By Rosie Moore.
The first sermon in church history ends with a congregation cut to the heart over their sin. After the Holy Spirit showed them the beauty of Christ and their own rebellious hearts, about three thousand people grieved over their sin and accepted the healing message of the gospel. The book of Acts describes the amazing Spirit-filled interaction between Peter the convicted preacher and a congregation of convicted Jews from all nations on earth, who had gathered together in Jerusalem for Pentecost. It’s a live illustration of what evangelism and genuine repentance looks like:
36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”
37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
38 Peter replied, “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 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.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.
A convicted preacher.
“Men of Israel, hear these words!” (Acts 2:22)
This was the sermon of a convicted preacher if ever there was one! Peter was not repeating hearsay or going through the motions of a man of the cloth. He pleaded passionately with the crowd and convinced them, as he was fully convinced, that only Jesus can save.
Without a doubt, Peter knew in his own heart that Jesus was both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). He also personally knew Jesus of Nazareth, the man who had done great miracles and wonders (Acts 2:22-24). He didn’t hesitate to use passages from the Old Testament Scripture which identified Jesus as Yahweh himself, nor was he concerned about how his words would be received by his hearers.
There was a remarkable change in Peter on the day of Pentecost. It’s hard to reconcile this bold, fearless preacher with the cowardly man who, six weeks earlier, had denied even knowing Jesus (Matt 26:69-75). But Peter had seen the resurrected and ascended Jesus in the interim! (Acts 2:32-33). He was an eyewitness to the contents of his own sermon, with no secondary research required. Going straight for the bull’s eye, Peter focused on the resurrected Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:22-24).
Moreover, Peter wan’t just a passionate and zealous preacher. Unlike the professional teachers of his day, Peter was filled with the Holy Spirit and raised his voice to proclaim the gospel like a herald. He wasted no time on pleasantries, but told his audience the truth that they were sinners and Jesus had borne the full wrath of God on the cross (Acts 2:20-21). He appealed to what his congregation already knew about Jesus (Acts 2:22) and the promises of the Old Testament.
Peter’s sermon carried conviction because it was smothered in his own conviction of sin and his own hope. This preacher knew his twisted, faithless heart that had abandoned Christ in his hour of greatest need. And Peter’s sermon was convincing to the crowd, because the preacher himself was convinced that Jesus had risen and was now ruling as the everlasting King in David’s line.
For Peter, Jesus was the “Holy One” that King David had foreseen, the only Saviour who could make known to men “the paths of life” and lead them to “live in hope.” There was nothing tragic or arbitrary about Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension. It was all planned by God and penned by David a thousand years beforehand (Acts 2:23-31; Ps 110).
A convicted congregation.
But Peter also shone the spotlight on his hearers’ own corrupt hearts. He showed them that they also crucified Christ, even if they were not physically present on the day He died (Act 2:36). They too had resisted and rejected Christ’s Lordship over their lives, and rebelled against God. I’m sure Peter may have braced himself to be stoned at this point!
But supernaturally, the Spirit performed a miracle of new birth in the hearts of 3000 congregants. He brought them to a place of insight, sorrow, shame, confession and hatred for their sin. Luke vividly identifies the trigger: The Holy Spirit convicted and called the hearers. They were ‘cut to the heart’ and distressed about their sin. They were led into the light, just as Jesus said would happen when the Holy Spirit did his work (John 3:6-7; 21).
Their response to the sermon was not an outward act, but an inward grace. The layers of concealing skin and tissue were peeled back to expose the cancer of their hearts. The prophecy of Zechariah 12:10 comes to mind: “They shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn.”
Instead of using a sword to cut off the ear of a soldier as Peter had done weeks earlier (John 18:10), Peter was now wielding the Sword of the Spirit to cut people’s hearts and open them to Jesus’s supernatural healing. Deeply convicted by the Holy Spirit, the congregation asked the right question:
“Brothers, what shall we do?” There is genuine anguish and sorrow in their question as they realize the myriad ways in which they’ve rejected God’s love and despised his King.
Peter wastes no time in inviting the multitude to come to Jesus for forgiveness. This is exactly what every convicted sinner must do: “Repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”.
That day, a massive congregation turned from their sin and publicly confessed their new allegiance—an allegiance to Christ, a new way of life and a new community. That’s what their baptism signified (Acts 2:41).
The first thing Peter told them to do is “repent”. To repent is not just to feel sorry, but to change one’s whole mind and trajectory. Repentance describes what coming to God is. We can’t turn towards God without turning away from the things that God is against. Repentance is a word of great hope, because we do not have to continue in the way that we’ve been going. We can turn towards God in surrender.
So, what does true repentance look like and what does it achieve?
Thomas Watson, a Puritan preacher and author from the 17th century, wrote a timeless book titled “The Doctrine of Repentance”. He starts with these words:
“Christian reader, the two great graces essential to a saint in this life are faith and repentance. These are the two wings by which he flies to heaven. Faith and repentance preserve the spiritual life as heat and moisture do the natural.”
“Repentance is a grace of God’s Spirit whereby a sinner is inwardly humbled and visibly reformed… Repentance breaks the abscess of sin, and then the soul is at ease” (Thomas Watson).
Isn’t that a beautiful picture of the healing and purging power of repentance?
Nothing has changed since Watson wrote in 1668. Repentance and faith in Jesus Christ is still the only way that our restless souls will be at peace, as it’s the timeless medicine that God has prescribed for the forgiveness of our sins. There is no other way to be saved.
But repentance is one of those words that many people reject today, because they will not tolerate the mention of sin or guilt. Sin is seen as an archaic form of oppression that we must shake off if we are to be truly free. And so, we resort to many counterfeit forms of repentance, like those desperate new resolutions or promises we make when we are buffeted by the trouble that sin has caused in our lives. Sometimes we believe that these efforts at self help will buy us atonement.
And other times, we desperately want to escape the web of sin in our lives, but we’re not truly repulsed, saddened and ashamed of the sin itself. In fact, we have no clue how seriously we’ve offended God, nor do we intend to name our sin or confess it out loud to the only person who can forgive us. Instead, we are still looking for loopholes while calculating how near the line we dare walk before we are zapped by God or sin’s consequences. Counterfeit repentance is a fool’s paradise.
But God is not fooled by our counterfeit repentance, which achieves nothing but a false sense of security. The difference between counterfeit and real repentance is illustrated well by Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector who went to pray:
“The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’…
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:11-14)
The tax collector called himself a sinner and called upon God for mercy. But the Pharisee saw only the faults of others.
The crux of salvation.
Knowing what repentance means is essential to Christianity and saving faith. It was the crux of Peter’s sermon and the only way that we will be added to God’s kingdom, alongside the 3000 who accepted Peter’s message (Acts 2:38-41). Repentance is the only way that Jesus saves us “from this perverse generation” and justifies us before God. It’s the only channel by which we and our children can receive the promises of God (Acts 2:38-39; 40).
“Repent and be baptized” is a warning as well as a promise of hope. Jesus himself said that if we do not repent, we will perish. It is the most important word in the gospel, used in John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’s ministry (Matt 3:2; 4:17). ‘Repent’ is not a dirty word, but a word of hope and healing, because it is the condition by which we are reformed into God’s creatures.
Spurgeon said, “The old fashioned grace of repentance is not to be dispensed with; there must be sorrow for sin; there must be a ‘broken and contrite heart’. This, God will not despise. But a ‘conversion’ which does not produce this result, God will not accept as genuine.”
To be sure that we know the difference between counterfeit and genuine repentance in our own lives, join me next week as we explore Thomas Watson’s six essential ingredients which make up the spiritual medicine of repentance:
- Sight of sin.
- Sorrow for sin.
- Confession of sin.
- Shame for sin.
- Hatred for sin.
- Turning from sin.
Lord, you have reminded us today of our sinful hearts that so often deceive us into thinking we are good. We are utterly crooked, and it is only our pride, self-love and ignorance that blind us to our bankruptcy before you. Lord, we don’t want to harp on other people’s faults and cloak our sins. We ask you to cut open the abscess of our own hearts and expose whatever offends you in our thoughts, words and deeds. Help us to confess our sins to you speedily, specifically and without excuse. Holy Spirit, give us hearts of humble surrender, like the tax collector who prayed for mercy and like the 3000 converts on the day of Pentecost. Cut us to the heart, Lord, that we may be healed. In Jesus’s name. Amen.
“Above all” is a song that reminds me of Peter’s first sermon about Jesus Christ. “You lived to die, rejected and alone. Like a rose trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.” The conviction of our own great sin and Christ’s beautiful sacrifice must cut our hearts and lead us to repentance again and again.