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A Conversation with Paul…

A candid conversation with the apostle Paul about sharing the gospel[1], part 2.

By Michael Morrison, GCS President

“Paul, last time we talked, you talked about how sin has impacted us. You used the analogy of pottery and said we are like pottery that is broken beyond repair. Then you said rather than start over with new clay, Jesus demonstrates his love for us by putting us back together, with the end product being better than the original.”

 

“That’s right. Do you have a follow-up question?”

“I like the pottery analogy; it’s almost like we are in a factory and Christ started the machinery working again. Is that what you are saying?”

“No, it’s not a mechanized procedure. Emotion is part of it. God doesn’t want robots doing ‘correct’ behaviors – he wants thinking, living beings choosing to love. Love isn’t programmed – it is chosen. And here the pottery analogy breaks down, because in this case the pottery can’t be put back together again unless the pottery wants to be put back together. The pottery needs to understand what the end result is, and to want it.

“We know what love is because Christ Jesus showed us what it is, and the goal is that we want that so much that we are willing to live for it.

“Christ’s love compels us,” I wrote in one letter. That doesn’t mean that it forces us to do something we wouldn’t otherwise want to do, as if we have no say in the matter. We don’t just sit around waiting for Christ to ‘compel’ us to do things. But ‘compel’ is a strong word, and I chose it intentionally.

“I’m saying that this is our motivation – we want to do this because of what Christ has done for us. We are so moved by what he did, and we want to participate in that way of life, that we want to do what he did. We can’t die for others the way he did, but we can live for others, and we look to him for direction on what needs to be done. We don’t just rush in risking our life just for the sake of risking our lives in order to demonstrate our love.

“The desire to do what Christ wants is so strong for me that I used the word ‘compel.’ Although I did have a choice, I felt like it was the only reasonable thing to do. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel – not because God is going to zap me if I fail, but it’s like you’re at a game show and you purposely choose the pile of rags rather than the pile of cash. You’d be kicking yourself in the shins for the rest of your life. That’s how I’d feel if I didn’t do what Christ wants me to do.

“Other believers have different choices. Not everyone in Philippi was supposed to join my traveling party, or even to go north into Romania. Some were supposed to stay in Philippi, to be citizens of heaven in the city there, like settlers in a foreign land. Christ lays different things on the hearts of different people, but the point is that we should love him first, and that will mean following him, too. We look forward to an eternity filled with this depth of emotional commitment, and it begins now.”

“I understand now why you risk your life to preach; you enjoy it. And each of us should enjoy to some extent the challenges involved in love, in thinking of others first. It can make us feel good to do something good.

“But I still have the original question: Why is it important to preach the gospel, when, even if we don’t, people are eventually going to find out that Christ paid the penalty for them? Is it just so that people sin less?

“For example, my neighbors are decent people, good neighbors, assets to the community. They are comfortable with what they have; they don’t seem to be worried about sin or death. They don’t feel any need for what Christ can give them. I don’t know how to make the gospel seem attractive to them – I would just be disrupting their comfortable world, and they might have less of the things they like. The cash looks like a pile of rags to them.”

“Yes, some people just don’t find the gospel very attractive, and they don’t seem to be hugely selfish people. They love their families, they do good to their neighbors, they help one another through difficult times. They get to experience a little bit of the love that Christ made us for.

“Not everyone responds – when I preached in the Roman Empire, only a small percentage responded, and I rejoiced at this small percentage. But I didn’t write much about what happens to the others. God will take care of them in the way that he knows is best. I have some ideas of what he might do, but without any specific revelation from God, perhaps it’s best just to say that he’ll take care of them. Meanwhile, I’ll do the best I can with what he has called me to do.

“But if I think about it, it does trouble me that so few respond. I have great anguish in my heart about the Jewish people. You’d think that, of all people, they’d be the most responsive to a Messiah who took care of the sin problem. But no, most of them don’t seem to understand why the Creator would have to die to solve the problem. I don’t claim to completely understand it myself, but I know that Christ didn’t die for nothing. If some other way could have worked, then God would have proceeded in his plan without letting his Son be killed.

“I’d really like for my own ethnic group to get the picture. I’d even be willing to trade places with them, that I would go back to my self-righteous ways, if they could get the picture. But that’s not really an option, is it? And besides, I wouldn’t want to go back to a life of disrespect for Christ, knowing what I know now of how much he loves me and what he did for me.

“Trading places is not really an option. I can’t un-know how good Christ is. And there’s no point in seeking good (the salvation of many people) by evil means (turning myself away from Christ). It wouldn’t work, but still, I have anguish. I wish they’d get the picture – if not for their own sake, then for Christ’s sake. I would really like for him to be given greater honor, greater respect, greater allegiance, greater success in his plan for growing love within us.

“Evangelism is really about honoring Christ, about telling people how good he is – but he and his plan for multiplying love cannot be separated. We want people to accept the gospel for their own good, even if they don’t perceive it as good right now, because it honors Christ and his sacrifice for them. He wants to bring greater good to them, and we trust that he knows what the greater good is. So this is good for people, even people who don’t think they need it right now. It’s a win-win situation. Honor to Christ, and good for the people as well.

However, the details aren’t up to me. I don’t choose who will respond; I don’t even choose where to go. Sometimes the Holy Spirit sends me in a different direction. I’m not the one in charge.”

“Yea, the Holy Spirit. Why doesn’t he do all the work? Isn’t he already in all the places we want to go? Isn’t he already at work in the people? Wouldn’t he do a better job than we would?”

“Well, we might think so, but we have to admit that he knows more about it than we do. He is accomplishing a work in us at the same time as he’s doing it through us, to reach other people. And besides, the Spirit isn’t working in the people in the same way that he’s working in us.

“Christ reconciled the world, but there was no noticeable change in the way that people lived when Christ died and rose again. People were still dead in their trespasses and sins; they were enslaved by this alien force called sin. It’s still messing up their lives, and they still need the gospel to start them on the road to freedom.”

“Doesn’t that affect believers, too? Don’t we all sin to some extent or another? Some atheists seem to have better behavior than some believers. Does the Holy Spirit really make a difference?”

“Yes, I admit that some atheists are better behaved. But as I said, it’s not just a matter of behavior – it’s a matter of whether people are doing it to honor Christ, whether they are doing it out of allegiance to him and his plan. The well-behaved atheist still has the problem of seeing the self as the final judge of what’s right and wrong, and that is the fundamental problem of humanity.

“The problems we see in the world come from people looking to themselves as the ones who can define what’s right and wrong. Once a person turns to the Lord, then there is hope for long-term improvement, but when a person looks to the self, there’s not much hope. God can take care of the details, once the basic orientation of the heart is changed. We don’t see it as fast as we’d like, either in ourselves or in other believers, but we trust that the Spirit is doing his work.

“Consider for example the atheists who live across the street from you. Is the Spirit working in their lives? Maybe, but there’s no evidence of it. We can claim that he is doing something, but unless we can describe what kind of work is being done, it’s an empty claim.

“We have no biblical proof that the Spirit works in everyone in the same way, so we can’t claim to know, when we don’t. Maybe all he’s doing is biding his time, waiting for something to happen so the real work can begin. All we can do is trust that God knows how to do his work better than we do. We trust him on the timing and on the method.

“We can share the gospel with such a person – or really, only part of the gospel, because it’s so big that we can’t share it all at once. Some people might respond to one part of the gospel, some to another; we just don’t always know what’s going to work. But we share something with the person, in the hopes that Christ will receive more honor, and the person will experience more of his joy. We are motivated by our love for Christ, and he lives in us to love the people, as well. These two motives are inseparable.

“We aren’t here to build a bigger church for ourselves – we are here to do what Christ wants, to enjoy the ride, and to grow in the process. Maybe our church will grow, maybe it won’t – that’s up to him. But we do our part to bring him honor.

“And we aren’t doing it just to get decisions for Christ, to get people to say yes and to say a prayer, and then we go our separate ways. The mission we are given is not to get people to say yes – it’s to make disciples. We do that only if we stick around, if there’s an ongoing relationship. That often means they come to our church. We desire that not for our own benefit, but for theirs, and for Christ. It’s part of making disciples.

“We want to focus our efforts in places where we can make disciples. It’s not wrong to share the gospel with a stranger whom we will never see again, but that’s not our primary method of operation. We want to focus on people we will see again, and we try to see them again and again and maybe have more opportunities to talk about how good Christ is.

“What worked for me may not work for you. I sat in the marketplace, and made tents while talking with people who were passing by. That might not work well in your social setting. Try something different.

“Get out and talk to people. Be friendly. Let them know what you believe. Learn about their lives, what they think, and maybe you’ll see what part of the gospel message addresses their hopes and dreams. In your society, you really don’t have much to lose, and no matter how they respond, Christ is honored by your attempt, and sometimes by their response as well. It’s his plan, and he wants us to be part of it.”

[1] Sometimes the distinctive voice of Paul can be seen, but for the most part, Paul speaks in a manner that is closer to my own; he puts it in language I can understand.

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