Experiencing God: Receiving the Good News, Part II

Message: Experiencing God: Receiving the Good News, Part II

Text: Acts 2:37-39

Time: October 22nd, 2005

The topic I’ve been exploring over the last few weeks is having a personal experience with the living God. There is a God, He’s alive, He’s there, why can’t we experience Him in our lives? There is a God, He’s here, but why can’t we experience His here-ness, His there-ness? What’s blocking the way? According to pollster George Barna, two-third of non-Christians would attend church if they could actually experience God there. Isn’t it reasonable to expect to experience God in a church? Of all places, shouldn’t we expect to experience God at least in some way during a church service? Yes, of course. But that is not the experience of most people who attend church services. Why not? Because through custom, tradition, habits and other man-made practices and attitudes, churches have unfortunately built up cultural barriers to experiencing God without even knowing it. These barriers are allowed to stand Sunday after Sunday, leaving people hungry for a genuine experience of God. People come seeking spiritual food and drink and leave without experiencing either. Why? Because churches and church leaders have failed to follow the message of John the Baptist and Isaiah the prophet: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, remove the mountains and barriers, build up the bridges and pathways to God.” People are wandering around in the wilderness and desert of empty spiritual promises in churches, but nobody is preparing a way for them to experience God by removing cultural barriers and building spiritual bridges in the church for people to experience God. That’s the church’s fault. But then there is the responsibility of the individual person to do what John the Baptist and Isaiah say to do also: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, prepare your heart for the Lord’s coming.” It’s not enough for churches to remove all cultural barriers and build all spiritual bridges for people if a person won’t remove all barriers from their own heart and build bridges from their own heart to God. So John the Baptist and Isaiah the prophet speak to individuals as well as churches: “Prepare yourself for the Lord, make a straight path from God to your heart — and from your heart to God. Remove the barriers of sin and distractions from your life, and add anything that is spiritually useful into your life to help you connect with God. So people must take personal responsibility for experiencing God and not just blame churches for not doing a better job of preparing a way for the Lord. And what happens when churches prepare a clear way for people to access God? And what happens when individuals prepare their own hearts, removing sin and other obstacles and adding anything lacking to build spiritual bridges to God? What happens then? God visits people! In the first century Jesus appears. In the twenty-first century Jesus by His Spirit appears. In the first century Jesus came preaching the Gospel for people to believe, in the twenty-first century we believe the Gospel and the Spirit fills us with God’s presence today. The message of John the Baptist can only prepare us for an experience with God, but the message of Jesus introduces us to an experience with God. After the church has done all it can do to prepare people for an experience with God, after people have done all they can do to prepare themselves for experiencing God, then Jesus invites us all to take the step of faith and believe! And when we believe in Jesus we experience God! But we can’t get to the experience until our hearts are prepared. So the gospel is actually double-sided: there’s the repentance side and there’s the belief side. There’s the turning from sin and there’s the turning to God, and unless both are present there will be no experiencing God. Now is this what the early church taught? Let’s find out.

“When the people heard this (Peter’s preaching), they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.’” Acts 2:37-39. We hear echoes of John the Baptist preaching here don’t we? Is there any echo in the room? Peter borrowed a play from the John the Baptist playbook. Peter samples a little vintage Baptist preaching here. Notice the emphasis on repentance and baptism, the two key features of John’s preaching in the wilderness. I like the way the New Living Translation defines the word repentance. It uses a phrase instead of just one word by translating it “turn from your sins and turn to God.” That’s what repentance is, that’s what it means! We’ve heard the word repeated so often we don’t grasp its real meaning. We’ve heard the stereotypical street corner evangelist say, “Repent! Repent!” and we think we know what it means, but we really don’t. So the New Living Translation is wise in actually inserting the phrase, “turn from your sins and turn to God,” instead of just the word “repent.” Now when we hear Peter preaching in the Book of Acts we may start to wonder where is the call to faith, where is the invitation to believe, where is he inviting the people to receive Jesus? We are so used to hearing the Gospel preached with faith first and very little mention of repentance, we might be tempted to question whether Peter got his gospel message right. But that’s hard to do because he’s preaching the first Christian Gospel message after the official birth of the Christian church at Pentecost. Surely he’s got it right, if anyone’s got it right. Surely we can’t criticize an Apostle, the lead Apostle, 20 centuries removed? No. Peter, whatever he was preaching, was preaching the Gospel. We need to adjust our message if we aren’t comfortable, not question Peter. What Peter was doing is what we need to learn to do today: preach the gospel message including repentance. Most gospel presentations today don’t include much on repentance. Most gospel presentations are all about faith, all about belief, all about receiving Christ, but little on preparing the heart for Christ. In most churches, from most pastors and from most evangelists we don’t hear enough of John the Baptist’s message. But from Peter, we hear the Baptist’s message loud and clear. So much so that it almost sounds strange to our ears today. Let’s go further. Not only does Peter teach repentance, but he also teaches baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Now he’s really sounding like John the Baptist. What did John teach? Repentance and baptism. It says that the people came from Judea and Jerusalem confessing and repenting of their sins, and were baptized. They came, they repented, they were baptized. That sounds like what Peter is preaching here in his first sermon after Pentecost. Isn’t this what we should be preaching today? This is church at its purist, and preaching at its best. The Holy Spirit had just been poured out and the church had just been born, and the first message to come out of that new experience is repentance.

The church is born on the day of Pentecost and Peter begins to speak to the crowd of people in Jerusalem. He talks about Jesus, His life, death, and resurrection. The people are so moved by the message that they cry out to Peter, “What should we do now?” And what does Peter say? Believe? Receive Jesus? Trust Christ? Accept the Gospel? No. The first thing Peter tells them is to repent, not believe. Or in other words, “Hold your horses. Wait a minute. Not so fast. Slow down folks. Don’t go charging forward yet. We haven’t reached the ‘believe’ part yet. Something else must come before that, something before the believing, receiving, trusting, accepting stuff. That’s important, but so is the stuff that comes before it.” If there is anything our day and age needs it’s the message that Peter is preaching. Pastors, preachers, churches, evangelists, and witnessing Christians are so quick to skip to the faith part, the belief part, the commitment part, that they short-circuit the heart preparation part, which is repentance. That’s why Christians are so weak today, that’s why churches are so powerless today. That’s why there are so very few real disciples of Jesus today. It’s because the church has forgotten an important, an essential part of the gospel, repentance. Most of the time we rush people through the gospel to the part where we pray with them to receive Jesus. But that’s a mistake. Peter didn’t make that mistake. Today it’s rush, rush, rush. Today it’s quickly raise your hand for Jesus, sign this card for Christ, come forward to decide, pray this prayer of commitment, quick, quick, quick, you might change your mind if you wait! The buses will wait, but they are waiting, so don’t delay! But what happens when we rush to the final part of the gospel, the believing part of it? We neglect the beginning part of it, the repenting part of it. And it happens all the time. Like I said, that’s why Christians are so weak in their faith and why churches are so powerless. If we rush a person through conversion when their heart isn’t fully prepared they are not fully converted. Look at what Peter does not do in his message. He doesn’t rush to the decision part until he deals with the repentance part. Heart preparation must not be ignored like so often it is today. Issues of the heart must be dealt with before a heart decision can be made. Peter tells these seekers to repent and be baptized. Now these people were ready to receive Christ – we can tell from their earnest and sincere response – but Peter wouldn’t invite them to a decision for Christ until they had repented of their sins, or in other words, until they had made a heart preparation they were not asked to make a heart decision. This is so important, we need to stop and let it sink it or else we will forever be spinning our wheels in fruitless evangelism in the church today.

The people heard Peter’s message and asked, “What now shall we do?” Notice they wanted to know what to do. Peter didn’t correct them. He didn’t say, “There’s nothing for you to do, there is only for you to believe.” That is what a lot of evangelists, pastors, preachers, and Christians might say. But for Peter, that’s not what he would say. No. Why not? Because there is something that they needed to do: repent. We don’t help people today coming to Jesus when we only present to them half of the gospel. The gospel is turning from sin and turning to God. We are either heading away from God or heading towards God. Today, by skipping the repentance part of the gospel, we have Christians who simply add Jesus to their already crowded life of sin and distraction. We have people in churches who, yes, have added Jesus to their life, but He’s just one of many beliefs, one of many interests, one of many commitments in their already jam-packed life. Many people continue on in their same lifestyles of self-centeredness and sin while all the while claiming that they’ve “accepted” Jesus or “received” Christ into their life. The result is that churches are full of people who have very little commitment to Jesus and it’s almost impossible to disciple these people into spiritual maturity because they simply refuse to grow in their faith. A lot more people don’t even bother to participate in church, yet still claim to be committed to Christ, although their lives show little evidence of an ongoing commitment to follow Jesus. What is the problem? The problem is that these people did not make heart preparation before they made their commitment to Christ. They were rushed through an easy-believism process that emphasized the end result without giving proper attention and care for the preparation of the heart with repentance. Peter and the Apostles didn’t rush people to believe without proper soul preparation. In answer to the people’s question, “What do we do now?” Peter explains to them that there is indeed something they need to do: first, they need to repent, or as the New Living Translation puts it: “turn from sin and turn to God.” In the context of Peter’s sermon and the situation at the time in Jerusalem that meant dealing with the guilty treatment of Jesus by the Jewish people. Peter called upon the people to repent of their treatment of Jesus, their rejection of Him as Messiah, their passivity in allowing Him to be crucified, their contribution to His death, etc. Until they repented of this grave sin of turning their back on their own Messiah, they weren’t invited to believe or receive salvation. Are we willing to delay a person’s conversion until they repent of sin? If we are truly following the biblical example here we should. Are we willing to delay prayer, delay someone’s decision for Christ until they get their heart right before God? If we are faithful to the true gospel we must be willing. We must remember, the goal isn’t merely to add another statistical convert; the goal is to make a truly spiritual disciple of Jesus. The goal isn’t running up higher numbers of decisions, the goal is birthing true Jesus disciples. We need to keep that in mind.

Now what does this heart preparation through repentance mean in practical terms today? It means that everyone interested in experiencing the living God must be willing to do whatever it takes on their part to make their hearts ready for God. It means we must be willing to slow down our whole rush-rush process of evangelism. When someone approaches us with an interest in accepting Jesus Christ that should start things, not finish things. So often we jump right in and start trying to lead the person to a commitment before determining if the person’s heart is right and ready. Here’s an example of what I mean. I’m the pastor of a small church and I employ an assistant pastor who seems eager to help me minister to the people. One Sunday he announces in front of our congregation that a woman named Kelly has just accepted Jesus into her heart. Everyone applauds. After church everyone greets this pastor and Kelly and congratulates her on her decision to commit her life to Christ. I’m one of them, especially being the pastor of the church I’m particularly excited about evangelism taking place among the people. I’m excited until I find out the details. Over the next few weeks I learn more about Kelly and her commitment. As it turns out she’s living with her boyfriend, a guy who attends church with her every week. I wait to see if Kelly is going to make any kind of change in her lifestyle since committing her life to Jesus. Week after week goes by and no change. I talk to the assistant pastor who supposedly led her to the Lord about the situation and he isn’t bothered at all by the situation. His attitude is that he’s done his job, now it’s all up to the Holy Spirit to convict her of her sins and bring about change in her life. So Kelly keeps coming to church week after week but never grows in her faith because she hasn’t done the proper heart preparation that the gospel requires. The assistant pastor has done Kelly and the church a disservice in bypassing the first part of the gospel, repentance, and skipping to the last part of the gospel, belief, in leading Kelly spiritually. Unfortunately, this particular assistant pastor continued to lead people in this sloppy and unbiblical way until finally I had to confront him on it, after which he refused to change and eventually left the church, taking with him many of his superficial and partial converts. And this isn’t just an isolated incident. Probably most churches fail to spiritually lead people through the proper conversion process. I’m guilty of failing on this point myself in the past. It finally struck me why so many people who are attending church can’t be discipled into spiritual maturity — they never were properly converted. They made a commitment before they were properly prepared in their hearts, and consequently their commitment was shallow, superficial, and partial. Starting from such a shaky spiritual foundation, it’s no wonder why they refuse to continue further in ongoing discipleship.

What should have taken place in the case of Kelly? If we follow the pattern of Peter after Pentecost, when Kelly shows an interest in following Jesus we should immediately begin to help her make heart preparation for Jesus. By explaining to her that she must be willing to repent of her sins and anything that is keeping her from experiencing God. If she is willing to repent, then we must take her through the process of repenting. We must explain to her what the New Living Translation brings out so clearly, that repentance is “turning from sin and turning to God.” We can talk to her about how John the Baptist teaches us to “Prepare a way for the Lord” — which means preparing our hearts to receive Christ. We can explain to her how Isaiah talks about the mountain and hills made low, and the valleys lifted up, the crooked places made straight, and the rough places made plain, meaning we must be willing to turn our backs on any sin or anything that keeps us from God, and also we must be willing to add to our lives anything that we are lacking to get ourselves prepared for Christ in our life. Is she willing to do that? If she is, then we might ask her what things might she have done in the past or doing presently that could be offending God. Or in other words, what sins must be confessed and dealt with before God. If she isn’t sure what she might be doing wrong or what sin is, we might have to explain and review a little about what sin is and what are sins. It is during this time that the whole issue of her living with her boyfriend should be dealt with. My assistant pastor evidently didn’t walk Kelly through the preparation process, or didn’t feel it was necessary to go through the process. Either out of neglect or carelessness it wasn’t dealt with in Kelly’s case. But it should have been, because if she had been made aware that her lifestyle of cohabiting was a sin and offensive to God, then she would have been asked to repent of it (“turn away from sin, turn toward God”). If she refused to repent, that is, to confess her sin of sexual immorality and move out or have her boyfriend move out, then her conversion would have been put on hold. And she would have been invited to come again for prayer once she’s taken care of her spiritual business. I might pray with Kelly asking God to give her the will and the desire to break her lifestyle of sin, confess her sin, and repent of it. But I would not continue on in the evangelism process without Kelly showing proper heart preparation for receiving Christ. That’s where the assistant pastor went wrong and that’s where many Christian leaders get it wrong. And what’s wrong isn’t right. It isn’t Christianity, it isn’t the gospel, rather it’s a watered-down, distorted gospel that doesn’t help the person and doesn’t help the church. What good is it for the church to count someone a convert who isn’t a convert? What good is it for the person to consider himself or herself a Christian if they aren’t Christian? It’s not only no good, it’s bad, because the person is deceived into thinking they are believing the gospel when they aren’t; and the church is deceived into thinking they have a disciple when they don’t. It’s bad all around, yet it’s a common practice.

Now what should happen? If Kelly is hesitant about moving out or having her boyfriend move out, she must be told that she can’t go forward in experiencing God until she deals with this sin in her life, despite what other people may say or think. There will always be church leaders, like the assistant pastor, and other Christians, who will say there is nothing wrong with taking care of sin and spiritual issues later, after commitment to Christ. But this is not how Peter and the Apostles saw things; neither did John the Baptist or Jesus see things differently. Yes, there will be plenty of sin issues and other matters to deal with after conversion, for example, making good on our commitments to God. But no true preacher of authentic Christianity teaches these issues should be ignored before one makes a commitment to Christ. To the contrary, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles, all insisted that they be dealt with beforehand, upfront as preparation of the heart for salvation. The intent of the heart must be pure, the preparation of the soul must be sincere before any commitment can be made, or else the commitment is meaningless. One of the benefits of a spiritual seeker in coming to the church is that they may receive help in their heart preparation. One of the things the church can offer is help in a persons dealing with their sin barriers. In the case of Kelly, if she were willing to confess and repent of her sin of cohabitation, the church should be willing to help find her a new place to live, until if and when she can marry her boyfriend. I’ve offered persons living together to help find them temporary housing if they would repent and do the right thing. Unfortunately, most never take me up on the offer. Unfortunately, most are not ready to make a heart commitment to Christ, and it’s good that we find that out early instead of carrying on the charade that is often played in churches where professed Christians live in open and deliberate sin. This situation undermines legitimate marriage and sets a sinful pattern that other couples follow, that is, professing Christianity while failing to repent of sin. A repentant-less Christian faith is not an authentic Christian faith. One of the reasons why churches are so powerless and Christians are so weak is because we tolerate a distorted gospel and we tolerate unrepentant Christians in our churches. It all comes back to not understanding or appreciating the importance of heart preparation. The Apostles understood it’s importance, that’s why they required that people seeking God must repentant. Repentance isn’t something one believes only, it’s something one does also. We must require that people first intend to stop doing their particular sin, and then second that they in fact do stop their sin. And if they find they need help in stopping their particular sin or sins, then we must help them through counseling or some support group to stop sinning. We must expect people to stop doing their sin. Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” And fully expected her to do so. Jesus also told the crippled man he healed, “Do not sin again, or something worse may happen.” With God’s help people can repent of sin, renounce it, and forsake it. Now the Christian life is a battle with victories and defeats, but it must be started with a sincere and pure heart. Anything less is not Christianity.

“Each of you must repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. Then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” Acts 3:38. It is then and only then, after heart preparation, that a person can experience God. So the people Peter preached to heard about Jesus, they were interested and drawn to Jesus, and they wanted to know what they could do next. Peter challenged them to repent of their sins and be baptized, then they would experience God. It’s almost as if Peter is saying, “Ok, you heard about Jesus, now if you want to experience Him you have to do some very important things: you need to repent of your sins and you need to get baptized. And through these things, with your faith, you’ll experience salvation. Of course the whole process is spiritual, the whole process requires the Holy Spirit of God, convicting of sins, empowering a person to repent, and of course, inspiring a person to believe. But Peter makes it clear that it’s not just a matter of making a profession of faith, that it takes a preparation of the heart through repentance to experience salvation. In fact, by dwelling on the preparation of the heart in repentance and not on the final commitment by faith, Peter seems to be communicating that if a person is willing to make preparation of the heart, they will almost inevitably be willing to make a commitment by faith in Jesus. He may also be implying that by being willing to repent, turning from sin and turning to God, a person is already counted as having trusted in Christ for salvation. It’s the old question of the chicken or the egg, which comes first? Is it faith and then repentance, or repentance and then faith? It’s hard to tell because a person who truly repents may already have the faith to believe – that’s what motivates them to go through the difficult process of repentance. Or is it that they are given the ability to repent by God in order to believe afterwards? It’s not entirely clear, but one things for certain is that salvation consists of both repentance and faith, they are the two sides of the same coin. But it is almost universally true that if a person is willing to make heart preparation through repentance, they are usually willing to commit themselves by faith to Christ for salvation. But the opposite is often not true – a person can profess faith in Christ but be unwilling to repent. That is the condition of many people today, and that is why so many churches consist of unrepentant people who call themselves Christian. And that is why it is so hard for pastors to disciple these so-called Christians, because they aren’t solid and true converts to the Christian faith. They are people who have been led only halfway through the conversion process.

Now is Peter’s sermon here after Pentecost a one-time message? No, because he says the same exact thing later on in Acts 3:19-20, as the New Living Translation puts it, “Now turn from your sins and turn to God, so you can be cleansed of your sins. Then wonderful times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord and he will send Jesus your Messiah to you again.” Now that’s not the way we would typically give a gospel invitation, but we understand what he’s saying. Peter is talking mostly to a Jewish audience, so we see references to the Messiah, and spiritual refreshment might refer to the dry, desert spiritual condition of Israel at that time when God’s Spirit brings a fresh, new experience of God. But the heart preparation theme is predominant, something that in our day and age we leave out and which hurts our experience of God today. But in speaking the way Peter does, his language almost invites more the image of spiritual renewal or revival. This shows us that the whole repentance and faith process that is essential for initial conversion into Christianity should also be used for ongoing renewal and revival in the Christian life. How can a person revive or renew their faith after a period of spiritual dryness? By doing the very same thing they did or should have done to initially enter spiritual life, repent and believe. It’s an ongoing process that doesn’t stop at initial conversion. We all need to be constantly reviewing our lives, confessing our sins, and repenting (turning from sin, turning towards God). We all need to be asking ourselves if there are any barriers of sin or distractions keeping us from fully experiencing God. We all need to be asking ourselves if there are any things we can be doing that we aren’t doing to help us keep pointed in the direction of God. Peter doesn’t just give us a recipe for salvation; he gives us a recipe for spiritual renewal or revival. “That times of refreshing may come from the Lord” is the language of revival even more than conversion, although it applies to both the initial and on-going experience of God. It’s exciting to imagine the possibilities for spiritual life in a church that follows the directions of the Apostle here. There would be new converts coming into the church who have made spiritual heart preparation through repentance and have committed their lives to Christ by faith, and also there would be ongoing disciples of Jesus in a constant state of repentance or “turning from sin, turning toward God.” The dynamic of true evangelism and true discipleship taking place in a church would breath new life into the community in general, and before long, revival might break out not only in the church but in the community. Such a thing has happened before. Let us pray it might happen again in our church and community.

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