Have you tried doing ‘Ordinary Christianity?’

I sometimes meet people who think they are doing pretty well at “this whole Christianity thing.” They seem completely confident that they are spiritually mature and well-able to meet whatever life may toss at them.

If this seems far-fetched, it’s probably because we all know that we are much less mature and prepared than we sometimes make ourselves out to be.

In my own spiritual development, it has become quite helpful to realize that “discipleship” and “ordinary Christianity” are the same thing… Let me explain.

I do not mean that your common or ordinary experience of Christianity is true discipleship. You may be an exemplary disciple of Christ, who also disciples others, but this is not common in our American Evangelical culture.

I am saying that the Bible only knows of ordinary Christians who are disciples. A disciple is a learner, a follower, a practitioner, and a student of the Master. Jesus commissioned His disciples to “make disciples” (Matt. 28:18-20), and every generation since has been responsible for the same commission.

If you are a Christian, you should be a disciple (connected with at least one Christian who leads you towards greater spiritual maturity) and a disciple-maker (connected with at least one Christian who follows you towards greater spiritual maturity).

Let’s look at several verses to see how our unity with Christ and with one another impacts the concept of ordinary Christian discipleship.

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father” (Colossians 1:2 and similar usages in Ephesians 1:1 and Philippians 1:1).

Simply put, all Christians are ‘saints,’ ‘brothers,’ and ‘in Christ.’ This means that no Christian is outside of the family of faith, and no Christian is an island unto himself or herself. This should affect the way all Christians view their responsibility to and benefit from one another.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1–2).

In this passage, we are reminded that all Christians are completely free from condemnation from God. We may lament our ongoing failure to live perfectly free from sin, but we do not have to fear God’s wrath at all. We are free from the law of sin and death, though we still must war against our sinful desires in this life until we are finally completed in glory in the life to come.

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready…” (1 Corinthians 3:1–2).

Here we are forced to recognize that Christian disciples may be mature or immature. The goal is the same for all disciples: grow to become ‘spiritual people,’ that is spiritually mature or Christ-like. However, each disciple will progress differently, and each will be at a different place on the continuum of spiritual development. Some are ‘infants,’ others are spiritual adults (1 Cor. 16:13), and most are likely somewhere in between.

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (John 15:5–6).

In this passage, we learn to expect good ‘fruit’ (or growth in holiness) from all those who are ‘in Christ’ (i.e. Christian). Of course, the fruit of godly living is a direct result of union with Christ; “apart from [Christ] you can do nothing.” The Christian rejoices and praises God for any good that is his/hers.

The flipside of this expectation is that those who do not produce (or exhibit) good fruit are bringing their union with Christ into question (at best). No Christian can know the heart of another person, but Christ clearly warns each of us that He will not graciously welcome the sinner who continues in rebellion against Him. A loving friend most certainly will not allow a fellow professing believer to continue on a path of self-destruction in the face of such a warning.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:12–13).

In this final passage, we are reminded that the Christian’s union with Christ is also union with other Christians. We are not only to seek holiness and growth for the benefit of enjoying Christ more fully, but we are to enjoy the benefits of Christian fellowship as well. Especially in the context of the local church, Christians are united to Christ and to one another, members of a single body.

This bond of unity means that each Christian is responsible for and attached to every other Christian (especially in the context of local church membership). Your spiritual maturity affects the whole body, and so does your stagnation or spiritual disease (i.e. sin).  Therefore, it is imperative that Christian brothers and sisters take responsibility for one another, as well as enjoy the benefits of those who are taking responsibility for them.

 

With all of this in mind, Christian discipleship is perceived to be a necessary and natural (even if divinely empowered) outworking of the ordinary Christian life. Indeed, God’s wisdom is wiser than the best of human wisdom! God has designed the spiritual growth of all believers to flourish under the tutelage of ordinary means.

Try this kind of ordinary Christianity if you dare… but I warn you, the experience will be anything but ordinary.

Christians Don’t Need the Bible?

Yesterday, I overheard a conversation between a handful of friends. A table full of ladies (in their late 20s and early 30s) were talking loud enough for the whole room to hear, so I was not eavesdropping. As a matter of fact, I would have preferred to avoid hearing the dialogue altogether. The interaction centered on their relationships with one another and at least a couple of other ladies who were not there to contribute.

As a Christian (and particularly a pastor), I was interested in the strong spiritual nature of their banter. Their vocabulary sounded Christian, but the apparent meanings of the phrases and words they used were much more pagan and mystical than biblical. Most concerning to me was the fact that they never once cited a passage of Scripture or even alluded to the Bible.

Not one Bible story or example was offered for consideration. No quote from Jesus was mentioned. No biblical principle was called upon to undergird any personal application. The whole conversation was devoid of the objective authority of the Bible, and yet there were many authoritative statements and claims made.

Once they finished and departed, I resisted the urge to apologize to everyone else in the room for the eccentric display of pseudo-Christianity. The reason I felt compelled then (and feel the same now) to distance myself from this version of Christianity is because I believe it is often silly, usually lazy, and frequently dangerous.

Whatever one believes about specific applications of biblical truth, the very minimum standard of Christianity is a submission to Christ as Lord; and Jesus Christ cannot be separated from His words. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments [or instructions]” (Jn. 14:15). Jesus also said that the way a Christian grows in unity with Christ is through the word of God (Jn. 17:17).

There is a foolish notion afoot today. Many think that some kind of Christianity can be experienced and cultivated apart from the Bible. Of course, Christians will not usually say this; but their utter neglect of the Bible speaks loud and clear. Many Christians do not have even a general ability to reference biblical grounds for what they say or why they believe the way they do.

Sentimental spirituality is not admirable, and it is a poor substitute for genuine (biblical) Christianity. Only a familiarity with Jesus’ words will cause a person to grow in real intimacy with Jesus Himself.

Has God not made the effort to reveal Himself on the pages of Scripture? Do we believe the Bible is God’s word? Have we any ability to know about Jesus Christ (and, therefore, truly know Him) without the biblical record?

Of all the people in the world, Christians should be the most biblically literate. In times gone by, Christians spoke with a vocabulary that came directly from the Bible. Words, themes, and illustrations in everyday language were directly drawn from the Scriptures.

May God rid us of our laziness, and may we hunger and thirst for the words of our God. And since the Bible is more accessible today than ever, may we be diligent in our use of this marvelous gift of God – His Word.

Joy

“Though you have not seen [Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8–9).

What is Joy?

Well, I think a good way to answer this question is to contrast joy with happiness. Happiness is conditional, but one may possess joy in any circumstance. Happiness comes and goes, depending on our experiences, our feelings, and a host of other things. Joy, on the other hand, is based on an unchanging reality.

Because the basis for joy does not change, it is not subject to any of the things upon which happiness depends.

But, what is the unchanging, fixed, transcendent basis for joy?

Ah, the answer to this question is a core feature of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So many truth statements formulate and are derived from the message of the Gospel. Those truth statements construct an indestructible foundation for joy, which is Christ-centered and not self-centered.

God has justified guilty sinners through the work of Christ. God has adopted unworthy rebels as sons. God has brought spiritual and eternal life to all those in Christ. Union with Christ is an intimate relationship enjoyed by all those who love and trust Him.

These truths and many more form the basis for steadfast Christian joy.

Therefore, we may have joy in every circumstance because Christ has demonstrated God’s love and grace for us. We may rest in that reality now, and we await the fullness of that reality in the glorious new creation.

We who love and trust in Christ may find indestructible joy in union with the God who loves us so and gives Himself freely to us.

Who needs the Gospel?

It may shock you to learn just how many people think that they do not need the Gospel. Does everyone really need the Gospel? Do you? Does your family? Your friend? Your neighbor?

The message of the Gospel is often assumed or dismissed in my stomping ground. Therefore, you must allow me to briefly articulate the Gospel before I get to the actual meat of this brief article.

What is the Gospel?

The Gospel is the story of God’s reconciling work on behalf of guilty people. God created all things good and for His glory, but humanity rebelled against God’s good authority. Ever since our first parents disobeyed, all humans find it undesirable to submit to God’s good authority. For this reason, the human experience is marked by bad decisions, hurtful relationships, physical suffering, and ultimately death itself.

However, God did not leave humans to suffer without hope. God promised that someone would bring guilty, disobedient people into a gracious and good relationship with Him. God delivered on that promise in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Jesus of Nazareth, the only man who is also God, lived a perfectly obedient life in order to earn God’s blessings. Even though Jesus is perfectly good, He was counted as utterly guilty and bad when God punished Him for the disobedience of others. Jesus was the substitute for all those who would trust Him for it.

God’s fury against rebellion was poured out on Jesus when He was crucified on a Roman cross in the first century A.D. After Jesus died, He demonstrated His power, His person, and His provision by coming back from the dead. Because Jesus Christ was resurrected from the dead, He gives hope to all humans who trust Him to rescue them from God’s wrath. Therefore, God has reconciled guilty people with Himself by delivering justice and offering gracious pardon at the same time.

So, who needs this message?

People who have never heard it need the Gospel. If someone has never heard the message of God’s redeeming love and grace, then they cannot know freedom from the bondage of guilt and shame. While some people might deny that they feel guilty over the bad that they have done, humans generally know that they are flawed. Such imperfections will pull and bite at the conscience of anyone who takes the time to consider them.

People who think the Gospel is irrelevant need the Gospel. There are a number of reasons a person might think the Gospel is irrelevant, but frequently this thought arises from a lack of understanding. If the Gospel truly is the story of how God reconciles guilty people with Himself, then this message is universally relevant. I would argue that there is no message more relevant to every person everywhere.

People who are unimpressed by the Gospel need the Gospel. I often talk with people who are unimpressed by the Gospel. These are normally people who are looking for an immediate remedy for some obstacle of life: financial trouble, parenting confusion, relational strife, health concerns, etc. Someone looking for help dealing with their tyrannical boss may not see any direct connection between their need and the Gospel. However, this betrays a person’s lacking consideration of the Gospel. The greater familiarity one has with the Gospel, and the deeper understanding one has of the implications of this supremely good message, the more he or she will realize that the Gospel impacts everything. The Gospel is incredibly impressive to those who give quality effort to thinking it through.

People who assume they know the Gospel need the Gospel. In the “Bible belt” (that portion of southern America that has as many churches as fueling stations) many people assume they know the Gospel. A large portion of the population recognizes the vocabulary words of the Christian subculture, and they assume that they know the meaning of the words as well. Additionally, these assumptions become increasingly dangerous when they are combined with the belief that general familiarity is tantamount to full inclusion. Those who assume they are Christians because they assume they know the Gospel are in the gravest danger, for they assume far too much.

In case you haven’t noticed the pattern, I believe everyone needs the Gospel. From ignorant pagans to long-time Christians, we all benefit from deepening our understanding of this greatest story ever told. The Gospel of God’s redeeming love is the joy and pleasure of all those who have come to love the God who authored it.

Do Christians need the Local Church?

There is a strange and interesting conversation going on among many professing Christians in America today. Some people claim that “Christianity” may be separated from the “Local Church.” Whatever Christianity is, I would like to argue, it is inseparable from the local church.

The non-churched Christian is an animal you simply will not find in the Bible, and I’d like to add that such an animal (encountered in our day) is usually awkward and disfigured.

I believe our consideration of this topic will be encouraged by first defining what a church is, then addressing what a church does. After that, we will hear a dissenting voice, and then we will try to come to some thoughtful conclusions.

 

First, the local church is a gathering of holy people who are justified in Christ Jesus.

The local church is the visible expression Jesus Christ’s bride, adorned with His own righteousness and set apart for His intimate affection and care.

Martin Luther is credited with the profound statement, “the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls.” Justification is the legal declaration of God, by which the sinner is declared righteous because Jesus was declared guilty on the sinner’s behalf. Not that the sinner works his/her own righteousness, but that he/she puts on the righteousness of Christ.

This truth is the comfort of all who understand themselves to be graciously included in the household of God. Horatius Bonar wrote,

In another’s righteousness we stand; and by another’s righteousness are we justified.”  This truth, he went on to say, makes plain that “all accusations against us, founded upon our right unrighteousness, [may be] answered by pointing to the perfection of the righteousness which covers us from head to foot… as well as shields us from wrath.”[1]

Justification happens in an instant.  It is the doing of God Himself when the sinner is made alive in Christ Jesus and counted good, holy, and righteous in God’s sight (Eph 2:4-9; Titus 3:7; Rom 5:9).

Furthermore, sanctification is also an instantaneous declaration and positional reality for all who are in the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:11). Union with Christ includes a significant change in relation to sin, particularly that the Christian is now dead to or released from the power of sin (Col 2:20-3:14; Gal 2:20; Rom 6:1-14).

 

Second, the local church is a community of justified people who are growing in holiness.

If, as Martin Luther said, the doctrine of justification is the article upon which the Church stands or falls, then sanctification may be the doctrine which provides her (the Church) the appropriate clothing to stand admirably.

Christ does not merely call His prostituting adulterous bride to wear new labels (such as justified and sanctified); He also calls her to live accordingly (Eph 4:1; 1 Thess 2:12).

Living in light of her new status, the Church of Jesus Christ is declared to be holy, and Christ is making her holy by the washing of His word “so that He might present the church to Himself in splendor” (Eph 5:25-27).  This loving reconciliation and renewal is challenged by the fact that the visible Church is made up of believers who are still desirous of sin.

Herein lies the difficulty of understanding just how the visible Church may be clothed with righteousness as she stands justified before the watching world.  However, a visible Church, full of sanctified believers, arrayed in magnificence and clothed in righteousness for all the world to see is exactly what God has intended the Church do be.

The doing of good works by every believer is commanded and enabled by God (Titus 2:7; Heb 10:24; Matt 5:16; 1 Pet 2:12; Eph 2:10).  Not only thus, but Scripture informs us that good works will provide some evidence of genuine faith and discipleship (James 2:14-26; Jn 8:31).  Good works, or righteous living, do not produce justification or sanctification, but it is clear that good works necessarily and always follow such things.  Kevin DeYoung describes the relationship, borrowing from biblical imagery, in terms of botany.

“It’s not that good works are in the root of the tree; they’re not the thing that makes the tree what it is. They’re not the ground or the basis of our standing with God. But if we truly are redeemed through the blood of Christ, if the Holy Spirit truly dwells in us, then we will be people who bear fruit in good works. Our lives will be marked by what Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5:22-23).  And if those fruits are not present in us, Jesus says, we have reason to question whether the tree was ever really healthy at all.”[9]

God has not only promised to work within Christians to bring about the mutually desired end of complete sanctification, but he has also instituted local communities through which Christians are to engage in diligent efforts towards sanctification together.  The Second London Baptist Confession says,

“[T]he Lord Jesus Christ calls out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father (John 10:16; John 12:32), that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribes to them in his word (Matt. 28:20). Those thus called, he commands to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requires of them in the world (Matt. 18:15-20).”[11]

Therefore, these societies or communities of faith are designed for mutual improvement, building up, or sanctification (Eph 2:19-20).  Paragraph 12 of the Second London Confession (in the section on The Church) goes on to explain that there are privileges, censures, and authoritative instruments that the Christian may enjoy in the life of a Gospel-centered community.

Rather than these communities being an end in themselves or even a rule unto themselves, they are local and communal expressions of mutual submission to the Christ who reigns over all.  Andrew Purvis expounds this view by saying,

“The ministry of the church is, by the Holy Spirit, a sharing in God’s ministry to and for us in, through, and as Jesus Christ.  The task at hand, then, is to focus on the profound interrelationship that must obtain between… those truths and realities about God that the church brings to expression through Christian doctrine… and pastoral care.”[12]

Pastoral care, the shepherding of God’s sheep and caring for Christ’s bride, is the task of “sharing in God’s ministry to and for” Christians.  The church is meant to be a local expression of “truths and realities about God,” which we find clearly revealed in the Scriptures and understand as Christian doctrine.

In less lofty terms, but just as potent, Mark Dever says that a local church is “a community of believers who have become part of the New Covenant in Christ’s blood and, as a result, have covenanted together to help each other run the Christian race with integrity, godliness, and grace.”[13]

Church membership, then, is a collective affirmation that Christians in local proximity to one another are attempting to live out in practical ways the reality of their positional possession – holiness.  They are saints by calling, and they are seeking to live in obedience to Christ by “giving themselves” to one another in mutual submission and love.

 

A Dissenting Voice

While any reasonable understanding of what a church is and what a church does, as described here, would assume that this must be done in community with other believers, it is helpful to allow a dissenting voice to speak in order to demonstrate greater clarity.

In her book, How to be a Christian Without Going to Church, Kelly Bean takes aim at average local church experiences over the last generation or so.  She rightly points out that many local churches are active but not very effective (her measurements of effectiveness are demonstrably unbiblical, but her assessment may still be true when measured in biblical terms).  Her solution is to opt out of church attendance or involvement altogether, something she calls non-going.

She sees some problems that arise with such a lone ranger mentality, and she suggests, “A collective narrative is important for all.[15]  The collective narrative she is looking for is exactly what is provided by the Gospel message and the mutually stimulated sanctification that occurs in Gospel-centered communities, through the proclamation of biblical truth and by the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  Yet, this is not something she seems to believe may be found in any communal expression of local Christians.

Bean seems to be unaware that she is describing the creation of a church, albeit an ‘alternative’ one, when she admits, “In many ways, the art of non-going and facilitating alternative Christian communities that offer the support we might need, is still in the works.”[16]  Reinventing Christian communities to offer ‘non-goers’ support so that they may maintain their non-going status sounds about like offering a fish an aquarium so that he may refer to himself as a fish out of water.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Christians are necessarily beneficiaries of the communal and covenantal relationship that is only available in a local church. It is simply inconceivable that a Christian would find sanctification to be something that he/she should pursue outside of a community of believers.  Dever says,

While our individual walks are crucial, we are impoverished in our personal pursuit of God if we do not avail ourselves of the help that is available through mutually edifying relationships in our covenant Church family” (Heb 10:24-25).[17]

The message is clear.  All those whom God has justified He has also sanctified, and He continually sanctifies them by the power of His Spirit.  Additionally, God has instituted the Church as the Spirit-empowered community of faith in which sinning Christians may walk in progressively greater degrees of freedom from their sin.  Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the

Christian community, then, is the sum and substance of the mortal Christian life.  The believer who tends towards self-righteousness may be humbled; the Christian who tends towards despair may be encouraged; the convert who struggles to break free from remaining inclinations towards sin may be restrained by accountability; the unregenerate pretender may be lovingly exposed and evangelized appropriately; the malevolent wolf may be discovered and expelled; and all of this may and should take place in the average daily life of the local church.

So, do Christians need the local church?

Like a child needs a father and mother, Christians need a church family to instruct and train. Like a city needs emergency responders, Christians need a church family to come to their aid. Like a hospital needs a nursing and surgical staff, Christians need a church family to tend to their wounds and illnesses. Like a police officer needs a badge, Christians need a church family to affirm their inclusion under the authority of Christ.

YES! Christians need the local church! Biblically, you don’t ever have one without the other.

 

[1] Bonar, The Everlasting Righteousness, 179

[9] DeYoung, The Mission of the Church, 227

[11] The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689, The Church, paragraph 5

[12] Purvis, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology, 4

[13] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 110

[15] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[16] Bean, How to Be a Christian without Going to Church, 70

[17] Dever, The Deliberate Church, 111

 

 


 

Bibliography

Anyabwile, Thabiti M. What Is a Healthy Church Member? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008.

Bean, Kelly. How to Be a Christian without Going to Church: The Unofficial Guide to Alternative Forms of Christian Community. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2014.

Bonar, Horatius. The Everlasting Righteousness, Or, How Shall Man Be Just with God? 1st ed. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1993.

Bucer, Martin, and David F. Wright. Concerning the True Care of Souls. Translated by Peter Beale. Edinburgh: Carlisle, PA, 2009.

Dever, Mark, and Paul Alexander. The Deliberate Church: Building Your Ministry on the Gospel. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2005.

Dever, Mark. What Is a Healthy Church? Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007.

DeYoung, Kevin, and Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011.

ESV: Study Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2007.

Ferguson, Sinclair B. The Christian Life: A Doctrinal Introduction. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1989.

Leeman, Jonathan. Church Membership How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2001.

Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.

Purves, Andrew. Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.

“The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689.” The Second London Baptist Confession of 1689. Accessed October 10, 2014. http://www.1689.com/confession.html.

Do you think too little of Jesus? Possibly…

In our day of 140 character tweets and eye-catching promos, we are accustomed the seeing just about everything through the lenses of reductionism. “Reduce what you want me to know to the least possible amount of information so that I will be able to quickly assimilate, assess, and (of course) accept or reject it.”

Even in Christian circles, it has become tolerable and sometimes admirable to reduce the Gospel itself to some minimalistic form. Just ask several Christians to describe who Jesus is according to the Bible, and you are likely to hear what I mean. “Jesus is the savior of sinners;” “Jesus is the lover of the outcast;” “Jesus is the Son of God;” and one of my personal favorites, “Jesus is my homeboy.”

Christianity centers upon Jesus Christ (just think of the first five letters of “Christianity“), so it is critical that the Christian think deeply and thoroughly about Jesus. Who is He? What did He do? What does He still do? What has He promised He will do in the future?

There are many dangers of thinking too little of Jesus, but consider the following:

If we think only on the babe in a manger, then we forget that God the Son was with the Father before the world began. We forget that the Son is the One through whom all things were created and the One in whom all things exist.

If we focus too much on Jesus’ obscure childhood, then we venture into pure speculation, and tread on ground that God did not provide for any sturdy follower.

If we see Jesus only as the tender friend to sinners, then we may be surprised to catch a glimpse of Him beating and throwing out the money changers.

If we attune our ears to Jesus’ words of love and peace, such that we cannot hear the fullness of their meaning, then we may forget that God disciplines those He loves.

If we affix our eyes upon the suffering Savior, hanging upon that Roman cross, we may be tempted to think that He has lost His power to rule the world.

If we celebrate only that Jesus arose from the dead, then we may lose sight of His miraculous ascension and think little of His intercession on our behalf this day.

If we idly await the day when Christ returns, and think only of Him as a distant King, then we may forget that He is right with us through the good times and bad in this life.

If we only refer to Jesus as someone we invited into our lives at some point in the past, then we may be surprised to learn that He is our Lord, King, Master, and Savior at this very moment.

We may see, then, that knowing Christ is much more encompassing than most of us might imagine. Cover to cover, the Bible speaks of the person and work of Christ. We ought to love and know Jesus as fully as we are capable; for our joy is made complete in the knowledge of Him.

Coalescing Churches and Missionaries

The Church – the universal body of Christ – is a unique institution made up of people rather than materials or mechanisms. Established and sustained by God Himself, the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The oft-quoted passage at the end of Matthew’s gospel contains the commission of the Church – her purposeful assignment and the promise of her providential Lord. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus says to His disciples,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

Mark Dever (commenting on this very passage) says, “Jesus’ command to go ‘to the ends of the earth’ [or ‘all nations’] reminds believers that Christ is Lord over all, that he loves all, and that he will call all to account on the great day. Therefore, Christians today have a responsibility to take the gospel around the world.” Dever also understands that congregations (local expressions of the universal Church) are bearers of this same responsibility, because congregations are made up of individual Christians. “Christians together can pool wisdom, experience, financial support, prayers, and callings and direct them all to the common purpose of making God’s name great among the nations…” Dever leaves no room for individual Christians or assembled groups of the same to remain unengaged from this Great Commission when he says, “Witnessing the glory of God proclaimed around the globe in the hearts of all his people should be an end and purpose for every local church.”[1]

Involvement in this intentional activity is no peripheral matter for any local church, and many congregations have been purposefully working at it for a long time. However, recent research and contemporary conversations are revealing that a disconnect may have developed over time between the two prongs that have formed the spearhead of this Christian commission. Local churches in America seem to have been allowed to understand missions as something that is done over there – anywhere but here – by someone called a missionary. Many local churches support “missions efforts” with their financial backing, giving a portion of their budget to some kind of cooperative program that distributes funds to local and international missionaries. Sometimes local churches may even call a special prayer meetings with a “missions” emphasis, but taking ownership of particular missional efforts appears to be lacking at best. In addition, the perceived distance between missions and local church ministry has permitted most American Christians to remain personally unengaged from the Great Commission. This is a tragedy.

What is worse is that missionaries, having such a strong commitment to go and tell, are continuing to do so without an essential and healthy attachment to a local church or churches. “The problem is that there are now missionaries all over the world with virtually no connection to local churches to love and care for them, shepherd them, and join them on mission.” To compound the loss, “there are also local churches full of laypeople talking about being ‘missional’ without the benefit of learning from those who are actively crossing cultures with the Gospel. They are talking about mission without the input of missionaries (emphasis added).”[2] If one is to understand what it is to be missional, it is imperative that one understands what it is to be a missionary.

Ed Stetzer helpfully defines the term “missional” in his standard-setting work on the subject of “missional churches.” He says, “Missional means actually doing mission… adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”[3] With this definition in mind, it is helpful to consider that missional living may only realized in the local church context as missionaries and their efforts are appropriately known and celebrated in the local church.

The bringing together of missionaries and the local church is a combination that regains the benefits of the multi-membered body of Christ. If the missionary is the extended arm of the local church, then the local church is the core, which lends stability, resources, and strength to the missionary. Just as the arm needs the core to function properly, so the core needs the exercise, reach, and functionality of the arm in order to remain healthy. There are many more aspects of local church ministry that may not include a direct relationship to missionary efforts, but all of what the local church is and does should center around the idea of living missionally in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ – both in the context of its own community and in the world at large. These two distinct branches of missional engagement (missionaries and the local church) are so intertwined that each compliments the other in multiple ways, particularly when they are both functioning healthily.

The pervading goal of the missionary is the same as the local church, namely the Great Commission – make disciples, baptize them, and teach submission to Christ to the glory of His great name. If this directive is embraced and acted upon, the result will inevitably be a plurality of baptized disciples who will be life-long learners who grow in their submission to Christ. This plurality of Christians, if the missionary is properly focused on the task, will be formed into a local church themselves. “The result of [the missionary’s] work should be biblical, local, independent churches that reflect the soil in which they are planted.”[4]  Therefore, the missionary is most effective when he is planting local churches with those baptized disciples who have benefitted from his proclamation of the Gospel.

These locally planted churches will be better churches if they resemble the same kind of local church(es) that have cultivated a quality relationship with the missionary who facilitated their own rooting and grounding. If missionaries and local churches work in tandem (as it seems they were designed to do), then the cycle will simply continue. Aubrey Malphurs says of church planting and its ultimate goal,

“We are not to start just any kind of church; they should be Great Commission churches. These are churches that take most seriously Jesus’s command to make disciples! Making disciples begins with evangelism and continues with edification or the building up of the saints in the faith with the ultimate goal of their attaining spiritual maturity (Col. 1:28–29; Heb. 5:11–6:1).”[5]

Malphurs’ statement brings us back to the beginning; the Church acts most like she should when she fulfills the role for which she has been created. The goal of newly planted church is the same as the missionary, and it is the same as the established local church congregation. When the established local church is healthy, she will serve her role well as a support structure for the missionary and a model for the church plants that (by God’s grace) result from his efforts. When the missionary is healthy, he will serve his role well as an evangelist and facilitator for the eventual indigenous church plant(s) as well as a motivation and inspiration for the congregants who support him. When the indigenous church plant is healthy, she will repeat the cycle with new missionaries and fresh groups of newly converted Christians.

There are so many benefits to this relationship that a brief work such as this cannot explore them all. Suffice it to say that the coalescing of churches and missionaries is a recipe for enjoying vibrant, Great Commission assemblies of vigorous, missional disciples of Christ – both locally and globally.

 

[1]Dever, Mark. The Church: The Gospel Made Visible. Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012.

[2]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[3]Stetzer, Ed. Planting Missional Churches. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2006.

[4]Crider, Caleb, Larry McCrary, Rodney Calfee, and Wade Stephens. Tradecraft: For the Church on Mission. Portland, OR: Urban Loft Publishers, 2013.

[5]Malphurs, Aubrey. The Nuts and Bolts of Church Planting: A Guide for Starting Any Kind of Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.

The “Jesus” of Mormonism

What do Mormons believe about Jesus Christ?

As is true of Christian churches, those parishioners of the Mormon Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints may not be aware of or able to articulate every foundational belief of the institution. Like many naïve Christian church attendees, some Mormon temple members might be unable to state (and fewer are likely able to explain) the doctrinal stance of the LDS (Latter-Day Saints) Church pertaining to the person and work of Jesus Christ. However, a church’s statement of belief concerning Christ (biblically orthodox or not) is essential to understanding what the church believes about almost everything else.

So foundational is the biblical description of Jesus Christ that maintaining an inaccurate or lacking view of His person and work in the face of truth is destructive to the soul. In other words, belief or trust in the true Jesus of the bible ensures the salvation of one’s soul, but a belief or trust in someone with different or missing attributes accompanied by the same name leaves one condemned. Of particular importance is the acknowledgment of Christ’s full divinity and actual humanity. This unique and biblical description of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian belief and the message of the Gospel itself. God’s plan to redeem sinful humanity is only accomplished through the person and work of this singularly capable God-man – Jesus Christ.

Mormonism maintains a view of Christ that is extremely dangerous to those who are not deeply planted in the soil of biblical truth. One could read the statements about Christ on the official Mormon or LDS websites without noticing much in the way of distinguishing marks from Christianity. However, Mormons may use the same terms as Christians when they speak of Christ, but they have attempted to redefine His person and work – the terms have new definitions.

Brigham Young, a major Mormon Prophet who directly followed Joseph Smith, said, “He [Jesus] was the Son of our Heavenly Father, as we are the sons of our earthly fathers. […]Jesus is our elder brother spirit clothed upon with an earthly body begotten by the Father of our spirits.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 2, September 28, 1862 [emphasis mine]).

An Apostle of Mormonism stated, “We are brethren and sisters of Satan as well as of Jesus. It may be startling doctrine to many to say this; but Satan is our brother. Jesus is our brother. We are the children of God. God begot us in the spirit in the eternal worlds.” (Apostle George Q. Cannon, March 11th, 1894, Collected Discourses, compiled by Brian Stuy, vol. 4, p. 23 [emphasis mine]).

Not only do Mormons believe that Jesus was the literal offspring of Mary and a physical Heavenly Father, but it also claims that Jesus had many wives himself. “The grand reason of the burst of public sentiment in anathemas upon Christ and his disciples, causing his crucifixion, was evidently based on polygamy, […] a belief in the doctrine of a plurality of wives caused the persecution of Jesus and his followers. We might almost think they were ‘Mormons.'” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:345-346 [emphasis mine]).

In conclusion, there could be many other citations and a more detailed description of the Mormon Jesus as he contrasts the biblical Jesus Christ. The words of authoritative Mormon Apostles and Prophets state it clearly as they proclaim, “It is true that many of the Christian churches worship a different Jesus Christ than is worshipped by the Mormons or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” (LDS Quorum of the Seventy member Bernard P. Brockbank, The Ensign, May 1977, p. 26 [emphasis mine]) In fact, Brigham Young makes it unambiguous when he says, “Brigham Young said that the “Christian God is the Mormon’s Devil…” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 5, page 331).

The Jesus of Christianity and of the bible is not the Jesus of Mormonism and, therefore, not the Jesus who saves.

The purpose of stating such a thing in dramatic contrast is not to personally ‘cast stones’ at those who willingly take upon themselves the label of “Mormon” or “LDS.”  Rather, my purpose is to present the real and present divergence of these two religious systems.  Christianity – the bible itself – offers salvation, the forgiveness of sins, through the person and work of Jesus Christ alone.  This gift is to be received by faith, apart from any work, effort or will of man.  Mormonism offers a version of salvation through one’s diligent effort and overwhelming obedience.  This system is like many others with respect to its “path towards salvation.”  According to the bible, the path is really no path at all – the path is a man, and only He can save sinners from God’s imminent wrath (John 14:6).

Strength to Strength in times of Suffering

In his devotional “Mornings and Evenings,” Charles Spurgeon wrote his own commentary on the passing of Christians from security and strength to further stability and power. This progression is contrary to much of our natural experience, and Spurgeon acknowledges the same. A runner, for instance, begins with full energy and ends with none; and the wrestler finishes his long match with much less vigor than he had at the start. But Christians are anchored and empowered by someone who is unnatural, and their advancement from strength to strength is observable as well as biblical.

The Bible speaks of a God who is not merely a passive all-observing eye. No, the biblical God is the creator and sustainer of every aspect of His creation; He is the ever-active, sovereign king of the universe (Acts 17:24-25).

This brings great comfort to the humble Christian. Spurgeon says, “Thou shalt never find a bundle of affliction which has not bound up in the midst of it sufficient grace.”[1] This means that there is no amount of suffering, no tumultuous season of life, no seemingly unrewarded effort expended that is completely in vain. The Bible never calls evil by the name of good, but all things are by God’s design and for the ultimate good of His children (Rom. 8:28; Lam. 3:37-38).

Much more could be said on this biblical assertion of God’s sovereign work to bring about the sanctification of His children, but Christians may be observed as having lived out this surprising experience as well. While not all churchgoers exhibit this same development, the mark of mature Christianity is finding secure refuge in Christ.

Consider the believer who receives a terrible diagnosis from the doctor. She may recoil and feel distress just as much as anyone, but her soul is eventually steadied and the Commander of the storm calms the gales of her mind.

Think also of the young Christian couple that rushes their newborn to the emergency room only to learn that their child’s mortal life has ended much too soon. Their pain and anguish is beyond words, but the light of life somehow invades their dark night of the soul.

Christ is their portion, and He is enough.

Once, Christians were commonly noticed as experiencing joy in the face of their own sorrow. In our day of commonplace denial and distraction, it is not so normal to see anyone bear the load of suffering well. Yet, when the Christian does it is a bittersweet site indeed.

What a peculiar beauty it is to see the Christian rejoice in the Lord while they are enduring significant pain. Others may even become irrationally envious of the agony of these exemplary saints when that agony is born steadily by the grace of God.

Spurgeon is also quoted as having said, I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages.

The counter-intuitive destination of a Christian’s suffering is safe in the arms of Christ. Isn’t it a wonder that Christians will often find themselves crawling out of Christ’s bosom and onto the floor of life until they encounter some strange pain or confusing fear? Upon such an encounter, they cry out for the embrace of the Father’s care and find Him worthy of their full trust and reliance.

Only in this light may we perceive suffering as a gift.

Oh, that you and I would know the strength of God’s abiding Spirit – with or without the common suffering of life under the curse of sin. May the Lord bless us with His caring allotment of energy and affliction, for His glory and for our greatest joy.

“[W]e rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”[2]

“God will give the strength of ripe manhood with the burden allotted to full-grown shoulders.”[3]

Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing?

When is the right time to witness to someone?  What does a Christian need to know before witnessing or evangelizing?  Must a Christian wait to witness to someone until he or she is burdened or compelled by some inward sensation?  This question may be phrased in numerous ways and yet ask basically the same thing.  I think asking and answering three larger questions will help us answer these and others more definitively, as well as guide our understanding of evangelism or witnessing in general.

What is evangelism or witnessing? 

Essentially evangelism and witnessing are two ways of labeling the same activity.  Evangelism comes from the word evangel, which is a transliteration of the Greek word euangelion, meaning good message.  The message called good is that singularly wonderful message of how God promised and performed all that was necessary to save sinners in the person and work of Christ.  Therefore, evangelism is the activity of proclaiming or telling of that great message.

Witnessing carries the same idea.  To witness to someone is essentially to attest to those propositional statements, which make up the good message or Gospel.  So, evangelism is the telling of the Gospel (the good message of salvation through Christ), and witnessing is testifying to the trustworthiness of that message.

There is a common ambiguity in our day concerning both the Gospel message itself and what it means to convey that message.  There are those who would attempt to expand or condense the Gospel in order to enhance or improve it, but any adjustment to the Gospel is a violent attack upon it (Galatians 1:6-9).  Many are not satisfied to only adjust the message; they even seek to thwart the communication of any real substance.  Some would claim that the Gospel message may (and in many cases should) be delivered in action rather than speech.

Well-intentioned preachers and Christians attribute a saying to St. Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary use words.”  This phrase is not a direct quote because there is no actual record of St. Francis ever saying or writing these words.  Yet, even if there were such record, the statement would remain utterly nonsensical.  While bringing a meal to an individual in need of nourishment may be an illustration of what implications the Gospel message has, it is an extremely poor substitute for the Gospel message itself.  A sinner with an empty belly, after eating a marvelous meal, remains still an enemy of God and destined for eternal destruction.

Only the verbal (audible or otherwise) communication of propositional statements concerning God, sin, Christ and His eternally saving work will suffice as a means by which God brings dead sinners to life in Christ and saves their souls (Romans 10:13-14).

What role do Christians play in evangelism or witnessing? 

Wrapped up in the desire to tell people about the Gospel is usually the Christian’s aspiration to see at least someone believe that message.  So, one would do well to understand how much a witness or evangelist can contribute to the conversion of another before they set their contributive goals.  If the evangelist’s goal is to save sinners, then he or she has set a goal unattainable by anyone but Christ.

The Apostle Paul says to those to whom he had been a witness, “I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4).  He says that he had been the recipient of a message and he had also passed that message along to them.  The message he speaks of is that message concerning Christ and His work that was ‘according to the Scriptures.’  The Apostle Peter refers to the “good news” that was preached and received or believed (1 Peter 1:12, 25), thus resulting in “the salvation of souls” (1 Peter 1:9).

There are a number of passages that would lend themselves to this discussion, but in these two passages we may understand at least a couple of things.  One, the Gospel or good news is a message of a particular content that is to be transmitted by someone (or more than one) through the use of words.  Two, the believing or receiving of the message is distinct from the message itself and this is the delineating line between those who experience the salvation of which the Gospel speaks.

It is not an overstatement then to say that the best and most an evangelist can do is transmit the good message or Gospel.  There are far reaching and profound implications in this simple phrase, not the least of which is the idea that the highest goal of the evangelist is to transmit the message accurately – without addition or subtraction.  This short address of another issue will not give enough space to map out all or even most of the implications in the statement above.  Yet, the fact remains that the role of the witness is to transmit or communicate the message.

Successful communication of the Gospel, then, is nothing more and certainly not less than accurate communication of the content of that preeminent message.  In other words, whether one believes the message upon hearing it has nothing whatever to do with the role of the evangelist.

What is the ultimate purpose of evangelism or witnessing? 

If the purpose of witnessing to someone is not to try to convert them (as we established above, this is not the role of the evangelist), then what is the purpose?  The short answer is to glorify God.  One cannot read through the first 14 verses of Ephesians chapter one without surmising that what God has done in the salvation of sinners is for His glory and according to His will or good pleasure.

There is no doubt that some will perceive this goal as too rigid, lifeless, or uncompassionate, but this is the highest goal that anyone might have.  In fact, this is the chief goal of everything in life.  The Christian is privileged to participate in God’s work of glorifying Himself in the salvation of sinners.

Thanks be to God that He has given Christians any part to play at all!

So, evangelism is telling people of the message of Jesus Christ’s redeeming work, and the witness’s role is simply to transmit that message accurately and regularly.  The ultimate purpose of witnessing is to bring glory to God in an accurate proclamation of what He has done in revealing Himself through the Gospel.

Because these are true, it seems easy to answer the questions listed at the beginning.

Should a believer wait to have a “burden” before witnessing?  NO! 

Why would one need to wait for anything like that at all?