Which do you think is the greater problem in the church, placing too much value on preachers or too little? Good arguments could be made on both sides.
The existence of “celebrity” pastors is, sadly, a real thing. Calling some of them celebrities is unfair, since we typically call a celebrity someone who is famous for being famous. There are these types of celebrity pastors with mega-church book sales and TV audiences though they have nothing to say near as self-helping good as Marcus Aurelius/Tony Robbins. There are also “famous” pastors in the Reformed and exegetical parts of the evangelical landscape. These preachers probably didn’t intend to garner a bursting field of followers, but that we spend more time reading the notes in the study Bible than the verses in the Bible may be an indication that we’re giving them too much attention.
That said, the greatest influence many pastors ever exert is ruining a party when they arrive; it’s a spiritual gift. Whether it’s because they take themselves too seriously so that no one else could possibly bear their gravitas, or because they are too lazy to actually keep up with others, it’s hard to see how they influence much of anybody. People will listen unless its about a personal problem because the pastor doesn’t have a professional counseling degree. People will listen unless there’s something more exciting on their phone. Well, it doesn’t even need to be that exciting.
I bring up the question because the church in Corinth had, to some degree, divided themselves according to their favorite teacher/leader. Not only did they have their preference, they made their pick the only (see 1 Corinthians 1:12).
Paul addressed the problem in one way, which was to put the cross of Christ at the center. The word of the cross kills the pride of man, no need for rivalry. I also think we’d do better if we, preachers and people, were more Kuyperian. Preachers have their place, God has assigned them necessary work in the sphere of the church, and yet their work is neither at the top (God’s highest calling) or the end (God’s final goal). If we remembered that we’d probably be able to appreciate what preachers do without dividing over our favorite.
Our pursuit of righteousness is not only a personal pursuit. Paul urged his disciple, Timothy:
Flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart. (2 Timothy 2:22)
We are in a battle against the world, the devil, and the sinful flesh (see Ephesians 2:2-3). There are “opponents” within and without (see 2 Timothy 2:25). Each soldier must do his part, fight in his part of the field, but it is because he is part of something bigger.
I bring this up not only to remind us that we’re supposed to fight, or even that we’re supposed to fight together (instead of against one another). We need to see the context or we’ll inevitably have a perspective fail.
Our problems seem bigger when we are the end of our concerns. We increase our burden if we think we’re the only ones struggling. Then we’re found to be adding the sin of pride onto whatever the first sin is, acting as if our sin is the worst or that no one else understands. On the other hand, our problems, our trials and temptations, seem smaller when we remember that we’re part of something bigger. That doesn’t mean our problems don’t exist or that we can ignore them and don’t need to confess when we sin, but it does mean that it would probably be easier if we stopped thinking we were so special.
“No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man” (1 Corinthians 10:13). That includes the temptation to isolate ourselves in the battle against temptation. We fight along with all those who call on the name of the Lord.
Because of the way God created the world many things of value can be shared, but with totally different results. A shared reward is divided, a shared laugh is multiplied. A shared space subtracts the amount of room for you, a shared discovery adds to the joy.
There are similar created mysteries regarding debt. Some debts are big and others small, but a bigger debt might be less burdensome depending. What is owed? Who is it owned to? A small debt to a stingy lender is much worse than a great debt to a generous one. There are even some debts that compound joy as the debt increases.
In John Milton’s Paradise Lost he imagines many of the heavenly and hellish scenes before and during the fall of man. But before getting to Eve’s temptation and Adam’s sin he describes Satan’s decisive discontent in Satan’s words:
in a moment quit
The debt immense of endless gratitude,
So burdensome, still paying, still to owe;
Forgetful what from him I still received,
And understood not that a grateful mind
By owing owes not, but still pays, at once
Indebted and discharged; what burden then?
These lines describe true economics whether or not they describe Satan’s true thoughts. It is one of the reasons why Genesis 1:1 is so offensive because it means that there is a God we answer to, a God we are born without our choice already in debt to.
But this debt of gratitude we owe is a debt that increases our joy as we pay it and as the debt itself increases. It can’t be otherwise. God deserves more thanks the more He gives, and we are more joyful the more we are thankful. The more we owe and the more we pay, the more truly free we are.
How do you know that God is willing and working in you for His good pleasure? As you are working out your salvation with fear and trembling what is the result? If you could choose just one act of believing obedience to make a dent in the world, what would it be?
It’s possible that one thing answers all those questions. Though he doesn’t use the word, it connects Paul’s thoughts in Philippians 2:12-16. He called the Christians to work out their salvation (verse 12), remembering that God is at work in them (verse 13), and then reminded them that they are
“children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights of the world” (verse 15).
Certainly the Philippian believers stood out for their morality (“blameless and innocent”) as well as for their different authority (“holding fast to the word of life”). But the way they became these bright lights is by obeying Paul’s command at the beginning of verse 14: “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.” Stated positively: they were thankful. God wills that we give thanks always. Saved people are thankful people. And thankful people stand out in a crooked and complaining generation.
We should be Christians living in the world and with one another in such a way as to provoke good jealousy among others, eventually all Israel (see Romans 11:11, 14), who will want what we have in Christ. But have you ever heard of someone being jealous of a complainer? “Wow, you see all the bad things so accurately. You really put into words all the grumbling feelings I have. I wish I could have your spirit of fussiness.”
There could be someone who hears us complain and is jealous of all our blessings that they see better than us that we aren’t giving thanks for. In that sense they are jealous of a complainer, but not of our complaints. Let us repent and recount our blessings in thanks.
In perhaps the most well-known passage about salvation by grace through faith, one word is used three times. It isn’t grace, it isn’t faith, it isn’t saved, it isn’t Christ or God. The word is works.
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8–10)
We are not saved by works. No man can be justified with God by obedience or good-doing. Perfect law-keeping of God’s standard was only attained by one man, Christ Jesus. We receive His work on our behalf so we cannot boast in what we have done.
In addition to regeneration, the sovereign grace of our Savior recreated us so that we are His “workmanship.” We are divine work-product, made alive with Christ to be like Him and to do for Him. Our new lives have a designed shape and cadence, like a statue or a poem, but much more than a stationary stone or printed sentence. We are alive “for good works.” We can’t be saved by works but we are saved for works.
This has been God’s goal all along. The branches for our fruit have a particular direction, a determined thickness, a certain color according to His desire. He prepared these works “beforehand,” like a map, “that we should walk in them.”
We still don’t get to boast. Our works are His working and willing in us (Philippians 2:13). But this means we also don’t get to coast. He knows the plans He has for us, plans to make us productive, to give us a heavy basket of fruitfulness. He made us alive to follow the course of His Word, following the Prince of Peace, through the Spirit that is now at work among the sons of obedience.
Is binge-watching Netflix the good works God planned for us? How about non-stop social media scrolling or cable news captivation? Video gaming? How many other ways of consuming rather than working are we excusing?
The sage preacher once said, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil” (Ecclesiastes 8:11). Sinners can be teachable, especially when others are getting caught. They’re not concerned about violating a principle but about avoiding punishment. In Solomon’s day a delay could occur between the sentence being sorted out and carried out. How much more license in our day when judges can’t even define an “evil deed.”
The children of men take a similar approach to God’s justice. Sin today often has no consequences tomorrow, so it seems. Many sinners appear to be profiting, flourishing, basking in their sin. There are no negative consequences, and apparently not any judgment from God. So it must be okay with God, right?
This is a category mistake. Whether or not something is right is not determined by rapid results. Turn it around to the positive. Broccoli for one dinner doesn’t make a bodybuilder by breakfast. A diligent day sowing seed in the field requires more than a week to see the fruit.
And Paul told the Romans that delayed judgment is not due to God’s lack of will, but instead from God’s will to be kind. “Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is mean to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:4) God isn’t failing, He’s extending forgiveness.
The apostle addressed unbelievers but it is a good reminder for the justified as well. Just because Jesus paid for our unrighteousness doesn’t mean that we can keep on committing it without consequence. Because God is patient and kind, repent.
Why does God forgive anyone? We come near the beginning of our worship service to confess our sins and seek His cleansing and forgiveness. God says that He will forgive those who repent and believe. He sent His Son as a substitute so that He could grant forgiveness without undermining justice. There is no question that He does forgive, but why does He do it?
He forgives because we need it. Men have been rebelling against His commands since Eden and breaking fellowship with Him. All are guilty before Him, we all stand in need of forgiveness, a need He sees and meets. He is the God of need-meeting. But forgiveness runs deeper than that.
Forgiveness is first subjective and then objective. By subjective and objective I don’t mean forgiveness is just God’s perception, let alone our perception, rather than reality. I mean that, in the simple gospel statement, “God forgives sinners,” the subject of the sentence takes priority over the object. He is the God of forgiveness. Forgiveness is not peculiar to God but it is essential to God. God forgives because that’s who He is.
As Jewish pilgrims sang on their way to Jerusalem for worship, “If you, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with You there is forgiveness so that you may be feared” (Psalm 130:4). This isn’t because He loves to hold it over our heads, always ready to remind us of what He could have done to us. “Remember that time when you…?” We fear Him, we stand in awe of Him, not only because He could have crushed us instead of forgiving us. We stand in awe because He forgives like a great fountain flows. He promises to forgive. He loves to forgive. He is eager to forgive. Forgiveness is not a reluctant position He takes to meet a quota. Spurgeon once said about Bunyan that if you pricked him, he would bleed bibline. If we could prick God anywhere, He bleeds forgiveness.
There is a way that we must hate the things of earth so that we can also love the things of earth in a different way. In order to change the world we must not be slaves to the world; we cannot worship the world and offer that to God. That’s idolatry, and the Lord is jealous for His own glory.
So let us take very seriously our responsibility to hate the things of earth as God defines the things of earth. We must take extreme measures as individuals and as a church to deal with “what is earthly” in us.
In Colossians 3:5-11 Paul gives three commands: 1) put to death, 2) put away, and 3) do not lie.
We must “put to death what is earthly” in us, and that includes any sort of sexual sin, whether in our hearts or with our parts. We must kill greed, which is the functional equivalent of idolatry, sacrificing ourselves for the pleasures of money rather than for the pleasures of God. But “on account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Therefore, mortify sin for sake of honoring the marriage bed on earth. Put sin to death in order to be generous with wealth in this world.
We must also “put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk.” This verb could be translated “take off,” as if we were wearing soiled and stained clothes. The contrast comes in the next paragraph with “put on” the character of Christ. Don’t put on rage and bitterness, those are earthly things. Instead, put on kindness and patience here and now. Put on thankful diligence in the work God gives.
And then “do not lie to one another.” We are people of the truth because we are not what we used to be.
Our new selves are “being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” Creation is not the problem, our sin is the problem, and we must be ruthless in repenting from it or it will ruin us. As John Owen wrote, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
One word Christians don’t seem to use as much as they once did is the word “godliness.” It’s a biblical word, one used frequently in the pastoral epistles. When Paul wrote to Titus he identified himself as a servant and an apostle, and the reason for those roles was “the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness.”
The Greek word for godliness is eusebia and it means “a life devoted to revering God.” This piety is the goal of faith and knowledge. The object of faith is Jesus, the end of faith is godliness. The knowledge we seek is “of the truth,” and that truth has a form. True-truth fits with, it agrees with godliness.
Paul told Timothy that godliness is proper for women and goes along with their “good works” (1 Timothy 2:10). Godliness is the opposite of believing silly myths, which are easy to swallow, but godliness is something to “train” for (1 Timothy 4:7). Training for godliness is comparable to bodily training which is of some value, but “godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
Peter also told his readers that God’s power has given His people “all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Christ” (2 Peter 1:3), and that we are to intentionally “make every effort to supplement” our faith with, among other things, godliness (2 Peter 1:7).
As wings to a bird so is godliness to a believer. Are you spreading your wings or are you in a nose dive because sin has pinned your wings to your back? People of faith, people of he truth, ought to be easily identified as those devoted to revering God.
The disciples on the road to Emmaus listened as Jesus interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself, and their hearts burned. Earlier in His ministry Jesus had talked with some other Jews who were serious Bible studiers. They searched the Scriptures. They didn’t do it to disprove God’s Word, they did it with confidence that they would find eternal life in there.
Yet Jesus claimed that while they knew some of the finer points they had missed the entire point. They knew the details and they didn’t actually know God (John 5:39).
Jesus confronted the Sadducees over a similar problem when some of them came with a Bible question. They wanted to know how the law of Moses—specifically the law about a younger brother marrying his deceased older brother’s wife—fit with the teaching on resurrection. Before giving them the answer Jesus told them, “You know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Matthew 22:29). But again, their question was based on the Scriptures.
What did these men need to repent from? They needed to repent from the very thing they considered their righteousness. They needed to repent from their Bible reading.
Of course it’s not the Bible that’s the problem, it’s the reading. There is a way to read and search and know the Bible that isn’t enough. It is to read partially, or academically, or for the purpose of impressing others with what we know. But reading the Bible should make us want the glory that comes from God not that comes from man. And reading the Scriptures to know Jesus should show that Jesus is interested in more than just our Bible reading.
It is not enough to be delivered out of the land of weak theology and topical-topic sermons, but still complain and not obey. Some have itching ears for sermons that make them feel better about themselves, yes, and others of us have itching ears for expositional sermons that make us feel better that we aren’t like “other men,” like the unrighteous (see Luke 18:11). Let us repent whenever we need to, including when we find ourselves missing the point while staring at the pages.