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Forgiveness of sins in Acts

At the end of Luke the resurrected Jesus sends his disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations (Lk. 24:47). In Matthew they are told to baptize in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 28:19), which is presumably a baptism specifically of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus’ death, as a concrete and ultimate act of obedience to God, has sealed a new covenant with Israel, on the basis of which the sins of the people are forgiven. The disciples are to tell the world about this. In Acts we see, from Luke’s perspective, what this mission looked like in practice.

The absence of any reference to the atoning function of Jesus’ death in these passages is noticeable. The pattern is simple and consistent: people believe in the story of what God is doing for and through his people, central to which is the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus; they repent and are forgiven. The evidence of Acts suggests that modern evangelicalism has grossly overstated the personal saving significance of Jesus’ death. And conversely, understated the significance of the vindication and exaltation of Jesus.

  • Peter tells the Jews to “Repent and be baptized… in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). “In the name of Jesus” here means something like “in the authority of Jesus”—in fulfilment of the commission given in Luke 24:47. The preceding narrative is presupposed: God has exalted Jesus, whom the Jews crucified, to his right hand and made him Lord and Christ, so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” from the destruction that will soon come upon “this crooked generation”. According to this “kerygma” or proclamation, the people of Jerusalem and Judea will be saved not by believing that Jesus died for them but by calling on his name as Lord, as the one who has been raised to the right hand of God.
  • Peter tells the high priest that God exalted Jesus, whom they had killed, “at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Here the argument is quite explicit: on the basis of the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God repentance and forgiveness of sins is given to Israel. In the narrative it is the fate of the nation that is at stake, not the salvation of individuals.
  • Peter tells Simon the magician to “Repent… of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22). This is a pastoral matter. In keeping with the overall pattern, Simon had earlier believed the “good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus” and had been baptized (8:12-13).
  • Peter tells Cornelius that “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:43). What are they to believe? That the Jews put Jesus to death but God raised him on the third day and appointed him “to be judge of the living and the dead”. People—even Gentiles—are forgiven because they believe the story about Jesus and Israel. When Peter has to explain this extraordinary turn of events to the believers in Judea, he simply says that God gave the Gentiles the gift of the Spirit when they “believed in the Lord Jesus Christ”. They all then glorify God, saying, “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:17-18). Forgiveness of sins comes from believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord.
  • Paul tells the Jews in Pisidian Antioch that “through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). They are urged to believe in essentially the same story that Peter was telling: that Jesus was killed, that God raised him from the dead, and has made him king, giving him the nations as his inheritance. Jesus’ death is simply an execution, with overtones of having seemingly been cursed by God because he was hung on a tree (13:29; cf. 5:30; 10:39). Forgiveness is again explicitly made available to a nation under the Law. In the end the Jews of Pisidian Antioch reject Paul’s story about the vindication of Jesus and so are not forgiven.
  • Jesus sent Paul to the Gentiles to open their eyes so that they might turn from darkness to light, from the power of Satan to God, that “they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Acts 26:18). Paul then goes on to explain to Agrippa that he has preached both to Jews and to Gentiles that “they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds in keeping with their repentance” (26:20). This message is illustrated by Acts 17:30-31: all people are commanded to repent, not because Jesus died for their sins, but because a day has been fixed when the Greek-Roman world will be judged.

So, in the story that Luke tells in Acts, what do people have to do to be saved? Jews and Gentiles alike are exhorted to repent of their sins and believe the story about Jesus—that God raised him from the dead and has made him Lord, judge and ruler of the nations. That is, they are told to believe not in the eternal private-personal significance of Jesus but in the eschatological public-political significance of Jesus.

As it was for the Jews who came to be baptized by John, repentance and forgiveness in Acts, both for Jews and for Gentiles, constituted a response to a particular act of God at a time of eschatological crisis.

Comments

Interesting stuff, very much in line witb McKinight’s THE KING JESUS GOSPEL,

Just substitute ‘Jesus’ for ‘story about Jesus’ and you have the difference between the consistent understanding of the gospel throughout history (not just the modern evangelical view, whatever that is) and your own, Andrew, unless I’m missing something.

It is significant that direct belief in Jesus, and forgiveness of sins and Spirit endowment from him are stated or implied in all the accounts, rather than one kind of belief for Jews and an indirect belief for Gentiles.

In Acts 10 Peter says: “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. “Everyone” means just that, Jew and Gentile, and helps us to understand the emphatic use of the word in Acts 13:39 (see below). It is “belief in him” that produces forgiveness of sins for Gentiles, not “belief in a story about him”. Believing in Jesus is also believing in a Jesus who was put to death and raised from the dead, which qualifies both what, as well as in whom they were believing, and how this forgiveness came about.

In Acts 13:38-39, Paul’s audience is being pointed to a person to believe in, and the freedom (‘freed’, ESV; the word is more precisely: ‘justified’) from “everything” is achieved “through this man”. It’s highly significant that there is an all-inclusive “everyone who believes is freed” contrasting with “you” in “everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:39). Jews and Gentiles needed to be freed (or justified/made righteous). The law highlighted the need in the Jews to whom it was given, but could not deliver the freedom/justification. The change of person, “everyone” contrasting with “you”, shows that freedom through belief in the person of Jesus is now open to Gentiles as well as Jews, as we are about to see when Paul takes “the word of God” (ie the message of Jesus and the forgiveness of sins just proclaimed) to them.

You say:

Jesus’ death is simply an execution, with overtones of having seemingly been cursed by God because he was hung on a tree (13:29; cf. 5:30; 10:39).

So it wasn’t “simply an execution”. The reference to the tree is vitally significant, and implies the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23, which is an early statement of atonement theology. It is much more definite than “seemingly … cursed by God”. Jesus was cursed by God in Jewish understanding.

I’d have thought your final example (Acts 26:18) shows the opposite of what you are saying. Jesus is described as telling Paul that forgiveness of sins and sanctification with other believers comes “by faith in me”, not faith in a story about what Jesus had done for the Jews. It’s this verse that defines what Paul says to Agrippa as much as Acts 17:30-31, and the “me” is the crucified and risen Jesus, whose death, as seen in the verses you have cited, was a theologically understood death.

It’s very helpful that you are going through things line by line. The most obvious interpretation is that Jews and Gentiles alike were invited to put their trust directly in Jesus, and alike to become disciples of him (as in Matthew 28:19). The Spirit reception experienced by Cornelius and his household demonstrates this equality of Jew and Gentile. The Spirit was a direct gift from Jesus, as paradigmatically described in Acts 2:33, for Jew and Gentile, and not given to Gentiles indirectly by faith in the story about him.

I agree that the church came to believe in the person of Jesus and lost sight of the significance of the story about him. My argument, however, is that for the early church, faced with an impending eschatological crisis—judgment on Israel and the clash with paganism—it was not just the person of Jesus that mattered but the apocalyptic story in which he was obviously the central figure. You’re more than welcome to disagree with that, but I don’t see that much is gained by continually throwing back at me the same criticism.

It is significant that direct belief in Jesus, and forgiveness of sins and Spirit endowment from him are stated or implied in all the accounts, rather than one kind of belief for Jews and an indirect belief for Gentiles.

You misunderstand me. Jews and Gentiles believe in the same thing. They don’t simply believe in Jesus—that is what modern evangelicals do. They believe that the God of Israel had raised this Jesus, whom the Jews had killed, and made him Lord, judge of the living and the dead, ruler of the nations, etc. That is asserted explicitly in every passage discussed with the exception of Acts 26:18, which as a retelling of Paul’s encounter with the risen Jesus has a different focus. They believe, in other words, in the political-religious announcement—the kingdom announcement—that Israel’s God was about to annex the empire for himself.

In Acts 10 Peter says: “everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name”. “Everyone” means just that, Jew and Gentile…

There is no warrant for that conclusion in the passage.

1. Peter has gone to Cornelius having been persuaded that a righteous Gentile who fears God and does what is right is already acceptable to God (Acts 10:34-35). He does not go with the thought that Cornelius needs to repent and be forgiven.

2. The story that he tells in verses 36-43 has to do explicitly and only with Israel. Gentiles are not part of it. The “word” was sent to Israel, and those who were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were commanded to preach “to the people”—that is, to Israel—not that Jesus had died for their sins but that Jesus had been appointed “judge of the living and the dead”.

3. When Peter says that “everyone who believes in him” receives forgiveness of sins, he must mean everyone who believes in the one whom God raised and made judge of the living and the dead.

4. “Everyone” in the context of Peter’s statement does not mean Jew and Gentile; it means “every Jew who believes in him”. But that’s not the real issue. The real issue, as I stated above, is that Jews, and from this point on Gentiles, believed that Israel’s God had made Jesus Lord over all things and in view of that both Jews and Gentiles repented of their sins and received forgiveness from Israel’s God.

Nor does “everyone” in Acts 13:38-39 mean Jews and Gentiles. That is just poor exegesis. The “everyone” is “everyone of you”: it is everyone who is currently under the Law who comes to believe in Jesus as God’s “Son”.

The reference to the tree is vitally significant, and implies the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23, which is an early statement of atonement theology. It is much more definite than “seemingly … cursed by God”. Jesus was cursed by God in Jewish understanding.

There is some point to this. But no atoning value is attached to the thought in Deuteronomy; “cursed” does not mean “atoning”; nor is it present in Acts, where the “curse” motif is not in any case mentioned. Paul develops the idea in Galatians 3:10-14, but the conclusion he draws is that by Jesus’ death on the tree Jews are redeemed from the curse of the Law. Gentiles are theologically excluded from this redemption, and Paul is at great pains to keep them from exchanging freedom in Christ for slavery under the Law.

This is exactly my argument, in black and white. Christ redeemed Jews from the curse of the Law by his death so that “the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles” (Gal. 3:14). The Jews benefit directly from Jesus’ death because they were under the Law and subject to condemnation. Gentiles benefit indirectly because they can now become members of the redeemed covenant people.

Andrew,

i have not had a chance to extensively study how pisteuo is used, especially in classical literature, but it seems that the idea, at least in places like Acts 10:43 and 16:38-39, has less to do with believing in a story than it does with trusting in a person. And by trust, i mean an act, a pledge, of fealty (to use an old word). This seems to fit well with Romans 10:9 and the idea of Jesus as King. Those that pledge their loyalty to Jesus the King, as exemplified by repentence, are forgiven. Therefore it is not belief, in the sense of cognitive assent, in a story but rather, belief, in the sense of loyalty to a person, Jesus. If true, then belief places foregiveness in the realm of faithfulness, both personal and national in Israel’s case, and not in an abstract theory of atonement.

What do you think?

Shalom uvrecha,

Dan, thanks. Two things.

First, I would try to avoid making this an either-or matter. It’s not Jesus or story. There’s no story without Jesus, but equally there’s no Jesus without the story of what God is doing; and my contention is that our modern theologies do not give an adequate account of what the New Testament communities thought God was doing.

Secondly, I also don’t think it’s a simple dichotomy between cognitive belief and existential trust. Jews and Gentiles believed a word or message about what Israel’s God had done, but equally they had to trust that the Lord Jesus was there for them. Their whole response (repentance, baptism, community witness) is an act of trust in the story about Jesus and in the Jesus of the story.

Dan and Andrew, I was in the middle of trying to reply using an Ipad when Andrew replied. Dan, it seems to me that your point is the flip side of Andrew’s coin. If one trusts in or professes loyalty to an invisible king sitting on an invisible, albeit metaphorical throne, then one must also believe the story about how the king came to be in that position.

Hi Andrew. Working my way through Acts, I was drawn back to this earlier post of yours. A question, which I hope doesn’t appear too absurdly naive:
In the paragraph concerning Cornelius and his household, you record the response of the apostles et al in Judea to Peter’s testimony: “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:17-18). You conclude the paragraph observing “forgiveness of sins comes from believing that God raised Jesus from the dead and made him Lord”. Would I be right to assume that it is in believing that God raised Jesus from the dead that the act of repentance required of Cornelius and his household is realised - to the satisfaction of Peter and his fellow apostles?

Hi James. I’m still pondering your previous comment about historical obsolescence!

It’s a good question. Peter does not here say that “forgiveness of sins” is granted to Cornelius and his household (cn. Acts 10:43). Rather “repentance” is granted. Is that the same thing? In Acts 5:31 repentance is granted to Israel. Cornelius and his household listened to Peter’s story; they presumably came to believe that God had made Jesus “judge of the living and the dead”; they received the Spirit; they spoke in tongues and praised God; and they were baptised. Cornelius was a righteous man, he was already clean, even before he heard the story about Jesus, but somewhere in that sequence of events there must have been an explicit repudiation of their paganism that constituted repentance.

Yes, that makes sense. A previous (unrecorded) repuduation of paganism as the act of repentence on which the forgiveness of sins is predicated and assumed. And yet Cornelius and his family and retinue remained loyal servants of the Empire. How challenging that must have been. A link, I guess, to my earlier question about avoidance of ‘historical obselecence’ - how might something like this scenario play out today, I wonder?

…how might something like this scenario play out today, I wonder?

I think the challenge is to imagine a good future for the secular world. Probably not a “Christian” future, though a Christ-honouring people will bear witness to it—and ought to be a benchmark for it. But God’s future. Like Cornelius, “God-fearing” people will participate in it.

I too am continuing to ponder - many things.

Another question re Peter’s encounter with Cornelius. Cornelius and his entourage ‘received the Spirit’. They spoke in tongues and praised God. What might we expect in terms of ‘receiving the Spirit’ today? How might this manifest itself? How would we know if the Spirit has been received - personally and corporately? Should we expect speaking in tongues to be normative?

Not all speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30).