Years ago, while ministering on a college campus, I met regularly with a Jewish agnostic student named Daniel. We talked a lot about Jesus, but we also discussed morality and sex. For some reason, he kept listening. During that time, God blessed my wife and me with our first child, a son we named Daniel. The first time I ran into Daniel (the student) after the arrival of Daniel (the son), I told him our good news. When I shared our name choice, I asked him if he knew what the name Daniel meant. He did not. I told him, “In Hebrew it means God is my judge.” Without a second’s hesitation, he said, “Ooh. I’m in a lot of trouble.”
Indeed, if God is our judge, we’re all in a lot of trouble. Fortunately, he’s not only a righteous judge but also a gracious Savior. Only the gospel resolves that tension. God demands payment for sin, and he provides payment for sin. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, (John 16:8)—and the cross atones for sin, manifests righteousness, and absorbs judgment.
We face an important pre-evangelistic challenge when proclaiming the gospel. We want people to feel this tension so they can also long for the release. We want them to acknowledge the reality of wrath as well as the wonder of love. Only if they struggle with that tension can they clearly grasp the gospel.
Paul and Felix’s Awkward Conversation
Paul faced a similar challenge in his encounter with Felix, as recorded in Acts 24:24–25. We can learn a few crucial lessons there for reaching out to people today.
After some days Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was Jewish, and he sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. And as he reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment, Felix was alarmed and said, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you.” (Acts 24:24–25)
First, note Drusilla was Jewish (v. 24). Why include that detail? We know from history that Felix wasn’t Jewish; we also know that Drusilla wasn’t Felix’s first wife, and he wasn’t her first husband. In short, this marriage was forged in unrighteousness, adultery, and divorce, and caused Drusilla to “transgress the laws of her forefathers.”
Paul selected a trifecta of uncomfortable topics in Acts 24.
Second, note the selection of topics Paul chooses to highlight: “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v. 25). Some people tell us these are exactly the topics we should avoid. “Just stick to the simple gospel,” they urge—but often fail to define “simple.” They might insist we only talk about Jesus—who he was, why he came, and what he accomplished on the cross. In many instances, I’m inclined to agree with them. But they take it too far when they exhort us to never get into people’s personal business or morality or sex lives. Paul selects a trifecta of uncomfortable topics in Acts 24, just as Jesus raises the issue of the woman’s five husbands and her current live-in boyfriend in John 4.
Thus we should venture into such troublesome waters when the setting calls for it. And I’m convinced our current sex-obsessed culture calls for it more often than we care to admit.
How to Tell Good News
But how do we tell the good news when it seems like bad news? I’d like to offer three ways—reverently, reasonably, and realistically.
1. Reverent Reflection Before Bold Proclamation
Before we open our mouths, we need to reflect reverently on the three topics Paul mentioned—righteousness, self-control, and coming judgment. There is such a thing as righteousness, despite our world’s denials or distortions of it. There is a right-ness we should appreciate and long for, and we should be outraged by injustice in all its ugly forms.
Self-control shouldn’t be viewed as a limitation on freedom but as a provision for freedom. By saying no to a steady parade of lusts, passions, and temptations, we allow God to mold us into people who fulfill purposes for which we were created. Only by “mortifying our flesh” can we love others in selfless ways.
The Psalms praise God for his final judgment yet to come (see Pss. 96:13; 98:9). Our hearts should echo those doxologies. How could we live with hope in an unjust world without a final righting of wrongs?
2. Reasonable Dialogue in Unreasonable Times
After reflecting reverently on these themes, we stand ready to interact with outsiders. We can do this better through two-way dialogues than one-way monologues. Did you see the term “reasoned” in verse 25? (The NIV loses something with its generic term “talked about.”) This word implies dialogue or debate. Touchy topics are better discussed with back and forth interchanges, questions, and clarifications. We need fluency in delivering phrases like, “Let me try to clarify” or “Do you know what I mean by . . . ?” or “How have you come to believe that . . . ?”
Touchy topics are better discussed with back and forth interchanges, questions, and clarifications.
We live in unreasonable times when people embrace (and even celebrate) lifestyles that harm them and weaken societies. We’re called to reason in winsome ways that point people to the same one Paul pointed Felix and Drusilla to—Christ Jesus. He’s the Messiah who sets people free. His very name means Savior. Those who trust in him are rescued from God’s wrath, saved by grace, made into new creations.
3. Realistic Expectations for Difficult Conversations
Finally, we need realistic expectations for these pre-evangelistic exchanges. They may not always go as well as we hope. Did you catch how harshly Felix responded to Paul? He was “alarmed” and told Paul to “go away.” For many people, especially those caught in immoral traps, the gospel offends before it saves. But some will hear this as the liberating good news they haven’t found anywhere else.
For many people, the gospel offends before it saves.
I have no idea what happened to that student, Daniel. But I continue to pray that he has come to know God as both Judge and Savior. May he, and so many other people we know, enter a life of righteousness where they receive power for self-control, and stand justified by faith when they face final judgment.
The Gospel Coalition