“Are You Proud of the Gospel?”
October 22, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
Preaching only from time to time, as I do nowadays, gives me the opportunity to examine biblical statements, here and there, that strike me when I read them or when they are cited in a book I am reading. Not so long ago I found myself, as I often do, reading a sermon of Alexander Whyte. And I came across this passage. It reveals, rather sadly in fact, that Whyte was well aware of what was happening in the Scottish church; how faith was being lost, especially among its ministers, not least because so many Scottish ministers had imbibed the spirit of the age, lost their confidence in the authority of the Word of God, and began looking for messages more in tune with their times. That is, messages with a more positive view of human beings and less concern for their sin and their need for peace with God. The book from which this comes was published in 1911; a year before the Titanic sunk and three years before the start of the First World War, in other words, just before the bloom fell off the rose of that early 20th century confidence in the goodness and the endless possibilities of man. Here is Whyte.
“Now, my brethren, you will go to so-called Christian churches, both in town and country, where you would never discover that Paul’s Epistle to the Romans had ever been written, and where you will never be put to shame with such old-fashioned doctrines as the imputed righteousness of Christ of which Paul is full. … The imputation of your sin to the Lamb of God, and the imputation of his righteousness to you; no such offensive things are ever uttered there.” [James Fraser of Brea, 71]
I was arrested by his reference to Christians being ashamed of such gospel doctrines or being offended by them. The idea of being ashamed of the gospel is, of course, taken from the Apostle Paul himself, famously the thesis statement of his greatest work: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…”
Now that statement, well known to you as it is, must not be taken for granted, as we often do, familiar with it as we are, and moving quickly forward to read what Paul says next. In the next verses he lays the foundation for the gospel by what he says about human sin and the need for God’s forgiveness. But what Paul said first deserves careful consideration. As some of you literary types might recognize, the form of Paul’s statement is an example of the figure of speech known as litotes. Litotes is a form of understatement in which the affirmative thought is expressed in a negative form. For example, when Paul identified himself to the Roman tribune, after his arrest in Jerusalem, we read in Acts 21:39 that he told the man he was from Tarsus, “a citizen of no obscure city…” That is litotes, understatement. What he means, of course, is that he is a Roman citizen from an important city. He’s no country bumpkin and no easy mark for a Roman commander who wants simply to stop the uproar and go back to whatever he was doing before he was interrupted. In Acts 14:28 we read that Paul and Barnabas remained in Antioch “no little time.” That is, they remained there for a good while. But the understatement, the negative statement instead of the positive, attracts the reader’s attention. Luke was a literary man and litotes appears in his two books, the Gospel and the book of Acts, more often than anywhere else in the NT.
A better example still, because it also refers to someone being ashamed, is the statement in Hebrews 2:11that Christ is not ashamed to call us his brothers. By this form of understatement, we are being taught that Christ is, in fact, proud to call us his brothers; he is pleased, even grateful to be able to call us his brothers. But, of course, the effect of the statement, when put that way, is heightened; the heightening produced by the fact that there are perfectly obvious reasons why he might rather be ashamed to call us his brethren. We know very well that we disappoint the Lord as often, if not much more often, than we please him. We don’t increase his reputation in the world as we ought to. It would hardly surprise serious Christians to learn that the Lord was ashamed of us, saved though we may be. We are, after all, often enough ashamed of ourselves as the followers of Christ. So, to hear that he is not ashamed is arresting, it is powerfully consoling, is it not? It is, in fact, utterly remarkable that the Lord should say of people like us, as he does in Zephaniah 3, that he rejoices over us with gladness and that he exults over us with loud singing. Over us? Really?
Well, in the same way, when Paul writes that he is not ashamed of the gospel, he is in fact saying, more powerfully and memorably because by way of understatement, that he glories in the gospel, that it is his greatest privilege to proclaim it. But, as many scholars and preachers have pointed out through the ages, there is more in this form of statement than a mere literary device. Litotes it may be in form, but Paul speaks in this way precisely because he knows, almost certainly from his own experience, that Christians will always and forever be tempted to be ashamed of the gospel. He knew that Christians would be arrested by that phrase, “I am not ashamed,” because they had been ashamed. Think of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2, where he says to the saints there that, when he first met them, when he first arrived in Corinth – perhaps the first time he had publicly preached the gospel in one of the greatest cities of the empire – he came in weakness and in fear and much trembling…”
We know in another way that Paul knew of this temptation, knew that even the faithful followers of the Lord Jesus would, from time to time, find themselves ashamed of the gospel, because he tells us in 2 Tim 1:8, “…do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord…but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling…” And you and I know why Paul might have thought it important to tell us not to be ashamed of the gospel, because we have found ourselves ashamed of it more than once or twice. Pastor Gutierrez was telling me the other day of a relative of his who worked at a restaurant. One of her fellow workers had been invited to church and they ran into one another there. “Oh, you’re a Christian too,” the visitor remarked. “Why didn’t you invite me to church?” Ouch!
It is not at all difficult to understand why people in the first century might have been ashamed of the gospel.
- It was a message that was generally unknown in the world of that day. People had never heard of Jesus Christ or that salvation came to the world when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. It was a new message, unfamiliar and strange. So, these few Christians were saying, in effect, that they alone had discovered the secret to life, a secret utterly unknown to the world before.
- More than this, it was a message that originated among Jews, about a Jew. Jews were not popular in the Greco-Roman world; in fact, they were widely resented. They were troublesome people who hailed from a backwater of the empire. They were monotheists in a polytheist world. They refused to do what the people of that time and place thought not only right but necessary for the common welfare. It would have seemed – it did seem to them – absurd that the vaunted Roman empire would have to bow to a Jew. The Roman world was proud of its philosophy, its literature, its military achievements, its architectural and technological accomplishments. The Romans. had transformed the world. The Jews hadn’t. What had they accomplished? It would be much the same if we Americans were told today that the savior of the world was an Iraqi or Iranian imam from the middle eastern countryside. What does some back-country rube have to teach us? And we are to believe him to be the only God! This message they are preaching is the ridiculous superstition of nobodies!
- But in this case, Christians had reason to believe that the message itself would be even more unwelcome, controversial, and offensive. People were going to reject it, scorn it, laugh at it, and think poorly of them for recommending it. “Are we really supposed to take this nonsense seriously? Salvation through the crucifixion of a Jewish criminal?” Absurd. “Who says he rose from the dead?” As one of them sneered, it was the report of “a hysterical female.”
- In fact, as a message likely to offend the sensibilities of the educated class, the gospel checked all the boxes. The Christian doctrine of sin and guilt before God, salvation through crucifixion, the resurrection of the body, were all ideas utterly uncongenial to the people of that time and place. Even most of the Jews reject it. Why then should we believe it?
- And the Christian morality was still more revolting. Sexual chastity for men as well as women, the just and generous treatment of slaves, equal respect for women and freedom for them to exercise their gifts, the care of the poor a priority, no exposure of infants, no wars of conquest. This was virtually the wholesale repudiation of Greco-Roman life and culture.
Paul was a sophisticated man, well-read in the literature of his time, familiar with its ways of thinking. He knew how inconsequential and unimpressive the small Christian population was. It had, to this point, made no noticeable dent in the demographics of the empire. None of the great men of the empire was a Christian. He knew only too well how the Christian message, even his own writings, would seem to most people, certainly the educated population, as utterly lacking philosophical weight. He was as brilliant a man as perhaps there was in the first century; certainly as brilliant as anyone of that time whose name and reputation has come down to us through history. Christian that he was, brilliant as he was, don’t make the man a stone. He couldn’t have been indifferent to the way other educated people thought about him. That people thought him a fool had to sting. “I am not ashamed of the gospel,” he wrote and that statement comes white-hot out of that good man’s own inner experience, his own temptation, his own dealing with the fact that, while he might well have been the smartest man in the room, wherever he was, whatever the company, most of the people who had a similar education thought him an idiot; and not only an idiot, but a man who was promoting evil ideas. No one likes to be scorned, to be laughed at, as Paul must have been many times. He said he had seen the risen Lord; but hardly any believed him.
Well, so much for the first century. But it is hardly difficult for you and me to translate Paul’s situation into our own time and experience these two thousand years later. True, there are many more people around us who think as we do than was the case in Paul’s time. But as time passes there are fewer and fewer of them. And the influential people have as little respect for our convictions as they did for Paul’s in his day. More and more people think what we believe is not only stupid but horrible. I had a Dutch seminarian tell me, as far back as 1984, that sexual chastity was psychologically unhealthy, as if that were a fact so obvious it didn’t need demonstration; as obvious as the importance of wearing your seatbelt.
We believe that there is but one way of salvation, one name, one history, one truth that sets people free. In a multicultural, relativist society such as ours, that strikes people not simply as preposterous, but impossibly arrogant. “So, you have the truth and everyone else is going to hell!”
We believe that human beings are incorrigibly bad, and that God is justly angry with them for their rebellion against him, expressed in their selfishness, their disobedience, their irreverence, and their indifference to others. In a culture like ours, nurtured on the virtues of self-esteem, where personal fulfillment is the highest good, our view of man strikes them as churlish, depressing, destructive, and certainly no recommendation of God. “Who are you to tell me how I must live?” Our culture prizes tolerance, not judgment; the freedom to be the person you want to be. Christians seem to them to be scolds who take perverse delight in restricting everyone else’s happiness and insisting that everyone else live as they do.
“Who do they think they are”?
And what of our ethics? Homosexuality, we say, is an offense against creation and the law of God. Promiscuity is a violation of love, loyalty, purity, and the purpose of God for human life. Out goes the sexual revolution. Out goes abortion as well, as well as the sacred differences between men and women. And so on. For a great many of our fellow citizens and most of the cultural elite, our view of righteousness is ugly, patronizing, patriarchal, even Neanderthal. Our view of life is what used to be wrong with the world! It is what they are trying to eradicate so as to make a better world. So much so that simply uttering Christian ethical convictions nowadays can get one fired from his company or expelled from her school. “I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation…” Really? Have you always acted as if you were not ashamed? I haven’t. I have felt the pressure to keep my mouth shut when I might have opened it and said something on behalf of Christ and his gospel.
Paul knew very well the temptation we face in our world today. He had to face it down in his own heart. So, recognizing the power of this temptation, how are we to resist it? How are we to be proud of the gospel as Paul was; so proud that we can be and will be bold to speak in its defense even to the sort of people who think the gospel is a terrible idea, if not a crime? Well, consider, ponder, and call such things as these to mind.
The gospel, the message of Christ and salvation, is wonderful beyond the power of words to describe and for more reasons than you or I can probably call to mind. Consider just these reasons.
- The gospel liberates us to live without dishonesty or hypocrisy. It frees us from having to lie to ourselves and others about ourselves. We can be forthright in acknowledging our faults, which are, in any case, obvious enough to us and certainly to some extent to others. Indeed, we can be far more searching in the assessment of the state of our mind and heart than others, because Christ has given us the definitive solution to our selfishness, our pettiness, our dark desires, and our lack of love for God and for man. Why is it, after all, that almost everyone in the world has a better opinion of himself or herself than does anyone else? Why is it that it is so perfectly obvious to everyone that other people are vain, pompous, cruel, self-absorbed and all the rest, while still thinking so well of themselves. Why are they so hyper-sensitive to criticism, however just? It is only when we know there is forgiveness that we can face the truth about ourselves, which, after all, is the truth – the unassailable truth – about everyone else as well. We do not have to join the world of self-deceivers that surround us every day. How delicious is the freedom to face the facts. As the Puritan, Nathaniel Ward, put it, succinctly summarizing the implications of the gospel, “I have two comforts in life: the perfections of Christ and the imperfections of everyone else!” No more living a lie!
- The gospel opens our eyes to the most fundamental and obvious facts of our existence. That we have been made in the image of God, that we owe our lives to him, and that his will should be both our lode star and our pleasure. Most people live with little or no thought to the meaning of life, even their own life. And if, as modern people, they deny that life has meaning and eternal purpose, they never live as if this were actually so. Human life cries out to be understood and the gospel shows us that meaning in an utterly convincing way that applies to everything. The gospel enables us to explain our life, indeed everyone’s life. Why is the world as it is, why does it go so wrong and is so deeply disappointing, but also why does it bear the mark of such genius and goodness? Why is there in this world so much that is incalculably good and beautiful? Why do we know that it is good and beautiful and why do we care so deeply that it is? The gospel is the light by which we see, without which the human race is blind to everything that truly matters. Listen to the Puritan John Howe.
“The stately ruins are visible to every eye, that bear in their front, yet extant, this doleful inscription, Here God Once Dwelt. Enough appears of the admirable frame and structure of the soul of man to show that the divine presence did sometime reside in it; more than enough of serious deformity to proclaim that he is retired and gone.”
Evolution could, perhaps, were it true, explain what is wrong with human life, though scarcely the monstrosity of human evil or its peculiar forms in human life. But it cannot explain the magnificence of human life, the deep longings of our souls, the way they are touched by beauty, the insistence of our moral judgment, our artistic sense, our creativity, or the place of love in all human happiness. The unbeliever craves love but cannot explain where it comes from or why it matters so much. But the gospel is the explanation of love; it is about love from beginning to end. Only the God of love and the image of God in us can explain such things. And only the gospel can open our eyes to see those perfectly obvious truths without which human life is a dreary and senseless routine, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing. Everything a human being wants and longs to be true can be true only if the gospel is true. That is a fact if there is such a thing as a fact. So it is that C.S. Lewis observed, “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
- Then, there is this. The gospel is not, like human philosophies of life, a set of ideas. Ideas come and go. The ideas that dominate our culture today and are the foundation of what we read and hear and see in the media today, the ideas that people everywhere take so much for granted, will have their day, and then will be replaced by another set of ideas. Such has been the story of human life and thought throughout history. But the gospel is not an idea or a set of ideas. It is a history. It wasn’t just thought up, it happened. It is this that makes it the solid and immovable rock on which to stand; on which vast multitudes of human beings have stood, stand today, and will stand tomorrow. We do not need to change our thinking, change our convictions the way we change our clothes, the way cultures willy-nilly exchange their prejudices for another set somewhat different. Our convictions remain as they always have because the truth lies behind us in the history of a person, his life, his death, his resurrection, and the promise he gave us of his return.
You have every reason, more than enough reasons to be immensely proud of the gospel, because it really is the power of God for salvation. We have every reason to resist with might and main the temptation ever to be ashamed of it. We’ve barely scratched the surface of those reasons this evening. People need the gospel. They need it desperately, whether they know it, whether they will admit this or not. If I were drowning, I would need a life jacket or a strong swimmer to help me. If my house were on fire, I would want the fire department with their hoses pouring water on the flames. If I were plunged into darkness, I would want a flashlight or at least a match. But if I am a sinner and certain to die, I need peace with God and the promise of eternal life. That and that only! Nothing besides that matters. And that is precisely what the gospel promises, what the gospel tells me how to find. It is the power of God for salvation and for those needing to be saved the gospel alone answers their greatest need. Ashamed of the gospel? Only the profoundly foolish; only the cowards; only those who haven’t a care for anyone but themselves could be ashamed of the good news of Jesus Christ, the love of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of eternal life. As one wise man once put it:
“I defy man or angel to free themselves from guilt without an atonement, and to free themselves from depravity without regeneration.” [John Duncan, Just a Talker, 163]
And that is precisely what the gospel tells you how to find for yourself: freedom from both the guilt and the power of your sin. Whether they know it or not, whether they interpret their sorrows and their fears in these terms or not, this is what human beings crave. It is what they are looking for in all the wrong places, where such things will never be found. The gospel is the answer to their most urgent questions and the fulfillment of their deepest longings. Might you suffer some reproach speaking on behalf of the gospel? Of course you might! Paul did and he spoke more perfectly and powerfully on behalf of the gospel than you or I will ever do.
I remember being struck by a remark of Malcolm Muggeridge when an old man and for some time a Christian. He wrote to a friend,
“As an old man, Bill, looking back on one’s life, it’s one of the things that strikes you most forcibly – that the only thing that’s taught one anything is suffering. Not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life’s about – the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies – is suffering, affliction.”
[W.F. Buckley Jr., Happy Days Were Here Again, 411]
Well, if that is true, and it is, then what better or more purifying or more noble or more revealing suffering can there be than suffering for the gospel and the name of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world? What suffering could possibly do us greater good; could teach us more about what life is about; could better introduce us to the joy of coming into contact with what life really signifies, than sharing the sufferings of Christ by suffering for his name?
Some of you will recognize the name C.T. Studd. Studd was one of the missionary heroes of the 19th century. A famous athlete in Britain, he left fame and fortune behind to take the gospel to China. While there he founded the ministry that eventually became the World Evangelization for Christ (the WEC) which is still today a large evangelical missionary organization that prioritizes unreached peoples.
Falling sick in China he had come home, but slowly recovering his health, he saw an advertisement for a missionary meeting which read “Cannibals want Missionaries.” They were recruiting workers for central Africa where there were still great multitudes who had never heard of Jesus Christ. Studd volunteered and went out to what was then the Belgian Congo where he worked for the last 20 years of his life. This is the C.T. Studd who famously remarked, “If Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.” Studd had immense influence persuading others of the importance of missionary work and the obligation that all Christians have to make Christ and the gospel known.
Studd was not healthy himself but drove himself nevertheless and called upon his fellow missionaries to ever greater dedication to gospel work. It was the time of the First World War and Studd would ask them, “What would a tommy in the trenches say when ordered to go over the top?” He would then answer his own question. “He would say, ‘I don’t care a damn,’ and obey.” And so it was that “I don’t care a damn” became the missionaries’ response whenever they were frightened or discouraged. Then it was shortened to DCD, shorthand for those in the know: “Don’t care a damn,” DCD. Say it to yourself, “Don’t care a damn” and say it to one another. It has in addition that delicious frisson that comes from using a bad word, but in this case a good word because a biblical idea!
Brothers and sisters, Paul was not ashamed of the gospel, and you and I shouldn’t be either. We should be proud of it. We should be daily and profoundly grateful for it. We should rejoice in the gospel and never forget what it has meant to us for both time and eternity. And if we should suffer for speaking on the gospel’s behalf, for commending it to others, DCD. DCD because the gospel is true, is the only hope of the world, and because, no matter if they don’t know this, Jesus Christ is the only one who can provide what every human being desperately wants and certainly needs more than anything else. What if they don’t appreciate hearing the truth? What if they resent me for telling it to them? Don’t care a damn!
Of course, you will speak softly, and kindly, but firmly, knowing full well that the gospel alone, nothing else, can supply what is wanting in that heart, can fulfill its longings or quiet its fears. DCD. Because the gospel is true; because it concerns your Lord and Savior whom you rightly love and want faithfully to serve; and because there is nothing in the world by which you could love your neighbor more deeply or help him or her more truly than simply to explain how the gospel is the power of God for salvation.
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