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Changed By Glory

"And we all… beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another." II Cor. 3:18

The Foundation of A Disciple

Introduction

Let me tell you a story. A true story the begins ages ago, so far back that it is, for us, beyond comprehension. Before stars burned in space, before the earth rotated in its orbit. Before there was anything but eternity and the only thing in that eternity was the eternal One. That is where the story I am telling begins.

Some details of the beginning of this story are as beyond knowing as eternity itself. But there are some things we do know, because the Eternal One has told them to us. Before there was creation, even the greatest and most glorious of that creation, man and woman – made to know and glorify their Creator as they reflect his character and rule on earth, God knew that man would use his unique freedom to attempt to throw off the rule of his Creator, he would seek independence from the One who lovingly fashioned him, made a covenant with him, and provided him with everything he needed and more. But God still created, because on the other side of this rebellion he had a plan that would magnify his glory even farther than it had been in the original creation. He had a plan that would lead to even greater and sweeter fellowship with his Creation. It was a plan to redeem.

Now we need to understand something else about God and this plan to redeem. He did not have to do this. The creation added nothing to God. He is entirely self-sufficient. In delight, He made the creation so that others who bear his image could delight in him. But when man fell, mankind for whom the rest of creation was constructed as a theatre of God’s glory, it was well within God’s rights to judge them in an instant. But just as creation was made to display to man the glory of God’s might and wisdom, now through redemption God would display the glory of his grace, justice, mercy, and love. He would do this by loving the unloveable, by redeeming the broken, by doing whatever had to be done to display his grace by bringing back from this mess a remnant made whole again.

It was in this plan that he fixed his love on a people, made up of individual persons. He chose to love people that were broken. People that were sinful. People that deserved his wrath. People that would become monuments of his grace. People that he would reveal himself to and call to himself, and do everything that was needed to turn them from enemies to friends, from bastards to children. He would pursue these people in love, make known to them his character and restore in them the image that had been broken.

So way back there in eternity past, with this design, in the mystery of it all, God fixed his love on individuals down through time. And among those was a man who lived in the Middle East in the 1st Century. Like us all, this man was a rebel against God, even though he belonged to a nation of people that God had shown grace and revealed his law to. This man, however, was probably despised by his own people, especially the religious. He was a tax-collector, a contractor for the nation that had Israel under its thumb. He gets lumped in with a group often referred to as “tax collectors and sinners”. His name was Levi, or Matthew as we more commonly know him. He was cursed. He was condemned. The image of God he was created to bear was broken because of the fall. He was dead in sin.

Then one day this Eternal One stepped into history, he breathed the air we breathe, he came to do what was necessary for redemption, to do what we could not. And one day as his feet crossed over a dirty stone street, he walked by Levi’s tax booth. This was no coincidence. This had been planned from eternity past. Something of eternal proportions was happening on that day by the Sea of Galilee in the life of one individual. And as he walked by the booth, the Eternal One who had taken on flesh, Jesus, looked at Matthew, and with mercy and authority he spoke words that would change everything for this man, words of eternal implications, he commanded this sinner, “Follow me.” And you know what he did? He got up. He left everything. And he followed Jesus.

Why should he get up? What was going through his mind that would cause him to ask no questions, to make no requests, but to simply rise from his source of income and earthly security and follow this man from Nazareth? We can’t know for sure what he was thinking. But we know he knew he had a need. Even as he heard the command, something was calling inside of him. God was doing something he had planned from eternity. Matthew was awakened to his need. And we know he knew he had a need, because Jesus went with him to his house where other tax-collectors and sinners like him gathered. And those that watched, that thought God owed them his favor, those that considered themselves worthy of God’s approval, looked on and asked Jesus, “Why are you with these people?” And Jesus responded that it is the sick that need a doctor, meaning, he explained, he didn’t come to save those who consider themselves to be righteous, but those that know they are sinners.

When Jesus walked past Matthew that day and said “Follow me”, what was he asking exactly? What did he call Matthew to? He called him to life. He called him to mercy. He called him on a journey of becoming like the one who called him. He called him to have the broken image restored and to seek its restoration in others. He was called to a new identity. A new life. He was called to trust and obey his redeemer. He was called to be a disciple.

A disciple – someone who disciplines themselves to become like their teacher. Someone who submits to their teacher. One who follows – in creed and in character.

The journey Matthew was beginning is one that would not be easy. He was being called to become like the one that the world hated, because they hated God. By all indications his journey would end in his beheading in Nad-Devar, Ethiopia for the name of Jesus. But being called and loved by one who is eternal, from eternity, means that his sacrifice was not loss. Because his treasure, his life, his hope, his future, was found in following the one who loved him, wherever that may lead.

Over the next few posts we are going to see what would motivate him to be willing to do that, why this happened to him, and what waited for him on the other side of this suffering identity with his Savior. But for today I want us to only consider the beginning of it all. The foundation of a disciple of whom Matthew is just one example. The foundation of the normal Christian life. Yes, what we are going to be talking about the next few weeks are the foundation, fuel, function and future of the normal Christian life. And it is my prayer that this will challenge us, stir us, and awaken us. Perhaps some of you as you read this description today of the foundation of the normal Christian will realize that this does not describe you and you will, by God’s grace hear Jesus call “follow me” today. Perhaps some of you will see that you have only had a partial understanding of what it means to be a Christian. Perhaps some of you will have your vision refocused, be reminded of your foundation, and will therefore be helped along the journey.

To understand what it means to be a disciple, a normal Christian, we need to understand the beginning of a disciple. Because if you call yourself a disciple, a follower of Jesus, but the foundation is not there, you will fail and be without hope. The foundation is everything.

So what is the foundation of a disciple? What is the beginning of the Christian?

We will consider this in three points: Calling, Conversion, Community.

Calling

What Matthew and others (laying down nets) experienced was a calling that had two parts to it. Matthew heard the external call “Follow me” and then he responded because of an irresistible call from within.

So what is the external call? The external call is the warning of danger, the news of loss, and the announcement of rescue and restoration through Christ. It is the proclamation to rebels that Jesus Christ is Savior and Lord. It is not an invitation, but a command. A command to acknowledge your sin, turn, and trust in the Savior. But it is not a call to only a one-time event, it is a call to follow.

As Jesus said, he did not come to call the righteous, but sinners. Disciples begin as sinners who hear the good news of salvation. This is not good news and is not worthy of being responded to with an abandoned life if one does not first know that they are a sinner and all that entails. The call to rise and follow will not be compelling if you don’t know that you need to be rescued. Unless you know that you are broken you will not long to be clothed with the wholeness found in identification with Christ.

This external call goes out from those who have already been called. From Christ the messages flows forth from his people. We have the awesome privilege today of proclaiming Christ crucified – hanging forsaken, beaten and torn, in anguish for sin that was not his own, to open the way to life, to redemption. We proclaim the call that the nail pierced hands, pierced for our transgression, beckon to you and say, “Follow me.”

The external call is required for salvation. Paul makes clear in Romans 10 that apart from the preaching of the message of Christ no one is saved, no disciple is made. But the external call alone is not sufficient.

Many hear the external call and they respond like many responded to Jesus. They turned away, or they made excuses. Jesus told parables about this, about those who hear the call and they all have reasons not to respond. Many hear the external call, but do not respond ultimately because of the absence of an internal call which overcomes their rebellion and apathy. This is what Jesus meant when he explained why some do not respond to the external call: For many are called, but few are chosen. (Matthew 22:14) I say this to highlight the fact that life of a disciple begins as a result of God’s sovereign grace that he does not owe anyone. We are completely reliant on his mercy to us because we are so hardened and blinded by our rebellion.

But the good news is this. All that the Lord calls, come! This is what Jesus means when he says things like “all that the Father give me will come to me”, and “no man can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” and “my sheep hear my voice and I know them and they follow me.”

I feel it is important to teach about the internal, irresistible call of God, because Jesus taught about it. And later Paul would teach about. And I think it is important to have this foundation for two reasons. First, to give you assurance if you are a disciple and second, to remind you that you are a disciple by grace. And if you are not a disciple, I don’t say this to discourage you, but to assure you that if today you will respond to the external call, you can be assured with confidence in God’s salvation because a desire to respond is the gracious work of God within in you and you have his promise that if you respond he will save you and will never let you go, because he finishes what he begins. And if you call on him in faith it is because he has begun something. The foundation of a disciple is in eternity past.

So putting the external and internal together, what is calling? It is when at the hearing of the gospel, we have the knowledge of sin, the knowledge of the Savior, awakened in us by God’s gracious inward call. Saving calling is when both occur. It is when after hearing the good news of Christ slain for sinners and risen, God declares to your darkened heart “Let there be light” and you see the glory of grace come streaming in upon your wretched soul, the beauty of Christ, the allure of him who calls you. Which makes response irresistible. A response that we call “conversion”. Conversion is the “getting up from the tax booth”. It is responding with action to the call of the Savior to follow him to life.

Conversion

The proper response to the call is to get up from the table, to lay down your nets, place all your trust in Christ, and pursue him. It is abandoning hope of salvation and meaning in anything else. It is forsaking all flimsy saviors, and harsh masters, it is abandoning your quest for independence. Jesus used many examples to speak of this. Conversion is finding the pearl of great price and giving up everything to have it. It is selling all your possessions to buy a field that has a treasure buried in it. It is, as Paul experienced, counting all things as loss to know Christ – to follow him, even into suffering. It is doing what Christ commanded in his call in Mark 1:15, “The kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel.” This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 10 when he declares that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord (repentance) and you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead (faith) you will be saved.”

But why do you do it? Why are you willing to go to such radical extremes? Again, it is because of God’s gracious call. Awakening in you a sense of your need. It is because “the God who said let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give us light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Through that internal calling you are moved to see your sin, to see the Savior, to see God in his beauty that you refused to acknowledge before. You are moved to see Christ, crucified and risen and your soul cries, “I want that! I need that!”

Friends, no one is born a Disciple. No one is a Christian because they go to church and try to do good. No one is a Christian because they say they believe in Christian truth. No one is a Christian because their parents were Christians. Understanding this is of eternal importance, Christians are those who have heard the Gospel call, and responded to God’s gracious work, by repenting of their sin and trusting in Christ alone. What does that mean? Notice that Paul in Romans 10 portrays repentance as confessing Christ as Lord, that means you acknowledge who he is. That he has the right to rule your life. It is acknowledging that up to this point you have not submitted to his rightful rule. Confessing that Christ is Lord is abandoning your independence and beginning a life of submitting to him. If you have not done that, you are not converted. The second part, believing in your heart that God raised him from the dead, has to do with trusting in how Christ has dealt with your rebellion and the judgment you deserve. Paul, also in Romans, says that Christ was raised for our justification. That mean that belief in the resurrection is belief that the sin that called for your just condemnation was dealt with in the death of Christ on the cross and now as he lives, you live as well. Conversion is calling on the name of the Lord for salvation. This is not merely agreeing in your mind with the truth. It is from the heart. Read the Psalms where we see this idea of “calling on the name of the Lord” for salvation. It is always preceded by anguish, by longing, by the feeling of despair and profound need. God! Save me!

Beloved, there are many churches that are weak, that are powerless as witnesses to the truth, dim as light in the darkness, because they are churches that have few disciples, which simply means they are churches where few are converted. We often have a strange way of judging the spiritual state of churches. Churches aren’t dead because the music is boring and the people are reserved and the preacher doesn’t tell good stories. Churches are dead when the people in the church are dead, because they have never been converted. They have never responded from the heart to the call. They have never got up from the table, they have never left their nets, they have never denied themselves, taken up their cross and followed Jesus. Oh, yes, that is perhaps the most shocking description of conversion Jesus gives, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?” (Matt. 16:24-26)

Salvation and discipleship are inseparable. People that are saved are disciples. And conversion is where the path of discipleship begins. Why? Because the aim of discipleship is that you look just like your master. That you look like Christ. We are saved so we can become like the Savior. Understand that there is no such thing as casual Christianity. It is either your life or you have no part in it. Don’t put your hope in a one-time experience, because the life of a disciple is a life of constantly taking your cross, it is a life of ongoing faith in Christ’s atoning work, a life of repentance and submission to his Lordship. Because we fail, because the life of a disciple is a journey to becoming like the one who called us. The proof of our calling and conversion is not in what we say, but is found in shouldered crosses and lives that look more and more like Jesus.

Conversion, is the glad response of the heart to hearing the Gospel, by which we embrace Jesus as Savior and acknowledge him as Lord.

This takes place within. But just as all of creation displays the glory of God, and nearly every spiritual reality has a visible manifestation, so also in connection with our conversion the life of the disciple is marked by the sign of baptism.

We are visible creatures. What we see communicates things to us. And in his wisdom Christ commanded baptism as the introductory sign of what has occurred in our hearts. To show that we have to turned from sin to God, to show that by the power of God we have gone from darkness to light, from death to life.

The command we will consider more fully later is found in Matthew 28, where we see that we are redeemed to redeem – disciples of Jesus are to go to all people and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In Acts, when Peter preached the gospel after Pentecost, the people that were convicted asked how they should respond, and he replied by saying they needed to repent and be baptized. Going down in the water in baptism was meant to display the death of our old, sinful, condemned self by it being united with Christ through faith in his death; rising from the waters displays our rising united with Christ by faith to new life, free from the curse of sin and its soul-destroying power. It shows that I am one with Christ – his work, my work; his life, my life. It says that I am a disciple and that you can now expect that I will look more and more like the one I have been identified with in Baptism. What baptism displays in a moment is to be seen all throughout our lives.

But why Baptism? Why is this outward act necessary? And that leads us to the final point on the foundation of a disciple.

 Community

Why baptism? Because though God calls individuals, he calls them into a community. From the very beginning the display of God’s glory in humanity was always meant to be in community. Because God has called a people, and not just persons, to himself, he has always given them forms which unite them in a visible, tangible sense. Ways of communicating and even experiencing spiritual reality – we call these sacraments. And at the front door, at the foundation of discipleship, is baptism. Through baptism you display to the other disciples witnessing that you are one with Christ in his death and resurrection, which means that you are one with them.

Christ set the pattern for discipleship by calling and teaching people. Now the church, the community of disciples, as his body on the earth, is God’s means of discipleship, his instrument of redemption, of renovation, of shaping his people more and more to look like Jesus.

This has some important implications on how we think of the local church which is a visible manifestation of a greater spiritual reality which joins all believers from all time. Because being a member of a church is for people that have visibly identified through baptism as disciples of Jesus, church is for disciples. And you can’t be a disciple without being a part of a church.  Yes, I do not believe, on the basis of scripture, that you can live the life of a disciple apart from identity with a real group of fellow disciples. (Of course there may be cases of sickness or imprisonment which keep a Christian from a community of Christians, but such disfellowship should never be voluntary.)

The natural outflow of conversion and baptism in the book of Acts was gathering for fellowship, prayer, teaching, and communion. And the number of those gathered increased as more were added, through what? Baptism.

The assumption of the Bible, especially in our case the New Testament, is that the life of a disciple is a life lived in intentional community with other disciples helping each other move onward and upward toward conformity to their master. This is what Paul teaches in his letter to the Ephesians. We have been saved, and lumped together as a people being built up by the Holy Spirit into a display of the glory and presence of God on the earth, showing forth his character. The means of displaying God’s glory and wisdom is the church, those with a common Lord, hope, baptism, a common Father, filled with the same Spirit, gathering together to be equipped to minister to each other. To what end? Maturity in Christ! Looking like our master, the one who bought us. We will deal with this more later, but it is sufficient for now to say at the foundation of a disciple is his identity with the church, the body Christ, the dwelling place of the Spirit. The normal Christian life begins by being placed in a community of loving accountability that carries us through to the end.

Over the next few posts we are going to see what that looks like, what motivates us, and what the goal is in the life of a disciple. But please know this now, if we don not understand the foundation of a disciple, we will not understand what motivates a disciple. The life of a Christian is an active one, we were created in Christ Jesus for good works. We are in our actions to look more and more like Jesus, in light of that it is important that we never lose sight of the truth that this life we have as disciples is all of grace, that it is in fact a blessed privilege that we do not deserve. Any cost should pale in comparison to the joy that being a disciple yields. And a large part of that joy is acknowledging the grace behind our call. Remembering, in the failure and perhaps especially in the victory, that you are a disciple because you were loved by God before time began. And he didn’t love you because he saw what a good disciple you would make, no, he loved you according to his own sovereign grace. As a husband in a love-marriage chooses his bride, so he chose you. This what Jesus reminded his disciples of in John 15, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” That truth is the ground of our humility and our hope. The cost of discipleship is high, but we must realize that the cost was not first and foremost yours, but Christ’s. This foundation must be understood. If you simply try to follow Jesus, you will be in more despair than ever. To follow Christ, to be identified with him, is not earned, but given. It is a privilege bought by his blood. If you don’t understand the good news, the grace that is behind the call, you will not be able to endure the cost of discipleship.

Listen to the way Paul speaks to believers in Thessalonica, writing to them he says “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction…. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.” They had a right foundation and it was visible in their glad reception of the gospel, in their repentance, in their imitation of the Lord even in affliction, and in their proclamation of the Gospel. We see in this passage the root and fruit of discipleship. From God’s sovereign, loving choice, to the external call, the internal call, conversion, and all of this in the context of community.

(This post is adapted from a sermon from August 2016)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One Even As We Are One: Church Membership & The Prayer of Jesus

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may be one, just as you Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

John 17:20-21

There are perhaps few passages of Scripture more precious and rich than John 17. It doesn’t get better than this – so many themes in John’s gospel flood together in the prayer of our Savior for us. A prayer which we may place confident hope in and one from which we may also learn so much.

One thing that we may not think of as being promoted in this prayer is church membership. By church membership I mean a voluntary commitment to a group of Christians in recognition of the identity we share and the calling we have been given in Christ.

Few Christians doubt the oneness, the unity, they share with all Christians. No one disputes the need for unity. But it is that unity expressed through commitment, which is so often lacking. In a world, especially in the west, that is increasingly individualistic church is treated like something to be consumed, not something to be joined; like a service that is offered, and not like a reality to be expressed. Because of this, sometimes in the name being inclusive, churches have abandoned the idea of any formal commitment to a local group or “body” of believers all together. Or membership has become meaningless, without substance. This leads to churches where unity is assumed, rather than intentional; where commitment is nebulous; and where being “one body” is more theoretical than substantive when push comes to shove.

But this is not the kind of unity that Jesus prayed for his people. Because it is not the kind of unity with the Father that he displayed in his life. The unity of the Father with the Son was visible in the words and works of the incarnate Son in 1st century Palestine. His commitment was not nebulous, but clearly defined with sweat drops of blood and cries of agony as he prayed, “Not my will, but yours be done.” His oneness with his Father was not theoretical but clearly perceived in hearable and seeable things which showed he did only what he saw his Father doing. In fact, in John’s gospel Jesus appeals again and again to this “tangible unity” as proof of his oneness with the Father (i.e. John 5:37-38,7:16,8:19).

Why then would we think, that the life we are called to as Christians together would be any less tangible, any less committed, any less substantive? We are real people, living in real time and space, therefore, the kind of unity that God wills, which Christ prayed for us, is “incarnated” where we are in the context of the church.

Unity remains a mere idea until it is expressed in real time/space in the form of mutual commitment, shared mission, and tangible oneness. This is accomplished through membership in a local church.

The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is to be a reflection of the very real, gritty, painful, beautiful, lasting, loving oneness that we see displayed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The unity that Jesus prayed for his people is experienced and displayed through membership to a local church. And whether they scoff or marvel, it is such commitment alone which will display to the real world around us that the Father sent the Son to save sinners and it is to him, and therefore, to each other, that we belong.

What Would Compel Me? – A Poem

What would compel me

My mouth to open

Words unwanted

To hearts warped and broken?

 

Why give at great price

What nobody wants

Message of rescue

Answered only with taunts?

 

Give at great price

For at great price it was given

Salvation unwanted

To those by rebellion driven

 

I speak for he spoke

And by a miracle I heard

A voice irresistible

Conviction for the first time occurred

 

Like that Traveller to Damascus

What I did not seek sought me

My eyes were opened

To see one nailed to a tree

 

Dread filled my heart

The fear of the Lord it is called

A new thirst, a fresh hunger

By my state grew appalled

 

Undeserving of love

Love I know knew

Through words unwanted

When I saw him called True

 

Like the beauty of Dachstein

As Everest’s peak

The vision before me

Compelled me to speak

 

What I did not want

To others now proclaim

The glory of love

Christ Jesus his name

 

Wretched beyond belief

Gross beyond description

Hating all good

Yet he brought to me redemption

 

What compelled him was love

This controls me too

“Be reconciled to God!

He took all your due!”

 

If his love you now know

You will have affections bright

Speaking to listless rebels

Him who brought you from darkness to light

 

The Rope – A Picture of Church Membership

As a pastor convinced of the importance of each believer being a committed part of a local expression of the body of Christ – a church – I am always grasping at ways to talk about church membership and why it is important. No one can top the inspired picture of “one body with many members” that Paul employs, but recently in an attempt to express to my church what membership is and why it is important, I was struck with the following image.

The Christian life is a mountain climb, the substance beneath our feet is the gospel, the peak is conformity into the image of Christ, church membership is a rope going from base to summit, and becoming a member of a church means laying a hand on that rope. We learn from the New Testament, especially from places like Ephesians 4:11-16, Hebrews 3:13, 10:23-25 that it is by pushing and pulling our fellow climbers, calling up encouragements, echoing down warnings, that we reach the peak.

Imagine if we were strung together on the rope, all at different stages of the climb. What happens if one stops moving? What happens if one falls down? Such a one must be exhorted and encouraged. At times when the weak go limp we may even be required to pull them so that we can keep going. If one starts going backward, pulling the church down, the church must warn, push, and if need be, even cut them loose. When someone lets go of the rope and attempts the hazard of free-climbing, we reach out to them with earnest voice and stretching fingertips, pleading with them to once again lay hold of the rope.

Sometimes we hand people off to another rope (another church), but we dare not let people be free-climbers. Free-climbers are exposed to all sorts of dangers. They fall, they perish, they get lost, they lose track of the sure footing of the gospel.

We must admit, we need the rope. If we knew ourselves and our environment we would know we need the rope. I hope we are honest enough to see that. Our footing (the gospel) is sure, but the climb is steep while wind, rain, and storms of this life lash against the slopes. Darkness crowds in and obscures the peak at times. We need the rope. We need our fellow climbers. We dare not let go. And we dare not stop moving. To stop is not only deadly for us, but it pulls down and endangers others. There will be times when we have to be dragged, when we have to be pushed, but the rope is God’s means for getting us safely to the peak.

Do you see the danger of climbing without clinging to a rope? Have you ever stopped to consider that when you stop your climb, when you stop pulling and moving along with others, what effect that has on those around you? Are you holding a rope? And if you are, what kind of rope-holder are you? Do you put your team of climbers at risk or do you help everyone get to the top?

The invitation to church membership is an invitation to take hold of the rope. Anyone who has ever seen a movie about Everest or some other peak knows that going at it alone never ends well. We are too easily disoriented. Our straying feet slip from the gospel too readily without others to hold us up. When cold surrounds us, and we are fatigued from trying to climb in our own strength, we are tempted to lay down for a nap. And with no one attached to us, to shake us, to slap us, to yell at us amidst the snow, “Don’t you dare fall asleep, because you won’t wake up”, we die.

God keeps his people by his power. This is the truth that drives us on the darkest moments of the climb. But to let go of the rope is to turn aside once again to the very essence of our rebellion – which is to look at God and say, “I know better than you. I believe you will keep me apart from your means.” Such reasoning is Satanic and deadly.

Lay hold of the rope, if you have not already. Pull, push, shout, poke, shout some more. Don’t let go. When you lose your footing someone will be there, holding the rope to help reestablish you on the gospel. When you are weary, someone will be there to pull your weight. When you are falling asleep, overwhelmed with pain and fatigue, a chorus of voices will be there to shout “Only a little farther.”

Much that is called church membership is admittedly a mere association of free-climbers or a rope untethered. But I am speaking of something more meaningful than that. I am talking about a rope that is God’s means of getting his people on the footing of the gospel to the peak of glory in Christ along the slope of sin, through the darkness of deception, and the winds of suffering.

This is what we mean when we talk about church membership. This is the rope we need.

Preach Every Sermon As If It Were Your Last

Psalm 90:12

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (ESV)

2 Timothy 4:1-2,6

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word… For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. (ESV)

Perspective in life is important. I am one of those people that seems always in need of having my feet to the fire, which is perhaps why God has blessed me with a keen sense of my mortality. This is a gift from which we can learn so much, as long as we don’t allow ourselves to be driven to despair. When I was a young man, it was that sense of the temporality of life that drove me to desperate repentance, as a teen it drove me (with a little help from John Piper) to be determined not to waste my life, and now as a pastor it urges me to attempt to preach every sermon as if it were my last.

It is frighteningly easy when you are preaching week after week to begin to feel in your sermon prep the way you do about everything else in life. We begin to feel invincible, immortal. The steady beat of time falls on deaf ears. It is when I find myself in one of those moments that it seems God is most likely to stir me to preach, in Baxter’s words, as a dying man to dying men.

So what does it look like to preach every sermon as if it were your last? Here are five things to consider:

I. It must be faithful

Any pastor knows how easy it is to develop a laundry list of topics we would like to unleash on our congregations if our chances to preach were running out. But preaching this week as if it were our last sermon is not so much about “letting the sheep have it” as it is about knowing that I will soon stand before the Lord and give an account for how I presented his word. Therefore, the safest practice for a preacher in an uncertain world where we get into accidents and receive surprise diagnoses is to continue to faithfully exposit the Scriptures. This means no eisegesis. No twisting the text to make the most of the opportunity. We don’t know tomorrow. Only the Lord does, so we must be faithful. It is the Spirit working through the Word that brings life and changes hearts – it will be this way tomorrow, the week after, and every week after that until Jesus comes back. The Word will carry on, even if I am gone.

II. It must be patient

This is closely connected to faithfulness. Urgency must never overpower the patience that should mark pastorally-driven, Spirit-dependent preaching. This requires that we realize when we preach that God uses us, but he does not need us. His purposes will not fail. His kingdom will not cease when I step away from the pulpit.

III. It must be urgent

We must be patient. But if we are to preach each week like it is our last sermon, there is also an urgency that should mark our preaching. We are patient because the future is in God’s hands, but we are also urgent because the future is in God’s hands. When expounding a text of Scripture, it should be obvious in the clarity of the exposition, the passion in the deliverer, and the sharpness of the application, that this is an urgent word from the Lord to which we must respond. It is possible for preaching, under the guise of being faithful and patient, to fail to urgently bring people to a point of crisis. God’s word should be treated for what it is – bread for the starving, living water for the spiritually parched, life-giving prophecy for dry bones.

IV. It must be delivered as if you mean it

The very urgency that is required by the nature of Scripture as God’s revelation to us, should also shape us homiletically. If a sermon was our last, I think we would understand the urge to preach it like we mean it. A lot of the idiosyncrasies found in our niche of preaching culture would go out the window if we knew a sermon was our last. Perhaps that is a lesson we need to take to heart on a weekly basis. Let the text shape you, who God made you, and then let it flow out of you.

V. It must be replicable

Preaching every sermon as if it were your last means preaching in such a way that others can learn from and follow your example. There is something healthy about preaching in such a way that can be taught, a way which can be learned from you by the preachers of tomorrow. Does our preaching help people not only understand the text, but understand how to understand it? (Do you understand?) Is our preaching marked with Biblical theology that helps others build a blueprint of the Bible in their minds? Does our preaching display faithful patience, while preserving appropriate urgency, all the while delivered as by one who has himself been affected by the text? If you would preach every week as if it were your last, then you must be preaching to your replacement.

These are the lessons that I have been reflecting on. And if you preach or hope to have a future preaching, I hope you will put these things into practice in every opportunity that you have to teach the word of God to others, whether that be in a small group, a Sunday school class, or 1-2-1 over coffee.

Be faithful, be patient, be urgent, be real, and keep your eye on the future beyond you.

A Father’s Desire ~ A Poem

Life unknown

The pain too close

I need you to know

What for you I desire most

 

Tomorrow may have joy

Or with crushing sorrow sway

We are cursed and broken

You must, you must know the way

 

Flying from Adam’s paternity

Pain ever makes so clear

This our greatest priority

From this comes my deepest fear

 

See your broken patterns

The dirt that stains your heart

Before the pain o’er whelms you

Be desperate for a new start

 

There is One that gives it

A remedy for our genes

To heal us from our darkness

A blood that strangely cleans

 

Go to Jesus, my child

Seek His smitten face

He is heaven’s remedy

Because He took our place

 

Crushed – my final pummel

Bruised – my eternal blow

Killed – life to give me

Cursed – that I might know…

 

 

That life is found in Jesus

There is no other place

That gives me satisfaction

Than looking on His face

 

He is who you need

Lost, He for you wins

Run to Him my child

He’ll take away your sins

 

Siena, call him Savior

Augie, call him Lord

George, call him precious

Be held by His sovereign cord

 

Isabelle, plead for mercy

Owen, seek him too

To His promise He’s faithful

He will deliver you

 

Theodore, God’s gift indeed

But there is one greater still

The One who took the curse for you

By dying on that hill

 

My dear ones seek my Jesus

Then when all comes crashing down

We’ll have a hope unfading

A precious, righteous crown

 

Because Jesus was a child

Who never turned to sin

And grew to die for sinners

Death will not, will not win

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Assurance A Battle ~ A Poem

Life uncertain

Life not due

This is why

I look to you

Trust a battle

Faith a scare

Anxious thoughts

I daily wear

My breath is bated

My skin is pale

My tears now flow

For fear I dare not tell

Now I speak

The Gospel word

Repeating, repeating

The Spirit’s sword

I know it’s true

I know He’s there

All that I need

Amazing grace so fair

The sovereign King

Who holds all things

Bids me sing

Beneath His wings

Christ was slain

Jesus was broken

For my sins

Then was awoken

Life is certain

God’s promise true

Fear has no place

With the cross in view

Assurance a battle

The enemy grim

The Sun at times

It grows so dim

Shining still brightly

My future is set

For my Sun is my Savior

He will deliver me yet

To me He will come

Or to Him I will go

From this I’ll not move

His sure Word tell me so

So battle today

Or battle tomorrow

I won’t turn away

I won’t drown in sorrow

The Father has called

The living Son once died

The Spirit has filled me

I’m safe at His side

What Are You Sending Them To Do?

Joe and his wife, Jane, have been serving on a church planting team in Southeast Asia for 3 years. The time has come to be back in the States and enjoy the amenities of western life while updating their sending church on what they have been doing. At a special mid-week meeting Joe gets up to the podium with a pit in his stomach. The people were expecting stories of drastic conversions, of rapid multiplication of churches, perhaps even of healing and bizarre encounters where God flexed his saving arm. But there is a problem. Joe feels like he has none of that to tell. He has tried his best in newsletters to make things sound exciting, if he was honest even the numbers he submitted were embellished or “preemptively hopeful” as he told himself. But Joe knows the truth. Joe is anxious. Joe is embarrassed. They sent Joe on a mission. A mission at which he had failed – and now he had to get up in front of them with seemingly nothing to offer.

As he gets up and shares the mundane, day-to-day, seemingly fruitless ministry he is engaged in, should the church be disappointed? Should they consider recalling him or silently cutting their support in favor of the new guy who has planted 1000 churches in the past 6 years? The answer to that all depends on what the church expects of him.

What did they send him to do?

There are many “Joes and Janes” out there in the harvest fields, feeling the same pressures, asking themselves the same questions. Are we failures? What are we doing wrong? What will our supporters think of us?

Churches, you can help them. You can help them answer and avoid troubling questions as you raise up, send, and support them. And do churches go about doing that?

Churches help them by thinking clearly and biblically about what is they are sending people to do. There needs to be a theologically-based hierarchy of expectations.

Looking at a passage like Romans 10 we see that unless someone is sent, then Christ cannot be preached – a simple reality. And if Christ is not preached, he cannot be believed in and confessed by those that are lost. This passage outlines well our responsibility, the expectation that should be placed on those being sent.[1] To preach the word of Christ. This is how disciples are made.[2] But this duty that is presented to us has to be carried out in tandem with the biblical reality that no one can come to God unless the Father draws them. It must be done while embracing the truth that winning souls requires not only the word of Christ proclaimed, but the sovereign coming of  Spirit with power.[3]

What does this mean for the expectations churches place on missionaries? It means we need to know that God works through our faithfulness, but it isn’t always the work which we desire or the ideal result for which we send people. Paul admits as much when he says “But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?”[4] Not everyone will believe, because some are destined to hear and disbelieve.[5] But the only way any will believe is if they hear the “word of Christ” from those sent to preach.

With that understood one can begin to discern the common problems regarding the expectations placed on missionaries. Sending churches often expect those they send to make converts, start movements, plant churches, and tally baptisms. All of these things should be desires, prayers, and aims for the ministry – but they can’t be the expectation placed on those that are sent. Why? Because all of these things require both faithful ministry of the gospel and something that is outside of the control of the messengers – the sovereign work of God.

The faithful preaching of Christ unites and divides, it softens and hardens, it serves to establish and to cause to stumble. It is not for those that are sent to determine which result their work has, but to proclaim the gospel in confidence that the God-ordained result will certainly occur.

People may be producing flashy-yet-faulty results because of unfaithfulness and faithful people may be seeing nothing to literally “write home about”. It is the duty of the church to call people to faithfulness, identify such people, and send them for the purpose of being faithful to the mission: which is to plant and to water with the word of the cross, to be the “aroma of Christ”, “to proclaim the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light”.[6] You send them to do that, support them and encourage them in that, regardless of what the results may be. Why? Because “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” as we spread his aroma through the gospel proclaimed and lived, knowing that “even if our gospel is veiled it is veiled to those who are perishing”, knowing that we will be to some “the fragrance from life to life and to others the fragrance from death to death” because it is “God who gives the growth” and causes “light to shine out of darkness” “so that it might become apparent that the surpassing power belongs to Him and not to us.”[7]

The important truth that must shape your sending and supporting is that faithful, loving proclamation of the gospel, done for the glory of God, is never in vain – regardless of what kind of results are seen. That truth must shape your vision of missions at all stages: equipping people to go, sending people, and supporting them.

So when one couple has planted 100 churches and another has planted 0, you applaud God for his work and you encourage both for their mutual faithfulness.

This author has written elsewhere that there are people sent to the field who should not be on the field, but the other reality is that sometimes good, faithful people struggle to stay on the field, get immensely discouraged, and even leave when they can’t sustain their work because they don’t have the flashy numbers that are expected of them.

Churches need to have a biblical, theologically-rooted understanding of what we are sending missionaries to do. They need to have a different definition of success than the world does. They need to send people with the confidence that in the Lord our labor is never in vain.[8]

Make sure that the “Joes and Janes” that are sent never feel insecure about their ministry, that they are never tempted to embellish their reports, that they understand as they are faithful those churches that support them are with them 100%. Equip and encourage them for faithful ministry filled with humble confidence in the God who called them – in times of both ministry feast and famine. Remind them, as I was reminded by a friend recently, that God is always working, it may just be winter.

The following list is by no means comprehensive, but is simply some things that churches may consider as they raise up, send, and sustain missionaries in the field.

Practical steps for churches:

Define Success – Prepare people you may send by giving them a biblical definition of success as faithfulness.

Quantify Faithfulness – In ministry reports, do not ask primarily about results but develop ways to quantify faithfulness. If someone is being lazy and unfaithful they certainly shouldn’t expect fruit and faithfulness to proclaim is a right expectation for which they should be held accountable. In language learning ask people if they can clearly articulate the Gospel message. Ask missionaries not how many converts or Bible-study attendees they have, rather ask them how many people to whom the gospel has been clearly articulated. Find out the amount of time they are spending in intentional relationships – regardless of where those relationships end up.

Beware of The Message You Send – Avoid showcasing workers who have reports of a lot of positive results. This sends the wrong message to the weary-faithful. Often workers seeing a lot of harvest get promoted and put on a pedestal for things which only the Holy Spirit can be given the credit.

Communicate Expectations Both Ways – Ask those you support and send “What do you think we have sent you to do?” Find out what expectation they have placed on themselves. Clarify and even adjust your biblical expectations of them.

Support Faithfulness – If you are a church looking to financially support people, don’t necessarily pick people with flashy ministries with big success stories and assume that is a guarantee of their faithfulness. Some of the largest churches in the world are devoid of the gospel – numbers can lie. Support people who have proven to be faithful to the mission, including the message, even if they have little to show for it.

Send Faithful People – Make your church a proving ground for faithful ministry. Don’t assume zeal equals calling or maturity. Send people who have already proven faithfulness.[9] This should provide you with more confidence that they are being faithful to do what they have been sent to do when there is no discernible fruit being reported.

Pray – Labor alongside those you send/support with prayer anchored in the knowledge that it is God who grants repentance and the gift of faith[10]

[1] Romans 10:14-17

[2] Matthew 28:19

[3] John 6:44, 1 Thess. 1:5

[4] Romans 10:16

[5] 1 Peter 2:8

[6] 1 Cor. 3:6, 2 Cor. 2:15, 1 Peter 2:9

[7] 2 Cor. 2:14, 4:3, 2:16-17, 1 Cor. 3:7, 2 Cor. 4:6,7

[8] 1 Corinthians 15:58

[9] 2 Tim 2:2

[10] 2 Tim. 2:25, Ephesians 2:8

A Husband’s Pursuit ~ Poem

If she could see my inward part

Would she me love with all her heart?

For love her truly, I truly do

Even with this introspective view

Her greatest joy, my greatest pleasure

Yet sin has made this at my leisure

For Christ’s sake I must like him be

But secondarily this I wish her to see

To love her like Christ, this is my call 

But for this God must have my all 

Were any less than this devoted

Some part of my love would be demoted 

So in pursuing her, I pursue my Lord 

For loving her is to Him moving toward

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