The Gospel is in Leviticus

“Moses and all the prophets” includes the 3rd book of the Torah.

It’s somewhat of an evangelical applause line to say that you’ve tried to read through the Bible in a year, but got bogged down in Leviticus. Brothers and sisters, I’d like to issue an appeal that we stop disparaging the book as some cryptic, impossible-to-understand work that we somehow tolerate because it’s part of the Hebrew Bible. Instead, let’s look at Leviticus as the rich trove of symbols and types of Christ that it is. A few things to keep in mind:

1. The book is not hard to understand.
Many give the impression that the words and language of Leviticus are so difficult, so hard, that understanding the book is almost impossible. It’s simply not the case. Our English Bible translations of Leviticus make it no more difficult than Genesis or Exodus. Are there cultural differences that we might not readily understand? Of course, but that’s quite different than saying the words make no sense. Much of the Old Testament is culturally foreign to us, yet there is blessing in reading, and striving to understand it.

2. Jesus himself ratifies our study of it.
In Luke 24, Jesus twice points the disciples to the writings Moses—which includes Leviticus—as christological.

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. 24:27

Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 24:44

The offerings, which take up the first 6 chapters of the book, are pointing forward to the one offering of Jesus. He is the burnt offering, wholly given over to do his Father’s will, “a pleasing aroma.” (Lev 1)
The Lord Jesus was delivered up for our trespasses. (Lev 5, the trespass offering.) Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Lev 17:11) is gospel truth, and it is here in Leviticus.

3. Other parts of the New Testament reinforce Leviticus as christological.
By contrast, we learn that what the high priest does on the Day of Atonement (Lev 23), Jesus has done once for all.
Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. (Heb 9:25-26)
Indeed, one can make that the case that a clear understanding of the book of Hebrews, and the truths it means to convey (all the “betters”) is only possible when we understand the things Leviticus sets forth.

There are certainly parts of the book that have to do with the life of Israel in the land, but even then, we can still draw lessons. God is interested in the holiness of his people, that they keep separate from sin.
If you stop reading once you reach the end of Exodus, you’re missing out on some truth the Holy Spirit wants to teach you.

Standing and State: The Importance of the Difference

When I first became a Christian, the believers I was among hammered home the distinction between our standing and state. I later came to see what a great gift it was to clearly delineate these two important truths.

Our standing is who we are in Christ; our identity as blood-bought, redeemed sons and daughters of God. Our standing is sealed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom Paul refers to in Ephesians 1:13 as the seal of our inheritance.
Standing is unalterable and fixed, because its foundation is the person and work of Christ. No amount of trial, no amount of failure on our part, nothing we do can diminish this once-for-all completed work of the Lord Jesus. One of the richest passages for these truths is found in the first few verses of Romans 5:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

The apostle begins with a “Therefore”, the assumption that this is a truth to count on. We have been justified. It’s a past tense, a completed thing. And it is through the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, we inhabit an atmosphere of grace, it is the ground we stand upon. Nothing here depends on our doing, or our performance. It is all of Christ, and all in Christ. This is our standing as Christians, and it cannot change. Our acceptance can never be questioned because the work of Christ can never be questioned.

Our state is a different thing. It is changing, temporary, fleeting. How I react on a given day to trials may be God-honoring. The next day, it may be otherwise. I will fail, I will sin, and so will you. Our obedience is less than complete. John affirms the reality of this when he says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Our old, Adamic nature doesn’t improve, it doesn’t get better. It’s still with us, though believers now have a new nature. Paul encourages us to “consider ourselves dead to sin”—because there is that within us that still responds to sin. This encouragement to reckon ourselves dead to sin is a slaying, but it is a judicial one, rather than an actual one. Paul also tells the Ephesians to put off the old man, and to put on the new. These truths demonstrate that fluctuation in our state is not only possible, but expected.

Believers that look to their state for assurance or peace will in fact find they don’t have assurance or peace. Because state is decidedly not fixed, it can never provide any sure basis for peace. Christian maturity is in one sense a continual adjustment of our state to our standing. That is, Christlikeness is the process of bringing my state into closer conformity with my standing. I do this by dwelling on all that Christ has accomplished in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and all that he continues to do as my Advocate at God’s right hand. When the accuser of the brethren hurls his condemnation at me, I look to the cross, and say “It is true I am unworthy, but he is worthy, he is altogether lovely, and the Father is well-pleased by his Son.” In other words, assurance and peace come from recalling my standing in Christ, an unassailable position made certain by the Father’s acceptance of His Son, and the unalterable facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Too many Christians I have spoken to are unclear on this important difference between standing and state. If you are struggling with acceptance or assurance, I encourage you to consider whether it may be because you haven’t made this important distinction.

Yes, We Are Saved by Right Theology

What is popular in the broadest sense is often not detailed or specific. By popular, I mean “of the people.” A popular audience is less academic, less trained in technical terms or the jargon of specialty. They tend to be generalists. This does not mean that advanced concepts cannot be packaged in a way to appeal to a popular audience. (The “For Dummies” books acknowledge this, i.e. Physics for Dummies.)

Evangelicalism is a popular movement; it is of the people, and so comes with the tendency to dismiss or downgrade specificity in theology. As one interlocutor on social media has said “We’re not saved by right theology.” This pastor has elsewhere explained what he means as “we are saved by ‘allegiance to Jesus.'” In so saying, he makes a distinction between theology and Jesus, but this is an elusive thing.
If one says “We are saved by allegiance to Jesus” someone may ask, “Who is Jesus?” And the answer—no matter what form it takes, is theology.

If I explain who Jesus is, I am theologizing. I am explaining (one hopes) from Scripture the details about the person and work of Jesus. If I feel unconstrained by Scripture, then of course anything is admissible. We cannot speak of who Jesus is without entering the realm of doctrine and theology. In this sense, we are indeed saved by theology. If my definition of who he is misses the mark of who Scripture portrays him to be, then it is foolish to think such “belief” means I am in a relationship with Jesus. It is akin to saying that someone who lost their money in a bank failure really shouldn’t have because they really, sincerely believed in that bank!

But which things about Jesus are the critical ones? We all know that there are details of theology that some like to insist on, details they ride like a hobby horse, but which for others are not primary. This is always a conundrum. Some say that Jesus did not descend into hell upon his death, others say he did. Scripture isn’t specific on this. If one makes that a doctrinal boundary, it’s not legitimate precisely because of the lack of specificity of Scripture on this. However, if one says that Jesus is not divine, he is not God, he is less than God, a created being, this gets to the very heart of his identity and is a fundamental difference in his person. I am now redefining his very essence. It is another Jesus this describes. Scripture, in numerous places, is specific about this aspect of Jesus’ identity.
Discerning this difference can sometimes be thorny, but in fact many of the lines I see people drawing do fall into these obvious categories. That is, some say it is not important whether Jesus physically rose from the dead (despite the NT insistence that without this, there is no salvation.) Or, they prevaricate and say “It’s important that it happened, but it’s less important to believe it. It’s still true even if we get it wrong.” Or, “it’s not critical to believe that Jesus is the uncreated and eternal Son of God. Arianism is still acceptable Christology.”

There are two things to observe about this. First, this mindset says that the revelation in Scripture is given for no particular reason, that the apostles and writers of Scripture have no certain expectation that Christians believe anything they’ve written. These things are offered for belief, but if you don’t believe them, it’s not significant, it’s not a boundary marker. You’re still a Christian.

Reading Scripture to say this is dubious at best, and textual malfeasance at worst. To take the resurrection once again, Paul insists it is part of the gospel message, and indeed if Christ is not raised, we have no forgiveness. To suggest that the fact of the resurrection is important to Paul, but he’s indifferent to whether the Corinthians (and others) believe this is to make Paul say the implausible. In Romans 10, he indeed links belief and confession of the resurrection to our salvation. It’s historicity presupposes our belief of it. Paul insists so vehemently on the resurrection because we must believe Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, we are saved by right theology about the person and work of Christ.

We can say the same for his deity. What John presents in his gospel prologue is a truth of Jesus as the eternal Word, with God in the beginning, and indeed, the agent of creation, not the object of creation. Looking back at this gospel, John says near the end “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31.) There is a whole lot packed into saying Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, which John expounds in his first epistle, and in the Apocalypse. What one cannot say is that defining Jesus as a created being, or as one of many gods, fits into John’s definition, nor can one say that John is indifferent to whether people believe these things.

The second thing we can say is that the whole fabric of Scripture has to be employed if we’re to come to a biblical picture of who Jesus is, and what we must believe. It is sometimes the case that people camp out in the gospels, looking at the life of Christ as the whole of revelation about him. The importance of the gospel records is beyond question, but it’s also true that Jesus himself told the disciples there would be more. He was sending the Holy Spirit to guide them into the truth. Many of those truths are expounded in the epistles, and rather than presenting a Jesus vs. Paul dichotomy, the NT letters explicate the entailments of Jesus’ identity.

Note, I’m not saying that unless one signs off on all the bullet points in a doctrinal statement, one is not saved. Think instead of the regula fidei, or rule of faith, that operated in the early centuries. It functioned less as a doctrinal statement for believers and more as a winnowing agent to outline the boundaries of orthodoxy. The rule of faith didn’t have anything about church order, only the most rudimentary eschatology, but it did cover the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection, and Trinitarianism. The regula fidei is a precis of Scriptural teaching on these essentials. In short, yes, there are essentials.

Finally, Paul repeatedly urges “sound doctrine” in the pastoral epistles, and one wonders, why insist on this, if doctrine is of small importance? By looking at both testaments, the gospels, the epistles, all genres of Scripture—only then can we speak cogently about what Scripture says about Jesus. I know of no one who regularly does this who says this is a trivial exercise. But the alternative some are putting forth, a Jesus detached from the truth of God’s revelation, that the teaching of who Jesus is is somehow unrelated to a relationship with him, such an alternative is unfaithful both to Scripture and those to whom we present the gospel.

If Christ is not Raised: Physical Resurrection is Essential to the Gospel

Is the resurrection of Jesus an “essential doctrine” of the Christian faith? Or stated differently, must one believe Jesus rose physically from the dead to have one’s sins pardoned? This question came up, as it does each year, around Easter. Social media was ablaze with opinions on this, and among them was the suggestion that “We are not saved by believing a certain set of propositions, but by allegiance to Jesus.” I may paraphrase slightly there, but I don’t think this is misrepresenting my interlocutor. Such a statement is, ironically, a proposition, and where would one turn to demonstrate it, if not to the Scriptures? When we speak of allegiance to Jesus, one has to ask, “Who is he? Who to the Scriptures proclaim him to be?” On the point of the resurrection, there is no honest reading of the New Testament that can omit the resurrection of Jesus as an integral part of his identity and essential to the gospel message. Every single instance of gospel preaching in the book of Acts is accompanied by an affirmation that Jesus rose from the dead. This is so much a part of apostolic preaching that it is not at a stretch to say that if one is not proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is no gospel whatsoever. When Paul comes to his summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he says that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

It was amazing to read the NY Times interview of Union Seminary President Serene Jones, and find Nicholas Kristof having a better grasp of the truth than she did. Kristof asked, in response to Jones’ apparent doubts about the resurrection,

“Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.”

Jones’ answer is not atypical of an exceedingly expansive view of “love:”
“For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”

Alas, poor Paul. It seems the apostle had a pretty wobbly faith, for he told the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (15:14) And, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (15:17)

What’s at work in these views of the resurrection of Jesus as something other than a physical raising, is a redefinition of the boundaries of faith to something that is personal and subjective. A “spiritual” resurrection is a category of resurrection that Scripture knows nothing of. To claim as some have that this is the kind of resurrection they believe in, and that they do believe Jesus rose from the dead, is to define Jesus in a completely different way than the New Testament does. What good, then, is allegiance to such a one? Paul says it’s no good at all—futile, vain, and pitiful.

There are areas of doctrine that are secondary, and Scripture signals these by not focusing on them in the way it does on the primary ones. I know of no one who would say a boundary marker for whether one is or is not a member of the body of Christ is correct eschatology, or the polity of the local church. But when it comes to the person and work of Christ, the New Testament gives us no such latitude. The incarnation of God the Son, God taking humanity to himself, is a truth we encounter at the very start of the gospels and all through the remaining New Testament writings. Jesus was not just a moral teacher, an example we should follow. He is God manifest in the flesh. Similarly, at the end of the gospel story, we have the resurrection and the triumph of Jesus over death and Satan. Paul did not write what he did to the Corinthians to suggest some additional things they might consider. He wrote them because these things are essential to knowing who Jesus is, and thus believing in him.

Nicky Cruz, former gang leader, says of his conversion, “When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man.”[1] Some want to put the question as “How little does one need to know in order to become a Christian?” But that isn’t really the question Cruz was addressing, and it isn’t a claim that Dr. Jones was making.  Rather, Cruz was speaking of a growth in understanding of God’s truth, and importantly, how he received it. Fred Sanders, who relates the story, goes on to note how Cruz came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, which at first he had a very faint grasp of.

“He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders to understanding it from within. ‘I didn’t understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible.’”[2]

Cruz’s experience shows what allegiance to Jesus actually looks like. As we come to understand more of what Scripture says about who he is and what he has done, we accept that as God’s testimony concerning his Son. If we deny the record of Scripture, (and the physical resurrection of Jesus) we are in fact showing a posture toward God that the New Testament does not recognize as faithful discipleship.

Being a faithful follower of Jesus is more than this, more than just assenting to the truths of Scripture. But it is surely not less than this.


[1] Cited in Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 31.

[2] Sanders, 32.

Substitutionary Atonement and the Gospel

One of the many gospel foundations that’s under attack and scorn is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s seeing the crucifixion as “divine child abuse” or otherwise dismissing the death of Jesus as wholly unnecessary for our forgiveness, these are among the ways in which the atonement is under attack.

To understand why this is, we need to back up a bit, prior to the crucifixion, and ask why the death of Chris was necessary? Our sin and separation from God are the reason. Denying the necessity of the death of Jesus comes back to a denial of either our sinfulness, or that this is the God-ordained way to overcome our sin. To dismiss the sinfulness of mankind is foolish on two counts. First, Scripture repeatedly and clearly presents our natural condition as sinful and at enmity with God because of our sin. Genesis 6:5 has always struck me for the way it describes our sinfulness in a way that leaves no wiggle room. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The modifiers alone show this: only every intention, only evil and continually evil. It isn’t just Genesis, but Paul quotes extensively from the Psalms in Romans 3 when he is laying out the universal guilt of all mankind.

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” Rom 3:11-12.

And that is just the half of it.

Consider your own experience. As you look at the world around, do you see evidence that mankind is essentially good and wants to choose the right? Or, do you see evidence of fractured relationships, violence, oppression and hate? An honest assessment must admit that human beings, left to themselves, choose the wrong path.

But God loves us!

You might admit these things are true, and yet doubt that the way our separation with God is bridged is only by the death of Jesus. After all, God is love, and love covers a multitude of sins, does it not? Indeed, God is love, but the unmistakable message of the New Testament is that out of love, God has given his Son to die in our place. It is not love only that is the basis of our salvation, but that the giving of Jesus comes from God’s love for us. This doesn’t mean that the death of Christ isn’t necessary. When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary was to have a son, he said “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus means “God is salvation” not “God is our example.” We didn’t need a good example, or someone to show us how to live by the Golden Rule. On the contrary, because sin is so heinous and offensive to God’s justice, the only way to overcome the enmity Scripture says natural man has to God is through the death of His Son. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed (by God’s command) and God told Israel, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Lev 17:11. When we come to the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews picks up this theme and identifies that these animal sacrifices were never sufficient, they only pointed forward to the one true and all-sufficient sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross.
“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Hebrews 9: 25-26.

The substitution of Jesus in our place, the place of sinners, satisfied God as a full and complete payment of our guilt. If we dismiss this, we dismiss what God has set forth as the only way of peace, the only way for sinful humanity to have a relationship with the living God. The death of Jesus was not a plan B, nor something that mankind did, subverting God’s will. Paul puts it at the very heart of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor 15:3. It was for our sins, and in our place—our substitute—that Jesus died. Was God satisfied with what He did? The resurrection is the Father’s loud Amen.

What is the “Word of Christ”?

Christians have as their rule and authority the written word of God—the Bible. We value what God has recorded in the Scriptures not only as sufficient for our lives, but also all we need in order to understand who God is, and what he has done. Scripture is, in other words, a revelation of God and from God. The truth of God’s Word is attested to in several places within the Bible itself. Psalm 19 speaks of God’s Word in its various forms as perfect, sure, right, and pure.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus himself in the High Priestly prayer of John 17 asks God the Father to sanctify, or set apart, his disciples in the truth. He immediately defines what that is: “Your word is truth.” John 17:17

Christians quite rightly regard references to the Word of God to denote Scripture. But in two places, Paul uses a slightly different phrase, “the word of Christ” which calls for a closer look.

In Romans 10:17, Paul writes “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is at the end of a series of questions he has asked about the progress of the gospel. No one can believe unless they hear, and they cannot hear unless preachers are sent, and hearing the word of Christ is what brings faith. The word of Christ is the gospel message; the word about Christ. In that sense the presentation of the saving work of Jesus, the description of what he did when he died and rose again—this is the word of Christ. The centrality of the gospel in the salvation of the lost is self-evident. The word of the cross may be foolishness to the world, but as Paul elsewhere says, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. As Christians, we hear the word and are saved when we believe, but we do not outgrow the gospel. This does not mean that believers hear an appeal to be saved week in and week out. Rather, it is the implications of the gospel for the rest of our Christian lives that the gospel also contains. The second of these instances of the phrase focuses on these.

Paul writes to the Colossians a series of exhortations and admonitions, among them, is this: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” What does Paul refer to with the phrase “word of Christ”? Is he speaking of Scripture, that they should read God’s Word to one another? I suggest it is not Scripture per se but the entailments of the gospel that he refers to. These no doubt rest upon the foundation of God’s Word, but they are those parts of the Christian life that have particularly to do with discipleship in Jesus. Forgiveness, humility, love, these are what Paul has told them, things which, unsurprisingly would conform to what Paul wrote to the Galatians as the law of Christ: self-sacrificial love for one another.
Paul models the teaching and admonishing that he here calls for in the 12th chapter of Romans. A series of short imperatives such as “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” A shorthand for this may be “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Many of the other exhortations in the New Testament epistles could likewise fit in this category.
The word of Christ, about Christ, in harmony with Christ, is also a word in harmony with the written word of God. To paraphrase Emerson, who said “Common sense is genius, dressed in his working clothes,” the word of Christ is theology applied.

A Few Words Before I Go: Scripture’s Farewell Speeches

What do we learn from the farewell speeches recorded in Scripture? If we compare the parting words (or nearly so) of Joshua, Samuel, and Stephen, there are common themes. Noting these, are there lessons for believers in these discourses? There are at least two important things that as Christians, one never outgrows.

Remember Your Redemption

Joshua 24 finds him gathering all the people at Shechem. He rehearses the history of the nation, beginning with the call of Abraham, and then into the Egyptian slavery. The exodus from Egypt and their deliverance feature prominently. If we pause at this point in the story, fast forward to Samuel, and he too presents similar themes. Samuel is not near death, but as the last judge of Israel, his time of leading the nation is coming to an end, because the people had asked for a king. “And Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Sam. 12:6) He, too, hearkens back to the exodus and to their deliverance from slavery. Fast forward still more to the New Testament and Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7. Stephen’s speech is much longer than either Joshua’s or Samuel’s, but it includes the same theme: deliverance from bondage by the hand of God. “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.” (Acts 7:36)

The common theme in these addresses and the important one for us is this: Our relationship with God is tied to our redemption, our deliverance. When Israel left Egypt God said to them, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months.” (Ex. 12:2) The clock restarted, it was a new thing. So it is for the Christian. The one who trusts in the Lord Jesus has a new beginning. Israel was in need of frequent reminders about their deliverance, about the redemption God effected on their behalf (hence the annual Passover.) We do not outgrow our need to dwell on our deliverance from the bondage of sin. Indeed, it is safety to dwell upon that deliverance and the deliverer. We do not move on from the gospel, from what brought our redemption.

Remember Your Tendency to Sin

The other aspect of these speeches is that they all contain reminders of the people’s propensity to sin, of their wayward hearts. Joshua charges the people to choose whom they will serve, but when they say “We will serve the Lord” his immediate reply is “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” In other words, God is holy, you are not. Part of their history was the wandering in the wilderness, which was due to their lack of trust in God’s word. Samuel, too, rehearses the many deliverances of the people through the years of the judges. These deliverances were necessary because the people had turned from following the Lord.

Finally, Stephen also reminds the people that the Golden Calf was idolatry. The culmination of that speech is Stephen’s bold confrontation: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7: 51)
In all these instances we can see that the speaker draws attention to the sin of the people. We are, as Luther said, both justified and sinner at the same time. If we think we have outgrown the need for vigilance against sin, we have lost the battle. If we think we have no need to guard our hearts because we are “mature” we have fallen into the same trap as the Israelites did. Israel was warned as God’s people, to beware of their tendency to idolatry, of looking to the surrounding nations for any pattern to follow. Instead, the surrounding nations were the example to Israel of what not to do, what not to pursue. Similarly, the warning passages of the New Testament are addressed to Christians to be watchful, careful, and to put no confidence in the flesh. Believer, remember your redemption from sin, but remember as well that we are yet striving to become holy, and that our hearts are prone to sin, as sparks fly upward.

Did Peter call for faith in his hearers?

The book of Acts is a transitional record, and in those transitions, we can learn something The birth of the Church comes about at the day of Pentecost, and from that moment, until chapter 28, there are profound developments in the life of the Christian community. The question I address is, what can we learn from how the gospel is presented, particularly in the earlier chapters? Are there patterns we should emulate, or are there cultural or epochal details that we need to understand, that would, in fact, change our presentation of the gospel?

Peter preaches Christ to several audiences. In the first encounter, he tells them:
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it. (Acts 2:22-24)
Peter proclaims the central facts of the gospel – the suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. Indeed, there is no occasion of gospel preaching in Acts where the resurrection is not part of it. A gospel of “Jesus died for your sins” that does not go on to say he is risen from the dead is no gospel at all.
After quoting more Scripture in support of his gospel proclamation, his hearers reply “Brothers, what shall we do?”
Peter replies, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Why is there no mention of faith in Peter’s message? I submit that it is because he is speaking to Jews. They address Peter and the eleven as “brothers,” a reference to their ethnic identity as sons of Jacob. In his final crescendo, Peter says “Let all the house of Israel, therefore, know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) As Jews, the house of Israel, they already believed in God, they already knew him as the creator of the heavens and the earth, and they already had an expectation of the Anointed One, the Christ.
This pattern is repeated when Peter speaks in Solomon’s portico, after healing the lame man.
Men of Israel, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we have made him walk? The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, glorified his servant Jesus, whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.” (Acts 3:12-15)
Peter speaks of the “God of our fathers,” and tells them “Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.” (Acts 3:19-21)
The Jewish audience had the necessary background to understand all that Peter was saying, and an appeal to “believe in God” while not superfluous, nevertheless didn’t get at the true issue for these Jewish hearers. They needed to repent, to turn from their stubbornness and to embrace the promises in the Scriptures that they knew were from God. It wasn’t so much unbelief, but disobedience that Peter calls them to renounce.
Faith or belief, trust—whatever words we want to use—is inherent in this message Peter proclaimed to his fellow Israelites. To repent was to believe. In our presentation of the gospel to various audiences, we cannot assume our hearers have any sort of background such as Peter’s audience had. It is likely otherwise, especially in a culture where biblical illiteracy prevails and other assumptions about the nature and person of God are far from given.
Compare Peter’s methods with Paul’s when he preaches to the Athenians and the difference is striking. Rather than quote Scripture, Paul actually quotes Greek poets to them.
What can we learn from these early gospel proclamations? The salient elements of the gospel must be present: The suffering and death of Jesus, and his resurrection. These things are the substance of the Law and the Prophets, the Torah. He is the fulfillment of these prophecies. But, not finding certain words, such as faith or believe, does not indicate these concepts are not there. On the contrary, for these early Jewish audiences of apostolic preaching, repentance includes belief.