In the first week of my pastorate in 1946, two ruling elders of the church took me to lunch on separate days. Both were admirals in the United States Navy.
The first was Admiral Paul A. Bastedo, who had been one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s naval aides. In the course of our lunch he said, “You have come to a historic pulpit with a succession of great preachers. Get a good staff; give your primary time to study, to preparation for Sunday services, especially to the sermon. Above all else, get out of Washington for an extended period each year to keep perspective, to renew your body, mind, and spirit. A man is qualified to preach in the capital only as he gets out of it from time to time. That is the way to keep fit for us, your parishioners.”
And Admiral Joel T. Boone said, “Edward, you have come to a famous pulpit in the nation’s capital. Washington is like a stage of a great theater with the bright lights illuminating political profiles. The actors come and go. The theater of government goes on. Don’t let that trouble you. Rather let it challenge you. Preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to needy men as best you can, and the message will get home to the politicians and all the others at every level.”
So the text for my first Sunday was, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth …” (Rom. 1:6). The text for today is the same, and the theme of my life for all the days between has been the same, albeit interpreted in its many facets and overtones and implications: but always the good news of redeeming grace in Jesus Christ.
The author of our text had many things of which to be ashamed.
Paul was ashamed of his own past. In his earlier years he had given his brilliant mind and persuasive talents to the blasphemy and persecution of Christians. Every recollection must have given him a blush of shame and a twinge of regret.
Paul was ashamed of his own blood brethren, the men of Israel, when they persistently rejected Jesus Christ as Deliverer. He was deeply aware of his great religious heritage and therefore regretful when his own people failed to identify the Saviour whom he chose to follow. “Because of unbelief, they were broken off,” he cried with a sob.
Paul was ashamed of the wickedness, the depravity, the degeneration and progressive deterioration of Rome. He was a citizen of that proud empire, and the evil eating like a canker at its heart brought him humiliation. Said he, “God also gave them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own hearts, to dishonor their own bodies between themselves; who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshiped and served the creature more than the Creator” (Rom. 1:24, 25).
Paul was at times ashamed of his fellow Christians—their instability, their ready accommodations to Judaism, their cautious demeanor, and in some cases their outright abandonment of Christ.
Yes, there were many things of which the author of the Epistle to the Romans was ashamed. But you have read only the introduction to his message when you come upon the exultant testimony to the one thing of which he was never ashamed: “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.”
It was late in the afternoon of his glorious career. Paul had met Christ in his post-resurrection glory as “one born out of time.” He had tested the power of the Gospel of Christ in his own life. He had earned his credentials in labor and suffering. He knew his day, its strength and its weakness. He was aware of the might of Rome, the wisdom of the Greeks, the religious heritage of the Jews. Having uttered the Gospel, interpreted its meaning, and carried it to the Mediterranean world, he longed to go to that city, which was the capital not only of a proud empire but of the civilized world.
What could one write from an obscure province to a tiny band of Christians in a city swollen with imperial pride? If Rome was unashamed, so was Paul. Away with easy evasions; away with cowardly silences; away with secular compromises! “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ,” he wrote. He was uninhibited, unintimidated, unashamed anywhere before any man. For this gospel is “the power of God unto salvation to every one who has faith” (RSV).
The “good tidings” Paul had for that ancient world was the news that God had entered man’s life by Jesus Christ and that through faith in Christ’s finished work, man could be redeemed, his whole life lifted to the higher order of the Kingdom of God.
Paul was unashamed of the person of Jesus Christ. Other religious and social movements make much of principles and ideas. Christianity has principles and ideas, but that isn’t what it is. It is a person. Not an abstraction, not a ritual, not an ethical system, not an ideal (though it has all these), but rather a person, the person of Jesus Christ.
Paul was certain of the identity of Christ. Therefore he was unashamed of the person at the center of his father. The spirit at the center of the universe, the God who had created the cosmos, the God who had created man, the God who had established the moral order—that God came in Jesus Christ. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us … and we beheld his glory” (John 1:14). For Paul, everything centered in the person of Jesus Christ.
I am not ashamed of Jesus Christ. I am not ashamed of the lowly yet stupendous way he entered our world and became forever identified with our poor, lost, struggling humanity. I am not ashamed of the life he lived for thirty-three years. To do the will of his Father was his chief concern. To set the Kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of man was his dominating motive. To exalt labor and service to God and man as the supreme glory so that a towel and a hammer are as much badges of royalty as a scepter. In him, life was reformed—but He was more than a reformer. He was the Revealer of God. What a life! I am not ashamed of Christ. When catechisms and creeds are unconvincing, when theologies and philosophies are unpersuasive, and when our halting, limping speech is insufficient, somehow Jesus Christ the person gets hold of life.
Paul was not ashamed of the death Christ died, nor the cross that his dying turned into a symbol of triumph. He died in a love that nothing could break or exhaust, forgiving men their heinous deed, gathering up their concentrated evil, and loving them to the very end. He died in a holiness that nothing tarnished or minimized. He died in a victory over the world and sin—victory sealed and heralded by his resurrection; victory in which each of us may share as we, in faith, bring our broken, tattered, defeated lives and surrender them into his nail-pierced hands.
To the church in Galatia, Paul wrote: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20).
What a Gospel! God came to men to rescue them from themselves, from one another, and from sin and from hell. Unashamed! So Paul spoke. When Jesus arose from the dead, a new era began. Emancipation for the life and spirit had come—freedom from sin, freedom from evil spirits, freedom from the law’s domination. To that little group in the capital of an ancient empire, boasting its ribboned roads, its lustrous law, its mighty army, its robust rulers, Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” On this truth I have staked down my testimony in the capital city of an even more glorious nation—“I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ.” What a Gospel! God in the midst of man’s life forever, forgiving, bringing new life and immeasurable power.
For, as Paul put it, “the gospel of Christ is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth.” The term throughout the New Testament is dynamos—the mighty miracle of God’s omnipotence. We think we have power that makes Rome a pigmy: motor power, water power, electric power, industrial power, military power, atomic power; and if it remains committed to man’s own purposes it will do for us precisely what it did for Rome: destroy us. But the Gospel is God’s power to save. It is his power unto salvation.
1. Christ is God’s power to men’s minds. The sages and philosophers speculated about truth. In Christ, truth stood in the midst of time, personified. He is forever the point of reference, the standards for all ages. Let knowledge lead you where it will, let science explore the secrets of the universe, let the spirit of free inquiry have its way. When the little mind of man gets his intimations of reality, he discovers Christ was there from the beginning. Heaven and earth shall pass away; his truth abideth still. Every word he uttered, every parable he taught, was an intellectual resurrection. You cannot argue with Jesus Christ. You can only confront him, accept or reject him. To take him by faith is to find the truth that sets men free. Christ is the power to men’s minds.
2. Christ is the power of God to man’s moral nature. The fact that man is a sinner ought to be quite evident in our age. Greed and lust, pride and power, pillage and warfare reveal demonic facts. The difficulties of our age are not with gadgets and machines but with man as man. The trouble with man is that he is man—and man is a sinner. The fact of sin is not to be argued; it is self-evident. One sin adheres to another. Sin sears the memory, blinds us to moral values, makes the will impotent, infects the race with a persistent perverseness. “Wickedness,” as Dr. George Buttrick once put it, “is the mark both of our doom and our divinity. We are wicked; that is our doom. But we are aware of God, and so know our wickedness; that is our divinity.” Here is the division in our nature which we ourselves cannot heal. We are made in God’s image, but sin has distorted the image and modified the original creation. We cannot by ourselves save ourselves.
There was no other good enough
To pay the price of sin
He only could unlock the gate
Of Heaven and let us in.
Our agony today is that we have let Christ get hold of us a bit—enough to be judged by him, but not yet fully yielded to him.
3. The gospel of Christ is the power of God to our social order. Sin is not only personal and individual; it is social and universal. We belong to the race of men and cannot extricate ourselves from it. “God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth.” We belong to one another. We share in one another’s virtues and vices, participate in one another’s amenities and penalties. We are redeemed in a vacuum but in human society.
There is only one Gospel. That Gospel is both vertical and horizontal. We are redeemed to a right relation with God, which issues in a right relation to man. We are saved to love God with our whole heart and mind and strength, and to love our neighbor—and our neighbor is every man. Salvation is not personal rescue only. Nor is it only a reordered society, especially if that order is apart from God. The one Gospel is a synthesis, both of personal life and of the social order.
We know the fiendishness and savagery of sin in human society. In slave-labor depots and concentration camps, on a hundred battlefields, in areas of prejudice and injustice to persons, our generation has seen the stark fact of sin in human society.
There is an answer to it all. “All we like sheep have gone astray … and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” God in time invaded life on our level, in the sacrifice of his Son for our redemption. We need not be ashamed of his Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation, for everyone, everywhere.
This has been the underlying theme of this pulpit and parish life since it was preached on my first Sunday late in 1946. There is much talk about the prophetic role of the Church and the witness of the Church in judgment to particular social situations. Ministers may become as expert in politics, economics, and social work as any other persons. But there are other specialists, many of whom are Christian, to give their energies to these tasks. The Church lives by word and sacrament. If clergymen neglect their unique work, it will not be done.
The Church has a prophetic role, but it is seldom done well by collectivities—even by presbyteries, conferences, or general assemblies. I have helped compose resolutions and declarations that were the best we could do at the time; their value was limited. Sometimes one feels that the Church today tries to speak on so many subjects that the ears of the world are deaf to the primary message of God and truth and revelation. People get awfully fed up with tyro politicians and amateur sociologists and pseudo-psychiatrists in the pulpit. I am confident that after working all week in government—on budgets and programs, on economic and foreign policy, on welfare and defense requirements—those who come to the house of God on Sunday in Washington want to hear some word about God, the Bible, the disciplines of the Christian life—the ancient assertion, “Thus saith the Lord.…”
For the most part the great prophets were outside organized religion. They got their clues to truth neither from a convention nor from a priestly establishment. Speaking for God, they uttered what they believed in the depths of their being God had given them for the world. Only prophets can be truly prophetic.
So for these years I have endeavored to be a faithful herald of the Gospel with all its overtones and implications. Sometimes I have been in agreement with other churchmen, sometimes in disagreement (more often not with their intentions and objectives but with their tactics and lack of statesmanship).
Mr. Truman was President when I came. VE Day and VJ Day were past. The first atomic weapon had been employed to end a world war. The Marshall Plan was set in operation. Military forces were being demobilized. The world was being divided into two counter-forces, and the nations were making their alignments. The cold war began.
In the Church a new energy was beginning to stir. Veterans filled the theological schools. With their wartime conditioning, their moral earnestness, depth of commitment, and personal discipline, they provided the most promising clergymen to appear in all American history before or since. They served the new churches in the next decade.
In 1947 the final steps were completed for the establishment of the National Presbyterian Church on the foundation of the First Presbyterian Church in the District of Columbia and the Church of the Covenant. On October 19, 1947, President Truman unveiled the plaque at the door of the old church, made a moving speech, and joined representatives of major denominations from across the world in a service addressed by the moderator, Mr. Wilbur La Roe, and the stated clerk of the General Assembly, Dr. William Barrow Pugh. When the next Congress convened, President Truman led the leaders of our government in attending the first annual service of Intercession and Holy Communion. Later he worshiped with us from time to time and gathered some of my sermons to rest among his papers at Independence.
The religious boom of the 1950s was in incipient stages when President Eisenhower was inaugurated. On the morning of January 20, 1953, I conducted a preinaugural service for him and his official family. From it he went to his quarters and wrote a prayer of his own with which he began his address. It electrified the world and revealed a dimension in the new President previously less exposed. Ten days later he was baptized, and he and his wife became members of this church—the first time in history such an event took place after inauguration and, according to Catholic historians, the first time since Emperor Clovis I in A.D. 496 a chief of state was baptized after taking office. Thereafter the President and the First Lady were intimately and deeply a part of the life of this church. Cabinet meetings opened with prayer. Early that year, encouraged by Senator Frank Carlson and his pastor, President Eisenhower attended the first Presidential Prayer Breakfast, now an annual event attended by thousands and repeated in hundreds of government centers throughout the world.
Everywhere new churches were appearing, religious books and magazine articles had wide acceptance and large sales, church membership expanded. There was new evangelistic zeal and missionary outreach—the greatest religious activity in American history. Soon the President by his spiritual sensitiveness, his manly life of prayer, his uninhibited Christian testimony, became a symbol of America’s spiritual awakening following the great war. My book America’s Spiritual Recovery, dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower, with an introduction by J. Edgar Hoover, became a religious best-seller and the first selection of the Evangelical Book Club.
The awakening was far deeper and more real than some churchmen were able to understand. And for the first time in American history, a revival of religion came when there was neither a war nor an economic depression.
In the 1960s the loyalty and power gained in the previous decade were put to the test. The human resources of the churches, officially and unofficially, were to be creatively applied to help bring racial justice. The ways of reason and persuasion were set aside by some who resorted to parades, protests, and demonstrations. Liberals expected to accomplish too much; the conservatives resented and rejected the methods.
By the late 1960s churches, along with educational institutions and government, were regarded as power structures and became the subjects of group rage. Minority power groups arose; non-violent and violent elements appeared opposed to organized religion. But the residual power and the faithful remnant were still in the churches.
By the beginning of the 1970s there was plenty of religion in the air—as well as apathy by some and abandonment of the churches by others. People somehow became fascinated with the occult, Eastern and African religions, magic, mysticism, metaphysics, astrology, communalism. At length came the Jesus people, the Pentecostals, the new apocalyptic hope, the charismatic movements with people speaking in incoherent and unintelligible “tongues.” The decline in church membership that began in the 1960s continues in the 1970s, except in some smaller evangelical groups. Ecumenical activity, which engaged the energies of church leaders in the previous decade, is diminishing in the 70s. Councils of churches and plans of union get less attention. But the liberating influence of Pope John XXIII is still at work.
Now comes 1973 and the Key 73 programs—a North American movement that got its name from a meeting in this city near Key Bridge. The vision is that every unchurched family in North America will be visited by someone who comes with loving concern to share his faith in Christ.
There is nothing wrong with institutions. The Gospel has pervaded the whole world through the institutional church. And eventually all the new movements today either will come under the canopy of the existing churches or will themselves become institutionalized. So it was in the New Testament times; so it is now.
The signs of hope and promise are many. Fresh power and new insights are upon us. Then welcome all that is holy and wise. Cherish all that is holiest and healthiest in our heritage. Now and evermore we are to be unashamed of the Gospel of Christ—the power of God unto salvation for everyone.
George M. Marsden is associate professor of history at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has the Ph.D. (Yale University) and has written “The Evangelical Mind and the New School Presbyterian Experience.”
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