What Acts Teaches Us About Evangelism

The speeches in the book of Acts are representative of the early church’s gospel witness and serve as a pattern for our evangelism today.

While the book of Acts has traditionally been understood as being about the acts of the apostles, much of their ‘acting’ actually involved speaking. In fact, speeches make up more than one third of Luke’s history of the early church![1] This shouldn’t surprise us, since the risen Lord Jesus had told his disciples “that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:47). The pouring out of the Spirit of Jesus would empower his church to be his witnesses to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:18-20).

For this reason, Acts is full of evangelistic speeches (click here for a summary chart of the major speeches). Yet despite a variety of different contexts, several elements are found in every single presentation of the gospel. Whether the audience is Jew or Gentile, a large crowd or a single household, Pharisees or philosophers; whether the setting is Jerusalem or Rome, the temple courts or a courtroom; whether the occasion is a Jewish feast or house arrest; their act is the same: “proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). These speeches, recorded by Luke, are representative of the early church’s gospel witness and serve as a pattern for our evangelism today.

Here are some of the repeated features found in the evangelistic speeches in Acts:[2]

Evangelism is God-Centered

Every single sermon in Acts begins with God—his actions in history and his sovereign purposes in the world according to Scripture. On the day of Pentecost, Peter opens his sermon with what God declared through Joel and fulfilled through Jesus of Nazareth (Acts 2:16-17, 22-24). In Solomon’s portico, Peter begins by referring to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Acts 3:13). At Antioch in Pisidia, Paul starts with God and his choice of Israel (Acts 13:16-17).

But what about the sermons preached to non-Jewish audiences with little to no bible background? God’s sovereign purposes and saving actions in history still provide the central framework. This can be seen in Paul’s address to the men of Athens, who were “very religious” and even had an altar dedicated “to the unknown God” (Acts 17:22-23). He begins his gospel presentation by proclaiming this ‘unknown’ God to them: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man . . .” (Acts 17:24). The rest of his speech remains profoundly God-centered; he concludes with God’s command for all people to repent on the basis of his appointment of the risen Lord Jesus as the judge of the world (Acts 17:30-31).

Alan Thompson explains this feature of gospel preaching in Acts well: “There is either an assumption or reminder of God’s purposes and action in Scripture, or, if there is not (as in Acts 17), then a biblical framework for understanding God and his purposes in the world is made known and explained first. The emphasis is on God’s initiative; he is active and personal and we are accountable to him” (92). Likewise, in our evangelism today, we must recognize that God’s truth is the truth for every person in every place, whether or not they choose to believe in God at all. [3]

Evangelism is Audience-Conscious

Though God is central to all of the evangelistic speeches in Acts, what is said about God is determined by the context. Peter doesn’t cite Joel 2 when responding to the invitation of Cornelius; instead, he highlights the universality of the gospel message for his Gentile hearers. Paul doesn’t refer to the promised king from the lineage of David when addressing the Athenians on Mars Hill; instead, he focuses on God as sovereign Creator and the resurrection of Jesus. Gospel witness, whatever the specific occasion, always involves an acute awareness of the audience and their needs.

This is also evident in Acts through the variety of verbs used to describe the evangelism of the early church. Thompson writes: “Verbs of teaching, proclaiming, refuting, reasoning and persuading requite hearers to understand, think, reason, consider and examine. The sheer variety of terms used for this preaching of the gospel cautions against reductionistic approaches to engaging with non-Christian audiences” (93).

What does this mean for us today? This does not mean being a master apologist with a commanding knowledge of science and philosophy (though such knowledge is important and helpful). No; it means being fluent in the gospel. It means understanding God’s word and the story of the salvation found in Christ so well that you can preach the gospel on any occasion to any variety of listeners. To the man struggling with sinful addiction, it means being able to emphasize the redemption found in Christ that enables us to serve God in true freedom. To the woman struggling with issues of identity and acceptance, it means stressing our adoption as sons of God by the Spirit through union with Christ. To the moralist struggling with condemnation and guilt, it means focusing on justification by faith in the finished work of Christ. To the suffering, it means highlighting the promise of future restoration and our living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Evangelism is Christ-Focused

This brings us to the third feature of evangelistic preaching found in Acts: it is entirely Christ-focused. “The historical reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection are central to the uniqueness of the Christian faith” (94). The goal of every sermon, therefore, is to present the person and work of the risen Lord Jesus to the audience. And since the climax of God’s saving purposes in history find their fulfillment in Christ, a sermon that is God-centered will necessarily be a Christ-focused sermon. It is simply not possible to proclaim who God is and what he has done without preaching Christ. He is  the full and final revelation of God (Col. 1:15-20; Heb. 1:1-4).

In fact, this is what evangelism, and being a spirit-empowered witness to Jesus, means: you preach Christ and him crucified (1 Cor. 1:18-2:5)! You preach the apostolic “testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33)! His wrath-bearing death and death-defeating resurrection for the forgiveness of sins are inseparable gospel truths that must be proclaimed if one is to be a faithful witness to Jesus. The focus in Acts is not on the signs and wonders performed through the apostles (Acts 2:43; 5:12; 14:3); the focus is on what—or better yet, who—the signs were pointing to: Jesus! This is why, when the church was scattered as a result of intense persecution, Luke tells us that “those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). What word? The word of “repentance towards God and of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20:21).

You can substitute love and good works for evangelism all you want; you can substitute signs and wonders for evangelism all you want; you can substitute inviting people to church events for evangelism all you want; but if you are not preaching Christ, you are simply not preaching the gospel.

Evangelism is Response-Oriented

Finally, evangelism in Acts always stresses the implications of the gospel message and includes the required response. Because of mankind’s sin, idolatry, and rebellion against God, because we are separated from him and stand in opposition to his kingdom, we are headed for his righteous judgment. As Peter proclaimed to Cornelius and his household, the risen Lord Jesus “is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Similarly, Paul reminded the men of Athens that God “has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).

Therefore, in order to be saved from God’s wrath, one must call upon the name of the Lord in repentance and faith for the forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:21, 38; 3:19; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43; 17:30; Acts 26:20). This is response demanded by the gospel. But this is also why the gospel message is referred to as the word of God’s grace (Acts 14:3; 20:32), because God has graciously provided a way of salvation for unworthy sinners—both the Jew and the Greek!

But Thompson makes an important distinction: “Although the preaching was response-oriented, the messages were not response-driven. That is, the messages were not compromised just to get a favourable response or just to make people happy. There were often mixed and even hostile responses” (96). Yet because of the Holy Spirit’s empowering presence in their lives, as well as their settled conviction concerning the truth of the resurrection, the early church preached the gospel of Jesus Christ with a supernatural boldness in order to plead with sinners to be saved. This same Spirit dwells in God’s people still today in order that we might continue to bear witness to the risen Lord Jesus.

A Final Thought

Many today want to see the church look more like it did in the first century. Many people claim to be looking for a true “New Testament church,” and want their church to be like what they see in the book of Acts. Unfortunately, many of these churches seek to do this by obsessing over the signs and wonders of the early church (as if they weren’t performed by the apostles to validate their message and lay the foundation of the church) or by focusing on the worship practices of the early church (as if reverting to a house church format will make your church more authentic).

But if you want to be a true New Testament church, then devote yourself to the apostles’ doctrine, the fellowship of the church, and prayer. And if you really want to look like the church in the book of Acts—if you really want to be a part of an authentic, first-century kind of church—then boldly preach the good news of Jesus Christ. Boldly proclaim a God-centered, audience-conscious, Christ-focused, response-oriented gospel.

[1] Alan J. Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan, New Studies in Biblical Theology 27 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 89.

[2] The following is taken directly from Thompson, The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 90-99. I have simply adapted his excellent discussion for the purposes of this blog.

[3] This approach to evangelism involves an apologetic method called ‘presuppositional.’ For a helpful introduction to this method of defending the Christian faith, see John M. Frame, Apologetics: A Justification of Christian Belief (Phillipsburg, NJ; P&R Publishing, 2015).