I'm taking a break from my normal posts about the happenings of my ministry with Africa to post what has been burning in my heart, the very reason I do all this ministry: the Good News of Christ.
I have a growing concern for the evangelical church. To put my concern to the test, I asked, both in person and online, a number of faithful churchgoing evangelicals who would proudly label themselves conservative, to critique the following gospel presentation:
God created the world good. But mankind fell by disobeying Him, so now we are all sinners going to hell. The only way out is if the price is paid for our sin, so God sent His Son Jesus to earth as a man. He lived the perfect sinless life we couldn't, and died on the cross so that those who believe in Him can have a relationship with God which enables them to live better now and go to heaven when we die."What's wrong with it?" I asked. Answers included that it uses terms an unchurched person wouldn't understand, it doesn't describe the need for repentance and obedience, "a better life" is not guaranteed by believing in Christ, it emphasizes what we get rather than the point of bringing glory to God, and in general it doesn't explain enough "why."
Only one person caught that it doesn't mention the resurrection, and that was someone who had heard me talk about this before.
I thought up this test out of my own experience as a teenager reading the Left Behind series. There was a scene in which someone witnessed to a friend, and told a gospel similar to what I just gave. "Okay, is there anything else I need to do?" asked the listener. No, that covers it, I thought. Then I read on: "You have to believe that Jesus rose from the dead," the witnessing character added. D'oh! I thought. Though that was about thirteen years ago, studies and circumstances lately brought that memory to mind, making me wonder, How is it that the resurrection has become an afterthought?
The resurrection is the central point of the gospel! Of the eight gospel sermons we have in Acts, not one of them talks about going to heaven when we die – actually, that is scarcely mentioned in Scripture. Not one says that Jesus paid the price for our sins. Every single one of them focuses on Christ's resurrection. The disturbing realization that I could have heard a gospel presentation that ejected the main point and not notice forces me to ask the question, Do we know the gospel at all?
Are we actually preaching what the apostles preached and died for? One thoughtful respondent of my test mentioned that my little presentation did not explain why Jesus' death is really necessary for our forgiveness, what heaven and hell really mean, and the problem questions that can come with the view of justice that come with a superficial concept of these. I think a lot of those questions would be put to rest if we centered on the resurrection:
We are not saved because Christ died …
We are not saved because Christ took our guilt away …
Sacrifice was not for vengeance …
Christ does not cover our sins, as if they remained underneath …
The pinnacle of salvation is not being dead in heaven …
Christ does not save our souls …
Christ did not redeem just mankind …
What was it the apostles preached?
But Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these men are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel:
“‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams;
even on my male servants and female servants
in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
And I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood, and fire, and vapor of smoke;
the sun shall be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood,
before the day of the Lord comes, the great and magnificent day.
And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. For David says concerning him,
“‘I saw the Lord always before me,
for he is at my right hand that I may not be shaken;
therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
my flesh also will dwell in hope.
For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
or let your Holy One see corruption.
You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
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.”
1. What the prophets foretold was happening before their eyes. Quotes should not be used to make a point out of their context, and the apostles are not exempt from this; when they quoted a verse, they were referring to the whole passage, knowing their audience would be familiar with it. Most of the Jews' education at the time centered on learning the Scriptures, and they prayed the Psalms regularly. So they would have in mind the whole message of Joel, pointing to a locust plague, a coming army invasion, and other disasters like wildfire and drought to show the people the devastating effects of sin, how it destroys us, our land, even our animals, and our ability to worship. In chapter 2 God calls the people even now to repent that He may give a blessing, and then describes God having compassion on His people, driving back their destroyers, restoring their land and in that time, pouring out His Spirit on all flesh. All this redemption, blessing, the driving out of the sin and its author that was destroying them, was accomplished by Christ, so that whoever calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
2. Jesus was attested by God with mighty works. What were his mighty works attesting? He drove out blindness and gave men sight, saying "I am the Light of the World." He cast out demons saying, "The Kingdom of God is among you." He freed those bound by Satan in disability. He raised Lazarus from the dead proclaiming, "I am the resurrection and the life." He fed the people, as Joel prophesied that they would have plenty to eat, saying "I am the bread of life." All his miracles attested that He is the deliverer promised from old, salvation from Satan, sin, and death.
Peter's next point?
3. You killed him. You were so bound in sin, so loyal to Satan, that you delivered up your Savior to him. But God knew that we would. It was all part of the plan. Because death could not hold him. David's hope of being saved from death was fulfilled in this Holy One who would not see corruption, and would rescue the souls of men from Hades.
4. He has poured out the Holy Spirit. Again, the promise of life Joel spoke of fulfilled.
5. He reigns. Psalm 110 is entirely messianic, proclaiming that Christ is Lord, the Son of God, who rules amid His enemies, becomes priest, shatters His enemies, and brings peace. Christ has broken the power of His enemies, become priest, and begun to reign. So repent, and be baptized in his name.
Again in Acts 3, the message:
And when Peter saw it he addressed the people: “Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all.
“And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, ‘The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.’ And all the prophets who have spoken, from Samuel and those who came after him, also proclaimed these days. You are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.”
The gospel points here are mostly the same, but in a different order:
1. God glorified Jesus.
2. You delivered Him over to death.
3. God raised Him up.
4. He gives health.
5. God foretold this to the prophets and patriarchs.
6. Repent that you may receive forgiveness and refreshing on the land.
Now, if you've taken my considerations seriously, one more challenge:
The other gospel sermons in Acts are in 4:8-12, 5:30-32, 10:34-43, 13:16-41, 17:22-31, and 26:1-23. Read them and make outlines of their main points. Be sure to look up the context of all OT passages quoted; the footnotes in your Bible should point you to them. Notice what they emphasize, and what they don't. And relish the beauty of the gospel, that though we were blind and hopeless slaves to the enemies of God – Satan, sin, and death – Christ came to where we are, subjected to them that He might conquer them all and free us. He now offers Himself: Life, Light, Righteousness.