No words, whether of men or of God, can effect moral changes in the feelings of the hearer, unless they are believed; nor can they when believed, unless they announce truths or facts calculated to produce such change. In the present instance, the facts announced placed the hearers in the awful attitude of the murderers of the Son of God, who was now not only alive again, but seated on the throne of God, with all power in his hands, both on earth and in heaven. The belief of these facts necessarily filled them with the most intense realization of guilt, and the most fearful anticipation of punishment. The former of these emotions is expressed by the words of Luke, “They were pierced to the heart;” the latter, in their own words, “Brethren, what shall we do?” They had just heard Peter, in the language of Joel, speak of a possible salvation; and the question, What shall we do? unquestionably means, What shall we do to be saved?
38. This is the first time, under the reign of Jesus Christ, that this most important of all questions was ever propounded; and the first time, of course, that it was every answered. Whatever may have been the true answer under any previous dispensation, or on any previous day in the world's history, the answer given by Peter on this day of Pentecost, in which the reign of Christ on earth began, is the true and infallible answer for all the subjects of his authority in all subsequent time. It deserves our most profound attention; for it announces the conditions of pardon for all men who may be found in the same state of mind with these inquiries. It is expressed as follows: (38) “Then Peter said to them, Repent and be immersed, 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.”
That the offer of pardon, made to the world through Jesus Christ, is conditional, is denied only by the fatalist. We will not argue this point, expect as it is involved in the inquiry as to what the conditions of pardon are. When we ascertain the prescribed conditions of pardon, both questions will be settled in settling one.
Pardon is the chief want of the human soul, in its most favorable earthly circumstances. The rebel against God's government, though he lay down his arms and becomes a loyal subject, can have no hope of happiness without pardon for the past; while the pardoned penitent, humbly struggling in the service of God, knows himself still guilty of shortcomings, by which he must fail of the final reward, unless pardoned again and again. The question as to what are the conditions of pardon, therefore, necessarily divides itself into two; one having reference to the hitherto-unpardoned sinner, the other to the saint who may have fallen into sin. It is the former class who propounded the question to Peter, and it is to them alone that the answer under consideration was given. We will confine ourselves, in our present remarks, to this branch of the subject, and discuss it only in the light of the passage before us.
If we regard the question of the multitude, What shall we do? as simply a question of duty under their peculiar circumstances, without special reference to final results, we learn from the answer that there were two things for them to do—Repent, and be immersed. If Peter had stopped with these two words, his answer would have been satisfactory, in this view of the subject, and it would have been the conclusion of the world, that the duty of a sinner, “pierced to the heart” by a sense of guilt, is to repent and be immersed.
But if we regard their question as having definite reference to the salvation of which Peter had already spoken, (verse 21,) and their meaning, What shall we do to be saved? then the answer is equally definite: it teaches that what a sinner thus affected is to do to be saved, is to repent and be immersed.
From these two observations, the reader perceives, that so far as the conditions of salvation from past sins are concerned, the duty of the sinner is most definitely taught by the first two words of the answer, taken in connection with their question, without entering upon the controversy concerning the remainder of the answer. If it had been Peter's design merely to give an answer in concise terms, without explanation, no doubt he would have confined it to these two words, for they contain the only commands which he gives.
But he saw fit to accompany the two commands with suitable explanations. He qualifies the command to be immersed by the clause, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” to show that it is under his authority that they were to be immersed, and not merely under that of the Father, whose authority alone was recognized in John's immersion. That we are right in referring to this limiting clause, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” to the command to be immersed, and not to the command repent, is evident from the fact that it would be incongruous to say, “Repent in the name of Jesus Christ.”
Peter further explains the two commands, by stating their specific design; by which term we mean the specific blessing which was to be expected as the consequence of obedience. It is “for the remission of sins.” To convince an unbiased mind that this clause depends upon both the preceding commands, and express their design, it would only be necessary to repeat the words, “Repent and be immersed in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins.” But, inasmuch as it has suited the purpose of some controversialists to dispute this proposition, we here give the opinions of two recent representative commentators, who can not be suspected of undue bias in its favor.
Dr. Alexander (Presbyterian) says, “The whole phrase, to (or toward) remission of sins, describes this as the end to which the multitude had reference, and which, therefore, must be contemplated in the answer.” Again: “The beneficial end to which all this led was the remission of sins.”
Dr. Hackett (Baptist) expresses himself still more
The connection contended for can not be made more apparent by argument; it needs only that attention be called to it, in order to be perceived by every unbiased mind. It is possible that some doubt might arise in reference to the connection of the clause with the term repent, but one would imagine that its connection with the command be immersed could not be doubted, but for the fact that it has been disputed. Indeed, some controversialists have felt so great necessity for denying the last-named connection, as to assume that the clause, “for the remission of sins” depends largely upon the term repent, and that the connection of thought is this: “Repent for the remission of sins, and be immersed in the name of Jesus Christ.” It is a sufficient refutation of this assumption to remark, that, if Peter had intended to say this, he would most certainly have done so; but he has said something entirely different; and this shows that he meant something entirely different. If men are permitted, after this style, to entirely reconstruct the sentences of inspired apostles, then there is no statement in the Word of God which may not be perverted. We dismiss this baseless assumption with the remark, that it has not been dignified by the indorsement of any writer of respectable attainments, known to the author, and it would not be noticed here, but for the frequency of its appearance in the pulpit, in the columns of denominational newspapers, and on the pages of partisan tracts.
The dependence of the clause, “for the remission of sins,” upon both the verbs repent and be immersed, being established, it would seem undeniable that remission of sins is the blessing in order to the enjoyment of which they were commanded to repent and be immersed. This is universally admitted so far as the term repent is concerned, but by many denied in reference to the command be immersed; hence the proposition that immersion is for the remission of sins is rejected by the Protestant sects in general. Assuming that remission of sins precedes immersion, and that, so far as adults are concerned, the only proper subjects for this ordinance are those whose sins are already pardoned, it is urged that for in this clause means “on account of” or “because of.” Hence, Peter is understood to command, “Repent and be immersed on account of remission of sins already enjoyed.” But this interpretation is subject to two insuperable objections. 1st. To command men to repent and be immersed because their sins were already remitted, is to require them not only to be immersed on this account, but to repent because they were already pardoned. There is no possibility of extricating the interpretation from this absurdity. 2d. It contradicts an obvious fact of the case. It makes Peter command the inquirers to be immersed because their sins were already remitted, whereas it is an indisputable fact that their sins were not yet remitted. On the contrary, they were still pierced to the heart with a sense of guilt, and by the question they propounded were seeking how they might obtain the very pardon which this interpretation assumes that they already enjoyed. Certainly no sane man would assume a position involving such absurdity, and so contradictory to an obvious fact, were he not driven to it by the inexorable demands of a theory which could not be otherwise sustained.
We observe, further, in reference to this interpretation, that even if we admit the propriety of supplanting the preposition for by the phrase on account of, the substitute will not answer the purpose for which it is employed. The meaning of this phrase varies, according as its object is past or future. “On account of” some past event may mean because it has taken place; but on account of an event yet in the future, would, in the same connection, mean in order that it might take place. The same is true of the equivalent phrase, “because of.” If, then, the parties addressed by Peter were already pardoned, “on account of the remission of sins” would mean, because their sins had been remitted. But as this is an indisputable fact that the parties addressed were yet unpardoned, what they are commanded to do on account of remission of sins must mean, in order that their sins may be remitted. Such a rendering, therefore, would not even render the obvious meaning of the passage less perspicuous than it already is.
It will be found that any other substitute for the preposition for, designed to force upon the passage a meaning different from that which it obviously bears, will as signally fail to suit the purpose of its author. If, with Dr. Alexander, we render, Repent and be immersed “to (or toward) remission of sins,” we still have remission both beyond repentance and immersion, and depending upon them as preparatory conditions. Indeed, this rendering would leave it uncertain whether repentance and immersion would bring them to remission of sins, or only toward it, leaving an indefinite space yet to pass before obtaining it.
If, with others still—for every effort that ingenuity could suggest has been made to find another meaning for this passage—we render it, Repent and be immersed unto or into remission of sins, the attempt is fruitless; for remission of sins is still the blessing unto which or into which repentance and immersion are to lead the inquirers.
Sometimes the advocates of these various renderings, when disheartened by the failure of their attempts at argument and criticism, resort to raillery, and assert that the whole doctrine of immersion for the remission of sins depends upon the one little word for in the command, “be immersed for the remission of sins.” If this were true, it would be no humiliation; for a doctrine based upon a word of God, however small, has an eternal and immutable foundation. But it is not true. On the contrary, you may draw a pencil-mark over the whole clause, “for the remission of sins,” erasing it, with all the remainder of Peter's answer, and still the meaning will remain unchanged. The connection would then read thus: “Brethren, what shall we do? Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be immersed every one of you in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Remembering now that these parties were pierced to the heart with a sense of guilt, and that their question means, What shall we do to be saved from out sins? the answer must be understood as the answer to that question. But the answer is, Repent and be immersed; therefore, to repent and to be immersed are the two things which they must do in order to be saved from their sins.
—Acts of the Apostles