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I am the Pastor of Trinity International Church in Strasbourg, France. It's a church made up of people from around the world who love Jesus and find themselves here in France. These articles are written with them in mind, but feel free to read them wherever you are from!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Understanding the Gospel - Part 2. Sin: How Bad is it?

The conversation was going nowhere. I was doing my best to explain the gospel message. The person seemed interested. We talked about sin and alienation from God. We discussed the cross. We had talked about the evidence of Jesus rising from the dead. He understood, but simply did not comprehend the significance or the implications of the gospel. I was frustrated. I answered all of his questions but still there seemed to be no progress in his accepting the gospel. I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall. What was going on?

The Gospel Message...


A look at the New Testament to discover the basics of the gospel presentation finds that it includes several elements. The early Christians included these things as they presented the gospel to people, often using local elements to help people understand. They did not simply repeat a script but sought to help people understand and used appropriate cultural references to aid understanding (See Acts 2:14-41; 3:12-26; 4:8-22; 5:29-32; 7:1-53; 8:26-38; 10:34-48; 13:16-49; 16:28-34; 17:1-4; 17:22-34; 22:2-21; 24:10-27; 26:1-23). These key elements are:
  • All people have sinned (Romans 3:23)
  • The penalty for sin is death (Romans 6:23)
  • Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins (Romans 5:8)
  • An invitation to respond to the gospel (Matthew 11:28; John 1:11-12) that includes:
    • Repentance (Acts 20:21; Acts 2:37-38; Acts 3:19; 2 Corinthians 7:10).
    • Faith (John 3:16; Romans 10:9-13).
It is the task of believers to take the gospel to the nations of the world (Luke 24:47). My conversation was one attempt to see a person hear the gospel message. Yet nothing I said seemed to have an impact.


...meets our condition


The Bible uses several terms to describe people apart from faith in Christ. Perhaps the most helpful is the word "dead." Paul writes that we were "dead in our trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1). The man across the table had a physical life but he was spiritually dead. If I felt like I was beating my head against a wall, it was because I was! He had a spiritual heart of stone (Ephesians 4:16; Ezekiel 36:26)! He could not understand the gospel no matter how "effectively" I presented it (2 Corinthians 4:4-6). His heart was hard because of sin (Ephesians 4:18).

Spiritually dead is the true condition of the human race. We are spiritually dead because of sin. This is what theologians call "total depravity." That's a phrase so often misunderstood that it really needs careful definition. It does not mean that people are as bad as they could be. In fact, people can do many "good" things. They care for their children, they donate clothes to the needy, and they volunteer their time. The phrase refers to the extensiveness of sin in our lives rather than the intensiveness of it. Every aspect of our life is infected by sin, but that does not mean that we always choose the worst sin.

When compared to the acts and thoughts of other humans, some humans appear to be very good. However, when compared to the holiness and goodness of God, all are corrupt (Romans 3:9-18). They may be very religious, but their religion is a means of justifying themselves. This is sinful pride that only God can overcome (Luke 18:18-27). Total depravity means that our whole being is contaminated by sin. We are unable, because of sin, to do anything to save ourselves. We are separated from God and spiritually dead.

In my sharing the gospel with this man it became obvious that I have no ability to bring the dead to life. Through powers of persuasion, I might get him to agree to the "truth" of the gospel. I might be able to talk him into attending church and he might find it pleasing enough to attend regularly. None of this means that the dead person has come to life. My human efforts have no power, by themselves, to bring about such a radical thing as death to life. Only God can do that.

But salvation is from God


Paul went to the Roman colony of Philippi and found some women praying by the river. He stopped there and presented the gospel. There was a woman there from Thyatira named Lydia. The Scriptures tell us that the Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul and...she was baptized" (Acts 16:14-15). Paul shared the gospel, but it was the Lord that opened her heart! This is the way it always works. Jesus himself told us that "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him (John 6:44).

The dead can only come to life by the power of God. This is exactly what the Scriptures say happens for those who come to saving faith. "God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses and sins, made us alive together with Christ..." (Ephesians 2:4-5; see also Colossians 2:13).

The amazing thing is that God brings the dead to life in partnership with us. This is the astounding truth of Romans 10:9-17. Salvation comes through the preaching of the gospel. God takes the preaching of the gospel and uses it to work a miracle: he brings the dead to life! This is called regeneration or being "born again" (John 1:13; 3:2-8). How this happens will be the subject of a future post, but let's look at some implications for us as we share the gospel with others.

Implications


There is no one beyond the power of God to save. We naturally tend to think of people as "more likely" to accept the gospel than others. Often this is because some people are nicer or gentler than others and as a result less likely to immediately reject us. If we understand that it is the power of God that causes the dead to come to life, then we can have confidence that God is able to save even those who appear least likely to us. In the book of Acts and you will see the believers sharing the gospel with those who seemed open and those who seemed closed. They did this because they knew that God would draw those he chose through the preaching of the Word (Acts 13:48).

We do our part and God will do His. Often our fear in sharing the gospel or our testimony comes from the fear that we "won't do it right." This stems from the false idea that if we just say the right words the person will come to faith in Christ. But their salvation isn't dependent upon our saying some magical words. God will take what we say and use it. While it is always good to think deeply about how to share the gospel, it is more important to realize that God will use even our weak and faltering attempts for his glory. We do our best and leave the results to God (1 Corinthians 3:6-8). That takes the pressure off of us in sharing the gospel.

But we must do our part. Too many times we think that if we just live a "life of love" that will be sufficient for the salvation of those around us. Sometimes people say, "I follow what Francis of Assisi said 'Preach the gospel, use words if necessary.'" There's are a couple of problems with that. First, he never said it and it flies against what he actually said and did. Second, and more importantly, it isn't biblical. It is important that our lives demonstrate the reality of the message, but faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17). We must share the gospel with our mouths!

Prayer is essential. Sharing the gospel is a supernatural thing. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8) and read that the early Christians prayed for boldness (Acts 4:29). Paul prayed that his people come to faith in Christ. He turned that burden into prayer (Romans 10:1). There are many Scriptures that we can use in prayer for those who do not know Christ. 

Too much reliance on man-centered techniques may lead to false "conversions." We must understand that salvation is a work of God in a person's life. We may be able to win intellectual arguments, but this does not mean that the person has been born again because someone more persuasive may talk them out of it.  We may convince someone to pray the "sinner's prayer" to avoid hell, but someone may actually think that it means that they can live like the devil without consequences. When a person has been born again by the Spirit of God, they will see Jesus as their greatest treasure and the gospel as the most important message in the world. It takes the power of the Spirit to make that happen.


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