The following is a summation of a message given to local pastors and church leaders at the Advance the Church spring regional, 2012. Link to the full audio is below.
Acts 2:41-47 gives us 5 “tests” of gospel-centrality. If we are preaching the Spirit-anointed gospel, these 5 things will be the result in our churches, just as they were in the very first one:
1. Evangelistic effectiveness AND doctrinal depth (Acts 2:41-42, 47)
Acts 2:41 tells us that in one day 3,000 people were saved and baptized, and verse 47 reports that God added daily to their number those who were being saved. The first church grew in a hurry. At the same time, the people were “devoted to the teaching of the Apostles” and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory.
I often hear church depth place at odds with church width. The early church clearly did both. In reality, the one is impossible without the other. Churches that grow wide without growing deep are not creating “sustainable” width, only generating a little temporary excitement. Churches that don’t grow wide are probably not nearly as deep as they may think. Gospel depth almost always produces gospel fruitfulness (Mark 4:16-17). Understanding the gospel gives you a sense of people’s lostness. You understand the wrath of God against their sin, how imminent His judgment is, how great His grace is towards them. Understanding the gospel gives you humility, because you realize how lost you were before God saved you. Understanding the gospel gives you the faith to believe God for great things, because the gospel reveals how willing and able God is to save. You show me someone characterized by a sense of urgency, humility, love and the boldness that comes from great faith, and I’ll show you someone who will be an effective evangelist!
Healthy churches do both (Col 1:5-6). Certain churches within the gospel-centered movement are suprisingly unconcerned with, or ineffective at, evangelism. They talk a lot about “mission” and “planting churches” but somehow that never translates into evangelism. Some wear smallness as a badge of honor. They love to critique everyone else’s evangelism, but do very little of their own. Charles Spurgeon—no theological lightweight—said, “I would sooner bring one sinner to Jesus Christ than unpack all the mysteries of the divine Word, for salvation is the thing we are to live for.”
A lot of the criticisms directed at rapidly-growing churches seem (to me) to be motivated by about 30% theological concern and 70% jealousy, fear and laziness. This is not to say that there is no validity to the theological concerns, just that those making them should pay attention to their motives. Our arrogance may keep us from receiving the grace God works even in the midst of theological shortcomings. We ought to be humbled by the zeal for souls present in movements that do not achieve, in our view, a full gospel-centrality. As D. L. Moody said to one Reformed critic of his, “It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”
2. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by the presence of God. (Acts 2:43)
This first church was full of the Spirit. There are a few things in that chapter that we will not likely experience in our congregations, but verse 43 gives you a classic description of the effect of the fullness of the Spirit—it says the people were “filled with awe.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said (and I paraphrase), “The presence of God is a felt-sense of the attributes of God as revealed in the gospel.” Their sense of the “presence of God” was not the result of a musical crescendo or an emotive preacher. It came simply from the preaching of the gospel by ones who really believed it and felt its passions within their souls. Another of my favorite theologians, Jonathan Edwards, described his sense of the presence of God like this:
“Sometimes only mentioning the name of Christ or an attribute of God will cause my heart to burn within me. . . . Suddenly God appears glorious to me. When I enjoy this sweetness it seems to carry me outside of myself. I cannot bring myself even to take my eye from this Glorious Object.”
Note that this sort of experience is not at odds with doctrine, or even beyond doctrine, but flows out of good doctrine. It’s not less than doctrine, it is more. God’s beauty and majesty are not just to be perceived with the mind, they are to be felt in the soul.
Where this happens, there is the joy you see in Acts 2:46-47. It is hard for me to believe that a church can really “get” the gospel when its services are not characterized by joy. Yes, there are times for somberness and mourning and repentance in worship, but the predominant motif of biblical worship is joy. Multiple places in Scripture command us to clap our hands, shout with joy, and to sing and delight in God. They tell us that in God’s presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). So how can we claim to have gospel-centered churches if our services are not characterized by exuberant joy?