This is a longer post than usual, and I’m not entirely sure the topic justifies the length. We’ll see. But I think we’ve substantially misunderstood the meaning of “repent” in Acts 2:38. We’ve not been entirely wrong, but we’ve missed what’s really going on, I think.
(Act 2:38 ESV) And 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.”
We usually take “repent” to mean “commit to stop sinning.” And, yes, Christians should turn toward God and away from sin! Yes! But that’s not exactly the thought being expressed here. It’s in there, but it’s not really the point.
Outside the scriptures, the Greek word translated “repent” means to change one’s mind. In fact, nearly all uses of “repent” in the Septuagint (the Old Testament translated into Greek used by the apostles, abbreviated “LXX”) are with respect to God. The ESV avoids the embarrassment of saying God “repents” by translating “relents.” God can certainly change his intended actions, but he can’t repent of sin! It’s very unusual for the LXX to refer to a person or nation “repenting.”
In the New Testament, there are two primary uses of “repent” — to “repent” of particular sins and to repent so as to respond to the gospel. These are, of course, connected but not identical ideas. And in Luke’s writings, “repent” rarely if ever refers to repentance from particular sins. Rather, he seems to borrow his use of “repent” from Jeremiah 31:19 (LXX 38:19).
Jeremiah 31 is frequently quoted in the New Testament. Indeed, it’s the very chapter from which “new covenant” or “new testament” enters our vocabulary!
(Jer 31:17-20 ESV) 17 There is hope for your future, declares the LORD, and your children shall come back to their own country. 18 I have heard Ephraim grieving, ‘You have disciplined me, and I was disciplined, like an untrained calf; bring me back that I may be restored, for you are the LORD my God. 19 For after I had turned away, I relented, and after I was instructed, I struck my thigh; I was ashamed, and I was confounded, because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’ 20 Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, declares the LORD.
“Ephraim” is a standard prophetic metaphor for Israel, that is, the Northern Kingdom. To strike one’s thigh shows anguish in the culture of the day.
From what did Israel relent (repent)?
(Jer 4:17 ESV) 17 Like keepers of a field are they against her all around, because she has rebelled against me, declares the LORD.
In Jeremiah, to repent, therefore, is to no longer rebel but to submit to God in sorrow so that God can restore a people to his kingdom. These are, after all, kingdom prophecies, and the point is that sorrowful repentance will lead to entry into the kingdom promised by the prophets. The primary point isn’t really forgiveness but entry or, we might say, citizenship in the kingdom God promises —
(Jer 31:6-14 ESV) 6 For there shall be a day when watchmen will call in the hill country of Ephraim: ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, to the LORD our God.'” 7 For thus says the LORD: “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘O LORD, save your people, the remnant of Israel.’ 8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. 9 With weeping they shall come, and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back, I will make them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble, for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 “Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, ‘He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd keeps his flock.’ 11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. 12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. 13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. 14 I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, declares the LORD.”
But those who repent and so enter the kingdom will also receive forgiveness —
(Jer 31:33-34 ESV) 33 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Yes, forgiveness is a result of being in God’s kingdom, but the prophets don’t teach “repent and be forgiven”; they teach “repent and God will restore you to his kingdom, in which he forgives.” We are bad to skip straight to the forgiveness, and forget that we are being added to a nation — a realm in which we will be citizens and owe loyalties — to the King and to each other. It’s not a personal salvation. We are saved, but only by being added to a Kingdom. It’s salvation for a kingdom to which we may be added.