Updated: Jul 2
There are four inspired books about the gospel, but only one book with inspired sermons about how the gospel was presented. This is the book of Acts.
Acts contains a total of fourteen sermons. Twelve sermons are given to the Jews, while two are given to pagan Gentiles, and never once are the tenets of the Reformation gospel mentioned:
Heaven is never mentioned as the Christian hope
The faith-vs-works dichotomy is absent
Faith is a minor focus
People are actually instructed to change their lives, not just believe things
This should be disturbing and make us pause. If the only canonical record we have of the gospel in the New Testament has a different message than popular Christianity in the West, then we're in trouble.
The previous article focused on redefining the gospel around the Jewish Messiah and the Jewish scriptures, within the first-century Jewish tradition, instead of being boxed in by one particular tradition; particularly, the Reformation tradition (Western Christianity).
The article covered:
The use of gospel in Isaiah as YHWH's coming kingdom
The Jewish hope of God's reign to make all things right
The title of Mark's gospel as "About Jesus the Christ"
"Christ", or Messiah, is God's chosen king to rule the nations
Another title for the Messiah was "the son of God", as in Psalm 2
The Gospel authors declared that Jesus was the Messiah via his resurrection
Then we saw how this was also Paul's definition of the gospel in passages like Romans 1:1-4, where these elements are present. Most important, this is the content of the gospel that Paul claims is the entryway into the kingdom and salvation of God. He summarizes this entry point simply as "Jesus is Lord" (Rom. 10:9-11), as he does elsewhere (1 Cor. 12, Phil. 3).
We also saw that the tenets of the Reformation gospel are embarrassingly absent in the Gospels, which do NOT at all focus on:
Justification by faith
The faith versus works dichotomy
Believing in the right theology
Hope in heaven as the afterlife destiny
If that sounds off to you, as it would have to me many years ago, then read a Gospel and find out afresh. I dare you.
The current article is a supplement to this mission of challenging our understanding of the gospel, but we will be limiting our scope to the sermons in the book of Acts. We will have these questions in mind:
What is the gospel that the apostles proclaimed?
Was their focus justification by faith, or Jesus the Messiah?
Did the apostle's preach the reformation gospel or the first-century Jewish gospel?
On a side note: I fully believe that we are saved solely by God's mercy through the mechanism of human faith. We agree on that, so we can all take a few deep breaths. Again, salvation by faith isn't the question here.
The questions are: what is the focus, and what is the priority?
Don't underestimate how important these are.
The Son of Man Ascends into the Clouds
As many know, Acts is the sequel, or companion, to Luke's gospel. Luke tells the story that Jesus is God's long-awaited Messiah (the gospel), then Acts continues the story by sharing the aftermath of the risen Messiah.
Before describing the birth and advancement of the church, Luke sets the stage with Jesus in the center, as the Messiah.
Chapter one starts off with reiterating the gospel that Jesus is the coming king with a description of Jesus ascending into the heavenly realm to be in the presence of God. In Hebrew cosmology, this means Jesus went into the holy of holies in the heavenly temple, like the high priest did in the earthly temple.
It is also a picture of Jesus sitting on the throne in the heavenly temple to rule his newly inherited universe. It's a picture of Jesus as the supreme king. Here's how.
Luke says Jesus "was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (Acts 1:9), which is the image of God's chosen king, the "son of man", from Daniel 7.
Daniel sees a vision of God, called "the Ancient of Days", sitting in the heavenly throne, dressed in the bright garments of heaven (Dan. 7:9), then the son of man ascends to God in a cloud to receive absolute sovereignty over creation:
And behold with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he went to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. Then to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, so that all peoples, nations and languages would serve him. (Dan. 7:13-14).
Just like in Psalm 2, the Messiah is given authority to rule the world on God's behalf—fulfilling the mission given to humanity in the first place in Genesis 2.
Remember when the high priest asked if Jesus was the Christ? His reply was: “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
In other words, Jesus said, “Yes, am the Messiah, the sin of man who rules the universe from heaven.”
This is how Luke frames the history and sermons of the apostles: Jesus ascending into the throne room in heaven to rule the nations as God's chosen king, the Lord of all, the Messiah.
The Gospel of Peter
The first half of Acts follows Peter, recording a handful of his sermons. We'll look at the longest one, which happens to be the first.
This sermon is proclaimed by the newly Spirit-filled Peter, who gives a defense of the phenomena of the language miracle we call “tongues”, which was an undoing of the curse of Babel, signifying a new unity for the nations through the risen Messiah.
After showing from Joel that this spiritual outpouring was God's plan all along (2:14-21), he immediately shifts his focus to the gospel—Jesus as the resurrected Messiah:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders...you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up (2:22-24).
How does this prove that Jesus is the Messiah? It's a dense argument, so here are the main points.
1. He says that Jesus is the promised descendent of David from the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7, where God promised "that he would set one of his descendants on his throne" (2:30). This was known as the Messiah.
2. He then uses Psalm 16, among other passages from the Jewish Bible, to show that the author "spoke about the resurrection of the Christ", since "this Jesus God raised up", explaining why the resurrection proves that Jesus is the Messiah.
3. That Jesus was resurrected as the Messiah also means that he is "exalted at the right hand of God" (29-33), even as they were eye-witnesses of.
4. Peter finally links the outpouring of the Spirit as evidence that the Messiah was exalted to heaven, ushering in the new covenant that was characterized by the Spirit (see Jer. 33 and Ezek. 36).
He concludes with the gospel itself: “Let all the house of Israel, therefore, know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).
The core of his message is that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah (Christ), the Lord over all nations (see Psalm 2).
Does he speak of faith at all in his message? Not once.
Does he speak of faith over and against works? Not once.
Why? For at least two reasons:
Faith is not essential to believe in to be a Christian.
Faith is not necessary to believe in order to practice it.
To follow Jesus assumes trust, faith, and allegiance—the three nuances of the Greek word.
Peter simply encourages his hearers to “repent and be baptized”, which was another way of telling them to live according to the news that Jesus is Lord. In other words, they were to “Let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27).
If they trusted that Jesus was the Messiah, and that he would bring new creation, resurrection, and eternal blessings, as Jews of the day believed, they would turn their lives around to serve Jesus as their beloved king.
So no, Peter's message and passion were not about the Reformation gospel. It was about God's promised Messiah who had finally come: the king everyone had been waiting for. And this was the message they were excited about; the message they were so eager to tell the world, as when Andrew first said to Peter, "We have found the Messiah!" (Jn. 1:41).
Before moving on, notice that the second sermon in Acts concludes with the same thing:
“What God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:17-19).
His message is, again, about the Messiah and how people should conform their lives around him as Lord, which they'll need to do if they want to enjoy the blessings he promises (see Psalm 2 and 72). And though he mentions faith in this sermon, it is merely the means of the miracle: “By faith in his name he has made this man strong” (vs. 16). He is connected to the power of God by being united to Jesus, which is accomplished by trust in Jesus.
Faith is just one of the steps in the process of living out the gospel, but that's galaxies away from being the definition of the gospel. To say that faith is the gospel is about as accurate as saying prayer or Bible studies are the gospel. Yet, these claims have offended many.
Salvation by faith is not the gospel, even though it's true.
Peter not only doesn’t seem to be sensitive to the anti-Pelagian, Reformed idea that salvation is by faith instead of works, but he even instructs them to do works.
The apostles weren't worried about being anti-works because they weren't.
That's part of the reason the sermons in acts seem to be so oblivious to the faith versus works dilemma, but it's not the apostles who are wrong, nor is it Paul who disagrees with them.
Some still might not be convinced. You could still potentially say, “But that’s how the gospel is told to Jews. Paul was the apostle of the Gentiles, and that gospel is different. It’s justification by faith. That's why Peter didn't speak of it.”
Okay, let's look at Paul's sermons to non-Jews.
The Gospel of Paul
Paul proclaimed the same message as Peter, just in different clothes that fit his specific audience. For example, when he was before Felix’s Counsel being questioned, before Gentiles and Gentile rulers, he doesn’t say a peep about justification by faith.
He says, “But I confess to you, that after The Way which they call a heresy, I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the law/prophets: and I have hope in God that there will be a resurrection from the dead.”
Here is Paul’s extraordinary opportunity to set straight what Christians hope in, to tell those who haven’t heard first-hand what Christians believe, to give a dying world the hope of Jesus—so what does he summarize the hope of Christianity as?
“That there will be a resurrection from the dead."
No heaven. No faith. No anti-works warnings. No categories of the Reformed gospel. Just Jesus and the resurrection. This should make us all suspicious of the Reformed interpretation of Christianity.
Now to the two recorded sermons in Acts where Paul presented the gospel to the Gentiles: in chapters 14 and 17. I encourage you to read them yourselves, but here's an overview.
In chapter 14, Paul and Barnabus are at Lystra where they heal a man who has never walked. Of course the people praise them as deities, and of course Paul gives a speech:
"'Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness.'”
Notice the following:
He uses the word for gospel, "good news"
He urges them to turn their lives over to God instead of idols
He defines God as the creator of the cosmos
He emphasizes that this Creator-God is kind
Notice what he doesn't say:
We are saved by faith apart from works (even though it's true!)
If you want to go to heaven, pray this prayer
If you want to go to heaven, believe this creed
Let's go to heaven!
No heaven. No faith. No anti-works warnings. No categories of the Reformed gospel. The apostles had a different message with different points, for a different goal and a quite different faith than popular Christianity.
Notice how he also doesn't mention Jesus, or the Old Testament in any way. Rather, he speaks to them from the revelation they have been given: the creation, or natural revelation as some think of it from Romans 1.
Paul focuses on two things from natural revelation:
God created all things, which implies his universal superiority (he is lord of his creation).
God is kind to all people.
He speaks of the power of God and his love, which is the power of God's love to provide blessings and life to all people, even the wicked. This is a point that was from Jesus's own lips, circulating at the time in the oral gospel (before the Gospels were written down).
Jesus said, "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 makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matt. 5:44-45).
Paul invokes the same image of the Creator who rains down compassion and mercy on all the nations, even those filled with idolatry and violence.
He is kind.
Paul calls these signs from nature a "witness", which is the same word for someone who preaches the gospel of Jesus (Acts 14:3). He's pointing to the sermon God has given since the beginning of creation.
Notice also that Paul gives one basic command to his audience: turn from worthless idols to the living God who gives all life and blessings. He doesn't mention faith, nor does he discourage doing works or even trusting in works. He proclaims the Jewish hope for non-Jewish hearers.
The Jewish hope of the time was that God would renew creation with his kindness, and he would do this through his chosen king, the Messiah. When the Messiah arrived, it was called the gospel (see Mark 1:1). This was all about his kindness and kingship, which is why Paul focused on these two points in his message.
He doesn't mention faith, though faith is implied in the process:
If God is the creator, then he must be supreme in power and status
Since the Creator-God has been kind with this power, then he can be trusted
If God can be trusted, then he should be followed and submitted to
These are the main points in the gospel that Paul considered essential for pagans to hear—God is king, and God is kind. We would be wise to listen and learn from this.
Paul Before the Philosophers
The second sermon in the book of Acts presented to Gentiles is in Acts 17. Paul is granted an audience to speak to the philosophers at Athens, and what does he focus on? Jesus as the resurrected Lord:
“Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.” (Acts 17:18).
Like Peter, he speaks about Jesus and the resurrection because "Jesus is the Messiah" is the gospel, and Jesus is declared to be the Messiah by his resurrection.
Also like Peter, Paul capitalizes on something the audience is focused on, which in this case was an alter entitled, "To the Unknown god". He starts off with:
The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything (Acts 17:24-25)
Did you see how he repeats the same two themes as his other sermon? He speaks of God as king and as kind.
He proclaims God as a supreme king:
God made everything
He is Lord of heaven and earth
He is not in man-made temples
He does not need people (as in paganism)
He proclaims God as a kind king:
God made everything
God gives all people life
God gives all people "breath and everything"
He goes on to explain how God designed the cosmos for people to seek and know God, which he supports by quoting their pagan poet, Aratus, who said of Zeus: "We are indeed his offspring" (The Phaenomena, lines 1-5).
It makes you think about how we should present the gospel to non-Christians, doesn't it?
He concludes his message with a commandment:
God "now commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead" (Acts 17:30-31).
This is one aspect of the gospel. After telling them of the supremacy and kindness of the Creator-God, he narrows in on Jesus as the one chosen to rule the world, which is implied by talk of judgment: If God is going to rule the world by his standard, righteousness, then he must bring a judgment of that standard.
That the Messiah would judge the world was also assumed by this time (see how Psalm 2 ends).
He speaks of the one who was resurrected as evidence that this "man" is the one chosen by the Creator-God to execute his reign. But there is no mention of faith, or heaven, or any of the "essentials" unique to the Reformation gospel.
Change the Message
The gospel all throughout Acts is “that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This is the message that turned the world upside down. Not "we're saved by faith apart from works so we can go to heaven".
What we find coming out of the apostle's mouths is:
Jesus resurrected from the dead, which means
Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, the Lord
Jesus is the son of God, the supreme king (Psalm 2)
Jesus is the son of man, the supreme king (Daniel 7)
All people are summoned to transform their lives around this king
All people who follow this king will be resurrected in the new creation
This is a vastly different message than the Reformation gospel. I dare say, it is nearly a different religion. But the point here isn't to bash traditions; rather, it's to broaden our understanding of Jesus and free us from being trapped in religious boxes.
It's time we change our message.
It's time we ditch our man-made traditions and embrace the New Testament message the apostles proclaimed: Jesus is the Messiah and he promises new resurrection life.
Then we can spend the rest of our lives not just believing things, but living out the gospel by serving our king’s will, bringing about his kingdom.
Let's get to it!
For more about how the gospel hope is not heaven but the resurrection, read here.
For more about how Philosophy corrupted the gospel in mainstream Christianity in the West, read here.
For more about what the gospel is based on the rest of the Bible, read here.