Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
What actually happened on the Day of Pentecost? And how does it relate to modern phenomena that go by the same name? Not exactly what you might expect.
(Compared with Later Imitations)
Stronger than a hawk, the Dove
Swept by, and in the eddies of
His passing, tongues of flame were fanned
And men fell to the ground unmanned.
They stuttered as their wits were lost
And thought it a new Pentecost:
The merely inarticulate sigh
Of His furious passing by.
But when He stopped to build His nest
First in the Apostolic breast,
A different language was expressed
In fit words, honed and well disposed;
Those were not drunk as men supposed,
But spoke real tongues they had not learned:
Thus the true tongues of fire burned.
Men heard about their sins and grieved;
They heard the Gospel and believed,
For each one heard of Jesus’ blood
In his own tongue—and understood.
Does that Dove’s nesting in the heart
Drive it and the mind apart?
Never! Rather, say He brings
The two together ‘neath His wings.
The mind alert was not the cost
Of the primal Pentecost,
Where true wit was not lost, but gained
When the showers of blessing rained.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. And look for Williams’ very latest book, Deeper Magic: The Theology behind the Writings of C. S. Lewis, from Square Halo Books!
Wordsworth wrote an endless poem in blank verse on” the growth of a poet’s mind.” I shall attempt a more modest feat for a more distracted age: a blog, “Things which a Lifetime of Trying to Be a Poet has Taught Me.”
Even people who do not agree with him admire Protestant Reformer Martin Luther for standing up for his convictions. What many people do not understand is that his famous “Here I stand!” was not simply a bold assertion of modern individualism but sprang from much serious agonizing over what Scripture was telling him. It was faithfulness to God’s truth as he understood it, not rebellion against church authority, that drove him.
Can one lone monk be right, and all the rest
Of Christendom for near a thousand years
Be wrong? The question brought him close to tears
And troubled Luther sorely, he confessed.
But other problems had to be addressed,
Like, shall the Gospel reach the waiting ears
Of people whose good works were in arrears
And had no chance but Grace to pass the test?
He meant by that just simply every man,
And thought of men who’d lived by faith before—
And doubted then his Gospel’s truth no more:
With Athanasius contra mundum, and
With John the lone disciple at the Cross,
He clung to Christ and viewed all else as loss.
Remember: for more poetry like this, go to https://lanternhollow.wordpress.com/store/ and order Stars Through the Clouds! Also look for Inklings of Reality and Reflections from Plato’s Cave, Williams’ newest books from Lantern Hollow Press: Evangelical essays in pursuit of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.
This is the text of a sermon that I delivered at a Bhawanipatna, India, House Church, June 14, 2014; the Mythcon “Mere Christian Service,” Norton, MA., Aug. 10, 2014; and University Church, Athens, GA., Aug. 31, 2014
For the audiofile from the 8/31/14 (University Church) version, go to
INTRODUCTION: University Church is known for its commitment to obeying the biblical exhortation to go beyond the Milk of the Word to the Meat. I am inclined by principle and animated by impulse to do just that. But one of the things I’ve learned from following that injunction over the years is that the dividing line between the two is not so clear. When I look at the Milk long enough, it starts turning solid, growing hide, horns, and hooves right before my eyes. Augustine brilliantly called Scripture a river in which a child could safely wade but an elephant could drown. And so it is: the most simple truths of Scripture are also the most profound, and the most basic doctrines it teaches are also the most advanced. I will try to illustrate that truth today by simply preaching the Gospel, from the summary of it that our Lord gave at the end of Luke’s account.
Luke 24:44Now he said to them, “These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. 46 And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day, 47 and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”
So central is The Great Commission to the life of the Church that our Lord gave it more than once. The version in Matthew 28:18-20 is more familiar: “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” But we also have much to learn from Luke’s version. “Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.” Whether Jesus addressed the topic of the Church’s commission more than once during his forty days with the disciples (as is likely) or whether Luke and Matthew are giving us different summaries of one session makes little difference. The two passages are complementary, and both are essential to our understanding of our purpose in this world until our Lord returns. Both passages make Evangelism—taking the Gospel, the Good News of what God has done in Christ for our salvation, to all nations—central to that purpose.
In the case of Luke’s version, we note that it was given at the end of the forty days Jesus spent with his disciples between the Resurrection and his Ascension, “opening their minds to understand the Scriptures.” At the climax of that time, like all good teachers, he was summing up the central points he did not want his disciples to miss. That makes this summary of the Gospel, the very core of our Lord’s own teaching, especially crucial for us. Let’s see what it has to teach us. We can learn from it something about the Foundation of the Gospel, the Facts of the Gospel, the Fruit of the Gospel, and the Function of the Evangelist.
I. THE FOUNDATION OF THE GOSPEL (vss. 44-46a)
The first thing we note is the foundation of the Gospel, which is the Word of God. “Now he said to them, ‘These are my words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said to them, ‘Thus it is written’ . . .” (Luke 24:44-46a).
“Thus it is written.” Our message, in other words, is not our own; it is based on the Word of God. What words are Christ’s words? The words of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms! They all speak truly of him, and can be truly understood only from his perspective. Thus the Gospel that we preach does not begin with “I think,” or “I suppose,” or even (maybe especially not) “I feel.” It begins with “Thus is it written.” That is the foundation of the Gospel. And that is why we must proclaim it.
This feature of the Gospel helps explain why Christianity is of necessity a proselytizing religion. It explains why we cannot leave people alone, why we cannot just accept that they are different, respect their culture and their beliefs, follow Star Trek’s Prime Directive (of non-interference in the development of alien cultures), and mind our own business. For, you see, every other religion is the product of man’s search for meaning. As such, they can afford to dialogue with each other, share their results as equals, take an academic interest in one another’s beliefs, and take or leave them as their fancy dictates. There is no sense of urgency, for everyone is still looking. But the Christian faith is not the product of Man’s search for meaning; it is the proclamation of God’s kingship, the planting of his flag on the territory of our souls. Christian faith is not the product of history but the producer of history. The Christian faith did not evolve from my culture; it was announced by my Creator. And therefore my faith is not a progress report on my search for God; it is the successful conclusion of God’s search for me.
We present the Gospel, in other words, as Truth. If it is not truth, it is not worth presenting, much less proclaiming. What we have to share is not an elevated emotion, it is not another set of pious platitudes, it is not just a noble sentiment. It is truth given to us by God through written revelation. It is a message from God to men with which we have been entrusted as the messengers. And it is a message that comes with the highest authority—not mine, not yours, but God’s. That is why we must proclaim it.
You must understand that realizing this truth revolutionizes our approach to witness and evangelism. That which was lost has been found! The Gospel is like the shot fired into the air by the member of the search party who finds the missing child so that everyone else can converge on that spot. That is the spirit with which we should proclaim it. Now is the day of salvation! God has not left us in darkness.
Good news! Good news! This is not our speculation; it is his speech. He has not left us in darkness. He has spoken. And so I am not sharing “my faith” (as if anyone cared what I thought about such exalted matters). I am sharing God’s truth. This is not arrogant, because it is not my message. I am not telling you that I have figured out what all the sages could not. I am telling you the Good News that God has found us. We should speak with the spirit of excitement and expectancy (as well as humility) appropriate for people in such a position. And our presentation of the Gospel should bring the unsaved into contact with Scripture. It is Scripture, not my religious experiences, that is sharper than any two-edged sword. My “testimony” is only the pretext, the excuse, the context for bringing the message of Scripture to bear on unbelievers. For then perhaps Jesus will be able to open their eyes to understand it, as he did for the disciples after the resurrection and as he has done for us since. And then—and only then—will they hear and believe and be saved.
II. THE FACTS OF THE GOSPEL (vs. 46)
“Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Thus it is written: that is how the Gospel begins, that is its foundation. And its content, the structure erected on that foundation, is that the Christ should suffer and be raised again so that repentance for forgiveness of sins can be proclaimed in his name. The message is from God; the salvation is from God. God has spoken; he is not silent. God has acted; he is not unmoved by our plight. The Christian Gospel is absolutely unique among the religious messages of the world in that its focus is not what we must to do but what God has done: not what we must do to find God, but what God has done to find us.
And what has he done? “ . . . that the Christ . . .” The first thing he has done is to come to us himself in his Son. “For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father” (John 1:14). “No man has seen God at any time. But the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him” (John 1:18). And this One was the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6). And therefore, let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom we crucified (Acts 2:36). And all this he proved by raising him from the dead. The Gospel is first of all the Good News that God has sent his Son. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
But then what follows? “ . . . that the Christ should suffer . . .” No wonder it took Jesus forty days to open the minds of his disciples to understand all that was written about him in the Old Testament, for this is the very theme of that book. From the sacrificial system to the Day of Passover to the Day of Atonement to the Suffering Servant passage in Isaiah, the whole Old Testament dispensation was a preparation for this suffering. For without the shedding of blood there is no remission for sin. Why were Adam and Eve not immediately annihilated when they disobeyed God at the Fall? Because the Christ would suffer. Why were animals slain to replace the fig leaves Adam and Eve had futilely woven to cover their shame? Because the Christ would suffer. Why the blood of all those bulls and goats on every Jewish altar for thousands of years? Because the Christ would suffer. Why the call of Abraham? So the Christ could come and therefore suffer. Why the sacrifice of Isaac? Because the Christ would suffer. Why the preservation of a remnant and their return to the Land? Because the Christ would suffer.
And why did he have to suffer? Because God commendeth his love toward us in this, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. He was the Lamb of God who took away the sins of the world. Sin is so evil that nothing less than this death, nothing less than His death, could have atoned for it. But He has paid all the price of it forever! And therefore “if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us of all unrighteousness.” “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth on him should not perish, but have eternal life.” All because the Christ should suffer. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
But that is not all. “ . . . that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day.” The resurrection is God’s way of saying that the sacrifice of his Son for sin has been accepted. It is God’s warrant to us that Satan has been defeated and the debt of sin cancelled for believers forever. But even better than that (if anything could be), it means that our Lord who loved us even unto death is given back to us alive. He lives now to impart the life that is beyond death, to be our living king, and to bring us to glory with him. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
And what follows from that? The proclamation of repentance. “ . . . and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (vs. 47). Do you see the beauty of the logic of the Gospel? Why does this come right after the resurrection? Because the resurrection of Christ is what gives repentance its point. Before Christ suffered, what good would it do to repent? You could promise not to sin any more, but you would not be able to keep the promise, and even if you could, you would still be guilty of your former sin and thus still worthy of death. But now that Christ has suffered, you can be forgiven. So now repentance is no longer futile; now it can lead to a restored relationship with God, to forgiveness, to salvation, to eternal life. And now that he has been raised from the dead, there is also another way, repentance becomes worth doing. Because now the power of the risen Lord is unleashed through his Holy Spirit, so that we have help in following through on our repentance. And we have the promise made more sure that, because he lives, so shall we.
So the suffering and resurrection of Christ leads to repentance. And repentance means changing your mind, laying down the arms of your rebellion against God, believing in Christ as your savior, and turning from sin to follow him. Does that mean you must stop sinning to be saved? Not exactly. It would be more accurate to say that you are saved to stop sinning. Salvation is God’s work, not ours; your forgiveness is based on Christ’s atoning sacrifice, not on your success at reforming yourself. Salvation is through faith in Christ’s work, not through the success of your own work. To say that salvation is not by works is to say that it does not depend on your performance but on Christ’s work, not on your acceptability but on Christ’s. But we must turn to him in faith to receive the free gift of salvation, and turning to him means turning away from sin. You will no doubt still stumble and even fall from time to time. But you must truly turn to him. And that turning is repentance.
Do you understand? Because Christ suffered, because Christ rose, repentance can be proclaimed and sins forgiven. Your sins. And mine. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
III. THE FRUIT OF THE GOSPEL (vs. 47)
Because the Christ has suffered and been raised, “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” is proclaimed in his name to all who believe. Forgiveness of sin means the thing that has separated us from God is taken out of the way and we are restored to our position as sons and daughters of the Father. And that gives us love, joy, peace, eternal life, and a purpose for living great enough to make eternal life desirable. And all of that starts with forgiveness.
It astounds me how shy we are of talking about this word, so central to every New Testament summary of the Gospel as it is. But in order to talk about forgiveness, we must talk about sin. And we are afraid that if we talk about sin we will be seen as judgmental. But if we don’t, we must try to preach the Gospel without talking about the central need we all have as fallen human beings. Forgiveness! To have a conscience that is really clean—not just jaded, but really free from guilt. To know that you are as acceptable to and indeed accepted by God as Jesus Christ is. To have no need to be ashamed. To receive this, not because you deserve it, but because God loves you and has paid for your sin forever in the death of Christ. Maybe the most critical thing we can do in this jaded and debased age is to recover the joy of forgiveness. Ironically, that means first recovering a sense of the sinfulness of sin. But we cannot communicate this to others until first we have felt it ourselves. Then we will be filled with such joy that we will not need to motivate ourselves—indeed, we will not be able to restrain ourselves from proclaiming repentance for forgiveness in his name. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
IV. THE FUNCTION OF THE EVANGELIST (vss. 48-49)
“Repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.” If this is the great Gospel we have been given, what then are we to do with it? The actual functionality of taking the Gospel to the nations is carried by two words in this passage. First, repentance for forgiveness in Jesus’ name is to be proclaimed. This verb captures the public side of evangelism. We have a message to deliver. We are not talking about ourselves; we are proclaiming what God has done. We are not guests on Oprah indulging in self revelation. We are heralds; we are town criers; we are Phidippides running into Athens after the Battle of Marathon, having run 26 miles to say, “Rejoice! We conquer!” and fall down dead. If we lose this spirit, we lose something essential to the spread of the Good News.
But that is not the only side of it. We are also referred to as witnesses of these things. A witness is someone who is able to speak with first-hand authority. He is someone who has seen something with his own eyes. Let’s say I hear a loud bang and look up to see that two cars have collided. I saw what happened, but because I was not paying attention I did not see how or why it happened. So if I am called as a witness to determine which driver was at fault, I will be useless, and my testimony will be disallowed. I did not see it. My speculation is of no interest to the court, and my testimony only hearsay. I am dismissed.
Now, the disciples were literal eye witnesses to the resurrection, people whose testimony is very pertinent indeed. We cannot equal them in that, but our testimony is also relevant. For we can give personal testimony to the ongoing reality of the resurrection, experienced in the saving power of the blood of Christ. And that is what we are called to do. Proclamation is the public side of evangelism, and witness is the private, or better, the personal side. Evangelism is effective when the two are combined, that is, when we are heralds to the Good News presented as such who can add the clear and firm avouch of our own eyes, our own life experience, that the news we proclaim is true and real and powerful for salvation—because it has saved us. But of course, to give that testimony, we must first have experienced and be experiencing these things.
Therefore, the first step to effective witness is to take the Gospel seriously ourselves. When Ghandi was asked why, as a student of Christ, he had not become a Christian, he replied, “If Christ has done such a poor job of saving you, why should I ask him to save me?” Ouch! What a tragic indictment this is, when the Gospel is—or should be–the power of God to salvation for those who believe. That is why I cannot stress too strongly that the first step to effective witness is to take the Gospel seriously ourselves.
And what a Gospel it is! Thus it is written that the Christ should suffer and rise from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. Good news! Good news! This is the Gospel! This is good news indeed.
CONCLUSION: Has Christ opened your mind to understand the Scriptures? Do you see that thus it was written, that he should suffer and rise from the dead? Have you repented and believed in Him for the forgiveness of your sins? Have you confessed with our mouth Jesus as Lord and believed in your heart that God has raised him from the dead? Are you ready to proclaim that good news and be a witness to its saving power? May God grant that it may be so, to the glory of his Son Jesus Christ.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Free Church of America. He serves as R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of Northeast Georgia. In the summers he has served as a trainer of pastors in rural East Africa and India for Church Planting International. He is the author of several books, most recently Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Nashville: Broadman, 2006) Stars Through the Clouds: The Collected Poetry of Donald T. Williams (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lantern Hollow, 2012, and Inklings of Reality: Essays toward a Christian Philosophy of Letters, 2nd ed., revised & expanded (Lantern Hollow, 2012).
Francis Schaeffer used to stress Martin Luther’s observation that unless we are defendingthe faith at the point where it is being attacked in our generation, we are not defending the faith. He was right. There is a Scandal of the Cross for each generation and each people, but it changes as the shifting stratagems of the Enemy vary. For the Greeks it was the resurrection of the body; for the Jews it was the loss of their status as a privileged people defined by their keeping of the Mosaic Law; for the Modernist it was the supernatural, especially the miraculous; for all men at all times it is our absolute dependence on God’s grace, his unmerited favor. What is the particular sticking point for our own time? A good case can be made that it is the existence of objective truth, or, more subtly, the ability of human beings to know objective truth, and hence to be responsible for knowing it and accountable to God for what they do about it.
Current pseudo-philosophies reduce all truth claims to personal perspectives and power plays, and people influenced by them refuse to participate in any discourse (“logocentric”; “totalizing”) that does not acquiesce in those reductions. There is therefore a strong temptation to think that we have to play by those rules in order to gain a hearing for the Gospel at all. But if we yield to that temptation, are we still proclaiming the Gospel? If I speak in such a way that I have already admitted by the form of discourse I adopt that the Gospel is and can be no more than my personal perspective on religion, have I not denied the faith, however much I may still mouth the prescribed formulae about Jesus dying for our sins? For a Jesus who is lord only of my perspectives is not Lord of the cosmos and is therefore incapable of saving anyone.
It is good to be humble about our pretensions to knowledge and to admit that, while we know absolute truth, we do not know truth absolutely. But in the current climate it is one small step from that admission to becoming intimidated about asserting that the truth claims Christ makes on our lives are absolute and come with God’s absolute authority. That is ultimately the bottom line: is Christ Lord of all whether any of us perceives or accepts it or not, or is He just one of my opinions?
Are robust truth claims offensive to our generation? No one can doubt that they are. Should the soldiers of Christ then tiptoe away from that breach in our battle lines, or should they flood into it lest the entire phalanx of the Gospel message advancing into our culture be subverted and swept away? The ancestors of modern theological liberalism began by downplaying and soft-peddling the supernatural elements of Christian truth, because they thought modern men could no longer accept them. Their intentions were (at first) good and sincere, but they left their followers with only an impotent shell of the biblical faith. Can we afford to repeat their mistake with the epistemological elements?
C. S. Lewis saw the importance of this question as clearly as anyone, and his answer was a resounding “No!” He urged mere Christians to choose their Room off the great Hall by its truth rather than its paneling and its paint. He commended Christian faith for its truth rather than its helpfulness in book after book. He presents the choices perhaps most starkly in the essay “Man or Rabbit?” in God in the Dock. “Either [the faith] is true, or it isn’t. . . . Isn’t it the job of every man (that is a man and not a rabbit) to try to find out which, and then to devote his full energies either to serving this tremendous secret or to exposing and destroying this gigantic humbug?” Lewis’s own devotion to serving the secret was unambiguous and unmistakable.
Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. His claims on our belief are absolute. If we flinch at this point; if our trumpet gives an uncertain sound; if we present a Christ who is inoffensive because He is after all only one perspective among many; if we allow the enemies of truth to dictate the terms of engagement; if, in other words, we compromise on the issue of truth, then we betray the next generation to unrelieved darkness. If we do this, then may God have mercy on their souls—and, even more, on ours.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is R. A. Forrest Scholar and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College. His most recent books are Mere Humanity: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and J. R. R. Tolkien on the Human Condition (Broadman, 2006), Credo: Meditations on the Nicene Creed (Chalice Press, 2007), The Devil’s Dictionary of the Christian Faith (Chalice Press, 2008), Stars through the Clouds (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2011), his collected poetry, and Reflections from Plato’s Cave: Essays in Evangelical Philosophy (Lynchburg: Lantern Hollow Press, 2012).