He came banging in through the church door last Saturday, calling out with his thick tongue, “Hel-wo! Pas-ta!” As this “pas-ta” came out of his study and walked down the hall toward him, I recognized the form swaying unsteadily inside the door. He is a local fixture in this neighborhood, a middle-aged man whose body is twisted with cerebral palsy that makes his words and steps jerky and disjointed. The only time he moves about fairly freely is when he is seated upon his three-wheeled bike with the basket as he tools along the streets. One looking upon him instantly feels sorry for him.
He asked for five bucks because he said he was hungry. Jason, who was with me, asked if he had gone to the Mission, which offers two free meals a day, every day. He said people there made fun of him and asked for five bucks again. We flat-out said no. He said he would come to church if we gave it to him. We told him to come to church the next day then we would start talking about it. Without another word he turned and stumbled out the door in disgust.
Were we cruel?
Well, before I tell you a bit more about this situation, meditate with me upon a truth about the gospel. Did you ever consider that when the gospel is preached, it is a call to the impossible? That you are asking the hearer to do something he is completely incapable of doing? In essence you are saying to him, “Do what you cannot do.”
For recall how often the Lord made incredible demands on His hearers:
- “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” -Command to a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years (John 5:8).
- “Go and sin no more.” -Words spoken to woman caught in adultery (John 8:11).
- “Lazarus, come forth!” -Shouted to a man lying dead in a tomb for four days (John 11:43).
In other words, He was telling them to do what they could not do.
Calling people to faith and repentance is the same. We tell them to repent of their evil ways and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. Yet God is the one who ultimately grants repentance (see Acts 5:31) and ultimately gives faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). When the gospel is preached, the hearer is powerless to obey just as the preacher is powerless to create obedience. Because the hearer is dead, blind and lame, we must rely on the Spirit of God to enable him to do what naturally he can neither understand nor accomplish (I Corinthians 2:14), which is entrust his life and soul to Christ. Seeing the impossible occur is how God receives all the glory in our evangelism.
So often, because we are overeager to get a response or to feel good about helping someone, we preach the gospel “lite.” No sacrifice is called for and the truth about Christian discipleship is minimized. Yet Jesus preached the gospel “heavy.” He demanded of people such things as “Go get your husband” when a woman at a well was not even married but shacking up; “I cannot give the children’s bread to the dogs” when a foreign woman was begging Him for the life of her child; and “Go sell all you have and follow me” to a rich, young ruler to tell him what he needed to let go of in order to receive the eternal life he claimed he wanted.
Now back to our refusal to help the palsied man. I also know this man because several years ago he was in my study. On that night, as several of us tried to minister to him, we realized by the testimony of a neighbor and the smell that his speech was slurred and his pants were soaked in urine not because of his palsy but due to his drinking. He also spoke openly, even proudly, of his immorality. We called him then to quench his thirst in Christ alone, and he left us that evening in disgust as well. You see, he uses his palsy to play upon peoples’ sympathies in order to subsidize his wicked lifestyle. Last week we reminded him he had been here before, and repeated the message that his hunger was due to his disregard for God’s ways. We invited him to come to church to learn of Jesus. He left, for it is clear that was asking him to do something he could not do.
Far worse than physical palsy is the spiritual inability to walk with God. We must preach the gospel so that people realize they need to cry out to God to bring about what they cannot. Then how we must pray that God would attend the sowing of His word with His Spirit and power.
In the words of a Puritan, “Repentance with man is the changing of a will; repentance with God is the willing of a change.”