Issue #640 -------
December 4, 2014
The End of Speech is first to be
understood, and then to be believed.
Thomas Fuller (1654-1734)
The apostle Paul had completed his three missionary journeys, during which he had preached the gospel to all who would listen, sometimes under extremely difficult circumstances, and he was now on his way back to Jerusalem where, according to the testimony of several prophets along the way, he would face an uncertain fate (Acts 20:22-23). As the ship he was on pulled into the port of Miletus, Paul sent a message to the elders in Ephesus (which was about 30 miles away) that he would like to meet with them. They came to see him at Miletus, and the account of that meeting, and the message Paul delivered to them at that time, is recorded for us in Acts 20:17-38. There are many significant aspects of this meeting, as well as Paul's instructions to them, that would make for some interesting and enlightening reflective studies, however I want to narrow our focus in this particular issue of Reflections to what Paul had to say about the gospel he preached.
One of the first things to note is that Paul stressed to these Ephesian shepherds that during his time with them he did not hesitate to proclaim to them and their flock "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). "I did not shrink from declaring to you anything that was profitable" (vs. 20). "For three years I did not cease night or day to admonish everyone with tears" (vs. 31). Paul took his commission from the Lord and his ministry to men seriously; he held back nothing, sharing everything that would contribute to bringing the lost into a saving relationship with their God. Paul most certainly was "not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). Therefore, Paul reminds these elders, "I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:21). This, he says, is "the gospel of God's grace" which he faithfully proclaimed (Acts 20:24). God, because of His great love for mankind, and because of His mercy and grace, gave the gift of salvation through His Son to all who in simple trusting faith turned to Him for cleansing and healing. This, Paul declares, is the gospel he preached to all. Nothing more; nothing less. With regard to our salvation, this is indeed, in very simple terms, "the whole counsel of God." Jesus, referring to Himself, stated it this way: "Everyone who believes in Him will have eternal life. For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world that He might condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. Anyone who believes in Him is not condemned" (John 3:15-18). Yes, the good news (the gospel) really is that simple! It is not a complex system of religious laws and rituals that must be perfectly performed. It is simply a gift of grace received by faith. The gospel is not about what we must do; it is all about what He has done!
Paul characterized it "the gospel of God's grace" (Acts 20:24), which grace we embrace when we truly turn to Him and the gift of His Son in faith (Acts 20:21). Paul proclaimed this day and night to all who would listen, praying that they would turn from their sinful existence to embrace by faith a new life in the Son. Some are bothered by the fact that nowhere in this communication with the Ephesian elders did Paul mention the practice of baptism in water. Yet, in the understanding of Paul, this practice was never part of the gospel, but rather a part of man's response to the gospel. The glorious good news is that God's grace is freely extended to sinful men, and that it is freely given to all who believe. That is the gospel. Man's response to this good news is initially evidenced in a turning away from sin and to the Lord by faith in His finished work of redemption. Then, as saved ones, we evidence this faith and the reality of our salvation in numerous ways every day of our walk with Him in the light. One of these evidentiary acts is baptism in water. Is it important to teach and practice this visible demonstration of faith? Yes. Is this act part of the gospel? No. Paul declared to the Corinthians, "For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 1:17). Clearly, the apostle Paul did not regard the former as being an integral part of the latter, although he would have clearly emphasized the importance of baptism as a response and validation of our faith which laid hold of the gift of God's grace. Salvation itself, however, is by grace through faith, and not of anything we ourselves have done; it is a gift (Eph. 2:8).
As noted somewhat in my comments above, this message by Paul to the Ephesian shepherds "is quite distinctive among all the speeches reported in Acts. It is the only Pauline speech delivered to Christians which Luke has recorded, and we should not be surprised to discover how rich it is in parallels to the Pauline epistles. ... It bears witness to the good news of God's free grace in Christ" [Dr. F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, p. 412, 414]. Paul's statements to these elders regarding God's grace and man's turning in faith to embrace that gift, "under all varieties of form, whether speaking to Jews or Gentiles, to philosophers or peasants, formed the substance of his teaching" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 141]. Men are to "turn from worthless things to the living God" (Acts 14:15), cognizant of their sin and need for cleansing, and, in faith, embrace that cleansing found in the shed blood of God's Son (a gift offered by grace to all who are willing to accept it by faith). As redeemed ones, men will then manifest that faith and turning (repentance) with a host of appropriate evidentiary actions and attitudes (Matt. 3:8; Acts 26:20) for the remainder of their walk with Him. Thus, the statements made by Paul to these elders form "the sum of the apostle's ministry" [Dr. John Gill (1690-1771), Exposition of the Entire Bible, e-Sword]. Dr. Gill, an English theologian, author and pastor, went on to state that in this passage from Acts we find "the gospel of salvation," which "from first to last is all about grace." When men begin to assume for themselves some credit for their salvation, they have negated the gift of grace.
Paul said he testified to "the gospel of the grace of God," emphasizing the necessity of men turning to Him in faith as the means of accepting that free gift. In his statements to the Ephesian elders we find "an invaluable epitome of the Christian ministry. The essential feature of the gospel is its declaration of God's free grace to a guilty world, forgiving sins and imputing righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ. The distinctive work of the ministry is to declare that grace" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, Acts - part 2, p. 146]. Drs. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown declare: "Thus, we have here a brief summary of all gospel preaching" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1123]. It is "briefly the substance of all Christian preaching, that all men, all sinners, should acknowledge their sins and turn from them to the God of their salvation, accepting the full atonement and redemption of Christ by faith in this their Savior" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT - vol. 1, p. 638]. In this text, therefore, we find "a content wholly sufficient for salvation" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 9, p. 512]. These are "the essentials of Christian truth," and "with these a man is a recognized citizen of the kingdom of God, an inheritor of eternal life" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, Acts - part 2, p. 152]. Dr. B. W. Johnson, in his work The People's New Testament with Explanatory Notes, concurs: "These items embrace the sum of Christian doctrine" [p. 507].
It is rightly stated: "The world requires a gospel. Not theories about religion, not theological dogmas, not philosophical speculation, not dreamy sentimentality, but the glad tidings of a divine work actually achieved on our behalf. Not a new law, but a proclamation of divine forgiveness and life in One set forth as a Propitiation, whose righteousness is unto all and upon all them that believe" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, Acts - part 2, p. 159]. That glorious "gospel of God's grace" is what Paul proclaimed boldly to a world of sinners enslaved by sin and a world of religionists enslaved by sectarianism. God loves you, and while you were yet sinners He gave the gift of His Son (a gift of grace), that all who truly turn to Him in faith will find salvation! This is Good News! And we reflect that wonderful news in our daily lives, living in grateful, loving submission to His will for us, inviting others to do the same. This is the "gospel of the grace of God." May we, like Paul, boldly share it with those around us as God gives us opportunity.
From a Reader in Tennessee:
Hey, brother! I've emailed you a time or two in the past, and I've read a lot of your articles on your web site. I'm a huge fan of you and your writings! I'm writing you because I am curious if you have ever thought of doing a video blog on YouTube, and then sharing them on your web site and on Facebook. I enjoy all of your writings that I've read (especially the ones concerning hermeneutics and interpretation), but I think a video blog would do two things: (1) help your current readers better understand some of the more complicated things you are trying to communicate by allowing you to explain them more freely in a personal way, and (2) help to promote your web site and the things you have to say. People seem to be more willing to share and/or watch a video than they are to share and/or read an article. Anyway, just a thought, but either way I'm a huge fan, and I really appreciate your work! God bless you.
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
I just read your article "Toe-to-Toe with Torquemada: Facing Fanatical Fratricidal Inquisitors" (Reflections #639). Al, the Lord has called you to proclaim your beliefs no matter what others might think. But, it takes a great deal of courage to stand as a non-sectarian when sectarianism is all about you with its linchpins. I had the sad experience recently of hearing the sermon "The Church With No Name" at the local Church of Christ. I'm sure you already know where this sermon was going! Basically, the preacher said, "We are the church because we are right; all others are just denominations because they are wrong!" How arrogant and blind can people be?! Such arrogance and sectarianism is something that I just can't bear. God bless you in your ministry! I know you could have taken an easier path, but then the Lord didn't call you there.
From a Minister in New Mexico:
Al, I appreciate and marvel at your new and much needed book From Ruin To Resurrection. Thank you for writing this excellent book! It's a great addition for all libraries, and I hope it will show up on Kindle and Nook as well. Brother, I appreciate your scholarship and your efforts to cover all the material on this topic. May God continue to inspire your writing.
Actually, all four of my books are on Kindle, and they may be purchased and downloaded to your device in that format at a significantly reduced price. They are not on Nook, however. My books may also be ordered online through amazon.com and other outlets such as Barnes & Noble, and also from my publisher in Maryland. For those who may want signed copies, they are always available for order on my web site. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
Brother Maxey, I have a question for you. I've been married two times. The first marriage ended due to my spouse's infidelity, and my second marriage ended due to my own infidelity. I have asked for, and believe I have received, forgiveness for my sin of infidelity. I have been dating a person for three years now, and for the first time feel that I have met the true "soul mate" for me. I feel that I am a better person at this point in my life than at any other time. I am, however, afraid of going to hell if I marry this person, since I was raised in the Church of Christ (conservative) to believe that I can never marry again. I am not looking for agreement, but simply for peace. I am seeking any thoughts you can share with me. Thank you.
What I shared with this individual, who has been the victim of some horribly mistaken dogma on this topic, was my book: Down, But Not Out, which is an in-depth study of divorce and subsequent marriages in light of God's grace as revealed in every passage of Scripture (OT and NT) pertaining to this topic. I have received many comments from people over the years telling me that they have been helped tremendously and given peace by the teaching revealed through this book (which is only a fresh, logical presentation of the teaching of Scripture ... teachings often neglected and twisted by graceless disciples). Pray for this brother that he may find the peace he seeks through a clearer perception of divine teaching. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Texas:
Here I am again, taking up your valuable time! I just finished reading all your articles on your web site about women in the church. I was first introduced to your Reflections by our preacher when we lived in New Mexico, and I was thrilled to find someone who questioned many of the same things that concerned me. After I was widowed for many years, I married an old school friend from Texas and moved here, hoping to help stop some of the feuding among the churches. Lo and behold, the first friend I made was a member of the Non-Sunday School sect of the Church of Christ. She and her husband were already laying the groundwork for the unity we so badly need. Along with their group, the Sunday School Church of Christ in town, and the Baptists and Methodists here, there exists a fellowship I have never witnessed before!! I just thought you would like to know that things are slowly changing here, also. But, as you say, it doesn't happen overnight. Patience!! Bro. Al, there are simply not enough words to Thank You for all you do to edify the saints. I know God blesses you daily for your efforts, and may the many trials and afflictions that come your way because of your work just serve to strengthen you in His service!
From an Author in Texas:
Thanks, Al, for your timely article: "Toe-to-Toe with Torquemada." I call to your remembrance what the so-called "conservative, women don't speak, one true church, no church support of orphanages or radio programs unless sponsored by their own elders, etc." Church of Christ church did to Bro. Homer Hailey because of his position on divorce and remarriage. They castigated him and sent letters around to all the other ultra-conservative "one true church" congregations insisting they cancel their scheduled meetings with him. You have probably suffered some of that same treatment. My hope for you is that you will count it all joy to have suffered with Jesus. Not very many in today's economy are so blessed. Keep up the good work!
From a Reader in Georgia:
Consider it all joy, Brother Al ... All JOY!! ... when the "Torquemada" types come after you. I don't know that I personally would have advanced in my understanding beyond the "tracts" if I hadn't been introduced to your Reflections. Keep it up. Legalism is losing its toehold to GRACE!!
From a Reader in North Carolina:
I've told you this before, but, much to my shame and deep regret, I used to be a member of the "Torquemada" cult. I listened eagerly to fellow cult members attack other churches and preachers in our brotherhood (Churches of Christ). Even I stood up in the pulpit and denounced "change agents" and "liberals" in our fellowship. We named names. We condemned them via person, pulpit and pen. I was convinced we were doing the Lord's work in "defending the faith that was once for all delivered." And then ... a strange thing happened: I found myself the target of some of that vitriol. I didn't like it at all. God had already started to lead me away from that cult by His loving, forgiving Spirit, but when I was attacked it still shocked me. It also appalled me to think I had acted the very same way less than a year earlier! A couple of years ago, via Facebook, I reached out to many of my brethren, those whom I had previously taught and preached to and worshipped with when I was a cult member. I apologized to all of them and asked their forgiveness. I told them about the wonderful work God had done in my life and how He was delivering me from all my hatred and spite, and from having the heart of a legalistic Pharisee. As I expected, very few reached out to accept my apology. Most just ignored it. But, I said what I felt I needed to say, and now I've moved on. I pray for my former brethren, and I hope that God's grace will deliver them from this cultish mindset too.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Al, in one of your recent Reflections you answered a brother's question about the book "Muscle and a Shovel," but now I can't find it. Our preacher praised this piece of trash from the pulpit yesterday and I almost gagged!! I want to confront him and would love to read your take on it again (I will leave your name out of it, as you already have a plate full of idiots to deal with!).
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