Gospel Reminders Anyone Can Do

It is one thing to critique the endless parsing of Gospel application, as I have done in the previous post.  It is another to advocate what is simple and good.

Many years ago I developed a test of all ministry principles and practices.  It’s called the “Does it work for a single parent mother of 3 young kids?” test.

A single parent mother with three kids, whose life at home is bound and ruled by the ceaseless needs and demands of those little ones, must be considered.  When I stand up before a church and advocate certain practices, or write a book and call people to a set of disciplines, it has to work for her.

Godliness, in Christ, is accessible to her.  Godliness is not for the intellectual.  It is not for the leisurely. Christ died and rose again so that young Mom can be conformed to the image of the Son, to make her holy ans blameless.

I try to remember that the NT was written to illiterate peasants as well as some educated folks.  It was written to people who worked every waking hour just to survive, let alone prosper.  The best example of that in my USA world is the single parent Mom, with 3 young kids.

Telling her that 2 hours of daily Bible reading and prayer is foundational just doesn’t float. She is trying to get two hours of continuous sleep at night.  Giving her book after book to read won’t work.  She is working on bedtime stories for those kids.  Asking her to weight her motives before she acts, to make sure she is feeding on her justification is placing a burden on her.  Most of her day is response to the immediate needs of her children.  She has to act quickly.  She hardly has an idle thought about herself, her needs, or her motives. (And that may be glorious!)

So theologians and gospel-parsers, let’s take note of her.  She can practice a few disciplines of Gospel remembrance.  She can treasure these things in her heart all day. Gospel based living is available to her.

Here is what she can do to live in the good of the Gospel. Here is what we all can do.

1. Start the day reminding yourself that Christ died for your sins.  That God has fully accepted you because of Jesus sacrifice.  Start the day in his favor, no matter what you did yesterday.  You live in his favor all day.

2. Start the day reminding yourself that God is at work in us.  The Spirit of God is making you more and more like Christ.  God designs every circumstance in your day for that. He is the One who makes me want to please God.

3. Ask him for the Spirit to help you please him, and when you sin, to admit it to him.

4. Get on with the day. Seek to please your Father.

5. When you get a moment free, remind yourself that because of Christ you stand in God’s favor.  Remind yourself God the Spirit is at work in you.

6. At the end of the day, as you crash into sleep, remind yourself that Christ died for all those sins of the day (name what you can remember).  Hide yourself in his sacrifice.  Thank God that His favor rests upon you.

7. At the end of the day, thank God that His Spirit was at work in you all day, and he will complete the work he has begun. Thank him that he made you want to please your Father, and helped you admit when you did not.

I think that is simple.  I think it is sola fidei, sola gratia, links justification and sanctification, wars against self-righteousness, feeds on grace, and does not turn gospel centeredness into a burden that few can bear.

Oh, and while we are at it, let’s find a way to give these single parent moms and other young moms both honor for their lives of service, and help so they can get some extended time before the Lord.  Husbands, maybe you can take those kids on Saturday morning, send your wife to Starbucks, and let her have a few delicious hours of quietness.  Pastors, look for ways your people can serve these Moms who have no husbands.

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More gospel-centered than thou

‘Tis strange how self righteousness thrives at the foot of the cross.  “Tis not surprising where the devil plays.

I am no blog-monger nor tweet afficionado, but it seems there is a web-buzzing about “Gospel” these days.  It’s all about justification and sanctification (is there a hole in our holiness?), about law and grace, about gospel motivation, about depravity and regeneration, about feeding on our justification and the danger of self-righteousness.

I read all this and wonder. I wonder if, from my limited perspective, we are experiencing the work of the devil.  I wonder if Satan, the master of jiu jitsu of the soul, is not doing what he always does — pushing us to extremes.  I wonder if he is not going about stirring up strife between people who are gospel-focused, and pushing them to think they are the most consistent, the most careful, the most grace motivated.  I wonder if he is not at work to make us think we are “more gospel centered than thou.”  Really.

Let me be clear.  I am grateful for the working of God to renew Gospel focus across so many denominations and churches.  It was just not so 30 years ago.  The Gospel was the entry message for the Christian life, and after that, it was all law.  I preached that way for the first ten years of ministry, until God sent a messenger to correct me.  Now it seems every day a new book is published applying the Gospel to another area of life!

But, in all this debating about Gospel motivation, have we been drawn into something that is a rat’s nest?

So, let me ask some questions:

First, are we making the Scriptures harder to understand than they are?

The writers of the NT were pastors of churches.  They were neck deep in real life with real people.  They said what they said as simply as they said it to people just like us. They do not need my help to explain what they really meant.

The God who inspired the authors of Scripture to write the very words he intended, knew exactly what he was doing when he put indicatives AND imperatives in Scripture, when he used words like “fight,” and “strive,” and “put to death” in the New Testament.  He knew what “therefore” meant too.

When I read how Scripture is being manhandled, how it is being forced into a system of theology, I think we are dishonoring the God of Scripture.  Manhandled? Yes!  Strive does not mean strive, “add to” does not mean “add to”, labor is really rest, put to death is really faith?

The strong commands of the NT do not need to die the death of endless qualifications. The apostles knew what they were doing They state the indicatives of God’s riches in Christ and then call people to act upon them.  They do not state the indicatives and then restate them and then make sure the reader really got them by asking them if the indicatives are functioning in their hearts . . .

Years ago, when I was caught up in a form of perfectionism known as the Higher Life theology, God set me free with the simplicity and clarity of Scripture, cited by J C Ryle in his introduction to Holiness. I was so caught up with getting my “reckoning myself dead to sin” right that I missed the rest of the New Testament.

Second, I ask, are we confusing the internal function of the Gospel with the objective truth of the Gospel?

I preached Galatians last year.  It was a book of rich Gospel application.  I focused week after week on the functional Gospel, on the dangers of self righteousness.

Toward the middle of the book I realized Paul is not warring over the function of the Gospel in our hearts.  We is warring over a change in the message.  He is dealing with objective statements.  He says that those who change the message are damned.  He does not say that those who fail to have the Gospel function in their lives are accursed.

There is a vast difference between changing the message and applying the message. Those who change the message bring damnation.  But applying the message is a work of a lifetime, by the Spirit in us.  Galatians is about objective truth. They lost the Gospel.  Corinthians is about functional truth. They missed how it changes life.  Let’s not mix them.

Third, have we created both a new law and a perfectionism?

What I read on one side of this debate is pretty much advocating an endless monitoring of the state of my heart.  Am I resting in Christ’s work for me?  Am I feeding on my justification?

This seems to be a new legalism, an internal one.  It is getting the functional Gospel right in my heart.  I dare not do anything until I do so.

“Oh my, I obeyed, but I did so with a trace of self-righteousness.  I need to make sure that does not happen again!”

“Dear me, I sought to please God but there was some self-sufficiency in that obedience, and I must repent and try to get it right next time.”

This paralyzes people.  I think it is contrary to the apostolic method.

Paul reminds people of the objective truth of the Gospel.  Then he calls them to act upon it.  He does not call them to endlessly work on making sure they are getting the function of the Gospel correct before they do anything.

Putting the last two ideas together, I can begin the day with words like these: “I believe my righteousness is in Christ and his work, and his work alone.  Nothing can change that.  God is at work in me too, to make me like his Son.”  Then I go into the day.  Perhaps I remind myself of these things along the way.  But I live based on objective affirmation of faith, not the quality of my resting in Christ.

Fourth, have we changed the “involuntary” working of God into a voluntary and conscious activity of the believer. Have we allowed our therapeutic, self-aware, constantly-checking-out-the-state-of-our-heart culture to shape our doctrine?

Involuntary functions in the body just happen.  They happen because I am alive. While I am alive, my heart beats, I breathe, my kidneys function, and digestive juices are secreted so I am nourished from food. I do not have to think about them.

What a burden it would be if we began to give attention to even a few of these involuntary activities of the body!  It would paralyze us.

I think there are “involuntary” works of God in the believer.  The fruit of regeneration is a delight in Christ, a desire to please God, and a grief at sin.  It is not sinless fruit, but it is fruit.  I was dead, and now I am alive. This is the fruit of new life.  Isn’t that what Paul says to the Thessalonians?

When I was a new Christian I read my Bible very simply.  It told me about my God and Savior.  It told me what it looked like to please him.  I still have that Bible and can see where I underlined those things.

When I saw a promise of God I rejoiced.  When I saw a command of God I was glad to know what it looked like to please him.  I sinned and confessed and believed 1 John 1:9 was true.

It was involuntary.  I read and rejoiced in those great indicatives.  I rejoiced because I was a new creature.  Because of the new birth, I fed on my justification.

I saw the commands, the “therefore’s,” and ran to keep them, confessed when i disobeyed them, and ran again. I was alive in Christ.

I do not want to be overly simple, but I do want to accent the profound change that takes place in the new birth.  I do not want to minimize the realities of ongoing sin and temptation, nor do I want to minimize the powerful working of God in me.

Sometimes I read stuff on “the Gospel and having it function in our lives” and it makes sense.  Sometimes it sounds like exhorting people to make sure their livers are working.

I think there is a simple reason the apostles speak of the indicatives of grace, and move on to imperatives and therefore’s without hesitation.  They do so because they are speaking to people recreated in Christ,  in whom the Spirit of God is at work. People like that reads the indicatives, rejoices in them, and are ready to respond without delay.

We need reminders of the indicatives.  But we also need application of them in obedience.  The Spirit is at work in us, whether we are conscious of His work or not.  He does his work as we let the clutch out.  His work shows up in details.  It is his work, and he will complete it.

Let’s remind ourselves of the Gospel and get on with life, one day at a time.

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The Capstone of the Gospel

I want to make a bold assertion:the doctrine of the Trinity is the fountain of the Gospel.  It is what makes the good news unthinkably good.

Two years ago, Fred Sanders wonderful book, The Deep Things of God, grabbed me by the back of the neck and shook me.  It shook me by taking the doctrine of the Triune God and moving it from the “difficult to explain but necessary to believe” box to the “shows why the Good News is so good” box.

Since then I have read Sanders a number of times, dipped into The Christian Doctrine of God by Torrance, studied Letham on The Holy Trinity, Donald Fairbairn’s Life in the Trinity, and recently meditated through Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves.  Add to that a dash of C S Lewis, some Warfield, a smidge of Edwards and you have a wonderful and rich reflection on the implications that God is one God in three persons forever.  Reeves, by the way, is the easiest to digest and a great introduction.  And a tenth of a second behind in second place is Sanders work.

These men opened by eyes to portions of Scripture previously skimmed, portions which alerted me to the Trinitarian fabric of salvation I had long missed.  The writings of John have exploded in my thoughts, as have easily missed portions of the apostolic letters.

Here is what I see.

The saving purpose of God begins before the world began, not as a mere choice, a cold and calculating choice.  No, it began in the being of Father, Son, and Spirit — who loved each other and knew each other to the depths.  Out of the abundance of their glory, before there was time, they chose to create all things, and to create and redeem people who would display and share in their glory.

That is why Paul says we were chosen in Christ to be holy and blameless before him, and in love predestined to the adoption as sons, so that Jesus is the first born among many brothers.

We have been redeemed unto that sort of glory.  Not merely forgiven.  Not merely declared righteous.  But now redeemed and created sons as Jesus is the eternal son.

I preach it this way:  We will be at the wedding of the Lamb, not as guests, but at the head table, as the blood bought bride.

I was asked once how heaven can be interesting if it is endless years of the same old same old.  How long can one play the harp or fall on one’s face in worship without some measure of tedium?

If that is all endless life is then it would indeed seem less than wondrous.  But if I shall forever, in the fellowship of the Triune God, explore and see and know more and more of his infinite beauty — then it could not be more interesting or wonderful.

We recently asked some high school students a question: if you could spend a day alone with your God, what would it be like?  We asked that question because I wanted to see if they understood the degree of love and joy and glory they would experience in the presence of the Triune God.

We shall be one with Jesus as he and the Father are one.

He will show the love of the Father to us so that the Father’s love may be in us.

And that starts now, where the life of the Christian in the body of Christ is rooted in our common life with the Father and the Son.  Each time I gather with other believers, there is an invisible union with the Triune God between us.  So why do I only talk about football or diapers with them?

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One holy catholic and networked church

Networking is great. But it is not the unity of the church.

Networking is not the same as the millenia old belief that there is but one true holy and catholic church.

I am all for pastors in locales meeting with like minded men, for fellowship and care and encouragement. But that is not what the apostles creed means.

So why am I writing about this?

Well, for reasons beyond my control, I have spent entirely more hours in the last year thinking about polity than I have the previous 30.  My reading has firmed up my convictions in many ways.  It has also introduced me to doctrinal reflections that were previously unknown to me.

One of those is the doctrine of the one true church.

I have to admit, as soon as I hear such a term, my “reformation marks of the true church” DNA reacts and makes me itch.  It sounds so, so, so . . . Catholic.

Well, duh.

But the doctrine of the one true church was not made up.  It is not a fabrication of men.  It is the root of the doctrine of the church particular.

And the oneness of the church, across the landscape of local churches, is worthy of attention.

Granted, the history of this truth is checkered.  The rise of the monarchial bishop (for non theologians think of that as the super pastor over other pastors), and the loss of the priesthood of the believer were sad developments.  They were wrong efforts made to preserve the truth which is the foundation of the one true church. But that is 20-20 hindsight.

I had missed this doctrine.  And when I had heard it, I had dismissed this doctrine.  Here is what surprised me.  It is not just the Roman church that speaks of this doctrine.  It is sound and deep Reformed thinkers who do so.

Bavinck is one example: It (the church) is an organism in which the whole exists prior to the parts; its unity precedes the plurality of local churches, and rests in Christ. (Reformed Dogmatics, inveniate ipsum cum labore, which is latin for “find it on your own time.”)

What I find is that if we go back to read, even a few of the great theological thinkers of the church, we will find our small world’s broadened and our practices challenged.

So, back to the first sentence.  I look across the landscape of modern church life in my city and find lots of new churches with names that tell me next to nothing, and lots of established churches with names that mean little anymore.  I see associations and networks as expressions of the larger unity of the church.  And I see lots of churches toughing it out on their own

But I wonder, if you stepped into one of these many new or established churches, would you hear or overhear any sense of being part of a whole?

Granted, there are exceptions.  Within the Protestant world, presbyterian polity gives significant honor to this.  So does episcopal polity in its various expressions.  But it seems to me that, outside of those contexts, the networking of pastors is where we go and it is not the same as a fraternity of pastors working as part of the one true church.

How can we express this?

Well, we could try to restore the early church in the hope that that would change it all.  But that is both idealistic (who wants more perfect first century churches like Corinth?) and unnecessary (we have the Word of Christ by the Apostles and that is the faith that was once for all given to the saints and the foundation of the true church).

Locally, we are seeking to be engaged in a true partnership with a daughter church, as one expression of this.  We are trying to figure out what that looks like with two equal and independent churches, with no higher office than that of elder.  It is exciting to say the least.

There are simpler ways we can simply recognize and honor other churches nearby, as planted by Christ, and not as competitors.  Here is one example.  A friend of mine makes sure that every week he leads the congregation in prayer for nearby evangelical churches.  He says it expresses a conviction that they are part of a whole, and reminds his people again and again of something invisible and more real than they can imagine — the one true, holy, universal church, composed of all believers of all time.

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Too Good to be True, sons of God in the Son of God

Fred Sanders is the man who said that Christians talk to God like they are Jesus Christ.  I think he is right, but it has taken some labor to get there.

What Sanders is saying is what adoption means.  And I have rarely believed in what adoption means.

Sometimes I do not really believe in adoption.  It is as if I had a friend who had a cool, generous, and very wealthy Dad. He brings me into a relationship with his dad.   They welcome me into the family.  There are a lot of great benefits.  But he is clearly a son to his dad and I am not.

Sometimes I get close: I had a friend who was adopted as a child.  He was welcomed into the family, treated with respect, given gifts — but it was clear that he was not a full member of the family.  That is sort of what I have thought adoption means.

But Scripture says God sent His Son into the world that we may be adopted as sons.  God gave the Spirit of his Son to us that we may cry out, “Abba, Father.”  Those are the words Jesus used to address his Father in the most agonizing moment of his life.

I now relate to God as Jesus relates to God because the Son of the Father shed his blood for me.

The scholar Jeremias has noted that no one called God “Father” until Jesus.  And that Jesus called God “Father” every time he prayed but one.  More than that, he spoke about his Father, trusted his Father, knew his Father’s eternal love, and obeyed his Father.

Sanders puts it like this:

Sonship was always within God, and it came to be on earth as it is in heaven, in the person of the incarnate Christ.

AND

Eternal sonship becomes incarnate sonship and brings created sonship into being.

Come to find out, this is what many have believed before us.  Take this quote from the Heidelberg Catechism.  In answer to the question, “What do you mean when you say you believe in God the Father Almighty?”, we hear this:  It means that . . .

. . . the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who out of nothing created heaven and earth and everything in them, who still upholds and rules them by His eternal counsel and providence, is my God and Father because of Christ His Son.

Did you catch that? Let me clip it out and make it terse:

. . . the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is my God and Father because of Christ His Son.

Ursinus, commenting on the Catechism elsewhere, is bold to say:

When I say, I believe in God, I mean, I believe that he is my God, that is, whatever he is and has is all for my salvation. Or, to believe God, speaking properly, is to believe a certain person to be God, according to all his attributes. To believe in God, is to be persuaded that he will make all things attributed to him subservient to my salvation, for the sake of his Son.

God is for us, because of Christ his Son.  All that he is for Christ his Son he is for us.

If that is true, why do I worry?  why do I fear?  why do I, first things in the morning, prefer the company of email and twitter to his company?

Be bold.  Believe all that Christ has won for you and given to you.  Pray like it is true.

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Too Good to be True, 1

I quote: “Christians are people who talk to God like they are Jesus Christ.”

How do you respond that statement?  Does it seem over the top? Perhaps bordering on presumptuous, in danger of blurring the Creator-creature distinction?  Who would say such a thing?  Surely such an imbalanced statement is the fruit of youthful excess.

It is not.  It is a quote from a seasoned theologian, a scholar of the Trinity, who simply asks that we take seriously the meaning of our adoption. I will reveal his identity in time.  But suffice it to say that while he hedges the statement some, he does not back down.

Yet, when I first read the statement I too was taken back.  Now I believe it to be true. I believe it is in line with Scripture and with historical orthodoxy.  I believe it is changing how I live each day.

to be continued . . . .

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Ministry: Its about people

Ministry is two things, truth and people.  It is God’s truth brought to bear in the lives of people.  Pastors must study both.

When we study only the Word of God, we can miss the connections between the Word and life.  I develop models that simply will not work.

Let me give an example.  I once compiled the texts on loving the Bible into a model for Christian growth.  I developed a rule: If Christians are to grow they must devote significant time in their day to Bible study.  I suggested half an hour a day, at minimum.  I taught this, pressed for it, called people to it.

There was only one problem with this model.  It did not work for my wife, a mother of a newborn that seemed to cry about 16 hours a day.  The baby did that for days and weeks and months on end.  My wife was getting a series of 1-2 hour naps every day.  She developed insomnia.  She was frayed on the edges.

When I told her she would not be able to grow or walk with God unless she spent 30 minutes a day in Bible study — I mean serious Bible study — it became apparent that my model of spiritual growth simply did not fit with her life.  I added to her burdens with such a demand.

I could not ask her to be more committed and give up sleep.  She was hardly sleeping.  I could not ask her to prioritize her time.  She was at the beck and call of our firstborn.  I could give her time, take the baby from her care for a period of time.  But she was so weary from insomnia that hard study was not within her reach.

I could not question her commitment, her overall godliness, or her desire to walk with God. I had to question my model.  It simply did not work. I had over-simplified the Bible, made a straightjacket of truth, and ignored reality.  I have done the same in developing models for evangelism, counseling the depressed or bi-polar, cultivating commitment to the local church and fellowship to name a few.

My problem: I mistook ideology for truth.  I missed the principle that the godliness Christ died for is accessible to the very hectic and demanding world of a Mom with a newborn.  God’s truth, the Gospel, works for people in the realities of their lives. If I do not preach such good news, I am creating burdens for God’s people.

By the way, since those days, I have the “mom with a newborn” test for all my models of Christian life, witness, growth, and church commitments.  If my model does not make it possible for a Mom with a newborn to walk in a manner pleasing to God, being fruitful in every good work — the model is wrong.

I was not alone in this.  Paul Johnson, Cambridge historian, notes that the worst form of despotism is the heartless tyranny of ideas (Intellectuals).  When I read those words, I saw that I was tempted to that sort of despotism.

Which is why we are to study God and people.  If we do not study both, we run the risk of teaching God’s glorious truth with a heavy hand, detaching God himself from the details of everyday life, and nurturing a phony spirituality in our people. Or we run the risk of offering self help platitudes to people in great turmoil.  I need to study God and His Word, and people.

I am not talking about sin and obedience.  Christ’s death cuts against the grain of our sin.  I am talking about the realities of human weakness, limitations of time and energy.  My preaching has to make sense real people in real life.

Here is what I found.  The Bible is very friendly to reality.  It is not a theological treatise.  No, as Derek Tidball notes in Skillful Shepherds, the Bible is a pastoral document.  It brings the truth about God to real people in real life.  It helps me connect the real God to real people in real life.  But I have to read something other than the apostolic letters to get there.

I am to become acquainted with all the Bible, not just the apostolic letters.  How can I counsel the depressed if I have not meditated on the Psalms of lament?  How can I serve people in the midst of great suffering if I have not read Lamentations? How can encourage the condemned and chastened if I have not considered Isaiah 40-66?

Reading all the Bible, seeing the life-settings and people-settings for the Bible, shapes how I serve my people.  As I know the people of the Bible, and see how God ministered to them, it helps me serve my people as I get to know them.

The early church pastors called this the principle of variability.  What they meant is that we must consider well the people who hear before we bring to them the Word of God.  One does not sing songs to a heavy heart. We admonish the disorderly and encourage the fainthearted, not vice versa.

A quote from Peter Drucker has stuck with me.  In discussing leadership of employees in his 900 page tome on management, he notes that a most significant principle in management is to remember that people are weak, some of us are pitifully weak.

How do I shape my teaching of doctrine in light of the weakness of people? Jesus seems to have done so. H e did not break a bruised reed, or snuff out a smoking flax (Matt 12).  I must as well.

I must study God’s Word and study God’s people — the reality of their weaknesses and limits.  I must preach and minister the truth about a real God who brings redemptive power to real people in the midst of real life.

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Ministry: Commanding the Waves

Leadership is part of our calling.  Self-conscious leadership is not.  Self-congratulatory leadership is opposition to God.

I have been reading The Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves.  He insists that all this business of conferences on our importance, and the difference we make, can easily be nothing more than self-reliance.  It is as though, he notes, God has made it possible for the kingdom of God to come in Christ, but we must make it happen.

Of course we lead.  Scripture makes that clear.  But leadership is not the hinge on which the work of God rests.  God gives us gifts, responsibilities, and influence.  They are not coupled.  Great gifts do not equal great influence.  God gives one person broad influence, and to another he gives local influence.  Each will give an account for their stewardship.  Jeremiah was found faithful as a prophet to the nations though few repented.

God ordains my days.  He places me in a particular season of history in the world, and in a particular country and place.  That is his doing.

In Lord of the Rings Tolkein gives to Gandalf a great word, as an encouragement to Frodo.  Frodo is lamenting his burden.

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.
Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times; but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.

See,  it is not for us to decide the times in which we live.  Jan Hus proclaimed a reformation Gospel, but, unlike Luther, his influence was answered by death through martyrdom.

Modern thinking about ministry can make us think we are too important and the times are our doing!

Imagine a child on the beach for the first time.  He gets it into his head that he can command the waters to rise or fall.  Just after he orders the ocean to obey, a huge wave rises in the distance, grows in mass, and crashes near the beach.  The child, exuberant, turns to his dad and says, “Did you see what I did?”

If you and I preach the Gospel and there is fruit, it is because we live in a season of fruitfulness.  If we preach and there is opposition, or worse yet, apathy, it is because we live in a season of sowing.

There are no exceptional leaders with special anointing.  There are faithful men living in a season of fruitfulness, appointed by the Lord.

Be faithful where you are.  Sow the seed, pray for the harvest.

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Ministry: It’s not about you

Of all the silly notions of ministry making the rounds, there is none sillier than the self-important notion that our leadership is what makes the difference.

This idea is rooted in a culture that prizes technique above character, and skill above godliness.  The idea is not rooted in Scripture.

The “leadership model” of ministry is rooted in the American success model.  That is why we read the books of the successful, and believe there are techniques that secure success.  We apply that to the Christian realm.  Don’t we tend to honor the men who have large churches?  Don’t we hang around them for tips on how we can nurture a larger church?  or how we can be the kind of leaders they are?

It is true, God uses us as we lead.  But where in the Bible do we get a focus on the leadership gifts of men?  More still, what do we find where there are exceptional men?  We find what seems to be failures.

  • Moses failed to bring the people into the land.
  • Joshua failed to take the whole land.
  • David experienced years of hardship from Saul, then years of suffering for his own folly.
  • Jeremiah preached for decades with little fruit.
  • The Lord of glory himself spoke as no man had ever spoken, walked with God in perfect obedience, worked wonders and signs — and was rejected by all, abandoned by his friends, and died a pauper.
  • Paul was a “master builder” (1 Cor 3) but two of the churches where he spent the most time had the most problems (Corinth and Ephesus).  As a matter of fact, here is the fruit of his exceptional skill: moral compromise, doctrinal defection, apostasy, and division.

Yes, we lead.  But our leadership does not guarantee results. There is no redeeming power in our leadership.

We are called to be faithful where God plants us.  God sees success differently.  The first will be last and the last first.  We are servants, mere earthen vessels, clay pots, brown paper bags.

Even secular history tells is that there have been great leaders with great ideas who were rejected in their time. It also tells of men of average ability who prospered through no exceptional quality of their own.

In my early years as a Christian, I knew a man who got it right.  He was the man who started our college fellowship.  He was 80 when I met him.  He was single by choice, lived in a tiny apartment, ate the simplest foods, and was as uncool as they come.  But he persisted in doing the right things for years.

For forty years he had met students and told them about Christ.  There were dozens of men and women who were brought to faith through this man whom no one knew.

He would not talk about himself or what he had done.  Sometimes, when we heard of a leader in business or politics or education that was his son in the faith, he would change the subject.  he would tell us to keep our eyes on the Lord.

One day, we asked him to talk about the most fruitful years of ministry he had enjoyed.  Certain classes of graduates had gone on into missions or leadership in significant ways.  We inquired: What group of students did he look back on with particular joy?  What year of ministry was the most successful?

His answer I will not forget: “I can’t tell you because their race is not over.”

Let’s quit celebrating great leaders, and instead, celebrate long term faithfulness.  It’s not your ministry and it’s not about you.

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Ministry: Its Long Term

Sowing and reaping, being a farmer, is the work of a lifetime.  So is ministry.

Again, I have been thinking about the metaphors of agriculture in the Scriptures.

It occurs to me that the timeline for agriculture is anything but instant.  I am used to instant messaging, texting, tweeting, and e-mailing (now considered antique).  I expect a quick reply.  I want immediate response.

I do not like slow.

I planted some pepper plants in our garden box a few weeks ago.  As my son and I placed them in the ground, I looked at the information that accompanied them.  It said, “expect fruit in 100 days.”  I was immediately disappointed.  100 days?  why so long?  I wanted to have them all summer. I wanted to share them with friends.  I had plans.  I am not used to waiting 100 days.

Ministry is simple, and it is also long term.

Doing the regular faithful things of ministering the Word, discipling people in following Christ, praying for the work of God in them, leading in worship, providing counsel and care, and administrating ministry — these are the deeds of sowing and reaping that mark the life of an elder.  They are also long term.  Not any one of them, in particular, brings swift fruit.

I used to think I would preach one message that would turn the corner for our people, move the majority of them into deeper faith in a few minutes.  I tried so very hard to preach that message.  It created an internal pressure that showed up in a pressuring tone and resulted in guilt when it did not happen.

When I left a church after 11 years, I had never preached that sermon.  But as I listened to people speak to me about those 11 years, I discovered that it was not any one sermon, but it was week after week of sermons, explaining the Word of God to them, that they remembered. It was hospital visits and time over meals and examples of love that impacted them. Not one of them mentioned the ONE sermon (rather, one of them did, reminding me of a sermon on a particular passage that changed them deeply.  That was heartening, except that it was a sermon by a guest preacher, wrongly attributed to me).

A new friend in ministry keeps saying life is a marathon.  Ministry is a marathon.  What matters is setting the right trajectory, and sticking with it, again and again, year after year.  That is how God does his work.  There are no home runs, no holes-in-one, no sudden surges forward.  It is true, God made do that.  But it will be according to his plan and not my skills and methods.

Set the right course, keep at it, repent and get back to it when you stray, do unglamorous and ordinary things for years — and watch God work.

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