Will Your Gospel Transform a Terrorist? #T4G12

My notes from Thabiti Anyabwile’s session on 1 Timothy 1:12-17 (paraphrased)

I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:12-17)

At an evangelism conference in the United Arab Emerits, an evangelist asked, “What do you think is the greatest hindrance to the spread of the gospel in the Middle East?” He suggested that the greatest hindrance of the gospel is the Christian’s lack of confidence in the gospel. I was stunned—I hadn’t thought of that. And there was this sense of dawning that I lacked confidence in the gospel. Now, I trusted in the gospel, I believed the gospel, but as he continued his exposition of Romans 1:16… I found myself asking, “Thabiti, is there any evident mark, any compelling evidence, that certifies to others and to your own soul that you have a deep and unshakeable confidence in the gospel?” And I wanted to ask you the same question. Do you have confidence that the gospel of Jesus Christ has the ability to transform the hearts of even the worst of sinners? Or do we underestimate it’s ability…?

The title of this talk asks “Will your gospel transform a terrorist?” Who is that person? Now, that could be the radical Muslim or Hindu burning churches. Or it could be the prostitute down the street or your third grade teacher… fix that person in your mind and ask:

Am I confident—down in my bones with Romans 1:16 styled unashamedness—that the gospel of Jesus Christ will transform this person?

Is Romans 1:16 really our boast?  Is that boast obvious in our lives and ministries?  If not, what do we need to do?  How do we need to repent of our unbelief?

Today, I want to hang our thoughts on three points.

The great change in one terrorist’s life (1 Tim 1:12-13)

Paul writes to encourage Timothy, his protégé, to deal with falsehood and false teachers that were destroying the life and witness of the church.

We’ve all had the experience of hearing “our song” on the radio—we hear it and it takes us back. For Paul is the gospel like that. He gives us in v. 12-17 a picture of the before and after. He shows the transformation. He starts in verse 12 with the “after “ picture. After the transformation, he’s a thanksgiving servant of Christ, a steward of the gospel and he’s thankful for it. He’s now the man God uses to strengthen and confirm the church. He is amazed at where his strength comes from—Christ is giving him strength! (Gal 2, Col 1:28-29) He’s a man transformed—but that’s his after picture.

Verse 13 tells us that he has a past. “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man.” He blasphemed and slandered God. He persecuted the church, a violent man, persecuting the church even to death. He was an anti-Christian, anti-church terrorist. Acts 7 we get the glorious sermon Stephen preached that cost him his life . . . and at the end of the chapter beginning at verse 54, we read:

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution. (Acts 7:54-8:1)

When we first meet Saul, he is approving of the murder of Stephen. This was not a prank—this was his career. He was systematic, moving from house-to-house. He was zealous! Paul creates the position and argues for himself to fill the position. In Acts 9, he shows initiative in this persecution, he is looking under every rock to find all that follow Christ and have them imprisoned. When Paul gives his testimony in Acts 26, he says:

I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem. I not only locked up many of the saints in prison after receiving authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme, and in raging fury against them I persecuted them even to foreign cities. (Acts 26:9-11 ESV)

This is the man who pens 1 Timothy. And when I see this before and after, I have this question: Why do you think that Paul remembers these things so vividly? I wonder if he still saw the faces and heard the voices of all those he persecuted.

Sin is like ketchup on a nice shirt—you might be able to dab it off and wash it, but the stain is still there. I remember sharing the gospel with a woman at a basketball outreach and she said to me, “Honey, God gave up on me a long time ago.” What she needed was for me to be confident in the gospel because she had no confidence of her own.

So we need confidence in the gospel, but the other question that jumps out to me is why do you think Paul jumps into this career of persecution—why does he jump into this destruction? Because he was lost.

What do you think happens when Christians lose key words from their vocabularies, like “lost”? When you lose the words, you lose the understanding. We used to speak about people being lost, but we don’t talk about that much anymore. What do we lose? What happens if this understanding is lost from our vocabulary?

How might be define lostness? A convinced blindness and misdirected affection that leads to eternal damnation. Paul thought he saw, but he didn’t. He acted in ignorance and unbelief. He saw darkness and thought it was light. Paul is the very fulfillment of what Jesus prophesied when he said that a time was coming when those who persecute you will think they’re offering a sacrifice to God. It wasn’t just that Paul was wrong-headed, he was wrong-hearted. He delighted in the darkness, even though he was convinced of his own rightness.

When we lose this understanding, we lose the need for repentance, for substitution, the majesty of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We lose wrath and hell because man isn’t rebelling against God, he’s simply on a journey, a seeker. We lose missions and evangelisms because no one needs saving.

The great cause of that change (1 Tim 1:14-16)

So we saw that Paul was a blasphemer, a persecutor and a violent man—what caused the change? The gospel.

The gospel supplied his need. In v. 13, he speaks of the mercy he received. He speaks of it as a kind of waterfall of grace and love and mercy poured out on him. I suspect that Christ wrote so frequently of being in Christ because he was so aware of his life outside of Christ. He’s come to see how all the blessings of God are bound up in our being in Christ. He reflected on it so much because he was so familiar with the bankruptcy of life apart from Christ. All that he lacked is now supplied in Christ.

The blasphemer is given faith. The persecutor is given grace. The violent man is given love. All that once ruined him is renewed in Christ.

In verse 15 Paul tells us the gospel is trustworthy. It’s like this verse is a neon sign flashing, saying “here, put your confidence here!” He tells us to put our confidence in the gospel because it is trustworthy. Here’s how he describes it—Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom Paul regards himself as the worst. Notice how the Scriptures tightly pack the gospel into one verse (Mark 10:45, John 3:16). The gospel is packed into this one tight succinct statement that explodes into the world.

In verse 15, we’ve got a tightly compact message that we could stretch out into eternity and never explore the depths. Christ Jesus came into the world—from where? From glory! How, in the Incarnation! To save sinners—who is that? All of us, you and me. And Paul says, put your confidence here.

He also tells us that the gospel reaches the worst of sinners and makes them trophies of God’s glory. He says that Christ saves sinners, of whom he was the worst. Why did he do it? “God showed me mercy so that others would have a faith-inspired example of the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.” If Paul’s example is compelling enough to make others believe, then it ought to compel us to preach with confidence. The purpose of our unredeemed past is to magnify our redeemed future. We must preach with that kind of confidence, the kind that says, “If God can save that guy, he can save me!” We ought to have this reliance on the gospel.

The great celebration of that change (1 Tim. 1:17)

What should this reliance look like? I have nine points:

  1. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would position ourselves around the worst of sinners looking for gospel opportunities.
  2. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would share the gospel slowly and clearly. If the gospel does the work, then we only need to release it.
  3. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would redirect our fears from man to God. We would fear being unfaithful more than being unfruitful.
  4. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would endeavor to preach the gospel in every sermon. On what Sunday do we have no lost people in our services? We ought to unpack and apply the gospel in every message. You realize that God only has one sermon? From genesis to revelation, it’s preaching the redemption of sinners through Christ Jesus.
  5. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would be careful with new converts and evangelistic methods. With new converts, we would resist the temptation to view Paul’s conversion as paradigmatic of all conversions. Not everyone’s struck down blind on the Damascus Road. If our confidence in our method or in the gospel? Are we organizing our methods and services that subtly betray our confidence in the gospel?
  6. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would study the gospel in deeper and more varied ways. We would make ourselves serious students of the gospel, studying in deeper and deeper ways.
  7. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would preach to open eyes, not just convey information. (Acts 28:29) Unless people are brought to see that their ideas about Christ and God, they won’t know where to turn.
  8. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would ask ourselves a question: Is my confidence in myself or in the power of the gospel itself? This is a real, subtle danger—to put our trust in ourselves rather than the gospel. For me, it shows up in impatience, in depression, in “fainting spells…” Brothers, beware of that shift of moving from relying on the gospel to relying on ourselves.
  9. If we’re confident in the gospel, we would preach the gospel in such a way that their faith would rely not on the cunning and craftiness of man but on the power of God. We want to preach in the Spirit’s power, to give us unction, to give us clarity, words, phrases… that their lives would rest upon the power of the gospel.

Now look at the celebration that this confidence brings. (v. 17) Paul didn’t write this verse as a systematician, but with a heart that rejoices and celebrates the gospel—so it may be with us as well.

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