Only One Life

Christ’s Invincible Gospel and Global Mission

Cross Conference | Louisville, KY

This conference is built on the conviction that the word of God, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, cannot fail. Cannot. And that your life devoted to this cause cannot be wasted. Cannot.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10–11)

God’s word, God’s saving gospel, cannot fail. “This gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14). It cannot fail because God cannot fail. He is infinitely powerful, infinitely wise, and infinitely good. He has no equal. He is, therefore, literally invincible. And the purpose of the word that he speaks is invincible. What he purposes comes to pass. That’s what it means to be God:

I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose.” (Isaiah 46:9–10)

Only One Life

Therefore, if your life is aligned with his word, it cannot be wasted. And it is certain that if your life is not aligned with his word, it will be wasted. Young people, may I testify that you do not want to be my age and look back over your life and say, “I wasted it.” To look back over your one life — your one, single, never-to-be-repeated life — and say, “That was a waste.” Oh, how thankful I am that from age 6 to 18 I walked into the kitchen every morning and saw this plaque:

Only one life, ’twill soon be past;
only what’s done for Christ will last.

I don’t remember a time when my prayer to God was not, “O God, please don’t let me waste my life. I get one shot. Then eternity. Please, Father, make it count.” I believe that if you pray that prayer from your heart, he will do it. You will not waste your life. Your life will count for eternity.

This conference is built on the conviction that the global purposes of God, worked out through his word, cannot fail — and your life aligned with those purposes cannot be wasted.

All the messages, one way or the other, are designed to show that is true. And my assignment in this message is to take you to the book of Acts in the New Testament and show you the invincible progress of the word of God in the 35 years after Jesus had returned to heaven and taken his seat triumphantly at the Father’s right hand.

Unstoppable Spread

The book of Acts picks up where the four Gospels leave off and carries us from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria, through Syria and Asia Minor into Greece, and then to Rome, with Spain on the horizon. So that Paul would say, as he made his way toward Rome, near the end of his life,

from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum [northwest Greece stretching through the Balkans to northern Italy] I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ. . . . I no longer have any room for work in these regions. (Romans 15:19, 23)

That was an outlandish thing for him to say since there were thousands of people in those regions who had not yet believed in Christ. We know this because Paul left Timothy behind and told him to “do the work of an evangelist” (2 Timothy 4:5). So, it was outlandish — unless that was not in Paul’s job. Paul was not a local-church evangelist. He was a missionary, a frontier missionary — meaning (as he said), “I am called to preach the gospel where Christ has not been named” (see Romans 15:20). Timothy was not a frontier, pioneer missionary — he was not called to preach where Christ had not been named. But Paul was.

So, at the end of Acts, Paul is heading for Rome, hoping against hope that he might be sent on his way to Spain and the rest of the Roman empire. And they killed him. Others would be raised up — like you at a Cross conference — to take the gospel to the remaining peoples and places where no church-base of evangelism has been planted.

Everything Aids the Advance

In the book of Acts, as the gospel spreads invincibly from Jerusalem to Rome, there are at least fifty points of opposition described. One of the purposes of this book is to show that none of that opposition succeeds in stopping the invincible word of God. But that’s not the only point, or the deepest point, that Luke wants to make in writing this book. He also wants to show that God makes human sin and satanic opposition serve the advancement of the gospel.

Human sin and satanic opposition to the gospel are ultimately planned and designed by God to accomplish his saving purposes. If you want to be aligned with the purposes of God, so that you don’t waste your life, you need to grasp this fundamental biblical reality. Both globally and personally in your life, God makes sin and satanic opposition serve his good purposes for you. Satan is not a free, autonomous, self-determining agent in this world. He’s on a leash. He does nothing apart from God’s infinitely wise purposes.

Do you remember Paul’s thorn in the flesh in 2 Corinthians 12? It’s called “a messenger of Satan” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Satan’s design was to make Paul miserable and ineffective with this thorn. But Jesus told Paul, No, God’s design is to protect you from pride, and to make you holy, and to show you that the grace of Christ is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:7–9).

“The word of God, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, cannot fail — and your life devoted to this cause cannot be wasted.”

Young people, if you get ahold of this now, at this stage in your life, how powerfully it will serve you for decades to come, both personally and globally. All the losses of your life, all the sorrows, hardships, the tragedies of your life — the loss of your mother to cancer; the loss of your brother in a car accident; the loss of your friends at school who you thought were on your side, and now they’ve been talking about you behind your back; your disappointments with your looks and your abilities as you compare yourself with others — all these discouragements, which Satan aims to use to make you miserable and ineffective so that you waste your life, are ultimately God’s plan to make you strong.

As he sends you into battle against sin and Satan and unbelief, wearing all the armor of God, he says, “Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might” (Ephesians 6:10). God is sovereign over Satan and sin. He is sovereign over suffering. If you trust him, he turns everything for your good and for the fruitfulness of your life.

If you get this, you will be an invincible Christian (perhaps an invincible missionary), just like the word of God was invincible in the book of Acts, because God makes human sin and satanic opposition serve the advancement of his saving purposes in the gospel, personally and globally. So, for the purposes of getting strong in our souls, and steel in our backbone, and fiber in our faith, and courage in our witness, and ballast in our boats, let’s watch God do this in the book of Acts.

Sin and Satan at the Cross

The most important event in the book of Acts where God makes human sin and satanic opposition serve the gospel is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ — the very creation of the gospel. When Jesus died, he paid the penalty for all the sins of God’s people for all time. Anybody and everybody, anywhere in the world, who believes in Jesus will be forgiven all their sins and will have eternal life with God. This moment, this event — the death of Jesus for our sins — is the foundation of all the good news throughout the book of Acts, throughout all history, all missions. How did it come about?

Satan enters into the heart of Judas in order to maximize the suffering of the Son of God and, if possible, divert him from his task (Luke 22:3). Then the mockery of Herod kicks in, and the expediency of Pilate kicks in, and the mob joins in with “Crucify him!” And the soldiers finish it with spikes and a spear. And all those actions — by Pilate and Herod and the mob and the soldiers — were sin, human sin. The worst sin. To murder the Son of God is the worst sin. And all of it was predestined and planned by God for the triumph of the gospel.

Listen carefully to Acts 4:27–28, where the Christians cry out to God:

Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.

Therefore, my young friends, let this be the ballast in your boat, your strength, your staying power, your invincibility: the sovereign God of the universe predestined and planned satanic opposition and human sin in the creation of the gospel — and henceforward in its invincible spread. Keeping this ballast in your boat will be the key to staying afloat and not wasting your lives.

Sent by Suffering

Now, let’s watch God act on this principle in the book of Acts — the sovereign God making satanic opposition and human sin serve the advancement of the gospel across the Roman empire.

At the end of chapter 7, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit and faith and grace and power (Acts 6:5, 8), closed his long message before the council in Jerusalem with this indictment:

[Your fathers] killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered. (Acts 7:52)

When they heard this, Luke tells us, “They . . . stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:57–58). His last words were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Stephen was the first Christian martyr after Jesus.

Then came one of those inevitable, humanly unintended consequences for being faithful to God’s word amid demonic opposition and human sin. It’s described in the first verse of chapter 8:

There arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

Do you know how many people that is, who were driven out of their homes in Jerusalem because they were Christians? Acts 4:4 says, “Many of those who had heard the word believed, and the number of the men [males] came to about five thousand.” That’s five thousand men, not counting women and children. Conservatively, then, that’s at least ten thousand people on the run for their lives. There’s nothing romantic about this. It is terrifying; it is painful. To be a refugee, then and now, is heartbreaking.

“God has no equal. He is, therefore, literally invincible.”

So, here’s what happened. A Spirit-filled, Bible-saturated message is delivered by a godly man, Stephen. Then Satan fills the listeners with rage, and a mob kills him in a brutal act of stoning. And the effect of the stoning is to unleash on Jerusalem a deadly persecution that drives ten thousand Christians from their homes.

Persecution Leads to Preaching

Do you think God was wringing his hands in heaven, as if this satanic opposition would discourage the boldness of witness and the advance of the gospel? No, he was not. Here’s what God was doing. Acts 8:4 says, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”

The word for “preaching” here is euanggelizomnenoi, which always means “speak good news.” The thousands of persecuted refugees, in flight for their lives, were speaking the good news of Christ wherever they went. They were not saying, “What’s good about this news? It doesn’t even spare us from persecution. Where was God when Stephen was killed?” Instead, they were so thrilled that their sins were forgiven, and that they had the hope of eternal happiness with God, that they spoke of it everywhere they went — in the middle of homelessness and pain.

And what was the effect of that speaking? Acts 11:19–21 gives the answer:

Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen [the homeless refugees] traveled as far as . . . Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them . . . who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.

This was a historic missionary breakthrough. Up till now, as far as we know, no Christians were taking the gospel to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people), in spite of Jesus’s command to do so. So, the sovereign God said, “By the death of Stephen and the persecution of my precious people in Jerusalem, I will get my people moving to the nations.” Global missions was the result of persecution and displacement — forced emigration. In other words, God makes satanic opposition and human sin serve the advancement of the gospel.

Appointment in Prison

It happened again in northern Greece, where Paul was powerfully preaching the gospel in a city that had never been reached, Philippi. His ministry was so effective that it liberated a slave girl and caused her owners to be furious at Paul and Silas. They dragged them before the rulers, and Acts 16:23–24 says,

When they had inflicted many blows upon them, they threw them into prison, ordering the jailer to keep them safely. Having received this order, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

And what was Paul’s response? “God, I thought you were sovereign. I have been serving you as faithfully as I can. And I get reviled, or beaten, or whipped, or imprisoned almost everywhere I go. We were making amazing progress in this city. And here I sit in a dungeon with welts on my back because of my faithfulness — to you.”

That was not Paul’s response. Ever. And it shouldn’t be yours. Here’s what Paul was doing in the dungeon. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). One of the purposes of this message is to turn you into that kind of person.

So, what is the sovereign God doing? Jesus had said, “I have other sheep that are not of this [Jewish] fold. I must bring them also” (John 10:16). The jailer in this prison was one of those sheep. And Jesus meant to save him. So, there was an earthquake. All the doors opened, and the bonds fell off. And that night, salvation came to the household of the jailer. So, why had the mob succeeded in beating and imprisoning Paul and Silas? Because there was a jailer to save (Acts 16:26–31). God makes satanic opposition and human sin serve the advancement of the gospel.

Waste Not

So, we end where we began: this conference is built on the conviction that the word of God, the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ, cannot fail — and that your life devoted to this cause cannot be wasted.

But what we have seen in the book of Acts is even deeper and more amazing than that. The sovereign God of the universe predestined and planned satanic opposition and human sin in the very creation of the gospel — the death of Jesus. And from that day forward, this same sovereignty has made the powers of hell and human sin serve the invincible spread of that gospel — to every people and tribe and tongue and nation.

Here is my closing plea: Align your life with God’s sovereign, saving, global purposes. Let this be the ballast in your boat. This is how you will stay afloat in the coming decades. This is how you will not waste your life.