Tag Archives: Acts

10 Characteristics of a Gospel-Produced Church

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

Book Recommendation
Center Church: Doing Balanced, Gospel-Centered Ministry in Your City

Advertisements

Antagonistic Psalms

There are many places to go in the Bible if you’re interested in evangelism but you see evangelism most clearly in action in the book of Acts. Peter and Paul and many others in the church were incredible evangelists who loved God and who loved those to whom they witnessed. They boldly held forth the offer of salvation to all who would believe.

In Acts 4 Peter courageously stands up to the authorities who tell him to stop proclaiming Jesus. Peter’s response is classic: “Which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or to him? You be the judges! As for us, we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19-20)

After being released Peter and John returned to the rest of the disciples and together they immediately went before God in prayer. Their prayer is instructive. They praise God for his sovereignty in creation and in redemption and they ask him to give them boldness and to show his power. In the middle of the prayer are the words from Psalm 2: “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one.” The disciples were well versed in the psalms. This was their worship book. The psalms were foundational and motivational for their evangelism.

Since I’m preparing to preach on Acts 4 this Sunday I decided to take a cue from the disciples and dive into the psalms, asking God to allow the psalms to shape my prayer – specifically as I, with the disciples, prayed for courage in evangelism.

But as I read through the psalms a thought dawned on me: Why did the psalms inform the disciples’ evangelism? Many, many, MANY of the psalms, and especially psalm 2, speak of God’s enemies. These are rather antagonistic psalms. Psalm 2 basically states “Get on God’s side… or else!” Wouldn’t the idea that God has enemies (and that, by extension, God’s people have enemies) squash evangelism? Wouldn’t being informed by these “antagonistic psalms” lead to an inward focused church, more concerned with holding to its own tribe than risking its neck by declaring Jesus as the Messiah and the only way of salvation?

For the early church, the answer is obviously no. Why?

The first answer is that when the disciples spoke of God’s enemies, they spoke of God’s enemies. In their prayer they didn’t say “everyone is against us” but “everyone is against your holy servant Jesus.” This seems to make the sting of opposition less personal and, in the case of the disciples anyway, more theologically accurate. They were being opposed because they were accurately representing Christ and their opponents were opposed to Christ. The enemies of God are by extension the enemies of God’s people in the sense that they oppose what God’s people are doing, but the relationship is not direct.

The second answer is that confessing that God has enemies does not preclude God’s people from loving those enemies or from seeking their good or praying for their salvation. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, not because they are not our enemies, but because God also sends the rain on the just and the unjust. Jesus himself died for us while we were his enemies. The fact that all of us, because of our sin, were once God’s opponents precludes us from an us-vs-them mentality even with a recognition that God does indeed still have enemies and that God’s people, in representing the gospel, have enemies as well.

In fact, this recognition can be a motivating force for evangelism, and that on multiple levels. First it’s a motivation for evangelism because we know it’s exceedingly dangerous to be God’s enemy. The warning against God’s wrath in Psalm 2:12 is severe (“your way will lead to destruction”) but the hope of salvation is just as sweet (“blessed are all who take refuge in him”). One of the roles of an evangelist is to warn, and in a way motivated and informed by love. The second motivation comes from the recognition that God is sovereign and that, as powerful as God’s enemies might be, all their plotting is ultimately in vain (Acts 4:25) and even the worst they could do, putting to death God’s son, actually played right into God’s hands (Acts 4:28) in his work of redemption. Acknowledging that God has enemies can be scary, but not when we realize that in terms of power, there is simply no comparison, and this realization is exactly what led to Peter and John’s courage in evangelism.

What does it mean to “receive the Spirit”?

The last time I preached at my church I concluded the message with a call to be saved and, since I am now preaching through Acts I had fresh in my mind Peter’s call in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Since my message was on Jesus’ ascension into heaven (Acts 1) more than on the Spirit coming at Pentecost (Acts 2) this call led one person, in a follow up conversation, to ask, “What does it mean to receive the Spirit?”

This is a great question. When Peter said this in Acts 2 he was speaking before a crowd that had just witnessed the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The crowd had just heard Peter and the disciples speaking in a multitude of languages/dialects (2:4) and they were amazed because they could each hear the disciples in their own language (2:6). Some in the crowd, reaching for a naturalist interpretation, thought that perhaps the disciples were drunk. Many, however, were drawn in to hear what the disciples had to say. This gave Peter the opportunity to give his first sermon and led to the sudden expansion of the church in Jerusalem.

The important thing to note here is that what the Holy Spirit enabled was clear and understandable communication of the good news of Jesus. While the miracle of Pentecost was attested to with physical manifestations (sound of a violent wind, appearance of tongues of fire) what amazed the crowds and led to their ultimate conversion was that the disciples were miraculously speaking and miraculously being understood.

There are, of course, many “signs” of the power of the Holy Spirit throughout the book of Acts but underlying all these signs is what these signs point to – the authority of the person of Jesus over both physical reality (healing, raising the dead) and spiritual reality (forgiveness of sins). Throughout Acts the Spirit consistently clearly communicates the truth of the gospel to both believers and unbelievers.

What about today? What does it mean to “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?” Or, perhaps, “What is the role of the Holy Spirit?” I would submit that underlying role of the Spirit is the same as it was in Acts. The Holy Spirit enables clear and understandable communication of the good news of Jesus. I see this communication attested to in four ways in Scripture.

Clear communication to our consciences

First, it is the role of the Spirit to speak to our consciences. The Spirit can either speak a word of judgment or comfort, depending on our spiritual condition. It is the Holy Spirit that can use the Word to cut to our hearts. It is the Spirit that convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:8). It is also the Holy Spirit that is our Advocate (John 16:7) and can speak a word of assurance, reminding us of our new holy standing before God, as those sealed for the day of redemption.

Clear communication in our speech

Second, the Holy Spirit enables clear communication in our speech. This is seen in Acts as already stated but is also evident in 1 Corinthians 14. In this passage Paul is instructing the Corinthians not to get caught up in desiring the “flashy” gift of speaking in tongues. Instead he instructs them to seek the spiritual gifts which build up the church. These “edifying” gifts are marked out by their intelligibility, both to believers and unbelievers.

Paul states:

Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy. For anyone who speaks in a tongue does not speak to people but to God. Indeed, no one understands them; they utter mysteries by the Spirit. But the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but I would rather have you prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be edified.

Prophecy is given a more prominent place for Paul because it is understandable and “speaks to people for their strengthening, encouragement, and comfort.” Tongues are valuable within the church context only when they are interpreted. A cacophony of unintelligible tongues in worship, then, seems to be antithetical to the primary mode of operation for the Spirit.

Clear communication in our conduct

Third, the Spirit enables clear communication of our conduct. The Spirit enables our “walk” to match our “talk.” The “fruit” of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we are walk by the Spirit we demonstrate that we have been truly set free to obey the command to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that reality is a testament to the free justification that we have in Jesus (for more on this study the role of the Spirit in Galatians).

Clear communication in our community

Fourth, the Spirit enables clear communication in our community. This is perhaps nothing more than a natural result of the first three “empowering” aspects of the Spirit already stated, but it also goes one step further. It is the role of the Spirit to form and empower the church which confesses the name of Jesus. That church is given gifts which form not only Spirit-filled individuals but a Spirit-filled community which “grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work.”

And this, I believe, is the mark of the Spirit in a church: clear gospel proclamation with palpable love to match. A man walked into our church recently and struck up a conversation with me. He stated that for him it was obvious which churches had the Spirit and which did not. From the context of the rest of the conversation I got the impression that he was talking about things like speaking in tongues, prophetic speech, and words of knowledge. In this regard I am cautiously open. I do not want to either put God in a box nor do I want to discount other people’s experiences. However, while the Spirit may manifest himself in those ways I think that the true marks of the Holy Spirit in a church are the clear and understandable communication of the gospel and the palpable love for neighbor present. How do you know if a church has the Spirit? Does it proclaim Jesus clearly in its speech? Do its actions and attitude within the body demonstrate a spirit of love and unity? Do its people love their neighbors? It is the role of the Spirit to form such a community.

How do I know if it’s time to act right now or wait?

In a few weeks I will be preaching on Acts 1:1-11. In this passage Jesus instructs the disciples to stay in Jerusalem and “wait for the gift my Father promised.” This command has a clear historical root: The disciples had not yet received the Holy Spirit and so were not yet fully equipped to carry out the Great Commission. We should be cautious in applying this historical command to “wait” in our modern context. However, sometimes God does tell us to wait. Sometimes he has something for us to do, just not yet. Whether it’s going on a mission trip, changing your job, starting some new endeavor, taking care of an interpersonal issue, or something else, how do we know when the time is right?

First, don’t put off what you know you need to do now. I’m talking to myself here. Some other people may be more likely to “run ahead” of God’s timing but I’m far more likely to use “not yet” as an excuse to put off something I know I need to be doing now.

Some things just can’t wait. Jesus emphasizes the importance of reconciling to a brother immediately when he says, “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). When Paul calls people to be reconciled to God through Jesus he urges them by saying, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2 emphasis added).

Second, act in accordance with wisdom. God does not call us to be unwise. It may be controversial, but I would apply this to church debt. Should your church go into debt for a new addition? Would doing so be an act of faith or an act of foolishness? While I would leave a little ground for the former I think in most cases it would be the latter. Would acting now be foolish, for financial or other reasons? If so, wait. That new addition (or that new job, or getting married) may still be a good idea, but maybe God is calling you to wait.

Third, listen to the voice of the community. God has not left us alone. We are created to think and act within a community of believers. Your friends, families, and mentors can all provide a perspective broader than their own.

Fourth, balance the urgency with the situation with the sovereignty of God. Don’t panic. Don’t get lost in the situation. Don’t act out of knee-jerk reactions. Remember that God stands sovereign over history and time. There are very few “one time offers you have to take right now or it will be lost forever” kind of events in life. God does sometimes calls us to act right now (see point number 1), but those situations are rare. God is in control and has the ability to carry out his will in his own timing even if it doesn’t match yours. Don’t use this as an excuse to procrastinate what you know you need to do. But it’s just as unhealthy to carry around the feeling that everything is urgent. Such an attitude demonstrates a lack of faith in God’s timing.

I’m sure this list isn’t exhaustive. What advice do you have for discerning God’s timing?