Earlier in this series I suggested that there are two things that people want in life more than anything else. This applies to everybody, those outside or inside the Church. The first is acceptance. You want to be accepted as you are and for who you are. You don’t want to have to jump through anybody’s hoops or meet anyone’s expectations to be accepted. Everyone wants this unconditional acceptance. We all want somebody to know us and affirm us as we are. Jesus Christ Himself gives you that – that is good news.
The second thing, paradoxically, is that you don’t want to stay the way you are. You want to change. You want to be different. You want to grow and improve. You want to mature. We have already spent a bit of time on this concept but over the next two sermons I want us to look at how this acceptance changes us and makes us more like the people we want to be and the people God created us to be. God’s acceptance works a gracious change in us. It’s not something that is forced upon us or something that we have to strain to make happen. It’s a change that comes from our very essence.
By responding to God’s acceptance of us – we are changed from the inside out. The love and grace of God revealed to us in Christ has its own transforming power.
The Apostle Paul embraced this life-changing power and when he did, he couldn’t help sharing it with people. Let’s see what he wrote to the believers in the Ephesian Church.
“I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence.” (Ephesians 3:7-12)
Paul says this heavy burden to preach the gospel with all his might, came to him as a gift of God’s grace. He was gracious enough to give Paul the opportunity to share this good news with even the Gentiles. Now can you imagine an orthodox Jew getting excited about sharing the good news with the Gentiles? Paul realised that this good news, this loving acceptance of God through His only Son Jesus, is for EVERYONE. He was called to make it plain to everyone. This would have come as a big surprise to a man who was raised in a community that said, ‘We are in and everybody else is out.
Paul got excited firstly because God accepted him. Even though he had persecuted the Church, he was loved and accepted by God and that grace impacted Paul and changed Him. So he couldn’t wait to tell everybody else! Paul discovered that the accepting grace of God was not just for him – but for the whole world. This good news doesn’t come written in the sky or on a banner dropped from heaven, or in a voice booming through the heart of the earth – it comes through Jesus Christ and the Church that bears His name. The good news which was mysteriously hidden for all the preceding ages was revealed by the grace of God, as a joyous, spontaneous expression of life. You know that grace is doing its work in you when you accept and rejoice in God’s unconditional love for you and you find that you want to pass it on to somebody else.
That, my friends, is real evangelism and you will never be exhorted by me to get out there and give away something that has not first impacted your life. You are not going to be intimidated into performing some evangelistic duty. If the love and grace of God does not impact your life sufficiently that you are compelled from within to share this incredible news with others, then stick around, keep listening, keep asking, seeking and knocking … do whatever it takes until you get it! Because your witnessing will not be effective and it will not be honouring to God unless it comes from a deep, personal reality and experience of His grace. You overcome the enemy by the blood of Jesus and the word of your testimony – not someone else’s. Paul tells us that ‘the love of God constrains us’ to speak to the truth. It comes from a reality within us. It’s not a task we perform out of duty.
John says a similar thing in his first letter. Reading from verse 7 of chapter 4 …
“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
Listen to that. Whoever does not love does not know God. God is love and if you’ve been loved by God you know God and you know that you’ve been loved by God if you love others. Do you understand that logic? In other words, if you feel a joy and an impulse in your heart to tell someone the good news, then that is a symptom of the loving acceptance of God in your heart. The grace of God has begun to do its work in you. Telling somebody the good news is no longer a case of, ‘I’ve got to’ … but rather, ‘I get to.’ To know God is to know love and when touched by that kind of love the desire is birthed in us to express that love to others – that’s just the way it works.
“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” (1 John 4:9-12)
We don’t start out with some theory which says God is love. The Bible says you don’t know who God is until He reveals Himself. John tells us that God has revealed Himself through His Son, Jesus Christ. This is how we know who God is – because He first loved us – now we love Him. God loves us and we know that we have experienced that love because we love Him back – and part of the way we do that is by loving others. When you see that happening in your life, you know that the love of God is at work within you, because you can’t do that in your own fallen condition. Husbands and wives who love each other don’t get up in the morning and spend time meditating about their spouse and working up love in their heads, it just comes out spontaneously or it doesn’t come at all.
The purpose of this Church and the purpose of my preaching, is to get us exposed to the love and grace of God in worship, in ministry, in teaching, in everything we do, because that love and grace will do its own work – it will change us from the inside out. It will produce love and acceptance in us for others and then evangelism and Church growth will become the natural consequence of a healthy Church – not a particular ministry that a few gifted people feel called to!
In stepping out to give away the love and grace of God, it’s essential to realise that God actually loves others as much as He loves us. The love of God that you are experiencing has no boundaries. It is not just for the Church; not just for those who repent; not just for those who believe. The love of God is for EVERYBODY and it is unconditional. The love and grace of God came to you free – you didn’t earn it and you deserved only death. That same love and grace goes out from God to all people everywhere – regardless of their behaviour, lifestyle or their knowledge of that love. Let’s look at those two terms a little more: boundlessand unconditional.
First of all God’s love knows no boundaries – it has no limitation. His love is for everybody. 1 John chapter 2 begins with these words:
“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.” (1 John 2:1,2)
God loves the whole world. He gave His Son to live and die for the whole world. I can’t make it more direct than that. The most quoted verse in the Bible (John 3:16) has told us this a million times over: “For God so loved the world that He have His only son …” Jesus didn’t live and die for a few, for the elect, for the Christians, for a chosen generation, His love and His grace reaches out to the whole world – to everybody – and here’s the best news of all: we get to tell people that!
When you look at evangelism in the Church over the years, what has been preached to so many people outside the kingdom of God is –‘You are going to hell because of your sins and if you don’t repent and change your ways – you will be lost for eternity.’ Now strictly speaking that may or may not be the truth. However the truth can be painted in such a light that it communicates an emphasis which betrays that very truth or, at the very least, distorts it. To say: ‘You are going to hell without Christ and unless you repent and believe – Gods judgment will fall on you,’ communicates a motive for repentance and turning to God which is not the central thrust of the Gospel, it is not the emphasis of the teaching of Jesus and Paul and it is not the overall message you get from the New Testament. ‘Turn or burn!’ is not the ‘good news’ of the gospel and it doesn’t work for most people.
The true gospel, the real gospel, the whole gospel happens to be the most compelling, beautiful, wonderful story that anyone could ever hear and it simply must be told. Once the message of the gospel grabs hold of you and burns into you – you just can’t help telling people – it just bubbles up and out before you know it because the true gospel flows from a well of inexpressible and glorious joy. Maybe that’s why they call it the ‘good news.’ We tell people about a good restaurant we went to or a good movie we saw because we want them to share our good experience. Any positive experience we have as human beings impacts us to the point where we want to tell someone.
So what does that say about the experience of those Christians who never speak about their faith to anyone? Or the ones who only speak about it in terms of judgement or criticism or condemnation of those who fail to live up to their high and holy standards? If you were to survey a thousand people on the streets across our nation this coming week who have nothing at all to do with the Church and ask them what they thought the central message of the Church was, what would most of them say?
Would they say …
“Oh the Church? Those lovely, positive Christians? That’s easy – their central message is love. They claim to have met God in some personal way and have been transformed by that encounter. They just can’t stop talking about this God of love. And you can see it in their attitude to life. They’re always positive and seem to handle the pressures of life better than the rest of us.”
Or would they say …
“Let me think … the Church eh? I would say the central thrust of their message is that they live the right way and the rest of us live the wrong way and are going to hell because of it. They are the self-appointed judges who tell us what we shouldn’t do all the time. And yet I know some of these people and they are just as screwed up as the rest of us!”
Or would they say …
“I haven’t got a clue what their message is. I have worked with a guy for eight years who I know goes to Church every Sunday and to Church meetings during the week and I couldn’t tell you what he believes because he has never said a word about it the whole time I’ve known him. Maybe it’s a secret or maybe it’s just not important enough to talk about.”
The primary motivation for sharing the gospel is that it’s good news – it’s the best news anybody on this planet could ever hear and that good news will never come out of you until it has first gone into you and transformed you. There are tens of thousands of people sitting in Church buildings across this nation right now who have still not received the good news – the true gospel. How do I know that? Simple. No special discernment is needed – I just look at their faces when they leave Church each Sunday; I listen to what they talk about at work and in the community and post online (and what they don’t talk about or post).
Brothers and sisters, the heart and soul of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ is this:
”God loves you and accepts you unconditionally, just as you are now, in spite of your sin. He wants to give you the gift of eternal life – enjoying His presence and the power of His love … a love that will transform you, over time, into the image of His Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When you accept the truth of this good news, in faith, it will become your experience.”
When that is understood, love and grace will have an effect in any life and repentance and a changing character will be the first fruits of that grace-encounter. “You’re going to hell – repent and be saved from the wrath of God” is not what I would describe as good news. In fact, I believe that distorted motivation for turning to God is one of the greatest deceptions that Satan has perpetrated for more than 2000 years now. Millions of people have turned to God because they don’t want to miss out in eternity – they don’t want this wrathful God to punish them. However if ‘fire insurance’ is your motivation for turning to God; if the fear of judgement from a high and holy God is what got you interested in the Church – then you will never really experience the abundant Christian life unless someone is brave enough and loves you enough to challenge you with the undiluted amazing grace of God. Then, and only then, will you have heard the gospel.
Thankfully, many Christians are confronted with the true gospel at some stage after their conversion. Sadly, many are not. Worse still, millions of people come under the sound of what we call ‘the gospel’ and walk away. There are thousands of people in this very community who have been connected to a Christian Church at some point in their life but have not stayed connected. Why is that? I believe it’s because they heard something other than the gospel! They may have heard some theologically precise sermons; they may have heard things that are supported by Scripture; but did they ever sit there on the edge of their seat and say: ‘Wow! What a story! Is God really like that? Is that how God really feels about me? I had no idea! I always thought He was angry at me. I think I’ll stick around this place and get to know God some more! This stuff is life-changing!
If they had really heard the good news – most of them would have stayed and let me tell you friends that if all the people who used to be part of the Church across this nation all came back next week, we would not have room to fit them all in. Every worship centre in the nation would be overflowing! The Apostle Paul said that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). And when the truegospel is preached – people will respond. Grace will have its effect and the mission of Christ will be fulfilled. Let those who have ears to hear, listen to what the Spirit of God is saying to the Church today. Amen.