Questions: Acts

In exploring incarnational, Trinitarian theology, questions arise about specific passages of Scripture. This page addresses questions related to passages in the book of Acts.

Acts 2:36-40
36 "Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ." 37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, "Brothers, what shall we do?" 38 Peter replied, "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. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off-- for all whom the Lord our God will call." 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation."

If everyone is reconciled to God in Christ and thus already forgiven, why does Peter here seem to say that repentance is a precondition of forgiveness, which then is followed by the gift of the Holy Spirit?

In the New Testament, the Greek word translated “repentance” is metanoia, which means “change of mind.” All humanity is invited and enabled by the Spirit to experience a radical change of mind away from sinful egoistic self-centeredness and toward God and his love experienced in union with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Notice Peter’s invitation to this change of mind in Acts 2:38-39: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for [eis—“into”] the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

God does not forgive people in exchange for their repentance and belief. As Scripture proclaims, forgiveness is an unconditional free gift that is entirely of grace. The gospel truth—the truth about Jesus and about all humanity in union with God in Jesus—is that God has already forgiven all humanity with a forgiveness that is unconditional and therefore truly free: “Therefore,” invites Peter, “repent and believe this truth—and be baptized by the Spirit with the mind of Jesus—which involves supernatural assurance that we truly are the children of God.”

Repentance must be seen for what it is: a change of mind and heart involving coming to know who Jesus is for us and who we are in him, apart from anything we have done or will yet do. Through this "evangelical repentance," which is God’s gift to us, our minds are “renewed” in Jesus through the Spirit and we turn to him and begin to trust him.

The Holy Spirit moves us to repent because our forgiveness has already been accomplished in Christ, not in order to be forgiven. We repent because we know that, in Jesus, our sins have already been forgiven and that, in Jesus, we already are a new creation. In this repentance, we turn from the alienation within us as the Spirit baptizes our minds in Jesus’ acceptance and in the assurance that comes with it.

With this heart and mind opened to God through the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, we are enabled to respond personally in trust, by which we "receive the gift of the Holy Spirit" (v38b). This does not mean that the Spirit is entering our lives for the first time.  No, Peter says that at Pentecost, the Spirit was poured out on all people (2:16-17). Before our personal response, the Spirit has been with us; operative in our lives. But now we "receive" the Spirit in faith, and we begin to respond to his presence in a new way. The gift, already ours, is now personally received and becomes operative in our lives as believers (followers of Jesus). 

The point of Peter’s message was to declare who Jesus Christ was and to urge everyone listening to turn to Jesus in faith. Peter was not telling people that they could literally “save themselves,” which would be contrary to the gospel; he was telling them that salvation is in Christ and that they should therefore trust him and be baptized into his name, signifying their allegiance and fellowship with him and his followers (the church).

Peter's gospel invitation can thus be summarized as follows:  “Jesus Christ died for you precisely because you are sinful and utterly unworthy of him, and has thereby already made you his own before and apart from your ever believing in him. He has bound you to himself by his love in a way the he will never let you go, for even if you refuse him and damn yourself in hell his love will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour” (Thomas Torrance, The Mediation of Christ, p. 94).

Acts 3:17-21
17 "Now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Christ would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, 20 and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you-- even Jesus. 21 He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.

Here Peter says " that your sins may be wiped out" (v19a). Is this saying that forgiveness of sins is up to us - that if we want to be forgiven, we must first repent? And what does "times of refreshing" mean (v19b)?  

Note in v17, that the issue is what the Jewish people (as distinct from their leaders) did in disowning (v14), then handing Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans (v13). In this way they are bear a responsibility for Jesus being killed (v15). However, Peter notes that they did this in “ignorance” (v17).

What then should they do?  Peter urges them (as he did a similar group in chapter 2) to “repent” – that is, to change their minds. About what?  About who Jesus is. They see him as a heretic and common criminal. But Peter invites them to think again - to see the truth that Jesus truly is their Messiah. Indeed, to change their minds (repent) in this way, is to “turn to God” – to see God and his Messiah according to truth, not according to the lies they have believed.

Of course, a key issue here is what Jesus’ substitutionary life, death and resurrection has accomplished already for them (and, as we know from other scriptures, for all humanity) – the “wiping [blotting]out,” of sin.  But what Jesus achieves is not merely about a clean record – his vicarious life, death, resurrection and ascension brings about “times of refreshing” (v19) – the promised time of the Messiah’s reign for which they dearly long. And here in is the great irony – they reject Jesus because they do not understand that he brings forgiveness and restoration through his suffering and death as a common criminal. Indeed, Jesus is the promised “second Moses” (v22).  And anyone who refuses to listen to him as sent from God will be “cut off” from the people of God—the community within which these benefits, already present, may be personally experienced and enjoyed.

This discourse (and the similar one on Acts 2) should not be read as a linear, cause-and-effect formula (e.g. IF you repent, THEN you will be forgiven, and THEN Jesus can return to restore all things). That formula overlooks the great good news that Jesus has come, has taken on our sinful flesh, has suffered and died and in doing so has wiped the slate clean and through the Spirit now has returned and is, indeed, restoring all things. The invitation from Peter, therefore, is to “repent” – to change one’s wrongheaded thinking about all this (i.e. about Jesus), and embrace the truth and thus enter into the fellowship of those who do believe and thus do not remain cut off from the people of God—the ones who even now are enjoying this Messianic time of refreshing, which one day will come in its fullness in a new heaven and earth.

Acts 5:32
"We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."

Must we obey God before God gives us the Holy Spirit?  The answer is no, as seen in light of the grammar, context and theology of this verse. [Note: the related issue of what it means to "receive" the Holy Spirit is explained above under the comment on Acts 2:36-40.]

First, let’s look at the grammar. Young’s Literal Translation says, “We are His witnesses of these sayings, and the Holy Spirit also, whom God gave to those obeying him.” Rotherham translates it, “unto them who are yielding obedience unto him.” An interlinear translation says, “to the [ones] obeying him.” As these versions indicate, the Greek word is a present-tense participle, and the Greek present tense indicates an ongoing activity, not just a one-time event.

So, God has given (past tense) the Holy Spirit to those who are obeying (present tense) him. What Peter said was this: God at some time in the past gave the Holy Spirit to some people, and those same people are currently obeying him. The obedience may have begun before the Holy Spirit was given, or it may have begun afterwards. The grammar does not attempt to clarify the sequence.

Unfortunately, most translations make Peter’s statement timeless: God gives his Spirit to those who obey him. This is an unclear translation, since it can give the erroneous impression that God does not give his Spirit until the people obey him. That conclusion is not supported by the grammar, because the grammar is not intended to be that specific.

Theologically, the Holy Spirit is given to those who are repentant and have faith (Galatians 3:2Ephesians 1:13). We are saved through faith, not because of works (Romans 3:21-26Ephesians 2:8). We are given the Holy Spirit, the down payment of salvation, by faith, not by works. Abraham was counted as righteous by faith (Galatians 3:6; Romans 4:3, 9).

Faith goes hand in hand with an obedient, submissive spirit. But true obedience—that is, sinlessness—is not ever the actual state of any human being, except Jesus. The Holy Spirit is given to those who obey God in regard to faith in Jesus Christ and in regard to being witnesses of Jesus. This is demonstrated by Acts 5:14 (God was adding people who “believed in the Lord”), 5:28 (the apostles were ordered not to preach “in this name”), 5:29 (the apostles declared they would “obey God rather than men” in this matter of preaching in Jesus’ name), and 5:30-32 (their preaching centered on the fact that “the God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him”). The specific obedience Peter referred to was that of being Jesus’ witnesses, and he was declaring that their witness was corroborated by none other than the Holy Spirit.

Further, if people had to be obedient before the Holy Spirit was given, they would be in the same hopeless situation that the ancient Israelites were in. There was a fault in the people—in their hearts. They needed the Holy Spirit before they could please God. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. God does not demand perfect obedience before he gives the Spirit, nor does he specify certain laws that must be obeyed for a certain probationary period. Likewise, God does not specify some particular percentage or degree of obedience that is “good enough” to get the Spirit. That is because no level of human obedience can make us pure enough to enter God’s presence. What he requires is repentance and faith in Jesus’ perfect sacrifice. The path of godly living then begins to spring from that faith.

Again, the context of Acts 5 shows the requirement of faith. We see in the previous chapter that Peter and John were arrested because they preached about Jesus and the resurrection (Acts 4:2-3). The Sanhedrin ordered them to stop teaching in the name of Jesus, but Peter and John said that they had to obey God rather than men (verses 18-20). They continued preaching about the Lord Jesus (verse 33) and were arrested again and jailed (Acts 5:18). An angel released them and told them to preach “the full message of this new life” (verses 19-20). (And as Paul laid it out in Romans, this new life is a life of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.)

The apostles taught in the temple again, and were brought before the Sanhedrin again (verses 21, 25, 27). The Sanhedrin accused them of disobeying the previous order not to preach (verse 28). Peter responded, “We must obey God rather than men!” (verse 29). The obedience he was referring to was the command from God to preach about Jesus as the promised Messiah and Savior.

The apostles explained to the Sanhedrin that Jesus had been resurrected and exalted, so that he might give repentance and forgiveness (verses 30-31). “We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who [are obeying] him.” Again, the obedience referred to here was the command to preach about Jesus.

The apostles were not talking about the Sabbath and Holy Days, for example – the Sanhedrin already observed those days, but had not been given the Holy Spirit. Instead, the Holy Spirit had been given to the apostles, who were obeying God’s command to preach Christ (the Messiah). They had faith that Jesus is the Christ and the Savior, and it was to those who believed that and were witnesses of the truth, that the Holy Spirit came.

The Sanhedrin, on the other hand, even though they were keeping the letter of the law itself, because they did not have forgiveness of their sins through faith in Jesus, were in the category of those who were not obeying God.

When Peter told people to be baptized in the name of Jesus to receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), he was requiring a public confession of faith in Jesus. Baptism itself was not a magic ritual that gave the Spirit. In Samaria, the Holy Spirit was not given until some days after baptism (Acts 8:14-17). For Paul, the Holy Spirit was mentioned before baptism (Acts 9:17-18) and Cornelius and his group received the Holy Spirit before they were baptized (Acts 10:44-48). In every case, the key to receiving the Spirit was repentance and faith in Jesus.

Faith, accompanied by a repentant attitude, is followed by baptism and obedience. But the Holy Spirit is given to those who have faith—not to those who are merely keeping the letter of the law. Obedience to God follows faith and receiving the Spirit, but the Spirit comes because of faith, not because of law-keeping. (Of course, the belief itself is obedience.)

God gives the Holy Spirit and purifies hearts by faith, not by specific works (Acts 15:8-9). We are justified or set right with God by faith (Acts 13:39; Romans 3:26). It is after we are given the Holy Spirit that we are able to begin obeying God (even then not perfectly) by walking in the Spirit and being led by the Spirit. The Spirit in us brings forth the fruit of obedience.

But we should not forget that our obedience is not what saves us or even purifies us. We are pure in God’s sight only because Jesus’ perfect righteousness is attributed, or imputed, to us upon our repentance and faith in him (Acts 15:9; 1 Corinthians 1:30). On that basis alone are we able to come into the presence of God and proceed on our walk of obedience.

Finally, we must take into account that Peter’s statement is not a contradiction of Paul, who wrote quite plainly: “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness’” (Galatians 3:2-6).