At this website we have examined various words related to water and baptism. Today we take a look at Acts 2:38-41, which will set our study of New Testament baptism in its proper context. In response to the Jews' question, we read,
Peter declared: "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. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call." 40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, "Save yourselves from this corrupt generation." Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. (Acts 2:38-41)
Let us begin by focusing on the word repent. Here we find the imperative of the verb metanoein (to repent). What does this mean?
In Greek, metanoia (pronounced me-TA-noy-a, accent on second syllable) is literally a change of mind. This change of mind leads to a change in life. Similarly, the O.T. Hebrew is teshuvah, from the verb shuv, meaning "to turn." God expects us to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
By about 400 AD, the Latin version read
Paenitentiam, inquit, agite, et baptizetur unusquisque vestrum in nominee Iesus Christi. (But Peter replied to them, "Do penance, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.")
Penance is satisfaction for sin, a penalty we pay so that God will again accept us. Some of my readers might be distressed that the early church could have bought into this interpretation. I will only say, Jerome's translation was made 375 years after Pentecost -- some 15 generations after the pristine beginning of the church. Is this really "the early church"? Most scholars would call it the medieval church, the church of the Middle Ages. At this point, it is widely recognized, works-salvation was becoming more prevalent. The mistranslation should not surprise us. Sadly, even in the midst of the Reformation, Luther's German translation of Acts 2:38 reads "Tut Buße, und jeder von euch lasse sich taufen auf den Namen Jesu Christi zur Vergebung eurer Sünden, so werdet ihr empfangen die Gabe des heiligen Geistes."
Tut Buße means "do penance"! (What was the great thinker thinking, unless he was faithfully translating the Latin of this passage rather than the original Greek? Elsewhere he argues vehemently against works-salvation.)
At any rate, there are three fundamental views about the meaning of "repent" in Peter's sermon. (1) At one extreme, as we have seen, the term is construed as "penance; something we do to earn our salvation. (2) At the other, sadly all too typical of modern "churchianity," is the view that to repent means to be penitent -- to be sorry. We all know that being sorry, saying sorry, is far easier than making the about-face that repentance entails. (3) Biblically, to repent is neither a meritorious act -- the first view -- nor an emotional state which brings us to the Cross. It is rather a decision one makes, the decision to make Jesus Lord.
Now we may teach accurately enough about repentance. But what is the message our hearers are getting? It may well be, in effect, "Repentance is a decision to put God first, but really you have to earn his favor by measuring up." If so, we have drifted from the biblical principle, and from the apostolic imperative.
Let us neither make the repentance of Acts 2:38 easier than it is supposed to be ("penitence"; feeling sorry), nor harder ("penance" and works-salvation.) Here we see that serious study of the original languages has serious theological implications for our lives and the life of our congregations.