I am bound both to Greeks and non-Greeks, both to the wise and the foolish. That is why I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome. I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
“I am debtor; I am ready; I am not ashamed,” says Paul so positively and personally. If there was one thing I would want for myself, and for this congregation and for the church all the world over is that they all could make these statements from their hearts. In other words that whenever they thought of evangelism they never considered it as something others did but always as an intense personal obligation. They put to death every reluctant bone in their bodies and replaced them with a backbone of eagerness and enthusiasm. If they found themselves feeling ashamed to identify themselves with any gospel outreach they talked to themselves very severely and said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel . . . I am not ashamed of the good news . . . I am not ashamed that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that he was buried and that he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures.”
Paul looked at the Rome he had never visited, the centre of mighty power and pride. People spoke reservedly about it, especially if they had some criticisms of the way it was governed, but Paul stood apart. He knew he was under obligation to go there to preach the gospel to the people of Rome and was unashamed of doing that. He had something to say which everyone in Rome from Nero to the blind beggars all needed to listen to. “What arrogance!” men said. To think that he had the truth and they didn’t, and that they needed to listen to him! “Be on your guard master Paul! Stay away from Rome if you are smart. Clothe yourself in humility and come to listen and learn from Rome. It would be prudent to keep your big mouth shut and never post this letter to the Christians in Rome. If they catch what you’ve got how dangerous it would be for them all.” But Paul was under a far higher authority than Caesar, and knew of a far mightier kingdom than the Roman empire, and a far more powerful Lord than Nero, and to that Lord he was a debtor, ready to do his will and not ashamed of the message he had been given to preach.
- I AM DEBTOR.
The N.I.V. has translated the phrase, “I am bound”. It is not going to catch on; there is no life in it. The ESV translates it “I am under obligation,” and that is better, but not as angular and alarming as the Authorized Version’s familiar “I am debtor,” but that is precisely what the Greek says. Let me explain it to you. Someone gives you a thousand pounds in order for you to put in one of our offering boxes in an envelope designated for a specific Christian cause or missionary that we support. That is why you were given that thousand pounds. You are in debt to the giver for that amount until you put that exact sum of money in the offering box. Your friend has put you in debt to that cause until you give his 1,000 pounds to the church specifying that it is to go to this particular work of God.
Paul is in debt to the people of Rome. He has not borrowed anything from them at all that he has to repay, but his friend Jesus Christ has entrusted him with this message that we deserve eternal death because we are sinners, but our Lord, because he has loved us so much, has died in our place. He is the Lamb of God who came into the world and took away our sin and guilt. Paul had learned that Christ was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities; on him was laid the iniquity of us all; his blood was shed for the remission of our sins; he died for the ungodly; he who knew no sin was made sin for us; through his stripes we were made whole; he was the propitiation for our sins. Paul learned that through the life and death of the man Christ Jesus a full and entire blotting out of our sins had been accomplished. All Paul’s wickedness was pardoned; all his past sins and all his present and future sins, and as he had come to know that he had become a man under obligation. He was a debtor, and on top of that Paul has been put in trust with preaching this gospel. Once he had received the Lord Jesus Christ into his life then Paul became a debtor. Once Christ had saved him, and changed him, and had forgiven all his sins, and plucked him as a brand from the burning, and promised him that his destiny was heaven, and until he got there he would supply all his needs and work everything together for his good – then Paul was a man in debt. Particularly he was in debt to the Gentile world, to the Greeks and to the Barbarians and to the Romans, to wise philosophers in Athens and to the foolish gladiators of Rome who fought and killed one another for a living. To the whole range of Gentile humanity Paul was in debt. He had good news for each one of them. He had no right to ponder whether he should speak it to anyone or not. He had no right on wet days when he was feeling under the weather to decide he could stay in bed all day.
Let me illustrate it. When the lepers discovered that the Syrian camp was empty then they were debtors to the besieged city of Samaria to go there with haste and tell them that the siege was over, that the Syrian army had all fled and that the Samaritans could open the gates and run to the camp and help themselves to Syrian food and drink and loot. It was immoral even to debate whether to shout this good news to Samaria or not. To delay was sinful.
Let me give you another example of a man who felt his debt to others. Hudson Taylor was one of the greatest missionaries in the whole history of the Christian church. He was born in Yorkshire in 1832 and died in China at the beginning of the 20th century. Before going out to China he sought to prepare himself by working as a medical student and district nurse in London, learning about primitive medical care. One of the patients he visited was an old man in his home where he had to dress his stinking gangrenous foot. Hudson Taylor had the strongest desire to share his Saviour the Lord Jesus Christ with this person, but the man was a defiant atheist, and very antagonistic to religion. A Scripture reader who had visited him had been ordered from the room, and he had even spat in the face of a visiting vicar. Let me give you Hudson Taylor’s own description of what happened.
“Upon first commencing to attend him I prayed much about it, but for two or three days said nothing to him of a religious nature. By special care in dressing his diseased foot, I was able considerably to lessen his sufferings, and he soon began to show grateful appreciation of my care for him. One day, with a trembling heart, I took advantage of his warm acknowledgments to tell him what was the spring of my action, that I was constrained in all I did by the love of Jesus Christ for me. Then I spoke of his own solemn position and his need of God’s mercy through Christ. It was evidently only by powerfully restraining himself that he kept his lips closed. He turned over in bed with his back to me, and said not a word.” But you understand the crucial dynamics of this relationship. The man was in need; he had to have a home help coming regularly to change the dressing on his gangrenous foot. He was in need of Hudson Taylor, but Hudson Taylor was in debt to him, because he’s received free and full pardon from God.
“I couldn’t get the poor man out of my mind, and very often through each day I pleaded with God, by his Spirit, to save him. After dressing the wound and relieving his pain, I never failed to say a few words to him, which I hoped the Lord would bless. He always turned his back on me, looking annoyed, but never spoke a word in reply.
“After continuing this for some time, my heart sank. It seemed to me that I was not only doing no good, but perhaps really hardening him and increasing his guilt. One day, after dressing his limb and washing my hands, instead of returning to the bedside to speak to him, I went to the door, and stood hesitating for a few moments with the thought in my mind, ‘Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.’ I looked at the man and saw his surprise, as this was the first time since speaking to him that I’d thought of leaving without going up to his bedside to say a few words for my Master.
“I could bear it no longer. Bursting into tears, I crossed the room and said, ‘My friend, whether you will hear or whether you will forbear, I must deliver my soul.’ I went on to speak very earnestly with him, telling him with many tears how much I wished that he would let me pray with him. To my unspeakable joy he didn’t turn away, but he replied, ‘If it will be a relief to you, do so.’ I need scarcely say that I fell on my knees and poured out my whole soul to God on his behalf. I believe that God then and there wrought a change in his soul, and within a few days he had definitely accepted Christ as his Saviour. O, the joy it was to me to see that dear man rejoicing in hope of the glory of God! He had not entered a church for forty years.
“I have often thought since, in connection with this case and the work of God generally, of the words, ‘He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.’ Perhaps if there were more of that intense desire for souls that leads to tears, we should more frequently see the results we desire. Sometimes it may be that while we are complaining of the hardness of the hearts of those we are seeking to benefit, the hardness of our own hearts and our own feeble apprehension of the solemn reality of eternal things, may be the true cause of our want of success.”
Today there are between a hundred million and two hundred million Christians in China. A line goes back from so many of those millions over 150 years to a room in London where a man with a gangrenous foot was nursed and borne witness to by a student preparing for the mission field. That seed sown to that man has been effectual for a great harvest.
Let me tell you of my own experience: forty-five years ago a mother from a village in a mining valley in South Wales wrote to me. Her daughter was a student here and was no longer going to church or showing any interest in the gospel. The mother and daughter had been baptized the same evening in that church, but since leaving home and going to university she’d become disenchanted with Christianity. Could I go and visit her? She was living in student accommodation on the hill and that time it was a female hall of residence, but one evening I went up there and walked those corridors looking for her numbered room until finally I found it and knocked the door. She was in, and embarrassed to see me, and hostile. I spoke to her and then she responded. She told me that she admired her mother. Married to a coal-miner it was a struggle to made ends meet for the family. Her father had no interest in the gospel but her mother had found going to church helpful and had influenced her for a while, but no longer. She was no longer a professing Christian and that was it. She didn’t want to talk to me, particularly about the faith, and after a stand-off I walked home. I was cross with her, upset at the way she patronised her mother. What did she know of being married to a collier in dark mining village and raising her children on his wage. She had found forgiveness and strength and fellowship in the little Baptist church and rejoiced when her oldest daughter professed faith with her and they were both baptised that night.
Other women in that circumstance might lean on the props of endless TV watching, and evenings out with the girls at the club, to alcohol, and furtive affairs, and nicotine, but her mother had found the stringent ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, and the hope of gory in heaven through the finished work of Christ, and sought in that home to win her husband without the word by the example of her godly life. And this young person had come to college and met contemporary atheistic propaganda and had described her mother’s pilgrimage with Christ and testimony in her family doing all the duties of wife and mother as a ‘prop.’ That was the word she used. I looked out for her in the congregation the next Sunday but she was not there, and I found myself thinking initially, “She owed me something. I had left my home and gone out and walked up the hill and went looking for her and found her and talked to her. She at least owed me a visit to the church here,” and then I thought immediately that she owed me nothing at all, and I owed her all that I knew and all the wisdom and grace I had to commend the Lord Jesus to her. She was not in debt to me; I was in debt to her and to many like her and so would be for the rest of my life. Debt troubles you; it keeps you awake at night. Citizens’ Advice Bureau says that the two biggest problems people have are neighbours and debt. Debt motivates you to action and prudence and determination to discharge your debt.
- I AM READY.
Paul says, “I am so eager to preach the gospel also to you who are at Rome” (v.15). What a dishonourable thing to leave a debt unpaid. You are in business and there are customers for whom you have done careful, skilful work and yet the months have gone by and they still have not paid you. Maybe they lived in a block of flats where all the tenants agree to pay towards the maintenance of the hallways and buildings, but they refuse to pay and their debt grows as the years go by and now their debt is in the hands of the courts. They are stealing from the other tenants who are paying for the decorating and the new roof by refusing to pay anything themselves but they spend their money on alcohol. Their debts are unpaid. But here is Paul and he is eager to discharge his debt, and he will discharge it by preaching the gospel. I am so ready, willing, eager and able to preach the gospel.
When I was a teenager I did the long jump and the triple jump, and I would practice in the mornings in Penydarren Park in Merthyr Tudful. Around the football field was a greyhound racing track and I would watch those gentle dogs in training. They would be put in their cages and I could see what Shakespeare wrote about “greyhounds in the slips straining upon the start.” The electronic hare attached to a cable which went right around the field would start to shoot around the track coming to the cages where the excited greyhounds were waiting, and just as the hare went by the doors shot upwards and out the greyhounds bounded pursuing the hare. But the dogs that knew the track and had been there before knew the sound of the wire and the approaching hare and when it reached a certain pitch, before they could even see the hare they timed their leap to perfection and as the gate flipped up they hurled themselves into the space and after the hare. They were so eager to pursue and catch it. Paul was ready and eager to be off reaching men and women with the gospel.
Remember the exhortation of the apostle Peter in his first letter, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (I Pet. 3:15). Never be unready to reply to someone who asks you “Why are you a Christian?” Most of us are ready some of the time. We feel like witnessing perhaps. We’ve done a course on it. We’re at a conference; we are surrounded by other enthusiastic evangelicals and we are anxious to respond to the challenge. Other Christians are watching us and we exploit the situation, but not at other times, when we feel lethargic and are on our own. The apostle says, “Always be ready!” It may be that some student taking the same course as yourself asks you why you go to the Christian Union. It may be that some sceptic may ask you how you can believe in God when there are so many bad things in the world. It might have been for these men and women that some local official asked them what their beliefs were, and why they held them. They might be under suspicion or on trial. They must always be ready.
The apostle Peter was aware from his own experience from the beginning of the Christian life that people came to him and asked him questions. When he had finished preaching on the day of Pentecost men came to him and asked him, “What shall we do?” and Peter had the answer. He told them to repent and be baptized and save themselves from this crooked generation. The opportunity to speak may spring up out of nothing in a moment, but are we ready to take advantage of that providence? Are we going to be an effective witness for God?
How are we going to be ready? What does Peter say to them when he tells them to be ready always? He tells them a couple of indispensable things to make them ready:
i] “In your hearts set apart Christ as Lord” (I Pet. 3:15). That is the first thing. The most fundamental element in our preparedness to witness is that we are in a right relationship with the Lord. Jesus Christ is set apart above every other ambition and achievement. That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, deeper and stronger as the years go by. Above all other matters of family life and career and duty we must make sure that the Lord Christ has a unique place. He is Lord of everything we are, and everything we have, and everything we do. He is paramount over all our interests and concerns. Make sure that he is your acknowledged Lord, that he really is sitting and reigning on the throne of your heart. Make sure that you are in a right relationship with him, you his servant and he your Master.
So often we imagine that witness is a matter of gaining people’s attentions by some striking display. I saw a group of American Christians in Dublin wearing masks and evening dress and carrying a coffin through the streets. It certainly created some interest, but then they had to clear their throats, take off their masks and tell people the old, old story of Jesus and his love, and people walked away feeling cheated. Their leader had thought that witnessing was a matter of some dramatic activity, that it was a matter of gathering a crowd of curious people, and a matter of method and a matter of expression and skill. But there is something immeasurably more fundamental and it is this, are we right with God? Because if we are not, then there is no possibility of being an effective witness in that particular relationship.
So often the reason why we are incapable of witness and incompetent in speaking to others and disinclined to defend the faith is not that we fail to have some dramatic hook on which to hang our words, nor that we have failed to take a course in public speaking, nor that we’re not swift-witted enough, but the reason is that we’re not right with God. And the way to sort that problem out is to go right back to the point where the relationship went wrong.
Wordsworth once gave a famous definition of poetry. He said, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” However that captures or fails to capture what poetry is there is no disputing that this is something essential to being ready to witness, that it is something essential to being ready to tell others of our faith, that there is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, that it arises out of what the Christian is. Light shines because it is light. Christian feelings are powerful because of our faith and knowledge. We know that our sins are all forgiven; we anticipate the hope of glory; we have peace with God; we serve a living present Saviour.
The problem with our unreadiness is the absence of powerful feelings, of a proper religious experience, of the absence of a deep, living relationship with God, but if the feelings are there then they will overflow spontaneously. What we need is not to stumble across the right methods but to have a growing relationship with the Lord. That is the secret of the impact of powerful preachers through history. It was not simply their energy and intellectual ability and talent and personal industry. It is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, their love for the Lord and that they had set apart Christ as Lord in their hearts. There was a bond, a proper relationship between the saint and the Saviour. What we should be crying to God for is not better techniques but a warmer and more intimate relationship with himself. So set apart Christ in your hearts.
ii] “Keeping a clear conscience” (I Pet. 3:16). How can you be always ready to speak if you have a guilty conscience? Again you see there is not a word about techniques and methods but rather more fundamental considerations. Make sure that there is nothing that stands between you and God, some unconfessed sin, some unmortified sin, and we’re refusing to lay it aside. Make sure that there is nothing in your relationship with your neighbour that prevents you being ready to speak to them about Christ. There can be completely non-religious and non-moral differences over parking, or a hedge, or the behaviour of a dog, or some noise. There’s been tension and an exchange of words and one tragic effect of that is that you are unable to invite them to come with you to church. This is particularly the case with the necessary integrity of Christian businessmen. Billy Bray speaks of a Primitive Methodist he knew who was a coal merchant who never cheated a customer out of a lump of coal. Then he could speak to anyone of his Lord.
So it may be a conscience that convicts you of the barrier between you and your neighbour, or that your conscience convicts you of your being wrong with God. There is a secret sin and you know that God is aware of it. But the answer is to get your conscience right with God and have the sin confessed and dealt with and forgiven. Then you have the boldness and the grace in speaking to think of what pity God has shown to you and so you can tell others who are in the same boat, wondering how they can ever know forgiveness that you have received it and that the same God can show mercy to him too. Two elementary points you see on how we can be always ready to speak the gospel, having a right relationship with God and having in ourselves a good conscience.
- I AM NOT ASHAMED.
Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile” (v.16). Dr. Lloyd-Jones says that if a person has never been ashamed of the gospel then the reason is not that he is an exceptionally good Christian but that his understanding of the gospel has never been clear. Do you understand the audacious claims of Christianity? The God who made the world is a personal God, and he is also triune, he is Father and Son and Holy Spirit and these three persons are the one personal God. The Son of God with his Father and the Spirit, created the whole cosmos. He came to this world by being begotten in the womb of the virgin Mary. In other words while continuing to be God, laying aside none of his divine attributes, he added to his deity all of human nature so that he become true man as well as true God in one indivisible person for ever. Then this God-man offered himself to God as a sacrifice in the place of all the people of God, taking our condemnation so that God could remain just and yet could declare all those redeemed by the death of Christ, pardoned and righteous in him. Jehovah Jesus rose from the dead on the third day and after forty days ascended to heaven where he has all authority in heaven and earth and reigns over his people and builds his church and fills the earth with the knowledge of his glory. One day he is coming again to make a new heavens and new earth, to judge all mankind and assign to everyone their eternal destinies in heaven with him, or in hell.
That is the gospel that is revealed to the world in the Bible and is believed by every true Christian. It was mocked and scorned and rejected by the world of Paul’s day. Pagans branded it as ‘atheism.’ The Jews hated it as licentiousness. The crucifixion of the incarnate God was an enormous stumbling block to Israel and it was foolishness to Greece. When Paul explained it to a monarch then the king disdained it telling the apostle that much learning had made him mad. So today when people ask us if we believe that Jesus walked on water, and the hammer head floated, and there is a real hell and we tell them we do then they scorn such a faith as having no entitlement to exist in the 21st century. Aren’t you under pressure to feel ashamed of Christianity? Of course not of watered down modernistic and liberal religion which removes the supernatural and the miraculous and teaches merely the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of the divine – there is nothing in that of which to be ashamed, but that is simply not Christianity. It may use God-words but it bleeds them of their life and vitality. The liberal says, “Of course I believe Jesus rose from the dead, but I interpret it to mean he did not physically rise.” But the historic Christian faith of the creeds and confessions such as the 39 Articles and the 1689 Confession we are utterly unashamed of it. We believe it.
Why do we believe it? We will answer in the words of Paul before us, “, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (v.16). That message explained, understood, trusted, received and lived out day by day is divine power and salvation. It was believed by a torturer and killer, Saul of Tarsus, and it divinely transformed his life. He became a new creation. God’s grace made him humble and holy and kind and prayerful, living for others, the happiest and sweetest man in the world. “The fruit of the Spirit is joy” he told men, and that is why he was so joyful. “So rejoice in the Lord always,” he told them. He was contented in whatever condition he was in. The power of God had done this to him and to millions of others. What our father Adam had lost by his rebellion against God Paul had had restored to him and vastly increased by the indwelling of the Maker of Adam. He gained more blessing than his father had lost.
So was Paul ashamed of the gospel? He remembered what the gospel had done to the first three Europeans who became Christians people from Philippi in Greece, one a slave girl possessed by an evil spirit, and the second a moral and intelligent business woman and entrepreneur named Lydia, and the third the governor of the prison in Philippi, and all of them were transformed for the better by the message of Jesus Christ. They became better husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, better neighbours and workmates. How the lot of the newborn child and the unborn child was changed, the sex trade was weakened, slavery was steadily undermined, the lot of women pervasively improved. Education, hospitals, the protection of children, more humane prisons and democracy were all given such a boost wherever the gospel put down its roots. Is it one, or is it two countries out of the two dozen Muslim countries which are democracies? But where the gospel of Christ has gone true political and economic freedom has spread. What is the explanation? The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to all who believe.
Who could be ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Let the atheist name five women whose lives have been delivered from the sex industry by the power of atheism, we know of hundreds in the Philippines, and Singapore, and south Korea, and India whose lives have been transformed by the power of God through believing the gospel. What do we have to be ashamed of? Omnipotent redeeming grace . . . lifting up women and men . . . people whose lives were in despairing muddles . . . millions finding a purpose in life and a hope in death? I am a debtor . . . I am ready . . . I am not ashamed of the gospel.
17th November 2013 GEOFF THOMAS