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They Were Devoted

What does Acts 2 teach us is distinctive about a true church?

They Were Devoted primary image

Ray Evans first delivered this to the Carey Conference in January 2018 and a version will appear in an upcoming edition of Reformation Today.

Acts 2 is a key passage. It describes the church in its formation, and it shows what a true church ought to look like. If we ask, as leaders, “What are we leading?”, then Acts 2 provides the answer!

The Reformers discussed the great ‘marks’ of a church. Calvin, for example, in the Institutes (IV.1.10) describes the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the Ordinances. He talked about faithful proclamation, and faithful observation.

Then later (Institutes IV.12) he talks about the discipline of the church; the people of God being seen to be the people of God. Of course, there can be a conflict between the holiness of the observable people of God and the messed-up-ness of those same people. But that third mark of the church, the discipline of the people of God, became part of the standard three marks that the Reformers and the Puritans utilised.

Since that time there have been all kinds of other descriptions. A contemporary one is the 9Marks movement. Mark Dever and his colleagues have done a tremendous amount of work on this. They ask, “What is a healthy church?”

Well, in Acts 2:40-42, I think we see nine distinctives of the believers’ church:

  • 1. The Gospel: The message of salvation. Acts 2:40, “With many other words he warned and pleaded with them”, and his message is the message of the gospel.
  • 2. Belief: (v41) “Acceptance” is a not a mere assent, but a heart-felt acceptance of Christ as Saviour and Lord.
  • 3. Baptism: (v41)
  • 4. Life: (v42) This is devotion, real spiritual life.
  • 5. Leadership: (v42) from the Apostles.
  • 6. Teaching: (v42) There are over 30 words in Greek to describe all the ways one can verbally communicate.
  • 7. Fellowship: (v42) it’s clear the church shared their lives.
  • 8. Food: (v42) This includes the Lord’s Supper as part of sharing food with one another.
  • 9. Prayer: (v42)

That means historically, and in the contemporary church scene, Acts 2 is a massively significant passage.

What I want to emphasise from these verses is the importance of ‘organic’ or personal spirituality. What we see here are people who personally believe the gospel, and are immediately committed to living that life out. We need to emphasise that because sometimes church becomes about systems and processes and organisation.

When that happens we lose the first note: The gospel, belief, baptism and life. “They devoted themselves to…” As pastors we are not mere organisers of people. We are not the people who ‘make it happen’. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to be in the hearts of all those we are seeking to lead.

It’s crucial that the Holy Spirit leads our people in their devotion to Christ, because that spurs them on to work out what New Testament Christianity looks like.

It is often a malaise at this point that causes difficulties in church life. Church is happening, but there isn’t so much of that inward personal devotion. If people look to the church to be their Saviour, there will be much disappointment. If people look to the church to make sure their children are converted, or to give a sense of significance in life, they are using the church as a means to an end, rather than as an expression of love to Jesus.

People need to have a ‘want to serve’; and that can only come as we keep this Acts 2 ordering – the organic, the personal desire.

Personal accountability

A secular book selling over 25,000,000 copies is Stephen Covey’s Seven Marks of a Highly Effective Person. His seventh mark is ‘continuous learning’. Of the other marks, they’re grouped into two groups of three. The second group is about how to work with other people interdependently. But the first three are all about moving from dependency to personal accountability. So even a secular author recognises that personal accountability starts with a person saying, “I want to do this.”

It is important we know the source of that dynamic. It does not come from being attracted to or excited about what is happening at church, good though that may be. For when church is just tough, or dull, when change happens that you don’t like, you will begin to pull back from ‘devoting yourself to…’.

So where does the power to devote come from? Let me illustrate it like this.

In North Wales there is a place called Dinorwic. It was once the second largest slate quarry in the world. Now it’s called Electric Mountain. Why? Because deep in the heart of the mountain there is the largest man-made cavern in Europe, large enough to house St Paul’s Cathedral comfortably. In that space are enormous generators. They are powered by the fall of water from a lake high up on the mountain.

Operators watch the TV, and when they see a crucial event – such as England winning on penalties in the World Cup – they press a button. That happens just as other people walk into their kitchens to press the buttons on a million kettles. In 17 seconds the station can go from 0 to 1.78 GW, and it can power the whole of Wales for hours if it needs to. The surge in power that is required can only be met by the mighty Dinorwic. Other kinds of power stations simply don’t have this fast ‘turn on’ capability.

What’s remarkable is that this is a hidden source of power in the National Grid. Now, in the Christian life, we all need to know the source of our ‘hidden power’. It is, of course, the Almighty Holy Spirit. He is sovereign and not at our beck and call. Yet, in the gospel, as we believe in Christ crucified, we receive the Spirit and are filled with him, again and again (see Gal 3:1-3; Eph 1:13, 14; 5:18 – note here the passive, plural, imperative, continuous verb – let yourselves go on being filled).

So, if a church wants people who are devoted to it, they must keep hearing of Christ crucified for them, and become devoted to him. Then, out of love for him, they will love the church he loves, with all her imperfections and difficulties.

Lessons for leaders

This is huge for us in leadership: individual Christians respond to Christ as Lord and Saviour, and so live out lives where they commit to the people of God because they love the Lord of the church. What we really need are people engaging with the Lord Jesus and people that are full of the Holy Spirit.

Sometimes, when leaders learn some new skills or try some plans which work out, they can become enamoured with “leadership”. So, it can be tempting to forget this key lesson from Acts 2 about personal devotion. Let’s ensure we preach it and practice it in our own lives.