Repentance, Forgiveness, and the Gift of the Spirit

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Brethren, what shall we do?" And Peter said to them, "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, every one whom the Lord our God calls to him." And he testified with many other words and exhorted them, saying, "Save yourselves from this crooked generation." So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Hebrews 4:12 says that "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart." The Word of God is a piercing, two-edged sword that lays open the true condition of the heart! Paul says, "Take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God" (Ephesians 6:17). The reason the Word of God can have such power to lay open the heart is because it the sword of the Spirit. It is not man's sword. It does not merely have man's endorsement, or man's power behind it. The Spirit of God is the Spirit of truth. The true word of God is his Word, and he loves it and honors it and empowers it.

Cut to the Heart by the Sword of the Spirit

So when we read in verse 37 that the people listening to Peter's preaching were "cut [or pierced] to the heart," we shouldn't be surprised. Peter was preaching God's Word—Joel 2, Psalm 16, Psalm 110, Jesus Christ! And not only that, according to verse 4, he was filled with the Holy Spirit as he preached. So the Word of God was not Peter's sword that Pentecost morning. It was the Spirit's sword. And the Spirit chose to do his piercing work in an awesome way, so that 3,000 people were cut to the heart.

When it happened, the people cried out to Peter and the apostles, "What shall we do?" What a wonderful thing it is when, after years of running from God and years of denial and rebellion, a person can no longer resist the Word and the Spirit of God, and simply say, "What must I do? What must I do?"

May the Lord so fill us with his Spirit and with his Word that week after week we hear people say, in one way or another, "What must I do? What must I do?"

What Is the Need That the People Sense?

Before we look at the answer that Peter gives, let's ask what the need is? When the people say, "What must I do?" it's clear that they feel a need. They are saying, "I need something. What must I do to get it?" Peter gives two explicit answers in verse 38 to what they need—what we need.

He says they need forgiveness and they need the gift of the Holy Spirit. "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins [that's need #1]; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit [that's need #2]." Let's take these one at a time and think about them.

The Need for Forgiveness from God

First, there is the need to be forgiven by God.

Relativism Maximizes the Absoluteness of Self

One of the saddest things about the relativism of our day is that it undermines God's forgiveness. Here's what I mean. Relativism constantly minimizes or denies the absoluteness of God. It functions implicitly as if God had no clear and unchanging character—as though there were no divine measure for human character. Relativism does not get along well with biblical statements like, "Be holy for I am holy" (1 Peter 1:16), or, "Be perfect as your father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). So relativism minimizes the absoluteness of God and his will.

But relativism maximizes the absoluteness of self. It says that the way to healing and wholeness is to stop measuring yourself by external standards or expectations, even God's. Instead, without reference to God or his Word, be yourself. Make yourself the measure of what is good and acceptable. Give yourself an unconditional positive self-regard. The only role that God has to play in this relativism is to be the divine endorsement of your own self-affirmation. God functions as a kind of booster for the absoluteness of self. If he presents himself as one with standards or commandments, then he is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

This Relativism Destroys Forgiveness

I say the saddest thing about this relativism is that it undermines the glory of God's grace in forgiveness. It sounds gracious on the surface—to say that God has no law, no standards, no expectations, no commandments, no threats—that he is simply there to affirm me in whatever I happen to be. That sounds like grace and freedom. But there is one massive glitch. It destroys forgiveness.

Where there is no law, no just standard, no legitimate expectation, no normative way of relating to God and man, there can be no forgiveness. Because forgiveness is the letting go of real offenses, real transgressions, real violations, real faults. But if there is no law to transgress, or no standard to offend against, or no expectation to violate, or no commandment to disobey, then there can be no forgiveness. What looked like grace turns out to be the undermining of grace by the undermining of forgiveness.

The Biblical Hope of Forgiveness

So I offer you a biblical hope this morning—not a relativistic one. These people in verse 37 were cut to the heart because they saw that God had made Jesus Lord and Christ, but they had killed him. In other words they were utterly at odds with God. They were living against his will. They were out of step with his character. They were in violation of his Word and his Son. God was one way. They were another way. And they did not have his affirmation. Nor should they have had their own.

What they desperately needed (and what we need), and what God, in amazing grace was ready to give, was forgiveness. They had offended God. They had violated God. They had disobeyed God. And there was only one hope—that God might find a way to be the holy God that he is and yet let it go, and forgive. Which is exactly what he found in the death of his Son.

So I take the words at the end of verse 40 and apply them to all of us this morning with all the urgency that I can: "Be saved from this crooked generation." And the most crooked thing about this generation is that we have created ways of salvation without God and therefore without law and therefore without forgiveness—and therefore utterly without hope.

But I declare this morning on the basis of God's Word that there is a God, there is a holy law, and in the name of Jesus Christ there is forgiveness. That is the first need we have. And God stands ready to meet it.

The Need for the Gift of the Holy Spirit

The second need, Peter says, is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Verse 38: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins [the first need]; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit [the second need]."

What does it mean to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? Is this a promise of being baptized in the Spirit (1:5) or being filled with the Spirit (2:4) or being empowered by the Spirit (1:8; Luke 24:49); or being indwelt by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)? The longer I meditate on those alternatives the less I see reasons in the text to choose between them. My answer would be simply this: If you truly repent and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will be given to you, and will make a difference in your life. From that day on you will have the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9). And nothing is said here in Acts 2:38 to limit the various ways in which he may manifest himself in your life.

All it says is that from the day of your repentance and your identification with Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit will be at work in your life as a gift. From the first day of your faith you can know he is yours because of this promise in Acts 2:38. And from that day on you can begin to seek his extraordinary empowerings (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:8) and fillings (Acts 4:31; Ephesians 3:19) and gifts (Acts 2:17; 1 Corinthians 14:1).

These are the two great needs that we all have. The first is to be forgiven—to have all the violations and offenses and transgressions and disobedience and sins cancelled out. "Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow!" (Isaiah 1:18). And the second need is to have God himself come into our lives where sin once reigned. We need a personal relationship with God through his Spirit. We need wisdom and guidance and love and joy and peace and patience and goodness and self-control. And we need extraordinary power for the task of local and world evangelization. We need the gift of the Holy Spirit.

"What Shall We Do?"

Finally, what is the answer to the question of verse 37: "What shall we do?" What shall we do so that our sins will be forgiven and we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?

Verse 38 gives the answer: "Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ." Let's consider these two things one at a time, first repentance, then baptism in the name of Jesus.


Repentance is not just regret. They had already been cut to the heart (v. 3). And now Peter says, "Repent!" So repentance is more than feeling sorry. It means following through on that conviction and turning around—changing your mind and your heart so that you are no longer at odds with God but in sync with God. Jesus spoke to Paul in Acts 26:18 about this "turning" that leads to forgiveness and gave Paul his commission with these words, "I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins." There it is. That is repentance: turning from darkness to light and from Satan to God. It is a reversal of the direction of your life—toward God.

That is the first answer to the question, "What shall we do?" Repent.

Be Baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ

The second answer in verse 38 is, "Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ."

There is a great mistake we want to avoid at this point. Some groups teach that water baptism is not only a proper act of obedience and an expression of faith, but is also part of the essential means by which God forgives sin. Faith is not enough to gain forgiveness. You must be baptized with water before you can be forgiven. What shall we make of that?

Well, verse 38 certainly could mean that when it says, "Repent, and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins." But it might also mean something like this: "Receive the forgiveness of your sins by repenting and by believing in the name of Jesus Christ, which you signify through baptism." That would mean that the name of Jesus and faith in that name is the essential means of receiving forgiveness, and baptism is the external expression of faith in the name of Jesus.

Faith in the Name of Jesus in the Book of Acts

Now is this really what Luke wants us to understand? I think it is because of the numerous times that he says that faith (not faith plus baptism) is the means of forgiveness. For example:

  • Back in Acts 2:21 Peter quoted Joel with these simple words, "Whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved."
  • Peter concludes his sermon to the Gentiles at Cornelius' house like this: Acts 10:43, "To Jesus all prophets bear witness that every one who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name." (And to confirm what is really essential for receiving forgiveness and the Spirit, the Gentiles received the Spirit before they were baptized. 10:44–45)
  • When Peter tells about this ministry to the Gentiles in Acts 15:9, he says, "God made no distinction between us and them, but cleansed their hearts by faith."
  • In Acts 13:38–39 Paul brings his sermon at Antioch to a conclusion with the same kind of promise that Peter used: "Let it be known to you therefore, brethren, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him every one that believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses."
  • When the earthquake freed Paul and Silas from prison in Acts 16, and Paul refused to run away, the jailer cried out (in verse 31), "'Men, what must I do to be saved?' And they said, Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved."
  • And when Paul summed up his three-year ministry in Ephesus, he said (in Acts 20:20–21), "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable, and teaching you in public and from house to house, testifying both to Jews and to Greeks of repentance to God and of faith in our Lord Jesus Christ."

I conclude from these texts and others as well that the essential means of receiving the forgiveness of sins and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit is the decisive two-sided spiritual act: repentance and belief in the name of Jesus. Baptism, then, is the outward expression of this repentance and faith. Before he left the earth, Jesus commanded us to make disciples by calling for a public act of faith—an open identification with Jesus in his death and burial and resurrection. And so in the New Testament believing in Christ and being baptized are very closely related. This is the New Testament way to follow Christ: repent, believe, and express that in baptism.

God Is Ready to Forgive You and Give You His Spirit

Now let me close by reminding you of the almost unbelievable good news in this text. It shows us that even if you are a murderer of the Son of God (v. 36), God himself stands ready to forgive you! And not only to forgive you but to give you his Spirit! In other words he is willing to cancel all your debts and then come and live with you, and guide you, and change you, and empower you.

And for this you cannot work. It cannot be earned, or bought. It is a free gift to all who repent—who turn from darkness to light—and call on the name of the Lord.