Is Repentance Moral Reform? Acts 2:38
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.”Acts 2:38
The question I want us to focus on is, Does “to repent” in Acts 2:38 mean moral reform or something else? I have heard it taught as moral reform or as simply a turning to God. However, there are some problems with both interpretations. First, it would seem unlikely that the Apostle Peter would tell devout Jews that they needed to reform morally or turn to God. In the context of Acts 2:38, repentance or turning would seem to mean turning to Christ or to believing on Christ. In essence, Peter was telling his audience simply to believe in Jesus. This would echo the words of Jesus to His disciples in John 14:1, “You believe in God believe also in me.”
However, the text seems to indicate that a necessary part of this turning to God includes baptism or what we might call a bodily and public expression of this turning or repentance. Baptism then would be viewed as the initiation act that puts a person into Christ where His blood cleanses from sin and where one receives the gift of the Holy Spirit (Rom 6:1-3, Gal 3:26,27).
It is also important to note that Peter’s statement is a commandment not a request. Man left God by breaking a commandment, and he must returns by keeping a commandment. Therefore, he is commanded to believe on Jesus or believe the gospel (1 Thess. 1:8). Adam’s sin began in his heart and was consummated in his outward disobedience. In like manner, man returns to God by believing and acting out his faith in baptism and a life that bears the fruit of repentance (Acts 26:20). This is why Paul uses faith and baptism as synonymous. “For ye are all sons of God, through faith, in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ (Gal 3:26-27 ASV).
We can summarize the teaching of Acts 2:38 by saying that God commands two things: faith in Christ and baptism into Christ. These two acts constitute turning toward God (Acts 3:19). To those who turn to God by belief and baptism, God promises two things: the remission of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
It would be fair to ask the question, Does faith and baptism in themselves remit sin? Absolutely not; nothing but the free action of a forgiving God can do that. Faith-baptism simply puts a person into Christ where one has access to the blood of Christ and the forgiveness of sins, both of which are in Christ (Eph 1:7, Rom 6:3).