In a sentence: Because it’ll help us see how sinful and lost everyone is apart from Christ.
The reality is that we don’t believe that Romans 1, Sermon on the Mount, clearly Biblical teaching very often. We just don’t.
Fred Phelps Sr. is the pastor (or was; they may have excommunicated him, apparently) of Westboro Baptist Church, the church that famously pickets the funerals of dead soldiers and holds up signs claiming they are happy for tragedies like 9/11 or the disappearance of the Malaysian plane recently. They do all this, they claim, because all of America is akin to the world of Noah’s day, and they are akin to Noah. They’re prophets like he was, and that is why they speak what they do and say it how they say it.
Most orthodox Protestant Christians don’t believe God is going to use prophets quite like Noah any time soon. Not to mention Old Testament prophets often intermixed great sadness for the destruction of the wicked into their inflammatory language. But that’s not why I don’t believe Westboro Baptist when they claim their Noah-ness is their reason for picketing and shouting so viciously. I don’t believe them because I think the real reason is obvious to just about any sensible person: they want to be in the news or get attention, and doing what they do achieves that end.
But, blog posts should be short, so I don’t want to dwell on Phelps’ or the Westboro Baptist Church’s reason for refusing to obey the New Testament’s command to try and live peaceably with everyone and for church leaders to try to have good reputations among outsiders. Here’s why we should pray for him, as (according to the LA Times and the Topeka Capital-Journal) he dies in hospice: Because if we believe God shouldn’t save Fred Phelps, then we have forgotten, or never understood, the Gospel.
Paul, the apostle God used to preach the Gospel to Gentiles, called himself the chief of sinners. And for pretty good reason, considering that he tried to kill Jesus’ church in its infancy. He threw some of the first Christians into jail, dragging them away from their friends and families, in the words of the book of Acts. And in the middle of that persecuting of Jesus’ followers, on his way to Damascus to round up more and violently seize them, Jesus saved the man and turned him into a missionary.
The Gospel is the good news that God saves people from what they have done by what Jesus has done. You and I wickedly rebelled against the pure and holy Creator, cheated on Him by worshiping the false gods of ambition or sex or money, denied His goodness in Adam. You and I were or are jacked up, evil, idolatrous sinners. And in Jesus Christ, the best and only true King offers us pardon. He says to believe on His Son, the Lord Jesus, and be saved. Forgiven.
But see, we think the situation is that we are good and Fred Phelps is wicked. We think we are justified by our own Fred Phelps-less-ness. We are often outraged that someone would picket the funeral of a dead marine, but also secretly energized because we don’t do that. It’s the same reason we gossip. It makes us good and the other person, the one we are oh-so-sadly shaking our heads about, bad. It makes us in and them out. It justifies us.
Well, works-righteousness may justify us with ourselves or with our friends or on Facebook or at the water cooler, but it doesn’t justify us with God. We are or were wicked. There is none righteous, but one. All people have a need for Christ to be their righteousness and for Christ to justify them.
If we don’t want Fred Phelps to be saved then we don’t understand how sinful we were or are. And if we don’t think people like Fred Phelps can repent or be saved, then we don’t understand how good Jesus was and is. That’s why we should pray for him. So that he gets salvation and we understand the Gospel more fully.