(Act 8:18-19 ESV) 18 Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, 19 saying, “Give me this power also, so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.”
In 1942, H. Leo Boles published his The Holy Spirit: His Personality, Nature and Works, which has profoundly influenced Church of Christ thinking on the subject ever since. In particular, Boles argued that Christians receive differing “measures” the Spirit. A miraculous measure is received by the laying on of apostolic hands, meaning that miraculous gifts died out a generation after the apostles died.
It’s a clever argument, but Acts 8 does not support the theory in the least. The text is clear that the Samaritans received not gifts of the Spirit or a heightened measure of the Spirit but the Spirit himself — meaning they did not have the Spirit at all before the apostles arrived to deal with the problem. This is what Simon saw and asked to buy.
Moreover, Acts 9:17 records Saul (later Paul) receiving the Spirit by the laying on of the hands of Ananias — who was not an apostle.
A much better resource on the work of the Spirit is Frederick Dale Bruner’s A Theology of the Holy Spirit, which is less concerned with proving the end of miracles and more concerned with honoring the text.
(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.”
This is a difficult but important passage for Church of Christ thought. Peter is obviously overwrought. For some reason, he doubts whether Simon can be forgiven: “pray … that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven.” Obviously, forgiveness is always possible for the penitent believer, and so Peter doubted either his faith or capacity to repent — most certainly not God’s willingness to forgive!
Simon’s request was indeed wicked. He imagined that the Spirit, given freely to all who believe, could be sold for a profit — meaning that Simon lacked any heart for the lost at all and was deeply selfish. He was, in essence, proposing to sell salvation!
Indeed, Peter perceived, surely correctly, that Simon’s heart was very black and evil. And yet Luke had earlier said that Simon had “believed,” which would usually suggest that he had also repented — surely not perfectly but, you’d think, surely well enough to have a soft heart that would repent at the urging of an apostle! But, clearly, Simon’s heart was not nearly that soft.
Witherington concludes that while Simon believed in the miracles he saw, Luke records that the other Samaritans believed “good news about the kingdom of God” (Acts 8:12-13), and Simon does not repent or express remorse so much as beg the apostles to pray for him — out of fear.
In other words, contrary to much Church of Christ preaching, we should not take Simon as an example of how Christians today receive forgiveness. Indeed, it’s often taught that forgiveness of a sin only follows from confession, repentance, and asking for forgiveness, such that we remain damned in our sins until this three-step process is followed. And the usual proof text is Acts 8:22, where Peter not only insists the Simon won’t be forgiven until he asks for forgiveness, but expresses serious doubts that even this process will work.
The result has been a legalistic version of grace that makes forgiveness highly conditioned on how well and how often we ask for forgiveness, and even then, isn’t so sure that God will necessarily grant the forgiveness we ask for!
This horrible theology is predicated on the obviously false assumption that the ordinary Christian who sins in in the very same spiritual place as Simon the Magician — an absurd thought.
But this is what happens when we build our theology to win debates and damn our opponents. You see, this argument has the convenient result that we can damn those who use instruments (or the wrong number of cups or fellowship halls or what have you) because they’ve obviously not repented, much less asked for forgiveness, as they continue in their sinful practices.
And so we turn grace inside out just to win a debate and damn our opponents, and the collateral damage is a denomination filled with people who doubt their salvation because they doubt their ability to confess and repent of all sin! And, indeed, who could meet such a standard?
We tend to pull out the “must repent of that particular sin” standard only when dealing with doctrinal disputes over which the church has divided. Thus, we declare as damned those who use instruments, despite their doing so in all good conscience, because they’ve not repented of that particular supposed sin. But when it comes to moral sin — a failure to love as we should, a failure to evangelize as we should — we extend a more generous standard, or else no one would be saved at all. That is, we apply one standard to ourselves and a different standard to our opponents. May God forgive us!
Yes, of course, we should all be penitent all the time for every sin of every kind, but, no, that doesn’t mean that God only forgives those sins we no longer commit. That approach requires sinless perfection.