In Acts 2:38, where Peter responds to a question posed by those under conviction after his Pentecost sermon, “What shall we do? (2:37), he says: ““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.”
The Apostle’s response raises a question: What is meant by “Repent and be baptized”? It sounds like baptism may merit our forgiveness of sins. Is this what Peter is teaching? To answer that question, we must look throughout the book of Acts to see what is taught in its twenty-eight chapters about how a person truly responds to Jesus Christ and also to what are they responding (what is the evangelistic message?). When we understand these two matters, we will not only be able to understand what Peter is teaching here, we also will have very helpful guidance in how we are to reach others for Jesus.
So, let’s look briefly at what we discover.
The Evangelistic Message In Acts
There are two ways we can look at this topic in Acts. First, we can study the sermons or speeches found in the book to see if we can discover a pattern. Second, we can look at summary statements in the book about what the apostles did as they went about proclaiming their message.
A Preaching Pattern In The Sermons
John Stott, focusing on all the sermons or speeches, concludes that Luke supplies five sample evangelistic sermons total by Peter and five by Paul. Even more importantly for our purpose is that Stott concludes that “there was a core to the proclamation of both apostles….” Stott, in basic agreement with most other Acts commentators, identifies that core or the pattern of preaching this way:
Jesus was a man who was accredited by God through miracles and anointed by the Spirit to do good and to heal. Despite this, he was crucified through the agency of wicked men, though also by God’s purpose according to the Scriptures that the Messiah must suffer. Then God reversed the human verdict on Jesus by raising him from the dead, also according to the Scriptures, and as attested by the apostolic eyewitnesses. Next God exalted him to the place of supreme honor as Lord and Savior. He now possesses full authority both to save those who repent, believe and are baptized in his name, bestowing on them the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit, and to judge those who reject him.
So, in essence, based on the sermons in Acts themselves, the apostles proclaimed to others the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Additionally, they call people to repent and believe in him for forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Spirit—a response the outward sign of which is baptism.
When we look at brief summary statements about the proclamation ministry of the apostles and early New Testament Church, what do we find?
A Pattern In The Summary Statements
Here is what we discover.
1. The apostles and early Christians testified and spoke the word of the Lord (8:25), teaching or speaking it in many different settings (13:4; 16:32; 18:11; 19:10), and including the entire counsel of God—all that is profitable (20:20-21, 27). This Word proclamation was important since it is by the Word people are set apart unto God, built up, and by which God’s people receive their inheritance (20:32).
2. Several of the passages we just cited, when understood in context, demonstrate there was a core to this Bible teaching: the gospel (16:32; 18:11; 19:10). So we should not be surprised that the apostles and early Christians preached the gospel (8:25, 40; 14:7, 21; 15:7; 16:10), also known as the gospel of the grace of God (20:24), which includes the death and resurrection of Jesus (17:22-31; 26:23).
3. This gospel proclamation also included the following:
a. They regularly taught and preached Jesus is the Christ (5:42; 17:2; 18:28).
b. They proclaimed Jesus is the Son of God (9:20).
c. They reasoned from the Scriptures, proving it was necessary for Christ to suffer and rise, also affirming Jesus is the Christ (17:2, 17; 18:4-5, 19), and also persuading hearers about the kingdom (19:8-9). Paul testified to all things surrounding Jesus, including what he did and claimed—both in Jerusalem and Rome (23:11). Here is a clear indication of where apologetics intersects with evangelism. If we base our apologetics on Acts, however, we will eventually seek to focus upon Jesus Christ and proclaim the gospel.
d. They taught the good news of the kingdom, that in Jesus the Christ the kingdom had been inaugurated (19:8-9; 20:25; 28:23, 30-31). In fact, we learn that proclaiming the kingdom is the same as proclaiming the gospel of the grace of God (20:25).
c. Flowing out of this proclamation was also a call to repentance (17:31; 20:21 [toward God]) and faith (20:21 [in the Lord Jesus Christ]), that is, they persuaded others to become Christians, followers of Jesus (26:28-29; 28:23).
In Acts 1:8 Jesus says that the Holy Spirit will empower his followers to be his witnesses before other people to the ends of the earth. This is exactly what we find in the rest of the book. The Spirit came upon them to move them out and to empower them to proclaim the gospel of the grace of God. This involved teaching about the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ—and doing this in the context of other Bible teaching (e.g. among Jews: showing that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament Scriptures). Even when they reasoned with people, sought to persuade them, and dealt with seeking to demonstrate the truthfulness of the fact surrounding the life of Jesus (what today we call apologetics), the ultimate goal was to call people to repent and to trust in Jesus Christ alone for forgiveness of sins and true life.
The Evangelistic Response In Acts
Since Acts 2:38 and several of the passages we are about to cite include the noun “repentance” or the verb “repent,” we should provide a definition. The terms in the New Testament that stand behind both the noun and verb mean literally “to think afterward,” in other words to “change one’s mind.” When the Bible calls us to repent it is calling us to change our mind concerning how we view God (he is God we are not), how we view our sin (we should grieve over it rather than take it lightly, and we should turn to Christ for forgiveness), and how we view salvation (we cannot serve as our own savior). It is no surprise, then, that repentance involves our turning toward Jesus Christ to trust him as Savior, and it results in a changed life since we follow him as Lord.
Now that we grasp a basic understanding of repentance, let’s discover what Acts teaches about how a person responds in a saving way to the evangelistic message as we outlined it above.
1. People are called to repent and be baptized, or we see them engaging in this dual response. 2:38
2. People are called to repent, or we see them engaging in this response. 3:19; 14:15
3. People are called to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, or we see them engaging in this response. 4:12; 9:42; 13:12, 38-39; 14:1, 27; 15:5, 7; 16:31; 17:12;18:8; 21:20, 25
4. People are called to repent and trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, or we see them engaging in this dual response. 10:43 (in light of 11:18); 11:20-21; 16:14-15; 17:4 (in light of 30-34); 17:30-34; 20:21; 22:16; 26:18-20
5. It is made clear that baptism should follow repentance and saving faith, it does not lead to it. 8:37; 9:18 (see in light of 22:16); 10:43-48 (in light of 11:18); 16:14-15, 31-34; 18:8; 22:16
6. However, baptism so much serves as the outward sign of the inward reality or response that it can stand alone in a text to speak of repentance and/or faith. This not only shows how baptism functioned in the New Testament, but also its importance as a public profession of faith. 8:37; 9:18
Evangelistic Response Conclusions
1. Based on what the rest of the book teaches about responses to Jesus, the command to repent and be baptized in 2:38 cannot mean that baptism saves. This is the only time it is given such prominence in the book. Many places it is not mentioned at all. It is mentioned enough, and with clarity about when it takes place, to know that: It is an outward sign of what happens to us inwardly and thus can stand for one’s response to Jesus Christ; those who trusted Jesus Christ as Savior were baptized as their public profession; baptism follows repentance and faith.
2. Since faith and repentance can be used interchangeably to refer to the same saving response (for example compare 11:18 and 14:27), we conclude that all true repentance includes faith in Jesus Christ and all true faith in Jesus Christ includes repentance.
3. Because of #’s 1-2, Luke and the early church could speak of baptism, repentance, or faith by themselves and mean virtually the same thing. If either of the latter terms stood by themselves, most likely they implied the other one. If baptism stood by itself, the intent is that a person is engaging in the initiatory rite that is the outward profession or sign of what they have done—to repent and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior.
4. Any faith that does not involve an outward turning, an outward transformation, should be called into question.
Though we have discovered Acts does not teach that baptism saves in any manner, it is an important public profession of faith, an outward sign of the inward reality of repentance and faith. It should function as the public profession that one has trusted in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. If you have not been baptized, you should be as your outward profession and in obedience to the Lord Jesus (see Matthew 28:19).
We also discover that if a person is to respond in true saving faith to Jesus Christ (which includes repentance), they must hear the Word of God, the core of which is the gospel (Acts 18:8). This means we, like the early church, must very much be about teaching the gospel to others and calling them to respond in repentance and faith. This Christ-exalting, gospel-centered approach that is seeking the saving response of others should mark us as a congregation.
The question we are left with, then, is this: Are you currently involved in any relationships where you are seeking to love a person who may not know Jesus as Savior, praying that you can share the good news with them? Regardless of our place in life, this is the calling of all Christians. But sadly I recently learned that only 1/100 Christians actively pursues sharing their faith. Can you imagine the difference it would make if that became 2/100 or 3/100? Will you be part of that growing 1-2%?