At the beginning of Acts 3, at the gate of the Jerusalem temple, the apostles Peter and John encounter a disabled man who thinks he needs one thing: money. If he doesn’t have any money, he thinks, he can’t eat—and if he can’t eat, then he’ll be dead. So he needs money.
And so we read that when Peter and John were on their way into the temple, “he asked to receive alms” (Acts 3:3). But the two apostles, having now witnessed the risen Lord and seen Him return to heaven, having received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, did something the man did not expect:
Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. (Acts 3:4–7)
When people today fix their attention on the church of Jesus Christ, they typically are expecting, like the beggar at the temple gate, to get something from it. Over the last century, the church has taught people to expect slogans, political agendas, and psychological cures—and in exchange, it has taught them to expect to be asked for money. But does the church really have anything worthwhile to offer? Does it have the power to remake a life?
A Message of Transforming Power
We may be tempted to say that the miracle of healing is what Peter and John had to offer. But the healing miracle, like all of the signs and wonders of the New Testament, was only a pointer to a greater miracle, which was the reconciliation of a sinful people to holy God.
That’s why Peter, when he saw that the overflowing joy of the healed man was drawing a crowd, seized the opportunity to share not an offer of healing or a promise of prosperity but the Gospel of forgiveness. It was the cosmic authority of the risen Lord, whom Israel had sent to the cross, that had made the lame man walk (Acts 3:12–16). And to the people Peter proclaimed,
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. … God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. (Acts 3:19–21, 26)
What the people really needed, and what Peter and John offered to them, was the power and authority of the risen Lord to turn them from their wickedness and return them to God. And what John and Peter offered to the world in which they moved is the greatest thing that we have to offer the world in which we move today—namely, the transforming power of Jesus Christ to all who believe.
A Unique Mission
The church has been commissioned to proclaim this transforming power of Christ to the world (Matt. 28:19–20). Therefore, whenever the church sets up its stall with anything else, it departs from its mission.
The greatest thing that we have to offer our world is the transforming power of Jesus Christ.
If Peter and John had simply offered the lame beggar money, they would have been doing no more than anyone else could have. And when the church offers material resources—when we offer humanitarian aid, as indeed we should and must do—we have not really offered anything special. Anyone can offer money. Any institution can send aid. But the church alone can offer the transforming power of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit. There is no social, educational, emotional, or political revolution that can change the human heart. Only Jesus Christ can do that.
Although we ought to recognize with a sense of grateful humility that the church has been at the forefront of many social changes—in relationship to medical care, to slavery, to prisons, to workers, and more—all of those changes emerge from the conviction that Jesus Christ changes lives by the power of the Spirit. If we attempt to offer social change without transforming power, we will ultimately be able to offer neither. It is the Gospel that has transformed culture, and it has done so as it has transformed human hearts.
A Infernal Strategy
Our time is on earth is limited, which is why Paul urged us to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16). The church has received its calling from the Lord to proclaim the Gospel first and to let its good works flow out from God’s transforming power.
There is no social, educational, emotional, or political revolution that can change the human heart. Only Jesus Christ can do that.
Consequently, the strategy of the Evil One has frequently been to tempt vast numbers of Christians from this calling by preoccupying their full attention with the outflow of the Gospel—whether generosity, or humanitarian service, or cultural reformation, or even physical healing. Among conscientious and compassionate people, any of these good things can quickly become an end in itself. The result has been people with “the appearance of godliness, but denying its power” (2 Tim. 3:5).
A healthy body with a sick soul is a great tragedy. Ultimately, that is not what the church has to offer. Thanks be to God, it has so much more to offer! In the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the power not merely to make meager changes to material circumstances but to transform the human heart and reconcile sinful people to their holy Creator. It would be foolish for those of us who are in Christ to forget what we have been given to proclaim.
The world is asking for alms. It often thinks that is its chief need. May we never forget, though, that we can also offer them something infinitely greater: the powerful name of Jesus Christ.