T. PIERCE BROWN
As I was preparing a sermon on the things for which Paul gave thanks, I noted something that in 65 years of reading God’s word I never noticed before, and about which I have never heard a comment. It seems significant enough to me that I think it is worth taking the time to notice and study.
There is an interesting expression of thanks given in 1 Cor. 1:4, “I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ.” The thing that struck me about this expression of thanksgiving is that instead of saying something like, “I thank God for your ability, knowledge, love, good works,” he says, “I thank God for the grace of God which allowed you to have these things, or gave you the opportunity to have them.” The emphasis is not so much on what they were or qualities they had, per se, but on the grace of God which produced those conditions. I think that distinction, which I never remember hearing anyone mention, is worth noting. There is a difference in my saying, “I thank God that you are a Christian,” and saying, “I thank God for allowing you and helping you to become a Christian.” The more I think about it, the more significant it seems. I believe it suggests what I think is one of our basic problems. That is, we are prone to be more anthropocentric in our religious thinking than we are to be Theocentric. That is, we concentrate more on what we do and what we get than we do on what God does and what He gives. This is true from the process of our conversion on through our lives, I think. Almost always, when we preach about Peter’s sermon on Pentecost, we say something like this, “Peter pointed out to them that they had crucified Jesus, and were therefore lost. They realized they were lost and cried out `Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ with emphasis on what they were to do to be released from the guilt and punishment of sin. They were then told to repent and be baptized for the remission of their sins.” This is all true, but my judgment is that the proper emphasis was slightly different, and makes considerable difference in our ultimate responses. There is always a significant relationship between the way we think, talk and act.
He said, “This Jesus whom ye crucified has been made both Lord and Christ.” When they heard this they were pricked in their hearts and cried out, “What shall we do?” What they heard was that Jesus was Lord, and with reference to that fact they wanted to know what to do. Asking what to do with reference to the fact that Jesus is Lord is slightly different from asking what we shall do with reference to the lost condition from which we hope to be rescued. Though the difference may be slight, the results of the different view are tremendous and significant.
My opinion is that the difference in this emphasis is one of the reasons for the difference in what we see in most congregations after a person is baptized, and what we see in the first congregation inJerusalem. They continued steadfastly in the Apostle’s doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers, and daily in the temple and from house to house proclaimed the good news to others. Do you find steadfastness, daily evangelistic efforts and concern for the lost where you attend. Their conversion was based upon the conscious awareness and conviction that Jesus is Lord and our Messiah, not primarily on “What can I get out of it?” and “How can I get out of the consequences of my sin?”
Probably our emphasis on what we must do, and what we get as a result of what we do is because we needed to combat the false concept of Calvin and his followers. When any false doctrine is taught which makes everything depend on God, then the effort to combat it may make it sound as if everything depends upon our response. What we need to do is what many of us have been trying to do all our preaching lives. That is, we need to emphasize the grace, mercy and love of God and then emphasize the need for us to respond to that grace in God’s appointed way.
Sound gospel preachers have done this very effectively for years, and especially in the last few. It is sad beyond expression that some formerly sound gospel preachers have so emphasized God’s grace that our responsibility to properly respond has been almost left out–or in some cases even denied. However, my article today is for the purpose of suggesting that we look with more care and concern at Paul’s prayers in such places as 1 Cor. 1:4 which we have mentioned, 2 Cor. 2:14, 2 Thess. 2:13, and other places where he thanks God for various blessings or qualities which they had, but puts the emphasis on the fact that the root of those blessings or qualities is the love, grace and power of God or Christ. It is our considered judgment that we may do almost as much damage to the cause of Christ by wrong emphasis as by false doctrine. At least, wrong emphasis, if continued long enough, almost always leads to false doctrine.
Have you heard the story of the preacher who was preaching a sermon trying to emphasize the role and value of women in the church? He planned to say, “Woman! Without her, man would be a beast.” He said the words, but put the emphasis in the wrong place, and it came out, “Woman without her man would be a beast.” Both statements might be relatively true, but they certainly are not the same. We need to try to make sure that in our preaching, our thanksgiving and all the rest of our lives, we not only try to teach the truths God revealed, but put the emphasis where He put it.