His Lordship first
The book of Acts reveals how the gospel was first made known to people who were, initially at least, not Christians, be they Jews or Gentiles. The epistles, however, were written to churches or people who at least professed faith in Christ.
It should be clear, therefore, that to learn how to present the gospel to unbelievers, we should turn first to Acts rather than to the epistles. If we do so, we learn some startling things.
The starting point for evangelism is not the love of God but his Lordship. In most churches, the evangelist starts with the love of God. Billy Graham tells us in his autobiography that he went into a pub in Roman Catholic Ireland on a Sunday morning to tell patrons ‘how much God loved them’. But that is hardly the starting point of the apostle Paul.
Lord of heaven and earth
When Paul preached in Athens, he began by telling the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers: ‘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).
Since God is the creator of all, he is also Lord of all – including you and me, whether we believe that or not. Strangely enough, the word ‘love’ is not found in the book of Acts at all, though Paul does tell the people of Lystra that God is good to all (Acts 14:17). This means that God is good to those who are not good and who do not acknowledge him.
This leads to the Lordship of Christ, which is proved by his resurrection. Chronologically, the crucifixion comes first, then the resurrection. But in presenting the gospel, the apostles pass over the crucifixion quickly in order to emphasise that Jesus rose from the dead and lives for evermore.
To the Athenians, Paul says that the reality of the coming day of judgement is assured by the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 17:31). In presenting the gospel to those who were steeped in the Old Testament, Peter briefly mentions the crucifixion (Acts 2:23) before demonstrating from Psalm 16 and Psalm 110 that Jesus has risen from the dead and is now seated in authority at God’s right hand (Acts 2:24-35).
This means that the crucified man Jesus is now Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). Jesus is not a great man among great men – he is the Lord of all creation.
Christ is risen
The only way to demolish Christianity would be to disprove the fact of Christ’s resurrection. The person who accepts that Jesus rose from the dead, never to die again, is accepting that Jesus is Lord over all things, including death.
He has defeated death, the last enemy, the one thing we cannot defeat. Why believe in Jesus of Nazareth and not Buddha or Mohammed? One of the primary reasons has to be that Jesus is alive now, but Buddha and Mohammed are dead.
Therefore, we are accountable to him in the judgement. If the man Jesus is the risen Lord, then obviously I need to get right with him. The crowd condemned Jesus, but God the Father reversed the verdict and vindicated him. The court on earth got it dreadfully wrong; the court in heaven got it wonderfully right.
This Christ is the judge. God has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31). Chronologically Jesus died, then rose again, then ascended to heaven and now rules from there – from where also he will come to judge the living and the dead.
But as the Spirit of God opens the sinful human heart, it almost works in reverse. It is his Lordship that should grip us first. The Lordship of Christ is not tacked on to the message of the Saviour. In the book of Acts it is there at the very outset of gospel presentation.
Judge of all the earth
Because of this, we need to repent of sin and put our faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour. Today we are told to invite Jesus into our hearts or to make a decision for him. But in Acts we are told to repent and believe in Christ Jesus (Acts 2:38; 3:19; 17:30). The good news proclaimed to the sinner is that the one who is Lord is also the Saviour.
Again, we work backwards. The risen Lord and judge of all the earth is the very one who died on the cross to pay the penalty for sin. The message is not ‘Jesus died for everybody, so you need to make him your personal Saviour’. Rather, it is, ‘Jesus the Lord died for sinners and you as a sinner need to cast yourself on his mercy’.
The author is minister of Revesby Presbyterian Church, NSW.
By kind permission of Australian Presbyterian