Church growth – New Testament style

Don Fortner
Don Fortner Don Fortner lives in Danville, Kentucky, USA, where he is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church. He is a regular conference speaker in the US and throughout the world.
01 September, 2005 5 min read

Peter’s sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:14-47) was exceedingly simple. There were no illustrations, no stirring stories, no marvellous points of logic, no soaring heights of oratory, The Apostle simple declared that truth of God, boldly exposing the sin of his hearers and explaining the meaning of Christ’s death and resurrection.

But every word he spoke was carried to the hearts of chosen sinners by the effectual power and grace of God the Holy Spirit. When the day was over, three thousand men and women had been converted by the power of God, saved, and added to the church.

Here two lessons are clearly taught and illustrated — lessons that every preacher, teacher, church leader, and church member should learn and lay to heart.

The grace of God


salvation is the work of God alone (vv. 37-41). When Peter had finished preaching, those whose hearts had been pricked by the Word of God cried, ‘What shall we do?’ Having been awakened to a sense of their sin and of God’s just wrath against them, these men hoped to do something by which they could be saved. We are all legalists by nature!

Like all other men, they wanted to know what they could

doto atone for their sins and set things right with God — to appease his wrath and win his favour. ‘What shall we do?’ What a foolish question! Salvation does not come by anything we can do.

Salvation is the result of what God does (Romans 3:28; 11:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 3:5). In verses 37-41 the Holy Spirit gives us a beautiful, clear picture of God’s method of grace.

The sound of the gospel

When God intends to save a sinner, he causes that sinner to hear the gospel preached in the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 37). ‘When they heard this they were pricked in their heart’. Yes, but what exactly was it that they heard? They heard the gospel of God’s sovereign purpose of grace in the redemptive work of Christ (v. 23) and of the exaltation and glory of Christ as Lord (vv. 32-36).

God saves sinners through the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:13-17; 1 Corinthians 1:21; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23-25). In his wise and sovereign providence, God brings the sinner to whom he will be gracious under the sound of a gospel preacher’s voice. He sent Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch; Peter to Cornelius; and Paul to Lydia, the Philippian jailor and the ‘barbarous people of Melita’.

So God always finds a way to bring chosen sinners under the sound of the gospel. Blessed indeed are those men and women to whom God sends his messengers of grace (Jeremiah 3:15; Ephesians 4:8-16).

The work of the Spirit

When God has purposed to save a sinner, he sends his Spirit into that sinner’s heart and produces in him a real, heart-conviction of sin (v. 37). ‘They were pricked in their heart’. Holy Spirit conviction is a painful but necessary work of grace.

Without it no sinner can be saved (John 16:7-8). The Spirit empties that he might fill, strips that he might clothe, wounds that he might heal, and kills that he might make alive. Conviction of sin, righteousness and judgement is the inward work of God the Holy Spirit by which our pride and self-righteousness are made to wither (Isaiah 6:1-8).

Conviction arises from the revelation of Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice: ‘they will look on me whom they have pierced [and] they will mourn …’ (Zechariah 12:10). It acknowledges the justice of God in punishing sin. And true ‘Holy Spirit conviction’ always results in repentance and faith in Christ (John 6:44-45).

When God comes to a sinner in saving grace he commands the sinner to repent (v. 38). Peter, speaking by the Spirit, issued a command from God. They must obey or perish (Matthew 10:11-15, 40). Repentance is more than sorrow for sin. It is a change — a change of mind, a change of motives and a change of masters! It is a change of heart and a change of life that is continual.

The gift of salvation

The command was as follows: ‘Repent and … be baptised in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins’ (v. 38). The word ‘for’ has caused much confusion. It would be better translated ‘because of’.

Baptism is not the cause or means by which sins are remitted. Baptism is a symbolic confession of faith in the sacrificial death, burial and resurrection of Christ. Being immersed in the watery grave, the believer professes his faith in the substitutionary work of Christ by which his sins have been purged away.

Coming up out of the water, he professes his allegiance to Christ and his ability (as one new-born) to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4-6). ‘The gift of the Holy Ghost’ — here promised to those who obey God’s command in the gospel — is everlasting salvation in Christ.

When God comes to sinners in saving grace, he calls them by the irresistible grace and power of his Spirit (v. 39). The promise of God is, ‘Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13). It is given to ‘as many as the Lord our God shall call’.

The call of power

Not all men are called. God sends the gospel to some and hides it from others (Matthew 11:20-26). There is a general call issued to all who hear the gospel, which all who hear are responsible to obey (Proverbs 1:25-33; Romans 10:18-21).

But there is an effectual, irresistible call by God the Holy Spirit which is given to God’s elect alone and graciously causes them to come to Christ (1 Thessalonians 1:4-5; Psalm 65:4). ‘He calleth his own sheep by name, and leadeth them out’ (John 10:3).

When God comes to sinners in saving power he causes them to obey his voice in the gospel (vv. 40-41). Peter’s hearers, their hands yet dripping with the blood of Christ, were now made willing in the day of his power — willing to trust him and surrender to him as their Lord and Saviour (Psalm 110:3). Grace made them willing!

The building of the church

Second, having described at length how Christ is the only foundation, the passage teaches us that

the building of the churchis the work of God alone: ‘The Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved’ (vv. 41-47). The true church of God cannot be built by human wisdom, activity or ingenuity — regardless of what we are often told today. It is built only by the power of God, through the preaching of the gospel of Christ.

Every effort of men to build the church — other than by the preaching of the gospel — is wood, hay and stubble. It will not last and God will never honour it (1 Corinthians 3:11-15). ‘

The Lordadded to the church’ and he still does!

There is much that we can do, of course. We can plant the gospel seed, like Paul. We can water it, like Apollos. But only God can give the increase (1 Corinthians 3:6).

The fellowship of the Spirit

Finally, in these closing verses of Acts 2, Luke gives us an example of what every local church should be. It is a blessed fellowship of believers in Christ, a fellowship created and maintained by the Spirit of God (Ephesians 2:19-22). Three things can be said of every true church.

It is a

doctrinal fellowship—‘they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine’. All true Christian fellowship is built upon the scriptural doctrines of the gospel of Christ.

It is a

fraternal fellowship— believers are men and women united in Christ. They truly have ‘all things common’ for each uses what he has for the good of all. They are of ‘one accord’, built up in love, with singleness of heart, seeking the glory of God.

It is a

spiritual fellowship — when the local church is what it ought to be, the people gladly receive the Word of God, obey the ordinances of Christ, and assemble together with one accord in the worship of God.

Here, then, is the secret of church growth — New Testament style!

Don Fortner
Don Fortner lives in Danville, Kentucky, USA, where he is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church. He is a regular conference speaker in the US and throughout the world.
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