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”.

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14 thoughts on “Did Peter & Paul Preach the Modern Evangelical Gospel?

  1. Great thoughts, Glenn. I’ve been thinking about this for the last week, since your original tweet about the difference between the preaching in Acts and how we approach the Gospel today. Obviously, we’re missing the mark as a Church, but how do we get back on the right track? What steps do we need to take, as individuals and corporately, to share the Gospel as it is, rather than the consumer-friendly model we have been?

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  2. Absolutely agree on every point you’ve made; well-thought and conveyed (that wasn’t supposed to rhyme).
    David Harris, I’m convinced that the disconnect to all modern/western Christianity from 1st Century teaching is the lack of true discipleship based on pure doctrine. That said, I believe focusing on other “fixes” are perhaps band-aid solutions. Each having merit but perhaps not solving the real issue where “dilution” is fundamentally what needs to be addressed.

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  3. Just typed a long response and somehow it dumped before I could post it. The basic gist was this:
    1)The Church reflects the Gospel message that is being preached at the time – it the Gospel is anemic, the Church is anemic
    2)The emphasis on “YOU” in the Gospel message is only a small part of the story as you mention, but it is in line with new-age Western spirituality, ie Eckhart Tolle and Oprah so it tickles people’s ears.
    3)We make becoming a Christian as easy as we can, offering coupons to the church bookstore if you’ll just say the prayer. Jesus and his disciples made it incredibly difficult, constantly warning prospective converts to weigh the costs before taking up their cross. Therefore the people that actually decided to follow Christ had a depth to their discipleship that allowed them to weather the inevitable storm.

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  4. on top of it all, the book of acts connects the reality of the supernatural WITH the gospel and not just as an after thought or a nice addition…acts 2.38-39, acts 10.44-47, acts 19.1-6 are quick examples of the reality that our understanding of salvation and repentance is quite different than what is laid out in acts…we see things like water baptism in the name of Jesus and speaking in tongues linked often with the gospel…because of their controversy today, we tend to downplay those parts of acts…
    your thoughts are very insightful and true to the Scriptures, my friend!

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  5. Hey Glenn, great food for thought.
    Here’s my initial push-back:
    1.) Is it really an Evangelical Gospel that promotes a “detached spirituality,” as if the Evangelical Gospel can be separated out from every other movement on this trait. As far as I can tell, detached spirituality, as you describe it, is a human trait and not the result of a specific ideology. Returning to a more Jewish centered way would not help in the least. In fact, Jesus accused the Jewish leaders of His day for practicing the very thing you noted: traveling land and sea to make a single convert, yet unwilling to lift a finger to lighten the burdens of the people.
    2.) I hear the call for Christians to enact “social reform” quite frequently, but I’m never sure what the call is exactly calling for. What sort of social reform do you believe the Church should be involved with? And, as a follow up, what evidence from the sermons in Acts do you find for Christian based social reform?
    3.) I’ve also heard the doctrine that Christians should be more earth/environmentally concerned and that modern preaching stears us away from this. I’m not sure how believing that one will leave this earth and go to heaven is a logical straight shot to crapping on the environment. In fact, its brought up frequently by my own pastor. If I believe that I’m going to live on earth forever will that somehow make me recycle more, ride my bike more, use green toothpaste,…? This resent push for a more environmentally aware Christianity has me a little baffled. Not that I intentionally pollute and give earth the middle finger, simply because I do believe in a non-material heaven. But, you get my point.
    What are your thoughts?

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  6. Eric…so glad you wrote. Here are some thoughts:
    1. Concerning the Jewish narrative:
    This is about more than being “Jewish-centered”, as you wrote. It means embracing the narrative of God and His world that the majority of Jews in Jesus’ day did. Genesis, Psalms, Isaiah combined with what we’ve learned about 1st-century Judaism gives us a picture…
    …of YHWH, Creator-God, who made a good world and set humans as His image-bearers and rulers (think gardeners more than tyrant)
    …of YHWH who chose Abraham’s family to be a light to the Gentiles and the vehicle of blessing to all peoples
    …When the Psalmist prayed “The LORD reigns!” it was one-part proclamation and one part petition: “Lord, come and reign..so the earth will rejoice.”
    The Jewish narrative is one that has God concerned with the whole cosmos— He loves His world that He made and called good. His plan is to rescue it and set everything right. This was what Isaiah saw Messiah and YHWH doing…in his vision of Messiah ending war, feeding the hungry, ending injustice, making the wolf and the lamb lie down together, all nations coming to worship YHWH, etc.
    When “God raised Jesus from the dead” (the phrase in almost every Acts sermon), they saw that as a sign that YHWH was fulfilling His promise at last…the first man was receiving his resurrected body…God’s project to rescue and remake His world was in full motion.
    2. Why do we work to end injustice now? Peter in Acts 3 talks about the Messiah waiting now in heaven until the time comes for “the restoration of all things.” Messiah has completed the call on Israel to bless all peoples and set God’s cosmic rescue in motion; but later in Rev 21, John has a vision of Jesus saying “I am making everything new…it is done.” Interestingly, there are two times Jesus says “It is finished”: once on the cross…but that words means “the goal has been reached; it is complete”. The one in Rev means “it is coming to pass.” If we know what Jesus will bring to pass when He returns, how should we, Messiah’s body, work on the earth? We– by all the parables Jesus told about managers and stewards (Lk 12, 16, etc)– should do now what we know HE will do then…even if it’s in small strides. Salvation is not about souls alone; it’s about God’s massive work to restore all things and set the whole world right. We are part of that…both in that that work starts in our hearts (Paul call us “new creation”…we are the beginning of God’s whole cosmic new creation plan)…and the way we get to participate in bringing it…every time we work for justice, love, mercy in the name of Jesus.
    SO…If you know that we are God’s new humanity (Paul’s phrase) on the earth now…and that we will “reign with Him” on the new earth/new heaven (John’s phrase in Revelation), how we manage this earth now matters. It matters not only because it is this earth that will be renewed…but also because if we are “faithful with little, we will be made ruler of much” (Jesus’ phrase).
    3. As for disconnected spirituality: I think you may have missed my point. Disconnected spirituality is a spirituality that has no place for matter or physicality…The Jews were not Platonists like the Greeks…they didn’t believe the body was evil…They believed food, meals, sex, and all of our physical pleasures were sacred (think of the feasts days, etc…and the holistic view of body and soul). We have a spirituality closer to gnosticism: prayer and worship and bible-reading is sacred; work and play and meals are not.
    The incarnation means that in Jesus God and Man meet. Rev 21 has as its final vision heaven and earth joined together at last…something the incarnation foreshadows. Jews in the 1st century believed the Temple to be the point where heaven and earth intersect; Jesus said He was the Temple…Paul calls us now the Temple because we are in Christ…The unity of physicality with spirituality is the Christian– and Jewish– vision; not the detachment and escape of the “spirit man” from this evil world.
    4. Social reform…In Acts (24, i think?) they say that Christians were a threat to Caesar because they followed Jesus as their King. You and I know from church history classes that Christians weren’t arrested simply because Rome didn’t like their religion. They were arrested because they were a subversive threat to the Roman regime. “Social reform” means so many things to different people. I think Christians…because the way the live (eat, shop, consume, love, give, serve, etc) is so different to culture that they actually pose a threat to “rulers” or systems of injustice and oppression and evil…not a violent of beligerent threat, but one that subverts it…however that may look in each particular community. I think of the churches in Colorado trying to empty the foster system by adopting those kids. I think of my friend the banker who refuses to depersonalize his customers just to meet a quota…
    Not to push my own talks, but I spent 30 min unpacking the idea of why Christians work for justice in a talk at New Life called “Under New Management”. You can check out the podcast here: http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/under-new-management-why-we/id193171777?i=84058544

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  7. Someone has been reading some of Bishop (or professor now) Wright’s works. He makes us think in a more eastern perspective on the Gospel and Epistles, rather than be complacent with our western evangelical theology. Thanks for the refresher on the Acts sermons as well as the point by point summary

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  8. Hey Glenn, I’m enjoying this discussion very much!
    To your 1st, 2nd, and 4th point, no doubt Isisah spoke of “Messiah ending war, feeding the hungry, ending injustice, making the wolf and the lamb lie down together, all nations coming to worship YHWH, etc” and in there we find part of our calling as His Body in the world to accomplish. The only caveat that I think is vitally important to add is that the Gospel is, throught and through, speaking to the individual and not to society/the crowd. By that I don’t mean that He is not speaking to the Church community, but that when He says “feed the poor” he is not asking us to enact legislation that would make it mandatory to feed the poor. He is telling individual believers to take up the responsibility as a response to His grace and love – and not government mandate – to feed the poor. The issue is the believers heart. I can force you to do good, but that doesn’t mean you are made good by it, nor does it mean you’ve glorified God by it.
    This is probably not your point at all, I don’t know, but I hear this sort of “social reform,” touted by Christians all the time. Its as if they’ve confused Marx and Jesus. Accomplishing the work of the Gospel through government power is simply removing the responsibility of the believer and placing it on an abstract entity – “the crowd.” Crowds don’t have hands and feet, only individuals do.
    To your 3rd point, I completely agree that Christians must see their day-to-day lives, and their activity in this physical world as consequential to spiritual realities. As James said, “you believe there is one God? You do well, the devils also believe and tremble, but won’t you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead.”
    Faith and action, faith and life/works, cannot be divorced. Faith IS the life you live. If one says he knows what forgiveness is but has not forgiven, he’s worse than ignorant, he’s self-deceived. Ironically, this point goes to make my point above about social justice and the like.
    One must LIVE his or her Christianity. They must become that sacrifice unto God, doing His will and not their own. But if he or she fluffs off their enacting God’s will through their own life by passing the duty to some abstact “crowd,” all they’ve done is dismiss themselves from the duty to have “connected spirituality.” Now its the crowds responsibility, and since they are not the crowd, but only a fraction of it, they need not worry about “doing” anything themselves.
    Again, this may not be relevant to your own perspective of social justice, but it is to the idea of social justice that I often hear. Replacing a funky political-right, Pat Robertson type Evangelical gospel with a funky politically-left, Marxist type liberation gospel is not the vision. When we speak of “social reform” I think this point needs to be made very clear.
    I tried to condense this, I swear. Cheers.

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  9. ahh the four spiritual laws… you can forget.
    I sometimes wonder if that approach does much besides annoy non-Christians plenty and committed Christians more.
    Last night, I was with a few hex-evangelicals (raised in Evangelicalism. Got annoyed. Left), and the awkwardness of stuff like the four spiritual laws came up.
    I wonder if we lose Christians when those Christians realize that the modern Gospel is rather thin.

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  10. Glenn –
    This is good stuff here.
    To my frequent sparring partner Eric’s points:
    1) Are you sure the gospel is “through and through” addressed simply to the individual? The gospel in Isaiah was announced to all the exiles, and it would be a cause for rejoicing for all creation. Mark’s longer ending has Jesus commanding them to “preach the gospel to all creation.” Paul in Colossians says that the gospel was proclaimed to “every creature under heaven”, which is fitting because “all things in heaven and on earth” will be gathered up to Jesus. The gospel is inevitably “public truth”, and as such it is relevant not MERELY for the individual (though certainly it is up to the individual to respond, and only an individual CAN respond), but for every “power in heaven and on earth.” True or not true?
    2) I hear your concern about Marx/Jesus and the call for “social reform”, but I tend to think that’s overblown a bit, and that the accusation of “Marxism” then becomes a red herring that distracts from the discussion. If the gospel reforms individuals who profess faith in Jesus such that they become part of the “new humanity” made possible in Jesus, how could they possibly let injustice flow through the streams of their society? As long as Christians have been able to participate in the transformation of society, haven’t we always believed that it was our responsibility to not only ACT justly but also to oppose unjust structures? That just seems so blazingly obvious that I have a hard time wondering why anyone questions it. Evangelicals don’t have a problem calling for the end of abortion on a policy level. Why not other things? It’s like the one Catholic priest says, “When I feed the poor they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor they call me a communist.”
    To be clear – socialism sucks 🙂 Is there a way to steer clear of socialism while still working for a more just and fair society? Isn’t this what just and fair people would do?
    I realize I’m a latecomer to this discussion. If no one responds, my feelings won’t be hurt 🙂
    Shalom friends.

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  11. Andrew, sparring partner par excellence indeed:)
    Let me answer you in reverse:
    2.) The problem with the rhetoric of “social justice” is that it means so many different things to so many people, one might as well call it “unicorn hockey” for all the sense that it makes. The term has traditionally, for the left, meant justice in terms of goals and results. Like: everyone should have housing therefore ‘give’ everyone houses. On the right, it has traditionally been understood to mean the ‘process’. Something is just or unjust according to whether we are all held to the same laws. Let the outcomes be what they may. I prefer the latter. If someone is willing to work and buy a home, let him do it accordingly. If not, let him sleep under a bridge. Just let the process be just.
    I like how Dr. Thomas Sowell put it speaking on social justice: “The question is not what anybody deserves. The question is who is to take on the God-like role of deciding what everybody else deserves.”
    This is not the job of the Church or the government.
    1.) To answer your first point, here’s a question: when Jesus says “go, and take this gospel to the ends of the earth,” or “feed the hungry, clothe the naked” is He speaking to an abstract “crowd” or “public” or to individuals?
    I like Kierkegaard’s words on this: “Christianity has protected itself from the beginning (from permitting us to “run together” in what Aristole called the animal category – the crowd). It begins with the teaching of about sin. The category of sin is the category of the individual. Sin cannot be thought speculatively at all. The individual human being lies beneath the concept; an individual human being cannot be thought, but only the concept ‘man.'”
    I think if we are not careful, you and I will talk past each other on this point. I’m only saying that the gospel speaks to the individual and not some abstract ‘group’ or ‘public,’ because, divinely considered, there is no ‘group’ which God confronts, but individuals within a so-called group. The emphasis is on the individual precisely because it beckons him/her to respond to the gospel and live it. If one considers himself a “mass-man” a “cog in the holy-machine” then no action is necessary. It’s the difference of seeing oneself as a single letter in a sentence, or the entire sentence. Alone, a single letter is meaningless/useless.
    This is the real trouble with what the Evangelical gospel promotes – a “thought” Christianity and not a “living” Christianity. If you want to avoid the former then harp on the individual’s response to God – not the mass public’s response. Does this all make sense?

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  12. Eric –
    On your first point (which was my second point ;), I totally agree. Actually, I love that clarification between outcome and process. Denver is actually an interesting case study in this. There is an ENORMOUS homeless population here. Like, staggering. Some need legitimate opportunities and help to get off the streets and back into so-called “normal” life. Others think that “normal” life (as we define it) is really kind of depraved, so they CHOOSE to sleep under bridges. That’s their call. They “opt out” of the opportunities afforded to them. But the process is fair and just. Anyway, just a little vignette…
    On your second point (my first point), I [think I] push back. The gospel is addressed to groups AND individuals, is it not? Babylon is judged by the announcement of the kingdom made possible in Christ and she will fall, but Babylon as a collective cannot respond. Only individuals can “flee” Babylon. I think that’s obvious, and important. Christ’s lordship judges all of our social and political structures, yet only individuals can flee them for Christ and so bring transformation to the world. Are you making a different point that I’m not seeing?

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  13. Andrew, first point, great insight. You’re not the first to note the ACTUAL condition of mind that many homeless people are in. It’s usually the people who sit behind academic textbooks and coffee house mugs that think of the homeless as an adstract statistical group that is deprived success because of someone elses success – as if success is a zero-sum game. I appreciate you making the observation.
    To the second, the OT, and much of Christ’s own words, are directed straight at nations as a whole. I think to some extent being part of a particular nation will invite you into a particular blessing or curse based on the social structures and activities surrounding you. However, you’re right “Babylon” cannot respond. Only the individuals within her grasp can. But Babylon (as perhaps America now) takes on a symbolic meaning that relates to the ‘spirit’ of the generation, that which defines much of the thinking and culture of its people. Maybe its the “Babylon” or “Egyptian” or “American” attitude that God is warning us about. I don’t know. I think we are essentially saying the same thing. I’m only calling attention to highlighting the “individual” for the sake of moving him out of his abstract religion and into his real life.
    Great chattin with you, bro. I miss our coffee time:)

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