Exegeting A Crowd

I’ve been meaning to transcribe an excerpt from a recent message at my home church, Covenant Life (Gaithersburg, MD). Being in Louisville, perhaps, is why the excerpt from Dr Albert Mohler’s message came back to mind.

On May 4th Dr Mohler preached on The Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23). He made these remarks at the beginning of the message:

“The crowd is so large that has been gathering over the course of this day that Jesus is required to do what a teacher must do and that is find some way to get distance from the crowd that is necessary to be seen and heard. In this case Jesus gets into a boat and goes slightly off shore in order that he might teach. The crowd is a very important factor to this passage.

The crowd is a matter of some question–some challenge, some perplexity–to us as well. Is has become clear that evangelical Christians in particular have a hard time understanding the nature of a crowd. We are tempted to think of a crowd as a great gathering of receptivity.

We understand that the crowd is gathering because something has been happening. We as evangelicals sometimes mistake a crowd for a church. It’s hard for us sometimes to understand what’s going on. Jesus helps to clarify this for his own disciples.”

–Albert Mohler, The Parable of the Sower, sermon at Covenant Life Church (Gaithersburg, MD) on May 4, 2008.

The Reason for God

reasonforgod.jpgOften, the way Timothy Keller articulates the gospel (and the implications of the gospel) in his new book–The Reason for God— are incredibly thought-provoking. Take this one for example,

“A central message of the Bible is that we can only have a relationship with God by sheer grace. Our moral efforts are too feeble and falsely motivated to ever merit salvation. Jesus, through his death and resurrection, has provided salvation for us, which we receive as a gift. All churches believe this in one form or another. Growth in character and change in behavior occur in a gradual process after a person becomes a Christian. The mistaken belief that a person must ‘clean up’ his or her own life in order to merit God’s presence is not Christianity. This means, though, that the church will be filled with immature and broken people who still have a long way to go emotionally, morally, and spiritually. As the saying has it: ‘The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.’

… Now imagine that someone with a very broken past becomes a Christian and her character improves significantly over what is was. Nevertheless, she still may be less secure and self-disciplined than someone who is so well adjusted that she feels no particular need for religious affiliation at all. Suppose you meet both of these women the same week. Unless you know the starting points and life journeys of each woman, you could easily conclude that Christianity isn’t worth much, and that Christians are inconsistent with their own high standards. It is often the case that people whose lives have been harder and who are ‘lower on the character scale’ are more likely to recognize their need for God and turn to Christianity. So we should expect that many Christians’ lives would not compare well to those of the nonreligious (just as the health of people in the hospital is comparatively worse than people visiting museums).”

-Timothy Keller, The Reason For God (Dutton: 2008), pp. 53-54.

Doctrine and saving faith

tss-baseball.jpg“We must understand that Christianity is not a mood. It is not an emotion. It is not a feeling. It is not an amorphous set of beliefs. It is established by the truth of God’s Word, by the saving reality of God’s deeds in Jesus Christ, around certain definite doctrines without which it is not possible to exercise the kind of faith that saves.”

– Dr. R. Albert Mohler, at the fall convocation at Southern Seminary on August 21st [as quoted in The Tie: Southern Seminary Magazine (Fall 2007), p. 23]. Download magazine PDF here.

The free magazine also features the testimony of Marxist-turned-Christian, Michael A.G. Haykin on pages 18-19. Good stuff.

Why we must evangelize

tsslogo.jpgFrom time to time we like to feature parody on TSS.

But this is no joke.

Recently NavPress published a book titled I’m OK – You’re Not: The message we’re sending nonbelievers and why we should stop by John Shore. It was written by a humorist, but it’s not going in the “funny” folder.

The book’s purpose:

“Pretty much every last, single person in America has heard the word of God! The Great Commission has gone a very long way toward being completely fulfilled right here in our own backyard! …

So. Now what?

Well, the contention of this book is that now that it’s safe to assume that all of our neighbors already know the story of Christ and the Bible and so on, it might be a good time to take some of that enormous energy we currently spend on converting those same people, and to focus it instead on ‘just’ loving them as much as we love ourselves.

In other words, I think that here in the great, gospel-saturated U.S. of A., it’s time to shift our concentration from fulfilling the Great Commission to fulfilling the Great Commandment.

I do want to be clear about the caveat, though, of ‘only’ meaning that we should ease off trying to tell people about Christ who haven’t first asked us to tell them about Christ. If someone has indicated to us that they’re open to hearing the Good News, then by all means let us share until we’re hoarse (or until it’s clear they’d like us to go home so that they can go to bed). By extension, then, I’m also not in any way meaning to suggest that preachers should stop preaching, or that stadium-filling Billy Graham-style revival meetings should stop happening. Of course they shouldn’t. Because again: Those kinds of public or corporate affairs are presented to people who have asked to participate in them, who have willingly volunteered to hear the Word of God. Such people are fair game — and have at ‘em then, I say! Praise the Lord, and save me a front row seat” (pp. 14-15).

Wow.

I’m aware this quote probably reflects the sentiments of a broad stroke of American Christianity. So in no way am I singling this author out (he is merely a representation). But so many things come to mind after reading this, I hardly know where to begin. In part, this reveals an overly-optimistic view of our country’s understanding of the Cross, a market-driven evangelism outlook, a misunderstanding of human nature, and a deficient understanding of the Great Commission (as being limited to media saturation and evangelism). Quite obvious is the purposeful disconnect between service and persuasion. Where to begin?

Serving up persuasion

The truth is, our acts of obedience and kindness are used to ‘win’ unbelievers to Christ. “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct” (1 Pet. 3:1-2). It’s okay to have evangelistic motives behind your obedience. We can (and should) love and serve our neighbors, motivated that God would use that service in some way to radically change them (as He has changed us!).

Cross-centered humility

And our evangelism must be done with humility. Certainly! But our humility comes from realizing that we are absolute failures before God. The Cross tells me I’m not okay with God and my neighbor is not okay with God either. The Gospel tells me (in myself) I am an absolute failure before God because of my sinfulness. Only in Christ do sinful failures have the hope of eternal life. So any pridefulness in Christian evangelism – which is what this book aims at stopping – is a derivative of misunderstanding of the Gospel itself.

If Christians act with belligerence in evangelism, and this reveals a lack of understanding in the Gospel, how misunderstood is the Gospel in the rest of “gospel-saturated U.S. of A”?

Ironically, the assumption of a widespread understanding of the Gospel affirms a superficial understanding of the Gospel, and this fuels pride in evangelism! This book unwittingly incubates what it sets out to cure.

We interrupt this program …

But enough about us, Christ is coming back in flames with a host of angels to “inflict vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thes. 1:7-8). That’s news worthy of interruption.

Remember Paul’s conversion? God apparently did not feel restrained to await Paul’s permission before knocking the Gospel-despiser down blind into the dust (Acts 9:1-9). Even before his conversion, Paul heard the Gospel and knew why the message was dangerous to his self-righteous religion. He was out to stop the spread of the Gospel. God interrupted his program.

But what incredible grace was shown to Paul! How does Paul recall this event in his life? Does he say it was unfair for God to have dropped him in the dust like that? No. Does he reprimand God for not asking permission first? No! He says, “though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13-14). The blinding interruption in Paul’s life was mercy and grace!

Conclusion

Paul soberly reminds us from his own testimony that knowing about the Gospel does not disqualify us from being “ignorant” of the Gospel. Which is why evangelism must continue — no matter how pervasive the Christian message seems on the outside, nor how oppressive the influence to “stop” comes from the inside.

Pursue, persuade, serve, and share. But do it all in the strength of the Spirit and the humility so fitting the message.

Critiquing the Missional Movement

tsslogo.jpgNow that all the Sovereign Grace Ministries messages are free, I’m slowly feasting message-by-message in a long and delicious buffet of audio. Today I finally arrived at Dave Harvey’s message from the SGM Leadership Conference this Spring (at the time, I was on the other side of the wall listening to Dever speak on his annual reading schedule).

Harvey, the author of the excellent book When Sinners Say I Do: Discovering the Power of the Gospel for Marriage (Shepherd’s Press: 2007), is also an expert church planter and apostolic leader within SGF. This Spring in his session “Watch Your Mission: To Be, or Not to Be, ‘Missional,’” he assessed the strengths and weakness of the missional movement. In part, he argues the MM muddies the Cross-centered focus of the Church and misunderstands the apostolic context of the Great Commission.

Here’s the heart of his outline:

1. What are the Strengths of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Have a Commendable Passion for Evangelism.
B. Missional Churches Have a Laudable Commitment to Engaging Culture.
C. Missional Churches Have a Profitable Impulse for Reexamining Church Tradition.
D. They Also Possess an Admirable Devotion to Social Impact.

2. What are the Weaknesses of Missional Churches?
A. Missional Churches Tend to Be Mission-Centered Rather Than Gospel-Centered.
B. Missional Churches Tend to Have a Reductionistic Ecclesiology.
C. Missional Churches Tend to Confuse Culture Engagement with Cultural Immersion.
D. Missional Churches Tend to Downplay the Institutional and Organizational Nature of the Church.
E. Missional Churches Tend to Have an Insufficient Understanding of Apostolic Ministry.

Free: Get the full outline here and the mp3 audio here.

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Update: It should be noted SGM believes in a continuing apostolic gift: “present-day apostles plant and build local churches for the sanctification of the believer, the expansion of the mission, and the exaltation of God.” For more on why they use the term, what it means and does not mean, see the SGM booklet by Harvey titled Polity: Serving and Leading the Local Church (2004), pages 17-26, 49-50.

Finding Jesus for self-redemption

vick.jpgSuper-athlete Michael Vick has pled guilty to dog fighting. Possibly his NFL career is over, certainly it’s on ‘hold.’

It’s his post-guilty plea statements I find curious. In part he said …

“… I’m upset with myself, and, you know, through this situation I found Jesus and asked him for forgiveness and turned my life over to God. And I think that’s the right thing to do as of right now.

Like I said, for this — for this entire situation I never pointed the finger at anybody else, I accepted responsibility for my actions of what I did and now I have to pay the consequences for it. But in a sense, I think it will help, you know, me as a person. I got a lot to think about in the next year or so.

I offer my deepest apologies to everybody out in there in the world who was affected by this whole situation. And if I’m more disappointed with myself than anything it’s because of all the young people, young kids that I’ve let down, who look at Michael Vick as a role model. And to have to go through this and put myself in this situation, you know, I hope that every young kid out there in the world watching this interview right now who’s been following the case will use me as an example to using better judgment and making better decisions.

Once again, I offer my deepest apologies to everyone. And I will redeem myself. I have to.”

I pray that Vick has found his Savior! This would be amazing grace covering a violence-addicted heart. But we’re also aware now is a great time to publicly “find Christ” in the hopes of swaying more lenient sentencing. May Vick truly find his peace in the Cross and find wise counsel from pastors in his life. We can pray to this end.

But there is a deeper lesson in these words for us all. We want to “find Jesus” and, at the same time, want to redeem ourselves. We don’t say it like this, but it’s a real struggle. We struggle against legalism because we struggle to rest our full eternal redemption into the hands of another.

Trusting in the gospel is to be eternally redeemed in Christ, relinquishing all hope of becoming redeem-able. It means crying for mercy in light of the impossible demands of self-redemption. We have seen the sin in our hearts, the holy standards of God, and cannot be redeemed today or tomorrow or in a year by our self-improvements.

In Scripture it’s one sinful tax collector and one bloody criminal hanging next to Christ that both find redemption by relinquishing self-improvement. This is hard for us to grasp in a society bent on self-improvement and image and perception. We are repulsed from the idea that our souls cannot be improved to God’s approval. We don’t want to be helpless. We need Jesus for an initial push of momentum in the right direction.

Recall what Mark Lauterbach recently wrote: “I have wondered for a couple of years where the Gospel intersects modern American life — and I think it is here. The Gospel calls us to stop trying to improve ourselves.”

At some level the words of Vick are the words of us all: ‘Redeem me so I can redeem myself.’ This prideful contradiction energizes legalism, undermines the humbling power of the gospel, undermines the grace-sustained Cross-centered life, undermines our Cross-purchased eternal security, and undermines honesty over personal sin in small group meetings.

At the least, these words reveal a false dichotomy between private, spiritual ‘redemption’ and public, PR ‘redemption.’ At the worst, Vick’s words reveal a misunderstanding of the gospel, a gospel so confused in popular culture that to “find Jesus” may now be the first step towards self-redemption.

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photo (c) 2007 Doug Mills/The New York Times