[This is a bit long but doesn’t easily break into pieces. Next post will be Friday (Lord willing), to give time to reflect (and watch football. Roll Tide!)]
Long-time reader Royce asks in a comment,
True repentance means one turns away from something and toward another. Can anyone explain why “repent” isn’t the key word in Acts 2:38 rather than “baptized”?
Excellent question, and one I’ve been pondering these last few days.
Consider this. In Peter’s Acts 2 sermon, prior to v. 38, he does not charge the audience with moral failings or failure to obey God’s commands. Rather, he accuses them of failing to recognize Jesus as Messiah and therefore crucifying him.
(Act 2:36-37 ESV) 36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord [king or YHWH] and Christ [Messiah], this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 Now 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?”
In support of his argument that Jesus is Messiah, he argues that the now-occurring outpouring of the Spirit heralds the dawn of the Kingdom per the prophets. It’s all about Jesus being Messiah and the Spirit being outpoured, all as promised by the prophets.
(Act 2:16-21 ESV) 16 But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
17 “‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams;
18 even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
19 And I will show wonders in the heavens above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
20 the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord [YHWH] shall be saved.'”
The Jews in Jerusalem for Pentecost were devout men and women. Many had traveled there for a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage that took months of travel or else very perilous, very expensive sea travel. They weren’t in need of moral reformation. They were in need of faith in Jesus and the outpoured Spirit.
So repent from what? Well, unbelief. “Repent” is indeed used at times to refer to repenting from a particular sin or from a sinful lifestyle, but in this case, “repent” means change from your unbelief to belief in Jesus as Messiah and Lord.
The same use of “repent” is true of Peter’s sermon in Acts 3 and in Acts 5:29-32. And compare —
(Act 11:15-18 ESV) 15 As I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell on them just as on us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ 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.”
“Repentance”? From what? Cornelius was a good man, a God-fearer. Not a moral reprobate. He needed to give his allegiance to Jesus, to change from being a near-proselyte to an actual believer committed to following Jesus. (A God-fearer was a Gentile who’d not been circumcised to become a proselyte Jew.) “Believed in the Lord Jesus Christ” is parallel with “God has granted repentance that leads to life.” After all, Peter did not preach against Cornelius life of sin, just his need to believe in Jesus.
There is no dichotomy. It’s not binary. That is, “repent” on the lips of an apostle doesn’t mean either “believe” or “stop sinning,” one or the other. Both ideas are there, with a greater emphasis on one or the other in various passages. To the apostles, to have “faith” in Jesus meant following him, meant being faithful, meant giving him one’s loyalty, meant living according the will of Jesus, meant striving to become like Jesus. It’s all in there. “Repent” includes “take up your cross and follow me.”
But that doesn’t lend itself to a Five-Step Baconian Enlightenment reduction of Christianity, and so we don’t see what is plainly there. In fact, we don’t even bother to read the sermons — because we already know the answer.
Most likely, our understanding of “repent” comes from the Frontier Revivalism of the Second Great Awakening, which gave birth to several denominations, including the Churches of Christ. Preachers often did preach to moral reprobates who really did need to give up a life of sin. (And they should have, and the preachers were right to insist.)
In short, the Churches of Christ (and most other denominations) reduce “repent” to “become moral,” thereby eliminating the relationship with Jesus anticipated by the word. “Repent” isn’t just being good. It’s about adopting the commitments and understandings that the gospel demands. It’s essential to entering the kingdom. It has a moral element (as John the Baptist taught) but also includes following Jesus (as John the Baptist taught).
(Luk 3:10-14 ESV) And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
(Luk 3:15-16 ESV) 15 As the people were in expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Christ [Messiah], 16 John answered them all, saying, “I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
In short, “repent” incorporates the first four of the Five Steps and much more. Yes, it’s more important than “be baptized.”
Joel on Repentance
It was common for Jewish rabbis to quote a portion of an Old Testament text, assuming that his audience would be familiar with the context. That doesn’t work with most modern Christians. And so we should take the time to better understand the passage. In Joel Peter quote follows —
(Joe 2:12-13 ESV) 12 “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster.”
It’s a plea to repent. Later in the chapter, Joel urges his readers to “call on the name of the Lord.” We can’t separate the two. Calling on the name of the Lord assumes repentance. Indeed, in context, it’s to submit to the changes YHWH is bringing about.
The distance from Ezekiel can be recognized in that Joel never once describes any guilt from which Jerusalem is to turn away. While the Deuteronomistic historian lamented primarily apostasy from the Mosaic Torah and demanded a turning towards it, for Joel return is necessary because cultic, pious self-sufficiency has caused the prophetic word of the Day of Yahweh, directed against Jerusalem, to go unheard. This calls for a rending of hearts, not of clothes (2:13a). Return essentially means for Joel that one face, on the basis of the prophetic proclamation and with fear and trembling, the completely new acts of God towards Jerusalem. This is his central “kerygma” on the forgotten general theme “Day of Yahweh.”
Hans Walter Wolff, Joel and Amos: A Commentary on the Books of the Prophets Joel and Amos (Hermeneia; ed. S. Dean McBride Jr.; trans. Waldemar Janzen, S. Dean McBride Jr., and Charles A. Muenchow; Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1977), 13.
In other words, “repent,” in the context of Joel’s message, means to leave self-sufficiency and to instead rely on the Lord. Sounds very much like “faith” — from Abraham to the Second Coming, it’s about yielding self to the will of God.
The Name of the Lord
Notice also this parallel —
(Act 2:21 ESV) 21 “‘And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.'”
(Act 2:36 ESV) 36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
(Act 2:38 ESV) 38 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.”
Peter quotes Joel’s prophecy that everyone who calls upon the “name of the Lord” will be saved. He then identifies Jesus as “Lord.” He then urges his listeners to be baptized “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” “Saved” parallels” forgiveness of your sins.”
In short, baptism is when believers call on the name of the Lord! (Compare Acts 22:16 ESV: “And now why do you wait? Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”) And so, according to Joel, the essential element is calling on the name of the Lord.
Sounds a lot like —
(1Pe 3:21 ESV) 21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ … .
So Peter kept preaching the same thing after Pentecost. Baptism is not so much about the water as responding to Joel’s plea to call on the name of the Lord.
In our preaching, we badly over-emphasize baptism — making it nearly the fourth member of the Trinity — and badly under-emphasize repentance — treating it as a call to be nice. That turns Acts 2:38 on its head and inside-out.
Moreover, if we read Acts 2:38 in context, we see that Peter is doing midrash (commentary) on Joel 2:28-32, and Joel insists that salvation comes to all who call on the name of the Lord. Peter reveals that the “Lord” is Jesus. And so, calling on the name of Jesus in repentance (as above defined) is the heart and core of the sermon, and Acts 2:38. Joel says nothing of baptism.
“Repentance” is a word that encompasses far more than “change to become a good person.” In requires faith in Jesus. How can you submit to someone you don’t believe in, or aren’t faithful to, or don’t trust?
Therefore, there is no inconsistency between Acts 2:38 and Rom 10:9-11:
(Rom 10:9-13 ESV) 9 because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. 11 For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. 13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Notice that in this seminal passage, Paul also quotes Joel 2:32. Confessing that “Jesus is Lord” is the same thought as being baptized in the name of Jesus in response to a promise to save all who “call on the name of the Lord.” To “believe” (have faith) includes “repent.” “Repent” in Acts 2:38 includes faith.
The Five Steps of Salvation theory errs in adding together those things that are really the same (albeit viewed from different perspectives). This is a problem because we haven’t done a careful job of understanding and teaching what the steps each mean.
The only distinction between the two passages is baptism. Paul says nothing about it in his very detailed, “step by step” presentation of how one becomes saved. We should be leery of trying to be smarter than Paul. It’s obviously quite permissible — even apostolic — to preach salvation without mentioning baptism in the same breath. Paul did. So did Jesus. So did John. It’s wrong to freak out and cite 50 proof texts anytime someone speaks as the apostles did.
On the other hand, obviously, Paul was not against baptism. He taught and practiced baptism. I have no doubt but that he insisted that every single convert be baptized for forgiveness. But plainly enough, Paul elevates faith far above baptism, so much so that he can explain how people are saved in detail repeatedly speaking of faith in Jesus as sufficient and not mentioning baptism.
(And, no, I’m not teaching Southern Baptist baptism theology. Baptism is designed by God to be the moment when we call on the Lord and when we are saved. God expects baptism of every single believer. But grace will cover baptismal error, because God has promised to save all who call on the name of Jesus in repentance. And God keeps his promises.)