Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Defeated by Demands

[This entry follows a sermon titled "A Few Good Men: The Character of Church Leadership."]

Anytime I teach or preach on the biblical qualifications for pastors, found in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, I am challenged and convicted.  To be honest, I don't have to be teaching it.  All it takes is a thoughtful reading of these texts, and the Lord challenges and convicts me as a man and a pastor.  Of course, these texts are not alone.  I find myself regularly challenged and convicted by the Scriptures; however, these texts do stand out because they are directly related to my role as a pastor among God's people.

Don Carson once uttered a sentence about these qualifications for pastors that has stuck with me.  In fact, I find some paraphrase of it in many sources (i.e.- articles, books, sermons, etc.), so I must not be alone in finding it memorable.  Carson says of the qualifications for pastors: "The remarkable thing about the list is that it is unremarkable."  It is simple but true, particularly when we think of the character qualifications.

One can look in other places in the New Testament to find that pastors are not alone in the call to live above reproach...to be blameless.  All Christians should live in this way.  Let me give some examples.  First, it is not only pastors that should avoid being a drunkard but all Christians (cf. Ephesians 5:18).  Also, pastors are not alone in the need to avoid the love of money (cf. Matthew 6:24; 1 Timothy 6:10).  Next, it is all fathers, and not just pastors, who should be dignified in the way he keeps his children submissive (cf. Ephesians 6:4).  Finally, humility should be the mark of Christians, not only Christian pastors (cf. Romans 12:3; 1 Peter 5:6).  And the list could go on.

So, as we think about these qualifications, we rightly think of the men who should serve as pastors in the local church.  However, we must not think that these qualifications are to be disregarded by "the rest of us."  No, by the grace of God, all the people of God should seek to grow in these godly characteristics.  So, now look at the list, and let's admit it...it can be intimidating, can't it?  If you don't think so, you might have missed something.  Go back and read the lists again (I'll wait). 

Now, can you see how intimidating it might be?  In these lists, there is no area of life untouched, no stone unturned.  The pastor must be blameless, and Christians must live blameless lives.  We must be blameless in our family lives, in our personal lives, and in our relationships.  God calls us to be holy because He is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16).  It is a high calling, and we must approach it correctly or we will surely be defeated by it.  After all, anytime one is faced with a list of character qualities that must mark your life and those qualities encompass all of life, he/she can easily feel defeated.  So, let me try to help.

There are a couple of wrong ways to approach living a blameless life.  The first is to think that you must live a blameless life in order to earn the favor of God.  The idea here is that if I live a good life, then God will be good to me.  If I don't, He won't.  There are two major problems with this way of thinking, and they are connected.  This way of approaching God is (1) not biblical, and it is (2) impossible! 

The Bible teaches that God's favor...God's approval...is not given in return for blameless living.  If that were the way that God's approval worked, then nobody would be approved by God.  Nobody would gain God's favor.  All of us fall short of God's glory.  Romans 8:7 says, "For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot."  You see, submitting to God is not simply a matter of the will...it's a matter of ability.  And on their own, nobody can do it!

The second wrong way to think about living a blameless life goes something like this: "Yes, God accepted me by His grace, but now, I must live a blameless life in order to keep His favor.  If I will just stay committed to read my Bible, pray, serve, give, resist temptation, etc., then I will keep God's approval."  Now, obviously, spiritual disciplines and resisting temptation are all good things...great things...God-glorifying things.  However, sinless perfection in all (or any) of these areas is impossible in this life.

We must get this straight!  Nobody can earn God's approval through blameless living, and nobody can keep God's approval through blameless living.  Since our lives fall incredibly short of "blameless," then what is the solution?  The Bible teaches that the only way a person is approved by God is on the basis of another Person's blamelessness...Jesus' blamelessness.

Through faith in Christ, we are justified (Romans 5:1).  This means that God counts us righteous because of what Jesus has done for us.  He lived a blameless life, and we are credited as blameless.  He took our blame and died in our place, so that we would be released from the liability of our sin.  In the words of Colossians 1:21-22 - "And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, [Jesus] has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him..."

Isn't that fantastic?  Don't you just want to shout and scream "THANKS BE TO GOD FOR HIS INEXPRESSIBLE GIFT" (2 Cor. 9:15)!  We cannot live blameless lives if we tried.  We cannot earn or keep God's approval by doing so.  However, because of what Christ has done, those who are trusting in Christ are counted as righteous, and they will be presented as holy and blameless and above reproach on the day when we see God face to face.  Hallelujah!  What a Savior!

It is when we realize this that the demand to live a blameless life is no longer defeating...it is delightful!  We will no longer try to earn God's approval through blameless living; instead, we will live blameless lives resting in the knowledge that God already approves of us.  We will no longer try to keep God's approval through blameless living; instead, we will live blameless lives resting in the knowledge that our approval was signed, sealed, and delivered through the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ!

Now, read the list again.  It still looks intimidating.  It is still challenging.  It is still convicting.  But, because of Jesus Christ, it is not defeating.  Look to Him as the only source of your blamelessness and approval with God, and then...live a blameless life!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Keep Reading and Studying the Bible

When I was in high school, I attended the First Baptist Church of Concord in Knoxville, Tennessee.  Each Sunday, our music minister, Dave Hyers, would stand up, tell us the page number of the hymn we would sing, and then he would conduct the congregation as a large choir of worshippers.  Many people have a similar experience and love their memories of those kinds of services.

Now, even though we don't have hymnals in the pews at the church I serve, we still sing some congregational songs that would be found in a hymnal.  Just this past Sunday, we sang "How Great Thou Art," and our congregational choir thundered out praise to God.  Another song from the hymnal came to mind as I sat down to write this week's blog entry.  So, in your mind, turn to page 406 of The Celebration Hymnal, and let me quote the first verse of "Wonderful Words of Life."
Sing them over again to me; Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see; Wonderful words of life
Words of life and beauty; Teach me faith and duty
Beautiful words, wonderful words; Wonderful words of life
Beautiful words, wonderful words; Wonderful words of life
Were you humming the melody as you read the words?  Did you break into song?  Will it be stuck in your head for a while?  Whatever the case may be...this really is a wonderful song, reminding us of the value of God's Word.  In fact, the lyrics of the first two lines are the reason I began by quoting the hymn.  "Sing them over again to me...Let me more of their beauty see."  The idea is that through repeatedly hearing God's Word, the Holy Spirit can help us see clearer and deeper and greater truth than in previous hearings.

This is a common experience among Christians who are constantly reading and studying their Bibles.  Let me begin by saying that seeing more beauty in God's Word does not mean that new truth has been infused into a given text, and we are not at liberty to make the text mean something different each time we read it.  However, it could be that we have been missing part of the Bible's teaching until now. We may have missed how the context shapes the meaning of the verse.  Or...we have the meaning right, but that same truth can intersect our lives at different times and in different circumstances, so that we find new implications of that truth for our lives.

There are two things I want to mention that are necessary to seeing new beauty in the Bible.  The first is the title of this entry...keep reading and studying the Bible.  We must be in the Bible consistently if we are to learn and grow and see its beauty.  This means that we do not consider ourselves "done" once we have read all of the Bible.  Also, in our daily reading, we do not skip those passages which seem most familiar to us...we thoughtfully and prayerfully read them again.  And when the Bible is quoted in the books we read, we don't just gloss over them...we read them again, knowing they are the very words of God.

In addition, this means we don't tune out when our pastor is preaching on a text we have heard preached many times.  We listen intently to hear what God says through the text, acknowledging that it may have greater, deeper, wider, or just different implications for our lives now...as opposed to the last time we studied it.  We also listen anew because, in doing so, we acknowledge that we may have missed something in the text...or in the context...that now makes it shine with new beauty. 

The second thing needed to see new beauty in the Word of God is humility.  It takes humility to admit that we need the same passage to be taught to us again.  It takes humility to recognize that we have not arrived and that we need to keep going back to what God has said again and again.  It takes humility to acknowledge, "I should have learned this by now, but I haven't"; so, I go back to God's Word to learn again.

Pride lays down the Bible, but what we need to do is lay down our pride.  We need to lay down the intellectual pride that says, "I know this already...what else could I possibly learn?"  We have to lay down our spiritual pride that says, "I know how to apply this...it's so-and-so who really needs it."  So, rather than get trapped in this kind of pride, let's humbly go the Bible over and over again.  Let's humbly read the Bible over and over again.  Let's study the Bible over and over again.  Let's receive the teaching of the Word over and over again.  Let's humbly ask the Lord to help us, by the Holy Spirit, to see in the Bible new beauty and to apply the Bible more fully.
Sing them over again to me; Wonderful words of life
Let me more of their beauty see; Wonderful words of life