 Cor. 6:19).

“And for all who are far off—as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.” Peter and his fellow Jews consider themselves God’s covenant people, who are the first to receive the blessing of salvation. But through the work of Christ the Gentiles also are included in God’s covenant. Peter himself eventually realizes the import of the words he utters at Pentecost when he reports to the Jews in Jerusalem about his visit to Cornelius in Caesarea. Concludes Peter, “If then God gave them the same gift as he gave us who believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” (11:17). Years later, Paul writes to Gentile members of the church about their exclusion from the covenant and says, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13, and see v. 17).

Two concluding remarks are in order. First, the term far off includes both time and place. God’s promise extends throughout the generations until the end of the world. It also reaches people from every nation, tribe, race, and language, wherever they dwell on the face of this earth. Peter’s words are in complete harmony with those of Jesus: “Make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19). And second, God is sovereign in calling his own people to himself. Salvation originates with him and he grants it to all those whom he, in his sovereign grace, effectively will call. These words of Peter correspond to and have their counterpart in Joel’s prophecy: “And it will be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (v. 21; Joel 2:32).[3]

The Appeal

Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself.” And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” (2:37–40)

Peter’s conclusion to the main body of his sermon was devastating. He charged his listeners with rejecting and executing their Messiah—the very One whom God had made both Lord and Christ (v. 36). When they heard this—Peter’s statement in verse 36—they were pierced to the heart. Katanussō (pierced) appears only here in the New Testament. It means “to pierce,” or “to stab,” and thus depicts something sudden and unexpected. Stunned by their inability to evade the indictment that they were guilty of heinous behavior before God, they were overcome by grief and remorse.

There were several reasons for their anguish. First, as already noted, was the realization that they had executed their Messiah. The One for whom they had longed for centuries, the One who was the hope of all their personal and national promises, had finally come. Instead of welcoming Him, however, they rejected Him and handed Him over to their bitter and hated enemies, the Romans, for execution.

Second, they themselves had done it. It would have been bad enough to learn that Messiah had been killed. Far worse was the knowledge of their own complicity in the crime. That no doubt produced in them a deep sense of guilt. They could not imagine a greater sin than killing their Messiah.

A third cause for their anguish was fear of Messiah’s wrath. Peter had announced to them in no uncertain terms that the same Jesus they had crucified was now alive (vv. 24, 31, 32). Worse still, he had quoted to them a passage from Psalm 110 that spoke of the vanquishing of Messiah’s enemies. What greater enemies of God existed than those who killed His Messiah?

Finally, they were devastated by the understanding that what they had done could not be undone.

Overwhelmed with anguish, despair, remorse, and guilt, they said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” They sought desperately for a way to make right what they had done, and avoid Messiah’s wrath. They were at the same point Paul was when he cried out on the Damascus road, “What shall I do, Lord?” (Acts 22:10). Their words are reminiscent of those of the Philippian jailer, who asked Paul and Silas, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). Their state of mind illustrates perfectly that of the convicted sinner. They had a deep sense of their own guilt, and a panicky fear of God’s wrath. They had a strong desire to be saved from that wrath, and a willingness to submit to God’s will. Such conviction of sin is a part of every genuine conversion.

The book of Zechariah illustrates that truth. Zechariah 12:10 describes the first step in the restoration of Israel—conviction of sin: “And I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him, like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.” Only after that conviction does the cleansing of sin described in Zechariah 13:1 take place: “In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.” Conviction is the key used by the Holy Spirit to open the heart to salvation.

An indictment for sin is an essential part of any gospel presentation. People need to be convicted of sin before they will see the need for a savior. No matter how morally upright they may be, all unbelievers are guilty of the vile sins of rebellion against God (cf. Acts 17:30) and rejection of Jesus Christ (John 16:8–9). Genuine conviction is produced by the Spirit of God, in conjunction with the Word of God, which is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

The Holy Spirit, through Peter’s powerful preaching, had brought them to the point of desperation. Peter now answers their question with the only correct answer: repent. Metanoeō (repent) is a rich New Testament term. It speaks of a change of purpose, of turning from sin to God (1 Thess. 1:9). It is an essential component of a genuine conversion. Both John the Baptist (Matt. 3:2) and the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 4:17) called for repentance. It is an oft-repeated theme in Acts (3:19; 5:31; 8:22; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20).

Although Peter’s hearers feared God’s judgment, true repentance involves more than fear of consequences. Commentator Albert Barnes rightly notes that “false repentance dreads the consequences of sin; true repentance dreads sin itself” (Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament: Acts-Romans [1884–85; reprint, Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.], 52. Emphasis in original). True repentance hates sin for what it is—an affront to God. Knowing that sin is evil and that God hates it motivates the truly repentant person to forsake it. Genuine repentance thus forsakes sin and turns in total commitment to Jesus Christ. (For a discussion of repentance, see my books The Gospel According to Jesus, rev. ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], and Faith Works [Dallas: Word, 1993].)

It is difficult for modern readers to grasp the magnitude of the change facing Peter’s Jewish hearers. They were part of a unique community, with a rich cultural and religious history. Despite long years of subjugation to Rome, they were fiercely nationalistic. The nation had rejected Jesus as a blasphemer and executed Him. Now Peter calls on them to turn their back on all that and embrace Jesus as their Messiah.

By calling on each of them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ Peter does not allow for any “secret disciples” (cf. Matt. 10:32–33). Baptism would mark a public break with Judaism and identification with Jesus Christ. Such a drastic public act would help weed out any conversions which were not genuine. In sharp contrast to many modern gospel presentations, Peter made accepting Christ difficult, not easy. By so doing, he followed the example of our Lord Himself (Luke 14:26–33; 18:18–27). Baptism was always in the name of Jesus Christ. That was the crucial identification, and the cost was high for such a confession.

The meaning of Peter’s statement that baptism is for the forgiveness of sins has been much disputed. Those who teach baptismal regeneration—the false teaching that baptism is necessary for salvation—see this verse as a primary proof text for their view.

That view ignores the immediate context of the passage. As already noted, baptism would be a dramatic step for Peter’s hearers. By publicly identifying themselves as followers of Jesus of Nazareth, they risked becoming outcasts in their society (cf. John 9:22). Peter calls upon them to prove the genuineness of their repentance by submitting to public baptism. In much the same way, our Lord called upon the rich young ruler to prove the genuineness of his repentance by parting with his wealth (Luke 18:18–27). Surely, however, no one would argue from the latter passage that giving away one’s possessions is necessary for salvation. Salvation is not a matter of either water or economics. True repentance, however, will inevitably manifest itself in total submission to the Lord’s will.

Second, such teaching violates the important hermeneutical principle known as analogia Scriptura (The analogy of Scripture). That principle states that no passage, when correctly interpreted, will teach something contradictory to the rest of Scripture. And the rest of Scripture unmistakably teaches that salvation is solely by faith (cf. John 1:12; 3:16; Acts 16:31; Rom. 3:21–30; 4:5; 10:9–10; Phil. 3:9; Gal. 2:16).

Third, after condemning the ritualistic religion of the scribes and Pharisees, our Lord would hardly have instituted one of His own. F. F. Bruce remarks, “It is against the whole genius of Biblical religion to suppose that the outward rite [of baptism] had any value except in so far as it was accompanied by true repentance within” (The Book of the Acts [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971], 77).

Fourth, this interpretation is not true to the facts of Scripture. Throughout the book of Acts, forgiveness is linked to repentance, not baptism (cf. 3:19; 5:31; 26:20). In addition, the Bible records that some who were baptized were not saved (Acts 8:13; 21–23), while some were saved with no mention of their being baptized (Luke 7:37–50; Matt. 9:2; Luke 18:13–14). The story of the conversion of Cornelius and his friends very clearly shows the relationship of baptism to salvation. It was only after they were saved, as shown by their receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44–46), that they were baptized (vv. 47–48). Indeed, it was because they had received the Spirit (And hence were saved) that Peter ordered them to be baptized (v. 47). That passage clearly shows that baptism follows salvation; it does not cause it.

In 1 Corinthians 15:1–4, the apostle Paul summarizes the gospel he preached and by which the Corinthians had been saved. There is no mention of baptism. Further, in 1 Corinthians 1:14–16, Paul rejoiced that he had baptized none of the Corinthians except Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. That statement is inexplicable if baptism is necessary for salvation. Paul would then in effect be saying he was thankful that only those few were saved under his ministry. The apostle clearly distinguishes baptism from the gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:17, where he says that “Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” How could Paul have made such a statement if baptism was necessary for salvation?

While the preposition eis (for) can mean “for the purpose of,” it can also mean “because of,” or “on the occasion of” (A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Baker, reprint of the 1930 edition], 3:35–36; H. E. Dana and J. R. Mantey, A Manual Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Toronto: Macmillan, 1957], 104). The latter is clearly its meaning in Matthew 12:41, which says that the people of Nineveh repented because of the preaching of Jonah.

The order is clear. Repentance is for forgiveness. Baptism follows that forgiveness; it does not cause it (cf. 8:12, 34–39; 10:34–48; 16:31–33). It is the public sign or symbol of what has taken place on the inside. It is an important step of obedience for all believers, and should closely follow conversion. In fact, in the early church it was inseparable from salvation, so that Paul referred to salvation as being related to “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5).

Complete forgiveness of sins is the blessed joy and privilege of every believer. That glorious truth fills the pages of the New Testament. In Matthew 26:28, our Lord said, “This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” In Luke 24:47, He reminded the disciples that “repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Therefore, “in Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace” (Eph. 1:7). Paul wrote to the Colossians that “when you were dead in your transgressions and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He made you alive together with Him, having forgiven us all our transgressions” (Col. 2:13). The apostle John says simply, “Little children, your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake” (1 John 2:12. See also Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18; Rom. 4:7; Eph. 4:32; Col. 1:14; 1 John 1:9.)

Salvation would not only bring them forgiveness, but they would also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For this they had been waiting; the gift of the Spirit, according to Joel 2:28–29, would mark the beginning of messianic times.

Dōrea (gift) refers to that which is free and unmerited. Contrary to much contemporary teaching, Peter attached no condition to receiving the Spirit except repentance. Nor did he promise that any supernatural phenomena would accompany their reception of the Spirit. It should be noted as well that the gift of the Spirit does not come through water baptism (Acts 10:47).

The marvelous gift of the Holy Spirit was not merely for those in Peter’s audience that day. The promise of the Holy Spirit, Peter informs them, is for you and your children, and for all who are far off. They and their children, the nation of Israel, would receive the Spirit, as the Old Testament promised (Isa. 44:3; Ezek. 36:27; 37:14; Joel 2:28– 29). They would share that blessing, however, with those who are far off—the Gentiles (cf. Eph. 2:11–13).

Peter’s description of those who would receive the Spirit as those whom the Lord our God shall call to Himself describes God’s sovereignty at work in salvation. It presents the necessary balance to his statement in verse 21 that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” A biblical view of salvation does not exclude either human responsibility or divine sovereignty, but allows them to remain in tension. We must resist the attempt to harmonize what Scripture does not, content in the knowledge that there is no ultimate contradiction in God’s mind.

Luke adds that with many other words Peter solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” Luke has given us only a synopsis of Peter’s sermon, which obviously lasted far longer than the few minutes it takes to read this passage. It is likely as well that Peter engaged in a dialogue with the crowd following his sermon, as the statement kept on exhorting indicates. The gist of his exhortation was that they should be saved from this perverse generation through repentance and faith in Christ. Perverse translates skolios, which means “bent,” or “crooked,” and hence evil and unrighteous.

Peter’s condemnation echoed that of our Lord. In Matthew 12:39 and 16:4, He described them as an “evil and adulterous generation.” In Matthew 12:45 He referred to them as “this evil generation,” while in Luke 11:29 He commented that “this generation is a wicked generation.” In Mark 9:19 He condemned them as an “unbelieving generation,” while Matthew 17:17 and Luke 9:41 add the word “perverted” to “unbelieving.” Finally, in Mark 8:38, Jesus denounced them as an “adulterous and sinful generation.”

Many thousands from that generation were to perish during the Jewish revolt, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Peter’s appeal for immediate response was timely.[4]

38 Peter’s answer to the people’s anguished cry presents interpreters with a set of complex theological problems that have often been treated only as grist for differing theological mills. But Peter’s words came to his hearers as the best news they had ever heard—far better, indeed, than they deserved or could have hoped for. And these words remain today as the best of good news and should be read as the proclamation of that news, not just as data for contemporary theological discussions.

Peter calls on his hearers to “repent” (metanoeō, GK 3566). The term implies a complete change of heart and confession of sin. With this call he couples the call to “be baptized” (baptisthētō, GK 966), thereby linking both repentance and baptism with the forgiveness of sins. So far this sounds familiar, for John the Baptist had proclaimed a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mk 1:4), and Jesus made repentance central in his preaching (cf. Mt 4:17; Mk 1:15) and baptized (cf. Jn 3:22; 4:1–2). Furthermore, Judaism also had repentance at the core of its message and emphasized baptism (at least for proselytes). But while there is much that appears traditional in Peter’s exhortation, there is also much that is new and distinctive—in three ways in particular.

One distinctive feature in his preaching is that Peter calls on “every one” of his audience to repent and be baptized. Jews thought corporately and generally viewed the rite of baptism as appropriate only for proselytes (though some sects within Judaism baptized Jews). But like John the Baptist (cf. Mt 3:9–10)—and probably Jesus, though in distinction to Judaism generally—Peter called for an individual response on the part of his hearers. So he set aside family and corporate relationships as having any final, saving significance and stressed the response of the person individually, without, however, denying the value of corporate relationships but placing them in a “new covenant” perspective.

A second feature is that Peter identifies the repentance and baptism he is speaking about as being specifically Christian in that it is done “in the name of Jesus Christ” (epi tō onomati Iēsou Christou). The expression was probably not at this time a liturgical formula. It appears variously in Acts with the prepositions epi (“on”) as here (though there are variations in the textual tradition), en (“in”) as in 10:48, and eis (“into”) as in 8:16 and 19:5. What it means, it seems, is that in repenting and being baptized a person calls on the name of Jesus (cf. 22:16) and thereby avows his or her intention to be committed to and identified with Jesus.

A third feature in Peter’s preaching is the relation of the gift of the Holy Spirit to repentance and baptism. “The gift of the Holy Spirit” is another way of describing what the disciples had experienced in “the coming of the Holy Spirit,” which Jesus called “the baptism of the Holy Spirit” (cf. 1:4–5, 8). All three expressions are connected with God’s promise to his people and used interchangeably in Acts 1 and 2.

We must, however, distinguish between “the gift” of the Holy Spirit and what Paul called “the spiritual gifts” (ta pneumatika, GK 4461, 1 Co 12:1; 14:1) of that selfsame Spirit. “The gift” is the Spirit himself, given to minister the saving benefits of Christ’s redemption to the believer, while “the spiritual gifts” are those spiritual abilities that the Spirit gives variously to believers “for the common good” and sovereignly, “just as he determines” (1 Co 12:7, 11). Peter’s promise of “the gift of the Holy Spirit” is the result of repentance and baptism. This primary gift includes a variety of spiritual gifts for the advancement of the gospel and the welfare of God’s people. But first of all, it has to do with what God’s Spirit does for every Christian in applying and working out the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work.

In dealing with the various elements in this passage, some interpreters have stressed the command to be baptized so as to link the forgiveness of sins exclusively with baptism. But it runs contrary to all biblical religion to assume that outward rites have any value apart from true repentance and an inward change. The Jewish mind could not divorce inward spirituality from its outward expression. And wherever the Christian gospel was proclaimed in a Jewish milieu, the rite of baptism was taken for granted as being inevitably involved (cf. 2:41; 8:12, 36–38; 9:18; 10:47–48; 18:8; 19:5; see Heb 10:22; 1 Pe 3:18–21). But Peter’s sermon in Solomon’s Colonnade (3:12–26) stresses only repentance and turning to God “so that your sins may be wiped out” (v. 19) and makes no mention of baptism. This shows that for Luke, and probably also for Peter, while baptism with water was the expected symbol for conversion, it was not the indispensable criterion for salvation.

A few commentators have set Peter’s words in v. 38 in opposition to those of John the Baptist in Mark (1:8 par.) and those of Jesus (Ac 1:5), where the baptism of the Holy Spirit is distinguished from John’s baptism and appears to supersede it. But neither the Baptist’s prophecy nor Jesus’ promise necessarily implies that the baptism of the Spirit would set aside water baptism. Certainly the early church did not take it that way. They continued to practice water baptism as the external symbol by which those who believed the gospel, repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as their Lord publicly bore witness to their new life, which had been received through the baptism of the Holy Spirit. In line, then, with the Baptist’s prophecy and Jesus’ promise, baptism with the Holy Spirit is distinguished from baptism with water. But baptism with the Holy Spirit did not replace baptism with water. Rather, the latter was given a richer significance because of the saving work of Christ and the coming of the Spirit.

A difficult problem arises when we try to correlate Peter’s words here with the accounts of the Spirit’s baptism in 8:15–17 (at Samaria), 10:44–46 (in the home of Cornelius), and 19:6 (at Ephesus). In v. 38 the baptism of the Spirit is portrayed as the logical outcome of repentance and water baptism; in 8:15–17; 10:44–46; and 19:6, however, it appears to be temporally separated from conversion and water baptism—either following them, as at Samaria and Ephesus, or preceding them, as with Cornelius. Sacramentalists take this as a biblical basis for separating baptism and confirmation, and charismatics see it as justification for viewing the baptism of the Spirit as a second work of grace after conversion.

Lest too much be made of this difference theologically, we should first take into account the historical situation of vv. 37–41 and attempt to understand matters more circumstantially. Assuming that Luke shared Paul’s view of the indissoluble connection between conversion, water baptism, and the baptism of the Holy Spirit (cf. Ro 8:9; 1 Co 6:11), we may ask, What if the Pentecost experience, particularly in regard to the sequence and temporal relations of conversion, water baptism, and Holy Spirit baptism, had been fully present in each of these latter three instances?

What would have been the situation with respect to the Samaritans (8:4–8, 14–17), who had been converted through the instrumentality of Philip, one of the Hellenists expelled from Jerusalem at the time of Stephen’s martyrdom? Samaritans had always been considered second-class citizens by the Jews of Jerusalem, who kept them at arm’s length. What, then, if it had been the apostles residing at Jerusalem who had been the missionaries to Samaria? Probably they would have been rebuffed, just as they were earlier when the Samaritans associated them with the city of Jerusalem (cf. Lk 9:51–56). But God providentially used Philip, who himself had been rebuffed at Jerusalem (though for different reasons), to bring them the gospel. The Samaritans received him and believed his message.

But what if the Spirit had come on the Samaritan believers at their baptism by Philip? Undoubtedly, whatever feelings some of the Christians at Jerusalem had against Philip and the Hellenists would have rubbed off on the Samaritan believers and they would have been doubly under suspicion. But God providentially withheld the gift of the Holy Spirit until Peter and John—two leading apostles who would have been accepted by both the new converts of Samaria and the established congregation at Jerusalem—laid their hands on the Samaritans. Thus in this first advance of the gospel outside Jerusalem, God worked in ways conducive both to the reception of the good news in Samaria and the acceptance of these new converts at Jerusalem—ways that promoted both the outreach of the gospel and the unity of the church.

Or take the conversion of Cornelius (10:24–48). What if, in Peter’s ministry to this Gentile, the order of events Peter had set down after his sermon at Pentecost had occurred (2:38): (1) repentance, (2) baptism, (3) forgiveness of sins, and (4) reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit? Some at Jerusalem might have accused Peter of manipulating the occasion for his own ends, as his lengthy defense before the Jerusalem congregation in 11:1–18 takes pains to deny. But God in his providence gave the gift of his Spirit, coupled with such signs as would convince both Peter and his possible critics at Jerusalem, even before Cornelius’s baptism, so that all would attribute his conversion entirely to God rather than allow their prejudices to make Cornelius a second-class Christian.

As for the incident recorded in 19:1–4, this, along with the other two passages just mentioned, will be dealt with later in addressing those accounts. Enough, however, has been said here to suggest that we should understand Peter’s preaching at Pentecost as being theologically normative for the relation in Acts of (1) conversion, (2) water baptism, and (3) the baptism of the Holy Spirit—with the situations at Samaria, in the home of Cornelius, and among the twelve whom Paul met at Ephesus (which is something of a case all to itself) to be more historically conditioned and circumstantially understood.[5]

[1] MacArthur, J. (2001). Truth for today : a daily touch of God’s grace (p. 176). Nashville, Tenn.: J. Countryman.

[2] MacDonald, W. (1995). Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.) (pp. 1586–1587). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

[3] Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, pp. 104–107). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1994). Acts (pp. 70–75). Chicago: Moody Press.

[5] Longenecker, R. N. (2007). Acts. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 749–751). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.


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