by Robert Andrews
It is interesting that as one reads through the early sermons that are recorded in the book of Acts there is no initial appeal to believe as is often the case with sermons one hears today. Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, and later before the Sanhedrin in both Acts 4 and 5, Stephen’s sermon to the Council as he was martyred in Acts 7, Phillip’s sermon to the Ethiopian Eunuch in Acts 8, Jesus’ “sermon” to Paul on the road to Damascus in Acts 9, Peter’s preaching to the Gentiles in the living room of Cornelius in Acts 10 and Paul’s sermons on his missionary journeys were all announcements or proclamations, not appeals. Any directive at all was either a warning, as was Paul’s sermon at Antioch of Pisidia in Acts 13, or an answer to a question–his answer to the Jews at Pentecost (“What shall we do?”) and to the Philippian jailor (“What must I do to be saved?”), but these answers were not appeals.
What were the disciples announcing? They were announcing the “good news,” the gospel. There are three parts to this announcement.
1) An announcement as to who Jesus is
The first aspect of the announcement of the gospel is who Jesus is and what He has done. This is typical of the gospel as proclaimed in the above verses to the Jews: “Jesus is the one of whom the prophets spoke, the Messiah, the Savior. He proved to be such by miracles, signs and wonders. God, who delivered Him up to death by your wicked hands, has gloriously raised him from the dead, has exalted Him to His right hand in power, and made Him both Lord and Christ.”
Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Acts 17 was basically the same, though tailored for Gentiles—“Jesus is the creator and judge of all the earth, affirmed as such by His resurrection. Therefore God is calling all men to repent and believe in Him to avoid the coming judgment.” There was not an arms-length discussion about the validity of the virgin birth, proofs of the resurrection, the authority of the Bible, the reality of Hell, a personal devil, etc. There was not a discussion about belief in Jesus being a more logical, reasonable choice than unbelief. There was simply a proclamation about who Jesus is, what He did, and what He will do, with the implied conclusion, “Be afraid; be very afraid!”
2) An announcement as to who we are
Who we really are in our hearts is the second aspect of the announcement of the gospel. This often infuriated those who heard it, as is still the case today. The flesh, striving so hard to be good by being obedient to the law, does not want to hear that it is not good. This announcement will invariably draw a line between those who genuinely recognize their depravity and those to whom depravity is a theological concept only, and it may be dangerous to do so. You may lose a friend, a congregation, your reputation, or, as in the case of Stephen, maybe even your life. Typical announcements as to who we really are in Acts are phrases like “whom you took with wicked hands and killed,” “whom you murdered,” “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears,” etc. The response to this announcement as to who we are always is one of two options (and only two)—resistance or repentance.
I am not talking about the response to seeing my sin as an abstract, arms-length idea that I can decide to believe or not, like a conclusion to which I might arrive as a result of an experiment in the chemistry laboratory. There is nothing really infuriating about that. Certainly I am a sinner, as all Christians understand. The Pharisees all knew that they were all sinners—that’s what the sacrificial system in which the Jews historically had been so involved was all about–but in their minds they were sure that God had chosen to save them because they were privileged, upright Jews who kept the law meticulously. I am speaking of the response to having to face what I have done in a specific situation.
The announcement proclaimed to the Jews was that they had killed Jesus, the Messiah whom God had sent, just as surely as had the Roman soldiers, and they didn’t like hearing that. Sin is acceptable if it is a theological concept, but I, a real live, down and dirty sinner in a specific conflict? I don’t like that and I will do everything possible to avoid facing it, even killing, just as did the Pharisees! Is that not what Jesus says we do when we get angry with a brother (Matthew 5:22)? So, am I really any different than the Pharisees when I resist the announcement that exposes my heart as deceitful and desperately wicked and I can’t even fully know the depths of the sin that is in it (Jeremiah 17:9)?
How different is the response of repentance, the response of the tax-collector in Jesus’ parable—“Oh Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” I have nothing to say. All that you say of me is true and it’s even worse than you know. How can I defend myself, how can I excuse myself, how can I blame others?
I have nothing to say but to repeat with Isaiah, Job, Peter and others all through the Scripture when their true state is proclaimed and that proclamation is heard with spiritual ears—“Woe is me, for I am undone; I am a man of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5); “I abhor myself and repent in sackcloth and ashes” (Job 42:6); “Depart from me for I am a sinful man, Oh Lord” (Luke 5:8). Those are the words of true repentance.
3) An announcement as to how we relate to him
The third announcement is how I relate to God—only by grace through faith. Ladder thinking is over. The cross has taken its place. That is the meaning of the Christmas season. Christ has come announcing “peace, good will to men.” It is an announcement. Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am chief, not by empowering me to save myself by mustering up the faith to exercise my free will to choose to believe. When the announcement is heard with spiritual ears, two things are automatically and simultaneously believed, without a choice, without a decision, without any effort whatsoever. I see and believe both 1) and 2) above! I see that Jesus loves me, wicked sinner though I am, and He decided (chose, exercised His free will—the prerogative of God, the Judge) to save me. It is finished, case closed. Now my life consists of continuing to believe and doggedly hold to 1) and 2) on a daily basis—who Jesus is, what he has done, and who I am.
“What must we do to work the works of God,” said the Pharisees in John 6:28? This is the #1 question asked by all ladder-climbers. “How can I be good? How can I please God by what I do?” The answer is “you can’t.” You can only believe, trust, walk by faith as God opens your eyes. “It is finished,” said Jesus on the cross. There is nothing left for us to do. John 6:29—“This is the work of God [the only one!]: believe on Him whom He has sent.”
The difference between appeal and announcement
How do I know if I have heard, really heard, with spiritual ears, the announcement of the gospel? How do I know whether the word of God has become to me sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing my very heart, or remains a fascinating, intellectually satisfying truism to choose to believe? I want to chapter with Deuteronomy 32:39. God is speaking through Moses: “Now see that I, even I, am He, and there is no other God besides Me. I kill and I make alive, I wound and I heal; nor is there any who can deliver from my hand.”
When the gospel is proclaimed, and I really “hear” the proclamation, the Word of God of God pierces my heart and kills me. I see the futility of all my efforts to make myself holy and to please God by what I do. I have no more “Yes, but’s”, no more excuses, no more escaping out back doors when blame is assigned, no more pampering myself, no more protecting myself, no more being understanding of myself and harsh with others, no more playing the victim, no more riding the white horse, no more wrapping myself in that most delicious of all cloaks, self-pity.
I now find myself being ruthless with myself and compassionate with others, particularly with others who have not as yet seen the gospel and who may violently resist my announcement of it. God has killed me.
Then the Word of God resurrects me to new life. In the midst of my sin I find myself rejoicing, being satisfied with others and with myself, experiencing a peace that passes understanding and a joy that comes from deep within.
I begin to pray specific “I” prayers and not “we” prayers. Let me give you examples of what I mean. Here are two prayers, both prayed by sincere Christians at church, who have both experienced the same difficult week.
1) “Lord, this past week, I have fallen into pornography, hated Bill because he didn’t do what I wanted him to do and been selfish with my money by blessing myself instead of my wife. Oh God, I am helpless to change. I am a lustful, selfish controller. I cast myself on you, for I know you love me and accept me fully in spite of who I am because of what Jesus did at the cross. Hallelujah!”
2) “Lord, we all are so tempted to lust in the vile world in which we live. Help us to flee that temptation. Lord, teach us all to love our brothers, no matter what they have done to us, and help us all to be wise stewards of the money you have so graciously given us.”
The first prayer is the prayer of a man to whom the gospel announcement has come. He has heard it, it has killed him, and raised him from the dead, and he is being changed as he embraces that cross, walking daily by believing with all his heart points 1) and 2) above, as signified by his specific “I” prayer. A river flows from him in the midst of his sin that will water all with whom he comes in contact.
The second prayer is prayed by a man to whom the gospel is an appeal that he has answered. He has believed in Jesus, but his faith is an objective decision. He has not yet seen and embraced the depths of his depravity and been willing to embrace neither it, nor the fullness of God’s salvation, as evidenced by the escape from personal responsibility for his sin that his very general “we” prayer provides. The word of God has not yet slain him, and his self-righteousness waters no one.
May the Word of God come to us today, not as an appeal for us to choose to let it help us, to improve us, to shape us up, to give us a fresh start. But may it come as an announcement that will itself be an instrument of death that will kill us and bring us to new life in Christ. May we experience that death and life today as we believe the gospel by faith.
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