In our previous two blogs we have seen how the apostle Paul thinks about himself.
First, he is a man who is the servant of Christ Jesus, and then one who was called by Jesus Christ to be an apostle. But his description is incomplete without this third designation— “set apart for the gospel of God.”
It is critical we understand Paul from this perspective, for the fact is, he spends the remaining part of his letter explaining what he means by that. He was literally “set apart” for a message and he gave all that he had to both understanding and promulgating that message. This is undoubtedly a play on words, for the apostle was formerly a Pharisee—a term meaning one set apart to the law. That meant he was one who sought to earn his own righteousness through Torah observance (Philippians 3:7-9). But then he encountered Jesus Christ and came to understand the Gospel of God; that only through the perfect work of the Messiah can one obtain righteousness. For the rest of his life, the apostle gave himself to understanding and making known the message of truth, the Gospel.
What characterized the apostle Paul from hereon is he became message centered. Reading the remainder of the Roman epistle, we discover how deeply the Gospel of grace penetrated his heart and mind. He had encountered the risen Lord on the road to Damascus and the One he served and loved captured his heart. But for Paul, the remainder of his days was spent exploring the riches of grace that came through Jesus Christ. In other words, he saw it his duty to make sure his head caught up with his heart! And that meant doing theology: exercising his mind to the fullest, in order to understand all that the Gospel means.
The apostle was totally message-centered. Sadly, many people today in our churches are more method-centered than message centered. Mention the word evangelism today and people will immediately think of various methods of getting the message out. Evangelism itself has become associated with various methods rather than the message itself. We assume the problem is our lack of methodology but if we haven’t gotten the message right, what good are our methods? While we should always thank God as Paul did in Philippians for every attempt to proclaim it regardless of motive, our primary aim must always be sure that we are faithful to the content of the message.
At times, I have asked the question of church leaders, “What’s the most important thing about any local church?” The answers I get are usually varied, everything from the way it worships to the effectiveness of their Sunday School program. While I think those things are important, I do not believe that they constitute the most important thing about any local church. In my mind, the most critical thing about any local church is the way in which it stewards the message, which it has been given.
We learn from Romans what being message-centered means. It means the truth of the Gospel is brought to bear fully on our minds and our hearts. It means we are grappling with the truth of the Gospel in all of its facets. Our minds must be exercised to the fullest to grasp its truth. Our emotions must respond as well to the truth we are learning, worship being the only fitting response to Gospel truth. Our wills must be captive to the Lord who is revealed through the word of truth. Even our bodies must respond to the truth of his everlasting mercies (Romans 12:1).
There is certainly Gospel methods and strategies, which are commensurate with the message. Paul alluded to apostolic strategies and methods he used to promulgate the Gospel. But in an age of pragmatism, we are prone to think we have the message down pat, all we need is the right methods and all will be well. Today, there are any number of conferences you can attend, each touting various Christian skills that can be learned. We should thank God for the increased supply of knowledge and skill that this affords. Yet if we are not careful, we can reduce the Gospel to a methodology that can be learned, a skill that can be achieved.
Getting the gospel right must always precede getting it out. That means theology must always precede methodology. The gospel is not good advice but good news; the proclamation of what God has already done in Christ. Drop into most churches on Sunday and you are apt to hear more about what you must do to be a Christian; pray more, read more, witness more, etc. Rare indeed is the church that places the emphasis on what God did in Christ and therefore what we must believe.
While there is certainly a place for exhortation on how God expects us to live, such exhortations produce nothing but frustration if they are not preceded by clear-cut gospel instruction. Take time to today to examine yourself before God asking this question: “Are you method-centered or message-centered?”
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