Acts 2:38 Briefly Examined

Guy N. Woods

Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost (Acts 2:37-38).

Here, for the first time, under the Christian dispensation, did men inquire of their duty; and here, too, is the first time the question is answered as it applies to the reign of Christ. Whatever may have been the correct answer applicable under former dispensations, it is indisputably certain that Peter gave the only answer applicable to his day and ours.

Circumstances combine to make this passage truly significant. Peter, the speaker, along with the other apostles, had been invested with “the keys of the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19). The prophets had foretold that “the word of the Lord” should “go forth from Jerusalem” (Isa. 2:2-3). They, too, had designated that this would occur in “the last days.” All prophetic utterances touching the establishment of the kingdom pointed to this day, and here culminated the events that were to result in the first promulgation of the gospel of Christ. If there were no other reasons, this is sufficient to invest this passage with profound significance.

It is obvious that the Pentecostians were asking what to do in order to obtain remission of sins. This, at least, was Peter’s impression of the matter, a conclusion we may arrive at by combining the question asked with the reward promised—viz., “Men and brethren, what shall we do…for the remission of sins?” Peter’s answer was designed to supply this information. Thus, if we regard Peter’s reply simply as the answer to this query, we learn that they were commanded to do two things “for the remission of sins”: (1) Repent; (2) be baptized. (It should be noted that those who propounded the query were already believers).

If Peter had stopped with this and said no more, his answer would have been complete and the world would know that it is the duty of sinners “pricked in their heart” to repent and be baptized “for the remission of sins.” But the inspired speaker saw fit to accompany the commands with an explanation. He qualified the command to be baptized with the words, “in the name of Jesus Christ” to show that it is by Christ’s authority that men are to be baptized. “In the name of Jesus Christ” simply means by “the authority of Christ,” since one can act in Christ’s name only when authorized to do so. Thus, Peter’s answer involved the following: (1) Repent; (2) be baptized on the authority of Jesus Christ Himself.

Christ, therefore, through Peter, authorizes believers to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins. This conclusion may be arrived at in another way: Strike out that portion of the passage which has been the occasion of so much controversy—“for the remission of sins.” this done, Peter’s answer to the question, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” is simply this: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.” Thus, the conclusion is the same, whether we regard Peter’s answer as a duty expressed without regard to the consequences which followed, or whether it be taken (as Peter did) as the answer to the question of what one must do to obtain remission of sins.

From these considerations, it is certain that, as far as our duty or salvation is concerned, Peter’s words in this passage definitely establish the essentiality of both repentance and baptism to the end proposed—the remission of sins. It is scarcely necessary to point that repentance alone is not for remission of sins, nor is baptism when unattended by faith and repentance.

Peter did not say, “Repent for the remission of sins”; neither did he say, “Be baptized for the remission of sins.” Repentance and baptism in this passage are, accordingly, joined and, therefore, equally related to their object: remission of sins. This fact is conceded by all scholars.

Said Dr. Alexander (Presbyterian): “The whole phrase ‘to (or toward) remission of sins’ describes this as the end to which the multitude had reference, and which, therefore, must be contemplated in the answer. The beneficent end to which all this led was for the remission of sins.”

To the same point, Dr. Hackett (Baptist) says, “’In order to the forgiveness of sins’ we connect naturally with both preceding verbs. This clause states the motive or object which should induce them to repent and be baptized. It enforces the entire exhortation, not one part of it to the exclusion of the other.”

Denominational debaters, however, contend that baptism does not stand in the same relation to remission of sins as does repentance. While conceding that repentance, in this passage, has as its object “the remission of sins” they, nevertheless, insist that baptism is “because of” remission. To this conclusion, there are at least two unsuperable objections.

1. Whatever the design of baptism is in this passage, repentance bears the same end or aim. If baptism be “because of” remission, then so is repentance. To command me to repent “because of” remission is absurd, since it is universally granted that repentance is a condition precedent to remission. But let it be admitted that repentance is for (in order to) the remission of sins, and no amount of illogical juggling of words will hide the fact that baptism is for the same purpose and in exactly the same sense.

2. Moreover, the denominational theory contradicts an obvious fact in the case. The Pentecostians were asking what to do to be saved, not something to do because they were already saved. The conclusion is irresistable. Peter, in response to the query there raised, made repentance and baptism conditions precedent to the remission of sins.

So skilfully did Peter interweave the answer to the query that it is beyond the cavils of men to so arrange the passage or pervert it to make it mean other than that originally intended.

To illustrate, draw a pencil line through the controverted statement, “for the remission of sins.” We then have this statement: “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ.” Why did Peter utter these words? Obviously, in answer to the question, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?” Do for what? Surely, to escape the consequences for their act 53 days before. How did Peter answer them? “Repent and be baptized every one of you.” Thus, whether Peter’s answer be contemplated as a solution for the grave difficulty in which the Pentecostians found themselves, or simply as an answer to the question, “What must we do to obtain remission of sins?, the answer is the same: “Repent and be baptized.”

They were not told to repent for one purpose and be baptized for another. Repentance and baptism in this passage stand precisely in the same relationship. They are different acts, but in this sentence their object is the same—remission of sins.

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Author: Editor

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