Category Archives: Church methodology

Why Gospel Cultures Are So Hard To Build

Wise pastor Ray Ortlund addresses this problem throughout his forthcoming book, The Gospel: How the Church Portrays the Beauty of Christ (Crossway; April 30, 2014). He writes this on pages 82–83:

A gospel culture is harder to lay hold of than gospel doctrine. It requires more relational wisdom and finesse. It involves stepping into a kind of community unlike anything we’ve experienced, where we happily live together on a love we can’t create. A gospel culture requires us not to bank on our own importance or virtues, but to forsake self-assurance and exult together in Christ alone.

This mental adjustment is not easy, but living in this kind of community is wonderful. We find ourselves saying with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things” — all the trophies of our self-importance, all the wounds of our self-pity, every self-invented thing that we lug around as a way of getting attention — “and count them as dung in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ” (Phil. 3:8–9).

Paul did not regard the loss of his inflated self as sacrificial. Who admires his own dung? It is a relief to be rid of our distasteful egos! And when a whole church together luxuriates in Christ alone, that church embodies a gospel culture. It becomes a surprising new kind of community where sinners and sufferers come alive because the Lord is there, giving himself freely to the desperate and undeserving.

But how easy it is for a church to exist in order to puff itself up! How hard it is to forsake our own glory for a higher glory!

The primary barrier to displaying the beauty of Jesus in our churches comes from the way we re-insert ourselves into that sacred center that belongs to him alone. Exalting ourselves always diminishes his visibility. That is why cultivating a gospel culture requires a profound, moment by moment “unselfing” by every one of us. It is personally costly, even painful.

What I am proposing throughout this book is not glib or shallow. So much is set against us, within and without. But the triumph of the gospel in our churches is still possible, as we look to Christ alone. He will help us.

 

Calvin on the Cross

Exegeting A Crowd

I’ve been meaning to transcribe an excerpt from a recent message at my home church, Covenant Life (Gaithersburg, MD). Being in Louisville, perhaps, is why the excerpt from Dr Albert Mohler’s message came back to mind.

On May 4th Dr Mohler preached on The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). He made these remarks at the beginning of the message:

“The crowd is so large that has been gathering over the course of this day that Jesus is required to do what a teacher must do and that is find some way to get distance from the crowd that is necessary to be seen and heard. In this case Jesus gets into a boat and goes slightly off shore in order that he might teach. The crowd is a very important factor to this passage.

The crowd is a matter of some question–some challenge, some perplexity–to us as well. Is has become clear that evangelical Christians in particular have a hard time understanding the nature of a crowd. We are tempted to think of a crowd as a great gathering of receptivity.

We understand that the crowd is gathering because something has been happening. We as evangelicals sometimes mistake a crowd for a church. It’s hard for us sometimes to understand what’s going on. Jesus helps to clarify this for his own disciples.”

–Albert Mohler, The Parable of the Sower, sermon at Covenant Life Church (Gaithersburg, MD) on May 4, 2008.

The Church as the Mother of the Faithful

How many Protestant movements active within America would define the purpose of the Church in these words?

“I shall start, then, with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”

John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.1.1

Critiquing the Missional Movement

tsslogo.jpgNow that all the Sovereign Grace Ministries messages are free, I’m slowly feasting message-by-message in a long and delicious buffet of audio. Today I finally arrived at Dave Harvey’s message from the SGM Leadership Conference this Spring (at the time, I was on the other side of the wall listening to Dever speak on his annual reading schedule).

Harvey, the author of the excellent book When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press: 2007), is also an expert church planter and apostolic leader within SGF. This Spring in his session “Watch Your Mission: To Be, or Not to Be, ‘Missional,’” he assessed the strengths and weakness of the missional movement. In part, he argues the MM muddies the Cross-centered focus of the Church and misunderstands the apostolic context of the Great Commission.

Here’s the heart of his outline:

1. What are the Strengths of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Have a Commendable Passion for Evangelism.
B. Missional Churches Have a Laudable Commitment to Engaging Culture.
C. Missional Churches Have a Profitable Impulse for Reexamining Church Tradition.
D. They Also Possess an Admirable Devotion to Social Impact.

2. What are the Weaknesses of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Tend to Be Mission-Centered Rather Than Gospel-Centered.
B. Missional Churches Tend to Have a Reductionistic Ecclesiology.
C. Missional Churches Tend to Confuse Culture Engagement with Cultural Immersion.
D. Missional Churches Tend to Downplay the Institutional and Organizational Nature of the Church.
E. Missional Churches Tend to Have an Insufficient Understanding of Apostolic Ministry.

Free: Get the full outline here and the mp3 audio here.

—————

Update: It should be noted SGM believes in a continuing apostolic gift: “present-day apostles plant and build local churches for the sanctification of the believer, the expansion of the mission, and the exaltation of God.” For more on why they use the term, what it means and does not mean, see the SGM booklet by Harvey titled Polity: Serving and Leading the Local Church (2004), pages 17-26, 49-50.

John Brown of Haddington: The Pastor

The Pastor
By John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787)

I’ve been working on a review of The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (more commonly known as A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, published in 1782 and reprinted by Christian Focus in 2002). Taking the past month to become acquainted with this remarkable man has been a great blessing to my own soul. Brown was the son of a basket weaver, whose poor Christian parents were both dead by the time he was 11-years old. He became an orphan shepherd. Although every circumstance in Brown’s life pointed towards a rough future of poverty and ignorance, he would teach himself NT Greek! Under the sovereign direction of God, being self-taught from the well of Scripture, this man would become one of the most prominent theological professors, writers, preachers and theologians in Scottish history, producing a long-revered Bible dictionary and a massive study Bible (The Self-Interpreter’s Bible). Most striking in his life, letters and books is Brown’s vast and encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture. The following is an excerpt from an address given to students of theology published in the preface of his systematic theology. I would encourage pastors to print this out and return to it frequently. Blessings! Tony

“See that your minds be deeply impressed with the nature, extent, and importance of your ministerial work, — that therein it is required of you, as ambassadors for Christ, as stewards of the mysteries and manifold grace of God, — to be faithful; — to serve the Lord with your spirit, and with much humility in the gospel of his Son: — to testify repentance towards God, and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ, not keeping back or shunning to declare every part of the counsel of God, or any profitable instruction, reproof, or encouragement; and not moved with any reproach, persecution, hunger, or nakedness, — to be ready not only to be bound, but to die for the name of the Lord Jesus, in order to finish your course with joy. Bearing with the infirmities of the weak, and striving together in prayer, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, and your message provided by God, and made acceptable to your hearers, you must labor with much fear and trembling, determined to know, to glory in, and to make known, nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified, — preaching the gospel, not with enticing words of man’s wisdom, as men-pleasers, but with great plainness of speech, in demonstration of the Spirit and with power, – speaking the things which are freely given you by God, not in the words which man’s wisdom teaches, but in words which the Holy Ghost teaches, comparing spiritual things with spiritual, — as having the mind of Christ, always triumphing in Him, — and making manifest the savor of the knowledge of him in every place, that you may be a sweet savor of Christ in them who are saved, and in them who perish; — as of sincerity, as of God, in the sight of God, speaking in Christ, and through the mercy of God, not fainting, but renouncing the hidden things of dishonesty; — not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully, or corrupting the truth, but manifesting the truth to every man’s conscience, as in the sight of God; — not preaching yourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and yourselves servants to the church for his sake, always bearing about his dying, that his life may be manifested in you; — and knowing the terror of the Lord, and deeply impressed with the account which you and your hearers must give to him of your whole conduct in the day of judgment, — awed by his infinite authority, constrained and inflamed by his love, you must persuade men, beseeching them to be reconciled unto God, and making yourselves manifest to God and to their conscience, — and, as their edification requires, changing your voice, and turning yourselves every way, and becoming all things to all men, in order to gain them to Christ, — jealous over them with a godly jealousy, in order to espouse them to him as chaste virgins, — travailing in birth, till he be formed in their hearts. You must take heed to your ministry which you have received in the Lord, what you may fulfill it; — stir up the gifts which were given you, — give yourselves wholly to reading, exhortation, and doctrine; — and perseveringly take heed to yourselves and to the doctrine which you preach, that you may save yourselves and them that hear you; — watching for their souls, as they who do, and must give an account for them to God, — rightly dividing the word of truth, and giving every man his portion in due season, faithfully warning every man with tears night and day, teaching every man, particularly young ones, and laboring to present every man perfect in Christ Jesus, — and warring, not after the flesh, nor with carnal weapons, but with such as are mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds and casting down imaginations, and subduing every thought and affection to the obedience of Christ. Having him for the end of your conversation, and holding fast the form of sound words in faith in, and love to him, — not entangling yourselves with the affairs of this life, nor ashamed of the Lord, or of his cause or prisoners, but ready to endure hardships as good soldiers of Jesus Christ, and to endure all things for the elect’s sake, that they may obtain salvation with eternal glory; — ye must go forth without the camp, bearing his reproach, and, exposed as spectacles of suffering to angels and men, must not faint under your tribulations, but feed the flock of God which he has purchased with his own blood, and over which the Holy Ghost has made you overseers, — preaching the word in season and out of season, reproving, rebuking, and exhorting with all long-suffering and doctrine, — taking the oversight of your people, not by restraint, but willingly, not for filthy lucre of worldly gain, or larger stipends, but of a ready mind, — neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but as examples to the flock, — exercising yourselves to have a conscience void of offense towards God and towards man, — having a good conscience, willing in all things to live honestly, — exercised to godliness, — kindly affectioned, disinterested, holy, just, and unblamable, — prudent examples of the believers in conversations [daily life], in charity, in faith and purity, — fleeing youthful lusts, and following after righteousness, peace, faith, charity, — not striving, but being gentle to all men, — in meekness, instructing them who oppose themselves, avoiding foolish and unlearned questions, and old wives’ fables, — fleeing from perverse disputings and worldly mindedness, as most dangerous snares; and following after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness; — fighting the good fight of faith, and laying hold on eternal life, — keeping your trust of gospel truth and ministerial office, and, without partiality or precipitancy, committing the same to faithful men, who may be able to teach others; — and, in fine, faithfully laboring, in the Lord, to try, and confute, and censure false teachers, restore such as have been overtaken in a fault in the spirit of meekness, — and having compassion on them, to pull them out of the fire, hating even the garment spotted by the flesh, and never conniving at, or partaking with an in their sins. Who is sufficient for these things? May your sufficiency be of God; and as your days are, so may your strength be. (Ezek. 2:7, 3:9, 17-21, 33:7-9; Isa. 58:1; Jer. 1:17-18, 15:19-20; Mic. 3:8; Mal. 2:6-7; Matt. 10:16-39, 19:28-29, 20:25-28, 23:3-12, 24:42-51, 28:18-20; Acts 18:24-28, 20:18-35, 24:16, 26:16-23; 1 Cor. 2:1-5,9,12-13, ch. 1-5, 9, 12-14; 2 Cor. ch. 2-6, 10-13; Rom. 1:9,16, 9:1-2, 10:1, ch. 12 and 15; Gal. 1:8-16, 4:19; Eph. 3:7-9, 4:11-15, 6:19-20; Col. 4:7,17, 1:23-29, 2:1-2; 1 Thes. ch. 2, 3, 5:12; 1 Tim. ch. 3-4; 2 Tim. ch. 1-3; Heb. 13:7,17-18; 1 Pet. 4:10-11, 5:1-4; Jude 22, 23; Rev. ch. 2, 3, 11:3-7, 14:6-11).”

- John Brown of Haddington, “Address to Students of Divinity,” in The Systematic Theology of John Brown of Haddington (Christian Focus: 1782/2002), pp. viii-xi.

“Round the cross”: Bonar and the Centrality of the Cross

“Round the cross”: Bonar and the Centrality of the Cross

Horatius Bonar (1808-1889) was no handsome man but he was a fantastic writer. Few, if any, writers in church history have better fixated their extended attention upon the beauty of the Cross of Christ. And so I was very excited to learn that Bonar’s massive compilation of works are published electronically by Lux Publications.

The following quote showcases Bonar’s ability to point out falsehood and point the church back to the Cross as the center of its life. Christians are “men alive from the dead” with a message about bloody propitiation and legal transference of guilt. Let the church build around and hold fast to this truth!

Bonar’s words are a good corrective to an age of church-ianity that tends to center around everything but the bloody Cross.

The Errors Of The Age, by Horatius Bonar (published in 1870)

Transfer the divine element to creation at large, you have pantheism; to images of brass or stone, you have idolatry; to the priest or the church, you have Romanism; to forms, and rites, and sacraments, and you have Ritualism; to the visible things of the senses, and you have materialism; to the invisibilities of disembodied spirits, and you have spiritualism; to the intellect, and you have rationalism; to the fancy, and you have religious pictorialism; to the feelings, and you have religious sentimentalism; transfer it to man, simply as man, and you have the last form of Antichrist, — the de-thronization of the divine, the enthronization of the human, the rejection of the God-Man, and the exaltation of a man into His place as the only Messiah of the race, the world’s only Redeemer and King.

Most subtle is the error that would have us deal with religious truth as a mere bundle of abstractions, or ideas, or speculations, of which every man is at liberty to form his own opinion. The essence of the Bible, the Alpha and Omega of revelation, is not truth alone, nor religion alone, but Christianity, a Christianity which is not presented to us merely as the communication of doctrines, but as the settlement of the great personal question between the sinner and God, the solution of the difficulty which law and conscience necessarily raise as to righteousness and grace.

And what is Christianity? Not metaphysics, not mysticism, not a compilation of guesses at truth. It is the history of the seed of the woman, — that seed the Word made flesh: — the Word made flesh the revelation of the invisible Jehovah, the representative of the eternal God, the medium of communication between the Creator and the creature, between earth and heaven.

And of this Christianity, what is the essential characteristic, the indispensable feature from first to last? Is it incarnation or bloodshedding? Is it the cradle or the cross? Is it the scene at Bethlehem or at Golgotha? Assuredly the latter! Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani, is no mere outcry of suffering nature, the cross is no mere scene of human martyrdom, and the great sepulcher is no mere Hebrew tomb. It is only through bloodshedding that conscience is purged; it is only at the cross that the sinner can meet with God; it is the cross that knits heaven and earth together; it is the cross that bears up the collapsing universe; it is the pierced hand that holds the golden sceptre; it is at Calvary that we find the open gate of Paradise regained, and the Gospel is good news to the sinner, of liberty to enter in.

Let men, with the newly sharpened axes of rationalism, do their utmost to hew down that cross; it will stand in spite of them. Let them apply their ecclesiastical paint-brush, and daub it all over with the most approved of mediaeval pigments to cover its nakedness, its glory will shine through all. Let them scoff at the legal transference of the sinner’s guilt to a divine substitute, and of that Surety’s righteousness to the sinner, as a Lutheran delusion, or a Puritan fiction, that mutual transference, that wondrous exchange, will be found to be wrapped up with Christianity itself. Let those who, like Cain of old, shrink from the touch of sacrificial blood, and mock the ‘religion of the shambles,’ purge their consciences with the idea of God’s universal Fatherhood, and try to wash their robes and make them white in something else than the blood of the Lamb; to us, as to the saints of other days, there is but one purging of the conscience, one security for pardon, one way of access, one bond of reconciliation, one healing of our wounds, the death of Him on whom the chastisement of our peace was laid, and one everlasting song, ‘unto him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.’

… It is round the cross of God that all truth revolves; and hence all error connected either with His person or His work must be perilous. The revelation of the cross begins at the beginning, and sweeps round a vast circle. It takes up the whole question between the sinner and God, and gives judgment upon every part of it. It condemns man and justifies God. It pronounces authoritatively both as to the way of life and the way of death.

It does not accept earnestness as a substitute for truth, nor a justification or extenuation of error. It does not show man how to lay the foundation of the great settlement for eternity; it lays the foundation, and presents us with everything on God’s side, as finished. It begins by announcing what God has done, before it says one word of what man is to do; it shows us God as the doer and the giver, man as the receiver, setting aside unsparingly every religion and every doctrine which would make man, either in whole or in part, his own Saviour; or which would make worship or service a thing of proxy, and shift the personality and the responsibility of the great transaction between the soul and God, to a priest, or a minister, or a church, or a ceremony, or a sacrament, or a creed.

Thus it is that through the belief of God’s testimony to the great propitiation, we are not only justified, but we know, we are assured, that we are; and thus it is, that through the simple reception of the glad tidings, all the gladness which they contain is transferred to us. Believing, we rejoice, we are saved, we have everlasting life.

The revelation of ‘the Christ’ embraces in it the revelation of the church in Him, as His temple, His body, His bride, His present witness on earth, and the watcher for His return in glory. This church, even on earth, is no mere association of men holding certain opinions, — no mere corporation favoured with certain privileges, — but a body chosen and called out of a world of darkness. Its legislation is divine, not human; its laws are not its own ideas of expediency and order, but the commandments of its head. The essence of its constitution is not socialism, nor republicanism, nor despotism, nor anarchy, but an unearthly organization, founded on entire subjection to its heavenly head; an organization working itself out in order, unity, growth, fruitfulness, love, and zeal. Its ministers are not philosophers, nor lecturers, nor theorists, nor humourists, nor orators, nor priests, but messengers of God’s free love, expositors of the word, shepherds of the flock, and executors of government and discipline. Its members are not politicians, nor lovers of pleasure, nor worshippers of gold, nor men who are trying to make the best of both worlds, but men alive from the dead, through the power of the Holy Ghost; possessors of a heavenly peace, bearers of a cross, yet heirs of a kingdom; strangers upon the earth, yet citizens of the New Jerusalem, which cometh down from God out of heaven.

…It is truth that makes us free, for all error is bondage. If, then, you would be freemen, grasp the truth tenaciously, bravely, calmly; bind it round you as a girdle, treasure it in your heart of hearts. ‘Buy the truth and sell it not;’ that is, get it at any cost, part with it never. Error is sin, for which every man shall give an account to God; and sin is no mere mischance or misfortune that claims pity only, but not condemnation nor punishment; else what means the fiery law? What means the cross of the sin-bearer? What means the great white throne? What means the everlasting fire? ‘Stand, therefore, having your loins girt about with truth,’ remembering your high calling as witnesses for the truth and the True One. Let neither your words nor your lives give any uncertain sound. Every man to whom the Bible comes is responsible for believing all the truth which that revelation proclaims, and for rejecting all the error which it condemns. Cleave, then, to the Word of the living God; and sit, as teachable disciples, at the feet of Him who has said, Learn of me.

-Horatius Bonar, The Christian Treasury in The Life and Works of Horatius Bonar (CD-Rom, Lux Publications) pp. 1207-1212. (Posted with permission from publisher.)

Seeker friendly to the spiritually dead?

Every man, woman and child in this world fits into one of two categories. Either they are believers, having clung to the perfect righteousness of Christ alone for their salvation. Or they are unbelievers, being spiritually dead, separated from a personal union with Christ and under the wrath of God.

My good friend Travis wrote the following in an email to one who embraces the “seeker sensitive” church methodology so common today. I thought this paragraph was especially worthy to share because he reminds us that a “seeker” (a misnomer) is still a depraved sinner under the wrath of God.

“‘Seeker’ is just another word for a dying man. He is outside of Christ and alienated from God, the object of His holy wrath. He lays at the brink of judgment, the very gates of Hell. And what sort of ‘friendliness’ gives comfort to such a one? As if an oncologist, for example, were merciful to spare his patients the pain of necessary chemotherapy. No, we have a name for giving comfort to the curably dying—criminal malpractice. Another name is assisted suicide. And likewise in the Church. Sin is a greater cancer, and salvation is not elective surgery but a dying man’s only hope for eternal life. To give him any comfort other than in fleeing the wrath to come is fully to euthanize his soul—and convince me then that you’re his friend!”

- Travis Carden

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