Acts 2:47 “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”
Here we are told the real secret of church growth. There is great fascination with the subject; books and seminars and conferences and speakers who are considered experts on the subject and whole departments in theological colleges led by professors of church growth – all claiming they can teach us how our churches can grow. We all do desire true growth to the kingdom of God and the body of Christ. This is one of the first of a number of summaries of Luke scattered through the book of Acts, and they describe how church growth takes place. In our text Luke announces that it was the Lord who was the one who added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The concept of adding to the 3000 new Christians is very simple. You will remember that the young David challenged the giant Goliath to a combat, and to equip himself for the conflict he went to a brook and he chose a smooth stone, and then he added a second stone, and then he added a third to what he had already chosen, and then a fourth and a fifth. He put them all together in a shepherd’s bag. David looked at the stones in the stream and he chose to add this one to another one, one after another. No one believes that the stones somehow, possibly by wriggling a little, indicated to David that they were willing to be chosen. No. If some of his brothers had accompanied him they were mere spectators. He didn’t ask their advice. The fight with Goliath was his. The choice of appropriate weapons was his and so it was David alone who made the choice, what stones he would take and what he stones he would leave behind. The choice was wholly in David’s mind alone, and not at all in the stones. He decided which ones he would add to his shepherd’s bag. And that is precisely what Luke means when he says that it was the Lord who added to the number of Christians those who were being saved. Each man and woman, each boy and girl in the world, is as devoid of any spiritual desire for God as a pebble. There is no spark of spiritual life in people at all. The natural man is described as having a heart of stone. So if we are to be added to the body of Christ then it will be because of God’s choice alone. He homed in on us. In Philippi the Lord added a woman possessed with a spirit of telling fortunes, then he added the entrepreneur and business woman Lydia, and then the Lord added the Roman jailer.
I sought the Lord and afterward I knew he moved my soul to seek him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Saviour true. No, I was found by Thee.
That is the fundamental biblical posture concerning how a church grows, by God adding to the number of believers who are already there. It is not that the leaders of the church decide who they are going to recruit this year and they choose and they reject; it is not that they talk together and conclude that there will be a 10% growth figure in the coming year. It is not that they name 10% and then they claim 10%. God must take the initiative; God alone. God is the one who adds people to his church. It is his grand prerogative to do so, and in that honour none shall share. It is in his power alone to do so. What mere man can give life to a heart of stone? Which of us can change it to a heart of flesh? But God can and does. He has mercy and shows saving power to the utterly indifferent and totally careless sinner.
If you had children you loved deeply, and you decided you had to give them up for adoption, to which home would you choose to add your children? You say you would give them to people you trusted, to people who would raise them properly, teaching them the truth, people with whom your beloved sons and daughters would be safe, so that they would be children loved and cared for by these people. You wouldn’t give them to bullies, and abusive parents, and racists, and show-offs and cynics about all that is good and lovely. So God takes the initiative and he adds his children to homes where he is loved and honoured, to people who will feed his children by green pastures and beside still waters. We say it in the language of Luke, that God adds his children to those who continue steadfastly in the teaching of the apostles, and in their fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in prayer. He won’t add his children to immoral gatherings or heretical fellowships. So one of our duties as a congregation is to be sure we are a godly, confessional congregation, that we become increasingly a church to whom God will entrust his own children. That is absolutely foundational. Of course that is not the whole story. There is evangelism and gospel preaching, but before any fruit will come from that I must be a man as holy as a saved sinner can be, one whom the Master can use and will use. That is my first obligation. God doesn’t put the living waters of the gospel into a rusty cup. Then our leadership and our fellowship must be as Christ-like as we can be and we are all the time praying, “Add to us O Lord, and forgive our sins and change us.”
Doesn’t God have the right to be the one who adds to the body of Christ? If men had that power then they would add the wealthy and the beautiful and the big personalities and their own families. They’d choose the captain of the rugby club, and Miss Aberystwyth, and the millionaire’s kids. But God is just and holy and merciful. He is without partiality. He doesn’t judge by outward appearance. We are told this, that, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no-one may boast before him” (I Cors. 1:27-29).
God considers the welfare of those he loved before the foundation of the world, whom he had entrusted to his Son Jesus Christ to save and keep. These are the people whom our Lord suffered and bled and died in order to redeem. Will his agony and bloody sweat for them be in vain? It cannot be. He has said to his Father that he would lose none of those his Father had given him. Let us say that here in our text the word ‘Lord’ refers to the Son of God as is often the case in the book of Acts. We are seeing here that Jesus will lose none of those given to him by his Father, and what easier way is there for a professing Christian to be lost than to hear error every week and sit in the seat of the scornful? That cannot be for those for whom Christ died. They may attract men and women by their pleasing stories and sweet personalities and entertainment or their claims to having the truth, but to be added to the church of the living God is an act of divine grace. A resurrection must take place. I ask again, whether God has the right to do this? Isn’t he the omnipotent potter and aren’t we the clay? Doesn’t he claim the indisputable power to do as he will with his own? Will he not exercise that right? I tell you he will. Jesus will not save us and then fail to keep us! Isn’t the beginning of the work of salvation his? Don’t we read that he who began the good work in us will also complete it? He begins by adding us to the people of God, in other words by baptizing us by one Spirit into one body.
Now I have said to you that this is the first place in Acts where Luke tells us how the Lord worked to save men and women. There are similar summary statements throughout the book of Acts describing how the church grew by the work of God. For example in chapter 9 we read this about the church in Judea and Galilee and Samaria, “It was strengthened, and encouraged by the Holy Spirit; it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord” (Acts 9:31). It grew in numbers through the strengthening and encouraging work of the Holy Spirit. We pray for that to take place here each week. What kind of congregation do you think the Holy Spirit encourages? Not those who by their immorality and error are grieving him or quenching his work, but the Spirit encourages godly people who witness to apostolic truth. Or again, later in Acts we are told how all the Gentiles in Cornelius’ household were converted. The news was taken by Peter to the church in Jerusalem. To what response? What did the congregation in Jerusalem do? They didn’t congratulate the Gentiles for making a smart choice – “Well done boys!” No. They said, “God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). It was all of God. He had decided this would happen, that it was the first step in the good news of Jesus Christ being taken out into the whole world and that the nations would repent and turn to the Saviour. God was behind this conversion of the Gentiles. He had mercy on whom he had mercy.
Or again in Antioch when the apostles tell the people the good news about the Lord Jesus then they didn’t have to pressurize them one by one into making decisions and repeating the sinner’s prayer because the Lord was with them in a remarkable way in Antioch. We are told, “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord” (Acts 11:21). Why did many people become Christians? It was, of course, because they heard the good news about the Lord Jesus preached with eloquence and pathos and earnestness by these Christians, yes, certainly that, but also this great reality that the Lord’s hand was with them.
Or again in Pisidian Antioch Paul and Barnabas were fearlessly preaching Jesus Christ and this response was recorded by Luke; “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honoured the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed” (Acts 13:48) and the result was that the word of the Lord spread through the whole region and the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. Again, it all flows from God at work, God appointing that it should happen, God adding to the church. Salvation is of the Lord. He goes on and opens the heart of Lydia. Who were the people who believed in Pisidian Antioch? Luke tells us. It was all who were appointed for eternal life. Who were saved in Jerusalem? Luke tells us, those whom the Lord added to the church. Who turned to the Lord? Luke tells us, those whom the Lord’s hand was with. What Gentiles repented of their sins? Luke tells us, those granted that grace by God. Where was there growth in numbers and they lived in fear of the Lord? Luke tells us, where the Holy Spirit strengthened and encouraged the church. I am saying that from God and through God and to God are all things. That that reality is absolutely foundational for church growth, just as much as our obedience to the Great Commission and our readiness to give a reason for the hope that is in us to anyone who asks us. Our responsibility and God’s sovereignty both are there in the Scripture. But my point from our text today is that you must not neglect the God who is, and who adds to his church those whom he will. Jesus bowed before his Father, saying, “You have hid these things from the wise and prudent and revealed them unto babes, even so Father, for so it seemed good in your sight.”
I have been reading this new fascinating book of the Banner of Truth called You Must Read, in which almost 35 of us recount the books that have influenced and changed our lives. One of the men writing (with whom I have shared conferences in the USA) is Jerry Bridges who has spent his life working for the Navigators. Over a million copies of his books have been sold especially The Pursuit of Holiness, thousands of copies of which sell every year. In the story of his Christian pilgrimage he tells of the day someone told him this truth – that Luke is telling us here in the book of Acts – that it is the Lord who adds to the church and that all who are appointed to eternal life believe. This is how he recounts that day . . .
“When I was thirty years old and in Christian ministry, a friend asked me to read a small booklet entitled The Doctrine of Election. I was shocked and deeply offended by its teaching. My reaction was that my friend had got into heresy. I put the book aside without even considering its message. The next day in an unusual way, the Holy Spirit opened my understanding to see that the doctrine of election is indeed true, and that I was a believer because God chose me in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Shortly after that I left for Europe on a transatlantic passenger ship. During the five days’ voyage I read through the New Testament and saw the doctrine of election taught repeatedly throughout its pages” (You Must Read, Banner of Truth, 2015, p.125).
Anger at first hearing of the Bible’s teaching that all who are appointed to eternal life do believe is not unusual. A preacher friend of mine named John reminisced, “I remember a man in one congregation who really disliked me simply because I believed and preached God choosing sinners to be saved. His daughter got converted, but he still disliked me. The boy she was dating got converted, and the man still didn’t like me. I had the joy of marrying this young couple and during the ceremony I asked them both, ‘Do you believe that God in his sovereign purposes chose you for each other, and do you confess that his sovereign plan brought about this event this day?’ The smiled and nodded enthusiastically. After the service the man was livid with anger. He cried to me, ‘You can’t even perform a wedding ceremony without talking about the sovereignty of God.’”
The Lord Jesus went on to add to their number daily those who were being saved. In other words it was a constant on-going process, and the source of it all, and the power to do it all was God’s. He was in fact building the living temple of God here in the world. He had designed it and he says, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” God has chosen the gold and silver and precious stones or wood, hay and stubble out of which each different living stone of his glorious temple will be made and is going to be set in its place. That temple is us. Let me illustrate it . . .
The new bandstand on the promenade is being built. It is going to be a certain size and shape. The finished building will be as it will be because of the blueprint of the architect. It is not that the architect knew beforehand that the plumber liked water features and so he felt constrained to put fountains in the new bandstand. No. Nor because the electrician liked strobe lighting and so he put that feature in. Nor because the bricklayer liked white bricks and so he put them in. Nor because the roofer liked thatch roofs and so he put that in, and the builder liked seven storey buildings and he put that feature in, and the plasterer liked cornice work in plaster and he put that in, and the glazier liked stained glass windows and so he put that in, and the heating engineer like wood burning stoves and so he put them in, and the interior designer liked purple curtains and so he put that in. No! No! Not at all! The architect did not foresee what were the favourites of all the tradesmen building the bandstand and so he drew a building that suited each one of them, that, in fact, each of them was demanding be put in. That would be an absurd idea!
You say, “Well pastor, that building that you have just described couldn’t survive as a bandstand on the promenade with the winter storms that batter it. It couldn’t be built. It sounds hideous and it is like the house built on the sand.” I agree. The bandstand that is actually being built is the shape and size and design it is only because an architect designed it that particular way. He planned it to the last nail and position of the power points and faucets. The contractors and tradesmen then followed the plan of the architect. It was not that he followed their likes and dislikes. So it is with the church that Jesus Christ builds. It is his. He designed it and planned its features and he will accomplish what he designed. God did not need his grace of foreknowledge of the Christians who were going to believe in his Son in order to design and plan the church, that the church is going to reflect them. The church is going to reflect him. It is his body; the church is going to be in his image. God has added a billion people to his church since the days of the apostles, and he continues to add them day by day in Korea and China and the USA and Zambia and Kenya. They will eventually be as many as the sands on the seashore and all changed from one degree of glory to another, because he’s loved them. They sing in wonder love and praise, “Loved by everlasting love; led by grace that love to know.” In spite of what they were he loved them and determined to make them his holy temple, not because of what they were, or preferred, or hoped to be, but because of what he would make them in Christ.
Christians are constantly amazed that the Lord added each of them to this holy temple. They ask,
“Why was I made to hear thy voice and enter while there’s room,
While thousands make a wretched choice and rather die than come.”
‘Twas the same love that spread the feast that sweetly drew us in
Else we had still refused to taste, and perished in our sin.”
Why me? Because he loved me. Why did he love me like this? I cannot tell. But there are people who claim that God taking the initiative and appointing whom he will to get eternal life, and adding those people to the church is quite unfair of God. It is a common objection and it is very sentimental. God did not save any of the angels that rebelled against him. He treated them absolutely fairly and justly. He was under no constraint to send a Saviour to save one of them, only to be totally just in dealing with them. He had to be that or he wouldn’t be God, He would be cosmic malice.
Suppose one Sunday night back at the Manse at the end of the semester there were seven students, and I said to them that I had enjoyed fellowship with them this year and I was going to give one of them a ten pound note because I was particularly fond of that man. “Will any of you object if I do that?” “No,” they all said, and so I gave an envelope with a ten pound note to one of them. The other six were pleased for the one getting the gift, and he thanked me sincerely. “Any of you upset?” I asked. Well, each of them would have liked to have got that tenner, I suppose, but it was my money and they saw I had the right to do with it as I pleased.
Then I took two more envelopes out of my pocket and I gave them to two others, and they were surprised and delighted. A twenty pound note was in each envelope. “What do the rest of you think?” I asked. The four of them who had had nothing were silent but nodded their heads soberly. It was my choice after all and I seemed to know what I was doing. Then to three others I took envelopes out of my pocket and I gave one to each of them. They contained tickets for a day’s outing to Alton Towers, all expenses paid. I promised to drive them there. Wow! Now six of the seven had gifts, and so I turned to the one who was left and I asked her how she felt. “Why have I got nothing? It doesn’t seem fair.” she said. But the others said that she had agreed that I had every right to spend my money in the way I wanted to, and that I owed none of them anything. They were all given free gifts. They reminded her of that very clearly. I had the sovereign right to choose the ones to whom I would give anything, big or small. But then finally out of my pocket I took another envelope and I gave it to the last girl. It contained a ticket to Disneyworld Paris for her and a friend, all expenses paid. Wow! Now the others were a bit put out. What was ten pounds or twenty pounds or Alton Towers compared to that? “But,” I said, “You’ve just been arguing that I couldn’t possibly be unjust to this girl since I owed her nothing. I have given all of you something when I needn’t have given you anything. One of you has a ten pound note, two have twenty pound notes, and three are going to Alton Towers, and now one is going to Disneyworld Paris. None of you deserved those things or earned them. They’re my gifts to you.” They are silent in their understanding and submission. I have the right to discriminate and give to one one thing, and then to give another gift to others and to many nothing at all.
Unbelievers say that it’s unfair for God to be adding just this huge company of people to the true church, and make a new cosmos for them as well, that God should have added every single person in the world without exception. But they are all rebel sinners with hearts full of enmity towards him, and God owes none of them anything at all. More than that God gives them richly every wonderful thing they’ve ever had, and he’s been constantly offering them eternal life and forgiveness of sins throughout their entire lives, touching their consciences, showing his glory day by day, but their constant reply has been, “Thanks, but no thanks.” They rejected his mercy constantly; they didn’t want Jesus Christ to rule over them. They turned their backs on his Son. “No,” they’ve said, again and again. The loving God – particularly good to some of them, but all of them – so resistant.
Michael Horton a professor in Escondido, California, discovered the truths of the free grace of God when he was a teenager and it was like a second conversion. He argued about them with his Christian parents a lot, in fact a bit too much. They’d heard weak biblical teaching on election, but it had made no impact on them. They didn’t really see its significance, but to young Michael – this precocious academic – it blew his mind. Michael said, “My father sometimes stormed out of the room. He reacted viscerally whenever, as a teenager, he heard me debating election with my mother. On one occasion, I followed him outside and I apologized for raising the subject when he’d made it clear that it offended him. Turning to me with tears, he asked, ‘What if your Dad’s not one of the elect?’”
It is so easy for us to turn gospel into judgment, and extraordinary, faith-deepening good news we seem to turn into questions that cause anxiety. Do you realize what the Bible’s teaching about God choosing us is saying? God knew all about me; he’d seen the file on me. Nothing had escaped him from my first breath until the day I died, but he loved me eternally, and he chose me to go and be with him for ever and become like his Son. The Lord adding people to his flock is a saving action of the Good Shepherd; “Other sheep have I that are not of this flock. Them also I must bring!”
It’s true that in some circles in Holland God’s decree to elect sinners is not being understood as a comforting and assurance-producing teaching, but it seems to me that it is the very opposite. In some denominations there a Christian can refrain from receiving communion for years – even over a whole lifetime – out of a lack of assurance concerning his or her election. However, this is not how we find this truth in Scripture where we are told of his mighty effectual grace, in other words that it is God who adds people to his church. What wonderful news!
How did Michael Horton respond to his father that day of division in the family home? He says, “In response to my Dad’s question, I quoted to him Jesus’ words in John 10:27: ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.’ Dad, have you heard his voice and followed him? He nodded. “Yes,” he replied quietly. “Then” I said to him, “this is Jesus’ answer to your question, ‘What if I’m not one of the elect?’ In the next verse Jesus says about the sheep that hear his voice and follow him: ‘I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.’” Everything changed in the home from that moment on, even in Dad’s countenance. Once Michael’s father understood that point, election became the opposite of what it had been before; it was now a marvelous comfort to him. The Good Shepherd knows his sheep. They have eternal life and they never perish! His father would always say in the following years as he looked back to that blow-up and its aftermath that it was a life-changing moment.
This encouraging truth that God adds to his church stirs up many graces. It encourages humility. God gave the increase, not the preacher. It encourages comfort for we are not a very beautiful or fascinating people in the eyes of the world, and yet the God who sees us in Christ is the one who adds to us. It encourages confidence to be as Christ-like a people as we can be because it’s to such a people God normally adds his own. It encourages hope for the future. May not God add 3,000 people to a congregation once again? He still has the love and mercy and power to do so. It encourages us to be diligent because our labour in the Lord is not in vain. It encourages praise. The church grows – then praise God from whom all blessings flow.
We don’t discover our election by trying to find the trigger that will open up the secret things that belong to God. We find out election in God’s revealed will in Scripture. “Come to me and I will give you rest.” We go to Christ and receive him into our lives and we discover this wonderful peace, that God had loved us before the foundation of the world. Paul repeatedly refers to our election as being “in Christ,” “in him,” “in the Beloved.” If I have Christ I have election. Christ is the mark of my election. Come to him and enjoy the rest of trusting in the Sovereign Protector. There might be dangers in talking about God ordaining, and God adding, and the divine decree of election when the words seem rather abstract. The better way is in your coming to the sovereign God and casting yourself on him. Obey the Sovereign who says to you now, “Come unto me . . . believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.”
I cannot emphasize strongly enough that God is the one who adds to his church, and only he can do this, and yet we have seen in this chapter how Peter sincerely and comprehensively proclaimed the gospel and the need of every hearer to repent of his sin and to believe in Jesus Christ. Peter did this without exception or distinction. If one hearer had been the man who had actually nailed the hands of Jesus to the cross yet the offer of grace and mercy was made to him too. Men and women, if you are to perish in hell – may it never, never be for any one of you – then your lips will never accuse God of being unjust or unfair not to add you to his people. You will never blame God for your eternal destruction. If you have listened to the word of the Bible that I have read to you, and you have heard what I have said to you again today, and if you have come regularly to this church then you’ve really heard the gospel. We deserve eternal death because of our sin, but Jesus Christ because he loved us died in our place condemned by our judgment. You have been urged to trust Christ. If you refuse to repent and believe the gospel, you will perish with that gospel in your ears. If you speak you will plead guilty, and you’ll never even think of accusing the most high God of being unjust or say that it was his sovereign electing grace that was the reason you’re in hell.
However, just the opposite is true of the saint who makes it to heaven. In that land of glory, no one will even know how to spell the words F R E E W I L L. No saint will talk about ‘giving the tied up God a chance’ or ‘allowing God the spectator to save him or her.’ All boasting in the free will of man will be left behind. Let a saint come down from heaven and testify to us today and his theme would be, “I am where I am and what I am by the grace of God alone.” His theme to you will be, “salvation is of the Lord, from beginning to end.”
Imagine you are a four-legged sheep caught in a thicket from which you cannot free yourself. You are cold, hungry, thirsty, and your throat is sore from bleating. The more you struggle to get free, the more the briars dig into your flesh and cause the blood to flow. Finally, in utter despair, you resign yourself to your pitiful situation, quit struggling, and prepare to die. If, in that most hopeless condition, you heard the familiar voice of a shepherd calling your name, what would you do? You would bleat, “Baaaa! Baaaa!” as loudly as you could.
Well, let me tell you that if you are a two-legged sheep in the same condition, you will react exactly the same way. If you are caught in a thicket of sin and cannot get lose, and the harder you try to get free the more you fail because the bonds of sin seem to get tighter, and you are hungry, tired, and thirsty, then I have good news for you. There is a gracious Shepherd calling your name. Cry out to him. Bleat with all your might, “Baaaa! Baaaa!” as loudly as you can. Tell him how sick you are of sin and its awful consequences. Tell him how totally helpless you are and how desperately you need his grace and power. He will be at your side in a moment. He will free you from the thicket of sin, bind up your wounds, give you food and water, and put you on his shoulder and carry you safely back to the fold.
Who are the people who will not cry out “Baaa! Baaa!”? One is the person who does not believe he is caught in a thicket of sin. He imagines he is totally free. Another is the person who loves his sin despite the misery it brings. But if you are one whom God is going to add to his people then you will bleat and cry with all your might to the Saviour who can help you. You will know what it is to be set free from the thicket. He pulled me free and joined to safe with all the flock of God. With them numbered may I be, now and through eternity! You have tasted the Bread of Heaven and have drunk the Water of Life. You will praise forever him who loved you with an everlasting love and washed you in his own precious blood.
31st May 2015 GEOFF THOMAS