by Wayne Bristow
Copyright © 2000 Wayne Bristow
Editor's Note: During our one-day Total Life Evangelism Seminars* in the U. S. A., and during our international schools of evangelism, I teach a segment on evangelistic preaching. I always state that if I had only one week to live, and could preach to a million lost people every day of that week, there are eight vital topics of evangelistic preaching that I would want to cover. Recently, while preaching and teaching in Central America, I felt impressed to bring together sermons on these topics. In this issue of Total Life Journal, I'm releasing the first sermon in that series. The vital topic is CONTRASTING LAW AND GRACE. The sermon was chosen in response to the personal request of a dear friend and ministry partner in Brazil.
"Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, to all and on all who believe. For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," Romans 3:19-24, NKJV.
When I stand to preach, I want it to be clear that I do not know the answer to every question, but I know the One who is the Answer to all of life's dilemmas. Because of my relationship to Him, I can speak with authority and confidence. I have doubts about many things but, in Christ, I have great certainty about those things that are of life and death importance.
If you should ask me those things about which I have the greatest certainty, near the top of the list would be my conviction, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that the Bible is the inspired word of God. I'm also convinced that God, in His sovereign wisdom, chooses to work though committed, obedient and available people.
Putting these two things together convinces me that God did not write the Bible. Instead, when He was ready to give us His inerrant volumes of law, history, wisdom, encouragement and revelation, He called out faithful men. Through them, He gave us the scriptures. The Bible says, "Holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit," 2 Peter 1:21b.
In fact, there are only three times in recorded history when we are told that God has ever written anything; but, every time He has done so, it has been of tremendous importance to you and me. For this reason, I want you to join me in a journey through the Bible, looking at the three times God wrote.
To find the first time He wrote, you must go to the book of Exodus in the Old Testament. For over 400 years, His chosen people, the Jews, had been enslaved in Egypt. Now, He was ready to deliver them and bring them into the Land of His Promise. Again, choosing to work through a human instrument, He called a man named Moses and commissioned him to lead this exodus. Miraculously, this great company saw the waters of the Red Sea open for their passage and then close to drown the pursuing Egyptian army. They saw God going before them in a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day. They saw His provision to meet their every need when they gathered food from heaven every morning. In a barren place, they saw water flow from a rock. Their leader heard God speak and saw Him write. On a mountain top, Moses met with the Creator of the Universe. He came back to the people with tablets of stone, on which God had written His laws, with His own finger, in letters of fire.
To read the essence of the law which God gave to Moses, go to Exodus 20. There you will find what we call the Ten Commandments. Condensed, in verses three through seventeen, they tell us:
- "You shall have no other gods before me."
- "You shall not make for yourself a carved image."
- "You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain."
- "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy."
- "Honor your father and your mother."
- "You shall not murder."
- "You shall not commit adultery."
- "You shall not steal."
- "You shall not bear false witness."
- "You shall not covet."
When God wrote these words, He was telling us two things. First, He was saying that He is righteous and holy.
If you want to see perfection and goodness, don't look at a man. Don't look at what a man has built or written. Look to God. Only in Him can you find real integrity and purity. To discover how He defines these attributes, read His laws. In the Law of God we find His standard for righteousness. His laws tell us what a holy God has a right to demand of His creation.
However, it is impossible to see God's standard without immediately being convicted of the second thing He is telling us through His laws: we are unrighteous, and we have fallen short of what God demands.
Sometime ago, while I was flying from Denver, Colorado, to Portland, Oregon, I discovered something. Some people talk so loud that everyone within 20 yards of them is included in their conversations, whether they want to be or not. This is true, even over the roar of jet engines. Two ladies were seated across the aisle from me, and they were talking that loud about religion. I was hearing it all, but I really tuned in when one of the women declared, "Well, I think you're O. K. as long as you keep the Ten Commandments."
My silent reaction was, "Yes, but no one on this plane has done that."
No one in the world has done that. In Romans 3:22 and 23, Paul was inspired to write, "For there is no difference; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
In other words, we have missed the mark. We have not measured up. We have flunked God's test.
To say something such as this in our day of relative morality, lack of accountability and guilt denial, is to assure that self defense mechanisms will be activated, resulting in protests of innocence. We all have a little of Lucy Van Pelt in us. She is the center fielder on Charlie Brown's baseball team, the one who jerks away the football just as he is ready to kick it, and who charges him five cents for psychiatric advice. She is the fussbudget of the Peanuts comic script. When challenged with the slightest possibility of a transgression, she loudly declares, "Well, I'm not perfect, but I'm pretty perfect."
You may confess, "Sure, I've broken one or two of God's laws, but I haven't broken all of them."
How many laws do you have to break to be a law breaker? How many crimes do you have to commit to be a criminal? In James 2:10, the Bible says, "Whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all."
When confronted with the law's absolute standard, one of modern man's favorite ploys is to divert attention and attempt to turn the tables by putting God on trial. Someone will say, "Did He really think we could keep all of those commandments?"
No, God knew that we could not, in our own strength, keep His law. But be careful here. That doesn't mean that the law cannot be kept, and it doesn't mean that we are to throw it out and say that it has no place in today's world. When God wrote the law, man had already rebelled against divine rule and gone his own way. Sin was already a reality. Through the law, God was causing us to face the truth about ourselves and showing us our great need.
When we protest our innocence, God doesn't argue with us. He simply causes us to stand before the mirror of His law; and there we see ourselves, spiritually naked, exposed for the sinners that we all are.
In Galatians 3:24, the Bible says that "the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith."
Just as a teacher will expose a child to a rule of mathematics that is established and unchangeable, the law enlightens us to God's standard, and forever thereafter we are held accountable. We may not do better, but now we know better. Aware of the law, we are without excuse. The Bible says, "Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin," James 4:17.
When God wrote the first time, He was saying, "I'm righteous, but man is unrighteous. He has gone his own way, made up his own rules and fallen short of what I demand. He needs to be transformed, given a new heart and a fresh start. He needs to experience a miracle of forgiveness and renewal that will allow him to stand justified in my presence."
However, when God gave us His law, He knew that there will always be people who will take their sins lightly. With smiles and swaggers, they surmise that everyone else might "pay the piper" and suffer the consequences, but not them. They believe that they can ignore God's law and go fancy free.
For anyone who persists in this attitude of selfish rebellion, God wrote a second time. This time, He put it in the Old Testament book of Daniel, chapter five.
Daniel 5 is about a king named Belshazzar. I think he might have been a young man, even a teenager. He certainly exhibited all the impetuous, arrogant pride that often comes with having too much too soon. He was the kind of guy who prompted someone to protest that youth is wasted on kids.
Belshazzar ruled Babylon, the greatest empire of ancient times. He lived in the capital, a city that would stagger the imagination of any modern architect. In its day, it was almost invincible to military attack. On four sides, it was surrounded by walls too high to scale. They went so far below ground that it seemed impossible to undermine them. They were so wide that war chariots could patrol their tops. In addition, the walls were surrounded by wide and deep moats. The mighty Euphrates River flowed through the city, giving it an ample supply of water. Many of Babylon's families lived in luxurious apartments, with such conveniences as running water.
Belshazzar was king of all of this. He could snap his fingers and servants would rush to fill his most fanciful desire. He could issue a verbal command and armies would march to war. He had such power that he could have declared himself divine and compelled his subjects to worship him.
There was only one block to the young king's absolute power. Within Babylon there were Jewish slaves who refused to worship the idols of the empire. They had been captured by Belshazzar's grandfather, King Nebuchadnezzar. Even though they were many miles from their homeland and stripped of all dignity and rights, many of them still refused to bow before idols of stone, wood, brass, iron, gold and silver. They insisted that there is only One True God. They said that even though He cannot be seen or touched, He is God. They would worship Him and Him alone.
One day, while planning a great party, the king was inspired with a plan to expose and crush this stupid notion these Jews had about there being just one god. He invited a thousand of his wealthiest and most aristocratic subjects. There was music, food and wine.
When the party had really started to rock, Belshazzar whispered in the ear of a servant, who then rushed from the banquet hall. In a few moments, he returned, followed by a train of servants, each carrying a gold vessel.
As they entered, some old soldier who had marched in the military campaigns of Nebuchadnezzar, might have gasped. He would have recognized what the servants were holding. These vessels had been confiscated when the armies of Babylon had sacked the city of Jerusalem and burned the Jewish temple. They had been taken from the temple and brought back to Babylon.
In Jerusalem, the vessels had been dedicated for the worship of the One True God. They were never to be used for any other purpose, and not even Nebuchadnezzar, in all of his pride, had ever dared to defile them. But now, Belshazzar filled them with the wine of Babylon. With drunken passion, he passed them out to his guests and drank a toast to the idols of Babylon. The young king shook his fist at God and laughed.
Every time I read this story in the Bible, I think about today's young people. I have a passion to see those of you who are young know the fullness of life that God has for you in Christ. Yet, I see so many of you experiencing everything but that. You have three vessels that are intended to honor God: your mind, body and spirit. God loves you, and He has a wonderful plan for your life. There is a primary purpose for every life, but it can only be realized when Jesus reigns as Lord in and through you. Satan hates you, and he has a terrible plan for your life. His primary plan is to kill you. I believe this explains the epidemic of teen suicides around the world, and the wave of violence that has turned many schools into places of fear. If Satan can't kill you, then he wants to make sure that you never discover the outer limits of your potential in Christ. He does this by getting you to defile the vessels God has given to you. You can defile the vessel of your body through promiscuous sexual conduct, drug, alcohol and tobacco abuse, through laziness -- lack of exercise -- and wrong eating habits. You can defile the vessel of your mind by what you watch, hear and read. Remember junk in means junk out. Be careful about which programs you install in your mental computer. You can defile the vessel of your spirit by opening yourself to the dark side of the spirit world and delving into the occult. Spirits, witches, warlocks and demons are not fun and games. Never seek answers from someone who says that she talks with the dead. The voices she is hearing are from hell. Be careful about angels. Whose angels are they? God's angels are His messengers, and they will call your attention to Jesus, not themselves. The most frightening thing I see today is the prevalence of the sin of Belshazzar, the defiling of God's vessels. In this way, a generation of young people can be lost and a nation can be destroyed.
For a moment, everyone might have held their breath before Belshazzar's brazen outburst of blasphemy; but nothing happened. Lightening did not strike the king dead. Then there was a titter of nervous laughter, and soon everyone was playing "follow the leader." One person after another stood to toast the idols, while the king gloated in his victory over the God of the Jews.
Suddenly, the golden goblet dropped from Belshazzar's hand. The color drained from his face. The strength went out of his legs, and his knees began knocking against each other. He braced himself on the table that was now stained with his spilled wine. Everyone turned to see where he was looking. Not in some dark corner of the room, where a magician could easily pull off a trick, but over against the candle holders, on the best lighted part of the banquet hall wall, giant fingers were writing these words, "You have been weighed in the balances, and found wanting," Daniel 5:27.
God was saying, "That will do Belshazzar. Turn out the lights. The party's over."
That night, the armies of Darius the Mede cracked the defenses of Babylon. Before the sun rose over the empire the next morning, Belshazzar was dead, Babylon was in the hands of her enemies and God had written a second time in human history. This time He was saying, "Man, by nature and by choice, is in rebellion against Me, and he deserves my judgement and wrath."
Today's "seeker friendly" preaching is not prone to say much about the wrath of God, but the Bible is filled with examples and warnings of it. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote that "the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness," Romans 1:18.
The writer of Hebrews asks, "If the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation...?" Hebrews 2:2-3a.
One of the most sobering verses in the Bible is Galatians 6:7 -- "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap."
In modern language, the Bible is saying, "Don't kid yourself. You can't spit in God's face and get away with it."
Everywhere one turns today, in music, literature, television, movies, magazines, office talk and school yard banter, there is an arrogant, blasphemous mocking of God. We seem to have forgotten the laws of the harvest: (1) You get what you plant. You don't plant tomatoes and get beans. (2) You get more than you planted. You plant one small seed, and you get a stalk with many ears of corn and thousands of kernels. (3) You get it later. When you are young, the warning labels have no relevance. You feel invincible, almost immortal; but the seeds are being planted and harvest time will come.
You may be saying, "I thought you were called to preach good news. This isn't good; it's bad. You are telling me that I've broken God's law and that I deserve His wrath. Is that it? If so, I'm lost and without hope."
No, that's not it. Thank God, there is more. He didn't just write the first time to say that He is righteous and man is unrighteous. He didn't just write the second time to say that man is unrighteous and in danger of His judgment. He has written a third time in human history. This time, He put it in the New Testament and wrote it through His Son, Jesus. The greatest love letter that has ever been written was when God the Father dipped the pen of the cross in the blood of His Son and wrote across the parchment of the universe, "I love you!"
To see the third time God wrote, turn to the eighth chapter of John's Gospel. As we enter the scene, it's early in the morning and Jesus is already teaching a large crowd of people in Jerusalem's temple. Suddenly, the lesson is interrupted by shouts of accusation and derision. A pathetic woman is dragged before the Master and roughly made to stand before Him. She is surrounded by scribes and Pharisees, the religious big shots of that day. With a mockery of respect for Jesus, one of these men said, "Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?" John 8:4-5.
If this had been happening today, all the major television networks would have been there. They would have interrupted your favorite soap opera or sporting event to announce that a major news story was breaking on Temple Mount in Jerusalem and that they were taking you there by satellite. Then you would be looking into the face of a reporter who was saying, "This is a very difficult situation for this radical young religious leader from Galilee. It looks as though he is being forced to take a stand. Let's hear what he has to say."
Then the camera would sweep in on the woman, and a close-up would show the distress on her face. A tight shot of one of the religious leaders would reveal the anger and the hatred in his eyes. Finally, your screen would be filled with the quiet, strong face of Jesus. Seeming to ignore these men, who were looking for some way to discredit Him, he knelt down and slowly wrote with His finger in the dust.
Angry shouts rained down on Jesus and the woman. For a moment, He might have lifted His eyes to meet hers, as though silently asking, "Where is the man?"
Finally, He stood up and faced the mob. To put it in modern English, He said, "I'll tell you what…the one of you guys who is without any sin, why don't you start throwing rocks" (John 8:7).
Every time I speak about this story, someone will come around and ask, "What did Jesus write on the ground?"
I don't know. I heard someone speculate that Jesus might have been writing down the names of all the men in that group, but we have no way of knowing.
I do know that what Jesus said, and maybe what He wrote, cut the heart out of that mob. One by one they slipped away. The Bible says, "Beginning with the oldest," John 8:9.
Who would have more sin and more sense than the oldest man?
At last, it was just Jesus and the woman. Looking around, He said, "Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?"
"She said, 'No one, Lord.' And Jesus said to her, 'Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more,'" John 8:10-11.
Don't get the idea that Jesus was condoning what this woman had done. He wasn't. He hated it. And don't think that Jesus had a "Playboy" philosophy. He did not. Then what was happening here? This woman, guilty of sin and deserving God's wrath, was discovering what you can discover before Jesus. She was discovering that God takes "no pleasure in the death of anyone," Ezekiel 18:32, NIV.
She was discovering that God was so loving the world that He was giving "His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life," John 3:16.
You and I have broken God's law, and if we got what we deserve right now, we would spend eternity separated from Him in hell. The Bible says, "The wages of sin is death," Romans 6:23.
That's what we deserve, but we can rejoice that there is more. That same verse in Romans goes on to say, "The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Jesus has done for you and me what we could never have done for ourselves. He is God, but He became man. When He was born of the virgin, Mary, He was not taking flesh upon Himself to be just a teacher or worker of miracles. He came to take our sins upon Himself and to die in our place. On the cross, He became guilty of the sins of all of the people in the whole world for all of time. When His blood was shed, He paid the penalty in full for your sins and mine.
In Galatians 3:13, the Bible says, "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us."
In Romans 8:3, the Bible explains, "For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh."
Romans 5:6 and 8 declares, "When we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly…God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
You cannot add anything to what He has done. You can only accept it or reject it. 1 Thessalonians 1:10 speaks of "Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come."
Writing to those who have turned from everything else to trust Jesus only for their salvation, Paul said, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast," Ephesians 2:8-9.
Grace is the undeserved love of God. As a lawbreaker, you deserve wrath. By grace, you can have mercy.
Right now, you may sense a stirring and prompting deep inside of you. Confronted with the law, you are seeing the truth about yourself, and you are being warned of the consequence of going your own rebellious way. Breaking through all that is an awareness that God loves you, Jesus died for you, and He wants to work a miracle of transformation in your life. You are being drawn to Christ by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is knocking at your heart's door. In Revelation 3:20, He says, "Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him."
In John 1:12, speaking of Jesus, the Bible promises, "As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe on His name."
Stop! Believe God. Respond to His drawing. Turn from everything else -- every selfish attitude, every dependence on religious rituals, good works, saints, angels or spirits -- and trust Jesus only for your salvation. He promises, "The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out," John 6:37b.
Pray these words, mean them from your heart, and you can invite Christ into your life: "Jesus, I have gone my own way. I've been separated from You, but I believe that You love me. I believe that You died for me. I don't understand it all, but I believe You were raised from the dead. Come into my heart. Take control of my life. I turn from everything else and trust You only for my salvation. In Your name I pray. Amen."
If you prayed this prayer, let me know as soon as possible. Write to me at P. O. Box 30325, Edmond, OK 73003-0006, or send e-mail to email@example.com. We will send you some encouraging literature to help you follow through in your commitment to Christ. In the meantime:
- •Begin reading God's word, the Bible, every day. Start with The Gospel According to John. Don't fret about what you don't understand. Believe that the Holy Spirit is your Teacher (John 14:26). Focus on learning everything you can about Jesus.
- •Go somewhere every day where you can be alone and talk to God. Don't worry about your words. You don't have to pray someone else's prayer. God will listen to your heart. Praise Him and express your love to Him. Confess your sins, and claim His forgiveness. Thank Him specifically for His blessings. Tell Him your concerns and needs. Trust Him for His leadership in your life.
- •Find a group of people who have also committed themselves to Christ, and become involved with them. This is called "church." Don't look for a perfect church. If you should find one and join it, you would ruin it. Churches are made up of people such as you and me. We need the encouragement that comes through fellowship and worship with other believers. In a good church, you will be taught and have opportunities to serve God. Find a church that believes the Bible is God's inspired word, and where its message is clearly preached and taught. Is Jesus exalted as the Way, the Truth and the Life…our one hope of salvation?
- •When you find a good church, make a public profession of your faith in Christ, and follow Him in baptism (Luke 3:21). Through your baptism, you will preach a sermon without saying a word. It is a powerful testimony to those who see it. You will go down into water and be raised up again. By doing this, you are painting a picture of coming to the end of your self-dependence, dying to yourself, burying your old self, and being raised to a new life in Christ. (The Bible says, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold all things have become new," 2 Corinthians 5:17.) Invite everyone you know -- classmates, teachers, family, neighbors, friends, business associates, teammates -- to witness your baptism. As they watch, you will be saying to them, "This is a picture of what happened when I surrendered the control of my life to Christ, and the same thing can happen to you."
* For information about how to schedule a Total Life Evangelism Seminar for pastors and evangelism leaders in your area, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 888-868-2543 toll free within the continental U. S. A.