And even as they did not like to retain God in their knowledge, God gave them over to a debased mind, to do those things which are not fitting; being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil-mindedness; they are whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, violent, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, undiscerning, untrustworthy, unloving, unforgiving, unmerciful; who, knowing the righteous judgment of God, that those who practice such things are deserving of death, not only do the same but also approve of those who practice them.
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Now Saul was approving of his death.
– Acts 7:57-8:1
…when the blood of Your martyr Stephen was shed, I also was standing by approving of his death, and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
The Duty of Preaching the Law
As a Christian, an issue that has caused me some concern is the duty of preaching the Law to both the lost and the saved. Because I know how wicked and hypocritical I really am, and how often I turn my back to Christ in order to embrace rebellion, I often find it hard to speak out against sin. Can I preach against the fornication of another when I am no better? Can I tell rebuke others for sinning when I know what I have repented of, and with what I have daily struggled in my Christian walk? How can I preach the Law to others, which is my duty, when I know that I am also preaching to myself whenever I speak against any sin?
And yet, the Lord commands me to preach His whole counsel to those whom He has sent me to (my wife, son, in-laws, etc). Am I not a hypocrite for failing to meet the standards I am clearly presenting to them?
I struggled with this issue until I read Acts 22:20, where Paul says that he “approved” of the stoning of Stephen, the church’s first martyr. The phrase struck me because it sounded very similar to his words in Romans 1:32, where it is the Gentiles who approve of the gross sins that others engage in. Paul’s behavior earlier on in the book of Acts, it seems, is of the exact same substance. Paul was a Jew, of course, so he probably thought that his approval was of “what is excellent” because he considered himself “instructed from the Law” (cf. Ro 2:17-18), but he was, in fact, really approving of blasphemy and murder under a thin religious veneer.
And yet, Paul preached the whole counsel of God, declaring murderers, blasphemers, liars, wrathful men, and self-righteous pharisees to be under the wrath of God. He spoke frequently against sin.
The Duty of Preaching the Gospel
Paul wasn’t unaware of his own sinfulness, but he preached the Law. He knew that the law is good if one uses it lawfully: If one uses it to reveal sin, man’s inability to do what is right, and the need men have of a perfect, substitutionary Sacrifice, the Savior Christ Jesus. What Paul said about the Gentiles in Romans 1:32 is what Luke says of Paul in Acts 8:1, and what Paul says of himself in Acts 22:20. Paul understood that he was no different, no better, no wiser than those to whom he had to preach the Law. He knew that he too needed a perfect Savior to save him from the wrath of God.
I think that the self-righteousness of our “old Adam” is what keeps us from (i.)fully accepting our guiltiness before God’s Law, (ii.)repenting and accepting the forgiveness of our sins in Christ, and (iii.)sharing both the Law and the Gospel with those who also need to hear it.
Perhaps we all can learn something from Paul. Perhaps we can fully embrace God’s testimony about ourselves in His Law, and then believe His testimony about what’s He’s done for vile, wretched sinners like us in His Gospel. Paul did this, and he preached the Law not as a hypocrite, but as a sinner who was just as unrighteous as any other sinner, but who had found mercy in the cross of Jesus Christ.