‘Repent, be baptized and receive the Holy Spirit (speaking in tongues)’—Acts 2:38 and the Revival CentresAbstract
Written by Ian Thomason, PhD
The three major Revival Centres denominations share a common ideology: they are principally experiential rather than biblical in the way they make sense of 'reality'. This isn’t to suggest the Revival Centres International (RCI), the Revival Fellowship (TRF) or the Geelong Revival Centres (GRC) completely ignores the role Christian Scripture in establishing or defending doctrine; it simply acknowledges the Bible serves a secondary function for these groups[i]. When challenged a Revivalist’s personal ‘testimony’ is inevitably more about what he or she believes God has done in their life than it is about what they believe God has said in his Word.
This essay explores the defining Bible verse of the Revival Centres fellowships—Acts 2:38[ii]. The purpose of the essay is to compare what these groups collectively understand and teach about the verse against what the grammar of the passage presents as its unaffected meaning. The question I'm seeking to answer is this: does modern Revivalism teach an interpretation of Acts 2:38 that doesn’t represent the meaning intended by the original author? One that wouldn't represent how the verse was understood by his original audience? The answer, as will become plain, is 'yes'.
Before attempting to critique the three Revivalist groups joint position on Acts 2:38, fairness requires me to make sure I properly understand what each group believes and teaches about the passage. Clearly the most responsible way to do this is by appealing to each denomination’s published doctrinal statements.
1. Revival Centres International
‘Peter the Apostle told the crowd clearly what must be done. In the Bible he specified the response they should have to their newly-found knowledge that Jesus had died for them and was risen from the dead.
He told them to “…repent,and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…” (Acts2:38).[iii]’
2. The Revival Fellowship
‘All the simplicity of the Gospel message can be found in one Scriptural passage as spoken by Peter on the day of Pentecost:
“Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 2 v 38.[iv]’
3. The Geelong Revival Centre
“The Truth of bible salvation has sadly been lost in the mass of modern day religion. Contact us today to hear the unaltered biblical message of the power of God to save the soul.
After Peter had preached to this multitude concerning the coming of the Holy Spirit, and of the necessity of salvation, he was asked by many “WHAT SHALL WE DO?” His reply was bold,and direct. He said —
1. Repent, and
2. Be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and
3. Ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
We, today, are offered no way of salvation other than this by the New Testament.[v]”
Each quote was retrieved from the official web pages of each group, with all of them being located in sections headed, ‘Salvation’[vi].
The RCI’s statement is carefully worded and nuanced, and can be interpreted in one of two ways. The TRF's statement is more obvious in linking Acts 2:38 with the ‘simplicity of the Gospel message’. And perhaps characteristically, the GRC promotes Acts 2:38 as the ‘unaltered biblical message of the power to save the soul’. Noting what was said, and considering where each of these statements was located at the various groups' websites, it’s difficult to avoid reaching the conclusion they believe Acts 2:38 summarises the Christian gospel. This is crucial given this statement by the Apostle Paul:
‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ:for it is the power of God unto salvation to everyone that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.’ (Romans 1:16, King James Version)[vii]
For Paul getting the Gospel ‘right’ was critically important. The gospel was the ‘good news about Jesus Christ’; it was the power to save everyone who trusted in its message. Whether or not Acts 2:38 adequately sums up the universal-to-all gospel is the thrust of this essay. For my part I don’t believe it does[viii], and I will seek to demonstrate this as the essay develops.
A fundamental problem of interpretation
As I stated earlier the reason Revivalists believe as they do about Acts 2:38 is mainly due to them being fundamentally experiential rather than biblical in establishing and defending their ‘salvation’ doctrine. And because Revivalists interpret everything through their ‘speaking in tongues’ experience, they've either consciously or subconsciously read into Acts 2:38 the meaning they expected to find. However, what they should do instead is read out from the passage the meaning that Peter intended his Jewish audience to understand[ix]. Crucially, what is described as taking place in Acts chapter two isn’t what we find in the shared Revivalist experience; neither in the generalities nor in the particulars[x].
I will happily admit that religious experience has an important role in the practice of Bible interpretation. However, a general truism for interpreting all written material is this: in order to properly understand a passage or verse in isolation the reader must carefully consider its place within the greater whole. This applies to the reading of the Bible as much as it does to the reading of poetry, or newspaper and magazine articles, or a novel. Demonstrating such care in one's reading is the only way to guarantee we consider context, and with it, the intentions of the author. While this essay is consciously a review of an isolated verse, and while I sincerely believe verse 38 should be considered in the literary context in which it appears—Acts 2:14 through 41—it can be reviewed in isolation because it contains sufficient grammatical material to enable an adequate evaluation.
While I’ll be using the Greek text as the basis for my grammatical analysis, I intend to present the information in English in such a way as to make it readily understandable[xi].
The Greek text of Acts 2:38 comprises of three clauses[xii]. In English we would classify one as a ‘principle clause’, one as a ‘subordinate clause’, and one as a ‘coordinate clause’. Principle clauses distinguish the ‘main idea/material’ from the ‘supporting ideas/material’ found in one or more subordinate clauses. A coordinate clause links to either a principle clause or subordinate clause, depending on the grammatical markers and relationships expressed within the clauses themselves. I’ve used two colours to identify the grammatical relationships in the Greek text below. Maroon represents the principle clause and its related coordinate clause, while blue identifies the subordinate clause. English grammar is quite different to Greek grammar, but I’ve transposed the same two colours onto the King James Version English translation in order to identify the translational relationships, and perhaps more importantly, to better identify the implications that result.
Π?τρο? δ? πρ?? α?το??· μετανο?σατε, [φησ?ν,] κα? βαπτισθ?τω ?καστο? ?μ?ν ?π? τ? ?ν?ματι?ησο? Χριστο? ε?? ?φεσιν τ?ν ?μαρτι?ν ?μ?νκα? λ?μψεσθε τ?ν δωρε?ν το? ?γ?ου πνε?ματο?.
‘Then Peter said unto them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift [of] the Holy Ghost.”’
The ‘main idea’ of verse 38 is, ‘Peter said unto them,“Repent!’” In both Greek and English the grammatical subject is the Apostle Peter giving the command ‘repent!’ to the assembled Jews.Notably the word translated ‘repent’ was a technical religious term during the first century. It brought to mind the idea of turning from ‘someone’ or ‘something’ to ‘someone’ or ‘something’. Peter’s larger Pentecost address provided the context for the word’s use in our verse, as it indicated he expected the gathered Jews to turn from their ethnic pride and religious stubbornness to Jesus as their national saviour and king[xiii]. But more on this shortly.
The principle clause, or ‘main idea’, expressed an action that was required of them—‘repent’. This action of repentance was further nuanced by the author's use of a coordinate clause. It clarified the inevitable result—‘and ye shall receive the gift [of], the Holy Ghost’. I can’t stress this point strongly enough. The Greek text of verse 38 clearly states the one and only thing required of the Jews at Pentecost in order to receive the gift of God’s Holy Spirit, was repentance! As far as Peter was concerned ethnic Jewish identity alone wasn’t sufficient to guarantee a share of God’s long awaited Holy Spirit. They needed to regret their part in rejecting Jesus’ right to rule as Christ and king as well.
The Aimoo format doesn't allow me to grammatically diagram the relationship as I'd like, so I've attempted to represent it into English via the use of indenting. Doing so the subordinate clause is offset from the linked principle and coordinate clauses:
‘Then Peter said unto them, “Repent ... and ye shall receive the gift [of], the Holy Ghost.’”
and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ
for the remission of sins
Requirement: ‘repent’. Primary Result: ‘you will receive the gift, God’s Holy Spirit’. Requirement: ‘repent’. Secondary Result: ‘you will submit to being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ’. Purpose Statement: ‘for the forgiveness of sins’.
The subordinate clause, “… and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” warrants some unpacking. First, this is a subordinate clause; consequently, baptism isn’t equal to repentance as a requirement for receiving God’s Holy Spirit. Noting Peter didn’t prescribe baptism as a ‘salvation’ requirement in verse 38, I harbour doubts Lloyd Longfield, John Kuhlmann or Noel Hollins has the authority to demand otherwise. The next fact, clauses express propositions. Given that ‘repentance’ and ‘the receiving of God’s Holy Spirit as gift’ are coordinate and therefore primary, submitting to “baptism in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins” must logically be a secondary requirement; as a requirement resulting from the former repentance. This truth forms one of the theological grounds for historic Christianity’s teaching that baptism is an act of Christian discipleship more than it is a basis for Christian conversion. Put simply baptism is subsequent to and consequent on ‘conversion’ having taken place via repentance. This truth can be established by reviewing the morphology of the Greek verb translated into English as “shall receive”. The verb appears in the indicative (or ‘evidential’) mood, which is the grammatical state an author writing in Greek used when making factual statements about events or conditions. In other words according the the author of Acts Peter was completely confident the Jews would receive the gift of God’s Spirit when they repented. Had he thought it necessary (or possible) for them to “seek to receive” the gift, then we would have found an aorist subjunctive verb or similar grammatical device being used instead. But we don't find this.
There are several troubling implications for the RCI, TRF and GRC that result from this analysis. Most important of all is the “repent, be baptized and (seek to) receive the Holy Spirit (‘speaking in tongues’)” cornerstone doctrine of Revivalism can be safely dismissed outright. It's grammatically impossible, and it's clearly an ideologically motivated, forced misinterpretation of the verse. Further, the significance the RCI, TRF and GRC places on verse 38 in isolation is shown to be completely at odds with the context developed by the Apostle Peter in his Pentecost address. Verses 14 through 35 show him explaining at length the Person and role of Jesus Christ being the One who fulfilled God’s covenant promises to ethnic Israel! Verse 38 functions as the climax of his address, with the crisis provoked at verse 37 depending entirely on the charge Peter leveled at the feet of the Jews in verse 36: “You, Israel! You’ve rejected and crucified Jesus because you thought him a ‘royal pretender’! You misunderstood. He is the Messiah of God!”
Acts 2:38 was a message that was directed at mid- first century Jews, not at twenty and twenty-first century gentiles.
What I’ve described in this essay clearly isn’t the doctrinal position taught and promoted by Revivalism. Some of you may be tempted to believe I’ve ‘fiddled’ with the grammar of our passage in order to make Acts 2:38 say what I want it to say. However, verse 38 is a very simple passage in both Greek and English. And while it may be possible to reach the conclusion that baptism is required alongside repentance to receive God's Spirit from reading an English translation, I suggest to you it’s impossible to arrive at such an outcome from reading the ‘original Greek’.
To summarise the key points: First, contrary to what the various Revival Centres groups want you to believe Acts 2:38 isn’t a summary of the timeless Christian gospel. It's the record of a message aimed at a specific people group, at a specific point in history. Acts 2:38 is the culmination of the story of God’s dealing with ethnic Israel, and his outworking of the covenant promises in the Person of his Son, Jesus Christ. The focus of the Book of Acts is in describing early church history more than it is a description of early church theology. Second, Acts 2:38 says nothing at all about 'speaking in tongues', either positively or negatively. The miraculous signs described at Pentecost happened in order to get the attention of ethnic Israel, to make them receptive to Peter's message about just who Jesus Christ is. The signs—including the speaking of known, human languages by the twelve apostles—served to introduce the sermon; the signs weren't the content of the sermon. Third, baptism isn't mandated as a ‘salvation requirement’. To the contrary, it's presented as an act of Christian discipleship, as the inevitable outcome of an inner change wrought through the inner work of God's Holy Spirit.
To conclude, Acts 2:38 doesn’t teach the so-called ‘1-2-3 Revival Centres Salvation Message’ of “repent, and be baptised (by complete immersion in water) and you will receive the Holy Ghost (‘speaking in tongues’).” This misinterpreted Revivalist mantra is poles removed from Peter's message to the Jews at Pentecost, so it should serve as a warning of what can happen when Scripture is twisted to satisfy an idiosyncratic, dogmatic and denominational belief. The Christian Gospel is the ‘good news’ about Jesus Christ’s birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension to the Father and eventual return. Period.
A timeless biblical summary of the gospel message as directed to gentiles such as us can be found at Acts 16:30(b)-34.
Then he brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” And they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their wounds; and he was baptized at once, he and all his family. Then he brought them up into his house and set food before them. And he rejoiced along with his entire household that he had believed in God.Endnotes:
[i] Churches that view Scripture as primary would seek to establish their beliefs by reviewing what the Bible as a whole says about a given subject, developing their doctrines from the full range of biblical data. Churches that view Scripture as secondary; however, tend to start with a preferred doctrine and then search the Bible for passages they believe can be used to support and defend their beliefs.
[ii] Acts 2:38 appears regularly and specifically in Revivalist promotional material, corporate logos and similar, and is widely understood to be the Bible’s ‘salvation message’ in summary form.
[iii] http://revivalcentres.org/beliefs/salvation/ retrieved 15 February 2015.
[iv] http://www.trf.org.au/salvation.asp retrieved 15 February 2015.
[v] http://thegeelongrevivalcentre.com.au/salvation/ retrieved 15 February 2015.
[vi] The Revival Fellowship was more explicit, the heading being ‘the Salvation Message’.
[vii] Bible references will largely be drawn from the King James Version, as it is likely to be the translation most familiar to most readers of this essay.
[viii] In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 Paul explicitly identified the Gospel message expressing: 1. the death, 2. burial, 3. resurrection, and 4. post-resurrection appearances of Jesus Christ. So in order to be a ‘Gospel (i.e. “good news”) of Christ’, the message requires him to be at its centre, with him serving as the subject of the message.This truth is reinforced in the ancient titles afforded to the four canonical Gospels: the Gospel According to Matthew; the Gospel According to Mark; the Gospel According to Luke;the Gospel According to John. These four written accounts were: the good news about Jesus, written from the perspective of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
[ix] That Peter’s Pentecost audience was Jewish rather than gentile is crucial to properly understanding the meaning of the passage. It speaks to the overarching principle of context.
[x] None of the various Pentecost manifestations matches the Revivalist’s experience: where is the sudden thunderous sound of wind when a Revivalist ‘receives’? Why is there never a sheet-like flame that spreads out and separates over groups of Revivalists when they corporately ‘receive’? Why are there never any foreign ‘outsiders’ present to hear God’s works being praised in know human languages when Revivalists ‘receive’? And why do Revivalists universally ‘receive’ as individuals when Pentecost describes something that happened corporately?
[xi] I have taught biblical Greek to college and university undergraduates for over a decade, so I’m very familiar with the language and the methods and procedures used to translate, analyse and interpret the Greek New Testament.
[xii] A clause is the smallest grammatical unit capable of expressing a proposition (i.e. it consists of a subject and predicate, where the predicate is typically a verb phrase).
[xiii] See Acts 2:14-36..