Repentance, Baptism, & the Promised Spirit
Passage: Acts 2:37–41
The last two weeks we’ve looked at the events of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13). We’ve also looked at Peter explaining those events from the Prophets and the Psalms (Acts 2:14-36). Today we enter the results of Peter’s gospel preaching. Let’s pick it up at verse 37 and listen to the word of God.
37Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38And Peter said to 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. 39For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.
Wouldn’t you love to preach a two-and-half minute sermon, and see the Lord save 3000 souls?! Quite impressive. That’s about how long it takes to read Peter’s speech (Acts 2:14-36). I imagine some of you wouldn’t mind if my own messages ran that short. I pray they’d have such impact. But the truth is that Peter actually said much more. Luke tells us so in verse 40: “with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them…”
Speeches in the Book of Acts
We’re only getting a summary. Which gives me an opportunity to talk about speeches in Acts. Speeches make up about a third of the book. None are exhaustive. Rather, they’re selections of what was said. I mention this to equip you in two ways.
One, we shouldn’t ever feel like Luke is being dishonest by picking out what he wants. He’s told us before that he writes on the basis of eyewitness testimony. Luke traveled around with Paul, for instance. If anybody questioned Luke’s faithfulness, they could ask Paul if Luke got the summary right. This isn’t to mention Luke’s own inspiration by the Holy Spirit, who never lies.
Moreover, Acts is actually quite similar to other classical historical works. Summary speeches were often included to illuminate the passions of the characters involved. Maybe an example would help: if you took the famous speech of Martin Luther King, Jr., and rather than telling us the whole speech, you selected only paragraphs that began with “I have a dream,” you’d know right away what drove that man. You wouldn’t accuse the person who selected that portion of misrepresentation.
The same is true in Acts. By giving us selections, Luke helps his readers accurately understand the very heart and center driving the life of the early church. If you put the speeches in Acts side by side, you’ll find that the gospel drove the early church—a gospel planned in the Old Testament, a gospel realized in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus, a gospel proclaimed to all nations in the power of the Holy Spirit, and a gospel consummated with the return of Jesus to raise the dead and judge the world. The gospel fueled the early church.
And that leads to a second observation. By adding speeches to the historical narrative of God’s unfolding plan, Luke paints an important theological backdrop. The purpose of God advances through the Spirit of God empowering the people of God to speak the word of God—that’s the theological backdrop. The purpose of God in history advances as the word of God is spoken. In this case, Peter has just spoken the gospel word; and I want us to look at four ways the gospel works on these people.
1. The gospel convicts with the glory of Christ.
First, the gospel convicts with the glory of Christ. Verse 37, “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart.” The heart is the very core of who we are. We decide and will and speak from the heart. To be cut to the heart is the undoing of your inner person. Another place the same expression occurs is Isaiah 6:5 (i.e., in the LXX). The curtain of heaven is pulled back. Isaiah gets a glimpse of the holiness and splendor of the Lord seated on his throne. It undoes his inner self: “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” The Septuagint has, “I am stunned, or cut.” The same here.
Can you imagine what they felt? If you were a faithful Jew, and you read your Old Testament, and you knew that the Messiah was coming, and when he ruled on the throne he would destroy all his enemies who were against him. And then somebody tells you, “Hey, you know that Messiah, you know God’s Anointed One that’s supposed to come and dash his enemies to pieces like a potters vessel?” “Yeah, yeah, yeah…I hope he comes soon.” “Well, you and I crucified him two months ago.”
“What?!” “Yeah, we crucified him.” To crucify the Messiah is to side with the enemies he will crush. He will terrify them with his wrath. They are cut to the heart, and say, “What shall we do?” Peter then answers in verse 38. But before we tackle that, just consider the connection between this reaction and what preceded it.
The preaching of the person and work Christ convicts them. Preaching the glory of Christ shatters pride and convicts the heart. Now, it’s not my goal, nor is it Luke’s, to turn Peter’s sermon into a method for evangelism—in the sense of “as long as you say these exact things, you’re guaranteed brokenness.” We know that’s not the case, because some get rather violent about the same message later on. But it’s at least worth noting a pattern: the Spirit brings conviction to God’s elect through their hearing about Christ. No matter how the apostles start, they race people to Christ.
There’s not another message that truly reveals the glory of God’s holiness and the awfulness of our sin. The gospel of Christ reveals both; and it’s by seeing the glory of his life and his death and his resurrection and his present reign that removes the veil, that opens the eyes to who God truly is and who we are before him, that breaks down our faulty worldviews that we construct to keep God away from our most precious idols. When we see Christ truly, we become like Isaiah who feels utter misery over his wretched self. The gospel convicts with the glory of Christ.
2. The gospel demands we reorient our lives around Christ.
Second, the gospel demands we reorient our lives around Christ. It’s not enough to feel misery; we must also follow the Messiah. Peter gives two commands in verse 38: repent and be baptized. “Now, wait just a second,” you might say, “I thought salvation was by faith alone, by simply trusting in Christ” (e.g., Eph 2:8-9). Yes, it is; and Peter’s not contradicting that. He’s also not being exhaustive. Sometimes he uses repentance, sometimes faith, sometimes both together. He uses baptism as well. Sometimes he mentions several of these actions together, and at other times they appear in different orders. His point isn’t to explain the logical order of our salvation, but to present them all as part of becoming a Christian.[i] We must repent and be baptized.
Repentance: turning away from sin toward God
What is repentance? It’s certainly more than feeling misery over sin. Some have said repentance is changing your mind, agreeing with God. It’s at least that much; but that’s still not quite enough. Repentance throughout Scripture affects the will and your inner motives. The concept is closer to the Old Testament idea of “turning” to the Lord.[ii] It’s an internal “180” toward God and away from the sin causing estrangement from God.
J. I. Packer describes repentance as “the settled refusal to set any limit to the claims which [Christ] may make on [our] lives.”[iii] A person repents when he reorients his will, his desires, his whole purpose around Jesus.
If we ever think we can have Jesus and keep our sin too, we’re self-deceived. If we ever think that just because we got baptized, just because we had a special experience years ago, just because we prayed a prayer, that we’re good to go without need of moral transformation—then in that too we’re self-deceived. The sin for which Christ died to forgive, he also rose to release us from and conquer within (Rom 6:1-12). Therefore, we must turn from it. We must hate it for the offense it is to God.
It’s true elsewhere in Scripture that repentance is also a gift from God. God grants repentance—2 Timothy 2:25. God turns people away from their wickedness—Acts 3:26 (cf. Acts 5:31; 11:18). In saying so, we see the age-old truth that God’s grace grants what he also demands. But that should never minimize the demand. Part of God’s grace is his word and his Spirit to move the will to obey with demands. Here, repent.
And this makes sense in light of what Peter says about receiving the Holy Spirit. In the Old Testament nothing unclean, nothing un-sanctified, was permitted to enter the holy dwelling place of God. What do you think this says when the Christian becomes God’s dwelling place? What do you think it says when God makes us the temple? Wherever the Holy Spirit dwells, all that is unholy must go.
The greedy person repents by treasuring Christ and pursuing generosity. The sexually immoral finds satisfaction in Christ and pursues purity in thought and relationships. The bitter find Christ worthy of their love no matter the betrayal, and then serve with thanksgiving and joy. The dishonest finds justification in Christ and no longer needs self-salvation through lying; he pursues the truth. The self-righteous sees his own depravity before the cross and walks in humility and dependence on grace.
The “transgender” person recognizes that one’s identity must center in Christ and not in human sexuality, such that they live according to the way God made them in his image. The addicted discovers that his body is not his own; his members belong to Christ; and so he lets nothing enslave him. The philosopher who once embraced an ideology that made himself the determiner of good and evil—he must now embrace a worldview with God on the throne, Jesus at the center. No matter who you are, the gospel demands repentance.
Baptism: outward, initiatory sign of identifying with Christ
Another part of becoming a Christian is baptism. Peter says, “Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” Baptism sometimes refers to the inner work of the Holy Spirit (e.g., Acts 1:5). Here, however, he has water baptism in mind (cf. Acts 2:41; 8:36). It’s not that the two types of baptism have nothing to do with each other, but that water baptism is the outward sign of what the Spirit does within. Baptism is the initiatory sign of identifying with Christ. We see here that it’s an act the church does to us—“be baptized” in the passive twice. In that sense, baptism is an act of the church that confirms our identity with Christ and his new community.
Doing it “in the name of Jesus Christ” acknowledges his lordship. Back in 2:21, the prophet Joel said that “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” Peter is now explaining what happens when one calls upon the Lord’s name: we outwardly identify with Jesus Christ as Lord through water baptism.
Now, because of the way it gets developed elsewhere in the New Testament, we should add that baptism includes what Jesus’ lordship implies about the achievement of his cross. If Jesus isn’t lord, then the cross means nothing. But if Jesus is truly risen and truly exalted to God’s right hand, then his death really was the decisive victory over our sin. When we’re baptized in his name and not another, we’re saying that the benefits of salvation are found in Jesus alone and in no one else.
3. The gospel promises forgiveness in Christ and the Spirit of Christ.
The benefits include forgiveness of sins and the promised Spirit. Which leads us now to a third way the gospel works on this crowd, and in our lives: the gospel promises forgiveness in Christ and the Spirit of Christ.
It’s rather stunning—especially for Baptists—the way Peter puts things here: “be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins.” Some have concluded from this that forgiveness must come automatically with water baptism quite apart from faith; or, that this supports baptismal regeneration. We need not go there for a few reasons.
God sometimes grants forgiveness, or implies that people have it, without mentioning water baptism. The thief on the cross is a common example. But Acts 3:19 is another, where we see simply “repent…that your sins may be blotted out,” with no mention of baptism. Also, in 10:43 Peter says “that everyone who believes in [Jesus] receives the forgiveness of sins.” So he links forgiveness with faith in Christ—their baptism doesn’t come till afterward (Acts 10:47; cf. 11:15-18). Also, in Acts 26:18 forgiveness and sanctification come simply, “by faith in Christ.”
In other words, let’s not read more into the “for” than what’s actually there,[iv] especially in light of places where forgiveness is present and baptism isn’t. At the same time, let’s not so drive a wedge between baptism and forgiveness that we lose the relationship that’s truly present. Water baptism is a sign of our forgiveness and cleansing in Christ (cf. 1 Pet 3:21). The forgiveness isn’t bound up with what happens in the water itself, but what happens in our faith-union with Christ by the Spirit, which water baptism pictures.[v] Those who truly believe get baptized in Jesus’ name, signifying that Jesus and Jesus alone has forgiven their sins. You can imagine what statement that was making before a crowd of Jews: forgiveness comes through Jesus, not the old sacrifices.
Forgiveness of sins
But let’s clarify forgiveness, because the assumption is that people need it. In fact, even devout religious people need forgiveness in the passage before us. Peter has in mind the forgiveness that God does to us. God is holy and we have offended him by our wayward desires and attitudes toward his law. We stand guilty before the Judge for our rebellion, or sin; and the consequence is eternal death, or punishment by God.
When God the Judge forgives somebody, he does more than just pardon us. Pardoning us means he frees us from the punishment—we can escape that punishment because God punished Christ in our place. But forgiveness also extends to the removal of sin, the cleansing of all that makes us guilty before God.
Most of us get bothered by dirt and stains on our clothes. We invest lots of money and energy in washing and scrubbing and changing so as to be presentable and not offensive to others when we meet. If humans are offended by something as simple as each other’s filth, imagine the offense we cause the holy God with all our sinful filth. For him to forgive us, though, is for him to wash us clean from the filth and pardon us, that we might come into his holy presence without fear.
This is good news. By identifying with Christ, filthy, guilty, perishing people become clean, acquitted, pardoned people. That’s one benefit—forgiveness—and it’s available to all of you who make Jesus your Lord and trust in his death for you.
The promised Spirit
Another benefit of identifying with Jesus’ lordship is the promised Spirit. Again in verse 38, “and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What does this entail? We’re helped by what he calls the Holy Spirit in verse 39: “the promise.” The gift of the Holy Spirit is the same as the promise (cf. Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4). Which means that we should find a few things about the Spirit in the Old Testament.
Turn first to Isaiah 32:15-17. Basically, exile will continue “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.” What’s the picture? The effusion of God’s life in the Spirit will establish righteous values and a peace-filled society in a new creation.
Look now at Isaiah 44:3-5. “For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They shall spring up among the grass like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’ another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel.” The outpoured Spirit blesses people with new life and brings them into fellowship with God. Note the tattoo: “The Lord’s.” It means God is personally committed to you.
Let’s do one more, Ezekiel 36:25-27. “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” The Spirit is an idol-smasher and a heart surgeon. He cleanses us from idols and he gives a new heart that’s no longer biased against the Lord but willingly submits to the Lord. He changes stubborn idolaters into willing servants.
These are just a few things bound up with the promised Spirit in the Old Testament. They all belong to us when we identify with Jesus as lord. Now you might say, “But I thought those promises were made to Israel.” They were, but Jesus is the true Israel, and if you’re united to him, they belong to you as well.
Look at what Peter says in verse 39: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” He says “for you”—that’s the Jews he’s talking to. He says “for your children”—that’s the generations to come.[vi] He says “for all who are far off.” That’s the Gentiles like us. We “were…separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” That kind of “far off” according to Ephesians 2 (cf. Eph 2:13; cf. Isa 57:19).
But in Christ, we too get the promise, we too get the Spirit. The promise is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Doesn’t matter if you’re a prim and proper religious prig from Jerusalem or a serial adulterer from downtown Fort Worth—if the Lord is pleased to call you to himself, you get the promised Spirit; and he will be for your dessert-thirsty soul a fountain of life-giving refreshment. He turns desserts into streams, and old, left-over junk into beautiful new creations. He transforms angry atheists into adopted agents of grace, this Spirit of Christ. You may feel far off and ashamed, but this Spirit brings the far off near to God and clothes them with glory. There is hope for us because of the Spirit of Christ; so you “everyone” need not hold back from Jesus.
4. The gospel creates a new community for Jesus.
Finally, the fourth work we see the gospel doing: the gospel creates a new community for Jesus. Verse 40, “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this crooked generation.’ So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” So you have the “crooked generation”—these are people opposed to Christ. Then you have the 3000 whom God saves out of the crooked generation. He makes them his own community, and they live very differently.
We’ll look at that community more carefully next Sunday. Here I just want to note that Luke is not laying out a methodology for church growth. He’s not saying that if we do X, Y, and Z, then 3,000 people are in. Yes, the 3,000 is amazing! Yes, we should pray the Lord keeps adding to the church, for the Lord to add to our church.
But let’s be careful not to pretend like we’re the only church. God is still adding to the church world-wide. Watch the DVD series called Dispatches from the Front, where a journalist travels the world to report how the gospel is spreading among unreached peoples. Read websites like Joshua Project, stay in touch with our missionaries, talk to other churches in the area. The onward march of the gospel has not been stifled and it will not until all peoples hear.
The Lord is adding people. And note that: the Lord adds people; the Lord calls people. We must simply be faithful with the gospel and leave the results to him. Are we being faithful with the gospel? Is it a message we bring into the lives of others? As we see here, the kingdom of God advances when the word of God is spoken.
Jesus is able to forgive you for the worst of the worst
And we have an amazing message to tell the world, do we not? We can go to anybody, anywhere, no matter where they’ve been and offer them forgiveness. Jesus is able to forgive you for the worst of the worst. What’s the worst sin you could do? If you just really went off the deep end, what would that look like? Adultery? An abortion? A sex change? Embezzlement? Theft? Devil worship? If that’s as far as you go, perhaps you’re missing how truly awful our corruption already is.
The truth is that all of us are guilty for the worst of the worst: the crucifixion of God’s Son. He is infinitely worthy. And we treated the infinitely worthy like a despicable curse. You don’t get any worse than that. All of us belonged to that “crooked generation” who opposed Christ and crucified him. The sins he died for were our sins too.
These are the kinds of people Peter offers forgiveness. Notice verse 36: “this Jesus whom you crucified.” Peter offers forgiveness and the promised Spirit to those who crucified Jesus. If forgiveness is being extended to those who did the worst of the worst, then that should give us great confidence that God can forgive us and forgive anybody. Forgiveness is for “crooked” people, not people who think they’ve got it together.
The gospel requires a response from people
Something else we learn from this passage is this: the gospel requires a response from people. We can’t simply offer abstract truths about the gospel without also pleading with people to respond to it. Preaching involves pleading. Do you think there are people that you’ve shared the truth of the gospel with, but you’ve never called them to repent? The gospel carries a demand, and that too is part of our message. I would encourage you to take that step as the Spirit provides opportunity. Don’t not call people to repentance and baptism just because you’ve seen it done badly in the past.
We also can’t choose to confess abstract truths for ourselves without also responding to them. We hear this word preached every Sunday, but are we walking out repentance based on the word we heard? We attend Bible studies; you have BSF and Discipleship Hour and Care Group and books like Desiring God and Radical and Glimpses of Grace—we have our beloved iPod preachers and teachers and conferences and ESV Study Bible Apps…but are these words producing repentance?
We’ll have no excuse on Judgment Day. God is not at fault for our apathy and dullness of heart. The gospel demands we respond. It carries the authority of the King. At the same time, God is able to change us. Every grace we need to change has been offered in Christ and available by the Spirit. Therefore, ask God for the ability to walk out repentance. Let your “I can’t” become “He can,” and then act on it. If you’re a believer but haven’t been baptized, come talk to us and we’ll get there.
Don’t cancel one truth in Scripture by emphasizing another
One last thing: don’t cancel one truth in Scripture by emphasizing another. As I said earlier, we must repent but God also grants repentance. Those two truths aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s another example in this passage as well. Verse 21 says, “It shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.” But verse 39 says this: “…everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” Which is it? Do we call, or does he call? Yes, they’re both true.
How many times I’ve walked up on debates that go something like this: “We choose God…See!” “No we don’t, God chooses us…See!” And both have their Bibles open arguing till somebody gets mad and we create a new denomination. Learn how to say Yes to both truths, and then work hard to figure out how they fit together.
For these truths, they relate to each other causally: we call upon the Lord, because the Lord calls us; we repent from our sins, because the Lord grants us repentance. Human responsibility; God’s gracious initiative. God grants to his people what he also demands from his people. Salvation is all his doing, but it’s relational. We act upon the gospel; but in the end, he gets all the glory for it. That’s why we’re going to sing another song: for his glory. He gave up his Son; he granted repentance; he brought forgiveness; he has poured out the Spirit; he deserves all the praise. But let’s pray first.
[i]See the numerous examples in Robert Stein, “Baptism and Becoming a Christian in the New Testament,” SBJT 2.1 (Spring 1998): 6-17. Accessible online here.
[ii]E.g., Isa 55:7; Jer 3:12, 14, 22; Hos 14:1; Joel 2:12-13; Zech 1:1-6; Mal 3:7.
[iii]J. I. Packer, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God (Grand Rapids: InterVarsity, 1961), 72.
[iv]Some have attempted to argue on grammatical grounds that eis should be translated causally: “be baptized…because of the forgiveness of your sins.” See especially J. R. Mantey, “The Causal Use of eis in the New Testament,” JBL 70.1 (March 1951): 45-48. While very sound theologically, the grammatical evidence seems questionable for giving eis a causal sense. See Ralph Marcus, “On Causal eis,” JBL 70 (1952): 129-30; idem, “The Elusive Causal eis,” JBL 71.1 (March 1952): 43-44. Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 369-71, discusses the relationship between baptism as outward sign and forgiveness as inward reality in light of Acts 10:43-48 and Peter’s explanation in Acts 11:15-18.
[v]At the same time, we shouldn’t so separate the two that we end up minimizing the importance of water baptism. The New Testament is very clear on this. Barring any physical limitations, baptism is assumed as the first act of repentance by every Christian. The public act isn’t walking the isle or praying a sinner’s prayer; it’s baptism.
[vi]The point is not to say “and also for your infants.” Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters will use this as support for paedobaptism (i.e., the baptism of children of believing parents). E.g., Derek Thomas, Acts, REC (Philipsburg: P&R, 2011), 50. But if the phrase supports paedobaptism, then should we not also say the next phrase supports forced baptisms of everyone who are “far off” (i.e., all diaspora Jews and Gentiles too)? The point is simply distance in time (i.e., “for your children,” even the next generation who will repent and believe in Jesus) and distance in geography (i.e., “for all who are far off,” even the Gentiles). Moreover, it is for “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” The promise is only for those whom the Lord calls to himself, the calling which is then evidenced in faith, repentance, and baptism.
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