Acts 2:37-41

peter-pentecostActs 2:37-41

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 And Peter said to them, “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. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

I mention Flannery O’Connor every so often.  That is because I find in her short stories some of the most creative, provocative, disturbing, and unique depictions of Christian truth that I have found anywhere.  She was a short story writer from Georgia who died in 1964 after penning, again, some truly amazing stories that understandably won her fame and a following of people, like myself, who appreciate deeply what she did.

One of the most fascinating stories she ever wrote, and, I believe, one of the first I ever read, was her short story “Greenleaf.”  It is the story about a lady named Mrs. May.  Mrs. May thinks of herself as a Christian, but Flannery O’Connor hints throughout the story that she does not understand the truth of Christianity or of grace, that her Christianity really consists of trying to behave rightly, that it is really morality that she has confused for Christianity.  In the story, the tree line on Mrs. May’s property appears to be a symbol for her lostness as it blocks the light from ever getting through.

The other characters are the Greenleafs.  Mr. Greenleaf works for Mrs. May, running her farm for her.  Mrs. Greenleaf, Mr. Greenleaf’s wife, is a devout Christian who knows she is a sinner and prays for God’s grace.  Interestingly, Mrs. Greenleaf prays aloud that God would “stab her heart” with His own presence and show her His grace.

The story ends in a shocking and very unexpected way.  One of Mr. Greenleaf’s bulls gets out and begins running loose on Mrs. May’s property.  Mrs. May, angered by this, demands that Mr. Greenleaf come and shoot the bull, who had rooted up some of her bushes and appears to be wearing a wreath on its head.  They drive out in the field and, while Mr. Greenleaf is looking for the bull in one area, it emerges, tellingly, from Mrs. May’s tree line, charges her, and gores her to death.  O’Connor tells us that the bull’s horn stabs Mrs. May in the heart.

This is typical Flannery O’Connor.  A Christian lady prays that God would stab her in the heart with His grace and presence.  Then a bull, wearing a wreath crown on its head, emergences from the light-blocking tree line and stabs a lady in the heart who desperately needs to understand grace.

It is a violent scene and a powerful scene, made even more powerful once you get at what Flannery O’Connor is doing.  I believe she is saying that the grace of God is like this:  it stabs us in the heart.  His grace violently pierces the darkness of our own lives, wounding us and healing us in the same moment.  It is a violent grace because it is love, and our cold hearts wince in pain at the love of God that searches us to our depths revealing our distance from Him.  It is also a depiction of the gospel fact that we must die to self in order to live, that grace only breaks through the dark tree line of our own doubts when we are willing to lose our lives.

What an image!  It is a memorable image, being stabbed in the heart with grace.  It is also a biblical image.  In fact, it is the precise image evoked by those who heard Peter’s Pentecost sermon.  We see this in Acts 2:37-41.

Devastating remorse and conviction over sin.

When Peter had finished boldly preaching Christ, the people reacted with great consternation.  Their response is telling.

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

The Greek word translated here as “cut to the heart” was once used by Homer to “depict horses stamping the earth with their hooves.”  A.T. Robertson said that it is “a rare verb” meaning “to pierce, to sting sharply, to stun, to smite.”  It literally means, “to be stabbed (with a knife).”[1]

In other words, Luke says that when the crowd first heard the gospel presented, they were stabbed in the heart by the truth of it and fell under amazing conviction.  Their hearts were pierced with conviction.  Conviction of what?  Conviction of their own guiltiness and their own need of grace and mercy.  Their hearts were convicted with devastating remorse.

John Calvin wrote, “The mind that is overwhelmed with horror runs to God.”[2]  How true!  How true!

Peter had told them that God sent His Son to the world and that they had killed His Son!  How could this not break their hearts?  In truth, how can it not break ours?  After all, we are no less guilty than they.  The reality is that Christ hung on the cross just as much for my crimes as for the crimes of first century men.  He hung there for me as much as for them, and I am as guilty of putting Him there as they.  The same guilt that led to remorse and broken hearts in their case is the same guilt we are confronted with today.  Should our reaction not be the same as theirs?

The gospel is good news that begins with bad news:  namely, our guilt before Almighty God!

Their can be not genuine conversion without genuine conviction and remorse.  In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Oscar Wilde wrote:

Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break

And peace of pardon win!

How else may man make straight his plan

And cleanse his soul from Sin?

How else but through a broken heart

May Lord Christ enter in?

Yes, there must be remorse, a broken heart.  I do not use “remorse” to mean “intense display of emotion.”  Not at all.  We must not make the mistake of thinking that all displays of emotion mean genuine remorse or that all apparent lack of emotion means indifference.  Conviction is a matter of the heart that, yes, often demonstrates itself through outward signs of grief, but not always.

My question to you this morning is not, then, “Have you cried loudly in front of the church?”  No, my question is, “Has your heart broken before God?”

Has it?  Has your heart broken before God?

37 Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

They were “cut to the heart.”  They were “stabbed in the heart.”  In Andrew Peterson’s song, “Just As I Am,” he sings:

What’s that on the ground?

It’s what’s left of my heart

Somebody named Jesus broke it to pieces

And planted the shards

And they’re coming up green

And they’re coming in bloom

I can hardly believe

This is all coming true

Just as I am, just as I was

Just as I will be He loves me, He does

He showed me the day

He shed His own blood

(Just as I am)

He loves me, oh,

He loves me, He does

That is a beautiful way of putting it:  Jesus breaks our hearts, plants the pieces in the ground, and they grow up bearing fruit!

Have you felt the heart piercing, shattering love of God, that love that wounds deeply, stinging you with awareness of your sinfulness, then heals completely, soothing your burdened heart with promises of forgiveness?  It is the truth of the gospel in high definition.  It confronts us with staggering clarity, showing us who we are and who God is!

Their hearts were pierced and they cried out, “What shall we do?!”

Repentance and obedience.

Peter answers their question:

38a-b And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins

“Repent and be baptized,” he tells them, “for the forgiveness of sins.”  Let us deal with the second aspect first:  baptism.

The fact that Peter adds the words “and be baptized” has caused no small amount of controversy over the years.  It is an important issue, and one that we could spend a great deal of time talking about if we so chose.  Instead of doing that, let me simply offer a few reasons why I believe it is a mistake to take this one sentence to mean that salvation somehow mechanically affects or actuates baptism or to mean that one cannot be saved without being baptism.

First, let me be clear:  you cannot be an obedient Christian if you have simply decided not to be baptized.  This seems clear enough by virtue of the fact that Jesus Himself commanded that His followers be baptized (Matthew 28:19).  But to say that one cannot even be saved unless he or she is baptized goes beyond what scripture actually says.  Consider the following points about Peter’s statement, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins.”

  • The preposition “for” in the phrase “repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” is the Greek word eis.  In the New Testament, that word is used in two different ways.  Sometimes it is used as “for,” “which could indicate purpose,” but sometimes in the New Testament that word is used to mean “on the ground of, on the basis of, which would indicate the opposite relationship – that the forgiveness of sins is the basis, the grounds for being baptized.”  The great Greek scholar A.T. Robertson points to Matthew 10:41 as an example of the preposition eis being used as the “basis or ground” of something and wrote that there are “numerous” illustrations of both usages in the New Testament.  Taking all of this into consideration, Robertson stated that his “view is decidedly against” the notion that baptism is necessary for “the remission of sins or the means of securing such remission,” arguing instead that that Peter was here “urging baptism on each of them who had already turned (repented)…on the basis of the forgiveness of sins which they had already received.”  New Testament scholar Ben Witherington agrees with this, and says, “it is thus quite correct to stress that in Acts 2 we see repentance (and faith) leading to baptism, the forgiveness of sins, and the reception of the Holy Spirit.  This was apparently normally the case.”
  • John Polhill has pointed out that “the usual connection of the forgiveness of sins in Luke-Acts is with repentance and not with baptism at all (cf. Luke 24:47; Acts 3:19; 5:31).”  “In fact,” Polhill writes, “in no other passage of Acts is baptism presented as bringing about the forgiveness of sins.”  Acts 10:43, 13:38, and 26:18 link forgiveness with faith, not baptism. The former Methodist bishop William Willimon says about these words that “this pattern of conversion appears nowhere else in Acts” and notes that “elsewhere when Luke recounts conversion of a crowd he merely says that many believed (4:4; 5:14) or that they turned to the Lord (9:35).”
  • Clinton E. Arnold rightly points out that the whole teaching of the New Testament needs to be brought to bear on any single verse, pointing to Romans 6:3-4 (Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”) as evidence of the fact that “Paul…characterizes [baptism] as vividly symbolizing a participation in Christ’s burial and resurrection.”  He concludes that “identification with Christ – and not the water itself – the basis for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38). Likewise, F.F. Bruce, that famed commentator of yesteryear, wrote, “It is against the whole genius of biblical religion to suppose that the outward rite could have any value except insofar as it was accompanied by the work of grace within.”[3]

Clearly a surface, wooden interpretation of Peter’s words violate the rest of Scripture.  He obviously does not mean that the waters of baptism mechanically save.  No, he is talking about something much bigger:  repentance leading to obedience.  They are to repent and obey and follow their King!  Baptism and obedience are results of their having been saved.  Our hearts are broken, we repent, we fall at the feet of our King.  We are redeemed, we are resurrected, and we are freed now to follow Jesus through obedience, an obedience that includes baptism.

The first word Peter uses is “Repent!”  It is Peter’s first word because it was Jesus’ first word.  “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).  To repent is to do an about-face.  It means to make a U-turn in life.  It means to have a change of heart and mind, to determine to be something radically different than what you are.

Notice the order:  conviction then repentance.  Only those under conviction can repent because only those under conviction will think they need to repent.  This is why calculated or pre-planned repentance is not true repentance.  Repentance is the natural response of one whose heart is truly broken under the convicting hand of the Holy Spirit.

Some of you recognize that you need to repent but are telling yourself that you will do so later, that you will wait to the end and repent just before you do.  In that way, you tell yourself, you can “live life to the fullest,” doing whatever you’d like, then repenting before it’s too late.  This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what true repentance is.  It is also a dangerous notion.

Thomas Brooks, the 17th century English Puritan, wrote this about repentance:

…though true repentance is never too late, yet late repentance is seldom true. Ah, how many millions are now in hell, who have thought, and resolved, and said that they would repent hereafter, but that hereafter never came! Thou sayest to-morrow, to-morrow thou wilt repent, when thou knowest not what a to-morrow will bring forth. Alas! how many thousand ways may death surprise thee before to-morrow comes! Though there be but one way to come into the world, yet there is a thousand thousand ways to be sent out of the world. “Oh, the diseases, the hazards, the dangers, the accidents, the deaths, that daily, that hourly attend the life of man!…Ah, friends, you are never safe till you repent; it is repentance that puts you out of all danger of miscarrying forever. Shall the husbandman take his present seasons for sowing and reaping? shall the good tenant repair his house while the weather is fair? shall the careful pilot take his advantage of wind and tide, and so put out to sea? shall the traveller mend his pace when he sees the night comes on ? and shall the smith strike when the iron is hot? — and shall not we take the present opportunity of repenting and turning to the Lord, remembering that there will be a time when time shall be no more; and when there shall be no place found for repentance, though it should be sought carefully with tears…[4]

How true the warnings of Thomas Brooks are!  Are you delaying repentance?  Why?  Is sin that sweet to you that you cannot break with it?  Is the salvation and peace of Christ not of more value to you than your sins?  Is peace of mind not more valuable to you than the thrill of your rebellions?  Is Christ and is His way not more compelling to you than your own way?  Is the certainty of heaven not more precious to you than the certainty of hell, if you do not repent?

“What shall we do?!” they cry.  “What shall we do?!”



The promised reception of the Holy Spirit.

And what happens when you repent, when you come to Christ in recognition of your inability and of His ability?

38b-c  and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

He gives you a gift, the gift of the Holy Spirit.  You cannot earn this gift.  You cannot achieve it by your own efforts.  It is given, and it can only be given to open hands and broken hearts.

In John 14, Jesus offered his disciples some astounding comments about what the coming of the Holy Spirit would mean for them.  While lengthy, each word is crucial.  Listen carefully.

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24 Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. 25 “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26 But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.

What an amazing gift!  You have received none other that can compare to this!  The Spirit is promised to all, and this “all” included all in the first century who would come to Christ, from wherever they would come, as well as “all” in all the generations to come.  Peter makes this clear in the remainder of the sermon, which Luke tells us went on well beyond the words he, Luke, passed on to us.

39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

“The promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”  Are you “far off”?  Is there a great distance between you and the Lord?  You are no so far that you cannot return and you are not so far that the love of God cannot reach you.

Does this “far off” language sound familiar to you?  It should.  In one of Jesus’ most famous parables, the parable of the prodigal son, we hear the story of a son who left his father’s house, rebelled, hit rock bottom, came under conviction, then determined to return in repentance to his father’s house.  In Luke 15:20, we read, “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.”

“the promise is for…all who are far off.”

“while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion”

You are not too far off to come home.

You are not too far off to come home.

Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Repent, and you will receive the tender, healing, life-giving mercies of Jesus.


[1] John B. Polhill, Acts. The New American Commentary. Vol.26. David Dockery, gen. ed. (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), p.116. A.T. Robertson, Acts. Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol.III (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.34. Clinton E. Arnold, “Acts.” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol.2. Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.236.

[2] John Calvin, Acts. The Crossway Classic Commentaries. Alister McGrath and J.I. Packer, ser. eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1995), p.44.

[3] Polhill, Acts, p.117. Robertson, Acts, p.36. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), p.154-155. William H. Willimon, Acts. Interpretation. (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988), p.32. Arnold, “Acts,” p.237. F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Revised). The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gordon D. Fee, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988), p.70.


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