We’ll move more quickly through the rest of Acts, just to show how this understanding of the scriptures makes better sense of the text than our usual reading.
For example, when the Sanhedrin called the apostles in for questioning, Peter responds,
(Act 5:29-32 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.”
It’s a peculiar phrase to our ears in v. 31: “to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” The Sanhedrin, Torah scholars all, would have understood Peter to be speaking of the need to repent to obtain forgiveness from God to end the Exile. But why “to give repentance”? We don’t normally think of repentance as a gift!
I doubt seriously that Peter was thinking in terms of imputed grace or unconditional election. Rather, the Torah, in Deu 30, speaks of a time when repentance might lead to restoration by means of hearts circumcised by God. Now is that time. God has brought about the events — the outpoured Spirit, the Messiah, the resurrection — these have all happened, and so now is the time for repentance and restoration! Indeed, even for the leaders of the Jews who’d been personally complicit in the crucifixion, the door of grace is wide open, and God is demonstrating that this is the time by doing powerful miracles! God has opened his arms wide to forgive them. Now is the time!
This should take us back to such passages as —
(Act 2:22-23 ESV) “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know — 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
(Act 4:26-28 ESV) 26 “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ — 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
We earlier passed over this language of predestination and foreknowledge. The point being made in each case is that the Law and the Prophets said these things would happen — and here we are seeing prophecy fulfilled!
I admit that prophecy by its very predictive nature creates all sorts of challenging metaphysical issues about free will and such, but that is not why these people spoke these words. The point is that these events are happening as scripture says they must, and so this is the hand of God at work. Pick whether you’re going to be on God’s side and repent or reject the work of God in history and refuse his offer of restoration.
I’ll not repeat the account of the conversion of Cornelius and his household in Acts 10. Rather, we skip to the next chapter in which Peter defends his actions. After Peter’s retelling of the events —
(Act 11:18 ESV) 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.”
Here we again encounter the phrase that “God has granted repentance” to the Gentiles. That sounds odd to us, because it just seems so natural for repentance to lead to forgiveness, but God is under no obligation at all to forgive just because someone apologizes. The fact that God does is sheer grace.
Up until this time, Gentiles could not easily be saved — even if they repented 500 times. The covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David were all entirely about Israel. And the Jews knew that they could be restored by repentance, but the Gentiles had no relationship with God to lose, much less to be restored to. There was no Gentile covenant, and so no path to forgiveness.
Hence, while the Jews were living in their own Deu 30 times, with a choice to repent and be restored from Exile or else to refuse and continue to suffer the curses of Deu 28, 30, and 32, the Gentiles were simply outside of the covenant framework.
Therefore, to declare that God “has granted repentance” to Gentiles is a declaration of amazement. This is a blessing given by God to his own people because of his covenant relationship with Israel. To grant the same blessing, the same opportunity to Gentiles was amazing — beyond all imagination.
In Paul’s famous sermon on Mars Hill, we see much the same thought —
(Act 17:29-31 ESV) “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.”
Paul now states the requirement more strongly. Repentance is not just granted — an opportunity — it’s a command. The consequence of refusal will be judgment.
Luke records a passionate speech given by Paul to the elders of the church in Ephesus. Paul says,
(Act 20:18-21 ESV) 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.“
Now, it’s the same thing, right? Repentance toward God includes faith in Jesus, and faith in Jesus certainly requires repentance toward God. These are overlapping, nearly synonymous concepts, and so the parallel makes sense.
20:21. In the Greek the words repentance and faith are joined together by one article. This may imply that these two words stress two aspects of trust in Christ (cf. 2:38). When a person places his faith in Christ, he is then turning from (repenting of) his former unbelief. This is the same message for both Jews and Greeks (i.e., Gentiles; cf. 19:10; Gal. 3:28).
Stanley D. Toussaint, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, 1985, 2, 413.