The Fear of the Sneer
. . . they spent a long time there speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who was testifying to the word of His grace (Acts 14:3).
Upon Saul of Tarsus’ conversion on the road to Damascus, Ananias was commissioned by the resurrected Christ to go to this persecutor of Christians and to lay hands on him, that he may be healed of his blindness. Ananias is rightly concerned, reminding Jesus of all the harm Saul had done to his church. But Jesus said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel, for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake’ (Acts 9:15-16). Ananias did as he was told and later we find Saul, now called Paul, making his way through central Turkey, going from town to town, preaching Jesus. He comes to Iconium, goes into the synagogue and preaches Christ crucified and many Jews and Greeks believed (Acts14:1). But the disbelieving Jews stirred up opposition to Paul. Paul kept preaching anyway, spending a long time there, speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord. From there Paul went to Lystra and healed a lame man and continued preaching Jesus. Jews from Antioch and Iconium came to Lystra and stirred up trouble for Paul. The mob took hold of Paul, stoned him, and left him for dead. While his disciples where standing around the apparently unconscious Paul, he awoke, got up, and entered the city. The next day he went with Barnabas to Derbe and preached the gospel and made many disciples. Amazingly, after all this, Paul went back through Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch. Most of us, I imagine, after being beaten and left for dead in one city, would not return there for a while, if ever. Not Paul!
In addressing the debauched, increasingly bold and antagonistic unbelieving culture in America, I see two trends among Christian leaders, at opposite ends of the spectrum. This, by the way, is nothing new.1 On the one hand, in a desire to gain a hearing, to have inroads into the secular, cultured despisers of the gospel, many seem to dance around the ‘hot button’ topics of the day – abortion, same sex marriage, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of hell, the Bible’s infallibility and inerrancy. They seem to think – if they do not address these issues from the pulpit, if they can gain a hearing from these folks, if they see them converted, and then, after these new converts have the Holy Spirit indwelling them, these preachers then can give them the truth on these issues – this will change their minds. On the other hand, as in the days of the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy (circa 1918-1930), many Christians are so fed up with the scoffers of true Christianity that they make no effort sincerely to engage them in substantive gospel conversation. These Christian people seem to retreat into the four walls of the church, sing their hymns, have their preaching, and leave it at that. The first group of believers seem to fear the sneer of their peers.2They seem to go to great lengths to avoid offending the unbelieving culture around them. In so doing, they unwittingly are offending the Lord Jesus who said, ‘Whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels’ (Mark 8:38). This, by the say, plays into the lack of intentional, personal evangelism that is rampant in today’s western church. We are so concerned with offending people with the gospel, that we remain silent. I was speaking with someone recently who said that years ago, she and another woman from their church were going ‘door to door’ in evangelistic outreach. A Jewish woman at one house was offended by their efforts, saying that she resented anyone trying to change her religion. The Christian woman replied, ‘I have no other choice. Jesus told me to tell people about himself. I must do what he says.’
However those who retreat from the public square are really no better than those who soft-pedal the gospel. Both extremes are neglecting a vital reality-speaking boldly with reliance upon the Lord, who testifies to the word of his grace. In other words, both groups are forgetting the ministry of the Holy Spirit who gives power, who brings boldness, who supernaturally testifies to the truth of the gospel, who alone shatters the unbelief of recalcitrant, rebellious hearts, who alone convicts, regenerates, and converts. When Wini and I began our ministry in Connecticut3 where only one percent of the population was evangelical, we told our small core group of eight families, that the people there are not buying what we are selling. They have no interest in the gospel. They scoff at it. They reject it entirely. Consequently, we stressed the necessity of prayer and evangelism. We were earnest in prayer, knowing that unless God showed up, unless he worked in the hearts of people, nothing would happen. This approach emboldened our people. We were very intentionally evangelistic, and a culture of evangelism was prominent in our people. We had annual, week long evangelistic projects where Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship evangelists would come to West Hartford, train our people in one-on-one evangelism and then take us to the streets. We learned to do questionnaires which often led to substantive gospel conversations, even in upscale West Hartford. Our people, by God’s grace, developed a ‘divine swagger’, a confidence and boldness, born by the Holy Spirit, which propelled them forward with the gospel in the face of unbelief. One of the most rewarding moments for Wini and me came near the end of our ministry there when sixteen people joined the church one Sunday, the majority by profession of faith.
The tendency always is to go to one extreme or the other, but we must ‘keep the car on the road.’ We don’t need to fear the sneer of our peers. Be bold, develop a divine swagger. How? Go into the sanctuary of God. Pray! Pray! Pray! Ask for the Holy Spirit to empower you and to convert others. God is so concerned about having his elect saved, that he will direct them to people he knows will share Jesus. This is perhaps one reason why people who obey the Lord’s Great Commission see people saved and others do not. We also need to resist the temptation of disdain, of rejecting those whom we find disgusting in their lifestyles or belief systems. Don’t retreat from the public arena. We have an uncanny ability to mask inward fear with outward disdain. Go forth daily, asking the Holy Spirit to fill you and to empower you, to direct you to people whom God has prepared to hear the gospel. And when the opportunity comes, speak boldly with reliance upon the Lord. He promises to testify to the word of his grace.
- Friedrich Schleiermacher, in the early nineteenth century, Paul Tillich in the twentieth century taught the same thing. Schleiermacher saw no need to stress the miracles of Jesus, since intelligent people reject such ‘nonsense’. Tillich, writing at the height of existentialism, believed, according to Donald Grey Barnhouse, that sin is not something one commits, but a sense of estrangement from one’s true self. Cited in Eternity, ‘What About Paul Tillich,’ (June, 1959).
- I am borrowing this phrase from my good friend Dale Cutlip of Globeworks International.
- Al Baker planted (in 2003) and served as Pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in Hartford, Connecticut, until December 2011.
Rev. Allen M Baker is an evangelist with Presbyterian Evangelistic Fellowship, and Director of the Alabama Church Planting Network. His weekly devotional, ‘Forget None of His Benefits’, can be found here.
If you would like to respond to Pastor Baker, please contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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