by Al Maxey

Issue #180 ------- March 22, 2005
There is no sin and there can be no sin
on all the earth, which the Lord will not
forgive to the truly repentant.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881)
"The Brothers Karamazov"

The Forgiveness Formula
Acts 2:38 - Reviewing our Response

Some have sought to characterize Acts 2:38 as "the defining NT Scripture" of the Churches of Christ. One wit even opined, "They would be lost without it!" A few critics have accused this group of virtually adopting this single passage as their official creed. Generally, this verse is forcefully employed to show what is believed to be the absolute necessity of baptism in securing the forgiveness of one's sins. No baptism, no forgiveness. However, is this really the fullness of the teaching conveyed in this brief statement by Peter? Is it the central doctrine to be drawn from the passage? Dare we ask what else this apostle may be seeking to convey to his hearers in Jerusalem that Pentecost? Is there not mention made of receiving the Holy Spirit, for example? And what about repentance? Where does that come into the equation with respect to the impartation of forgiveness and the reception of the Holy Spirit? And just what is this repentance of which Peter speaks, and what is its relationship to immersion? Should we regard Acts 2:38 as some kind of formula for forgiveness .... a recipe for redemption, perhaps? For many generations ... indeed, for centuries ... disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ have puzzled over this passage, seeking to better comprehend the will of our Lord for those seekers desirous of coming to a saving relationship with Him.

There is absolutely no questioning or doubting, by any who are serious students of the Word, the importance of the statement recorded for us in Acts 2:38. After all, when those men and women who were "pricked in their heart" (Acts 2:37, KJV) by the teaching of the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost asked what was expected of them in response to the message they had heard and believed, it was the message of this passage that was conveyed to them. If it was vital for them to receive this instruction, could it be any less so for us? Thus, there is obviously a need for each of us to better perceive the nature of the doctrine contained in this statement.

On the surface, at least, the stirring words of Peter seem fairly straightforward -- "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (NASB). However, this has come to be one of the most debated verses in the entire Bible. What exactly is the gift of the Holy Spirit? Does it refer to the bestowing of spiritual gifts? Is it the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (which many ultra-conservative Church of Christ members, as well as a few in other religious groups, vehemently deny)? Is this gift bestowed upon us even if we do not fully understand all its implications, or must we perceive the meaning perfectly before the promise will be bestowed? Some disciples, for example, say one must understand the significance of baptism perfectly before it can be recognized as valid, and before forgiveness is conferred ... thus, would this not also be true of the bestowal of the gift of the Spirit? Must one also be able to fully explain all aspects of the gift of the Spirit before one would be "qualified" to receive it? If not, why not? And just what exactly is the nature of this repentance? Further, are sins forgiven at the point of baptism, or at the point of repentance? Or both? Or neither? And what is meant by the Greek preposition eis in the text? Is it "unto, for" forgiveness of sins, or does it mean "because of" forgiveness of sins? Oh, the battles that have been waged over that question!! Is the baptism mentioned water baptism, or is this Holy Spirit baptism? Is it only for adults? May sprinkling or pouring be used? What is the spiritual significance of being baptized "in the name of Jesus Christ"?

These are just a few of the many issues raised over the centuries with respect to this passage. Some of the questions are rather easily answered; others less so. Even within our own faith-heritage, there is still significant diversity of opinion and conviction as to the significance of this text. Although it has oft been employed as the proof-text for our theology (at least with respect to our emphasis on water baptism as being essential to salvation), it nevertheless is certainly not above being thoroughly examined to determine the full extent of Peter's intent. Obviously, such a thorough inspection of the passage is well beyond the scope of this present article. Therefore, in this study we shall limit our focus to one area only: the relationship of repentance to baptism in our response to the gospel message, and the special significance of the former in securing the promise of forgiveness of sins.

The Algebraic Equation Question

Several weeks ago I received a fascinating email from Dr. -------, a subscriber to these Reflections from the great state of Alabama. After offering some kind, encouraging words about my efforts to reach searching souls through this ministry, he then got to the purpose of his email to me. "Al, while I've got you 'on the line,' so to speak, I would like to get your views on the issue of repentance. We hear a lot of discussion within the church about faith, baptism, love, obedience, and the like, but it often seems as if teachers of the gospel tend to give short shrift to the concept of repentance. Given the fact that the very first word Jesus is recorded to have preached in His earthly ministry was 'Repent' (Matt. 4:17), it would seem that repentance ought to be given the preeminent place in the so-called 'plan of salvation.' Yet, in our eagerness to get from faith to baptism, we often seem to rush right past repentance without pausing to explore its significance. For example, in Acts 2:38 our emphasis seems to be placed more on the part that says 'be baptized ... for the remission of sins.' We tend to skip right over the first part of Peter's statement -- 'Repent and ...' -- which may actually be the most important part of the verse."

Before continuing with the thoughts of this brother from Alabama, let me pause just a moment to make a few observations. There is no question, or shouldn't be, that repentance is a vital aspect of our response to the gospel message. Indeed, it was not only the first word out of Jesus' mouth as He began His public preaching ministry, but it was the first word out of Peter's mouth when asked, "Brethren, what shall we do?" It was also a major aspect of the preaching of John the Baptist, who was "preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:3). In Luke's version of our Lord's Great Commission, Jesus declares "that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (Luke 24:47). In Athens, Paul preached, "God is now declaring to men that all everywhere should repent" (Acts 17:30), and he told King Agrippa that he "kept declaring" to all those with whom he came into contact "that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance" (Acts 26:20).

Thus, repentance was certainly given some degree of preeminence by John, Jesus, Peter, and Paul in their individual ministries. This is rather clear. It is also rather clear, sadly, that this same preeminence is not given to repentance today. Indeed, it is often ignored almost altogether in a rush to get people into the water to "save" them. I agree with the reader from Alabama -- I think we may well be doing a disservice to the "pattern of response" (if I may use that phrase) to the gospel, not to mention a grave disservice to those responding, by diminishing the place of repentance. I honestly don't think we intentionally intend to do this, but our emphasis on baptism in our faith-heritage has, practically speaking, simply led to this resultant lessening of focus on repentance.

Please don't misunderstand. I am not suggesting we should grill people about either of these areas, necessarily. Frankly, I don't perceive our mission from God as being His "conversion constables" and "immersion inspectors" (or "dunking detectives," as I once heard it called). I think there is a tendency to pry into a person's relationship with the Lord too much as it is ... usually to make sure they agree with OUR perspectives, positions and preferences so that we may determine if they are "worthy" of our fellowship. Yes, I do believe we owe it to one another to show genuine interest in where a brother or sister may be in their walk with the Lord, and if they have any struggles of faith with which we can assist them, but too far beyond that and we just "go to meddling." My objective in all of the above is not to suggest another "point of law" to enforce in the church with respect to conversion, but rather to get us to do some reflecting on whether or not we may have developed a rather lopsided emphasis with respect to the teaching of Acts 2:38. Frankly, I believe we have! We have traditionally failed to give repentance its vital place in the "process of response" to the gospel. Yes, we acknowledge its place in our teaching (for the most part), but we shuffle it to one side in our practice, and the latter sometimes "preaches" more loudly than the former.

The brother from Alabama continues -- "I have come to suspect that, contrary to what I've always been taught, Acts 2:38 does not actually claim that baptism is for the remission of sins, but rather it teaches that repentance and baptism together are for the remission of sins (the latter being of no avail without the former)." This reader then suggests the following two algebraic-like verbal equations as possible interpretations of the text before us in Acts 2:38.

If pressed into a corner, few among us would likely admit to holding the view expressed in the first equation. Indeed, we would probably argue vigorously against such a teaching. And, to be fair, I think most of us do realize that baptism alone is not what washes away sins, any more than faith alone saves us. There are many aspects relevant to our response to the gospel which, working together, bring about the desired results. Most of us would very likely agree with the second equation, which suggests that repentance and immersion are equally vital to the reception of the promised forgiveness. We would probably even agree that either item without the other leaves the response to the gospel less than complete, and thus less than efficacious. Most scholars recognize this vital connection, as can be perceived, for example, in the Expositor's Bible Commentary, which declares that in Acts 2:38 Peter "links both repentance and baptism with the forgiveness of sins" (vol. 9, p. 283). This source goes on to say, "Some interpreters have stressed the command to be baptized so as to link the forgiveness of sins exclusively with baptism. But it runs contrary to all biblical religion to assume that outward rites have any value apart from true repentance and an inward change" (ibid, p. 284). "It would, of course, be a mistake to link the words 'unto the remission of your sins' with the command 'be baptized' to the exclusion of the prior command 'Repent ye'" (Dr. F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of the Acts, p. 77). Indeed, in the apostle Peter's very next recorded sermon (Acts 3:11-26), which was presented at the Portico of Solomon, he didn't mention baptism at all, but said, "Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away" (vs. 19). It is obvious, then, that repentance is key in the "formula for forgiveness."

The theological confusion, however, with respect to the passage before us, most often lies in our various perspectives of the exact nature of repentance as used or intended in this equation. What exactly is the authorial intent here?! The doctor from the state of Alabama continues -- "If the latter interpretation (or equation) is correct, then remission of sins depends just as much on repentance as it does on baptism. If that is the case then we really need more teaching on the subject of repentance. Unfortunately, I think that many Christians seem to have the notion that repentance is nothing more than the renunciation of specific sins. However, I view repentance as a change of heart which brings about a change of life. Merely renouncing specific sins that you have committed is not enough if the ungodly attitudes that led you to commit those sins in the first place are not also removed from your heart."

The Role of Repentance

Our brother brings up a valid point. If one has not genuinely repented, can one's baptism even be regarded as valid? If forgiveness of sins and reception of the Holy Spirit are conditioned upon both repentance and baptism, then the promise is not received if either of these aspects of our faith-response is less than genuine. For example, if I truly believe in Jesus Christ, if I confess Him before men, if I am baptized in His name, but am still clinging to a relationship with the world in my heart, being reluctant to sever all ties to my past, have I truly repented? And, if not, is forgiveness of sin withheld from me, even though I made the "good confession" and was immersed? IF repentance is just as critical a part of the equation as baptism, then the unrepentant man is just as far from forgiveness as the unbaptized man. Lot's wife had traveled a good distance toward safety, but her heart was still back in the city. She hadn't fully turned away from it within her heart (genuine repentance), and this divided loyalty cost her dearly (Gen. 19:26). Jesus urges us all to "Remember Lot's wife!" (Luke 17:32). I believe the lesson to be learned is the need for genuine repentance in light of impending judgment. No matter how far down the road one may have traveled in their "journey to heaven," if they have not genuinely repented in their hearts, have they truly ever left the "doomed city of this world"? The example of Lot's wife seems to suggest strongly that if our heart still lies "within the city," then we shall share its fate regardless of what we may have done with our physical bodies. In other words, immersing the body in water accomplishes nothing if one's heart is still tied to the world.

Thus, I believe the brother who has raised this issue is correct --- we need renewed teaching in the church on repentance, and we need to be stressing the importance of this inward reality as much as we do the outward rite of baptism. Rather than rushing people to the baptistery, perhaps we ought to be focusing more on transforming hearts and lives. Perhaps this may help in explaining the statement of Peter in 1 Peter 3:21 where he informs us that baptism is "not the removal of dirt from the body, but the pledge of a good conscience toward God." It seems to me that maybe Peter is suggesting there must be more involved than getting the body wet; there must also be an inner transformation on the part of those who come to God for cleansing. Dare we call this repentance? Have you ever wondered why it is that so many new converts seem to be drifting away from us so quickly and returning to the world? Could it be, perhaps, at least in part, that we have been guilty of rushing to the water those who had not yet truly repented?! The harsh reality is: if one's heart is still tied to the world, they most likely will return there (if, in fact, they ever truly left)! With much sadness, the apostle Paul wrote, "Demas, having loved this present world, has deserted me!" (2 Tim. 4:10). "For as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23:7). I think it is safe to say here -- the heart of the problem is the heart.

The Greek word that is translated "repent" in Acts 2:38 is metanoeo. In form, it appears as an Aorist Imperative, thus we perceive its necessity, as the Imperative is the Greek mood of command. The word translated "be baptized" also appears as an Aorist Imperative in this sentence, thus providing yet another link between these two concepts. Metanoeo appears only 34 times in all of the NT writings --- Matthew = 5, Mark = 2, Luke = 9, Acts = 5, 2 Corinthians = 1, Revelation = 12. It is a verb meaning "to undergo a change in one's frame of mind and feeling; to make a change of principle and practice; to reform" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon of the NT, p. 266). Dr. Gerhard Kittel does extensive research into the OT and NT meanings of this word, providing invaluable insight into the history of this term and its usage, concluding that "the NT gives new expression to the ancient concept of religious and moral conversion" (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. 4, p. 1000). In other words, repentance is really all about conversion! Dr. Kittel goes on to note that "the heart of the apostolic mission is the message of conversion" (ibid, p. 1003), and that the apostle Peter, on the day of Pentecost, "connects conversion and baptism" (ibid, p. 1004). Indeed, Hebrews 6:1 clearly regards repentance as one of the foundational doctrines and practices of the Christian faith.

"In the OT, the basic idea of human repentance is represented by the Hebrew word sub. It implies turning from sin to righteousness, often with accompanying sorrow. ... Repentance often involved reverting from idolatry to true worship of Yahweh and its corresponding moral behavior. In response to this repentance, God forgives and restores. In the NT, repentance primarily relates to the Greek words metanoeo and metanoia, meaning to understand something differently after thinking it over. This change of mind necessarily leads to changed actions, in keeping with the Greek view that the mind controlled the body. ... The importance of repentance to the theology of the NT cannot be overemphasized" (Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible, p. 1118). Another common Hebrew word conveying the concept of repentance is naham, "an onomatopoeic term that implies difficulty in breathing, hence 'pant,' 'sigh,' 'groan' ... When incited by a consideration of one's own character and deeds it came to mean 'rue,' 'repent'" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, vol. 4, p. 135). Repentance is far more than merely regret, says The Holman Bible Dictionary, "it is a reorientation of the sinner to God" (p. 1175). This source also seems to address the question before us regarding Acts 2:38 by stating, "Ritual not accompanied by a genuine attitude of repentance was empty" (ibid).


What can we conclude about the nature of repentance? I would personally have to agree with the above cited ISBE which, after considering the various Hebrew and Greek terms employed, concluded "these terms express repentance in the full sense of a complete change of one's way of life" (vol. 4, p. 136). It is far more than a feeling of regret or remorse, although such emotions would certainly be present. It is also far more than the mere confession of specific past sins, although, again, such would most likely be involved as an expression of genuine repentance. From a biblical perspective, repentance is nothing less than a complete transformation of life; a reversing of direction away from sinful, selfish living toward sacrificial service to one's God and Father. I would also agree with the ISBE that "repentance manifests its reality by producing good fruits appropriate to the new spiritual life" (ibid), and that "it is sometimes conjoined with baptism, an overt public act that proclaims a changed relation to sin and to God" (ibid).

In Acts 2:38 the conjoining of repentance with baptism is clearly and unequivocally portrayed as essential to the experiencing of forgiveness and the reception of the gift of the Holy Spirit. Either of these aspects of our response of faith, standing all alone without the other, would prove insufficient to secure the promise. Although immersion is often emphasized far more by some religious groups than repentance, neither is more or less important than the other. Both are vital. To those groups whose focus in preaching and teaching seems to be more on getting to that part of the "film strip" that calls the sinner to the water, than in calling them to a genuine, deeply felt repentance of heart and life first (something which takes time), I would challenge them to consider a significant shift in focus, and would urge them to embrace greater balance in their evangelistic techniques. If baptism is not preceded by a deep faith and a genuine repentance, we do those whom we immerse a great disservice. Before we ever lead a seeking soul to the baptistery, we should first make absolutely certain we have truly led them to Jesus Christ. If right relationship doesn't precede religious rite, the latter will merely be a show and a sham. It is, I believe, by divine design that repentance comes prior to immersion in Acts 2:38, and that both must be genuine evidences of a sincere faith if the seeking soul would secure the promises enumerated.

Reflections from Readers

From a Missionary in Brazil:

Dear Al, To the brother in Texas from the One Cup church, I would like to send the following words of encouragement: Brother, you have planted the seed that is the Word of God; you may never know the growth that comes out of the seed planted, but be sure that God is planning for the future! It may be another who reaps what you have sown, but be assured that the Word of God does not go out and return empty! Some of my first baptisms here, ten years ago, were in a small rural area in the interior of Brazil where there had been a missionary for several years. He was recalled for "lack of progress." A year and a half afterward, I visited that location at the request of the brothers there for a three day revival, and we ended up baptizing seven! All because of the seed that had been planted by the other missionary who was forced to leave because he was a "failure." That missionary now has grandchildren in the faith he knows nothing about!! Trust in God, brother! He is faithful and does not forget the work you have done!

From a Reader in Alabama:

I meant to write last week about the young evangelist in Texas and the horrible persecution he was enduring. I did pray for him throughout the course of the past few days, and my eyes would tear up at the very thought of what he was going through. Now, after reading today's Reflections, I am so saddened to hear of the outcome of his sermon, although I must admit that it was just exactly what I feared would happen. Most of our "ultra-conservative" brethren will never allow themselves to be free in Christ. The weight of the burdens they bear must be intolerable at times. I know, because I used to be one of these people. The weight of the yoke I was living under was crushing. The day my family and I left that fellowship to join a grace-centered, Christ-loving congregation was one of the best days of my life. I am happier in the Lord today than I have ever been. I still carry the scars, and I still have to overcome certain doubts and fears that are rooted in my legalistic upbringing, but, praise be to God, He has set me free from that former bondage! My heart continues to ache for this young minister and his family. I pray that they will allow God to lead them through this time, and that they will find a way to serve Him in a loving, grace-centered fellowship.

From a Minister in Missouri:

Brother Al, Thanks for adding me to the Reflections mailing list. I enjoyed reading the first one today, but was saddened to hear about the brother in Texas. I am a minister in a "one cup" church here in Missouri, but we aren't dogmatic about it. We respect the rights of our brothers and sisters to disagree with us. I also am a firm believer in the grace of God. I would love to communicate with the brother from Texas who was fired for preaching the truth. I have also suffered shunning and ersatz excommunication from the other "one cup" churches in the area and might be able to encourage this brother. Thanks again for putting me on your mailing list.

From a Prison Minister in Oklahoma:

Dear Al, Thanks for the excellent article, "Tolerating the Intolerable." The preacher who was asked to tender his resignation after the sermon "Religion or Christianity?" is to be commended for doing what is right. Calling God's people back to the Christ is always right. I would like to read that sermon if it becomes available. You might pass along my address to him. Keep up the good work.

From a Reader in California:

Dear Brother Al, My heart goes out to this family in Texas. My family has "been there, done that." "Could we be wrong?" was the question of the day for us, and the question whereby we got our eyes opened and ultimately tossed out. We should have known exactly what would happen when we went against old traditions and customs that bound us. For us, it was not a lesson on Christianity vs. Religion, but was, rather, a lesson on Grace that became the straw that finally broke the camel's back. Now who could question that Grace is instrumental in our salvation??? Well, our background for one! I am so often reminded of how closely the children's book "The Emperor's New Clothes" paralleled our life in the church that we grew up in and were subsequently tossed out of. We were wretched, poor, blind ... yet too wretched, poor and blind to see it. For 20+ years we have continued to love, hope and pray for those we left behind, thinking that one day they would, en masse, somehow open their eyes and see. It has not happened. But, we still hope, love and pray that some day it will. What a day, glorious day that will be!!

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