Union University R.G. Lee Society of Fellows

"What Will They Hear"
Romans 10:8-17

by Dr. Jere Phillips
Executive Director
West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists

Dr. Jere Phillips
Dr. R. G. Lee was called at his home in the early evening one Christmas eve. The caller was a man who had never met Dr. Lee, but whose wife had occasionally attended Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis. The caller asked Dr. Lee to come to the hospital because his wife was very sick and was calling for the pastor. At first Dr. Lee asked if he could come the following day since his family was about to gather for Christmas dinner. The distraught husband replied, "Please come, pastor. She may not live until morning."

Dr. Lee went to the hospital room and stood with the man by his wife’s bedside. The lady looked up at the famous preacher and said, "Dr. Lee, I heard you preach." He responded with kind words and tried to read a Scripture to her when she gripped his hand and said again, "Dr. Lee, I heard you preach." The pastor thanked her and started to lead into prayer as the woman looked deeply into his eyes, holding his hand, and said with intensity, "Dr. Lee, I heard you preach." With those words, she stopped breathing and went gently into eternity.

As Dr. Lee departed the hospital, having shared in sympathy and prayer with the husband, he thought to himself, "She heard me preach. What did she hear?"

Anonymous people slip in and out of our Sunday services without us knowing their personal situations. People from every walk of life in all types of circumstances fill our pews. Many have needs we could never imagine. Even regular church members, whom we see several times a week, may harbor inner conflicts and confusions they have not shared with their minister or fellow members. When the human spirit enters the house of God, yearning for answers to life’s deepest questions, what will it hear?


I. Will They Hear At All? (vs. 14)

Unfortunately, many would-be seekers never get that far. Living outside the realm of Christendom is the vast majority of the world’s population. They do not comprehend the name "Jesus." No one has demonstrated His love in word or deed. Without a miracle, these will never hear about Christ.

The ranks of unreached people also include many friends and neighbors of the average church member. They live next door. They work together at the factory. They attend football games and PTA meetings together. Christian and pagan live side by side and still the gospel of Christ is not presented in such a way that the miracle of conversion transforms their lives.

"How can they believe in whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher?" Paul cries for those who do not hear the gospel and miss the road signs to salvation. The lost cannot believe if they have never heard. Who is to tell them? Obviously, the preacher.

Does that mean that it is only the preacher’s responsibility that people are saved. Surely not. Every Christian is the recipient of the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations. Still, the pastor has the unique role of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. If the minister is not a personal soul-winner, how can he lead his congregation to be so? If the minister does not teach his people to share the good news, how can they know what to do and why to do it? If the minister does not cast a world vision before his people, how will they find the heart to send the message to the uttermost part of the world?

As a pastor I struggled with the dynamic tensions of two strong calls. One came from the church members who wanted the pastor to focus on their needs, on their church, on their families. The other call came from the lost of the neighborhood, and from around the world. Hearing and responding to the local call to missions and evangelism was fairly easy since the result was the growth of my own church. Heeding the clarion call of the mysterious masses on the other side of the world was difficult and their voices often dimmed amidst the urgent claims of the immediate.

Jesus, as the One sent from Heaven to mankind, delivered His mandate for missions to those whom He had chosen to show mankind the way to Heaven. "As the Father hath sent me, so send I you."1 The twofold measure of that commission to the preacher is to be sent personally to the lost sheep with a confidence that the ninety and nine are safe in the fold. The commission is also to motivate the ninety and nine to share in the mission, locally and globally.

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the modern church growth movement is the localization of missions. Focusing on growing a large church, the minister accepts that he does have a mission field in his Jerusalem. That in itself is good, not bad. The minister may become very successful in reaching the lost of his own community. That, too, is very good. The stark question is: does he do so to the exclusion of reaching the hordes of humanity hungering for the hope of Christ?

To ignore the uttermost part of the world while concentrating the gospel solely on those who may benefit the membership of our own church is to abuse the promise of Acts 1:8. Those filled with the Holy Spirit of God are not only His witnesses in Jerusalem, but at the same time will lead the church to bring the gospel to those in Judea, Samaria and the uttermost part of the world. The emphasis of the verse is on simultaneous missions, not sequential missions.

Jesus said the world is like a field white unto harvest, needing laborers to bring it in. Dr. Lee once wrote "Harvest time is crisis time.... Grain once ripe must be gathered in at once or it will fall to the ground and be lost. Doors once opened but unentered may close again. Minds made susceptible but not won for Christ may turn away and become hardened. Truth resisted once is easier to resist next time....It is now or never -- when the harvest is ripe and ready for the reaping."2

II. Will They Hear the Right Message? (vs. 15)

The culture of contemporary preaching is filled with alternatives. Some preachers are seduced by techniques that seem to be more appealing to secular society. Unfortunately, they often neglect to bring the old message into the new methods. Wishing for larger audiences, some ministers have abandoned the basic gospel for repackaged pop psychology that addresses emotional and developmental problems without the challenge to lifestyles steeped in sin.

Paul told his preacher boy, Timothy, "Preach the Word."3 How can they hear without a preacher? A preacher is simply one who proclaims the Word of God. Without the authority of the Holy Scripture, the preacher has no right to speak. Without the text of the Word, the preacher has no message to bring. Without the truth of the Bible, the preacher has no moral basis on which to stand.

In a sermon to the Centennial Exposition in Dallas, Dr. R. G. Lee made this characteristic declaration:

The Bible is our greatest national asset -- that supreme Book, supernatural in origin, divine in authorship, human in penmanship, infallible in authority, inexhaustive in its adequacy, a miracle book of diversity in unity, infinite in scope, universal in interest, eternal in duration, personal in application, inspired in totality, regenerative in power, inestimable in value, immeasurable in power, unsurpassed in literary beauty, unequaled in simplicity of expression, immortal in its hopes, the masterpiece of God."4

The primary subject of the Word of God is the Son of God. The preaching of the man of God should center on the redeeming work of the Lamb of God. The people of God hunger to know more about the One Sent by God to be their Savior.

The Apostle Paul reminded the church at Corinth that he and his associates did not preach themselves, but Christ crucified.5 How wicked and wrong for us to preach our pet peeves when the world dies waiting for news of a Savior! The subject of our sermons is not to be excerpts from the local newspaper or issues of our own making. Let us preach Christ!

Preaching at the State Missions program of the Tennessee Baptist Convention in 1946, R. G. Lee said that the bulwarks of the church for mission work is Christ! He preached that we should proclaim Christ in his deity and in his death and resurrection. He urged that preachers should proclaim Christ:

  • Once on the tree -- now on the throne
  • Once in the place of humiliation -- now in the place of exaltation
  • Once in the place of degradation -- now in the place of glorification
  • Once in the place of wrath -- now in the place of dignity
  • Once in the place of the curse -- now in the place of the crown
  • Once in the place of horror -- now in the place of honor. 6

Therefore, let us heed the urging of James S. Steward and "resist all temptations to dilute your Gospel. Your task is not to send people away from church saying, ‘That was a lovely sermon’ or ‘What an eloquent appeal.’ ...When St. Peter finished his first great sermon in Jerusalem...I do not read that ‘when they heard this, they were intrigued by his eloquence,’ or ‘politely interested in his literary allusions,’ or ‘critical of his logic and his accent.’ What I do read is ‘When they heard this, they were pierced to the heart.’"7

The text declares the beauty of those who preach the "gospel of peace" and who "bring glad tidings of good things." When we hear the haunting words, "I heard you preach," let us know that our congregation heard the gospel of Christ from the Word of God.


III. Will They Receive What They Hear? (vs. 16-17)

It is true that even if we are faithful in proclaiming the truth of God’s Word and the riches of the gospel of Christ, there are those who will not accept our word or our Lord. Paul told the church at Rome that "they have not all obeyed the Gospel." Paul quoted Isaiah as he declared the word of the Lord, "But to Israel He saith, All day long I have stretched forth my hands unto a disobedient and gainsaying people." (vs. 21)

Unfortunately there are many who will not receive the new life Christ has to offer. Perhaps they are satisfied with the way their lives are going. Maybe they are proud and will not humble themselves before God. Some may be like a man I met on an airplane on the way to a mission trip in Brazil. After getting acquainted, our conversation turned to spiritual matters. As we talked into the late hours of the night, he continued to offer countless arguments and ask unending questions about the Bible, about the history of the Church, about minute theological issues. Finally I asked him, "If I were to answer all your questions to your intellectual satisfaction, would you then accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord?" After a long, thoughtful pause, the man said, "No." When I asked him why, he replied, "Because I refuse to place my life in anyone’s hands but my own."

"They have not all obeyed the Gospel." They are a "disobedient and gainsaying people." We preach to a world that for the most part does not want our Christ. This reality does not diminish our responsibility to preach Christ, but it does sometimes discourage us.

Often I counsel with fellow ministers who are disheartened. They are weary of preaching without results. They tire of the rejection to their faithfulness. They want to see people saved and feel it may be their own faults when people are not saved. Having left all to serve Christ and to bring His love to the people, they reach the end of their emotional reserves and contemplate quitting.

Over a thousand Southern Baptist ministers a year do exactly that -- quit. Perhaps their reasons involve church conflict, or personal crises. Still many either quit altogether or move to another field, quitting where they were, because they are discouraged.

Friend, Paul knew there would be those who would not receive his message, but he still proclaimed it. Christ knew there would be more reject Him than accept Him, but He still died for all. You and I cannot be in ministry only if we are assured of resounding success in terms of visible results. Our call and commission is to faithfully proclaim the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever happens between the people who hear and the Lord is out of our hands.

We can only be grateful that God often does break through the stony barriers we erect to His love. As we faithfully proclaim the love of Christ, people do hear and are saved. The testimony of those whose lives are transformed is all the motivation we need to remain constant "in season and out," when our ministry flourishes and when it seems to wane, when our hearers respond and when they close their ears and their hearts one more time.

R. G. Lee tells of the dying message of Dr. Samuel Palmer Brooks, president of Baylor University, to the senior class of 1931: "I stand on the border of mortal life, but I face eternal life. I look backward to the years of the past to see all pettiness, all triviality, shrink into nothing and disappear. Adverse criticism has no meaning now, only the worthwhile things, the constructive things that have built for the good of mankind and the glory of God count now. ... Remember, my students, not to regard lightly nor to ridicule the sacred things, those worthwhile things. Hold them dear, cherish them... the compensation of blessing and sweetness at the last will glorify every hour of work and every heartache from hardship."8

Our world is filled with people close at hand and far away who need the good news of Christ. As ministers of the Word, we have a unique commission to participate in God’s plan to proclaim His gospel to every person in our reach, and to expand our reach around the world. One thing is sure, they cannot believe on Him of whom they have not heard and they cannot hear unless Christ be preached.

When broken humanity enters our churches what will they hear? Will they hear at all? Will they hear the right message? Will they receive what they hear? As ministers of the Gospel of Christ, let us be challenged by the words of James S. Stewart: "Surely in this immensely critical hour, when millions of human hearts are besieged by fierce perplexities; when so many established landmarks of the spirit are gone, old securities wrecked, familiar ways and habits, plans and preconceptions, banished never to return; when the soul is destined to meet, amid the crash of old beliefs, the ruthless challenge and assault of doubt and disillusionment; when history itself is being cleft in twain, and no man can forecast the shape of things to come -- the Church needs men who, knowing the world around them, and knowing the Christ above them and within, will set the trumpet of the Gospel to their lips and proclaim His sovereignty and all-sufficiency."9

Written by Dr. Jere Phillips
Executive Director
West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists


1. John 20:21

2. R. G. Lee, "Sleeping in Harvest," By Christ Compelled. Daniels Publishing Co. 1981, pp. 111-112

3. 2 Timothy 4:2

4. Robert G. Lee, The Name Above Every Name, Revell, 1938, pp. 157-158; quoted by Dr. Paul Gericke in The Preaching of Robert G. Lee, Daniels Publishing Co., 1967, p. 33

5. 2 Corinthians 4:5

6. R. G. Lee, "Marking the Bulwarks," a sermon preached at the State Mission Program of the Tennessee Baptist Convention, 1946. Sermon notes located in the R. G. Lee Library at Union University.

7. James S. Stewart, Heralds of God. Charles Scribners Sons. 1946, New York. p. 31

8. Robert G. Lee, Choice Pickings, Zondervan Publishing House, Grand Rapids. 1961. p. 62

9. James S. Stewart, op cite. p. 13


Dr. Jere Phillips has served as Executive Director of the West Virginia Convention of Southern Baptists since 1995. Prior to that he served for five years as Director of the Missions Department for the Tennessee Baptist Convention. A 1973 graduate of Union University, he holds the Master of Divinity and Doctor of Theology degrees from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Glenda have two daughters, Julianne and Jennifer.

Joanna Moore, Campus Ministries & Church Services

R.G. Lee Center for Christian Ministry