He Will Build His Church

Persuading Men to Love God by Serving Idols

A loud voice continues to emerge in some parts of Christianity, with a heart for the spiritually lost, concerned that Christians are failing to fulfill our commission, afraid that our friends, family, and communities are going to hell, and confident that the church is to blame (at least in large part).

In classic American entrepreneurial spirit, many pastors and other church leaders have recognized the problem (namely, people don’t seem to be coming to Christ or to church), concluded that our formula for evangelism must be flawed or faulty, and then created new approaches, strategies, and programs. Well meaning sheep who also have a heart for the lost see flashes of success when all kinds of unbelievers flock to these fresh, imaginative, creative, emerging churches.

But just because something sounds good doesn’t mean it is according to sound doctrine, and I wonder if we are discerning enough to suspect if what seems like success might actually be a spiritual wreck.

In fact, it is a wreck. And most of all this wreck has wrought significant damage to the preaching and pursuit of personal sanctification. Making disciples has been limited to conversion and building up the saints is apparently not only unnecessary, it is actually a hindrance to reaching unbelievers. Of course that approach tears down the church even if attendance numbers increase.

As I mentioned in the previous post our commission is not just conversion. The Great Commission is not fulfilled by making a great number of converts but disciples. Those who repent and believe must also be taught to observe everything that Christ commanded. That means God’s mission is broader than evangelism, it also requires edification and equipping, so God gave gifted men to the church to equip the saints for the work of ministry.

Churches and ministries focused primarily on conversion may be strong on justification but are often silent when it comes to sanctification. This is visible both in the methodology of the leaders as well as the lifestyle of the flock. Herein pastors contextualize the gospel and rationalize every sort of flesh-pampering, sin-minimizing, cross-eclipsing outreach. The people are comfortable because the standards are low and the accountability absent.

I think at least four overlapping problems surface in these situations.

  1. Little to no emphasis on sanctification and obedience. However, sanctification is God’s will (1 Thessalonians 4:3) for every believer. As obedient children we must be holy as He is holy in all our conduct (1 Peter 1:14-16). Disciples must learn to obey all the Lord commands (Matthew 28:19-20) not merely confess Him as Lord.
  2. Lack of love for heaven and eternity. Yet those who have been raised with Christ are commanded to seek and set their minds on things above (Colossians 3:1-2). We are to rest our hope fully on coming grace at the revelation of Christ (1 Peter 1:13) and anticipate our final salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:5). We are merely exiles (1 Peter 1:1; 2:11) 1on earth; our citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20).
  3. Inability to recognize and repent from sin. But there is no knowledge of truth (2 Timothy 2:25), no forgiveness of sins (Acts 2:38), no hope of eternal life (Acts 11:18), or salvation (2 Corinthians 7:10) without repentance. Besides, Jesus did not come to make it possible for men to enjoy sin but to save sinners (Mark 2:17) from it.
  4. Unwillingness to define and distinguish worldliness. Yet Jesus declared we are not of the world (John 17:16). Christians should be busy turning the world upside down (Acts 17:16) not trying to adopt as much of it as we can get away with. We’re prohibited from loving the world or the things in the world (1 John 2:15-17) because we know friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4). Instead we are [crucified to the world][18] and should no longer live [conformed to it][14].

And so any method of making disciples that does not emphasize increasing Christlike holiness is not following the Great Commission. Not only that, it is wrong to think that we will persuade men to love God by serving their idols. Let’s not be guilty of letting men think they can keep their life, gain the whole world, and still save their souls.

He Will Build His Church

What Mission Are We Talking About Exactly?

A few nights ago a friend forwarded an email from another friend with some quotes on the importance of being missional in our churches and in our lives. I read it on my way to bed which turned out to be a mistake since I was awake for another three hours or so thinking about it. More than anything I was filled with disappointment, and though I should have just gotten back out of bed and written my response, letting a little time pass has been profitable.

I did ask permission to post this response on my blog. It isn’t that I have something new or profound to add to the missional conversation, but people do ask me about it. And even though the quotes below are not exhaustive of the missional approach they do give a good feel for the mindset and I thought this might be a resource I could share in the future.

I also realize that this post is way too long. If you are a casual reader you are free to go and I promise not to take offense. My new fountain pen basically exploded over 11 pages of legal paper when I wrote the rough draft, though I have tried to clean it up as best I could. That said, it is still longer than the uninterested will care to cover.

The original email had three quotes and then a short exhortation based on those quotes. My plan is to give each quote a turn and then respond. I’ve also decided to add a constraint to myself, that is, I am only going to support my thoughts from the Great Commission in Matthew 28:18-20 or the book of Acts. Since I assume most of the missional speak was generated in these sections of Scripture I want to interact on their ground. So here we go.

I asked a lady, “Would you come to church with me?” “Oh, no, Ms. Tillie. Isn’t church for people who have their lives together? I don’t have my life together yet. When I get my life together, I’ll come to church.” That is when I knew we must take church to the people. Our definition of church is what we do seven days a week, almost twenty-four hours a day, all year long! It is just who we are.

We immediately sense the sadness in this story. An invitation to church was turned down by a needy lady with a partial misunderstanding about the church. We naturally commiserate with Ms. Tillie because we too have interacted with neighbors and co-workers who are apparently uninterested because of a skewed perspective toward the church.

But before we re-define “church” we should make sure the real definition is clear. Besides, it doesn’t matter what “our definition of church is,” it matters how God defines it.

The church is the Body of Christ. Church is not something we do, nor is church “just who we are.” Yes, believers are part of the Body, but the whole Body does not go somewhere just because one of the members does. The church is a worldwide group that holds local meetings. So we don’t take “the church” to the people, we take the gospel of Christ to the people. We are to live as, and make disciples of, Christ seven days a week, every waking hour. But that is not the same thing as taking the church to the people.

Church is not for “the people,” church is for Christians. The church is comprised of believers and church meetings are for the saints. The church gathers for worship and teaching and fellowship and then individual Christians scatter for evangelism. Unbelievers may attend our services and often do. Obviously we should preach the gospel and pray for their salvation, but where did we get the idea to invite those with no spiritual taste-buds to our corporate feast?

And let’s go back to our lady’s partial misunderstanding that church is “for people who have their lives together.” We see the signs around town, “Such and Such Church: No perfect people allowed” (often with a word misspelled for emphasis). We get it. Someone had a bad experience with a (probably hypocritical) pietistic, proud, professing Christian with no joy and a chip on their shoulder. We don’t like the self-righteous either.

But righteousness is required in the church, it just isn’t our righteousness. Church isn’t for Christians who are better than non-Christians, it’s just that we don’t fear God’s wrath against our unrighteousness because the righteousness of Christ was credited to our account when we believed. But anyone who doesn’t have His righteousness is not safe. Unrighteous people should feel no more comfortable at church than darkness does with light. It should be no surprise if unbelievers want to stay as far away as they can.

The story of Ananias and Sapphira makes it clear: don’t mess around with the church–God takes His church seriously. In fact, God took the lies of Ananias and Sapphira so seriously that He killed them and “great fear came upon all who heard of it” (Acts 5:5, 11). Even though God doesn’t immediately kill hypocrites who come to church today, hypocrites should still be afraid.

The point is, yes we should make disciples and bring them to the church. We should purposefully live with love and speak with grace and tell the truth to unbelievers next door or across the hall or behind the checkout counter. But we should not expect those who are at enmity with God to want to worship Him in the splendor of His holiness. Redefining church won’t fix that.

Alright, quote #2:

We don’t care if you’re wearing a suit or a T-shirt and jeans. What we care about is the condition of the heart.

One thing I learned from my dad is that there are jerks everywhere. That includes the church. It is possible that some people care more about what you wear rather than the condition of your heart. But is it also possible that someone could care about the condition of your heart and what you’re wearing?

How about a hypothetical story…what do you care about more in a bride, her pure heart or her white dress? Obviously you care more about her heart. If her heart was chaste but all she had or could afford was a pair of capris from Old Navy and a nice tank top, would we say that she couldn’t get married? No. Would we say the marriage was in trouble? Probably not. But would we also conclude that her heart must be pure because at least she wasn’t trying to fake it with a white dress?

If the tank top is all she has, no argument. If the tank top is what she really, really, really prefers. OK. But just because another bride spent time and money on a nice dress does not equal that her insides are ugly, nor are we forced to conclude that a pastor or parents are superficial if they ask the first girl why she decided to go with short pants.

Instead, we understand that the bride’s dress is one way to reflect her heart. What she wears isn’t the only reflection, but it does communicate something. A wedding is a special occasion, a solemn, worshipful ceremony. It should be treated as such and what we wear is part of what makes it unique. Worshiping God when the church gathers, though more regular than our weddings, is also a special celebration. Sure, in different times and different cultures, different dress communicates thoughtfulness. And yes, we’re under grace, not law. I get it. But I also want to be sober-minded when dealing with serious things, inside and out. On top of that, Hawaiian shirts aren’t necessarily more spiritual than three piece suits.

And then third, this quote is so close to being good and yet is still so potentially misleading.

Truth is not a set of rules to be obeyed, mysteries to be known or evidences to be mastered, but Christ, by whom we know and are known. Truth is not discovered, it is revealed in relationship to both the head and the heart. Therefore, Truth is not something merely known or proclaimed but Someone experienced, tasted, and seen as the psalmist says, by grace, faith, and presence that not merely knows the Truth but loves Him.

“Truth is not a set of rules to be obeyed,” but truth does include God’s law that we are responsible to keep. “[Truth is not] mysteries to be known or evidence to be mastered,” but truth does explain mysteries and provide reason for faith. “Truth is not discovered, it is revealed in relationship to both the head and the heart.” That’s okay if the author meant to say that intellectual information alone is insufficient. But we do “discover,” or better yet, God reveals truth to us by illuminating Scripture as we read and study and meditate. It is not magical or mystical revelation that bypasses our brains.

Finally, “Truth is not something merely known or proclaimed but Someone experienced, tasted, and seen.” The key word is there but it is buried. It is the adverb “merely.” I agree that truth is not merely known, but to be of value it cannot be less than known. John Piper put it this way in a recent sermon I heard:

Knowing the person of Christ salvifically requires knowing propositions about Christ truly.

That is absolutely why the early church was consumed with the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). That’s why the Lord commanded the apostles to “speak to the people all the words (the facts) of this Life” (5:20) and why they were committed to preaching the word of God over performing (good) acts of service (6:2, 4). It was “the word of God” that kept increasing and multiplying (6:7; 12:24) as people received it (8:14; 11:1). Preaching the good news was of highest priority (8:12; 8;35; 10:36; 13:32; 14:15). With the unbelievers in Athens Paul “reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer” (17:2-3). With the believers in Ephesus Paul was concerned to proclaim the whole counsel of God (20:27). He was “occupied with the word” (18:5). His ministry partner Apollos was “competent in the Scriptures” (18:24) and “spoke and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus” (18:25), “powerfully refuting the Jews in public, showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (18:28).

Knowing and proclaiming was apparently important in the mission of the early church, both publicly and from house to house (Acts 20:20). That shouldn’t surprise us because we know it is the word of God which is able to build a person up (20:32).

If all that still isn’t convincing, consider the actual Commission Jesus gave in Matthew 28:18-20.

And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

We are responsible to do more than merely introduce others to Jesus. We urge them to identify with the Triune God in baptism that could cost them their lives. That’s not all. We also train them “to observe all that I have commanded you.” There are rules–Christ’s rules–that must be obeyed if we are going to be His followers. His rules are not burdensome, they are for our joy, and His Spirit enables us to obey them, but there is a way of life demanded of true disciples.

These standards for discipleship are truth, the kind of truth that sets us free. Truth must be “known and proclaimed” as well as “experienced, tasted, and seen.” But it starts with proclaiming accurately so that others might know precisely. Without building a solid foundation the building will not stand and eventually the “experience” of Jesus will be experience of another Jesus in whom there is no salvation.

About a year ago I wrote a couple posts connected to the idea of contextualization, incarnational ministry and being missional. [Those articles are Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0 and 4 Tools for Great ComMissional Disciple-Making.] In the meta of the first post a friend and Emergent-sympathizer expressed similar concern to the quotes above:

My argument would be that the vast majority of churches today are not on God’s mission but are most concerned with “building up the saints” (or at least maintaining them). When churches ignore their need to embrace their Great Commission calling as something that should impact everything about how they operate…they end up being social clubs that you can join if you want but you’ll have to walk, talk, and look like everyone else.

I think his point fits well in the context of this post, and my response to his comment still applies:

So God’s mission is conversion? Evangelism and spiritual rebirth is the completion of our Commission? That is not only narrow but unbiblical. The Great Commission does not exhort us to make great number of converts but disciples. Seeing people get saved (your description) is only part of our responsibility. After repentance and faith they must also be taught to observe everything that Christ commanded. God’s mission is more than just evangelism but also edification and equipping. “Building up the saints” is part of God’s mission for the church, hence why He gave leaders to do just that.

To say that some churches end up being “social clubs” is a straw man. What about the churches that end up being skate-parks or concert halls in their effort to contextualize and reach the lost?

[An insular church full of insular people is no good] but perhaps we should also be afraid of churches full of professing believers that in fact are not followers and lovers of Christ. Even more than that, perhaps we should be afraid that the Head of the Church will return to find us investing in someone else’s kingdom.

Our lives are about mission, the mission to praise God’s name above all others. Therefore, reaching the lost and making friends and building community is important in so far as it is consistent with the truth about God that He reveals in His Word. That means sometimes people won’t want to go to church and it isn’t a problem with church; they don’t like the God they meet there. It also means that wearing a t-shirt instead of a tie is not a certificate of authenticity that your heart is right. It also means that those who glorify God most passionately and make disciples most purposefully are those who know God most clearly and love Him most intimately.

He Will Build His Church

Four Tools for Great ComMissional Disciple-Making

In Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0, I criticized the man-centered, pragmatic approach of contextualization. I also promised to post four tools God has given us for the sake of making disciples of all the nations. All of the following are founded on the Sword of the Spirit and also require dependence on the Spirit Himself. So before we trade up for a new set of gospel gadgets that will prove themselves lemons, what are the divinely authorized gospel implements?

1. Clarity

Before the gospel can save it must be believed, and before it can be believed it must be understood. This is why the first tool of clarity cannot be over overemphasized.

As Paul gave thanks for the work of the gospel among the Colossians he stressed:

the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras

The gospel must be “heard” and “understood”; it is something “learned” and is therefore connected with “truth.” Hearing, understanding, and learning are matters that require clarity for them to materialize. Epaphras is extolled as a “faithful minister” not because of his ability to reach the Colossians “where they were,” but because of his clear proclamation of the gospel. Undoubtedly that is why Paul knew that he ought to speak about Christ in the clearest possible terms.

Clarity is a sharper tool than contextualization for disciple-making.

2. Common Sense

The second implement of disciple-making is common sense. Note that Paul instructed the Colossians to

Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.

First of all, “outsiders” are outside the church not outside our culture. Second, contrary to the emerging contextualization clamor, postmodern people are not outside our culture (I intend to argue in a subsequent post that postmodernism is not a culture anyway, it is an anti-God mindset that transcends culture). American Christians have no need to “contextualize” the gospel for American unbelievers because we haven’t entered an unfamiliar context. Yes, foreign missionaries study culture and customs. But we are not foreigners! We know the language. We live under the same government. We are familiar with the same social customs and ways of communication. And so while we can never proclaim the gospel outside a particular context, we are not on the outside looking in.

So it makes sense to speak English to English speakers, and Spanish to Spanish speakers, etc. We are wise to follow the regular rules of grammar and sentence structure. It is suitable to talk to a student about the gospel before or after the test, not during it. And it is logical to take your shoes off in a home where that is customary in order to avoid offending the host. An awareness and appreciation for where we are and who we are talking to is appropriate.

Purposefully engaging in conversation with unbelievers is imperative for every follower of Christ. And these encounters should be marked by our wise conduct. But prudence and discernment is not equal to contextualization; it is simply called common sense.

3. Compassion

Love is a powerful tool. We are told to employ this third tool even on our enemies. Our sympathetic concern for the painfulness of a person’s guilty conscience and their fear of God’s holy wrath is as necessary as it is helpful.

We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. So there is no reason for us to be proud or condescending. Insensitivity and inconsideration is out of place in outreach. So our defense of the faith is always to be with gentleness and respect. Our speech toward unbelievers is always to be gracious and seasoned with salt. Soft answers turn away wrath and often are powerful enough to break bones. But considerate and caring disciple-making is not contextualization.

4. Supplication

The fourth tool of disciple-making is prayer. Paul pleaded with the Colossians to supplicate for his work:

Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison—-that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.

Paul regularly talked about open doors when it came to the gospel ministry. Apparently these “open doors” were sovereignly appointed opportunities for evangelism where God had prepared the soil to receive the seed.

We pray for open doors because God is sovereign in salvation. Only He can give new life to dead people, free slaves of sin, deliver from the domain of darkness, and transfer into the kingdom of the Son of His love.

Make no mistake, seasons of great spiritual awakening come from God’s sovereignty, not from our skill. There are not, nor have there ever been “magic bullets” of evangelism. The problem is not our inability to tackle “defeater beliefs” but our inability to conquer spiritual deadness. No amount of philosophizing or pre-evangelism can prepare a corpse to receive life. Being born of the Spirit has everything to do with the Spirit.

Supplication trumps contextualization because it depends on God’s sovereign power instead of our superficial competence.

Somewhere along the way we’ve stopped praying for open doors and started picking at the locks. Not only is this fruitless, it is an insubordinate deviation from the Master’s plan of evangelism.

He Will Build His Church

Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0

“Contextualization” is a buzzword in Christian conversation these days. A little over a month ago an entire conference was devoted to proclaiming the supremacy of Christ in this postmodern world of ours, and many of the speakers pressed that responsible outreach requires us to contextualize, that is, put the gospel into terms that postmoderns can understand and appreciate. We were told that the methods of evangelism used yesterday won’t work any longer. The current generation possesses less familiarity with the gospel and asserts new objections to Christianity so we must adapt and adjust our strategies appropriately.

But it seems like the majority of the “missional” and “contextualization” conversation is nothing more than an updated version of Evidentialism. The assumption is still that it is humanly possible to convince someone of the folly of their beliefs and the superiority of Christian faith, we just need new and improved arguments. So debates between creation and evolution have been replaced by conversations over inclusivism and exclusivism, while the goal remains to accumulate enough “historical and other inductive arguments for the truth of Christianity.”

This is simply a more sophisticated sounding man-centered approach. The problem is diagnosed with us, our methods, and our arguments; it is a failure in our presentation and inability to overcome resistance. So “responsible” outreach is determined by how successful it is, and success is defined by the number of people who accept our message.

Pragmatism may be wearing new clothes but her underbelly is as ugly as ever. It is Ashamed of the Gospel 2.0, where methods are judged on the basis of what works rather than what is right.

Contextualization, whether naively or arrogantly, ignores the fact that natural men (unbelieving and lacking the Spirit) do not need more sensible arguments or a contextual approach per se. Without the Spirit they cannot, they will not, understand the things of the Spirit of God. Without the power of the gospel (not the power of our presentation) and without [supernatural regeneration](Titus 3:3-7) (not our sophisticated reasoning) there is no hope of eternal life.

Is our gospel veiled? Yes! The God of this world has blinded them! This is no surprise. Whatever else the postmodern mindset includes, it views the preaching of the cross as foolishness. And do we not have very clear instruction on how to handle that? The Jews considered the cross a stumbling block; postmoderns consider its exclusivity offensive. The Gentiles thought the cross was folly; postmoderns do likewise.

Our task has always been and will remain simple: knowing nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified so that no one’s faith would not rest on the wisdom of men but on the power of God. Plausible words of wisdom get us nowhere with spiritually dead people. Instead, let us depend on God to shine light in dark hearts. Spurgeon said:

Pray without ceasing, and preach the faithful Word in clearer terms than ever. Such a course of conduct may seem to some to be a sort of standing still and doing nothing, but in very truth it is bringing God into the battle; and when HE comes to avenge the quarrel of his covenant he will make short work of it, “Arise, O Lord, plead thine own cause!”

Friday I’ll list four tools God has given us to use for the sake of making disciples. As my teaser, one of them is not contextualization but clarity. As Phil Johnson said:

I still think if we want to communicate the gospel effectively, even in a postmodern culture, clarity is ten thousand times more vital than “contextualization.”