Grace and Duty (Acts 20:25-31)
by: Deji Yesufu
In 1521, Martin Luther appeared before Emperor Charles in what is famously known today as the Diet of Worms. The summary of the encounter was that Luther had been charged to be a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church and he was before the Emperor to defend his beliefs. Luther was required to renounce his beliefs and accept that his writings were eroneous and misleading the public. Luther requested a day to think about an appropriate response. When he returned to the assembly he made this declaration: “Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason (I do not accept the authority of popes and councils because they have contradicted each other), my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against consience is neither right nor safe. So help me God. Amen.”
The meeting was subesequently plunged into disorder and Emperor Charles was forced to dismiss the gathering. Luther would eventually be condemned as a heretic by the gathering, his writings banned and an order was given for his arrest. By this time, the great Reformer had left Worms and was heading to his home at Wittenberg. On his way, he was captured by robbers and held hostage at the Wartburg Castle. It was later found out that Luther’s own Prince (similar to the Governor of the region where he lived) had organized the fake kidnap to protect the Reformer from being arrested by the authorities. Luther spent a little over a year in isolation. It provided him sufficient time for study and writing. He was also able to complete the translation of the New Testament to German – a project that help introduce new words even to Germanic literature. Luther eventually abandoned his enforced captivity to return to his pastorate at Wittenberg because a group of fellows, better known today as the radical reformers, had taken over the town of Wittenberg. One of their leading ideas was that they extended the grace in the gospel to a point where they wholly discarded the laws of God. It was in reaction to these group of persons that the Reformer coined the term “antinomians”. Antinomianism is a term used to describe fellows who exalted the grace of the gospel so much that they discarded the duties that the laws of God demanded.
In Acts 20:24, Paul had stated that all the messages he ever preached in his evangelistic outreaches could be better termed as the “Gospel of the Grace of God”. In my article last week, I had said that the gospel of the Grace of God was essential a doctrine that dileanated all that God has done. It was a doctrine that emphasized the facts around God redeeming fallen humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. Acts 13:16-36 gives a good account of the Apostle Paul preaching a message of grace: a message that showed a people what God has done and that subsequently called men to repentance and faith, so that they might enjoy the grace of God in its fullness. The fact of the matter is that the gospel of grace says essentially, in regards to our salvation, that God has done it all and there is nothing left for man to do. The problem, however, is that most “grace preachers” tend to stretch this fact to unhealthy limits. While indeed God has done it all in regards to our salvation, he has also called every believing Christian to duties. It is these duties that Paul spends sometime to expatiate on in his farewell address to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:25-31. It will be practically impossible to touch on all that Paul taught on in this text. I will therefore limit myself to two points of doctrine in his address:
- verse 28: Take heed to yourself
- verse 29: Fierce wolves in the church
Take Heed: When Paul will begins to enumurate duties to the Church, he began where we ought to always begin: he began by warning the leaders. He commanded them to take heed to themselves. He made this statement in the same context of saying that the leaders should watch over the flock of Christ. But it was necessary for him to begin with the leaders because the extent to which a church will pursue and take sanctification seriously, is the extent to which the leaders do. If the leaders think holiness is a little matter, the congregation will take their sanctification for granted. A famous proverb says that the fish begins to rot from the head. Just as it is in secular society, the success of a church (in biblical terms) is wholly denpendent on the sanctification of its leaders. In 1 Timothy 4:16, Paul repeats a similar admonition to Timothy when the tells him to take heed to himself and to his doctrine, because in doing this he would both save himself and his hearers. What countless number of people are heading to an eternity without God and his Christ because the people they are listening to have long abandoned the gospel. If a church will experience the hand of God in their midst, the leaders of such a congregation must be holy men.
Fierce Wolves: In verse 29 and 30, Paul tells his listeners that after he has gone, fierce wolves will invade the congregation. These men will come in two ways: they will come from outside and they will manifest within the congregation. It appears that Paul is telling his listerners that the extent to which they will be able to discern falsehood in whatever form its comes is the extent to which they pay careful attention to their own personal holiness. Jesus had warned his own disciples about wolves that come in sheep clothing (Matthew 7:15). It was a metaphor that the churches were very used to and here is Paul telling them that these wolves were coming. It was not “maybe they will come” but that certainly they will come. Rather than wishing it away with a “God forbid”, Paul want his listeners to prepare for them. The wolves are coming, Paul said. For us, the wolves are here.
Conclusion: The Christian Pastor is a man of discernment. He is one that is often measuring the spiritual temperature of his congregation. The reason is that Christians are ever called to walk a thin path between law and grace, or between grace and duty. For some Christians who have been enveloped by the beauty of the message of grace and are basking in the blessings of the done work of Christ, there is a danger of licenciousness lurking around the corner. It is the pastor that is a able to discern this and call such individuals back to the duties that the laws of God demand. At the other extreme are those Christians who think that Christian duty is all that the Christian life entails. They are the ones in danger of legalism. It is the pastor that equally calls these fellows to remember that at the core of the Christian message is our God who has done it all and whose work we must rest all of our best efforts on – including our worst failures.
The message of grace and duty rings all through the holy writ. Jesus Christ is ever calling his bride to them both at various proportions and at different times.