Friday, January 28, 2011

He Will Look for You to Deal With You

As Christians left on earth, awaiting the second coming of our Savior, what we're after is that God would sovereignly overcome the blindness to glory that is the universal problem of the human race (2Cor 4:4), and save them from their suicidal love affair with themselves.

A problem arises, though, when well-meaning Christians, who have a genuine desire to see people come to Christ to be saved from God's wrath and to enjoy the relationship with their glorious Creator, employ methods and means that are contradictory to the message we have to give them. In the video below, Paul Washer decries the "carnal means" that church leaders are using to (a) keep worldly members in the pews and (b) attract new ones with an eye to numerical growth. And it illustrates what it means that pastors be "preaching themselves" (2Cor 4:5), and "peddling the Word of God" (2Cor 2:17) rather than the Gospel: Christ Jesus as Lord.

It is a legitimate question to ask what he means by "carnal means." I would say that carnal means are any means that appeal to people on the basis of what they want as natural people. If your church's draw to the unbelieving world is giving them something that they don't need to be converted to be attracted by, you're using carnal means. You're appealing to the worldliness of the unbeliever.

And in order to do that, you must preach yourself (2Cor 4:5). Yesterday in chapel at TMS, John MacArthur called that very thing "prostituting your calling" as a pastor. The examples of this are legion, and we mentioned some of them last time. Theatrical lighting and high-tech multimedia in church services designed to attract and entertain. Shorter "talks" about people's emotional problems, full of anecdotes and light on Scripture because people don't listen to theology for an hour. Coffee shops and art galleries in the church foyer to appeal to that demographic. Adopting a particular music style because you think it will bring a bigger, or a particular, audience.

And the reason that all of that (a) ultimately fails and (b) is grossly offensive to God is because that never solves the problem of blindness to glory, and implies that the message of Christ's cross is insufficient to do so. None of those things is how anyone gets born again. Because the agent of the new birth is not the "will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:13). The means of the enlightening of minds is the preaching of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). And the Gospel has, is, and always will be necessarily and radically opposed to the unbeliever’s worldview.

As I said earlier, we're not called to attract and entertain the goats but to call Christ's sheep into His fold. And His sheep know His voice, and when they hear it, by grace, they come (Jn 10:27). Therefore, our appeal in Gospel ministry is to the spiritual, not the fleshly.

And so what is our responsibility? First, it is to repudiate all carnal means of attempting to do Christian ministry. It is to forsake the business of preaching yourself, and devote yourself wholly to the preaching of the Gospel of Christ's Lordship (2Cor 4:5) as the means of the opening of the world's blinded minds (2Cor 4:4, 6).

But once we have done that -- once we have cleansed ourselves from such peddling (2Cor 2:17) and adulterating (2Cor 4:2) of the word of God, such prostitution of our calling, our responsibility is to refuse to stand idly by while Christ's Bride is being assailed. It is to bring the truth of Scripture to bear on both the message and the methodology of all those who claim to be doing Christian ministry, and to lovingly instruct them away from preaching themselves by employing carnal means. For if you do not -- if you fail to live up to this responsibility in the name of being irenic and for fear of being labeled divisive -- after dealing with His Bride's assailants, Christ will look for you to deal with you, too, for failing to protect the honor of His Beloved, the Church.

Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock,
among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers,
to shepherd the church of God
which He purchased with His own blood.

- Acts 20:28 -

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

We Do Not Preach Ourselves

If, as we have seen in the previous post, that the world’s problem is that they do not see the glory of Christ, the Church’s mission is to preach a message which, by the power of God, overcomes that blindness. And so that is the third principle for faithfulness in Gospel ministry: to know the proclamation. Paul says in 2Cor 4:5, “For we do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake.

What does it mean to “not preach ourselves?” It means that we don’t put ourselves forward as the appeal to unbelievers. We don’t make our methodology or our style the draw, or that which attracts and compels others’ participation. Instead, we get ourselves out of the way so as to be merely incidental—merely the finger that points to what counts: namely, the content of the message: that Jesus Christ is Lord.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 really sheds light on what it means for Paul that he not be preaching himself. He says, “And when I came to you, brethren, I did not come with superiority of speech or of wisdom, proclaiming to you the testimony of God. For I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.

What's amazing about that is superiority of speech, human wisdom, and persuasive words were exactly what you needed if you were going to get your message heard in first-century Corinth! Remember, eloquence and oratory were the prerequisites of cultural engagement and credibility in that society. And Paul says, “I determined—I resolved—to be just the opposite. They were seeking wisdom, and all I knew was Christ and Him crucified. They were looking for rhetorical skills and eloquence and I was with you in weakness and fear and much trembling. They wanted someone skilled in the art of persuasion, and my message and preaching had no persuasive words.

Why, Paul?!

“Because if I did that, I’d be preaching myself! And then your faith would rest on the wisdom of men, and not on the power of God!”

So we don’t preach ourselves. In fact, he says in 1 Corinthians 3:5, “What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Slaves through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” And back in 2 Corinthians 4:7, Paul says, “Listen, we’re just earthen vessels, just clay pots. We don’t do anything to make much of ourselves because we want 'the surpassing greatness of the power [to] be of God and not from ourselves.'”

And so Paul says: We don’t preach ourselves, because we’re not trying to simply gain converts, fill seats, and get rich. The problem we’re trying to solve by our preaching is the world’s blindness to the glory of Christ. And so we don’t preach ourselves, because no matter how slick or clever our presentation is, that’s not what saves people. That’s not what opens their eyes to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.

An Epidemic

And dear friends, if there is anything that plagues the contemporary Church today it is an epidemic of preaching ourselves. The Church today seems like it’s trying to solve every problem in the world except the one it
s been commissioned to solve. And it preaches itself to do it. One of the greatest marks of the unhealthiness of today’s Church is that rather than manifesting the glory of Jesus and the offensiveness and foolishness of His cross, the culture-exegetes of today attempt to show the world how much alike we are. In so doing, the Church presents themselves to the world and asks the world to accept them, and go from there.

Unbelievers don’t like hour-long sermons and big Bible words, so church growth strategy says we ought to shorten sermons to 20-minute pep-talks on fixing your emotional problems and personal relationships. On the other hand, the Emerging church reminds us that we’re living in a post-Christian era, and before the 18 to 30 year-olds of this generation darken the door of a church, we’ve got to "contextualize the gospel" and be "missional." If your "target audience" likes exotic coffees, put a coffee shop in your church. If they’re into punk rock music and body piercing, buy a couple of albums and think about a tongue ring. If they’re into Ultimate Fighting, go with them to the bar after work and watch a match on the big screen over some imported beer. You see, once we can show them that Christians are like them—that we’re human just like them and can like the same things that they like—well then they’ll be interested in “trying Jesus.”

As I write that, the passage that screams out in my mind is James 4:4: “Adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.

Here’s an actual example from a church’s “About Us” page on their website: “If you’re looking for a place to have some real fun, make some real friends, and explore and experience a relationship with the real God, FCF is the place for you! We believe that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week! That’s why we—”

Now, I agree that church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person's week. But how you finish that last sentence speaks volumes about what you believe about Jesus Christ and His Gospel. Right there I want to insert: “That’s why we faithfully exposit the Scriptures week by week, in order to present an exalted view of God, so that our members see and savor His glory that is revealed in Christ, and as a result be so satisfied with the sweetness of Christ that they willingly lay down their lives during the week to love their neighbor as themselves.”

But no, they believe church ought to be the most exciting and meaningful experience of a person’s week. “That’s why we use theatrical lighting, sound, and video. That’s why we have cutting-edge music along with creative and relevant messages that speak to real-life challenges. That’s why we designed and built a kid’s theater and village complete with a real fire truck in the wall, and more!” And it goes on.

Do you see how this is preaching themselves? They offer their church, and its various programs and multimedia presentations as the selling point, rather than the gospel of Christ crucified, risen, and reigning as Lord, which can alone open blind minds to see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ. Paul calls this kind of thing peddling the word of God in 2Cor 2:17. And in 2Cor4:2 he calls it adulterating the word of God. And so Paul declares that we as Christians do not preach ourselves, because that will never solve the world’s problem. Rather we preach—that’s our method—Christ Jesus as Lord—that’s our message.

Will Metzger in his classic book on evangelism entitled Tell the Truth, writes, “The model for our witness is not to be a smooth-talking public relations agent”—and I’d add, nor an uber-cool, cultural hipster—“but an ambassador with a proclamation from a King” (36), which is exactly what Paul says a chapter later (2Cor 5:20).

Update: See Paul Washer offer his commentary on what it means for pastors and churches to preach themselves.

Series Outline

  1. Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction
  2. We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep
  3. The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory
  4. We Do Not Preach Ourselves
  5. God's Remedy: The Shining of the Light of Life
  6. The Gospel of the Glory: What Makes the Good News Good News
  7. Postscript

Friday, January 21, 2011

The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory

As a sort of a New Year's resolution type of thing, I've been endeavoring to go back to the basics regarding the nature of the Gospel and of Gospel ministry. We're looking at four principles for faithful Gospel ministry in 2011 from 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. We've already seen that we must know the purpose of our ministry; namely, that we're calling Christ's sheep, not the goats, into His fold. We learned that an implication of that principle is that success in ministry is not measured by numbers, or visible "results," but by faithfulness to the message we've received.

The next principle that we must understand in order to be faithful ministers of the Gospel is to recognize the desperate situation that the world is in. That is, we must know the problem we’ve been commissioned to solve. And Paul states it in verse 4. He says, “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ who is the image of God.

Now, what does it mean that their minds have been blinded? Well, a few verses earlier, Paul used this same language to describe the Israelites in Moses’ day, and even the Jews up to this present day. In 2Cor 3:12-16 he says, “[We] are not like Moses, who used to put a veil over his face so that the sons of Israel would not look intently at the end of what was fading away. But their minds were hardened; for until this very day at the reading of the old covenant the same veil remains unlifted, because it is removed in Christ. But to this day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their heart; but whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” Note the parallel between hardened minds and a veiled heart. Both are communicating the same reality as verse 4: the essence of spiritual death is spiritual blindness. What it means for someone to be dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph 2:4), is that the eyes of their heart have been blinded so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.

Now, if that connection isn’t immediately clear, I want to draw your attention to how frequently Scripture speaks of light being analogous to spiritual life, and darkness being analogous to spiritual death and unbelief. So look for that connection in these passages.
  • John 12:46 - I have come as Light into the world, so that everyone who believes in Me will not remain in darkness.
  • 1 Peter 2:9 - God saved you so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.
  • Ephesians 5:8 - You were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord.
  • Acts 26:18 - I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith in Me.

So we see that there is this consistent parallel between light and life and between darkness and death. But it doesn’t stop there. The Scripture also presents the spiritual sight of Christ as analogous to the spiritual life of knowing Him. It goes beyond light and life into sight and life. See that connection:

  • 1 John 3:6 - No one who practices sin has seen Him or knows Him.
  • John 6:40 - For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him will have eternal life, and I Myself will raise him up on the last day.
  • In fact, faith itself is spiritual sight. Hebrews 11:1 says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. That word “conviction” is elengchos in the Greek, and it comes from a verb that means “to bring to light, to expose.” Faith is the spiritual sight by which things that are unseen are exposed and brought to light.
  • Which is why it says in Hebrews 11:27: “By faith [Moses] left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king; for he endured as seeing Him who is unseen.

And so when Paul says that the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, he is saying that those who do not believe are spiritually dead.

But I want you to notice what the nature of this spiritual death is. It is that they cannot see the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. This is the world’s problem: they are blind to glory.

Picture with me this most miserable tragedy! Everybody in the world—whether they know it or not—stands guilty before a holy God. All have sinned and thus fall short of the perfection of His glorious standard of righteousness. And so they are incapable of doing the very thing for which they were created: namely, enjoying a relationship with and communion with their glorious Creator. They are doomed to waste their lives.

But in magnificent love, God sends Christ to live the perfect life that they should have lived, but could never live; and to die the horrifying, eternal death that they should have died, so that the penalty they owed would be paid by a substitute; such that if they simply abandon any claim of self-righteousness and trust entirely in Christ alone for their righteousness before God, they can have the restored relationship with their glorious Creator that He designed them to have—that He designed to be the most satisfying, enjoyable, thrilling endeavor in which we ever engaged!

And so you go and you tell these people this most awesome news in the world—the greatest news that anyone could ever conceive of!—and they go, “Ehh. I mean, that's really awesome for you. I mean it! It's great for you. It's just not for me.”

Oh, dear friends, this is the miserable nature of spiritual death: People can look directly at the glory of Christ—whether they be rulers of the Jews in the Ancient Near East witnessing miracles, or 21st century Americans reading their Bibles—and they can be entirely unaffected. Jesus looks foolish. Or He looks like a mythical, psychological crutch made up for weak people. Or He’s just boring. Because unless we’re born again—unless God shines in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ (as we’ll see in verse 6)—our minds remain blind, and we can’t see Christ for who He is.

Brothers and sisters, this is the world’s problem! This is what the Church has been left on earth to solve! The world’s problem is not that they have bad marriages. It’s not that they don’t have high enough self-esteem and need to feel loved! It’s not, as one megachurch pastor said in his 3-D Christmas service this year, that they need to add depth to their lives! It’s not that they have broken personal relationships. It’s not that they don’t feel comfortable and relaxed in church! It’s not that Christians don’t like the same music they listen to, don’t dress the same way, or don’t use the same language! It's not even that they don't have enough evidence of the truthfulness of the claims of Christianity! And it’s certainly not that they're not living their best life now and don’t have a 7-bedroom house with a 3-car garage!

The world’s problem is that they don’t see glory!

And so that means, that whatever we do as the Church, we better be doing it to solve that problem. Paul gets into how we do that in verse 5. That's for next time.

Series Outline

  1. Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction
  2. We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep
  3. The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory
  4. We Do Not Preach Ourselves
  5. God's Remedy: The Shining of the Light of Life
  6. The Gospel of the Glory: What Makes the Good News Good News
  7. Postscript

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep

In the spirit of the New Year and reflecting on and refocusing our mission in the world as the Church, I've recently introduced my plan to lay out four principles for faithfulness in Gospel ministry in 2011. I plan to couple those with four implications, so that we as the Church will be faithful witnesses of Christ in our various spheres of life in the coming year. I'm going to discuss those principles and implications under four headings. We must (1) know the purpose, (2) know the problem, (3) know the proclamation, and (4) know the prescription.

We'll consider the first of those today. The first principle for faithful ministry that Paul gives us in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 is to know the purpose of Gospel ministry, the aim. Namely: we are calling Christ’s sheep, not the goats, into the fold.

I get that from verse 3, where Paul says, “even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing.” Now, where is that statement coming from? Well, as I briefly mentioned on Friday, Paul wrote the letter of 2 Corinthians primarily to defend his own apostleship against the teachings of certain men of Corinth who Paul later dubbed false apostles (2Cor 11:13). These men were teaching that Paul was not a true apostle, and were advancing many attacks against both his character and his ministry, to the point that the Corinthians began to doubt Paul, and thus doubt the gospel he preached.

For example, these false apostles accused him of being under God’s judgment because of his constant sufferings. The thought was that if Paul was really sent from Christ he wouldn't have such opposition and such turmoil, but rather that God would bless him. And so in 2Cor 1:3-11 Paul defends himself by saying that his sufferings for the Gospel are actually a mark of God’s favor. Far from discrediting him as an apostle, sufferings are a badge of his authenticity as a minister of Christ. Further, they accused him of vacillating, and “purposing according to the flesh” (2Cor 1:17) because he had changed his plans about coming to Corinth. And so in 2Cor 1:15-22 he defends himself by saying his word to the Corinthians is not yes and no, but yes, just as all God’s promises are yes in Christ. They also accused him of being uncredentialed, a sort of Johnny-come-lately apostle who wasn’t part of the original twelve. And so in 2Cor 3:2 he asks the Corinthians, “Do we need letters of commendation to you? You are our letter of commendation. The fact that you now know Christ because of the Gospel we preached to you is evidence of our authenticity.”

And now in chapter 4, we find that another accusation was that his message was obscure. Now remember, the Corinthian culture praised human wisdom and cleverness of speech and oratorical persuasion. They highly regarded those who were skilled in rhetoric and oratory, and looked down upon those who weren’t. And so these men were saying, “Hey, look, Paul, only a few people are believing your message. If it was true, and you were really sent from Christ, more people would believe!” And oh, that sounds like today, doesn’t it? “If God was really blessing you, you’d have more people in your church! If you really had sound doctrine—and if sound doctrine really mattered!—more people would believe!” And Paul’s response to this is to tell the false apostles, “You don’t understand the doctrine of election.” It may be that our gospel is veiled—that is, granted: there are many who do not believe our message—but our gospel is veiled only to those who are perishing.

He says a similar thing in 2Cor 2:14-16: “For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life.” As a preacher of the Gospel, Paul calls himself a fragrance of Christ to God. He likens the preaching of the Gospel to the emission of an odor that finds its way into the nostrils of all people. And among those who hear the Gospel there are two kinds of people: those who are being saved and those who are perishing, those whom God chose in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before Him (Eph 1:4), and those whom He did not so choose. And when the elect of God smell the fragrance of the Gospel, it is to them an aroma of life that leads to life. But when the non-elect hear it, it is an aroma of death that leads to death.

Christ Himself said the same thing to the Jews in John 10:26-27. He said, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they will never perish. But you don’t believe because you are not of My sheep.” Get that. Not, "You are not My sheep because you don't believe," but, "You do not believe because you are not of My sheep. You are not of those that the Father has given to Me" (cf. Jn 6:37, 39).

And so Paul’s defense is that one should not expect the goats to believe the Gospel; for it is only the sheep that hear the voice of their Shepherd.

The Implications

Now, understand the implications this doctrine has for our ministry of the Gospel. If we continue to take the unadulterated, Biblical Gospel to the world and they continue to reject it, that is not a sign of the weakness of the message. It’s not even necessarily a sign of the weakness of the messenger, but rather it is the outworking of God’s purpose to redeem a particular people.

Now, there are at least two ways this doctrine is abused, and I’m not advocating either of them. First, there are those who are uncompassionate, who take the precious truth of sovereign election to mean that we just bluntly and uncaringly preach a hard message to people, and if they don’t accept it at first hearing, well they’re just not elect. That is an evil way to think. And if there are some of you reading this that struggle with those kinds of thoughts and that kind of an uncaring attitude, I invite you to repent of them, and to hear the words of Jesus who wept over Jerusalem saying: “Oh Jerusalem. How often I wanted to gather your children! Oh if you had known this day the things which make for peace!” And the words of Paul: “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother caring for her children. I did not cease night and day for three years to admonish each one with tears.” Do not let the doctrine of sovereign election lead you to be uncompassionate. It did not lead there for the Lord Jesus or for the Apostles.

Secondly, there are those who are just plain lazy. They're just too proud to examine their understanding of the Gospel. But get this: if we’re preaching what the Bible calls the greatest news in the universe, and nobody is listening, we have to be humble enough to at least examine whether we are getting in the way of a pure Gospel presentation. We must ensure that what we are taking to the world is indeed the Biblical Gospel.

But if we have taken the Biblical Gospel to our neighbors and our community with the patience and the compassion of Jesus, and they reject it, we must not conclude that we need to start playing rock and roll music and having light shows and performing skits and playing videos in church to attract them. The church is not called to amuse the goats; rather we are to sound the Shepherd’s voice in the Gospel message and call His sheep who know that voice into His fold.

Our gospel is indeed veiled to those who are perishing. And therefore the first principle for faithful ministry that Paul gives us in this text is: success in Gospel ministry is measured not by numbers but by faithfulness to the message. Therefore, in what seems like seasons of external failure, we must not ask what offers the greatest appeal or what will fill the most seats. We must ask, “Have we gotten the Gospel right? Are we preaching the message we’ve received?”

Come back for principle number two.

Series Outline
  1. Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction
  2. We Are Not to Amuse the Goats but to Call the Sheep
  3. The World's Problem is that They Are Blind to Glory
  4. We Do Not Preach Ourselves
  5. God's Remedy: The Shining of the Light of Life
  6. The Gospel of the Glory: What Makes the Good News Good News
  7. Postscript

Friday, January 14, 2011

Principles for Faithfulness in Gospel Ministry: Introduction

Though I'm a bit late, it's still around that time of year when we feel like it's "the new year." And New Year’s is the time when everybody does some reflecting on the previous year and how we've lived our lives, and we make resolutions and determinations to live better in the coming year. The process seems to involve a kind of refocusing on things that are important to us so that when we will have come to the end of this next year we will look even more favorably on it than the previous one.

In that vein, I think it would be appropriate at the beginning of this New Year at For Our Benefit to start by refocusing on the fundamentals, by going back to the basics. That is to say, to meditate upon the centerpiece of Christianity and what Christian ministry is all about: The Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed Good News by which we are saved, sanctified, and eventually brought home to God to enjoy His glory forever.

And as I consider this I'm thinking about two categories of people that I'm addressing. The first, obviously, is that category of people who are confused -- or are just plain wrong -- about the nature of the Gospel and therefore the nature of Christian ministry. This series is intended to be a corrective for unbiblical thinking. The second category is made up of those who have the Gospel right and who are faithful ministers of it. In their case, I’m reminded of what the Apostle John says in 1 John 2:21. He says, “I have not written to you because you do not know the truth, but because you do know it, and because no lie is of the truth.” The Apostle Peter speaks similarly in 2 Peter 2:12-15:
Therefore, I will always be ready to remind you of these things, even though you already know them, and have been established in the truth which is present with you. Even though Peter's readers already knew what he was going to tell them, he reminded them anyway, so that the believers in those congregations would so internalize Apostolic teaching that it would be natural for them to preach and teach sound doctrine and refute the errors of the false teachers. Paul also writes similarly to the Philippians in chapter 3 verse 1: “To write the same things again is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you.” He's saying, I don’t mind saying these things over and over again, and doing so is a safeguard, a protection, for you.

In the same way, then, I write this series not because I think nobody else is getting the Gospel right. To be sure, there are those who get the Gospel wrong. But to the faithful, I, like John, write to not because you don’t know the Gospel, but because to ponder and meditate on and muse over the glorious Gospel of Christ and its implications for Christian ministry is no trouble to me, and it is a safeguard for you. It realigns and refocuses our mission in this world. The reason Jesus left the Church on earth between His first and second advents is to preach the Gospel to all people and by it to make disciples of all nations. And sadly, so many churches have forgotten the basics, and as a result—whether it’s intentional or not—they preach an adjusted gospel, an adulterated gospel, or a truncated gospel, which, as Paul says, is really no gospel at all (Gal 1:7). And that only requires that we be all the more diligent to be faithful to the Gospel we’ve received in the pages of Scripture.

To do that, I want to look at 2 Corinthians 4:3-6. That text comes in the context of Paul’s defense of his apostleship and the legitimacy of his ministry amid attacks by false apostles who were deceiving the church in Corinth. And as he is responding to a particular accusation, he makes some precious comments about the nature of the Gospel and the nature of Christian ministry. And so as we look into this text together I want us to observe four principles—and four corresponding implications—that inform our understanding of the Gospel and shape our ministry as a church so that we can be faithful witnesses of Christ in 2011. That’s what I’m after in this series: I want us all to be equipped to be faithful witnesses of Christ in the coming year in the various spheres of our lives. And to accomplish that goal I want to inform our understanding of the Gospel and to shape our ministry as the Church by four principles in 2 Corinthians 4:3-6.

We'll get into the first next time.

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing,
in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving
so that they might not see
the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ,
who is the image of God.
For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord,
and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus' sake.
For God, who said, "Light shall shine out of darkness,"
is the One who has shone in our hearts to give
the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ.

- 2 Corinthians 4:3-6 -

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Gilt is Afraid of Fire, But Gold is Not

I thought it would be a nice postscript to the series on lessons from Jeremiah's suffering in the book of Lamentations to post Spurgeon's morning entry from Morning and Evening for October 7.

Treasure his words:

Our heavenly Father sends us frequent troubles to try our faith. If our faith be worth anything, it will stand the test. Gilt is afraid of fire, but gold is not: the paste gem dreads to be touched by the diamond, but the true jewel fears no test.

It is a poor faith which can only trust God when friends are true, the body full of health, and the business profitable; but that is true faith which holds by the Lord's faithfulness when friends are gone, when the body is sick, when spirits are depressed, and the light of our Father's countenance is hidden. A faith which can say, in the direst trouble, "Though He slay me, yet will I trust in Him," is heaven-born faith.

The Lord afflicts His servants to glorify Himself, for He is greatly glorified in the graces of His people, which are His own handiwork. When "tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope," the Lord is honoured by these growing virtues. We should never know the music of the harp if the strings were left untouched; nor enjoy the juice of the grape if it were not trodden in the winepress; nor discover the sweet perfume of cinnamon if it were not pressed and beaten; nor feel the warmth of fire if the coals were not utterly consumed. The wisdom and power of the great Workman are discovered by the trials through which His vessels of mercy are permitted to pass.

Present afflictions tend also to heighten future joy. There must be shades in the picture to bring out the beauty of the lights. Could we be so supremely blessed in heaven, if we had not known the curse of sin and the sorrow of earth? Will not peace be sweeter after conflict, and rest more welcome after toil? Will not the recollection of past sufferings enhance the bliss of the glorified? There are many other comfortable answers to the question with which we opened our brief meditation, let us muse upon it all day long.

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope.
Yahweh's lovingkindnesses indeed never cease,
For His compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
Great is Your faithfulness.
"Yahweh is my portion," says my soul,
"Therefore I have hope in Him."
Yahweh is good to those who wait for Him,
to the person who seeks Him.
It is good that he waits silently
For the salvation of Yahweh.
- Lamentations 3:21-26 -

Series Outline
  1. Introduction
  2. He identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.
  3. He acknowledges that sin is at the root of suffering (even though not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin).
  4. He acknowledges God’s absolute sovereignty in his suffering.
  5. Piper and Edwards: The Glory of God in Ordaining Evil.
  6. He recognizes that although God is sovereign, He is not the enemy.
  7. He sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God’s character.
  8. Spurgeon: Gilt is Afraid of Fire, But Gold is Not

Monday, January 10, 2011

Hope in God's Character

The final installment in this five-part series on lessons about suffering righteously that we can learn from Jeremiah as we study the book of Lamentations has been a long time coming. The big crunch at the end of last semester prompted me to take a break from the blog in December, and visiting home over the last couple of weeks -- during which time I've had the opportunity to prepare and deliver a sermon -- has monopolized much of my time. I apologize for any of you who have been waiting for this final post. I also hope any of you who have surmised that this blog must just have "gone dark" will come back and continue reading, as I plan to post more regularly again.

That said, now we come to the final, and perhaps most important, lesson that Jeremiah teaches us on suffering well and according to righteousness and faith. In the midst of his intense suffering and deep anguish, Jeremiah does not mourn as one who has no hope (1Th 4:13). Rather, he sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God's character. He hopes in the restoration of God's people according to His character and His covenant.

Even though there has been broad devastation, Israel was not utterly destroyed. Jeremiah attributes that to Yahweh’s compassion, lovingkindness, and covenant faithfulness. Because his words are so powerful, I simply want to reproduce them here. Please read them thoroughly, and give them much thought. The juxtaposition of "affliction," "wandering," "wormwood" and "bitterness," along with "hope," "lovingkindess," "compassion," and "faithfulness," is so striking and spurs the heart unto much worship.

Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my soul remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Yahweh's lovingkindnesses [His chesedim] indeed never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.

"Yahweh is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I have hope in Him." Yahweh is good to those who wait for Him, to the person who seeks Him. It is good that he waits silently for the salvation of Yahweh. It is good for a man that he should bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and be silent since He has laid it on him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there is hope. Let him give his cheek to the smiter, let him be filled with reproach.

For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.

I hope you lay hold of the magnitude of those words. They come at the dead center of the book of Lamentations (Lam 3:19-32). Yahweh's great covenant faithfulness and loyal and steadfast love according to His own character and name is the centerpiece of Jeremiah's lamentations in his great suffering.

And that is deliberate. Lamentations has the most deliberate, symmetrical structure of any book in the Bible. In chapters 1 and 2, even in the original Hebrew, there are 22 verses that are composed of 3 lines in each verse, for a total of 66 lines in each of the first two chapters. And each verse begins with the successive letter in the Hebrew alphabet. In chapter 3, there are 66 verses of one line each, again totaling 66 lines in the chapter. And again, each cluster of three verses begins with successive letters in the alphabet. (So, verses 1-3 start with aleph, 4-6 with beth, and so on.) Chapter 4 has 22 verses composed of two lines each, and chapter 5 has 22 verses with one line each.

All of this gives form and shape to Jeremiah's mourning. Because of Yahweh's great faithfulness to His own name, His steadfast, loyal, covenant love expressed in the repeated term chesed (Lam 3:22, 32), Jeremiah's suffering is not just unbridled grief and despair. Yahweh's fresh mercies and abundant lovingkindnesses keep him from losing control and despairing entirely as those who grieve with no hope (1Th 4:13).

Therefore, though Israel has been exceedingly unfaithful to the covenant which God made with them at Sinai, and though God has chastened them greatly because of it, nevertheless their unfaithfulness will never nullify God’s faithfulness to the word which He spoke to Abraham: to give His people the land He promised (Gen 15:17-18). That is why Paul says in Romans 11 that, from the standpoint of God's election, Israel is beloved for the sake of the fathers (Rom 11:28). God will not violate His covenant. Neither will it nullify God's faithfulness to the word which He spoke to David: to send the Messiah to reign over them forever on the throne of David (2Sam 7:10-16; Ps 89:34-35). And so with the New Covenant: "'If this fixed order departs from before Me,' declares Yahweh, 'then the offspring of Israel also will cease from being a nation before Me forever.' Thus says Yahweh, 'If the heavens above can be measured and the foundations of the earth searched out below, then I will also cast off all the offspring of Israel for all that they have done,' declares Yahweh" (Jer 31:36-37; cf. Ps 89:36-37). It is for this reason that Jeremiah can come to the end of his lamentations and declare: "Restore us to You, O Yahweh, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old" (Lam 5:21).

And so in our trials of suffering, we also, as God's people, should faithfully turn to trust in His own faithfulness to His promises. He has sworn by the greatest thing by which there is to swear: Himself. God, desiring even more to show to the heirs of the promise the unchangeableness of His purpose, interposed with an oath, so that by two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have taken refuge would have strong encouragement to take hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:17-20).

We must locate our hope entirely in the covenant faithfulness of God, specifically in His promise of the blessings of the New Covenant:
that the Spirit guarantees our inheritance of dwelling with God in His presence forever – that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom 8:38-39).

Our hope, just as Jeremiah's, is in the Lord’s grace, His ceaseless lovingkindnesses, His never-failing and always-new compassions, for God will always be faithful to Himself (2 Tim 2:13).

Jeremiah's Five Lessons
  1. He identifies with, and suffers alongside, his people.
  2. He acknowledges that sin is at the root of suffering (even though not all suffering is a direct result of personal sin).
  3. He acknowledges God’s absolute sovereignty in his suffering.
  4. He recognizes that although God is sovereign, He is not the enemy.
  5. He sets his hope entirely on, and rests in, God’s character.