“Richard Sibbes and The Mercy of God”, by John N. Brentnall; Banner of Truth (Sovereignty of God, Holy Trinity)

Introduction

‘When through the blood of the everlasting covenant we children of the shadows reach at last our home in the light, we shall have a thousand strings to our harps, but the sweetest may well be the one tuned to sound forth most perfectly the mercy of God.’

This thought of A. W. Tozer’s is eminently true; for we have no natural right to be with God in heaven; we were numbered among the rebels who in the days before our new birth sinfully banished God from our lives; and we have chosen to go our own way times without number since the day God adopted us into his family. Let us not fool ourselves, we do not deserve the least mercy from God; and as Spurgeon says: ‘all more than hell is mercy.’ We must therefore acknowledge with Toplady:

A debtor to mercy alone,
Of covenant mercy I sing.

The wonder is, that though the Almighty has us all in his power, and we have not the slightest claim on his mercy, his goodness and mercy have followed us all the days of our life. As we come up out of the wilderness of this world leaning upon our Beloved, God has shown himself to be a God of mercy, rich in mercy, plenteous in mercy, delighting in mercy. No-one would bear and forbear as he has done with us his sinful children. Truly, as the Puritan Thomas Goodwin says: ‘All God’s children are be-mercied!’

ln this article, we shall briefly consider how Goodwin’s fellow Puritan Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)1 experienced and preached on the mercy of God. Without entering into the details of his fruitful Christian life and ministry, we simply record Isaak Walton’s touching testimony to his spirituality:

Of this blest man, let this just praise be given.
Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.

Trinitarian Mercy

‘Our redemption,’ writes Sibbes, ‘is founded upon the joint agreement of all three persons of the Trinity.’ (Works, Volume 1, page 43)2 God the Father is the fountain of mercy; God the Son is the channel of mercy, and God the Spirit is the stream of mercy. From all three, therefore, mercy is conveyed into the souls of the redeemed.(3.49; 4.293)

THE FATHER: FOUNTAIN OF MERCY

Consistent with biblical usage, Sibbes often refers the term ‘God’ to the Father. He is merciful by nature, inclined to pity anyone in misery (3.28). Our misery is the magnet that draws his mercy (3.42). Despite all his august majesty, he abounds in mercy (2.292).

Mercy ‘is his nature; it is himself’ (3.28). As the prophet Micah says (Mic. 7:18), ‘he delighteth in mercy’ (3.35). Indeed, mercy is such a sweet attribute in God that all his other attributes would be a terror to us without it (2.292).

It is therefore his great purpose to ‘be glorified in showing mercy’ (3.29-30). Everything he does, in both creation and redemption, is ‘all for the glory of his mercy’ (3.31).

This, concludes Sibbes, is ‘the true reality of fatherhood,’ the true doctrine of the Fatherhood of God. Whatever, therefore, we may lawfully expect from an earthly father, ‘we may expect from God our Father, and infinitely more’ (6.451), for he looks on us, his adopted children, with the same ‘eternal sweet tenderness’ as he does on his natural Son (6.461).

THE SON: THE CHANNEL OF MERCY

Yet because God is ‘the God and Father of Christ first,’ he becomes the Father of mercy to us only through him. ‘Christ hath all first, and we have all from him. He is the first Son, and we are [later] sons. He is the first beloved of God, and we are beloved in him.’ Whatever mercy we receive, therefore, we must receive it ‘in Christ, and through Christ, and from Christ’ (3.27).

As Mediator between God and us, Christ reveals the mercy of God in a unique way. Because ‘we cannot endure the brightness of the majesty of the Father,’ he chose his dear Son to be our Mediator, and chose us in him to become his sons and daughters.

As our Surety-Substitute, who satisfied every demand of his holy justice when he suffered on the cross for our sins, Christ makes God ‘our Father . . . the Father of mercies’ (3.28).

This is why the Lord Jesus told his disciples: ‘I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God’ (John 20:17). This too is why Christ now calls us his brethren: he is our Elder Brother, and we are brothers and sisters in his Father’s family (6.450).

Surely, Sibbes adds with evident satisfaction, he who chose us in Christ in eternity past will glorify us with Christ in eternity future (4.32; 6.453). Let us then realize that a ‘greater glory of mercy . . . shines forth to fallen man in Christ’ than ever shone on Adam in innocence (Glorious Freedom,3 p. 75).

To rest in God’s mercy, therefore, is to rest in the gospel of Christ, which brings that mercy to us. ‘When faith considers God pictured out in the gospel, it sees him the Father of Christ, and our Father, and the Father of mercies and God of comforts; faith seeing infinite mercy in an infinite God’ (3.37). This is how we should look on God at all times – in Christ. When our conscience speaks to us of sin, when Satan seeks to disturb our peace, when we are engaged in spiritual conflict, and when we come to die, we must look on him as reconciled to us in Christ. Then, and only then, shall we enjoy peace, for it flows down to us in the same channel as his mercy and grace (3.21).

Here is a safe haven into which we may flee under the sense of God’s wrath. So, Sibbes tenderly exhorts us: ‘Despair not, thou drooping soul, whosoever thou art under the guilt of sin; come to the Father of mercies, cast thyself into this sea of mercy.’ To give us double assurance, he adds winsomely: ‘There is mercy for thee if thou wilt come in’ (3.31). When by grace we do gain access, al1 our sins disappear like a spark that falls into the ocean (3.35).

Should we waver or doubt the sincerity of the invitation, Sibbes reassures us that God in Christ ‘is more willing to pardon’ than we are ‘to ask mercy’ (3.36). Just as the father in the parable ran and embraced his prodigal son, so God ‘will come and meet you, and kiss you,’ when you fall ‘at the feet of his mercy,’ and cast yourself into ‘the arms of his mercy’ (3.40). Once we are reconciled to him in Christ, he will as soon cease to love his Son as cease to love us’ (6.641).

In sum, all God’s saving mercies reach us only through his dear Son Christ, who is ‘the great ordinance of God for our salvation.’

He is the treasury in which God stores up for us all his ‘grace and love and mercy.’ The ministry of the gospel opens that treasury to us (Glorious Freedom, p. 84).

THE SPIRIT: THE STREAM OF MERCY

The last link in our enjoyment of the mercy of God is the work of the Holy Spirit. He who actually conveys God’s mercy into our hearts is the Spirit of the Father and the Son. In the covenanted purpose of God, his special role is to dispense the mercy the Father has been pleased to bestow and the Son has purchased with his own precious blood.

Consequently, all life, truth, grace, peace, joy, holiness and comfort are from him. (Glorious Freedom, pp. 6-26). He who first filled the human nature of Christ without measure now fills his people with all saving and sanctifying grace.

Even the glorious gospel will be ineffectual without his ministrations. But ‘having by his death and sufferings reconciled us to his Father and purchased the Spirit for us,’ Christ now gives ‘his Spirit to us.’ As there was at first nothing to hinder the gift of the Spirit to the human nature of Christ, so now there is ‘nothing to hinder the blessed gift of the Spirit’ to us his children.

Indeed, ‘Christ does his church more good now that he is in heaven, from where he sends the Spirit, than he could do if he were here below, because though his human nature is confined in heaven, his [divine] person is everywhere. And being “ascended now far above all heavens,” he gives gifts more liberally and plentifully, inasmuch as he fills all things (Eph. 4:10)’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 11, 13, 14).

From this special ministry of the Holy Spirit, Sibbes draws a much needed lesson. ‘The most powerful means that ever was ordained for our good will be dead and heartless if he [Christ] is not there by his Spirit to put life into it . . . We should therefore desire that Christ would join his Spirit to all the ordinances of God and make them effectual.’

It is ‘the sin of this age,’ he laments, that through ‘dead formality’ professed worshippers of God ‘will hear a sermon now and then, look at a book, and perhaps pray morning and evening, but never look up to the living and quickening Spirit.’ Consequently, ‘all they do is dead and loathsome, like salt that has no savour.’ So whenever we hear a sermon or read the Bible, ‘we should lift up our eyes and hearts and voices to heaven and say: “Lord, join thy Spirit, be present with us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, pp. 16, 17)

But when by the Spirit’s regenerating work and the exercise of saving faith we are joined to Jesus, all God’s mercy becomes ours. Our union with Christ as Mediator by the Holy Spirit is therefore ‘the ground of all comfort,’ for by his mediation all the mercy that lies deep in God’s merciful nature flows out of him into us (3.27).

‘Along with the ministry’ of the gospel, ‘he gives us his Holy Spirit.’ The Spirit knocks at our hearts, attracts us to Christ, and persuades and enables us to embrace him. This is how God descends to our mean and miserable level, with ‘Christ, and grace, the gospel, the ministry, the Spirit, all by way of love to us . . .’ (Glorious Freedom, p. 84)

Experiencing God’s Mercy

While acknowledging both God’s absolute sovereignty in dispensing his mercy and our dependence on his mercy at all times, Sibbes fastens on two particular times when his saints taste that mercy in all its sweetness.

The first is when he pardons our sins. He shows himself to be merciful ‘in pardoning sin freely, in pardoning all sin, the punishment and the guilt [i.e. liability to punishment] and all’ (3.30). Nothing tastes sweeter to the poor and needy believer than pardoning mercy.

The second is when we find ourselves ‘bruised and broken’ by the Fall. At such times, we are so pre-occupied with our distress that we ‘dare not claim any present interest of mercy.’ Our doubts and fears make us like a smoking flax – grace seems to be almost dead in us.

Seeing us in this sad plight, our merciful God gives us some hope of mercy from the promise, and examples of those that have obtained mercy before us. This goads us to ‘hunger and thirst after it.’ In his own good time, God sends us his Spirit, who makes way for himself into our heart, and brings deliverance and relief (The Bruised Reed,4 p. 4). The wonder of mercy is that Christ will never break the bruised reed or quench the smoking flax (Isa. 42:1-3; Matt. 12:18-20).

Sibbes naturally extends the saints’ experience of God’s mercy to all the chastisements and corrections they receive at their heavenly Father’s hands. These, he says, are always seasoned with comforts, as Lamentations 3.22-23 leads us to expect.

In fact, he concludes, everything that ‘comes from God to his children’ in this present life is ‘dipped in mercy’ (3.30).

Practical Lessons

In true Puritan fashion, Sibbes draws a number of practical lessons from his meditations on God’s mercy. We mention four of them.

The first is that while in the past God showed mercy to his chosen [such as Moses, David, Manasseh and Paul, as Sibbes’ contemporary Jeremy Taylor pointed out to encourage his people], we must believe that it is available to us now.

Precisely because he is merciful by nature, and because his mercy lives forever as a boundless store of pity and compassion, we should seek to enjoy his mercy, not through mystical visions, but simply by looking by faith on God in Christ. This alone will banish our terrors and bring us real comfort (3.53). Coming to him in this way will enable us to find him ‘a Father in covenant; not only a Friend, but a Father, a gracious Father’ (6.398).

Secondly, once we have ‘tasted the sweet mercy’ of God in Christ, we should ‘break forth’ in praise and thanksgiving, as naturally as birds sing in spring (3.22-23). With reverent love, we should glory in his sheer unmerited goodness to us (6.452).

Third, we should be merciful to others; for ‘all the sons of this Father . . . are merciful,’ like their Father in heaven (3.40).

Fourthly, whatever depths of misery we may find ourselves in, we should follow the example of King David in Psalm 130 and cry to God out of our depths. Realize, Sibbes urges, that ‘his mercy is deeper than our misery’ (3.36). Even though we may lose father and mother, or our nearest and dearest friends, we still have ‘a Father of mercy’ whose mercies, like himself, can never die (3.42). One day, he will in mercy wipe away every tear from our eyes (2.482).

Afternote

It is worth pointing out that not only are both Testaments of Holy Scripture full of the mercy of God, every Christian writer of note (like the poor tax collector who cried: ‘God be merciful to me, a sinner’) casts himself or herself on that mercy. Augustine calls on the Lord as ‘My God, my Mercy.’ The most deeply-felt aria in J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is ‘Have mercy, Lord, on me.’ The Arminian Charles Wesley cries out in wonder at the possibility of mercy for himself:

Depth of mercy! Can there be
Mercy still reserved for me?

Henry Francis Lyte prays:

God of mercy, God of grace,
Show the brightness of thy face.

Even Shakespeare eulogizes this glorious attribute in Portia’s speech: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,’ calling it ‘an attribute of God himself.’

Now, we believe, the heavenly-minded Sibbes basks in that mercy in the immediate presence of his God and Saviour. Do we ever pray: ‘O that we were there! O that we were there!’?

Source: Banner of Truth

Written by: John Brentnall is Editor of Peace and Truth, the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union, from the 2014:2 edition of which the above is taken with permission. Notes added.

“Rejoice in Hope, Be Patient in Tribulation, Be Constant in Prayer” by John Piper (Hope in Jesus Christ)

REJOICE IN HOPE, BE PATIENT IN TRIBULATION, BE CONSTANT IN PRAYER” BY JOHN PIPER

 Romans 12:12 “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

My hope is that this message and this week will launch you with new faith that prayer is God’s path to hope and joy and endurance and love, and with new resolve to make time to pray regularly alone and with your family and with some group of fellow believers.

What Does It Mean to “Be Constant in Prayer”?
First, let’s first talk about the meaning of “Be constant.” Then let’s put this call to be constant in prayer in connection with what we saw last week in the rest of verse 12. Then let’s see it illustrated in Ephesians 1.

The word “constant” here doesn’t mean that every minute you are praying. It means persist in prayer. Persevere in it. Stay at it. Be devoted to it. Don’t give up or slack off. Be habitual. It’s the opposite of random, occasional, sporadic, intermittent. In other words, Paul is calling all Christians to make prayer a regular, habitual, recurring, disciplined part of your life. Treat prayer the way you treat eating and sleeping and doing your job. Don’t be hit and miss about it. Don’t assume it will fill in the cracks of other things. Dealing with God in prayer deserves more than a dial-up on the fly.

He is, of course, available any time. And he loves to help any time. But he is dishonored when we do not make time in our day to give him focused attention. All relationships suffer without regular focused attention. Paul is calling all of us to a life or regular, planned meetings with God in prayer in which we praise him for who he is, and thank for what he has done, and ask him for help, and plead the cause of those we love, including the peoples of the world.

So “be constant in prayer” in this new year. Ask God to help you. Resolve to use your sanctified will to make it happen. Plan the time and the place and the method. (For the most practical things I have written on how to be constant in prayer, see pages 155-173 of When I Don’t Desire God.)

How Does the Call to Constant Prayer Relate to the Rest of Verse 12?
Now how does this persistent prayer relate to the rest of verse 12 and what we saw last time? Romans 12:12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” We also saw that the whole paragraph makes love the visible overflow of rejoicing in hope. So when we put it all together it looked like this:

First, tribulation is the normal environment where we live. It’s the soil where we are planted in this fallen world. Job 5:7 says, “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Job 14:1 says, “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble.” If you have not tasted this, you will. Learn now that tribulation in this world is normal for the Christian.

Second, Christ has broken into our tribulation (Galatians 4:4-6) and became the ground and goal of our unshakeable hope. He became man and embraced all our suffering. He chose it. He carried it. And in his death and resurrection he defeated it. All of it.

The moral evil and the physical evil. Sin, Satan, sickness, sabotage—Christ defeated them all by dying in our place and rising form the dead. In this triumph he secured for his people—all those who trust him—freedom from sin, freedom from Satan, freedom from sickness, and freedom from sabotage, partially now and perfectly in the age to come.

In other words, Jesus Christ has become the ground of our hope. And he himself is the goal of our hope (Romans 5:1-2, 6).

Therefore, third, in the tribulation of life we can and do rejoice. For those who know and trust Jesus Christ, tribulation does not destroy joy, it drives the roots of joy down deep into hope. So Paul says, “rejoice in hope.” “Sorrowful yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10) is the spirit of all joy in the seasoned Christian life.

Many of our greatest hymns were born in suffering and capture this truth that tribulation is normal here and joy grows with deep roots in this soil. For example, have you ever thought about the paradox of the first verse of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel”? It pictures the church as the true Israel in exile here in this world.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee O Israel!

Now we mourn in this exile far from our perfect heavenly home where every tear will be wiped away. But even now, “Rejoice! Rejoice!” Why? Rock-solid certain hope! “Emmanuel shall come!” He has come once and purchased our freedom from all sin and Satan and sickness and sabotage. And he will come to perfect it for his true Israel.

In this we rejoice.

Fourth, that joy sustains patient endurance. Verse 12 says, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation.” Joy in hope is what enables this patient endurance. Without hope and the joy that flows back to us now from hope, we could not endure the tribulations appointed for us.

Fifth, this endurance through tribulation by means of joy in hope is what sustains the sacrifices that love demands.

The best illustration of this is Jesus himself in Hebrews 12:2, “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross.” The greatest act of love that has ever been performed was sustained by the joy of hope.

“For the joy set before him” he died for us. How do you keep on loving people, and sacrificing to do them good, the way Jesus did? For the joy set before you, that streams back into the present and becomes your strength (Nehemiah 8:10).

So rejoice in hope, and by means of that hope-sustained joy, patiently endure your tribulation in the path of love. And how does prayer fit in? It is God’s appointed means (along with the word, which we will see next time) to awaken and sustain hope.

And since hope is the key to joy in tribulation, and joy is the key to endurance, and endurance is the key to love—prayer, as the key to hope, is at the bottom of everything in the Christian life.

So let’s look at one biblical illustration of how prayer awakens and sustains our hope.

Paul’s Hope-Awakening, Hope-Sustaining Prayer

Ephesians 1:15 is a prayer: “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.”

So he is praying for Christians. “I have heard of your faith . . . therefore I am praying for you.” We should sit up and take notice. Here is a God-inspired way of praying for yourself and other believers. Paul is praying for all Christians here. So this applies to us. This is part of what we should pray. First give thanks, then ask for what we need.

Now what does Paul ask for? What is the deep need of every Christian? First, Paul makes a single request in verse 17, and then he breaks it down into three specific requests, all relating to hope.

Look first at the single, general request, verse 17: “. . . that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him.”

The deepest need of every person is to know God. Not just to know about him, but to know him as your personal Creator, Redeemer, Judge, and Friend. So his first request is “that God . . . may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Do you know God? Really know him? Or more helpfully, we should ask, are we growing in our knowledge of God? Are we going deeper in how well we know God? This happens, Paul shows us, by praying for it. And this is not a one-time prayer for Paul. It is continual. “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers . . . that you might know God.” Be constant in this prayer! Pray this for yourself continually. Pray this for your family. Pray this for the church and especially her leaders.

More specifically in verse 17 he prays that we would have a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” so that we can know God. We cannot know God without the help of the Holy Spirit. And what the Holy Spirit does is to awaken and transform our spirit so that we can see and savor the wisdom and revelation that God gave to his apostles and prophets. He is a Spirit of wisdom and revelation, and he creates a spirit of wisdom and revelation.

When you read the Bible or listen to a Bible-saturated sermon you are hearing the wisdom and revelation of God. But what happens? Do you see it? Does it have an effect on you? Does it move you? Does it make you hungry for more of God? Does the wisdom and revelation appear beautiful to you? Do they taste sweet? Can you say with the psalmist, “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103)?

If not, the first step in the remedy is prayer.

“Father, grant me a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of yourself. Please, don’t leave me to myself. I am so worldly. My thoughts and feelings are so unspiritual. I scarcely feel any awe or trembling or sense of spiritual beauty or sweetness or glory. Have mercy and by your Spirit awaken in me a spirit of wisdom and revelation so that when I read or hear your wisdom and your revelation I will have ears to hear and eyes to see the wonder of it (Psalm 119:8).”

Pray that for yourself. Be constant in that prayer. God will show you more than you ever dreamed he would.

Now in verses 18 Paul prays in different words what he has just prayed for generally. The focus of all our knowing and all our seeing and all our savoring—all God’s wisdom and all God’s revelation—is God himself. That is why the first petition in verse 17 is that we might know him: “. . . A spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” But now he breaks this down into three requests.

Another way of speaking about a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” is to speak of the “eyes of the heart being enlightened to know.” So that’s what Paul prays in verse 18. He tells the Ephesians that he asks God that “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know . . .” Then he asks that they know three things with the eyes of the heart.

Before we look at them take note here of this phrase “eyes of the heart.” That is what we need to have enlightened.

The glory of God in his wisdom and revelation is not seen by the physical eye. You can read and hear God’s revelation till you are blue in the face, and if the eyes of your heart are not enlightened, you will not see and savor the beauty and sweetness of God’s wisdom and revelation. You will not know God.

Something must happen to us. We must have a heart that sees spiritual reality. This is a gift from God. That is why Paul is praying for it. The things we need most, we cannot get on our own.

That is why prayer is utterly crucial in the Christian life. When someone says, “I get along just fine without prayer,” they don’t know what they are missing. They are missing it now. They will miss it forever. If you can get something now on your own, you will lose it at death. It’s not worth much.

But if you pray for what you cannot get on your own now, and God gives it to you—a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him, that is, the enlightenment of the eyes of your heart to know him—you will not lose that at death. And it will give you sweetness of pleasures now and inexhaustible joys for eternity. That is what we should pray for.

Now notice the connection with hope. Three things Paul asks that we would be able to see and know with the enlightened eyes of the heart— 1) Verse 18b: “what is the hope to which he has called you”; 2) verse 18c: what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints” (that is, the inheritance that God is and gives to the saints); and 3) verse 19: “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.”

The power is part of the promise of hope, because without this divine power we won’t make it to the inheritance. God keeps the inheritance in heaven for us, and God keeps us for the inheritance, lest we fall and give up on hope in the midst of our tribulation (see 1 Peter 1:4-5)

“O God, awaken and sustain my hope in you. Be my treasure now. And be my inheritance always. Please open the eyes of my heart to see the wonder that you are. Grant me the spiritual taste buds to taste and see and savor that all you are for us in Jesus is better than all the world. And so sustain my hope. And may this hope sustain my joy in tribulation and may this joy sustain my endurance and may this endurance sustain my love for people, and may my love make you irresistibly attractive to the world.”

John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.

“What is The Gospel Message” by J.I. Packer (Evangelism, Jesus Christ, Sovereignty of God)

What Is the Gospel Message? by J. I. Packer

1. The gospel is a message about God. 

It tells us who He is, what His character is, what His standards are, and what He requires of us, His creatures. It tells us that we owe our very existence to Him; that for good or ill, we are always in His hands and under His eye; and that He made us to worship and serve Him, to show forth His praise and to live for His glory.

These truths are the foundation of theistic religion; and until they are grasped, the rest of the gospel message will seem neither cogent nor relevant. It is here with the assertion of man’s complete and constant dependence on his Creator that the Christian story starts.

We can learn again from Paul at this point. When preaching to Jews, as at Pisidian Antioch, he did not need to mention the fact that men were God’s creatures. He could take this knowledge for granted, for his hearers had the Old Testament faith behind them. He could begin at once to declare Christ to them as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes.

But when preaching to Gentiles, who knew nothing of the Old Testament, Paul had to go further back and start from the beginning. And the beginning from which Paul started in such cases was the doctrine of God’s Creatorship and man’s creaturehood. So, when the Athenians asked him to explain what his talk of Jesus and the resurrection was all about, he spoke to them first of God the Creator and what He made man for. “God…made the world…seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made…all nations…that they should seek the Lord” (Act 17:24-27).

This was not, as some have supposed, a piece of philosophical apologetic of a kind that Paul afterwards renounced, but the first and basic lesson in theistic faith.

The gospel starts by teaching us that we, as creatures, are absolutely dependent on God, and that He, as Creator, has an absolute claim on us. Only when we have learned this can we see what sin is, and only when we see what sin is can we understand the good news of salvation from sin.

We must know what it means to call God Creator before we can grasp what it means to speak of Him as Redeemer. Nothing can be achieved by talking about sin and salvation where this preliminary lesson has not in some measure been learned.

2. The gospel is a message about sin. 

It tells us how we have fallen short of God’s standard, how we have become guilty, filthy, and helpless in sin, and now stand under the wrath of God. It tells us that the reason why we sin continually is that we are sinners by nature, and that nothing we do or try to do for ourselves can put us right or bring us back into God’s favor.

It shows us ourselves as God sees us and teaches us to think of ourselves as God thinks of us. Thus, it leads us to self-despair. And this also is a necessary step. Not until we have learned our need to get right with God and our inability to do so by any effort of our own can we come to know the Christ Who saves from sin.

There is a pitfall here. Everybody’s life includes things that cause dissatisfaction and shame. Everyone has a bad conscience about some things in his past, matters in which he has fallen short of the standard that he set for himself or that was expected of him by others. The danger is that in our evangelism we should content ourselves with evoking thoughts of these things and making people feel uncomfortable about them, and then depicting Christ as the One who saves us from these elements of ourselves, without even raising the question of our relationship with God. But this is just the question that has to be raised when we speak about sin. For the very idea of sin in the Bible is of an offence against God that disrupts a man’s relationship with God. Unless we see our shortcomings in the light of the Law and holiness of God, we do not see them as sin at all. For sin is not a social concept; it is a theological concept. Though sin is committed by man, and many sins are against society, sin cannot be defined in terms of either man or society. We never know what sin really is until we have learned to think of it in terms of God and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of His total demand on our lives.

What we have to grasp, then, is that the bad conscience of the natural man is not at all the same thing as conviction of sin. It does not, therefore, follow that a man is convicted of sin when he is distressed about his weaknesses and the wrong things he has done. It is not conviction of sin just to feel miserable about yourself, your failures, and your inadequacy to meet life’s demands.

Nor would it be saving faith if a man in that condition called on the Lord Jesus Christ just to soothe him, and cheer him up, and make him feel confident again. Nor should we be preaching the gospel (though we might imagine we were) if all that we did was to present Christ in terms of a man’s felt wants: “Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you want peace of mind? Do you feel that you have failed? Are you fed up with yourself? Do you want a friend? Then come to Christ; He will meet your every need”—as if the Lord Jesus Christ were to be thought of as a fairy godmother or a super-psychiatrist…

To be convicted of sin means not just to feel that one is an all-round flop, but to realize that one has offended God, and flouted His authority, and defied Him, and gone against Him, and put oneself in the wrong with Him. To preach Christ means to set Him forth as the One Who through His cross sets men right with God again…

It is indeed true that the real Christ, the Christ of the Bible, Who [reveals] Himself to us as a Savior from sin and an Advocate with God, does in fact give peace, and joy, and moral strength, and the privilege of His own friendship to those who trust Him. But the Christ who is depicted and desired merely to make the lot of life’s casualties easier by supplying them with aids and comforts is not the real Christ, but a misrepresented and misconceived Christ—in effect, an imaginary Christ.

And if we taught people to look to an imaginary Christ, we should have no grounds for expecting that they would find a real salvation. We must be on our guard, therefore, against equating a natural bad conscience and sense of wretchedness with spiritual conviction of sin and so omitting in our evangelism to impress upon sinners the basic truth about their condition—namely, that their sin has alienated them from God and exposed them to His condemnation, and hostility, and wrath, so that their first need is for a restored relationship with Him…

3. The gospel is a message about Christ.

—Christ, the Son of God incarnate; Christ, the Lamb of God, dying for sin; Christ, the risen Lord; Christ, the perfect Savior.

Two points need to be made about the declaring of this part of the message: 

(i) We must not present the Person of Christ apart from His saving work. 

It is sometimes said that it is the presentation of Christ’s Person, rather than of doctrines about Him, that draws sinners to His feet. It is true that it is the living Christ Who saves and that a theory of the atonement, however orthodox, is no substitute. When this remark is made, however, what is usually being suggested is that doctrinal instruction is dispensable in evangelistic preaching, and that all the evangelist need do is paint a vivid word-picture of the man of Galilee who went about doing good, and then assure his hearers that this Jesus is still alive to help them in their troubles. 

But such a message could hardly be called the gospel. It would, in reality, be a mere conundrum, serving only to mystify…the truth is that you cannot make sense of the historic figure of Jesus until you know about the Incarnation—that this Jesus was in fact God the Son, made man to save sinners according to His Father’s eternal purpose.

Nor can you make sense of His life until you know about the atonement—that He lived as man so that He might die as man for men, and that His passion, His judicial murder was really His saving action of bearing away the world’s sins.

Nor can you tell on what terms to approach Him now until you know about the resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session—that Jesus has been raised, and enthroned, and made King, and lives to save to the uttermost all who acknowledge His Lordship. These doctrines, to mention no others, are essential to the gospel…In fact, without these doctrines you would have no gospel to preach at all.

(ii) But there is a second and complementary point: we must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His Person. 

Evangelistic preachers and personal workers have sometimes been known to make this mistake. In their concern to focus attention on the atoning death of Christ as the sole sufficient ground on which sinners may be accepted with God, they have expounded the summons to saving faith in these terms: “Believe that Christ died for your sins.”

The effect of this exposition is to represent the saving work of Christ in the past, dissociated from His Person in the present, as the whole object of our trust. But it is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker. Nowhere in the New Testament is the call to believe expressed in such terms. What the New Testament calls for is faith in (en) or into (eis) or upon (epi) Christ Himself—the placing of our trust in the living Savior Who died for sins.

The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, Who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ Whose cross it was. For the persons to whom the benefits of Christ’s death belong are just those who trust His Person and believe, not upon His saving death simply, but upon Him, the living Savior. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” said Paul (Act 16:31). “Come unto me…and I will give you rest,” said our Lord (Mat 11:28).

This being so, one thing becomes clear straight away: namely, that the question about the extent of the atonement, which is being much agitated in some quarters, has no bearing on the content of the evangelistic message at this particular point. I do not propose to discuss this question now; I have done that elsewhere. I am not at present asking you whether you think it is true to say that Christ died in order to save every single human being, past, present, and future, or not. Nor am I at present inviting you to make up your mind on this question, if you have not done so already. All I want to say here is that even if you think the above assertion is true, your presentation of Christ in evangelism ought not to differ from that of the man who thinks it false.

What I mean is this: it is obvious that if a preacher thought that the statement, “Christ died for every one of you,” made to any congregation, would be unverifiable and probably not true, he would take care not to make it in his gospel preaching. You do not find such statements in the sermons of, for instance, George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon. But now, my point is that, even if a man thinks that this statement would be true if he made it, it is not a thing that he ever needs to say or ever has reason to say when preaching the gospel.

For preaching the gospel, as we have just seen, means [calling] sinners to come to Jesus Christ, the living Savior, Who, by virtue of His atoning death, is able to forgive and save all those who put their trust in Him. What has to be said about the cross when preaching the gospel is simply that Christ’s death is the ground on which Christ’s forgiveness is given. And this is all that has to be said. The question of the designed extent of the atonement does not come into the story at all…The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him.

The gospel is not, “Believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,” any more than it is, “Believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours”…We have no business to ask them to put faith in any view of the extent of the atonement. Our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him…This brings us to the final ingredient in the gospel message.

4. The gospel is a summons to faith and repentance. 

All who hear the gospel are summoned by God to repent and believe.

“God…commandeth all men every where to repent,” Paul told the Athenians (Act 17:30). When asked by His hearers what they should do in order to “work the works of God,” our Lord replied, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (Joh 6:29). And in 1 John 3:23 we read: “This is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ…”

Repentance and faith are rendered matters of duty by God’s direct command, and hence impenitence and unbelief are singled out in the New Testament as most grievous sins. With these universal commands, as we indicated above, go universal promises of salvation to all who obey them. “Through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Act 10:43). “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Joh 3:16). These words are promises to which God will stand as long as time shall last.

It needs to be said that faith is not a mere optimistic feeling, any more than repentance is a mere regretful or remorseful feeling. Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man…faith is essentially the casting and resting of oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy which Christ has given to sinners, and on the Christ Who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Savior as King in self’s place…Two further points need to be made also:

(i) The demand is for faith as well as repentance. 

It is not enough to resolve to turn from sin, give up evil habits, and try to put Christ’s teaching into practice by being religious and doing all possible good to others. Aspiration, and resolution, and morality, and religiosity,[15] are no substitutes for faith…

If there is to be faith, however, there must be a foundation of knowledge: a man must know of Christ, and of His cross, and of His promises before saving faith becomes a possibility for him. In our presentation of the gospel, therefore, we need to stress these things, in order to lead sinners to abandon all confidence in themselves and to trust wholly in Christ and the power of His redeeming blood to give them acceptance with God. For nothing less than this is faith.

(ii) The demand is for repentance as well as faith

If there is to be repentance, however, there must, again, be a foundation of knowledge…

More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me…whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Mat 16:24-25). “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also (i.e., put them all decisively second in his esteem), he cannot be my disciple…whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luk 14:26, 33).

The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limit to the claims that He may make on their lives…He had no interest in gathering vast crowds of professed adherents who would melt away as soon as they found out what following Him actually demanded of them.

In our own presentation of Christ’s gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything; or else our evangelizing becomes a sort of confidence trick. And where there is no clear knowledge, and hence no realistic recognition of the real claims that Christ makes, there can be no repentance, and therefore no salvation.

Such is the evangelistic message that we are sent to make known.

Excerpt From Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God  by J. I. Packer.

Article Source: Mongerism