To God Alone Be The Glory
September 12, 2004 | Providence Presbyterian Church | Romans 1:8-17
On the second Sunday of September 1968, I stood for my first time to preach my first sermon in my first church, The First Presbyterian Church of Kilgore, Texas. Consequently, on the second Sunday in September in every year since, I always do two things: I always have us sing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken,” the hymn with which that first worship service began, and I always preach a sermon that is a bit more personal in nature. Today then on the 36th anniversary of that very first sermon, instead of focusing on me personally, I want to focus on us—you and me together as the Providence Church of Hilton Head Island. You see, in my time in the ministry, I have come to love more and more this great Gospel of Jesus Christ which is ours. And in my time in the ministry here, I have come to love more and more this wonderful church of ours. Consequently, the dominant reality of my life has become the love I have for you and the love I receive from you. I guess that’s why the story behind one of my favorite hymns, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds,” is so moving to me.
John Fawcett was born to poor parents in Yorkshire, England in 1740. At the age of 16, he committed his life to Christ and prepared for the ministry. At age 26, he was called to serve a small, impoverished congregation at Wainsgate in Northern England. He and his new bride, Mary, poured themselves into devoted service there for nearly seven years. John Fawcett’s reputation as a preacher began to spread, and in 1772 the large influential Carter’s Lane Baptist Church in London extended to him a call. He accepted that call and the preparations for the move began. The wagons were loaded with furniture, personal possessions, and his books. All this time the members of his little church—men, women, and children—gathered in the house and out in the yard, weeping with sorrow, and praying fervently that he might not leave. As the moment of departure came, suddenly tears filled John Fawcett’s eyes. Mary, looking into his tearful face while tears ran down her own cheeks, said,. “John, I cannot bear to leave. I know not how to go.” He replied, “Nor can I either. We shall remain here with our people.” The order was then given to unpack the wagons and John and Mary Fawcett carried on their faithful ministry in Wainsgate for 54 years until he died of a stroke in 1817. It was on that day in 1772, after he decided to remain in Wainsgate, that he sat down and wrote a poem. He shared it with his people that next Sunday. What they heard were the words we now sing as the hymn “Blest Be the Tie That Binds.”
I love that hymn, and I love the story behind the hymn because now you and I together are living out a similar story, and the ties that bind us are blest indeed. So let me break open my heart for a few minutes and tell you why I believe what I believe and what I believe God wants us to be doing together in this church. I take as my text a marvelous verse of Scripture Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.
Paul writes, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel” reminding us that the Gospel calls for uncommon courage.
When Paul claimed to be unashamed of the Gospel, that was not a proud boast, it was a costly confession. You see, simply for preaching the Gospel, Paul had been in prison in Philippi, smuggled out of Thessalonica, hounded out of Berea, laughed out of Athens and driven out of Ephesus, but Paul was not intimated, not for a moment. Although his message meant that he would have to live everyday in fear and trembling, that very sense of helplessness served to demonstrate the power of God working through his life. It was his conviction, and he spoke of it in his letters, that divine power was most clearly revealed in human weakness. That is what enabled him to resist feeling ashamed, even when his entire enterprise for Christ seemed to be on the verge of collapse. You know some scholars have actually retranslated this verse in Romans from, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel,” to, “I am proud of the Gospel.” That’s wrong. The opposite of shame is not so much pride as it is courage. With his back to the wall, hemmed in by opposition on every hand, Paul did not have the luxury of boasting with pride about the 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.” And cost him it did. Standing on the Gospel is always costly. It has taken courage for the leaders of this church to keep this church going and growing in the Gospel. Just recently, Gloria Scott gave me a list of the Charter Members of this church. It is my intent to keep that list handy at my desk to remind me always of those who have shaped the life and history of Providence Church. Many of them are still here and still providing great leadership. They led this church through many a difficult and challenging time, and they did it with courage and vision. Why, because they were not ashamed of the Gospel. They stood for Jesus Christ without shame, without fear, without apology, without concern for the cost. Oh what courage they possessed, and what a difference they made. I do not know for certain that we have the same depth of commitment now, but I do know this: together we shall muster all the courage we possess, and we shall continue to declare that we are not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then Paul writes, “It is the power of God for salvation,” reminding us that the Gospel calls for unquestioned change.
How could Paul maintain such unwavering confidence in the Gospel despite the ridicule and the 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 for salvation. Note, please, Paul did not say that the Gospel is a proclamation about the power of God. Rather, he said, it is the power of God. The Gospel does not simply speak about salvation; the Gospel has within itself the strength and the power to save. Several years ago I spent a week as the guest speaker at Chautauqua up in New York State. The guest theologian that same week was Dr. Amy Jill Levine. She is a brilliant, dynamic, Jewish woman, who—get this now!—teaches New Testament to the students at the Vanderbilt Divinity School. Let that wash over you for a few moments. Well, people asked her during the week how she, as a Jew, could teach the Gospels to students bound for the Christian Ministry. She indicated that, for her, studying the Gospels was an academic exercise. Well, Trisha and I loved being with Amy Jill Levine and getting to know her. But I did say to her at one point, “You know you are running a terrible risk by continuing to expose yourself to the pages of the Gospel Story because the Gospel has within it the power to save, and one day it is going to snare you if you keep turning its pages.” You see, I believe what Paul believed: that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. What that means is that the preacher of the Gospel literally recreates the Christ event every time the story is told. When the message is faithfully proclaimed, Christ’s death on the cross actually happens again in human hearts. The preacher is not simply revealing some historical record. The preacher is not analyzing some religious idea or concept. The preacher is not delivering some lecture on morality. Rather the preacher is calling into being all over again God’s saving act in Jesus Christ. Yes, the Gospel is the power of God for salvation. Keep coming to this church. Keep sitting on these pews. Keep attending our classes, and sooner or later, the Gospel is going to grab you and change you. That’s why in this church together we shall preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ for all we are worth. Because, as Paul puts it, it is the power of God for salvation.
Then Paul writes, “of everyone who believes,” reminding us that the Gospel calls for unconditional compassion.
The Gospel is not just for some, it’s for everyone who believes. We cannot all share the same citizenship on earth for national boundaries divide us. We cannot all share the same culture for social demarcations divide us. We cannot all share the same prosperity for economic differences divide us. Thank God, we all can share the same salvation. It is our believing that unites us. That means that we can travel across every continent however distant, enter any ghetto however wretched, penetrate any culture however sophisticated, knowing full well that saving faith destroys all human barriers. Think of it. The most powerful force in the world is available to everyone who believes. No statesmen can say that about their country. No politicians can say that about their party. No CEO’s can say that about their corporation. No workers can say that about their union. No scholars can say that about their university. No sales clerks can say that about their products. But we can say that about our Gospel. To everyone who believes—no matter who you are and what you may have been or done, or said, or thought; no matter what your background or your environment; no matter your achievement or your attainment; no matter your color or your circumstance—the Gospel we proclaim and the church we love, those are for you. That’s the way this church has been, and that’s the way this church shall be. The center of all we do is sharing the Gospel so that everyone can believe.
I want you to listen to the testimony of a young African pastor. This note was found tacked to the wall of his house. His words express so wonderfully my own understanding of my own ministry. Here is what he wrote, “I am part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed. My present makes sense. My future is secure. I am finished and done with low thinking, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tamed visions, mundane talking, cheap living, and dwarf goals. I no longer need preeminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, recognized, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by faith, walk by patience, lift by prayer, and labor by power. My face is set. My gait is fast. My goal is heaven. My road is narrow. My way is rough. My companions are few. My guide is reliable. My mission is clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, deluded, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of the adversary, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity. I won’t give up, shut up, let up, until I have stayed up, stored up, prayed up, paid up, preached up for the cause of Jesus Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go till He comes, give till I drop, preach till all know, and work till He stops me, and when He comes for His own, He will have no problem recognizing me. My banner will be clear!”
To know Christ and to make Him known; that’s what God called me to do 36 years ago, that’s why God now has brought you and me together and that’s why He is blessing the work we are doing together. And that is why the words of John Fawcett mean so much to me. “Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. The fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above.”
Soli Deo gloria
To God Alone be the Glory