Dr. Os Guinness speaks to Acton Institute, a message titled: The Power of the Gospel No Matter How Dark the Times. This message, though long, is powerful, and is related to a post I published earlier this week titled: Culture Shaping Power of the Church.
Preaching the Gospel to Ourselves Each and Every Day
C.J. Mahaney reminds us of the importance and benefits of preaching the gospel to ourselves each and every day.
One of the more helpful works I have read concerning gospel-centered Christianity is Jared Wilson‘s Gospel Wakefulness. Perhaps most insightful to me was Jared’s point that gospel-centeredness can be explained but cannot be taught. In other words, it requires a grace of the holy spirit. I do not think this realization moves gospel-centeredness into a neo-gnostic or higher life kind of category. It simply is the realization that it is God who must work in us in our sanctification. Thus the phrase Jared Wilson uses is Gospel Wakefulness.
In this video, Jared Wilson explain what Gospel-Wakefulness is. This is not a short video, by any measure. But it is worth taking the time – whether in one sitting, or in a series of starts-and-stops.
Getting Through Challenges to Missional Community
As we have been encouraging the small groups in our church to add a more intentional outward face, I thought I would post this piece by Jonathan Dodson that provides a solid three-legged-base counsel concerning missional communities – which is what small groups embracing an outward face are in transition toward becomming.
The popularity of missional community is rising among evangelicals, and yet, the American church is nowhere near a missional tipping point. I’ve faced missional highs and missional lows. Along the way, I’ve considered a number of things that are absolutely necessary for us to endure the transition to missional church. How should we respond to the challenges of missional community? Here are three things to keep in mind as you lead in God’s mission (and thanks for doing so).
1. Building Missional Community Requires Stretched Grace.
We need more than a drop of grace to get us going on God’s mission. We need an ocean of grace to swim in to continue on God’s mission together. Do you remember when you knew nothing about “missional church”? That’s where many people are. Do you recall how long it took you to process, assimilate, and live out the principles of missional community? This probably took a couple of years, and if you’re a leader, you are in it “full time”. When leading others in missional community, remember the slowness in your own story and extend others the same grace and patience King Jesus extended you. After all, the kingdom of God is slow, and thank God for that! We need more than a drop of grace to get us going on God’s mission. We need grace stretched across the length of our lives and depth of our missional failures and successes. Jesus secured this grace, so revel in it and splash it on others.
Leader Tip: Try to avoid making mission a new benchmark of religious performance. Instead, motivate people with grace. Grace preached and grace embodied. Embody the grace of Christ, who has put up with our missional fumblings for centuries, as you lead others on mission. When it comes to mission, it’s not perfection overnight but progress over a lifetime.
2. Community is What You Make of It.
In order to make progress with your community, remind them that community is what you make it. Community isn’t an idea; its real people, awkward, struggling, weird, different, funny, slow, arrogant, sheepish, humble, curious, skeptical, excitable. You get the idea. Jesus didn’t die to make cliques; he died and rose to form diverse communities. Diverse and different is hard. It requires love, effort, and patience. Community doesn’t just magically appear in a church. In fact, churches don’t have community at all; they are community. The question is, “What will you make of the community?” I’m falling in love with real community, which is really messy, with people who are so different from me and yet so alike in Jesus. There’s nothing like pursuing difficult people, being loved by different people, serving alongside a diverse people. What a display of grace (nothing else could hold us together).
Leader Tip: In a highly consumeristic, individual-centered society, it will take at least a generation to get back to the biblical notion of community. And even then, we will need more than community to sustain community. Let’s all agree to shatter our ideal of community and enter the real community of people God has placed in our lives. Let’s lift Christ higher than the community. Jesus is head not the body. He’s lord of the church. He’s the hope of the community, not the community itself. Community needs a center deeper than connection and a purpose greater than comfort. It needs the Lord of Community, Jesus Christ, to knit unlikely people together as a display of our common need for grace. Insist on this.
3. Labor for the Lord of Mission not the Fruit of Mission.
With all the missional hype, our faith can easily slip from trusting in the Lord of the Harvest to trusting in the fruit of our labors. I’ve had several deep relationships with non-Christians dissolve over the past year and a half. This came after spending a lot of time with them over meals, out for philosophy discussions, in our home for counseling, and with our family doing fun stuff. They were loved and heard the gospel in ways that were profoundly relevant to their own fears, struggles, and hopes…and they walked away. They walked away from Jesus and created distance from us. That’s hard. If I’m putting faith in the fruit of my missional labors (at least at what I can see), then I’m discouraged. But if I’m putting faith in the Lord of the Harvest, I can be confident that he has been lifted up and that he is in charge of all salvation. He has endured much more to witness friends walk away from his costly sacrifice. He’s not only a model of missional endurance; he’s the hope for missional endurance.
Leader Tip: Put your faith in the Lord of Mission not the fruit of mission. It can be easy to congratuate ourselves when mission is high and berate ourselves when mission is low. That’s a sign that we’ve misplaced our faith. We put it in ourselves or our “fruitfulness.” Come back to the gospel every single day and ask the Spirit to put Jesus highest among your affections and greatest among your hopes. Keep repenting and putting your faith in Jesus and he will take care of the mission.
What If We Omitted Gospel, Community, or Mission?
The refrain from an old song says: “Two out of three ain’t bad.” But would this be true for a church, or a Christian, who incorporates 2 out of 3 of the core values: Gospel, Community, Mission?
Consider these thoughts, framed as a mathematical equation:
Gospel + Community – Mission
If we have a Gospel Community, without the mission or ‘sent’ aspect in our DNA, then we become a church that is all about ourselves. We may love the gospel, and love that the good news has impacted our minds, and even desire to live that out with other people like us. But living as ‘sent ones’ to our neighborhood seems too difficult. When this happens a Christian ghetto surrounds the church, and an “us vs them” mentality is created. This misses the entire point of the “go” in Christ’s great commission. (Matthew 28.17-21)
Such communities of believers are often very good at living as gospel families. They take care of each other well: they provide for one anothers’ needs, and they draw very close to one another. But the lack of engagement with the world, and and absence of multiplication, is vividly evident. Sometimes such an inward focus is even worn as a badge of honor, since it may be believed by our isolation we are not being ‘polluted’ by the world.
Such communities usually have a heavy emphasis on bible studies, men’s groups, women’s group, children’s programs, etc. The groups will usually have an “open invitation” to those on the outside. But because they don’t believe they are “sent” to their community, they rarely see disciples made of the un-churched people around them. Numerical growth typically comes from like-minded people moving into their area, or through having children, or stealing the members from other churches that may offer fewer activities or which may be going through some turbulent times. Rarely will they be faced with the general public pushing into the Kingdom, because they never engage general public with the gospel message outside the walls of their church building.
The overall goal is usually to prompt a great understanding of the Word and theology, but it is often intellectually gluttonous and missionally starved… because the reason for the Word and theology is to drive us to glorify God and show us our role in God’s redemptive drama. If it’s not being used towards that end then it’s being misused.
Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad
I began reading Paul Tripp’s Broken Down House earlier this week. I had read it before, or rather I should say I skimmed it before, but did not take the time to allow Tripp’s poignant insights to resonate in my soul. I raced through it last time, getting the general gist, but not digesting much in the way of spiritual nourishment. That’s a mistake I am carefully avoiding this time through.
In Broken Down House Tripp uses the analogy of a home in serious disrepair as a reflection of our life in this world. In the video above he introduces the themes he writes about.
Recovering the Grand Cosmic Significance
“We need to recover the grand, cosmic significance of Jesus’ saving activity that moves the gospel out of the narrow realm of self-preoccupation. One of the marvelous things about the gospel is that He has saved us so that we can be a part of His redeeming activity. The gospel, properly understood, is much broader than our concerns for personal survival, security, significance, success, or even self-centered sanctification. It presents us with a plunderer, and it bids us to throw ourselves away in the pursuit of this new world order.”
~ Bob Heppe
Two Contents, Two Realities
Francis Schaeffer said: “there are four things which are absolutely necessary if we as Christians are going to meet the need of our age and the overwhelming pressure we are increasingly facing.” These four things are two contents and two realities:
The First Content: Sound Doctrine
The Second Content: Honest Answers to Honest Questions
The First Reality: True Spirituality
The Second Reality: The Beauty of Human Relationships
Each link above will take you the substance of the respective Contents and Realities. I am convinced they are worth consideration. Why? Because I believe Schaeffer was right when he wrote:
[W]hen there are the two contents and the two realities, we will begin to see something profound happen in our generation.
Wading in the Gospel Deep
The message of the gospel is shallow enough for a child to wade in and yet deep enough to drown an elephant, and to grasp it we suggest following the summary of the gospel story through the four narrative acts of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. As each act of the drama unfolds, it’s important to keep in mind that the gospel is first and foremost God’s story. Though it has important implications for our lives today, it is a story written and conceived by God himself. It describes how his created beings committed cosmic treason against his just and loving rule, and how he took the loving initiative to rescue his people out of their rebellion and from the consequences of our folly, guilt, and certain death. The full story of the gospel communicates the compelling truth about God, what he requires of us, and what he has done for us. It tells us the truth – about our world, about who we really are, and about our destiny.
~ Tom Wood & Scott Thomas, from Gospel Coach
Early in my Christian life I heard someone say, “The Bible was not given to increase your knowledge but to guide your conduct.” Later I came to realize that this statement was simplistic at best and erroneous at worst. The Bible is far more than a rulebook to follow. It is primarily the message of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ, with everything in Scripture before the cross pointing to God’s redemptive work and everything after the cross–including our sanctification–flowing from that work.
There is an element of truth in this statement, however, and the Holy Spirit used it to help me to see that the Bible is not to be read just to gain knowledge. It is, indeed, to be obeyed and practically applied in our daily lives. As James says, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22).
With my new insight, I prayed that God would use the Bible to guide my conduct. Then I began diligently to seek to obey it. I had never heard the phrase “the pursuit of holiness,” but that became my primary goal in life. Unfortunately, I made two mistakes. First, I assumed the Bible was something of a rulebook and that all I needed to do was to learn what it says and go do it. I knew nothing of the necessity of depending on the Holy Spirit for his guidance and enablement.
Still worse, I assumed that God’s acceptance of me and his blessing in my life depended on how well I did. I knew I was saved by grace through faith in Christ apart from any works. I had assurance of my salvation and expected to go to heaven when I died. But in my daily life, I thought God’s blessing depended on the practice of certain spiritual disciplines, such as having a daily quiet time and not knowingly committing any sin. I did not think this out but just unconsciously assumed it, given the Christian culture in which I lived. Yet it determined my attitude toward the Christian life.
Get the Gospel Right
If pressed for a quick summary of my philosophy of ministry, I would probably express it something like this:
- Get the Gospel Right
- Get the Gospel Out
- Get the Gospel Out Right
Without a message there is no mission.
Unfortunately, it seems, many are so zealous to get about the mission that they make little time getting the message of the gospel right. They do not stand amazed at what God has done for us in the person of Christ. Consequently, they are not being formed or transformed by the gospel. They are more anxious about what they will do for God than excited by what God has done for us, and what he is doing in us, and what God has promised to do through us – if only we would root ourselves in the gospel. And because some are neither formed or being transformed, they go out uninformed.
If we are not conscious of what God is doing in us, what do we think we have to offer those who are around us?
While no doubt knowledge without zeal is dead. It is equally true that zeal without knowledge is deadly.
Q & A w/ Paul Miller
The folks at Desiring God have published a series of posts from an interview with my friend Paul Miller. Paul is the author of the acclaimed book, A Praying Life; and was the developer of the influential discipleship curriculum SONSHIP.
To read each of the short posts, click the word below reflecting the theme:
A good article by Trevin Wax illustrating the importance of, not only Gospel-centeredness but, Gospel Celebration. Wax asserts:
“What you celebrate as a Church is just as important as what you believe.”
I am not sure I fully agree with that statement, but I do see how what is celebrated practically shapes the church, and therefore its people and mission. And, I suspect it is also true that if we truly understand the Gospel we will celebrate it – and especially the God who authored the Gospel and the Messiah who embodies the Gospel. To celebrate anything else merely exposes our true values – in other words, our idols. To not celebrate Christ above all else reveals that we do not actually understand the Gospel.
So, practically speaking, I guess I do agree with that statement more than I first thought.
Wax goes on to suggest:
Celebrate the gospel, and cross-cultural ministry will bubble up in surprising ways. Celebrate your church’s preferential distinctions, and your congregation will become an insular group of like-minded individuals.
Wax drives his point home with two true-to-life illustrations.
To read the article click: Celebration
Gospel-centeredness is a vital strategic principle for ministry in the 21st (and the 1st!) century. I do not simply mean by ‘gospel-centered’ that ministry is to be doctrinally orthodox. Of course it must certainly be that. I am speaking more specifically.
(1.) The gospel is “I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey” while every other religion operates on the principle of “I obey, therefore I am accepted.”
(2.) Martin Luther’s fundamental insight was that this latter principle, the principle of ‘religion’ is the deep default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts will always be trying to return to the mode of self-salvation, which leads to much spiritual deadness, pride and strife, and ministry ineffectiveness.
(3.) We must communicate the gospel clearly – not a click toward legalism and not a click toward license. Legalism/moralism is truth without grace (which is not real truth); relativism is grace without truth (which is not real grace). To the degree a ministry fails to do justice to both, it simply loses life-changing power.
Text: Acts 15:1-25
Here we see Paul, in the middle of a church-planting career, going to Jerusalem for a big theological debate. Now, why do that? Surely we ministers need to be about the work of evangelism, not going in for theological discussions! But Paul makes no bifurcation here. Chapter 15 is down the middle of Paul’s mission! It’s clarifying the gospel itself.
(1) The cause of the debate is that the earliest Gentile converts to Christianity had already become Jewish culturally. That is, many of them were “God-fearers” who had been circumcised and/or abided by the clean laws and the Mosaic legislation.
(2) Then Paul began bringing in real pagans or God-fearers who had not become culturally Jewish. And he was not demanding that, when they became Christians, that they had to adopt Jewish cultural patterns.
(3) Then a group arose (15:1) saying, “unless you are circumcised according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved”. They had taken cultural norms and promoted them to be matters of virtue and spiritual merit. When they did that, they lost grasp on the gospel of grace and slid into ‘religion’.
(4) The Council on the one hand in Peter, got hold of one end of the stick: v.6-11 No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we [Jews] are saved, just as they are.”
(5) But, wouldn’t you know it – James gets a hold of the other end of the stick. He agrees with Peter, but rightly asserts that Gentile Christians, though free from any requirements as to salvation, are not free to live as they like as members of a Christian community. They are obliged to live in love and to respect the scruples of culturally different Jewish brethren. So they are ordered (we tend to miss this) to live in such a way that does not offend or distress their brethren who are culturally different. (They are not to eat raw meat, they are to abide by Levitical marriage laws, and so on.) There could hardly be a better case study of the old Luther – proverb that expresses the balance of the gospel. We are “saved by faith alone, but not by faith that is alone.” We are not saved by how we behave, but once we are saved we behave in love.
So “religion” just drains the spiritual life out of a church. But you can “fall off the horse” on the other side too. You can miss the gospel not only through legalism but through relativism. When God is whoever you want to make him, and right and wrong are whatever you want to make them – you have also drained the spiritual life out of a church. If God is preached as simply a demanding, angry God or if he is preached as simply an all-loving God who never demands anything – in either case the listeners will not be transformed. They may be frightened or inspired or soothed, but they will not have their lives changed at the root, because they are not hearing the gospel. The gospel shows us that God is far more holy and absolute than the moralists’ god, because he could not be satisfied by our moral efforts, even the best! On the other hand the gospel shows us that God is far more loving and gracious than the relativists’ god. They say that God (if he exists) just loves everyone no matter what they do. The true God of the gospel had to suffer and die to save us, while the god of the relativist pays no price to love us.
The gospel produces a unique blend of humility and boldness/joy in the convert. If you preach just a demanding God, the listener will have “low self-esteem”; if you preach just an all-loving God, the listener will have higher self-esteem. But the gospel produces something beyond both of those. The gospel says: I am so lost Jesus had to die to save me. But I am so loved that Jesus was glad to die to save me. That changes the very basis of my identity – it transforms me from the root.
I can’t tell you how important this is in all mission and ministry. Unless you distinguish the gospel from both religion and irreligion – from both traditional moralism and liberal relativism – then newcomers in your services will automatically think you are simply calling them to be good and nice people. They will be bored. But when, as here in Acts 15, the gospel is communicated in its unique, counter-intuitive balance of truth and love, then listeners will be surprised. Most people today try to place the church somewhere along a spectrum from “liberal” to “conservative” – from the relativistic to the moralistic. But when they see a church filled with people who insist on the truth, but without a shred of superiority or self-righteousness – this simply explodes their categories. To them, people who have the truth are not gracious, people who are gracious and accepting say “who knows what is the truth?” Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority, because you are sinner saved by grace. This balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love – is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts.
Paul knew that ‘getting the gospel straight’ – not falling off into either legalism on the one hand or license on the other – is absolutely critical to the mission of the church. The secret of ministry power is getting the gospel clear. To be even slightly off to one side or another, loses tons of spiritual power. And people don’t get really converted. Legalistic churches reform people’s behavior through social coercion, but the people stay radically insecure and hyper-critical. They don’t achieve the new inner peace that the grace of God brings. The more relativistic churches give members some self-esteem and the veneer of peace but in the end that is superficial too. The result, Archibald Alexander said, is like trying to put a signet ring on the wax to seal a letter, but without any heat! Either the ring will affect the surface of the wax only or break it into pieces. You need heat to permanently change the wax into the likeness of the ring. So without the Holy Spirit working through the gospel, radically humbling and radically exalting us and changing them from the inside out, the religion either of the hard or soft variety will not avail.
Conclusion: Who is sufficient for these things? Not me! But fortunately, Jesus is the great church planter! He said, “I will plant my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it!” (Matthew 16) and “Therefore, go to every ethnic group and bring them to be my followers.” (Matthew 28). It’s a good thing he is really the church planter–or we’d have no hope. But since he is the church planter, we have all the hope in the world!
Gospel Discipling: Gospel & Evangelism
Another area of major concern within the evangelical church today is the ineffectiveness of much evangelistic effort – when it is undertaken at all.
I think one key element in this ineffectiveness is the mindset evangelicals have established that concludes that the unbeliever needs an entirely different message from the believer. When there is a recognition that, in fact, we both need to hear the same message, an important change takes place both in the attitude of the Christian and in the atmosphere of the church. Instead of thinking we need to preach the gospel to them, the environment becomes one of mutual seeking to know the gospel, and the recognition that we are at different stages of understanding. Furthermore, the proclamation of the gospel means more than evangelistic appeals.
Pastors and teachers who understand grace personally, and know how to distinguish Law and Gospel in their proclamation, will teach the gospel from anywhere in Scripture.
For all of the cultural changes we are experiencing, I still believe the church is a place where conversions can take place. But this requires that we have a setting in which all who come, come to hear and believe the gospel. This is happening today, and there are wonderful examples of churches where there are numerous conversions both in the services of the church and through the joyful overflow of the gospel in the daily lives of members.
This is Part 5 of a 5-part series titled Gospel Discipling. This series is taken from an essay by Stephen Smallman, author of Spiritual Birthline and past Executive Director of World Harvest Mission. Some of the content has been edited.
Thanks also to New City Fellowship of St. Louis, who posted Smallman’s essay on their web page.
To read Parts 1-4 click: Introduction; Romans as Model; Gospel & Adoption; Gospel & Renewal