Category Archives: Theology

God Sees

Saving-Hand-610x351

“…For the dark places of the land are full of violence” (Psalm 74:20).

The psalmist retells how the enemy of God’s people destroyed the sanctuary “Where God met with us.” There was great violence in the land. The invaders had no regard for the sacred things of God. But, what is not told is why the enemy came in first place. God’s people had deep darkness in their hearts long before the enemy destroyed the sanctuary. And in the place where they met God, they themselves had no regard for the things of God. Through their idolatry and sin, they brought spiritual darkness into Gods house. In response, God sent the enemy, so they could see just how dark their darkness was. The violence they experienced at the hand of their enemy was proportional to the violence they brought into God’s house through their idolatry. And when the darkness came to light, they felt the violence of it and longed for the light of God’s presence.

Going to the house of God does not mean we are walking in the light of Gods countenance, nor that we are truly seeking Him. God sees what is in our heart and responds to what is truly there. And, for our own sake He will expose what is in our heart. God wants to meet with His people. And, He wants to bless His people. But He cannot respond to what is not there. If what is in our heart is different than what is on our lips, then God’s response will be to jar us into seeing our real spiritual condition – even if He must hand us over to what we truly long for (see Romans 1:18-32). The people didn’t know that the idolatry they practiced, and loved, was the same sin that drove their enemy to so great a violence against them. Their sin was one and the same. The outward violence of their enemy was proportional to the inward darkness in their own heart. So, the Psalmist gives the warning: “For the dark places of the land are full of violence.” When we allow the darkness in, violence is all that is left for us. So, Jesus said, “If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (Matthew 6:23).

However, Jesus came so that we may be delivered from the darkness. And He will deliver us, even when we call from its depths.

 

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The Pathway to Fruitfulness

Introduction

It was during the greeting time in worship when he asked me the question, “What’s your plan to reach our community?” He was an evangelist who was visiting the church. He and his wife had attended church for a little over a month. I had been to his house to visit them. We had some good conversations. My answer to him was brief: “In a word,” I said, “discipleship.” He turned away as I went to shake someone’s hand behind him. I never saw him in church again. That night as I was leaving for vacation with my family, I received a message on Facebook where he “rebuked” me. That was his word.

I was disappointed, but not surprised. Discipleship is a word that has come to mean different things for different people. But if there is one thing I have learned in ministry, it is that discipleship has lost its significance as being the foundational ministry of the church. There are many good things a church can do by way of ministry, but if the church is not focusing on discipleship as the focal point of everything it does, then it may very well not be fulfilling the very purpose for which Christ created and commissioned his church.[1] In this paper I will argue that discipleship is the path to fruitfulness for the church. True, lasting transformational growth (both numerically and spiritually) will be most evident when discipleship is the leading vision that defines what the church does. Hence, church growth will be most fruitful when discipleship is the primary ministry of the church.[2]

Understanding the Mission

Any discussion of church growth and the spiritual factors that lead to such growth must begin by considering the purpose for which the church was created. It is the purpose for which Christ created the church that defines its ministry.[3] Ministry that does not take into consideration the reason the church was created may very well work against the reason it exists.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he gave the fledgling church the mission that was to define its identity. The most comprehensive expression of his instruction are found in Matthew’s gospel where he said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age’” (28:18-20).[4] The main point of his command is that the church was to “Make disciples of all nations.” They were to do this by going, baptizing, and teaching, which would lead to their obedience in following him.[5]

These things (going, baptizing, and teaching) are the pillars in the process of making a person a disciple of Jesus. However, while these things are foundational to the life of a disciple, they are not, by themselves, the purpose of the church. For example, a church that has evangelism as its primary focus may reach many people with the gospel, but if that church does not have a process that clearly leads those people who accept Christ to become disciples themselves, then the church may have a large crowd at worship on Sunday mornings, but it is unlikely that they will be effective in fulfilling the command to make disciples.[6] Indeed, there are scores of churches that have a nice crowd in worship, but of those who attend, very few have ever shared their faith, and even less have attempted to lead another to become a disciple. Hence, by not focusing on the mission to make disciples, those who come to faith by the church’s evangelism efforts cannot, themselves, reach others with the gospel, and they cannot obey Christ’s command to make disciples. In this regard, missionary Nik Ripkin made the prescient observation that, “The Church cannot be the church unless it is going and making disciples.”[7]

It is important to define what it means to be a disciple. First, a disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life, in the context of the church, for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. That’s what a disciple is. Second, what a disciple does, as they make Christ known amongst the nations, is to lead others to actively and obediently follow Christ. Hence a disciple is one who seeks to replicate themselves into the life of another.[8] So a disciple is a follower of Christ, who then leads others to follow Christ as well. For the church to be successful in fulfilling the great commission, then, the church must focus on leading people to be disciples who then become disciple makers. Only those who make disciples are fulfilling the command to “Make disciples of all nations.”

When the church was birthed at Pentecost, the apostles, who spent three years learning to follow Christ, were now teaching others to do the same (Acts 2:42). Those who learned from the apostles then went out into the world teaching others to follow Christ as well (Acts 8:4). This practice was so foundational to the life of the church that by the time the church was founded in Antioch almost ten years later, those who were actively following Christ as disciples were called Christians. It’s important to note that Acts 11:26 says that, “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.”

A disciple is not just a believer in Jesus as Lord and Savior. A disciple is an active follower of Jesus.[9] In John’s gospel, Jesus said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (20:21). Jesus was sent into the world to bear our sins. While no one other that Jesus can be the sin bearer of the world, all believers are sent into the world to make God’s salvation through Christ known. In Acts 1:8 Jesus said that “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” The scope of the command is worldwide. The only way for the church to obey the command is to make as its main purpose the raising up of disciples for the purposes of sending them out. The church is not a gathering organization.[10] The very core of its purpose is to prepare people to be sent out as followers of Jesus who can then lead others to follow as well.

Hence, in contrast to how the church is commonly understood today, the church was not created to be an institution, but was created by Jesus to be a movement in the world. Institutions gather and organize people. A movement sends people with the intent of changing the world. An institution needs formal rules to govern its existence. A movement needs people who passionately believe in the cause. Few rules are needed to guide a heart passionate about what it believes.[11] Jesus transforms people’s relationship with God.[12] It is their new established relationship with the author of life that drives their desire to follow Jesus into the world so others can hear, believe, be saved from judgement, and enter, themselves, into this new life with God. No institution ever created a movement. The Great Commission is not the establishment of an institution, but the beginning of a worldwide movement that will not end until Christ returns.

For the church to obey the Great Commission’s call to make disciples of all nations, then it must ask itself the question: how do we get this movement going? In other words, how do we reach people, train them, and send them out with the good news, so they can reach others, train them, and send them out with the good news? To ask the question is to answer it. To be a part of the movement that Jesus began, the church must do those very things: reach them, train them, and send them out. This is the mission Christ has for the church.

For the church to faithfully fulfill the command, it needs to understand that the church is the impetus of the movement.[13] Christ created the church to be the engine that keeps the movement going. If the church loses sight of its purpose, the movement will slow, if not stop altogether. Of course we know the movement begun by Christ cannot stop, because he promised to build his church – and he cannot fail.[14] But, for any particular church that loses sight of its purpose, it can see their part in the movement come to an end.[15]

Spiritual Factors for Fruitful Ministry

For the church to be a part of the movement Christ began, and to be fruitful, a few things are needed. We will discuss each in turn. First, the church must commit to the vision Christ gave his church through the Great Commission. Second, the church must encourage believers to surrender to God’s will as communicated in the vision. Third, they must be intentional about spiritual growth. Only when one grows in Christ can he/she be a part of Christ’s mission in the world. Fourth, once they grow-up in Christ, and understand how they are called to contribute to the mission, they are expected by Christ to participate in the mission to make disciples of all nations. Fifth, as they participate, they are to help others grow in their walk with Christ. As they come alongside others, they are to help equip them to participate in the mission too. In short, when believers grow in Christ, they become disciples who then actively disciple others.

These steps contain two assumptions. First, individual spiritual development and growth leads to active participation in the Great Commission. Second, those who are active in the mission of the church will be effective and fruitful in fulfilling the Great Commission – which, in turn, will lead to numerical growth within the church itself. The only way for believers not to be fruitful, is by not seeking spiritual growth and development in their life, which, in turn, will prevent them from participating in the Great Commission. However, spiritual growth always leads to obedience and fruitfulness. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” And through the Great Commission he has revealed that he builds his church through the active obedience of his people. Fruitfulness will always be the result of obedience. Hence, believers who seek to grow will become disciples that reach and equip others.

Commit to the Vision

I remember a conversation I had with my dad several years ago. He was a tool-and-die maker for over forty years. Concerning my job as a pastor he once said, “It must be frustrating to not see a finished product.” In his job, raw materials came into the shop, and after a long process a finished product left the shop to a customer. After thinking about his statement, it occurred to me that the church, in seeking to fulfill the Great Commission, was not that much different. We just have different materials and a different finished product.

Using that analogy, I realized that the finished product of the church is a fully functioning disciple who actively obeys Christ by being a disciple-maker. And like any product, the life of a disciple, must begin with raw material. The raw material that comes into the church is the newly minted believer who has just responded to the gospel. When this person enters the church, he/she comes with a lot of baggage. New believers enter the church with wrong ideas about God, sin, the church, and life in general. Most enter with sin in tow. And when they begin their life as a believer they are not yet equipped to follow Christ. It is the church’s job to equip these new believers so they can effectively follow.[16]

Unfortunately many churches believe that when they lead someone to Christ, they have reached the finish line – work accomplished, move on to the next prospect. The Bible, however, reveals that leading someone to Christ is not the finish line, but the starting line. It’s not the end of the journey, but only the beginning of one. In that respect I began to think of the church as an assembly line. That’s not the greatest analogy, I know. But, the point is to see the raw material coming into the church, then seeing that material shaped and formed, then exiting the church as a finished product. That product is not a pew sitter! It’s a person who has repented from sin, embraced the vision Christ has for his/her life, and has committed to learn to follow Christ as he/she seeks to become obedient to him.

The first step in the spiritual development of a person is to lead them to see Christ’s vision for the church, and then lead them to take ownership of that vision for their life. Failure to help a new believer understand that Christ has a world-wide mission he expects his people to be a part of, results in mission failure for that new believer and for the church that believer has joined.[17] Of course, before the church can communicate the vision, it must also embrace the vision itself.

To echo captain obvious, I don’t think it was an accident that Jesus gave the Great Commission at the beginning of the church’s life. It is the vision for the church; and it defines the identity and activity of the church throughout all time. To deviate from it is to chart a course different from the one he gave. The church was created by virtue of the great commission, not despite it. If Christ had commissioned his church to pick pickled peppers, then his followers would travel the country side picking pickled peppers. But, he commission his church to “Make disciples of all nations.” Either the church is doing that, or it has chosen to do something else.

And, as mentioned above, the church is not an institution. The Greek word translated “church” in our Bibles literally means, “The assembled ones.” Thus, the church is an assembly of believers who are called to follow Christ in the world-wide movement he began. When new people enter the church they must be taught the vision Christ has for his church. Only as they begin to understand his vision can they begin to understand what the church is, what he expects of them as members, and how they can contribute to the mission.

This vision casting is accomplished in two ways. First, it begins with the teaching ministry of the church.[18] The leaders of the church are called to effectively communicate Christ’s vision. Second, mature believers must come alongside new believers. If the finished product is a fully functioning disciple, then it is expected that that disciple is equipped to invest in the life of other new believers. Indeed, it is the fully functioning disciple who is, in effect, the assembly line worker. As the raw material comes into the church, the worker helps shape the new believer until they are, themselves, a fully functional disciple. Once they come off the line, then, they too are expected to work on the line as new material continually flows into the church. Hence, the process continues and repeats itself as mature believers continually invest in the lives of new believers with the intent of aiding their spiritual growth and development.

The language of an assembly line is highly impersonal and can be misleading. But, the process of making disciples is very personal. As mature believers come alongside new believers, they are called to invest their lives in them. Therefore, discipleship, if it is to be effective, must be relational in nature. The problem some churches face is that while they can communicate the vision, they fail to encourage life-on-life discipleship. The teaching ministry, if it is going to succeed, must be supplemented with one-on-one relationships. New believers will not grow into mature believers without this element. This is because so many of the truths of scripture require more than intellectual assent. They require a response in obedience – a response that often entails some form of accountability.

One-on-one relationships provide three important parts of implementing the vision in the life of a new believer. First, the mature believer leads by example. They show the new believer what obedience looks like in the trenches of daily life. Second, they come alongside and help the new believer get over the obstacles that are always in the path of obedience. Third, as they come alongside the new believer, they provide encouragement to persevere – even in the face of failure. Children do not learn to walk without someone first holding their hands, and picking them up when they fall. Jesus did not give a lecture to a group of would be disciples and then send them into the world. He lived with them for three years, and modeled what living for the Father’s will looked like. He then came alongside them and encouraged them, as he challenged them to do things they would never have tried on their own.

For vision casting to be successful then, the church must teach the vision, and it must have people who can come alongside new believers and demonstrate what that vision looks like in the life of a believer.

Surrender to God’s Will

This next step may go without saying, but for an individual to grow in Christ, they will need to surrender to the vision. A person may sit under the teaching ministry for a long time without actually entering into the discipleship process. Knowing the vision is not the same as surrendering to God’s will concerning the vision. To surrender means one gets off the pew and puts into daily practice what God commands. Unfortunately, there are many church members who have been sitting in pews for years and have yet to enter the process of becoming a disciple. As such they are not fulfilling God’s will for their life.

Therefore it is necessary that three things happen when a new believer enters the church. First, they must hear the vision God has for his church – and they must understand that it is God’s will for them to be a part of his mission. Second, it is important the new believer witness the vision lived out in the life of the church through mature believers. And third, they should be invited by a mature believer to enter the discipleship process. In short, they should be called upon to surrender to God’s will and commit to being a disciple. This assumes, of course, that the one doing the inviting is committing himself/herself to investing in the life of the new believer. To be effective, the invitation should include some standards of commitment – for example, laying out expectations for meeting times, worship attendance, witnessing encounters etc. But the point is to communicate the vision and then ask the new believer to be a part of it. How many believers have had their spiritual growth stunted because no one in the church ever offered to invest in them, and sought to walk alongside them?

This is in keeping with the relational nature of discipleship. When Christ called his disciples, he went to each one and personally gave them the invitation to “become fishers of men.” Had he told them to be fishers of men, but never invested in their life and showed them what that looked like, I suspect church history would be very different – and short lived. Yet this is exactly what many churches do. They lead a person to Christ, show them a pew and expect them to grow simply because they sit in the pew once a week. A person sitting in a pew may want to do God’s will, and may hear sermons on how to, but until someone takes them and shows them, it is very likely they will have a hard time actually doing those things. For a Church to be healthy, and to growth, I believe this component of extending a personal invitation should be reclaimed by the church.[19]

Be Intentional About Spiritual Growth

After a new believer enters into a discipleship relationship with a capable mentor, the process of being intentional about spiritual growth begins. It is important to note that the things which lead to spiritual growth are not different from what most churches do: Bible study, sermons, worship, prayer, witnessing, fellowship, etc. What is different in the discipleship process, and is often not found in churches, is that these things are both expected, and the new believer seeking to grow, is held accountable by someone who is actively doing these things themselves.

In many churches spiritual growth is expected, but since there is no intentional process via life-on-life discipleship, any growth that occurs is done more by osmosis than by an intentional effort to grow. In other words, growth is passive in many churches. When people grow in the things of Christ, it is almost by accident. And, tragically, there are many sincere believers who are still infants in Christ because they have never been expected to be intentional about spiritual growth.

This is where discipleship offers the biblical component of accountability.[20] There are two types of accountability. One is confrontational, and it occurs after someone has sinned. Most people refer to this type of accountability as church discipline. Church discipline has its place in the church; but the accountability that is offered via discipleship is positive in nature. It is not confrontational. Instead of confronting, it seeks to shape, guide, and lead. It involves, as mentioned above, an investment from the one offering the accountability. By way of analogy, think of the one leading the discipleship process as a coach.[21] A coach’s job is to get you to do what you don’t want to do, so you can become who you want to be.[22] No one expects their coach to be soft on the team. They expect them to push. They also expect there will be pain involved in the process. For example, a member of a team wanting to compete for a national title expects that the training will be hard. Jesus said that “the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”[23] For a long time that verse disturbed me. And it should disturb any believer who is serious about their faith. It comes into focus, however, when one understands that true, biblical, Christ-honoring faith, which expresses itself in obedience to God’s will, is formed in the crucible of discipleship.

Discipleship is hard because it calls believers to do things in the Spirit that are contrary to the flesh.[24] Left to ourselves we are unlikely to be intentional about putting off the former man, and putting on the new man who walks in righteousness and truth.[25] We are not likely to take spiritual disciplines seriously, where we are intentional about drawing closer to Christ through worship, Bible study, prayer, fasting etc. We are not likely to be intentional about sharing the gospel with people, because we have not been trained to, or expected to. We are not likely to walk in faith when everything in front of us tells us to do otherwise.

Enter right stage a mature believer who has been trained by a good coach. He knows the excuses. He knows we are prone to self-righteousness and selfishness. He knows we are lovers of idols instead of lovers of God. He knows that mortifying the flesh is hard and painful. But, he also knows that the Spirit of Christ that led him to grow will also lead the new believer to grow as he/she is challenged, held accountable to obey God’s word, and is held accountable to be intentional about those things that will lead the believer to become a real live, Spirit filled, faith saturated, God loving believer who lives a life of victory as he/she joyfully fulfills God’s will.

What are the things a new believer should be challenged to be intentional about? The scope of this paper does not allow a detailed list. There are many resources available that will aid in the discipleship process. And it should be expected that any good resource will take time to complete. And, as a side note, it must be understood that the process of discipleship cannot be defined by any particular timeframe. Some people will grow faster than others, and that’s okay.  But, as far as the content, at a bare minimum, a disciple must be challenged to be serious about three main areas of growth. First, relationships: they should be led to grow in their relationship with God and other believers. This would be expressed, at a bare minimum, through worship, prayer, and fellowship. Second, obedience to the Word: they should be led to grow in their understanding of biblical truth and their willingness to obey what they learn. Third, service: they should be led to learn how to serve Christ within the body through their spiritual gifts. As they learn how God has equipped them to serve in the body of Christ, they should be encouraged to contribute to the mission of the church. In addition, the new believer must learn to walk by faith and not by sight, which undergirds everything a believer does.

For our purposes, the point is not to define the specifics of what a disciple should learn, but that the new believer understands that spiritual growth happens only when one is intentional, and when one is held accountable for their growth.

Be a Part of the Mission

As the new believer is engaged in the discipleship process, it becomes only a matter of time when he/she begins to be a part of the church’s mission to “Make disciples of all nations.” However, just as a believer must be intentional about spiritual growth, he/she must also be intentional about cooperating in the fulfillment of making Christ known. I have met many Christians who have never shared their faith, even after being a member for several years. The church must take the leadership role of making opportunities available to teach members how to share.

In addition to teaching believers to share their faith, it is important the church empower believers to engage in ministry. The Bible is clear that the church body is made up of several members, and each member is gifted by the Spirit to serve in specific ways.[26] As a person begins to learn how the Holy Spirit has equipped them to serve in the body, the church must allow room for believers to engage ministry from the position of their spiritual gifts.[27] Unfortunately, in many churches, spiritual gifts are not emphasized, and ministries that exist are not determined by the gifts God gives the body. Instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to lead people into ministry, many churches have opted for nominating committees to decide who fills what role within the church.

However, when people are encouraged to follow the leadership of the Holy Spirit, the church may discover that God is leading people into ministries that the church may not have considered. In Acts 10 Peter was given a vision with a sheet that had unclean food on it. After the Lord told Peter not to call anything unclean that God had declared clean, he was greeted by visitors from Cornelius’ household asking Peter to go to a gentile home. God was expanding the scope of his reach. The gospel was now being sent to the gentiles. Had Peter listened to the local nominating committee, Cornelius might still be waiting for Peter to come share the gospel.

The point is that every believer is both called by Christ, and equipped by Christ, to reach certain people. As such, as people are taught to learn how Christ has spiritually enabled them, they also need to be encouraged to follow were Christ is leading them to serve. People will eagerly participate when they are given the freedom to follow the Lord’s leadership.

Help Others Grow

Finally, when a believer has grown in Christ and is actively serving Christ within the body, he/she must be encouraged to invest in the lives of other believers. The Lord may have called that person to serve in a specific way; but he has also called that person to become a mentor so he/she can train, equip, shape, and model for a new believer what active obedience and ministry looks like. And while the new believer may be called to pursue a different avenue of ministry as they grow, it is not until they grow that they can even discern such a call. But, as they are mentored, they will be encouraged to be actively engaged in the process whereby they learn how to follow Christ. And in learning to follow, they set themselves up to be fruitful in the days and years ahead.

Practical Incorporation

Incorporating discipleship as the leading vision of the church can be a messy proposition, depending on the history of the church. My experience is that when discipleship is presented as the main emphasis of the Great Commission, including the fact that Christ expects his people to become active disciples, it can cause consternation for those who have always been told that if you simply believe in Jesus all is well. Of course, we are saved by grace through faith alone. We do not save ourselves, and being a disciple is not a path to earning salvation. However, some will misconstrue the call to be a disciple with a call to earn your salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. However, because many churches have not emphasized discipleship, or have, at a minimum, reduced the call to be disciples to a preference that one can either take or leave, caution must be taken in leading the church to reformulate their understanding of the Great Commission. I say this as one who bears the scars of moving too fast in this direction.

When seeking to establish discipleship as the primary engine of the church, three things are needed: First, be patient with the membership of the church. To reformulate the vision of the church will mean the church will need to develop a new culture. This will take time to inculcate. Second, present the vision with grace, and often. Demonstrate through scripture how this vision drove the early church. A sermon series through the book of Acts would be helpful in this regard. Third, chose a few people with leadership ability and begin investing in their life, with the aim of teaching them to be disciples who can then become disciple-makers. This will begin a movement within the church that will grow over time.

Conclusion

Dr. Thom Rainer, president of Lifeway, recently reported that 65% of churches are in decline.[28] He cites several reasons for that sad fact. But the most shocking statistic he gave was that, “Somewhere between 7,000 and 10,000 churches in America will close their doors in the next year.”[29] That’s a lot of dying churches! The opposite of the fruitful church is a church on the road to death. However, behind the doors of every such church are believers who really love God, but who don’t know how to build his church. They work hard, try new things, but, they can’t seem to turn the ship around.

The churches that are dying are not filled with bad people, I believe they have simply failed to embraced discipleship as the primary purpose of believers. As a result, they never began a gospel movement where new believers were encouraged and empowered to grow into mature believers, who then were trained to invest in others with the intent of replicating themselves through life-on-life discipleship. In short, they never really sought to “Make disciples of all nations.” As a result, most, if not all of those churches that close their doors every year are filled with old believers who are still as new as the day they accepted Christ as their Savior.

For churches to grow, both numerically and spiritually, they must embrace the simple mission Christ gave the church, which is to “Make disciples of all nations.” Only through this process he gave can we effectively fulfill the purpose for which he created his church, causing the church to experience a fruitful harvest until he returns.

 

[1] Hull, Bill. Conversion & discipleship: You can’t have one without the other. Grand Rapids, (Michigan: Zondervan. 2016), 31

[2] Berg, Jim. Changed into his Image: God’s plan for transforming your life. (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press. 2000), 13 – “Without a passion to disciple believers to Christ likeness through the ministries of the church, the church will focus merely on perpetuating its programs, and the sheep will grow sickly and unfruitful.”

[3] Stetzer, Ed, and Mike Dodson. Comeback churches: How 300 churches turned around and yours can too. (Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub. Group. 2007), 4, 6-7

[4] Unless otherwise noted, all biblical passages referenced are in the English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

[5] McIntosh, Gary. Biblical church growth: How you can work with God to build a faithful church. (Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 2003), 68

[6] Rainer, Thom S., and Eric Geiger. Simple church: Returning to God’s process for making disciples. (Updated. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub. Group, 2011), 20-26.

[7] Ripken, Nik. The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places. (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2014), 1

[8] Platt, David. Follow me: A call to die. A call to live. (Carol Stream, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2013), 68-69

[9] Hall, 27

[10] Platt, David. Radical: Taking back your faith from the American dream. First ed. Colorado Springs, Colo: Multnomah Books. 2010. pp 90-91.

[11] McIntosh, 45

[12] John 17:3

[13] McIntosh, pp 75

[14] Matthew 16:18

[15] Blackaby, Henry T., and Richard Blackaby. Spiritual leadership: Moving People on to God’s Agenda. (Revised & expanded. Nashville, Tenn: B & H Pub. Group, 2011), 69

[16] Ephesians 4:11-12

[17] Stanley, Andy. Visioneering. (Multnomah Publishers, 1999), 99 – Stanley rightly points out that, “All divinely inspirited visions are in some way tied to God’s master plan.”

[18] Dever, Mark. The church: The gospel made visible. (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 70, 75

[19] Humphries, Kent.Equipping the Saints: A View from the other side of the Pulpit (Ephesians 4:11-12),” Faith & Mission. Vol 19. No. 1 Fall 2001. Pp 59

[20] Berg, pp 30-31

[21] Putman, Jim. Church Is a Team Sport: A Championship Strategy for Doing Ministry Together. (Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 54

[22] A Quote attributed to Tom Landry, coach of the Dallas Cowboys

[23] Matthew 7:14

[24] Galatians 5:16-17

[25] Ephesians 4:20-24

[26] 1 Corinthians chapter 12 and Romans chapter 12

[27] Putman, 34

[28] Rainer, Thom. “Dispelling the 80 Percent Myth of Declining Churches.” Internet. Available from http://thomrainer.com/2017/06/dispelling-80-percent-myth-declining-churches. June 28, 2017.

[29] Rainer, Thom. “Six Stages of a Dying Church.” Internet. Available from http://thomrainer.com/2017/06/six-stages-dying-church. June 12, 2017.

The Biblical Marks of Discipleship

One of the current needs of the church today is to recover the biblical concept of discipleship. Over the past generation the understanding of discipleship as being foundational to the mission and life of the church has been watered down. During the same period of time one can find many resources devoted to the topic. However, instead of being the foundational principle upon which the church should operate, discipleship has been relegated to just one ministry amongst many within the church. During this time, the church has unofficially adopted the strategy of running programs as being the necessary approach to building a healthy church. Hence churches have children’s programs, youth programs, evangelism programs, discipleship programs, and music and worship programs – amongst many others. This partitioning of programs has led people to see discipleship as just another program within the larger church with the effect that people see it as an option or preference. One person joins the choir, another goes to the discipleship class, but both are “active” in ministry. And while that may be so, as a result of partitioning the church into programs, the church is not fulfilling the great commission.

Before Jesus ascended to the Father he made clear the purpose of the church. Every gospel account and the book of Acts communicates some version of the Great Commission. The most explicit enunciation of the Great Commission is found is Matthews’s gospel. Their Jesus said,

“All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:18-20, NKJV).

From this text it is clear that the Great Commission is not limited to evangelism. And while the church has always understood that the Great Commission is a command to lead people to Christ, it has not always embraced the equally important aspect of this command to lead people to grow in Christ as disciples.

The word disciple literally means “a learner.” That aspect of discipleship is clearly articulated in Matthews’s account. However, when one takes a larger view of scripture it becomes clear that a disciple is a learner who follows his/her teacher. When Jesus first called his disciples, he did not call them to simply be students. He called them to follow him (Matthew 4:19). In addition, this was a call to begin a new way of life where following Jesus took priority over everything else (Luke 5:11). In Matthews’s account of the Great Commission this idea of discipleship is the primary emphasis of the command. While Jesus was clearly commanding the church to do evangelism, this was to be done under the wider scope of making disciples.

This idea is further communicated in the book of Acts chapter eleven. Several years after Christ gave the command to make disciples, the church in Antioch was sending Paul and Silas out as missionaries. During this period Luke records that “The disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (vs. 26). Of significance is that the term “Christian” was not an identification the church gave itself. The word came from those who were hostile to the church. It was essentially a pejorative name given by the enemies of the church to identify those who were actively (and antagonistically in the minds of non-believers) following Christ. The early disciples were so effective in following Christ by both leading people to Christ, and teaching them to also follow Christ, that the non-believing community took notice. Hence a “Christian” was known as one who followed Christ in such a way that non-believers knew who they were by what they were doing in Jesus’ name. In addition, immediately after Pentecost when Peter preached his first sermon, the church did not simply preach for people to accept that Jesus was the long awaited for Messiah, but after their confession of faith, the apostles began the process of teaching the church to effectively follow Christ (Acts 2:42). Later as the church matured, and even came under intense persecution, these Christians “went everywhere preaching the word” (Acts 8:4). Their training as disciples led them to publically follow Christ as they both proclaimed Jesus as Lord and Savior, and led others to do the same.

The very heart of the Great Commission, then, is to make disciples who, in turn, have made it their purpose to follow Christ by making disciples. If there is one biblically legitimate “program” for the church, then, it is to make disciples who are, themselves, disciple makers. Discipleship was never meant to be found in the backwaters of the church’s calendar. It is the very purpose for which Christ created his church. A church that is not making disciples is not obeying the Great Commission. In addition, based on Acts 11:26, one might argue that a Christian is not one who simply believes that Jesus in the Messiah (after all the demons believe, James 2:19) but one who has made the commitment to be an active follower (disciple) of Jesus (cf. Luke 9:57-62). The main purpose for the church’s existence, then (according to Jesus), is to lead people to effectively follow Christ (cf. Eph 4:11-12).

If making disciples is the essence of the Great Commission, and the very purpose for which Christ created his church, then it is important we understand the specifics of what a disciple looks like. In what follows I want to outline the biblical marks of discipleship.

  1. As noted above, a disciple is, first and foremost, a follower of Jesus. Some might argue that believing in Jesus should be the first mark of a disciple. And while it stands to reason that belief in Jesus is of paramount importance (cf. John 3:16), it can be argued that belief in Jesus does not always lead to true salvation, let alone rise to the level of making one a disciple. Consider Matthew 7:21-23 where “believers” in Jesus are condemned (also note James 2:19 where demons are said to be believers!). When Jesus called his first disciples the call was unequivocally to “follow” Jesus. While it can be argued that they had a nascent belief that Jesus was the Messiah, it is clear that their belief in Jesus was incomplete. It took several years of following Christ before they had a true appreciation for, and what we might call a developed belief system concerning, the person and work of Jesus as the Messiah.
  2. A disciple is one who learns to follow Christ. The very definition of the word means to be a learner. However, the biblical context reveals that this learning is similar to what we today call On the Job Training. Learning happens in the context of following. And while Jesus taught the multitudes, for those who were following, he also demonstrated what he taught. Their learning was experiential. The disciples were effectively apprentices under Jesus. A cursory reading of Luke chapters nine and ten reveal that Jesus told the disciples what he wanted them to learn; he then demonstrated to the disciples what that looked like; finally he sent them off to do what he already showed them. What is a disciple to learn? This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a good start:
    1. They are to learn what the Master is doing, then do those things (John 14:12)
    2. They are to learn the teachings (doctrines) of scripture (Acts 2:42; Heb 5:12-13)
    3. They are to learn obedience to the Word (Luke 6:46, 1 Peter 2:1-3)
    4. They are to learn the will of God (Rom 12:1-2)
    5. They are to learn to live a life pleasing to God (Col 1:9-11)
    6. They are to learn to live holy lives (1 Peter 1:16)
    7. They are to learn to live a life of repentance and self-denial (Luke 9:23)
    8. They are to learn to share their faith (Matt 28:18-20, Acts 1:8, John 20:21; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15)
    9. They are to learn to use their spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3-8; Cor 12:4-27)
    10. They are to learn submission to the leadership of Christ (John 14:23, Psalm 2)
    11. They are to learn to worship (John 4:22-24)
    12. They are to learn to pray (Matt 6:9-13)
    13. They are to learn to love God (Deuteronomy 6:4-5)
    14. They are to learn to love others, even their enemies (Matt 5:43-47; Rom 13:8-10)
    15. They are to learn to give and be generous (Luke 6:36; 1 Cor 16:2; Phil 4:10, 15)
  3. A disciple is one who employs what he learns as a new way of life (Mark 4:24-25; Luke 6:46-49). This means he takes what he learns and puts it to use. He lives the truth (James 1:22-25; 2:14-17). In Matthew’s version of the Great Commission Jesus made this clear when he said we are to “Observe” all things he has “commanded” us. The Greek word we translate observe is tereo, and it means we are to pay careful attention to Jesus’ commands. We are to guard against not doing those things. We must make it our priority to obey, follow, and do those things he has instructed.

While the above list is not exhaustive, it reveals the true function of a disciple. I think a good working definition of a disciple can be stated as: A disciple is one who actively and obediently follows Christ into a new way of life in the context of the church for the purpose of making Christ known amongst the nations. It’s the last part of this definition we often lose sight of. Christ created the church to be a witness to his life, death, and resurrection so sinners can know the gospel and be saved. The church does not exist for the pleasure of its members, but for the glory of its King (Rev 19:16). Further, as someone once said, “The church is the only institution created for the benefit of its non-members.” Indeed, Christ did not come to “be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And he said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21).

The program of the church is defined by the command to make disciples. This should and must be the church’s first priority. While there are many good things the church can do as disciples, it is a certainty that if the church is not making disciples it cannot do the one thing, indeed the very thing, it was created to do.

 

Which Door?

This is chapter one of my book, “Man of the World, Battling Satan’s Infiltration of the Church.” Click on the link to the right to see more.

There seems to be a default mode that people lean towards in church life. While the invitation of the gospel is to enter into a unique and special relationship with God through Christ, many people seem content with a life of religion. The problem is that there is nothing in the gospel that even hints that that is God’s goal for a believer. Yet, there are many people who are active church members who are content with their religious routine and not even remotely concerned that the life of God is not a living reality for them. Yet, that is why Jesus came. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3, NKJV). And, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). The thief is Satan. He is the author of lifeless religion. But, Jesus came that we may know God and experience His life as a living reality on a daily basis. And notice, He said He came to bring an abundant life. This is not a normal, run of the mill common life that is content with sitting in pews and attending committee meetings. This is a supernatural, extraordinary, uncommon life that walks with the living God! This is the kind of life that is filled with a joy that is inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8). This is a life that experiences a peace that transcends understanding (Philippians 4:7). This is a life that knows every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ (Ephesians 1:3). In short, this is a life that knows God. Let that sink in. Knows. God.

So, before we look at the specifics of how Satan seeks to derail God’s will for the church, (something that he is quite skilled at) I have a question for you. Do you know God’s goal for your life? That is not an academic question. It is a matter of life and death. Get this answer wrong and everything that follows will take you in the wrong direction – away from God. But, in reality, the answer is simple. He wants you to love Him.[1] Period. He loves you with an everlasting love, and He has gone to great lengths to share His love with you and to enable you to love Him in return.

This is important to understand. Love is relational. The first and greatest commandment that God revealed to the world was that we are to love Him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. We are to love God with our entire being and with every fiber of our will. Love is life; and God wants that life to explode within us and ooze out of every pore of our body to those around us. And we need to understand that God’s love for us is more than we can possibly imagine.[2] His love is so great that He came to die for us so we never have to be separated from Him.

But, He is jealous for our love. He will not tolerate us loving something or someone else more than Him.[3] Loving something other than God is the very definition of idolatry. That doesn’t mean He doesn’t want us to love our spouse, children, or friends. No, in fact, He wants us to love them very much. But, He has created within us a very special place that was meant to be reserved only for Him, and He is jealous of that place – very jealous.

That place is meant to be the most important part of our life. It is where we are connected to God. Think of that place like a room. God has placed a room in every heart that has ever lived. And in that room God seeks, through faith in Christ, to place a doorway that opens to a very special place: the eternal presence of God. As the author of our life He has reserved the right to have complete and sole ownership of the room and have complete access through the doorway. He wants to enter the room of our life and commune with us forever.

As such, the room is meant to be the most significant and important part of our life. It is where we are meant to be intimately connected to God. But before He can enter the room He must place a doorway there. In our fallen, sinful state, the doorway has been blocked so we cannot have fellowship Him. The Bible says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Our sin effectively blocks the door so God’s presence is absent from our life. Jesus is the One who opens the door, and who becomes the door which leads to God. Through that door the Holy Spirit of God floods our lives with His life, love, hope, truth, and righteousness. So the Bible teaches that “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” True life can only be acquired and experienced when God enters our life through Christ.[4]

Therefore, allowing Christ to open the door into the room is the most important thing we can do this side of heaven. That door is opened when we place our faith in Christ. It’s not opened because one sits in church every once in a while. When the door is opened we receive the most valuable treasure that we can possess. We receive the fullness of God’s forgiveness, life, and unconditional love. Our Father knows that of all the essentials we need to survive, these things are the most important of all. Therefore, He is jealous to open the door, and to keep the door open so He can fill the room with these vital needs.

But God knows if the door is not opened and remains shut we will find ourselves in desperate peril. He does not want anything blocking the door. Blocking the door is akin to cutting a baby’s umbilical cord while still in the womb. Spiritually speaking we cannot survive such an event for long. If the room remains empty of His presence, our life is eternally forfeit! Let that sink in. Eternally. Forfeit. Lost. And no amount of church activity can change that.

However, after Jesus opens the door we learn to love God. And, when we love God as we were meant to, we make sure the room is always ready for Him and that nothing blocks the door. When we learn to do this, He dwells in this special place and fills it with His eternal life. Everything we experience with God begins in that room after He enters it.

Unfortunately we all have a sin problem and are subject to this danger. But sin has an author. His name is Satan. For reasons we will discuss later in the book, he hates God, and he desperately wants to shut the door of God in our lives, and fill the room with sin, despair, enmity, hopelessness, and death. Satan has many devices he employs in his efforts to pollute the room and block the door. But one of his most successful and enterprising efforts is to create a mirage which leads one to believe the room is full and the door is authentic. This is his most deadly of deceptions.

When an unsuspecting person walks into this mirage he believes the room has everything needed for life, and he believes the door leads to God when in reality it leads only to death.  This is the deception Satan uses to trap people into believing they are okay with God, when in fact they are on the road to hell. Satan achieves his mirage through religious sentiment and activities. He wants us to believe that all we need in the room is a bunch of religious stuff; and he wants that religious stuff to give the appearance of Christ – but be devoid of the life of Christ.

Once Satan successfully generates this mirage he leads the unsuspecting soul to become loyal to it. Many people love religion. As we will discuss in a later chapter, religion gives one a sense of confidence. Because of this, once a person becomes loyal to their religion they become very jealous of it. They will guard it and defend it. But tragically, many will discover that what they are defending is not real.

When Jesus came to the height of His public ministry many loyal members of the Pharisees felt threatened by Him. Little did they know that Jesus was trying to show them the real doorway so they could have true fellowship with God, and have that special room filled with His life. But they substituted the fullness of His life for the empty shell of religion.[5]

Because they saw Him as a threat, they defended their mirage to the point where they were actually fighting against God Himself. Think about that. As God was trying to open the door so they could have His life, they were desperately trying to make sure it stayed shut. This is the destination of lifeless religion. The height of their folly was revealed when they put Jesus to death. When they did, they effectively and eternally shut the door to God’s presence for themselves, and forfeited what God was trying to give them.[6] Likewise, even today, many people fall in love and become loyal to their religion, but they do so at the expense of their salvation. And in their misplaced loyalty to religion, they unknowingly declare war against God.[7]

In the following chapters we will see how Satan’s mirage takes shape, and we will look at the deception this mirage generates in our life. But before we proceed, it is important to understand a very vital point. God is not interested in religion qua religion. He is interested in people. He came to us so we can receive His life and enjoy Him forever. He wants to have a relationship with people that will never come to an end. We must make sure that we don’t make the mistake the Pharisees made by exchanging the life of Christ for religion.

Religion proper is a system of activities, and even an institutional identity, that has the ability to lead people to identify with God. But identifying with God is not the same thing as having a vibrant relationship with Him. One can be religious and have a relationship with God. But the relationship is the principle focus of God. The reality is that there are many religious people who have no relationship with God at all, and tragically they don’t know it. In fact, religion can become a distraction that prevents them from ever meeting God. Consider the rebuke God gave to His people through the prophet Isaiah:

“What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?” says the Lord; “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”[8]

Notice, they had all the religion their calendar could handle, but had none of the relationship their religion was meant to initiate. Though they believed they were worshiping God, and even pleasing Him, He declared that He was not listening and He was not with them. Instead of being in communion with God, He reveals they only had the pollution of sin. In all their religion they never knew God was absent. The true door was shut and their religious practices made sure it was nailed shut.

It needs to be pointed out that God did not hate their religion for the sake of hating religion. He hated their religion because it actually prevented them from knowing Him in spirit and truth. As such they continued to live in sin and believed they were worshiping God all the while ignorant of their great peril.

This is where Satan is a master. He can distract us from the realities of God’s life and lead us to see only the superficial adornments of a life-denying religiosity.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-religion. After all, I am a pastor. But I am against the deceptive mirages the enemy creates. True religion leads to the life of Christ. As an under-shepherd to Christ I have a great love for the church and I desire to see the Lord’s sheep enter the true door where they can feed on green pastures and drink still waters that gives rest to their souls – a place where they can obtain strength for their journey and enjoy true fellowship with God. But as a pastor I cannot stand to see the sheep running into the desert where they will not find God’s life but will only suffer the scorching heat of sin and breathe the arid climate of despair, all the while thinking they are running to God.

At the same time I don’t want people to flee the church because they “hate” religion. The church was created to be, and should be the fragrance of God’s life in the world. As such, the church needs to reveal the true doorway to life – that it is found in Christ, not in religion. True religion always leads people to Christ, who is God’s life. To that end the church must wage war against the schemes of the enemy so the sheep can be free to come and go into the glorious presence of their loving God and shepherd, who laid down His life so they can freely and boldly come to the throne of grace.

The reality is that the whole history of God’s work of salvation can be distilled down to that one point: Everything God did was so Jesus could come to open the true door of eternal life and to make sure everyone has an opportunity to walk through it and discover a living, vibrant faith that brings one into communion with the God.[9]

Thankfully, God did not come to bring us a dry, dead, lifeless religion. He came to bring us His indestructible life through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Through Him, God gives His life away in abundance.

However, a Man of the World is one who is satisfied with religion. He has fallen in love with it, and it has become his god. So when the true living God shows up, the lover of religion thinks it’s an intrusion and he finds it very distressing. The first area God’s presence disturbs in that person’s heart gets to the heart of man’s fallen condition. When God shows up He knocks on the door of that room and demands he hand over the key. He then commands him to relinquish control of the room and allow Him in.

But, despite all piety of religion, a true Man of the World says, “No!”

To that subject we turn next.

 

[1] Matthew 22:36-37; Deuteronomy 6:5

[2] Ephesians 3:19

[3] Exodus 20:4-6

[4] John 17:3

[5] John 5:40; Also, read the entire chapter of Matthew 23

[6] Matthew 23:15

[7] John 5:16; 7:1

[8] Isaiah 1:11-15

[9] John 10:10

Success Realized

I have come to the pinnacle of success in business. In the eyes of others, my life has been the symbol of success.
However, apart from work, I have little joy. – The last words of Steve Jobs

Self. It’s the number one killer in the world today. It destroys marriages. It rips communities apart. It leaves children orphans. It threatens social stability at every level. It damages lives. It leaves people bereft of friends and loved ones. It is the source of wars and fights. And it is the real reason we must tragically open graves on a daily basis.

When Adam and Eve first sinned, they didn’t just break a simple rule. They effectively opened the door of Pandora’s Box unleashing hell. Man was created in God’s image. It’s something we don’t reflect upon often enough. There are many things that means, but one consequence of this wonderful truth is that being made in God’s image means we were given great creative skills and abilities – abilities that far surpass that of the animal kingdom. Man’s ability to cultivate, build, think, imagine and create is vast. But man was created to do these things in a way that reflects the creator back into the creation. But because of Satan’s lie man’s abilities were high-jacked. We were created to serve God. After God created Adam, he told him to tend and keep the garden God had created. The words in the original language are the language of worship. Adam and Eve were to bend all their ingenuity in the service of their God. But, when they accepted the lie of Satan, all those abilities were now placed in the service of self. Focusing those abilities on self has become the source of much evil in the world.

This is not to suggest that good things aren’t accomplished today or that people always and only do things that are inherently evil. It does mean, though, that most things in life are not done for God. Most people engage in the various activities of life with self in mind. Daily we go through life pursuing our ambitions and dreams. We think about our future, our jobs, our daily objectives, our next big score, our likes, our dislikes etc. etc. etc. … but rare is the person who thinks about these things in relation to God, and rarer still is the person who uses their God given ingenuity in service for God and for the glory of God. Sadly, when we fail to employ our God given abilities as an act of worship, we fail to achieve true success; and we fail because we are not living for the purpose and design for which we were created. But in that failure comes a very real dissatisfaction in life.

Despite the many achievements we have enjoyed, many people still lack real satisfaction. People can and do attain great success in the various accomplishments of life. There are great thinkers, engineers, doctors, inventors, builders, artists, musicians, and the list can go on and on … yet there is not a single achievement that has brought lasting contentment to people. No matter how successful, we are still dissatisfied. No matter how technologically advanced we have become, no matter the quality of life we have achieved (which is the best the world has ever seen), no matter the diseases that have been eradicated, there still lies within the heart of man a desperation. This gives rise to the belief that we haven’t done enough and must press on. If we can only change this one thing, all will be well. However, when that one thing is attained, and the desired goal realized, the dissatisfaction remains; and we believe that we have not done enough. There is more to do. There are more things to fix. And when our desperation becomes great enough, we believe others are to blame. If they would just get on board; if they would only see things our way; if they would just get out of the way… all would be well. But they don’t. They then become our opponent. But they are thinking the same things. If only they would see it this way and not that; if only they wouldn’t be so ignorant; if only they would get out of our way. And they don’t. Catastrophe, conflict, war, pain, sorrow, misery, and tragically, death are the result.

The problem is born out of a true need all people have. But we fail to understand what the real problem is, and as such search for a tragic solution. Hence, we envision a future without the perceived problem and seek to fix the symptom of the problem and not address the real problem itself. But we have forgotten what it was like to achieve a solution to a smaller problem only to discover that it was not enough; it didn’t fix what was really wrong. Rare is the person who pauses and looks at the problem from the different point of view. The history of mankind is replete with wars and tragedies. And behind many of them lie this scenario where it is believed that the vision, once realized, will bring about our peace, happiness, and fulfillment. All will be well … then.

Another word for that vision is utopia – the ideal paradise. People seek to attain utopia in their personal lives, in their homes, their neighborhoods, and nations. But no matter their achievements, no matter how far they travel to find it, it always eludes them. But, the satisfaction they seek cannot be had this side of heaven. Heaven is heaven not because of where it is, but because of who is there: God. Rare is the person who thinks about their dissatisfaction in life and considers that, perhaps the one real problem they have is that they are disconnected from their creator. “Tend and keep the garden” God told Adam. In other words use your creative powers and ingenuity as an act of worship in service to me. Worship me with your abilities and skills. Or, to quote the apostle Paul, “Do all things unto God, and not unto man.” This will bring the satisfaction we long for. Instead, we do all things for the glory and happiness of self, and are miserable as a result.

True happiness, then, comes through using our God giving abilities as worship. But worship is so much more than singing songs and listening to sermons. Worship is a sermon lived. Worship is using our God given skills in a way that reflects God’s glory back into the world. God is the master lawgiver. God is the master sculptor. He is the master engineer and designer. All skills and abilities find their source in him. So many of the problems we experience in life are a result of forgetting this great truth. Instead of using these things as an act of worship to the One who gave them, we use them to worship ourselves.

As a result we live in a world where our satisfaction seems to always be stymied; either by a bad situation, or by a certain person, or a group of people. We will achieve happiness and our little utopia, so we think, when we remove the obstacle that is preventing us from doing so. Last week an assassin tried to take out some politicians. In his mind, they were the obstacle. He’s now dead. The newspaper reported a story of man who murdered his wife and kids. They were hindering his freedom, or so he thought. He now faces capital punishment. Hitler sought to rule Europe and murdered the Jews as he went, because they were the problem. Most of Europe was destroyed trying to stop him. In the 20th century Communists sought to convert the world to dialectical Marxism, and killed a 100 million people because capitalists were the hindrance to world peace and prosperity. Islamist jihadists seek to kill their way to utopia, because the non-believers are the problem. Many people live in constant fear as a result. There is no end to the tragedies that have been unleashed on the world because someone stood in the way of someone else’s potential achievement of their utopia.

I wonder, though, how many leaders have walked a battle field after a hard won victory only to realize the problem was still there. There are many battlefields in life. The ugliest one does not lie in a meadow turned killing field. The ugliest one lies within the human heart seeking to carve out happiness, satisfaction, and fulfillment in life apart from God.

Adam and Eve were the first people God created. They weren’t born. God raised Adam from the ground and crafted Eve from Adam’s rib. There were no birth defects or genetic problems that distorted their life. They did not inherit their parent’s disabilities. They must have been beautiful. I can’t imagine their native intelligence. They had it all. Until. They bought the lie that happiness and satisfaction could be theirs apart from God. Nothing good came from that titanic mistake. Instead all the suffering we experience in life did. Despite their intrinsic God given abilities, they experienced profound sorrow as they were driven from God’s presence – a sorrow that still plagues the hearts of man today. And a sorrow that can only be removed when one is reunited with God.

But there was another man, the second Adam – Jesus. He did not make the same mistake our first parents made. Instead of looking away from God, he embraced the will of God completely. His life was lived for God. His death was experienced so we can die to self. Sin, in all its varied and ugly forms, is nothing but pure-self on display. Jesus killed sin so we can be free of its insidious power to deceive and enslave. He did two things for us: 1st, through his cross he freed us from sins power and from God’s judgment against sin. 2nd through his life he showed us what a life lived for God looks like. He never raised a sword against anyone. He was never unkind, hateful, or vengeful. He did not fight those who sought to kill him. He never defended himself when falsely accused. He did not plead that it was someone else’s fault. But it was. It was ours. And instead of removing us because our selfishness is the problem, he chose to die for us. And as he died he suffered greatly. His suffering was real. But he never took his eyes of the Father. “Not my will be done, “He said, “but yours.” His prayer is our answer. His sacrifice our salvation. And though our sin brought him more suffering and pain than we can imagine, because he was doing the Father’s perfect will, he never lost his joy (see Hebrews 12:2).

Most people will go through life looking for others to blame for their dissatisfaction and unhappiness –and their misery will continue, and they will probably destroy someone along the way. But we can be those who look inside ourselves and realize an unhappy life is a life disconnected from God. The great news about heaven is that we don’t have to wait to go there. Jesus brought heaven to us. He said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Once we turn to him, he brings heaven to us. Once there, firmly ensconced by his life and presence, we realize there is no one to blame. There never was. It’s only then that we can get on with life as it was meant to be lived. And as we employ the skills that he has given us, we discover that no matter what we do, with him taking delight in our work, we will “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.”

 

 

 

Divide the Word, Not Believers

So I just finished a debate – if you can call it that – with a man who forcefully argues for a hyper-Calvinism position on the atonement. We sat down to have coffee a couple of weeks ago and somehow got into a debate on Romans 9. Let me say upfront that there are many good Christians who are hyper-Calvinists; and there are many good Christians who are not. I belong to the latter category. The conclusion of the story, I assume, based on his comments on FB, is that he has broken fellowship with me. In our discussion on Romans nine, I presented a reading of the text that disagreed with his. On FB, without articulating what I actually said about Romans nine, he told anyone reading that I vehemently oppose God’s sovereignty in salvation, I dishonor God, and that I despise the sovereignty of God. When I called him a Calvinist he said I was disparaging him and that he does not accept such titles – he even said I was disparaging Calvin. I thought I was being accurate based on his argument. He thought I was being divisive. One of the things I took away from his comments where he accuses me of dishonoring God is that because I disagree with him, I am therefore dishonoring God. To dishonor God is a serious thing. It is to be living in sin and rebellion against God. To accuse someone of dishonoring God because of theological differences is a scary place to be. You might as well make the claim “To disagree with me is to disagree with God.” Where did we ever get the idea that disagreement over theological arguments is A. equivalent to attacking God; and B. grounds for accusing a brother in Christ for being in sin; and C. grounds for breaking fellowship? Friends this is not Christianity. This is insanity.

As far as my reading of Romans nine, in a nut-shell I believe Paul is explaining why God’s promises to the Jews have not failed. It seems that the point of contention comes from the verse that reads, “Jacob I loved but Esau I hated” (Rom 9:13). Hyper-Calvinists insists that this means God chooses who gets saved, and conversely, God chooses who goes to hell. I think that is a misreading of the text. That verse is a quote from Malachi 1:2. It is my contention that Paul quoted Malachi for a reason, and that he quoted that verse to reflect the thinking of Malachi. In context Jacob represents Israel and Esau represents the people of Edom. This is an important point. God is not saying that He chose Jacob to go to heaven and chose Esau to go to hell. Each person represents their respective people: Jacob = Israel, Esau = Edom. If that’s correct, then is it possible that there is another meaning to that text than the ones given by hyper-Calvinists? I think so. And I don’t think that puts me in the category of dishonoring God and vehemently opposing God’s sovereignty in election. If my reading is wrong, it does not make me a sinner, it simply means I am mistaken. And for the record this reading does not mean that I believe a person is saved by their own efforts. They are saved only by what Christ has done. Period.

Going back to Malachi: again, Paul is quoting Malachi for a reason. The opening verse of Malachi puts a question in the mouth of the prophet: how have you loved us? So God answers the question and tells them how. He explains that God’s favor is on Jacob, and therefore on all Israel and not on Esau, and therefore not on the peoples of Edom. The larger context is the sin and rebellion of Israel which the prophet goes on to address in detail. The message from God to Jacob is: I love Jacob (read all Israel) despite their sin. And while they certainly deserve the punishment of Edom, they will not receive it. At the end of Malachi, it is clear that despite their sin, and the pleading of their innocence not-withstanding (which is a sin), God is still going to bring about His purposes of salvation through them (Malachi 4:1-6). So, despite their sin, God’s promises given to them WILL NOT FAIL (Rom 9:6).  Paul incorporates this thinking in his letter to the Romans. He says plainly in verse 4 & 5 that all the promises of God have come to Israel, then in verse 6 makes it clear that, despite appearances to contrary (Israel falling under judgment because they reject the gospel, Rom 9:32, 10:1-3, 16) God’s promises to the Jewish people have not, and cannot fail.  He goes on to address this concern that apparently some people had; but he is careful to explain that the ones who reject it do so because they are not following God’s plan for salvation. In seeking to establish their own righteousness (Rom 10:3) they have gone off the reservation. Their cries of unfairness 9:14, 19 (incidentally the people in Malachi claimed God wasn’t being fair either) that God won’t accept their righteousness through the law become the context of what Paul address in the rest of chapter 9 and 10. Paul is saying that God is not being unfair because as the One who gives the promises, He is the one who guides how those promises are received – by faith, not by works. And He is the One who creates the boundaries of how salvation comes into the world (i.e. through Jacob and not Esau – and not even Pharaoh and the powerful Egyptian nation can thwart God working in history, vs. 9:17). The promises are received only through faith and based only on the work that God has done in bringing salvation into the world through the Jewish nation and ultimately through Christ.

In explaining this, Paul is also lamenting the fact that many Jews reject the Gospel (9:1-3, 10:1) and is essentially pleading with them to accept the work that God has done.[1] He is in effect pleading for them to place their faith and trust in what God has done.  Look at verse 11:23, “IF they do not continue in unbelief, God will graft them in.” – notice the IF, making the sentence a subjunctive clause and putting the responsibility on them – i.e., if they will believe what God has said and done, and accept the gift of righteousness that He gives through Christ, He will bring them into life. He is concerned that they come to saving faith. And he wants them to abandon any attempt to be saved outside of Christ. That is why in verse 9:3 Paul says that he is willing to sacrifice everything, even his own salvation, so that they might be saved. In the middle of Chapter 10 this thinking is elaborated on. He says in 10:9, “That IF you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” In context this confession must be seen against those who seek to establish their own righteousness (10:3-8). But Paul argues that Christ, not our works, is our righteousness. Then in verse 10:10-13 he says in sum, whoever will come to Christ, gentile or Jew, and confess faith in Christ will be saved. That is explicitly stated in verse 11 as he quotes Isa 28:16. Faith in Jesus delivers God’s salvation to all (will not be put to shame). And in his turmoil for them to hear the gospel he makes it clear that to be saved THEY MUST HEAR THE WORD OF GOD (v. 10:14, 17). In that context verse 10:17 becomes so important: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing the Word of God.” In other words, faith is received and salvation imparted, when they hear the Word of God and believe it. There is no equivocation in these words. We cannot say, “Well, God may or may not save someone, that’s up to Him.” Paul’s answer is, sacrifice everything so they can hear and respond – plead, explain, persuade, beg, pray, and preach the Word – for without it, they have no hope of responding and therefore no hope of salvation.

So, in these chapters two important truths are on display. One, God’s sovereignty in bringing about our salvation through Jesus Christ, and fulfilling all His promises despite the sin of His people. We CAN be saved from judgement and wrath ONLY because of what God has done through Christ. We CANNOT establish our own righteousness. Second, through his pleading, and willingness to sacrifice, and urging that they hear the word, Paul reveals, to some degree, the responsibility for people to believe what God has done and accept through faith that it has been completed for them. So, I see God’s sovereignty and man’s free will side by side. I do not see particular, limited atonement in these verses. If you do, then God speed. But to claim that the above argument makes one a sinner and breaking fellowship over it is really an outrage – unworthy of the Savior who died for us that we might live for God, love God, and demonstrate that love by how believers love one another.

[1] That, incidentally does raise a question: if I’m wrong and Paul is in fact arguing that God chooses each individual for either salvation or damnation, why such emotional turmoil? He reveals that turmoil again in 10:1. If he is making the hyper-Calvinistic argument, then the pleading and turmoil seem out of place.

God Gives Life

Jesus is the good shepherd who came to give us life, and to give it to us in abundance. Life is precious. Of course, you wouldn’t know that by listening to modern political theory that encourages abortion and teaches that life is to be seen through a utilitarian lens, or by watching the majority of television shows where violent death is seen as a form of entertainment, and certainly not by playing one of the many video games kids now entertain themselves with. Such things only cheapen the value of life. But the reality is that those things exist because sin exists. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. In the presence of life sin is like a corrosive acid that eats away at the value of life, producing only death.

But one of the awesome truths of our existence is that we were created to live forever with God. We were created immortal, if you will. However, because of sin our lives were stripped from us; and what we experience as life, outside of God, is but a shadow of what we were created to experience. Sin is the reality that severs us from God’s life giving power.

In the world we can find things to Continue reading