Peter’s sermon had an effect on thousands. How did he cause them to be cut to the heart? What importance does being cut to the heart hold for today?
“God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” This short statement in Acts 2:36 was the thrust of the piercing sermon Peter gave to the thousands who had crowded around him.
The message was powerful, and so was the chord it struck with the listeners—“When they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (verse 37, emphasis added throughout). A casual observer would assume the audience’s response to Peter’s sermon was just pure grief, similar to how a movie audience might feel at the end of a Hollywood tearjerker.
But God the Father was at work in their sobriety, directing a spiritual operation. He was initiating a phase in their lives that had the potential to lead them to eternal life in His Kingdom. But it required that they first be humbled.
Why should one be cut to the heart? Because an individual’s salvation hinges on it.
What does it mean to be “cut to the heart”?
This is not just the kind of ache a person would feel if he or she saw an emaciated beggar desperate for food, or a frail elderly person who trips and falls, or a young kid who is treated like an outcast by his peers. It goes beyond the distress of seeing a miscarriage of justice or the abuse of power.
Being cut to the heart as described in Acts 2:37 is feeling the razor-sharp conviction of something you have:
- Personally caused.
- Are utterly ashamed of.
- Are ready to address.
It’s a reaction that has the potential to forever alter a person’s life trajectory.
Some might refer to this as a “significant emotional event.” Morris Massey, the marketing professor and sociologist who is said to have coined the term, defines a significant emotional event as “an experience that is so mentally arresting that it becomes a catalyst for you to consider, examine, and possibly change your initial values or value system.”
Some of these elements were undoubtedly present in the minds of those listening to Peter. His sermon caused his listeners to enter into a state of serious introspection, and they were coming to grips with the reality of their actions.
Experiencing a significant emotional event like being cut to the heart is not the main objective; it’s a stepping stone that paves the way for heartfelt repentance.Just weeks earlier, a group—perhaps some of those in Peter’s audience—had demanded that Pilate execute Jesus even though he was determined to let Him go. They had yelled, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” (Luke 23:21). And as their cries grew louder, the pressure on Pilate mounted, and he gave in to their demands. Meanwhile, the Son of God stood there silently like a lamb being led to the slaughter (Isaiah 53:7).
Through Peter’s sermon, the audience was learning the full weight of their actions. Peter showed them and us the truth: through our sins, we are responsible for the heinous crime of murdering Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who was God in the flesh. We are accountable for the crucifixion of the only perfect, good and innocent human being to have ever walked the planet.
Those listening to Peter were understandably cut to the heart. They were mentally and emotionally torn to bits. They were beaten down and crushed. They knew not only that they had done wrong, but that they were wrong. It was a piercing form of regret they likely never forgot.
(To learn more about Peter’s sermon, one of the greatest ever given, read “The Sermon That Launched the Church.”)
Why are some cut to the heart?
But, before we get into the events that followed, we need to ask where this kind of reaction comes from.
God can use two interacting variables to cause someone to be cut to the heart: knowledge and individual conscience.
Knowledge: The process begins in the mind. Feeling the weight of shame and guilt follows an awareness of what has happened and what one has done. In this case, Peter first communicated the knowledge to his listeners by explaining the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem. He explained how Jesus was the promised Messiah foretold in scores of Old Testament prophecies and was beaten and mocked and humiliated and ultimately crucified. Once the crowd “heard this”—when they mentally connected the dots—they became painfully aware of what they had done.
Conscience: But the second variable is equally necessary and can actually make or break the process. For the knowledge of Jesus Christ’s death to be effective, it needs to penetrate someone’s being through the doors of his or her conscience. However, only God decides when He will open those doors.
Since billions of people today have at least heard about Jesus Christ’s crucifixion but done little about it, it stands to reason that knowledge by itself does not automatically produce anything. It can be useless, like any other ordinary fact stored in the brain that someone can repeat.
In verse 41, we read that in Peter’s audience were “those who gladly received his word.” This implies that there were also those who did not. Since everyone heard the same message, it’s safe to assume that the knowledge made its way into everyone’s physical brains, yet only some people’s consciences were pricked. Only some were cut to the heart.
Why? Because of God’s calling.
Jesus said, “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him” (John 6:44). Then, a few breaths later, He said it again, “Therefore I have said to you that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted to him by My Father” (verse 65).
Notice how Paul emphasizes God’s hand in the calling process: “Or do you despise the riches of His goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering, not knowing that the goodness of God leads you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4).
God is the One who places people in various situations where they can hear the knowledge of the gospel, and then He softens their consciences enough to feel the sting of guilt for sin.
God Himself is responsible for why some are cut to the heart.
For more information about why some are called now and some are not, read “Many Are Called, but Few Are Chosen.”
What can being cut to the heart accomplish in a person’s life?
Being cut to the heart should amount to more than a brief plunge in the pool of self-pity. Peter did not congratulate his listeners for how they felt about his sermon. He was aware of how somber they had become and strongly urged them to take action.
“Repent,” he said boldly, “and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).
In other words, the act of repentance goes beyond words and feelings. Experiencing a significant emotional event like being cut to the heart is not the main objective; it’s a stepping stone that paves the way for heartfelt repentance.
To begin the process of salvation, a person must repent, and genuine repentance cannot occur unless he or she is first cut to the heart.
By responding to the call of repentance, the individual opens the door for God to transform his or her entire life. This involves changing our minds to conform to God’s mind. What follows is a lifelong journey of true conversion marked by the continual overcoming of sin and building of godly character.
Being cut to the heart can lead someone to take the first step of salvation.
To learn more about the process of salvation, read “What Is Salvation?”
Does God still work in the same way?
Here we are, some 2,000 years removed from the events of Acts 2.
It goes without saying that no one today was present when Peter thundered, “This Jesus, whom you crucified.” But the “you” in his statement applies as much to every human being who has ever lived. Why? Because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).
Through His calling, God continues to bring more people to the point of being cut to the heart, so they can ask, “Men and brethren, what shall we do?”
For further study of the response God wants, see our online article “How to Repent.”