SERMON FOR MARCH 1, 1998 FROM ROMANS 1:16-17
This is Mission’s Week in our church--where we intentionally focus on the commission the Lord has given to us to carry the gospel to our neighborhoods and the uttermost parts of the earth. It just so happens the text from Romans we have come to in our study of this book is an appropriate missions text. It is a text which strikes near the heart of the problem of our apathy in personal evangelism. The fact that we are apathetic in personal evangelism is indisputable. The last statistic I heard was that less than one percent of North American churches are growing through conversion growth. Many churches are growing, but not by new believers coming into the kingdom. Some are growing because their members are having babies and others are growing because their ministry or program is more desirable than other churches as they appeal to a largely consumer-oriented church going public. But very few churches can trace their growth to the faithful sharing of the gospel to the lost by their members. Our church is typical. We have grown and are delighted with the growth, but almost no one here this morning has come to know Christ as a result of this church’s evangelistic outreach.
The reasons for this are many and various, but they can all be boiled down into one--most of us simply aren’t with any consistency sharing the gospel message with the lost who need to hear it. There are many reasons for this as well, but one reason for some of us is that, in spite of our protests to the contrary, we are, to use Paul’s word phrase, “ashamed of the gospel.” We are too easily embarrassed to share the message for fear of what other people might think. There is indifference to the gospel today and we know that. We know the gospel message will not be warmly received by many of the people with whom we share it. Because we know that, we can easily find ourselves embarrassed by the message of the gospel. This is no small issue for the person who calls themselves a Christian. Indeed, it is a HUGE issue. Jesus says in Luke 9:26, “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Being ashamed of the gospel, according to Jesus is a spiritually lethal condition. This verse ought to strike fear into many of us who have kept our mouths closed about what we claim (among ourselves) is the most important Person of our lives.
Paul had reasons why he could have been ashamed of the gospel message in his day and age we do not have to contend with. For instance, the idea of a Savior who was executed on a cross for an alleged criminal offense would have been a hard sell. Crosses littered the landscape of the empire and those crosses served as a final, gripping, public reminder of the consequences of living an evil and sinful life. From the time you were a small child, you came to identify the cross with the wretched refuse of society. To preach “Christ crucified” in that environment presented huge obstacles and required no small amount of boldness. In contrast, today the cross has become a socially acceptable, even popular symbol (some would argue and I agree that it is taken much TOO lightly). Paul preached a Savior who had been executed on a cross. What would our natural response be to a religious leader who died in the electric chair amidst the murmurs of his loyal followers that their Messiah had not received a fair trial? To the Jews in Rome (and everywhere), Jesus was considered a curse and cursed by God. If you were hung on a tree, the Jews believed with sound Scriptural support that the person was cursed by God. Today, by contrast the culture largely has at least a vague, albeit romanticized idea of substitutionary atonement--that someone HAD to be accursed for us.
Paul also had some of the same obstacles confronting him in preaching the gospel as we do today in our culture. He had many of the same temptations to be ashamed of the gospel message as we do. There are many parallels between the Roman culture and ours today in America. Like America, it was in some ways a religious culture--there were places of worship everywhere and there were statues of various pagan gods found in abundance. As in today’s America, the religions of Paul’s day had very little effect on the morality of the empire. In fact, sensuality and carnality had been formally built into the pagan religions and we have done that with only slightly more subtlety in America today. Like America, the prevailing culture prided itself in being open minded and tolerant about religion. You were free to practice your religion as long as it was not perceived to interfere with the state. Like America, the environment was pluralistic--that is, it was generally held there was no ONE way to practice a religion. The Romans had 100’s of gods and to assert that there was only ONE way to find God would have been considered narrow and closed minded.
Many of the obstacles to the gospel, (then and now) stem from the underlying assumptions upon which it rests. For instance, the gospel assumes the existence of many certainties which are today and to some extent in Paul’s day were NOT held by everyone. The gospel assumes the existence of absolute truth. It assumes that there is an absolute standard of right and wrong and that God is the arbiter on those questions. Today, over 50% of evangelicals surveyed do not believe in the existence of absolute truth. As for the world, in our own back yard UWS Vice Chancellor, Dr. Hal Bertillson said in a speech delivered about a year ago, Fundamental truth does not exist...what I hope I have shown is that the error and inconsistencies are great and truth does not exist.” The gospel which we preach assumes the existence of absolute truth. If absolute truth did not exist, the gospel would be perfectly irrelevant--and of course it is to many people.
The gospel assumes that there is a holy God who MUST punish all sinners with eternal condemnation irrespective of how personally winsome and nice they may be. The gospel brings “salvation.” What are people saved from?--Certainly the most dynamic consequence of what Jesus saves people from is eternal damnation in hell. The gospel assumes a God who punishes sinners eternally. That runs contrary to our culture and in some ways to the culture Paul preached in. The gospel assumes not only that we, in ourselves are sinful, defective people, but that we in our sin can do NOTHING to fix ourselves-we are morally and spiritually defective---depraved. The gospel assumes as a basis for its existence a truth which runs contrary to a culture where the highest virtue is a healthy self esteem. Finally, the gospel assumes that the only way to get out of the mess we are in is found ONLY in Jesus Christ. That makes a dead end street of every other religious faith or practice. The exclusivity of the gospel flies in the face of the pluralistic culture of ancient Rome and modern America. Sharing the gospel in our day as well as Paul’s brings tremendous opposition. There are many “reasons” to be ashamed to share the gospel and if you do share it, to do so in hushed, apologetic tones.
Paul, however stared right in the face at these obstacles, these points of opposition, these so called “reasons” to be ashamed of this message and boldly declares in verse 16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel,... And in the rest of 16 and verse 17, he tells us why, in spite of all the obstacles, he is utterly undaunted. If we were to treat these reasons in detail, examining all the nuances of all the terms, we would not have to preach the rest of Romans. In these two verses, Paul brings out virtually every significant theme in this letter. This morning, I want to take a broad look at Paul’s reasons for not being ashamed of the gospel and we’ll only have a chance to look at one.
One reason Paul gives for not being ashamed of the gospel is this--it is the POWER of God for salvation. What does that mean? How and why is the gospel the POWER of God? That sounds very impressive, but what does it mean? Paul tells part of the answer in the next verse, but it means even more than he provides in verse 17. Another reason it is the power of God for salvation is this: The gospel is truth and the Holy Spirit of Truth uses the gospel to demolish all the obstacles for those whom God has prepared. You see, the fact that much of the world and the majority of the so called believing church does not believe in the existence of absolute truth does NOTHING to change the fact that absolute truth does indeed exist. And when the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit anoints and empowers the truth--watch out. The truth is a spiritual nuclear warhead the Holy Spirit injects into the hearts of those the Father has targeted and it is more than anyone can fight against--the truth of the gospel injected into the human heart by the Holy Spirit of God is irresistible--its unstoppable, its undeniable.
It doesn’t require human eloquence or the power of personality to demolish these arguments. The simple, naked truth of the gospel is enough. Paul says in First Corinthians 2:1-5. “When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power,[dunamis] so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power[dunamis].” The gospel is truth and when the truth is presented to someone God has prepared, the Spirit of truth has no trouble wrestling the fiercest opponents and pinning his shoulders down to the mat. You ask, “What about all those obstacles to the gospel?”
The third Person of the Trinity will not be subdued by a person’s adherence to another false, paganized self-centered religion--that’s not a problem for God. When God has prepared the heart, the gospel will send the person most tightly bound to dead religion into the arms of a Living Savior. As for the intellectual resistance to the gospel, the person who goes into a restaurant with an encyclopedia of denials on his lips about the existence of absolute truth, when confronted by someone bringing them the absolute truth of the gospel, driven into their heart by the Holy Spirit like a high powered rifle, that same person will leave that restaurant having bent his knee and bowed his head to the truth and wanting NOTHING in life more than to spend hours reading the truth of Scripture. Intellectual denial of absolute truth is NOT a problem for the Spirit of Truth.
Likewise, the same person who one moment levels caustic charges against the so called intolerance and the exclusivity of the gospel, when confronted with the gospel, the power of God for salvation, will in another moment find himself crying out tears of repentance to this “intolerant, exclusive” God of the gospel. The person who is certain they can bail themselves out of all their messes--they can spiritually reform themselves, when met with the power of God in salvation be reduced to tatters, crawling to the cross as their only hope. Do we really believe these arguments, these obstacles can prevail over the truth of God and the Spirit of God in the power of the Gospel?
Paul says in I Corinthians 1:18, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” God is not intimidated by the wisdom of this world with its denial of absolute truth, its railing against His fairness and the priority it places on what it calls “tolerance.” He has given us a message which is the power of God and it is able to cut through those lies of the devil like a hot knife through butter. This doesn’t mean that apologetics aren’t important--presenting the rationality of the Christian faith, but we must never lean on apologetics--we are to ultimately lean on the power of this message delivered in the power of the Holy Spirit.
2 Corinthians 10:4-5 says, “The weapons we fight will are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God...” Its not about the strength of the obstacles, its about the strength of God. The question is not “Is so and so’s will or intellect too strong to submit to the gospel?” The question is, “WHO can resist God and the power of His message if He wants them to submit?” Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because He knew he was bringing to the table the most powerful force in the universe--the power of the Lord God Omnipotent. Do we believe this? Do we believe this? To be quite honest, many today do not believe this. That’s why we are so timid--we go into situations where we can and should share the gospel feeling overwhelmed.
Many don’t believe this and so they edit the message to make it more palatable. They preach a user friendly gospel without a call to repentance and without any clear reference to the eternal penalty of sin. Its a watered down message because we don’t have confidence that anyone could possibly respond to a message which calls then to give up and plant the white flag of surrender in their hearts and submit to Christ’s Lordship. “No one would do that.” Oh yes they would--if the Holy Spirit wants them to they will!! He’s the Lord of all creation. With the word of His mouth he formed the universe. Do you think a puny, little stubborn human heart is too much for Him to overcome? The idea is an insult to God and contrary to His Word.
Proverbs 16:9 says, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” That certainly implies that the Lord can effectively influence a person’s response the gospel? God in his power is the One running the show beloved, not man. Psalm 115:3 says, “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases HIM.” He is not held captive to the so called wisdom and hard heartedness man. God says in Isaiah 46:10, “I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come. I say: My purpose will stand, and I will do all that I please.” Is this a God held hostage to the stubbornness of a fallen sinner? Can any finite human being outrun the infinite hound of heaven? If the free will of a human being can dictate their own destiny independent of God then man is the one who is Sovereign, not God. Daniel 4:35 says, “All the peoples of the earth are regarded as nothing. He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand...” Who can hold back his hand? No one.
Do we believe the gospel, the power of God for salvation is that powerful? Do we believe that God has armed us with a message bursting with the power of an omnipotent Creator? Oh, how could we possibly be ashamed of this message? If we really believed this about the gospel we would walk with the boldness of a lion. We would not be ashamed of the gospel, we would be like Paul, “eager to preach the gospel” to those who need it desperately. If people do not accept the message, its not because the message is weak--the message is the power of God for salvation. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel and neither should we be. From now on, when the Holy Spirit burdens you to share this gospel message with that co-worker or neighbor or family member, understand that if He is burdening you He is already at work in that person’s life. He is preparing the heart to hear this nuclear powered message. You can pray with all boldness, “God, cause that person to believe--remove their heart of stone and replace it with a heart of flesh--circumcise their heart--make it ready for the supernatural seed of your word to take root.”
We can’t get ahead of God and we must know that some plant and some water and others bring the harvest, but we can know and believe and act on that belief that this message of the gospel is stronger than the strongest will, able to pierce through the hardest heart, able to level the most thoughtful objections. This gospel is the power of God for salvation and we should feel privileged to carry it into battle for the souls of lost humanity, not ashamed. “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in his glory...” May God give us grace to be bold in our proclamation of this powerful message of the gospel.
Page last modified on 12/31/2001
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