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.