We now turn to the later verses in Acts —
(Act 3:13-21 ESV) 13 The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. 14 But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, 15 and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16 And his name–by faith in his name–has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
17 “And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18 But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. 19 Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, 20 that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, 21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.”
Peter told the crowd to “repent” and to “turn back,” but from what? Well, from denying Jesus (v. 13). In fact, in this passage, “repent” is equivalent to “believe in Jesus,” as what they were to repent of was unbelief.
This repentance will lead to forgiveness of all sins —
(Act 5:29-33 ESV) 29 But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. 30 The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.” 33 When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.
This sermon is taken almost verbatim from Jesus’ charge in Luke 24. The promise here, though, is “repentance to Israel,” which sounds a whole lot like Jeremiah 31, which explains the association of forgiveness of sins with the coming of the Kingdom.
Thus, the point of the sermon is to preach faith in Jesus. They are witnesses to the evidence that Jesus is Messiah. Therefore, “repentance” is a call for faith in Jesus.
Of course, the sermon implies that Peter’s audience — the Sanhedrin — had unforgiven sins and were in the condition of rebellious Israel in Jeremiah 31, needing to repent to return to God!
Preaching a new kingdom, a new king, and that the rulers of the old kingdom need to repent, well, that can get you killed. Preaching a faith that calls you to be nice and kind will not. No one gets upset with nice and kind.
(Act 8:20-23 ESV) 20 But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter, for your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.”
Again, we see what may be the alternative sense of “repent,” that is, repentance from a particular sin. But the reason Peter calls on Simon to repent is not merely that he committed a sin. It’s because his “heart is not right before God.” Thus, the plea is not so much “stop this particular sin” but “turn your heart toward God.”
It may well be that Peter is not so much asking him to repent of this one sin but to truly repent. That is, Peter is questioning whether Simon had ever repented at all and needed to truly repent to be saved (which would be out of order to our way of thinking).
(Act 11:17-18 ESV) 17 “If then God gave the same gift to them as he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could stand in God’s way?” 18 When they heard these things they fell silent. And they glorified God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life.”
Now, notice that Peter did not preach a traditional sermon of repentance to Cornelius. This is what Peter had preached —
(Act 10:39-43 ESV) 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. 43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”
Peter never told Cornelius to give up his life of sin and turn his life around. He preached Jesus! Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the resurrected, Jesus the judge. And so the “repentance that leads to life” is evidently faith in Jesus. Somehow, “believes in him” must include repentance.
(Act 17:29-31 ESV) 9 Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
In the Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill, he implores the Greek philosophers to repent, meaning to reject the worship of idols and instead believe in the resurrected Jesus. One could easily think of “repent” here as meaning “believe in Jesus rather than false gods.”
In Acts 13, Paul teaches about John the Baptist at a synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia and then, later, in Ephesus —
(Act 13:24-25 ESV) 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’
(Act 19:4 ESV) 4 And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.”
John declared God’s message to Israel that it’s time to “repent,” that is, to prepare to enter the kingdom that will come with the Messiah. In short, be prepared to believe in Jesus and submit to him as king!
When Paul gave his farewell speech to the elders in Ephesus, he summarized his preaching–
(Act 20:18-21 ESV) 18 And when they came to him, he said to them: “You yourselves know how I lived among you the whole time from the first day that I set foot in Asia, 19 serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials that happened to me through the plots of the Jews; 20 how I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, 21 testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance toward God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
It’s odd to our ears that it’s unusual in Acts for “faith” and “repentance” to be placed together. But here, at last, we have “repentance” and “faith” in one sentence. But it’s not step 1, step 2 … . Rather, repentance is “toward God” and faith is “in our Lord Jesus Christ.” Thus, Paul pictures repentance as placing one in right relationship with God. Faith in Jesus is how you do that.
I think it’s technically a hendiadys, that is, a figure of speech where the second element explains the first. You might translate “and” as “by.”
When a person places his faith in Christ, he is then turning from (repenting of) his former unbelief.
The Bible Knowledge Commentary.
Finally, in Paul’s speech to Agrippa, he explains his ministry in terms of repentance —
(Act 26:19-20 ESV) 19 “Therefore, O King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout all the region of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance.”
Paul describes his preaching to Jews and Gentiles as a plea to “repent and turn to God” with a repentance that bears fruit in the form of deeds that reflect their new hearts.
Now, the Jews were God worshipers long before Paul! So what does “turn toward God” mean when preached to a Jew? Well, believe in Jesus. After all, to reject Jesus is to reject God. And if that’s not right, how on earth could Paul have failed to mention “faith” as part of his ministry?