And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. (The Acts 2:40-41)
Recently I read of a Protestant church that consistently has 2,500 in attendance for Sunday services. That number is impressive by itself – but it’s even more astounding in light of the fact that the town in which this church is located only boasts about 500 residents.
Wow – what a church! How have they grown so large?
Perhaps the question should be: have they grown God’s way?
This morning, you and I are examining the conclusion of St. Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost; the end result was about 3,000 people were added to the church that day. Much like the church I described a moment ago, the Christian church that first day was booming.
Unlike that present-day “megachurch,” though, Peter and his brethren didn’t employ entertaining music, shiny suits or “10 steps to a happier you”-type sermons.
Still – amazingly, to the modern evangelical mind! – they grew.
Why? For three reasons: Peter’s preaching was Chris-centered and Christ-exalting; Peter’s preaching demanded a verdict from his hearers; and Peter’s sermon depended totally on the work of the Holy Spirit to call sinners to Christ.
Anyone can have numbers. Genuine growth – in numbers and in your own heart – comes when you are confronted with the unique glory of Jesus Christ through the preaching of his Word.
First, the church grew that day because Peter’s preaching was Christ-centered and Christ-exalting.
As we saw last week, Peter applied various Old Testament prophecies to Jesus and demonstrated that Jesus fulfilled all those ancient promises. Jesus was the eternal King who did not see corruption in the grave (unlike David). Jesus moreover was the Messiah, who won so glorious victory over all his enemies that they were placed under his feet. As such, Jesus is unique in his triumph over the enemies (sin and death) that beset us men.
In our passage this week, Peter underscores the atoning work of Christ: through him, the faithful are released from the power, guilt and condemnation of their sins. Although their hands (and, indeed, our hands) were stained with Jesus’ blood, he – and he alone – could free them from condemnation.
The upshot of all this is that, by virtue of his suffering and of his triumph, God has given Jesus the loftiest title of all: Lord and Christ. As Lord, Jesus is the eternal God, able to change water to wine and to raise the dead. As Christ, Jesus is the true Messiah – the King and Savior of his people. Whereas David’s victories were temporal and temporary, Jesus’ are eternal.
The Holy Spirit has preserved this Christ-exalting sermon for us, and there’s something important about its content, something normative for the church throughout all generations: it focuses totally on the matchless victory Jesus won for us. It is significant what Peter did not preach that day: Peter did not preach about balancing your checkbook or about how to have better relationships at work.
Instead, he preached Jesus: Jesus crucified, Jesus resurrected, Jesus triumphant.
To be sure, we preachers are called to proclaim the whole counsel of God, and some of our sermons will explore such issues as marriage and government from a biblical perspective. But recall what Jesus himself told those disciples on the Emmaus Road: all Scripture pointed to him. Even passages about church government and about married life find their meaning and coherence in the risen and ascended Lord Jesus.
So if our sermons today are to please God and to truly be effective in fostering your growth, they, too, must focus on Christ and exalt the Lord Christ.
Second, the church grew that day because Peter’s sermon demanded a verdict from each one of his hearers.
Peter understood that Christ has consequences. Being confronted with Jesus is different from being confronted with, say, the latest trends in fishing. You can take or leave those fishing tidbits without much consequence; your decision about Christ will have repercussions now and into eternity.
After proclaiming Jesus’ divine glory as man’s only Redeemer, Peter called literally on “every one of” his hearers (“each of you,” “all Israel”) to know assuredly that Jesus was Lord and Christ, the long-expected Messiah whom they previously had rejected. When his audience asked Peter and the apostles what they should do, Peter was unequivocal: repent and save yourself from this crooked and perverse generation.
Good preaching calls all people – the unsaved and saved alike – to repentance. Now “repentance” literally means “a 180-degree, complete changing of the heart and mind.” To repent is to wake up to your own sinfulness and incorrect way of believing and to embrace the truth of God in Christ. It’s preceded by a God-induced “pricking of the heart” (as we see in verse 37) that leaves sinners unsettled as never before and that draws them to Christ, who comforts them as they’ve never been comforted.
Peter’s hearers were to repent of their former, self-reliant religiosity, to confess their guilt before God and to embrace Jesus as Lord and Savior. They were called to lay down their pride at the foot of the cross – despite the unchristian spirit of their times. They were called to see God’s promises to Abraham and to his children in the covenant as promises made to them and to their children that very day in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What’s more, Peter called them to be baptized in the name of Jesus for remission of sins. Of course, Peter would have used the Trinitarian formula Jesus himself had given them only days before at their commissioning. Peter here is stressing that the outward sacrament of baptism was to be a symbol of their inner cleansing by the blood of Jesus, through faith in his atoning work for them (“name” meant a person’s character). These who once murdered the Savior now would be united with him by faith in true, spiritual baptism.
So it is today: you and I live in a sin-scarred, perverted generation that worships pleasure and man-made religion and image rather than the triune God. You, no less than Peter’s original audience, must come out of this world’s God-less way of thinking and into the truth of God in Christ. Good, biblical preaching always calls you to such a verdict: either for the first time, as a convert; or again and again as a believer seeking to live under Jesus’ lordship.
Third, the church grew that day because God’s Spirit was working in the hearts of the hearers.
It’s almost tucked away, found there at the end of verse 39. After St. Peter declares in a most subtle way that true Israel are those who believe on Christ (“inheritors of the promise”), he says the Lord will call believers to Himself.
The Lord will call. Yes, the Lord uses the “foolishness of preaching” – the outward call of the preached Word. But the true call to Christ must be issued by the Lord Himself to the hearts of sinful men. This theme recurs throughout Acts: it’s God, not man, who does the calling and the converting and the adding to the church. It starts with Christ-centered preaching of the Word, continues in conviction of sin and culminates in true conversion (the “glad reception” of the Word, as Luke here phrases it).
Thankfully this church’s growth, and your own progress in Christ, doesn’t depend on our music or on the oratorical wonder of my sermons. Certainly the Lord calls us to excellence in worship by doing our best to His glory; but salvation and conversion come about through His strength – not through our feeble efforts.
We want to grow at Leakesville Presbyterian Church. You and I need to grow at Leakesville Presbyterian Church.
But we’re not going to try it man’s way. We’re not going to use gimmicks and entertainment and jokes and how-to sermons.
We’re going to do it God’s way: by seeing the only Savior every week, through the preaching of His Word, and coming to a decision about what we’ve heard.
For some of you, today’s call might be to bow your knee before Christ for the first time: to recognize that he is both Lord and Christ, your Creator and your Savior.
For the others of you, today’s call is to repent of letting this crooked generation dictate your thinking and lure you away to false gods and “saviors.” It’s a call to hallow Jesus as Lord and Christ more and more everyday.
Wherever you are, know this: growth comes only when Christ confronts you in his Word – and when you turn from what is crooked to what is right.