“I am a Debtor”
Paul was a man who could stand without any fear and without any apology in Athens on Mars’ Hill. There he is confronted by a congregation of Stoics and Epicureans, and he can speak to them with authority. Ah, but when the same man visits Galatia, where they belonged to a rather primitive type of culture and lacked this knowledge of philosophy and various other things, he is equally ready to preach the gospel; he is equally effective as a preacher, and his ministry is equally used. Paul would do as well in the slums of the great cities as he would do in centres of learning – the wise and the unwise. It does not matter where you put him. As long as he is preaching to men and women he not only has a message, he is able to impart it. You notice how he puts it: ‘…to them that are under the law, as under the law…To them that are without law, as without law…To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak; I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some’ [I Corinthians 9: 20-22]. What a wonderful thing this is!
There are times when I begin to wonder whether we are equally clear about this at the present time. We tend to divide even in this matter of the preaching of the gospel, do we not, just as the world tends to do in a secular manner, and it is quite wrong. If a preacher cannot preach his gospel to everybody I take leave to doubt whether he can preach it to anybody. If a preacher must have a certain type of congregation, to that extent he is unlike the Apostle Paul. He is probably a philosopher. He is probably a purveyor of natural human learning which is using Christian terminology. A preacher does not need to presuppose anything in his congregation except their need of God and of Christ. I am raising this point and emphasizing it because you will hear a good deal today along these lines. We are told that students and others who are training for the ministry should be compelled to spend part of their time working in factories or similar places. You see the argument? It is said, ‘How can a preacher preach to factory workers unless he knows their conditions and circumstances. He must go and spend three months, and perhaps more, working in a factory, and get to understand them and their outlook and their mentality, and then he will be able to preach to them’! Now that theory is not only being seriously advocated, it is even being put into practice. The argument is that unless we know the exact position and circumstances and make-up of people and their way of thinking, we cannot preach to them.
Such an argument is not only unscriptural; it is, I think, the moment you seriously begin to consider it, quite foolish. If I am told that I cannot effectively preach to factory workers unless I have been a factory worker, surely I am equally entitled to argue that I cannot preach to drunkards unless I go and spend three months in public houses. I cannot preach to farmers unless I become a farmer. I cannot preach to people in the theatrical profession unless I become an actor for three months. How utterly monstrous the suggestion is! But that is being said today, and being said sometimes even by evangelical Christians, and it indicates that we have misunderstood the fact that the preacher needs to know nothing about his congregation in that way, because he knows already the one thing that needs to be known; he knows that they, like himself, are sinners, and that apart from the grace of God they are lost and damned. Oh no, preaching does not need all those other things. Of course, it needs to consider whether the actual form and presentation might vary very slightly, but that is more or less immaterial, because this one man, without having had these varied experiences, under the power and the influence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is able to preach to all.
Let me put it to you in another way. Quite recently I was present at a very interesting discussion in which the question was raised – and it is a very important question – ‘Why is it that as Christian people, and especially as evangelical people, we only seem to be able to appeal to a certain type? Why is it’, the questioner said, ‘that in our churches it is true to say that the vast majority of the people present are women, and that there is such a scarcity of men? And why is it that the church today seems to be failing to touch the working classes (so-called) almost entirely? Why is it that we only seem to be appealing to the people who live in the suburbs (that was his term)? Why is it that Christians today seem to be little more than nice and kind and respectable people?’ Now he was granting, of course, that they had experienced true conversion. His question was, Why are we not touching the others? Why are men not being attracted? A very good question. It is something that we all, as Christians, ought to face very seriously and very urgently. And to me the answer to that question is provided by this verse that we are now considering. The Apostle’s claim was that his appeal went to all men and women, all ranks and classes, all kinds of abilities, indeed, to any kind of soul. Here was a man who could preach as well to the slaves in Caesar’s household as he could to the Stoics and Epicureans. You see the range of his ministry?
What, then, is the explanation? It is this – and I commend it to you for careful, prayerful consideration – that if we preach the gospel in all its fulness, and if we apply it to the whole man, to the mind as well as to the heart and the will – if we preach the ‘whole counsel of God’ to the whole individual personality, relying upon the Holy Spirit, we shall find that the gospel today will produce its results in all types and kinds and classes, even as it did at the beginning, even as it has always done in every period of revival and reawakening. Surely the Apostle’s words are a condemnation of our own methods! There is something wrong in our presentation. If our preaching and our gospel only appeal to a certain type, then I suggest that we are preaching in a way that only appeals to such a type. We are leaving out something. We are either leaving out something belonging to the message, or else we are not appealing to the whole man. Are we perhaps only appealing to a certain sentimental type? Is there not enough intellect in our message? Are we failing to make them think? Is there nothing offensive to the natural man about our message? It is an interesting thing that there are men, especially, who prefer a message when it does hit them and hurt them, and the one thing they cannot abide is sentimentality. Give them something strong, even severe, and, though it hurts, they know it is right, and they will listen to it. But if you once give them the idea that you are getting at them, and trying to influence them by certain methods and a certain psychological approach, they will not even come and put themselves under the possibility of being affected.
Surely it is a problem for all of us in the whole Christian church. Why is it that the masses of the people are untouched, right outside? Have we given them the impression, I wonder, that the gospel of Jesus Christ is only for a certain type, and a certain class? Have we somehow given them the impression that this gospel of ours is against them? If we have, God have mercy upon us! Let us, therefore, I say, be clear in our minds. Let us be careful to present ‘the whole counsel of God’ as Paul did, without fear, without favour, without any respect of persons. Let us give it in its grand content with all the intellect that is in these epistles, for he was writing this, you remember, to people, many of whom were slaves and serfs in Caesar’s household. Not like many modern people, who say, ‘We cannot listen for more than twenty minutes, and it must not be too intellectual; do not give us too much doctrine!’ That is what is being said by many evangelical people today. Is it surprising that we are guilty of a kind of inbreeding, and only producing the same type always? Let us go back to the Scriptures, and let us preach the whole gospel for men’s minds and hearts and wills. Not one at the expense of the others, but always the whole. A whole gospel for a whole man! And then the Holy Spirit will apply it, and we shall see again what used to take place in London two hundred years ago when a man like George Whitefield was preaching. He could preach to miners, and they were converted – yes! The Countess of Huntingdon used to pack her drawing-room in the West End of London, and Lord Chesterfield and all sorts of other members of the aristocracy used to come together and listen, and several of them were converted. The same preacher! He preached the same gospel to them all, and the Holy Spirit honoured it and made it efficacious.
The Apostle as a debtor tells us that he has got something to give, and that all need it. He can give it to all and you and I must be able to give it to an intellectual kind of person as well as to the person who is not intellectual, and vice versa. There are no specialists in this matter. If I cannot preach, I say again, to everybody, well then, for myself I say I cannot preach to anybody. Let me illustrate that statement. I remember a challenge that came to me once, and I think it puts my point very neatly. I had preached here on a certain Sunday, after which I went off on my holidays to the country. I had not intended preaching that first Sunday away, but there was an oldish minister in the place where I was staying, and he was due to preach three times. It was a very hot day, and I felt I could not let him do this, so I volunteered to take his afternoon service for him. That meant going up to a little place halfway up a mountain, and my wife and I went there. I went into the pulpit and looked at my congregation. Including my wife, the congregation consisted of five people! Let me admit it quite frankly and honestly, the devil came to me and tempted me, and he did so in this way. ‘Well, of course, with only five people – just give them a little talk!’ Quite apart from the fact that I am not good at that kind of thing, I recovered myself, and this is what I said to myself: If you cannot preach to these five people in exactly the same way as you preached last Sunday in Westminster Chapel, the sooner you get out of the pulpit the better! By the grace of God I was enabled to do so, and I have never enjoyed a service more in the whole of my life! The preacher who is dependent upon his congregation is unfit to enter the pulpit.
The last thing the Apostle tells us here is not only that he can give this message, but that he feels he must give it. ‘I am a debtor…’ Why did he feel this constraint? There are many answers. One is his ‘call’, his ‘commission’. ‘We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that every one may receive the things done in the body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord we persuade men’ [2 Corinthians 5: 10-1l]. That is the first reason. The Lord had commissioned him on the road to Damascus. He had sent him out to preach. Paul will have to render up an account of his ministry and of his stewardship. Do you notice the term he uses? ‘Knowing…the terror of the Lord we persuade men…’ Notice also how he puts it in I Corinthians 9. Do not praise me for this, says Paul. I cannot help myself. ‘Necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me if I preach not the gospel’! [v.16]. I must. I am a man under a commission. There is an obligation.
Then another thing that comes in here is surely this – the appalling need of men and women. That is the thing that brings in the urge. If you and I only realized fully the state and the condition of men and women by the thousand round and about us, I think we would sometimes be unable to sleep. Do you really believe and know that the unbeliever, the person who dies an unbeliever and in his sin, goes to hell? Well, if we really believe that, there will be a sense of constraint in our lives. You will not care what people will think of you. You will not be so punctilious about these matters; you will say, Whoever they are and whatever they are, they are dying in sin; they are wretched as they are – there is worse to come! I must. I must speak. The need of others as Paul knew it and as he realized it! Then again, there was his consciousness of what this glorious gospel had done for him. As he experienced the joy and the peace and the happiness that it had brought him, he was anxious that all others should enjoy the same benefits. ‘I am a debtor’, says Paul.
Then, finally, it was this – the gospel itself! Do you know what I mean by that? Whenever you come across anything in any realm of life which pleases you and gives you great satisfaction, you feel you are bound to tell people about it, and you do. If you read a book that gives you something unusual, you say, ‘I must tell so and so. I must tell everybody’. The thing itself is so wonderful. If you see a wonderful bit of scenery you feel, ‘I must tell others about this. They must go and look at it’. Whatever it is, we always feel we cannot keep it to ourselves; we always want to share our blessings. Our Lord has put it once and for ever in the story of the woman and the lost coin. When she found it after considerable effort, she went to tell her neighbours, Come and rejoice with me, I have found it. The shepherd who has lost the sheep does the same thing, and the father who has lost the son, and who finds him, does the same. Here, then is this glorious gospel. You notice how Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians 5: ‘For the love of Christ constraineth us’ [v.14]. He is like a man in a vice, and the vice is being screwed up and tightened up, until life is almost pressed out of him. What is pressing the Apostle? The love of Christ! This amazing thing! This gospel of reconciliation! This love of God! This love of God that sends His only Son, and even makes Him to be sin for us! Paul has seen it, and he wants everybody else to see it and to rejoice in it, and to glory in it, and to participate in it. The wonderful, glorious character of the gospel itself had made him a ‘debtor both to the Greeks and to the Barbarians, both to the wise, and to the unwise’.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Romans, Exposition of Chapter 1. ‘The Gospel of God’, Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 1985, (pp. 249-255)
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