Grant, a listener to our Grace in Focus podcast, asks a super question:
I have a question about the recent podcast that was done concerning Acts 2:38. Towards the end of the answer to the question, Bob said that Saul (Paul) needed to be baptized to receive the forgiveness of sins, but that he had come to faith and been saved three days earlier on the road to Damascus. Can you please explain this more clearly?
I suppose my question could be stated: How could Paul be saved before his sins were forgiven?
I really do appreciate the GES teachings on many of the confusing passages in the scriptures. My wife and I have recently found GES and have found these teachings so refreshing in reminding us how free the gift of everlasting life truly is!
Grant is clearly open to what I said. Most people are not open to anything inconsistent with what they think they know is true. In this case, if I’m sure that forgiveness of sins is necessary to be saved, then Paul could not have been saved on the road to Damascus. He was told three days later to wash away his sins by being baptized: “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16). That creates another issue. Aren’t people born again and forgiven when they believe in Christ? Ananias said nothing about believing in Christ in Acts 22:16.
Paul said in Gal 1:11-12 that he did not receive his gospel from any man, but directly from Jesus Christ. That means that Ananias could not have led Paul to faith in Christ. The Lord Jesus did.
Acts 2:38 and Acts 22:16 show that Jewish people who were guilty of having been complicit in Jesus’ crucifixion had to repent and be baptized in order to receive the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins. But they were born again before that, when they believed in Jesus Christ. Lanny Thomas Tanton wrote two great journal articles drawn from his master’s thesis on Acts 2:38 (click here) and Acts 22:16 (click here). I recommend you check them out.
When the message moved to Samaritans, they merely had to believe in Christ to be born again and forgiven. However, they had to wait until Peter and John laid hands on them before they could receive the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:12-17). It was not until Gentiles were brought into the Church that they were not only born again but also received the Spirit and the forgiveness of sins when they believed (Acts 10:43-48; 11:14). From that point forward, that was the experience of both Jews and Gentiles. But until then, things were different for Jews and Samaritans.
We know from 1 John 1:9 (and Luke 15:11-24) that believers can lack forgiveness and be out of fellowship with God. A believer might die with unforgiven sins. But he remains born again. Forgiveness of sins is not a condition of everlasting life.
It is a mistake to make the forgiveness of sins the bullseye in evangelism. The bullseye is everlasting life. All who believe in Him have everlasting life that cannot be lost.
Why is it a mistake to make the forgiveness of sins the bullseye? First, it is wrong because it is possible to believe that forgiveness can be lost. Not so with everlasting life as taught by the Lord Jesus. As Dr. Ryrie loved to say, If everlasting life could be lost, then it has the wrong name. Second, it is a mistake because it violates the principle of WWJD. We know what Jesus did. He did not make the forgiveness of sins the bullseye.
Grant, think through John’s Gospel. How often did the Lord Jesus say, “He who believes in Me has the forgiveness of sins”? Never. Not once. How often did He say, “He who believes in Me has everlasting life”? Over twenty times!i
Forgiveness is a wonderful blessing. But it has not always been granted to people at the moment of faith. Acts is a book that tells us about the growth and development of the Church. Things changed over time. If we do not recognize that, we will end up with an evangelistic message that contradicts the teaching of the Lord Jesus and His apostles.
i Eleven times in the NKJV, the Lord Jesus said that everlasting life or eternal life is the bullseye (John 3:15, 16; 4:14; 5:24, 39; 6:40, 47, 54; 10:28; 12:50; 17:2). Twelve more times He said that life (without a modifier; in context referring to irrevocable life) is the bullseye (John 5:21, 24, 40; 6:33, 35, 48, 53, 63; 10:10; 11:25; 14:6; 20:31). This does not include John 3:36, where John the Baptist twice said that the bullseye is believing in Jesus for everlasting life.