Thursday, April 24, 2008

You Mean It's Not Just My Church?

As I was studying for my sermon on John 21 last week, I read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon entitled, "Do you love me?" It was amazingly helpful to me personally for many reasons, but I only want to share one with you. The reason I want to share is that I believe we can find some common ground with Spurgeon.

There is a real temptation to believe that someone else's church is perfect. We may lament, "If only my church were like this pastor's church or that pastor's church, then we'd be alright." Now, please understand that seeing God at work in other settings ought to spur us along to greater faithfulness. We can and should be challenged by another congregation's evangelistic zeal or their commitment to mission work or whatever the case may be. However, we go too far when we begin to assume that because this guy wrote a book or that guy spoke at a conference, their churches must be ideal. That's not the case.

Some seminary coffee shop is probably buzzing while I'm typing, and it's buzzing with the notion that no church can be blessed by God unless it is perfectly biblical in every aspect. Don't hit the "comment" button yet to blast me. I believe in a church functioning biblically. I believe that God's blessing is on our being biblical. I believe that when we stop pursuing biblical faithfulness in all things, we begin a journey on a dangerous, slippery slope into a religious wasteland.

However, this is not my subject today, and I'm not interested in chasing a bloggit (i.e.- same as chasing a rabbit, only in blog form). What I am interested in is sharing with you the encouragement I found in this sermon by Spurgeon. It's easy to feel like it's just our church that isn't everything the Bible says it should be. We long for the "New Testament church" as we look at Acts 2:41-47, often forgetting that the actual New Testament churches carried the problems of Corinth, Laodicea, Galatia, and more. In the midst of this search for biblical fidelity, I hope we can find some encouragement from Spurgeon's candid look at his own congregation. Allow me to state things that a pastor might say today and then quote Spurgeon's words for you.

1. Our church doesn't have biblical church government.

Spurgeon said, "Dearly beloved, I have been of late perplexing myself with one thought: that our church-government is not scriptural. It is scriptural as far as it goes; but it is not according to the whole of Scripture; neither do we practice many excellent things that ought to be practiced in our churches."

2. We need to be assimilating and discipling new believers more effectively.

Spurgeon said, "We have received into our midst a large number of young persons...I think there ought to be on the Sabbath afternoon, a class of the young people of this church, who are members already, to be taught by some of the elder members. Now-a-days, when we get lambs, we just turn them adrift in the meadow, and there we leave them. There are more than a hundred young people in this church who positively, though they are members, ought not to be left alone."

3. The deacons are acting like elders, but they shouldn't have to.

Spurgeon said, "If we had elders, as they did in the apostolic churches, [the teaching ministry] might in some degree be attended to. But now the hands of our deacons are full, they do much of the work of the eldership, but they cannot do any more than they are doing, for they are toiling hard already."

4. It's not just the pastor's job to disciple new believers.

Spurgeon said, "By God's help I will take care of the sheep; I will endeavor under God to feed them, as well as I can, and preach the gospel to them...I would that some here whom God has gifted, and who have time, would spend their afternoons in taking a class of those who are around them, of their younger brethren, asking them to their houses for prayer and pious instruction, that so the lambs of the flock may be fed."

5. Our church is nice to visitors but isn't really open to new people.

Spurgeon said, "[One complaint] which I have often heard is, 'Oh sir, I joined your church, I thought they would be all brothers and sisters to me, and that I could speak to them, and they would teach me and be kind to me. Oh! Sir, I came, and nobody spoke to me.' I say, 'Why did you not speak to them first?' 'Oh', they reply, 'I did not like.' Well, they should have liked, I am well aware; but if we had some means of feeding the lambs, it would be a good way of proving to our Savior and to the world, that we really do endeavor to follow him. I hope some of my friends will take that hint..."

6. People need to get up out of the pew, stop whining, and do something for Jesus!

Spurgeon said, "I beseech you, do something to prove your love; do not be sitting down doing nothing. Do not be folding your hands and arms, for such people perplex a minister most, and bring the most ruin on a church - such as do nothing. You are always the readiest to find fault. I have marked it here, that the very people who are quarrelling with everything are the people that are doing nothing, or are good for nothing. They are sure to quarrel with everything else, because they are doing nothing themselves; and therefore they have time to find fault with other people.

I write all of this not to give you more ammunition for your Monday morning pity party about church. I write all of this to remind you that you are not alone. The same battle for the people of God to BE the people of God has been going on for centuries. It is not new with this millennium. Things weren't perfect in the 90s, the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, or any other time in history. Pastors have always pulled their hair out because they cannot seem to help their flocks "get it."

I take great heart from the fact that Spurgeon had some of the same struggles that I have. I also take heart that even in the struggle, he was faithful to preach the Word in season and out of season. Stay steady, my friends, and be faithful. If you are a pastor, take heart, and do not grow weary in well doing...I had to be reminded of that at lunch yesterday. If you are not a pastor, then pray wholeheartedly for your pastor, and don't be the "good for nothing" that Spurgeon talked about.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Restoring Grace

Thoughts on John 21:15-19.

I remember sitting in a Knoxville restaurant, wringing my hands as I waited for my friend and mentor to meet me. I was nineteen years old, and I believed the Lord had called me into ministry. This friend had confirmed God's call in my life, but he didn't know everything about me. So, when he arrived, I decided to fill him in.

"Denny," I said, "I think I'm disqualified from ministry." He was puzzled and asked me to explain. So, I went into a fifteen minute story about a "major sin" I had committed 2 years earlier, how it haunted me even though I had asked God to forgive well as asking those that my sin had hurt to forgive me. After I got done, I simply waited for him to say, "You know're are disqualified from ministry."

Instead, he surprised me with this question: "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" I didn't see how this was relevant at the time and said, "Of course, but what does that..." He cut me off and asked again, "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" A simple "yes" was my reply. He smiled and began to explain.

"Toby, if the Bible is true, and your sin has been have repented...then your sin is forgiven by God. It's as far as the East is from the West. God has removed your guilt. So, the only guilt you can be feeling is generated by the Enemy. He's your accuser...not God." As much as I knew what Denny said was true, my heart struggled to believe it. We talked more as we ate, and by the end of dinner, I knew that what God was saying to me through my friend was true. I left the restaurant with a stomach full of food and a heart full of peace.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever wrung your hands in guilt over some old sin? A sin that haunts you, even though you have repented and confessed...even though you have asked forgiveness of both God and those you may have hurt? Do you find yourself going through your "sin resume" often...explaining to God and others why you're no good to serve the Lord?

If so, then think about Jesus' restoration of Peter in John 21. In verses 15-19, we find Jesus publicly restoring Peter to usefulness for the kingdom's sake. Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. I'm sure we could think of more things to say, but let's just briefly think through these five adjectives.

1. It is intentional - Notice the setting of these verses. It's not just Peter and Jesus in a corner somewhere having a private conversation. It's out in the open, with the disciples sitting around the fire watching everything happen. In fact, it was at a fire such as this in Matthew 26 that we find Peter weeping bitterly after he had denied the Lord three times and the rooster crowed.

Why did Jesus intentionally restore Peter in public...with the other disciples right there? One good reason can be found as we think back to the disciples last night together before the crucifixion. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus had predicted Judas' betrayal. It was also at this supper that Jesus predicted the scattering of his followers when he was killed. In response, Peter proudly and boldly proclaimed, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away" (Mt. 26:33).

In front of all the disciples, Peter had basically said he was a better follower than them and that he would never fall away. The fact that he denied the Lord may plant doubts about Peter's future leadership in the minds of the other disciples. Without this public restoration, it wouldn't be too strange to imagine the apostles' eyes rolling as Peter preaches at Pentecost. You see, Peter needed to be restored with respect to these other men. He had bragged in front of them, and he had fallen. So, he needed to be restored in front of them. It was Jesus' intentional way of showing His approval of Peter once again.

2. It is penetrating - The fact that this restoration is penetrating comes in Jesus' questioning of Peter's love. He doesn't ask, "Do you fear God?" or "Are you sorry?" or "Don't you believe in me?" or many other questions. He simply asks, "Do you love me?" That has to sting. It has to penetrate the heart of Peter to know that his Savior is questioning his love.

Facing our failing and our sin is part of restoration. It stings, but it is necessary. When a small spot of melanoma (i.e.- a type of skin cancer) was found on my right leg back in 2003, the doctor didn't just shave a little off the top at that place. There was a significant chunk taken out. Do you know why? It's because the surgeon wanted to make sure he got it all. Jesus, like a surgeon, wants to make sure he "gets it all" as he deals with Peter. The questions sting so much that Peter is grieved by the third time it's asked, but they are necessary for his restoration.

3. It is humiliating - It's interesting to me that Peter doesn't make the same kind of bold claim that he did at the Last Supper. No longer was he boasting of how he would be the last disciple standing. No longer was he saying things like, "See, we have left everything and followed you" (Mark 10:28). Now, Peter appealed to no accomplishment or trait of his own. He simply appealed to Jesus' knowledge of his heart. "You know I love you" was Peter's three-time response.

It's as if he's saying, "You can't look at my actions of the past few days, you can't listen to all the claims I've made in the past...but just take a look at my heart. See my heart the way you could see the Pharisees' heart, and you'll know. You know this failure is eating me alive, but you also know I love you, Jesus." Restoration is a humiliating experience, and it is so appropriate that Peter would later write, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5).

4. It is gracious - I absolutely love Jesus' response to Peter. Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Peter says, "You know I do." And then, Jesus does not say, "Then why did you deny me?" That might be how we would respond...don't you love Jesus? Then why did you make such a stupid decision!!! Aren't you so glad that Jesus doesn't treat us this way? Aren't you glad that when we come to the God's throne of grace we find mercy and grace and not constant reminders of our failure?

In this moment, it's as if Jesus is forgetting what is behind in Peter's life and pointing him toward the goal toward which he must press (Phil. 3:13b-14). What is this new goal? "Feed my sheep." Jesus is saying, "You love me, Peter? Then be passionate about what I'm passionate about. Feed my sheep, care for them, love them, leave the 99 for the 1, lay down your life for them."

And Peter would do just that as one of the main preachers that helped establish the church. He would do it in letters to scattered and suffering believers. He would do it by reminding other elders like him, "Shepherd the flock of God" (1 Peter 5:2). Jesus graciously gave Peter a hope and a future, instead of rubbing his nose in the past. What an amazing grace we have in Christ!

5. It is complete - We can see the completeness of Peter's restoration in a couple of things. Most obviously, Jesus asks Peter about his love three times, restoring Peter for his threefold denial of the Lord. Also, we see Jesus' commission to Peter at the end of verse 19. Take notice of it, underline it, highlight it.

Jesus says, "Follow me." It is the same call that Peter received when he first started with Jesus. The call didn't change. He was still called to leave everything, to take up his cross, to love God and love others, to preach the gospel, and to deny himself for the gospel's sake. There is no asterisk beside this new call with a footnote saying, "This isn't a real call because you blew it, so your effectiveness has been diminished."

If anything, Peter will be even more effective as a shepherd because of his fall and restoration. His ministry would have been incomplete without it. This is why Jesus told him that Satan would sift him, but "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). Peter would be better equipped to shepherd and restore souls because the Great Shepherd had restored his soul.

Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. It is only by the grace of God that Peter was restored, and it is only by the grace of God that you and I are restored when we fail. Don't sell God's grace short on what it can accomplish in restoring you to usefulness. Instead, do what our restored friend, Peter, wrote, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

I'll leave you with some amazing lyrics from Caedmon's Call:

You're rerunning the mistakes
In the theater of your mind
Hoping that there'll be a happily ever after this time
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea
And a wise man once told me
I was dying just the same
The past can be like sidewalk chalk
If you will dance and pray for rain
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pagan Practices Anonymous

Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6).

You've probably seen portrayals of AA meetings on television. There are metal folding chairs in a circle, and the first man begins, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I'm an alcoholic. My last drink was 47 days ago." (or something to that effect). The rest of the circle answers, "Hi Bob." Then, the introductions proceed around the circle.

If we were to begin PPA (Pagan Practices Anonymous), we would find believers sitting in a circle. These men and women want desperately to live as Christ has called them, but they get caught up in pagan practices. No...not sacrificing chickens, worshipping golden idols, or casting voodoo spells on others. These pagan practices are loving others and praying.

WHAT?!? Pagans don't do these things. They don't love others...they don't pray. How can you say such a thing? Why would we ever want to stop believers from loving others...from praying? Well, let's slow down, put on an oxygen mask, and walk through that again. I don't want believers to stop loving others and praying. I believe Jesus wants us to stop the pagan practices of loving others and praying. There is a difference, and Jesus lays it out for us.

In Matthew 5:43-47, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"

In telling his followers to love, Jesus distinctly tells them to avoid the pagan practice of only loving those who love you...only greeting those who greet you...only caring for those who you know care for you. This is why we need the PPA...we believe that the secret to holiness and living a righteous life is to seclude ourselves from all things pagan. Use Christian doctors, mechanics, and interior decorators. Only buy books at the Christian bookstore. If you have a choice between Starbucks and the Christian coffee shop down the road, forsake your taste buds and get the drinkable motor oil (FYI...not all "Christian" coffee shops serve bad coffee).

This doesn't limit itself to doing business though. We see those who look or act radically outside of what we call "Christian" and we avoid them like the plague. We'd just as soon have a special section of the country for everyone who didn't profess Christ. We are like Jonah...hating the Ninevites around us and hating the very idea of grace entering their lives and transforming them. Maybe we're like those who sat at the table the first time Mephibosheth came to dinner at the palace with David (2 Sam. 9). We look at this cripple from the enemy's family, and we are suspicious of him and his motives...never knowing if he'll turn on us. Whatever the case may be, I believe Jesus would look at such practices and say..."How is that any better than pagans? How is that the radically different life I've called you to? It's's not the life I called you to live. Love you enemies." So, let's take our place at PPA and say, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan love for others. The last time I remember loving my enemy was..." Confess this attitude, and ask God to break it.

The next section comes in chapter six, as Jesus is instructing his disciples in how to pray. In verse 7, Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." Jesus is not condemning repetition in praying. If so, He would condemn Himself for using the same words in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:44 says, "So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing." Repetition is not the problem.

The problem is that these prayers just go on and on. It's "babbling" in the NIV and NLT. It's "vain repetitions" in the KJV, "meaningless repetitions" in the NAS, and "heap up empty phrases" in the ESV. I think I like the ESV best. In other words, when pagans go to pray, they really pile it on...the longer they sit there and ask for something, the more credit they believe they have. They're not really saying anything of meaning because there is no real faith from which these prayers come. They do not pray believing...they simply have empty conversations, looking up at the ceiling and talking to someone they don't really believe is there or will intervene.

This is the pagan practice of prayer that we must avoid. Simply praying out of duty is not good enough. Even flowery, biblical phrases in King James language can be empty if there is not a heart a faith producing them. Again, repetition is not the problem. It is even taught by Jesus. In Mt. 7:7, the literal translation of Jesus' instruction is "keep on asking...keep on seeking...keep on knocking." Also, Jesus holds up the example of the widow and the unjust judge as an example of persevering in prayer in Luke 18. The repetition is not the's the vanity of the repetition, the emptiness of the prayers, the meaningless nature of pagan prayers that is the problem.

So, join Pagan Practices Anonymous, and confess, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan, empty praying. My last sincere time of prayer was..." Confess it, and beg God to renew your energies for a vital prayer life. Let Jesus reteach you how to pray. Read the prayers of great saints of the past. Pray with those who truly know how to pray. Don't just pout because you feel disconnected in your prayer life. Do something about it.

You see, this is why it is dangerous to just teach that we should love others and pray. That's not good enough. There is a specific way we must love and pray. There are pitfalls even in the most honorable spiritual disciplines. Even pagans can do some of these things. It is the way a changed heart engages spiritual disciplines that sets the believer apart from the rest. So, my friend, love others and pray, but don't do it as the pagans it as a Christ follower does.