Charting a Course for the Church
Part VII: Preaching for Genuine Conversions

by Rev. Sterling Durgy

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Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount" (Matthew 5-7, cf. Luke 6:20-49i ) consists of a number of sub-sections containing a variety of truths about God and true spirituality. Nevertheless, one key to understanding this sermon is to notice that throughout His teaching Jesus identifies a series of divisions between behaviors which, in the end, are seen to be only one division: the division between those who build their lives upon the teachings of Christ and those who do not (Matthew 7:21-27, Luke 6:46-49).

Each one of us faces trials in this life, and afterwards, judgment before the throne of Christ (I Peter 4:17-18). In addition to some portions of the "Sermon on the Mount," judgment is the focus of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 24:31-25:46 and Luke 16:19-31. Each of these warn us that some of those coming before Jesus and expecting to be accepted will not receive a favorable response. In Matthew we find Jesus speaking of five unprepared virgins who were shut out from the wedding feast (25:10-13), the lazy servant who refused to serve his master in even the simplest manner and so was cast out of the household (25:24-30), and the many whose devotion to Christ is merely self-serving, and thus worthless (25:41-46). Luke relates Jesus' teaching about a very rich man and a very poor man named Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). Upon arriving in the afterlife, the rich man is astonished to find that his privileges are gone while Lazarus is enjoying God's comfort and blessing.

Each of these Scriptures provides a powerful warning to anyone who takes Jesus' teachings seriously. But perhaps the most striking of these warnings is found in Matthew 7:22-23 where Jesus says, "Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.'" We must believe that Jesus purposely referred to these three types of ministry here - activities that are often considered to be the "badge" of those truly serving God. Another point of interest is that in verse 23 Jesus quotes Psalm 6:8.

Psalm 6 is a psalm of David. It is clearly autobiographical in nature -- relating the personal experience of David himself. However, we know that Jesus was very precise in His use of Scripture, Jesus does not quote this psalm by accident. We can see how David's words illustrate Jesus' experience by reading John 1:10-11 with Isaiah 53:1-3 and thinking about the final week of Christ's ministry (including His crucifixion) in relation to Psalm 6:1-7, then relating Philippians 2:9-11 with Isaiah 45:18-25 and the teachings about Jesus at the time of judgment to Psalm 6:8-10. It seems likely that Jesus was reminding his listeners, who were Jews, of all of Psalm 6:8-10 when He quoted Psalm 6:8 as part of His answer; and so was Matthew.

It is worth noting that in Matthew 25:41-46 those who are judged are condemned for not ministering to the needs of others. However in Matthew 7:22-23, individuals are condemned even though they performed acts of ministry - and the lack of a challenge by Jesus shows that the truthfulness of their response is not an issue here. In trying to understand how those who ministered in the name of Jesus Christ with apparent success can not have known Him, it helps to look at verse 23, and especially the phrase "you who practice lawlessness."

The word translated "lawlessness" in Matthew 7:23 is translated "iniquity" in the NASB Psalm 6:8. The Hebrew word that is translated here is awen (also pronounced awven). Used extensively in the psalms, but also in Proverbs and sometimes by the prophets, this word has the basic meaning of misspent effort resulting in empty accomplishments - similar to what we mean in English when we say someone has made an effort to do something "in vain." There is also a connotation that the effort has been twisted, wicked - iniquitous -- not just misdirected. Therefore, it was also used for the trouble that resulted from this work, both the trouble that came back upon the evildoer, and the trouble the evildoer brought upon others; it could be used to identify people as evildoers (the "unrighteous man" of Isaiah 55:7); and it could also be used for idols (as in "he who burns incense is like one who sacrifices to an idol" of Isaiah 66:3) - the latter resulting from the frequent observation of the Hebrews and their prophets of the worthlessness and emptiness of idolatry. Iniquity is a good translation in Psalm 6:8, even though the English doesn't fully carry the connotation of vain effort given by the Hebrew text.

The Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, was the common version of the Scriptures read throughout the Mediterranean at the time of the New Testament church. The Septuagint uses the Greek word anomia, or lawlessness, to translate the Hebrew word awen. Matthew follows the Septuagint in his Gospel when quoting Psalm 6:8, as the New Testament, originally written in Greek, often follows the Septuagint translation. Anomia, is one of the more important words in the Greek Scriptures denoting sin, at least as important as another, better known Greek word for sin, hamartia. Anomia can mean "not having any law," but this cannot be the meaning here when Jesus is speaking to the people to whom the Law of Moses was delivered (Romans 3:1-2). The problem here is not failure to have a law but the refusal to be governed by law, especially God-given law.

This is a concept that must be carefully understood, and the Scriptures make it clear. The "lawlessness" seen as characteristic of sin is well described in Isaiah 53:6, "All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way . . ." (italics mine). It is a stubborn following of our own way - being driven by our own desires and by spiritual forces apart from God - but refusing to be governed by a force outside ourselves if it is related to God. Thus, the opposition to Christ, the "spirit of antichrist," is not opposition to Christ as Savior as such - benefits are always welcome. Opposition to Christ comes as opposition to His Lordship. The most controversial part of the Gospel of Christ is the declaration of who Jesus is, precisely because if He is the Creator and Sustainer of life He can demand the obedience of all creation - including human beings. Some may wish to view the refusal to obey the Law of Moses as opposition to "inconvenient or unjust regulations," but Jesus viewed it as personal opposition to God (Matthew 5:17-48). Jesus does not "do away with the Law," He explains how we should understand and fulfill it (Matthew 22:35-40).ii

The transition that takes place in conversion, a transition that cannot take place apart from the gracious invitation and enabling of God, is a transition from stubborn self-rule to submission to the teachings of God and His Christ - Jesus. This is commanded and encouraged by such passages as Isaiah 45:18-25, in which the gracious invitation by God as Savior for all the world to come to Him for salvation is seen in the context of His sovereignty over creation; and Psalm 2, in which the "the Son" of verse 12 refers to Christ. Just before Jesus indicates that some who call themselves His servants will not enter the Kingdom in Matthew 7:22-23 Jesus says, "Not every one who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven"(Matthew 7:21, italics mine). Because Jesus is the apostle of God the Father (Hebrews 3:1), to listen to Jesus is to listen to God the Father (John 14:8-10). Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount ends with the admonition to live by the Words of Christ.

This taking upon oneself the burden of "rule by God" is also seen in a place we might not expect it -- in Jesus' gracious invitation, "Come to Me all who are weary and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you shall find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My load is light" (Matthew 11:28-30). Those who wish to be free of the rule of God find themselves in the bondage of sin (John 8:34-35, II Peter 2:18-19). But those who take upon themselves the yoke - the Lordship - of Jesus, find freedom and life (John 8:36) - including forgiveness of sins..

Preaching for true Christian conversion, then, involves more than just challenging people to orthodox Christian beliefs, faith in Christ for salvation, religious activities (such as public worship, prayer, Bible reading, and so on), sound morality, and unselfish good works. As important as all of these are, they are meaningless unless they are preceded by the submission to the rule of God through repentance, which is a changing of the mind to accept what God says and directs; and faith, which is an active trust in God exhibited in obedience - as Peter encourages Christians to "entrust their souls to a faithful Creator in doing what is right" (I Peter 4:19). And once this has been done, and continues day after day, all of the areas of Christian life mentioned above fall into place. This, of course, is only an appropriate course if the God you are submitting to is completely good and worthy of trust. Fortunately, the Scriptures, and the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, testify that God, our Creator, is fully worthy of our trust. The apostolic testimony to Christ leads not only to submission, but to gratitude and love for God.

Jesus then becomes the "organizing factor" of our life. All things are valued and ordered as He would have us do. Where before we ordered our lives according to our plans or according to the pressures and promises of other people without thinking of Him, now we order our lives according to what is pleasing to Jesus. The transition, described by Paul in Ephesians 2:1-10, is a striking one -- a transition from being guided by the servants of Satan and one's own unbridled desires to doing those things (great or small) that God prepared for us to do (2:10) - all in the service of the sovereign Christ able to work in and through us, as described in Ephesians 1:18-23.

It is not an accident that the service of God is linked to the well-known passages about salvation by grace in Ephesians 2:8-9. No one can be transformed without the active and gracious work of God - a work called "regeneration" - new birth. It is in reference to this work that Paul writes of God as, "the Father who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. For He delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:12-14). The transformation from being self-centered to being Christ-centered cannot be made unless God re-creates us.

So we are completely dependent upon the benevolence of God if we are to enter His Kingdom. We must approach Him not only with humility, but with faith - a faith born of the conviction of His love for each of us. "And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him" (Hebrews 11:6).

On the basis of these truths we find that in order for someone to come to a true conversion they must: Know that the God of the Hebrews is the one, true God, that He is a personal God, that He is the Creator of all things and thus is separate from and above all creation, and that He is a benevolent Savior. To come to know this they must also understand the apostolic testimony to Jesus as the Christ confirmed by Old Testament Scripture. And through the apostolic teaching concerning Jesus Christ they learn to respond in humility and faith, and that responding means becoming an active part of the Body of Christ. All of this may sound more complicated than it is. It isn't necessary for someone to understand all of these things perfectly or completely in order to respond. However, it cannot really be less than this or a person cannot make a true response. The thief on the cross was not an expert in theology. But He obviously knew some, enough to discern that Jesus was Messiah and was to become King of an eternal Kingdom - and he submitted himself to Christ's Lordship. His was a genuine conversion - consisting of both true submission and humble faith. Therefore, Christ granted him a place in His kingdom.

The practice and teaching of local churches is to help prospective converts learn these lessons. We have done two things in our age that tend to undermine this approach. First, we have often divorced the preaching of the Gospel from local churches, relying too much upon specialists and implying that the average lay person has no real role to play, when in fact, each Christian is to be a living example of true faith. Mass evangelism should be linked to the work of local churches, not to "religious superstars" who work as "lone eagles," often attracting people primarily to themselves. Secondly, we have reduced the Gospel to "receive Jesus" without saying what we mean by that. We hide behind a comfortable ambiguity - not saying too much so that we don't offend anyone and attract everyone - hoping that a spiritual presence of God will magically make the person what they should be apart from the church. But this ignores the New Testament example that the church has a witnessing, instructional, intercessory, social, and disciplinary role in being obedient to Her Lord that has an evangelistic side not only when the church is being evangelistic but also when the church is simply living out what it means to be true to her Lord. However, it is a role that must include a clear and complete expression of the Word of God - something which simply cannot be done through simplistic songs and entertaining stories.

Footnotes:

i Some scholars do not believe that Jesus' words in Luke 6 are from the same sermon as those in Matthew 5-7, others do. It is not necessary to arrive at the definitive answer to this question in order to profit from Jesus' teachings - which He doubtless spoke on more than one occasion in any case.

ii All Christians are responsible to obey the spiritual and moral teachings of the Law of Moses, but are free of the specific ceremonial, civil, and health requirements. Nevertheless, all of the Pentateuch is God's Word, Holy Scripture. There are spiritual lessons that can be discerned from the reverent study of all Scripture, even when not bound by certain regulations of the Law of Moses. For example, requirements for witnesses under the Law of Moses are instructive in our determination of truth today, diet is an important component of good health, the breadth of the Law of Moses shows God's concern for each part of human existence, an interest in keeping the body healthy foreshadows God's interest in the salvation of the body in physical resurrection from the dead, etc. And, of course, the Ten Commandments are never passť.


First printed in The American Night Watch Newsletter, Volume VI, Part 10, October 1998.

Copyright 1999 Sterling M. Durgy. All Rights Reserved.

The American Night Watch is a trademark of the Christian ministry of Sterling M. Durgy.

Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible, Copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968,1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

Permission is granted to reprint this article as long as the copyright is included, this statement is included, and the article is not sold to the recipients.

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This page was last updated October 22, 1999.