July 28, 2015

'The spirit of inquiry'

I read a fair amount of church history. And one of the things that amazes me is how effective was pulpit evangelism in days gone by. In other words, there have been seasons of history in which both the lost and the saved were quite ready to come along and listen to the preaching of the word of God. A capable evangelist could arrive in a city or town, with comparatively little notice (and with nothing like modern advertising or showmanship), and people would show up in droves to the meeting house, or the village green, or the tent set up in a vacant lot to hear the word of God preached. And again, the attendees would not just be the church folks, who had been urged for a few weeks prior to come along to the public meetings … but miners, and drunkards, and washer women, and businessmen, and housewives who had, as yet, no real connection to Christ or His church.

My great-great-grandfather, in the early part of last century, was able to plant several churches in Oklahoma by means of holding tent meetings which would attract all sorts of locals … many of whom evidently came to Christ and were ready to form local congregations. And I know, personally, a still-living preacher who was once able to preach to large crowds in tent meetings all over our own region of the country.

But today such widespread interest in gospel preaching is rarely seen. And the crowds that do gather for such meetings are, I suspect, much smaller than in days of old … and largely comprised of church folks who have been urged to come along and support the evangelist.

Why is that? Well, there are a number of factors, I am sure. The most obvious is that mankind, in every era, is born in sin and naturally averse to the things of God. But, in addition to that, the church’s own poor moral testimony in many places might be a second reason why preaching no longer attracts great crowds of the unchurched. Many people do not see us as God’s holy band any more. And so our message falls on deaf ears. A third reason is that our neighbors have, throughout the course of their lives, been systematically trained (in school, in the media, and in liberal churches) to discount the veracity of the Bible, and the ugliness of sin, and mankind’s desperate need for the new birth and for Christ. And so again, their ears are deaf to our supernatural message. And then a fourth reason it is hard to gather a crowd around a preacher is surely our modern entertainment culture. I have no doubt that the lack of televisions, smart phones, and the internet in days past gave people a little more natural interest in going to hear the evangelist on the town square. He may not have been there to entertain, but for the townsfolk there was an entertainment value in the whole affair nonetheless. And some who merely came to see a spectacle came away with a whole new way of seeing the world, because they were born again by the Spirit’s application of the word of God to their souls!

But people today do not need a tent meeting to help them pass the time. And why should they come and listen to all these things that have been ‘discounted by modern science’ anyway? And, well, ‘my church-going neighbors are really no different than I am.’ And, with all these obstacles, we are absolutely right to realize that we must earnestly give ourselves to personal evangelism; to sharing Christ as individuals with individuals into whose lives we have inroads. And, of course, this has always been one of the church’s chief means of proclaiming Christ.

And yet it has not, by any stretch, been the only means! There have been periods when pulpit evangelism was much more successful than it is today. And, in some cases at least, it was successful in places and periods in which the evangelists were faced with at least the first three of our modern obstacles! The Wesleys and Whitefield, for instance, preached with an evangelistic success probably not seen since the times of the apostles. And yet they lived in an era of religious formalism, dead churches, and skepticism about the necessity of the new birth. Their hearers, in other words, were not naturally in the evangelists’ constituency! England was in a very dark place, spiritually. And yet the crowds came in droves to hear Wesley, Whitefield, and many other lesser known evangelists as well.

And the question is: Why? What was it that created such a stir in times gone by? Why is it that a red and white striped tent, with gospel hymns emanating from under its awnings, could attract such a crowd to hear sermons about sin, and hell, and Jesus, and the cross? The answer is not to be found in any cultural or socio-economic studies … but simply in God. He stirred an interest in the hearts of the people in times gone by. People who had, a few weeks earlier, had little notion of, much less interest in, the things of God now found themselves standing on tip toes to get a sight of the preacher whose voice was wafting good news across the fields! And it was God who did that! Supernaturally!

In his biographical sketch of Adoniram Judson, John Piper describes how, after years of slow labor in Burma, thousands of people in South Asia suddenly began, in 1831, to be eager and desperate for the truth of the gospel. Some embarked, Judson reported, on a 2-3 months’ journey to his station in Burma, because they’d heard he had writings about hell, and they were desperate to know how to escape it. Others came from the interior of the country, asking for literature that would tell them about Jesus Christ. And these were not Christianized westerners who had grown up their whole lives with a church on every corner – but 19th century Asians who were hearing whispers, many for the first time in their lives, of the gospel … and who simply had to know more!

And I say to you that, if God could create such hunger in the religious coldness of 18th century England, and among the spiritual vacuum of 19th century Asia, then God can create what Judson called 'the spirit of inquiry' in the spiritually blank 21st century west. God can make people put down their phones, and lay aside their skepticism, and come in droves to hear the preaching of the word of God. God can make it, as in times of old, so that we have to begin preaching the gospel on the front lawn because the crowds are too large to fit in the pews. And this should be our prayer!

Yes, let us keep sharing Christ as individuals with individuals. And let us rejoice when they come into the kingdom in ones and twos. But let us pray for an outpouring of the Spirit, and a spirit of inquiry and spiritual hunger such that the preachers of this land would be forced into the open air, and have their services requested at the town festivals and the county fairs, and have their churches full and their offices packed with people who simply must know more about heaven, and hell, and Jesus, and the new birth! God can stir up a spirit of inquiry once again, in spite of all the obstacles that we see. Let us pray that He would!

July 20, 2015

When the Devil Plays His Fiddle

Here is a poignant portion of David’s lament for King Saul and Jonathan after they were slain in battle with the Philistines:

“How the mighty have fallen!
Tell it not in Gath,
Proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
Or the daughters of the Philistines will rejoice,
The daughters of the uncircumcised will exult.”
2 Samuel 1:19-20

Gath and Ashkelon were, of course, two of the foremost cities of the Philistines. And David’s great hope was that the news of Saul’s demise would not reach them; that the enemies of the Lord would not have occasion to dance in the streets at the fall of the Israelite king.

Because that is what happens, isn’t it? When God’s people fall – and especially when they fall morally – the world gets to smile, and nod, and say ‘I told you so.’ And the name of our God is dragged through the mud. And the devil kicks off little parties in the streets. Even more so when it is “the mighty” who “have fallen” – when the well-known or well-positioned among us stumble into grievous sin. Sadly, even David himself would eventually fall in such a way as to give “occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme” (2 Samuel 12:14). And that’s just the way it is. When the mighty of God fall, the devil taps his foot and plays his fiddle, and the enemies of the cross do-si-do in perfect time!

So what can we do about it? A few thoughts:

1. We must not bestow leadership hastily (1 Timothy 5:22). Saul’s demise in the battle on Mount Gilboa was more than just a physical death in a failed military campaign. Saul fell slain on the mountain because of his rebellion against the Lord (1 Samuel 28:18-19). And, in one sense, he bears the guilt of that alone. It was Saul, and not his subjects, who chose to dishonor the Lord in the matter of the campaign against the Amalekites. And yet there is also a sense in which Saul should never have been in that position. Saul was king because the people (against God’s will) clamored for a king! The rejected God as king … and God gave them the sort of potentate that rebellious people deserve. And so Saul’s demise, and the occasion it gave the Philistines for dancing, must be partially laid at the feet of the people who were in such a hurry to have someone wear the king’s shoes in their midst.

And we must learn from that! American Christians are so often willing to hand spiritual influence and clout to certain pastors merely because they are excellent communicators; or to ‘Christian’ athletes, singers, and politicians simply because they have a talent that makes them marketable. How dumb can we get? If we, like the Israelites, place on pedestals people who have not gone through the paces to qualify as Christian leaders, we’re just asking for embarrassment and scandal. Better to have a more mundane (but God-approved) leader, than one who will count down the tempo for the devil’s barn dance.

2. We must insist that those who do lead us “pay close attention to [themselves] and to [their] teaching” (1 Timothy 4:16). The devil starts to play his fiddle, and the neighborhood dons its dancing shoes when any Christian falls into grievous sin – but especially when “the mighty have fallen”. And so we must be sure that those who are granted places of authority and honor in our midst are prayed for and held accountable to a higher standard.

3. We must practice church discipline (Matthew 18:15-18). It is far better if a Christian’s fall is made public (and first dealt with) by the church, than if it comes out through the grapevine or in the media. Sometimes sin is hidden well enough and long enough that the latter cannot be helped. But whenever the church discovers grievous sin in our midst, it ought to be we (and not the media or the rumor mill) who are proactively out in front of the story. And that means, incidentally, that we must be out in front of the less public sins, too … the little foxes that eventually set great fires in God’s vineyard. Carl Trueman has recently said that, if the church actually practiced church discipline within its ranks, our moral credibility in society would greatly increase. Amen, Dr. Trueman.

4. We must not go to court against other believers (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). There are some sins, as I said above, that must be dealt with publicly by means of church discipline. Sometimes there will even be a need for police intervention (e.g., in cases of abuse). But there are petty offenses – property disputes, marriage problems, and the like – over which our neighbors might be quick to resort to the civil courts, but which Paul says believers must sort out internally, with mediation from fellow Christians. To do otherwise; to carry our disputes in front of a court of law (filled with unbelievers) would be akin to a Jewish soldier walking into Gath and announcing that King Saul was dead … and kicking off a raucous pagan block party in the process.

Let’s not give Gath and Ashkelon reason to celebrate. The devil is good enough at leading the world’s jamborees without us giving him even more to sing about.

July 15, 2015

The All Sufficiency of the Gospel

"Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters;
And you who have no money come, buy and eat.
Come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without cost.
Why do you spend money for what is not bread,
And your wages for what does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good,
And delight yourself in abundance.
Incline your ear and come to Me.
Listen, that you may live;
And I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
According to the faithful mercies shown to David."
Isaiah 55:1-3

What is on offer here?

Everything we need, freely offered to "every one who thirsts", and granted to everyone who comes in faithto their everlasting benefit ... through Jesus, the Son of David.

July 13, 2015

Dwelling Together in Unity

Our church, each summer, is privileged to participate in joint services with a handful of other like-minded churches in greater Cincinnati. This past Sunday evening was one of them. And, during the refreshments after, the pastors present had a chance to be reminded (by a pastor from another area) just how good a thing God has going here, and to reflect on what it is that brought us and our churches together, and also to mull why it is that, sometimes, Christians (pastors, mainly) seem not to have a heart for such linking of arms, sharing of pews, and so on.

Why is that? If it really is “good and … pleasant … for brothers to dwell together in unity” (Psalm 133:1), why is it that churches and pastors can sometimes build such fences around themselves? Why is it that, sometimes, even churches of very like mind (on even secondary and tertiary issues) have very little heart to fellowship together?

Well, let me say that there are very real theological issues (of which pastors are often keenly aware) which force us to draw lines in the sand in terms of who we really call ‘brother’. Just because a person or religious group claims to be Christian does not mean that they are, or that we should link arms with them. And, sometimes, even when a church really is a true church, the errors they espouse in doctrine or practice may still cause us to be cautious in what ways we join forces, even while calling them brothers and sisters, and finding ways to cherish and embrace them. Just as in a nuclear family, you may love your brother dearly without being able to join in his every endeavor.

But it’s not these sorts of situations about which I write. I’m thinking of the instances when churches and pastors are more than just generally like-minded … but in which they are actually in virtual lock-step even on secondary points of doctrine. Even then, it was pointed out by our brother-pastor from out of state, it is not always a given that churches and pastors will really lock arms and share pulpits, pews, and fellowship tables. Still they may remain like relative islands – theologically sound, but largely alone in terms of real, tangible cooperation with other churches.

Why is that? Let me suggest three possible reasons:

1. Myopia. Sometimes in church, as in life, we are so busy looking at ourselves, and our schedules, and our families, and our routines that it rarely occurs to us to check in with old friends, or to invite anyone over, or to care deeply about what is going on with those around us. We’re just too busy! We feel like we’ve got enough to think about just within our own four walls. But we are much the poorer for staying always within them. Note this well, any pastors who read this little column … and purpose to lead your church in looking without now and again. And note it well church members, too! It is a blessing if your church participates in something like our local joint services. Take advantage!

2. Nitpicking. One of the things about churches and pastors who actually know what they believe about second and third-level issues is that we may sometimes make those second and third level issues bigger tests of fellowship than they really need to be. Or, maybe just as likely, we may find it hard to believe that other brothers or churches really care about doctrine and truth as much as we do (because we really have encountered so many churches who do not). And so we either make too big a deal out of our doctrinal distinctives, or we just assume that others are not as serious as we are. And we just stay where it’s safe – within our own four walls, much the poorer.

3. Fear. This third point was actually made by a couple of my fellow pastors during our fellowship and conversation on Sunday night. Maybe sometimes we pastors don’t make efforts to join with other like-minded churches because we are afraid that our like-minded people will actually enjoy so-and-so’s services (or preaching, or fellowship, or demographic) a little more than our own. As though we (or pastor so-and-so) were really the proprietors of the church! The church – both in its local and universal manifestations – belongs to Christ, not to us! And so it has pleased me greatly to have brother pastors, from time to time, send our way visitors who happened upon their churches … because they thought PRBC might be a good fit for such-and-such a person or family. Why are they able to do that? Because they know that the church, and the individual members thereof, belong to Jesus, not to us! And we are much the richer if we learn that lesson well.

And so, brothers and sisters (and especially fellow pastors) … let us lay aside our myopia, our nitpicking, and our fear … and “dwell together in unity.”

July 6, 2015

Leaving off in the Middle

One of the delights of our family’s Lord’s Day evenings (and other evenings as well) is to spend time reading to our children. And one of the sources of greatest joy and blessing has been in reading bits and pieces from a series of books called Building on the Rock, developed by Diana Kleyn and Joel Beeke. Each of the five books contains between two and three dozen brief anecdotes (some real-life, and others fiction) that reinforce scriptural truth and remind us of how God is at work in all sorts of everyday circumstances.

So this past Sunday evening we found ourselves reading the brief account of a little girl who, while awaiting her train in a railway station, spotted a particularly fierce looking man in the corner. He was a convict, in police custody, and being transported to the location where he would serve a twenty-year prison term. And the lass felt sorry for him, and ventured to speak a very brief word to him about Jesus – but with no forthcoming sign that the man had any place in his heart for her kind words. And then the train arrived, and the girl and her father boarded one railcar, and the prisoner another, and she never saw the man again.

And I paused the story at this point, and made like this was the conclusion of the story. And, of course, the children – understanding both the nature of story-telling, and the nature of their teasing dad – knew that I was just pulling their legs. Stories don’t end in the middle like that! And so, of course, there must be more – more about what happened to the man, and more about how the little girl’s tiny witness made a difference in his life. No! Her departure simply could not be the end of the story!

Except that it suddenly occurred to me that … well … from the little girl’s (earthly) perspective, this was the end of the story. She boarded her train and never had any idea if perhaps the small seed she’d planted had found any little crevice in that poor man’s hard heart. And I reflected on that fact with the kids. Because this is so often the way our own stories unfold. We speak a word for Jesus here, or serve someone in His name there … and then the train leaves, or the flight lands, or the children leave the Bible club, or the homeless person shuffles off into the sunset, or the neighbors move away … and we never know what God did with our attempt to sow the good seed. It’s like stopping a good story before the ending!

Real life doesn’t always unfold quite as neatly or quickly as the stories, even in a non-fiction book – which are written down at a distance of years, by an outside observer who knows how everything turned out, and who is going to tell you all you want to know in just a few more pages or paragraphs. More often than not, when it comes to the various real-life stories in which we find ourselves as characters, the book seems to close before we ever find out how God worked the ending. It’s not that the various stories have no ending, but simply that our Father doesn’t always choose to tell us what it is! And we have to be okay with that. We have to be content to await the great day when (perhaps) our heavenly Father will complete many of the stories which, in this life, He chose not to read us all the way to the end.

And, if you’re wondering what happened to the prisoner after the little girl went on her way … well, you’ll either have to buy the book, or just allow my strategic leaving off in the middle to help you learn the lesson that I’m aiming to teach in this article! Be content to sow the gospel seed … and trust that God will bring in His harvest, even if you are not chosen to be there at the reaping.