The Lord's Day Evening
March 6, 2011
“The Gospel Obligation”
The Reverend Mr. Sandy Willson
I'm so glad that you all worship on Sunday night too. I think First Presbyterian and Second Presbyterian must be the only two churches left in the country who still have evening services, and I'm glad I belong to one of them because it's a wonderful way to put the bookends on the day, isn't it? To rise up in the morning and worship Him and before we go to bed at night to gather for the vesper hour as it were and to worship together and thank Him. And especially as we were considering a theme from His Word that's so important as the one before us this weekend.
You know I told you this morning I believe at, at least one of the services, early on in my conversion I was introduced to international missions as well as local missions from which we've heard tonight so eloquently. And it was so obvious to me early on in my conversion as a twenty-five year old, that missions is the task for Christians. Now if I'd been God, I think I would have assigned this to the angels. They’re far more reliable, but He's given it to us. It's an amazing thing that we have been ennobled in this way by being given the greatest task that any creature could have, and that is to take the Gospel to the lost people around the world. That's our task. And so it's certainly important for us to consider from His Word how to do it.
Missions is an adventure, whether it's local or whether it's overseas. The Christian's faith is adventuresome. And I remember when my family was very young. In fact the youngest one was so young - she was only four - that we left her out of it. But the other four children we took on a summer missions trip to Haiti. This was in June. It's very hot in Haiti, and Haiti, even before the earthquake, was a disaster and it's not an easy place to be, especially with young children. But we decided to go with our church. At that time I was at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church and so everybody got their shots and we got the bags packed and so on and we're going through the Atlanta airport and I'm sure I said to the Delta clerk, “Port-au-Prince, Haiti.” Somehow she heard, “Bonn, West Germany.” I have no idea how she heard that! (laughter) I'm serious! So we get to Port-au-Prince but our bags go to Bonn, West Germany.
Now folks, here I am. I have four little children and a wife. I'm in Haiti for a week. A family vacation in June — it's hot in June, it's very smelly in Haiti, and I don't have any underwear and neither does anybody else! I said it's hot in Haiti in June for a whole week with kids from about the age of six to twelve. It is hot and bothersome and difficult, but you know, here's what I found out. You don't need all that stuff. In fact, we got back a week later and you just learn to borrow a few things that you don't normally borrow from people and you just do without the toothbrush and just do the best you can. And we got back and there were our bags waiting for us right on the porch and I found a wonderful thing in missions — even when things go wrong it's not so bad. You know, you can take those bags, open them up, put all your clean clothes right back where you got them, they’re organized on the shelf and you don't need all that stuff anyway! And some of you have reasons to be afraid to go yourself or to take somebody else with you, including your young children, and you’re missing one of the greatest treats that could be yours.
Now this morning we talked about giving and I want to say to you again tonight, I really don't think that's optional unless you have some other plan that we haven't heard about yet. I don't know what your plan could possibly be that could be superior to the plan that's put out before you by your elders tonight. So I don't think of that as being optional but it is adventuresome. I remember when, at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, when old Mr. Hugh McClellan, one of my patron saints, died on me at the age of eighty-one. It was a sad day. I really lost a father in the faith as well as the chairman of our world missions committee. So the world missions committee met the next month and they said among themselves, “You know, Mr. McClellan was eighty-one. It's probably time, because he's been chair forever, it's probably time to have a younger man chair the world missions committee, so we elected Dr. Marion Barnes who is eighty.” (laughter) And I’ll never forget that Dr. Marion Barnes got up on his — he had a wounded knee at that time — he got up on his cane and he said to the session the next week, he said, “Gentlemen I'm the new chairman of the world missions committee.” If you know Dr. Barnes he went - (rubbing hands together) “I'm the chairman of the world missions committee.” (fingers tapping quickly on pulpit) “And I want to say,” and he had a tear streaming down his face. He said, “There's never been a better time in my life to take the Gospel all over the world.”
And that year he submitted a faith pledge. Now in some churches, including ours at that time, a Faith Promise pledge, you could promise all kinds of money that you didn't have, and so you make the pledge and then you pray that God would give it to you somehow. Dr. Barnes did that. The very next week, Sunday night service, when we allowed people from the floor to share prayer requests, Dr. Barnes got up and confessed that all that money came in unexpected windfall that week. He said, “I've got to submit another pledge.” You know he did that three times that year. What an adventure for an eighty year old man who is finding out that his faith, that he thought was using to lead the whole church, was too small. He’d put a number way too small on the Faith Promise pledge and he had to repent twice that year, his first year as chairman. And while he was rising to speak to the congregation I whispered a prayer and said, “God, make me old like that. Don't ever let me lose a sense of adventure.”
And there's an adventure right down the street. Holt was telling us about a ministry that he and some others are carrying out. Did you hear him? He said, “Anybody who will come.” You don't have to be a medical professional. Do you love people? Do you love the poor? Anybody who will come, come. And Holt, I hope tonight you’ll just be up front here with me because I want there to be a line about as long as this aisle of people who will give you their name and their number and their email and who will volunteer their service for you. I really believe that that ministry could be the beginning of a First Presbyterian Church plant or church revitalization if he identifies who the churches are in that area in Pearl, it may be that you’re the one that God uses to revitalize, to help teach Sunday School, to train the children at Vacation Bible School, to set up a soccer league or whatever it may be. It may be through that very medical clinic that you find your most powerful ministry right here in the urban area in Jackson, in the Jackson area. Who knows? But going to the field is important.
And some of you have been at First Presbyterian for a long time and some of you have been at First Presbyterian for a long time and some of you have been giving your contributions for international missions for a long time and you've not gotten to the field yet. And let me just say to you, check your investment out. Get to the field. Visit the missionaries as long as they’re willing to have you, and let them see if there's some way in which you could help them in their ministry. The best way to go is when they ask for some help and you’re willing to humble yourself and do whatever they need. And you can also observe cross-culturally how missions takes place, both here in your city and around the world. And let me tell you, Rhodes College is cross-cultural too. We need a lot of help and it may be that Andrew needs some people who will come and give testimony about what it means to be a Christian doctor or a Christian lawyer or Christian businessman. And we need to make ourselves available to all our partners. They’re our partners, and however we can serve them we must serve them, and if you don't, you’re missing a great blessing. Those of you on the session, you really shouldn't let your sessional service go beyond four or five years if you haven't been on the international field. The PCA book of church order says that one of the duties of the session is to promote the advancement of the kingdom in the Great Commission around the world. How can you advance it if you haven't been there and checked out your partnerships and the connections on the field to see how the ministry's going? This is our task as elders. I try to get to the field at least once a year. And you know what? I run into your pastor! He gets in some strange places around the world.
But are you visiting the field? If some of you say, “Well, I just don't have very good health,” I can't help but remember Miriam Smart, an eighty-year-old woman, Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church, and she didn't want to leave her doctors. You know you've got your internist, you've got your ophthalmologist, you've got your dentist — and you know a tooth could fall out or a leg could fall off — you never know at eighty years what could happen and you don't want to be away from any of those people! And I’ll never forget Miriam Smart just bolstering herself up and saying, “I'm going to Sicily with you folks to teach there in those churches,” which we did. And it was so funny. Of course she didn't have a whole lot of international experience. Now she's gone on to be with the Lord so she's having a lot of international experience right now, but when Miriam went there, we got to the airport and you know in Italy, when you pick up the phone you say, “Pronto.” And Miriam made a logical inference - if they’re saying “pronto” when they pick up the phone that must mean “hello.” So she gets right out at the airport and there's a person to help us with our luggage, and she says, “Pronto.” And he kind of looks at her strangely because she then realized of course — our Italian guest explained “pronto” means “I'm ready.” (laughter) Watch out! She learned at eighty years of age that you have to be very careful about these international relations! You could be saying all kinds of things that you don't expect to say! Well she never would have had that experience if she hadn't gone to Rome and then down to Sicily and many, many other experiences I could tell you about.
Folks, it's a large, poor, lost world. And if you, like most professionals, go from your home, to your church, back to your home, to your office, back to your home, to the airport, to somebody else's office, back to the airport, back home, to your office, back home, to your church, back home — you’re really missing out on what about ninety-five percent of the world's population is experiencing every day. And you really don't understand the world at all. We live, as Western professionals — and I consider myself in this same bubble — we do live in a bubble. And you must be intentional to get out and see what's happening in Jackson with the other ninety-five percent of the population that doesn't live like you do, don't have private schools, and don't have the income that you do, and see how they’re living and see the ways in which we could serve them. And at the very heart of your service, whether it's medicine or housing or crime prevention or whatever it is, at the very heart of it you’ll find the necessity to know Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. And whatever neighborhood you find that's broken down — and to our amazement when we started studying our neighborhoods in Memphis we found that out of 127 of them, that 85% of them are in arrears. Forty percent of them are what we call distressed. That means every indicator of health, if you take about ten indicators — education, housing, crime prevention, clothing, job creation — all the indicators of health in 40% of our neighborhoods they’re in arrears in every indicator — 40%. And I suppose it would be similar in Jackson. We need to know these things and we need to know people who are serving there and we need to give our hands and feet to them as well as our money and our prayers.
So that's the challenge before us, and as we consider what we can do about this world and how just as an individual, ordinary Christian like you and me can make a difference, let's look to the Lord in prayer, let's ask Him to help us understand His Word and to apply it to our 2011 lives so that we, like the apostle, are eager to be about the Lord's work wherever we can do it. Let us pray.
Father, thank You so much for the calling upon our lives. It is an awesome thing. And we would hear Your voice and see Your glory just as Isaiah did in the temple. And after experiencing Your glory and grace say, “Here am I, Lord. Send me,” we would say the same. Help us. Speak, O Lord, for Your servant's listening. Amen.
Romans 1. Let's begin with verse 8 and go through 17. Hear the Word of God:
“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of His Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God's will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you — that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith, both yours and mine. I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles.”
And now we look at the text for tonight, verses 14 through 17:
“ I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.
For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”
All flesh is grass and all its glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever. Amen.
The apostle Paul is an adventuresome man. He was very well trained, he had champagne taste, he had been treated to the best opportunities to his own generation, and yet he had been converted now to take this Gospel to the rich and the poor all over the world, beginning with the Roman Empire. And the apostle Paul, by the time he writes this letter, had evangelized Asia and Galatia, Macedonia and Achaea, and he says to these Romans now in the year 55, 56 AD, he says to them, “I've been all over the Roman world, and now I must go on beyond to you, and beyond even to Spain.” The apostle Paul was always looking for an opportunity how he could invest his life for the advancement of the Great Commission of the Lord Jesus Christ. And a question that you and I have to ask ourselves tonight is, “Is your life, is my life our best answer to the Great Commission?” The apostle Paul said, “I consider my life worth nothing to me if I can simply finish the task, the task of testifying to the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” That was the one thing he had in his viewfinder. And we want to have that as the focus of our lives as well.
And you’ll see here as he writes these Romans what makes him tick. And I’ll tell you, it's what makes any Christian missionary tick. Now the apostle Paul wrote this letter and often when we think of Romans we think of it as the most exquisite description of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. And I suppose it is. It is, as some would say, the “magna carta” of the apostle Paul. It is, some would say, just pure, beautiful Christian doctrine. But as one studies Romans a little bit more, one sees that well, he did have a very practical issue that he was addressing. And that was — how were the Jews and the Gentiles in Rome going to get along with each other? Most of them were Gentiles but there were some Jews there and Paul is writing them, when you look at chapters 9 through 11 about the place of Israel in the kingdom of God, you see that he is explaining the historic role of the Jews and the present role of the Gentiles. And in chapters 14 and 15 he talks about the weak and the strong, presumably talking about those with a Judaistic background, the weak, and the strong would be the free Gentile. So he had a sociological problem that he was addressing, a relational one within the church. And this Gospel, this one Gospel for Jew and Gentile gives us the answer for breaking down the walls of hostility. The answer for elitism - the rich ignoring the poor, the answer for racism - the white's ignoring the blacks, the answer for genderism — the men ignoring the women, it's all right there because we all stand at the foot of the cross. They were equal before Christ. And so some would say that the driving concern was a sociological one.
But then when you turn to chapter 15 you see no, this wasn't the driving concern. It was missiological! The apostle Paul wanted to go beyond the regions he had been and he had never been to Rome and he was eager to preach the Gospel there. But he was eager to preach it for one thing because he wanted them to know the Gospel, but he intends to take on Spain and he's saying to them, “Y’all are going to be my supporters.” This is a missionary prayer letter. Paul is introducing himself. He's introducing the Gospel that he wants to take to Spain - the Gospel that the Romans need and the Gospel that the Spaniards need. And he's basically introducing himself to get them ready to take a collection to help him to go on to Spain. What a letter. What a marvelous letter. Carefully theological, exquisitely theological, and profoundly missiological.
But in the midst of it of course, the apostle Paul is introducing himself. And when you look at this text, 14 through 17, you see three phrases that beautifully describe the heart of the apostle and the heart of the First Presbyterian Christian missionary. Will you look at these with me? He says in verse 14 — “I am under obligation.” That's going to be the first thing we want to look at. But then look at verse 15. He says, “I am eager to preach.” So he's under obligation, he's eager to preach, but thirdly look at verse 16. “I'm not ashamed.” Now let's look at those things. This is what makes the life of a person who is really eager to go, to work with Holt, or to work with Andrew, or to work with Johnny, or to work with Larry, or to work with Barry, or any of the other ones we've heard from this weekend. This is what will make you a short-term or a long-term missionary.
First of all, we are under obligation. We are under debt. Now as John Stott said in his commentary on Romans, there are two ways in which we can be in debt. If I borrow $10,000 from you, then I am under obligation or I am in debt to you by $10,000 and I owe you $10,000. However, here's another way that I could be in debt to you for $10,000. Ligon could give me $10,000 and say, “Give it to Mary Margaret.” And I am under obligation to Mary Margaret to give her the $10,000 that Ligon intends to go to her. He didn't intend it to go to me. I'm simply the messenger. And so I owe her $10,000 because I've got her $10,000 of Ligon's. Now this is the kind of indebtedness that Dr. Stott says is the indebtedness of the apostle Paul. He doesn't technically personally owe something to the Romans, either to the Jews or to the Greeks, but in the Gospel he owes them something because he has been given something that he has been told to give to other people and therefore God has given it to the church to give it to the un-churched. And therefore, because of that, we now have an obligation to give what doesn't belong to us to keep simply to ourselves to give it to other people. This is what the apostle is saying — “I'm under obligation.” And of course we know that the Gospel itself is a gift. “For God so loved the world that He gave.” And we know that “the wages of sin is death but the free gift is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” And so we know that we've been given a gift and therefore it becomes a gift from God through us to other people. And there are a lot of people yet who have not received the gift. They’re right here in Jackson. They’re right in South Africa in the townships where your missionary serves.
We were hearing earlier this weekend that of about a hundred pastors in the township only two of them really know the Gospel solidly. There are ninety-eight pastoral ministries where the Gospel's not coming through clearly. We owe them the Gospel. We've been given it for them. There are about 6.7 billion people in the world and 4.5 billion of them do not know Jesus Christ. And 1.5 billion of them live in an area where there is no clear Gospel witness. 1.5 billion people don't even have what we’d call a chance to hear the Gospel. This has got to change. We still need thousands of missionaries. Of course the missionary role has changed over my lifetime as a Christian, over the past thirty-five years. Of course it's changed. It should change. But it has not been eliminated. And let me tell you where missionaries come from. From churches like this one, from youth groups like this one, from Sunday Schools and Vacation Bible Schools like these, from pews like the ones you’re sitting in. This is where missionaries come from. They always have, they always will, because God has established His economy in such a way that it becomes the church's obligation to take the Gospel to those who have not heard it. There are 6,909 languages, believe it or not, in the world. Four-hundred-fifty-one of them have a Bible. Two-thousand-two-hundred-fifty-two of them don't even have a word of either Testament in their language. We have an obligation.
Now we don't have to feel guilty for it because Christ has destroyed all that sin. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. No one here is trying to earn their way to heaven; we're simply trying to fulfill our task — the unfinished task of the church to take the Gospel around the world to all the people. There are 16,350 people groups, ethno-linguistic groups, who are distinct cultures who speak a distinct dialect — 16,350 of them. There are 6,645 who have not been reached. We need thousand of missionaries from churches like this one to go long-term. Let me tell you the best preparation to go long-term is to be a missionary right where you are, as was said earlier by Andrew. We’re all missionaries. The best preparation for you to go overseas and be an effective missionary is to reach the people in your neighborhood, in your business, in your professional association, in your golf course, in your bridge club, with the people who just moved in down the street. If we're not doing it here, we will not do it there. A plane ride doesn't make a missionary out of anybody so we must do it here. We are under obligation to the people in our neighborhood to be sure that they know the Gospel.
We’re not under obligation to convert them because we can't convert them. Nobody can, only God. We’re under obligation to get the Gospel out. That's what the apostle is saying here in this text. And as Leo Durocher said, “You know, baseball's like church — a lot of people attend; very few understand.” In that sense, it is like baseball, isn't it? But what happens when we do what the apostle said which is, “imitate me”? He says, “Follow me as I follow Christ. Take my example. Take on my cloak. Take on my sense of urgency. Take on my sense of obligation” because we are in the apostolic church and the same obligation is ours; then it will change our lives.
Notice secondly in verse 15 he says, “I am eager.” So dear friends we must be eager. We don't just do it out of sheer duty. The only way in which we could possibly honor God in this ministry is if we're eager to do it. Now I know some of you will say, “You know I just have to admit, I want to be an honest Presbyterian for heaven's sake. I'm not just very eager at all. It's just not something I want to do.” Well, then here's what you can do. You can confess that you haven't been interested in the field and you can confess that you’re not eager. Now you have two things to confess. That's great! And you have two things to thank God for forgiving you for. And then you ask Him for repentance. “Lord, I do want to get involved in the field. And Lord, I do want to do it. I want to want to do it. Would You help me, Lord?” Ask Him to change your heart. You know what? He changes hearts. It's amazing how He changes hearts. Ask Him to do that — to make you eager like the apostle Paul.
Now Paul says, “I'm eager to come to you at Rome.” And if you get a chance to go to Rome I would encourage you to go. You should be eager to go. I'm eager to go this fall. I’ll be going on a “Footsteps of the Apostle Paul” trip and we’ll end up in Rome. I'm eager to get to Rome. I'm going to be a tourist. Well let's put it this way — an evangelistic tourist, but a tourist. (laughter) The apostle Paul was going as an evangelist at the risk of his own life. And of course the way he ended up there we know was not in first-class but through a shipwreck and then imprisoned. And from prison he leads the Praetorian Guard to faith in Jesus Christ and proclaims the kingdom of God from his prison cell. He's eager to go to Rome under any circumstances.
I mentioned Dr. Marion Barnes a few moments ago who, as you know, was the past president of Covenant College. And shortly after the young Dr. Barnes at eighty years of age became our world missions committee chairman, I remember another year when he stood up on a Sunday night and gave his testimony, or actually he asked for prayer. And this was his request. Now he's about eighty-one, eighty-two. He rose up before the congregation and he said, “I want to ask for your prayers because I'm meeting with four of my good buddies and we're going to pray about how we can use the rest of our lives” — the teenagers over here started snickering…”He doesn't have much left to live. What's to pray about?” Dr. Barnes came back the next Sunday night after his meeting with his friends and he rose to give a report to the congregation who had prayed for him, teenagers included. And he said, “I just want to thank you for praying because the Lord gave us this answer. All five of us in our meeting said we’ll go anywhere at any time to do anything to advance the kingdom of God here and around the world.” You know what I did. I bowed my head and whispered a little prayer — “God, make me old like that.” There's a man who's got it. He knows what his life is all about. He had his PhD in chemistry, he had worked for Monsanto Company, he had been president of a college - he could have rested on his laurels. No, he's got life; he's got breath; he can still get around with a cane; he is going to serve the world in the name of Jesus Christ. He's eager to do it and he wants to be sure that the fourteen year olds know exactly how eager he is! What about you? You’re never too old. I knew a minister one time who got up before a congregation. He said, “I'm going to teach y’all everything the Bible has to say about retirement.” (closed Bible) And he walked off. That's it, eagerness.
Now notice when you turn to verse 16 and 17 that not only are we under obligation and eager to fulfill it, but we go because we are not ashamed of the Gospel, not ashamed of the Gospel. Now this is a literary technique that's known as litotes. L-i-t-o-t-e-s. And it means a double negative that really means a positive. So “I'm not ashamed” would mean I'm proud of the Gospel. As Paul says, “I never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ through whom the world has been crucified to me and I to the world,” so that we know that he had a boast about the cross. But once again in Dr. Stott's commentary he suggests that the reason the apostle Paul put it this way was not just a literary technique. He was actually referring to his own temptation to be ashamed of the Gospel. And you might think, “The apostle Paul? Tempted to be ashamed?” Exactly. The apostle Paul was a man, he was a sinful man, he was a redeemed sinful man, and he was tempted to be ashamed. When he talks about the Jews who critique him for his weak Gospel and when he talks about the Gentiles, the philosophers critiquing him for a foolish Gospel, don't think for a minute that he didn't feel weak and foolish in front of them. And he was tempted to shy away from this weak and foolish message in the eyes of the world. And so are we.
Today at lunch, of course I enjoyed being with Ligon and Anne and Jennings, and at one point they asked me about my children and I told them about my second son, Ben, who's a marine officer and he served two terms in Iraq and most recently in Afghanistan. And for those of you who are aware of last year's military maneuvers, he was in Helmand province and he was with Bravo company that invaded Marja. And before Ben took off, about fourteen months ago, we just said to him, “Ben, now tell us how can we pray for you?” And here was what Ben said. He didn't ask for his life to be preserved, he didn't ask that he wouldn't be wounded — now you can count on it, his mom and daddy prayed for that — but here's what he prayed for. He said, “Dad, there's really one thing I want to be sure I do — that I honor God and I honor the Marine Corps by not backing down and fulfilling my duty in every moment. Would you just pray for me not to be a coward?” Well if you know my son, Ben, the last thing you’d think he would do was be a coward, but that's what makes brave me — they actually pray for bravery because they know down deep inside we're all tempted to cowardice; we're all tempted to self-centeredness. And that's exactly what the apostle's doing. He doesn't take anything for granted.
And so how do you pray? You pray that you’ll be proud of the Gospel, that it will, you know — I can't resist. You know once you become a grandparent you kind of turn half-goofy and you talk about these little children all the time. Well, you know, if anyone wants to know about my grandchildren, I just pop out my iphone and I've got 400 pictures! Take your pick! You want to see them sitting down? Lying up? Do you want to see them burping or whatever? You want to see them with clothes on? Without? I can satisfy whatever desire you have to see my grandchildren! I'm so proud of them! What the apostle is saying is, “May I never be proud of anything, ultimately, but the Gospel of the cross of Jesus Christ.” And he knows that has to be cultivating within him.
Now if you’ll look at the text, you’ll see that the apostle Paul is really preaching to himself as well as to the Romans. He says, “No matter what the Greeks say and not matter what the Judaizers say, we have reasons to be proud of the Gospel.” And the first thing he says is, “For it alone is for the salvation of everyone who's lost, for Jew and Gentile alike. There's nothing else that saves.” When Peter and John had healed a man in the name of Jesus Christ and they were challenged by the Sanhedrin never to go out and mention that name again, the name of Jesus, they simply said, “What is better, to obey you or to obey God? For there is no other name given among men under heaven by which we must be saved but the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” They were challenged by the religious leaders of their own day. Paul was constantly challenged but he would say to them over and over again, “This is the way to be saved and I know it's the way of salvation.” And ladies and gentleman I know it. When I was brought to Christ as the age of twenty-five, I know from personal experience that my life was radically transformed. My language changed, my treatment of my wife changed, my ambitions as a father changed, but most importantly my heart was changed. I loved Christ and His kingdom, and since then I've seen this happen to scores and scores of people.
I’ll never forget the man that wanted to marry one of our girls in church. And when I interviewed them, as I'm sure your pastoral staff does, I found that he wasn't a believer. And so that's something that pastors really, really dread. That's when we kind of hate our job. And we have to look at two people who are romantically entangled and tell them that they shouldn't be married, at least at that point. And here's what I told the young man. I said, “Look Bob, there's hope for you because you’re right here and I'm a believer. And I would love to work with you. I know it's treacherous because you may feel as though, you know, if you make a profession of faith it's a “foxhole conversion,” but I’ll take foxhole, any kind of hole. I’ll do anything if I can get you to love the Lord Jesus Christ. Would you spend some time with me, give yourself a chance?” “Well pastor, I guess so.” “Alright, great. Deal. We’re going to meet four weeks in a row, every Monday afternoon.” So I put him on the Gospel of John. Read a chapter a day and keep a journal. And every Monday afternoon we’d go through the last seven chapters he read, answer all his questions, and so on. He gets to the end, after twenty-one chapters, and we've been answering questions now for three weeks. And I said, “Okay Bob, here's your assignment. You've got to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. What's the deal? What's your verdict on all of this?” He said, “Well I don't see a thing here that I don't agree with. I mean it says wonderful things, John's gospel does.” He said, “I just don't know what difference it makes.” Well I knew him well enough at this point to know that he knew I loved him. So I got up out of my chair and said, “What difference it makes?!” I said, “Son, have you ever heard of hell? That's what difference it makes! Everybody is assigned to hell! You read in John chapter 3 the wrath of God abides on you apart from Jesus Christ!” He kind of looked at me with golf ball sized eyes. And I said, “You go figure out what difference it makes! Now let's meet again next Monday, okay?”
Meanwhile I had assigned him a small group that he met with every Sunday night. The next Monday he returns to my office. I was amazed he came back. And here's what he told me. He said, “Pastor, before you say anything I just want you to know, last night in that small group you put me in,” he said, “I left that small group, went out into the dark to get to my car, and all of a sudden,” he said, “I don't expect you to understand this pastor, but it's kind of like something fell off my eyes.” He said, “I could see in a way that I have never seen before.” And he described something very similar to Paul on the road to Damascus. And he said, “Pastor, I don't know how to tell you this, but my whole world has been changed since last night!” And then he looked at me and said, “Does anybody around here know about this?” And I said to myself, “Well sometimes I'm not sure.” But this boy had it.
And then about three weeks later we had a world missions conference and our treasurer at the time, who is to be trusted with confidence. She never uttered a word. I don't know what anybody in our church gives, don't want to know, because I'd see a big dollar sign on your forehead. I don't want to know. She just stopped me in the hallway and she said, “You know, we had an interesting thing happen at the world missions conference.” I said, “What was that, Dot?” She said, “Well, somebody who's not even a member of this church, and I know you won't know who it was…” I should have stopped there. She said, “They put $25,000 in the plate for world missions!” Well I didn't want Dot to know that she’d unintentionally violated a confidence, so I said, “Well Dot, that is really unbelievable. Isn't that amazing? God is gracious.” So I just said goodbye to her, walked down the hall, turned to the left, went to my office, opened the door, closed the door, and went “Yes!” (laughter) Because I was convinced this man has been saved and he is eager to preach the same Gospel that had gloriously saved his soul for eternity. That's what the apostle is saying. This Gospel saves people.
Now notice in verse 17 as we close, he describes further really how this Gospel works. He says what the saving Gospel actually is, is a revelation of the righteousness of God. Now there's debate on what this righteousness means. I think I can safely say that your pastoral staff believes the same thing I do, that this righteousness is not just talking about an attribute of God that God is righteous, nor an activity of God that God is faithful in keeping His covenant. Both of which are true. But this righteousness that we see in Romans 3 and Philippians 3 and Galatians 2 and other places is a righteousness that is a gift that can be given. It's not just an attribute or an activity of God. It's a gift that can be given to sinners. And every religion around the world has a way to accomplish some form of righteousness, whether I'm in Cambodia with the Buddhists or I'm in Jordan with the Muslims or I'm in Papua New Guinea with the Animists, they all have some way to get themselves right in their conscience and they’re all by works. And Paul says this Gospel is so magnificent. It's the only one that works. This good news tells us that this righteousness comes down from heaven apart from your performance. It's the righteousness from God that is by faith. It's from faith and for faith and by faith. This righteousness sets us free from all of our stupidities and our deep, dark sins and everything else — all of our follies and all of our failures. It sets us free from everything. And not only that, not only negatively gets rid of our sin and purges our account, but positively gives us the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Now once again, I may be going too far but my imagination is roaming. And I'm thinking what it will be like to get to heaven. And my friend Peter, the apostle, will come up to me and say, “Hey Willson, have you checked your account lately and seen what's on your file?” “Well no, I'm kind of afraid to look at it.” “Well no, it says in there that you raised a dead man!” Now look, I'm Presbyterian. I haven't raised a dead man! And I'm going to say to Peter, “I didn't raise any dead people!” And Peter's going to say, “Well it's on your file.” Someone else, Paul the apostle, comes to me — “Hey Willson, I've been wanting to meet you because on your file is this incredible sermon. Man, it kind of goes like this — ‘Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.’” I said, “No, no, no. That's not my sermon! That was actually the Lord's sermon called the Sermon on the Mount, Paul. That was a little before your time, you may not remember!” And he said, “Look, it's on your record.”
Now ladies and gentlemen, here's the point — I have the full righteousness of Christ. Everything that He rightly earned in this life, I'm getting credit for it! Now look, I know this sounds like Disney World, I know this sounds like a fantasy that couldn't possibly be true, but ladies and gentlemen, this is the good news! It's actually true! You put your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not only your sins from yesterday and twenty-five years ago, the worst things you ever did and the least things, they’re all off your record, but the things that you’re going to do to morrow are already off your record! And not only that, but positively you have rights to heaven because in your record are the things that Jesus did and said and thought. You've got that righteousness! And the apostle Paul is saying to himself, “How could I ever back down, no matter what the Jews and the Gentiles think? I've got a Gospel that not only transforms individual lives, it transforms the cosmos! So I'm not ashamed.” That's what the apostle says.
And you and I have to ask ourselves, “Do we find ourselves ashamed?” You get on the airplane and kind of hope no one asks you a religious question. You know I remember early on in my ministry I was afraid of having someone ask me what I did for a living after I became a pastor. I'd been a steel salesman for five years. I was not used to just being a pastor. And it dawned on me after about two or three years of this embarrassment that was I was really embarrassed of was the Gospel of Jesus Christ Himself. And I was deeply convicted. I said, “Lord, I've got to get this thing not just out of reverse and into neutral, I've got to get it out of reverse and into forward.” So here's what I did and I've been doing it ever since — one of the first things I ask the guy next to me in the airplane — “What do you do for a living?” — because I know he will ask me what I do for a living and when he does, you know what? You poor folks who aren't in full time ministry and aren't ordained, you have to talk about football and you know, all this relationship building you've got to do, hey, can it! Just become a pastor or an elder and you've got a right to say, “That's what I do in my life,” or be a missionary. You don't have to be paid to be a missionary. You can just be a missionary and you can say, “You know what I do with my life? It's the Christian mission.” And of course you’ll see the eyes go like this — (wide-eyed). But then here's your next question — “You know, since this is my business, could I ask you a few questions?”
One time D. L. Moody, the great evangelist, was coming through a park in Chicago and saw a man who had obviously spent the night on a park bench. And D. L. Moody, as he was walking through, just came up to the man and sat next to him and said, “Sir, tell me, do you know Jesus Christ as your Savior?” The mind kind of started to look over at Mr. Moody and said, “Sir, I don't think that's any of your business.” And Mr. Moody said, “Sir, my name is D. L. Moody.” And the other man said, “Oh, excuse me. That is your business!” (laughter) Is it yours? Is it your business? Does this business trump everything? It if doesn't, it's not yet your business because when it becomes your business it takes over everything — your family, your grandchildren, your job, your boyfriend and your girlfriend, your little league baseball team, your church, your vacations, your money, your prayer time — it takes everything. And there's no greater joy than to know that God has put you under obligation as His partner in the Gospel that He promises to give an eager heart to everyone who asks Him, and that He gives you a precious Gospel of which you are not ashamed, but you are to proclaim it to the world. This is what it means to know Jesus Christ and to make Him known.
Father, for these Your dear people who assemble on the Lord's Day Evening to offer You praise and thanksgiving, to surrender their minds and their hearts and their lives to You, would You please encourage them by Your Holy Spirit tonight, remind them that it doesn't matter about what they've done in the past and it doesn't matter about whether they think they’re gifted or not — You’ll take care of all that. Remind them that it doesn't make a difference if they have a lot of money or prestigious educational diplomas or the fanciest of friends. It doesn't matter. Remind us all Lord that all that matters is that we know You and we love You and You’re enough. And with You, we can obey and be Your agents to a world that desperately needs to hear. Help us. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
(After forgetting the benediction…)
Sunday night, I was told, is not like Sunday morning! Sunday night we stand up, don't we, and have a benediction following the prayer. Yes we do, of course! What idiot couldn't remember that? See, God uses people like this who can't even think to proclaim His Gospel and He’ll use you too. Take your little foibles and your big mistakes and your massive sins and just leave them right here and go into the world with His righteousness, clothed in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ, and serve Him with an eager and glad heart.
And the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, descend upon you and dwell in your heart forever. Amen.
© First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.