Archive for the ‘Conversion’ Category

Conversion, Part 59 – The Philippian Jailer 2

March 25, 2010

In the last newsletter that article focused on the sovereign hand of God and how He worked in the circumstances that surrounded the jailer. In this article we will focus on the message that was spoken to the jailer. The jailer had arrived at the point in thinking that he was going to die and so was going to do it himself. But Paul called out to him and told him that all the inmates were still there and that he should not harm himself. The circumstances were clearly of God. An earthquake had occurred and the doors to the jail opened and the chains of all the inmates were unfastened. It was reasonable for the jailer to expect that the prisoners had escaped. When Paul announced that they were all still there, the jailer would have realized that this was a Divine action.

22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. 23 When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; 24 and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 26 and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 30 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. 34 And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household (Acts 16).

When Paul cried out to the jailer that all the prisoners were still there, he called for lights and rushed in. The jailer did not just saunter in, but he rushed in. He not only rushed in, but he was trembling for fear and fell down before Paul and Silas. It is probably safe to say that this does not happen a lot in our day. Not many ministers have people rushing in and falling before them trembling with fear asking what they must do to be saved. But this jailer did. His heart had been prepared by God. But we must also remember that while we don’t know a lot about the religious background of the man, we do know that Paul and Silas spent their time doing more than complaining about their circumstances. They prayed and sing hymns to midnight, so we can be sure that Paul had been preaching as well. The jailer had probably heard why Paul and Silas were thrown into jail and then he heard their message. His heart was then opened to the message by all of the events that were the sure mark of the sovereign hand of God.

The message to this heart prepared by God was very simple and not like the message Paul preached in Acts 17. However, we don’t know what Paul had preached while in the jail. We also don’t know how long Paul instructed the man and his household before the man believed and was baptized. What we do know is that the jailer had been exposed to the preaching, praying, and singing of Paul and Silas. He was exposed to God’s hand in the earthquake. He was then exposed to more of the teaching of Paul. He was not saved out of the blue and by a simple intellectual act, but he had heard a lot of the Gospel. The time is not set out with clarity, but he took Paul and Silas into his house and was instructed there. This was not a five minute “Gospel presentation.”

The very heart of Paul and Silas’s message was the words “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” Now, what a person thinks of belief or faith determines how this passage is viewed. If one thinks of faith as an intellectual belief or an act of the will, then one simply thinks of Paul telling the man to make an act of the will or to have an intellectual belief and he would be saved. But if one thinks of belief or faith as coming from a new heart and is an act of a renewed soul, then that is a determining factor of what a person thinks of this passage. While it is very true that a person that truly believes on the Lord Jesus Christ is saved, we need the rest of what the Bible teaches about what belief or faith really is in order to know what Paul intended in this text. It is the basic way of interpreting the Bible to understand Acts as a historical book. The theology must come from the books that teach theology. Acts teaches that one must believe, other books teach us what it means to believe.

Whatever Paul meant by believing in the Lord Jesus it took him quite a while to explain it because “they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house.” The biblical concept of belief unto salvation is not the same thing as what the everyday usage of the word “believe” means. In fact, what the English translates as “believing” is really the word for faith. It is rather hard to translate a sentence in which one is “faithing.” A person that comes to Christ is one that has faith and is not just one that has an intellectual belief about Christ. A person that is saved is not just one that has made some commitment to Jesus in some way. Indeed people must be told that they must have faith in Christ, but they must be told what that means and what that will require. A true and saving faith requires a complete renovation of the creature so that the person becomes a new creation in Christ (II Cor 5:17). The believer is not the same person that has believed some facts, but the true believer is one that is a new creation on the inside and is now the very temple of the living God. This is a person that is “faithing” in Christ which is to say that this person is now united to Christ and lives by what faith brings. Faith is the receiving aspect of the soul and faith receives Christ Himself and grace. When we say a person was saved by faith alone that is the same thing as saying that the person was saved by grace alone.

When Paul told the jailer that he was to believe in Christ and be saved, he did not tell him to do a work of belief. If faith or belief is a work a person can come up with in his or her own strength, then salvation is not a work of grace because one work makes grace to be something else (Rom 11:6). A justification that has a work mixed with it is no longer salvation by grace alone. So the Gospel that went to the jailer that night was not one that told the jailer to work up a faith or belief from his own power as that is not a Gospel of grace alone. The Paul who wrote Ephesians 2:1-10 would have instructed that man just how dead he was and how he needed God to have mercy on his soul and to raise him from the dead. He would have told him in accordance with Ephesians 2:8 that it was not his faith that saved him, but that salvation came by grace and grace alone. Perhaps we have been instructed to tell people to believe on Christ and be saved, but we also need to learn what faith really means. The whole concept of faith is to turn a person away from anything that s/he can do in his or her own power to be saved. As Romans 4:16 puts it, “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace.” Paul, who also wrote that, would instruct people in that way as well. To put it bluntly, if we do not explain the nature of faith and its relation to grace when we tell people to believe on Christ we are leading them away from the biblical concept of the Gospel.

The jailer was converted that night and not just saved from a future hell. He was baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He knew what it meant to believe these things as Paul and Silas were in jail for truly believing and preaching them. He knew that he might lose his job over it. But he took the name of Christ in baptism and in that day it was a much better sign of whether a person was a new creature in Christ or not. He was instructed by Paul himself in these things and so knew what they meant. He was not a believer in the Lord Jesus and so he turned from being lord to himself to submission to the Lord Jesus Christ. He also took Paul and Silas into his house and fed them. That would have taken a truly converted soul.

Just a quick note on the jailer’s household. Paul and Silas spoke the word of the Lord to all who were in the jailer’s house. The jailer and his household were also baptized. Many see in this a reason to baptize infants. But the text itself (v. 34) tells us that the jailor had believed in God “with his whole household.” In other words, the whole household was baptized because the whole household believed. There is no easy believism in this text and no basis for infant baptism. What we have is the grace of God being received by faith and people being truly converted.

If we look at Acts as the historical words given to us by the Spirit and the theology of what happened explained by Paul himself in his writings to churches, we have a clear picture of what happened. The jailer was brought to some sense of terror by the acts of God in nature and his conscience told him something of his sin. But we also have Paul and Silas preaching, praying, and singing earlier. The man was terrified at the thought of being in the presence of a holy God with his sin and so he trembled and fell at the feet of Paul and Silas. They told the man to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, but they went on to instruct the man and his household. If they told the man to believe in Christ in his own power, then that would have contradicted Paul’s clear message in his writings that faith is a gift of God. This man needed more than a bare forgiveness; he needed to become a new creature and be reconciled to God. He needed to turn from living for self and die to self to have Christ as his life. He needed to be declared just in the sight of a holy God. He needed the wrath of God to be removed from him. He needed to have someone give him a free gift of righteousness by grace alone. He needed to be taught what it meant to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

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Conversion, Part 58 – The Philippian Jailer

March 20, 2010

The conversion of the jailor in Philippi is the last to be treated in this series on conversion. Paul went to Philippi in obedience to the command of Christ in the Great Commission. He did not set out with some idea of pleasing people enough to get just any response, but he wanted to see true conversions and as a sent one of Christ that is the only thing acceptable to him. The last two articles have been focused on the Great Commission in an effort to see that the biblical teaching on conversion is vital to the Great Commission and that the only way to keep the Great Commission is to seek to have biblical converts. Just because a person prays a prayer or asks Jesus into his or her heart does not mean that the person is converted. What it may mean is that they are terribly deceived.

22 The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. 23 When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely; 24 and he, having received such a command, threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God, and the prisoners were listening to them; 26 and suddenly there came a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison house were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. 27 When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. 28 But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” 29 And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, 30 and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” 32 And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. 33 And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household. 34 And he brought them into his house and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, having believed in God with his whole household (Acts 16)

The context of this passage is the conversion of Lydia and the casting out of the demon in a girl who made her masters a lot of money by telling fortunes of some sort. The masters of the girl dragged Paul and Silas into court and the magistrates ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had been beaten with many blows, they were taken and thrown into jail. The jailer put them in stocks. So Paul and Silas had been beaten with rods with many blows and were now in jail and fastened with stocks. What a terrible situation to be in and one most would complain about.

Paul and Silas, however, stayed up late and were praying and singing hymns of praise to God. While the text tells us that the other prisoners were listening to them, we can be quite sure that the jailer had heard these before he went to sleep. What happened to Paul and Silas would throw virtually everyone else into some sort of despondency, but not them. They had the Spirit of God and Paul had written that he had learned to be content in all situations. As a matter of fact, he wrote that in Philippians 4:11. He also wrote in Philippians 4:13 that “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” In Philippians 2:17 he wrote that “even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all.” What was Paul doing when he was singing praises to the Lord after being beaten and thrown into jail? He was simply practicing what he preached. He was content to be there and he was being strengthened by the Lord. He was also rejoicing and sharing his joy with those who were in jail with him. In other words, the glory of the Lord was shining in and through him.

So the glory of the Lord was shining in His temples of Paul and Silas. Then the glory of the Lord shone in an earthquake. Paul and Silas were in the inner prison and had their feet fastened in stocks of some kind. The text indicates that Paul and Silas were singing and praising God when the earthquake hit. The other prisoners were listening to them when the earthquake hit. The interesting thing about this earthquake is that while the foundations of the prison were shaken, immediately all the doors of the prison were opened. Not only that, but everyone’s chains were unfastened. These events must not just pass us by and give us information to read about. The earthquake and its results were from the hands of the living God. What so-called act of nature could cause all the doors to fly open and for the chains to fall off of all the prisoners? The hand of God was ungloved and His power shone forth in glory. God was intent on saving the jailer and his household. The earthquake was timed for that.

We must see that God Himself was working. This is not to say that His only plan for the earthquake was for the salvation of the jailer and his household, but it was at least part of that plan. It is also not the case that the salvation of the jailer and his household was the only reason that Paul and Silas went to jail. Perhaps many of the prisoners there were also converted. Let us also not forget that people are converted reading about the marvelous works of God in Scripture since then and even today. But if we have eyes to see and ears to hear we see the hand of the glory of God working. It worked through the trials of Paul and Silas in getting them to jail in the first place. It worked in the hearts of Paul and Silas for them to be singing praises to God who they knew put them there for His purposes. It worked in the earthquake and it worked in opening the doors of the prison. It worked in the loosening of the chains from all the prisoner’s so that anyone could have left. But there is one more thing. No one left the prison.

While it is hard to imagine things like this from the naturalists’ point of view, the prisoners were free from their chains and the doors of the prison were open. Yet no one left. What could have kept them there? We know that they were listening to Paul and Silas praying and singing praises to God. That had to have been something that they had not heard before. In our day virtually all the prisoners say that they are innocent or at least had a good reason to do what they did, and so they complain bitterly about some form of punishment. Yet Paul and Silas had been sent to prison for preaching the Gospel and casting out a demon, yet here they were (prisoner’s point of view) praying and singing praises to God as they were fastened with chains inside the prison. Either these men were completely nuts or God had converted them and His Spirit is in them overcoming the love the natural man has to comfort and the absence of pain. Who can pray and praise God in truth and love apart from God in them doing this?

One point that must be stressed here is the sovereignty of God in every detail of conversion. The normal way of thinking is that God just interrupts a person in their life with the Gospel. But in this text God is sovereign in all the details of life. Every person is in the hands of this same sovereign God. Every person has a history of events going on around him or her that is orchestrated by the sovereign hand of God. The message of the Gospel is not just to give a few words about Jesus all centered upon our present victim we have chosen to talk to, but the message of the Gospel is about the sovereign God who is in charge of all things in all places. The message of the Gospel is about a sovereign God who is in charge of all things in the life of that person. Earthquakes and all events do not happen by mere chance (whatever that may be), but instead all things and all events are ordered according to the plan of the living God who “works all things after the counsel of His will” (Eph 1:11). People do not need to be rescued from events and circumstances so much as they need a new heart to submit to the plan of God rather than their own.

When the jailer awakened and went outside and saw that the doors of the prison were opened, he started to kill himself. The laws and practices of the time were such that being a jailer was a dangerous job. If a prisoner escaped from you, then you paid for it with your life. This is not just some historical thought, it is in Scripture. This is why the guards at the grave of Jesus were only too happy to have the Jews lie for them after the resurrection of Jesus. “Now while they were on their way, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all that had happened. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 and said, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole Him away while we were asleep.’ 14 “And if this should come to the governor’s ears, we will win him over and keep you out of trouble” (Matthew 28:11-14). We rejoice when we hear of God answering the prayers of the people in Acts 12 and Peter being let out of prison by an angel. But the guards did not fare so well: “Now when day came, there was no small disturbance among the soldiers as to what could have become of Peter. 19 When Herod had searched for him and had not found him, he examined the guards and ordered that they be led away to execution” (vv 18-19).

Each person is in a series of circumstances ordered by God. “And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,

27 that they would seek God” (Acts 17:26-27). God used many circumstances and events to bring this jailer to the point where he had no hope in anything or anyone. In his own mind he was doomed to death since (he thought) the prisoners were gone and he had no real excuse. A normal earthquake would not cause the chains to just fall off all the prisoners. When Paul told him not to kill himself because all the prisoners were there, this was a massive shock to him. He had heard Paul and Silas praying and singing praises to God. What this jailer wanted now was to be saved. It all came together as ordained by the sovereign hand of God. We must learn to approach people on this basis. The Christian alone can interpret events according to God’s sovereignty and show the hope of the Gospel.

Conversion, Part 57

March 14, 2010

As we think through the issue of what biblical conversion really is, the ramifications of this are enormous. The Great Commission is usually just tossed out to people in an effort to get them to go out and do evangelism. But the Great Commission does not explicitly command evangelism. It does not command people just to go out and share with others or just to go out and tell others about Jesus. It commands people to make disciples. In other words, the Gospel we preach needs to be in line with people becoming true and whole-hearted followers of Jesus Christ. The Gospel of Jesus Christ that we preach must be one that by the power of the Spirit actually converts sinners from being children of the devil to children of the living God. The Gospel of Jesus Christ that we preach must be the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation to those that believe (Rom 1:16-17). The Gospel that is the power of God is the Gospel that saves people from hell and from sin itself. There is no Gospel and no salvation of God that leaves people in the power of their sins.

But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain the gift of God with money! 21 “You have no part or portion in this matter, for your heart is not right before God.” 22 “Therefore repent of this wickedness of yours, and pray the Lord that, if possible, the intention of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 “For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity” (Acts 8:20-23).

In the passage above we have the story of Simon. He made a great show of turning from his magic which is a demonstration of some form of repentance. He believed and was baptized. But Simon’s heart had not been changed and he was still in his sin. He was told that he had no part or portion in the matter because his heart was not right before God. Simon of others did not charge Peter with judging his heart as people today would. Peter then went on and judged the intentions of the man and told him that he needed to repent of his wickedness so that the intention of his heart may be forgiven. Peter didn’t even promise forgiveness, but he said “if possible” and then “may.” Peter told Simon that he could see that he was “in the gall of bitterness and in the bondage of iniquity.”

What we see then is an application of the Great Commission. The disciples did not rest in the fact that the man had made a profession and was baptized. They did not rest in the fact that the man had a great outward repentance. Instead, when they saw that this man was still in bondage to his iniquity they stopped considering him as a believer. When Peter saw that the man was in bondage of his sin he told the man that he had no part or portion in the matter. That is what happens when the Great Commission is taken seriously and people stop being so focused on adding numbers to their charts. We can keep count of how many have prayed a prayer, have walked aisles; have been dunked in water, and who take classes. But Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all the people groups. Disciples are to be baptized. Disciples are to be taught to do (not just taught about) all (not just what tickles their ears) that Jesus commanded. When a person has made a profession goes on to show that his or her heart is still in bondage to sin, that is a demonstration s/he is not a disciple of Jesus Christ. That person is still a follower of self.

If the Great Commission would only be carefully read and prayed over the professing Church might begin to see some great evils that have been brought into the “Church” by a false type of thinking about the Great Commission. If we think of our goal as fulfilling the Great Commission, then what we think it commands is what we will do to some degree. If we think that the Great Commission is fulfilled by massive amounts of dollars and efforts toward a form of evangelism that is based on an easy prayer, then that is what we will do. But that has nothing to do with the Great Commission. The Great Commission instructs us in many ways how to do evangelism. Our evangelism must be based on the true conversion of the soul by God. It is only the souls that have been truly converted by the power of God who will truly be followers of Christ. Souls who have decided for themselves and follow Christ in their own power will not obey all that Christ commanded. They will follow what they want to follow or what is in their own power to do. That is pretty much what the Pharisees did as well. They limited the commands of God to outward things to be done and then set about doing them. The followed self and not God.

For anyone to set out to actually do all that Christ commanded in his or her own strength shows that the person has not been truly converted. As Simon’s greed came out when he desired the ability to give the Holy Spirit so many people’s true hearts are seen when it comes time to actually do all the commands of Christ. The half-hearted person will stop at some point. Those who are doing in their own strength will begin to fade or water down the commands of Christ following the time honored way of saying that God would not command what we cannot do. We should also note that it is far easier to study the commands of Christ than it is to do them. Many people are happy to set around and speculate on the commands of Christ, but when it comes time to actually do them they will find other things to keep them busy. But Jesus commanded His people to teach others to actually do what He commanded. So we can simply say that when we see large “churches” full of people not doing what He really commanded we can know that they have not been evangelized and taught to do what He commanded. One can fill old sports coliseums with a smile and easy stories, but those people are not being taught to do all that Christ commanded so they are not true disciples. That may sound judgmental to many, but so be it. Those people are not being taught the commands of God and are certainly not being taught to actually do what He commanded.

It is also easy to talk about evangelism, but it is much harder to actually do it. It is also comparatively easy to do what is known as “cold turkey evangelism.” It is easy to walk up to a stranger and dump a little information on the person. But what is harder (much harder) is to actually begin to deal with a person about the sin of the heart which is rebellion against God. It begins to take time if we are called upon to actually begin to teach a person what Jesus commanded, but it is far harder and takes a lot longer to teach a person to actually do what Jesus commanded. It is at this point, I would think, that personal evangelism must begin to be seen in a different light. If we take the Great Commission and really begin to look at it, personal evangelism must then be seen in light of the ministry of the whole local church. People grow in the faith and are taught to do the deeper things of God in the context of a local church. The Great Commission is not given to a group of excited people who have the energy to go out and throw out some Gospel bombs; it was given to those men who were later called the foundation of the Church.

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22).

Jesus specifically gave the Great Commission to His eleven disciples (Mat 28:16). How did they obey it? They went out and evangelized in such a way that biblical churches sprang up. Paul was added by Jesus as an apostle and he went out, preached the Gospel, and churches formed. While Jesus is the foundation in one sense, the text above teaches us that in another sense the apostles and prophets were also a foundation. It was upon them, their work, and their writings that the Church is built on. From the book of Acts through the book of Revelation we see the beginning of churches and the work of churches. Believers were added to the Church. Believers were baptized into the Church. The Great Commission was given to the disciples and they went out and baptized believers and then taught them all that Jesus commanded them to do. Making disciples is the job of the local church.

The whole issue of baptism is also at stake here. It is not just anyone that is to be baptized, but it is disciples who are to be baptized. In the New Testament times it meant something to be baptized. This is pointed to by the fact that a person was commanded to be baptized in “the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is not just a mark of identification, but it is taking the name of the Trinity upon a person. It is a covenant with God that the person being baptized is no longer his own but is now owned by God. It is not just repeating the names of the Persons of the Godhead over the person being baptized, but it is a covenant that is being performed inwardly when it is done with the right heart. In the New Covenant God says He will put His law in their minds and write them on their hearts (Heb 8:10). But then the same verse goes on to say this: “AND I WILL BE THEIR GOD, AND THEY SHALL BE MY PEOPLE.” In baptism a person takes God to be their God and to be His. In other words, in baptism as person agrees to actually do all that Jesus commanded them to do. How do they know what to do and then how to do it? His Law is in them and His people will be teaching them what to do and how to do it.

The Great Commission is so far from a cheap and popular form of evangelism that it should chill us to the depths of our souls that it has been reduced to such a cheap imitation. But let us face the facts; it has been. If Jesus commanded His disciples to teach disciples to do all that He commanded them, then that command comes to us as those taught to do all that He commanded (should have been) and so we are to teach others to do all He commands. One of His commands is to teach others to do all that He has commanded. But let us learn to evangelize in such a way as to pursue the true conversion of souls or we will practice the true deception of souls. Let us learn to start and/or build churches that teach disciples to do all that Jesus commanded. If not, we will show ourselves to be like Simon who was excited at first, made a great show, but when it came time to deny self he followed the commands of self rather than the command of Christ. He had made a great external change, but he was not willing to actually do all the commands of Christ.

The professing Church is so willing to do evangelism because it increases the numbers in the church (honors us before others) and the offerings (increases our pay and honor in the denominations). But in our day it is not willing to obey the command of Christ to make disciples by teaching them to do all that He has commanded. The professing Church of our day, therefore, is not keeping the Great Commission no matter how much it supports an easy form of evangelism and other good works. The command of the Great Commission (once again) is to make disciples by teaching them to actually do all of His commands. We have fallen far short as we are not even teaching people what the commands are much less teaching them to actually do them. We have much mourning and repentance to do. After all, Jesus commanded those as well.

Conversion, Part 56

March 6, 2010

The Great Commission is a term or concept that is being used a lot these days. However, the very heart of the Great Commission has to do with true conversion. The Great Commission is not a mandate to go out and tell as many people as you can a watered down version of something about Jesus Christ in order to get them to say a prayer or to join a religious group. The Great Commission has to do with true conversion and discipleship. In other words, for the past several months this newsletter has focused on what Scripture has to say about conversion and then about conversions that Scripture gives an account of. But it also had a lot to do with the heart of the Great Commission. The Great Commission does not command us to go out and make converts of ourselves with our own peculiarities and in our own methods and ways; it is to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

18 And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. 19 “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).

As we look at the text that gives us the words of the Great Commission, the first thing that we should note is that it does not even mention evangelism. If nothing else, that should get our attention and perhaps trouble us. When we read the Great Commission we have learned to read it in a certain way. If we have been taught that this commands evangelism, then we read it with that in mind and think that this verse commands us to go and evangelize every person in the world. If we think of evangelism as simply telling people some canned message about Jesus and lead them in a prayer, then we think we have to get all the people in the world to hear our canned message so that they will say a prayer. We usually come to this text with many presuppositions that determine how we view the text rather than letting the text itself determine how we should view these things.

Jesus came to the disciples and told them that “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” This is a massive theological statement. He just made the claim that He had been given all power and all authority over the entire planet. In Mark 3:14-15 we note that when he appointed the twelve to go out and preach and He gave them the authority to cast out demons.” Before that Jesus Himself cast out demons which is evidence He had authority to do so. Now He gave the disciples the authority to do so. In Matthew 28 all authority had been given to Him and He told people what they were to do in light of that authority. In Mark 3 the disciples were given authority to cast out demons so now they could cast out demons. In Matthew 28 it is on the basis of the authority of Jesus in the whole earth that His disciples were to go out and do what He commanded and gave them authority to do.

What we must see is that the authority of the disciples of Christ begins and ends with the words and commands of Christ. When we do more or less than what He has commanded, we are taking the authority to do so from a place other than Christ. Some call that idolatry. Jesus never commands anyone to do anything in this text except to make disciples. It is in light of who He is and the authority over all the earth that had been given Him that He tells the disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations. That is the Great Commission. The rest of what is in the text has to do with describing what is to be done in making disciples and what disciples are to do. Acts 11:26 is very instructive in this context: “and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. And for an entire year they met with the church and taught considerable numbers; and the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.” The very term “Christian” is for disciples. It is the disciples that were first called “Christians.” Only true disciples are Christians and only Christians are true disciples. A non-disciple is a non-Christian.

The word “disciple” is last used in Scripture in Acts 21:16. No other term seems to have replaced it, but instead of being individual followers of Christ it seems as if believers were part of churches. Nevertheless, the concept of disciple is found throughout the pages of the New Testament. Paul uses the word “saint” many times in a way that could only mean people who were disciples. We have the term “believer” used as well. In the New Testament we have the word “saint” (singular) only used once while the words “saints” (plural) is used 67 times. The word “disciple” (singular) is used thirty times while the plural “disciples” is used 241 times. A disciple or a saint is a follower of Christ who follows Christ with others in a New Testament Church. Jesus Christ stated that disciples are to make disciples. That teaches us that saints are to be working in churches to see others grow as saints in Christ.

The preaching of the Gospel is necessary for someone to be born again into the family of God and be a saint. All true believers are saints and all true Christians are saints. A saint is one that God has called out from the world and declared to be holy on the basis of the work of Christ. The preaching of the Gospel must look toward that goal. The preaching of the Gospel is for the purpose that God sets it out to be. The Gospel is the means by which God saves sinners from the world and makes them saints or disciples. The Great Commission includes the preaching of the Gospel, but it is preaching the Gospel in such a way as to make saints rather than false converts. A true convert is one that is a true saint and that person becomes a disciple (learner and follower) of Christ. A person that makes some sort of commitment and prays a prayer and yet does not truly follow Christ is not a converted person.

The Great Commission must not be used to excuse forms of evangelism that have nothing to do with discipleship or of people being true followers of Christ. True enough it does not make for numbers that are as impressive, but it does make for following Christ in the way His authority has set out. It does mean that in striving to do things this way that we are following Christ and not ourselves. True obedience to the Great Commission is to seek to make true disciples of Christ. We are not practicing biblical evangelism if we are not looking to make true disciples in our evangelism. A true disciple is baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is more than just the repeating of words and the application of water, this is a confession that the person is taking the name of God and is giving up his or her own rights to self. It is an act of obedience but it must also be an act of the heart in bowing to the Lord and denying self its rights and taking Christ as Owner, Master, and Lord. Anyone who will not do that is not a disciple of Christ and is not a converted person.

The Great Commission includes teaching disciples to do all that the Lord commanded the disciples to do. It is not a command to have a nice Bible study with people and call it good, but it is a command to teach disciples to do and not just to know. Until disciples have learned to do what the Lord has commanded they have not been taught as Christ commanded. A converted person is a person that has been rescued from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Beloved Son (Colossians 1:13). This is a description of true conversion and it is also a description of what it means to be a true disciple. A converted person (disciple, saint) is one that is no longer in the bondage of sin and of the devil. But a converted person is now under the reign and rule (what a kingdom is) of the Lord Jesus Christ. Paul’s admonition or question to the Corinthians in his first letter (6:19) must be taken seriously by people today: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” A person that has been converted is a person that no longer belongs to himself but is now a slave of Jesus Christ. We are either slaves to sin and the devil or we are slaves to righteousness and of Christ. A disciple or saint belongs to Christ. True conversion is also a change of ownership.

The Great Commission is given by the authority of Christ and we have no right to change it or anything about it. If we are true disciples of Christ we must desire to follow His command as He commanded. After all, His promise to be with us seems to be tied with obedience to making true disciples as the Great Commission declares. But if the Great Commission is really focused on making disciples that should change the modern focus on evangelism, missions, and of the way we view Church. True conversion is at the heart of this. Let us stop pretending that the Great Commission is being kept in our day unless we are striving to make biblical disciples. Let us stop pretending that we want to keep the Great Commission unless we desire to see people converted according to Scripture and be real disciples. Let us stop pretending that the Great Commission is kept by missionaries unless they are making true disciples as the Great Commission says. Let us stop pretending that our evangelism is keeping the Great Commission unless it is obedience to the actual words of Jesus. The Gospel cannot be separated from discipleship.

The study of true conversion is not just some intellectual thing that people may or may not engage in depending on how they are inclined. If we are to practice true evangelism, we better know what the Bible teaches about true conversion. If we are going to strive after the fulfillment of the Great Commission, we must know what the Bible teaches about being a true disciple. So often today what people mean by the Great Commission is to go out and tell people something about Jesus and then get them to pray a prayer and then to dunk them in water. Apart from true conversion, there is no obedience to the Great Commission because no true disciples would be made and true baptisms would not be occurring. Apart from true conversion we are getting people to make external acts and then getting them wet. Apart from true conversion, we are deceiving people and blinding them all the way to hell. What Jesus actually said and meant in the Great Commission is of vital importance. We ignore them at the peril of many.

Conversion, Part 55

February 21, 2010

What follows is an excerpt from Arthur Pink’s volume on Saving Faith. The articles that this book is comprised of were originally written in the 1930’s. They could have been written today. It is also startling to consider that if what he wrote was true in his day, then how bad we must be in our day. Perhaps we are simply blind in darkness and we love it so. We think it is good to keep the presses going and the machinery of organizations oiled and operating. But if the message of the Gospel is truly perverted in our day, we are simply sending out error and false gospels. We are told many times in Scripture to beware of false teachers. Perhaps we should judge and compare what we hear and read to Scripture and to the writers of old. After all, we are dealing with eternal things.

It is generally recognized that spirituality is at a low ebb in Christendom and not a few perceive that sound doctrine is rapidly on the wane, yet many of the Lord’s people take comfort from supposing that the Gospel is still being widely preached and that large numbers are being saved thereby. Alas, their optimistic supposition is ill-founded and sandily grounded. If the “message” now being delivered in Mission Halls be examined, if the “tracts” which are scattered among the unchurched masses be scrutinized, if the “open air” speakers be carefully listened to, if the “sermons” or “addresses” of a “Soul-winning campaign” be analyzed; in short, if modern “Evangelism” be weighed in the balances of Holy Writ, it will be found wanting-lacking that which is vital to a genuine conversion, lacking what is essential if sinners are to be shown their need of a Saviour, lacking that which will produce the transfigured lives of new creatures in Christ Jesus.It is in no captious spirit that we write, seeking to make men offenders for a word. It is not that we are looking for perfection, and complain because we cannot find it; nor that we criticize others because they are not doing things as we think they should be done. No; no, it is a matter far more serious than that. The “evangelism” of the day is not only superficial to the last degree, but it is radically defective. It is utterly lacking a foundation on which to base an appeal for sinners to come to Christ. There is not only a lamentable lack of proportion (the mercy of God being made far more prominent than His holiness, His love than His wrath), but there is a fatal omission of that which God has given for the purpose of imparting a knowledge of sin. There is not only a reprehensible introducing of “bright singing,” humourous witticisms and entertaining anecdotes, but there is a studied omission of the dark background upon which alone the Gospel can effectually shine forth.

But serious indeed as is the above indictment, it is only half of it-the negative side, that which is lacking. Worse still is that which is being retailed by the cheap-jack evangelists of the day. The positive content of their message is nothing but a throwing of dust in the eyes of the sinner. His soul is put to sleep by the Devil’s opiate, ministered in a most unsuspecting form. Those who really receive the “message” which is being given out from most of the “orthodox” pulpits and platforms today, are being fatally deceived. It is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but unless God sovereignly intervenes by a miracle of grace, all who follow it will surely find that the ends thereof are the ways of death. Tens of thousands who confidently imagine that they are bound for Heaven, will get a terrible disillusionment when they awake in hell.

Mark 12:38 In His teaching He was saying: “Beware of the scribes who like to walk around in long robes, and like respectful greetings in the market places,

Colossians 2:8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.

Mat 24:4 And Jesus answered and said to them, “See to it that no one misleads you. 5 “For many will come in My name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and will mislead many. 11 “Many false prophets will arise and will mislead many.

Isaiah 9:16 For those who guide this people are leading them astray; And those who are guided by them are brought to confusion.

Jeremiah 28:15 Then Jeremiah the prophet said to Hananiah the prophet, “Listen now, Hananiah, the LORD has not sent you, and you have made this people trust in a lie.

2 Peter 2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. 2 Many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of the truth will be maligned.

1 John 4:1 Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.

2 Corinthians 11:13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. 14 No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds.

Ephesians 4:14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;

1 Timothy 4:1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons,

2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires,

Acts 20:29 “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 “Therefore be on the alert, remembering that night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears.

We live in a day where virtually anyone can get a piece of paper with the name “reverend” on it and all sorts of people are called missionaries. As you look at the Scriptures above in light of the quote by Arthur Pink, please don’t just read this and go on with life. We live in an age where many vital things of Scripture have been redefined and so truths have been removed from Scripture while many hold on to humanism that uses the words of Scripture. The truth of Scripture has been so watered down that humanism and man-centeredness has taken over in the local churches in the guise of conservative morality. People are said to be saved if they repeat a prayer or walk an aisle rather than looking at Scripture which tells us over and over again that souls must be converted from being a child of the devil to a child of the living God. Souls must be transferred from the domain and bondage of the devil and sin into the kingdom of the Beloved Son and the freedom of holiness. Souls are told that they can be saved from hell without being saved from sin, which is salvation apart from conversion. It simply cannot be if Jesus is Truth.

If Pink was (is) correct, let us not imagine that it is about other people and not “me.” Maybe it is not just the neo-orthodox, the liberals, and the immoral people who sniffed in the opiate of the devil. It could very well be that the orthodox, the conservatives, and the Reformed have done so as well. Oh how the modern things seem right to men from their views, but we must know that the fallen heart has not an ounce of spiritual perception. The Pharisees were very religious and yet they had no spiritual perception though they thought they did. Oh that God would split the heavens and come down. Oh that God would shine forth His light into the darkness of our souls and wake us up. Our man-centered methods and ways are not moving the Gospel forward but instead the ways of darkness and the philosophy of man. Men, women, and children must truly be converted and God uses the true Gospel to convert sinners. God saves sinners to the glory of His grace and not to the glory of the free-will of human souls. It is the grace of God that converts sinners and the methods of men to get men to make a decision point to the power of self rather than the power of grace. If we are preaching a Gospel that has a fatal omission, then we are preaching a false gospel that blinds others and us. It may hurt our pride to admit that we do so, but since eternity is but a breath away we need to be on our knees crying out to God for truth and for Himself. There is nothing else.

Conversion, Part 54: The Conversion of Lydia, Part 2

February 20, 2010

The Scripture does not give us a lot of information about the conversion of Lydia, but what it does give us is rich in its teaching. Here was a woman who was in business and yet assembled with other women for the purpose of prayer. She was a woman given to seeking the Lord despite the fact that there was no synagogue and that no men appeared to be part of the group that met for the purpose of prayer. God sent Paul to preach the Gospel to them and while Paul was preaching the Lord opened Lydia’s heart to respond to what Paul said. It is easy to deduce that Paul was preaching Christ crucified (I Cor 1:23) and she came to Christ on hearing of the glory of God in that.

And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. 14 A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15 And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, some into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:13-15).

The Lord has been pleased to give us but a smattering of direct evidence about Lydia. Her name is only mentioned twice in Scripture. One was in the text above (Acts 16:4) and the other is the last verse of Acts 16: “They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed” (v. 40). What we are given, however, is enough to make some assessment. With what we have we can state that Lydia was a woman who was given a new heart and became a new creature in Christ Jesus. Paul baptized her and so he thought she was converted. It may seem small when Acts 16:40 states that Paul and others entered the house of Lydia, but from the context it is quite a big deal. From the context it shows that she was now a woman who was not concerned about the opinions of others, but instead was concerned about those who were sent from God.

From the time Lydia prevailed upon Paul and his followers to stay in her house (v. 15) until the last verse of chapter 16, Paul had nothing but trials and troubles. First, as he was on the way “to the place of prayer,” a slave-girl followed after Paul and the others who had a spirit of divination and cried out for days that these were bond-servants of the Most High God. Eventually Paul commanded the demon to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. The demon instantly obeyed and she was delivered from the demon. However, her masters had made a lot of money with her and her demon and they were not happy when the demon was gone. So they dragged Paul and Silas before the authorities. The crowd rose against them and the chief magistrates ordered them to be beaten and thrown into jail. The situation, then, is that the men who were with Lydia now had virtually the whole town against them and the law thought of them as being troublemakers. The common sentiment was certainly against Lydia.

Paul and Silas were in jail and a great earthquake hit. The jailer was about to kill himself but Paul cried out for him not to harm himself. Eventually the magistrates ordered the men released but this was not good enough for Paul. He wanted to know how it could be that they could just be released when they were Roman citizens and had been publicly beaten and thrown into jail. Now the judges just wanted to send them quietly away. The magistrates then came and kept on begging them to leave the city. It was at this point that Paul and Silas went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia (v. 40). They were still welcome at that house and evidently Lydia had housed the rest of the men who were not put in jail with Paul and Silas because when they arrived at her house “they saw the brethren.” The Gospel was what got Paul and Silas into trouble with the citizens and with the law. But Lydia stood by Paul and Silas. Surely this showed that she was truly converted and now a lover of God and of His children.

What we see with Lydia, then, was a woman who had a heart that had good soil. It was a heart that had been broken up and then renewed by God. It was the kind of soil like the side of the road that the seed landed on and the birds (devil) came and snatched it up. It was not the kind of soil that was on rocky ground and there was no root for the plant to go deep and so she did not fall away because of persecution or affliction. Her heart was not the kind of soil that had briars to choke out the weed with the worries of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. Instead her heart was the kind of soil that had been prepared by God and so it heard that word and it received it. Her heart was opened by God and so she bore fruit. It would have been easy to have told Paul to keep going because of all the trouble and persecution that followed him, but she did not. She had the word deep in the good soil of her heart.

In the last newsletter article we looked at the fact that Lydia’s heart was opened by God and so she responded to the things Paul spoke. In the first part of this article we looked at the proof of her conversion in the sense that she loved the people of God even in the midst of persecution. It seemed as if the whole town and the magistrates were against Paul because of his message, yet she welcomed him into her house. While it is understandable from a human view that she would have asked him to keep going, from the view of a true conversion her hearts shows evidence of being changed. She did not just pray a prayer or make a commitment of the moment, but instead her whole heart was changed. The divine stamp of God was on her soul.

What we see in this text, then, is the promise of God stated in Acts 2:

37 Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” 40 And with many other words he solemnly testified and kept on exhorting them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation!” 41 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there were added about three thousand souls. 42 They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

In accordance with verse 39 Lydia was one of the far off who was called to the Lord. The people in Acts were pierced in heart while Peter was preaching and asked Peter what they were to do. They were told to repent, be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. We are told that Lydia had her heart opened to respond to the things Paul preached. We can be quite sure that Peter and Paul did not contradict each other in terms of the Gospel message. Part of the whole Gospel message is repentance. God grants repentance to sinners and turns them from their sin that comes from a sinful nature and unbelief. God gives sinners new hearts and so they have a new nature which is a believing heart. When Lydia responded to the Gospel that was preached by Paul, this is to say that the Holy Spirit convicted her of her sin and gave her a new and believing heart.

Acts 16 goes on to say that Lydia was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, which was part of Peter’s message in Acts 2. If we make the assumption that she was a convert to Judaism, this would have been an enormous step for her. Turning from the Jewish faith to being baptized in the name of Jesus Christ was simply a change of life for her. True enough she was not a Jew by birth, but it would have been very hard to turn from a religion like Judaism to Christianity which was new and even scorned. As we can see from Acts 16, the message of Paul was scorned by all those in the area, but Lydia had a new heart and did not turn back. The hand of God was upon her.

In Acts 2 the result of the conversion of the people was that they devoted themselves “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” This is what a truly converted heart looks like. The converted heart longs to have the teaching of the apostles and to fellowship with God’s true people. The converted heart longs to break bread with the people of God and to pray. A heart that has been broken from seeking the things of self is a heart that seeks the face of God in prayer. As a baby cries out for food and the touch of its mother, so a child of God wants the pure milk of the word and for the face of its Father. In persuading Paul and Silas to stay in her house, she demonstrated her hunger for more of the word that Paul preached. We cannot imagine that Paul would have stayed at her house and not have preached and prayed. This woman seemed to want the things of God above the opinion of others. Her soul had been made alive and she wanted the things of God.

When conversion is thought of as a soul that God has changed and made it focused on Him in love rather than on self in self-love, our view of the Gospel, of salvation, and of evangelism changes. Lydia and all who hear the Gospel when called by God are not just saved from hell and are not just called to make a decision, but their souls are truly translated from the kingdom of the devil to the kingdom of God. Those souls are now united to Christ and they are beloved in Him. These souls now have the love of God dwelling in them and they partake of His holiness (Heb 12:10). These are souls that are now “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4). While we have little evidence from Acts about Lydia directly, we have the whole Scripture to describe what happened to her. This woman’s heart was opened by God and she became His dwelling place. That is true conversion.

Conversion, Part 53: The Conversion of Lydia, Part 1

February 14, 2010

The conversion of Cornelius is a fascinating historical story of how God drew a Gentile man to Himself. We saw the sovereignty of God in teaching Peter, in sending men from Cornelius to Peter, and then in the Gospel that Peter taught. The glory of God shone forth and shines as the Spirit fell upon Cornelius and those with him as he listened to the Gospel as preached by a Jewish man (Peter) to Gentiles. The wall of separation had been torn down and now all were hearing the glory of Christ Jesus who died to save both Jew and Gentile. This week we move to consider the glory of God in the conversion of Lydia. While the concern of the book of Acts is to give an account in terms of history, there is certainly enough theology to look at as well. But we should always remember that the primary author of Scripture is the Holy Spirit and the primary focus should be on the living God as He shines in the text.

“And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled. 14 A woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple fabrics, a worshiper of God, was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul. 15 And when she and her household had been baptized, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, some into my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us (Acts 16:13-15).

This is the first actual conversion that is given to us after the text tells us that Paul was forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia (Acts 16:6). It was also after the Spirit of Jesus did not permit them to go into Bithynia (Acts 16:7). It was only when Paul had a vision that he concluded that he should go into Macedonia to preach the Gospel (Acts 16:9-10) that Paul set out to sea and went to a leading city of Macedonia which was Philippi (Acts 16:11-12). After arriving there Paul and those with him went out to the riverside on the Sabbath because they assumed that they would find a place of prayer. The found a group of women who had assembled there.

This passage of Scripture is rich with meaning. Lydia was a Gentile woman who had evidently learned about the true God somewhere, possibly in her hometown of Thyatira. Paul’s practice was to find a synagogue when he went to a new place and on the Sabbath day he would go there to preach the Gospel. But evidently there was no synagogue in Philippi and those who were seeking the true God sought Him by prayer by the river. Paul, the former Pharisee who persecuted believers, was now sent by a sovereign God to this place. It is true that the Church was commanded to preach the Gospel to all people groups, but the Spirit had forbidden Paul to preach in at least two places and then sent him to this gathering where this Gentile woman was. Once again, as we saw with Cornelius, God sent men to those who feared Him and who were given to prayer.

This is something that is largely ignored in the modern day. We try to get people to make a commitment or to say a prayer, but with both Cornelius and now Lydia God sent men with the Gospel to people who prayed. Cornelius was given to prayer and God taught Peter and sent him to Cornelius with the Gospel. Lydia was a woman of prayer and God forbade Paul to go to Asia and then to go into Bithynia, but instead Paul was sent to Philippi in Macedonia where he finds Lydia. This is the sovereignty of God on display. Indeed the Great Commission stands, but we also have to deal with the Scriptures as we have them. God specifically directed Peter to Cornelius and God specifically directed Paul away from certain areas and then to Lydia. We must take into account the fact that both of these people prayed to God. It is not that their prayers made them worthy or that they had any merit in them at all, but the Scriptures are very clear in these instances that these Gentiles prayed and in some manner sought God. Cornelius gave alms to the Jews and Lydia went to pray on the Sabbath.

One thing we need to learn is to leave people instructions to seek the Lord if they don’t believe. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). When we are evangelizing we must make it clear to people that they need to put themselves under the biblical teaching of Scripture. A person that does not have faith cannot expect to have faith apart from the means that God uses to bring faith. While Cornelius and Lydia were apparently brought to faith the first time they heard the Gospel, not all have the background of teaching that it appears that they had. People need to know the Scripture, they need to know the character of God, and they need to know the Person and offices of Christ and of His Spirit who gives life and faith. God sent Peter and then Paul to preach the word and the Gospel to these people. People must come to know the word in order to hear the Gospel.

Another thing that this text teaches us (along with the conversion of Cornelius) is that God must open a person’s heart in order for that person to come to faith. Here we see rather plainly that it was the Lord who opened the heart of Lydia in order that she could respond to the teachings of Paul. Lydia responded and those looking on possibly saw an outer response, but Scripture tells us what happened to her before she responded. This is utterly vital to understand. The modern “Church” is in spiritual darkness due to some degree top the fact that it does not recognize that God must open the hearts of people before they can respond. Listen to a quote from Arthur Pink on this.

“The superficial work of many of the professional evangelists of the last fifty years is largely responsible for the erroneous views now current upon the bondage of the nature man, encouraged by the laziness of those in the pew in their failure to “prove all things” (I Thess. 5:21). The average evangelical pulpit conveys the impression that it lies wholly in the power of the sinner whether or not he shall be saved. It is said that “God has done His part, now man must do his.” Alas, what can lifeless man do, man by nature is “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1)! If this were really believed, there would be more dependence upon the Holy Spirit to come in with his miracle-working power, and less confidence in our attempts to “win men for Christ” (Sovereignty of God).

In a more modern book, Decisional Regeneration vs. Divine Regeneration (2010), James E. Adams writes of the same danger. He regards the abandonment of the teaching of Scripture (and the practice of centuries past) on Divine regeneration as very dangerous.

“The huge theological difference between modern evangelism and biblical evangelism hinges on this basic issue of whether true religion is the work of God or of man. At best, the doctrine of Decisional Regeneration attributes the new birth partly to man and partly to God…Noted Swiss Reformation historian J.H. Merle d’Aubigne (1794-1872), who preached the gospel in Calvin’s cathedral in Geneva, declared that “to believe in the power of man in the work of regeneration is the great heresy of Rome, and from that error has come the ruin of the Church. Conversion proceeds from the grace of God alone, and the system which ascribes it partly to man and partly to God is worse than Pelagianism.”

James Adams goes on to quote Charles Hodge on this issue:

“No more soul-destroying doctrine could well be devised than the doctrine that sinners can regenerate themselves, and repent and believe just when the please… As it is a truth both of Scripture and of experience that the unrenewed man can do nothing of himself to secure his salvation, it is essential that he should be brought to a practical conviction of that truth. When thus convicted, and not before, he seeks help from the only source where it can be obtained.”

The Scripture is quite clear that regeneration is by the will of God and not the will of man (John 1:12-13). God must will to give human beings the ability to respond or there will be no positive response at all. If the human heart follows its own natural bent in its deadness in sin, it will be hardened to the truth. But God can change the heart so that it sees light instead of darkness and love the truth rather than hate it. There is a massive theology behind the simple words of Acts 16, but the theology is still there. God make Lydia alive by His grace and He saved her according to His good pleasure to the praise of the glory of His grace (Eph 1:3-14). It was God who looked upon Lydia as dead in her trespasses and sins and nothing more than a child of wrath by nature. It was only by His mercy and grace alone He made her alive with Christ (Eph 2:4-6). Lydia was now and still is a trophy of Divine grace so that the glory of His grace would then and for eternity shine forth in her by grace (Eph 2:6-7).

The short and simple account of Lydia’s conversion by God’s grace and glory is hidden to those who focus on her response and not the Lord opening her heart first. But if we are going to take Scripture seriously and follow it rather than human wishes and traditions, we must take Scripture more seriously. We must learn to preach the Gospel as to dead sinners because they are dead. We must learn to preach the Gospel so that sinners would see their own utter helplessness and look to Divine grace to give them life rather than look to themselves to respond. Sinners that look to themselves to respond do not see their own deadness and are not looking to Christ alone to be saved by grace alone. The Reformers broke with Rome for a reason and it had to do with the Gospel by grace alone. We should bow to the God of grace so that the heart of that same false gospel does not overtake us while using different words in a different denomination. We must preach the Gospel looking to the Spirit to change hearts or we are not trusting the Spirit to change hearts but are trusting in our own wisdom to do it or perhaps the to the sinner himself to do so.

The profession of being Reformed does not make a person Reformed and the profession to be biblical does not make a person biblical. What matters is to be biblical from the heart. Scripture tells us that God opened Lydia’s heart to respond to the words of Paul. His work of opening her heart was before her response. His work in opening her heart enabled her to respond. We must direct sinners away from thinking it is up to them to change their own hearts and that if they could change it that would be a sinful change of heart. Instead they are to be taught to look to the grace of God to change their hearts. Hearts are changed and saved by grace alone, not by grace plus a human response. We believe that someone must change the heart, yet our methods of evangelism scream louder about out theology of the heart than our creed does. The Gospel is of God changing a heart and giving it the Spirit because of who He is and who He is alone, not because of a response. After all, that is grace alone.

Conversion, Part 52: The Conversion of Cornelius, Part 4

February 5, 2010

In the last article we looked at aspects of the message of Peter to Cornelius. He preached what was commanded by God and his message was fixed on God. This message to Cornelius was a God-centered message. All messages that are commanded by God are God-centered since God is God-centered. In this article we will look at some more particulars of the message of Peter that was used in the conversion of Cornelius and his friends. This Gospel message is one that we can learn from, though indeed it is not in line with some of the modern traditions.

“So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” 34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. 36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)– 37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days (Acts 10:33-48).

In this message commanded by God Peter did not proclaim how moral we should be and how opposed to the government or politically active we should be. He did not even talk about holiness directly. He did not specifically talk about the love of God as such or the love of God for sinners. What he proclaimed here is a God-centered message of salvation in Christ. If we start with the end of the sermon, we can see the result of the sermon was that the Gentiles there received the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the promise of Acts 2 which Peter had preached also. 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 “For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:38-39). It is highly likely that Peter did not understand what was meant by “for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” when he preached it in Acts 2. But now the reality of that sermon came home. God calls Gentiles to Himself and God gives the gift of the Holy Spirit as He pleases, even to those who are far off.

Peter did not give an altar call and did not ask people to pray a prayer with him. He preached the Gospel and the Holy Spirit applied it. The goal of preaching is not simply to get people to do something for themselves, but for them to see what Christ has done and the need to have the Spirit apply what Christ has done. It was while Peter was preaching the very words of the works of God in Christ that the Holy Spirit fell on those who were listening to the sermon by Peter. This is a great encouragement and very instructive to preaching. The preacher is to be concerned with the message of the Gospel and his own heart knowing that God is the One who applies the message to the hearts of listeners. The Gospel is the power of God to save sinners (Rom 1:16) and not the methods and manipulations of men. It is not a simple message to get people to do a simple action that saves sinners, but it is the Gospel itself as applied by God. Preachers are to preach the life, the works, the cross, and the resurrection of Christ. Preachers are to preach how Christ was spoken of in the Old Testament and yet how the Holy Spirit comes through the message of the glory of God in Christ. These are the things that God has commanded to be preached.

We have looked at one of the goals of preaching which is that the Holy Spirit would come upon sinners. This is a massive difference between preaching for sinners to make decisions and things like that. This is a God-centered message applied by the living God. Peter shows us how to preach for a God-centered goal like that. One of the first things that Peter spoke about was how Christ was Lord of all and that peace with God is through Him (v. 36). The peace that is proclaimed is only as great as the One we are to have peace with and through. He then moved to how Jesus Himself was anointed by God with the Spirit and with power. So Peter began with how Christ was anointed with the Spirit and ends with the Spirit falling on those listening. This is part of what it means to preach a Christ-centered message. It is to preach the Spirit and Father of Christ.

This is not a message about an angry God who is ready to throttle all, but then Jesus comes up and tries to mollify Him. This is not a message of how Mary steps up and talks to God through Jesus. This is about God sending the Son and God making peace through the Son. It is true, however, that the message of peace does include the wrath of God, but still this is a God who saves sinners from His own wrath through the Son. The difference in that the wrathful God saves from Himself rather than having to be talked into it by someone else. The Father planned salvation from all eternity and sent the Son to save sinners from His own wrath. This is a Trinitarian Gospel that points to how the Father is behind the Gospel from beginning to end and carried out this plan by the Son. This is a Trinitarian Gospel that points to how the Spirit was sent by the Father and was the power of the Son and who then applied the Gospel to sinners. There is no true God-centeredness apart from the teaching about Christ and of the Holy Spirit. There is no true Christ-centeredness apart from teaching how what He did was from the Father, empowered by the Spirit, and then applied to sinners by the Spirit. This is not being charismatic, this is simply being Trinitarian. After all, the one God subsists as three. The only true God is Trinity.

Peter preached the Christ who was Lord of all and anointed by the Father as being put to death by being hung on a cross. But this Christ was raised from the dead by God as well and appeared to witnesses chosen beforehand by God. It is this Christ that Peter and others were commanded to preach about that this Christ was the One appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. This is an explosive message if we will hear it. The same Lord of all died on the cross and was raised from the dead by God. This same Lord who was crucified and then resurrected is the Judge of both the living and the dead. But there is even more, this same Lord is the One that all the prophets spoke about as the One that “through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (v. 43). This is what it means to preach Christ in truth. It is not just to mention Him and to tell all that He wants to be their friends. But this Jesus is Lord of all and He was raised from the dead and is now the Judge of both the living and the dead. It is by the Messiah alone that sins can be forgiven. There is a living Gospel for He is a living Savior.

The Gospel by which Cornelius and his friends were converted was the biblical Gospel. It is not just a few moralizing statements about Jesus, but it is about the Jesus the Lord. It is not just a few nice stories of Jesus helping people; it is about Jesus the sovereign Lord of the universe. It is not just about a human Jesus, but it is about how God in Jesus Christ lived, died, and was resurrected. It is not just a nice story about the cross of Jesus, it is about a resurrected Savior who is now Judge of both the living and the dead since He Himself was alive, then crucified, and has now defeated death by His death and the resurrection. It is not just about any little god, it is about the living and true God who is triune. The Christ who is alive and seated at the right hand of the living God has purchased the Holy Spirit and He is poured out on sinners as they listen to the message of the glory of God in the face of Christ. This is a Gospel of power and not one that depends on puny human beings. It is all about God.

In past months we have looked at some of the issues regarding conversion. We have looked at how it is not just a decision to be saved, but that a person is saved when God regenerates and actually converts the soul from death to live and from the power of the devil to the life and power of God. The conversion of the soul is the greatest work done in the entire universe, even greater than creation of the universe itself. There is more wisdom in the conversion of the soul than there is in the greatest splendor of the stars. The Gospel we preach, therefore, must not be watered down in order to make it palatable to sinful hearts. The Gospel that must be preached is the glorious Gospel of God who does a mighty work in the souls of human beings in order to manifest His triune nature and glory. The real story of any conversion is the glory of God. The real story of the conversion of Cornelius is that the glory of God planned it and then carried it out in all of its details. If we wish for true conversions and true revival, then we must study, pray, and then preach a Gospel of glory worthy of the God who is sovereign over it all.

Conversion, Part 51

January 29, 2010

In the last newsletter on conversion we looked at how God prepares the messengers that He sends with the Gospel. The Gospel is not a message of intellectual content alone, though it is that, but it should also come from a heart that has been prepared by God. A heart that has not been prepared by God is a heart that is prepared by self and is really not a heart that knows how to declare the Gospel of the glory of God. A heart that is not prepared may mouth some words that are in line to some degree with Scripture, but it will not have spiritual insight and it will not have the proper intents and motives. In this article we will primarily look at Peter and the message he preached.

“So I sent for you immediately, and you have been kind enough to come. Now then, we are all here present before God to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” 34 Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, 35 but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him. 36 “The word which He sent to the sons of Israel, preaching peace through Jesus Christ (He is Lord of all)– 37 you yourselves know the thing which took place throughout all Judea, starting from Galilee, after the baptism which John proclaimed. 38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.” 44 While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit fell upon all those who were listening to the message. 45 All the circumcised believers who came with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also. 46 For they were hearing them speaking with tongues and exalting God. Then Peter answered, 47 “Surely no one can refuse the water for these to be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we did, can he?” 48 And he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to stay on for a few days (Acts 10:33-48).

It is certain that Peter said more than was recorded and that this is but a shorthand version of what he said. Verse 33 lets us know that Cornelius wanted to know what the Lord had commanded Peter to say. This is an interesting insight into preaching and evangelism. No one has the right to say anything other than what the Lord has commanded. But perhaps there is more here than meets the eye. Peter was an apostle and he was specifically sent to Cornelius by God. Paul taught that he was an apostle by the commandment of God. “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus according to the commandment of God our Savior, and of Christ Jesus, who is our hope” “1 Timothy 1:1). He also spoke of the message or proclamation when he spoke as being according to the commandment of God. “But at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior” (Titus 1:3). Peter also viewed his being an apostle as one who spoke the words of the Lord by commandment. “That you should remember the words spoken beforehand by the holy prophets and the commandment of the Lord and Savior spoken by your apostles” (2 Peter 3:2).

It is not just an idle word that Cornelius spoke in wanting to know what the Lord had commanded Peter to say. Surely this put in there by the Holy Spirit to point to the apostolic authority of this message. Cornelius had, then, not just a message from Peter, but a message from God. Peter came with the apostolic authority and the apostolic message that came from God. As such, when Cornelius asked Peter to speak he didn’t just want to hear something that the Lord had commanded, but he wanted “to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord.” He did not set a time limit and did not ask for the content to be gracious and in a user friendly way, he simply wanted to hear the message that God had commanded. The Holy Spirit did not just put these words in Scripture for any reason, but they are there to instruct us. For true evangelism and true Gospel preaching to occur, a person must have arrived to a point where s/he wants to hear all that God has spoken. Until that occurs a person is still in the iron grip of pride and self. It is also true that until a minister or evangelists is willing to preach all that God has commanded, that person is also a slave to the opinion of others which means that the person is a slave to self.

This point should not be underemphasized. For the Gospel to be truly preached the whole counsel of God must be preached and not a short version of a canned message. We must preach the message of Scripture in the context of Scripture if we are going to preach the Gospel of Scripture. We must turn from our man-centered methods that try to get them to pray or make a decision and return to preaching the message that God has given. It is the Gospel that is the power of God to save and it is not our methods that will do so. A watered down message about the Gospel is not the Gospel in truth. Peter started with God and preached God to Cornelius and those with him. It is like Peter tried to be invisible and point to God and the Gospel of God in Christ. He was not there to point to himself and seek the applause of men; he was there to preach what the Lord had commanded him to do. God will have men preach to His glory and not their own honor and glory. God will have men preach Him by preaching Him in Christ. He will have men preach Him by preaching His power and life in Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit.

One reason that professing churches are so weak today is because men have forgotten that God sends preachers who are to preach the message of God. The sovereign Lord of this universe will have men to preach His message. The command of God is not just something that He speaks and then stands back (as Deism) to watch, but the God of Holy Writ is the God who commands and then carries them out. When a man stands in the pulpit by the command of God with the message that God commands, that man has the very power of God carrying out His own commands in and through that person. Peter was not there preaching in his own power, but his preaching was attended by the Holy Spirit who applied it to listening souls. The true Gospel is not one that men can actualize do in their own power, but the true Gospel goes forth in God’s power and is only applied by the Holy Spirit.

The Gospel that God commands is centered upon the one and true God who is the triune God. There is no knowledge of God apart from Jesus Christ and no one can come to God apart from Jesus Christ. There is no one who can know God apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. Notice how God-centered and focused these few verses are. In a quick count, God is mentioned in name or pronoun ten times. Jesus is spoken of in name or pronoun seventeen times. The Holy Spirit is spoken of three times though what the Father and Jesus did were by the power of the Holy Spirit. We have the basic outline of Peter’s message in the Scripture and it is of the triune God and it is thoroughly God-centered and even God-saturated. There is no hint of man-centeredness in this text. It is a message that simply drips with the glory of God and of the biblical Gospel much as Aaron’s head dripped with oil when anointed and it ran down onto his beard and garments. When we make human beings the center of the Gospel, we do not have the anointed message that Peter had. Instead of entertaining people and tickling their ears, we must learn the God-centeredness of the Gospel of the triune God. Instead of trying to make people feel good about themselves, we need to give them the truth of the triune God that they may glory in God.

The only peace that there is with God is a peace through Jesus Christ. But that supposes the biblical message that there is actually enmity between man and God. It is not just that the Law stands against man because he has committed a few sins against God, but man hates God and the wrath of God is on man. James 4:4 shows this enmity: “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” This is uncomfortable language, but until a person sees that s/he is an enemy of God, that person will not see the peace taught in the Gospel. They will just think of having an inner peace. Romans 8:7 is just one of the other verses that teach this: “because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able.” Human beings are not able, that is, they have no ability to be at peace with God. The Gospel declares that the only way of peace with God is through the Lord Jesus Christ. That is what Peter preached and what he wrote about: “Greet one another with a kiss of love. Peace be to you all who are in Christ” I Pet 5:14).

We must preach a God-centered Gospel, which is preaching what we are commanded while centered on God. Human beings are at enmity with God and are under His wrath. Only the triune God can make peace with human beings through Jesus Christ and the blood of the cross. Only the triune God can blow forth the Holy Spirit who regenerates souls and gives them the life of the Spirit which is spiritual life. Cornelius and many with him were converted by God’s power who sent a man who would preach all that He had commanded. True conversions come when broken men preach the glory of God’s Gospel to those who want to hear all that God has commanded. Revivals come when God prepares His messengers to go out with the Gospel He commanded and preach to hearts that He has prepared to hear all that He commands to be spoken. Let us learn much from Cornelius’s conversion.

Conversion, Part 50 – The Conversion of Cornelius, Part 2

January 14, 2010

In the last article we saw how Cornelius was a man who feared God and was devoted to good works. He was even devoted to prayer, yet he was not a converted man. This should awaken us to the differences between Cornelius and what we teach people in the modern day. It is true that not all people will do what Cornelius did, but there are some out there who are doing those things and we might view them as virtual saints. However, as with Cornelius, they might need to be converted. People who are outwardly wicked and people who are outwardly devoted to good works and religious activity both need true conversion. All human beings whether very religious or very irreligious are those who need to be converted or they will perish.

In this article we will first look at how God prepares the messenger. We may think of evangelism as limited to the state of events in the life of the one being converted, but God also has to prepare those He sends with the Gospel. Sometimes He has to do a radical work in the life of the believer to open their eyes and prepare them to be able to “relate” to others with the Gospel. This is what He did with Peter. It might be helpful to remind ourselves that God is the major focus of this whole chapter. He is the One that Cornelius prayed to and gave alms to through His people. He is the One that prepared Peter to go to Cornelius. He is the One that communicated to Cornelius to go to Joppa and send for Simon Peter. He is the One that actually enlightens minds, teaches the truth, and actually converts souls. We must keep our focus on Him if we are to see true glory in the conversion of Cornelius. God’s glory in this event is seen from beginning to end if we have eyes to see.

“Now dispatch some men to Joppa and send for a man named Simon, who is also called Peter; 6 he is staying with a tanner named Simon, whose house is by the sea.” 7 When the angel who was speaking to him had left, he summoned two of his servants and a devout soldier of those who were his personal attendants, 8 and after he had explained everything to them, he sent them to Joppa. 9 On the next day, as they were on their way and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. 10 But he became hungry and was desiring to eat; but while they were making preparations, he fell into a trance; 11 and he saw the sky opened up, and an object like a great sheet coming down, lowered by four corners to the ground, 12 and there were in it all kinds of four-footed animals and crawling creatures of the earth and birds of the air. 13 A voice came to him, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat!” 14 But Peter said, “By no means, Lord, for I have never eaten anything unholy and unclean.” 15 Again a voice came to him a second time, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” 16 This happened three times, and immediately the object was taken up into the sky. 17 Now while Peter was greatly perplexed in mind as to what the vision which he had seen might be, behold, the men who had been sent by Cornelius, having asked directions for Simon’s house, appeared at the gate; 18 and calling out, they were asking whether Simon, who was also called Peter, was staying there. 19 While Peter was reflecting on the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. 20 “But get up, go downstairs & accompany them without misgivings, for I have sent them Myself.” 21 Peter went down to the men and said, “Behold, I am the one you are looking for; what is the reason for which you have come? 22 They said, “Cornelius, a centurion, a righteous and God-fearing man well spoken of by the entire nation of the Jews, was divinely directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and hear a message from you” (Acts 10:5-22).

In this we see God preparing His messenger to go out with the Gospel. In this we do not see that God needs Peter to do work for Him that He cannot do for Himself, but that God prepares Peter and brings him to the point where he can be used as a messenger for God. God could have preached the Gospel through and angel as He used the angel to speak to Cornelius to tell him to send for Peter. In many ways this is also what God did to Paul. Yes, He changed the heart of Paul but He also prepared him to be a messenger of the Gospel to the Gentiles. It is at this early point in the text that we can see something very clearly. Sometimes our religious traditions, though we think they have impeccable biblical or historical proofs, are things that get in the way of living to the glory of God and we need to repent of them. It is also true that we are dealing with a time of great change in biblical history in going from the nation of Israel to the Church, but there are still principles here to be learned. The teaching of the Jews on what Gentiles were had a very long and honored history among them. When Paul spoke in his own defense before the Jews in Acts 22, they listened to him until he said that God had sent him to the Gentiles (v. 21). At this point they said this: “Away with such a fellow from the earth, for he should not be allowed to live” (v. 22).

Peter was a Jew and this was at least ingrained in some of his thinking. Later on he still had to be rebuked by Paul for withdrawing from the Gentiles in refusing to eat with them (Gal 2:11-14). After Peter arrived in Caesarea he said this to them: “You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him” (v. 28). Jesus was confronted with this type of thinking as well. But before Peter would be sent to preach to the Gentiles, his mindset toward his traditions had to be changed. The glory of God is shining here as He is preparing Peter to go preach the Gospel to Cornelius and many other Gentiles. The workings of God are beyond what the human mind can conceive in the actual conversion of a human soul but also in His preparation of the messengers of the Gospel and in the circumstances around the ones being converted.

Peter had no idea that a cherished religious tradition was about to be confronted by God. He had no idea that he was in Joppa on more than one mission. He simply went out to pray (10:9). It was while he was on the rooftop that he became hungry and preparations for his food began to be made. Notice again the sovereignty of God in these situations. Peter went out to pray and yet became so hungry he wanted food. It was in this hunger that God put him into a trance and went to work on him. In this state of hunger and in a trance a large object like a sheet came down with all kinds of unclean animals on it and he was told to get up, kill and eat. But despite his hunger he did not want to violate the law concerning unclean animals. Yet the voice said that “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.” This was repeated three times. God took the time to drive this point home to a hungry Peter.

The text tells us that Peter was “greatly perplexed in mind” as to what this vision meant. In more modern language, it simply blew his mind. As he sat on the roof still hungry and thinking of this vision, the timing of God in His perfect and complete sovereignty is put on display. The men who were sent by Cornelius at the direction of an angel and then had to stop and ask directions to where Peter was staying, arrived at just the right time. Peter was still shocked about this vision he had been given and was thinking about it with great intensity. The men arrived at the gate and the Spirit told him to go with the three men before he had even seen them. At this point the sovereignty of God must have been strongly impressed on Peter. He knew that this was a Divine mission and he was to go with these men even though it was against his religious tradition to do so.

Peter who had just had a vision was told by the Holy Spirit to go with these men. The men told him that Cornelius had been directed by a holy angel to send for him and that he (Peter) was to go to Cornelius’ house so that he would hear a message from Peter. The message was the Gospel. It is impossible to know or really understand the shock waves that went through Peter during this time. Surely the weight of the meaning of the vision of the sheet with the animals became clear at this point. While the meaning became clear, yet we can be sure that Peter’s old thinking did not go away without an inner battle. We can be sure that he was in a spiritual war at that moment. Yet in the sovereignty and providence of God Peter was prepared to go and preach the Gospel to some Gentiles.

The conversion of Cornelius is a passage of Scripture in which the glory of God shines. It shines because of His grace on Cornelius in conversion itself and in giving the Holy Spirit, but also because of His grace in changing Peter to make him into a man who was willing to preach to the Gentiles. The bombastic Peter who was impulsive without much constraint in the Gospels is now a man given to reflection and able to overcome his inner distaste to do what he was commanded to do. Who was Peter not to obey and go at this point? He was nothing more than a mere man as he pointed out about himself a little later in the text. This is something that the Church needs to learn. It is to listen to God and obey God rather than anything else. We must not imagine that we are without traditions that cling to us and render us less than useful to the kingdom as compared to what we should be.

Luke 10:2 instructs us: “He was saying to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore beseech the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest.” The God of glory tells us that there is a harvest. We are told to pray that He would send out laborers into His harvest. We are to labor according to His word and His methods. We are to labor according to the strength which He gives. We are to labor according to His doctrine. The words of Luke 10:2 are clear, though we may read them with the eyes of tradition. 1) We are to pray 2) so that the Lord of the harvest 3) would send out laborers 4) into His harvest. We pray that the Lord of the harvest would (He Himself) send out laborers. He is the One that does the sending and the harvesting.

As with Peter, He must send out laborers into the harvest He plans. The harvest is really that which He carries out through His people. Perhaps we have a tradition that thinks of evangelism as coming up with a plan and then asking the Lord to bless our plan. That is not what the conversion of Cornelius and Luke 10:2 teach us. All things start with prayer seeking the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest. The conversion of Cornelius teaches us that all things start with God and He divinely orchestrates them through servants who follow His words. Perhaps we need to be prepared by the Lord in order to hear His words and follow His plans so that He would send us as laborers into His harvest. If not, we will listen to our own hearts and traditions and follow our own plans by sending out our own laborers into our own harvest. His harvest is when people are truly converted, but ours is when people are not. The difference, it should be clear, is virtually infinite. Let us learn to start with prayer and not end it until we have found God and His will. If not, we will be asking Him to bless our plans and our harvest.