Do Not Sell the Gospel

TBI Graduation | Minneapolis

The following is a lightly edited transcript

Thirty-six years ago, I was where you are sitting right now. I was at a church in Pasadena in the baccalaureate service, and the message that was delivered had one point and I remember it crystal clear. There are a couple reasons for that. First, the speaker gave a dollar bill to all the graduating seniors at Fuller Seminary and we held it in our hand while he preached. Second, he preached from the story of the rich young ruler and he had one point: Remember the rich young ruler. I took that dollar bill and I put it on a little board and put lacquer over it. It sits over the door in my study. I walk under it every day and the dollar bill is there so that I remember the rich young man.

I thought I would give you that message, but the longer I reflected on it, the bigger it became. So my message is going to be: Remember the rich young ruler, remember Lot’s wife, remember the obedient servant, and remember the obedient Pharisee. I know you won’t remember that in 37 years because I’ve just ruined it with all of that, but you might remember something.

I won’t be alive in 37 years, but the one who gave that original message to me is still alive and he has broken my heart. His name is Mel White. He was one of the best teachers I had. Now he leads a gay church, and he left his wife and his children. He has become one of the most outspoken defenders of gay Christianity in the country. That was sad to me because he taught me a lot and I loved him. I would like to see him return from that mistake. I hope I will not let you down like that, as you look back for as long as I’m alive. I would like to finish well.

Peddlers of the Word

These are thoughts on how you should not pedal God’s word. They take their starting point from 2 Corinthians 2:15-17, and then they launch into the texts that I was really meditating on, namely Luke 17 and 18. Ever since last August, when I preached a message from Luke 18, I have thought and thought and thought about the wider context of that story — about the Pharisee and the tax collector. So you’re going to hear some spillover from that. Here’s what the text from 2 Corinthians 2:15–17 says:

For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God’s word, but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.

So, peddling God’s word is the opposite of being the aroma of Christ. When you peddle God’s word, people don’t smell the aroma of Christ; they smell the aroma of greed and fear. There are two ways that the heart of a word peddler manifests itself: By greed for money and by the fear of persecution. The heart of a word peddler craves earthly pleasure and dreads earthly pain. That’s what marks a word peddler.

So what does the word peddler preach? The word peddler preaches human prosperity as the gift of salvation, and he preaches human obedience as the price of justification. Preaching prosperity appeals to the desire for earthly pleasure, and preaching obedience appeals to the desire for earthly achievement. The one replaces God’s worth with money; the other replaces God’s grace with morality.

Paul renounced the pursuit of money as the way to do ministry, so he received fewer physical pleasures. Paul renounced the pursuit of morality as the way to be justified, so he received more physical persecution. He said, “If I still preach circumcision, why am I persecuted?” (Galatians 5:11). In short, Paul preached Christ and let the chips fall where they would. If people gave him money, he had the grace to receive it. If people gave him beatings, he had the grace to endure it. He would not peddle the word of God.

So brothers, don’t peddle it. Don’t sell it. Don’t be in it for the money and don’t be in it in a way that avoids trouble. Preach Jesus as the only satisfying treasure and preach Jesus as the only sufficient obedience. That’s the point of this message.

Jesus is Better

To encourage you and to strengthen your hand in doing that, I want to go to Luke and share some thoughts there regarding money and Jesus as the alternative, and obedience and Jesus as the alternative. It’s remarkable how these two chapters work. I think I’m just beginning to catch on to what Luke is doing in Luke 17 and 18. The two points I’m going to draw out are: 1) All the money in the world cannot replace Jesus as our treasure, and 2) all the obedience in the world can not replace Jesus as our righteousness. Those correspond to Lot’s wife and the rich young ruler on the one hand, and the obedient servant and obedient Pharisee on the other.

Remember Lot’s Wife

So take those one at a time. First, remember Lot’s wife and remember the rich young ruler. All the money in the world cannot replace Jesus as our treasure. Here’s the story of Lot’s wife in Luke 17:26-33. It says:

Just as it was in the days of Noah, so will it be in the days of the Son of Man. They were eating and drinking and marrying and being given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot — they were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building, but on the day when Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained from heaven and destroyed them all — so will it be on the day when the Son of Man is revealed.

Get this — the Son of Man, the Lord of glory, the creator of the universe, and the Savior of the world is about to be revealed. Where should you look when that happens? What direction should you look? He continues in Luke 17:31:

On that day, let the one who is on the housetop, with his goods in the house, not come down to take them away.

The goods are in the house, and the Son of Man is on the horizon. Where are you going to look, to your goods or to the Son of Man?

Remember Lot’s wife. Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it. And whoever loses his life will keep it.

Losing the life or seeking to preserve the life there must mean seeking to hold fast to things, and thus preserving the soul in this life for those pleasures. Here comes to the Son of Man standing forth and your things are in the house. The Son of Man is on the horizon and you have a choice. He says, “Remember Lot’s wife.” She made her choice. Don’t make that one. Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also. The Son of Man is on the horizon. Look that way. Not all the money in the world can replace Jesus as our treasure.

Remember the Rich Young Ruler

Now consider the story of the rich young ruler from Luke 18:18-23:

And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”

There’s an overlap here. This is what makes this so interesting. This story is overlapping the obedience piece and the money piece. But we’re focusing on money here. It continues:

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

Jesus says he lacks one thing and then tells him three things that he should do. I spent hours and hours thinking about that last year at Tyndale House because I wrote a chapter on this, and it was a very determinative book, in fact. I think what Jesus is saying is, “You have your hand around these riches and your hand needs one thing in it: Me. But to get me in your hand, you have to let the riches go and they will fall on the poor, then you can take me. The one thing you lack is me. Follow me.” The passages continues:

But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.

He loved his money more than he loved Jesus. Not all the money in the world can replace Jesus as our treasure. So brothers, the first point is: Remember Lot’s wife and remember the rich young ruler. All the money on planet earth cannot replace Jesus as your treasure. What will you give in exchange for your soul if you sell out for money (Mark 8:37)? Remember them. Don’t peddle the word of God.

Remember the Obedient Servant

The second point is to remember the obedient servant (Luke 17) and remember the obedient Pharisee (Luke 18). All the obedience in the world cannot replace Jesus as our righteousness. First, let’s look at the obedient servant from Luke 17:7-10. It says:

Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants.’

All the obedience in the universe cannot replace Jesus. We need one thing. According to Jesus drawing out the lesson, after we have done all that is commanded us we should say, “It won’t suffice”.

Remember the Obedient Pharisee

Now Let’s consider the obedient Pharisee from Luke 18:9–14. I’ve been thinking a lot about it these days as to how to use it in a book I’m working on.

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus:

Just pause here because one of the things that grips me about this story is that Jesus made it up. This is not an event that happened from which we are trying to draw inferences regarding what it might have meant. These are words carefully chosen by Jesus Christ as he makes up this parable to make his point. So, I’m assuming the words are chosen carefully and for point. He puts in the mouth of the Pharisee:

‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The Pharisee adds to the obedience of the obedient servant, a persuasion that God is to be thanked for his obedience. So then, all the obedience in the world, including the obedience that you believe is worked by God, cannot replace Christ and the mercy we desperately need. In fact, if there were time and we all had our Bibles open in front of us, I would love to just walk step-by-step through all of Luke 17 and 18, to show how Luke weaves this together such that the cry for mercy is, in fact, the cry for Jesus, illustrated by the leper story and other ways. They ask, “When will the kingdom come?” and he answers, “The kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21). All the obedience in the world cannot replace Jesus as our righteousness.

So, in conclusion, when it comes to satisfaction, we need Jesus above all, and when it comes to justification, we need Jesus above all. Our own money, even if it filled the earth, would not suffice. Our own obedience, even if it were perfect and God-given, would not suffice in this fallen world. Therefore, you have every reason, brothers, to say with the apostle Paul, “We are not peddlers of God’s word. We will not sell it for money. And we won’t try to avoid persecution by preaching what may not please people. Do not be driven by greed for money. Do not be driven by fear of persecution. Preach Christ as your all satisfying treasure, and preach Christ as your God-satisfying obedience.