I recently decided to examine the sermons found in the Book of Acts and compare them with how we “preach the Gospel” today.
What they “leave out” and what they include is an interesting study indeed. For example, it is intextricably connected to the Jewish narrative. It isn’t at all self-focused and doesn’t revolve around a “personal relationship with God” (nothing like this phrase is used and though they believed the idea they didn’t include it in the individualistic way that we do). Instead, they announced Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah of Israel (that was a loaded statement for the 1st-century Jews!) and the world’s true Lord (that was a loaded statement to those in the Roman Empire, where Caesar declared himself as Lord!).
I examined how Peter (Acts 2, 3, 4, 5, 10), Paul (Acts 13, 14, 16, 17, 22, 24, 26), and even Stephen (Acts 7) preached the Gospel. Below is my initial synopsis.
THE GOSPEL OF MODERN EVANGELICALISM (As seen in Four Spiritual Laws, etc): 1. God made humans to be in relationship with Him.
2. Humans sinned and their sin separated them from God.
3. Jesus died on the cross for our sin and rose again.
4. Whoever believes in Jesus will go to heaven when they die.
THE GOSPEL OF THE 1ST CHURCH (As preached by Peter, Paul, and others in Acts): 1. God made a good world (cosmos) and put humans in charge.
2. Humans rebelled against God and allowed Evil to infect the world (cosmos).
3. God launched His master plan to rescue and redeem the world (cosmos) through Abraham and his family.
4. Jesus, the seed of Abraham and the Son of God, brought that plan to completion by defeating Evil and atoning for human sin by dying on the cross. Jesus completes and fulfills the long story of Israel, and in doing so, culminates God’s plan to rescue the whole world and defeat Evil. This victory was achieved because God raised Jesus from the dead. God raising Jesus from the dead was a sign that He was fulfilling His promise at last. (See Paul’s sermon in Acts 26)
5. Whoever believes in Him and surrenders to Him as the world’s true Lord and Messiah will become the new People of God. They will experience bodily resurrection and participate in the restoration of all things in the age to come, where Jesus the Messiah renews this world (cosmos) and joins it forever with heaven.
[The first three points are embedded in every reference to Abraham, Israel, Moses and Joseph found in Peter’s, Paul’s and Stephen’s sermons. That was the Jewish narrative, the narrative they saw Jesus as the culmination and completion of.]
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE AND WHY DOES IT MATTER? The Modern Evangelical Gospel is not theologically inaccurate; it’s Biblically anemic. – It has difficulty knowing what to make of Israel and the Old Testament. (Is that the reason we routinely hand out New Testaments?) – It raises questions like, “Was God wasting time for a couple thousand years?” and “Was the law simply to frustrate people?”
The Modern Evangelical Gospel has an inadequate explanation for Evil – It is difficult to make sense of why “bad things happen” or why God isn’t doing anything about it. – It doesn’t highlight that God has confronted Evil and has acted decisively to defeat it. Though Evil’s defeat will culminate when Christ returns and we receive resurrected bodies, it has already begun because Jesus is resurrected.
The Modern Evangelical Gospel can lead to a spiritualized view of the after-life. – It makes us want to escape this earth and get out of here. – It frames everything around whether we will get into heaven or not. – It can inadvertently promote a “detached spirituality” on earth, i.e.: only value “spiritual activities” like prayer, worship, Bible reading, “soul-winning”, etc and not the ordinary common joys like meals, loving relationships, or even work. – It doesn’t emphasize that because Jesus is fully God and fully Man, and because Revelation’s picture of the “end game” is Heaven and Earth joined together at last, Christian spirituality is Incarnational: it has a place for the physical and the material.
The Modern Evangelical Gospel doesn’t provide a framework for why we should care for creation or care about injustice. – It makes it difficult to know why we should care for creation since God’s going to throw it all away someday. – It doesn’t provide any motivation for any social reform is worth it because the whole world is going down the toilet.
The Modern Evangelical Gospel has difficulty explaining why character really matters. – If we’re going to get into heaven by grace, then why does “being good” matter? – It doesn’t make us think about what it means to be God’s image-bearers who will reign with Christ in God’s new heaven and new earth, both of which require “Christian character”.