When we in evangelical circles (especially Baptist) think about the question “What does the preaching of the gospel produce?” we tend to think of it primarily in terms of individual decisions to follow Jesus. This is, of course, a perfectly proper way to answer that question. When Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost we see that about 3,000 individuals accepted Peter’s call, repented, and were baptized. By the work of the Holy Spirit the preaching of the gospel led to 3,000 new converts to Christianity (see Acts 2:41).
However, it is also worth noting that the preaching of the gospel didn’t just produce individual Christians. It produced (and produces) a church, a community of believers. It is not only true that 3,000 souls accepted, repented, and were baptized. The text also says that they “were added to their number that day.” What follows is a description of this budding community.
I am preparing to teach on Acts 2:42-47 and its “parallel passage” in 4:32-45. From these two passages I have compiled a list of ten characteristics of a gospel-produced church. This is by no means a complete list – a lot would need to be added. Nor, do I think, was it Luke’s intent to list exactly ten characteristics. Nevertheless, I do think these 10 characteristics are true to the text, and true characteristics of a gospel-produced and gospel-driven church.
- Made up of followers of Jesus. The “they” in 2:42 is “those who accepted [Peter’s] message and were baptized” in 2:41. This should probably go without saying but church membership is for those who have already committed themselves to the Lord. At our church this is also one of the reasons we require baptism before church membership.
- Devoted to the apostle’s teaching. What follows in 2:42 is a list of four things which the early church devoted themselves to. The first is “the apostle’s teaching.” What was the apostle’s teaching? I can only imagine it was all about the life of Jesus, but I’m sure there was a heavy dose of the Old Testament in there, too. In other words, the early church were a people of the Word; living and written.
- Devoted to “communion.” The next two in the list are “fellowship” and “the breaking of bread.” Some commentators see this as simply referring to sharing common meals. Others as a specific reference to the Lord’s Supper. A third group sees these two ideas as combined in the New Testament. I tend to agree with this third group. The “Lord’s Supper,” as it is often called, has another name: Communion. It is called Communion because there is a strong “community” aspect to the remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection. We are reconciled to God through Jesus’ death and we are also reconciled to one another. We are united to Christ through his death, and as a direct result we are united with the rest of the Body of Christ. The fellowship which the early church was devoted to was not just small talk, but a deep and abiding unity.
- Devoted to prayer. The final in the list states that the early church was devoted “to prayer.” Indeed, prayer is one of the major themes of Acts. One of the primary reasons why the seven deacons were chosen was to free up the apostles for time in prayer.
- Filled with awe. 2:43 states that “everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles.” “Everyone” here might refer to people even outside the church, but it certainly also refers to those within it. I don’t think this only applies to the early church. I may not experience miracles on the scale of the early church, but I still have plenty of reason to be filled with awe for the power of God.
- Devoted to one another. Verse 44 states that “all the believers were together and had everything in common.” What follows is a description of the generosity that marked the early church (see point #7) but I have separated this characteristic out because I believe that the generosity described next, and more fully in 4:32-35 was the fruit of something more fundamental in the community – love, unity, and mutual devotion. Before describing the believers’ generosity, 4:32 states that “all the believers were one in heart and mind.” This points to both their unity of faith and their deep devotion to one another.
- Marked by generosity. From this devotion sprang generosity. “They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need” and “no one claimed that of their possessions was their own, but shared everything they had.” Indeed, this generosity was seen as evidence of the power of God in their midst: “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them” (4:33b-34a). This passage can be somewhat controversial, but needlessly so. I want to caution against two extremes. The first extreme would be to say that this description of the early church has no bearing on us for today. The argument states that they were in a unique scenario and believed, erroneously, that Christ’s return would happen any moment. The second extreme would come from those who believe that the church in Acts lays out some kind of communal church life that should be carried out through all generations and situations. I think both extremes misunderstand the descriptive nature of Acts. The church was in a unique cultural and historical situation, of course, but the values they exhibited – unity, devotion, and generosity – are meant to be carried out in every cultural setting.
- Met for regular worship. Verse 46 states that the church met together daily in them temple courts and in one another’s homes. These meetings were not just for the purpose of fellowship, but of worship. I’m not sure if the “daily” aspect of worship needs to continue, but certainly regular participation in corporate worship ought to be the norm.
- Praised God with sincere hearts. This worship was carried out “with glad and sincere hearts” and resulted in the disciples praising God. Musical worship from a sincere heart (Paul and Silas are found singing a hymn in prison) is a mark of a gospel-produced church.
- Produced visible fruit. Finally we are told that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The church saw visible fruit and that fruit was daily conversions and baptisms into the church. We need to be cautious here. Gospel-fruit takes many forms and it comes in different seasons. Sometimes fruit is conversions or church growth. Sometimes it is a community of love (see the fruit of the Spirit). In chapter 4 the fruit of the power of God is generosity. After the disciple’s pray the fruit of the power of God is boldness in proclaiming the gospel. We can’t control the form of the fruit, nor its season, nor can we predict it. However, I am confident that the gospel produces fruit and a church that is alive with the gospel will see that fruit. It may not be a promise, but this principle holds for everything living: “living things grow.”
After I put together this list I put together to assessments. The first is a church assessment. Is our church a gospel produced church?
- Are we made up of followers of Jesus?
- Are we devoted to the word of God?
- Are we devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
- Are we devoted to prayer?
- Are we filled with awe for the power of God?
- Are we devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
- Are we marked by generosity?
- Do we meet regularly for worship?
- Do we praise God with sincere hearts?
- Is there identifiable fruit coming from our ministry?
The second assessment is a personal assessment. Do I have the characteristics of a gospel-produced believer?
- Am I a follower of Jesus?
- Am I devoted to the word of God?
- Am I devoted to fellowship and the Lord’s Supper?
- Am I devoted to prayer?
- Am I filled with awe for the power of God?
- Am I devoted to unity in the body of Christ?
- Am I generous with my material resources?
- Do I commit to regular corporate worship?
- Do I praise God with a sincere heart?
- Is there visible fruit in my life?
Both these lists are convicting to me, though in different ways. I invite you to examine yourself.
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City