We remember this heartwarming revelation: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son …” (Jn 3:16). This is a statement that expresses the heart of God. It is a statement of the centrality of the gospel of grace.
Unfortunately, we often do not fully comprehend the biblical definition of the heart in reference to both God and man. We are prejudiced by our emotions. We stumble over our intellect. In response to the gospel on the day of Pentecost, the three thousand were “cut to the heart” (At 2:37). There was something that was said by the apostles that cut right to the heart of the people. It was the gospel message, but we want to understand why three thousand people in one day responded so emphatically to the gospel in a matter of hours.
We unfortunately assume that the three thousand were “cut to their emotions.” But the text says “heart,” not emotions. There are some who suppose that in response to the gospel, there were people who started jumping up and down, falling on the ground, or started speaking in tongues of gibberish. But this is reading our wrong emotional behavior into the text of what actually happened.
What happened on that glorious day was that the “John 3:16 heart” of God was first proclaimed in history. This revelation of God’s love through Jesus cut to the heart of those who heard the gospel for the first time. When they heard that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son,” there was an overwhelming response on their part to the offering of God on behalf of their spiritual needs in order that they have an eternal relationship with Him. It was a heart wrenching revelation that caused a “heart wrenching” response. The gospel was more than an event, and the response was more than obedience to law or emotional chaos.
The gospel reaches right to our hearts. There are some very important things we must understand in order to understand better how God’s revelation of His heart on the cross touched the hearts men. When Peter and the apostles proclaimed the gospel for the first time in history, they dealt with the “mind” of man. Facts and events were conveyed to the people.
But Peter, standing up with the eleven, lifted up his voice and said to them, “You men of Judea and all you who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you and give heed to my words … (At 2:14).
Information concerning the event of the gospel was imparted to the minds of those who were present (See At 2:15-36). When the facts and events about the prophecies, incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection were concluded, Peter reminded the attentive audience, “Therefore, let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this same Jesus whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ” (At 2:36).
The people knew all the background that led up to this statement. They knew the all prophecies. They knew the prophecies concerning the Messiah being seated on the throne of David. Add to this the fact that they also concluded that it was futile to seek justification before God through law. They had also concluded that sins before God could not find atonement in animal blood. They assumed, according to what they understood from prophecy, that something, or Someone, must deal with their sin problem and separation from God (Is 59:2).
Add to this the fact that the Jews had little understanding of the resurrection. In fact, the Sadducees even denied the resurrection (At 23:8). But in hearing the good news, and in reasoning that the body of Jesus had not been stolen away by the disciples as the religious leaders asserted (Mt 28:11-15), but was actually raised from the dead, then the people began to respond with their hearts.
The gospel of the cross and resurrection triggered their hearts because of what they already knew from centuries of studying the Law and the Prophets. At the same time, they judged themselves guilty of a lifetime of uncleansed sin. And besides this, many of them had encouraged the crucifixion of the innocent One seven weeks before. They stood there before the apostles condemned with sin and guilt. And for this reason, the heart of God that was revealed on the cross penetrated right to their own hearts. The following statement was actually a plea for help: “Men and brethren, what will we do?” (At 2:37).
This was not a plea for another set of rules by which they might legally obey in order to rectify their sin before God. They had tried that approach for a relationship with God for centuries, but to no avail. They knew that they were lawbreakers living in the frustration of their own fallibility.
Concerning their spiritual situation, Paul made the following statement many years later:
For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men, teaching us, that denying ungodliness and worldly lust, we should live sensibly, righteously and godly in this present age … (Ti 2:12,13).
This is what happened on the first memorial Sunday of this dispensation of time. The “grace of God that brings salvation” appeared on the cross and was announced on Pentecost (Ti 2:11). It was a grace that appeared while the Pentecost audience was still in sin. They were undeserving of the only begotten Son of God. Nevertheless, “God demonstrates His love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). Herein is revealed the heart of God.
Three thousand people stood stunned in the audience when this gospel message was first announced on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30. The action of the incarnation, cross and resurrection was the heart of God that was revealed to those who had lost heart in justifying themselves before the God. And since they confessed to the futility of their own efforts to make themselves right before God, their hearts were touched by what God had done for them. The result of the message was that the three thousand relinquished to the heart of God that was revealed through the gospel.
Grace was revealed, and clearly understood. There needed to be no delay in a response. The response of about three thousand happened in the same day. In some cases in the first century, the response happened in the same hour of the night (At 16:33).
Peter and the apostles thus communicated the events surrounding the gospel to the minds of all those who were present on the day of Pentecost. The response of the people also involved their emotions. However, in their emotional response to the revelation of the heart of God on the cross, they were not justified. If they were justified by their emotional response (belief in the gospel event), then their justification would have depended on their emotions. Again, they would have created a self-imposed religiosity that was dependent on human emotions, but short of all that which had to be done in order to restore their relationship with God. They were burdened with sin that continued to keep them separated from God.
The effect of the gospel is not enacted solely by emotions, or belief that stirs emotions. It is obediently enacted by our emotional response to our knowledge of the action of God through the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God. We must not forget that the three thousand asked what they should “do.” Belief and emotions had brought them to the brink of salvation, but their emotional response needed a God-given answer in order that they come into Christ.
In the world today this is one of the most confusing points in the religious world. It is believed that an emotional response (“believe on Jesus” or “receive Jesus”) is equated with salvation. If one would only have some emotional experience of belief in response to the heart of God that was revealed on the cross, it is supposed that one can justify himself before God. Emotional responses thus become the only condition for salvation. If this were true, then it would place us right back into the condition from which we seek to be delivered through the gospel, that is, deliverance from our own self-centered religiosity.
Emotional experiential religion falls into the same category as “self-made” religiosity by which some in Colosse and Galatia supposed they could be justified before God. Both systems of religion, however, are meritorious. The experientialist is basing his faith, and thus save himself, on the merit of an emotional experience. Likewise, the legalist bases his faith on, and thus save himself, on the meritorious obedience to an outline of laws. Both systems are legal and inadequate for the remission of sins that keep one separated from God.
The experientialist makes his emotions a legal requirement for self-justification; the legalist makes his performance of law a legal requirement for the same self-justification. Unfortunately, the adherents to both systems of religion become self-appointed judges of one another and others. The experientialist judges his fellow adherents of not being on a higher level of spirituality because he or she has not “spoken in tongues,” or had some other hysterical outburst of emotionality. The legalist judges his fellow adherent of not being “faithful” because he supposedly does not conform to a legal chart that explains steps that one must take in order to be saved.
When the experientialists and legalists divide into different sects, they become judges of one another. The experientialists judge the legalists by saying that the legalists have no emotions, and their assemblies are dead. The legalists judge the experientialists by saying that they have no respect for the law of God. Unfortunately, both self-made religions are wrong. And on the day of Pentecost in A.D. 30, the attending Jews who were in the camp of the legalists, realized that their camp was dead wrong. Law had made them spiritually dead (See Rm 7:9).
The revelation of the heart of God reaches into the mind of the legalist, who must honestly confess that through legalities, no one can stand justified before God (See Gl 2:16). The revelation of the heart of God also reaches into the emotions of the honest experientialist who confesses that after he has exhausted all his emotions, he too feels unjustified before God. Therefore, only honest hearts can respond to the revelation of the heart of God that was revealed on the cross.
The biblical definition of our heart would include our minds (intellect) and emotions, but certainly would go beyond these two aspects of our being. The Acts 2:37 passage states that the people were “cut to the heart.” Information concerning the facts of the gospel were truly given in order to reach their minds. They reasoned that what Peter revealed was true and according to prophecy. And because the people realized that the message of the gospel was true, they emotionally responded by being “cut to the heart.”
But their request, “What must we do,” moved them beyond their emotions and minds. It moved them into action. Their minds and emotions were the foundation upon which there was motivation in their hearts to ask Peter and the apostles where they should go from their heads and emotions to be restored to a reconciled relationship with God. They wanted to know what to do, not what to feel and think. The heart, therefore, is the basic motivation or desire of the individual to do something in response to what is learned and felt.
Because the gospel goes deeper than our heads and emotions, it generates action. When the gospel touches our hearts, we must respond with action. It is in this way that the grace of God reaches us. It is the motive that inspires a righteous response. Grace is the impetus to flee disobedience in order to please our Father. This was the substance of what Paul wrote to the disciples in Rome: “Do we then make void law through faith [in the grace of God]? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish law” (Rm 3:31).
What the responding three thousand did on the day of Pentecost was to ask the apostles, “Men and brethren, what will we do?” Once their hearts were touched by the action (heart) of God on the cross (the gospel), they were really asking, “Father, what do we now do?” Peter’s instructions were in reference to “doing” that which was relevant to people whose hearts had been touched. The “do” was simply: “Repent and be baptized” (At 2:38).
Their response in baptism, therefore, was never meant to be another legality. It was to be a heart response to the revealed heart of God. In their desire to come again into a relationship with God, the Holy Spirit revealed that they had to be crucified with Christ, buried with Christ, in order to be raised with Christ (Rm 6:3-6; Gl 2:20). All this was necessary in order that they be eternally with God (2 Th 1:6-9).
Consider for a moment one who simply believes on Jesus. He believes the gospel to the point of responding to the cross in hope of the resurrection to come. However, he may be cut short of doing all that he knows he should do in response to the gospel.
People, unfortunately, like to use hypothetical situations in order to deny obedience to the gospel in baptism. So it is supposed, as an example, that the one believed on Jesus, and then headed for the water in order to be immersed into Christ, died on the way in an automobile accident. The question is posed, Would unbaptized believer be saved? The answer would be “Yes.” We do not believe in a God who would be so calloused to condemn such a believing disciple. However, we must keep in mind that hypothetical circumstances do not determine or change that which God has instructed in order to receive the remission of sins.
Now suppose that our particular believing disciple does not search for water. Suppose the Ethiopian eunuch had simply passed by the water when he said, “See, here is water! What hinders me from being baptized” (At 8:36). If the eunuch would have passed by the opportunity to obey the gospel that he had just heard from Philip, he would have invalidated his belief.
But Philip’s response to the eunuch’s question was, “If you believe with all your heart …” (At 8:37). Philip had preached “Jesus,” (the gospel) to the eunuch. As those on Pentecost, the eunuch believed. Philip wanted to know if his belief had penetrated to his heart. If it had, then his belief was true. The request, “What hinders me from being baptized” is the response of one who truly believed in his heart, not just in his mind. And because he truly believed, the eunuch “came up out of the water … and went on his way rejoicing” (At 8:39). There would have been no occasion for rejoicing if the eunuch had simply passed by the water.
What if the eunuch had simply passed by the opportunity to be immersed in water to wash away his sins (See At 22:16)? Would his belief been real and from the heart? Because those on Pentecost were cut to the heart, they asked what to do. Suppose the apostles, as well as Philip, would have failed to instruct them what to do after being cut to the heart by the gospel? The point is that if a believer simply passes by the water, or some pastor/preacher fails to preach all that is involved in preaching the gospel of Jesus, including baptism, then people are left in their sins. The one who says believes, but does not respond from the heart to all that God instructions in order to deal with our sin problem, has invalidated his belief. One can be left as a “dead man walking” with all his past sins, either through his refusal to stop the chariot and be baptized, or by being left in ignorance by some pastor/preacher who has failed to answer completely the question of the mournful, “Men and brethren, what will we do?” (At 2:37). The mournful often allow themselves to remain with a “dead faith” that has shown no expression (See Js 2:26).
The legalist will always have a difficult time understanding this, and the “believing” experimentalist will always assume that he can perform some emotional outburst to justify himself in response to the cross. For this reason, we must go deeper into the subject in order to deal with the religious sin beneath the sin of a response to the heart of God that falls short of what Peter and the apostles instructed the mournful to do on the day of Pentecost (At 2:38).
[Next lecture in series: September 22]