The classic proof text used to argue that we are unforgiven until we specifically repent of each sin and ask for forgiveness is the story of Simon Magus.
(Acts 8:14-24) When the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. When they arrived, they prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit had not yet come upon any of them; they had simply been baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus. Then Peter and John placed their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.
When Simon [Magus] saw that the Spirit was given at the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money and said, “Give me also this ability so that everyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money! You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”
Then Simon answered, “Pray to the Lord for me so that nothing you have
said may happen to me.”
Peter tells Simon to “pray to the Lord. Perhaps he will forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.” Does this mean that whenever you or I sin we are unforgiven until we repent and ask for forgiveness, and even then, that God will only “perhaps” forgive us? Do we really believe that this is the Good News? Note these points—
First, we should not read into the passage more than is there. Peter said, “Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord.” He did not say, “Pray for forgiveness.” The instruction to repent and to pray is entirely sound and good advice to any convert. The difficulty is in Peter’s saying that God will “perhaps” forgive Simon.
Those who teach that salvation can be lost and regained do not believe that God will only “perhaps” forgive those who repent and ask for forgiveness. Under any view, the “perhaps” cannot be there because God only perhaps forgives penitent Christians. No one teaches that.
Thus, the “perhaps” must be on Simon’s side of the matter. Peter is expressing his very justified doubt that Simon is truly penitent. History may be of some benefit here. Church history tells us that Simon never returned to the church but instead became a vigorous opponent. Indeed, Peter observed, “For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.” — this is hardly a description of a genuine convert who has truly repented.
While Simon “believed and was baptized,” he must have been an example of the “rocky soil” that Jesus spoke of in the Parable of the Sower. Peter saw through inspiration that Simon would not remain a Christian long and was urging him to get in or get out — perhaps knowing by inspiration that the stern rebuke would force Simon to leave the church and no longer be a wicked influence from within.
Jesus himself on occasion gave an exaggerated rebuke to test the faith of his hearers. Matthew 15:21-28 recounts the request of a Canaanite woman that Jesus heal her daughter of demon possession. Jesus said to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.”
This very stern rebuke did not deter the woman, and Jesus ultimately healed her daughter, saying, “Woman, you have great faith!” Certainly, we would not conclude from this rebuke that all Gentiles are “dogs” in the eyes of our Lord, but rather we take the rebuke as a test of faith. The Canaanite woman passed the test. Simon evidently did not.
If the gospel message is to be based on our traditional interpretation of this passage, we must teach the whole passage. We cannot pick and choose. If this passage is to be the basis of our doctrine of salvation, we must conclude that sins are not forgiven until repented of (specifically) and forgiveness is asked for through prayer, and that even if we do these things, God’s forgiveness will only “perhaps” (and not certainly) occur.
Even if you believe that this passage does not support the view that I am arguing for, it does not support any alternative view of scripture that I’ve ever heard. Nowhere else does the Bible make a prayer requesting forgiveness a condition to the forgiveness of a Christian. Certainly nowhere else does the Bible suggest that a Christian who repents and prays for forgiveness will only “perhaps” be forgiven. If either of these ideas is the truth, why is the rest of the New Testament strangely silent on this critical doctrine?
It seems clear to me that Peter was saying the Simon was only perhaps saved because he gave every evidence of having a heart far removed from God.
Also, consider Galatians 2:
(Gal. 2:9-14) James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
Even late in his ministry, Peter made mistakes that were clearly not inspired. The scriptures dealing with these matters are inspired, but the actions of the people and words said by them (while they really did and said what the scriptures say) are not necessarily inspired. Peter was not inspired when he improperly discriminated against Gentiles.
Therefore, some argue that Peter’s comments to Simon were more the product of Peter’s anger at Simon than a discourse on theology. This view may be uncomfortable to some readers. However, this is the view of J. W. McGarvey, one of the great scholars of the Restoration Movement (and the inventor of many classic arguments in opposition to instrumental music). His commentary on Acts, published in 1863, is included as part of the Gospel Advocate commentary series that has served as a standard reference set among the Churches of Christ since its re-publication in 1961.
McGarvey states that no definite conclusions can be drawn from this conversation. McGarvey explains Peter’s comments as follows:
Nothing could be more abhorrent to the feelings of an apostle than such a proposition [by Simon Magus]. It was well calculated to arouse the impulsive spirit of Peter, and his response is marked by his characteristic vehemence. … Whether we are to suppose that Simon’s destitute and miserable condition was the result of having forfeited the favor of God by falling into sin after his immersion, or that his confession and immersion had been insincere, so that he had never been pardoned, is not to be determined, as many suppose, by the grossness of his present conception concerning the Holy Spirit. … That he was a believer is asserted by Luke; but whether he was to such a degree penitent as to receive pardon when he was immersed, is not certainly determined by the text. For aught that is affirmed of him, he may either have been influenced by sinister motives in confessing his faith, or have been truly penitent at the time, and afterward, and under spur of the temptation which the splendid gifts bestowed by Peter were the occasion of, have yielded to the sudden impulse of his ruling passion.
Ultimately, we must remember that it is very dangerous to too readily generalize from the accounts in Acts. After all, our Baptist friends will readily argue from Acts’ account of Pentecost that the apostles did not have to be baptized to be saved and from the account of the conversion of Cornelius that he and his household received the Spirit before baptism, and therefore they were saved before baptism. Our Pentecostal friends will use the story of Pentecost to argue for a tarrying meeting and will use the accounts of the Samaritans in Acts 8 and the Ephesians in Acts 19 to support their belief in tongues.
We very correctly rebut these arguments by pointing out the other scriptures, primarily in the epistles, that deal more particularly with these subjects. We warn our friends to base their beliefs on the entire Bible, not just those portions of Acts that might suit their traditions. We should take the same advice with regard to building a system of salvation based on Peter’s heated comments to Simon Magus.
What repentance really means
We sometimes don’t realize that we use “repent” in two senses. There’s one sense of “repent” — that we turn our lives toward Jesus, submitting to him as Lord. And there’s another sense — that we “repent” by no longer being guilty of a particular sin. Thus, some argue, those worshipping with an instrument are damned because they’ve never repented of that sin.
What does the Bible say?
(Acts 3:19) Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord,
(Acts 11:18) When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”
(Acts 17:30) In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.
(Acts 20:21) I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
(Acts 26:20) First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.
Except for the account of Simon Magus, every use of “repent” or “repentance” in Acts is of the “turn to God” type. Not a one is about repenting of a particular sin as a condition to forgiveness.
There are, of course, references in the epistles to repentance from particular sins, and our continued salvation depends on our continued repentance (of the turn-to-God sort). But the thought in all these passages is that if we submit to Jesus as Lord (repent), then when we are caught up in a sin and become aware of it, we’ll necessarily repent. When we find a brother or sister entangled in sin, we certainly want them to repent, because sin is deceptive, entangles, and destroys. Unrepented sin can lead to the hard, rebellious heart that damns (Heb 10:26 ff). Therefore, repentance is critical and essential.
But it’s not essential because we’re damned until we repent. Rather, if we don’t repent (turn back toward God), we’re on the path that leads to damnation — and it’s a path that gets harder to turn from the longer we are on it, because our consciences become more and more seared.
(Rev 2:5) Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.
The 20th Century Church of Christ interpretation is that the lampstand is removed until we repent. Revelation teaches it’s not immediately removed, but will be if we remain impenitent long enough.
Here’s the distinction. We are only saved so long as we remain true to our penitence — but perfect penitence is not required. Only Jesus did that. Rather, the point of penitence is to change the direction of our lives toward Jesus as Lord.
But it’s quite possible to give up your penitence and to instead become rebellious (Heb 3). When that happens, the rebellion will be evidenced by sin, but not any sin in particular. It’s just that rebellious people do what they want rather than what Jesus wants. Of course, we all do that, too — to some extent. Therefore, the test isn’t whether we’re guilty of sin. We all are.
Rather, it’s about the state of our heart. Are we struggling to honor Jesus as Lord, but sometimes failing? Or are we in rebellion and just not concerned with what Jesus thinks?
It’s a difficult, even impossible, judgment to make from the outside. But when we see a brother or sister doing things he or she knows are wrong, we have good cause for concern. That’s when we need to call on them to repent — not be saved, but to stay saved before repenting becomes too hard for them.
But when a brother or sister is worshiping God in a way we disagree with, but in good conscience, they are certainly penitent and their salvation is not in the least jeopardy. Nonetheless, we should instruct them as well as we can. But we aren’t apostles, and we might not be very convincing. And if they aren’t convinced, they are still penitent people and very much in grace. And so we must treat them as such (Rom 15:7).