Monday, October 26, 2009

The Central Message of the Church

Reflections on Mark 1:1, 14-15.

"The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God...Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God and saying, 'The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'"

As I reflect on yesterday's corporate worship, one thing that has stuck with me is a song we sang. "My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone" has been in my head since the service, and being based on Psalm 62, it truly expresses the joy and security of one who has embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (in fact, I have it playing on my computer as I am typing this entry).

Moving forward to the sermon from yesterday's service, the focus to which we came was that the gospel was at the heart of what Mark wrote and why Mark wrote. As I continue to meditate on this truth, it must be re-emphasized that Mark's focus must be the church's focus. I want to quote several portions of Millard Erikson's Systematic Theology on this point. He has a wonderful section that talks about the gospel being the heart of the church's mission.

Erikson writes:
"It is important for us to look closely at the one factor that gives basic shape to everything the church does, the element that lies at the heart of all its functions, namely, the gospel, the good news. At the beginning of his ministry Jesus announced that he had been anointed specially to preach the gospel; later he charged the apostles to continue his ministry by spreading the gospel...

"Paul viewed the gospel as centering on Jesus Christ and what God has done through him. The essential points of the gospel are Jesus Christ's status as the Son of God, his genuine humanity, his death for our sins, his burial, his resurrection, subsequent appearances, and future coming in judgment. It may well be said that, in Paul's view, Jesus Christ is the gospel...To Paul, the gospel is all-important...Convinced that only the gospel can bring salvation along with all its attendant blessings, Paul insists that the gospel is absolute and exclusive. Nothing is to be added to or taken from it, nor is there any alternate route to salvation...

"This gospel not only cuts across all racial, social, economic, and educational barriers (Rom. 1:16; Gal. 3:28), but also spans the centuries of time. A message that does not become obsolete (Jude 3), it is the church's sacred trust today. In an age in which most ideas and systems of thought, as well as techniques and commodities, are of a throwaway variety, the church has an infallible and enduring resource - a message that is the only means of salvation. The church can display the same confidence in the gospel that Paul had, for it is still the same gospel; time has not eroded its effectiveness...

"Because the gospel has been, is, and will always be the way of salvation, the only way, the church must preserve the gospel at all costs. When the gospel is modified, the vitality of the church is lost. The church dies."

This sums it up, doesn't it? The gospel must remain the central message of the church. Maybe you have heard the word 'evangelical' thrown around when surveys or talk show hosts speak about a certain type of Christian. Whatever the survey or talk show host may mean, the word 'evangelical' pertains to those who are people of the gospel. It is not a demarcation of a particular political is a view of all of life that centers on the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

Our challenge as a church is to be a people of the gospel. To use language based in the Reformation, we must hold tightly to salvation by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solus Christus), according to the Scripture alone (sola scriptura), for the glory of God alone (soli Deo gloria)! By the way, these five phrases are known as the "5 solas". "Sola" means alone or only in the Latin language.

In thinking about how being a "gospel people", one of the most obvious applications would be in the realm of personal evangelism. When we think of those in our family or among our circle of friends who do not believe in Christ, what is it that they need. Often, I hear people say "So and so needs to get in church." Now, I hope that what we mean by something like this is that "so and so" needs to hear the gospel, and a church would be a great place to allow them to do so. However, not all people may believe that...some actually believe that church attendance can contribute to their acceptance by God. If that is the case, then 'getting in church' helps bring justification...the divine declaration that we are righteous in God's sight.

How does that sit with you? I hope it disturbs you a little. People of the gospel (evangelicals) must be clear about what does and does not bring salvation. So, when we think of those lost friends and family members, let's begin to think of 'getting them the gospel' rather than just 'getting them in church'. This focuses our mind and heart on the real issue...salvation.

I know that this seems like a small thing and an insignificant application, but all these little things will add up. As God's people, we have been entrusted with the gospel, and we have been charged to hold fast to it and to spread its message to the world. This message is not just for the evangelizing of the lost but for the comfort, hope, and help of those who belong to Christ.

Clinging to this gospel and its importance is a battle. The enemy of our souls is diametrically opposed to the commission Jesus has given us. However, the battle for the centrality of the gospel will not begin with a sudden temptation to stop believing the gospel is important or suddenly stop embracing the truth that Jesus is the only way of salvation. It will begin in small areas of our minds and hearts...maybe even as small as thinking that what the unbelieving world really needs is not so much a message...but just to 'get in church'.

May we continue to be a people of the gospel, and even when some may come to Gray Road because they feel the need 'to get in church,' may they not find just a gathering of people...but rather a gathering of gospel people, of evangelical people. And may the God of this gospel grant new life by His Spirit!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Wise Words from a Departing Leader

Thoughts on Acts 20:17-38.

Yesterday was the last Sunday that the interim pastor was set to preach. I take over the pulpit ministry as senior pastor next Sunday. However, this was no ordinary interim pastor. He had once been the pastor of the church...for 25 years or so. After two pastors had come and gone, he stepped back into the pulpit in January of this year to preach each Sunday morning. Yesterday, the church celebrated God's grace in Pastor Glen Lockwood's ministry and Pastor Lockwood's faithfulness to God, His Word, and His people through his ministry here. As part of the regular service of worship, I read from Acts 20...the passage I'm thinking about today. It seemed appropriate at the close of Pastor Lockwood's time in the pulpit and in the transition to a new pastoral tenure. I was edified by the Scripture afresh as I thought about the years behind and the years to come, and I thought I would share some brief comments about the text. First, the text. Pull out your Bible, and read it. This is a good habit. Don't just read Bible studies about the texts. If you are able, read it out loud...I usually find things that seem to stay invisible when read silently.

Ok...I want us to focus on the instructions Paul leaves these elders for the future of their church. They may be helpful as we think about the church contexts in which we live and serve.

1) To sum up Paul's testimony about his ministry at Ephesus, he wants the elders to realize that they know certain things about his ministry, and they should remember them. He lived among them (v.18), serving through tears and trials (v. 19, 31), but he never shrank from the task at hand...preaching the gospel of grace and teaching them (v. 20-21, 26-27). He wasn't after money, but he worked hard to provide for himself and others, being generous with his earnings (v. 33-35). In other words, he served faithfully in every circumstance so that he might accomplish the goal set forth in Colossians 1:28-29: "Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me." What a tremendous testimony! Paul leaves a wonderful example for the Ephesian elders to follow. Their depth of love for him and appreciation for his ministry among them must have been part of why there was "much weeping" as they knew they would not see him again.

This was evident yesterday as person after person told me of the 'big shoes' I would have to fill. This was nothing but a testimony of the place that Pastor Lockwood has in the hearts of these people...because of his faithfulness through tears and trials.

2) Next, think on the warnings Paul gives the elders to consider with regard to the whole congregation (v. 28ff). The overall instruction to the elders is that they must "pay careful attention to [themselves] and to all the flock". This flock has been purchased by the blood of Christ, and they have been made overseers of this flock by the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit. This, in itself, makes the task a momentous one. As we look across our congregations, let's really think on that. The blood of Christ brought these sheep into a flock. It is not the children's program or the musical style or the visitation practices of the pastor or excellent communication or pretty buildings or advanced technology that bind us together. It is the blood of Christ that has made us one. Then, after purchasing and assembling men and women together in one geographic location, the Spirit set aside men who are to be elders of that who will give an account for those they lead. It is God who assembled them, and it is God who raised up elders among them. The weight of this responsibility is one that cannot be imagined by those who have not borne it.

Though this would certainly be enough reason for Paul's instruction, it's not the only reason the apostle charges them to "pay careful attention". He goes on, in v. 28-29, to remind them of the reality of the world in which they will live and work. While it is a divine work of grace that brought them together and a divine calling of the Spirit that placed them in leadership, it is not a Utopian work they must do. It is a real and sinful and hard world in which they will serve the Lord, and the "god of this world" (2 Cor. 4:4) will still be "seeking someone to devour" (1 Pt. 5:8b). This demonic strategy will show itself in two distinct kinds of attacks. First, wolves will come in from the outside and will not spare the sheep. Second, some from within the church will begin to teach twisted doctrine and try to gain a following for themselves.

As leaders, then, the tears and trials that Paul faced will be theirs as well. The persecution he faced will face them. The bullseye on his chest will now mark them, but they must not shrink back from preaching and teaching the gospel of grace. They must protect the church from the wolves from the outside. They must also weed out the false teachers from within, in order to protect the followers of Christ and the doctrine/testimony of the church

These words of warning hit home with me as I begin this new work of ministry, and they should be words heeded by any who go through a kind of leadership transition like this. The church planter leaves for a new work, and a more permanent pastor is taking that careful attention! The missionary has trained natives to be elders and leaders in their churches, and the missionary is going to move on to a new unreached people careful attention! A pastor steps down, and a new pastor careful attention!

Honestly, these are words for any time in a church's life. There should not come a day, on this side of eternity, where we cease being on guard against attacks from without and from within. There is no spiritual "sigh of relief" for those who still live in these bodies in this world. The enemy is still seeking to steal and kill and destroy, so we must be on guard.

It was a wonderful day of honoring the ministry of Pastor Lockwood, and it was a wonderful time of remembering that there would be no honorable ministry of Pastor Lockwood apart from the grace of God which is at work in him. However, yesterday was not meant to signal the end of spiritual warfare for me or for this church. If anything, the pressures, temptations, trials, and tears may increase in the days to come. That is why we must not only shed tears for the faithful servant who is stepping aside, but we must also "take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm" (Eph. 6:13).