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Not Ashamed of the Gospel – I

 

 Romans 1:16   I John 5:12

 

I: — I am not ashamed of the gospel. Why should I be? I was nine years old when I understood that provision had been made for me in the cross. At the same time I understood that because provision had been made for me, provision needed to be made for me. In other words I became aware of my nine year old sinnership. To be sure, I didn’t have a vocabulary as mature as the vocabulary I am using now; I had only the words of a youngster. My simple vocabulary, however, in no way diminished the truth of my understanding.

We should never make light of a child’s understanding of spiritual matters. After all, way back then I knew with a clarity which has never left me of God’s judgement, my peril, his promise; I knew of the sufficiency of the remedy, and I knew I had to embrace the One whose arms had already spread wide for me.

Of course I had only the understanding of the pre-teenager. Nonetheless it sank into me, indelibly, that the provision of a remedy which entailed the death of God’s Son could only mean that I was sick unto death myself and therefore should not deny my condition or slight the sacrifice made for me.

I was fourteen when I became aware of my vocation to the ministry: a vocation from the gospel (that is, from Jesus Christ himself) for the sake of the gospel. I said not a word to anyone. (I had seen too many “calls” to the ministry fizzle out like wet firecrackers.) I waited until I was twenty-three to stun my family speechless as I told them I would no longer pursue a professorship in philosophy.

When well-wishers told me that the ministry was a noble undertaking inasmuch as religion was helpful and idealistic young people are best at promoting religion’s helpfulness, I shook my head. The ministry meant one thing for me, and it had nothing to do with idealism or helpfulness. Ministry was the declaration of a gospel which was neither mere idea nor ideal nor idealistic. Ministry was the service of that gospel which was — and is– God’s power for salvation.

I have never been ashamed of the gospel. If I were tempted to be ashamed of the gospel (which is to say, ashamed of my Lord himself) I needed only to recall his pronouncement:

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and
sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes
in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

We always know that people are ashamed of the gospel when they try to tell us that people can be secret disciples of Jesus, like the clergy without number who have approached me and quietly told me that they have secretly agreed with my stand in our denomination’s struggle. But there is no such thing as a secret disciple. Jesus insists that “secret disciple” is a contradiction in terms. You must have noticed that whenever Jesus called someone into his company, in the days of his earthly ministry, he always called that person publicly. James and John, surrounded by the other men and women in the maritime fishing village; Matthew sitting at his desk at Revenue Canada, surrounded by all the crabby people who resented having to pay taxes. All such people whom Jesus called had to stand up publicly and therein declare whose they were, and therein invite the onlookers to witness their stand and hold them to it if ever they appeared to depart from it. Don’t forget Zacchaeus. Jesus called Zacchaeus out of his tree-perch and had him stand in front of a crowd as big as the crowd which gathers around the Santa Claus parade. Only then did Jesus say that he and Zacchaeus would eat together in the privacy of Zacchaeus’s home. To come to faith in Jesus Christ, to become a disciple, is to be identified before thousands as loyal to the One whom the world despises and rejects.

Let me say right now that it is not the world which is ashamed of the gospel. The world may be hostile to the gospel or contemptuous of the gospel. But the world is not ashamed of the gospel. It is the church which is ashamed of the gospel.

Recently I was handed a questionnaire which a pulpit search committee had distributed among members of a Toronto congregation. Parishioners were to indicate, among several options, which options they deemed to have greater priority. One of the options to which they could assign high or low priority was “commitment to Jesus Christ”. Faith in Jesus Christ was an option for the minister they were going to call. The fact that this item appeared in the list at all bespeaks undeniable shame of the gospel. Immediately I thought of three NT documents (the gospel of Mark, the first epistle of Peter, and the book of Revelation), all of which were written to support Christians who were unashamed of the gospel and who would never be ashamed of it even though the fact that they cherished the gospel guaranteed their martyrdom.

William Tyndale, the English translator of the bible whose translation was the foundation of the King James Version; Tyndale was executed for his work as translator. He knew what danger he was courting by putting the scriptures into English. Then why did he persist? He persisted because he was convinced that if Englishmen and -women were without an English translation of the bible they would never know the salvation of God. He was right. No room for shame here!

Contrast Tyndale with a former moderator of The United Church whose article appeared in the Toronto Star during the summer. The article concerned the “indignity” which a group called Exodus International was foisting on others. (Toronto was the venue for a North America-wide convention of Exodus International.) Exodus International consists of people whom God’s power unto salvation has brought out of a homosexual/lesbian lifestyle; these people now exercise a ministry for the sake of those who long for deliverance from the same lifestyle. Our former moderator insisted most vehemently that any offering of such help was an indignity. Am I supposed to believe that holding out hope and help and healing to any habituated person is an indignity? It is labelled “indignity” only by someone who is ashamed of the gospel.

Pat Allan is a woman of whom you likely will not have heard before now. She is a leader in a Toronto-based “exodus” ministry called New Directions. Pat insists that she was led — and enabled — to leave her lesbian lifestyle, but not because she was disgusted with herself and wanted deliverance from it. She didn’t find it repugnant at all; she saw no reason why she should. Until, that is, until she was gripped by the gospel. As the gospel possessed her she came to know first-hand that God is holy. Apprised of the holiness of God she saw that her lifestyle (with which she was content) was incompatible with holiness of God, incompatible with the holiness God ordains for his people. It was the first step in her new direction, and the beginning of a subsequent ministry. I have heard Pat Allan speak at length and I have never heard her say she regards herself as the victim of an indignity. Plainly she is not ashamed of the gospel.

 

II: — I am not ashamed of the gospel. I regard as entirely accurate Paul’s depiction of what human existence is apart from the gospel. Apart from the gospel (that is, apart from the power of God which saves those who belong to Jesus Christ) people are unrighteous. The apostle tells us all about our unrighteousness. Listen to the analysis:

(i) people neither honour God nor thank him; that is, they are Godless.

(ii) they become futile in their thinking; their “senseless” minds are “darkened”. “Senseless” in the sense that they make no sense of the truth of God; “darkened” in the sense that they are ignorant of God and daily damage themselves and others.

(iii) they pretend to be wise; and precisely by pretending to be wise, says the apostle, they make themselves fools.

(iv) they are idolaters; they give their hearts to, are won over to, spend their lives pursuing what is not God.

(v) the cap on it all, says the apostle, is that God gives them up to the consequences of their Godlessness. The consequences of their Godlessness Paul summarizes as “base mind and improper conduct”. He then fills in the details of “base mind and improper conduct” by mentioning, among others, “covetousness, malice, envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, sexual impropriety, bragging, ceaseless invention of evil”. The he winds it all up with a four-word description: “foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless”.

Before you say, “I know people just like that”; before you say this, he tells us, have a look in the mirror. For what we condemn in others we exemplify ourselves. “We” and “they” have exactly the same heart condition.

Am I ashamed of the gospel? The “set” of fallen human nature is a very serious set, even as it is set concrete-hard. I might be ashamed of the gospel if the gospel were merely a “nice idea”, but entirely ineffective and useless in the face of fallen human nature. But the gospel isn’t an idea; it’s power, says the apostle, the power of God for the salvation of all who admit humankind’s powerlessness before God and entrust themselves to the empowered One whom God raised from the dead.

The people who are trapped in a crumpled automobile; do you think they are ashamed of those mechanical jaws used to wrench apart the folded-up car and free them when they have no chance at all of freeing themselves? Do you think they would ever complain that the mechanical jaws lack good taste or delicacy or subtlety? Do you think they would ever speak of the rescue-operation as an affront to their dignity?

I am not ashamed of the gospel. The only serious rival to the gospel in the twentieth century is Marxism. Everywhere Marxism is exposed as fraudulent in its claims and powerless to deliver what it promises. What has it done besides foster misery? The gospel never looked so good!

 

III: — I am not ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for salvation for any and all who cast themselves upon it. And why shouldn’t we do just that? In the few verses from Paul’s Roman letter which we are examining today he tells us first why he is ready to declare the gospel at Rome: he isn’t ashamed of it. Then he tells us why he isn’t ashamed of it: it is the power of God for salvation. Lastly he tells us why it is the power of God for salvation: in it the righteousness of God is operative. The gospel isn’t a storehouse of religious information. The gospel is that power which renders the righteousness of God operative. In other words, men and women whose sinnership means they are in the wrong before God are set right, righted, made right with God.

Nothing thrills me like hearing the gospel declared simply because I know there is nothing like it in the world. There are no substitutes for the gospel, period. Any part of the gospel story thrills me in its uniqueness and its effectiveness.

Think of the people in the Christmas story. They rejoice with great joy at the good news, for to them has been given a Saviour. News of a Saviour is good news, the best news, if (i) we profoundly need saving, and (ii) we cannot save ourselves. News is good news, in brief, if we are in genuine danger and cannot extricate ourselves from our peril. This good news will in turn engender great joy if — and only if — we recognize what (who) has been given to us and find that in seizing him he has already seized us even more tightly, more surely, than we shall ever seize him ourselves.

We must not reduce “power of God for salvation” to “power of God for human improvement” or “self-fulfilment” or “peace of mind” or any such thing. Of course the salvation of God, vast as it is, ultimately spells peace of mind and so on. But not primarily. In the first instance the salvation of God is a righted relationship (faith) which spells rescue from real peril, deliverance from eternal loss.

I am always on the lookout for flatterers who nod appreciatively, condescendingly in the direction of the gospel, but then immediately reinterpret and reduce words like “gospel”, “faith”, “salvation” to something which an unbelieving world will buy. Such people remind me that the English word “salvation” has roots in the Latin word “salus”. “Salus” means health; therefore salvation means health. Next I am told, in our psychology-conscious age, that health means feeling good about oneself, being integrated (was Jesus “integrated” in Gethsemane?) and “getting it all together”. No! Salvation, in scripture, is being delivered from bondage as judgement is rescinded. Before righteousness has anything to do with what is ethically right it means being put in the right with God, by God. Faith, the paperbacks tell us, is a matter of self-ownership and personal authenticity. No! Faith is the bond which unites us to Christ the Righteous One, and unites us like bondfast glue.

I am aware, as you are aware, that the work of the minister overlaps the work of the psychotherapist, the marriage counsellor, the educator, and so on. Yet there is one aspect of my work which overlaps with nothing else: the evangelist. The evangelist commends Jesus Christ to those who have not yet owned him and loved him and come to the assurance of their life in him. Plainly, the work of the evangelist is the most elemental work to be done concerning faith. The work of the evangelist is foundational, bedrock. To be sure, it is the task of the teacher to instruct believers in the implications of faith; the pastor is to guide believers in the way of faith; the prophet is to help believers to discern what the gospel requires in new historical developments. But teacher, pastor and prophet have work to do only after the work of the evangelist has been done. Believers can be instructed, guided and rendered discerning only after they have become believers.

It is incontrovertible to me that the mainline churches of our era have overlooked, or disdained, or simply repudiated the ministry of evangelism. The misdirection, heresy and collapse of the mainline churches of our era are sufficient proof to me that we neglected the work of evangelism. Why did we neglect it? We have not believed the gospel’s diagnosis of the spiritual condition of humankind. Not believing the gospel’s diagnosis we have not believed the gospel’s remedy. Not believing the gospel’s remedy we have been ashamed of the gospel. The result has been an edifice without foundation. Despite the absence of a foundation we have attempted to do something with bay windows and gabled roofs and patio decks and subtle electrical gadgetry; now we are watching the foundationless edifice settle into a sinkhole. Our denomination’s vulnerability to every wind of heresy and perfidy and apostasy; indeed it’s inability even to recognize such winds indicates that the primary aspect of Christian proclamation, the most elemental aspect, was assumed to have been done when in fact it hadn’t. Right? Wrong! It’s not that we assumed it to have been done when in fact it had not; rather, there was an implicit or explicit denial that it even needed to be done.

I cannot deny my own complicity in it all. As I look back over my own preaching I see that I have finessed one topic and subtly probed another, assuming all the while that a foundation had been laid when manifestly it had not. In my heart I always knew better. But to say this is not to excuse myself. And where I cannot be excused I can only repent. Then the throb of this note, the base-note pulse which is the foundation for whatever else is sounded, must be heard so clearly from this pulpit as to be both unmistakable and undeniable.

 

IV: — I can imagine what some of your must be thinking by now. Is Shepherd’s outlook going to shrivel? Is his mind going to narrow? Will he sound shrill? Will he turn his back on the suffering people who have exercised him for years and thump the bible instead? Of course he won’t. But he will do one thing: he will never tire of reminding the congregation of something that C.S. Lewis mentioned years ago and which a moment’s reflection render’s transparent. Lewis said, “Those who do the most effective work in this world are those who are most concerned about the next.” He is right. Those who are most concerning about that grand salvation which the power of God can effect; that is, those who know that abandoning themselves to Jesus Christ in faith rights their relationship with God now and secures it eternally — these people, transmuted by the gospel and possessed of assurance concerning their new standing with God, are precisely those who spent themselves self-forgetfully on behalf of others.

I could document this over and over. Instead I shall speak of one man, a friend for twenty-five years, who exemplifies this better than any living person I know. I speak of Bob Rumball, a United Church minister who has been on loan to the Evangelical Church of the Deaf in Toronto for thirty-five years. He became the pastor there soon after retiring as a football player with the Ottawa Rough Riders and the Toronto Argonauts. Since then he has pioneered eight mission churches for the deaf, as well as deaf ministries in Jamaica and Puerto Rico. He established a year-round camp and conference centre for the deaf; he has developed nine group homes for deaf children as well as a foster-home program. Not to mention a day-care for deaf children and the hearing children of deaf parents. As well as a centre for multi-handicapped children. Then there are the youth residence, the seniors’ residence and the elderly person recreation centre. Plus the vocational training in the sheltered workshop, the print shop and the garage. In addition Bob is found day after day in the courts, the hospitals, the jails and the probation officers, always interpreting for those who are otherwise victimized.

If you read the newspapers you will know that Bob is also chaplain to the Metro Toronto Police Department.

He has been recognized for his work:

1972 — Man of the Year, Canadian Association of the Deaf
1976 — Member of the Order of Canada
1978 — Paul Harris Fellowship of the Rotary Club of Canada
1982 — Order of Merit, City of Toronto
1982 — Canadian for Progress, The Canadian Progress Club
1985 — Gardiner Award, Council of Metropolitan Toronto

In addition, Bob is the only Canadian to be awarded the Humanitarian Award by the Lions Club International. (Other recipients have been Albert Schweitzer, Pope John 23rd, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta.)

At heart Bob remains an evangelist. He has conducted preaching missions throughout North America, and will continue to do so. He has remained unashamed of the gospel. He insists that the deaf person and the multi-handicapped person stand in as great spiritual need as anyone else. In other words, the humanitarian work he does on behalf of the deaf and the multi-handicapped is never a substitute for setting forth the only Saviour those people can ever have. A few weeks ago I was talking to Bob on the phone and I asked him how he would speak of his ministry in one sentence. With his customary directness he replied quoting a verse from the first epistle of John: Whoever has the Son has life; whoever has not the Son of God has not life.”

When Bob was a highschool student he was interviewed by a Toronto newspaperman who wrote a column on the highschool football player of the week. The Newspaperman asked Bob what he planned to do when he finished playing football. “I am going to be a missionary”, said Bob. The newspaperman was irked; “I asked you a serious question; give me a serious answer.” “I am going to be a missionary.” And so he has been.

The mission field is our doorstep. In the July issue of the United Church Observer one article described new developments in United Church Worship. The newest development incorporates “the tradition of godlessness.” Worship (of God) which includes elements of godlessness is, of course, a contradiction in terms and therefore illogical. Worse, however, it is blasphemous. The mission field is our doorstep. The mission field is our denomination. The mission field is our congregation.

“Whoever has the Son has life; whoever has not the Son of God has not life.” This note has not been sounded sufficiently in my ministry here. I hope to God that henceforth it always shall.

 

                                                                                            Victor Shepherd