As I am reading through the book of Acts right now I am again struck at how markedly different the gospel the first Christians preached was from what we so often hear today. It is as if there never was an early church: the stuff we hear pouring from our pulpits, Christian TVs and Christian bookstores bears almost no resemblance to what was preached and lived 2,000 years ago.
I am absolutely astounded by how far we have been removed from the real gospel of God. Paul could strongly rebuke the Galatians for doing just this: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:6-7). And that was just a matter of some years.
So how much worse are matters after two millennia? If the Galatians could get off track within such a short period of time, how much more we who have such a great time gap between the early church and ourselves? The full text of what Paul said in vv. 6-10 is worth presenting here:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
The difference between Paul and many preachers today is that Paul wanted to please only one man: the Lord Jesus Christ. He cared not one bit about pleasing anyone else. But today we are overrun with churches which seem bent on just one thing: pleasing as many men as possible.
Sadly there are plenty of examples of this to choose from here. I don’t mean to suggest there is just one, but I must say there is a major figure who exemplifies all this big time. I have written about him and his gospel before. I refer to American mega-church pastor Joel Osteen: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/05/18/will-the-real-gospel-please-stand-up/
While there are plenty more like him, he is noteworthy for many reasons: he has the biggest church in America, and his TV ministry and books are ingested by countless millions of believers. He has a huge following, and people hang on to his every word.
But when you consider what his words are, this is not surprising in the least. He is telling the people exactly what they want to hear. Consumeristic, materialistic, greedy, narcissistic, money-hungry, self-centred and self-worshipping Americans are flocking to hear the guy.
He is simply affirming everything about their self-centred lifestyle. He is giving them the divine thumbs up for living a totally materialistic, selfish, and sacrifice-free lifestyle. As proof, all one has to do is consider the books he has penned. Simply look at the titles. They are most telling. Here are some of them:
–Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential
–Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day
–Good, Better, Blessed: Living with Purpose, Power and Passion
–Living in Favor, Abundance and Joy
–Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week
–Your Best Life Begins Each Morning: Devotions to Start Every Day of the Year (Faithwords)
–I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life
–It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor
Did you even see so many “yous” and “yours”? What is the message of Joel Osteen, according to these titles? It is all about me. Me, me, me. The whole world revolves around me. As long as I am happy, and successful, and feeling good about myself, well, that is the gospel message.
Jesus is merely an appendage to a selfish life here. God simply exists so that my world can continue to go well, so I can always be happy, and so I can always have the good things in life. As long as I am happy and wealthy and successful and so on, I must somehow be doing God a really big favour.
But contrast that with the message we hear in the book of Acts. There is nothing of this me-first selfishness ever mentioned in the book. The early disciples never waffled on about living the good life, being happy, getting lots of money, and being at home in the world. Consider just three passages.
What about Acts 3:6? “Then Peter said, ‘Silver or gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk’.”
What an incredible contrast to our famous big cheese preachers of today. They are absolutely swimming in filthy lucre. They are well-known for their lavish churches, their lavish salaries, their lavish homes, their lavish cars, their lavish hairdos, and their lavish lifestyles.
They have heaps of silver and gold, and seem to want to have heaps more of it. And they falsely promise their deluded followers that they too can have all the silver and gold that they want. They can be successful. They can be prosperous. They can be wealthy. They can have great careers. They can have a terrific self-image.
They can have everything except the one thing which is required: the cruciform life. The very requirements which Jesus gave to his would-be followers are completely ignored by these folks: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). Jesus said we are to deny ourselves, not pamper ourselves, gorge ourselves, enrich ourselves, and worship ourselves.
Or consider Acts 3:26: “When God raised up his servant, he sent him first to you to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways.”
We hear about “blessings” all the time from these preachers. God exists simply to bless us, to make us happy, to make us rich, and to give us everything we want. Not only is that an unbiblical view of what God’s blessings are all about, but they have it back to front.
When Peter said these words, he made it clear that real repentance was the first step needed for the blessing of God. Yet you will never seem to hear a word about repentance from these preachers. Indeed, you will hardly ever hear a word about sin, or judgment, or the cross, or the wrath of God, or hell.
That is not what the crowds want to hear, so these basic and essential biblical themes are almost never even mentioned. But there is no blessing without first renouncing self, repenting of sin, and turning away from our selfish and sinful lifestyles. There is no crown without a cross in other words.
Finally, take a look at Acts 14:21-22: “[Paul and Barnabas] preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.”
What? Many hardships? And we must go through them to enter the Kingdom? But that is not what the prosperity preachers told me. That is not what the me-first pastors proclaim. That is not what I ever hear in my lavish multi-million dollar entertainment centres – I mean churches.
One can say so much more here. The truths of the book of Acts should be sufficient to make my point here. But let me supplement those with some wise words from a true preacher of the true gospel, Leonard Ravenhill:
“The early church was married to poverty, prisons and persecutions. Today, the church is married to prosperity, personality, and popularity.”
“You see, what people are seeking today is a painless Pentecost. There isn’t such a thing. What happened immediately after Pentecost? They prospered? Yes? No! They went to jail! It wasn’t prosperity; it was prison, pain, privation, and persecution.”
“People say, ‘We want another Pentecost.’ I don’t believe them for a minute. Pentecost in the New Testament is tied in with persecution, poverty (and) prison!”
“Christians don’t tell lies, they just go to church and sing them. How many times have you stood and sang, ‘Take my life and let it be’ and haven’t given Him a scrap?”
“We’ve reduced God to a minimum. Most of us are trying to get to heaven with minimum spirituality. If we looked after our business like we look after our soul, we’d be bankrupt years ago! The materialism has crept in and it’s blinded us! It has become a way of life.”
“Paul never glamorized the gospel! It is not success, but sacrifice! It’s not a glamorous gospel, but a bloody gospel, a gory gospel, and a sacrificial gospel! Five minutes inside eternity and we will wish that we had sacrificed more, wept more, bled more, grieved more, loved more, prayed more, given more!”
Amen and amen.