Final Sermon in Acts Series. Full text! The Hardening of the Heart and the Effects of the Gospel

Posted: November 17, 2008 by limabean03 in Acts Resources, Biblical Studies, Christianity, Contemporary Theology, Discipleship, Rob's Sermons, Rob's Thoughts, Sanctification, The Christian Life, Trinity Tidings, Uncategorized
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ACT’S OF THE APOSTLES 28: 23-30 (11.16.08)

During our parish retreat last year, while Iain and I were away at the consecration of Mark Lawrence as Bishop of S.C., you came up with the mission statement for our parish.  It reads: “To inspire all people, through the power of the Gospel, to become living members of the Body of Christ.”  It is a powerful statement for many reasons, reasons that we have gone over before and reasons that we will go over again.  But today, I might like to draw your attention to one aspect of the mission statement, that being that when you fashioned it, you did so in such a way as to state that you believe the Gospel accomplishes something and is used in a specific way to do so.

You and I are of course, not the first to believe that our “product” is meant to achieve something.  In fact, much of corporate America goes to great expense and trouble to state clearly what they think their products can and cannot achieve and what is the proper way to use said products.  Listen to the following:

On a plastic plate:  this item does not rust

On the package of a Batman costume:  Cape does not enable user to fly

On a hair color kit:  do not use as an ice cream topping

On a bottle of milk:  After opening, keep upright

On a chainsaw:  Do not try and stop the saw with your hands

On an can of insecticide:  Kills all kinds of insects…Warning:  this product is harmful to bees

As foolish as some of them sound, the above companies have gone to great lengths to state what their product accomplishes and how it is mean to be used.  At Trinity, we have done the same thing.  At Trinity, we believe the number one thing we have to offer the world, the one thing that no one else in the world can offer except the church, is the Gospel.  We believe the Gospel is meant to be proclaimed, principally in words (though deeds bear witness to it) and that it accomplishes something quite specific.  Namely we believe that the Gospel has the power to cause men and women, dead in their sins, to come alive to God and become living members of the Body of Christ.  More recently, we have even attempted to state what we believe a “living member” of the Body of Christ looks like.  We believe when God has transformed someone’s heart through the Gospel, that they will “live, grow, serve, and give.”  That is, they will come alive to God in worship,  grow in the knowledge and love of him, serve the church and the community, and give of themselves towards the work of the Kingdom.  As a church, it is important that we not only consider how this happens, but that we also consider what keeps it from happening.  For the answer to this question, we turn Acts ch. 28 for our final sermon in this series.

“When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.  And some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.  And disagreeing among themselves, they departed after Paul had made one statement”- Acts 28.23

After three days in Rome, Paul has received representatives from the local Jewish synagogues.  His intent is to explain to them the Christian faith.  Our reading lets us know vaguely what the content of Paul’s Gospel presentation consisted of.  We read that Paul testified to the Kingdom of God, seeking to prove from the Old Testament scriptures that Jesus was the Christ, the long hoped for Messiah that was foretold throughout both the Law and the Prophets.  In vs. 24 we read that “some were convinced by what he said, but others disbelieved.”  It is the disbelief that I would like to focus in on today.  More specifically what causes spiritual disbelief?  Now we might be tempted to say that this is applicable only to unbelievers, however I would like to apply it to ourselves today, and our own spiritual growth.  For believers, we might phrase it in this way: what keeps the Gospel from penetrating more deeply and accomplishing its work?  What will keep us from living, growing, serving and giving? 

Paul identifies their failure to receive the Gospel to one thing.  We read in vs. 25-27:

The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your fathers through Isaiah the prophet:

“‘Go to this people, and say,
You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed;
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.’

That one thing is a dull heart.  It is the greatest enemy to the work of the Gospel.  A dull heart keeps us from hearing (understanding the Gospel message), seeing (perceiving its work in  our lives) and ultimately keeps us from experiencing its healing power.  This is why the writer of Hebrews calls us to “  exhort one another daily, as long as it is called “today” lest any of your hearts be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb3.13).  We know from reading Acts over the past couple of weeks some of the things that hardened the hearts of the Jews against the Gospel.  We have talked of their inability to comprehend a suffering messiah, or their jealousy at the incorporation of the Gentiles, we have often discussed the issue of legalism.  Today I would like to become less acquainted with what made the hearts of the Jews hard and today become better acquainted with what makes our hearts hard. 

First let us take a brief glimpse at how the heart becomes hardened.  Charles Spurgeon writes:

I cannot enter at length into the whole matter, but let me trace the gradual process of hardening of heart which may take place in a measure in a true Christian… You must understand that the hardening of a tender conscience is a gradual process, something like the covering of a pond with ice on a frosty night. At first you can scarcely see that freezing is going on at all. There are certain signs which a thoroughly practiced eye may be able to detect as prognostics of ice, but the most of us would see nothing. By and by, there is ice, but it would scarcely support a pin. If you should place a needle upon it ever so gently, it would fall through. In due time you perceive a thin coating which might sustain a pebble and before long a child trips merrily over it and if old Winter holds his court long enough, it may be that a loaded wagon may be driven over the frozen lake, or a whole army may march without fear across the stream. –Spurgeon A Warning Against Hardness of Heart[1]

The important thing to notice about Spurgeon’s quote is that the human heart can be hardened in such a gradual way, that you may not even perceive that it is happening.  The Gospel is a heavy leaden weight that can sink deeply into the lake of the heart.  But over time, sin can and often does like ice, cover the heart with layer upon layer hardened ice until the Gospel simply bounces off of it like a beach ball. 

What does this to the heart?  I think in our time, there are a few elements of our culture that lend themselves to the hardening of the heart.  They are:  individualism, relativism, and pragmatism

Individualism:

The great philosopher Michael Foucoult writes “When you look for truth, do not use your eyes, but look inside yourself, for their lies truth.”  This call to look inside ourselves for truth, that is to be self-referential in how we judge what is true, good, moral etc. is a call that is reinforced at almost every turn in culture.  In John Caple’s book How to Make Your Advertising Make Money, he identifies the most common words in advertising and how to use those words to make money.  What is the most common word in advertising?  “You.”  Advertisers appeal to “you,” to judge the truth of their product, political campaign’s appeal to “you” to judge the future of the nation.  And while it is good for both of these to appeal to you, they end up teaching us that we are the center of the universe, and that truth is bound up in our own understanding. 

How does this harden our hearts against the Gospel?  The Gospel is a truth that is not self-referential.  It doesn’t come from within but from without.  Paul writes in 1 Cor 15.1-2 ““Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain.  For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received.”  Not only is it important that we know where the Gospel doesn’t come from, but it is important that we know where the Gospel does come from, namely it is “the Gospel of Christ” (2 Cor 2.12) and “the Gospel of God” (Rom 15.16).

For most of our lives, you and I will have a monopoly on the truth.  We know what tastes good to us, we know what looks good to us, we know what is humorous to us, we know what is right for us.  But the Gospel comes along and keeps us from making a determination on things: such as “who is God?  Who is the messiah?  How can I be saved?  Am I a sinner?  Do I need to be forgiven?  What is the purpose of my life?  Does my life have a meaning?”  The Gospel doesn’t ask these questions, it answers them.  A heart that is set on answering these questions for itself will always be hardened against the Gospel. 

Relativism:

Closely related to individualism is relativism.  Largely because they have the same conclusions, but with different methods.  Relativism doesn’t find truth in the individual, rather it takes a realistic view of the world and says “all these people, all this political, religious, and social views, who can be right?”  The conclusion is often, “no one is right” or “everyone is right.”  While living in England, I was fortunate enough to go on a sponsored walk through Yorkshire called the “Lyke Wake Walk.”  It was a forty mile walk through the “Vale of Yorkshire” beginning at eight in the evening and finishing whenever you drug your half dead body across the line.  There was no trail.  You were given a map and a compass and told to do your best.  As we were walking, my friend and I saw most of the group head off in one direction, while a few others split off in another, and a few others in another.  We looked at our map, looked at a group of five or six, saw that their way looked prettier and off we went.  Around three in the morning a heavy fog settled over us and we lost the group.  We trekked on for hours until we were finally picked up by mountain rescue.  He asked us where we thought we were.  We pointed to the place on the map where we believed ourselves to be.  We weren’t even on the map anymore.  Turns out we had been following a group that was going to a different destination! 

Just because there are many people, following many different trails in their spiritual journey, doesn’t mean their heading in the right direction and it certainly doesn’t mean you want to follow them.  The relativist is hardened against Jesus’ call to look away from the world and look to him.  “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14.6). 

Pragmatism:

Finally we come to pragmatism.  North American culture has become obsessed with pragmatism, or “what works.”  What culture teaches us through self help is that we still have ability, we simply haven’t come across the right program.  It causes our attention to be firmly focused on self, and only marginally focused on God.  This hardens the heart against the Gospel because it calls us to work, but the Gospel is all about God’s work for us. 

“ Grace steps in when every other attribute retires. Grace takes for granted not that we have anything, but that we are destitute of everything; that “the whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint.” With the righteous, grace has nothing to do. It hands them over to righteousness to be dealt with according to its decree. With those who can produce even one lingering remnant of goodness, one trace or token of holiness, it can have nothing to do. It has to do with the lost, the guilty, the hopeless, the undone. These are its objects. “The whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.”[2]– Bonar


[1] Spurgeon, A Warning Against Harness of Heart

[2] Bonar, Horatius God’s Purpose in His Grace

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