6. Touching The Raw Nerve In Preaching
Paul summarises his argument of Romans chapters 1 and 2 by saying that there he has accused / charged (in a legal sense) all men and women, Jews and Gentiles, of being “under [judgment for] sin” (Rom. 3:9 Gk.). With typically devastating logic, he has demonstrated the universal guilt of man. Twice he stresses that whoever we are, we are without excuse (1:20; 2:1). All men have a conscience which is dynamically equivalent to the specific knowledge of God’s law; in this sense they are a “law unto themselves” (2:14- although this phrase is used in a different sense in modern English). “By nature” (Strong: ‘native disposition, constitution’) they have the same moral sense that God’s law teaches. This is why human beings have an innate sense of right and wrong- it’s why, e.g., there is protest at ethnic cleansing. God is understood / perceived by what He has created, namely our own bodies. But through, e.g., sexual perversion, man has distorted the image and glory of God which he was intended to be, and has worshipped the created body rather than the creator (1:20-23). Fashion, adverts and power clothing all do this, as well as the present obsession with sexual expression. The Lord Himself taught that because we are in the image of God, therein lies an imperative to give our bodies to Him. The goodness of God can lead all men to repentance (Rom. 2:4). God has set a sense of the eternal in the human heart (Ecc. 3:11 AVmg). An awareness of judgment is alive as a basic instinct in people. God is “not far from every one of us…forasmuch as we are [all] the offspring of God” (Acts 17:27-29- stated in a preaching context), being created in His image.
Further on in Romans, Paul comments that truly Israel have already heard the essence of the Gospel we preach, in that “the word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach” (Rom. 10:8). He quotes here from Dt. 30:12: “For this command [to be obedient- or, as Paul interprets it, the word of the Gospel]...is it not far from thee [cp. how God is “not far” from anybody, Acts 17:27]. It is not in heaven above, that thou shouldest say, Who will ascend for us into heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear and do it?” (Dt. 30:12 LXX). As Moses spoke these words on the last day of his life, he was at the foot of Nebo, which he ascended for his final meeting with God. He is surely alluding to the way in which he had ‘ascended to heaven’ before in ascending to God on Sinai, fulfilling Israel’s wish that he should bring God’s word to them rather than God Himself speak with them. He had returned bringing God’s word to them, to which they had agreed they would “hear and do”. Earlier, in Deut 5:27, Moses had reminded the people how they had said: “Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it”. Now he is telling them that actually the word he had brought to them needn’t have been brought to them as in essence it was within their hearts. It is for exactly this reason that Paul could reason elsewhere in Romans that the Gentiles do by nature the things contained in the Law, although they don’t know the letter of the Law. And the same principle is found in 1 Thess. 4:9: “As touching brotherly love, ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves [i.e. from within yourselves?] are taught of God to love one another”. This is rather like how the Gentiles were not ‘written unto’ and yet they knew from their conscience the essential spirit of the Mosaic Law.
Preaching Always Touches Hearts
What this means in practice is that whenever God’s Truth is presented to a man, the raw nerve of his conscience will somehow be touched. He is in God’s image, and knows somehow he should respond to this. He may react by flinching away, covering up his weakness; He will not come to the light, lest his deeds are reproved (Jn. 3:19,20). Or he may realise that he has been touched, and respond in humility. So often the introduction of the Gospel is treated by people with indifference: ‘Oh, another leaflet’, a woman may jovially respond when she’s handed one of our tracts. But when she realises it’s about Jesus…then, things will change. ‘Oh, I see…’ she may say, and her body language will change. She has been touched on the raw nerve. She may get angry because of this, or quickly change the subject- or let her conscience be touched. Paul tellingly spoke of how people hold down the [conscience of] the truth on account of their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18 Gk.). When they come to know God, they darken their foolish hearts (1:21). And so it was with the preaching of the Gospel in Acts. Those who heard it were pricked in their conscience: some responded by wanting to kill the preachers (Acts 5:33; 7:54); others followed their conscience and accepted baptism (Acts 2:37). We too have our hearts pricked by the Gospel- and we either effectively shut up the preaching, or respond.
It’s easy to get discouraged in our preaching by the apparent lack of response. But all the witnesses that we make, the points we get across, the bills we distribute, adverts we place…the people who receive them don’t treat them as they would say a commercial advertisement. Everyone out there has a religious conscience- let’s remember that. They know, deep down, what they ought to be doing. And our preaching invites them to do it. If there is no immediate conversion, well don’t worry. You have touched peoples’ hearts by your witness. Paul describes our witness in terms of the burning of aromatic spices during the triumphant procession of a victorious general, in our case, the Lord Jesus. His victory train goes on and on and on; and each generation of preachers is the aroma. But in Paul’s image, the aroma strikes the bystanders in only one of two ways: some find it pleasing and life-giving, whereas others find it nauseating and deadly (2 Cor. 2:14-16). The point is, the fragrance of our witness penetrates everywhere (2 Cor. 2:14), and it is an odour which cannot be ignored. It is either repulsive, or life-giving. Our hearers will react in only one of those two ways, whatever their apparent indifference to us.
Remember that the hearts of all men have become darkened because of the way they consistently harden their hearts [in an ongoing sense] from childhood, resulting in them passing from having a religious conscience to a hardened state (Eph. 4:19). But somewhere deep down, that “feeling” is still there, and can easily be touched by our witness. I find it intriguing to observe how men who perceive themselves as confirmed ‘atheists’ find it almost irresistible to blaspheme. When they spill their coffee or forget something, almost involuntarily their thoughts fly to the God and the Jesus they so fiercely deny. I’d estimate that the everyday speech of the ‘atheistic’ USSR included more references to ‘God’ than in that of the ‘Christian’ West.
This fact also explains why response to the Gospel is coming from unexpected places and groups of people. Several hundred atheists have been baptized in the last few years; and a growing number of Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Hindus are responding. Most of the conversions I witness have been due to the true Gospel touching the conscience of men and women, rather than by us first of all demolishing their previous belief system blow by blow. They taste and see that the Lord is good. There is no need for ‘apologetics’ to convert a man, e.g. literature justifying the Bible from science, or ‘proving’ it as against the Quran. These things are confirmation, but not the power of conversion. The message of Christ in itself convicts the conscience of men and women, without us needing to preach anything else. Paul directly preached the Gospel to Felix, a man steeped in Roman paganism, without seeking to prove that sin is sin, or that only one God exists. In Corinth likewise he “determined” to only preach Christ, and he made no ‘apology’ to anyone or anything else. That Gospel touches the raw nerve in every human being, regardless of their background. This is why people respond in only one of two ways to that touch of the raw nerve- the majority draw back from the prongs of the Gospel, whilst a minority are not of them who draw back, but believe to the saving of the soul. This is why the preaching of Christ causes divisions between people, as the Lord did by His very being amongst men (Jn. 7:12,43; 9:16; 10:19).
Our contact with the Father, with His Son and with His word, all this likewise
touches the raw nerve in us. The parable of the sower surely describes
the response of any man or woman whenever the word is sown into
them. And like the woman who receives a leaflet on the street, we can
either draw back within ourselves, hiding behind a surface level spirituality,
or allow the real import of Yahweh’s Truth to touch us. We can make a
few cosmetic changes to our characters, scratching around on the surface
of our natures; or we can really change.