The teaching in Acts is usually “repent” or “have faith in Jesus” — one or the other — and we tend to hear in “repentance” a call to moral living, whereas in “faith” we hear a call to a particular belief system.
Thus, we feel the need to add “repent” to “believe” to have what seems to be a complete plan of salvation. Indeed, we are puzzled that so many sermons — especially Peter’s sermon in Pentecost — ends with a call to “repent” rather than “believe.” Some even think this contradicts Paul’s understanding of the gospel!
But Paul and Luke would have considered the two words to substantially overlap, with “repent” having deep roots in Jeremiah and the coming of the Kingdom, an ancient demand to turn toward God that was later shown to be obeyed by faith in Jesus.
“Faith” and “repentance” must both be read in light of the Kingdom and the Prophets. Thus, “faith” is shorthand for “faith in Jesus,” which is shorthand for “belief that Jesus is the Messiah of prophecy, the king (“Son of God”) sitting on the throne of David, and Lord (a term both for a king and for God).” Paul says the same thing succinctly: “Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9).
We tend to emphasis “Jesus is our Savior” over “Jesus is our Lord.” Somehow, the idea that Jesus is king has been nearly forgotten by evangelicals, who prefer to preach salvation rather than the kingdom. Thus, we believe to be forgiven, not in order to end our rebellion and submit to Jesus as king.
We partly correct this mistake by also preaching “repent,” but we tend to understand “repent” to mean “be nice” rather than “live like Jesus, that is, sacrificially.” Therefore, John the Baptist sounds a bit extreme in insisting that those with two tunics share with those who have none.
As a result, we have a world covered with “Christian” nations in which the wealthy Christians care little for the poor and where Christian government officials abuse their offices to line their pockets. But they have “faith” and so they feel forgiven. They may have repented in the sense of being nice and even thoughtful to their fellow church members, but they’ve not repented. Not really.
So what did Peter mean in Acts 2:38 when he urged his listeners to “repent”? Many Jews who were there were doubtlessly good Jews who were deeply devoted to God as they understood him. Some had shouted “Crucify him!” but not all. This was not a revival sermon, urging people to stop sinning and come to church regularly! No, this was a plea to turn toward God.
But by “turn toward God,” Peter meant “turn toward God as revealed in Jesus, the resurrected Messiah.” That is, God was — through Jesus and Peter — imploring his people to see him in a new light, from a truer perspective. He wanted the Jews to accept that God had revealed himself in Jesus, as proved by the resurrection. No longer would it be enough to be a good Jew. Now, to be a true follower of God, you must see God’s mighty works done by Jesus and in Jesus’ name as God’s own works. Reject Jesus and you reject all that God did and does through him.
You see, Jesus is the culmination and fulfillment of the Torah and the Prophets. To deny Jesus would therefore be to deny all that had been said about him for 1,500 years, indeed, to deny all that defines the Jews as God’s people.
Thus, amazingly enough, “repent” means “believe in Jesus as the Messiah whom God resurrected.” After all, that is the point proved by Peter in his sermon. He was not so much persuading them that “all fall short of the glory of God” as “Jesus is Lord.” It’s only after you believe that Jesus is the Messiah that the crucifixion becomes a sin that cuts one to the heart.
And we miss much of what is going on if we don’t hear the plea as being also “Submit to Jesus as the Messiah, the king of God’s kingdom.” Peter preached not only Jesus but the Kingdom, and thus the fulfillment and realization of countless prophecies. And his point is that his Jewish audience wasn’t automatically included in the Kingdom. They received the first invitation in, but they would only be in the Kingdom if they accepted Jesus as Messiah.
For us today, it means the old Reformation understanding of “faith” is wrong. “Faith” does not mean merely “accept as true certain truths about Jesus, especially the Trinity.” No, as I’ve shown here many times, “faith” in the Greek includes faithfulness (as the word is often translated in the New Testament). To believe that “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God,” is to believe “You are the Messiah, the King appointed by the Living God.” “Son of God” in Psalm 2 was a reference to the king sitting on David’s throne!
Thus, we err when we turn “faith” into an exercise in philosophy and the fine tuning of definitional nuance. It’s much more about submission and about adopting a mindset (and lifestyle) that sees this world as in rebellion against God and that we’re called by God to help him that.
Faith doesn’t require perfect doctrinal understanding or perfect obedience, but it does require submission to the reign of Jesus as Messiah — and serving no other master. The Christian life thus becomes a life of submission.
Indeed, we turn toward God by becoming like his Son. We learn submission from Jesus. To obey Jesus is to become like Jesus. He is our king, but a king who calls on us to live as he lives. Jesus doesn’t ask us to do anything he hasn’t already done! (And this observation radically changes how we read such passages as Eph 5:22-24.)
It’s just not good enough to have an intellectual faith and be nice. Middle class morality is not the standard. No, we can’t help but notice the repeated pleas of God on behalf of the poor and the need to participate with God in bringing the promised kingdom to realization.
We’ll soon get to the early life of the church as disclosed later in Acts 2, but we already know why they lived as they live — not to follow a pattern concealed in the silences but to live life as citizens of the promised Kingdom.
And that changes how we do ecclesiology — that is, the theology of worship and church organization. You see, Acts and the epistles are written in light of the Kingdom prophecies. Read the prophecies and you begin to see how the church is supposed to live — and your priorities change from perfecting your rituals to perfecting your worldview. After all, repentance is about coming to see the world as God sees the world.