Be it known unto you therefore, men and brethren, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: And by him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses. Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.
An ancient and profound question is here answered! Long ago Job asked, “How can a man be justified with God?” The great aim of the Apostle Paul here is to set forth the answer to this vital question. The words are part of a sermon. We have three evangelistic sermons by Paul in the book of Acts. This is the first, speaking to the Jews and Gentiles in Pisidian Antioch; the other two are preached in Lystra (14:15-17) and then in Athens (17:22-31). This is the largest of the recorded sermons.
This sermon is very Christ-centered. It presents Christ as the world’s Savior by explaining that He was foretold in the OT Scriptures (vv. 16-25), that He was rejected of men, according to the Scriptures (vv. 26-29), that God has raised Him from the dead, according to the Scriptures (vv. 30-37), and that through faith in this Christ salvation comes to men (vv. 38-41).
What is important for us to see is that “the keynotes of Paul’s theology as found in his Epistles appear in this sermon” (Robertson). Specifically, we see the idea of justification by faith apart from the Law. In fact, it is the first time – I am speaking chronologically –that we find Paul’s use of the term “justification.” As such, we find that justification through Christ is the answer to that one prevailing and nagging question of mankind, since the time of our fall in Adam, “How can a man be acquitted before God?” Let us consider,
The Necessity of this Gospel
In our English version, the whole order of the sentence is altered from the original. The original arrangement is as follows: “and from all (the things from) which ye were not able to be justified in the Law of Moses, in this man every one believing is justified.” This is important for us to underscore this arrangement because it forcefully and beautifully contrasts justification by obedience to the Law of Moses and justification by faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, the word ‘justified’ is defined here. We do not get a full definition, but there is enough information here that helps us to see what it is all about, something about its nature. If you will look at verse 39, you will see the idea of forgiveness of sin. And then in verse 39, you will see the word ‘justified.’ As Ellicott notes, “It is clearly used, as interpreted by the ‘forgiveness of sins.’ in the context, in its forensic sense, as meaning ‘acquitted,’ ‘declared not guilty’.”
Paul states that the Law did not provide this forgiveness of sins, this acquittal. The Law, with its high standard of righteousness (Rom. 7:12), demands entire obedience; its sacrifices bore witness to the burden of sin, yet had no power to liberate the conscience from its thralldom (Heb. 8:1-3). Paul himself had learned this. All that he found in the law was death: “And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death” (Rom. 7:10). It provides a profound knowledge of sin (Rom. 7:7), but it cannot emancipate men from it.
No man can be justified by the Law. The Law only reveals that He has no ability nor desire to perform what the Law demands. The man or woman who believes that he or she can stand before the Lord as keepers of the Law have a very low opinion of the Law. They trivialize its commands; they externalize it; yet, they are ignorant of its weighty and spiritual demands.
But it is here that we see our need of the Gospel. Since you and I are unable to be justified by the Law of Moses, we must find the forgiveness of sins by another means. We need to find another way to be acceptable unto God. While the Law tells us what we are to do, it grants no power to do that.
The law supposing I have all,
Does ever for perfection call;
The gospel suits my total want,
And all the law can seek does grant.
The law could promise life to me,
If my obedience perfect be;
But grace does promise life upon
My Lord’s obedience alone.
The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief.
In other words, what we see here is that we need the Gospel. Let us now consider,
The Subject of this Gospel
The subject of the Gospel is the forgiveness of sins by Jesus Christ. This is an important truth. Notice the words “be it known.” This same phrase is used by Peter in the beginning of his sermon at Pentecost (2:14). Then again he used it when he ascribes the healing of the lame man to the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth (4:10). “It implies that the truth declared was one of which the hearers had been ignorant, but which I was important they should know” (Alexander). Thus, whether you know this truth or not, each of us should take this message as something vitally important to know; it is something that we should not only know, but we should rest upon. “Be it known.”
In addition, we should also note that this important message is centered in the historical, biblical Jesus. “Through this (one), this same Jesus, whom our brethren in Judea crucified, but whom I have just proved to be the promised Christ. Remission of sins is found in Him and Him alone. Two things are worthy of our consideration here. On one hand, the Gospel is Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1-3). Underscoring this, Alexander Maclaren preached, “The gospel is not speculation but fact. It is truth, because it is the record of a Person who is the Truth.” J. Sidlow Baxter likewise wrote:
Fundamentally, our Lord’s message was Himself. He did not come merely to preach a Gospel; He Himself is that Gospel. He did not come merely to give bread; He said, “I am the Bread.” He did not come merely to shed light; He said, “I am the Light.” He did not come merely to show the door; He said, “I am the Door.” He did not come merely to name a shepherd; He said, “I am the Shepherd.” He did not come merely to point the way; He said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
On the other hand, justification is only found in the real Jesus, the Jesus of the Bible. He is not the imaginary Jesus of the liberal, the mystic, or the New Ager. Imagination is not our Savior. Jonathan Edwards noted this:
The person to whom the Spirit gives testimony and for whom He raises their esteem must be Jesus – the one who appeared in the flesh. No other Christ can stand in His place. No mystical, fantasy Christ! No light within – as the spirit of Quakers extols – can diminish esteem of and dependence upon an outward Christ. The Spirit who gives testimony for this historical Jesus and leads to Him can be no other than the Spirit of God.
The real, historical Jesus is the one who died the just for the unjust. It is He who became a curse for us that we might escape the curse of God. He is God’s only begotten Son who has been set forth as the propitiation for our sins. He alone is the Lamb of God who was ordained before the foundation of the world to taste death for us. He is the only one who has purged our sins and sat down on the right hand of God. And he proved it by the resurrection, even as Paul mentions in verse 33.
This Christ, and no other, is the subject matter of the Gospel. Now, let us take note of,
The Object of this Gospel
The aim of the preaching of the Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. Its designed end is the believer’s acquittal before God. That is the burden of all true preaching. While this forms the keynote of Paul’s preaching here and in Acts 26:18, it was also Peter’s (Acts 2:38; 5:31; 10:43). Prior to them, it was the theme of the preaching of John the Baptist (Marl 1:4; Luke 3:3). Importantly, it was the focus of the preaching of our Lord Himself (Matt. 9:2, 6; Luke 7:47; 24:47). It was the ever-recurring burden of the glad tidings which were preached alike by all God’s ministers. Now, nothing can be more important for us to know than this. R. C. Sproul once preached,
A few years ago at a Christian bookseller’s convention, with several thousand people present, one Christian group did a survey asking people to define the gospel. A hundred people responded. Those who sponsored the survey looked at the responses, and only one out a hundred qualified as an adequate description of the gospel. People think that the gospel is having a warm relationship with Jesus, or asking Christ into your heart. Those things are important, but that is not the gospel. The gospel has a clear content that focuses on the person of Christ, the work of Christ, and how the benefits of Christ are appropriated into the Christian’s life by faith
Gospel preaching is centered in justification. It speaks of the atonement as the means by which a man or woman may be forgiven. And it says that this by faith alone. James Haldane gives a good definition of the Gospel
The Gospel is the good news of pardon to the guilty; and it enters into no calculations, in regard to the different degrees of guilt in those whom it addresses. It reveals an atonement sufficient for all; and every sinner of the human race is commanded to receive it as a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Jesus Christ came into the world to save the chief of sinners. The Gospel does not teach us how to lay a foundation for ourselves, but informs us of the sure foundation which God has laid in Zion, upon which all are equally invited and commanded to build their hopes, without any apprehensions of being upbraided for their past conduct by their gracious Creator.
The aim of the Gospel is that you and I know this forgiveness of sins. Do you? Now, this should make us also consider,
The Reception of this Gospel
While the Lord Jesus is the cause of our acceptance with God, we must receive Christ. There are three things to underscore here. Firstly, there is here an implied offer of forgiveness. “The force of the Greek tense emphasizes the fact that the forgiveness was, at that very moment, in the act of being proclaimed or preached” (Ellicott). Whenever the Gospel is preached, God is offering men forgiveness.
Secondly, there is a focus on the individual here. It is not “all” that believe, but literally, with a more individualizing touch, every one that believeth is justified. Every person should put his or her name here. Each person should assume that God is speaking to him or her specifically and personally, for He is.
Thirdly, the sphere in which this forgiveness resides is Christ, but we must enter into Him by faith. As Calvin says, “Paul showeth how men obtain the righteousness of Christ; to wit, when they receive it by faith; and that which faith doth obtain is not obtained by any merits of works.” “Whereas the ceremonies of the Law could not absolve you from your sins, this man absolves you, if you lay hold of him by faith” (Geneva Annotations). And what does all of this mean in concrete terms? I think that J. I. Packer gives an exceedingly good answer:
To the question: what must I do to be saved? The old gospel replies: believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. To the further question: what does it mean to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ? Its reply is: it means knowing oneself to be a sinner, and Christ to have died for sinners; abandoning all self-righteousness and self-confidence, and casting oneself wholly upon Him for pardon and peace; and exchanging one’s natural enmity and rebellion against God for a spirit of grateful submission to the will of Christ through the renewing of one’s heart by the Holy Ghost.
If you want to receive the benefits of this Gospel, you must rest in Christ’s work. Are you? Last let us note,
The Despising of this Gospel
In order to press this message of forgiveness home to his hearers, Paul warns, “Beware therefore, lest that come upon you, which is spoken of in the prophets; Behold, ye despisers, and wonder, and perish: for I work a work in your days, a work which ye shall in no wise believe, though a man declare it unto you.”
Now, we must not suppose this is only applied to the stout infidel and wicked person. They are not the only despisers of Christ. Charles Simeon rightly preached, “Every man is guilty of despising him, who complies not with the invitations of his Gospel, and withholds from him the affections of his heart. O let us examine ourselves carefully on this head, and see whether the warning in our text may not justly be applied to us.”
“What shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of Christ?” “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation?” If this Gospel, the only means for forgiveness of sins be rejected, then no other hope can be offered. And it is a great insult to God! “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself: he that believeth not God hath made him a liar; because he believeth not the record that God gave of his Son” (1 Jn. 5:10).
To count the blood of Christ as little and insignificant is fatal! To esteem its value so little that it is beneath your regard or trust is disastrous. “He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy: of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God?” Can we hear such appeals, and not see the need of attending to the admonition in the test? O let us “beware,” how we reject or slight the salvation now offered us. Let us “beware” lest we bring upon ourselves that “wrath and fiery indignation which await the adversaries” of the Lord Jesus: and what I say unto one, I say unto all, “Beware.” (Simeon).
Let us now bring this to a,
Let us once again highlight the basic teaching of this passage. Firstly, please underscore in your minds the fact of the impossibility of your being justified by the law, and the certainty of your justification by faith in Christ. All eternity hinges on this truth. Let us take great caution in slighting this proclamation of forgiveness of sins. The entire OT points to it; God has approved of it in the resurrection; we have no other hope than this, seeing that we have no righteousness and need forgiveness. “By him all that believe are justified.”
Secondly, let us take great comfort from the extent of our justification through Christ; it is not from some, but from all things. There is no mark against us; there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. His blood cleanses us from all iniquity. Let this truth sink deeply into your conscience, believer! “By him all that believe are justified from all things.”
Thirdly, let us praise the Lord for this wonderful Gospel that has come to us. God has planned this salvation; Christ has procured it at great cost; and the Spirit has opened our hearts that we would receive it. Is it not a great mercy that we have heard it? “But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear” (Matt. 13:16). Are we not privileged to hear a message that many have not heard? Let us thank Him that He has sent someone to us with a message of immeasurable importance.
And is it not even a greater mercy that God has raised us from spiritual death so that we might accept it. Like Lydia of old, the Lord has opened our hearts to receive this message. Paul thanked God for the Thessalonian believer’s faith in this regard:
For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe. 1Thess. 2:13.
In this, we find that that it is implied, by Paul giving thanks to God, that faith is the work of divine grace. If we truly understand our hearts, we will see that we cannot come unto Christ unless God draws us. Therefore, let us praise Him that He has moved within us to embrace this wonderful gospel so that we might have our sins forgiven.