Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Is the gospel enough?

Image Source
I thank God for all the talk about the gospel among evangelical churches today. Granted, some of it can degenerate into trite jingoism and anomalous platitudes, but still, at least the necessity and centrality of the evangel is once again being recognized by believers who purportedly take their identity from it and who agree that evangelism is our great work. Considering where American evangelicalism was 30 years ago, this is a huge improvement.

This does not mean that Thabiti Anybwile's "mild rant" against all the modern talk about the gospel is completely unwarranted. Bunyan warned about the kind of groupies who only love religion when it walks in "silver slippers" and gospel-centrality certainly seems to be enjoying that kind of status in our day. When it becomes chic to talk about the gospel then watch out because much gospel-talk will contain more talk than gospel. So I tip my hat to Thabiti's point.

But I do not think we are in any danger of obsessing over the gospel. In fact, I fear that our case is quite the opposite. Particularly, I am afraid that we have yet to begin to plumb the depths of the gospel's sufficiency. The gospel is most certainly an exclusive message. Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Peter reiterated that point when he said, "There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12). The gospel is a very narrowly defined message. It is all about Jesus--who he is, what he has done and why that matters. It is the only message that saves those who believe.

But the gospel has implications that are infinitely broad. It applies to everything. That is why Paul can say what he does in 1 Corinthians. When he first went to Corinth he "decided to know nothing among [the Corinthians] except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (2:2). He preached an exclusive message: the gospel. Yet, as his letter indicates, he recognized that the gospel applies to everything. Dissension, jealousy, immaturity, injustice, slavery, sexuality, marriage, singleness, the future, the past--all of these subjects and more are addressed by Paul in light of the person and work of Jesus Christ. In that sense, no matter what the problem is, the answer is always the gospel.

One of the greatest challenges that a church faces as devotes itself to "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers" (Acts 2:42) is keeping the gospel as the sole foundation for unity. Over time, as associations and relationships grow within a body it is inevitable that church members will discover that they have other things beside the gospel in common with some of their fellow members. This is neither good nor bad. It is simply a reality.

The temptation that this inevitability presents, however, is making those other things more important than the main thing that we share in common, that is, the gospel. It usually happens subtly and even unconsciously. Families that homeschool their children can naturally gravitate to other homeschoolers. Sports enthusiasts can do the same. Young married couples naturally enjoy spending time with others close to their age and stage of life, as do young people, single adults and senior adults. The relationships forged along such affinities are not necessarily bad and can even be very beneficial. There is nothing wrong with closer relationships developing along those kinds of lines.

Where such relationships can become problematic is at the point that they begin to take on more importance than the gospel. When your affinities start to trump the gospel in your decision making you can be sure that Christ has been supplanted as the basis for your fellowship.

Here are some indications that this may be happening in your church.
When statements like this are being heard:
"I just don't feel at home in that church because there aren't enough _________ (fill in the blank however you want to: homeschoolers; Republicans; young people; old people; single people; married people; Cubans; business people; bikers; surfers; professionals; blondes; left-handers, etc. etc. You get the point).
When those who are in any of the above (or other) affinity groups find it impossible to relate to believers who are not. 
If you find yourself thinking that you don't really have anything in common with an older (or younger) member or single (or married) member or an adoptive (or childless) family, it's time to back up and reexamine what the basis of your fellowship really is.
If we are living out the conviction that the gospel really is enough then we will not require anyone to be in our "age and stage" of life in order to enjoy genuine fellowship with them. Age, race, marital status, occupation, hobbies, etc. will all be recognized and appreciated but they will not be allowed to be attached to the gospel as a necessary basis for fellowship.

As that happens then the manifold wisdom of God will be put clearly on display before a watching world. God will be glorified. His gospel will be adorned. And His church will be strengthened.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

From the archives: Church and Politics

Attack on the American Embassy in Cairo (credit)
The attacks on American embassies this week in Egypt, Libya (resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues) and Yemen coupled with the looming presidential election in the USA have turned my heart and mind back to Scripture as I consider how citizens of heaven who still reside in this broken world should respond. I wrote the following post in 2005 and it remains a good outline of my thinking on these types of issues. The increasingly rapid overthrow of moral restraints in our nation confronts believers and churches with many temptations. Do we organize for political activism? Do we withdraw in pietistic isolationism? How do we engage? As history indicates, that question evokes a wide range of responses from believers who genuinely want to follow Christ faithfully. I don't profess to have definitive answers. But I do realize the necessity of openly facing the question.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me try to clarify my thinking on church and politics. The nature, purpose and mission of the church are to be determined by the Word of God and the Word of God alone. As a pastor I have often been lobbied by individuals and organizations who have wanted "my church" to go on record in support of (Right to Life) or protest against (public schools) various political and social causes. By and large I have declined such overtures.

I have done so while having strong convictions and being very outspoken about some of those very causes (prolife is my one-issue-litmus-test for candidates for public office and I think the government education system is hopelessly broken). This has resulted in charges of being inconsistent, "pietistic" and even "liberal" (it is hard to imagine how anyone could confuse me with a liberal!). In my own mind, I am simply trying to be carefully consistent.

I make a distinction (a necessary one, it seems to me) between the role and function of the church and the role and function of individual believers. A Christian can go to war in behalf of the state, but a church must never take up the physical sword as part of its mission. A Christian can be a magistrate (king, president, senator, etc.) but a church must never seek to rule a geo-political structure with political authority.

In 1996 I wrote the following words. They still express my convictions on this matter:
There is within the religious right much which is commendable. Their stated motivations and intentions are worthy of every Christian's appreciation. Who among the people of God is not dismayed over the cultural decay all around us? Adultery, fornication, homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia are now widely hailed as standard practices of the new morality. Governmental corruption is accepted as inevitable. Educational lunacy prevails at what are supposed to be the highest centers of learning. The prophetic judgment against "those who call evil good, and good evil" (Isa. 5:20) cannot help but resonate within the heart of the believer.

We all recognize that some kind of action is called for, and at least the religious right is doing something. They will not allow us to close our eyes to the moral degeneration all around us. As citizens, individual Christians who fulfill their calling in this way can provide a tremendous ministry. It is right and proper for Christians to be involved in every level of politics as individual citizens. But when they call for a Christian congregation to become institutionally involved in political activism they are guilty of distracting that church from its God-given mission. It is precisely because of this that the religious right's proposals are disastrous for evangelical churches (from "Reformation, Revival and the Religious Right").
I find much agreement with Martyn Lloyd-Jones at this point. In an interview with Carl Henry in 1980 he said,
"It amazes me that evangelicals have suddenly taken such an interest in politics." He went on to call such interest "sheer folly.... You can't reform the world. That's why I disagree entirely with the 'social and cultural mandate' teaching and its appeal to Genesis 1:28. It seems to me to forget completely the Fall. You can't Christianize the world. The end time is going to be like the time of the Flood. The condition of the modern world proves that what we must preach more than ever is 'Escape from the wrath to come!' The situation is critical. I believe the Christian people--but not the church--should get involved in politics and social affairs. The kingdom task of the church is to save men from the wrath to come by bringing them to Christ. This is what I believe and emphasize. The main function of politics, culture, and all these things is to restrain evil. They can never do an ultimately positive work. Surely the history of the world demonstrates that. You can never Christianize the world" (Christianity Today, February 8, 1980, pp. 33-34).

It is for this reason that all the calls to "reclaim America for Christ" leave me cold. Our real need is to reclaim the church for Christ. When Christ is exalted in His church, when He is loved and revered and cherished with passion by those who bear His Name--in other words, when the church starts living like the church--then His body cannot help but make an impact on culture.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Biblical Wisdom on Church Discipline

The most serious step that a church can take is to remove one of its members and, in the words of the Apostle Paul, turn such a one "over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord" (1 Corinthians 5:5). It is a sobering experience for both the church and for the individual, if he or she has a genuine grasp on the authority of Jesus Christ through His Word and as Lord of His church (Matthew 18:15-20).

Whenever a church takes this final step of removing one of her members, inevitably the question arises among sensitive and thoughtful believers, "How are we to treat those who have been removed?" Sometimes, sentimentalism trumps Scripture in the minds of some church members and the result that injury is done to the souls of those who are being subjected to the God-ordained means of discipline. Church discipline is one of the main ways that Christ pursues His wayward sheep. But if they are not regarded as wayward, or if Christ's own words are disobeyed by believers who have sentimental, unbiblical ideas of love, then spiritual damage inevitably results as the redemptive process of church discipline is undermined.

At the 2006 Ligonier's Conference in Orlando, Florida, Ligon Duncan, R.C. Sproul, Ken Jones and John MacArthur were asked about this during a panel discussion. Their responses are filled with wisdom, humility and grace. I encourage you to take 9 minutes and listen to their insights in the audio clip below.

A special thanks to Chris Larsen and the good folks at Ligonier for permission to post this.