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Lesson 8: How to Receive God’s Forgiveness (Acts 2:37-38)

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Of all the uncountable lists of human needs, none is greater than the need for God’s forgiveness. Many people erroneously think that their main need is to get more money. But the richest man in the world is truly poor if he does not know God’s forgiveness, and the poorest is rich if he is forgiven.

Others think that their need is pleasure. But as Jesus said in the story of the rich man and Lazarus, those with the most pleasurable life on earth with be miserable for all eternity if they die without God’s forgiveness, but the most miserable beggar here who is forgiven will have eternal pleasure at God’s right hand.

In spite of the fact that God’s forgiveness is our greatest need, I find it rare to have someone ask me, with desperation in his voice, “How can I receive God’s forgiveness?” It is not the burning question in most people’s minds. Only the Holy Spirit can impress on a person his great need to be reconciled to God. But to be effective witnesses, we need to be clear on how to answer a person who needs to know how to receive God’s forgiveness. Some of you may need to answer that question first for yourself.

Peter’s audience on the Day of Pentecost asked him that question at the end of his famous sermon. He had demonstrated to them that Jesus Christ, whom they had crucified, was none other than the Lord and Messiah (2:36). “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?” (2:37). Peter’s answer in verse 38 tells them how to receive God’s forgiveness. His words came to them as the greatest news that they had ever heard. Three thousand of them responded and were saved that day.

However, Peter’s answer also presents Bible interpreters with some difficult theological matters that must be explained. Many in our day want to avoid theology. Some say that emphasizing doctrine leads to fighting and division in the church. They think that theology doesn’t have much practical bearing on life as we live it each week. They think that it is boring and that studying theology will lead a person into dead orthodoxy. They just want “a simple faith in Jesus,” and so they avoid grappling with anything that smacks of theology.

But the fact is, everyone does theology. The question is, How well are you doing it? You cannot study the Bible properly without seeking to understand it as a whole. Scripture does not contradict itself. Thus every text must be interpreted in the light of all other relevant Scriptures. The minute you compare Scripture with Scripture to fit it all together harmoniously, you are doing theology.

Acts 2:38 demands that we think theologically. If we took the verse all by itself, ignoring other Scriptures, we would have to conclude that the answer to the question, “How does a person receive God’s forgiveness?” is, “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” That’s what the verse says. Some denominations teach that a person must be baptized to be saved. But we have to understand this verse in the light of all other verses.

There are many other verses in Acts (not to mention other Scriptures) that say nothing of baptism as a requirement for forgiveness. In the next chapter, Peter exhorts his hearers, “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19). He does not mention baptism. In Acts 5:31, Peter tells the Council that Jesus is the Savior whom God gave “to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins.” Again, no mention of baptism. In Acts 10:43, Peter tells the Gentiles at Cornelius’ house: “Of Him [Christ] all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” Believing in Christ, not baptism is the requirement for forgiveness. In Acts 16, when the Philippian jailer asks Paul what he must do to be saved, Paul answers, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (16:31). Baptism follows belief, but it is not mentioned as a requirement for salvation. In Acts 26:18 & 20, Paul mentions repentance and forgiveness of sins, but not baptism.

So how do we explain Acts 2:38? I think that we must understand the close connection in the minds of the apostles between saving faith and baptism. The idea of an unbaptized Christian is foreign to the apostles because they assumed that every true believer would be an obedient believer. In the Great Commission, Jesus stipulated that baptism is a vital part of making disciples of all the nations (Matt. 28:19). It is basic to observing all that He commanded (Matt. 28:20). So in Acts 2:38, Peter adds baptism as the naturally understood consequence of repentance. But it is not the baptism, but repentance, which brings forgiveness. As I will explain in a moment, repentance and faith in Christ are inseparable. Baptism is the outward sign of inward repentance and faith.

We see the connection between faith and baptism in Acts 8:35-38, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. No sooner had the man believed than he saw water and asked if he could be baptized. The same connection exists in Acts 10:43 & 47. Peter states that the one who believes receives forgiveness of sins. Those who heard him believed, as evidenced by the fact that the Holy Spirit fell upon them at that point. Since they had all believed, Peter immediately brings up the subject of baptism (10:47). We see the same thing in Acts 16, where Paul tells the Philippian jailer that he must believe in the Lord Jesus to be saved, and that this also applies to his household (i.e., if they believe, they will be saved). As soon as they all believed, Paul baptized them (16:33-34).

Also, in Acts 2:38 the gift of the Holy Spirit is connected with repentance and baptism. If you took that verse alone and interpreted it sequentially, you would surmise that a person receives the gift of the Holy Spirit after he has repented and been baptized. But when you go to Acts 10, it is very clear that the order was: they believed and received God’s forgiveness, the Holy Spirit came on them, and then they were baptized (10:43-48). Clearly, the Holy Spirit does not fall on people who are still in their sins. Thus water baptism could not be a necessary condition for forgiveness of sins, as some erroneously conclude from Acts 2:38. Galatians 3:2-5 also makes it clear that we receive the Spirit when we believe, apart from any good works. Thus in Acts 2:38, Peter is not being technical about the sequence of salvation, but rather is viewing repentance and baptism as a package, with baptism being the fruit of repentance. You receive forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit at the point of repentance. Baptism should follow soon after repentance and faith in obedience to Christ as Lord.

It was necessary to do all of that theological thinking to bring you to the main idea, which is:

To receive God’s forgiveness we must repent of our sins and obediently believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, baptism is an initial evidence of obedient, saving faith. Repentance and faith are often linked as the necessary requirements for salvation. Jesus’ preaching is summed up as, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). The apostle Paul summed up his message as “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21). Let’s explore these two crucial concepts:

1. To receive God’s forgiveness we must repent of our sins.

Note four things:

A. Repentance is not optional for salvation.

It seems odd that this point needs to be made, since it is so obvious from Scripture. Yet there is a whole movement (“non-lordship” salvation) among evangelicals that teaches that repentance has nothing to do with salvation. They even accuse those who hold that sinners must repent of adding something to faith alone. They view repentance as necessary for the believer to have fellowship with God, but not as essential to salvation (see Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free [Zondervan], p. 146). They claim to be in line with the Reformation doctrine of sola fide (faith alone; see Hodges, p. 163), although the Reformers would be aghast at their teaching (see John Calvin, Institutes, 3:14:1, 7; and 3:2:8-13).

If repentance is not necessary for salvation, Peter really blew his opportunity to make the gospel clear to these works-oriented Jews! He could have said, “You don’t have to do anything! Just believe in Jesus and you will be saved.” But instead, he said, “Repent and be baptized.” Not only did Peter blow it; Jesus also blew it. He preached, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He told unbelieving audiences that if they did not repent, they would perish (Luke 13:3, 5). He commissioned His disciples to proclaim repentance for forgiveness of sins in His name to all the nations (Luke 24:47). Clearly, repentance isn’t optional or extraneous to salvation. It is at the very core of what it means to be saved. We need to be clear, then, on what it means.

B. Repentance means turning from a life of sin to Jesus as Savior and Lord.

John Calvin defines repentance as “the true turning of our life to God, a turning that arises from a pure and earnest fear of him; and it consists in the mortification of our flesh and of the old man, and in the vivification of the Spirit (Institutes, 3:3:5). This is something that God grants at the moment of salvation, but the believer must also practice it throughout his entire Christian life (3:3:6-9).

Louis Berkhof (Systematic Theology [Eerdmans], p. 486) says that conversion comprises both repentance and faith. Repentance is directly connected with sanctification, while faith is closely, though not exclusively, related to justification. He defines repentance as “that change wrought in the conscious life of the sinner, by which he turns away from sin.”

He points out that repentance has three elements: (1) An intellectual element, which is a change of view regarding personal guilt, defilement, and helplessness. (2) An emotional element, a change of feeling in which one feels “sorrow for sin committed against a holy and just God.” And, (3) A volitional element, “consisting in a change of purpose, an inward turning away from sin, and a disposition to seek pardon and cleansing.”

Charles Spurgeon said, “I do not believe in the faith that is unaccompanied by repentance…. Repentance and faith are twins; they are born together and they will live together, and as long as a Christian is in this world, both will be needed” (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Ages Software], vol. 54, “Heart-piercing,” Acts 2:37).

I have often said that repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Repentance looks at the aspect of turning from my sins. Faith is the hand that receives God’s free gift of eternal life. The thought that a person could knowingly hang onto his sins with one hand while he receives the gift of salvation from a holy God with the other is inconceivable!

Dr. Charles Ryrie defines repentance as changing one’s mind about Jesus Christ, not turning from one’s sin. In other words, he accepts the intellectual aspect of repentance, but he rejects the emotional and volitional aspects as necessary for salvation. He argues that to make turning from sin a condition for the gospel is to add works to faith (So Great Salvation [Victor Books], pp. 98-99).

But I think that his definition does not square with Scripture, where repentance “indicates a change of direction in a person’s life rather than simply a mental change of attitude or a feeling of remorse; it signifies a turning away from a sinful and godless way of life” (I. Howard Marshall, Acts [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 80). Also, Ryrie fails to see that both repentance and faith are God’s gifts (Acts 5:31; 11:18; Phil. 1:29; Eph. 2:8-9), which He imparts to the sinner at the moment of salvation. No sinner has the capacity in himself to repent and believe. The Bible says that we were dead in our transgressions and sin (Eph. 2:1-3). We were incapable of seeking God (Rom. 3:10-18), and unable to submit to God or to please God (Rom. 8:7-8). We were blinded by Satan so that we could not understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14) or the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4). Thus repentance and saving faith are not human works; they are God’s gracious gift. Repentance focuses on turning to God from sin (seen in 1 Thess. 1:9).

C. Repentance requires seeing who Jesus is.

Since repentance is God-ward, a sinner needs some idea of who God is, especially as manifested to us in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter has just spelled out who Jesus is in his sermon, showing how He fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah. He conclusion is, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ—this Jesus whom you crucified” (2:36). In his sermon in chapter 3, Peter makes it known that Jesus is “the Holy and Righteous One” (3:14), “the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead” (3:15). His conclusion in both cases was, “Repent” (2:38; 3:19). When God opened their eyes to see that they had crucified none other than “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8), it should drive them to repentance. To be saved, a person must realize that Jesus is nothing less than the Lord God who demands to be obeyed.

D. Repentance requires being convicted of how terrible our sins are in God’s sight.

Only the Holy Spirit can penetrate the hardness of the fallen human heart and bring true conviction of sin (John 16:8-11). It was the Spirit who pierced Peter’s hearers to the heart, so that in despair they cried out, “What shall we do?” Apart from God, sinners can take a moral inventory of their lives and decide to make some changes. But only God can pierce the heart and institute change from the inside out by imparting new life and a new heart.

Until there is conviction of sin, a person feels no need for a Savior. What is there to be saved from? Before the Holy Spirit brings conviction, the sinner thinks, “I’m a pretty decent person. I live a good moral life.” He compares himself with murderers, rapists, child molesters, and the like, and thinks that things must be okay between him and God. But when the Holy Spirit begins to convict the person about sin, righteousness, and judgment, he begins to see that God will judge not only outward actions, but also every evil thought and every careless word (Matt. 5:27-30; 12:36; 15:18-20). And He judges everyone, not based on a curve of human goodness, but by the perfection of His own holiness (Matt. 5:48). Through God’s Word, the sinner learns that his sin put the sinless Son of God on the cross.

When God reveals such things through His Spirit and His Word, sinners see their desperate situation and cry out, “What must I do? How can I receive God’s forgiveness?” The first answer is, “Repent. Turn from your sin to God.” The flip side is,

2. To receive God’s forgiveness, we must obediently believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

The entire lordship salvation debate really boils down to the question, “What is saving faith?” Those who hold to non-lordship salvation say that faith is a one-time decision for Christ or assent to the truth of the gospel. It hopefully will result in a life of obedience, but it does not necessarily do so. But Scripture teaches that:

A. Saving faith is always obedient faith.

Salvation is a free gift, received by faith alone. But the faith that receives salvation implies a total commitment of the sinner to the person of Jesus Christ. He relies completely on Christ alone to save him. Good works are the evidence of saving faith, as James 2:14-26 argues. We are saved by grace through faith apart from works, but the faith that saves always changes the heart (2 Cor. 5:17) and imparts the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38; Rom. 8:9), causing the believer to pursue good works (Eph. 2:8-10). “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments” (1 John 2:3).

While it is the believer’s responsibility to walk in the Spirit, and while all believers struggle against sin and sometimes fall into it, the general direction of a believer’s life will be to please the Lord (Eph. 5:6-10). If a person claims to be saved, but lives in persistent disobedience to God, he needs to examine himself as to whether he is in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him” (John 3:36, emphasis added; see also Acts 6:7; Rom. 1:5; 2:8; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:8; 2:12; 1 Pet. 1:2).

B. Baptism is a basic step of obedient faith in Jesus Christ.

Peter’s audience had heard the preaching of John the Baptist and knew that baptism is a public confession of repentance. It was not easy for this crowd of religious Jews to submit to baptism, because they thought that it was only for Gentiles and notorious sinners. By exhorting his audience to be baptized in the name of Jesus, Peter was calling them to identify with the one who had just been publicly scorned and crucified by the religious leaders. He was not contradicting Jesus’ directive about being baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19). Rather, he was calling them to make a radical break from their religious leaders and to identify themselves publicly as followers of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is an outward act that pictures what God has done inwardly. To think that performing an outward act of going under the water could accomplish the inward cleansing from sin that was needed would have gone against everything that Jesus and John had preached. Even though the person who was baptized might be shunned or even persecuted by family and friends, he must obey Jesus Christ as Lord by being baptized. A person may be untaught regarding baptism (Acts 19:3-5); but once he is properly instructed, he will want to be baptized as a public confession of his faith in Jesus Christ, no matter what the cost.

C. Saving faith and baptism are an individual matter.

Peter exhorts his audience, “Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38, emphasis added). It was not a group plan. It never is. If you have not personally repented of your sin before God and trusted in Jesus as Savior and Lord, obediently following His command to be baptized, that is your greatest need right now.

By the way, there is simply no command or example in Scripture of baptizing infants. The order in Acts is always, first repentance and faith, then baptism. (See my sermon, “Why We Do Not Baptize Infants” [available on church web site, 9/8/96] for further treatment of this subject.) Each person must believe in Christ as Savior and obey Him by being baptized.


In his excellent book, Faith Works (Word, p. 204), John MacArthur states, “Salvation is absolutely free. So is joining the army. You don’t have to buy your way in. Everything you need is provided. But there is a sense in which following Christ—like joining the army—will cost you dearly. It can cost freedom, family, friends, autonomy, and possibly even your life. The job of the evangelist—like that of the army recruiter—is to tell potential inductees the full story.”

Charles Spurgeon wrote, “If the professed convert distinctly and deliberately declares that he knows the Lord’s will, but does not mean to attend to it, you are not to pamper his presumptions, but it is your duty to assure him that he is not saved” (The Soul Winner [Eerdmans], p. 38).

Have you repented of your sins and trusted in Christ alone for salvation? If you have, you will still be repenting of your sins and trusting in Christ, following Him as Lord. Have you confessed your repentance and faith through baptism? If so, then you can know that God has met your greatest need by forgiving all your sins.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you answer a person who used Acts 2:38 to argue that baptism is essential for salvation?
  2. Why is calling sinners to repent not adding works to salvation by grace through faith alone?
  3. Does persistent disobedience necessarily mean that a person is not saved? How would you counsel such a person?
  4. Biblically, does assurance of salvation depend on the believer’s obedience? Are there other biblical means of assurance?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Forgiveness, Hamartiology (Sin), Soteriology (Salvation)

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