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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

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discipleship

Undermining Discipleship, By Focusing On Discipleship

Did you know that it is possible to focus on discipleship in such a way that undermines discipleship? I say that understanding that one of the things that has plagued evangelicalism in the past century, perhaps stemming from revivalism, is that the church has focused so much on decisions for Christ, on “conversions”, that it has failed to “make disciples” as we have been commanded. The reason that has happened is multifaceted and I won’t try and address that right now, but one must suspect the message that was being preached that led to those conversions if discipleship was not a natural overflow of those decisions. And it is that “natural overflow” that I am concerned with when I say that it is possible to focus so much on discipleship that we undermine discipleship.

It is true, the magnitude of the damage done when the aim is not discipleship, I have seen it with my own eyes. A mission team rolls into a village in India, presents the gospel, ask everyone if they want to go to heaven, many say yes, you mark down the decisions. Tada! Mission accomplished. Off course not much, if anything, has been accomplished because a church has not been planted, the biblical context in which discipleship happens. This is a problem. But it seems we could have an overreaction to the conversionism that has marked many evangelistic and missions efforts, an overreaction that would lead to a problem just as bad. We could overreact in a way that results in a kind of discipleship that is not what Jesus had in mind when he commissioned his church (Matthew 28:19)

This requires us to ask the question, what is discipleship? The simple answer we usually give is “following Jesus.” This is not wrong. But it is incomplete. It leads to many more questions. Because if we simply call people to follow Jesus, we could inadvertently end up simply calling them to trade one religious system for a another one that offers a better deal. And trust me, I see people do that all the time! We could look at discipleship as what Dallas Willard has rightly called “long obedience in the same direction”. But this too is incomplete because it doesn’t deal with the root and nurture of discipleship which is essential.

I will argue that biblical speaking, discipleship is:

Love for God expressed in glad obedience to the Lord Jesus

And I want to argue that the distinctives in that definition are immensely important. To acknowledge that Jesus is Lord and his truth is right, over against secularism, or Islam, or Buddhism, is good. But it will not end in the kind of discipleship Jesus calls us to. It is not enough for a person to say Jesus is God and to begin to follow his life and conform themselves to Scripture. All obedience is not good or acceptable, but only obedience that is glad obedience because it is an overflow of love for God.

So the question we have to ask is, “Where does that love come from?”

It comes from the knowledge that God first loved us (1 John 4:19). But why is understanding that God loved us first significant? Because at “first” we were not disciples, we were not even trying. We were enemies of God, sinners against Him, incapable of pleasing obedience. And yet, despite our situation “he loved us and gave His Son as the wrath-bearing sacrifice for our sins”, “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”(1 John 4:10; Romans 5:8,10)

It is this knowledge that ignites love for God in our hearts that leads to glad obedience to the Lord Jesus and this is true discipleship.

So true discipleship begins with the understanding that I have sinned against God, not cognitively, but with conviction from the heart. It begins with a glimpse of the glory of God in Christ that makes the heart desperate for relief from sin’s guilt and power. And then with gladness the heart embraces the good news that despite my helpless, hateful state “ God, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins made us alive together with Christ.”(Ephesians 2:4)

When like David in Psalm 51 you come to know the bone-crushing reality of your guilt, and you receive the good news that Jesus was crushed for you, this leads you to gladly embrace him as Savior and bow to him as Lord – and this is discipleship. Discipleship is the journey that begins with the cry “Woe is me! I am ruined!” and “Brothers, what must we do?” or “What must I do to be saved?” It is the life that begins with calling upon to the Lord to be saved at the preaching of the word of Christ. (Isaiah 6:6, Acts 2:37,16:30; Romans 10:13)

So what does this have to do with focusing on discipleship in a way that undermines discipleship? Discipleship begins with conversion. Despite what some methods in missions seem to be promoting these days, someone does not become a disciple by osmosis. I fear that in our desire for results and in our legitimate desire to move away from “conversionism” (I don’t know if that is a word), we have undermined discipleship by erasing the clear and shining line that is crossed when someone goes from darkness to light, when someone is transported from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of God’s Son, when someone comes alive, when the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness” shines into the heart to give the light of knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:9; Colossians 1:13; Ephesians 2:4; II Corinthians 4:6)

I am convinced that true discipleship begins with sound, clear, obvious conversion. Why? Because of how the Bible testifies that disciples are made and motivated.

If we lose sight of conversion as how disciples are made and an integral to how they are motivated, it is possible that we end up with people who have traded one religious system for another religious system. You end up with faulty discipleship because it is not motivated by the kind of radical, life-altering love that is infused into the soul by the Holy Spirit when we come to see that Christ suffered and died in our place to bring us to God. (Romans 5)

Examples of this kind of false discipleship can be seen all throughout John’s gospel, but nowhere is it more clear than in John 8. There were new disciples, listening to Jesus’ teaching, following him around. But what was the problem? They didn’t see their real need. So when Jesus confronted their sin head-on, they turned against him. I fear that much that we do in the name of evangelism, and especially in missions, calls people to follow Jesus, expecting they will move to repentance and faith by osmosis of some sort without ever bringing them to the point of seeing their hopelessness, the depth of their sin, their real need. And this means they aren’t brought to a place of crisis where they call on the name of the Lord as one who is desperate for saving grace. Which means they never truly become disciples: those whose lives are marked by love for God expressed in glad obedience to the Lord Jesus.

So perhaps a better definition of discipleship would be: Obeying God because you love God, loving God because he first loved you, and knowing he loved you because he sent his Son to be the wrath-bearing sacrifice for your sins.  

There is a reason Paul, and John and Peter, build their calls to obedience upon the truths of the gospel. In Ephesians, before Paul says a word about ethics, about action, he prays his readers will understand the power at work to save them, he prays that they would comprehend the magnitude of the love of Christ and in between those two prayers he unpacks the glories of the gospel and he does this because he knows that getting that from the heart is what makes real disciples. (Ephesians 1:19;3:17-18)

So how do we keep from focusing on discipleship so much that we undermine discipleship? We preach the gospel, we call people to repent and believe in the good news, and then we help direct them to understand what that good news means for their lives, what shape love takes as it overflows out of their hearts toward the One who loved them first.

 

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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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“We’re like a family!” <- Really?

Many churches make it their philosophical aim to be like family and when that reputation is achieved it is thought to be a sure sign of health and unity. They want a place where people care for each other, praying for one another during difficult times, checking in on one another, greeting everyone that comes into their gathering with warmth and gladness. When people say that their church is like this, they will usually gladly declare, “We’re like a family!”

But the question that needs to be asked sometimes is, “Really?”

Let me start by saying that a church should be like a family. It should be a place where we genuinely rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, where we bear each other’s burdens, where we take care of each other, where the needs and longings of others are a concern to us, a place where when we gather there is warmth and palatable love and commitment. To this every church should aspire.

The problem, I think, is that often when we say that a church is like a family or that it should be like a family, what we really have in mind is an idealized, Hallmark-channel, Ward-and-June-Clever-esque family. We want our church to be like a family without the messiness and tough-love of a real family.

A church member may believe that their church is like a family until real discipleship begins to happen. It feels like a family until individual sin is confronted. It feels like a family until someone speaks difficult truth into your life – telling you something you don’t really want to hear. Then it is no longer a family in the idealized sense. It is divided. It is uncomfortable. People avoid each other. The “dinner table” is tense.

The problem is that what was just described is real family life. In a real family there is warmth and love, but there is also messiness, there is confrontation. In a real family you find the people that love you enough to risk relationship for your greater good. In family is found the few people on earth who can speak hard truth to you, because they love you, because they care more about your long-term security and joy than momentary ease – yours or theirs.

Family life is wonderful, but it is also very hard, because we aren’t perfect. The same translates to the church. It is a wonderful thing to be a part of a church, but it’s hard, because we are sinners and the Word we speak to each other confronts that reality with imposing light.

Imagine a family where everyone is allowed to do their own thing. Destructive behaviors are never challenged, the father passively sits in the arm chair with beer in hand as chaos unfolds, mother is careful not to say anything to her rebellious daughter lest she upset the balance, the son is making some poor decisions, but challenging him would just upset the peace of the moment. The family is gathered, everyone is smiling, there is a kind of peace and togetherness, but it is actually kind of creepy. Because no one is being real. There is a terrible selfishness at work as the members of this family care more about the comfort of the moment than they do the good of one another.

Now imagine a family where one sister sees that her sibling is becoming more and more distant, getting into relationships that could be harmful. She so badly just wants to let it go, to let there be a kind of “peace”, but she loves her sibling too much for that. She loves her sibling enough to sacrifice momentary comfort for lasting good. A father sees his son showing signs of destructive behavior, he gets along well with him and he doesn’t want to mess that up, but his love for his son motivates him to speak to him. The son’s initial reaction is to run out of the house and slam the door, but perhaps over time he begins to see that his father was right. The point being, a real family is a place where the individuals love each other so much that they are willing to risk comfort and approval for the sake of each other’s good.

In Ephesians chapter 4, we are told that we grow up in Christ and are protected from harm as we speak the truth in love to each other. Sometimes when looking at that verse people take “love” to be the manner in which we speak, when I think it is more about the motivation. In his writings, Paul had some very harsh and difficult things to churches and individuals, but he was speaking the truth motivated by love. Sometimes in the church when uncomfortable truth is spoken people call it out as unloving not because it is unloving, but because it doesn’t fit into our idealized view of love – because what is being said challenges our self-love.

So before you boast that your church is like a family, consider whether or not it is actually a community of loving accountability under the authority of Christ and directed by his Word. Will your “family” atmosphere hold up to the rigors of discipleship? If it will, then you are blessed and you have a true family dynamic, but if not, then your idea of family is likely idealized and skin deep.

In the church we are supposed to be like a family, because that is precisely what we are in Christ! But during this age in redemptive history the reality of sin means that we can only truly be described as being like a family if our loving dynamic includes both tender love and tough love.

So strive by God’s grace, anchored in his love displayed in the Gospel, to give love and receive love in both forms. By doing this we will be able to move from cheesy clichés about what it means to be a family and onward to an authenticity that leads us to lose sleep, risk relationships, weep, pray, plead, and rejoice until the whole family is together with Christ their head – safe and sound.

Faithfulness Does Not Always Equal Effectiveness

An essential aspect of pastoral ministry is raising up leaders for the expansion of kingdom work and the next generation of church leaders. Writing to Timothy from prison as he senses he is about to depart from the world, Paul admonishes Timothy to hold fast to what he had been taught and to teach it to others. Speaking of the state of the times that are to come, he urges Timothy to persevere in teaching the message with which he had been entrusted and to raise up faithful men who would be able to do the same. Remember that word: faithful. (2 Tim. 2:2, 1:12-14, 4:1-6)

As I read blogs and see books and seminars advertised for the church, there seems to be an appropriate desire to raise up leaders, a recognition that this is a vital responsibility of the church. But I wonder as we identify and raise up leaders if what we’re aiming for is what we should be aiming for. I wonder if there are leaders who shouldn’t be leading, and some who are leading who shouldn’t be.

I say this because I see lots of material on raising up “effective” leaders who will make an impact; leaders who will bring about the desired results. I see classes, books, and seminars that focus on how to raise up this brand of effective leaders; when filling jobs, churches are looking for effective leaders.

A POTENTIAL PROBLEM

But there’s a potential problem with this: It’s possible to be effective and not be faithful and it’s possible to be faithful and not be apparently effective. What the Bible portrays as faithfulness does not always lead to what is often called “effectiveness.”

So in light of that, what is the first thing we look for in leaders? As we train leaders, what is the goal?

A BETTER SOLUTION

The Scriptures abound with examples, like Isaiah, of men who were faithful but not always effective in a quantifiable sense. If you consider Jesus’ training of his disciples and relevant texts in the Pastoral Epistles, the aim always seems to be faithfulness. Jesus did not choose guys with stellar corporate leadership qualities, but simple and unimpressive men who would follow him. In fact, the ministry that Jesus modeled for them was often counterintuitive, and it didn’t look very effective at times. Yet in every sense it was, and at every moment Jesus was the epitome of faithfulness (John 6:66, 8:29).

Or what about Paul? In his ministry, he knew that it is God who gives the increase. He knew that “if our gospel is veiled it is veiled only to those who are perishing” and that the only hope of what might be called “effectiveness” is God’s life-giving decree (1 Corinthians 3:6, 4:1-6). This is theological understanding of his duty to be faithful is perhaps why Paul was able to move on so confidently when his message was persistently rejected! (Acts 18:6) Writing to Timothy, Paul instructed him to be faithful to answer his opponents with gentleness. He does not guarantee they will come around if he does this, but recognizes that through his faithfulness, perhaps God will grant them repentance (2 Tim. 2:25).

FAITHFULNESS, THEN EFFECTIVENESS

Here’s the point: if we pay attention to Scripture, raising up faithful leaders is our unavoidable priority. At the same time, we need to recognize that faithfulness does not always guarantee “effectiveness.”

Many faithful men are overlooked because they don’t have the walk, talk, and swagger of an “effective” leader. They don’t have the numbers to show or the stories to tell. They aren’t charismatic, they don’t impress, but they are faithful! I’ve written before about the danger of elevating quantity over quality when sending people into ministry, especially overseas. Here I’m simply generalizing the point:  the quality we should look for more than anything else is not eagerness or even impressive and apparent fruitfulness, but faithfulness.

But what do we mean by “faithfulness”?

Faithfulness is ordering your life according to God’s revealed ways and means for bringing about his ends—regardless of what the immediate results may be.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO BE FAITHFUL?

Faithful men are those who in every sphere of life show they believe God’s way is best, even when it doesn’t appear to be working. They are those who are willing to labor according to God’s design all of their life, even if they are labeled irrelevant and ineffective, because they rest their head on the pillow of God’s sovereignty, the promise that his Word will accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55:11).

In that sense, faithful leaders will indeed always be effective leaders, but they will be effective because God’s ways and means always accomplish their intended purpose. Effectiveness is important, but if we are going to think about this theologically, we must admit that to a large degree what defines effectiveness is somewhat hidden in God’s sovereign decree. As I mentioned earlier, we are compelled to believe that Jesus was an effective leader, though that was not always apparent by our standard of measure. His effectiveness was that he did what the Father had given him to do (John 6:37-39). What does that leave us to do then? Embrace the truth that God will bring about his ends through his ordained means, therefore we are to be faithful to what he has revealed (Deut. 29:29).

Faithful leaders are men whose faith is not in what is seen, what is measurable, what can be boasted about in a newsletter, but in what is unseen, in the words that God has said.

Perhaps I’m just a small church pastor trying to justify my often unexciting and slow-moving ministry. I hope that’s not the case. I want results as badly as the next guy, and I pray for an effective ministry. But more than that, my ultimate aim is faithfulness and I pray my desire to be effective always takes a backseat. One practical way this shows itself is that as I raise up leaders, I don’t pass over unimpressive, yet faithful men.

 

Don’t Take It Personally

Whether you are a pastor or just a Christian seeking to be faithful to disciple others, I have an encouragement for you.

There are times when your faithfulness in ministry will lead to opposition of the worst kind – opposition from those that you are ministering to. Nothing is more disheartening and nothing offers more temptation to grow bitter or weary in doing good than this. There are days when you will be tempted to love yourself and compromise because the price of truly helping people is just too high. I can promise you that if you are faithful you will face this kind of opposition. Why? Because even the Christians that you are ministering to have indwelling sin, just like you do. Immature Christians especially are going to have strongholds where old Lord or Lady Autonomy are putting up a fight. And when this happens I have a few simple words of encouragement.

Don’t take it personal. 

In the moment the opposition you face may seem like a personal attack, but it may not be.

When we meet people with God’s word, we meet them with an authority that is higher than us or them, and if we are doing our job we will present God’s word to them as such. And when the word of God with its authority and insight meets our sin and remaining grasp on autonomy (self-rule) often a fight ensues. And if you are being a channel of truth, it will feel often like the fight is against you. But it’s not.

Let’s admit that we are weak, that we fail in our delivery of truth. But the reality is that even Jesus, who had perfect delivery, faced more opposition than we will ever know. The bottom line is that sinners, even the saved sinners in your church, don’t like being told they are wrong, they don’t like having their self-rule violated. And neither do you at times I am sure. This is in part what makes ministry such a sacrifice. This what makes Christian love in the local church so hard. But don’t bear more of the burden than you must. Recognize the problem. Don’t take it personal.

What is the problem?

We get a good picture of the problem and how to respond to it in 1 Samuel 8 when God’s people rebel and demand their leader – the prophet Samuel – to give them a king so they can be like all the other nations.

When Samuel approaches God with their request God responds to him:

And the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. (1 Samuel 8:7 ESV)

The people’s request may have seemed like an affront to Samuel’s faithful leadership. Perhaps he could have taken offense and lashed out at them. But God pointed out to him that the problem was bigger than a problem with Samuel, and yet this truth also lifted the burden of responsibility off Samuel. He did his job. He was faithful. He didn’t need to take their rebellious request personally.

As a pastor this is something I need to remind myself of often and as you disciple people or shepherd people, if you are faithful, you will need to hear these words as well. It is part of the messy business of helping people grow to look more like Jesus. And in the process, as you do not take offense but rather entrust yourself “to Him who judges justly” (1 Pt. 2:22) you also grow to become more like Christ.

This is also a reminder to us as we receive truth. We may not like the way it is spoken, we may not like the person speaking, but is our rejection of the messenger actually a rejection of the message?

Be faithful. Be humble. Don’t shy back from speaking the truth. People will get upset. They will say hurtful things. They will take their rebellion out on you. Chances are you have done the same thing at some point. This is a part of God’s authority colliding with sinful hearts. For the love of the church and for the love of God, keep speaking the truth in love, holding forth the Word of God for what it is – our final authority. And if they respond well, don’t boast. And if they respond poorly, don’t take it personal.

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