Conversion


Acts 2:36-41

Text Comment



v.38

A troublesome introduction of baptism for Protestant Christians. Seeing that baptism does not save someone, why muddy the waters so early on? We don’t deny, of course, that baptism does not have the same place in salvation as faith and repentance (cf. 3:19 where it is omitted; so 16:31); and one can be baptized and remain unsaved, which is not true of one who has living faith. The close connection between reality and sign is a feature of Biblical revelation and of the Great Commission which is being fulfilled here. Time to ponder that! Our spiritual culture is deficient here, is it not?


v.39

"and for your children." The NIV, by omitting the second of the three "ands" weakens the place of the children in the list — they go with the believers and the "yet to be" believers. That is the sense of "call." Not those who hear the gospel, but those, like these, who are sovereignly summoned to salvation by the Spirit of God. Not the call of "many are called but few are chosen," but the "call" of Romans 1:6: "you are among those called to belong to Jesus Christ." Fact is, this is exactly the statement we would expect to be made given the revelation of the covenant of grace to this point in Holy Scripture. The idea that the children will not be embraced by that covenant any more is, frankly, preposterous.


v.40

Peter, as all revival preachers, did not hesitate to warn of the wrath to come, and he warned them in a way consistent with that message: urgently, insistently.


We have before us in these verses the first conversion narrative in Acts. There will be many more, of course, both of individuals and groups such as here.


Now, the first thing we might say about this extraordinary response to Peter’s sermon is that it was clearly the effect, the achievement of divine grace. We see men believing and repenting: asking what they should do, and upon hearing, doing it: turning to Christ, but Luke assumes we understand where this turning has come from. It is the Lord calling (v. 39) and it is the Lord adding to his church (v. 47), and, so, it is the Lord cutting hearts to the quick (v. 37) just as it will later be the Lord opening Lydia’s heart to respond to Paul’s message, etc.


This divine initiative is, of course, a great part of the meaning of Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit, empowering the gospel in the witness of the church. But it is also beautifully illustrated in the history itself.


Every preacher, at one time or another, wonders what sort of sermon it must have been that had power to convert 3,000 people at the same time. Richard Cecil the Great Awakening preacher, the friend of Whitefield, John Newton, and the Wesleys, once wrote:


I once said to myself, in the foolishness of my heart: ‘What sort of sermon must that have been which was preached by Peter when three thousand souls were converted at once?’ What sort of sermon? Such as other sermons. There is nothing to be found in it extraordinary. The effect was not produced by eloquence, but by the mighty power of God present with the Word.


Or, listen to Alexander Whyte on the preaching of John Wesley. He is addressing the seminarians at the New College.


To begin with, and strange as it may sound to some, there was little or nothing that could be called popular either in the matter or in the manner of Wesley’s preaching. There was little or no imaginative power in this preaching, there was little or no dramatic power, there was little or no power of illustration, there was next to nothing of those wonderful pulpit qualities that made Whitefield’s contemporaneous preaching so commanding. The run of Wesley’s sermons, it may be said, were far more fitted, as one would think, for a congregation of Christian people, for their establishment in the faith, for their advanced edification, and for their spiritual comfort, than for the outcast classes to which they were mostly preached. And how such preaching took such a hold of those classes will be a mystery to you as you read his Journal and his sermons. If you take Wesley’s famous sermon which he preached, first at St. Mary’s, Oxford, before the University, and so often repeated in very different places, and compare it with Spurgeon’s sermon on the same text, you will at once admit that the Tabernacle sermon has all the elements of popular power that Wesley’s sermon was almost wholly without. There is a surge and a sweep of passion in Spurgeon that has no parallel in Wesley. There is a thrill of pathos in every sermon of Spurgeon’s that you seldom or never meet with in Wesley. Every preacher has his own talents. And where clear statement and close reasoning are the great features of Wesley’s sermons, an all-compelling eloquence carries you captive in Spurgeon’s. Wesley is not without real eloquence, and Spurgeon is not without real logic. But while logic rules in Wesley, Spurgeon is pulpit compassion all compact. After reading both those sermons again and again, I repeat that Wesley’s Oxford sermon is not to be compared with Spurgeon’s London sermon. There is a richness, a fullness, a fascination, and a heart-winningness about Spurgeon that Wesley, to my mind, never came near. Why, then, you will ask, Wesley’s unparalleled success? That, gentlemen, is your problem as young preachers; a problem which you are, with all your might and before you are much older, to work out for yourselves. Only, take this key and try the lock with it: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord. And this: Paul may plant and Apollos water, but it is God who gives the increase.


Jonathan Edwards preached "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" in his own congregation to no special effect. He preached the same sermon sometime later in Enfield, Connecticut and people shrieked and held on to the pillars for fear of slipping off into hell. That is what God can make his Word do, no matter the preacher, no matter the sermon. Fact is, Peter preached many sermons like this one with much less visible effect. Humanly speaking, of course, there is that in this sermon likely to increase its effect: Peter’s boldness and conviction must certainly have been powerful. As Spurgeon once put it in a more general way: "Perhaps the most difficult thing in soul winning is to get ourselves into a fit state…the careless will be unmoved by any man who is unmoved himself." [Spurgeon v. Hypercalvinism, p. 95 n.1]


But, now, I want to consider the matter of conversion, this change of heart and life that is illustrated here in the response to Peter’s sermons. Not everything about conversion, of course, but some of the features of it that are prominent here.





  1. The first feature of conversion demonstrated in this history is the priority of faith.


You might not think so. We are accustomed to thinking that repentance comes first, that conviction comes before faith, but it is not so and it is not so here. Faith is the primary grace from which all other graces, including repentance, flow upward and outward into the life. Our Reformed Theology has always stressed this and you can see that stress in our Shorter Catechism that places the question "What is faith in Jesus Christ?" before the question "What is repentance unto life?"


But you can see the priority of faith here clearly enough.




  1. First, you see it is the nature of the argument that Peter uses to win them to Christ. It is an argument not about what ought to be but about what is. Before there can be any response to the imperative, there must be an embracing of the indicative. Before anyone can reckon with what the facts about Jesus Christ mean for his or her relationship to God, one must first know those facts and believe them to be true, and believe Christ to be the one he is declared to be in the Gospel. This must come first and it is precisely, therefore, the approach Peter takes. He seeks in his sermon to establish by argument what is true! Christ is the Messiah, you killed the Messiah, God has exalted him to the Right Hand, these miracles you have witnessed are proof that he sent the Holy Spirit, etc. It is when they accept the force of that argument, it is when they believe that Peter has spoken the truth to them, that the consequences begin to fall like dominoes in their minds and hearts.

    This point is made explicitly in v. 41 when the entire affair is summed up in the phrase "those who accepted his message." That is what those folk did who cried out having been cut to the heart, and, in response to the news about Christ, repented of their wicked ways. It is all just another way of saying "they accepted his message."


  2. But, second, the priority of faith is seen in even more than that. While this point is not made here, it is illustrated here, as it is so often in both the Bible and Christian history. No one can repent who does not first believe. No one can turn from sin who does not believe himself to have somewhere to turn, someone to turn to. Faith alone makes repentance possible; faith alone makes even conviction of sin genuinely possible.


As Alexander Moody Stuart put it, "We can never face saying ‘I am lost,’ till we say, ‘The Son of Man came to seek and save that which was lost.’"


There is abroad among Christians, I think, the idea that there are lots of people in the world living under the burden of conviction of sin and the knowledge of their guilt, wondering where they might find relief. Then the gospel comes to them to show them what they have always been looking for. Well, I don’t say that people are not often miserable because of their sins. Certainly they are. But I doubt that very many, if any of them, are miserable because of a true sense of their sin and of their guilt and of a desire, they cannot find a way to fulfill, to be rid of their guilt and to be pure and holy before God. No, that conviction, that burden, that problem the Gospel brings with its message of deliverance.


These folk to whom Peter preached had not spent the night before on their knees in an agony of unresolved guilt and the bondage of sin. They began that Sunday in indifference and spiritual confidence — it was the truth about Christ and what they had done to him that brought them to their knees before God, and that truth had been brought home to them by the message about Jesus Christ, not by the message about their sin. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it in The Screwtape Letters (No. xxiii):


The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the resurrection) and a single historical doctrine (the redemption) operating on a sense of sin they already had…against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law.


That is, they had a theoretical knowledge of sin, but no living conviction until they knew of Christ.


The Puritans used to regard the standard path to conversion to lead through a period of intense conviction and spiritual agony as guilt became clear to the conscience and only thereafter could relief be found in the Gospel. First, the NT itself never gives us that pattern in any exemplary form unless it is in the case of the Apostle Paul (Romans 7:9-11; and Acts 26:14, "It is hard for you to kick against the goads.") But, then, what was at work in Paul’s mind and heart in those days? Was it already the gospel; how and when, in other words, did the commandment come to Paul? In the Puritan exposition of conversion, of course, most of their examples, including themselves in many cases, were working on a knowledge of God and of Christ they already had (or, later, Newton working with his mother’s instruction when he was a child).


In any case, ordinarily, there is no conviction, true, genuine conviction without first faith — it may be still unformed faith, but without certain beliefs already in place, conviction is meaningless: conviction of what, fear of whom, hope of what?


One of many applications: Our task is not to break someone’s heart, our task is to tell them what is true and to make that truth plausible with our lives. If they are persuaded that Christ died for sinners, that they are sinners, that he offers eternal life to those who trust in him, the rest will come in due course. If they are not persuaded of that, the most powerful experiences of sorrow for the mess of their lives is proof of nothing. "You are my witnesses." This is why the Puritans were right in their stress on the gospel as first a message to the mind, an appeal to the intellect before it was a cordial to the heart. And that is something that needs to be reasserted today in our age when "feelings are everything." Lots of people are miserable who have not repented of sin; lots are rejoicing who have not joined themselves to Christ for salvation. Only those feelings that flow from the gospel’s facts and are responses directly and consistently to those facts are true and genuine feelings. All others are simply powerful distractions.




  1. But, the second thing to be said about conversion in this picture of it here in Acts 2 is the place given, the prominence give to repentance in conversion.



v.37

"they were cut to the heart" a strong expression signifying both brokenheartedness for what they had done in killing the Prince of Life and fear for what God will do to them for what they did. In other words, the facts as Peter had presented them, came with a sting!


v.37

"brothers, what shall we do?" A note of desperation: "We have to do something, what must we do?" Exactly what is so often lacking among the sorrowful, the miserable on account of sin — the desperate willingness to do even what might otherwise be unthinkable.


And, then, the implications of v. 38 — a complete turning from all that they had been a part of as Jews in their generation, a repudiation of the entire principle of Pharisaic Judaism and of the cultural Judaism of the first century, an alignment with the hated Jesus in the teeth of the fury of the Jewish culture once that alignment became known. All of this they were willing to do — all of which is what the Bible calls repentance.


You know the words used in the Bible mean "turning" and "change of mind." But as they are used, they refer to a turning and a change so fundamental, so substantial that it can be described as a "new birth," a "new creation," or, as Thomas Goodwin wrote of conversion, "the total change of a man’s chief end."

So it involves, true repentance does, not only a turning away from sin but a turning to God and to the life of obedience to him. As our catechism beautifully and accurately has it:


Repentance unto life is a saving grace, whereby a sinner, out of a true sense of his sin and apprehension of the mercy of God in Christ, doth, with grief and hatred of his sin, turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavor after new obedience.


Now, in the Bible’s paradigm conversions: these folk here or Zaccheus, repentance is sudden, powerful, and comprehensive. The Bible’s point in showing us such conversion is not to teach us that true conversion always happens in this dramatic way (a mistake some Puritans came close to making), but that true conversion will always reveal itself in genuine repentance. There will be no true belief that does not issue in fundamental change. And that is true even when conversion is much less convulsive an experience (covenant children, but also many adult converts: Caesar Malan: "God awoke me as a mother wakens a child with a kiss.").


This is the so worrying feature of our Christianity today in America, and so often in the past, the widespread notion that we can carry our sins with us into the kingdom of God, that a person can have faith who had no true repentance. It is not so. Faith without works is dead and chief among all the works of the Christian life, because first in order and in principle lying beneath all other Christian works, is repentance.


Here is why multitudes of those who are miserable on account of their sin will not really believe the gospel — because by a true instinct they understand that to believe requires that they repent and miserable as their sins have made them, they love them still, they are their sins, they are, they think, the proof of their independence from God, of their freedom and their liberty, and rebels prize their freedom from God much more than their happiness.


If there had anywhere appeared in space
Another place of refuge, where to flee,
Our hearts had taken refuge in that place,
And not with Thee.
For we against creation’s bars had beat
Like prisoned eagles, through great worlds had sought
Though but a foot of ground to plant out feet,
Where Thou wert not.
And only when we found in earth and air,
In heaven or hell, that such might nowhere be —
That we could not flee from Thee anywhere,
We fled to Thee.


That is what Peter’s message by the power of the Spirit did for them. It left them nothing to do but believe and, once they had believed, the rest — the broken heart, the terrified conscience, the willingness to forsake family and country, the readiness to obey any and all of the Lord’s commandments, all of this inexorably followed.


That is what conversion is — faith producing repentance; belief in Christ and the gospel producing the profoundest changes in conviction and in behavior. Nothing less than this. And our task remains always two-fold: to be sure that such is true in our own case — true faith producing true, real, genuine, powerful, comprehensive repentance, come wind, come weather — and to make this and nothing else our message and our approach and our invitation to the world.


"Repent and be baptized every one of you," Peter said, and your sins shall be forgiven. John Bunyan imagines a man in that great congregation standing up and saying, "But I helped to hound him to the cross!" "Repent and be baptized every one of you," Peter would reply. Another would cry out, "But I drove the nails into his hands!" "Repent and be baptized everyone of you. "But I pierced his side!" "Repent and be baptized everyone of you. "But I put my tongue in my cheek and stared at his nakedness and said, ‘If he be the Son of God, let him come down from the cross.’ "Every one of you." [In Spurgeon v. Hypercalvinism, pp. 75-76]


Yes, repent. Anyone and everyone no matter what you have done. Repent — and you will repent if you really believe. And you must repent — turn, change, forsake, and go a new way. Otherwise it is clear you really didn’t accept the message at all.