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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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Gospel

Cruciform Marriage

When an argument is made for God’s design for marriage as the best pattern for married life, perhaps in the vein of Ephesians 5, people are quick to point out that many people who do not follow the Bible enjoy long unions where both people are fulfilled. We need to admit this is true, and even be thankful for it. God has designed marriage to be something that last “until death do us part” and when this happens in a broken world, we should give thanks! But at the same time we need to acknowledge that as Christians we are not pragmatists, not even in marriage. So in other words, just because a marriage works doesn’t mean it is healthy, just because it is happy does not mean it is holy,  just because a marriage last doesn’t mean that it is a reflection of what marriage is supposed to be.

The world most commonly says that a marriage works through compromise. Successful relationships, many will say, is about living with an understanding of “give and take”. This philosophy when held to can indeed make marriages last a long time. And when we hear it, it seems right and fair, like a good formula for a successful marriage. But this is where I think we need to slow down and remember that just because something works doesn’t mean it is how it should be done. We need, rather, to be asking what God has designed for marriage and furthermore, we need to consider how marriage should look in light of the good news of free salvation through Jesus Christ.

So back to the most common pragmatic approach to making marriage work. Compromise. Give and take. When held up in light of Scripture, is this really a biblical philosophy for marriage? I am arguing that it is not. Because think about it. The strategy of “compromise” for an enduring marriage is built on maintaining the union by feeding the individual selfishness of the two parties involved. “Okay, fine. You can go bowling on Thursdays, but that means I get a day at the spa”. Or “Okay, fine. You can buy that dress but I get to buy those new tires I have been wanting”. It is not always that obvious, or even put into words, but you get the picture. Marriages work, or I should say, they happily maintain in this way. But those involved ultimately remained unchanged. And for Christians, this is unacceptable. It is unacceptable for any meaningful relationship – be it the church or marriage or friendship – to be maintained by placating the inner pride and selfishness of the other person involved.

Christian marriage isn’t about maintaining for the sake of keeping the marriage going. Christian marriage is about transformation. If the man and woman were originally created to complement one another in their calling, Christian marriage follows this same design. And what is the calling of the Christian? Ultimately, it is to be conformed into the image of the Son of God. Yes, into the image of Jesus who in love offered up himself as a substitute sacrifice for sinners! So Christian marriage serves the purpose of our calling as Christians – to be conformed into the image of Christ, to reject the status quo, to throw off the tyranny of sin and this through the same means that Christ did. Through death.

Marriage means death. That is how Christian marriage works. Through glad death for the joy set before us. Through the realization that unless a grain falls into the ground and dies it cannot bring forth life. When a marriage is marked, not by the mutual compromise of two individuals, but through the death of two that have become one – God is glorified as the marriage speaks to what God is like.

Or to put it in biblical terms from Ephesians 5, the husband dies, the wife submits. In the end it looks like the Gospel – it is cruciform. It requires not that they meet in the middle, not that each becomes weak, but that each dies. Both the leadership of Jesus and the submission of Jesus, both driven by love, led to his being offered up to death. But what is the result? Glory.

And I want to argue that glory is the result in a marriage when a marriage takes the shape of the cross.

Think of it this way.

As the husband goes the way of the cross in his role as head in the marriage and the wife goes the way of the cross in submission to her husband both are honored. When the husband lays down his life for the spiritual flourishing of his bride, she is uplifted, she shines. When the wife dies to herself by submitting to her husband, he is uplifted, he shines. And with each passing moment and year, taking the shape of a cross, their relationship builds through death into in a Gospel-gleaming monument that stands in defiance to a fallen creation that maintains itself ultimately through self-preservation.

In the original creation, marriage that reflected the Maker would have been marked by a self-giving generosity, joy out of seeking the good of the spouse, reflecting the generosity and self-giving that God showed man and woman, which would ultimate redound to the glory of God and the lead to the good of creation. And now marriage in the history of redemption is a reflection of that same divine generosity, that same grace, now taking the shape of a cross.

Seeing this and pursuing this in marriage may actually make your marriage more difficult in some respects than the compromise-based marriages in the world. As you, husband or wife, pursue cruciform marriage, such an approach may not be reciprocated and as you die to self with no acknowledgment from your spouse, you will be tempted in that moment to climb down from the cross and return to a “better”, “easier”, “more realistic” strategy for maintaining your marriage. But I pray, as a married person for other married people, that we will learn to stay there and endure, trusting in the joy that awaits on the other side of the pain. A cruciform marriage will be difficult, it is in the shape of a cross after all! But in the end it will be a marriage that is what marriage was made to be, it will be a marriage that makes sense in light of the gospel, it will be a marriage that glorifies God and is glorified.

 

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The Golden Chain: Why the preaching of the cross is essential to our pursuit of obedience

There is never a point in your Christian life when you move beyond the need for the preaching of the cross.

So crucial is that moment in redemptive history that Paul says that “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”(I Cor. 1:18) We should see the words “being saved” as significant. From beginning to end the “word of the cross” is indispensable to our salvation. Paul felt so strongly about this that he pledged to the Corinthians that the core of all he would teach them would be “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (I Cor. 2:2)

The preaching of the cross is central to the life of the Christian because in the cross we find both the source of our pardon from sin and the impetus for our obedience, and it is that last point that needs to be emphasized.

Perhaps nowhere else do we see more clearly how indispensable the preaching of the cross is to our obedience to God than we do in 1 John. John presents what I like to call the “golden chain” of our Christians walk. These beautiful links in this chain, when connected, provide a guard against legalism (religiosity) and antinomianism (liberalism). The chain anchors our maturation and growth in holiness solidly in the gracious, once-and-for-all finished work at the Cross.

If you have ever wondered how to avoid legalism, this chain keeps you looking to the cross, fixed on grace. If your ever wondered how to avoid liberalism and license, this chain pulls you inevitably toward holiness.

To see this most clearly in 1 John, it helps to work backwards and begin with the question:

Why do we obey God in a way that is not mere religion?

The answer is that we obey out of love. “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3) The words “not burdensome” are important. We all know what it is like to comply with a command, even a difficult one, because of love. We will do all sorts of things, costly things, for the sake of those that we love. Begrudging obedience is not the obedience that is supposed to mark the Christian life. This is because obedience to God is not the seed of love, but the fruit of love. We obey God as we ought, inevitably and with joy, when we love him.

Why do we love God?

“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19) Our love for God is the source of our obedience, it is the motivation of our growth in holiness, it is the ground of our righteousness. This link in the chain causes us to see that our love for God does not have its source in us, but in him. The scriptures makes clear that we were, in fact, enemies of God. So our love, leading unavoidably to obedience, has its source in him. This is generally to be expected. Love is an internal force that has an external motivation. A heart beats on electrical impulses, but when that heart stops it must be shocked from the outside. We obey God, because we love God, we love God because he first loved us, now….

How do we know God loved us? 

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10) Understanding what a “propitiation” is, is hugely important in helping us understand why we are motivated to obey. A propitiation is a big but specific word which means someone that  “appeases divine wrath”. And where was it that Son acted as a “propitiation for our sins”?

On the cross. On the cross where the Son cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 16:34) It was there that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was forsaken because in love in our place he underwent the judgment of his Father for our sins. In love so deep, in justice so true – he took our place.

We obey God, because we love God, we love God because he first loved us, and we know he first loved us because while we were still His enemies He sent his Son to the cross to be the propitiation for our sins. 

Understanding the depth of our sin and the magnitude of God’s holiness is essential to seeing the cross as precious, resulting in love that overflows in willing obedience.

If one link of this chain is missing, the good news is compromised and we slide into legalism or worldliness. If we try to obey without the cross in view any success will be a source of pride and any failure a source of despair. We will tend to look down on others when we do well, because we will have failed to see the fury of the wrath Christ bore for our pride. If we believe God loves us because we first loved him, we have not seen the depth of the sin for which Christ had to atone, which makes our love weak. It would mean that we have come to love God because we saw it as reasonable to, which means it is likely we will only obey when it seems reasonable. If God’s love for us first depended on our love for him, we would never know his love.

The preaching of the cross is not only the way we know how to be forgiven, it is through the Spirit’s work the motivation for our obedience – radical obedience. I could expound more and more on the implications of this, but I will allow the reader’s mind to run with it.

The preaching of the cross is essential to our pursuit of obedience. Preachers must never leave it out, Christians must always keep it in sight. We see there in one moment the dead-earnest justice and holiness of God and the tender and unfailing love of God which moves us to obey not out of duty but out of desire – out of delight.

In your Christian walk, in your fight against sin, in your labor for the Lord, never, ever, lose sight of the cross and all that it means.

To see the Law by Christ fulfilled,

And hear His pardoning voice;

Changes a slave into a child,

And duty into choice.” 

William Cowper

The Everyone in Everyone

Note: View Discretion Advised 

backstrom

Backstrom, a new crime drama from FOX, follows a cynical, disgusting, somewhat comical, and brilliant detective in the city of Portland bearing the name of the show. My wife and I watched the pilot, one, because we enjoy crime shows and two, because the role of Backstrom is played by Rainn Wilson, better known as “Dwight” from The Office.

I don’t normally search for things that are very deep in a show like this, but a couple of quotes from Backstrom stood out to me as important from a Christian, Gospel-centered worldview. Clearly these quotes are significant to the character development of Backstrom and are meant to give the viewer an insight into his mind. There is one quote in particular that drew my attention. But before I get to it, I will give a little background….

Backstrom is cynical. He shows up at a crime scene and begins to make very confident and harsh judgments about people, much to the exasperation of his optimistic, psychology-major partner. And at one point after he makes a number of stinging accusations against a suspect prior to there being substantial evidence, his partner declares, “You see the worst in everyone!”

Backstrom responds flippantly, “I see the everyone in everyone.

Such a line is meant to show just how deep his cynicism and negativity run, with hints of emotional baggage from his childhood. I am no prophet but I estimate that this is meant to be the beginning of his character trajectory. The writers will pull him over time out of his negative estimation of mankind to the point where he will have to admit that there is good in some, if not in everyone. Again, that is my guess, and considering how cliché network television tends to be, I would stake money on it.

As soon as those words escaped Backstrom’s mouth I thought of just how biblical what he said was. In fact, Jesus Christ himself would have agreed with this statement!  For as the Apostle John records, when the crowds began to be attracted to Jesus,

“Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man.” (John 2:24-25 ESV)

Jesus did not see the worst in everyone, he saw “the everyone in everyone”. He knew that, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12 ESV)

Was Jesus a cynic like Backstrom? The answer is no. Jesus is a realist. Jesus knows what is.

Furthermore, while Jesus saw “the everyone in everyone” and Backstrom saw “the everyone in everyone”, the trajectory of that truth is very different in the case of Jesus’ story.

Backstrom is being shown by his words to be an extreme cynic. This provides the foundation for his character to develop, growing in confidence in his fellow man, seeing that there are exceptions to his rule.

But Jesus came precisely because of “the everyone in everyone”. This truth is foundational to the trajectory of Jesus’ story, but that story moves in a completely different direction than Backstrom’s. Jesus story, the Gospel, has a trajectory marked by grace and redemption so that “the everyone in everyone” will not remain what it is.

Jesus came because of “the everyone in everyone” so that every one of his people could have in them that which is uniquely good, namely the unique goodness of Jesus himself. He did not come to draw out the good in mankind, but to give of his goodness so that “the everyone in everyone” would not have the last word.

Jesus is not a cynic. He is a realist. And the reality is that there is an “everyone in everyone” and it is called sin. But Jesus came and as a man was the exception to the norm, he died for those under that norm, and then he rose victorious over it. And by this he set the trajectory for the day when that reality would be no more.

“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.” (Colossians 1:19-22 ESV)

 

(One Reason) Why We Practice Communion Every Week

Last week I preached from Mark 6:1-6, where we see Jesus is held in contempt by his own kindred in Nazareth. The title of that sermon was “Familiarity Breeds Contempt.” One of the main themes in the message was that the people Jesus grew up around thought they knew him so well that they failed to see him for who he really was. They had a low view of him, therefore their hearts were full of unbelief and they were offended at his teaching.

When we get so used to something that it begins to lose value – at least in our eyes. A precious, diamond ring is often no less valuable several years down the road, diamonds are diamonds and gold is gold, but the woman wearing may indeed get to the point that she does not even notice it is on her finger. We tend to devalue the things that we are familiar with. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Maybe, just maybe, that woman with the diamond ring does catch its glimmer on a regular basis and she is reminded of the faithfulness and care of her loving husband that it represents. You would have to kill to get that ring off of her finger. It is a sacred sign of a precious union and love that is relentless through the good and the bad.

One of the reasons that many churches do not practice communion each week is the fear that familiarity will breed contempt for the blood of Christ. I admit that this may very well happen, but it doesn’t have to and it shouldn’t stop the church from having the Lord’s Supper when they gather as the local body. Paul says in I Corinthians 11:26 that “As long as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Since, therefore, I make it may aim to proclaim the death of the Lord in word each week, why would I not also proclaim it in sacrament?

There are a number of things that should be happening when the word is preached in the assembly of the brethren each week; things which appropriately culminate in the visible “proclamation” of the death of Christ. In the preaching of the Scriptures we encounter the holy character of God, this holy character reveals to Christians our calling as those “predestined to be conformed into the image of Christ”[i], which means that we are coming face to face with our sin each week in light of who God is and what God demands.

If we are coming face to face each week with the holiness of God, the height of our calling, and the depth of our sin, we should be longing for God ordained means of being reminded of our only hope – the death of Christ. The blood of Christ, spilled, and the body of Christ, broken, secures not only my hope of pardon, but my hope of perseverance which is dependent on God’s covenant faithfulness. After a week in a fallen sinful world, we should long to gather and partake of the bread and cup, symbols of the blood and broken body which testify that we are forgiven and secure. The demand for perfect holiness has been met, both in life and death, and our future glorification is now certain in the new covenant.

We come to the table of the Lord together each week from a world full of things fighting for the preeminent place in our affections. At the table we look ahead, facing a coming week where other “suitors” will flirt and vie for our love. And like a beautiful wedding band, we look at and partake of the sacred signs and we remember the love, strength, and faithfulness of our husband – which is Christ. Each week at the table of the Lord we solemnly abandon other lovers and proclaim that Jesus Christ is more precious to us than all the fleeting treasures and pleasures of this world.

In short: if we faithfully preach the Gospel – the holiness of God, the depth of our sin, and the preciousness of the Savior – then communion never gets old. It never becomes mere ritual. Familiarity does not breed contempt. I know that even I have such a small view of my sin, but yet I can’t help but feel my need to see with fresh eyes of faith, through what Christ has ordained, what is my only hope as I face another week and eternity beyond.

[i] Romans 8:29

A Good Thing Gone Bad – Introduction

Introduction

The warfare that we wage, is a spiritual warfare. One that is primarily a matter of truth and falsehood, according to the Scriptures.[i] It can be surprising how much of the material in the New Testament is polemical and how often the exhortation is to stand firm on truth, hold fast to doctrine, to make a good a confession. Since that horrific day in Eden that mankind was plunged into depravity there are forces at work, taking truth and twisting it, taking something that is good and misusing it, drawing people into this cycle of taking what God has created and morphing it into something that is a god itself. God gives us a monument of his glory in the Gospel and we take it as a token of our worth.

The history of the church is littered with extremism and complacency, with antinomianism and legalism, with passiveness and judgmentalism. Every revival has resulted in residual excessiveness and strange doctrine –ranging from the bizarre to the coldly indifferent. Every reformation has resulted in radicalism – both to the side of legalism and antinomianism. The reason for this is the war that we wage. In fact we should expect heresy to grow around the triumph of truth and for foolishness to arise around Spirit-driven fervor. Why? Because since the Fall there has been a war against truth. We have a real enemy who is “the father of lies”[ii]. And he is a liar who knows truth when he sees it and will stop at nothing to undermine it. He is subtle. He is cunning. And he is sinister. He is the enemy of the truth.

The church harms itself when it thinks that spiritual warfare is primarily about what goes bump in the night. The enemy knows he cannot beat God, so he tries to rob glory from him, and what is the greatest display of the glory of God? It is his Gospel, “the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.”[iii]

In the garden, Satan went after the ones made in God’s image, meant to reflect his glory. Defacing those images was the closest thing that he could do to diminishing the unfaltering, unapproachable glory of God himself. Since that time God has been unfolding his magnificent plan of redemption, by which to restore those fallen image bearers into monuments of his glory, a glory that would shine more brightly than ever could in Eden – the glory of his grace.

When Jesus came on the scene he shone with the radiance of the Father’s glory.[iv] Satan tried to deface that too and when he was unsuccessful he tried to outright destroy the image, but in doing so he unleashed with fury a light beyond compare. The perfection of God’s love and justice in a single, macabre scene on a Roman cross in Palestine. As the temple veil tore and the ground shook the enemy likely knew he was doomed, especially as fallen man looked on and said, “Truly, this was the Son of God.”[v] God’s glory was vindicated and his triumph guaranteed when on the third day following this crucifixion for the first time in history the incarnate Son of God burst the bonds of death with immortality, never to die again. Truth would prevail. God’s purposes were relentless and his glory would not be diminished.

In the coming days under the New Covenant the apostle were keenly aware that they had a foe that until the final battle would not cease his attacks on the glory of the Creator. Paul warns with certainty the Ephesian elder that wolves will come and devour the flock.[vi] The warfare would continue to be a warfare between truth and error. For it is in truth, namely the truth of the Gospel, that the glory of God is displayed in brilliant purity. Paul urged with passion for Timothy to guard the Gospel.[vii] He rebuked the Galatians for accepting another “gospel”.[viii] Until Christ returns the church has been given a deposit to proclaim, to live, and to guard. It is the Gospel. And every assault of Satan, at the end of the day, is an assault against this Gospel. Why? Caught it yet? Because it is there that the glory of God is most fully seen.

In the midst of this battle, the church which is a “pillar and buttress of the truth”[ix] is not without its scars. The study of church history shows two things: that there is a war against truth and that truth ultimately prevails. We see the warfare against truth in that with every true reformation in the church there is extremism on one hand and stagnation on the other, with every revival there is excessiveness on hand and coldness on the other. This is not the fault of the Gospel, in fact, it proves that the Gospel is still going forward because war is being waged. Wherever truth is, there will be the battle.

And that is the topic of this book or blog post series or personal rant, whatever it turns out to be. I believe that the truth is going forward, as it should, but there is a battle being raged. In some places the battle is very obvious, but actually those engagements, while important, are not the things that are the most troubling. In fact, those great battles grow out of the covert operations which go not only unnoticed, but applauded. It is the battle fought by those “clothed as angels of light” preaching another gospel[x], it is those wolves dressed in very convincing sheep’s clothing. It is those who believe they do God a service with what they preach. And most tragic is the damage done by those sheep that are charmed, duped, and downright deceived into swallowing Gospel that has been laced with poison.

We rejoice that the Gospel goes forward, but if we are not alert, we could end up doing more harm than good.

[i] II Corinthians 10:4-6
[ii] John 8:44
[iii] II Corinthians 4:3
[iv] John 1:14
[v] Mark 15:49
[vi] Acts 20:2
[vii] 1 Timothy 6:2
[viii] Galatians 1:6
[ix] 1 Timothy 3:15
[x] Galatians 1:8, II Corinthians 11:14; We will deal later with what makes something another Gospel.

Field of Dreams: A Church Planting Approach

The question the past year had crossed my mind, “Why do I put all the work into a Friday morning Equipping Class[i] that only four or five people are going to attend?” The very reason I ask myself that question is because it seems like such a waste of time. Other questions could be asked, “Why have the structures and formalities of membership procedure that we have when there are only twenty-one members? Why stand up and preach when there is only 15-40 people in the room?” Even more questions could be asked, but my answer, by now, is always going to be the same.

We all know the famous line to the classic movie Field of Dreams. “Build it and he will come”. Basically, James Earl Jones and Ray Liotta get Kevin Costner to build a baseball diamond. Costner, as Ray Kinsella, has faith that Jones is right, if he builds it people will come and so it is. Going back then to the question of why I am doing so much with a church so small is because of the “Field of Dreams” approach to church planting. This is not a pragmatic method. It is not some proven strategy. It simply a matter of faithfulness, a matter of exercising the means that God uses to grow and build up his church.

We gather each week in a room big enough to hold a hundred with the hope and prayer that there will be a hundred. We have classes to equip the few in hopes that they may equip the many. By God’s grace alone, I strive to prepare my sermon the same for fifteen people as I would for fifteen hundred people. On and on the examples could go.

It feels exhausting sometimes and the immediate return causes one to consider whether or not it is worth it. I am not delusional. We are not trying to play “big church”, but are simply trying to be church, God’s vehicle for his mission of redemption, the vessel of his truth, the trumpet of his kingdom, the fold of his sheep, and the display of his wisdom and glory.

This way of viewing the little flock I have been given charge of is shaped by the conviction that God grows his church through his church. And on top of that, the growth is his doing through the faithful ministry of the pastors and members of that church. Faithful ministry is that which plans for great things, while leaving the great things to God. Faithful ministry is that which endures through seasons of fruitlessness with confident rest in the fact that God has established this church for the purpose of making known his glory through the proclamation of the Gospel in our community, giving us good reason to hope that there are many sheep who must be brought into the fold. We hope and pray that the harvest will be great, so we prepare the barns. We prepare the ark of Christ for all of the chosen to come and escape the storm, where they can be protected, fed, and sustained. The local church is to be a hopeful, eschatological entity that looks forward with confidence in the Gospel and the power of the Spirit and plans for the harvest.

So we do. We have been planted in this needy, Gospel-impoverished city by God for his glory. He has us here for a reason. Therefore, we preach to the twenty like there are a thousand. We hold equipping classes for the five like there are fifty. And we pray like we are an army. We conduct ourselves in a way that says that we expect more. We are not trying to be “too big for our britches”, we are trying to make britches big enough so that we may be what God can and may choose to make us.

I once heard Tim Keller say that we should preach every week as if non-believers are in the audience and eventually they will be. So I have made this my practice. It is awkward at times, as I gaze across the godly faces of the people in the room. I proclaim the Gospel, calling for people to repent and believe in Jesus. Why? Because in the intimacy of our little group I hear the voice of James Earl Jones whispering, “Steve… People will come, Steve.”

I believe that. I believe that because churches, proclaiming the Gospel, are God’s method of increasing the Kingdom. I believe it because the Word we proclaim is alive and active. So when I labor all week to prepare classes and sermons for so few, I don’t feel like I am wasting my time. We are building.

My job is to be faithful to build. And the fact the Lord tarries and that he is at work in the world through his church in the great task of gathering a people for himself gives me confidence that if we build it, people will come.

 

 

[i] That is what we call our “Sunday School” or adult education classes at Immanuel Fujairah

The Novelty of Good Intentions

Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice, (Philippians 1:15-18 ESV)

As time passes I am more and more convinced that God does not need my skills, my eloquence, my cultural insight, and apparently not even my good intentions for his Word to be effective. As I have considered the God in Scripture and his Gospel, it has become apparent to me that what we proclaim, not skillfully spun, but plainly spoken, will always have its intended result. Those men that God has used as his mouthpieces in Scripture certainly were convinced of this – as was the Word-made-flesh himself.

When one carefully considers Paul, he finds someone who I would argue eschewed pragmatism. He had one method – “preach Christ”. Paul’s ministry flowed out of his theology. He knew that where the word was supposed to have its saving effect it would and where it was meant to harden it would. His confidence was not in eloquence or reason – but was in the Spirit working through the word. Even Paul himself, a doctor of the Scriptures, had rejected Christ even though he beheld with blind eyes for years his image in the law and prophets. Nothing was going to cause Paul to see the truth of the Gospel and embrace it except for a work of the Holy Spirit. And so it was.

This simple confidence that Paul had in the message which he proclaimed can be seen with shocking clarity in Philippians 1:15-18. Paul applauded the proclamation of the Gospel even by those that did it with wrong motives. He wasn’t begrudgingly thankful that the word was getting out, but he rejoiced! Why? Because he was completely confident that the power of the message was found in its source and not in its delivery. Such was Paul’s confidence in the simple proclamation of the Gospel that it did not matter to him who proclaimed it or why they did, as long as it was proclaimed. For he knew that it is the word falling on deaf ears and dead hearts that the Spirit of God uses to awaken sinners to life – if he so pleases.

The encouragement here is plentiful:

First it should encourage us as Christians – and especially as pastors – to be humbled, recognizing that the power for effective ministry does not rest in us but in the message we proclaim, if in fact we proclaim the Gospel that Paul preached.

Second, we should also rejoice when the Gospel is preached, even if the personality of the one preaching it is abrasive or in some way obnoxious. We should rejoice that the fragrance of Christ is spread, even if it is from a crude vessel. There are preachers I can barely stand to listen to, but they proclaim the Gospel and by it many are saved. I should rejoice.

Third, abandon hope in pragmatism and cultural intelligence. Focus instead on the purity of the message you proclaim. For if God does not even need your good intentions to exalt Christ and save sinners, he certainly doesn’t need your good ideas, however well-intentioned they may be.

Know the message of the Gospel. And desire that it be preached. More than you desire fruit or freedom or approval, desire that the Gospel be preached.

 

 

Christian Ministry & The Deadness of Sarah’s Womb

The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” (Genesis 18:10-14 ESV)

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the deadness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. (Romans 4:19-21 ESV)

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise…. So brothers, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman. (Galatians 4:22-23,31 ESV)

        Against all odds the child of promise, Isaac, was born to Abraham and Sarah. The Scriptures make it clear that Sarah’s pregnancy was not a medical anomaly, but a miracle. Sarah had long ceased being “in the way of women”. In fact, it was so long since then that there was no natural hope of child bearing. Therefore, when God kept his promises he got all of the credit. It was the working of God alone which brought this baby about. This miracle was such that Paul even refers to the child of promise as being born “according to the Spirit”.

The way Isaac was born, through the promise and by the Spirit, is exactly the same way that every child of promise is born. We see in Isaac’s generation a picture of the way God works in bringing into life every child of promise. There is only deadness and hopelessness in our sin, but the sure decrees of God, his promises, through the agency of the Spirit bring about the impossible, the birth of children of promise by faith in Jesus Christ.

In John 6:63, Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.” In the flesh, in a way reasonable to man, Abraham and Sarah at first attempted to do what only the Spirit can do – Abraham took a bond woman, Hagar, as a wife and had a son with her, Ishmael. They did not believe in the immutability of God’s promises and the power of his working, but allowed their mind to follow the patterns of the world – going after what made sense to them. They felt that because God had not kept his promise yet that perhaps it was because they needed to do their part. They allowed themselves to be duped by a theology of cooperation rather than of trust.

We also need to realize that if we are children of promise, the offspring of Abraham by faith, we were born out of deadness exclusively as a result of the unchanging promises of God being worked out by the power of the Spirit. God declared that you would be born into the family of freedom and it was so. “It is the Spirit who gives life, the flesh is no help at all.” Abraham and Sarah found this to be true after the incident with Hagar. The promise of God was sufficient. The deadness of Sarah’s womb highlighted the necessity of a miracle, not 90% plus 10% man, but 100% the working of God – doing the impossible through human vessels.

As a pastor I can’t help but see how this connects to the way we do ministry. So often we see the promises of God and we claim to believe them, but we want a shortcut. Nothing seems to be happening so rather than trusting and pursuing faithful rest, we find a Hagar, whether it be some pragmatic construct, method, or adaptation of God’s message. We scheme, in a well-meaning fashion, to help God fulfill his promises. We assume because nothing has happened yet, because no children have “been born” that maybe we understood the promise wrong, maybe our methods need tweaking. As a result of this well-intentioned tampering we may see results in our ministry, we may seem to have success and feel that God is indeed working, but the fruit of our effort is actually a bunch of Ishmael’s running around – the results of us using our own means to reach God’s promised end.

God is calling us in ministry to simple trust. To speak of that which we have seen and heard in the Gospel. God brings children of promise into being through the means of his Word being spoken. We are to proclaim it. Clearly and consistently. That may seem weak. Foolish. Like the thought of two elderly people having a baby. But this is what he has called us to. The years may roll and we may see little results, if any, yet we must not resort to using a Hagar, but must trust in God’s promise and power, knowing that from the deadness of Sarah’s womb, God brings forth children of promise.

Your Grandfather Was Wrong

“When I was a kid, my grandfather was a preacher
He’d talk about God, yeah he was something like a teacher
He said God only helps those
Who learn to help themselves
He was a million miles from a million dollars
But you can never spend his wealth”

“Preacher” OneRepublic

 

It has happened more than once that a well-meaning friend or preacher has said to me, usually in the context of fighting sin, “God helps those who help themselves.” It is an all too common saying. The other day when listening to the song “Preacher” by OneRepublic, I was struck by the sad experience of the person speaking in the lyrics. He is reflecting on his preacher grandfather who was never rich in money but was rich in many other ways. He reminisces on the essence of his grandfather’s message and sadly, as well meaning and sweet as its sounds like he was, his message was not the good news of the Bible, instead it could be the tag line of almost any other religion in the world. It is the subtle Pelagianism that has infiltrated the church over and over again as long as it has existed. Paul, Augustine, and Luther were not the first to battle such teaching and they won’t be the last. There is a reason for that, a reason that is an echo of that horrific day in Eden when man fell, the day Adam decided that God’s perfect provision was insufficient – that he wasn’t entirely dependent on his Creator. The idea that “God helps those who learn to help themselves” is not just inconsistent with the message of Scripture, it is the opposite of it.

The glorious message of Scripture is that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) and God “even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— (Ephesians 2:5 ESV).

The entirety of Scripture stands as a testament that God doesn’t help only those “who learn to help themselves”, but he helps only those who have come to learn that they can’t help themselves. (Mark 2:17, Luke 8:13-14). In OneRepublic’s defense, from a business standpoint, I will acknowledge that a song about a preacher who preached that wouldn’t have been very popular, because oddly in our sin we don’t want to hear that we can’t help ourselves. But I am saddened that the character in this song, representative of many real-life preachers, settled for something so sinfully pedestrian while discarding the glorious gospel of God’s overwhelming grace because it casts man in such a weak and helpless light. But the Bible teaches, and experience shows, that we are weak and we are helpless and I pray that the world will come to sing not of sweet old preachers who preach a false Gospel, but will sing of a God who doesn’t wait for our token effort to act, but comes to us and saves us while we are dead in sin, enemies of him, and utterly unable to help ourselves.

 

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