Monday, March 19, 2007

For the Sake of the Gospel, Part One

Reflection on 1 Corinthians 9:19, 23.

"For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more...I do all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it."

Now, in between these verses are some well-known lines from Paul. You know, "To the Jew I became a Jew, so that I might win Jews", and he goes on to talk about those under the Law, those without the Law, and the weak. Then, he says, "I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some." It would definitely be worth your personal time to study and meditate on these verses, being challenged by Paul's adaptability in order to win souls. Also, check out Paul on Mars Hill in Acts 17:22-31, to see him in action...being all things to all men. Maybe I'll write on that another day.

What compelled me in my recent study of the two verses given above. These are not the kinds of verses that make you go "Hmmm" and then move on with your life...they have a deeper impact than that. You'll see what I mean as we go.

Paul writes that he is free from all men, and freedom is a main "food group" in the writings of Paul. For example...

Galatians 5:1 - "It was for freedom that Christ has set us free."
2 Corinthians 3:17 - "...where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty"
Romans 8:2 - "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death."

Not only this, but in Romans 14, Paul spends time talking about our freedom as Christians. In the gray areas of life (food, drink, and days to be celebrated), he says that we should have convictions but not hold to them like we hold to the deity of Christ or the exclusivity of the gospel. So, here in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul says, "I am free from all men..." He has no earthly master...he is enslaved only to One. The Master. Jesus Christ.

In the same sentence Paul declares his freedom from all men, he goes on to say that he makes himself a slave to all people. He enslaves himself. He surrenders all that he is to the service of others. Why? Keep reading the verse..."so that I may win more." He is not saying that nobody will be saved without this attitude. We all know this from experience. It is not that arrogant evangelists (whether pastors or laypeople) don't see fruit in their ministry. If the gospel is preached and the Holy Spirit empowers it, then people will come to faith in Jesus.

For Paul, this isn't enough. It's not enough that some people will be saved...he wants more to be saved; if possible, how would want all to be saved. He wasn't satisfied with being a famous preacher and seeing only a few converted. He longed more than anything to see masses of people come to Christ. You see, clutching to pride, self, "my rights", and other personal treasures will hinder the full effectiveness of our evangelistic efforts.

Here, I write primarily because of the conviction about my own life...if the Lord should encourage you as well, then praise be to our God. Many long to see these same masses come to Christ today, but too often, clutching to our own personal treasures has hindered our effectiveness. The phone call on Saturday from a person who is lonely or in need or just wants to talk is too often met with resistance in my heart; after all, isn't that "family time?" The 9 PM visit to the emergency room is too often "because I feel like I have to". I'm sure we could all provide examples from our own lives and ministries, and we might take up blog after blog doing so. The point happens far too much.

If we are to become more effective, we must say along with Paul, "I make myself a slave so that I may win more." This means the giving up of personal rights in order to serve those around us. In the midst of the many, many bad examples from my own life, let me share one good moment in this regard. Yesterday, I did something I never thought I would do...I stood up and explained to my congregation that we are planning to adopt from Liberia, that we must all prepare our hearts for this child to come because some in society look down on interracial families, and that they should know where we got our funding. Whoa! I was with you until that last part. Why would you tell them about that? That's none of their business!

You're right. It is none of their business, but without making myself a slave to my congregation, there may be assumptions about how we got so much money. Some people make it their business. Why? Because the phrase "the Lord's provision" is sometimes sinfully used to cover up unethical financial decisions. Plus, other pastors in the history of this church have been unethical in the way they handled money, purchasing procedures, reporting receipts, etc. They weren't stealing, but it was unethical. Not everyone in the church knows this, but I'm certain that some do. Also, some may believe that I am taking advantage of the church, being overpaid in a time when the church is struggling financially.

Such situations, along with the announcement that the pastor is using thousands of dollars to adopt a child and travel to get the child from their home country, can lead to rumors, gossip, and a people who do not trust the man God has given in leadership. Hiding how we got the money could be a hindrance to the gospel being heard because of a wrong view of the messenger. I want to remove all such hindrances. I believe this was an application of what Paul said, "Though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more...I do all things for the sake of the gospel..."

Do you see that? You see that rabbit? I've got to chase it...I've just got to. Just for minute...maybe two. Bring a shotgun.

There is a feeling among many in church leadership (mostly pastoral, but also lay leadership) that value secrecy. I know that things involving people's life situations should remain secret unless we come to the unfortunate situation of having to "bring it to the church" (Matt. 18). Apart from this, though, how much secrecy do we really need? You know what secrets foster? Rumors, gossip, and distrust.

I remember when my pastor in Indiana stepped down suddenly, and the rest of the staff (including me) thought it would be best to keep the details to ourselves. We wanted to protect the church and our friend and try to maintain order. How I wish I could go back to that Wednesday night and say, "Though we love him and pray for him as he leaves, you must know why our pastor is resigning, so that there will be no rumors or gossip, and so that you will know how to pray for him and for our church as we try to move forward." That's not what happened. We believed that the congregation should trust us with the details. You know what? They didn't, and trusting the pastoral staff is still an issue today for some in that church. Maybe we should rethink secrecy between leadership and congregation.

If you are a pastor (as I am), then these words are especially important for us. Whether it is the kind of secrecy or immorality mentioned above, laying out a legalistic ethic by which our people must live to be "really spiritual", or just being insensitive to our audience in how long we preach, we cannot hinder the gospel. Following up on that last phrase...maybe our congregations should learn to listen longer, maybe not. But when their brain shuts off, they're not hearing the gospel anymore. They hear "blah, blah, blah" and can't wait to hear "let's pray". This is especially true of weak Christians, but what did Paul say? "To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak." Food for thought.

For those who are not pastors, don't copy, paste, highlight, and send those last words to him. Love your pastor, encourage your pastor, and pray that the gospel will be unhindered, so that more may be won to Christ.

Just a time to chase the rabbit farther than that...just something to think about at the next red light. Back to the text at hand. We are from sin, free from death, free from the ultimate authority of any person on the earth. Christ is our only Master. However, if we want to win more, then we must make ourselves slaves to all. Do you want to win more? Set aside your personal pride and your rights and become a slave. Adapt to those around you so that you might meet their greatest need in life...the need to be saved from their sin.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Hand of God

An application of Romans 8:28.

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose."

It is interesting how often that this verse is quoted. Often, after suffering a horrible tragedy, someone will inevitably put an arm around the hurting one's shoulder and say, "Well, all things work together for the good." I'm not sure if that's a "word aptly spoken" (Prov. 25:11) or if, at times, these words are spoken instead of "[weeping] with those who weep" (Rom. 12:15). Though I am sure that these words are said with the best of intentions, they may come across like walking up to a screaming woman at a car accident who just lost her husband and saying, "At least he didn't suffer." I hope that turns your should. I think the long and short of I'm saying is this...we must be careful how we apply the Scripture to life and avoid mistaking the context of Scripture or of our lives.

The same is true with Romans 8:28. I am writing to suggest a recently realized application of this Scripture to my own life, but I want to make sure I do it in a way that is fitting and does not misrepresent the Scripture. So, I will try, and I'm sure you can let me know if I am wrong. As a student of the Bible, I must first understand the meaning of this text before I can apply it to anything.

Paul is writing to the Romans about his desire to visit them and preach the gospel (1:15), and then he begins a masterful argument presenting the gospel fully (1:18-8:39). This includes the universal sinfulness of mankind (1:18-3:20), the justification that is by faith in Christ alone (3:21-5:21), answering some objections to such a salvation (6:1-7:25), and teaching about the Holy Spirit and the believer (8:1-39). Having written that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us according to the will of God (8:26-27), Paul now shows us what this will looks like, namely, that God works all things together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.

However, Paul doesn't stop here, and neither should we. To what end is God working all things? What is the good He is seeking? Look at the end of verse 29, " become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren." He is working all things for our good, which is to be conformed to the image of Christ. Why is being conformed to the image of Christ so good? Because it shows Him to be the firstborn (i.e.- supreme, pre-eminent, most highly honored) among many brethren. Our greatest good is that our Christ is shown to be glorious and supreme in this universe, so God works all things together for that good, which is manifested in us becoming like Christ. This is what Paul means in Romans 8:28.

Now, how have I realized the application of this truth lately? It has not been in ordinary things that we think of in looking for things that will make us like Christ. Though the teaching of the Word, the trials of life, and victories over temptation can be seen as direct applications of what God is doing to make me more like Christ, I have seen something large large that I sat down to write this blog.

If you are keeping up, you know that my wife and I are planning to adopt internationally. I even asked for your prayers in this plan...that God would provide all we need to make it happen. For the reasons given in that post (Adoption: Not Just a Teenager Mother's Option), I believe that adopting is part of God's way of making me more like Christ. I, again, submit that your involvement with the care of orphans in some way will be part of God's work in your own life.

Well, God has been providing all the money that we need, and if our figures are correct, we only need the money to travel and bring home our child. We are still going through the process and have not officially connected with a specific child yet, but the money is falling into place dollar by dollar. How? A few ways. (1) We have received a few unexpected checks. These have been gifts from new and old friends, as well as a sizable refund from our insurance company (something that hasn't happened in our nine years of marriage). (2) We have extra money in savings that we can pull out temporarily and put back in within three months. (3) I have a retirement account that I can borrow against (up to half of the total). Amazingly enough, the amount available to me is exactly what we need to pay the adoption agency and officially identify with a child.

I can hear it through the screen, "Wait a second! Borrowing money! How is that God's provision?" Fair question. At first, I didn't want to use this money, though it is mine. However, I want you to consider three things with me. First, the circumstances under which I got this money. Second, the hand of God on government. Third, a kingdom perspective of money.

First, the money that is sitting in my Annuity Board account was put in there by First Baptist Church Oviedo. This was the first church in which I served as a full-time pastor. I worked with middle school students. It was at this church that my faith and security in God's call to ministry were tested. The CEO-minded pastor was a great source of turmoil. Not only was his philosophy of ministry radically different than mine, but he also tended to be a dictatorial micro-manager. I can say, with all honesty, that I now only mean that as the briefest, suitable description of him. In August 2001, I was told that I would have to change some things about the middle school ministry. I went into this meeting and was told that the only change necessary was that I find a new church to serve by December 1. I was fired, and not by the pastor, but by the associate pastor. The pastor no longer interacted with me. Long story short (too late), God gave me greater confidence in His call to ministry and less fear of what man can do to me through this experience. He also revealed weak places in me that needed to be strengthened. That was all I took away from the whole Oviedo ordeal...until recently. This past week, I realized that I also took away two years worth of annuity contributions. The church gave 10% of my salary total to my retirement account. Through this hard time of trial and testing and teaching, the Lord began an account that would grow to exactly double what I needed at the moment I would need it for this adoption.

Second, God's hand has been on the government. The Scripture says that government has been established by God (Rom. 13:1) and that the heart of the king is in the hand of God and directed by God (Prov. 21:1). God is sovereign over the government of any nation, and in 2001, God moved our Congress to increase the tax credit for those who adopt from $5,000 to $10,000 starting in 2006. Why? God's heart is with the orphan, and by His providence, those who relieve the suffering orphan through adoption will be rewarded in this way. Because of this change in the tax law, every penny that I take out of my account will be given back to me in one year by means of a tax credit (which is actually's a reduction in taxes owed). Because we always get some kind of return, this will increase our tax return so that the retirement account will be restored and our debt will be paid. Praise God!

Third, I have to use money for kingdom purposes. I believe that it is responsible to save for retirement, but at what expense? Is it so wise that I save for retirement that I ignore God's call to the mission field, where money will be sparse? Is it so wise that I save for retirement that I not give generously to my local church and other worthy ministries? Is it so wise to save for retirement that I not put it on hold for one year so that I may rescue the orphan? It seems that the kingdom has to win out in decisions like these. The same God that has provided for my retirement account will provide in my retirement. If I die old and poor and having given much to the work of the kingdom, then praise God. If I die old and rich and have given little to the work of the kingdom, then God have mercy on me.

So, now back to Romans 8:28 to finish up. "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." God has worked to provide money...through gifts...through our previous discipline to save...through a hard two years in Florida and moving the hearts of government. What is all this for right now? God has worked all of this together so that my family can be part of God's purposes in providing for and defending the cause of the orphan. By God's grace, participating in the relief of the orphan will make me and my wife and my children more like Christ. Becoming more like Christ will glorify Him as the supreme One...the One who is to be honored above all. In other words, God has done all of this for my good and, more significantly, for His glory.