The following is a summation of a message given to local pastors and church leaders at the Advance the Church spring regional, 2012. Link to the full audio is below.
Acts 2:41–47 gives us 5 “tests” of gospel-centrality. If we are preaching the Spirit-anointed gospel, these 5 things will be the result in our churches, just as they were in the very first one:
1. Evangelistic effectiveness AND doctrinal depth (Acts 2:41-42, 47)
Acts 2:41 tells us that in one day 3,000 people were saved and baptized, and verse 47 reports that God added daily to their number those who were being saved. The first church grew in a hurry. At the same time, the people were “devoted to the teaching of the Apostles” and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory.
I often hear church depth place at odds with church width. The early church clearly did both. In reality, the one is impossible without the other. Churches that grow wide without growing deep are not creating “sustainable” width, only generating a little temporary excitement. Churches that don’t grow wide are probably not nearly as deep as they may think. Gospel depth almost always produces gospel fruitfulness (Mark 4:16-17). Understanding the gospel gives you a sense of people’s lostness. You understand the wrath of God against their sin, how imminent His judgment is, how great His grace is towards them. Understanding the gospel gives you humility, because you realize how lost you were before God saved you. Understanding the gospel gives you the faith to believe God for great things, because the gospel reveals how willing and able God is to save. You show me someone characterized by a sense of urgency, humility, love and the boldness that comes from great faith, and I’ll show you someone who will be an effective evangelist!
Healthy churches do both (Col 1:5-6). Certain churches within the gospel-centered movement are suprisingly unconcerned with, or ineffective at, evangelism. They talk a lot about “mission” and “planting churches” but somehow that never translates into evangelism. Some wear smallness as a badge of honor. They love to critique everyone else’s evangelism, but do very little of their own. Charles Spurgeon—no theological lightweight—said, “I would sooner bring one sinner to Jesus Christ than unpack all the mysteries of the divine Word, for salvation is the thing we are to live for.”
A lot of the criticisms directed at rapidly-growing churches seem (to me) to be motivated by about 30% theological concern and 70% jealousy, fear and laziness. This is not to say that there is no validity to the theological concerns, just that those making them should pay attention to their motives. Our arrogance may keep us from receiving the grace God works even in the midst of theological shortcomings. We ought to be humbled by the zeal for souls present in movements that do not achieve, in our view, a full gospel-centrality. As D. L. Moody said to one Reformed critic of his, “It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
This first church was full of the Spirit. There are a few things in that chapter that we will not likely experience in our congregations, but verse 43 gives you a classic description of the effect of the fullness of the Spirit—it says the people were “filled with awe.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said (and I paraphrase), “The presence of God is a felt-sense of the attributes of God as revealed in the gospel.” Their sense of the “presence of God” was not the result of a musical crescendo or an emotive preacher. It came simply from the preaching of the gospel by ones who really believed it and felt its passions within their souls. Another of my favorite theologians, Jonathan Edwards, described his sense of the presence of God like this:
“Sometimes only mentioning the name of Christ or an attribute of God will cause my heart to burn within me. . . . Suddenly God appears glorious to me. When I enjoy this sweetness it seems to carry me outside of myself. I cannot bring myself even to take my eye from this Glorious Object.”
Note that this sort of experience is not at odds with doctrine, or even beyond doctrine, but flows out of good doctrine. It’s not less than doctrine, it is more. God’s beauty and majesty are not just to be perceived with the mind, they are to be felt in the soul.
Where this happens, there is the joy you see in Acts 2:46-47. It is hard for me to believe that a church can really “get” the gospel when its services are not characterized by joy. Yes, there are times for somberness and mourning and repentance in worship, but the predominant motif of biblical worship is joy. Multiple places in Scripture command us to clap our hands, shout with joy, and to sing and delight in God. They tell us that in God’s presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). So how can we claim to have gospel-centered churches if our services are not characterized by exuberant joy?
3. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by fervent, faith-filled prayer (Acts 2:42)
The gospel produces a faith in the church that makes bold requests of Jesus. You see that referred to here in Acts 2, and fleshed out later in Acts 4:24-31. They expected great things from God, and then attempted great things for God.
The early church was born from prayer. After Jesus ascended to heaven, Acts 1:14 reports that the disciples “were devoting themselves to prayer.” This went on for ten days before the arrival of the Spirit on Pentecost. These believers prayed for 10 days, Peter preached for 10 minutes, and 3,000 people were saved. Today we’re more likely to pray for 10 minutes, preach for 10 days, and see 3 people saved.
Acts shows us a profound connection between corporate prayer and our community getting a sense of the glory of God. When we pray, our eyes are opened to the glory of God. When our eyes are opened to His glory, we preach with boldness, passion and power (Acts 4:24-31). In Acts 7:55-56, we see Stephen lift his eyes to heaven in prayer, catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and in awe begin to proclaim it to those around him. When this happens on a city-wide scale, what you get is a spiritual awakening. Tim Keller gives a glimpse of what this looks like:
In New York, in 1857, a man named Jeremiah Lanphier was hired to witness to a local neighborhood. He was frustrated by utter ineffectiveness, and so in desperation he turned to prayer. One day he invited people to pray with him—six people showed up. The following week, 20 people came. The next week, 40. Two months later, hundreds were gathering to pray. Soon the entire downtown area was filled with men and women praying. Evangelistic meetings sprang up all over the city, and in 9 months, 50,000 people came to Christ at a time when the population of NYC was 800,000. This was known as the great prayer revival of Manhattan.
I really want to see that happen in Raleigh-Durham. If you scaled the proportions, that would be like 100,000 people coming to Christ in a 9-month period!
4. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by empowered members. (Acts 8:1, 28:15)
A stubborn theme throughout the book of Acts is that God’s most effective vehicles are “regular” people. Consider these facts from Acts: Thirty-nine of the 40 miracles in the book of Acts occur outside the walls of the “church,” in the workplace. The longest sermon in Acts is by Stephen, a layman. That sermon led to the most significant spiritual moment in Acts, the conversion of Saul (Paul). Acts 8:1 notes that when persecution rose up against the church, the church was scattered around the world preaching the gospel. But note that Luke tells you this worldwide fulfillment of Acts 1:8 did not include the Apostles. These anonymous Christians were so effective in ministry that when Paul showed up in Rome to preach the gospel “where Christ had never been named,” he was greeted by “the brothers” (Acts 28:15). Early church historian Stephen Neill notes that the anonymity of the major gospel movements in the ancient world is breathtaking: “But in point of fact few, if any, of the great Churches were really founded by apostles. Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries… Luke does not turn aside to mention the name of a single one of those pioneers who laid the foundation. Peter and Paul may have organized the Church in Rome. They certainly did not found it…” (History of Christian Missions, 22)
This flows from the very nature of the gospel. The gospel is not about recognizing the gifted, but about gifting the unrecognized. Church leaders who understand that gospel won’t try to build their church around a handful of mega-talented superstars, but rather dedicate themselves to empowering and releasing the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13). They become committed to raising up other leaders. They judge their success not so much by seating capacity but sending capacity.
5. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by extravagant generosity. (Acts 2:45)
The gospel is that Jesus “became poor for our sake so that through his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). When a church gets this, they become extravagantly generous toward others. The first Christians didn’t just give out of their excess. They voluntarily sold their stuff so that their were no needs among them.
Eventually this sort of gospel generosity overflowed into the streets, but it started in the church. As the apostle Paul says in Galatians, “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Ultimately, the love that Christians show to one another is a profound statement to an unbelieving world. It is by our love for one another, Jesus said, that the world will know that we are His disciples (John 13:35; cf. 1 Peter 4:9). As Francis Schaeffer said, “the final apologetic that Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.”
Evangelistic effectiveness and doctrinal depth; fervent, faith-filled prayer; a sense of the presence of God; empowered members and extravagant generosity are 5 things that the gospel produced in the early church. How present are they in your church? If one of these characteristics are missing, is it possible that we don’t understand the gospel as much as we claim to? These are the indelible marks of a gospel movement.
If these are missing from your church, the answer is not to “go and try harder.” We need to ask ourselves, “Why is the gospel I am preaching not producing these things?”
Here is the link to the full talk.