Month: December 2014

A Culture Of Patience

Ray Ortlund, pastor back east. Old fashion guy who believes that Nashville will not be able to ignore Jesus (he calls it the level of non-ignorability) when the city is littered with lives that have been radically changed (hes calls it pictures of redemption). He’s the type of preacher that doesn’t waste words. I follow his blog because they are filled with theology, love, passion, and a ton of godly-pass-it-onto-the-next-generation wisdom. His latest thought is worth passing on:

Gospel + safety + time.  It’s what everyone needs.  A lot of gospel + a lot of safety + a lot of time.

Gospel: good news for bad people through the finished work of Christ on the cross and the endless power of the Holy Spirit.  Multiple exposures.  Constant immersion.  Wave upon wave of grace and truth, according to the Bible.

Safety: a non-accusing environment.  No finger-pointing.  No embarrassing anyone.  No manipulation.  No oppression.  No condescension.  But respect and sympathy and understanding, where sinners can confess and unburden their souls.

Time: no pressure.  Not even self-imposed pressure.  No deadlines on growth.  Urgency, but not hurry, because no one changes quickly.  A lot of space for complicated people to rethink their lives at a deep level.  God is patient.

This is what our churches must be: gentle environments of gospel + safety + time.  It’s where we’re finally free to grow.

(Ray Orlund, Gospel-Safety-Time)

Culture and ethos in a church matter. Sanctification takes a lot of time for it to truly be true. Community within a church gives space for people to work out their own salvation within the leading, empowering, and working of the Holy Spirit – and not man. That’s not to say people should not have a sense of urgency to “work out” their own salvation with, but it is to say that God’s people should have tremendous patience with one another in this thing called sanctification because they believe in the sovereign work of God over the will and doing of His people.

Phil 2:12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,

Phil 2:13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Gospel Aim

“Faith is represented as something to be done, in order to salvation; and pains are taken to show that it is an easy thing.  Better far than this would it be to see to it that those with whom they deal are truly convinced of sin, and to labor to set forth Christ before them in his glorious completeness as a Saviour.  To explain faith to them, that they may do it, is to set them still to work, though setting an easier task before them.  I know well the tendency there is, at a certain stage of anxious inquiry, to ask, “What is faith, that I may do it?”  It is a legalist’s work to satisfy that craving; but this is what is done in the “Inquiry­-room”.  “Who is he, that I may believe in him?” was the question asked by one who approached the dawning of a day of salvation.  Explanations of what faith is are but trifling with souls.  How different is the Scripture way!  The great aim there is to “set forth” the object, not to explain the act, of faith.  Let there be conviction, illumination and renewal, and faith becomes the instinctive response of the quickened soul to the presentation by God of His Christ; and, without these, no explanation of faith can be helpful to any one.  The labor to explain it is too often adapted to the craving of a legal spirit.  It were wiser to take pains in removing ignorance and error regarding God, and sin, and Christ.  Help them to know these, if you would not build them up with “untempered mortar” in a false peace.  If you would be wise, as well as kind, work in that direction, rather than in the hurrying of them to belief.”

That was 19th century evangelist John Kennedy quoted by Ian Murray in his essay “The Invitation System”. Two sentences stand out to me in Kennedy’s analysis:

The great aim there is to “set forth” the object, not to explain the act, of faith.

The labor to explain it [how to exercise faith] is too often adapted to the craving of a legal spirit. 

Kennedy’s claim, as is Murray’s point in his essay, is that too much time is spent on convincing people to do a physical act of “coming forward” rather than helping people to see clearly their sin, how Jesus has resolved the issue, and the covenant Jesus makes available with the Father through Him and Him alone. Or put another way, it’s easy in gospel proclamation to minor on the biblical theology of the gospel and instead to major on the gospel’s demanded response. Or put yet another way, it’s tempting in gospel proclamation to dwell as little on sin, Savior, the cross, resurrection as possible, and to dwell as long as possible on response.

As a preacher, it’s always humbling to re-evaluate how I present the gospel. How much of my gospel presentation is a presentation on “how to respond” and how much of my gospel is a presentation on Jesus? How many people walk away feeling

Wow, I just needed to go forward

as opposed to

Wow, I just need Jesus

The difference is subtle (or not so subtle), but the repercussions for authentic faith and lasting faith is real. The plea of the gospel is not “come forward” nor “pray a prayer.”  The plea of the gospel is “see Jesus and believe on Him.” May my preaching reflect that priority proportionately!

Elders – It’s Important To Know

“The New Testament offers more instruction regarding elders than on such important church subjects as the Lord’s Supper, baptism, and spiritual gifts. Since the pastoral care of the local church is of the utmost importance to God, He has plainly stated His will on this matter.”

That’s an observation by Alexander Strauch in his book on biblical elders and deacons. I love observations like this because they bring perspective: if God speaks more on elders than on communion,  baptism and spiritual gifts,  then we ought to be clear on what and who elders are as much as we are on all of those other topics.

For a long time,  the idea of communion and baptism was always simple to me – a remembrance and a public confession.  Simple.  Now I realize that while my understanding was “simple”,  it was also “surface”.  There’s so much more to the idea of communion and baptism. 

When it comes to spiritual gifts I would like to think I’ve done better,  put forth better effort.  I have read numerous books from all kinds of persuasions of understanding – from John  MacArthur’s cessionist point,  to Jim Cymbala’s Fresh Wind Fresh Fire pentecostal understanding,  to more nuanced middle-of – the – road views like  J. I.  Packer,  John Scott, John Piper,  Chuck Smith.  I’m not an expert on spiritual gifts,  but I’ve tried to put forth an honest effort to understand the issue.

When it comes to elders and the church,  up till a few years ago,  I had put forth almost no effort to understand the issue,  the office,  the responsibility of an elder – which is crazy in light of how much the bible speaks to this topic.

LESSON: There’s probably a lot of sense to measure the amount of time and effort in understanding something with the amount of verbage God speaks about it in His divine word.

So let me ask you: Do you know who the elders of your church are? Do you know what their job, calling, role is in the life of the church?

God Assigns The Roles We Play

Acts 10:39–42 (ESV) — 39 And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, 40 but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, 41 not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. 42 And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead.

There’s so much to love about this passage, but one that stands out is that God is at work in His redemptive purposes. The essence of God’s love is not wishful thinking, but active working – God has worked (and does work) to save sinners. Within that economy of God’s divine work, what strikes me is that He decides who He uses for what purposes. Why didn’t Jesus show himself alive from the dead to all people (verse 41)? Why to only the Jews and that, only a few Jews (namely the apostles and the 500)? I’m not sure. God has purposes, and what is crazy about those purposes is that it includes people that don’t really deserve to be included – at least in comparison to others. Were the Peter’s, the John’s, the James’s … etc the most qualified to start a revolutionary movement with? Were they the most qualified to see first hand the risen God? I’m sure a strong case can be made for – NO, THEY WERE NOT! But this is God’s mission, His purpose, and hence He does it according to His will.

Here’s what I love then – In God’s work, we all have a purpose that He determines. The implication is we never need to be envious and jealous. Never. Just be faithful. Just believe that God has us where He wants us. He calls us to a task and then equips us for the task. For Peter, the call was “come be a fisher of men” and the equipping was Jesus appearing first hand as the risen Savior. Not everyone would have that equipping, and then, maybe not everyone needed that equipping because not everyone will have the calling to give up their lives upside down on a cross as Peter did.

There is a tremendous freedom in being who God has made us and simply doing what He has called us to do. The truth is, our living doesn’t work well when we try to live other people’s lives. Trust in His sovereign election, not only in our salvation, but in our doings:

not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses”

God assigns the roles we play.

Baptism Of the Holy Spirit – Primary and Secondary Questions

One of the lessons God has been teaching me lately is to learn to ask primary and secondary questions and not to confuse which is which. Primary questions tries to dig for the why and purpose, whereas secondary questions tends to find root on the fringe details.

AN EXAMPLE

Take for example this passage in my morning reading today:

Acts 10:44–48 (ESV) — 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 46 For they were hearing them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter declared, 47 “Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” 48 And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked him to remain for some days.

The primary questions to this passage are ones like:

  • Why did the Holy Spirit fall on these Gentiles?
  • Why did God bring Peter and a consituents of Jewish believers down to Caesara to meet Cornelius to see this?
  • What does this have to do with the meta-narrative of the book of Acts and the living out of the great commission – to take the gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

The secondary questions are ones like:

  • What exact manifestations happened when the Holy Spirit fell
  • Where in the exact timeline of faith, regeneration, salvation does the falling of the Spirit happen
  • Does the Spirit fall “on” or “in” these Gentiles?

When the secondary questions become the primary focus of this passage, then it’s easy to make this text a proof for certain ecstatic experiences – i.e. God intends the Spirit to “fell on” all believers, and when this happens, speaking in tongues will be the result. Focusing on secondary questions can lead one to take this description of events to be prescription for discipleship – and I’m not sure that’s the point.

These events take place within a broader story line within the chapter, one that focuses on the built-in prejudice of early Jewish believers towards the Gentiles. The broader story line is the opening of Peter’s eyes (and the early jewish church) to the reality that the gospel and redemptive work of Jesus was to spread far beyond the borders of Israel. This whole chapter is lived out and recorded to validate the lesson God “primarily” wanted to get across to the church, and that was that the gospel is not only for Jews.

Peter’s observation drives this home: 

Acts 10:34–37 (ESV) — 34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. 36 As for the word that he sent to Israel, preaching good news of peace through Jesus Christ (he is Lord of all), 37 you yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed:

As does Luke’s commentary:

Acts 10:45 (ESV) — 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. 

In our 21st century melting pot society, the issue of salvation to the gentiles doesn’t seem like a big deal, but to the early church, made up of Jewish believers living in a closed ethnic mindset, this was massive. In fact, this ethnic prejudice that was ingrained in the Jews was a major threat to the spread and work of the gospel. This is why the book of Acts repeats Pentecost and the outpouring of the Spirit (Acts 2) so many times – God was reaffirming that the work of His saving Spirit was at play in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and even to the uttermost parts of the earth.

A CONCLUSION

So I’m learning to ask primary questions and not focus so much on secondary questions. Questions of “why” and “for what purpose” in this passage leads me to these conclusions:

Taking this passage as a lesson to pursue an experience of the Holy Spirit falling on people misses the point of the text. That may or may not be the point elsewhere, but it is not likely here. The great concern of Acts 11 is not “have disciples been baptized in the Spirit and experienced a second blessing”, but do we believe in the ability of God to make sinners his children, even when those sinners are of certain ethnic makeup. The greater concern is to believe that every created life on earth is just as redeemable as the next.