Rethinking Acts 2:38
Dr. Randy White
As a Biblical literalist, I am never satisfied with interpretation that is dismissive with regard to words of Scripture. I firmly—even unwaveringly—hold to the principles of verbal plenary inspiration, that God has given us words, and that words matter. I interpret the Bible literally, I want a translation that is word-for-word (not idea-for-idea), and I want every word taken seriously.
This is rare in itself in today’s church. But, even among those who claim to interpret the Bible as I do, I am amazed at how quickly we settle for something less than our standard when it comes to difficult passages like Acts 2:38.
“Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38, NKJV)
Earlier in Acts 2, after the receiving of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles began the great task of obedience to the Great Commission. Having not received the “utterance from God’s mouth” (Acts 22:14) that would reveal the mystery of the age of grace (in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, but whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved), the Day of Pentecost sermon from Peter on that day was, by necessity, a Jewish message of the coming Kingdom. Peter was rightly convinced that the end-times had arrived. If Paul was right about his mystery being untraceable and unsearchable in previous generations, then Peter made the only conclusion he possibly could have known without further revelation. He did not have any clue about the postponement of the Kingdom and the insertion of a mystery age into the plan of God. Only later, after adopting the mystery of Paul, did Peter give testimony that the great and glorious day of the Lord would be postponed, even to the point that some would call it “slowness.”
So when Peter gave his Jewish Kingdom message in Acts 2, it was one of conviction and even condemnation. He told his fellow countrymen that God attested Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah through miracles, wonders, and signs—all recognized by the Jewish people—yet they put Him to death. Now, however, God has raised Him from the dead, and has set Him at His right hand. The stunning conclusion to Peter’s sermon: “let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:32, NKJV).
That had to be a huge “uh oh” moment for Israel. To recognize “we killed Him, now God has raised Him up, and has set Him at His own right hand” cannot be met with anything other than terror. In fact, “when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” and inquired “what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Peter’s answer to this question has caused controversy for hundreds of years. Did Peter really insist on baptism? Why doesn’t he mention faith? Why is the Holy Spirit promised only to those who are baptized? The questions pile up quickly.
Sadly, the commentaries don’t shed much light for us. Most will give just a few lines of “disexplanation,” trying hard (yet with futility) to show that Peter didn’t mean that one needed to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins, but because of the forgiveness of sins. After writing how Peter didn’t mean what it seems like he meant, the commentary will quickly move on, leaving the reader still grasping for something to explain why Peter said what he said.
Regardless of whether the grammar teaches baptism for, or because of the forgiveness of sins, the fact remains that Peter, in quoting Joel’s future prophecy, has said that, “whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21), but then instructs them with two imperatives: repent and be baptized. And with this he failed to tell them to believe and confess.
It seems to me that we are forced to choose one of the following responses:
- Explain away the stubbornly clear dilemma,
- Teach that Peter was simply wrong,
- Decide that we are wrong in our believe and confess theology, and begin teaching a repent and be baptized theology,
- Try to explain that Peter was only giving part of the message,
- Recognize that Peter is not telling the nation how to be saved in the sense we teach it.
In my estimation, all of the above responses are inadequate except the last. If we will simply recognize that Paul was given a new revelation of a mystery age in which God is “not imputing their trespasses to them,” but receives any who come by grace through faith, then we will realize that Peter was not sharing the kind of gospel we share today. He was not telling Israel how to enter into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Rather, he was offering the Messianic Kingdom, made possible by the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Like John the Baptist before Him, the means of preparation for this Kingdom was “baptism for the repentance of sins” (Mark 1:4).
But you and I live in a world in which the mystery has been revealed. We are in the ”dispensation of the fullness of times” (Ephesians 1:10). In this dispensation, repentance and baptism are not the imperative. Peter’s sermon would not be applicable to my church any more than Moses’ call to obedience to the Law.
When “rightly divided,” the Word makes perfect sense, never contradicts itself, and very precisely expresses the plan and work of God through the dispensations of history.