Speaking the Gospel Before the Powerful

How would you speak the truth of the gospel if you knew you were in danger? What would you say if you stood before someone who could hurt you but who gave you an opportunity to share openly? Would you be careful not to offend?

The apostle Paul found himself in a very curious position in Acts 24. After being unfairly accused by the Jews, Paul stood before a Roman official, Felix, and his wife, Drusilla. Felix had the power to release Paul or to abuse him. Felix was a harsh ruler who was guilty of having a Jewish high priest put to death. And Felix was blamed by many for causing the Jewish war from AD 66-70.

Felix’s wife, Drusilla, was a woman who left her husband to marry Felix. She was ethnically Jewish, though she was now a part of the oppressive Roman community. Married to Felix, Drusilla was very dangerous.

One might think that Paul would want to be careful with such a couple. Let’s see what Paul chose to preach when they asked him to deliver a little sermon for them.

Acts 24:24-25 – 24 After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.”

Paul delivered a sermon about faith in Christ. This is no surprise. It is never a surprise to see that a Christian might call on people around him to believe. That is common, and generally acceptable. People like to believe in believing in general. And had Paul stopped there, his message would have likely done him no harm. The Romans like believing in all sorts of deities. Adding one more, Jesus, to the mix should have been no problem.

But then note the three topics in Paul’s little message: righteousness, self-control, and the coming judgment. These were dangerous. Righteousness is living rightly, guiltlessly, before the Lord. Paul tells us in Romans 3:10 that there is no one righteous, not even one. Paul tells us in Romans 3:23 that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. Did he look these two in the eye and tell them that they too needed a righteousness they personally lacked? That is a dangerous message.

Paul next talked about self-control. And Paul was standing before a murderous official with his adulteress wife. Righteousness would not have been a comfortable topic. Self-control would have been even worse. These two were guilty of great sin because they both lacked self-control.

Then Paul preached on the coming judgment. We know that Paul had a well-developed eschatology, even by this time in his ministry. In 1 and 2 Thessalonians, Paul writes clearly about Christ’s return, the blessing of God’s children, and the wrath of God on the wicked. Paul had to talk about the fact that Jesus would come back and judge. He had to talk about the fact that only those who are covered by Christ’s grace and righteousness will go to heaven. He must have talked about the fact that those who refuse Christ will stand before God and be found wanting for their lack of righteousness and self-control. This would lead back to the preaching of faith in Christ as the only way that any person can be forgiven for their wrong and granted by God the righteousness they need to enter his eternal kingdom.

So, when Paul stood before a dangerous ruler, what did he do? He preached the gospel. He held nothing back. He told an unrighteous man that he needed righteousness that he could never personally achieve. He told a woman without self-control that she was guilty before God. Paul told both that they faced a judgment to come that they could not survive without personal saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

May we be people who are bold enough to tell this kind of truth, in love, to all. May we never hold back just because we want to impress a government official. May we never hold back just because the person we preach to could do us harm. May we honor the Lord Jesus and let his gospel message do its work.

God Shows no Partiality

At the present moment in American Christianity, much is being said about ethnic differences and backgrounds. And, for certain, there are many people who have personally been the victims of ill-treatment from others based solely on their nationality, skin color, or accent.

How should the church deal with people who come to Christ from differing backgrounds? How does the church deal with people who come from groups who are at odds, groups who have oppressed one another or who are still oppressing one another? What extra requirements does the Lord have for those who come to faith from a privileged group?

In Acts 10, we have a situation that could certainly speak to our modern moment. Peter is a Jew, an oppressed people under the government of Rome. Peter is a Christian, following a risen Savior who was executed by a corrupt Roman official. Peter had lived his entire life knowing that his people were hated or at least looked down upon by the Romans. And Peter knew that the Romans who had some knowledge of Christianity were certainly not apt to treat him with kindness.

But then God sent a message to Peter. It came in the form of an initial vision involving unclean animals. The Lord told Peter, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). Though Peter did not know how to handle that vision at first, it became plain that this was going to be the Lord moving Peter to take the gospel to gentiles.

Later, as you probably know, the Lord brought Peter to the home of Cornelius, a Roman. But Cornelius was not just any Roman, he was a centurion, a Roman military leader. This man was one of the men living under Roman privilege, empowered to have success and unfair advantages over people like Peter.

What then would Peter conclude about the Lord sending him to Cornelius’ home? What would be the outcome of the meeting?

Acts 10:34-35 — 34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.”

Peter is amazed by the working of God in this situation. He realizes that, as it comes to the gospel and the church, there is no such thing as allowable partiality. Neither the Romans nor the Jews have the right to treat the other group as somehow second-class. Peter speaks nothing of the Romans needing to take extra steps to make up to the Jewish Christians for their oppressive treatment. Instead, Peter simply points out that God shows no partiality.

Then, when Peter finishes talking about the gospel of the Lord Jesus, God does something glorious.

Acts 10:44-48 – 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

Peter sees that God saved the Romans. And Peter immediately commands that the new believers in Christ be treated, not as Romans who have to make up for their Roman-ness, but as brothers and sisters in Christ who are saved by the grace of God and sealed by the Spirit of God.

Later, in Acts 15, at the Jerusalem counsel, the early church had to deal with the gentile problem. The determination among the leaders of the church was that no special obligation was to be placed upon the gentiles. They were simply to be treated as Christians. They were merely to act like all believers were to act. As James said, “Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God.”

Dear Christians, may we be a people who acknowledge that God shows no partiality regarding ethnicity. May we stand strongly opposed to all forms of racism. But that stand must include a stand against favoring oppressor or oppressed, strong or weak, formerly guilty or formerly innocent. In Christ, we are one body, one people, one holy race. God did not favor the Jew or the Roman in this story. God did not favor the put-upon or the one in power. God simply saved people and then showed that they are all one family. Let’s work hard to be that family.

Noah, Anthropology, and a Bigger View of Grace

What do you do when your view of humanity and the world around you is actually different than that of the Bible? Are you willing to let God, with his holiness and perfect knowledge, define humanity instead of you? You and I look at the world from our limited and corrupted perspective. God sees all of the world and all of humanity from the vantage point of absolute, perfect, and complete wisdom and knowledge.

Start with these questions. Is humanity basically good? Are people basically good? How does the human race deserve to be treated by our Creator?

Look at the writings and proclamations of all sorts of people, In them you will find a common praise of the human spirit and the general, innate goodness of mankind. We lock arms after tragedies and call ourselves strong. We put together t-shirts and hash tags that pronounce our hope in the good hearts of people all over the globe. And in doing so, we demonstrate that we have no clue of a biblical anthropology.

Reading through the Bible in a new year will most often start us in Genesis. As we read, we want to be careful not to let ourselves miss the important things that are said by God about us. A look at some of the verses around the account of the flood and Noah help us to see some true things about God’s view of humanity that are not popular preaching points.

Why did God flood the earth?

Genesis 6:5-7 The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. 6 And the Lord regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. 7 So the Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.

How does that match your understanding of humanity? How does it match your understanding of yourself? God said that every intention and thought of the hearts of mankind is only wicked all the time.

But wait, maybe that is just humanity before the flood. Here is what God says immediately after the flood.

Genesis 8:21 – And when the Lord smelled the pleasing aroma, the Lord said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done.

After the flood, when Noah and his family were rescued, God evaluated the world. No, God would never again flood the world like he did with Noah. But how does God still evaluate mankind? The Lord said, “for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.”

You might argue at this point that such an evaluation does not match your view. You might say that this does not fit your experience. You might say that you have run into good people in the world, that you like people, that you have seen the kindness of man to man. And I would agree. There have been countless expressions of kindness, graciousness, helpfulness, and general goodness of human being to human being all over the world all through history.

Does this then make the biblical assessment of humanity wrong? No. Why? First and foremost, the evaluation of the goodness or evil of the hearts of mankind is being evaluated by the holy God and not by other people. Second, though we do not see it here, part of what brings about the decency of one man or one woman toward another in our world is the common grace of God and the restraining power of the Holy Spirit. God acts to prevent us from acting out the natural evil in our hearts. And so, when any of us, before being transformed by God, does any good thing, we must understand that our behavior is not matching the true heart of humanity. Thus, any good behavior must be credited first and foremost, not to the person, but to the acting grace and presence of God.

What must this do to our worldview? If we are willing to let the word of God lay for us the framework of how we view the world around us including all of humanity, we will find that God’s grace is all over the place. Every good is from God. Every decency in humanity is the restraining power of God. And God has a better perspective to see this truth than we do. We cannot see into our own hearts. WE are corrupted by the fall. WE do not understand how desperate is our condition.

It also changes our understanding of the gospel. The good news of Jesus Christ is not that God sent Jesus to offer heaven to people who are naturally pretty good, but who do need a little help to make it the rest of the way to heaven. No, the gospel is that God sent his Son to pluck from a wicked and rebellious people a bride, a church, a temple of God. Jesus came to plunge himself into the mess that is humanity and to bring out of the world people who, if left to themselves, would do nothing but hate God and hate good forever.

Yes, this is a dark anthropology. But it shines the truest and brightest light on the glory of God. God is holy. God, even today, is restraining humanity from being all we could be if we were left to our wickedness. God shows us that we have only evil intentions in our hearts. But God sent Jesus and rescues out of that mass of rebels a people for himself. Jesus transforms wicked hearts into hearts that find their greatest joy in the glory of God. And this is grace, absolute grace, perfect grace. This is the grace of a God who saves God-haters, not basically good folks. This is a grace that gives all the credit, 100% of the glory, to the Lord and none to the rescued sinner. This is the grace that we magnify when we have a truly biblical grasp of who we are when left to ourselves.

Two Sides of Substitution

When you think of Jesus as your substitute, it is likely that you most often think of Jesus as the sacrifice for your sins. This is, of course, correct. If you are under the grace of Jesus, you know that he walked to the cross as a perfect sacrificial lamb. Blameless, spotless, Jesus took the wrath of God for every wrong that separates you from the Lord.

But there is another side to substitution that is beautiful. We call it imputation, and we see a hint of it in one of my favorite Bible verses.

2 Corinthians 5:21 – For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

The first half of this verse is the sacrificial substitution that we know so very well. God the Father treated Jesus as our sin, even though Jesus knew no sin. Jesus suffered the right and just consequences for our rebellion and failure. And the punishment that Jesus took on our behalf was of such a degree that it would have cost us an eternity in hell.

But the other side of substitution comes in the end of the verse. Jesus suffered on our behalf so that in him, we might become the righteousness of God. Just as God the Father counted Jesus as guilty of our sin when God the Son died on the cross on our behalf, so God the Father also counts us as possessing the righteousness of Christ. That is the side of substitution that I think we consider less often, though it is so very beautiful.

Understand that for you or me to be welcomed into the presence of God, we must be clean. God is holy. That does not mean that God is only mad at sin. It tells us that God demands utter righteousness, absolute perfection. Having my sins covered is not, on its own, enough to make me desirable to the Lord. Being clean, being not a criminal or not dirty, is not enough to grant a person access to the throne room of the King. No, in order to be adopted into God’s family, to be welcomed into God’s presence, the Lord must see us as more than neutral. He must see us as righteous.

When God saves a person, he makes a two-sided trade. The sin of the believer was placed on God the Son and proper justice was carried out by the Father on the Son at the cross. In Exchange for our sinfulness, Jesus places over us his perfect record of righteousness. Though we have never lived a moment of Christ’s perfection, though we will not live out his perfection while we still stand on this sin-cursed earth in our fallen flesh, God looks at our accounts and sees them showing the balance of the absolute perfection of Jesus.

Friends, Jesus did not only die for you, he lived for your benefit too. Jesus perfectly fulfilled all righteousness so that he could be a worthy sacrifice. And he fulfilled all righteousness so that the Father can now look at you and me as having lived out a righteousness that we received as a gift. There will come a day, when Jesus returns, that we will be transformed, glorified, and for the first time actually perfectly righteous in our experience. But for now, we can give God thanks that there are two sides of substitution. We can thank Jesus for imputing to us his perfection so that we might enter the presence of the Lord.

A Real Reason for Celebration

I have often been helped by John Piper’s discussion of duty versus delight in the Christian life. Piper points out that it is more to God’s glory and more to our good when we obey, not out of a sense of obligation, but out of a delight in the glory of our God. It is better for us to seek the joy of honoring the Lord than it is for us to simply obey like a child being forced to eat an unsavory vegetable dish. Of course, Piper does not suggest that disobedience is ever a good option, but obedience out of delight is better.

I thought of this concept as I was reading through the latter chapters of Isaiah.

Isaiah 61:10–11 (ESV)

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;

my soul shall exult in my God,

for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;

he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,

as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,

and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,

and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,

so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise

to sprout up before all the nations.

In this text, the prophet declares in glorious Hebrew poetry that he will rejoice in the Lord. The words used are strong words. He will rejoice. He will exult in God. This is deep, emotional, joy-filled celebration. This is not mere duty. This is the prophet saying that he is going to celebrate God with all he’s got.

Why will he celebrate the Lord? The simple answer is salvation. The prophet will celebrate God because the God he is going to celebrate has robed him with salvation. The Lord has dressed his prophet in righteousness, and Isaiah says that it is like the fine clothes a couple puts on for their wedding day.

Stop and consider what it means, Christian, to be clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Compare that to what it would look like to be clothed in the best righteousness you can muster. If we are left to ourselves, our garments would be tattered and filthy. No righteousness of our own would be acceptable to the Lord. And the best metaphors that we have for how nasty our garments would be, well, it is rough to say the least.

But then consider that God gives us a new robe, a clean set of clothes. We cannot appear before God in our righteousness lest we die forever. But God covers us in the righteousness of his Son. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous life as the God-Man. And God the Father will clothe us in that perfect righteousness of Christ, imputing to us a perfection that we have never lived and could never live.

When you take time to consider the gift of salvation and righteousness, it should cause you to celebrate. This is great news! This is glorious stuff! And verse 11 says that, from this concept, the Lord will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up like garden plants. Our salvation will result in sanctification, as we desire to live to please our Lord. Our salvation will also result in praise, as we will joyfully celebrate, we will exult in, the grace and glory of our God.

Accepting Christ–Repenting and Believing

When I was growing up, I heard one word over and over again in discussions about how to be saved. People who taught me and shared the gospel with me encouraged me to “accept” Christ as my Lord and Savior. The funny thing was, as a child and even as a young man, I really barely understood what they meant.

I’m grateful to God for those who shared Christ with me. I’m grateful for those who called me to be saved. I want to be clear that God used those preachers and friends to bring me to himself. But I have to say that I do not think that the word “accept” was the most helpful word, the most biblical word, they could have used.

With the word “accept,” those who taught me were, I believe, trying to communicate to me a couple of significant concepts. Sadly, that word, left to itself, is too small and too unspecific. They wanted to tell me to accept, in the world of faith, that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that he did what the Bible says he did. But also, in the hearts of the more faithful, the word accept had to also be including the concept of my yielding to Jesus’ lordship, his mastery and authority over my life. Thus, in that word, my dear pastors and friends were calling me to faith and repentance.

Isaiah 55:6-7

6 “Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
7 let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

When Isaiah called on the nation to return to the Lord, note his language. There was an urgency, as the time for salvation was limited. The people could miss it. This fits the urgency of any evangelism. People need to come to Jesus before they face the judgment of God.

Look then at verse 7. We see the concepts needed for salvation. One includes the wicked forsaking his way. A person who is to be forgiven by God must forsake his or her wickedness. That does not mean that the person cleans himself or herself up before bowing to the Lord and seeking salvation. But it is understood that a choice to follow God by definition includes a choice to no longer follow one’s own sinful desires.

Perhaps I can illustrate that with marriage. To choose one person as a spouse is to, by definition, forsake all others. Similarly, to come to God as Savior demands a turning away from choices of rebellion against God. To come to Christ to be saved is to say that you will no longer be the lord and master of your own life. It is repentance, or as my dear former pastors and deacons called accepting Jesus as your Lord.

But next, God talks about the person returning to the Lord who will have compassion and who will pardon. that is more than just turning from sin. This concept is one of believing something. In Isaiah it is believing that God will have that compassion. In the New Testament, it is better defined. To come to the Lord is to have genuine faith in Jesus. It is to believe that Jesus is who the Bible declares him to be and did what the Bible says he did. Jesus is God the Son who became a man, lived a perfect life, died to pay the price for our sins, and rose from the grave to live eternally. Thus, accepting Christ is also to believe in him, accepting the truth of what the Bible says about him.

Honestly, I would not use the term “accept” Christ as the best term for what it means to be saved. I think we communicate more clearly when we use the Bible’s language of repenting of sin and believing in Jesus for salvation. But, I am grateful to God that men of God, men who did not pretend to be scholars, used the best word they knew to help me to see the truth that I needed to accept Jesus, believing in him and his finished work even as I bow to him as my Master.

No Jesus, No God, Know Jesus, Know God

Sometimes the word of God is complicated. Sometimes it is simple. This is one of those simple days, and we must not miss it.

What I want to remind us of today is not a complicated truth. Nor is what I want to remind us of today a politically correct sentiment. But it is exactly what the Bible teaches.

Let us remember that the Bible is clear and unchanging. The Bible is the word of God. The Bible reveals to us God’s truth, not the socially constructed truths of our generation.

OK, here is the simple truth, claimed clearly from Scripture.

1 John 2:23 – No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also.

What do these two sentences say? If you deny Jesus, you do not have a relationship with God the Father. If you have Jesus, you have a relationship with God, the whole God of the Bible—Father, Son, and Spirit.

Again, super simple, right? Of course it is. But it is also foundational to Christianity. We cannot look at that verse and soften the claims to fit the desires of our society. True Christians are bound to the Scripture.

So, what do we do in a world that rejects this claim? First, we continue to believe it. If you say no to Jesus, you say no to God. If you know Jesus, you know God.

Second, we continue to love and show kindness to the world around us, even that world which rejects the Savior. Why? Some would say that we do this in order to persuade others to believe. God certainly wants us to continue to share Jesus with others. But I would suggest that we show goodness and kindness to others because all people have been made in the image of God. That means all people have value, Christian or not. Christians do not assault, attack, or otherwise act cruelly toward those with whom they disagree. But Christians do not let go of biblical truth simply because it is no longer socially popular.

So, I suppose the two sentences above lead us to some important questions. Do you know Jesus? Have you repented of your sin and entrusted your entire life to him? Have you yielded to Jesus in faith and committed all of who you are to him, his commands, and his glory? Do you have his grace? If so, then you have life. Keep following him.

If you have not come to Jesus, know that the Bible says that you are choosing to stand in opposition to God. There is no other way to put it. The sentences above are too simple and clear. You can freely decide that you do not care. You can decide that you will not submit to the Lord. You can decide that you reject all of the Bible. Or you can, by the grace of God, turn, reject sin, believe in Jesus, and be saved.