Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Three Aspects of Good Gospel Preaching

As I read Acts 24 today, I marveled at Paul's bold preaching in tough circumstances.  With freedom on the line, he did not sugarcoat his conversations with the Roman governor, Felix, and his Jewish princess/wife, Drusilla (a member of the Herod family), when they talked about "the Way."  Felix had some background, and more importantly, controlled Paul's destiny (at least from a human perspective).  You might think Paul would try to use Felix's interest to get himself set free.  And you would be wrong.  Instead, he preached a message that seems as pointed as possible.  And it is the core of the gospel we should preach to others and ourselves.

It was, first, about "righteousness."  How can anyone be right with God?  Is our own behavior ever going to be good enough?  In Felix's case, he probably knew it was not.  He had divorced his previous wife and stolen the heart of Drusilla, who herself had a record of unfaithfulness to her previous husband.  He was not above a bribe, and history does not present a picture of any nobility about this man.  Yet he's intrigued by Paul, whose moral clarity and intellectual integrity is obvious.  So they talked about righteousness, and based on all his preaching and writing we know what Paul would be saying.  To such a Roman, Paul would most likely echo what is written in his letter to the Romans.  He would present the arguments of Romans 1-3 to show that there is a God of righteousness, and that man has resisted righteous thought and action in favor of our own passions and preferences.  Every man's conscience tells him when he does wrong, but we learn to not listen.  And when confronted with God's laws, we recognize that we don't obey them, don't want to, and even if we did, we don't have the power (that's Romans 7).  Our righteousness is what Isaiah labeled "filthy rags" (a very prejudicial term) in God's judgment, and this is true of all.

Where can righteousness be found?  Paul would clearly point to the One whose life was righteous, and whose nature, being God, was inherently righteous--Jesus Christ.  This one man's righteousness was in stark contrast to that of all other humans descended from Adam (Romans 5).  And that righteousness was available, as it always had been, not through works that we can do, but through faith: believing God (Romans 4).  God's provision of righteousness is through faith.  When we believe God has provided righteousness for us and a substitute whose death is accepted as the payment for our sin, we are "justified" by that faith--declared first to be not guilty because the guilt has been laid on Jesus at the cross, and also declared to be righteous because Jesus' righteousness is credited to us (Romans 5-8).

Is that all?  Is the gospel simply a wiping away of guilt for sin?  It is that, but it is much more!

It is secondly about "self-control."  Wow, so was Paul telling Felix he had to "shape up" to be saved?  Not at all.  If we read Romans 6-8, as well as Romans 13-16, Paul develops a picture of what happens when our eyes are opened to the truth of our sinfulness and the way that God has provided to deal with that.  We recognize that we are guilty, but that we are also sinners who need to be saved from our sinning.  This knowledge comes through the ministry of the Spirit, who not only opens our eyes, but sets us free from the bondage to sin (Paul calls it "the law of sin and death"--Romans 8:2).  The Spirit continues to remind us of whose we are now--children of God--and empowers us to walk in "newness of life" (Romans 6 says much about this walk).  We now realize that we are in a battle with sin which still appeals to a part of us (Romans 8 calls it "the flesh") even while we are seeking to walk in the Spirit.  This is the test Paul puts forward of whether real faith has come to us or not.  If we see that there is good and evil, but ultimately choose to live our lives doing what we want no matter what God desires, then Paul argues that this is not true faith.  Felix's interest, and even possible agreement with the teaching of Jesus would not be enough.  It would have to yield fruit--a lifestyle that shows the desire to "walk" under the direction and power of the Spirit.  Paul would not preach perfection, but he would say that there SHOULD be continued progress as we learn the will of God.  The basic pattern of the Christian life is this: we learn and grow, we obey, we find joy; we stumble, we feel guilty/convicted, we recognize that our efforts will never save us but that Jesus has paid our debt and given us life, we repent, we get back on the path of the Spirit; and continue to walk.  It is a pattern of Spirit-empowered self-control (maybe Paul would have alluded here to another book's message, for in Galatians 5:22-23 we find that self-control is the final of seven aspects of the fruit of the Spirit in a believer's life).

Of course, our man Felix hasn't shown too much evidence in his life of self-control, and may not be really interested in changing.  Or perhaps he thinks his religious interests and searching would be good enough.  Paul then takes him to a third subject...

Finally, it is the message about the coming judgment.  Paul faithfully reminds Felix that God has appointed a day of judgment.  In that day, eternal life and death will be manifested.  Sinners will "perish" due to their sinfulness, either in violation of what they knew about God from creation and conscience, or from God's law as revealed in the Scriptures.  If you could stand before God and say that you had kept all of his laws, you would escape judgment.  But all have sinned and fall short of God's glorious holiness (Romans 3:23).  This means that the sinner will receive the due payment for violating God's law--death (Romans 6:23).  The "perishing" and "death" that are spoken of for the sinner must be more than physical death, since believers die physically as well.  Paul makes this clear in Romans 9, where he points to a mysterious possibility in a universe created by God--that God actually wants his creation to see both his grace and his wrath.  And this wrath is described as "destruction" (9:23) and God's "sentence upon the earth" (9:28).  While Romans doesn't get into a lot of the specifics of judgment, Paul has written in 2 Thessalonians 1 that it involves flaming fire, vengeance, and being thrown out of God's presence.  And in Romans 14:10 he tells us "we will all stand before the judgment seat of God."  This warning--that the God who made the universe and determines its laws and what is good, will serve as final Judge, and we will stand before him, just as Paul had to stand before Felix.  Given his dissolute life to this point, and the intellect that had allowed him to plot and plan his current rise to power, Felix was not receptive to such a message.  Acts 24:25 tells us that he became "alarmed,"  and basically said, "Leave, and when I'm more ready for this, I'll listen again."  He didn't get it.  He couldn't make himself ready, and never would.  His old ways soon crowded out whatever fear he felt, and he continued to dialog with Paul and give his friends freedom to visit, hoping that it would result in what usually happened--a bribe to set Paul free.  No bribe was forthcoming, and so Felix left him for his successor to deal with.

I wonder if we are always faithful to give the whole picture to people when we share the gospel.  It is definitely a message of righteousness, and we are pretty good at telling people that they are sinners in need of God's grace in salvation.  But in our zeal to make sure that no one trusts in their own efforts, we sometimes downplay the changing power of the gospel-- Sinners + Salvation & the Holy Spirit = self-control.  We can, should, and want to say "no" more and more to the flesh (read Titus 2:11-12 carefully).  If a sinner only wants to escape Hell but doesn't want God to rescue him from his sinning ways, then he doesn't want salvation.  And I don't think most of us are too excited about reminding people that God is bringing a final judgment and all will stand before him.  This failure may account for the fact that so few share with urgency and hearers often react with apathy.

Let's be sure we preach the Gospel as Paul did, to others and to ourselves!