Archive for April, 2012

When a Pastor and His Church Don’t See Eye to Eye April 25, 2012

What happens when a pastor has an awakening in his own relationship with Christ? When he comes to an understanding of the Word that renews his passion for the Gospel and the work of the ministry? He is bound (and responsible) to share his discovery with his congregation as an evidence of the grace of God in His life and the life of the local body.

What happens when he addresses the congregation, however, may not be nearly so joyous as his initial breakthrough. Often, the substance of spiritual growth involves things (conviction of sin, deeper understanding of grace, shift of focus from self to Christ) that will necessarily step on the toes of those who are not interested in the things of God and attend church for merely social or personal reasons. Sometimes, however, even those who share the pastor’s sincere faith and desire for growth will take offense at a challenging teaching from the Word.

I’ve seen far too many pastors get frustrated when they have a clear sense that the Lord is leading them and their churches into greater obedience to His Word but their congregation is either unmoved or even hostile to the changes in practice that obedience might lead to. In recent months, a few pastors I’m acquainted with have been fired or pressured to backpedal in their teaching under threat of dismissal. In those cases I’m familiar with, the pastors in question have been pilloried for being “too Calvinist” for preaching the glory of God’s work in sending His Son to die for our sins in a way that gives God’s power in redeeming us precedence over man’s work in responding.

I’m not sure why the congregations of these pastors have rejected their sincere teaching, and I don’t want this post to be a quibble over doctrine or semantics. What I do want is to outline a few helpful principles that churches and pastors should apply when this type of situation (a pastor relaying a doctrinal/obedience awakening to a church that hasn’t experienced the same awakening) arises.

To Churches

  1. Give your pastor the benefit of the doubt. You called your pastor to faithfully study, exposit, and proclaim God’s Word. If he preaches concepts that you find uncomfortable, don’t automatically assume that he is out to get you, but rather assume that he is merely faithfully relaying to you that which God has taught him through Scripture.
  2. Listen closely to what the Spirit may be teaching you. If your toes are stepped on by a faithful exposition of Scripture, perhaps they needed to be squashed. Your impulse to reject the pastor’s teaching and/or attempt to oust him from the pulpit may be your flesh rebelling against changes the Spirit is desperately trying to work in your heart. If the message hurts, don’t reflexively shoot the messenger, but examine the message and “…test the spirits to see whether they are from God…” (1 John 4:1).
  3. Let the pastor know that you don’t understand or are uncomfortable with his message(s). This goes back to the first point–your pastor would be thrilled to know that you as his congregation are engaging with what he is teaching and desiring to understand it better, and he most likely would graciously spend whatever time is necessary to help you understand and bring clarity to the situation. If he rebuffs your honest (and courteous) questions, that might be a sign that he is “off the reservation” in what he has been teaching.
  4. If there are certain leaders in your church who are trying to turn the congregation away from a faithful pastor, ask them to repent or resign. Look at the character qualities required of elders/overseers in Scripture. I’ve highlighted specific qualities that need to be considered in this type of situation: “An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money” (1 Tim. 3:2-3). When a leader or leaders in your church fail to exhibit these characteristics in how they approach a doctrinal or practical conflict with the pastor, red flags should go up.
  5. Ask the Lord to bring reconciliation to your church. Since we are fallen human beings, discord, frustration, anger, misunderstanding, and partisanship come easily to us. Repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation are hard, and must be worked through the Spirit in us. If your church is embroiled in doctrinal strife, pray for healing and pray for God to be glorified through it.
  6. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you follow the first five recommendations in this list and you find that your pastor is teaching you truth in “love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Tim. 1:5), then apologize for assailing him and submit to his preaching as he submits himself to the Word of God.

To Pastors

  1. Be loving in how you present truth. If God is teaching you and you are growing spiritually by leaps and bounds, do not let that become a source of pride to you. Don’t share the things you are learning with your congregation in a way that belittles their spiritual maturity or intellectual capacity. “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters in all purity” (1 Tim. 5:1-2). Your congregation will best take the medicine of hard truth when it is delivered in a spirit of loving concern and encouragement.
  2. Recognize that the Lord is working on people in His time-frame. Just because the Lord has given you fresh appreciation and insight into His Word does not mean He has worked accordingly with your entire congregation at once. If you assume that your epiphany (which may be founded on decades of study, suffering, and prayer) has to be shared by your whole church immediately, you’re setting yourself up for a crash. Be patient, and trust the Lord to use His Word in them as He has in you.
  3. When there is misunderstanding, be a teacher. If your congregation balks at something you’re teaching them, listen sincerely to their concerns, patiently correct their doctrinal errors with truth, and endeavor to be as clear as possible to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks from their understanding of the Word.
  4. Ask the Lord to confirm your ministry and your message. If you are certain of the Lord’s favor in your study and exposition of specific passages of His Word that are troubling your congregation, pray that He will open their eyes to His truth. You are not standing in your own speaking exegetical skills, you are standing before your church in the strength of the Lord proclaiming the truth of His Word. It’s up to Him (not you!) whether they respond.
  5. Be willing to change if you recognize that you are wrong. If you proclaim a new insight from God’s Word, and your congregation (or your elders) reject it, don’t dismiss their criticisms out of hand. It could be that your enthusiasm over a spiritual discovery has led you to conclusions that are not in keeping with the whole of Scripture. If faithful men and women in your body bring correction, further study reveals errors in your thought process, and the Spirit brings conviction, do not hold tightly to your message. Rather repent, thank those who rebuked you, and continue in ministry with newfound humility and appreciation for the gathered Body of Christ.
  6. Be willing to take a stand if you know that you are in the right. If, on the other hand, your teaching is rejected by your congregation or its leaders, they may be reacting to the truth of God’s Word by clinging to their own sins or the “tradition of men” (Col. 2:8). If you have examined your message and your heart in proclaiming it, then speak boldly, resting in the assurance that “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected [the Lord]” (1 Sam. 8:7). If you lose your pastoral position or half your church leaves because of the truth of your message (not because of error or your demeanor in delivering it), then take comfort in Jesus’ words: “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who went before you” (Matt. 5:10-12).

Posted by Justin Lonas

Living the Resurrection April 4, 2012

Originally published in Pulpit Helps Magazine, April 2009.

On the face of it, Easter seems like a straightforward celebration of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins.

Without doubt, the salvation of mankind was an integral part of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. The wider view of Calvary, however, reveals Christ crucified as the cornerstone of God’s plan for His ultimate glory.

From the very beginning, Easter was calculated for; in the midst of meting out the justified curses on His handiwork after their rebellion, God promised a coming redemption (Gen. 3:15). Later, he clarified his promises through the prophets, most notably via a man named “Salvation is God” (Isaiah). Isaiah begins to distinguish between two comings of Messiah—he elaborates on the theme of the coming king who will crush Satan’s head (Is. 9:1-7), but adds to it the narrative of the “suffering servant” who would be undeservedly punished to take away the sins of mankind (Is. 53:1-12). As we see throughout Scripture, both appearances are crucial to a proper understanding of Christ. Paradoxically, the Jews were so focused on the second, triumphal coming that they had Jesus crucified for blasphemy at His first.

The events surrounding the crucifixion are further evidence of the cosmic significance of that day. The thorns woven into His crown evoke a powerful irony as a product of the curse was used to mark the King on the day He settled the score; the story arc of fall and redemption came full circle. Athanasius of Alexandria in his On the Incarnation speaks of the earthquakes, darkness, and raising of deceased saints at Christ’s death as the whole of creation bearing witness to the fact of His Lordship and the act of redemption.

Why Resurrection?            
While Easter often draws our focus to the cross, the resurrection is the foundational act that gives fullness of meaning to everything that came before. Sometimes we think of it as the happy ending to the “real story” of atonement, but without rising from the dead, Christ’s work would not have been complete. Among others, four reasons stand out as to why the resurrection deserves paramount attention.

1) It was prophesied.
Isaiah is replete with references to Messiah’s return to reign after His suffering. In 55:11-13, he says “So will My word which goes froth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it. For you will go out with joy and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills will break forth into shouts of joy before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and instead of the nettle the myrtle will come up, and it will be a memorial to the Lord, for an everlasting sign which will not be cut off.

The “Word” spoken of here most likely refers to Christ. The Lord’s declaration that He would not return empty tells us that His death alone was not the sum total of His task on earth. The work of redeeming creation referenced in this passage is not yet complete, but it is promised; the crucified servant, therefore, had to be raised to return. In Matt. 20:18-19, John 2:19, and elsewhere, Jesus predicted His death and resurrection, seldom mentioning one without the other.

2) The Resurrection defeated death and Satan.
Christ’s atonement had a manifold purpose: to defeat not only sin but death and Satan. Whereas His sacrificial death covered the sins of humanity, only His resurrection cast aside death and dealt the crushing blow to Satan’s power.

Paul’s polemic against disbelief in the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 makes clear that Christ’s return to life was the key both to eternal life and to the demise of death. Paul proves that Christ was in fact raised (vv. 4-8), that His ongoing life is key to our salvation (vv. 16-19), that His resurrection heralds eternal life for those who follow Him (vv. 20-23), and that death itself has been defeated by Christ’s act (vv. 26, 54-57). “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (1 Cor. 15:20-21). Paul reiterated this truth to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to grieve with hope in the assurance of resurrection and Christ’s victory over death (1 Thess. 4:13-18).

3) It brought greater glory to God
Perhaps the only thing that could show God’s holiness, power, and love more than casting His only son away from Himself by making Him into sin itself to atone for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21) was for Him to be restored to fellowship with Jesus by raising Him from the dead. Christ the “first fruits” was welcomed back to the Father, opening the door for all those who believe in Him to be adopted into the Kingdom. For the first time since the fall, the Lord was able to enjoy fellowship with His creation without violating His holiness.

Additionally, In Luke 24:35-36, Jesus points out that His suffering and resurrection were necessary for Him to enter into His glory. His triumph over death and Satan showed once for all His ultimate power. Because He died the death of a cursed criminal on the cross, His resurrection brought supreme honor and glory from the greatest dishonor man could subject Him to.

4) The Resurrection empowered Christ’s followers
Jesus’ very public death, without a public resurrection, would have easily quashed the spread of His teaching. As Jesus prophesied in Matt. 26:31-32, His death scattered the disciples, but He drew them back to Himself and commissioned them after He was raised. Athanasius cites the empowerment of the disciples after the resurrection as evidence of Christ’s defeat of death. The early Church clearly did not fear death as the culture around them, braving persecutions and martyrdom to take the Gospel to the corners of the known world within a few generations of Christ. The resurrection reinvigorated the disciples’ commitment to Christ’s message and paved the way for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

Living it out
Clearly, Easter should motivate us to a deeper understanding and appreciation of the truths that form the backbone of our faith. It is a time for us to reflect on the cost of our redemption, the meaning of forgiveness, and the glory of God. More than that, however, it should stir us to give flesh to the reality of Christ’s life; we are to, as Paul said in Phil. 2:12 “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” The magnitude of Christ’s work on the first Easter (not just physically, but theologically [giving up His nature, becoming separated from the Father, etc.]) demands a response of obedience to His holiness and mercy. The obligation is one of gratitude; the God who gave His Son for us is not interested in forced obedience.

Living the resurrection should encompass both submission to God’s will, and dedication to Christ’s call to make disciples. When we do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God (Micah 6:8), our actions fly in the face of human nature because they are flowing from the life within us. In that way, we give evidence to Christ’s resurrection; only if He was raised and is alive could He continue to work among men.

Jesus Himself desires that we carry on His mission in the power of the resurrection. In His “High Priestly Prayer” of John 17, He pleads to the Father for His disciples, saying, “Sanctify them in truth; Your word is truth. As You sent Me into the world, I also have sent them into the world. For their sakes I sanctify Myself that they themselves also may be sanctified in truth” (vv. 17-19). In taking the Gospel to our neighbors and the nations, we are fulfilling Christ’s call and His hope for our lives.

John’s gospel concludes with a musing on the scope of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25). There is a definite sense in which every believer tells a unique part of that story until the whole world is indeed filled with truth and majesty at the second coming. The glory of the resurrection is seen each day in the fullness of Christ’s living Body, the Church. Perhaps that is what the celebration of Easter is truly about

Posted by Justin Lonas

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