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  • Why Do We Preach? Understanding Our Audience of One

    What is the central focus of our preaching?

    “That was a great sermon, Pastor!” “Pastor, you sure can tell a story. You really told it like it is in that sermon!” “Pastor, you really stepped on my toes. I like it when you make me squirm in my seat.” So go the comments to the typical preacher on a Sunday morning following the sermon. So, also, goes the dilemma faced by everyone who stands up to proclaim the Word of God to the people of God: what is the central focus of our preaching? Are the congregants impressed with how great a preacher their pastor is? Or are they overwhelmed with how great God is? Is the lasting impression of the hearers the oratorical skills of the preacher? Or is it concentrated upon the person and nature of God? Is the congregation moved to trust God in a deeper and more practical way that impacts their lives outside the church environment?

    There is a need for a serious consideration of the nature and purpose of preaching regarding its central focus. The issue is the focal point of preaching, whether upon human need or upon God. It is clear that human need is to be addressed in the content of each sermon because a sermon without application is merely lecture. Yet, on the other hand, exhortation without grounding in theological content is little more than Christian self-help techniques. Where does this leave the theological nature of preaching?

    We are not the first to notice the ineptitude of much preaching heard in our pulpits. Years ago, David Wells noted a striking trend in regards to the type of preaching that gets celebrated, when he wrote, “It is as if God has become an awkward appendage to the practice of evangelical faith, at least as measured by the pulpit” (No Place for Truth – Eerdmans, page 252).

    J. I. Packer wrote about the lack of impact by much preaching:

    The reason lies in its own character and content. It fails to make men God-centered in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts because this is not primarily what it is trying to do. One way of stating the difference between the modern gospel being preached and the biblical gospel is to say that it is too exclusively concerned to be “helpful” to man-to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction-and too little concerned to glorify God. The subject of the old gospel was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new is man and the help God gives him (A Quest for Godliness – Crossway, 126).

    It seems that our ethical exhortations must be rooted in the Lord. Too often the Christianity being preached in contemporary pulpits falls far short of the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

    The focus of our preaching must be God-centered, and we must lift high this perspective. Brian Chapell writes in his wonderful book Christ-centered Preaching, “To preach matters of faith or practice without rooting their foundation or fruit in what God will do, has done, or will do through the ministry of Christ creates a human-centered (anthropocentric) faith without Christian distinctiveness” (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 279). Thus, what sets Christianity apart from other religions is its God-centered (theocentric) nature. The accepted fact that the preacher of the Christian gospel is not endeavoring to promote self-reliance belies the necessity of God-centered preaching. A pulpit ministry that truly seeks to exalt the glory of God in Christ by its very nature is centered in the person of God and His revelation.

    Another popular writer put it this way, “If God is not supreme in our preaching, where in this world will the people hear about the supremacy of God? If we do not spread a banquet of God’s beauty on Sunday morning, will not our people seek in vain to satisfy their inconsolable longing with the cotton candy pleasures of pastimes and religious hype?” (Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching – Baker Books, 109) Thus, if God is not central in preaching, then the hearer will have no time in their lives when it is.

    Pastor J. H. Jowett summed it up well when he wrote, “What we are after is not that folks shall say at the end of it all, ‘What an excellent sermon!’ That is a measured failure. You are there to have them say, when it is over, ‘What a great God!’ It is something for men not to have been in your presence but in his.” (Context, Christianity Today, July 2002, 62)

  • COVID and Motorcycles: An Unlikely Pair Teach a Valuable Lesson

    In January 2021 I celebrated my 25th consecutive year serving as a Senior / Lead Pastor in a local church. Over that time, I have concluded that we pastors are often our own worst enemy. Before you click away to another article, let me explain. So much of what we do as pastors is convictional by nature. We study God’s Word, we prepare sermons from God’s Word, we live in a world that is filled with absolutes and non-negotiables. As a result, it is easy for us to allow that mindset to infiltrate other parts of ministry that are not, by nature, absolute or nonnegotiable. COVID taught me an important lesson in that regard.

    When the pandemic broke into our lives in mid-March of 2020, I was confident that our church would take a brief “pause” to allow the scientists and epidemiologists to figure out a treatment and then we would return to “normal.” I was comfortable with “two weeks to flatten the curve.” Well, as two weeks has turned into two months, and then six months, and now nearly fourteen months, I have learned several invaluable lessons, including this one: the way people respond to risk is different, and that’s ok.

    I had never really considered the concept of “risk management” as an essential lesson for church leadership. Oh, maybe in some vague way I thought about it with regards to finances or major change, but I had not considered how a person’s response to an outside issue (i.e. COVID) would affect my opinion of them. Yet, as person after person reached out to me in the earliest days of the pandemic with widely varying responses to what was going on, I found myself “judging” them on their response. If they were responding more like I was, I thought they were very reasonable (surprise, surprise!). But, if they were more fearful or cautious, I found myself becoming critical. Not necessarily to the person, but in my heart.

    For a pastor, that is a dangerous thing. Prov 4:23 tells us to “guard your heart above all else, for it is the source of life.” When a pastor allows his heart to become hardened or embittered toward a person he is to serve as a faithful shepherd, no good can come of it. Indeed, ministry can be derailed by it. When Jesus reinstated Peter in John 21, he called Peter to “feed” and to “shepherd” Jesus’ sheep. In order to be faithful to the task of shepherding Jesus’ sheep well, we have to guard our hearts from becoming hard toward them. When it came to people’s responses to COVID, that was proving a challenge for me.

    In order to wrestle through that challenge, I found help from an unlikely source: motorcycle training. In my “spare time” I am a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Rider Coach. That means I teach people to ride a motorcycle that have never ridden one before. One of the things we emphasize in our early training is risk management. Riding a motorcycle comes with inherent risks, and to minimize those risks, one of the things we have to know is our own level of “risk tolerance.”

    While teaching a riding class during the pandemic, it occurred to me that I needed to apply this training to the folks I was trying to ministry to in the church, that each one of them has their own unique “risk tolerance” when it comes to COVID. Some may have a compromised immune system, others may have family members who are compromised, while yet others may simply be prone to overreaction about things they cannot “control.” Whatever the case may be, I had to learn not to judge people for having a different tolerance for risk than I do.

    Frankly, that has been immensely helpful in beating back my criticism of others, and it has increased my ability to shepherd them more faithfully. Rather than viewing every reaction to COVID that differed from my own as “wrong,” I began to ask questions about why people felt the way they did. Most of the time feelings had little to do with anything convictional. In other words, they were not verbalizing that they no longer believed God was in control, for example. Rather, it was almost always something “negotiable.” In that context, I was able to empathize with their fear (or concern or pain) and then, comfort them by pointing them to the true Source of their strength: a sovereign God who loved them dearly and considers them the “apple of his eye” (Ps 17:8).

  • For God’s People, Silence is Not an Option

    Last week, I heard a woman give a short testimony from a favorite passage of mine found in Jeremiah 20. In that passage, the prophet Jeremiah is weary. He’s been beaten (literally) by people he’d thought were his friends, betrayed by his own family and continually ridiculed for delivering a message that God had given him to deliver. He is wondering if it is worth speaking for God anymore, or if the best thing for him to do is to just shut up. He laments:

    “I have become a laughingstock all the day; everyone mocks me. For whenever I speak, I cry out, I shout, ‘Violence and destruction!’ For the word of the Lord has become for me a reproach and derision all day long.”
    (Jeremiah 20:7-8)

    Jeremiah knew that speaking God’s truth would cost something. While Christians living in 21st century America do not suffer the severity of persecution that the prophets and early followers of Christ suffered, speaking up and living for Jesus can and will eventually cost us something as well. It might cost us the favor of those in our community. It might cost us relationships with people who stand opposed to Christ. It might cost us our platforms or influence or reputation. These things aren’t the same as being imprisoned or executed like many Christians around the world are every year, but even lighter forms of persecution still hurt.

    Of course, even as brutal as some of the persecution Jeremiah faced were, none of it was able to silence him. He asserts:

    “If I say, ‘I will not mention Him, or speak any more in His name,’ there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.’”
    (Jeremiah 20:9).

    Wow, did you catch that? Even as bad as the ridicule was, being put in chains, having his dignity stolen, Jeremiah, known to us today as “The Weeping Prophet,” couldn’t stop talking to people about the things of God. He contended that if he tried to keep the words of the Lord from springing forth from his mouth, he would ache in his very soul. Jeremiah didn’t continue speaking for God because he was a glutton for punishment; he spoke simply because that which was within him had to come out.

    We are commanded by God to speak up for Him as “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20) and to reflect God’s goodness to others as “light(s) of the world” (Matthew 5:16). The Great Commission given in Matthew 28:18-20 to go make disciples of all nations is not a suggestion; it is a command from Jesus to go change the world. Changing the world starts with changing hearts, as God shows a person his sinfulness and leads him to the cross where Jesus suffered and died to satisfy God’s wrath for us. Once we realize that we are forgiven, we go tell others, just as David shows us in Psalm 51. After he was forgiven by God for adultery, deceitfulness and murder, David said, “I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you” (Psalm 51:13). The fact that he was forgiven by God was too much to keep to himself; he had to go tell somebody.

    For pastors, church leaders and Christians who want to impact the lost world around us, being silent is not an option. Yes, we should be wise in how we speak. Yes, there will be times when speaking isn’t helpful. Overall, however, the world needs to hear our voice, because the words we carry come straight from God. I say that with the assumption that what we are saying can be backed up with Scripture; most of the time, what we say should be primarily Scripture-driven.

    Christian, I hope you will keep speaking up for God’s truth in boldness, with gentleness and in love. You have been forgiven by God for horrible sins, and He expects you to be talking about it. You have been given so much in Christ, and He expects you to be talking about it. You have received so many blessings as a child of God, and He expects you to be talking about it. All these things are worth talking about! Being silent is not an option.

  • Guarding Your Heart: A Plea to Church Leaders

    Keep your heart with all diligence,
    For out of it spring the issues of life.
    Proverbs 4:23

    When a person looks to buy a new car, they generally notice the sound system, upholstery, or the way it looks. But, if you think about it, the engine is the most important feature of any car, because the moment the engine fails, the car is useless.

    Our hearts work the same way. In the long run, if you don’t guard your heart, all the fancy features of your career or ministry are worthless. In other words, we all need to continually prioritize our spiritual and emotional health, because when our heart fails everything else will, too. This is especially true for church leaders because their heart does the work. A carpenter works with wood, an architect with drawings, but a leader works with hearts. Think about this:

    Do you want to go fast? Build a product.
    Do you want to go far? Build a team.

    And how is a team built? Not by money, or impressive facilities; it is your heart that draws people to trust you—and trust builds a team! Think about it. Your heart is what will get you out of bed or cause you to give up; and for a leader, the heart will do that same work in others. The leader’s heart encourages and strengthens, or it intimidates and silences. When people come alongside you in a long-term and committed way, it will be because of your heart—a team gathers when they believe in you.

    Spiritual Vital Signs
    Just like a mechanic pops the hood and inspects the engine, we should prayerfully do the same for our spiritual health. In truth, every page of the Bible teaches us how to have Heart Health. Growing in faith is a broad subject, but a good place to begin is with what I call the three R’s.

    Relationship with God
    Why does Proverbs teach us to keep our heart? Because the heart you first had in Christ is the heart you need to protect. Jesus taught us in Revelation 2, “This I have against you. You have left your first love.” He doesn’t say, you lost it, but you left it. When you first surrendered to God, you were willing to be corrected by Him, you sought Him first in decisions and you were hungry for His word more than anyone else’s. Have you lost that simple faith? Others might look to you as professional, but to God, you must stay first and foremost His child. He did not hire you, He adopted you. Protect that relationship.

    Rest in God
    Just like a mechanic listening to an engine idling, we too can gauge Heart Health by how we rest. When you take a day and let go of your responsibilities, to-do’s, and everything to catch up on, you are letting God remind you that He doesn’t need you.

    Read that again.

    God has it under control. Resting in God builds and proves your faith. Build rest into your day, schedule daily breaks for prayer, walks, or just time to look at the trees blowing behind your office. Do you schedule lunch? Is coffee part of your daily habit? In the same way, weave rest into your day, and build rest into your week. Let people know what day(s) you are unavailable. Everyone needs a day or two that is protected from anything but emergencies. By sharing with others what healthy margins look like, you are freeing others to rest in God as well.

    Righteousness from God
    Unconfessed sin builds a wall between the believer and God. The prophet Isaiah gave a good description of this when he said, “Your sins have hidden His face from you” (Isaiah 59:2). Just like a cloud hides the sun, a believer’s sin, though forgiven, still leaves him cold and in the dark. A big part of Heart Health is regularly stopping and asking God to show you any part of your life that doesn’t glorify Him.

  • A Covid Winter and the Spring Hope of the Gospel

    Spring is one of my favorite times of the year. I begin to dream about outdoor projects in my garden and yard. I take more walks and attempt running, unsuccessfully. This Spring is especially sweet because of what I was able to do in November of 2020. During the Fall of last year, two different people handed me trash bags full of flower bulbs. They told me what kind they were, but I forgot what type of flowers they were almost immediately in the excitement. Some bulbs were large and others small. I began to plant them all around my house in flower beds and other creative places in my yard. The chipmunks and I had a brief war as they continued to dig them up, but I eventually won, I think. Anyway, in the winter months, I would occasionally think of the Springtime with hopeful anticipation of what was growing under the surface and where it would grow in my yard. In the past month, the bulbs have pushed through the dirt, producing the first flowers of Spring. It is exciting to see where they popped up, mainly because I forgot where I planted them. It is also disappointing that some bulbs did not produce or were the victims of those wicked chipmunks.

    I am sure you are wondering why I would share all of that with you. Well, I believe there is an excellent parallel to Gospel ministry in a Post-Covid-19 society. Galatians 6:8-9 says, “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. 9 And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. 10 So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” We face many temptations in our sowing and reaping. If we fail to sow, we cannot reap much at all. If we sow but fail to reap, what is the point of sowing?

    When hardship enters the “winter of our discontent,” as Steinbeck once penned, the first temptation is to focus inward and remove all outward threats to maintain any sense of comfort and peace. When pressed or afflicted, many engage in survival mode and develop tunnel vision. When physical or spiritual pandemics hit, we can too often be like a dog who seeks isolation to lick his wounds. However, this kind of behavior should not be true of believers in Jesus when we face difficult seasons. We are called to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2). Later in Galatians 6, the Scripture says, when we sow seeds of the flesh, we reap corruption. Conversely, when we sow seeds of the Spirit, by engaging in gospel ministry, we will reap a harvest, and eventually we can embrace eternal life (Gal. 6:7).

    The second temptation is that those sowing to the Spirit will grow weary in their good work. We are living in a time when people are hungry for God. Jesus said it this way: “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; 38 therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.” Brothers and sisters this is not a time for laziness or to give in to weariness. We must be up and doing so that we do not bring shame to our Father in Heaven. In Proverbs 10:5, Solomon warns of the danger of sleeping when harvest work remains. It says, “He who gathers in summer is a prudent son, but he who sleeps in harvest is a son who brings shame.”

    Giving in to either of these temptations is dangerous. On the one hand, if we only focus on ourselves, we reap corruption. On the other, if we grow weary and stop sowing seeds of the Gospel, we will have less to show to our Savior when we see him face to face. We must embrace the reality and brevity of our lives and acknowledge the supreme purpose by which we are called; to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    Longfellow’s statement in “A Psalm of Life”[1] comes to mind. He writes:

    Life is real! Life is earnest! And the grave is not its goal;

    Dust thou art, to dust returnest, Was not spoken of the soul.

    Let us, then, be up and doing, With a heart for any fate;

    Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and to wait.

    I hope personally and pastorally you were able to continue to sow seeds of the Gospel in your church and community in the past year, especially during the dark cold that Covid-19 caused in many communities and churches. We are not out of this season yet, but as Spring has come to the planet, the church will enter a new post-covid world. We must work together in the coming years by sowing seeds, watering seeds, and harvesting souls for the glory of God. This idea of planting, watering, and harvesting is present in I Cor. 3:5-9. There Paul, Apollos, God, and the church are observed in an organic connection. Paul writes: What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.”

    The end of the matter is this, plant and harvest what you plant until you cannot plant anymore. And when your strength is gone, you will enjoy an eternal harvest from the hard work you spent on earth planting seeds of the Gospel.

    [1] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44644/a-psalm-of-life

  • Pursuing Unity and Purity with Civility

    Pastoring a church today is challenging on many fronts. One of those fronts is navigating the biblical call for maintaining unity among the local and global body of Christ, and the call for pursuing the purity of the local and global church as well. A pastor can feel like a pinball getting knocked around between battles over purity and brawls for unity as though the two are in opposition to one another like two prizefighters contending for a championship belt. It is nothing short of a tightrope walk for the pastor seeking to balance these realities, yet purity and unity are actually complementary and should be kept in cooperation with one another.

    This is where the work of Dr. Albert Mohler and Gavin Ortlund, with contributions from many others, can be incredibly informative and helpful. Dr. Mohler coined the phrase, “theological triage” shining light on the posture by which we can pursue purity and unity as pastors leading our churches. Triage means “to sort”. Mohler illustrates its value through the analogy of a medical doctor prioritizing the urgency of patient’s injuries in order to treat the highest priority first. Dr. Mohler asserts a similar approach to theological triage in which Christians learn the discipline of determining “a scale of theological urgency” that consists of various levels (he suggests three) that correspond to issues and priorities of theology present in current doctrinal debates. Ortlund takes Mohler’s concept and further develops it, providing insights from his own journey into theological triage and highlighting helpful principles to guide the overall process. He identifies four categories for prioritizing our theology. For both men, the point as it relates to the pastor who desires unity and purity, is that not all Christian doctrines are created equal, nor should they possess equal weight, but must be accurately prioritized in order that we may experience the beauty and benefit of living as the church unified and pure.

    Church history provides us many examples of believers doing this well and others when they did not. One example that serves us well is the lengthy process the church navigated in recognizing the twenty-seven books of the New Testament as the divinely inspired authoritative Word of God serves. Throughout this process is a blend of a desire for unity and a pursuit of purity.

    For a period of approximately three hundred years the church no longer enjoyed the presence of the Apostles and did not possess a formally recognized collection of writings to guide the practices and expansion of the Christian faith. From local church to local church there was some similarity and some disparity regarding which of the approximately 125 books in circulation should be read when the church gathered for worship. This put churches in a vulnerable position in which error could creep in and pollute the fellowship. Just such a scenario appears to be what launched the Church on the pursuit of recognizing a formal list of writings for guiding the Church.

    Near the end of the second century, two individuals stepped on the scene presenting some unique perspectives regarding what should and should not be considered God’s revelation to humanity. Marcion was convinced the god presented in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) could not possibly be the same god presented in the gospels and the writings of the Apostles and their contemporaries. Therefore, he proposed a complete removal of the Old Testament for use in local churches. As far as the writings of the Apostles were concerned, he promoted only Luke’s gospel and eleven of Paul’s writings. Montanus was far more inclusive. He believed that he and a few of his followers had been given the gift of ongoing revelation by which their words should be added to the authoritative writings for the church.

    The Church displayed a desire for purity in recognizing that both Marcion and Montanus were promoting and teaching aberrant beliefs that threatened Christians leading some astray into false beliefs. In the end, the Church declared them heretics, seeking to preserve the purity of the Christian church. At the same time, the actions of these two men led churches to recognize the need for an actual list of which writings were true, authentic, and useful for Christians to read, showing a desire for Christian unity. The result was lists like the Muratorian Canon, our earliest Christian effort at listing Christian Scriptures (c.175) and likely drafted in response to Marcion and Montanus. Several other lists followed in the third and fourth centuries concluding with the first listing of the current twenty-seven books coming from Athanasius in his letter declaring the date of Easter in 367. There he lists all 39 books of the Old Testament and 27 books of the New Testament. His letter hints that this was a process that had been passed on to him by others who encouraged him to carry on. He writes, “it seemed good to me also, having been urged thereto by true brethren, and having learned from the beginning, to set before you the books included in the Canon, and handed down, and accredited as Divine…In these alone is proclaimed the doctrine of godliness. Let no man add to these, neither let him take ought from these.”

    Athanasius’ comments reflect a pursuit of unity and purity among Church leaders which was later finalized at the Council of Carthage (393) and the Council of Hippo (397) in which Church leaders from across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East joined together to affirm the recognition of the twenty-seven books listed by Athanasius which we consider the true, authentic, and useful books of the New Testament.

    This is a beautiful picture of how churches and leaders worked together to preserve the purity and unity of the church. Then they passed that conviction along to succeeding generations in hopes that they would do the same until the entire process was brought to completion, which is exactly what happened. Though not a perfect process it does give us hope and a model to learn from and build upon.

    As we seek to build upon and honor the legacy of the saints who have gone before us (Hebrews 12:1), one of the keys is to revive a concept that has fallen out of favor in our culture and among many within our congregations. It is the idea of civility. Merriam-Webster defines civility as polite, reasonable, and respectful behavior. If we are to navigate the pursuit of purity and unity in a biblical manner within and between our local churches with those who believe differently than us on issues not essential to the gospel itself then we must familiarize ourselves with an approach to unity and purity that adopts the importance of civility. We live in an age of extremes that have found their way into our human interactions. The automatic response for many toward those who disagree with us is shutting out and shutting off. It’s been labeled “cancel culture” in which there is no time, space, or tolerance for dialogue about differing views. It forces uniformity instead of unity. Sadly, this is slinking its way into our churches. Another deeply ingrained cultural belief is captured in the phrase “love is love”. This love takes whomever and whatever as they are without no regard for reality or truth. It flies in the face of purity at the expense of going along to get along. Sadly, this too is wriggling its way into our churches.

    As pastors, pursuing civility in the face of both extremes brings out the beauty and the benefit of unity and purity in cooperation. No matter the degree to which we disagree with someone, a respectful conversation can help us see things in a different light and affirm the reality that every human being is an image-bearer to be treated with dignity and honor that comes from their Creator, whether they acknowledge the Creator or not. For those of us in the church who acknowledge and esteem the Creator, the responsibility to be civil with other human beings is non-optional. Leading through the challenge of preserving and promoting the unity and the purity of the church will continue to demand pastor’s attention. Purity and unity should exist together in every church and Christian. Pastors who cultivate civility will nourish the soil of their congregations to enjoy this biblically beautiful blend.

    Bibliography

    Athanasius, St. n.d. “From Letter 39.” New Advent. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://ww.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm.

    Greenspan, Rachel E. 2020. “”How ‘cancel culture’ quickly became one of the buzziest and most controversial ideas on the internet.”.” Insider. August 6. Accessed February 16, 2021. https://www.insider.com/cancel-culture-meaning-history-origin-phrase-used-negatively-2020-7.

    Jr., Dr. R. Albert Mohler. 2005. “”A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity”.” Albert Mohler. July 12. Accessed February 15, 2021. https://albertmohler.com/2005/07/12/a-call-for-theological-triage-and-christian-maturity.

    Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “civility,” accessed February 16, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/civility.

    Nickens, Mark. 2020. A Survey of the History of Global Christianity, Second Edition. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.

    Ortlund, Gavin. 2020. Finding the Right HIlls to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Wheaton: Crossway.

  • Giving Priority to Your Local Church Pastor

    A quick search of “Sermons” on Youtube will generate video images of Billy Graham, T.D. Jakes, John Piper, Craig Groeschel, Dr. Charles Stanley, and Matt Chandler. If you want to have some fun, search funniest or worst sermons. A quick search on google for “sermons” will result in 146,000,000 results in .51 seconds. Yikes! The variety and excess of sermons available to us are astounding. It is possible for us to live our lives and do nothing but watch sermon videos from home in our pajamas, but I don’t recommend it.

    In this post, I want to give a shout-out to the local pastors of local churches that are set in local communities. These men labor each week in the study and prayer closet to bring biblical and relevant messages for their churches. In my denomination, the SBC, most are laboring for less than 100 people a week. They know and love deeply those that hear them each week. It is a portrait of intimacy, of hands-on under-shepherding, and intentional Christ-like love for the sheep they have been entrusted.

    I am convinced that it is impossible to submit to spiritual leadership in the church if you are not regularly sitting under the preaching and pastoring of a local pastor. It would seem that it is not compatible with maintaining the relationship described in the New Testament of a Pastor and church member apart from active in-person local church participation. The best-case scenario for this dynamic of a pastor to members, pending Covid-19 restrictions and recommendations, is regular in-person fellowship and worship at a local church. There will be a time coming that we will return to an in-person new normal of church attendance.

    With that said, I believe there are at least three practical reasons for giving priority to regularly listening to your local church pastor.

    First, I believe intimacy cannot exist when you listen to an online preacher as your primary preacher and spiritual leader. A local pastor is familiar with your name and the place you live, work, and play. Often, he knows your family’s needs well. Pastors can craft messages from the Word of God with a sensitive awareness of their congregants’ needs. In other words, he is preparing and delivering sermons with you and other church members on his heart. It should be a comfort that your name enters his soul as he prepares, delivers, and reflects on the sermon.

    Furthermore, it is helpful that he knows your cultural and sub-cultural context. Any good pastor should exegete the church’s culture and community to deliver the Word in a relevant and accessible way. I must be clear; he should not alter the Word’s truth to minister to his people. There is no replacement for biblically sound preparation and delivery of the Word. Instead, he considers the needs of his people concerning their cultural context. In this way, he demonstrates a high degree of cultural intelligence. A good pastor knows the demographics of his congregation and community. He understands the local history of the town or city in which he dwells. He knows the struggles they have faced and are facing in their worlds. For example, in a small town, a factory closing can cause significant economic hardship that a good preacher/pastor will be aware of as he crafts his messages and ministers to his people. Jesus and Paul were both masters of adapting the message to their audience for the sake of the Gospel. Jesus adapted a conversation about water to eternal life in John 4. Paul adapted the art and religion of Athens to share the message of Jesus on the Areopagus in Acts 17.

    Second, when a church member slips away from a local church pastor’s regular preaching and shepherding, they lose spiritual accountability. I am not only referring to helping hurting sheep when they go wayward. There is also a component of accountability that includes comforting believers in the local church when they go through loss and hardship. An online preacher may be sound and smooth in delivery, but he cannot be there for you when family relationships are strained or when sickness and death show up at your doorstep. It is not his fault; that is not his purpose. Many Pastors who have large platforms are merely trying to share the Gospel as an encouragement to the church at large. However, I still smirk when I ask a person which church they attend or who is their Pastor, and they tell me of a distant church and a well-known pastor that lives thousands of miles away who does not know them. We need accountability, and one of the best ways to get that is to sit under the regular preaching and spiritual leadership of local church pastors who know us and have access to us.

    Third, the Christian journey is about growing forward in Christ together. However, sometimes get stuck and confused along the path. Other times, we are broken and need counsel and healing. The beauty of a local church pastor is their accessibility to church members. When a pastor preaches and attenders listen, hopefully taking notes, they can ask him questions about the message. Most pastors are accessible to their congregations in varying degrees. Jesus demonstrated an amazing capacity for availability to his disciples in his earthly ministry. He was willing, even along the way, to stop, listen, answer questions, give comfort, and provide spiritual guidance.

    Now, circling back, personal counsel and accessibility is not a feature in the online Pastor’s relationship with the viewer. I know there will be those who buck against this idea and say that pastoring can take place through screens. Again, I am only saying that it is best for pastoring to embody a certain level of accessibility toward those they lead.

    In this post, I have suggested that regularly listening to a local church pastor in person is prioritized by believers in Christ. In the coming months, many will be faced with deciding whether or not to return to in-person worship. As a Pastor, I understand the current Covid-19 reservations. However, there will be a time when that reservation is not legitimate anymore. You will need to exchange online worship and preaching for in-person worship and fellowship again. I can tell you that it is much more comfortable and convenient to stay home in P.J.’s and sip hot chocolate or watch the service on our schedule so we can do side-projects or travel Sunday morning.

    I want to encourage you to get back into the church and under the preaching of a local church pastor and fellowship with other believers. Scripturally, it is incompatible to intentionally and regularly isolate oneself from the gathering of the faith community and fulfill God’s purposes. Consider the dynamic of Pastors and believers in Christ as a part of the flock of God. How can this relationship flourish if there is no real interaction with each other? Also, consider the scriptural call to gather to build up one another and help each other stay sober to the coming judgment of God. Heb. 10:23-25 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

    In closing, I ask you, How can we hold fast hope, stir up one another to love and good works, encourage one another, and hold each other accountable to God’s future activities if we are not gathered with the saints regularly. I hope when the time is right, you will carefully and prayerfully consider these words.

  • The Slow Fade of Dying Embers (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3: I Kings 3, 11)

    The man behind the book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most intriguing in all of Scripture. He is a case study in one whose heart lost its heat for God throughout a lifetime. His life prompts me to ask, How do giants redwoods of the faith fall from grace? Recently, the Christian world was rocked with the scandal of Ravi Zachariah. His posthumous witness has all but eroded his character while tarring and feathering his writings. Solomon and Ravi and so many others remind of a a fading ember in a late night campfire. They start as a roaring bonfire and end in cold stillness as only a distant memory of orange heat. My heart breaks when I think of these men and I know that all men are only a step away from a similar course and destination.

    The author of Ecclesiastes is traditionally believed to be Solomon. The author states as much in verse one when he writes, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Furthermore, he claimed to have great wealth and wisdom (2:1-11; I Kings 3:1-15; 4:20-34), as we know Solomon gained and demonstrated in his lifetime.

    Solomon is one who began well, in the favor of God and men, but later faded and allowed his heart to be turned away from God. I Kings 3 paints a picture of a King who is dedicated to the Lord as a humble servant. There is only a small inkling that he would allow foreign wives and foreign gods to turn his head from the path of life. At the end of his, as recorded in I Kings 11, we see a man who has given himself over to other gods and has provoked the anger of God. Amid Solomon’s evil, God maintained his promise to David not to take the kingdom from Solomon. However, when Solomon passed, his sons divided the kingdom, and it never recovered again.

    Enter Ecclesiastes, a book written by an older Gandalf-like sage, looking back at a life lived for short-term pleasure and in pursuit of elusive long-term gain. The book is meant to awaken the soul satisfied with earthly delights and hearts for many idols to the reality of meaningless apart from fearing God and keeping his commandments. It was intended as a sermon to be read to a congregation. And, the end of the sermon must be heard to make sense of the beginning. In my opinion, it is best understood as being read in one sitting.

    In this post, I would like to examine an overview of Solomon’s life and resume. Also, I would like to consider his heart’s journey from I Kings 3 to I Kings 11. Finally, I would like for us to consider some practical ways that we, as people of God, can keep our hearts awakened and warmed to following Jesus to avoid breaches in our integrity that compromise our God-given calling to fear and obey Him.

    Solomons coronation was glorious. He began with the King’s blessing, his father David, and the High Priest, Zadok. And yet, if we look closely in I Kings 3, we see cracks in the foundation of his integrity already forming. I Kings 3:1 says, “Solomon made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh king of Egypt. He took Pharaoh’s daughter and brought her into the city of David until he had finished building his own house and the house of the LORD and the wall around Jerusalem.” At the beginning of his kingship, Solomon can also be observed as active in worship and sacrifices (Vs. 2-3) to the one true God of Israel. Verse 3a says, “Solomon loved the LORD, walking the statutes of David, his father…” The Message version more fully explains, “Solomon loved GOD and continued to live in the God-honoring ways of David, his father…”

    As Solomon is offering sacrifices in the most well-known sacrifice locations, Gibeon, God appears to him with a simple question, “Ask what I shall give you?” Now, think about that question. Here is a young man with his whole kingship in front of him, and he can ask for anything; military prowess, wealth, riches beyond compare. However, Solomon asks for wisdom to rule Israel’s Kingdom (Vs. 7-9). God was so pleased with this request that he gave him insight beyond measure and riches and incomparable honor. God even offered to lengthen his days, but with a condition. He said, “And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days.”

    The conditional promise is something that points forward to his downward spiral away from God. It would appear that as his intelligence, honor, riches, and power grew large, his heart, like the Grinch, was shrinking and losing its heat.

    The resume of Solomon is unlike any other person ever to live. He was a great organizer of governments, a master builder and architect, an astute business leader in national and international commerce, and a prolific writer of wisdom literature (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon). He was a man of many pleasures too. He ate the best foods and dined with 700 wives and 300 concubines. His renown even beckoned the attention of the Queen of Sheba who came to see his fame and wisdom (I Kings 10). He was rich, famous, wise, and accomplished. And yet, with each passing accomplishment and marriage to foreign wives, his heart moved further away from God.

    At the end of his life, we have the Book of Ecclesiastes as his reflections. We also have the inspired records of his final days in I Kings 11. AS we reflect, we remember that when he was first beginning his kingship, it is recorded that, “Solomon loved GOD and continued to live in the God-honoring ways of David, his father…” Furthermore, he humbly asks God for help to rule. Several decades later, his affections have been realigned, and, in error, his God-given wisdom eclipsed his need for God. The gift God gave him became an idol that possessed him.

    I Kings 11:1 says, “Now King Solomon loved many foreign women…” You may say, what is wrong with that? However, it is recorded that God forbid him to forge these kinds of relationships. He commanded, “You shall not enter into marriage with them [foreign wives], neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon did not listen and disregarded the law of God and “clung to these (foreign wives) in love (vs. 2b).” One of the reasons God forbade the people of Israel to engage in marriages for foreigners was the danger of the heart losing its fire for Israel’s one true God. Solomons, 700 wives, and 300 concubines “turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his Father (vs. 4).” The decisions to pursue foreign wives eventually led to a new love for foreign gods, just as God anticipated. The results of Solomon’s decisions are recorded in vs. 6-11. Solomon “did what was evil in the sigh fo the Lord (vs 6)” and “the Lord was very angry with Solomon (vs. 9).” Why was he mad at him? God explains his reasoning to Solomon clearly and firmly. He said it is, “because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the LORD commanded.”

    Ultimately, Solomon lost the kingdom after his death. He defiled the covenant of God as a matter of “practice” and habit. In other words, he was regularly violating God with his heart in worship.

    We may be tempted to think that Solomon and his downfall have nothing to do with us as believers or leaders in the church. However, we know people who have started with a white-hot heart for God and have ended with a cold heart running away from him.

    A question arises as I consider this progression of events from I Kings 3-11. Is there something we can do to stop the heart fade from God? Ironically, the author of Proverbs 4:23-27, probably Solomon, gives us a clue. He writes:

    Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. 24 Put away from you crooked speech, and put devious talk far from you. 25 Let your eyes look directly forward, and your gaze be straight before you. 26 Ponder the path of your feet; then all your ways will be sure. 27 Do not swerve to the right or to the left; turn your foot away from evil.

    The crux of this section has to do with keeping the heart or keeping “watch over your heart (NIV).” Just as the human heart is the center circulatory system in the human body, so it is the center of thought, will, and feeling in the soul. When the heart goes bad in the human body, all else is negatively affected. So, it is with the spiritual heart. It must be kept well. In his book, as a man thinketh, James Allen writes, “THE aphorism, “As a man thinketh in his heart so is he,” not only embraces the whole of a man’s being, but is so comprehensive as to reach out to every condition and circumstance of his life. A man is literally what he thinks, his character being the complete sum of all his thoughts.”[1]. We think with our hearts. The spiritual heart is the engine of the soul, and without it, we lose the power to think right and live well before God and men. Even if the importance is acknowledged, we must admit that it is hard to keep the heart. In his book, Keeping the Heart, John Flavel writes, “The heart of man is his worst part before it is regenerated, and the best afterward; it is the seat of principles and the fountain of actions. The eye of God is, and the eye of the Christian ought to be principally fixed upon it. The greatest difficulty in conversion is to win the heart to God, and the greatest difficulty after conversion is to keep the heart with God. Here lies the very force and stress of religion; here is that which makes the way to life a narrow way, and the gate of heaven a strait gate.” [2]

    One way to know your heart is being kept is look for the evidence described in Prov. 4:24-27. Crooked speech and deceptive talk will be far from you. You will be focused on the path of life and the call to walk out the Gospel. They will constantly consider the course they are on and the destination it is leading them. In the New Testament, we could frame these activities as walking the Spirit and producing the fruit of the Spirit.

    Perhaps, the most crucial element to keeping your heart is not to think that you can do this on your own. Solomon wrote of this but apparently did not listen to godly counsel. In Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, he writes, “Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. “

    We need each other to stay accountable and encouraged. The writer of Hebrews encouraged believers to stay together. He writes, “23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” The pronouns in this passage are plural for a reason. By confessing Christ together regularly, we can stir each other up to love God. We cannot do this if we do life as lone-ranger Christians. We recognize and remind each other that there is an urgency to staying hot for the Lord, as someday we will face him as stewards in judgment.

    [1] Excerpt From: James Allen. “As a Man Thinketh.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/as-a-man-thinketh/id499809711
    [2] Flavel, John. Keeping the Heart . Fig. Kindle Edition.

  • Theological Triage and Local Church Cooperation (Part II)

    Triage is a necessity in the medical world; it is a matter of life and death. In the world of theology, it can also mean spiritual or physical life and death. In the last post on this topic, we considered the importance of fleshing out the brilliant statement by Rupert Meldinius in the 17th Century about church cooperation. He wrote, “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”[1] His statement invokes the need to think about theology in prioritized categories. Gavin Ortlund and Al Mohler prescribe several ways to rank theology, with both categorizing doctrines in at least three stages. Both encourage us to process theology in terms of primary, secondary, and tertiary issues. Ortlund adds a fourth, which he refers to as adiaphora or “indifference”. Primary doctrines are essential to the Gospel. Secondary doctrines are essential to the health of an individual church or denomination, but not necessarily related to the integrity of Gospel. Third-rank doctrines, while important theological issues, should not divide believers. Finally, fourth rank doctrines are unimportant to the gospel altogether. These are based on preference and opinion.

    Our focus now is to consider how theological triage can be compromised and how it has been applied historically in the church. For the past 2000 years, the church has relied upon various Councils, Creeds, and confession statements to apply triage and maintain unity. Certain writings of believers have clarified primary and secondary issues. Throughout church history there has been much confusion over how to apply these categories, at times resulting in death and exile of God’s people.

    In the first eight centuries of the church there were seven ecumenical councils. They began in 325 with the First Council of Nicaea and ended in 787 with the Second Council of Nicaea. These councils were formed to root out error and maintain first-rank theological concerns. For example, in the First Council of Nicaea, Arius, a priest from Alexandria, taught that Jesus was created by the Father. He believed and taught that the Father was greater than the Son. Alexander of Alexandria argued that Jesus was begotten of the Father, not created and was fully equal with the Father. The council agreed with Alexander and the divinity of Jesus was preserved in the local church.[2] In this case, theological triage prevailed and preserved a Gospel essential. The Council sided with the orthodox, composing the first form of what would become known as the Nicene Creed.[3] Throughout the next few centuries a pattern arose with a false-teaching proclaimed, a church council formed to address it, and an orthodox conclusion reached to maintain first-rank theological issues. Some had to do with the humanity of Christ and others the Divinity of the Holy Spirit.

    Creeds were developed to summarize the Scriptures and affirm agreed upon truths upheld by various councils. From the creeds, denominational confessions were developed. Archibald Alexander defines a creed as “the systematic statement of religious faith; and by the creeds of the Christian church, we mean the formal expression of “the faith which was delivered unto the saints.”[4] The most well-known, and oldest, are the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. The former is often referred to as the Creed of Creeds.[5] Its teaching represents apostolic gospel teaching in summary form, and includes a wonderful statement about the Trinity, which should always remain a first-rank theological issue essential to the gospel.

    The Church and its leaders do not always get theological triage correct. In fact, even when they do get it right, they sometimes apply their convictions violently. Baptism in the 16th century was example of this confusion and chaos. As we alluded in a previous article, baptism is considered a secondary issue in theological triage. However, during the time of the Anabaptist Reformation, it was thought to be first rank. The question was not so much about whether one should be baptized; instead, the battle was waged over the mode of baptism. It is hard for us to imagine believers so entrenched in their view that death was considered appropriate for those who disagreed with them. However, in the 16th Century, believers were willing to die for their position and kill those whose position differed.

    Ulrich Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther, was Pro-Reformation, but not as radical as some of the Anabaptists in his attempts to revitalize the doctrine of pedobaptism. Felix Manz was a friend of Zwingli’s; yet, because of their differences, they had trouble getting along. W.S. Reid explains the tension between the two men. He writes:

    Manz, however, came to reject Zwingli’s view that the ultimate authority in any reformed
    movement must be the civil authorities, and he did not accept the other reformers’
    distinction between the “visible” and the “invisible” church—i.e., those who professed
    faith and those who truly did believe. He believed that the church must be made up of
    only those who have true faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. Therefore, he denied the right of
    infants to baptism. [6]

    It was a struggle for Zwingli and those he considered his brothers. Christian History Magazine summarizes the tension he felt.

    Zwingli apparently felt the choice was between orderly change and ecclesiastic anarchy.
    He urged moderation and patience and engaged the radicals in a series of public
    debates, but when the radicals began re-baptizing in February, 1525, he sided with the
    Council in its decision to outlaw private meetings and require that all children be
    baptized. [7]

    The final chapter for the first Anabaptist martyr came on a cold day in 1527. The Roman Catholic Church levied a guilty verdict on Felix Manz, and sentenced him to death by drowning in the River Limmit. Zwingli was silent and did not oppose this sentence or punishment. Meldinius’ statement emerges from the depths of the ice River Limmit. “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” In Felix Many’ case, there was no liberty and charity. In our theological triage, we must hold our convictions firmly and with grace toward those who disagree.

    References
    [1] https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/
    [2] https://www.challies.com/articles/7-councils-the-first-council-of-nicaea/
    [3] Brett Scott Provance, Pocket Dictionary of Liturgy & Worship, The IVP Pocket Reference Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 43.
    [4] Arch. B. D. Alexander, “Creed, Creeds,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 741.
    [5] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-know-apostles-creed/
    [6] W.S. Reid, “Manz, Felix,” ed. J.D. Douglas and Philip W. Comfort, Who’s Who in Christian History (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1992), 451.
    [7] “A Gallery of Family, Friends, Foes, and Followers,” Christian History Magazine-Issue 4: Zwingli: Father of the Swiss Reformation (Worcester, PA: Christian History Institute, 1984).