Repent -- Baptism -- Remission

 Acts 2: 37-38

 This passage shows us with crystal clarity the effect of the cross.
When the people were shown just what they had done in crucifying Jesus, their hearts were broken.

Jesus said, "I, if I, be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto me."
(John 12: 32)

If man's sin was responsible for the crucifying of Jesus, then our sin was responsible for it.
I had a hand in that crime, and so did you.

When we understand what happened at the cross, our hearts also will be pierced,
and, we will also cry out, "What shall we do?"

These people were convicted.
They saw themselves as guilty.
They saw that they had a part in murdering the kindest, the holiest, the greatest of beings
that ever appeared on earth -- the Messiah, the Son of God, the Prince of Life.

What ingratitude, what injustice, what rebellion, were involved in that act.

Peter's sermon stirred the hearers to such an extent that they quickly inquired:
"What shall we do?"

They had rejected, refused, mistreated, and killed Him in whom all their hope of salvation rested;
what hope of salvation could they possibly have?
No wonder they cried out in anguish of heart, "Brethren, what shall we do?"

They were brought under conviction.
They were "cut to the heart.."
They were compelled to look back upon their deed, and now they began to see it in its true picture.

In rejecting Jesus, they had been on the side of wrong rather than on the side of right.
And God had raised to the throne of the universe the very One whom they had hanged on the cross
as though He were accursed.
In the Holy Spirit, they now sensed the presence of this risen Christ.

As something of the awful reality of their sinful state and the recent sinful deed bore down
upon these people, they felt completely undone.
In despair, they cried out, "What shall we do?"

This very despair was their only hope.
Only as people see that they are nothing, can they possibly become anything.
Only when we see our helplessness are we able to accept God's help.

Karl Barth forcefully states this truth:
"When men, as men have scaled the world's highest peaks, and there discover
that all the world is guilty before God, then it is that their peculiar advantage is established,
maintained, and confirmed; ... then it is that God asserts His faithfulness,
and reveals that it has not been deflected by the unfaithfulness of men

Then, Barth cuts to the heart of the matter in saying:
"The arrogance with which we set ourselves by the side of God,
with the intention of doing something for Him, deprives us of the only possible ground of salvation,
which is to cast ourselves upon His favour or disfavour

Look at the word, "pricked" -- to the heart.
The word translated, "pricked," is a rare one, and means,
"to pierce, sting sharply, stun, smite."

Outside the Scriptures, it is used of horses denting the earth with their hoofs.
The hearts of the people had been smitten sharply by the preaching of the Word.
And this brought the question, "What shall we do?"

The question of the people indicated that they are utterly at a loss as to what to do in their terrible situation.
These people were not thinking of doing something of themselves to remove their guilt.

Their question implies the contrary:

  • It implies a complete confession of their guilt.
  • It implies a complete confession of their helplessness in regard to their guilt.
  • It implies submission to the apostles in order that they, who have been used of God
    to produce a consciousness of their guilt, may lead them also to deliverence from this guilt.

 So their question, like the Philippian jailer in Acts 16: 30, was not asked in order for them to do anything.
Peter does not correct them, nor does Paul in 16: 30.
This question was asked in guilt, conviction, and the knowledge that they were
absolutely helpless to help themselves.

We cannot take the reply of Peter as an adopted procedure or as spiritual guidelines
for all who became a part of the believing community.
The proposed order in verse 38 was repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins,
and reception of the Holy Spirit.

We must remember that in Acts no particular order prevails.

The believers in Samaria were baptized properly in the Name of Jesus,
but they did not receive the Holy Spirit until Peter and John laid their hands upon them.

Cornelius and his neighbors received the gift of the Holy Spirit before they were baptized.
The disciples of John at Ephesus received the Holy Spirit through the imposition of Paul's hands,
and not by merely submitting to Christian baptism.

Strangely absent in the invitation of Peter is the appeal to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.
This could be implied from the statement in verse 36.

Also, baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ suggests an early formula used in baptism,
which meant that the person undergoing the rite had believed in Christ.
It is also interesting to note that Luke later writes about those who were baptized
in the Name of the Lord Jesus. (8:16;19:5)

Now, an answer to the question: "What shall we do?"
Peter gives a direct answer.
He tells them exactly what to do.

They must repent, they must come to baptism,
but only as drawn by the Holy Spirit and the power and love of God's grace.
It is our will that moves and acts, and yet only because God's grace makes it move. (John 12:32)

The word, ";repent," originally meant"to perceive or understand afterward."
Then, it advanced to the idea of a change of mind, and thus came to mean, "repent."

But throughout the New Testament, the word has been deepened to mean an inner change of heart
that is decisive for the whole personality, turning away from sin and unbelief with their guilt
unto Christ, faith, and cleansing through Christ.

So, "repent," in this verse means,
"turn wholly to Jesus as your Saviour ("Lord and Christ"-verse 36)
and receive Him as your personal Saviour."

In order to effect this change of heart, Peter had placed so fully before them just Who and What Jesus is.
It is this Jesus through the Holy Spirit who is to draw them and us to repentance.

The verb tense (the aorist imperative) is one of authority, and demands a decisive act that is to stand once for all.
(If the verb tense was a present imperative, then it would imply that the repentance is to be renewed daily,
even as Luther called the Christian's entire life, a repentance.)

For these people, repentance meant a wholehearted, change of mind about Jesus of Nazareth,
thinking of Him no longer as merely the carpenter's son, or a religious imposter,
but now receiving Him as Lord.

When repentance comes, something happens to the past.
There is remission of sins.
There is God's forgiveness for that which is past -- for all that lies behind us.
When repentance comes, something happens for the future.

Someone may ask:
"Even if we repent, how are we to avoid making the same mistakes over and over again?"

The answer is there comes into our lives the power which is not of us,
but the power of the Holy Spirit, and in that power, we can win the battles we never thought we could,
and we can resist the things, which by ourselves, we would have been powerless to resist.

In the moment of true repentance, we are liberated from the estrangement and the fear of the past,
and we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to face the battles of the future.

Verse 38 is one of the most disputed verses in the New Testament.
Is baptism represented as a condition for forgiveness of sins?

This is a favorite, "proof text," for those who believe in baptismal regeneration.

Before one builds his theology on this text, he should consider a number of things.

In the first place, the "proof text" method is a poor device, regardless of who uses it.
One can just about "prove" what he sets out to prove; at least -- he proves it to his own satisfaction.

A "proof text" is one, which stands alone having no clear support of the Scriptures as a whole
or even being contradicted by the Scriptures as a whole.

Now a "climactic text" is one, which gathers up into one classic statement,
a great teaching or number of teachings.
John 3:16 is a "climactic text," not a "proof text,"
for the truths it embodies are clearly established in the New Testament apart from this great verse.

The clear teaching of the New Testament as a whole clearly rules out baptismal regeneration.
Common sense also rules it out.
The desired spiritual result is not achieved through physical means.

Now, this is not to overlook the important fact that any physical function takes all moral and spiritual significance
in terms of the attitudes and motives out of which it arises.
It is to say that forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit is not bound to an arbitrary, physical rite.

But perhaps, some are saying, "Wait a minute." Simon Peter says,
"Be baptized in the name of Christ for the forgiveness of sins."

So those who say that baptism saves, or concludes it, or in any way makes it necessary for salvation, would say:
"We interpret the Bible literally the way it reads."

But those who say this are not consistent.
And who are they to say what is literal and what is not -- do they have some unusual revelation?

But the Greek construction in this verse can also be translated:
"Repent, and let each one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ
on the basis of the forgiveness of your sins, and you shall receive the free gift of the Holy Spirit

So the phrase in question, "for the forgiveness of your sins,"
is to be taken primarily with "repent," rather than with "be baptized."

Forgiveness followed repentance, not baptism.
Baptism was a means of portraying the repentance -- a public profession of faith in Jesus.

So, it would be a mistake (and many have made it) to link the words, "unto the remission of your sins,"
with the command, "be baptized," to the exclusion of the prior command, "repent ye."

It is against the whole genius of Biblical Christianity to suppose that the outward, physical rite of baptism
had any value except, in so far as it was accompanied by true repentance within.

In a similar passage, in the third chapter of Acts, the blotting out of the people's sins
is a direct consequence of their repenting and turning to God. (3:19)
Nothing is even said there about baptism, (if you wish to take the King James literally)
although it is no doubt implied.
(For the idea of of an unbaptized Christian is simply not entertained in the New Testament.)

So, too, the reception of the Spirit here is associated not with baptism in itself,
but with baptism as the visible token or sign of the repentance that has taken place in the heart.

There is no magic in the physical act of baptism.
Common sense tells us that!
Baptism does not magically make you clean, but it is the outward and symbolic declaration
of the change experienced inside.

Baptism is an open identification with Jesus Christ.
When we are baptized, we tell the world that we are cut off from the old way of living,
and have the beginning of a new life.

Among these Jews, baptism was a very clearly, understood process.
When a Gentile became a Jew, his body was washed all over, and that was a symbol
that he was beginning a new life.
That is what baptism basically means.

So, Peter does not explain to these people what baptism was.
They, being Jews, knew very well what it meant.

They knew it as revealed in the Levitical system.
They knew it as it had been applied to them by John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan,
and by the disciples of Jesus, who baptized even more than John.
They knew that it was an outward symbol of an inner spiritual cleansing.

So the language of Peter, taken as a whole, would mean,
"Be cleansed from your sins within by repentance,
and symbolically express that cleansing by being baptized in the name of Jesus

Baptism is the visible sign of this repentance.

John's converts were required to receive baptism in water as the outward and visible sign of their repentance,
so Peter's convicted hearers were now required to submit to it.

But there are two new features here in the rite of water-baptism:

It is administered "in the name of Jesus Christ."
It is associated with "the gift of the Holy Spirit."

So baptism in water is the external sign by which individuals, who believed the gospel message,
repented of their sins, and acknowledged Jesus as Lord, and were publicly incorporated
into the Spirit-baptized fellowship of the new people of God.

Baptism is not the primary truth here.

It is repentance and belief in His name that one receives remission of sins.
When that happens, Peter says, you will receive the Holy Spirit.
God, the Holy Spirit, comes and lives inside you.
It is His work that makes Jesus Christ visible, real, and close to you -- and to impart His life to your own.

Notice, that Peter did not promise these people the gift of tongues, flames of fire, or a sound of rushing wind.
But the Holy Spirit was outpoured, as promised, and lives in every individual Christian.
No Christian is ever without Christ!
"Lo, I am with you alway..."
"I will send another Comforter..."

Verse 39 gives assurance of the availability of the promise -- the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit
-- to everyone whom God calls.

The teaching that the Christian life is a calling is fundamental to the Bible.
In the Hebrew-Christian religion, God is always known as the One Who takes the initiatives
in revelation and redemption.

The first step is always taken by God, not by man.
God awakens man in and to His own presence and draws man to Himself.

This is the Bible doctrine of election, not the choice of one-man instead of another man,
but God's choice of man in Christ.

Sermon by Dr. Harold L. White
Email Dr. White at


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