Nancy Guthrie on the Salvation Purposes of God in Acts (Season 2, Episode 1)

This article is part of the Conversations on the Bible with Nancy Guthrie series.

Exploring the Book of Acts

Join Nancy Guthrie as she begins an initial exploration of the book of Acts by interrogating its title with the aim of determining what the aim and purpose of the book really is. This is the first episode of season 2 of the Conversations on the Bible podcast—a second season of what was formerly the Blessed podcast. The first season was a series of conversations on the book of Revelation, and this season is going to be devoted to the book of Acts. We hope you’ll join us!


Nancy Guthrie

Saved, by bestselling author Nancy Guthrie, gives individuals and small groups a friendly, theologically reliable, and robust guide to understanding the book of Acts.

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In Acts we’re given a record of a unique time in redemptive history when the Spirit was at work to establish Christ’s church throughout the world through the witness of the apostles. But the same Spirit that worked in and through them is still at work in us. The Spirit can empower us to change, empower us to pray, empower us to obey, empower us to proclaim to all who will listen, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”

Welcome to the Conversations on the Bible Podcast. I’m Nancy Guthrie. We’ve retitled what was called the Blessed Podcast, which was a series of conversations on the book of Revelation, so that we can add more seasons about more books of the Bible. And this, the second season, is going to be a series of conversations on the book of Acts. I’ve written a new book called Saved: Experiencing the Promise of the Book of Acts in which I teach through the entire book of Acts, seeking to put the story it tells in context of the larger story the Bible tells, and inviting readers to take hold of the promise that the book of Acts holds out to all who will respond to its gospel message in repentance and faith. I hope you might consider getting a copy of the book and perhaps leading a group through a study of the book of Acts using the book and its companion personal Bible study. On this podcast, as a companion to the book, you can be sure that once again I have a stellar lineup of conversation partners. With over ten episodes to come, you can listen in on conversations with people who will help us to see more clearly the ways in which we see God working out his salvation purposes in the world, particularly in the pages of the book of Acts.

Let me just give you a sense of what is ahead. Upcoming episodes include Patrick Schreiner on the theology of the Book of Acts, Fred Sanders on the Holy Spirit in Acts, Richard Gaffin and Tommy Keene on Pentecost, Ben Glad on use of the Old Testament in Acts, Alan Thompson on resurrection and the hope of Israel, Andrew Young on power in weakness in Acts, Tom Schreiner on Paul the apostolic missionary in Acts, Greg Lanier on taking the gospel into the empire, and a special episode in which I interview a number of the women to whom I dedicated the book called “It’s Still True: Everyone Who Calls Upon the Name of the Lord Will Be Saved." And finally, an interview with Nate Shurdan, my own pastor, on opportunities and challenges in teaching Acts.

Today on this first episode, we’re going to do a little initial exploration of the book of Acts by interrogating its title, with the aim of determining what the aim or purpose of this book really is. If you think about it, Acts is kind of a funny name for a book, isn’t it? It immediately raises the question, “Whose acts? What acts?”

Of course, the fuller name we find in our English Bibles for this book is Acts of the Apostles. Luke, the author of this book, didn’t actually give it that title. It wasn’t until the third century that the early church gave it this designation. Why might they have given it that title?

This book certainly tells the story of what happened to and through the twelve apostles and the apostle Paul in the thirty or so years following the death and resurrection of Jesus. It particularly focuses on the ministry of Peter in the first part of the book and then on the ministry of Paul in the second part.

But if this is a book about what the apostles did, it is interesting that after the twelve are listed in the first chapter, we don’t hear anything else about most of them, while we have several chapters about the ministries of Stephen and Philip, who were not among the twelve apostles, and Paul, who was added as an apostle. So perhaps providing an account of the actions taken by the apostles was not the primary focus or purpose of Luke’s writing.

Some have suggested that this book is really about the acts of the Holy Spirit. Certainly the descent of the Holy Spirit is central to this book. It begins with the dramatic descent of the Holy Spirit on the 120 believers gathered in the upper room and Peter’s Spiritempowered sermon in Jerusalem during the feast of Pentecost. From there, the narrative is driven by the expanding circle of those on whom the Spirit descends—on Samaritans (Acts 8:17), on Saul (Acts 9:17), and on God-fearing Gentiles gathered at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10:44; Acts 11:15).

We see the Spirit at work to make the disciples bold in speaking the word of God (Acts 4:31), to enable Agabus to foresee a coming famine (Acts 11:28), to provide divine instruction and direction (Acts 8:29; 11:12; 13:2; 16:6; 19:21; 20:22; 21:4), to provide divine transport (Acts 8:39), to comfort God’s people (Acts 9:31), to provide clarity on the requirements of God (Acts 15:28), and to reveal coming persecution (Acts 20:23; 21:11). Significantly we see the same Spirit who enabled Jesus to do signs and wonders (Acts 2:22) enable his disciples to do signs and wonders again and again throughout the book to authenticate their ministry as being connected to his (Acts 2:43; 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 8:6; 14:3; 15:12; 28:8–9).

We could rightly say that the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on those who put their faith in Christ was a watershed event in human history. Indeed, it marked the dawn of a new age in redemptive history, the dawning of “the last days,” the age that stretches from Pentecost until the return of Christ.

Certainly the descent, filling, and work of the Holy Spirit in the book of Acts is important and unique to this book. Yet if we’re trying to get at the purpose or aim of the book, we recognize that the descent and indwelling of the Holy Spirit was not an end in itself, but rather served a greater end. What is that end?

When we examine how the Spirit works throughout the book of Acts, we see again and again that the Spirit works through the preached word. Yes, the Spirit speaks and acts directly at numerous points, but most significantly, we see the Spirit working through the means of the preached word of Christ. On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit gave his people the supernatural ability to announce the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ in languages they didn’t know before. Peter preached and the Spirit worked through it, and those who heard were cut to the heart.

So perhaps another possible title for this book could be Acts of the Word. The word almost seems to take on an identity of its own in this book, as it is spreading. The Spirit works through the word to accomplish a work of new creation. Indeed, we could organize the book around the statements of what the word is doing and how it is spreading. Let me tell you what I mean.

Immediately following Pentecost we read that 3,000 people heard the word preached by Peter and received it (Acts 2:41). And from there the word continues to spread. The apostles are arrested and beaten and told not to teach. But they do it anyway. And in Acts 6:7 we read, “The word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Stephen is stoned to death and James is killed by the sword, but we read in Acts 12:24, “The word of God increased and multiplied.” Saul and Barnabas make Antioch their headquarters, and we read, “The word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:49). We get to Paul’s second missionary journey, and he and Silas go to further out places, “so the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (19:20). And when we come to the end of the book, Paul has faced storm and shipwreck, and he is imprisoned in Rome, facing execution. And what does he do? “From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets” (Acts 28:23).

So the book of Acts is about the acts of the apostles, the acts of the Spirit, and very much about the acts of the preached word. But there is yet another option to consider as a possible title. Acts of the Enthroned Lord Jesus? In the first verse of Acts, Luke writes, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1). In his Gospel, Luke wrote about the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Implied in his statement is that in this second part of his two-part work, the book of Acts, he is going to present what Jesus continued to do and teach.

This means that the transition from Luke to Acts is not from what Jesus did to what the apostles did. Rather, the transition is from what Jesus did while on earth to what Jesus continued to do from heaven. So perhaps another alternative title for this book could be, Acts of the Enthroned Lord Jesus. As we read through the book of Acts, the Lord Jesus is at the center of the action. We hear him calling to himself those who are far off (Acts 2:39); adding new believers to his church (Acts 2:47; 11:21); sending his angel to open prison doors (Acts 5:19; 12:11); providing direction to his disciples (Acts 8:26; 9:11); appearing to Stephen and Saul (Acts 7:59–60; 9:17); speaking to Saul (Acts 9:5; 18:9; 23:11), to Cornelius (Acts 10:4), and to Peter (Acts 10:14); striking down those who persecute his people (Acts 12:23); opening the hearts of hearers of God’s word (Acts 16:14); and appointing ministers of his word (Acts 20:24).

We can never think that Jesus is unconcerned or uninvolved in the affairs of his people and the spread of his gospel. The heart of Jesus is still with his people. The hand of Jesus is still at work among his people.

But, we might ask, at work to accomplish what? The risen and enthroned Lord Jesus is at work by his Spirit giving his apostles boldness to preach, adding to their number, equipping them to establish churches. But to what end? We’re left, once again, searching for the deeper purpose toward which the apostles, the Spirit, the word, and the enthroned Lord Jesus are acting. God’s

Perhaps we find help with this by looking at the bookends to Luke’s two-volume work. One bookend is Luke’s birth narrative of Jesus, where we are told numerous times that the child Mary is carrying is the one who will “give knowledge of salvation to his people” (Luke 1:77). When Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms, he praises God saying, “My eyes have seen your salvation” (Acts 2:30). In Luke 3, Luke quotes Isaiah 40:3–5 and says that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6). The other bookend is Acts 28:28. After quoting Isaiah 6:9–10, Paul proclaims, “Therefore let it be known to you that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.” In between these two bookends, we’re told that the content of the message that the apostles have been empowered by the Spirit to declare is “the message of salvation” (Acts 13:26), or “the way of salvation” (Acts 16:17). Peter declares,

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So, if we wanted to capture what the whole of the book of Acts is about in a sentence, perhaps one way to say it would be this: The enthroned Lord Jesus is at work by his Spirit through his apostles who are preaching the word, taking the gospel to every nation, and it is accomplishing its intended purpose: people are being saved.

No other Gospel writer uses the word saved and its various forms as much as Luke. In the book of Acts, he uses saved, or some form of it, twenty-one times. Indeed, salvation is at the heart of the promise of the book of Acts, the promise that we want to experience for ourselves and for everyone we love. And that is: “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (Acts 2:21). What generosity of grace!

But what does it really mean to be saved or to experience salvation? In the Old Testament, salvation was about deliverance, preservation, and rescue from enemies. Moses told the people cornered and scared on the shores of the Red Sea that they should “fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today” (Ex. 14:13). They were saved from the Egyptian army when the Lord rolled back the waters of the Red Sea. But as the Bible’s story progresses, we begin to see that the salvation he worked for this one nation throughout the Old Testament was really a shadow of a far greater and more pervasive salvation he intends to work for people from every nation.

The Bible is a book that recounts the work of God accomplishing his great purpose for history: to save his people from their greatest enemies, sin and death, and deliver them into the safety and rest of his presence. In the Gospels we see how God is working for the salvation of his people through the incarnation, Jesus’s sinless life, his death, and his resurrection. And in the book of Acts we see how the Lord Jesus is continuing to work out God’s eternal plan of salvation for his people through his ascension, his session as he sits at God’s right hand ruling over and interceding for us, and in pouring out his Spirit at Pentecost. We also discover that “his people” includes people from every nation, of every culture and race. God intends to save a people for himself made up of people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). We await the final great work of salvation to come, when the Lord Jesus will return to destroy his enemies and usher in the new creation. On that day we will experience salvation in all of its glorious fullness.

I wonder how the realization that salvation is at the heart of the story Luke is going to tell us in the book of Acts hits you. Oh, I hope it doesn’t make you yawn and think, “Yeah, salvation, I’ve taken care of that. Let’s move on.” Instead, I hope the recognition that Acts is most profoundly about the salvation of God will generate in you at least three responses.

First, I hope you’ll say, “I have a vested interest in this ’salvation of God.’ In fact it’s my only hope. I am in need of salvation.” For some, this may mean that for the first time you will recognize that you are an outsider to this salvation. Perhaps you will realize that you need to be rescued from sin, forgiven, restored, reconciled. What Acts clearly shows us is that God is not sitting back waiting for you to find him or figure things out. He is at work in his world by his Spirit through his people to make known that salvation is available to you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done. God is a God who loves to save! He is actively in pursuit of people in need of his salvation.

Others of you may find that you need to adjust your understanding of salvation. Rather than solely pointing back to a day in your past that you “got saved,” perhaps Acts will help you to adjust your understanding of this salvation of God to see its past, present, and future manifestations so that you can say, “I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved.” I pray this study of Acts will restore to you the joy of your salvation (Ps. 51:12).

Perhaps this study will also cause you to say, “I don’t want to settle for being saved myself. I need to have my heart expanded, my vision enlarged, maybe even the purpose toward which I’m investing the ordinary days of my life redirected, as I gain a more thorough understanding of how God is working out his salvation purposes in the era in which I am living.”

Second, I hope you’ll say, “I want to experience the power of the Holy Spirit as presented in Acts.” I pray, as we work our way through Acts, that you will long for the Holy Spirit to work in you and through you as you see the vibrancy of his work among the first believers in Christ. The Spirit’s work in and through us likely won’t look exactly like what we see in Acts. What is recorded for us in the book of Acts concerns a unique period of redemptive history. Just as we do not anticipate that the crucifixion or resurrection will be repeated, we do not anticipate the events of Pentecost will be repeated. In Acts, we’re given a record of a unique time in redemptive history when the Spirit was at work to establish Christ’s church throughout the world through the witness of the apostles. But the same Spirit that worked in and through them is still at work in us. The Spirit can empower us to change, empower us to pray, empower us to obey, empower us to proclaim to all who will listen, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31).

Third, I hope you’ll say, “I believe the tool that the Spirit used in the book of Acts is the same tool he uses today—the word of God. And because of that, I want to hear the word, receive it, submit to it, share it. I want it to increase in my own heart, and I want to have a part in the word of God increasing and multiplying in my home, in my city, in my generation, in the world.”

Many of us long to have a sense that God is really at work in our lives. We want more than to merely go through the motions of church attendance. We want a fresh vibrancy to our walk with Christ, fresh insights into who he is and what he is doing in the world. What we need to know is that God has a particular means through which he accomplishes his work of creating newness in the world and in our lives. He works through his word. It is usually slow rather than instant. It is more often ordinary rather than dramatic. But it is certain. I can promise you that as you lean in to listen to what he has to say, as you chew on it, tease out its implications, as you ask it questions and find answers to your questions, God will be at work in your life, remaking you from the inside.

To help you to really work this word into your life over the course of this study, I’ve prepared a series of personal Bible study questions that I hope you’ll complete before you read each chapter in this book. The companion Saved Personal Bible Study on the complete text of Acts is available as a download and in a printed version. Do you find it hard to find the time to invest in doing something like that? Can I suggest that you carve out time on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, to spend in his word? Maybe you don’t typically work through questions on the text of the Bible because you find it difficult. Two heads are better than one. Is there someone you could get together with to work through the questions? Here’s the purpose of the questions: to get you into the text before you take in what I have to say about it, to get you thinking and asking questions that hopefully I will answer in what I’ve written. I want you to be familiar with the facts of the text, but more than that, I want you to invest some thought in seeking to grasp the bigger picture and the why behind what we are reading.

Why do we want to invest ourselves in studying Acts? Aren’t the stories from this book that some of us learned in Sunday school good enough? (I do wish I still had that salt map of Paul’s missionary journeys that I made in vacation Bible school.) We want to see how those stories fit into the larger story of the way God is working out his salvation purposes in the world. We want the power that only comes as the Spirit works through his word in the interior of our lives. We want the salvation at the center of this book to become the joy and longing of our hearts. We want to revel in the reality that we have been saved; we are being saved; and we will, one day, be fully and finally saved.

So I hope you’ll join me for the rest of this podcast series on Acts. We’re going to have such a good time together.

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