Salvation in the New Testament
The essential acts of metanoeo and epistrepho
Robert Wurtz II
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified. Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “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. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:36-39).
I was asked recently to describe how a person can be saved. What an awesome question. I responded verbally and was asked later if I could write it down. This article is my attempt to do that. It is not the final answer, but the opening of an ancient question: What must I do to be saved? Generally, the answer is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” This is true as far as it goes but it doesn’t go far enough. The New Testament has a lot to say about salvation and it cannot be reduced to a sound bite or a slick answer as many people hope. It’s not a matter of just checking the box.
Every journey has a beginning. Becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ is no different. The original twelve Disciples’ journey started with a call from Christ. A call is a command, “follow me!” This meant that their heart was to turn from their present life of sin and self (disobedience to God) and towards the life He offers as their Lord and King. This was a radical life change.
Anyone who desires to be a disciple must be prepared to leave their former lives behind and anyone who rejects their new direction. Some people, like Paul the Apostle, lost everything; but what they lost they received back manifold more. In time, God made these believers instruments in His hand to spread the Gospel to the world. Yet the journey of their discipleship from their call to their receiving of the Spirit is one that we all must travel. The details will be different, but the basics will be the same. This is why it is imperative that we read the Gospels and allow the Holy Spirit to deal with us as He dealt with the twelve Disciples. Give God your undivided attention and allow Him to point things out that need your attention.
Is Their Hope for Sinners?
Imagine the horror of realizing that you were part of the crowd who yelled, “Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!” and come to find out it was the Messiah that you had killed. This was the predicament these people, listening to Peter, were in. When they heard his words they were cut to the heart or “stricken in their conscience” as one translator put it. They were guilty of the worst possible crime. How on earth will they escape the damnation of hell?!
We read these things as if they happened in seconds. He might have preached for hours. I suggest Peter was making his case with such power and authority that the people trembled as they heard him speak. The Holy Spirit was brooding over that massive crowd, numbering in the thousands, convicting them of their sins and of the judgment they deserve for those sins—with the crucifixion of Christ being the mother of them all (so to speak). I have no doubt that people were weeping and wailing under conviction. Wouldn’t you be if you were one of them?
Notice their response to his preaching, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter didn’t drag the meeting out to solicit an emotional response from the people. He wasn’t up there begging people to see the error of their ways. He simply told them the facts. Nobody was playing an invitation song to help coerce them to respond. Nobody had to lead them in the so-called modern-day “Romans Road” to gain a response and convert. They repented of their sins in the Biblical sense of the word. They trusted Christ to the uttermost. When it was all said and done they were born again of the Spirit and became awesome weapons in the hand of God. None of this “high-maintenance” and “low-impact” convert stuff.
What happened? These Jews felt the awesome impact of their sin, were guilty before God, saw their need for salvation, and cried out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” It was a desperate cry. When was the last time you heard a sinner cry that out in a meeting? We’re too busy trying to jerk a person by the arm into the kingdom to ever allow the Holy Spirit to bring them to that great and personal question, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Sadly, we don’t have time to wait these days. We want to get a decision right now. We try to lead people to Jesus who don’t even realize they are a sinner yet.
Bible Based Counsel to Sinners
The late GW North once commented that he searched the scriptures to make sure he was right because if he had counseled people wrongly he’d damned souls. Would to God that all ministers felt that way. They do not. Paul did. James did. Peter did. Peter’s answer to their question was both instructive and programmatic. It agreed with Paul’s basic message that he preached from the time he was at Damascus until the very end. What did Paul preach? He preached a message so complete that he could look at the people and say, “I am free from the blood of all men and I have not held back anything from you.” Can preachers say that today? What was Paul’s message? Don’t ask your professor in seminary, he or she will likely deceive you. Turn your Bible to Acts 26.
Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance. For these reasons the Jews seized me in the temple and tried to kill me (Acts 26:19-21).
Paul uses the Greek words metanoeo and epistrepho that means “to change the mind and turn. He adds that they should “bring forth fruits worthy of repentance” (evidence of repentance) making the repentance portion of the Gospel message essentially the same as John the Baptist. The people were expected to turn away from all sin that the Holy Spirit revealed to them. To renounce it. The water baptism represented “crossing over into a life where Jesus Christ is Lord and King.”
Peter follows the same line by calling the people to repent and be baptized. This was by total immersion as did the Jews immerse themselves ceremonially all the time and were familiar with the concept. This was what an “altar call” (the concept didn’t exist at the time) looked like before Charles Finney (1800s) decided that coming forward in a meeting and sitting on an “anxious bench” could be substituted for water baptism. Most famous evangelists have followed Finney because, like him, they would rather not deal with the controversy of baptism by immersion (believers baptism). What a terrible precedent to set.
Peter wasn’t bound up with 1900 years of men’s contributions or emendations to the Gospel. He delivered it as the Holy Spirit ordered it. The people were to change their minds and turn from their sin in response to the moving of the Holy Spirit in their hearts. They did! Three thousand people were added to the Church. But Peter wasn’t through. He headed over to Solomon’s Porch and preached a powerful message. His counsel to them?
Repent therefore and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord (Acts 3:19).
This message also contains the promise of the Holy Spirit. Surely he is building on what he said to the others previously. The writer is simply giving us different details to emphasize a different aspect of the message. They were to repent, turn to God, receive forgiveness of sins, and receive the presence of the Lord — a way of saying receive the Holy Spirit. He ends the message reminding them that Jesus Christ came to turn the people from their iniquities (sins and lawless ways).
In modern times the Gospel has been clouded by the dark lenses of men’s theologies and methods. Almost no Gospel light can penetrate. Understand that the concept of “getting saved” today is so distorted by men’s traditions that it’s like the Pharisees who made the word of God of noneffect by their traditions. What’s worse is that they show no signs of returning to a Bible-Based message. The problem is long-in-the-tooth and it will take a new generation o preachers to change it back.
Wedding or Altar Call?
Salvation is not like a wedding ceremony but it is treated as such. At a wedding people who love each other and are already committed come forward to express their desire to be married in front of witnesses. The preacher doesn’t talk them into getting married for thirty minutes and then lead them in their vows. They were already ready to commit. Their hearts were already aligned with each other.
Water Baptism is more like a wedding ceremony. That’s the public display of a person’s intentions. It may have taken them days or weeks to respond to God and hence that decision and commitment. How crazy is it to think that people can just say words like wedding vows and be joined to Christ when they haven’t even come to terms with their sin and saw their need for salvation in a meaningful way. Leonard Ravenhill used to talk about how people came to Christ faster than he could get his car through the automatic car wash. May God open our eyes, take the blinders off, and cause us to exchange the vain methods and traditions of our fathers for the proven message and method of Peter and Paul.