In Acts chapter two we are in the middle of what is basically the very first Christian sermon. It was delivered by the Apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost in the city of Jerusalem.
Peter is not exactly preaching to the choir. He is not exactly preaching to a crowd of people who are primed and ready to accept his words. In v.22-23 Peter goes as far as to remind them that they saw the “mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him” in their midst, but they still “crucified and killed [him] by the hands of lawless men.” Peter was preaching about Jesus Christ to the very people who saw His miracles and had Him crucified anyway.
So how were the apostles and other believers able to endure it all and keep on preaching the gospel? Even more amazingly, how is it that the gospel spread like wildfire the way it did in the early church, despite the fierceness of the opposition & persecution? Such remarkable results simply cannot be explained by mere psychology or sociology. In other words, they cannot be explained in merely human terms. Preaching the gospel is not a mechanical process. And the conversion and salvation of sinners is not a psychological exercise.
Charles Finney, a notable and infamous figure from the 19th century’s 2nd Great Awakening, was what is known as a Pelagian. That is, he denied Original Sin, the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, and a host of other important biblical teachings. As a Pelagian, Finney taught that the conversion of sinners was achievable simply through the use of the right means. Salvation, according to him, is entirely in the hands of man. If we are commanded to repent and believe the gospel in Scripture (and we are – Mark 1:15), then we must be fully able in and of ourselves to do just that. Command implies ability. So to Finney the conversion of lost sinners was well within our ability – the ability of both the speaker and the hearer. Nothing supernatural needed whatsoever.
We may not be the theological heirs of Charles Finney when it comes to the practice of evangelism, but we do seem downright Finney-esque in how we understand the inner workings of evangelism & conversion. We seem to think that if we just say the right things the right way, that it will effect the outcome that we desire. Not only that, but if someone does not believe (or worse, gets offended at our message), then we seem to assume that we must have said or done something wrong. And, conversely, if someone does believe, we assume that we must have said or done something right.
In other words, we seem to fall into the trap of conceiving of evangelism in merely human, psychological terms. We sometimes reduce the gospel message to a sales pitch. That being the case, is it any wonder that so many of us are intimidated by the idea of evangelism? We think it’s basically up to us (or up to the person with whom we are speaking). But is that really the case?
What was the result of this amazing sermon by Peter? Verse 41 says, “So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.” 3,000 sinners came to saving faith in Jesus Christ that day! 3,000 sinners turned from their sin and turned to Jesus. 3,000 believers were baptized that day! (That means someone counted.)
How is that possible? How could 3,000 people be added in one day from the preaching of one sermon? Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
Let me make this perfectly clear. You cannot “take up” Christianity. You can take up Christian Science; you can take up many cults; you can take up many movements; you can even join a church. But you cannot take up Christianity. By definition Christianity is something that takes you up. It is not primarily something you do, but something that is done to you. You cannot explain it. You cannot dissect it or analyze it. It is the power of the Holy Spirit. (Authentic Christianity: Studies in the Book of Acts, Vol.1, p.49-50)
The answer is that it is the supernatural work of God. And that is the same whether it is 3,000 sinners at one time or even just one lowly sinner who hears the promise of the gospel and believes. Both are nothing short of miracles of God.
We read of 3,000 converts in one day and are rightly impressed. We instinctively know that such a thing must be nothing but the supernatural work of God’s saving grace. But do we fully grasp that it is the same when even one sinner repents & believes the gospel?
Why do I say that? Because outside of Christ (as Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:1-3), all people are dead in their sins and trespasses. They are no more able to repent & believe when they hear the gospel than that valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37 was able to get up & walk on their own. When we preach the gospel to our friends and neighbors, we do so in complete & utter dependance and reliance on the sovereign grace of God in Jesus Christ.
He alone is the One who is making the enemies of the Lord His footstool through the power of the gospel. So if you think evangelism is hard, you catch on fast. Making disciples is impossible for us. We cannot do it on our own. But God has promised to work through His church and His Word. And as we preach the gospel to sinners, He makes sinners come alive from the dead. He calls them to life through His Word and Spirit, as surely as Jesus called Lazarus out of the grave in John chapter 11. And there is great rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents.