For those of you who observe the Daily Office you know that the daily lectionary readings are working us through the book of Acts. And as I've been reading the book of Acts I've been paying attention to how the gospel is presented in the various sermons we find in Acts. These are, from the perspective of the Canon, the first sermons of the Christian church. And I wondered, how is the gospel presented in these first sermons?
More specifically, I wondered how the cross, atonement and forgiveness of sins was presented in these first sermons. Even more specifically, I was wondering if the apostles presented the gospel the way evangelicals often present the gospel. Do the sermons of the apostles sound, theologically speaking, like our sermons?
Of particular interest for me was how the death of Jesus was portrayed. I was looking for evidence of penal substitutionary atonement, any material within these first sermons that suggested that Jesus' death saved us, via substitution, from a wrathful God. In short, how did atonement work in the first sermons of the church?
To answer these questions let's look at the sermons in the book of Acts.
According to my inventory there are eight formal sermons in the book of Acts. Some long and some short. Toward the end of the book, starting in Chapter 22, we also have three speeches that Paul makes before various tribunals after his arrest in Jerusalem. These speeches take place in courtroom settings so they are less like sermons than a witness giving a self-defense. However, Paul uses these occasions to give his testimony and bear witness to the risen Lord. In light of this, let's group Paul's three speeches from the end of Acts into a "ninth sermon."
As I said above, when I looked at these sermons I was interested in how the crucifixion functioned in the proclamation of the gospel. And what I discovered was this: The crucifixion doesn't seem to have any theological significance in the first sermons. What is emphasized strongly is the resurrection. In sermon after sermon the death of Jesus is simply the prerequisite event setting up Jesus' vindication at the resurrection. In short, the "good news" is, simply, the resurrection, the event where Jesus is revealed to be both "Lord and Christ."
Let's look at each sermon. You can read the full sermon texts by clicking on the hyperlink of each passage. The shorter sermons are given in full. For the longer sermons I'll simply give the key passages where the death and resurrection are mentioned within the sermon.
Sermon 1: Peter at Pentecost (Acts 2.14-36)What seems clear in the first sermon of the Church is that the gospel is simply the declaration that Jesus is raised from the dead and is now seated at the right hand of God as Lord and Christ. The very first sermon of the church has no mention of substitutionary atonement. No hint that the death of Jesus saves us. As I mentioned above, the death of Jesus is only mentioned as the necessary prelude to the critical event: The resurrection.
"Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. David said about him:
I saw the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay. You have made known to me the paths of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence.
Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,
The Lord said to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'
Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."
This theme continues in the second sermon:
Sermon 2: Peter at Solomon's Portico (Acts 3.12-26)The second sermon mirrors the first. You killed Jesus, but God raised him from the dead. This is the good news, that Jesus was raised from the dead.
The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this.
Sermon 3: Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 4.8-12)Sermon 3 has the same theology as Sermons 1 and 2: Salvation comes from believing in the risen Lord. Again, we find no mention of the crucifixion having any salvific function. It's the resurrection, the vindication of Jesus, that saves us.
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: "Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a cripple and are asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. He is
the stone you builders rejected, which has become the capstone.
Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Sermon 4: Peter before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5.29-32)The theme continues. Jesus was crucified and God raised him from the dead. And now, at the right hand of God, Jesus is "Prince and Savior" so that "he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins." Forgiveness of sins is linked with the resurrection. Specifically, having been placed at the right hand of God Jesus has been given the authority to forgive sins. Forgiveness of sins is linked to power and authority, not blood sacrifice.
Peter and the other apostles replied: "We must obey God rather than men! The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead—whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel. We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him."
Sermon 5: Stephen before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7.1-58)Sermon 5 is the first sermon in Acts not given by Peter. But Stephen ends the same way Peter did: You killed Jesus but I witness him standing at the right hand of God. This last claim, the heart of the gospel proclamation, is intolerable and prompts the attack on Stephen.
"You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Still no mention, five sermons in, of any salvific function associated with the death of Jesus.
Sermon 6: Peter at Cornelius' House (Acts 10. 34-43)The pattern should be familiar now. Jesus was killed but has been raised from the dead. Jesus has been "appointed as judge of the living and the dead." Forgiveness of sins comes through believing this claim, presumably because Jesus, being Judge, will vindicate those who stand with him. Once again, the forgiveness of sins is effected by the resurrection of Jesus. Forgiveness of sins occurs not because Jesus' life is substituted for my own. As we've repeatedly seen, this notion is wholly absent from the first six sermons. No, forgiveness of sin occurs because Jesus has the power to forgive sins. So if you stand with Jesus, he will forgive you. That's how forgiveness works. It's an issue of authority, not substitution. The resurrection gives Christ the authority to forgive sins and he will forgive those who confess him as Lord.
Then Peter began to speak: "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, telling the good news of peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all. You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached—how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.
We are witnesses of everything he did in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They killed him by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name."
Sermon 7: Paul at Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13.16-41)This is Paul's first sermon in Acts and, theologically speaking, it exactly follows Peter's sermons. Forgiveness of sins is proclaimed through the resurrection, not the crucifixion: "But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay. Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you."
Brothers, children of Abraham, and you God-fearing Gentiles, it is to us that this message of salvation has been sent. The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath. Though they found no proper ground for a death sentence, they asked Pilate to have him executed. When they had carried out all that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he was seen by those who had traveled with him from Galilee to Jerusalem. They are now his witnesses to our people.
We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. As it is written in the second Psalm:
You are my Son;
today I have become your Father.
The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words:
I will give you the holy and sure blessings promised to David.
So it is stated elsewhere:
You will not let your Holy One see decay.
For when David had served God's purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep; he was buried with his fathers and his body decayed. But the one whom God raised from the dead did not see decay.Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses.
Sermon 8: Paul in Athens (Acts 17.22-31)In this most famous of the sermons in Acts the crucifixion isn't even mentioned. And once again we see that, through the resurrection, Jesus has been appointed Judge and that to be forgiven we must appeal to his mercy. Forgiveness of sins remains tied to the authority of Jesus and not to a substitutionary transaction that occurred at his death.
In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.
Paul's sermon in Athens is the last formal sermon in the book of Acts. However, Acts ends with Paul making three speeches in self-defense to authorities after his arrest in Jerusalem. The first speech is in front of the Sanhedrin (Acts 22.3-21). The second is before the Roman governor Felix (Acts 24.11-21). And the final one is before king Agrippa and the Roman governor Festus (Acts 26.2-23).
In these speeches Paul gives an account of his conversion, how he encountered the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. But what is very interesting in these speeches is how we are repeatedly informed about the distinctive feature at the heart of Paul's gospel:
Acts 23.6 (Paul before the Sanhedrin)What we see exposed in Paul's trial speeches is the core of the gospel: the resurrection of Jesus. According to the book of Acts, the world turns on this event. It is the central issue in each of the trial speeches. And at no point during these proceedings is the death of Jesus even discussed. Nothing much seems to have taken place during the crucifixion. Theologically, the crucifixion is a non-significant event in the book of Acts (other than being foretold). All parties remain focused, with laser-like intensity, upon the resurrection.
I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.
Acts 24.15 (Paul before Felix)
I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked.
Acts 24.21 (Paul before Felix)
It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.
Acts 25.29 (Festus' summary of the dispute between Paul and the Jewish authorities)
Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive.
Acts 26.6-8 (Paul before Agrippa and Festus)
And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our fathers that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. O king, it is because of this hope that the Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?
Acts 26.22-25 (Paul before Agrippa and Festus)
"I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles."
At this point Festus interrupted Paul's defense. "You are out of your mind, Paul!" he shouted. "Your great learning is driving you insane."
"I am not insane, most excellent Festus," Paul replied. "What I am saying is true and reasonable."
Having reviewed the nine sermons, what can we take away from all this? Can we, theologically speaking, downplay the crucifixion in the proclamation of the gospel?
The book of Acts seems to think so. It seems clear that in the book of Acts salvation and forgiveness of sin was proclaimed in the light of the resurrection. At no point is the death of Jesus proclaimed to have any salvific significance or effect. Again, the death of Jesus simply functions as the prerequisite event for the resurrection. Forgiveness of sins, in the book of Acts, is a matter of power and authority, not a substitutionary blood sacrifice. The issue isn't "How does God forgive sins?" but "Who in heaven or earth has the authority to forgive sins?" The resurrection declares that Jesus has this authority. That's the good news. That is the gospel: Jesus has the authority to forgive sins. This is how atonement works in Acts. Jesus makes atonement because, as Judge, Jesus forgives those who believe in him. At no point in Acts is a substitutionary mechanism--Jesus' life traded for mine--required for the forgiveness of sin.
Summarizing, we might say this. You are forgiven because Jesus is Lord. Not because Jesus died. You are forgiven because Jesus is judge, and he will forgive those who appeal to him for mercy.