Acts 2:36-41

We read these verses last time, but devoted our attention to the burden of Peter’s sermon. Today I want to consider that sermon’s effect. We are going to be treated throughout the Book of Acts to a number of accounts of people becoming followers of Jesus who were not before. It is a narrative of what Christians typically call “conversion,” a word that simply means “change,” but in Christian usage refers to a very particular kind of change: that from unbelief to faith. The 3,000 on the Day of Pentecost, in this sense, were converts, people who had been changed or converted. The passive sense of the words emphasizes the fact that these people were changed; they didn’t change themselves. God changed them. And here we have the first illustration of such conversions, of which there would be a great many more. Indeed, I suppose, not a day goes by in this world in which there are not many such conversions, sometimes even, as we heard last Lord’s Day evening, in Saudi Arabia, Muslims converting to Christianity.

Text Comment

v.38     Peter’s reference to “baptism” as a necessary point of entry for the Christian faith can easily trouble us. There are people who have been baptized, many of them, who have no real faith in Jesus, who are not living as Christians, and whose baptism will not save them. That much is clear in the Bible. So why mention baptism? Interestingly, it isn’t usually mentioned elsewhere in Acts when people are told what they must do to be saved (3:19; 16:31). There they are told only to repent or to believe in Jesus. But the close connection between the divine gifts and the sign of those gifts is simply a fact of biblical revelation. So we also read in the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel of Matthew that the church’s work is both to make disciples and to baptize them. And so, for example, Paul, recalling his own conversion in Acts 22:16, says that Ananias had said to him, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on [Jesus’] name.”

v.39     Notice the three-fold repetition of “for.” Their children – that is the children of believers – are a class of those to whom the promise is made and who will be called, together with those who repent and believe and those who are going to repent and believe at some later date. That is the sense of “call” here: the sovereign summons of the Spirit of God. This is not the “call” of “many are called but few are chosen,” merely an outward summons to believe. This is the call of Romans 1:6: “you are among those called to belong to Jesus Christ.” From the beginning the children of believers are, as a class, always the objects of God’s saving love.

v.40     Like all good gospel preachers ever since, Peter offered both the carrot and the stick. He offered them in Christ the forgiveness of their sins, but he warned them of the consequence should they refuse to repent and believe. Hence his “save yourselves.” They were sailing on a sinking ship!

Now, Peter’s sermon and the response of the people who heard it, especially the three thousand who believed, is in some respects very typical and in others not so much. For example, Peter’s argument was made to an audience with whose view of the world he shared a great deal. They all believed the Bible to be the Word of God. They all believed there was but one God, the Maker of heaven and earth. They all believed that God had promised to send a Messiah to Israel. Hence Peter’s biblical argument in his sermon.  To another audience, say the philosophers in Athens, who had no background in the Word of God, who believed in the existence of many gods, and who had never heard of a Messiah, Paul would make a very different argument. He wouldn’t quote the prophecy of Joel, because those men wouldn’t have known who Joel was or what he said. Likewise he wouldn’t refer to the prophecies of King David or to the Jewish expectation of the Messiah, as Peter did here.

Nowadays, for example, a Christian preacher might find himself before a group of people who fancy themselves atheists or agnostics who have been taught to believe that religious faith is unscientific, even irrational, or people who, in any case, are much less sure of the existence of God than were the people who formed Peter’s audience on the day of Pentecost. To them he wouldn’t necessarily point out that the Bible says this or that, for they are not disposed to credit the Bible as the Word of God. In fact, they might take his recourse to the Bible to prove that he had no evidence for our faith. He can’t argue for it so he had to resort to some imagined authority. Accordingly the preacher might begin in a very different way, as Paul did when speaking to the philosophers in Athens. He might, for example, point out that their understanding of the Christian view of God is completely incorrect. Their starting point is fundamentally unsound. They imagine God as simply one more thing that exists in the universe, like human beings, other animals, and black holes. By thinking that way they make it too easy for themselves to think that to believe in God is something like believing in Sasquatch or the Loch Ness monster. So they can claim that we have to prove that such a thing exists and demand that we show them a fossilized footprint or a skeleton and, of course, we can’t provide that sort of evidence for the existence of God.

But that isn’t at all the way to think about this question. The Christian view of God is not that he is simply another object that exists in the universe. Quite the contrary. He is the one who made the universe; he stands above it and apart from it. He is not a part of his creation; he is the creator. And, what is more, because the universe is God’s creation, it has a certain character. One who denies the existence of God also inevitably holds and must hold that the universe has a very different character. So we should compare these two conceptions.

If you believe in an infinite, personal God you expect that the life of the world will have meaning and significance, that right and wrong will prove to be real things, and that life and especially human life is going somewhere. All of this is what we mean by saying that we are persons and that personhood must come from a personal God. Human life has telos or an end or purpose. If you do not believe in God, if in your view everything that exists in the universe is “on its own” so to speak, then, in the nature of the case, nothing has or can have any meaning or purpose, nothing has any moral significance, or can have it. Right and wrong, justice and injustice, even triumph and tragedy are simply high-sounding names we give to things to mask the deeply depressing fact that they are really nothing of the kind. They are simply what is. What is more, nothing has or can have any future beyond what happens to it in this world. Death is simply the end; full stop. For that reason, for example, not only do we have no reason to believe that good will triumph over evil, we have no reason even to attempt to achieve such a triumph or even to believe that there is such a thing as good or evil, or for that matter, love. Love in such a conception of the world is just biological response, a neurological tic as it were.

The best illustration I know is furnished by one of atheists themselves, Rodney Brooks, professor emeritus at MIT. In his book, he wrote that a human being is a “big bag of skin full of biomolecules” interacting by the laws of physics and chemistry. In practice, he says, it is difficult to see people that way. But, “When I look at my children, I can, when I force myself…see that they are machines.”

Yet is that how he treats them? Of course not: He says, “I give them my unconditional love,” even though he admits that love has no “rational analysis” within his worldview. Robots, actual machines, don’t love. According to Brooks human beings are actually like that, but he doesn’t think of them that way or treat them as if they are but machines. Brooks’ atheism and materialism is a view of reality too small to account for his own behavior! No one should take very seriously a worldview that even its most ardent advocates can’t manage to live with.

You see, when we disagree about whether God exists we also disagree about the nature of everything that exists, especially ourselves. The preacher can demonstrate in such ways that these folk actually live their lives as if their world were in fact such a world as only the infinite/personal God could have made. No one, including the so-called atheists, live as if the world according to atheism – the world without God – actually exists. We all believe deeply in meaning, in purpose, in moral absolutes, and so on. They don’t need a footprint or a skeleton or a sign in the heavens. They themselves are the proof that the universe in which they live is the universe that God made. The way they think, the way they judge, the way they behave, the feelings and emotions that they have, their loves and their hatreds all betray the existence of their creator; they are themselves the proof of God’s existence. [cf. C. Stephen Evans, Why Christian Faith Still Makes Sense, 22-23] Then the preacher would go on to show that the Christian faith and the teaching of the Bible are far and away the most consistent and persuasive explanation of the universe and of human life and that Jesus Christ is the only possible resolution of the tragedy of human life in such an intensely personal and moral world.

But Peter didn’t have to argue this way because the existence of the one living and true God, the personal and moral nature of human life, and the coming of divine judgment were not in doubt among those to whom he preached that Pentecost Sunday. So while Pentecost gives us a grand picture of a gospel sermon, of an explanation of the gospel, there are features of that example of evangelism that are only sometimes to the point.

Take another example. The three thousand who were converted that day had an experience of deep and powerful conviction of sin. They were, we read in v. 37, “cut to the heart.” They were overwhelmed by the realization that they had sinned against God and desperately needed God’s forgiveness. “Brothers, what shall we do?” conveys their desperation. It is the note so often lacking even among those whose sins have found them out: that desperate willingness to do anything if only they might have God’s forgiveness.

This past Thursday evening at Presbytery we were treated to a fine sermon by Mike Higgins, an African American PCA pastor from St. Louis, who is also the Dean of Students at our Covenant Seminary. Mike presided at the ordination service of my son in St. Louis a few years ago because he like my son is also an Army reserve chaplain. Mike was converted in 1978 a week after he was interrupted by a police officer while he and two friends were attempting with a sledgehammer to break a lock on a warehouse door in an effort to steal a quantity of liquor. They ran in three directions and Mike himself only barely escaped capture by throwing himself into a dumpster just before the police car roared past. A week later he was in church – not, in fact, because he was convicted of his sin, but in hopes of pleasing a girl he was interested in who had told him straightaway that she wouldn’t date men who weren’t Christians. “How hard could it be to be a Christian,” he thought. But in that church service he heard a sermon on the conversion of the Apostle Paul and met Jesus Christ as Paul had. And his life has never been the same since. His experience was quite like that of the three thousand: sudden, dramatic, little in the way of preparation, utterly unexpected. He went in to the church uninterested; he came out a follower of Jesus, hardly knowing what hit him.

Such has not infrequently been the experience of converts, but it is hardly always the case. In fact, the mention of “your children” in v. 39 prepares us for the fact that a huge number of Christians, probably the great majority of Christians through the ages, did not come to faith through a crisis of conversion at all, but were nurtured in that faith from their earliest years in a Christian home.

But even converts can come to faith in Christ for a variety of reasons and through a variety of experiences. A century after Pentecost, a man named Justin, who had been seeking truth in the various philosophical schools of the time happened to meet a Christian man while walking on a beach. They fell to talking. Justin told him what he was looking for and where he had been looking for it. The old man recommended to Justin that he consult the writings of the prophets and the apostles. They were wise men, he said, who actually knew what they were talking about when they wrote of “the beginning and the end of things.” He gave Justin some idea of the message they taught and, before they parted, prayed that the “gates of light” would be opened to him. Justin later wrote that “A flame was kindled in my soul and I was seized by love for the prophets and of the friends of Christ.” He didn’t come to Christ, in the first place, because he was looking for forgiveness, or because he had been “cut to the heart,” but because he was looking for the truth and realized that he had found it.

For some Christians conversion is the experience of inner trauma followed suddenly by ecstasy. But not for many others. Some conversions have always been more gradual and less memorable. Cesar Malan, one of the great preachers of the mid-19th century revival of Christianity in Europe, says of his own conversion, “God awoke me as a mother awakens a child: with a kiss.” [Cited in D. Macleod, The Spirit of Promise, vi] More famously, C.S. Lewis, after months of study, thought, conversation with his friends, and the high-level reflection one would expect of a brilliant man of letters, apparently crossed over almost without realizing it while riding a bus to the zoo. “When we set out,” he would later write, “I did not believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” It was hardly a crisis of guilt leading to the joyful experience of forgiveness. It was rather the culmination of a long search for reality. The realization of his sinfulness and of Christ’s redemption would become really clear to Lewis only later.

Conversion for some is a sudden, utterly unexpected revolution of thought and life, an absolute surprise, as it was for these three thousand. None of them had spent the night before on his knees in an agony of unresolved guilt and a sense of bondage to sin, wondering how it might be possible to be reconciled to God. They began life that Sunday morning in spiritual confidence and self-satisfaction. But Peter’s sermon confronted them with truth that utterly changed their outlook on everything all at once. But for others conversion is more like the dawn in northern latitudes, when one cannot tell precisely when night has ended and the day has begun. God has many ways to draw people to himself!

So we cannot look at the history of Pentecost as a template, as if all gospel sermons are going to be like Peter’s or all experiences of conversion like those of these three thousand souls who were added to the church that day.

But there are features of this history that are entirely typical, that illustrate for us the very nature of Christian conversion. One obvious such feature is the work of the Holy Spirit. No man or woman, boy or girl can change his or her own heart. These people responded as they did because they were “cut to the heart,” they felt the wrong of what they had been and done. A great many others that same day in the temple courts heard Peter address the congregation and didn’t respond in that way. Their hearts weren’t cut. They didn’t feel anything of what the 3,000 felt. As Acts will proceed this will be explained in unmistakable terms. Later we will read that this happened because “the Lord opened their hearts…” or “because they were appointed to eternal life.” In other words, they didn’t cut their own hearts, the Spirit of God did that. We’ll find that point made repeatedly throughout Acts. And, of course, that is a point often made in the Bible’s teaching about conversion and in its many illustrations of it. We already mentioned how it speaks of people who were called. Someone else did the calling. In another place it speaks of their being born again. Again something that must be in the nature of the case be a divine work; in still another of their becoming new creations. Only the creator can re-create what he created in the first place. In each case the accent falls heavily on the work God did in them and for them to bring them to himself.

But, also entirely typically, at the same time in this text we also read of what the three thousand did themselves, to be sure under the influence of the Holy Spirit. They “received” the word they had heard. Received is a strong word; it’s not simply that they heard Peter’s word, they received it; they believed what Peter had told them about themselves and about Jesus Christ and acted on that belief. There are a great many ways in which the Bible describes this step that a person takes in becoming a Christian. Here we read that they “received his word and were baptized.”

Later in Acts we will read of others that they “repented” – as Peter here commanded them to do; that is they turned away from their former life to Jesus – or that they “believed in Jesus.” We will also read of people who “confessed Jesus as Lord.” These are all ways of saying the same thing. They put their hope and confidence in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to save them and to take them to heaven, and they submitted their lives to his rule.

So, whether the accent falls on what God did in them to turn them away from their former ways of thinking and living to the life of Christian faith or falls on what they did in repenting, confessing, believing, and following Jesus, this is what makes a Christian anywhere and everywhere in the Bible. The Christian faith is the conviction in the heart – a conviction so strong that it must control the life – that what Jesus has said in his Word is true, what he has done on the cross and in rising from the dead is precisely what had to be done to save sinners from God’s righteous judgment, that every promise that he has made to those who trust in him will and must come true, and that since he is the Lord, we must submit our lives to him without reservation or qualification.

Whether that conviction dawns gradually with the understanding of everything else, as it often does in the heart and mind of a child in a Christian home, or whether it comes suddenly upon a heart in the middle of life, what matters is that the truth about Jesus Christ is not only believed but acted upon, that it is made the controlling principle of one’s life. That is what it means to become a Christian or to become a follower of Jesus. One both knows that Jesus is the Son of God, the Lord of all, and the Savior of the world and submits his or her life to that truth. Whether in a sudden rush or in a slowly dawning realization matters not; what matters is that Jesus is confessed as Savior and Lord and one begins to follow him to heaven.

The great facts of our sin and Christ’s redemption, the definition of Christian behavior and so on, those will be sorted out over time, whether or not they are the great issues at the moment of conversion. But fundamental to all Christian conversion is the recognition of God, of the reality of God. That is a recognition that the sinful, fallen heart of human beings is loath to confess. That is what makes Christian conversion necessarily a divine work. We want to be left alone; we want to be our own men or women; we want to command our own lives; we want to be free to do our own will. But then God reveals himself to us and everything changes. We would happily go on – like most people – living our lives as we wished, with little thought of God or his judgment – if only God would let us do so. As the poet has it:

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 our 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.

Sooner or later that is the life story of every Christian, however soon or late he or she came to understand reality as we find it described in the Word of God.

So the question posed by the history of Pentecost, Peter’s sermon and the response of the three thousand is not whether you have had a very similar experience listening to a very similar sermon. I know that some of you in this sanctuary this morning have had an experience of Christian conversion not unlike that of these three thousand. You encountered the Lord and the truth about him, who he is and what he had done, suddenly. You woke up one day an unbeliever and went to bed that night a follower of Jesus Christ and you hardly knew what had happened to you. Or, at least there was a very definite time in your life when you came face to face with the truth about Jesus and over a relatively short period of time you found yourself believing what you had not believed before. But many others of you, and myself included, have never had such a crisis of sudden conversion. I myself, like many of you, have been a Christian for as long as I can remember.

The nature of our experience of becoming Christians is not the key point. It never is in the Bible. I know that there are those who say that it is; radio preachers and others who will tell you that if you don’t know precisely when it was that you became a Christian you are not a Christian. But the Bible never says that, never implies that, and instead shows us a variety of experiences of coming to faith.

What matters is not how we were converted, changed into followers of Jesus Christ, but that we have become and now are his followers. So let me put the obvious questions to you and you answer them in your own heart and mind. Answer them honestly. No one will know what your answer is but you and God.

Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the God himself, who came into the world precisely for the purpose of saving his people from their sins? Yes or no?

Do you believe that he died on the cross to pay for our sins and that by his death and resurrection opened for us the way to eternal life? Yes or no?

Do your believe that Jesus, both by in his very nature as the Son of God and as a reward for what he did and suffered for the life of the world, is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and so your Lord and Master? Yes or no?

Do you so believe this about Jesus that you recognize both your need of Jesus and your obligation to love and serve him and so trust him for your salvation and submit your life to him as your Lord and master? Yes or no?

If the answer to those questions is “yes,” if those are the convictions of your heart and mind and the commitments of your life, then it matters not how you became one, you are a Christian. And since Jesus is all of those things – Son of God, the incarnate Savior, and the King of Kings and Lord of Lords – you are in sync with reality itself; the only safe place to be in this world of sin and death! And if you are not a Christian, if your answer to those questions was “No,” then answer this one further question: what are you waiting for?

The argument for Jesus is as strong, really as unanswerable as it was long ago. Your need for him is precisely the same as was the need of the three thousand. You too need the forgiveness of God and you won’t find it anywhere else any more than they could have.