Over the past two days, my wife and I have logged many miles over the cobblestone roads of Rome, Italy. During our time in Rome, we have managed to hit all of the historic sites on our personal list—including the majestic Sistine Chapel that was in progress by Michelangelo when Martin Luther made his historic pilgrimage to Rome over 500 years ago.
Yesterday morning, we began the day at the Colosseum—one of the most famous sites of ancient Rome that still stands today as a piece of history linking modernity to antiquity. The emperors of Rome’s history would buy and sell gladiators much like modern day football teams hire and trade athletes. Sometimes slaves or prisoners would appear in the midst of the Colosseum too—where they would fight wild beasts including lions, tigers, leopards, and even hippopotamuses. What a way to go, right?
Just under a half a mile from the Colosseum is the Mamertine Prison where Paul was held in chains. The ancient dungeon prison had a stone floor, stone walls, and a stone ceiling with one way in and one way out through the small hole above that provided a bit of light to the damp and dark dungeon below. Sometimes as many as 100 prisoners would have been kept in the small dungeon below—and everyone who was placed into that hole received a death sentence.
While being held as a prisoner in the shadow of the Colosseum, Paul would have heard loud thundering cheers from the crowds in the Colosseum numbering between 40k-70k. Much like a loud and vibrant athletic event in modern times complete with competition, drama, and passionate fans—the whole area surrounding the Colosseum would have felt the pulsating cheers.
As Paul sat in the dark dungeon contemplating the fighting of the gladiators—he would have reflected upon his life and ministry of the gospel.
- Five different times Jews whipped him with 39 stripes.
- Three times he was beaten with rods.
- One time he was stoned, dragged out of the city, and forsaken as dead.
- Three times he suffered shipwreck. A night and a day he spend in the deep.
- Perils of waters – Floods or rivers as he journeyed.
- Perils of robbers – those who would rob him as he was on his journey.
- Perils by his own country men – his own people rejected him.
- Perils by the heathen – the lost and unregenerate wicked ones – persecuted.
- Perils in the city – as he would travel to the city to work or buy food.
- Perils in the wilderness – animals or violent people.
- Perils in the sea – as he was shipwrecked and faced storms on the sea.
- Perils among false brethren – those who claimed to be Christians.
Paul had been able to plant many churches on his missionary travels that spanned many countries, cities, and continents. Paul had invested in others and discipled men to carry on the gospel torch. Men like Timothy, Titus, and others were placed in strategic posts where they would oversee churches and make disciples. Yet, at the end of his life, Paul sat in the dungeon cell listening to the ground shaking crowds in the Colosseum and he viewed his ministry of the gospel as a good fight. Rather than a wasted fight or a vain fight—it was a good fight. The cause was worthy and the price of imprisonment, suffering, and martyrdom joyful. In a strange way in the eyes of the world, Paul was at peace to be aligned with Jesus Christ in his suffering.
The scars the gladiator received in his epic battles in the Colosseum could not compare to the deep wounds suffered by Paul in his missionary labors. However, Paul was able to reflect upon his journey of faith as a good fight rather than a wasted pursuit for fame and vain success. Paul longed to preach the gospel in Rome, and he finally was able to do so—only from a dark dungeon. In his final letter recorded in the New Testament before he was taken from the dungeon through the hole and transported to a place in the streets of Rome where executioners cut off his head, the battle scared gospel gladiator penned these final words to Timothy—his young disciple:
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:7-8).
Most gladiators died by the sword or weapons of other warriors in the Colosseum as a means of entertainment for the people. Paul died in the streets as a condemned criminal. Paul’s death had a great purpose that transcended the entertainment of the Colosseum—and for that reason we remember him to this very day unlike the warriors of the Colosseum.
Far too often we program and compartmentalize things that are intended to be engaged in more naturally. One such area of life is evangelism. I was reminded of this reality last week as I walked around the pond in our local park. I found myself talking with a man and our conversation moved to the gospel. Soon enough, we were in the throes of a deep gospel centered talk about life. At one point, he looked at me and said, “I’m 49 years old, and this is the first time in my entire life that someone has intentionally talked to me about these things.”
As Christians, we’re commissioned by Christ to go and make disciples, but we often turn such practices into a 3-4 step program rather than a natural way of communication and personal interaction. Maybe you are finding yourself lost in how to get involved in sharing the gospel? Why not add some spontaneity to your evangelism?
Programs Can Sometimes Act as Walls
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against all programs in the life of the church. However, there are many times when programs can become so structured that it provides walls that hinder rather than bridges that deliver. Do you feel like you are being forced to fulfill a program rather than genuinely engage people with the gospel out of compassion? When it comes to evangelism, if people become attached to a programed approach, they will often overlook opportunities directly in their paths at their children’s ball practices, at lunch break, or on the college campus simply because evangelism is something they do on Tuesday evenings.
Even if a person decides to support their church’s evangelism program—adding spontaneity in the area of evangelism will provide a more natural and efficient form of lifestyle evangelism as opposed to a strictly programed approach. This will not only allow a person to become more natural, but it will build confidence as the person shares the gospel more frequently.
Romans is a Biblical Letter Not an Evangelism Road
I was trained to share the gospel with the “Roman Road” technique that begins with Romans 3:23 (sin) and moves on to Romans 5:12 to reinforce before moving on to Romans 6:23 to point to the judgment of God that everyone earns by their sin. After discussing these details, you move to Romans 10:13 to emphasize the reality that anyone who calls on the name of the Lord by faith will be saved. Finally, if the person is ready to repent, you turn to Romans 10:9-10 and help them call out to the Lord with faith that Christ died for them on the cross.
Sure, these verses are true, but Romans was not really intended to be a gospel tract. It might be good to begin with the law of God (Ten Commandments) and then move to the New Testament to show how Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s law and after keeping it in totality—he was sacrificed for sinners and provides his righteousness to everyone who comes to him by faith. Perhaps in a more natural way, a person can talk through creation, fall, condemnation, incarnation, redemption, and the final consummation of the final salvation in Christ.
Programs Can Communicate a Negative Message
If your sole means of evangelism is something you do on Tuesday evening—you will likely find that fruit is few and far between. People tend to look at programed visits as planned or even paid visits as opposed to genuine and compassionate. Not only can this approach communicate that message, it can turn into that approach by the one engaging in the evangelism program too if not guarded. The person that’s being visited is an image bearer of God and deserves to be treated as such—rather than a mere notch on the belt. John Piper, in his sermon titled, “I am Sending You to Open their Eyes, 2 Cor. 4:1-7” said the following:
Be encouraged that simply finding people interesting and caring about them is a beautiful pathway into their heart. Evangelism gets a bad reputation when we are not really interested in people and don’t seem to care about them. People really are interesting. The person you are talking to is an amazing creation of God with a thousand interesting experiences. Very few people are interested in them. If you really find their story interesting, and care about them, they may open up to you and want to hear your story—Christ’s story.
On a regular basis, search teams meet with prospective pastors for their local church and they ask that important question: “How do you envision growing our church if you come as pastor?” After a bit of discussion, the focus often centers upon the prospect’s preaching methodology and philosophy of ministry. Far too often the search team is looking for a man who will come and preach to the goats on Sunday—leaving the sheep perpetually hungry at the end of the day. What you need to know is that this is a recipe for disaster rather than a recipe for growth.
After the early church exploded from 120 in an upper room to more than 20,000 in just a matter of days (Peter’s sermon at Pentcost and Solomon’s Portico) through the preaching of the gospel, we find the picture of the early church in Acts 2 where the people were gathered under the preaching of the apostles—who were acting like the elders of the early church. As they gathered, the apostles preached to the sheep rather than the goats.
While there are always times and seasons where tares will be spread among the wheat in our culture, the church should be approached on a weekly basis as those who are sheep rather than goats. Imagine for a moment what would happen if the announcers of the Atlanta Braves were invited as guests to the new Falcon’s dome to announce a football game. Do you think the fans would be confused if the announcers were talking about baseball the entire time while sitting in a booth at the dome during a football game? Sure, they would be greatly confused. Yet, that same thing happens weekly as many pastors stand and preach to unbelievers while sheep sit there in the congregation and starve to death spiritually.
Notice how Paul began his letter to the church at Rome. He writes, “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” (Rom. 1:7). Paul addresses those who are loved by God and called to be saints. He is not addressing the goats and rebellious members of society. As we continue to flip the pages of the New Testament, we find a similar pattern at the beginning of the New Testament letters. Paul addressed the church of God at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), the churches of Galatia (Gal 1:2), to the saints who are in Ephesus (Eph. 1:1), to the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi (Phil. 1:1), to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae (Col 1:2), to the church of the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1), and to the elect exiles (1 Pet. 1:1).
If the New Testament is written and addressed to believers (sheep) and if the early church was led by apostles and elders who preached the Word to the church—why would we organize our ministries today to be centered on reaching unbelievers on the Lord’s Day? Doesn’t that seem like a backwards approach? When sheep starve it compromises the health and vitality of the church. It is possible for a church to be an inch deep and a mile wide—always busy doing stuff with a perpetual “seeker” driven approach to worship. Before going down that road, one simple question must be answered: “Why did the apostles approach the ministry of the local church in a very different manner?”
On the Lord’s day, the pastor should approach the pulpit with a sermon that is text-driven with a goal to feed God’s children from God’s Word. We gather for the worship of God through His Word on the Lord’s Day and we scatter throughout the week for missions. Paul explained the purpose of pastoral ministry clearly in Ephesians 4:11-12 as he pointed to the task of equipping the saints for the work of ministry. Certainly pastors are called to “do the work of an evangelist” as Paul instructed Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5, but his main platform for evangelism is not the pulpit on the Lord’s Day at 11:00am. Sheep need to be faithfully fed and well prepared text-driven sermons from passionate pastors is vitally important and necessary for the growth of the church.
J.I. Packer described how the Puritans believed in “the supreme importance of preaching. To the Puritans, the sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship. Nothing, they said, honours God more than the faithful declaration and obedient hearing of His truth. Preaching, under any circumstances, is an act of worship, and must be performed as such. Moreover, preaching is the prime means of grace to the church.” 
Starving sheep form weak churches who make little to no impact on their community in the long run. Don’t starve God’s sheep. When Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John10:27)—the sheep are looking to pastors to feed them. Sheep don’t need to be entertained, they’re not looking for a long list of jokes or psychological chats. They’re looking for food. Dear pastor—preach to the sheep. Feed God’s sheep.
- J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan View of the Christian Life, (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 281.
According to popular teachings that are promulgated from charismatic television networks and radio stations, if you have a robust faith and confidence in God—he will definitely hear your prayer and answer it as you’ve directed him. Benny Hinn once stated, “The day is coming when there will not be one sick saint in the body of Christ.” Benny Hinn wasn’t referencing Revelation 21 in his statement.
As we consider these teachings, we must look to the unanswered prayers of the apostle Paul as a fitting test. In 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, the apostle Paul talks about his “messenger of Satan” that was sent to harass him. Was Paul being punished for his lack of faith in God? Was Paul’s life full of sin that was causing him to receive a blow from Satan? What exactly can we learn from Paul’s unanswered prayers?
God’s Plan May Not Align With Our Requests
One of the things we learn in our time of prayer is that a foundational goal of prayer is to align our will with God’s will. This is not always easy. Sometimes this means that we submit to different plans, different goals, different agendas that might involve discomfort, distance from friends and family, and pain.
When Jesus taught us to pray in the model prayer (Matt. 6:5-13), we see Jesus saying, “Let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In other words, life is not about us nearly as much as it’s about God. The plans we have for ourselves must be yielded to the plans that God has for us. When they’re different, we must go with God and die to self.
Suffering is not Proof of Sin
In our day, one of the most pernicious teachings comes from the Charismatic Movement—more specifically the “Word of Faith” movement. Within this movement, a popular teaching has been popularized stating that it is the absolute will of God for all of God’s children to be healthy and wealthy. As we test the foundation of that teaching, we find that it does not hold up to the scrutiny of God’s Word.
Was Paul living in sin that caused him to learn to live with the “thorn” in his flesh? No. As we read 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, we see that Paul was given the thorn by God, not because of his sin, but in order to prevent him from sin. There is a clear difference in the two. In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul writes, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited.”
When the disciples inquired about the man born blind in John 9, they asked a vitally important question. They said, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? Jesus’ response is key to unlocking this puzzling story and it shines light of truth on our day as well. Jesus said, “Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (John 9:3). The same thing was true in Paul’s life. It could be the same situation you face in your life too.
Suffering is not a Sign of a Deficient Faith
As we read and study the life and ministry of the apostle Paul, it is clear that he stands out among the apostles. He is believed to be the greatest Christian to live in the history of humanity—outside of Jesus himself in the flesh. There is no question about Paul’s faith—and it was made more apparent as he suffered death in Rome by beheadding.
Yet, we see that Paul’s prayer for healing was not answered. According to Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:1-10, he asked God on three different times to remove his “thorn” in the flesh, but God refused.
As we read and consider these facts about the unanswered prayers of Paul, what exactly can we learn? Consider the following lessons we can learn.
- It is God’s will for his children to suffer in specific ways that were charted out before the foundation of the world.
- God has chosen specific people to suffer in lesser or greater ways for his glory.
- Suffering is not a sign of sin or weak faith. Paul didn’t suffer from any of those problems—yet he suffered immensely.
- God uses suffering to prevent people from sinning as they otherwise would (as Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 12).
- God uses suffering to spread the gospel far and wide.
Before you buy into the lies of the Charismatic Movement, take time to consider the fact that perhaps the greatest Christian to ever live endured through a life of constant suffering, imprisonment, and it all ended with him being beheaded. Are we to believe the likes of Benny Hinn and Joel Osteen or Jesus and the apostle Paul? Consider the words of John Newton, “Can we wish, if it were possible, to walk in a path strewed with flowers when His was strewed with thorns?” 
- John Newton, The Works of John Newton, v. 1, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1985), 230.
Yesterday morning, I preached from 1 John 2:1-6 in our series titled, “Know” which is a verse-by-verse exposition of John’s letter to the Christians throughout Asia minor. The first half of my sermon was focused on the ministry of Jesus and the second half was centered on pursuing assurance of true saving grace.
In the first half of the sermon, one of the points of consideration was the atoning work of Jesus on behalf of sinners. John calls Jesus the propitiation offered up to God the Father to save sinners. The reality of salvation through Christ is a joyful truth to consider. We are not left to find God or please God on our own. However, the extent of the atonement is a bit more complicated and certainly controversial in evangelical circles. I attempted to explain what John intended by the phrase in 1 John 2:2 and by doing so, I had to labor over several points to demonstrate what John was not intending to communicate.
The Word World Is Used Differently throughout the New Testament
Before taking time to consider the way the word world is used throughout the New Testament, many evangelicals run for the hills when people start discussing the extent of the atonement because of faulty methods, poor teaching on this subject, or both. How does Jesus use the word world?
John 17:9 – I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.
In this passage, world is in reference to unbelievers among the total human population. Jesus makes a distinction between his people and the people of the world.
John 17:16-19 – They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.  And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
In this passage, world is used to reference the pagan worldly system. Jesus is said to consecrate himself for the people of God—not for the whole world.
The Extent of the Atonement in Various Other Passages
In various different places, we see the death of Jesus being offered up on behalf of a specific group of people as opposed to the entire world without distinction. John uses the word, “ἱλασμός” which is translated propitiation in our text. The word means, “appeasement necessitated by sin, expiation” 
Isaiah 53:10-12 – Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.
Certainly the prophet could have used the Hebrew word for world, but he did not do so. Instead, he pointed out on a couple of occasions in the suffering servant passage (Is. 53) that Jesus’ death was offered up for many. This is a clear distinction that limits the atonement.
Mark 10:45 – For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Mark 14:24 – And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.
In Mark’s Gospel, we find two passages that seem to make it obvious that Jesus’ death was offered up for the sins of many people in the world, but not the whole world without exception.
Matthew 1:21 – She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
When Jesus’ birth was prophesied by the angel to Joseph, the angel touched on the extent of Jesus’ atoning death. According to the angel, Jesus came to save his people from their sins. Do you see the clear distinction?
John 10:11 – I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
John 10:15 – just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus is pictured as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. There is always a clear distinction between the sheep and goats in the New Testament (see Matt. 25:32-33).
Ephesians 5:25 – Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,  that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
Jesus is pictured in Ephesians as giving his life for the church—not the entire world without exception. Therefore, it must be said that Jesus’ death was not a generic death, for a generic population in hopes that a generic people would come to Him by the power of their faith. Jesus’ death was substitutionary and had a specific design that would bring about definite results.
Was the atonement accomplished by the death of Jesus limited in any way? Yes, but that should do two very specific things in the hearts of all Christians. First it should humble every Christian knowing that God had no obligation to save anyone and he chose to send his Son to die in the place of sinners. Secondly, nobody knows who Jesus died for as we glance over our town, our city, the local high school, and our place of employment. We must go and share the good news of Jesus Christ indiscriminately and trust the sovereign grace of God for the results. One day, around the throne of God above, there will be a people from the whole world who were saved by the atoning death of Jesus—praising him and worshipping him (Rev. 5).
Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
- William Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 474.
One of the most comforting passages in the Bible is found in Romans 10:9-10 and Romans 10:13 where we see a clear promise to all who call upon the name of the Lord of salvation. This should bring comfort to us each time we read over this section of Scripture. We hear preachers stand and call people to respond to God claiming that God will never turn anyone away. Is that true at all times and in all situation? Is there ever a time when a sinner cannot be saved? Certainly we can all agree that after death, such a time exists. However, what about during the lifetime of a particular person, is there a time when he or she cannot be saved?
God Saves Sinners
In Acts 9, we see the story of Saul of Tarsus and how God humbled the learned Pharisee and brought him to a place of submission. If God can save a Saul of Tarsus (whose names was eventually changed to Paul), anyone can be saved. In fact, the story of the apostle Paul’s conversion should bring us hope that nobody in our family or on the school campus is beyond the saving reach of God. God is capable of saving the vilest offender. In fact, God loves to save sinners.
As we read about the city of Nineveh, we often focus on the story of the disobedient Jonah and his time in the belly of a large fish while completely missing the reality of God’s saving grace for a wicked people. When you study about the deep depravity of the people of Nineveh, it should cause our hearts to swell with joy as we see God save them. They didn’t deserve mercy and grace, but God acted through his grace unconditionally and delivered them from their condition of peril. In short, God loves to save sinners.
God Does Not Always Save Sinners
As we think about the work of God in saving sinners, is there ever a time when God refuses to save someone who requests salvation? Would God ever turn anyone down who called upon his name? Although greatly controversial, it’s true that God doesn’t always save everyone who calls on his name. In Psalm 18, we find the testimony of King David and how God spared him when he was on the run from Saul and his men. Notice what David says in Psalm 18:39-42:
For you equipped me with strength for the battle; you made those who rise against me sink under me. You made my enemies turn their backs to me, and those who hated me I destroyed. They cried for help, but there was none to save; they cried to the LORD, but he did not answer them. I beat them fine as dust before the wind; I cast them out like the mire of the streets.
In this particular case, it’s clear that God was saving David—not his enemies. When the enemies of God surrounded David, he was spared by God’s plan which involved the destruction of his enemies. It could be that their prayer was insincere and selfish in order to manipulate God and avoid defeat. God knows the heats of men and cannot be fooled. We have here a clear example of people crying out to the LORD and he refused to answer them.
In another place in the Old Testament, we find in Micah 3 where those who were opposed to God’s people cried out and he chose not to answer their request for salvation. We see this in Micah 3:4:
Then they will cry to the LORD, but he will not answer them; he will hide his face from them at that time, because they have made their deeds evil.
It could be once again that their prayers were insincere and selfishly motivated, but yet again, we find that God refused to answer them and went on to hide his face from them. Although we can say with certainty that God loves to save sinners and even the most vile person can be saved, we must also recognize that God is not obligated to save anyone. Furthermore, we must realize that God is not unrighteous by not saving everyone. God chooses to save sinners unconditionally and acts in mercy to save those who do not deserve it. That includes all of God’s children.
We find other passages in the Old Testament such as Jeremiah 11:11-14 and Ezekiel 8:15-18 where God says, “Therefore, thus says the LORD, Behold, I am bringing disaster upon them that they cannot escape. Though they cry to me, I will not listen to them” (Jer. 11:11). Be sure these are difficult passages indeed, but the difficulty of God’s holy justice and his choice to judge sinners is not removed by the sweetness of his mercy and grace on others. God’s choice to save sinners and God’s choice to judge sinners must never be held up in contradiction to one another (Rom. 9:20-24).
We must never approach God as if he’s merely a genie who offers up grace like a magic potion to overcome our sin. Nor should we approach God as if he’s simply at our disposal like a glorified cosmic bellhop. God is sovereign. God is good. God always does right. God is right to save sinners and to satisfy his justice through the death of his Son Jesus, and he is likewise right to deny salvation to sinners.
If you are a Christian today, this should cause your heart to swell with renewed gratitude. If you are not a Christian and know that you need God’s grace and mercy to rid you of your sin and to reconcile you to God—you should turn to him today and plead for salvation. God loves to save sinners. With a sincere heart, cast yourself upon his mercy trusting that Christ Jesus is your only hope in this life and for all eternity.