Prescribing with discrimination
Come with me to a doctor’s surgery and watch as he sees his patients. In fairly quick succession he diagnoses four conditions. The first man has a chronic headache; a mother brings a boy with a severe nose-bleed; another man comes with a broken arm; and then a lady with hay fever. For each case the doctor writes a prescription for 100 aspirins.
You would surely say, ‘That is indiscriminate prescribing. The man should be barred from practising’. You would be right, but sadly we find the same kind of indiscriminate dealing with people in evangelism.
Many people have their pet methods of dealing with souls. It may be the ‘Romans Road’ or the ‘Coral Ridge’ programme, or something else. The exact approach is not the point, but anyone who shows the slightest interest in the gospel is taken along the same route. That is not what we find in the New Testament.
What must I do?
Let me introduce you to two men who asked virtually the same question but received very different answers. In Mark10:17 a rich young man asked Jesus, ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ In Acts 16:30 the jailer at Philippi asked Paul and Silas, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’
I think you will agree that inheriting eternal life and being saved amount to the same thing. However, the answers given were very different. Jesus pointed the young man to God’s commandments (v.19) while Paul and Silas told the jailer to believe on the Lord Jesus (v.31).
How do we account for the difference? Was it a matter of approach? Would Paul have told the young ruler to believe on the Lord Jesus? Would Jesus have told the jailer to keep the commandments? I don’t think so.
So why didn’t Jesus urge the young man to believe? The simple answer is that the questioner wasn’t ready. No doubt, if this young man had asked the question of most modern evangelists, he would have been told to believe. With the eagerness he displayed, they would have him ‘saved’ and baptised in no time at all. But Jesus knew better. He knew the man’s heart.
Let’s look at this man’s case. He seemed a fine young man. He was rich; he was influential; he was zealous – he actually came running to the Lord. He was reverent, kneeling before the Lord. He was polite; he seemed sincere, and he wanted eternal life. If the Lord had told him to climb a mountain on his knees, he wouldn’t have hesitated.
But Jesus pointed him to the commandments, spelling out several of them. As Evangelicals we know that eternal life can never be earned through keeping God’s commandments – salvation is by grace through faith. So why did Jesus say what he did? It seems wrong, doesn’t it? But Jesus knew what he was doing.
Keeping the commandments can never bring salvation, but trying to keep them can bring home a sense of sin. Read Romans 7:7-12. See Peter using this method in his preaching when he accuses the Jews of the murder of Christ (Acts 2:23, 36; 3:15; 4:10). God often uses his moral law to bring conviction. What Jesus was doing was to show this young ruler his sin and self-righteousness. When Christ quoted several commandments, the man claimed to have kept them. How sad! He may have kept them outwardly, but he knew nothing of the wickedness of his own heart.
Jesus tried once more. He could have taken any of the commandments and applied it, but he took the tenth and exposed the man’s covetousness. He may never have outwardly killed, committed adultery or stolen, but his big problem was his love of money. He wasn’t willing to forsake his wealth.
If the Lord had just told him to believe he would have had no problem. But covetousness was where he particularly needed to repent. Being unwilling to do so, he went away sad.
Are there particular sins that keep you from coming to Christ? Forsaking them will not save you, but repentance is a necessary part of the journey to faith. Unless we confess and forsake our sins we exclude ourselves from heaven.
Let’s look at the jailer and see why he was given a completely different answer. Paul and Silas had been imprisoned because of their preaching and its particular effect on the fortune-telling slave girl (Acts 16:16-24). They were severely beaten and put in the stocks in an inner cell.
Their predicament was gloomy indeed. But they were not despondent. In fact at midnight they were praying and singing hymns – loudly enough for the other prisoners to hear them.
Whether or not the jailer also heard them we don’t know, but that was not the only unusual event. There was an earthquake powerful enough to loosen the chains of all the prisoners and to open the prison doors. If the jailer had not been awakened by the singing he was certainly aroused by the earthquake.
When he sees the prison doors open he assumes that the prisoners have escaped – an event for which he would be held responsible. So he draws his sword to kill himself. But Paul calls out that the prisoners are all still there.
In his fear and confusion the jailer falls down before Paul and Silas and asks his memorable question: ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ He receives the equally memorable answer: ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved’.
Some suggest that the man was seeking ‘salvation’ from the wrath of his superiors, but that makes no sense. For that he would need advice from a lawyer not from a couple of jailbirds. In any case, Paul has just assured him that the prisoners were safe. No; the answer he received and his subsequent conversion show clearly that his concern was spiritual.
A remedy for sin
The question remains, why did the apostle point him to faith and not to the law? He was a desperate man, ready to take his own life. He didn’t need convincing of his sin. What he needed was a remedy for sin, and that is what he received.
A number of other points are worth making.
• The brief answer in verse 31 was not the whole gospel message. See verse 32: ‘They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house’.
• Notice that all the jailer’s household believed, were filled with joy and were baptised.
• See also the evidence of change in the jailer. He now cared for Paul and Silas, dressing their wounds and feeding them. When a person truly believes there is a transformation.
Lessons in evangelism
Finally, some lessons in evangelism emerge from these passages. When we seek to reach people with the gospel, we need to discern their condition as far as possible. Are they sinners under conviction who need to be pointed to Christ? Or are they self-righteous people who are confident of their own goodness and need to be shown their sin?
To this end it is important to see if they have any concept of God. It is of little use speaking about sin unless they believe there is a God who made them and to whom they are morally accountable.
We also need to be compassionate. Even though the young ruler was self-righteous and went away, Jesus loved him (Mark 10:21). We need to show that our love for people does not depend on their receiving our message. God is able to save all kinds of people, from a self-righteous Saul of Tarsus to the hardened jailer at Philippi.
He is able to save you if you have not yet turned to him. Have you seen your sin and your need of salvation? If you humble yourself, confess your sin and sincerely ask for mercy, the Lord will give it. ‘For whoever calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved’ (Romans 10:13).