THE GOSPEL AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD
13 Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem, 14 but they went on from Perga and came to Antioch in Pisidia. And on the Sabbath day they went into the synagogue and sat down. 15 After the reading from the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent a message to them, saying, “Brothers, if you have any word of encouragement for the people, say it.” 16 So Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said: “Men of Israel and you who fear God, listen. 17 The God of this people Israel chose our fathers and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt, and with uplifted arm he led them out of it. 18 And for about forty years he put up with them in the wilderness. 19 And after destroying seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land as an inheritance. 20 All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. 21 Then they asked for a king, and God gave them Saul the son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, for forty years. 22 And when he had removed him, he raised up David to be their king, of whom he testified and said, I have found in David the son of Jesse a man after my heart, who will do all my will.’ 23 Of this man's offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised. 24 Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. 25 And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie.’ 26 “Brothers, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to us has been sent the message of this salvation. 27 For those who live in Jerusalem and their rulers, because they did not recognize him nor understand the utterances of the prophets, which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled them by condemning him. 28 And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. 29 And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. 30 But God raised him from the dead, 31 and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 32 And we bring you the good news that what God promised to the fathers, 33 this he has fulfilled to us their children by raising Jesus, as also it is written in the second Psalm, “‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’ 34 And as for the fact that he raised him from the dead, no more to return to corruption, he has spoken in this way, “‘I will give you the holy and sure blessings of David.’ 35 Therefore he says also in another psalm, “‘You will not let your Holy One see corruption.’ 36 For David, after he had served the purpose of God in his own generation, fell asleep and was laid with his fathers and saw corruption, 37 but he whom God raised up did not see corruption. 38 Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, 39 and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses. 40 Beware, therefore, lest what is said in the Prophets should come about: 41 “‘Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.’” 42 As they went out, the people begged that these things might be told them the next Sabbath. 43 And after the meeting of the synagogue broke up, many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who, as they spoke with them, urged them to continue in the grace of God. 44 The next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. 45 But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and began to contradict what was spoken by Paul, reviling him. 46 And Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it aside and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we are turning to the Gentiles. 47 For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, “‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’” 48 And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. 49 And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. 50 But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. 51 But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. 52 And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.
— Acts 13:13-52, ESV
“Acts” is short for activity or action, and in the book of Acts no one engages in more activity and takes more action to share the gospel than the Apostle Paul. Beyond the book of Acts lies the Pauline epistles, thirteen of them, which point out the fact that the greatest evangelist in biblical history is also the greatest theologian.
Sharing the gospel with other people requires deliberate activity and decisive action. Thinking about God and how He saves people with the gospel requires theological thought, best conducted with a clear mind and a commitment to the inspiration of Scripture. This passage in the Bible takes us to both places, where supreme human effort is necessary to get the gospel out, and the sovereign grace of God is required to get people in.
People are saved by great human effort.
Paul’s first missionary journey sent him from Antioch in Syria to Antioch in Pisidia and a multitude of other places. Places are where people live, and most of the people in those places had not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. Getting the gospel to them took great human effort.
So hard were the travels and travails of the missionary trip that one of “Paul and his companions” quit and went back home. “John [Mark] left them,” and Paul considered it a desertion (ref. Acts 15:38). No one should doubt John Mark’s commitment to Christ and Christianity, redeemed as he was by Barnabas and Simon Peter, so much so that God used him to write the first Gospel.
The point is, leaving home and hearth to share the gospel with other people, in other places, is difficult work that requires determined human effort. This is true whether your missionary journey lasts a lifetime (like Paul’s), a journeyman’s jaunt (like Mark’s), or a one-hour visit with a friend or neighbor to tell them about Jesus and invite them to church.
What if Paul had quit, too? What if Barnabas and the other “companions” decided the Pisidians weren’t worth the trouble it takes to share the gospel? What if our church and our sister churches ceased making any effort to tell the lost and unchurched people of Hot Springs about the saving grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ?
It was good for the ancient world, and our world, that Paul did not quit. He determined to finish the trip, do the work, and be especially diligent at preaching and teaching. Paul’s preaching reflected long hours of studying the Scriptures to understand the biblical and historic roots of the gospel, the ways and means that the Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled the old covenant and offered a new and better covenant. Exercising his brain unleashed his tongue. Paul spoke with a laser focus on the essentials of the gospel, that Jesus has come, as the promised Messiah, as the sinless Savior, as the One who died on the cross, He who rose from the dead, and it is Him who frees people with forgiveness of sins and everlasting life.
Paul would later commend such hard work in Bible study to his young protege, Timothy (ref. 2 Timothy 2:15), a commandment not just for preachers and missionaries, but for all followers of Jesus Christ. Those who engage in the hard work of learning Scripture are much more likely to do the hard work of sharing the gospel. And make no mistake, sharing the gospel with others is the hardest work a Christian can do. If we do not do it, other people will not become Christians.
People are saved by great human effort, the hard work of Christians who tell other people about Jesus Christ. Will you do it, like Paul? It will require great effort on your part, but such effort is required to offer salvation to the unsaved.
People are saved by important human decisions.
Once you get up the gumption to share the gospel with another person, the ball of salvation is placed in that person’s court. God has called us to serve, not volley, not argue, not pressure, just preach the word and put the gospel out there. Those we serve must decide their return.
People are saved by the hard work of Christians willing to share the gospel, and people are saved by the important and right decisions they make in response to the gospel. In conjunction with what I will say later about the sovereignty of God, God in His sovereignty has granted His creatures, at least cognizant humans, with the freedom to make their own decisions.
The truth is, however, the vast majority of mankind freely and willingly rejects Jesus Christ, Christianity, and the Christian church. During Paul’s journeys, the primary response to his offer of the gospel was rejection. Almost all of the Jews and most of the Gentiles were scoffers (vs. 41), swollen with pride and jealousy (vs. 45), and chose to persecute the church rather than join it (vs. 50). They freely chose not to believe, not to repent, and not to be saved, and God held them absolutely accountable at the end of their days, as He will all of mankind.
On the other hand, praise the Lord, there are always some, a few, the remnant, who when served with a gospel summons, believe and trust (vs. 39), repent and follow (vs. 43), and become more than mere decisions, they become “disciples … filled with joy and the Holy Spirit” (vs. 52).
People will be saved, as long as Christians decide to share the Jesus Christ with others, and as long as others choose to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Human effort and personal choices matter to God, but not as much as God matters to us.
People are saved by the grace of God.
People are saved when they choose to come to Christ, and nothing I am about to say will contradict this. “Everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved” (ref. Joel 2:23; Romans 10:13). But, the Lord one calls upon must be the Lord Jesus Christ, and Christ alone.
When they call upon the Lord, they must call in faith, and faith alone. If one calls out to God for salvation and touts their goodness or good works as the grounds, they will not be saved (ref. Isaiah 64:6; Ephesians 2:8-10; Titus 3:5). If they call on Jesus with complete belief and trust in His life, death, and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins and eternal life, they will have it. It is faith, alone, in Christ, alone!
But remember we must think about the gospel practically and theologically. Theologically, there is something that precedes the practical human decision to have faith and trust Christ. It is “the grace of God” (vs. 43). Grace is first in the ordo salutus, or order of salvation. To get the Reformed mantra right, we must lay a foundation of grace. We are saved by grace alone, through faith, alone, in Christ alone!
Grace, and it’s flip side mercy, is God’s alone to give. God chooses to save people before they choose to be saved (ref. John 15:16; Ephesians 1:4). God’s decree to save the saved people on earth was made before anything else on earth was done (ref. Ephesians 1:4; Revelation 13:8, 17:8). And when all the dust settles from all the activity and actions undertaken by Paul and others in this stage of his first missionary journey, when the effort has been made to preach the gospel to all, and the decisions have been made to accept the gospel by some, the bottom line according to the grace of God is: “As many as were appointed to eternal life believed” (vs. 48).
Salvation is a divine appointment, decreed by the sovereignty of God, accomplished by the grace of God, Who grants faith and repentance when the gospel is preached and the Holy Spirt is present, electing and predestination and calling His chosen ones to born again into fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ (ref. Romans 8:28-30). Remember, it is not the Democratic Republic of God, it is the Kingdom of God, and God is the absolute, sovereign King.
Such theological truth is often met with the same kind of scoffing and skepticism Paul met on this missionary journey, and often from God’s own people, no less. Well, they think, if God has already chosen who is going to be saved, and He has, and if saved people are already elected and predestined to be saved, and they are, then there is no reason to pray and preach and share the gospel, because God is going to save them anyway.
But God does not save people any way. God saves people His way. And His way is for His people to make every effort possible to share the gospel. His way is for you, if you are still unbelieving and unrepentant, to make a free and willing decision to obey God and the gospel. Then know this, child of God, and any who would become children of God, that if you have saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, it is because of the sovereign grace of God, who “appointed [you] to eternal life” (vs. 48).
Many churches duel over the dual doctrines of evangelism and election. The debate became bitter in one church, so much so the adult Sunday School class split into two classes. Those who favored evangelism and free will remained in the classroom downstairs, those who favored election and sovereignty took space in an upstairs room.
A man visited one Sunday in time for Sunday School. The greeter told him a class met upstairs to study the sovereignty of God, while the class downstairs favored the free will of man. Well, he’d heard about free will all his life but not the sovereignty of God, so he went to that class to learn.
When he got to the class upstairs, which iconically was not overly friendly, a member asked him, “Who sent you here?” The man replied, I wasn’t sent, I chose to come to this class of my own free will. They rudely rebuffed him, and sent him to the class downstairs.
When he got to the class downstairs, which was more friendly, he was told, “Thank you for choosing to come to our class.” But he said, “Honestly it wasn’t my choice, I was sent here by the man upstairs.” They kicked him out, immediately!
Downstairs, in our hearts, we must love everybody and share the gospel with anybody and believe that somebody will be saved if the choice is made to repent and believe. Upstairs, in our heads, as we read and study the Bible, we learn God is sovereign over all things, meaning He ultimately decrees and controls all things, especially the salvation of His people. And our hearts and our heads must function together in the same body.
The church is the body of Christ. After thirty years of ministering in it, I have encountered members with large hearts and small heads, and those with small hearts and large heads. Neither is optimal, and those with small hearts and heads are the worst. But we must love one another, since God Himself has put us in the same body, the church.
Why can’t we have it all, why can’t we strive to be people with big hearts and big heads, loving people and loving God with all of our hearts and minds? We can, when we joyfully share the gospel of Jesus Christ, and gladly submit to the sovereignty of God!