Preaching “salvation” in Acts
Moreover, we see clearly evidenced in Acts the missionary zeal of Paul and others to bring the gospel to a lost world. The martyrs gave their lives to save the lost from damnation.
Those who preached the gospel in Acts thought they were bringing salvation to the lost –
(Act 4:11-12 ESV) 11 “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. 12 And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
(Act 11:13-14 ESV) 13 And he told us how he had seen the angel stand in [Cornelius's] house and say, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon who is called Peter; 14 he will declare to you a message by which you will be saved, you and all your household.’
(Act 15:11 ESV) 11 But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.”
(Act 16:30-31 ESV) 30 Then [the Philippian jailer] brought them out and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” 31 And they said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”
What does it mean to be “saved” in Acts? Saved from damnation? Or saved from a less abundant life? Or both?
The word first appears in Acts in Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, in which he quotes the prophet Joel —
(Act 2:21 ESV) 21 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
We hear echoes of this prophecy of Joel throughout the New Testament. We just saw it in Romans 10:13. Saved from what? What does Joel say?
(Joe 2:1-3 ESV) Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. 3 Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but behind them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.
(Joe 2:6 ESV) 6 Before them peoples are in anguish; all faces grow pale.
(Joe 2:10-11 ESV) 10 The earth quakes before them; the heavens tremble. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining. 11 The LORD utters his voice before his army, for his camp is exceedingly great; he who executes his word is powerful. For the day of the LORD is great and very awesome; who can endure it?
If you’re not saved, you suffer the fate proclaimed in Joel 2.
We next encounter the word in Acts 2:40, at the conclusion of Peter’s sermon —
(Act 2:40 ESV) 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.”
This is an allusion to the Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32, which also says,
(Deu 32:22 ESV) 22 For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.
That’s the fate of a crooked generation. That’s what faith in Jesus saves from.
It’s hard to read these texts in light of the overarching narrative of scripture, taking into account who is saying what to whom and when, and find any hope outside of Jesus.
In Acts, God’s servants preach Jesus to Jews zealous for the Temple and the Law — to save them. God sends Peter to a God-fearing, God-worshiping, alms-giving Cornelius — to save him. And “save” means save from destruction.
Does “save” promise more than salvation from destruction? Oh, yes! Very much more. But it means save from destruction, too.
Did the martyrs give their lives to save people who were already saved? You can’t read Acts and reach such a conclusion.
The nature of God
I understand, I think, Paul’s message of God’s kindness and sternness, but he is speaking to people who have heard the gospel and urging the importance of accepting each other – Jew and Gentile – and cooperating in the sharing of the gospel, which carries with it the promise of salvation made originally to Abraham. Isn’t God still free to deliver the gift even to those who are not aware of the promise, even those who are as undeserving as we believers are?
“Isn’t God still free …”? Yes, and still free to behave in entirely different ways, as well. We cannot recreate God in our own image and then claim to worship him. He is who he reveals himself to be. And we see in Acts and Romans Paul’s agony over Jews who worshiped a God they so misunderstood that they couldn’t recognize Jesus as God. We must let God be God.
We stand under the judgment of God’s word. He does not stand under our judgment. God is not in the dock. We are.
When we speculate that God could do what we would prefer that he do because he is free to be whoever he wants to be, we place ourselves in judgment over God. We try to define “holy” by what we wish, “good” by what we wish. But those terms are definable only in terms of who God is.
That’s not to say that it’s wrong or bad ask these questions! God celebrates Job — a man who asked just these kinds of questions.
(Job 38:1-7 ESV) Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me.
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy? …
(Job 40:6-8 ESV) 6 Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: 7 “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. 8 Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?”
(Job 42:1-6 ESV) Then Job answered the LORD and said: 2 “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you make it known to me.’ 5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; 6 therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
Most fascinating to me is how God resolves Job’s complaint. He doesn’t. He contents himself with “Will you even put me in the wrong? Will you condemn me that you may be in the right?” Sometimes, that’s the only answer we get. Faith is not always easy. Ask Job.
Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft writes,
Job sticks to God, retains intimacy, passion and care, while the three friends are satisfied with correctness of words, “dead orthodoxy.” Job’s words do not accurately refelct God as Job’s friends’ do, but Job himself is in true relationship with God, as the three friends are not: a relationship of heart and soul, life-or-death passion. … Job stays married to God and throws dishes at him; the three friends have a polite non-marriage, with separate bedrooms and separate vacations.
Three Philosophies of Life: Ecclesiastes–Life as Vanity, Job–Life as Suffering, Song of Songs–Life as Love (1989), 89, as quoted by Lois Tverberg, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life.
God does not mind the complaints and the questions — so long as we don’t place ourselves in judgment over God. (I don’t mind when my children ask hard questions, so long as they are in submission. But it makes me mad when a 5-year old presumes to sit in judgment over me.)
Now, I am most certainly NOT suggesting the Keith is guilty of this sin. He is not. But there are many who argue for the salvation of those who’ve never heard the gospel who are. They sneer when God doesn’t measure up their tastes in deity.
You can tell those who have this attitude. They refuse to the engage the text. Those who submit to God submit to the scriptures. We might disagree regarding the interpretation, but we agree that God — as revealed in the text — is in charge, not our own sentimental, Post-Enlightenment, fatuous worldview.