The Greatness Of The Gospel
January 22, 1989 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | Romans 1:8-17
“All roads lead to Rome.”
In the first century, that old saying was literally true. Like spokes converging on the hub of a wheel, all roads back then did lead to Rome. As a result, Rome was glutted with faiths and philosophies and values from every corner of its conquered lands. The Roman historian, Tacitus, went so far as to say that Rome had become a cesspool for the religious refuse of the Empire. He singled out Christianity as an especially “detestable superstition.” To express his contempt for the Christian faith, he wrote: “Though suppressed for the moment by the execution of its founder, it broke out again, not only in Judea, the origin of this evil, but even in Rome, and of that we ought to be ashamed.”
In light of such sentiments, it is no accident that Paul took up his powerful pen and wrote a letter of encouragement to that embattled company of Christians in Rome whose faith was being ridiculed and persecuted. That letter is preserved for us as the Book of Romans in our Bible. There Paul takes up the challenge of every Tacitus who would dare to dismiss his message by crying out in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel. It is the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes.”
What a marvelous affirmation of the greatness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ! That is why today, as we celebrate 113 years of existence for the First Presbyterian Church—100 of those years at this location—I have chosen to preach on Romans 1:16. You see, I am convinced that this church has been great for 113 years simply because from the very beginning—early in 1876—this church has built its life upon the greatness of the Gospel. Yes, if there is a single verse of Scripture to describe the secret of this church’s greatness, it is Romans 1:16. Let me spell that out for you…
First, the Gospel is unequalled in the courage which it demands.
Paul wrote: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.” That was no proud boast, but a costly confession. Simply for preaching the Gospel, Paul had been imprisoned in Philippi, smuggled out of Thessalonica, hounded out of Berea, laughed out of Athens, and driven out of Ephesus. If he was not ashamed of his cause, then he was certainly one of the few! His countrymen, the Jews, were so ashamed that they were plotting to take his life. The Jewish Christians in Jerusalem were so ashamed that they dogged his steps trying to undermine everything he did. Even many of his own converts and missionary companions were so ashamed that they forsook him completely.
But Paul was not intimidated. Although his message meant that he would have to minister “in much fear and trembling,” that very sense of helplessness served to demonstrate that the power of God was working through his life. It was this conviction, that divine power is most clearly seen in human weakness, which enabled Paul to resist the strong temptation to become ashamed even when his entire enterprise seemed to be on the verge of collapse. Near the end of his life, he could tell Timothy: “Do not be ashamed of testifying to our Lord, but take your share of suffering for the Gospel as the power of God.” Or again: “For this Gospel, I suffer as I do, but I am not ashamed, for I am sure that Jesus is able.”
Some scholars have re-translated this verse in Romans from “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” to “I am proud of the Gospel.” That is wrong. The opposite of shame is not so much pride as it is courage. With his back to the wall, hemmed in by foes on every hand, Paul did not have the luxury of boasting about his Gospel. Instead, he was saying: “With all of the courage I can muster, I take my stand upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ cost what it may.” Read through the history of this church and you will encounter the same thing. You will encounter names of people like Wilson, Ivey, Siemens, Bumby, O’Neal, Lee, Yowell, McNutt, and Allen. They led this church through many a difficult and challenging time and they did it with courage and with vision. Why? Because they were not ashamed of the Gospel. They stood for Jesus Christ in this city without shame, without fear, without apology, and without concern for the cost. What courage they possessed!
Of course the challenges and difficulties we face in the church today are more subtle than they were 2000 years ago, or even 50 years ago, but make no mistake the church is under attack. Whether you find it on television, in the movies, in the newspapers or on the pages of novels, religion is usually the object of ridicule or criticism. You know, it is interesting that more Americans go to church every Sunday morning in this country than go to all the professional sporting events of every kind in this country in an entire year. Yet still, the media do not take religion seriously. We see endless, cynical coverage given to ministers-gone-wrong like Bakker and Swaggart, but how much do you see given to Billy Graham or Mother Teresa? That is not too surprising really. The recently completed Gallup Poll indicates that 96% of all Americans have some kind of religious faith, but 86% of those in the media have no faith whatever. Is it any wonder then that the media, so grossly out of touch with the religious feeling of this society, so constantly distort or ignore it?
Take it a step further. You recall the furor over the movie “The Last Temptation of Christ”: It is interesting that Hollywood would never consider making a movie based on the The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is a vicious anti-Semitic attack upon the Jews. Hollywood did produce a movie a few years back on the life of Mohammed, but out of respect for him and his followers, you never saw Mohammed on screen—you only heard his voice. Yet this same
Hollywood produces and ballyhoos a sleazy, salacious attack upon our Saviour, Jesus Christ. Donald Fedder, who is a Boston lawyer and who is himself a Jew, wrote these words about “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Christians are the only group Hollywood can offend with impunity. The tenets of Christianity are regularly held up for ridicule. As a Jew, I do not believe in the deity of Jesus, but I do believe in respecting the faith of those who regard Him as their Saviour.” Would that the moguls of Hollywood had an equal respect.
Of course, the film was a colossal flop, losing millions of dollars. While there is talk of a re-release around Easter, the fact is that on the first run, of the 13,000 motion picture theatres in America, only 130—1%—agreed to show the film. It never even opened in Orlando. That should tell you something about where most Americans stand, and that should show you what happens when Christians have the courage to say “I am not ashamed of the Gospel.”
My friends, across the centuries, the Church of Jesus Christ has been splattered with blood and blasphemy. It has been burned and banned, tortured and ridiculed. But the Church lives on. Nothing can stop it. Even the gates of hell will never be able to stand against it. And what is true of the Church of Jesus Christ in the world is also true of the First Presbyterian Church of Orlando. Nothing has ever stopped it, and nothing ever will. I look back at these great saints who laid the spiritual and the physical foundations for this remarkable church, and I do not know that we have the same depth of faith and commitment. But I do know this: We shall muster whatever courage we have, and we shall say to this city and to this world: “We are not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” That Gospel is unequalled in the courage it demands.
Secondly, the Gospel is unmatched in the change which it produces.
How could Paul maintain such unwavering confidence in the Gospel despite his ridicule and scorn? Simple. He realized that his message was not what it appeared to be. Instead of being a foolish tale of human weakness, it was as Paul said, “The power of God unto salvation.”
Note well: Paul did not say that the Gospel is a proclamation about the power of God. Rather, he said that it is that very power at work for human redemption. The Gospel does not merely bear witness to salvation, but has within itself the strength to save. Therefore, the preacher of the Gospel literally re-creates the Christ-event every time the sacred story is told. When the message is faithfully uttered, Christ actually happens again in human lives. The preacher does not review an ancient record. The preacher does not analyze a religious idea. The preacher does not deliver a lecture on morality. Rather, the preacher calls into being a redemptive act! Ultimately, therefore, the Gospel is nothing less than a miracle, because through it Christ comes again into this world and into individual lives. The message goes forth as a gale of God’s wind blowing in a heavenly direction, a transcendent force propelling people toward salvation, a kind of spiritual “counter-gravity,” that lifts them above every threat of earthbound existence. Paul was right, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is “the power of God unto salvation.”
You know, I read the history of this church and I see the names of its preachers—names like Stagg and Belk and McNair and Dendy and Kadel and Anderson and Chadwick. I read their sermons, and I know that I am not worthy to stand with them. Yet, wonder of wonders, God has called me to this pulpit and he has charged me to preach the same Gospel they preached. That is precisely what I do. I had the privilege a few weeks back of attending the Shark Shootout Golf Tournament. Now Arnold Palmer has always been my hero—and that day I saw him play up close. It was wonderful! At one point during the day, a friend said to me: “Don’t you wish you could be like Arnold Palmer?” I said: “Oh, does he preach, too?” You see, golf is his thing, preaching is mine. And I am going to preach the Gospel for all I am worth. It does not matter that I may not have all the skills and abilities of those powerhouse preachers who preceded me in this place, because the preacher does not matter. All that matters is the Gospel. And when the Gospel is preached, it becomes the power of God unto salvation, changing individuals and changing the world.
My friends, our church must live or die on the truth of that claim. Unless there is a regenerating, redeeming, reconciling power at work at the center of our common life, then this church will never become what God wants it to be. But if there stirs within us a divine dynamism that freshens the wellsprings of our tradition with living water, that infuses our inertia with boldness, that energizes our evangelistic complacency with holy zeal, then there is no limit to the ways God can use us in the perilous days ahead. For 113 years, the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been proclaimed in this place. We shall do the same. For that Gospel is “The power of God unto salvation.”
Thirdly, the Gospel is unlimited in the compassion it extends.
Paul says that the Gospel’s power of salvation is available “to everyone who believes.” We cannot all share the same citizenship, for national boundaries divide us; or the same culture, for social classes divide us; or the same prosperity, for economic differences divide us. But, thank God, we can all share the same salvation, for the possibility of believing unites us. That means that we can traverse every continent however distant, enter any ghetto however wretched, and penetrate any culture however sophisticated, in the conviction that saving faith is no respecter of human barriers.
Think of it! The most powerful force in the world is available “to everyone who believes.” No statesman can say that about their countries. No politicians can say that about their parties. No tradesmen can say that about their unions. No scholars can say that about their universities. No salesmen can say that about their products. But we can say that about our Gospel. And for 113 years we have been saying that in this church, “To everyone who believes—no matter who you are or what you may have been or done, no matter what your background, your environment or your attainment, no matter what your color or your circumstance may be, the Gospel we proclaim and the church we love are for you.”
“To everyone who believes.” Let us lift that banner above all that we do in this church. Let it be the burning conviction behind every prospect card that we assign, every church door that we open, every piece of literature that we distribute, every sermon that we preach, every new member that we receive, every missionary that we commission. Let it permeate every program that we plan, every class that we teach, every song that we sing, every conference that we convene. Nothing less than a wholehearted sharing of the whole Gospel with the whole world is worthy of our history and of our high calling!
Here is the greatness of the Gospel as it shines through the words of Paul: “I am not ashamed of the Gospel”—it is unequalled in the courage it demands…”for it is the power of God unto salvation”—it is unmatched by the change it produces…”to everyone who believes”—it is unlimited in the compassion it extends. May the greatness of that Gospel so grip our hearts and guide our steps that the day will come when the glory of Jesus Christ will cover the earth as the waters cover the sea…
Soli Deo Gloria.
To God alone be the glory.