Today I want to talk to you in a different manner than in the way I normally preach. As you know, I usually exegete a passage, going verse by verse. But today I want to share some things that have been on my mind lately, ideas which are promoted by this passage, but not necessarily found through the exposition of each verse.
This week I have found my soul distressed by several different circumstances that I have heard about, that I might term “failures of the faith.” Not that the true faith of God can fail. God cannot fail, and the purposes of God cannot fail. He is Sovereign, He is over all, and all things exist through and for Him. He existed before the world began, and will endure forever. His truth endures forever. God cannot fail.
But human beings do fail. Just this week I have been reminded or in some cases confronted with several people who were once part of our fellowship who have fallen, or are in the process of falling away. It is disheartening, even heartbreaking to see these people fall away. I heard lately that one mainstream denomination which has about 11,000 churches recently published a report that claimed over 294,000 professions of faith in one year. But in another report some time later, they could only account for 14,000 of them in fellowship. According to research done by an evangelist named Ray Comfort who reported on the previous statistics of that denomination, 80 to 90 percent of new conversions end up falling away from Christ.
As a pastor, I am particularly broken hearted over people who once professed a living faith in God, who we invested so much in, and who now have turned away from the Lord. Some of them may not see themselves that way, but their lifestyle reveals that they are no longer following Christ. Whether they are truly saved or not is not my purview to know for certain, but it is a dangerous thing to turn away from God and follow after the lusts of your heart, and trust in your own wisdom, contrary to the Word of God.
I feel I am constantly in this battle for the hearts and minds of the people who come under my preaching. I rightly feel a certain degree of responsibility for the outcome of their souls. So I preach my heart out in an effort to win them to the Lord. But for the most part, it seems that far too many people are either unmoved by the preaching of the Word, or at least once they leave the church service there seems to be little thought as to the application of the doctrines which they have been taught.
And so as I struggle to understand this inclination to fall away from the truth, and eventually from the faith, I have searched the scriptures to try to find the answer to the callousness and hardness of people’s hearts. Additionally I have researched and studied pastors and preachers from past generations to see if there is something missing from church doctrine today which is accelerating this decline into apostasy.
And what I have found is that the need of the current church culture today is highlighted in this message we are looking at by Peter in Acts 3. It is revealed in studying the messages of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ Himself. And research shows that it is the hallmark of every notable Bible preacher of history, as well as the keynote of all true revivals in history. That is, in order to make their salvation sure, there is a fundamental need to bring people face to face with a Holy God, convicted of the vileness of their sin, and condemned by the judgment that The Righteous Judge will justly bring upon all unrighteousness. They need to understand that God hates sin, and that the wrath of God will be poured out on all sin. Then based on that reality, to preach repentance of their sins that they might be saved.
Unfortunately, that is rarely the message of the church today. The problem with modern Christianity is that there is an effort on the part of the church to make the gospel appealing by removing things from the message which people might find offensive, like God’s law, His righteousness and the judgment to come. And in it’s place another message is substituted; that God loves you, and if you choose Christianity it will produce joy, happiness, peace, contentment, and blessing in your life. The only thing you have to do to receive those things, according to the new gospel message, is believe in God. If you believe, then you receive grace – the gift of God which produces joy, happiness, peace, contentment and blessings. Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?
The problem is that is not the gospel. That’s not the gospel message that Peter preached in either his first message in chapter 2, nor his second message in chapter 3. But the result of Peter’s first message was that 3000 people were saved. That’s the Holy Spirit’s count, by the way. Those are real conversions. Then at the conclusion of Peter’s message in chapter 3 there is an additional 5000 people that are saved. Again by the Holy Spirit’s count 5000 real conversions, not just professions of faith that seem to fade away after a year or so.
So what is the difference between Peter’s messages in Acts 2&3 and the message being preached in many churches today? The difference is Peter preached guilt before he preached grace. Peter preached that the judgment of God was coming. He impressed upon them their guilt for crucifying the Son of God. He impressed upon them the vileness of their sin, their hopeless condition, and the judgment that they rightly deserved. Peter preached virtually the same message twice in chap. 2 and 3.
And then Peter preached repentance. Once their sinful condition was well established, once they knew that such sinfulness rightly demanded the punishment of death, then he preached the need for repentance. And after they had repented they received grace which brought about transformed lives. In Acts 2:38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And in the next sermon, in Acts 3:19 Peter says, “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
So I suggest to you that true repentance is the ingredient that is missing in many of today’s professions of faith. Far too often today the supplicant is attracted to the message of “life enhancement” on the basis of merely believing in God, and when they afterwards in due time experience some of the hardships and trials that Jesus said is part of this life and to be expected in this life, then they fall away because their reality does not match what they were led to expect.
But although repentance is necessary for salvation, true repentance is contingent on a couple of essential things. For one, true repentance is contingent upon a true theology of God. These people that were saved under the preaching of Peter had more than just a superficial belief in God. We use the word “believers” today to describe converts and yet unfortunately, many don’t really believe in the God of the Bible. They believe in a god of their own imaginations. They believe in a god that is only slightly bigger than they are. And so consequently they have a faulty theology.
By the way, speaking of believing in God. I understand that this Wednesday is National Atheist’s Day. Wednesday is April 1st, April Fools Day. Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool has said in his heart there is no God.” So be sure to wish all your atheist’s friends happy April Fool’s Day this Wednesday.
But as we examine our text, we see that these men that heard Peter speak were devout men and women. In other words, they believed in the true God. They worshipped the God of the Bible. And yet they were unsaved. Everyone (with the exception of the aforementioned fools) believes in God to some extent or another. The Bible says that even the devils believe in God and tremble. So merely believing in God doesn’t save you. Worship does not save you. The Muslim’s believe in God, yet they are not saved. Because saving faith in God means that we believe that Jesus is the very representation of God in human flesh. Hebrews. 1:3 says, “[Jesus] is the radiance of [God’s] glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
John 1 says “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made which was made.” Jesus Himself told Philip in John 14, “that if you have seen Me you have seen the Father.” And Col. 1:15 says “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
The fact of who is Jesus is the cornerstone of salvation. The Jews Peter was preaching to believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as Peter proclaimed in 3:13. This crowd even believed in the historical Jesus. They knew He had lived in Palestine until His crucifixion just a couple of months earlier. They had no doubt He was a real human being. Yet they were not saved because they failed to recognize that He was the Son of God. They did not recognize Him as the Messiah, and so they crucified the very God of Heaven.
Listen, it is critical to your salvation that you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God, otherwise you cannot be saved. You cannot merely believe in a historical Jesus. You cannot simply believe in some sort of greater force in the universe. You must believe that Jesus was a man who lived 2000 years ago, who was born of the Spirit of God, who was fully God and fully man in one being.
Look at the degree to which Peter describes Jesus in order to teach this essential principle. First of all Peter calls Him the Servant in vs. 13. That is a direct reference to Isaiah 53, the famous prophetic chapter concerning the Messiah that would have been well known to any God fearing Jew. It is the quintessential teaching of the Messiah that foretells His suffering and atonement for the sake of the world. Then in vs. 14 he calls Jesus the Holy and Righteous One. They knew only God was holy. And Jesus Himself said that no one is good except God alone. So therefore, Jesus is God. And then in vs. 15 Peter calls Him the Prince of Life. It could also be translated the Author of life. John 1: 3-4 again, “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men.” So Peter essentially calls Jesus the Creator. Then in vs. 16 Peter states His name as Jesus, which means Jehovah is salvation. Peter says it is by faith in that name that this man was healed and is in perfect health.
So the first contingency is the proper theology that Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. The second contingency is a proper recognition of man’s sinfulness. You cannot have true repentance unless you first have a proper understanding of your standing in the eyes of God as a sinner. This is born out by the Scriptures starting in Genesis. In response to Adam and Eve’s sin, God said they would surely die, and He cast them out of the Garden of Eden, and furthermore, He removed them from His presence. God cannot tolerate sin. He cannot have fellowship with sin. God’s judgment against sin was revealed again in the flood when He destroyed all flesh, men and animals except those on the ark, by a world wide flood. He revealed His judgment against sin again in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their extreme sinfulness by raining down fire and brimstone from heaven, destroying every living thing in those cities. All of these examples illustrate God’s wrath against sin.
Then in Exodus God gave the Law to establish His standard of righteousness, and detail what constitutes sin and it’s punishment. In Rom. 3:19 Paul says, “Now we know that whatever the Law says, it speaks to those who are under the Law, so that every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin.” In other words, under the Law every one is guilty, and the penalty for that sin is death. Gal. 3:24 says, “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” The Law teaches us that we are sinners, guilty before God, without hope. We cannot keep it, we cannot achieve righteousness through it because we fail to keep it all perfectly.
“But wait a minute Roy! We are not under the Old Covenant! We’re under grace.” I would just ask you a question, are we under Christ? Is not the gospel the gospel of Christ? I would suggest that the gospel of Christ is founded upon the Law of Moses, even as Peter says that Moses is a type of Christ in vs. 22. “Moses said, ‘THE LORD GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN; TO HIM YOU SHALL GIVE HEED to everything He says to you. And it will be that every soul that does not heed that prophet shall be utterly destroyed from among the people.”
To illustrate that principle, look if you will to Matthew 5. Jesus said, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees (who prided themselves on keeping the law) you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Then in vs. 21 Jesus begins to explain the Law. But He doesn’t explain it away, He expands it. He starts with “you shall not murder.” And Jesus says in vs. 22 “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” So Jesus is saying that for just calling someone a fool you deserve to be thrown into hell.
Then Jesus expounds the law regarding the sin of adultery. In vs. 28 he says, “but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Therefore Jesus said in vs. 29, ““If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” So Jesus says, just looking at a woman in lust is deserving of hell fire.
Then Jesus deals with the law concerning divorce. And He says in vs. 32, “that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of chastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Now Jesus is really upsetting everyone; He says that divorce is equal to adultery, which is worthy of hell. Jesus pretty much sentences 99.9% of the church to hell and He has only covered 3 laws. There are still 610 more to go.
Then Jesus talks about swearing falsely and making false statements. And He says in vs. 37, “let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.” By extension, that which is evil deserves hell. And in vs. 38 Jesus explains the law of an eye for an eye, so He says in vs. 39, “But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.”
Then starting in vs. 43 Jesus wraps up His discourse on our obligation to the Law: “You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Turns out Jesus’ interpretation of the Law condemns us even more than the Law of Moses does.
Listen, the purpose of the Law is to show us God’s standard of righteousness, and our level of sinfulness. That there is a great chasm between the righteousness of God and us that no one can leap over. That we are hopeless before the law, condemned by our sin, and under the penalty of death. That as Romans 3:10 says, “there is none righteous, no not one.” That every mouth may be stopped. That it would render us all without a defense. That we might see our helpless, hopeless situation without the grace of Christ. That we might know that we need a Savior, and be willing to give everything to gain Christ.
The great evangelist D. L. Moody said, “Ask Paul why [the Law] was given. Here is his answer, ‘That every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God’ The Law stops every man’s mouth. I can always tell a man who is near the kingdom of God; his mouth is stopped. This, then, is why God gives us the Law—to show us ourselves in our true colors.”
The Prince of Preachers Charles Spurgeon said, “Lower the Law and you dim the light by which man perceives his guilt; this is a very serious loss to the sinner rather than a gain; for it lessens the likelihood of his conviction and conversion. I say you have deprived the gospel of its ablest auxiliary [its most powerful weapon] when you have set aside the Law. You have taken away from it the schoolmaster that is to bring men to Christ . . . They will never accept grace till they tremble before a just and holy Law. Therefore the Law serves a most necessary purpose, and it must not be removed from its place.”
And the late theologian Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones is quoted as saying; “A gospel which merely says, ‘Come to Jesus,’ and offers Him as a friend, and offers a marvelous new life, without convincing of sin, is not New Testament evangelism. (The essence of evangelism is to start by preaching the Law; and it is because the Law has not been preached that we have had so much superficial evangelism.) True evangelism… must always start by preaching the law.” He goes on to say, “The trouble with people who are not seeking for a Savior, and for salvation, is that they do not understand the nature of sin. It is the peculiar function of the Law to bring such an understanding to a man’s mind and conscience. That is why great evangelical preachers 300 years ago in the time of the puritans, and 200 years ago in the time of Whitefield and others, always engaged in what they called a preliminary law work.”
Peter presented the law to those Jews that day. They were guilty of failing to honor the Lord their God. They had crucified the Lord of Creation. They were guilty of murder. They were guilty of false witness. So Peter’s sermon condemns them even as the Holy Spirit was convicting them of their sin. And yet in the grace of God Peter offers to them the gospel. It is called the gospel because it is good news. Just as it is good news to a condemned man waiting for the morning gas chamber to hear the officer of the prison say that the Governor has commuted his sentence. He has been pardoned. He has been freed not only from the condemnation of death but given a new life. That is the gospel. We that are vile sinners, without hope, lost, rightly condemned to hell have been offered pardon, our penalty paid by the death of Jesus Christ.
What is Peter’s remedy that he offers these poor hopeless sinners that crucified the King of Kings? Vs.19-21 “Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord; and that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time.”
What does it mean to repent? Well, it doesn’t just mean you are sorry for the mess you find yourself in. It doesn’t just mean that you are sorry that you got caught. It means looking at the perfect law of God and mourning over your sinful condition. It means understanding that you are without hope, and without excuse. It is seeing yourself in the light of God’s righteousness and holiness and knowing that you are a sinner and only by the grace of God are you given a chance to repent. It means to forsake your sins, to turn from your sins, to mourn over your sin, and to turn instead to righteousness.
Oh, folks, the reason that men and women fall away from the gospel with such ease and peace of mind today is that they have no idea of the Biblical standard of God’s righteousness. They have no idea of how heinous their sin is in the sight of God. One of the greatest revivals that this country has ever seen was in the early 1700’s, in a time called the Great Awakening. Jonathan Edwards was a preacher of a small church in Massachusetts who was one of the principle participants in this revival along with George Whitfield. And perhaps Edward’s best known sermon was one that he titled, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Just the title alone is enough to send the modern church congregation running for the doors with their hands covering their ears. They want to hear nothing of an angry God. To hear nothing of the fear of the Lord. To hear nothing of the judgment to come. And yet this is the message, not unlike that of Peter’s message, which God used to bring about a great awakening, a great number of true conversions.
I’m afraid one of the lost arts of modern society is the ability of critical listening. To listen to the sermons of old is a test of one’s ability to listen attentively and critically, which seems to be lost to the church as well in our modern era of sound byte sermons. But nevertheless, I would like to read a small portion of Edward’s sermon so that you can get a glimpse of what type of preaching against sin prompted true repentance and spawned one of the greatest revivals in this country. He read his sermons also by the way. If you think that you have trouble with my sermons, then perhaps hearing some of his will make me seem so much more kindly and considerate. We’ll pick up somewhere in the middle on his second point.
2.[All sinners] deserve to be cast into Hell; so that divine Justice never stands in the Way, it makes no Objection against God’s using his Power at any Moment to destroy them. Yea, on the contrary, Justice calls aloud for an infinite Punishment of their Sins. Divine Justice says of the Tree that brings forth such Grapes of Sodom, Cut it down, why cumbreth it the Ground, Luke. 13. 7. The Sword of divine Justice is every Moment brandished over their Heads, and ’tis nothing but the Hand of arbitrary Mercy, and God’s meer Will, that holds it back.
3.They are already under a Sentence of Condemnation to Hell. They don’t only justly deserve to be cast down thither; but the Sentence of the Law of God, that eternal and immutable Rule of Righteousness that God has fixed between him and Mankind, is gone out against them, and stands against them; so that they are bound over already to Hell. John. 3. 18. He that believeth not is condemned already. So that every unconverted Man properly belongs to Hell; that is his Place; from thence he is. John. 8. 23. Ye are from beneath. And thither he is bound; ’tis the Place that Justice, and God’s Word, and the Sentence of his unchangeable Law assigns to him.
4.They are now the Objects of that very same Anger & Wrath of God that is expressed in the Torments of Hell: and the Reason why they don’t go down to Hell at each Moment, is not because God, in whose Power they are, is not then very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable Creatures that he is now tormenting in Hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his Wrath. Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell.
So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow. The glittering Sword is whet, and held over them, and the Pit hath opened her Mouth under them.
5.The Devil stands ready to fall upon them and seize them as his own, at what Moment God shall permit him. They belong to him; he has their Souls in his Possession, and under his Dominion. The Scripture represents them as his Goods, Luke. 11. 21. The Devils watch them; they are ever by them, at their right Hand; they stand waiting for them, like greedy hungry Lions that see their Prey, and expect to have it, but are for the present kept back; if God should withdraw his Hand, by which they are restrained, they would in one Moment fly upon their poor Souls. The old Serpent is gaping for them; Hell opens his Mouth wide to receive them; and if God should permit it, they would be hastily swallowed up and lost.
6. There are in the Souls of wicked Men those hellish Principles reigning, that would presently kindle and flame out into Hell Fire, if it were not for God’s Restraints.” (Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)
Like the congregation of Edward’s church, these men and women that heard Peter preach his message in chapter 3 knew that they deserved the punishment of Hell. They were well familiar with the condemnation and penalty of the Law. The now saw the true nature of their predicament, and the punishment that was due them. And so they eagerly took the offer of grace that was procured through Jesus blood, that they might be saved from the wrath to come.
Well, you might say, that sounds very dramatic Roy. But you don’t really scare me, for I believe we are under grace and not the law, and I believe God loves me unconditionally, and if God loves me, He could never send me to hell. And for that person I would point out Hebrews 10:26-31 which says “For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES. Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY.” And again, “THE LORD WILL JUDGE HIS PEOPLE.” It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”
I will just close this morning by urging you to examine yourselves in the light of today’s message and see if you are of the faith. As Paul said in 2Cor. 13:5 “Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you–unless indeed you fail the test?” Are you merely believing in a God of your own design? Have you understood the true nature of your condemnation as a sinner before a Holy and Just God? Have you ever repented of the sins that you have committed? Do you know beyond a shadow of a doubt where you will be at the moment you pass from this life? Today is the day of salvation. God is graciously extending time for you to repent. 2Pet. 3:9 says, “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.”
I will close with one last statement from Edward’s sermon. “And let every one that is yet out of Christ, and hanging over the Pit of Hell, whether they be old Men and Women, or middle Aged, or young People, or little Children, now hearken to the loud Calls of God’s Word and Providence. This acceptable Year of the Lord, that is a Day of such great Favor to some, will doubtless be a Day of as remarkable Vengeance to others….Therefore let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the Wrath to come.” (Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God)
“Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling, naked come to thee for dress, helpless look to thee for grace, foul I to the fountain fly, wash me, Savior, or I die.” (Rock of Ages)