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Clarifying the Gospel, Part 2: How the Apostles Preached Christ

[See Part 1 of this series.]

Although the salvation accomplished by the cross work of Jesus Christ entails multiple dimensions of deliverance—from the power of Satan, from the dominion of sin, from this present evil age, etc.—there is no greater deliverance accomplished by Christ than that which is from the looming judgment of God over humanity. Having surveyed this theme in the Old Testament, my purpose in this installment is to show that the preaching of the gospel by the apostles in the book of Acts demonstrates the same truth.

The sermons in Acts consistently build up to the same appeal for repentance/faith/baptism in light of the threat of the coming divine judgment, which will be executed by Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and now exalted to the right hand of God. This is why the forgiveness of sins is held out as the preeminent hope of those who repent and believe. Sometimes the threat of judgment is implicit, as in Acts 2:36, where Peter proclaims to the crowd gathered on the day of Pentecost, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” The threat is implicit, but still easy to spot: You who crucified God’s Messiah will have to answer for it, because he is no longer in the tomb! It’s no wonder that the crowd cries out, “Brothers, what shall we do?” (v. 37), to which Peter responds, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” In verse 40 Peter’s exhortation is summarized in as a warning: “Save yourselves from this crooked generation,” a generation destined to answer to God for its sins.

Moving ahead to chapter 10, where we have the next sermon of Peter recorded at length in the book, Peter proclaims the gospel for the first time in the Gentile world to the household and guests of Cornelius, a Roman centurion (vv. 34-43). After narrating the events of the story of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection, Peter proclaims, “And [Jesus] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (v. 42). Once again the climactic point of the sermon calls for a response of faith, holding out the promise of the forgiveness of sins as the only hope to escape the coming judgment that will be executed by the One appointed judge of the living and dead.

On their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel at the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. After placing the story of Jesus in context of the larger story of Israel, Paul concludes with these words from Acts 13:38-41:

Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: ‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’

Once again, the sermon builds to the promise of the forgiveness of sins in light of the coming judgment. Although Paul does not specifically use the word “judgment,” he clearly refers to it, not only by the use of the courtroom term “justified” (which the ESV weakens with the translation “freed”), but also with his warning to beware the threat of Habakkuk 1:5, which in its original context foretold of the coming judgment of God upon Israel through the Babylonians.

Another sermon of Paul is recorded in chapter 17, this one preached at the Areopagus at Athens. Here Paul does not appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures in order to set the context for understanding the story of Jesus. Instead, he appeals to his pagan audience by drawing from God’s general revelation, seeking to establish the truth that there is one God over all, and that all people are accountable to him. Luke’s record of this sermon concludes with the declaration, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he 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). Once again, everything leads up to the threat of the coming judgment.

The consistent orientation of the apostolic preaching of the gospel to the coming final judgment, resulting in a call for repentance and faith in the hope of the forgiveness of sins, makes it little surprise that, when Paul speaks to the Roman governor Felix and his wife Drusilla during his imprisonment at Caesarea, Luke summarizes his message in this way: “And he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (Acts 24:25). Christ has died, has risen, and is now seated at the right hand of God. Therefore, know for sure that judgment is coming, and take hold of the amnesty God offers to you now before it is too late.

This message is the heart of the gospel. It is not primarily a message about how to live a better life, or a happier life. Nor is it a message about how to make the world a better place. Nor is its primary focus how to be delivered from the oppression of Satan or how to live in harmony with your neighbors. To be sure, the gospel touches all of these things and more. But as a message of salvation, there is one looming threat from which we all need to be delivered that makes all of these other matters seem paltry by comparison. And that looming threat is the impending judgment of God over this rebellious world. Thank God, there is a Mediator!

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