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GuideStones: The Proclamation of the Gospel - Part 2

GuideStones: The Proclamation of the Gospel - Part 2

Friday, May 7, 2021 11:43 AM
Friday, May 7, 2021 11:43 AM


Acts 2:14-40

Along our journey on the road back to Jerusalem we now come to GuideStone #2 left for us by our spiritual forefathers in the early church. It points us in the direction of the proclamation of the gospel and warns us about preaching a message that is void of the gospel itself. Tragically, the call of modern church growth has with it a de-emphasis on expository preaching in its quest to “relate” to felt needs. At Pentecost Simon Peter stood up, opened his scroll to the book of Joel, illustrated his text with two of the Psalms and established a Biblical basis for the phenomenon that was Pentecost.

One of the subtle dangers of some modern church growth techniques lies in an actual, and I am sure unconscious, abandonment of the gospel itself. This should bring us to a foundational question — What is the gospel? Of course, the place to begin to answer this question is in the Bible. The gospel message is not just “good news” to give you a purpose or to make you feel better about yourself. An understanding of the gospel begins with an awareness that man is a sinner in rebellion against God (Rom. 3:23; 5:1–12).While man may be looking for some religious aspect in life, the truth is he does not seek for God or even desire Him according to Romans 3:10–18. Thus man is under the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18) and he faces a future judgment (Heb. 9:27). He is not sick spiritually; he is dead in his trespasses and sin. He is destined, without Christ, to die and spend eternity in hell (Rev. 20:11–15). He can do nothing to redeem himself in the eyes of God (Titus 3:5). So the Lord Jesus Christ out of His marvelous grace came to earth, clothed Himself in human flesh and lived a perfect life among us. He died in our place on the cross taking our sin in His own body and satisfying God’s wrath (Rom. 5:8; Heb. 2:17). He arose from the dead in order that we could be saved from our sin and have His own righteousness imputed to us (Rom. 4).While this is all the gift of God’s grace we obtain it by placing our faith in Christ alone (Eph. 2:8–10). That is the gospel we are called to proclaim!

However, to hear the “good news” being proclaimed in many churches today is a “different gospel.” We are being told that if we just come to Christ, He will meet all our felt needs and that in turn will give us fulfillment in life. Thus, our search for a life of happiness will be over. Eureka! But this is a different gospel from the one the Jerusalem hearers heard from the first century preachers.

The seeker sensitive gospel has a problem at its very roots. It has a flawed anthropology about it. It sees the problem with the lost man as one of being turned off only by the methodology of out-of-date church models and sees the “seeker” actually as a friend of God. Oswald Chambers, the great devotionalist, warned us long ago saying, “We must never confuse our desire for people to accept the gospel with creating a gospel that is acceptable to people.”

We must be careful not to confuse this vital issue. I fear that some, in a legitimate concern for people to accept the gospel, have in turn confused the New Testament gospel for a sort of New Trendy gospel which is more concerned with being acceptable to people than to the Lord Himself. The New Testament gospel is a call to self-denial. The New Trendy gospel is a call to self-fulfillment. The New Testament gospel focuses on God’s purpose of redemption of man. The New Trendy gospel focuses on man’s purpose for happiness in life. The New Testament gospel is about the cross. The New Trendy gospel even removes the cross from its buildings in some places. Prophetically warning us decades ago about these trends, A.W. Tozer put it like this — “If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament upon the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity. The old cross slew men; the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it.”

Perhaps of all the ancient landmarks, the most obvious difference in the Jerusalem church and the modern church is in the emphasis, or lack thereof, of the proclamation of the gospel message. Biblical exposition is fast becoming a lost art in contemporary preaching. True exegesis and exposition has given way to topical, narrative, and felt need appeals. More than one influential voice in evangelicalism today is proclaiming that the age of expository preaching has past. Messages designed to reach secular hearers with superficial Biblical truth have taken its place. After all, if you just avoid the Biblical text then you can also avoid all those sticky and somewhat embarrassing issues that Biblical truth has a way of confronting.

Pastors are receiving plenty of counsel in our day about how they should preach. Here is a quotation from a famous pulpiteer: “Preachers who pick out texts from the Bible and then proceed to give the historical settings and the primary meanings in the context are grossly misusing the Bible. Could any procedure be more surely predestined to dullness and futility? One out of a hundred people in your congregation doesn’t care what Moses or Isaiah or Paul or John meant in those verses spoken 2,000 years ago. Let the sermon start with thinking about the hearer’s needs, and then let the whole sermon be organized around the constructive endeavor to meet those felt needs. This is good sense and good psychology.” This is what young preachers are hearing today from many sides. But, the above quotation is more than 50 years old and is from Harry Emerson Fosdick, arguably the most liberal preacher of the first half of the 20th century. Fifty years ago this theological liberal counseled his generation in the same way many modern “conservative” evangelicals are being counseled today. Should this not alarm us about what we are hearing today? This approach to preaching led to the decline and dying state of many mainline denominations. It did not work in the long run then and will not today.

We turn our attention now to Simon Peter’s Pentecostal proclamation, GuideStone #2. He “preached the word” to the people and the results were not only apparent, they were abiding. Luke, records the event for all posterity as follows:

“But Peter, standing up with the eleven, raised his voice and said to them, ‘Men of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and heed my words. For these are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. But this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: And it shall come to pass in the last days, says God, That I will pour out of My Spirit on all flesh; Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, Your young men shall see visions, Your old men shall dream dreams. And on My menservants and on My maidservants I will pour out My Spirit in those days; And they shall prophesy. I will show wonders in heaven above And signs in the earth beneath: Blood and fire and vapor of smoke. The sun shall be turned into darkness, And the moon into blood, Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD. And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved.’

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know — Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him:

“‘I foresaw the LORD always before my face, For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope.
For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption.
You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’”

“Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.

“Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear.

“For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.”

Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.’” And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, ‘Be saved from this perverse generation’” Acts 2:14–40.

Every believer who is halfway conversant with the New Testament will recall the transformation of Simon Peter. He preached boldly and with Pentecostal power, and the multitude was smitten by the Holy Spirit. Yes, this is the selfsame Simon Peter who denied his Lord — and cursed and lied in the process. Now Simon was bold and powerful because of the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Before this time he was outspoken and forceful in the strength of the flesh. Now he was in the anointing of the Spirit.

Can you imagine it? This was the same Simon — but not exactly. He was changed by the purging and purifying power of the Spirit.

Of the apostles, Peter was the most enthusiastic. At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked the apostles who people thought He was. John the Baptist? Elijah? Who? Peter, never to be outdone, answered rightly, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!”

And Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter {petros, little stone, pebble} and on this rock {petra, big rock — actually Jesus Himself and the confession that He is the Christ} I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (see Matt. 16:13–19). What an exchange!

And this was the man who would fight for Jesus until the end. He had boasted, “Lord, I’ll never leave You. I’ll stick with You.” Yes, he had boasted of his faithfulness and tenacity. One time Peter thought Jesus was hinting at His own death, and blurted out) “Lord, let me go with you that I may also die.” Ah, he talked a good game. He was rough and tough.

And do you recollect the time that Peter saw Jesus walking on the water? He thought to himself, I’m going to step out on the waves myself. He was so adult and yet so immature and childish! So, he jumped out of the boat and started walking to his Lord: (1) because he wanted to walk on the water, and (2) because he wanted to be with Him. He desperately wanted to be with Jesus. But, brave Simon Peter, the “rock,” saw the commotion of the waves, became afraid, and sank like a rock indeed! It was a blessing that he didn’t drown — if it hadn’t been for Jesus, he probably would have.

Remember when the Roman soldiers and temple guards apprehended Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane? Peter pulled a sword from beneath his clothing and impetuously whacked off Malchus’ servant’s ear. Jesus calmly reached out and healed the man’s ear.

And who can forget the early hours of the morning when Jesus was going through a mock trial and court? Peter and all the disciples except John had run for their lives. Even though he was guilt-ridden and haunted by his denial, Peter tried to follow Jesus from afar. He no doubt remembered Jesus’ rebuke. And he heard Jesus’ prophetic words, “Peter, before the rooster crows in the morning, you will betray me!” Yet, he wanted to be near Jesus. He reminds us of a pyromaniac who often wants to watch the destructive fire he has built.

How could Peter have that kind of nerve? Somehow the people in the courtyard recognized the stamp of Jesus on Simon. “There he is. He’s one of those who follows the Galilean. Yes, he ought to be arrested!” Peter kept on denying it, but they yelled, “That’s him, that’s him. He’s a disciple of the man from Galilee.” And, to reinforce his lie, Peter resorted to cursing his Lord.

Peter, you traitor! You turncoat! You Benedict Arnold! But Peter went out and wept bitterly. His were tears of true repentance. Judas wept for different reasons.

After Jesus arose from the dead, one of His appearances was with Peter by the seaside. Jesus must have stung Peter by asking him three times to remind him of three denials, by saying, “Do you love Me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love You,” Peter said. Peter became the caretaker of the sheep, Jesus’ sheep.

At Pentecost, Peter was turned inside out and transformed from a coward to a champion for Jesus Christ. Now he had been baptized, indwelt, sealed, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and anointed with power.

There will never be a church that is a great church in the eyes of God without a bold proclamation of the Word of God by a God-anointed and God-appointed preacher.

Gospel proclamation became the central part of the day. The preaching of the Gospel should be central in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is still in this 21st century, by the “foolishness of preaching” that people are drawn to repentance. It is not simply enough to have the power of the gospel; great churches are also characterized by the proclamation of the gospel, GuideStone #2.We now turn our attention to Peter’s pattern of Biblical exposition in the Pentecostal proclamation. To begin, it was:

Prophetic proclamation

Our preaching must be prophetic. In other words, it must be biblical. Peter stood up before the crowd, raised his voice, opened the scroll to the prophet Joel, and read Joel 2:28–32. He established a scriptural basis for what was happening, and for what he desired his hearers to do in response. He then illustrated his text with Psalm 16 and Psalm 110.His preaching was prophetic and biblical. It is amazing how so many preachers do not seem to preach the Word of God today. A preacher who is not using the Bible would be like a surgeon going into surgery without his scalpel, because preaching the Word is what “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). For a preacher not to use the Word of God would be like a carpenter trying to build a home without a hammer. God spoke to us through Jeremiah saying, “Is not my word like a hammer that breaks a rock to pieces?” No wonder so many churches are empty. Our preaching must be prophetic.

Throughout church history the great, God-blessed churches in the world have had one common characteristic: an insistence upon an exposition of God’s infallible Word. The men behind their pulpits selected their text from the Word of God and proclaimed it boldly. Peter chose a text from the prophet Joel. Joel had predicted that the Lord would come and visit His people. He prophesied that the Lord would come and live in the midst of them, and that after this supernatural visitation He would “pour out his Spirit upon all flesh.” Peter asserted, “this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel” (Acts 2:16). The text was happening before their eyes.

The Bible records, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).What is it that cuts one’s heart and pricks one’s spirit? It is the sword, the Word of God.

The Word of God is profitable. Paul wrote to his young preacher-friend, Timothy, to remind him that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work”(2 Tim.3:16–17). The Word of God is indeed profitable. It is profitable for four things: doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness. An effective ministry of God’s Word will do all four. It will teach doctrine, rebuke and reprove sin, correct false paths, and train and instruct in righteousness.

There are churches today that have instructed in doctrine to the virtual exclusion of instructing in righteousness or correcting false paths. These groups are dying because of their emphasis on doctrine alone.

Other churches have emphasized reproof. They feel their God-given call is continuously to speak on how long someone’s hair is or how short someone’s dress is. They seldom, if ever, teach doctrine or instruct in righteousness.

There are still others who have pointed out correction to the virtual exclusion of doctrine, reproof, and instruction. Like those who have stressed reproof, they are polemic and think God has called them to correct everyone else while the lost world sits by watching and quietly going to hell.

Still others have emphasized instruction in righteousness of being Holy Spirit filled to the virtual exclusion of ever teaching doctrine. This constant emphasis on the deeper life without any strong doctrinal teaching, preaching, reproof, or correction has led to more than one division in the local body of believers.

An effective ministry of God’s Word will be a balanced ministry and will do all four vital things. The Bible is profitable when it is used in a prophetic sense. As we look at Simon Peter’s sermon, we find all four of these elements included. He taught doctrine as he spoke of the Deity of Christ (Acts 2:31–33, 36).He reproved sin (Acts 2:23).He corrected false paths and instructed in righteousness (Acts 2:38).Peter preached a balanced, biblical, prophetic message.

First, the proclamation of the gospel must be prophetic. The only way it can be prophetic is to be biblical. As we stop here at GuideStone #2, we see the importance of the prophetic proclamation of the gospel.

Plain proclamation

Second, it must also be plain. In Acts 2:14, Peter proclaimed, “let this be known to you, and heed my words.” The NIV puts it like this, “Let us explain this to you…” He was being plain in his approach. Peter did not make it difficult; he simply laid out the plain truth of the Word of God. He preached about sin, God’s mercy in Christ, and the coming judgment, and the common people understood him. Many preachers today make their message difficult to understand. This gospel, of which we are stewards, is plain enough for a child to understand. Many churches never make an impact, because they do not preach the plain gospel. People can attend some churches for months (maybe even years) and never know what they must do to have eternal life.

The first Christian sermon was Christ-centered. Peter preached Christ. He preached about Jesus in His incarnation, death, resurrection, and presence by His Spirit. Peter did not preach systematic theology or philosophy, he preached Jesus: He was born to save, died on the cross, arose again, ascended, and is coming again. He did not preach theology. But he used theology to preach Christ. Peter was plain in his approach. He sent the message home:

“Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless
hands, have crucified, and put to death” (Acts 2:23).

Who crucified our Lord? The Jews? The Romans? No! I did, and you did — my sin, your sin. But in the truest sense — God did! No one took our Lord’s life; He laid it down.

Peter was plain in the message of the gospel. The transparent truth is that the cross was no accident. Some people think the cross was some sort of a remedial action, kind of like a last-minute band-aid on a wounded world when everything else had failed. No! A thousand times, no!

It was the program and plan of God. Peter continued in Acts 2:23:“Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death.” The word translated purpose in the New King James Version of the Bible is the Greek word boule. It means God’s irrevocable will, which will be done with or without our cooperation or consent.1

There is another word, translated in to our English words counsel or purpose which in Greek is thelema, simply meaning desire. We do not find that word in Acts 2:23. Instead, we discover the stronger word boule.

Therefore, what Peter was preaching to the crowd is this: There is nothing you could do that could have stopped or altered God’s plan for the atonement of our sins at Calvary! God was in control. The Lord Jesus was handed over to you by God’s “boule,” God’s irrevocable will, which was to be done with or without our cooperation or response. Peter’s message was plain. He preached Jesus. What makes a great church? It must have the element of proclamation, which is prophetic and plain.

Positive proclamation

Third, proclamation must also be positive. Peter continued: “This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (Acts 2:32). Peter unfurled the resurrection. The resurrection should be the heart of every sermon. Our Lord is not dead. He is alive! He is here and can meet our needs today. We have a positive gospel!

These disciples had seen the resurrected Christ, and He had transformed their lives. Most of them met martyrs’ deaths. If they had been perpetrating a lie, they would not have died for their faith. Men do not die for a lie. Peter was crucified upside down in Rome. Being a martyr was one of the most marvelous proofs of the resurrection. Peter had seen the risen Lord. Jesus was alive! The resurrection should inject a positive note into our preaching, not some sort of superficial, pumped-up mental attitude. Every preacher should ask himself how much of his preaching points to the living Christ.

So many of our congregations today argue, “I’ve got to see it, and then I’ll believe it.”

But God says just the opposite, “You believe it, and then you’ll see it.”

Remember Thomas in the upper room? He struggled about this point, “I’ll have to see it; then I’ll believe it.”

Jesus, appearing in His resurrected body, left this with him, “Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Where can we gain our positive spirit in preaching? We do not receive it from positive thinking or from possibility thinking. We should gather it from the same event Peter did, and that is the resurrection. The Lord Jesus is alive, and therefore our proclamation should be positive. There is not a need in the heart of any hearer that the living Christ cannot meet!

It was a hot, June day in Ada, Oklahoma. Early that morning I was pacing the second floor corridor at Valley View Hospital. It was a special day for our family, as our little Holly was making her grand entrance into our world. It was not long until Dr. Stevens appeared in the nursery windows and held that tiny package of love, wrapped in a pink blanket. He laid her in a bassinet and wheeled her over to the window where I could have a good look. Only a daddy can know the joy of that moment. I stood there alone for several minutes, thanking the Lord and watching that little red-faced beauty waving her arms, kicking her feet, and crying at the top of her lungs.

Suddenly, I noticed I was no longer standing there alone. A maid with her mop bucket was looking over my shoulder. “Is that your baby?” she asked. “Surely is,” I proudly answered.

She continued, “Well, it’s no wonder she’s crying, being born into the world she has been born into.” And then she turned around and sauntered down the hall, pushing her mop bucket before her.

For a moment I began to think, She is right, lf l believe everything I preach and teach, then it would be far better for this little girl to go on to heaven. After all, she would not have to go through all the heartaches of life and never have the haunting longing that some moment could be lived over. I began to pray.

It was an intimate moment with Jesus, Holly, and me. I often pray hymns in my private devotional time, and that morning the Holy Spirit began to pray, through me, the words of a Bill Gaither hymn, “Because He Lives.” When I began the second verse of the hymn, I knew I was on holy ground:

“How sweet to hold a new born baby,
And feel the pride, and joy he gives;
But greater still the calm assurance,
This child can face uncertain days
…because he lives.
Because he lives I can face tomorrow;
Because he lives, all fear is gone;
Because I know he holds the future,
And life is worth the living just because he lives.2

What makes a church great in the eyes of God? It is not only made up of the power of the gospel, but also the proclamation of the gospel. And our proclamation must be prophetic, plain and positive.

Personal proclamation

Fourth, preaching must also be personal. Although Peter was preaching to a multitude of people, he was preaching on a personal level. Hear him as he says, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death” (Acts 2:23, italics added). Note the personal pronouns. Preaching today is mostly in the first person plural or the third person plural. That is, we use a lot of “we” and “they” in our preaching. This type of preaching seldom brings about conviction. Peter preached in second person, saying, “Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, you have crucified, and you have put to death.” You, you, you!

There are many preachers today who are afraid of offending deacons, elders, vestrymen, big givers, this person or that person, that civic leader or politician. It is no wonder many churches today have such little power. Our proclamation should be personal. There is not much personal preaching today. Peter’s preaching was not aimed just at the head but also at the heart. It was personal, and when he finished, the Bible reports, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37).

What makes a church great in the eyes of God? The element of proclamation is vital. Our preaching must not only be prophetic, plain, and positive, it must also be personal.

Penetrating proclamation

Fifth, it must also be penetrating. Acts 2:37 tells us, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” What happened? The Word testifies that the people’s hearts were “cut.” We have a word for that; we call it conviction. Much modern preaching is superficial, designed to meet “felt needs” in order to make the hearers feel good. I have heard preachers in some churches even boast that people can come to their services and never feel guilty about their lifestyles. They advertise that they are there to “make you feel good.” Well, Peter’s sermon “cut his hearers to the heart.” The truth is, the only way we’ll ever feel good about ourselves is to see ourselves for who we are, to confess that our sin put Christ on the cross and repent. Once we realize this and are set free through the blood of Jesus Christ, we will have the best feeling we’ve ever had. Then we’ll be able to sing:

“Free from the law, Oh happy condition
Jesus bled and there is remission
Cursed by the fall, condemned by the law
Christ has redeemed us, once for all.”
Lyrics by P. P. Bliss

Until a person sees that there is no hope within himself to satisfy the righteous demands of the law, the cross is simply a farce to him. When conviction of sin arrives, we are aware that the only way we can get right with God is through the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some people have never felt conviction. Their hearts have never been cut. Why? Because in too many cases they have not been under the preaching of the gospel which is prophetic, plain, positive and personal. Few pulpits today urge men and women to take personal responsibility for their sin. No wonder, conversion is a lost word in our Christian vocabulary.

When these men and women at Pentecost realized what they had done in crucifying the Lord Jesus Christ, their hearts were broken. Why aren’t more people’ hearts cut in our churches today? It is because they do not realize that they ought to assume personal responsibility for their sin. And why? Because there is not enough preaching today which is penetrating. There are few preachers who even mention sin today. Many who advocate the New Trendy gospel pride themselves in never mentioning it. Sin is often the forgotten word in the pulpit today. No wonder many churches are dead and dying and others are so superficial even though they may have “crowds.” There is no conviction in them, and without conviction there can be no conversion!

Conviction always precedes conversion. These people were “cut to the heart.” This was a recognition of sin. Here is a broken and contrite heart. This process is called spiritual birth, and it is pictured in physical birth. There must be birth pains before the child is born, and so it is in spiritual birth. We cannot experience the new birth without godly sorrow over sin any more than one can give natural childbirth without experiencing birth pains. Conviction leads to conversion.A host of people make some sort of “decision” early in life but have never really realized that they have personally sinned and put Christ on the cross. They were never really “cut to the heart” because of their sin.

Here, in Acts 2, we find the first account of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit. Jesus had prophesied the night before the crucifixion, “Nevertheless I tell you the truth. It is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you. And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: of sin, because they do not believe in Me” (John 16:7–9).

While in my first pastorate at Hobart, Oklahoma, I learned a lot from those southwestern Oklahoma wheat farmers. In fact, I learned more from those dear, old men who had spent a lifetime in the Book of God than I did from a few of my professors. Being a city boy, I was fascinated by farm life. I learned there were several things necessary in order to grow a good crop.

First, the ground had to be broken. Farmers would use their tractors and plows and turn the sod over and over, breaking up the dirt. Second, the seed had to be planted. Third, the wheat was cultivated, watered, and nurtured.

Finally, about the first of June every year, the harvest was gathered!

Many churches today wonder why they never reap a harvest. Perhaps they have never broken ground! The Word of God cuts to the heart, and often there is not a great deal of preaching regarding the Word of God. Our preaching must be penetrating. We will never see the harvest if we do not preach the Word of God. It doesn’t matter whether the seed is planted or whether the ground is cultivated, if it is not first broken, there will be no harvest.

What makes a church great? The power of the gospel and the proclamation of the gospel. Our proclamation should be prophetic, plain, personal and penetrating.

Persuasive proclamation

Sixth, it must also be persuasive. Acts 2:37 says, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’” God-anointed preaching is persuasive preaching. It goes straight to the heart, and people begin to ask what was asked in this text, “What shall we do?” What a burning question! One who is convicted does not know what to do. It is not in the natural man’s heart. It is “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us” (Titus 3:5, KJV).

Much preaching today falls on deaf ears, and often it is not the hearer’s fault. At least many hearers are there, in their place and in their pew. Much of the preaching today is not persuasive, because in place of being plain it is complicated; in place of being positive it is critical; in place of being personal it is courteous, so as not to offend; and in place of being penetrating it is often cosmetic. No wonder modern preaching is not leading more people to ask, “What shall we do?”

What shall we do? This is the basic question we must ask in the 21st century. What shall we do? It is not enough to be sorry for our sin. What shall we do? The question has a real ring of desperation in it. What shall we do? It is like the Philippian jailer who asked, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30).

On the Day of Pentecost the hearers were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Note when they asked the question, “What shall we do?” It was when they heard Peter say in the previous verse, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Jesus is Lord! He is risen from the dead, and He is Lord. This confronts us all with the question, “What shall we do?” What shall we do about the Lordship of Jesus Christ? Josh McDowell says He is either Lord or liar, and our eternal destiny hinges upon what we believe about this fact.

If the church in America today had sufficient power, today’s masses, as the crowd did at Pentecost, would first be asking, “What does this mean?” (Acts 2:12). Then they would be asking, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). Our preaching must be persuasive.

Pointed proclamation

Seventh, our preaching must also be pointed. Peter answered their question with a pointed reply by saying, “repent” (Acts 2:38). He commanded his hearers as to what they ought to do. He did not give them several multiple- choice options. He was pointed. In a word he replied, “repent.” What shall we do? Repent. Much preaching today is so vague. People can sit in some churches for months without any idea of how to apply the message to their lives on Monday through Friday. Preaching must not only be prophetic, it must be pointed.

Peter’s pointed proclamation was in a word — repent. There are three pertinent questions to be asked at this point: What is repentance? Why is repentance important? And where is repentance found in the salvation process?

First, what is repentance? There seems to be considerable confusion regarding what repentance is. Let’s look first at what repentance is not. Repentance is not remorse. It is not simply being sorry for our sin. Remorse may lead to repentance, but remorse is not repentance. The rich, young ruler went away very sorrowful when Jesus explained the demands of discipleship. He was remorseful, but he did not repent. Many people have substituted remorse for repentance.

Repentance is not regret. That is, it is not merely wishing some sinful deed, word, or action had not occurred. Pontius Pilate ceremonially took a basin of water and washed his hands, regretting his evil deed, but he did not repent. Many people substitute regret for repentance and tragically fool themselves in the process.

Repentance is not resolve. All of us have made New Year’s resolutions. Many of us resolve to assume a new set of moral standards and live life on a higher plane but never seem able to turn that “new leaf over” for any considerable period of time. We cannot substitute resolve for repentance. It is not enough to sing “I Am Resolved,” unless that is coupled with “godly sorrow,” unless the repentance is genuine within one’s heart, and unless there is a determination wrought by the Holy Spirit, in which one never wants to sin again, even though such is impossible as long as we are encased in the human flesh. But there must be that determination nonetheless. Genuine repentance is characterized by the person saying to himself and God, “I never want to displease the Lord again. I am so sorry for my sins. I am leaving that old life behind me. I don’t want to be the same. I want to be changed by the Holy Spirit.”

Through the years, I have heard more people make resolves that they have never followed. They bargained with the Lord, “0, Lord, if you just get me out of this mess, I’ll do whatever You want. I’ll follow wherever you lead. Lord, just help me.” And the Lord does help them; they get out of their jam. And what happens? They go on living as they did before, making a mockery out of God, ignoring Him, and never looking back to those resolutions, because they were not accompanied by real repentance and doing a right about-face from sin. A mere resolution will not suffice.

Repentance is not reform. Sometimes reformation even involves restitution. It was so with Judas Iscariot. After betraying our Lord, he grabbed the 30 pieces of silver, returned to the temple and threw it at those who had paid the price of betrayal. Judas reformed, but unfortunately he did not repent. Many people today have substituted reform for repentance. Peter did not preach on the Day of Pentecost and say, “Reform.” Nor did he say, “Resolve.” Nor did he say, “Regret.” Nor did he say, “Have remorse.” His message was a pointed call for repentance.4

We have seen what repentance is not; now let us examine what repentance is. Is repentance turning from every sin as some people preach today? If so, then who has repented? When you came to Christ, did you turn from every sin you had ever committed? The truth is, in our natural state we are spiritually dead, not sick, and therefore unresponsive to the gospel. The Bible reminds us: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14, KJV). What is repentance? The word repent is the Greek word metanoeo, which in its original language is defined as a change of mind.5 It is to change one’s way of thinking about salvation. Repentance makes you love what you once hated, and hate what you once loved. When I was converted at age 17, I had never heard the word repentance. In fact, it was some weeks or perhaps months after my conversion before I ever remember hearing the word. But I know I repented! How do I know? The bad things I used to love, I no longer desired, and the things I never thought I would like became the things I loved to do. It was a change of mind. And God did it in me.

Repentance is a change of mind. Repentance involves a change of your mind about your own self, a change of your mind about sin, and a change of your mind about salvation. It is a change of mind that is always evidenced in three areas.

First, attitude is changed — that is, intellectually. As stated, it is a change of mind. This is where we begin. This is repentance.

Second, there is a change in the affections — the heart. If one genuinely changes one’s mind, then a change of heart will follow.

The third result of a change of mind is a change in action. There will be a change in one’s will or volition. If we genuinely changed our minds, our hearts will be changed, and if our hearts have been changed, a change in our will will follow. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). If we have experienced salvation our lives will be altered. We will no longer look at life, ourselves, and others as we once did. Like the prodigal son, God will give us new wishes and desires. This is repentance!

Since repentance is a change of mind, a person may be moved to tears emotionally by a sermon, and one’s heart may overflow with remorse or regret, but it is not necessarily repentance. A person may have one’s will manipulated by various means, but if he or she has not repented (changed one’s mind), he or she is not saved. Jesus made it clear, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, KJV).

We find our most obvious biblical illustration of repentance in Luke 15 with the story of the prodigal son. Here was a young man who had gone to a far country and wasted all of his inheritance on ungodly living. He was far away from home. First of all, this boy came to have a change of attitude. Luke 15:17 (KJV) notes “he came to himself”— that is, he changed his mind. Then what happened? He had a change of affection. He thought to himself,

“How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I am perishing with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no longer worthy to be called thy son” (Luke 15:17–19, KJV).

His heart was changed. Then what happened after his change of mind resulted in a changed heart? He had a change of action; his will was changed, and so was his direction. “I will arise and go to my father.” And Luke 15:20 states: “He got up and went to his father.” The prodigal son had a change of mind. That was repentance. It was evident in four areas. He regretted his deed; he blamed himself for his sin; he acknowledged his father’s right to be displeased, as he felt he was no longer worthy to be called his father’s son; and he resolved to sin no more. After this, he went home. Repentance is a change of mind. The battle is in the mind, and the proof is in these four areas. Each of us will repent when we change our minds, and in changing our minds, our hearts will be changed. Therefore, a change in our will and volition will follow. This change of mind will cause us to regret our deed and blame ourselves for it, take responsibility for the deed, and resolve to set our face toward the Lord Jesus Christ.

By now it should be apparent why repentance is important. To begin with, it was the message of the Old Testament prophets, who were all preachers of repentance. As far back as Noah, we hear them calling on the people to forsake their wicked ways and turn to the Lord.

It was the message of the forerunner, John the Baptist: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”(Matt. 3:2). And Matthew 3:7–8 says, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance.’”

Let’s face it. I doubt if John the Baptist could make it as a pastor in most churches today. His preaching was pointed. He preached without fear or favor. He laid the ax to the tree. He didn’t care who it offended, if God laid the message on his heart. He is the antithesis of much of the modern preaching that is heard today. He would not receive many invitations to preach in the New Trendy gospel church of today.

John the Baptist denounced Herod for adultery. He referred to his listeners as vipers and snakes. How long would a preacher last, if he called his listeners snakes, unless he was preaching to real snakes — the kind that slither and have forked tongues? And what kind of response did he receive? Well, the common people rejoiced over his straightforward ministry. However, the folks at the palace didn’t like him. Herodias asked Herod for John’s (decapitated) head on a platter in exchange for an exotic dance from Salome. John the Baptist was imprisoned and then beheaded for preaching the truth pointedly.

It was the message of the Lord Jesus Himself. He commenced His ministry with the message of repentance. The Bible reports, “From that time Jesus began to preach and to say, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ ” (Matt. 4:17).And in Mark 1:14–15: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Jesus continued His ministry with the message of repentance by saying, “I tell you, no; but unless you repent you will all likewise perish”(Luke 13:3). The burden of His heart was in a word — repent. Jesus concluded His ministry with the word repentance as recorded in Luke 24:46–47,“This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name in all nations.”

One of the greatest books on evangelism that I have ever read is With Christ After the Lost by L. R. Scarborough, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Let me share a few of his words with you:

The Winning Characteristics of Jesus’ Preaching

  1. Its simplicity, utilizing everyday illustrations, simple but pungent words,
  2. Its positivity and divine authority,
  3. Its heart-searching, bone-breaking, conviction-bringing power,
  4. Its richness and abundance of fundamental doctrine and principles,
  5. Its supreme tenderness and love, often mingled with scathing, blistering denunciation,
  6. Its direct and personal reach,
  7. Its unfailing appeal to the highest in man and God.6

Jesus’ first sermon was “Repent and believe the good news.” It was also the message of the Great Commission. In Matthew’s account of this, God gives us the mechanics. We are to make disciples, mark disciples by baptism, and mature disciples by teaching them to observe the faith. These are the mechanics of the Great Commission.

Mark’s account gives us the measure of it. We are commanded to take the gospel to the whole world.

In Luke’s account of the Commission, he gave us the message of the Great Commission. What is it? “That repentance and remission of sins should be preached…among all nations” (Luke 24:47,KJV). Jesus commenced, continued, and concluded His ministry with the same word — repent. How can a minister today claim to be preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ if he leaves out the heart of our Lord’s message? Our preaching must be pointed.

Repentance was also the message of the apostles. “So they went out and preached that people should repent” (Mark 6:12). They went out and preached. What did they preach? Prosperity? Successful living? Felt needs? No, they went out and preached that people should repent.

It was the message of Simon Peter. Hear him at Pentecost, raising his voice in his mighty sermon, and answering the question of what the people should do with a one-word reply — “Repent!”

Scarborough summed up the characteristics of Simon Peter:

“But Peter’s greatest distinction is that he was the Evangelist of Pentecost. His voice and ministry introduced the age and ministry of the Holy Ghost. John the Baptist introduced Jesus, and Peter introduced the Holy Spirit to a lost world. He preached the first sermon in the world under the vice-regency of the Divine Spirit after Christ’sascension.”7

Scarborough continued concerning Peter:

“1. His simple straightforwardness of character and manner…He had no dignity to bother him. He was hampered by no sacred traditions. He struck straight. Dignities, ministerial stiffness, conventionalities and all such hinder; Gospel evangelism and the true approach to souls. Peter went after lost men like he sought the finny tribe of stormy Galilee — cast his net in where the fish were and pulled them into his boat.

“2. He preached plain, unvarnished truth right out without apology or compromise. He saw men as sinners and realized — their need was Christ and knew that the Gospel revealed Christ to them. He threw a hot Gospel at the bared souls of men in great golden chunks. His sermon on the Day of Pentecost is packed with doctrine…He did not mince matters. He dodged nothing.”8

Repentance was also the message of the apostle Paul. Hear him: “Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30). Hear him later: “testifying to Jews, and also to Greeks, repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

It was also the message of John the beloved apostle. Simply turn to the message directed to the churches of Asia, as recorded in the early chapters of Revelation, and discover that eight times, in letters to the seven churches, he pealed forth the message of repentance. Why is it important? Because it is the message of the Bible.

What was the message of the Bible? What was the message of the early church? Was it positive thinking, with all sorts of trinkets for reminders? Was it concentrated ministries on the home, ministries on finance, or selected other “professional ministries”? Was it a “felt needs” approach? When we read the Book of Acts, we find none of these in the early church. Why? Their message was “repent.”

This is what accounts for a happy home — when a husband and wife repent. We can fill out workbooks until we are blue in the face and sit before videotaped seminars until we can sit no longer (and many of those are good), but I believe what the church severely needs today is the message of repentance. When a person genuinely repents, he or she will put one’s home in order.

It is strange how many preachers are silent today concerning the message of repentance, especially when it is the theme of the message of not only the Old Testament preachers, not only the apostles, but of the Lord Himself. It could be that some have lost sight of the sinfulness of mankind. Today some are preaching who deny the Bible truth of a literal, burning hell, or at least they never mention it. There are many preachers today who hold the doctrine of inclusivism, believing that ultimately and eventually everyone will be saved. Consequently, what need is there for the message of repentance in these churches?

Too many churches and preachers have lost sight of the lost-ness of humankind and the holiness of God. Perhaps it is because repentance is not a popular message. Of course, it is indeed more popular to “tickle the ears” of our listeners with messages of positive or possibility thinking.

This presents another question: Where is repentance in salvation? What did Peter mean in this Pentecostal sermon? Does repentance precede faith? Or does faith precede repentance? Think about it. Does one repent before one can exercise faith? If you believe repentance is turning from every sin, then faith must come first, because repentance would then become a work of salvation. This is the idea of some today.

But if repentance is turning from every sin, then who has repented? Conversely, if you believe that repentance is indeed a change of mind, then repentance is first in the order, because a person must change one’s way of thinking before he or she can grasp the free promise, the grace of God in Christ Jesus. Now, since humankind is totally depraved and since God sovereignly calls us unto Himself, it stands to reason that God, then, must grant repentance to us, because we cannot obtain it in our own depraved condition.

This is exactly what the Bible teaches. Take for example 2 Timothy 2:24–25:

“And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth.”

Repentance is the gift of God’s grace that transforms the mind. God grants unto us repentance. When the attitude is genuinely transformed, the heart is transformed, and this effects a change of action. Faith and repentance are as much the gifts of God as the Savior upon whom our faith rests. Salvation is from first to last, all of grace. Listen to Acts 5:31:“Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (italics added). The truth is our Lord Jesus has gone up so that grace might come down. Repentance is the gift of God given to us by Christ.

There is a positive motive that produces repentance. It is not so much the message of “bumper-sticker evangelism” which might read, “turn or burn.” It is more the message found in the Roman letter where Paul says, “God’s kindness [goodness] leads you toward repentance”(Rom.2:4).

We are so privileged to hear the gospel: The gospel which billions of people on our planet have never heard. We are privileged to hear the message of repentance. Today, missionaries’ feet have never before walked in so many little villages. A copy of God’s Word has not been translated into the dialects and languages of some, and they die in the darkness; millions going down. And us? We are placed in the very spotlight of the Christian life. And yet, few of us have any time for the Lord Jesus. Can’t we understand that it is the goodness of God which allows us to hear the gospel and that this is what leads us to repentance? Peter stood up and shouted, “Repent!”

The Bible does not indicate that it is the kindness of God that calls us to repentance, but it says, “the kindness of God leads us to repentance.” The truth is God calls us to repentance by the gospel, but God leads us to repentance by His goodness. The goodness of God comes to us where we are; takes us by the hand, as though we were a little child; and leads us to repentance. Yes, it is the goodness of God that leads us to repentance.

His amazing grace is offered freely through His goodness and mercy. He guides and leads the unconverted person to repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Acts 21:20). Many are the questions which frail humans raise. Doubters and others who have grown bitter remind me of an illustration I heard years ago. You see, the goodness, kindness, and love of God are like the sun. We could compare the heart to butter or mud. When the sun beats down on the butter, it melts. When the sun shines on the mud, it turns hard like brick. This is the nature of the human heart.

When the convicting Son of God shines upon some hearts, they melt like butter. When He beams upon other hearts, they turn to hardened brick. Only the goodness of God can lead us to repentance, and men and women must let Him do His work of repentance. My family and I used to spend vacations in a quaint little village in the Great Smoky Mountains known as Maggie Valley. It is a refreshing retreat, far from the massive traffic jams and bustle of big city life. It is like stepping into a time tunnel; there are sights and sounds that we never see and hear in our metropolis.

One summer, when our girls were small, we rented an old, white farmhouse on the side of a mountain. It was a lovely spot, but a little scary for our two small, city girls. The children slept upstairs, and the whole house creaked whenever anyone took a step. The first night happened to be one of those pitch-black summer nights in the mountains. As James Weldon Johnson described in God’s Trombones, “It was blacker than a hundred midnights down in a cypress swamp.”

I was awakened in the middle of the night by the cries of our youngest daughter, who was only six or seven years old at the time. I bounded up the stairs to find her standing in the dark, calling for me. Taking her by the hand, I led her down the steps into the security of our bed where she slept soundly for the rest of the night. And so, our dear Heavenly Father finds us in the dark and takes us by the hand. The Bible gives a comforting word, “He leads us to repentance.” When these men and women at Pentecost asked, “What shall we do?” Peter’s reply came quickly. “Repent!” What should we do in our 21st century world? The Bible answers us plainly and clearly. Repent! Change our minds. Turn around. Go in a different direction.

So what is the message the church should be preaching today? Repentance. Peter was preaching: “You have missed God’s offer of salvation. You are missing the purpose for which you were created.”

What can you do about it? Change your mind!9 Change your mind about your sin. Change your mind about the Lord Jesus Christ. Change your mind about yourself. Change your mind about the plan of salvation. Note Peter’s promise is that they would receive forgiveness. He did not promise them wind, fire, or tongues. The important aspect here is forgiveness of sin.

Note the conclusion of Acts 2:38:“Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Repent and what? Repent and be baptized! There is tremendous confusion and controversy over this verse today — in fact, for centuries this has been the case. Does this mean we must be baptized in order to have our sins removed? Some answer with an emphatic yes. It certainly appears so by this verse. But what does the Bible really mean here?

The key is found in the preposition, translated into our English word, for. It is the Greek word eis. This same Greek word is translated two ways in the English Bible. In some verses it is translated “for” or “in order to”, and in other verses as “because of.”10Now the same word is used in both instances. The meaning in Acts 2:38 is not in order to but because of. Think for a moment. Just with our English vernacular, we say, “He was electrocuted for murder.” Does that mean in order to or because of? Or take for example the statement, “He has been rewarded for good grades.”11 Do we mean in order to or because of? Listen again to Acts 2:38: “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” What do you think it means? Be baptized in order to have your sins forgiven or be baptized because your sins are forgiven?

It becomes even more plain when we look into the Greek New Testament. For example, look at Matthew 12:41, where the same Greek word eis is translated at. “The men of Nineveh will rise up in the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and indeed a greater than Jonah is here.” The word at here is the Greek word eis. It is the same Greek word we find in Acts 2:38. The Ninevites repented because of the preaching of Jonah. I believe that the proper translation of the word eis is because of. Acts 2:38 can well and properly be translated, “Repent and be baptized because of the forgiveness of your sins.” We should be baptized because our sins are forgiven, and it is an outward expression of the inward experience. We are not baptized because water will wash away a single sin and merit salvation for us.

Some claim that the phrase in Acts 2:38, “Be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ,” is parenthetical. Those who adhere to this view do so from a grammatical viewpoint in the Greek. For example, the verb repent is plural and so is the pronoun your.12 The imperative “be baptized” is singular. It is set off from the rest of the sentence in a parenthetical sort of way. Therefore, read the verse like this: “Repent for the forgiveness of your sins.” This certainly fits with what the same preacher, Simon Peter, emphasized later in Acts 10:43: “To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins.” This same expression, “sins may be forgiven” is found in its use here at Caesarea. There is no mention here at Cornelius’s house of baptism for salvation, although they were all baptized as a confession of their faith because their sins had been forgiven.

Whatever Peter meant in Acts 2:38, it must be understood that nowhere do the Scriptures teach that salvation is dependent upon water baptism. Twice in the Corinthian letter Paul states clearly what the gospel is, and baptism is certainly not included.

In 1 Corinthians 1:17,he wrote, “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of no effect.” In I Corinthians 15:1–4, he penned these lines,

“Moreover, brethren, I declare to you the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received
and in which you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast that word which I preached
to you — unless you believed in vain.

“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”

God-anointed preaching produces conviction. This leads to conversion and then to confession. This is the order. It begins with conviction (Acts 2:37), which leads to conversion and results in confession (Acts 2:38). Baptism is vitally important, not for conversion but for confession. It signifies outwardly what has occurred inwardly. Our preaching must be pointed. It must tell people what the text says and what it wants them to do. The Christian’s primary desire should always be to win people to repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. And what makes a great church in the eyes of God? There has never been a great church in the eyes of God that didn’t make much of the preaching of the gospel that was prophetic, plain, positive, personal, penetrating, persuasive, and pointed.

Pious proclamation

Eighth, preaching must also be pious. By pious we mean “God fearing.” We are not talking about pious in the sense of its modern connotation, but pious in the sense that we fear God and realize that He is the sovereign Lord. That is what Peter meant when he used the phrase “as many as the Lord our God will call”(Acts 2:39).Our proclamation must be pious. Great preachers and teachers realize that God is sovereign and that He is the one who adds to the church; thus they have a real sense of dependence upon Him and a deeper desire to be faithful to His Word in life and lip.

Acts 2:39 is a key to understanding this vital principle. “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” The promise is for all whom our Lord God will call. There are two types of calls — the outward call and the inward call. Peter gave the outward call, but do you know who was saved that day? Not everyone there was saved. In fact, the Bible tells us that some of them mocked him. The ones who were saved that day were “all whom the Lord God called.” Our proclamation must be pious in that we realize our job is faithfulness to the outward call and trust in the Lord Jesus by His Spirit to issue the inward call.

Through the years many people who have rejected the Lord have alibied to me, “Well, preacher, I just don’t want to become a Christian now, but I will later, when I feel like the time is right.” I have pointed out that you can’t come to Jesus at your convenience. It has to be in His time. It must be when He calls.

This is why evangelists like Billy Graham have preached, in essence, so many times, “If you have the slightest impulse to come to Jesus Christ, do it now, because God has put that call into your heart. It may not come tomorrow.”

“Now is the accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2, KJV). That means the day of salvation is when God gives that inward call. For you to be truly saved, the Holy Spirit must be dealing with your heart. You must be under conviction.

In many churches today, the conviction of the Holy Spirit is never preached. Where there is no conviction, there can be no conversion. The apostle John in his Gospel quoted Jesus Himself as He prepared the apostles for His crucifixion, resurrection, and His ascension.

“I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (14:18, KJV).

“And when he [Holy Spirit] is come, he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness,
and of judgment: Of sin, because they believe not on me, Of righteousness, because I go to my Father,
and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged” (16:8–11, KJV).

Who does the convicting? The Holy Spirit. Who does the convincing and converting? The Holy Spirit. And without convicting power working in one’s life, you can never be saved.

As you read the lines, and you sense that you are unsaved, hope with all of your heart as you fall under conviction, that you will see your sins that have sent Jesus to the cross, and that you will see yourself as God presently sees you — undone, condemned, lost, but also as precious in His sight. Long for the conviction that will lead to your repentance and faith. Consider the following words of our Lord at this very point:

“All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out” (John 6:37).

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:44).

Do you remember Jesus’ declaration to Simon Peter after Peter’s great confession at Caesarea Philippi? “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:17).

Paul put it like this:

“For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).

“But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb and called me through His grace” (Gal. 1:15).

Peter declared,

“But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Pet. 2:9).

“But may the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you” (I Pet. 5:10).

How can two people sit on the same pew in the same worship service, sing the same songs, hear the same sermon with the same anointing, and one of them feel absolutely no need of coming to Christ — or anything spiritual for that matter — and the other fall under deep conviction of sin and a longing to know Jesus personally? How can this happen? It happens by the inward call of God.

The most obvious Scripture illustration of this point is found in Acts 16, when Paul was preaching at the riverside near Philippi. The Bible records,

“Now a certain woman named Lydia heard us. She was a seller of purple from the city of Thyatira, who worshiped God. The Lord opened her heart to heed the things spoken by Paul” (Acts 16:14, italics added).

Paul issued the outward call, and the Lord spoke to Lydia’s heart, issuing the inward call.

There are a few extremists today who have carried these doctrines of grace to the point of perverting the Scripture by denying the free offer of the gospel, and in so doing have set their camps dangerously close to the border of heresy. The fact that salvation is God’s work, and He takes the initiative in calling us, does not diminish one’s intensity in preaching the gospel to every creature and sharing the outward call to every last person on this planet. We have a Great Commission to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15, KJV). This is why doctrines of grace should intensify our evangelistic efforts. We are to proclaim to the world the outward call and then trust the Holy Spirit to issue the inward call. Here again is this element of the participation of God in the call of the gospel.

To the person who literally believes in the Great Commission, it is inconceivable that any Christian could make rationalizations like these:

  • God’s going to save people when He pleases, without any help of mine or yours.
  • I can’t go because God’s not ready for me yet.
  • If God’s going to save the heathen, He’ll do it Himself without our interference.

We cannot comprehend it, but God has chosen frail, faulted people like you and me to be His messengers. Jesus declared in John 20:21: “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (KJV).And what was Jesus sent to do? “For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10, KJV).We cannot save them, but we are to seek them. God has called on us to extend the outward call. He does the inward work. We do the outward call under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.

The last invitation of the Bible says,

“And the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ And let him who thirsts come. Whoever desires, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev. 22:17).

Here we see the outward call and the inward call. The bride (the church of Jesus Christ) says come — this is the outward call. But there is also the inward call — the Spirit says come. What makes a great church? It must be a church that proclaims the Word of God in a sense that is totally dependent upon the Holy Spirit.

“Rescue the perishing,
Care for the dying,
Snatch them in pity
from sin and the grave;
Weep o’er the erring one,
Lift up the fallen,
Tell them of Jesus
the mighty to save.
Rescue the perishing, Care for the dying;
Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
Lyrics by Fannie J. Crosby13

Persistent proclamation

Ninth, our proclamation of the gospel must also be persistent. The Bible says, “With many other words…he pleaded with them” (Acts 2:40). The English word translated pleading or exhorting is the word parakeleo. It means to beseech with strong force, to call forth. It is a calling to one side. Peter didn’t preach, sit down, cross his legs, and look humble. He didn’t preach and say, “Now let’s sing a hymn, and if by chance anyone might possibly want to step forward for Christ, you can do so at this time, but please don’t feel like you have to.” Peter did not apologize. What did he do? He gave a gospel invitation. When he finished with his sermon, he pleaded for souls. “With many other words he pleaded with them.”

My pastoral predecessor in Dallas, Dr. W. A. Criswell, the God-anointed pastor of First Baptist Church, Dallas, for 50 years advised us well. “As a famous London pastor lay dying, his friends gathered around and asked, ‘Do you have one last word for the world?’ The loving pastor replied: ‘Yes, I do. Tell the pastors of the world this, Oh preacher, make it plain how a man can be saved!’”

When the pastor has shown the sinner that he is lost, when he has presented Christ’s redemptive plan of salvation, then he is to draw the penitent into an open confession of his faith in Jesus (Matt. 10:32–33; Rom. 10:9–10). How does he do that effectively? How can the pastor extend an invitation that pulls at the heartstrings of a lost man?

Here are some suggestions to consider:

  1. It must be in the heart of the preacher to make an appeal to people. He must pray to this end that God will help him do it effectively…
  2. The sermon must lead up to this climactic consummation. Whatever the subject, the message must be
    turned to the soul for the grace and mercy of God…
  3. Many pastors close their sermons with a prayer while the heads of the people are bowed in prayer with him. In this prayer this pastor prays for the lost and for others who are to be included in the invitation…
  4. At the end of the prayer the congregation can be asked to stand as the choir begins to sing the invitation
  5. The invitation can be for anything the Spirit lays upon the heart of the pastor. Besides the appeal for the lost to confess their faith in the Lord, the invitation can be for baptism and church membership, the transfer of church letters, those who cannot get church letters to come forward by statement…
  6. Music plays an all-important part in this appeal…”14

There should always be an appeal after the gospel is preached. The reverse is also true. The gospel should always be preached before an appeal is given. We should never issue an appeal until after the gospel is preached.

Many of us have heard evangelists who tell one deathbed story after another, moving on the emotions of the hearers, never having within their message the “kerygma”— the fact that He who knew no sin became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. There is considerable fallout of “new converts” due to this. Peter preached the gospel and then made an appeal; such is biblical and right. He pleaded for souls that day. He exhorted them. “With many words” he besought them with strong force to receive Christ.

He pleaded with them to “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Although God takes the initiative, God chooses, calls, convicts, and converts, we must confess. We must identify with the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul said it this way, “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”(Rom.10:10, KJV). Peter was calling for a decision. “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40).

For the true preacher of the gospel, preaching is not a profession; it is an obsession. In a sense, that is true for every believer. Every waking minute it is a part of our lives. Our proclamation must be persistent. There is a note of urgency here. What makes a church great in the eyes of God? The power of the gospel but also the proclamation of the gospel. Our preaching must be prophetic, plain, positive, penetrating, persuasive, pointed, pious and persistent.

Productive proclamation

Tenth, it must also be productive. Acts 2:41 reported, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them.” Three thousand precious persons were saved that day and followed the Lord in believer’s baptism. It is apparent that the Bible doesn’t speak a word about these newly baptized believers speaking in glossa. Although Acts 2:38 shows, “you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”

No doubt most of those converts at Pentecost were Jews. So far as we know, the first church was largely made up of Jews. It is wrong to think that all the Jews in the first century rejected the Christian religion. No! They were the first ones who really accepted Him. They accepted all that the prophets had foretold about the Messiah, and many saw Him as Jesus of Nazareth.

The truth about the Christian church is we don’t ask Jewish people to convert to our religion;we have converted to theirs. The Lord Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah. Had you visited the first church in Jerusalem, you would have found it comprised almost totally of Jewish believers.

Some today insist that Jews have a special way of being saved apart from the Lord Jesus Christ. But Peter preached to them, “repent”(Acts 2:38). He called on them to change their minds about themselves, the Savior, their sin, and salvation. To whom was he speaking? Jews! Religious Jews. He was not afraid he would offend them. There are preachers today who will not even pray in the name of Jesus if Jewish people are present for fear of offending them. Listen to Peter as he answered their question of what they should do with the word “repent!”

Three thousand people were saved in one day! They did so much with so little, and we seem to do so little with so much! What a glorious picture here of Christ receiving sinners. He casts out none who trust in Him.

What makes a church great? The power of the gospel which involves unity and unction is vitally important. There has never been a great church in the eyes of God that didn’t make much of Bible proclamation which was prophetic, plain, positive, personal, penetrating, persuasive, pointed, pious, persistent and productive.

Immersed in a world of modern church growth principles that often de-emphasize the importance of the proclamation of the gospel by means of expository preaching, it would do us well to remember that all roads lead back to Jerusalem. And along that road we have now come to GuideStone #2 which points us in the direction of expository preaching and warns us of a superficial discipleship that is not centered in the Word of God.

While preparing these words, my morning devotional reading took me to the sixth chapter of Revelation. John’s probing question should haunt every preacher of the gospel — “for the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev. 6:17). What an awesome responsibility rests upon those who are called to preach the gospel. In the future when God’s wrath is indeed poured out, will what we have been about endure or will it be consumed like “wood, hay and stubble?” What kind of a gospel did we preach? Was it penetrating? Did it cut the hearts of our hearers and bring genuine conviction of sin? Was it pointed? Did we call men and women to genuine repentance or is that one of the forgotten words in our preaching vocabulary? As John put it, “Who can stand?”

These early church leaders left us some important guidestones as reminders for our own journey. Here at GuideStone #2 we learn the importance of a pulpit ministry that issues out of God's Word which is always “profitable” and which “never returns void."


  1. Lloyd John Ogilvie, Acts: The Communicator’s Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1983), 70.
  2. Words, Gloria and William J. Gaither. © Copyright 1971 by William J. Gaither. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
  3. C.H. Spurgeon, The Treasure of the New Testament II (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House, 1950), 745.
  4. O.S. Hawkins, Where Angels Fear to Tread (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1983), 84–85.
  5. Reinecker and Rogers, 267.
  6. L.R. Scarborough, With Christ After the Lost (Nashville Broadman Press, 1955), 55–56.
  7. Ibid., 64.
  8. Ibid., 65–66.
  9. Ogilvie, 72.
  10. H.L. Wilmington, Wilmington’s Guide to the Bible (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1981), 371.179
  11. Criswell, 96.
  12. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, III.: Victor Books, 1983), 359.
  13. Fanny J. Crosby, “Rescue the Perishing” Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1975), 285.
  14. W.A. Criswell, Criswell’s Guidebook for Pastors (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 237–38.

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