The American poet, James Russell Lowell, in protest against America’s war with Mexico (and the expansion of slavery via the annexation of Texas), penned these famous words:
“Once to every man and nation
comes the moment to decide,
in the strife of Truth with Falsehood,
for the good or evil side”
Although he wrote with direct reference to earthly matters, the full poem (included below) expresses, with eloquence and precision, a moral conscience worthy of any gospel sermon. In fact, Christian hymnals all over the world have since appropriated these words for musical worship, and evangelists have cited them on occasion while inviting their auditors to accept the word of Christ.
Indeed, when we teach the gospel, as per the Lord’s instructions (cf. Mk. 16.15), we must inevitably lead the listener to a crucible moment — a moment of testing and trial so strong, it leads them to make a decision to pursue a new path. Either the listener will be driven to embrace the faith, or reject it.
Once the gospel has been presented, the middle-ground of indifference can never again be reclaimed (cf. 2 Cor. 4.3f), for a choice either favoring it or not favoring it will be made (cf. Mt. 12.30).
There are two occasions in the book of Acts which illustrate this point, and they stand in vivid contrast to one another.
Cut To The Heart — Acts 7.54
When Stephen preached his sermon to the Jewish Sanhedrin, those godless men, who “always resist[ed] the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7.51), were “cut to the heart” (Acts 7.54). In their anger, they stoned him to death (v. 57-59).
The term rendered, cut, stems from the word: diaprio, to saw asunder; to cut all the way through. The Sanhedrin men were mentally and emotionally ripped in two by vexation and anger. Stephen’s message caused a flurry of negative thoughts to invade their carnal hearts, leading them to reject their savior.
Pricked In The Heart — Acts 2.37
By contrast, Peter’s audience reacted quite differently to the gospel message. The Bible says, “when they heard [Peter’s sermon], they were pricked in their heart” (Acts 2.37, ASV).
This word (katanusso) alludes to the stunned sensation one experiences after sustaining a sharp pain — i.e., akin to a stupor; torpor of mind (cf. Rm. 11.8). Instead of thoughts flooding the mind (as with Stephen’s audience), the mind is in a state of shock, like a deer in the headlights, and the heart is stung with intense shame.
Having realized that they were wrong, and believing Peter’s message, Peter’s audience purged their minds of all reasonings and excuses, and in their stunned humility and shame, they simply asked: “men and brethren, what shall we do?” (v. 37). And that is precisely the attitude that ought to characterize us all!
At this moment — when confronted with the truth — some, like Stephen’s audience, decide to fill their minds with self-righteous thoughts, excuses, bitterness, schemings, etc…(cf. Ps. 10.3-4). They go beyond the point of feeling ashamed of their sins against the will of God (cf. Jer. 6.15; 3.3).
Hence, in their self-righteous recalcitrance, they “stop their ears” (Acts 7.57), “refuse to hear” the words of God (Jer. 13.10), scream internally or externally “with a loud voice” (Acts 7.57), and choose instead to “follow the dictates of their hearts” (Jer. 13.10; cf. 11.8).
Others, however, like Peter’s audience, decide to abandon human reasonings (cf. Prov. 3.5; 14.12; Jer. 10.23), in order to concentrate on a single, soul-stunning point: viz., I’m wrong; God is right (cf. Rm. 3.4). As Paul put it:
“casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Cor. 10.5).
In other words, when we are “pricked in the heart” by the gospel, our thoughts will be silenced with shame and humility, so that God’s thoughts can take precedence (cf. Habakuk 2.20; Isa. 55.8-9).
Let us all, therefore, in that “moment to decide” between the honest path and the path laden with self-deceit, first quiet the mind (cf. 1 Pt. 3.4), humble the heart (cf. 1 Pt. 5.6), open the ears (cf. Jms. 1.19), and take courage in the conviction: God alone is wise — to him be glory through Jesus Christ forever! Amen (cf. Rm. 16.27).
“Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble, when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit, and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue of the faith they had denied.
By the light of burning martyrs, Christ, Thy bleeding feet we track,
Toiling up new Calv’ries ever with the cross that turns not back;
New occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth,
They must upward still and onward, who would keep abreast of truth.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”
—James Russell Lowell (1845)