Take a look at the picture above. What do you see? At first glance, it may appear that you are looking at a young girl with cat-like features. But you know that idea is absurd, so you take a second look. Now you see what’s really there. You’re looking at a picture of a young girl holding a cat in front of her face in just the right way that the cat’s nose and mouth looks like they are part of the young girl’s face. Now that you see it, the answer is obvious. However, to come to that conclusion, you just needed to take a second look.
Sometimes we can read a verse of Scripture and our initial reaction is, “Come again?”, because we are caught off guard by what it says. I came across such a verse this week. Acts 2:38 says, “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.” Two questions immediately popped into my mind after initially reading this verse: (1) Is this verse teaching that, in order for God to forgive a person’s sins, he must repent and be baptized? and (2) Is this verse teaching that the Holy Spirit indwells a Christian only after he has repented and been baptized?
In order to answer these questions, let’s take a second look at Acts 2:38, and its context. It is the Day of Pentecost (2:1). The believers in Jerusalem have just been filled with the Holy Spirit, and given the ability to speak in other known languages (2:4). Peter gets up in front of a Jewish crowd and preaches his first public sermon (2:14-36). The crowd is obviously moved by what Peter says, and asks, “What shall we do?” (2:37). Peter replies, “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” (2:38).
To answer the above questions, we need to start with Peter’s statement, “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of your sins.” Grammatically, it may seem like Peter is saying that for a person to have his sins forgiven he must repent AND be baptized. Theologically, we know it can’t be Peter’s intent. How do we know? Because the main issue resolved by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 was that the gospel reveals a salvation which comes through faith in Christ alone, not Christ + something else. Therefore, Peter could not possibly be stating that forgiveness of sins comes as a result of repentance AND baptism.
So what is the connection then between repentance, baptism, and the forgiveness of sins? When a person repents of his sins and gives his life over to Christ, God forgives him of his sins. Shortly afterwards, the newfound Christian ideally will be baptized in order to publicly identify himself with Jesus Christ. One could argue that Peter here is viewing repentance and baptism as both being part of the initial conversion experience, although he would readily admit that it is repentance, and not baptism, that leads to the forgiveness of sins. I think that is what Peter is communicating in Acts 2:38.
Now, regarding the timing of when a Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, Romans 8:9 makes it clear that, “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” In other words, a person is not a true believer unless he has the Holy Spirit dwelling within him. Therefore, a Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit at the moment of his conversion, not after he is baptized. I believe that, in Acts 2:38, Peter, is connecting repentance and baptism as part of the general conversion experience of a new believer, and says that the gift of the Holy Spirit accompanies that conversion experience, even though the Holy Spirit actually takes residence in the new believer after he repents and turns to Christ, not after he gets baptized.
Because answering these two questions correctly is crucial to a correct understanding of the gospel, I’m glad that I did not take my initial reading of Acts 2:38 at face value. I’m glad that I decided to take a second look. With those verses you read that initially catch you off guard, I want to encourage you to do the same thing I did. Take a second look.