Friday, April 18, 2014

The House of Forgiveness

In meditating on the Scripture’s teaching about forgiveness this week, I noticed something: God’s forgiveness in Christ is not described as an intensely individualistic and personal reality, but a reality experienced corporately in the “basics” He has given His Church.

Fellowship: “...if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin...if we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:7,9).

Praise: “ the one who...believes in Him Who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness, just as David also speaks [in Psalm 32:1,2] of the blessing on the man to whom God credits righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those who lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord will not take into account’” (Romans 4:5-8). See also Psalm 25:18; 32:5; 85:2; 99:8.

Baptism: “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit’” (Acts 2:37,38).

The Lord’s Supper: “And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins’” (Matthew 26:27,28).

  • “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem’” (Luke 24:45-47).
  • “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One Who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins” (Acts 10:42,43).

Perhaps those believers who are struggling with their assurance or feelings of guilt need to ask if they are participating in the corporate life of the Church, where forgiveness is proclaimed and awareness of its reality in Christ is driven deep by the Spirit. We pastors should ask if we are being faithful in this regard over the ones “the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). Are we proclaiming “repentance for forgiveness of sins” (Luke 24:47)? Are we regularly and faithfully administering the ordinances/sacraments? Does the praise of the Church express repentance and the truth of forgiveness in Christ? If our fellowship is not richly infused with the language of “the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us” (Ephesians 1:7,8a) and the transfer of the Church “to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13,14), we should prayerfully lead it back to this truth. We should guard against false, worldly, pop-psychology ideas like repentance-free forgiveness and “forgiving self.” The spiritual, emotional, and psychological health of the congregation depends on this. The Church is the congregation of the forgiven. Unless the forgiveness found only in Christ is a rich part of our gathering, this health will falter.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Two Little Words and the Cowardly Pastor

I recently had a pastor sitting in my office. We updated each other on things that were going on in our lives for a while, then spoke of plans and things on our radar for the future. He paused for a second, looked at me, and asked, “how do you deal with discouragement in ministry?”

Wrong guy to ask, brother.

I pastor two churches. My Sunday afternoons between services are spent driving 98 miles south to a border church and then driving back. I go down there for an additional Bible study once a month, and occasionally head down there as needs arise. When I first took on this blessed responsibility, it was weird for a lot of people (including myself). The fact that I would serve another congregation during those hours between the morning and evening service frankly bothered some folks.

I remember a committee meeting at my “main” church about six years ago. There was a man in that meeting who tended to openly oppose me (he’s no longer a member of the church). He was sitting by me, but addressed the rest of the committee like I wasn’t there: “Who’s going to pay for the gas for the pastor’s ‘pet project’?” No one challenged him. Not even me.

I tend to bury that stuff deep inside, and it becomes a nagging fear (I guess that’s the word for it) that manipulates me in ministry. Even after that guy left the church the following year, his words (“pet project”) haunted me. It moved me to seek sources of funding for the Sunday afternoon mission outside the church, just so I wouldn’t have to hear those words again.

I thought I had “cast a vision” (to use the modern terminology) that it was an opportunity for us as a congregation to bless a sister church...had I failed? Was I wrong in doing this thing?

Looking back, I realized that these words pushed me away from leading our church to be more missional than we were. The hurt had become fear, which had become disobedience to the Word and failure to faithfully pastor the congregation.

Even three years ago, when I was asked to be part of an annual international mission, this stronghold in my heart planted its flag when it came time to fund-raise. And it did it again the second year when it came time to fund-raise. And this year, the third, year, until...

...last Sunday in the pulpit one of our members, in announcing a pie auction to raise funds for the mission, called it “our Philippines mission.”

And with that one plural possessive pronoun (don’t tell me grammar’s not important) the stronghold fell. The hidden pain which had been fed in the darkness until it became a fear which became a disobedience in my life was demolished. Two words (“pet project”) were defeated by one word (“our”).

Sure, I’m probably a coward. But I know I can’t change hearts. All I can do is submit to God, Who called me to this place to preach the Word expositionally week after week after week, no matter how hurt and fearful and disobedient I am. I kept driving and preaching on my Sunday afternoons – not because I was brave, but because I knew it’s what God would have this little coward to do. I kept committing to the overseas trip, even though that meant I had to rely on others for fund-raising...which meant I was going to have to be vulnerable to the possibility of someone accusing me of raising money for my “pet project.”

What’s pathetic about those two words from six years ago is that it’s so far from the attitude of the church as a whole. They’ve always support me, prayed for me, encouraged me. But I’m small and weak, and derailed by two words.

God is merciful and good, and looking back I see what He’s done despite my weakness as pastor of these beautiful little churches in the remote Southwest U.S.A.

How do I deal with discouragement, fellow pastor? Not very well. Inside I tend to sit the ashes, while plugging on wearing a brave face on the outside.

So, maybe the lesson here is consistence, or perseverance. Don’t quit if the mission/ministry is God-given. You’re probably thinking, “TWO WORDS?! You’re all introspective and moping about TWO WORDS – from a guy who’s not even been around for five years?! I only wish it were just two words in my case!!”

You’re right. Both congregations are now thriving, both have a heart for missions, and both are more loving, supportive, and encouraging than I can tell you. It’s stupid and weak that two echoing words buried deep in my heart hampered me so much. I agree and confess it freely.

I was moved to take on the second church by a passage of Paul’s in 2 Corinthians: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one - I am talking like a madman - with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches11:23-28). It’s not that I thought I faced anything even remotely close to the long list of outward struggles that Paul rehearses. It was the fact that his outward circumstances didn’t consume his heart – the churches did. How Christ-like! That motivated me to give my Sunday afternoons – just a few hours a week – to tending to this little congregation in the middle of nowhere.

A few verses later Paul gives us a bit of red letter that comes from the risen and ascended Jesus, Who ever lives to make intercession for those who draw near to God through Him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:9). The apostle’s “ the flesh,” a “messenger from Satan,” was probably more than two words. But the point is the same.

Keep on following the heart of Christ for His people, no matter how weak or emotionally crippled you feel. Even if you aren’t blessed in this life as I was this last Sunday when I heard the unexpected but gloriously reviving words “our Philippines mission,” the promise is laid out for His faithful (even if weak) servants, that one day they will hear the words “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21,23; Luke 19:17).

Friday, April 4, 2014

Twenty Years.

20 years ago today I was driving home after a service at Cedar Heights Baptist Church (North Little Rock, Arkansas, U.S.A.). Pastor David Guzman (Iglesia Bautista Bethania, Monterrey, Mexico) preached that night. As I was on the overpass over I-40, God downloaded a new (to me) “software update.” That’s the only way I know how to describe it. One moment I had a life-plan set out as a bassoon player/teacher. The next moment I knew I was supposed to preach the Word. I didn’t know how this would happen and wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the prospect (I was, and am, a very shy introvert). But I knew this was what I was supposed to do, and by the grace of God there were no instincts of rebellion against this call. As I’ve looked back this week, I am exceedingly thankful for the opportunities my pastor and home church gave me, for those who poured encouragement and advice into my life, seminary education, the written wisdom of those who came before me, my bride and family, and the churches in which I now much blessing and grace and mercy! All praise be to God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

“The way appointed by Christ for the calling of any person fitted and gifted by the Holy Spirit for the office of bishop or elder in a church, is that he is to be chosen by the common consent and vote of the church itself. Such a person should be solemnly set apart by fasting and prayer, with the laying on of hands of the eldership of the church (if there be any previously appoint elder or elders)” (1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, 26.9).

A few reflections...

We don’t do this by ourselves. Paul didn’t (Acts 13:1-4; 14:26-28; 15:4,12; 21:9).

We don’t do this by our own will and authority, but by the Spirit-guided blessing of the leaders of the local congregations of which we are covenant members (1 Timothy 4:14; 5:22).

We don’t do this before men alone, but speak, preach, teach, counsel, give witness, read, and pray in the sight of the God Who has commissioned us through His Church (2 Corinthians 4:2; 5:11).

I have grown and changed in my views on many things over the decades – eschatology, ecclesiology, worship, Catholic mysticism, the sacraments, confessions, etc. I have no problem admitting that I have developed and morphed on these and other topics. One of the Sunday School teachers in one of the churches in which I now serve pointed out that my attitude toward confessions has changed in the last seven years. He said he’d be worried about me if I didn’t grow like everyone else. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still an idealist and have a visceral reaction to the words “practical” and “pragmatic.” And I get downright angry at false teachers.

I have fought battles with depression all of my life, but am always happy to tell others who are on a similar path that the darkness fades the older I get. I see the truth and promises of the Word become larger and larger every year I gaze at them, and the light is much brighter now in my weak eyes than it was in previous times.

I am humbled by the daily realization that I don’t know enough about holiness, prayer, or wisdom. Some days I feel I know nothing on these topics. I’m light-years from where I used to be as far as my shyness, but I know I still have a long way to go. I move like a glacier in a lot of areas of my life, including social development. I meet with some guys at a coffeeshop every Thursday morning – it took me three weeks to ask the barista his name. I still have a long way to go. Yesterday he saw me come in and said, “it’s Thursday already?! Time flies!” Yes. It does.

I am thankful every hour for the Gospel, for I need it every hour. We never, never, never outgrow the Gospel.

I have been utterly heartbroken by death and division.

I have rejoiced in seeing souls kindled into flame by truth and seeing a row of little ones looking curiously into the baptistry.

I have weekly been reminded of my love for the Church looking out at them over the Lord’s Supper table. I have been healed of hurts dealt me in the Church by spending time with the Church itself (as opposed to those who run because there are sinners like themselves in the congregation). The Lord has used the little border Church where I spend my afternoons to pour such healing grace into my life – the story is impossible to tell because of its world-less depth.

I couldn’t do this without my bride – I can trust her wisdom and her heart and her respect for the pastoral office and her grace in listening to me ramble through confusion. I couldn’t do it without her.

It’s been an amazing 20 years. None of us know how many seconds or decades are ahead, but that’s not up to us. The worldview through which we walk in these moments makes all the difference. I always tell people that we spend so much time trying to analyze the “signs of the times” in our obsession with the “end-times” that we ignore the fact that the Bible’s words are overwhelmingly concerned with teaching us how to live as God’s covenant people on a day-to-day basis in this world. At the same time, we have not spent time on the topic of dying well; this subject consumed a lot of the teaching of our forefathers. We somehow manage to ignore living well and dying well at the same time! I do my best to engage both through the eyes of Paul: “...Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. But if I am to live on in the flesh, this will mean fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which to choose. But I am hard-pressed from both directions, having the desire to depart and be with Christ, for that is very much better; yet to remain on in the flesh is more necessary for your sake. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy in the faith” (Philippians 1:20-25).

At the same time, I’m going to enjoy the good gifts He has given for this day, even if they may all be taken tomorrow. His world is beautiful and amazing. I purpose to never ignore the wonder of the mountains on my drive into town and back home every day. I will enjoy good food, and my bride. “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works. Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-10).

Whatever I am, it is because of the eternal purpose of the Father, the saving work of the Son, and the application of that purpose and work to my life by the Holy Spirit. The infinitely glorious grace of the Triune God in my life is greater than anything this world has to offer, and it is the foundation and goal of all I am and do.

To God alone be the glory forever and ever and ever.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Empty Phantoms and Brain-Idols

My preaching schedule will have me completing Genesis 1 this Sunday. Since chapters 2 and 3 are ahead, I’m re-reading Herman Witsius’ The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (1677). It was reading this three years ago that first got me excitedly thinking about preaching through this part of the Bible.

Most of us are familiar with the passage in the creation narrative in which the singular God refers to Himself with plural pronouns: “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth’” (Genesis 1:26).

If you’re an especially observant biblical student, you’ve probably taken note of the other places where this curious singular//plural language occurs: Genesis 3:22; 11:7; 18:1-33; Isaiah 6:8.

Witsius notes several other places where the Creator-God, Who is One (Isaiah 37:16; 44:24; 45:18; 1 Corinthians 8:6), is identified with a plural noun. I include this quote for our edification, since our English translations don’t usually reflect the plural in these places: “It cannot certainly be without design, that the scripture, when speaking of man’s Creator, so often uses the plural number: as Is. liv.5 בעליך עשיך, which literally signifies, thy husbands, thy makers, Psal. cxlix.2. ישמח ישראל בעשיו, Let Israel rejoice and his makers. Nay, requires man to attend to this, and engrave it on his mind, Eccl. xii.1 את־בוראיך וזכר, remember thy creators. It is criminal when man neglects it; and says not Job xxxv.10. איה אלוה עשי, where is God my makers? Which phrases, unless referred to a Trinity of persons, might appear to be dangerous” (Book 1, chapter II, part VI).

The Bible is full of references to a plurality in the one true God. On the same page as the above quote, Witsius reflects on the importance of knowing, confessing, and worshiping God as Trinity: “And it may justly be doubted, whether he does not worship God entirely unknown, nay, whether he at all worship the true God, who does not know and worship him, as subsisting in three persons. Whoever represents God to himself in any other light, represents not God, but an empty phantom, and an idol of his own brain.”