Acts 2: 37-47
The Power of a Sermon.
by Lehman Strauss
A Study of Acts 2: 37-47
Preaching is a great vocation! It is the proclamation of the good news of salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. In the mind of Christ, it was doubtless the greatest vocation, for He intended that its influence should be felt world-wide. "Go ye into all the world, and preach the Gospel to every creature," He told His disciples (Mark 16: 15). All preaching involves at least two necessary elements—a man and a message. And when both the man and the message are God's, there are certain results which follow the sermon. There is no finer example of the right kind of preaching than the first Pentecostal message. Of course, a pre-requisite to the delivery of any sermon is the right kind of preacher. Though it is His Word, rather than the man who gives it, that God has promised to honor, yet there must be the preacher. The printed page is greatly used of God, but the Gospel proclaimed in writing is not preaching. The author is not always a preacher.
Peter was the privileged servant to deliver the first sermon at Pentecost. The personality of the preacher has very much to do with the power and effectiveness of a sermon, and Peter possessed the kind of personality that God could use in the preaching of His Word. The sermon becomes a very part of the preacher. He lives it. If he is not a man of deep piety and purity who can forcefully express truth through his character and personality, he is not likely to succeed for God. He can be no mere machine expressing truth mechanically. Peter was a real man, a saved man, filled with the Holy Spirit, and the effect of his life and preaching is worthy of note.
When Peter preached his sermon, he displayed a practical working knowledge of the Word of God; the message was biblical (Acts 2: 16-21). Next in order, the sermon was Christo-centric, setting forth the whole truth concerning Jesus Christ, in orderly sequence (vss. 22-32). This is the kind of preaching that counts. What results might one expect from a sermon such as this, a sermon that is scriptural and Christ-centered, and that is preached with courage and conviction? The first Pentecostal sermon itself should be studied carefully. It is a masterpiece. It might well serve as a pattern for all preaching. But it takes more than the man and the message to produce lasting results. The secret of the results of Peter's sermon was in the unseen Power who took charge. No human personality nor any amount of eloquence can achieve such glorious results apart from the Person and work of the Holy Spirit. What Peter and the disciples saw after he had preached was a demonstration of divine power which actually was the Spirit of God working through them.
Of the hearers it is written: "Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their hearts" (vs. 37). Such was the power of the sermon. Every preacher should be aware of the fact that not all of his hearers realize that they are lost. The congregation may possess intellect and intelligence above normal, and yet be indifferent to their sins and their wrong relationship to God. Preaching with conviction is the need of the hour. Not only are men to see the vileness of their sins, but they should be made to feel the force of the expose. They must be made to recognize the heinousness of sin, "that it might appear sin," and that it "might become exceeding sinful" (Rom. 7: 13). Wherever real conviction results, it is the work of the Holy Spirit.
When our Lord promised the Holy Spirit, He said: "When He is come, He will reprove [convict] the world of sin" (John 16: 8). There may be a thousand voices crying out loudly against sin, but no agent apart from the Holy Spirit can produce genuine conviction. This is the Spirit's own work. The unregenerate man, in Satanic blindness, feels that there is some other ground of approach to God, but not until the Holy Spirit brings conviction, is the veil lifted and the sinful heart of unbelief exposed. The Gospel demands divine revelation, in order to be understood, and the Holy Spirit is the Agent to unfold the awful curse of sin which separates the sinner from God. When the Spirit enlightens the darkened mind, showing the wrath of God which is poured out upon sin, then does the heart of the sinner long for deliverance. All men have some standard of what ought to be, but the Holy Spirit alone is able to destroy these false conceptions and show the sinner how radically defective his views of right and wrong are. Man, apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, argues that he is not bad at heart, but when the Spirit is free to work, He brings to bear upon man's conscience how vile a sinner man is. When self-righteousness bows its head in shame and the heart cries out to God for salvation, the Spirit has brought it about, and the work of conviction is done.
But, alas, too often the work of conviction is not the work of the Spirit. It is superficial. The fallow ground of the soul has not been plowed up. We tread too lightly when dealing with the sin question. Because it is not popular, men do not think it proper to speak out about sin and hell. Right here the Spirit of God is limited, and the conscience never awakened, for the Spirit can never belittle, hide, or deny sin. This note of conviction is missing from our modern church life. Think me fanatical if you will, but as long as we ignore the secret of our Lord for producing eternal results in the hearts of men, our church life will remain impotent.
Perhaps you ask if the Holy Spirit has not been remiss in His work since there is such a widespread lack of genuine conviction. I fear that we have overlooked a most important phase of the Spirit's work. Conviction was not to be brought directly to sinners by the Holy Spirit, but rather through those in whom the Spirit had come to abide. When the Lord Jesus gave the promise of the Holy Spirit's coming, the Spirit was not to come directly to sinners, but to the disciples: "And I will pray the Father, and He shall give you another Comforter, that He may abide with you forever" (John 14: 16). The Spirit came directly to the disciples; therefore, His work of convicting must be accomplished as He is free to work through His own. The preacher cannot convict of sin apart from the Holy Spirit, nor, generally speaking, will the Holy Spirit do it without us. It is futile to ask God to convict sinners when He already has promised to do this on condition that we, who are the temples of the Holy Spirit, do not hinder Him. You see, then, how that the Spirit convicts sinners through Spirit-filled and Spirit-used lives. We pray God to convict the sinner, but the sinner does not feel that he is a sinner because he sees us, who profess to be Christians, living no differently from himself. How sad, when sinners come to our churches and hear the Gospel, and then turn away in unbelief and rejection because they see us doing the same things they do! Think it not strange when sinners are not convicted in our churches. The Holy Spirit has not failed. We have. Actually, our Lord was suggesting that "when He is come [through you], He will reprove the world of sin."
The power of the Pentecostal sermon was not merely in the fact that the sermon was preached, but that it was "preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from Heaven" (1 Peter 1: 12). The Apostle Paul gave witness to the same glorious truth when he said: "My speech and my preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor. 2: 4). The preaching that produces conviction is always the result of Spirit-filled lives, both in the pew and the pulpit. It is useless to speak sentimentally about a sin-cursed and perishing world, as long as we ourselves attempt to hide our own sins and refuse to turn from the world. When we live lives of defeat instead of victory, we cannot expect that the Holy Spirit will do His work of conviction. The Pentecostal sermon brought conviction because "they were all filled with the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2: 4). When will we learn that God is waiting to demonstrate, through the lives of His children, how awful sin is, and how wonderful is His Son our Saviour? Let us cease wasting our effort in the attempt to produce conviction by preaching Christ in our own strength. The Spirit is dependent upon the pure lives of God's children.
The conviction wrought by the Spirit through the disciples, brought from the crowd the question: "Men and brethren, what shall we do" (Acts 2: 37)? These Jews had been waiting for the Messiah to come, and now Peter, by the Holy Spirit, tells them that Messiah has already come. Moreover, Peter informs them that it was He whom the nation had rejected and hanged upon the Cross at Calvary. Now what would they do? Would they be given another chance? Would God send Him again so that the people might have another opportunity to receive Him? In desperation they asked of Peter and the rest: "What shall we do?" This burning question emanated from Spirit-pierced and Spirit-convicted hearts, for men do not ask questions about eternal issues when there is no conviction on the matter.
Peter answered: "Repent!" Repentance means, literally, a change of mind. These Jews had the wrong conception regarding Jesus Christ. By wicked hands they had taken and crucified and slain Him. He had come to them, but they would not receive Him. They showed their attitude toward Jesus when they rejected Him. Now Peter says: "Change your attitude. Change your mind about Jesus Christ."
True repentance effects not only a change of mind and attitude, but a complete moral reformation which is seen in sorrow for sin and a deep regret that the person repenting has violated the holy laws of God. Real repentance manifests itself in self-abhorrence and self-humiliation. This, in turn, causes the sinner to turn away from all his sin and transgression against God. Repentance was the keynote of the preaching of John the Baptist, the Lord Jesus, and the disciples. When this needed note is missing from the sermon, we need not look for men to be saved. The truth that the world must change its attitude toward the Lord Jesus Christ must ever be held before the eyes of men. This involves a radical change in the innermost recesses of man's being, and such a work can be accomplished only by the Holy Spirit, for "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3: 6). A man, apart from the Holy Spirit, might stir the emotions of another, but only the Spirit of God can reach the human spirit. The sermon of power is the biblical, Christ-centered sermon which exposes sin and calls upon the sinner to repent. It is preached by the man who is filled with and guided by the Spirit. The Thessalonian believers experienced true repentance, a turning to and a turning from, for they had "turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God" (1 Thess. 1: 9). But their repentance was not the result of the mere preaching of the Word; "for," says Paul, "our Gospel came not unto you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Ghost" (vs. 5). We see here that the results were achieved by the combination of a yielded life, preaching the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul's sermons were sermons of power.
The first results of the Pentecostal sermon were outstanding. Luke says that there were added "about three thousand souls" (vs. 41). Conviction was immediately followed by conversion. These results were not produced by the eloquence of Peter, "not by his logical argument, but by his declaration of truth concerning Jesus in the power of the Spirit; and by the Spirit's demonstration of the truth declared, in the mind and heart of those who listened." So, men were saved and the Church grew.
We say that it is hard to get men to repent and be converted. But right here is where the Holy Spirit comes to our aid, and the decisions we cannot get men to make, He will produce. We figure on the amount of converts by the number that we have led to acknowledge, with their lips, the Lordship of Christ, but we have forgotten "that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (1 Cor. 12: 3). And when the Holy Spirit gets a man to decide for Christ, that man is soundly converted.
The power of a sermon that is prepared and preached under the leadership of the Spirit, cannot be expressed in words. The results are not accurately recorded on the church roll, but they are eternally inscribed in the Lamb's Book of Life. When Peter preached, the converts were not his, but God's. They were not received by the preacher into the Cathedral of St. Peter, but we are told that the Lord added to the Church such as were being saved (vs. 47). If we are to witness a soul-saving ministry in our churches, both preacher and people will have to get right with God and allow the Holy Spirit to have His way. We fear that much preaching today is without power. The sermon is delivered but the results are meager. But God has not changed. In the early Church, "it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe" (1 Cor. 1: 21). Notice, it does not say that it pleased God to save men by foolish preaching, but by the foolishness of preaching. When the Apostles preached Christ, it appeared to the outside world as foolishness, but it still was God's prescribed method for saving the lost. Modernism is educating the masses to believe that sermons which search the heart and affect the emotions are "foolish." Such preaching is frowned upon. And yet if we expect to see men delivered from the wrath to come, the Spirit of God must be free to convict and convert through the preacher, through the sermon, and through the saints in the pew.
The record has it that "they continued steadfastly" (Acts 2: 42). The three thousand, more or less, did not constitute the tabulated results after the sermon was preached. These are they who continued steadfastly. When men are soundly saved through the power of the Spirit, the results are continuous. As I write this message, I sit in a small mountain home high on the plateau of the Blue Ridge mountains in Virginia. A series of preaching services is now in progress. Last night, after the meeting, a mountain preacher told me of the usual results at "revival meetin' " time. Said he: "If the evangelist can get the people worked up enough, they'll come forward and confess their sins. But the trouble is, it just don't last. They soon forget God, Christ, the Bible, and the church. We don't expect to see many of these until 'revival' time again next year."
We insist that such results are not the work of the Holy Spirit. Surely! Too often there are those who come into the inquiry room, confess sin, profess to accept the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, receive a Scripture portion, but are seldom seen in the house of God or with the people of God. Are they God's converts or man's? We are not judging the "converts," but we invite our readers to share with us further in the continuous results of the first Pentecostal sermon.
The new converts "continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine." The word doctrine means teaching. Now, they were very much limited in their access to the written Word of God. As yet, there was no New Testament in writing. The printing press was not yet thought of, so that they were wholly dependent upon a few hand-inscribed copies of the Old Testament. But having been born of the Spirit, they were drawn to the Word of God for instruction. The new nature hungered for the soul-food which alone is able to sustain and satisfy the child of God. Where are the "converts" of today? While it is true, praise God, that some are continuing in the study of God's Word and are found where the truth of the Bible is being opened up, far too many have not continued and show no desire whatever to learn the Word of God. Is the Holy Spirit at fault? Indeed not! We who are the temples of the Holy Spirit are at fault. We have grieved Him by our sins and our selfishness. We have failed to acknowledge the absolute necessity of His operation in the sinner's heart. We have not recognized that His sovereign and gracious work of convicting and converting the lost must be carried out through us. Let us use all the skill and wisdom and natural ability that we possess, remembering that the abiding results are manifest where the Spirit is honored.
The power of the Pentecostal message drew the new converts into "fellowship." This was exactly what they needed. It is important for us today, for we need one another also. God knew how much we should need each other, hence "by one Spirit, were we all baptized into one body" (1 Cor. 12: 13). When any person is born of the Spirit, he is organically united to the Body of Christ, "builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (Eph. 2: 22). Do our hearers have the desire to fellowship with God's people? Are they one with us? They should be! And if the Spirit is having His way, it will be so.
Next in order, we are told that the new converts continued steadfastly "in breaking of bread." They were drawn by the Spirit to the sacred ordinance of the Lord's Supper. How misguided are the masses today! Multitudes outside of Jesus Christ come to church only on Communion Sunday, as though there were saving merit in the ordinance. On the other hand, there are those who have confessed the Lord Jesus as Saviour, who show no desire to be present at the Lord's Supper. Our Lord commanded His disciples: "This do in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22: 19), and certainly it seems that one who has been truly saved, would have some conviction about this. We hasten to inquire whether or not some of our "converts" were ever born of the Spirit.
We are told that they continued steadfastly in prayer. Yes, they prayed. The new converts did not consider "the pastoral prayer" enough for them. It must have been a great blessing to the new believers when Peter and the rest prayed, but they too learned to exercise the glorious privilege of communion with God.
Here then, are four aspects of the New Life in Christ to which the Pentecostal converts gave consistent attention to teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayer. Let us give the Holy Spirit His way so that He may achieve the same glorious results in us also.
“Our Hope” Dec. 1948