Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Young, Restless, and Reformed: How God Used an End-Around

The benefits or deficits of being an evangelist are (1) Taking things at face-value and (2) Going directly to the point. These are, in fact, commendable qualities, as taught in both Old and New Testaments. Honesty and integrity are pillars of obedience of the Bible. Hedging and dishonesty are strongly discouraged in Scripture.
For this reason, my approach to teaching and leading evangelism was the “up the middle” approach. Using terminology from American football, the “up the middle” approach implies attacking the opponent directly. Just saying it like it is: “This is what the Bible teaches, and this is what we must do in obedience to the Bible!”
This approach did have some success with some students. But others found either practical or exegetical reasons why they did not have to submit to biblical evangelism. On the academic side are arguments like:
  • The culture of the 1st Century is so foreign to our cultural practices—its methods would never relate to our contemporary culture;
  • The biblical methodology of evangelism is so sparse, it was never intended to communicate a practice of evangelism;
  • There is so much variety in the biblical practice of evangelism, from that we see that we need to parse contemporary culture to learn how best to communicate the gospel.

From the pragmatic side come arguments like:
  • Aggressive evangelism makes most Christians uncomfortable!
  • Biblical Evangelism isn’t effective and it doesn’t work!
  • And, citing Joseph Aldrich’s Life-Style Evangelism, “Many are being kept from making an effective decision because of bad experiences with a zealous but insensitive witness.”

While this wave of Lifestyle and Relationship Evangelism from the 1970s and 1980s still garners significant clout, a crosswind began blowing against its monopolistic practices. At first the new wave did not come from a competing methodology. It came from a renewed interest in right doctrine.
Enter the Young, Restless, and Reformed
Initiated by John Piper’s Desiring God Ministries and similar coalescing movements, a new doctrinal wind was blowing among the Young, Restless, and Reformed (so called by Collin Hansen in 2006). R. C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, and many others in the 1980s and 1990s were struggling against the growing secularization within Christian doctrine and practice. Yet the doctrinal wave that they nurtured resulted in a broader impact.
As high schoolers and collegiates were being challenged to think doctrinally, foundational to this thinking were sound approaches to interpreting and applying the Bible. Young minds became interested in Arthur Pink, John Owen, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. They started reading the Puritans. As Millennials read these men, they assimilated their interpretive methods. They began absorbing their polemical arguments. The worm had turned.
Rather than being antagonistic to biblical evangelism, these young students became eager to understand and follow biblical precedent. They grew open to an evangelism that was exegetically sound and doctrinally driven.
Enter Church Planting
Church planting was the initial phase of obedience for these Young, Restless, and Reformed. They eagerly gravitated toward “Doing Hard Things.” Their hearts were passionate to submit to the lordship of Christ. The Acts 29 church planting movement exhibited the wind of the Holy Spirit sweeping across a whole generation of young Christians discipled by their Reformed forefathers.
No Place Left Behind
A second wind began blowing not long after the church planting push. The No Place Left Behind movement captured part of this second wind of missional fervor.
As a professor of evangelism, it was a wave that I had not previously experienced in my lifetime. Here were groupings of radical young 20-something Christians aggressively sharing the gospel and training others to do so. They were intentionally knocking on doors looking for “Houses of Peace.” They were self-motivated. It was exciting to see!
I was struck by this in 2016 when I brought several carloads of students for street evangelism to Kansas City’s Northeast side. They were interns from a local church plant. We decided to get out of our cars and meet at a nearby intersection for prayer. Before we arrived at that corner, a random car stopped on the street next to us, and a Midwestern student called out and said, “What are you guys doing here?” We told him we were planning to do some street evangelism. “Amen,” he said, “Can we join you? We have been looking for houses of peace in this area.” Apparently, they were part of an undercurrent of evangelistic activity from the No Place Left Behind movement in Kansas City.
The two students joined us, and we had a great time of evangelism together. As we gathered at the end of the evening for prayer, it crossed my mind that something really special was happening.

Yes, sometimes God uses an “end around.” He began by moving an entire generation to honor His Word. And He did so using the pens and voices of people like Spurgeon, the Puritans, and the Protestant Reformers. All I can say is, “Thank you, Lord!”

Sunday, January 7, 2018

How Might the Church in Sardis Evangelize?

Seven churches were described by John in the Book of Revelation. In the context of Revelation, these seven churches received personal letters from the risen Christ. It appears that Christ laid out these churches as types for the entire church age. Just as these churches coexisted in the First Century, so they coexist in every century.

  • The issue is not: Which church-type corresponds to what era of the church?
  • The issue is: What are Christ’s lessons through every church to every church in every age?
The first question leads to fruitless debates and historical fallacies. The second question allows the sharp sword of Christ to perform His surgery and excise the diseases that ail His churches.
There are several commonalities to be kept in mind when considering these churches:

  1. Every church was called a “church”, and was therefore a real expression of Christ’s Church.
  2. While the ideal of the so-called “universal Church” was taught in Ephesians 5, the existence of sin within the churches of Revelation parallels the reality of churches throughout the ages and into the present time.
  3. Each of these church-types had its own personality, its own strengths, and its own weaknesses
In the mix of these seven churches was the church of Sardis, fifth out of the seven (Revelation 3:1-6). Jesus made the jarring statement of the church of Sardis: “you are dead.” It is quite surprising in the sovereign providence of Christ: (1) That He allowed the Church of Sardis to exist during the time of John; (2) That He allows it to be one type of his churches throughout Church history; and (2) That He would still refer to the Church of Sardis as a “church” even though they were on life support.
Christ did not miraculously wave His sovereign hand over the Church of Sardis and supernaturally cure it of its ailments. Rather, He wrote them a letter. These words were to be sufficient for them. And through these words the sovereign Christ continues to exert His lordship over His Church.
Jesus stated that a super majority of those who attended this church were actually backslidden at best. Christ stated, “You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments.” Only a few names were not defiled. Then in the next verse Christ added, “He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the book of life.” They had a moral problem in the church. Only a small group of their members remained undefiled. Later Christ promised “white garments” only to those who overcame!
Further, there existed a problem of priorities in this church. Jesus stated to them, “Strengthen the things that remain.” He addressed Sardis’ priority problem. Organizationally, they had deemphasized and defunded the priorities of Christ.
So, in Christ’s warning to them, He echoed His own words when He was on earth. He promised the overcomer, “I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels.” Now this same terminology was found from the lips of Christ in three of the Gospels. In Matthew, Jesus stated this concept speaking only of His “Father who is in heaven” as His audience:
“Therefore whoever confesses Me before men, him I will also confess before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven. Matthew 10:32-33.
In Luke, Jesus repeated these same conditional elements using “the angels of God” as His audience:
“Also I say to you, whoever confesses Me before men, him the Son of Man also will confess before the angels of God. But he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” Luke 12:8-9.
In the Gospel of Mark, However, Jesus repeated this concept combining “His Father” and “the holy angels” as His audience:
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will be ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.” Mark 8:38.
Jesus was refreshing the memory of His people in the dying Church in Sardis that they needed to return to the bold proclamation of the gospel. They were not to be ashamed either of Christ or of His words.
So “How Might the Church of Sardis Have Evangelized”?
In this short letter we find little indication of a misguided message, as was evident in Christ’s words to the Church of Thyatira. Rather, we read: (1) that they lacked watchfulness; (2) that they had misplaced priorities; (3) that they were defiled in their lifestyle; and (4) by inference, that they lacked boldness in proclaiming the gospel.
Perhaps they had succumbed to a mere lifestyle evangelism methodology. Perhaps the people of the Church in Sardis feared to speak of Jesus and His words. They relied on their soiled lives to sufficiently communicate the gospel of righteousness—which is to be received by faith alone. Their attention had moved away from Jesus. Now their focus was on themselves and pleasing the world around them.
How did Jesus warn this dying church? He told them to remember “how” they had received. Surely, they had a commendable past! Jesus told them, “Remember how you have received and heard.” Their need was not to project forward toward the future. Rather, they needed to reach back into their past, to observe “how” [πῶς] they had received the word and “how” they in fact heard it.
This same “how” of receiving and hearing the gospel was used by Paul to correct the drifting church members in the churches of Galatia:
“But even if we, or an angel from heaven, evangelize you other than how we evangelized you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone evangelizes you other than what you have received, let him be accursed.” Galatians 1:8-9. Translation mine.
The primary issue for Paul was not merely the message of the gospel (important as that is), but also its method of propagation and reception. Similarly, Christ urged the Church of Sardis to look back at their past.

  • “But,” a theologian once said, “You can’t go back 30-50 years.”
  • “Remember,” responds Jesus, “You must go back 30-50 years!”
Sometimes church members don’t “go back” far enough. They consider the time when their church was in the “Maximum Efficiency” stage. Their happy past consists of the time when the church was full of people, with plenty of activities and staff, and bills could be paid. But they have not moved back far enough. They must look toward the “Incipient Stage” of their church, when people were first being led to Christ and the baptismal waters were first moving. It is because of the revival fires burning in the early stages of a local church that the church grew to enjoy its ministry in the “Maximum Efficiency” stage.
Churches must go back to the roots of their work of salvation and true Christian discipleship. They must reconsider their early obedience of the Great Commission. They must reawaken the urgency of earlier days and their methods of evangelism. If the evangelism methods were biblical then—then they continue to be biblical today. Biblical evangelism methodologies are timeless, and they are always effective in accomplishing God’s will!
We must fight the deceptions of contemporary sirens urging us to move beyond our biblical past.

“And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, ‘These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: “I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. He who overcomes shall be clothed in white garments, and I will not blot out his name from the Book of Life; but I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”’” Revelation 3:1-6.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

To Change or Not to Change?

To move the boundary marker or not to move the boundary marker? To change or not to change? It is interesting that one verse in Deuteronomy on landmarks provides both order and discord, focus and fracture on organizational change!
“You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.” Deuteronomy 19:14.
It seems like God intentionally assigned and placed this emotive hand grenade in His word to create discussion among His people. Has not God, in fact, by writing this decree as He did, not only initiated the discussion, but also framed the parameters for this discussion?
God’s Word frames the question; God’s Word answers the question; and God’s Word provides the language by which the question ought to be discussed.
Now, there are organizational iconoclasts that want to change everything. Nothing that has existed before that generation is right. Then, there are organizational conservationists who want to preserve everything. Nothing from the past can be changed. It must be maintained at all cost.
Younger generations tend toward innovation and change. Older generations are inclined towards stability, regularity, and permanence. And so, they clash—and they clash in the church!
As each generation cycles through its life-span, they will slowly progress from one extreme to the other. It is inevitable. This movement toward stability and constancy is the natural process of time.
God therefore enters, by His omnipotent Word, into this generational dissonance with one short verse on landmarks. And He states His point-of-view. He drops the divine gavel and says, “Stop your bickering. You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark.”
It is at this point that the wordsmiths and the exegetes get excited. What does “shall” really mean? Does “not” really mean “not”? What about in the original language—and for the original audience? How did they understand the negation “not”?
But God’s inerrant Word is eternal. It is above human history. It is above individual human cultural norms and forms. While having perspicuity, it is also supra-temporal. And God has made His immutable point.
“You shall not remove your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set.”
By way of synthetic Hebraic parallelism, the concept of “your neighbor’s landmark” is explained with another phrase, “which the men of old have set.” In other words, do not move boundary markers which were set by earlier generations, be they your forefathers or not.
Was God referring only to former land survey markers in this dictum? Or may He want this decree to also be applied to the spiritual realm? And if so how might it be applied?
Several comments may provide some interpretive markers for applying this volatile verse.
  1. God pivots the argument in favor of the conservationists by how He stated it.
  2. The argument lays on what the reader considers is implied by the word “landmark” or “boundary marker.”
  3. The use of the possessive “neighbor’s landmark” is also interesting. It implies that the landmark is not that of the reader, but rather that of his neighbor. Therefore, the reader has no authority over the landmark, because it is not his to move. In fact, even the neighbor does not have authority over his own landmark, since its placement came from preexisting “men of old.”

Therefore, God seems to be implying that there are boundaries in existence, established long before we are born, that provide necessary delimiters to best viewing and navigating the issues of life.
Further, we get the idea, from the way that God has framed this one verse, that He foreknew that each successive generation would desire to push against former boundaries that had been established. Built into the human condition is the illusion that each generation thinks itself better than the generation before. Yet, God dis not use a comparative, pitting one generation against the other. He merely stated, “Do not move the boundary marker.”
Several tangible items immediately come to mind when considering possible contestants for preexisting divine boundary markers:
  • The words of Christ (Matthew 7:24, 26), specifically all the commands of Christ directed to His disciples (Matthew 28:20), being described by Paul as “wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Timothy 6:3); and
  • The Ten Commandments (Deuteronomy 5:6-21).

These two unshakable rocks provide doctrinal and practical boundaries which the winds and waves of culture and time can never move. Nor should the obedient reader of Deuteronomy 19:14 attempt to move these boundaries.
In many ways, the real issue is this: Will we be driven away from a focus on diligently obeying the Word of God by the winds and waves of time and culture? Or will we humbly be driven to attentively investigating the pages of the Word of God—lest we inadvertently move any boundary that God has established.

The task of each generation is to grapple against the winds and waves of culture that will incessantly bombard them. They must determine to steadfastly maintain the boundaries that God has set forth in His Word, not being moved to the left or the right. Culture and generational issues ought never to set the pace for the Christian or the Church. The words of Christ are the only rock that will never move!