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Archive for May, 2016

Below are one hundred verses and brief passages from the Scriptures that bear on the subject of Christian humility.  I am including these in an appendix for a planned book on the subject.   In case the book is never finished or published, I am posting these here in the hopes some random internet travelers may find and benefit from it.   Feel free to copy and use however you wish – after all, I did not write these!

These may be studied at whatever pace you find most useful. It may also be helpful to read the surrounding Biblical context when feasible to discover the full import of each verse or passage. If at first blush, the text does not appear to address humility, then perhaps meditate it upon a little longer, considering that all of Scripture points us to greater humility as we learn to become more God-centered in all things. May God bless your meditation upon His Word, working a greater Christ-wrought humility in you and those you influence by His grace.

 

Humility towards God

Humility as Paradigm ~ Isaiah 57:15

Humility & Holiness ~ Luke 5:8

Humility & Grace ~ Ephesians 2:8-9

Humility & Truth ~ Ephesians 4:4-6

Humility & Experience ~ Jeremiah 17:9

Humility & Glory ~ Romans 11:36

Humility & Honor ~ I Peter 5:6

Humility & Immortality ~ Romans 2:7,10

Humility & Repentance ~ Luke 18:9-14

Humility & Faith ~ Romans 12:3

Humility & Hope ~ Matthew 5:5

Humility & Love ~ I Corinthians 13:1-4

Humility & Conversion ~ John 6:44

Humility & Discipleship ~ Mark 8:34-35

Humility & Sanctification ~ I Peter 1:2

Humility & Obedience ~ Micah 6:8

Humility & Simplicity ~ Hebrews 13:9

Humility & Sovereignty ~ Psalm 115:1-3

Humility & Mystery ~ Romans 11:33-35

Humility & Dependence ~ Mark 10:15

Humility & Worship ~ Psalm 51:17

Humility & Prayer ~ James 4:1-10

Humility & Fasting ~ Ezra 8:21-23

Humility & Warfare ~ Ephesians 6:10

Humility & Testing ~ Deuteronomy 8:2-3

Humility & Suffering ~ James 1:2-4

Humility & Gratitude ~ Ephesians 5:20

Humility & the Kingdom ~ I Cor. 4:10

Humility & Eschatology ~ Hebrews 13:13-14

Humility & Judgment ~ Isaiah 5:15-16

Humility & Revival ~ 2 Chronicles 7:14

 

Humility regarding Yourself

Humility & Christ ~ Matthew 11:29

Humility & Self-Esteem ~ I Timothy 1:15

Humility & Self-Estimation ~ Acts 20:19

Humility & Confidence ~ 2 Corinthians 3:4-5

Humility & Wisdom ~ Proverbs 26:12; 11:2

Humility & Goals ~ James 4:13-16

Humility & Abilities ~ Jeremiah 9:23-24

Humility & Spiritual Gifts ~ Ephesians 4:7

Humility & Character ~ Mark 2:17

Humility & Status ~ I Corinthians 1:26-29

Humility & Heritage ~ Romans 2:28-29

Humility & Legacy ~ Ecclesiastes 2:18-19

Humility & Reputation ~ Matthew 11:19

Humility & Intellect ~ Psalm 131

Humility & Education ~ Ecclesiastes 12:11-13

Humility & Knowledge ~ I Corinthians 8:1-3

Humility & Energy ~ Isaiah 30:15

Humility & Excellence ~ Philippians 3:7

Humility & Health ~ Isaiah 38:9-17

Humility & Wealth ~ James 1:9-10

Humility & Success ~ I Corinthians 4:7

Humility & Failure ~ Proverbs 18:12

Humility & Testimony ~ I Corinthians 15:10

 

Humility towards Others

Humility & Service ~ Philippians 2:3-8

Humility & Rights ~ I Corinthians 6:7

Humility & Roles ~ Ephesians 5:21 – 6:9

Humility & Imitation ~ I Corinthians 11:1

Humility & Conformity ~ Proverbs 3:1-4

Humility & Needs ~ Ephesians 6:19

Humility & Piety ~ Matthew 6:1-8

Humility & Recognition ~ Proverbs 27:2

Humility & Admission ~ Proverbs 6:3

Humility & Confession ~ James 5:16

Humility & Correction ~ Proverbs 13:10; 17:10

Humility & Offense ~ Proverbs 19:11

Humility & Forgiveness ~ Colossians 3:12-13

Humility & Loyalty ~ I Peter 2:18

Humility & Comparisons ~ Galatians 6:4-5

Humility & Power ~ 2 Corinthians 13:4

Humility & Ambition ~ Luke 14:7-11

Humility & Benevolence ~ Luke 14:12-14

Humility & Conversation ~ James 1:19

Humility & Eloquence ~ I Corinthians 2:1-5

Humility & Evangelism ~ I Corinthians 9:19-23

Humility & Apologetics ~ I Peter 3:15

Humility & Boldness ~ Romans 1:16-17

Humility & Credit ~ I Corinthians 3:7

 

Humility Together

Humility & Unity ~ Ephesians 4:1-3

Humility & Fellowship ~ I Corinthians 12:26

Humility & Peace ~ Romans 14:10,19

Humility & Purity ~ Philippians 3:15

Humility & Debate ~ Proverbs 18:2

Humility & Support ~ Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

Humility & Culture ~ Ephesians 2:11-22

Humility & Society ~ Titus 3:1-2

Humility & Separation ~ I John 2:16

Humility & Numbers ~ Judges 7:2

Humility & Ministry ~ I Corinthians 9:16-17

Humility & Church Polity ~ Hebrews 13:17

Humility & Leadership ~ Mark 10:42-45

Humility & Office ~ Matthew 23:5-7

Humility & Titles ~ Matthew 23:8-12

Humility & Rank ~ Romans 12:16

Humility & Mottos ~ Galatians 6:14

Humility & Seating ~ James 1:27-2:5

Humility & Tributes ~ I Corinthians 3:21

Humility & Restoration ~ Galatians 6:1-3

Humility & Rules ~ Colossians 2:23

Humility & the Gospel ~ Psalm 149:4

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People

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God, and not to us.”~ II Corinthians 4:7

Whenever we ordain new officers, I love to sing the hymn, “Rise up, O Men of God!” Well, except for the words.   It’s a hymn with great energy and a stirring tune (Festal Song), but have you ever really studied the words and where they place emphasis? No? Well, here they are.   Read them and see if you can see what I mean:

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and soul and mind and strength,
To serve the King of Kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
His Kingdom tarries long;
Bring in the day of brotherhood,
And end the night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The Church for you doth wait,
Her strength unequal to the task;
Rise up, and make her great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where His feet have trod;
As brothers of the Son of man,
Rise up, O men of God!

OK then, who in this hymn is doing the work of redemption in the world?  Who is making the church great? Where is Christ’s divinity and sovereignty shown forth? Think, if we sing this at an officer ordination, what are we asking of these poor ordinands? Would you want this burden placed upon your shoulders? Of course there is some truth in these words, but where is the emphasis? Perhaps this is why it is not in the Trinity Hymnal (1990, Great Commission).

What you may not know is that this hymn was actually penned by a Presbyterian minister named William Merrill in the year, 1911. And if you know your historical theology, you can put two and two together and realize that this was written at the high water mark of the optimistic Protestant liberalism in which the Gospel was recast as much more about the Church redeeming all of society, rather than saving souls for eternity. Protestants across all denominations allied themselves with the progressives of society to promote such things as labor reform, prohibition and even eugenics, all with the great hope of a world without poverty or war.

Alas, three more years and one assassin’s bullet would put the lie to this theology as World War I erupted, dashing the dreams of this man-centered gospel. But it would not be fair to leave all the blame for this “manly” optimism found in this hymn on Protestant liberals alone. Conservative Presbyterians in America also absorbed this sort of vainly optimistic mindset from the culture as well. Consider this little anecdote from B.B. Warfield’s essay, Why Study the Shorter Catechism?, (The Westminster Teacher, 1909):

We have the following bit of personal experience from a general officer of the United States Army. He was in a great western city at a time of intense excitement and violent rioting. The streets were over-run daily by a dangerous crowd. One day he observed approaching him a man of singularly combined calmness and firmness of mien, whose very demeanor inspired confidence. So impressed was he with his bearing amid the surrounding uproar that when he had passed he turned to look back at him, only to find that the stranger had done the same. On observing his turning the stranger at once came back to him, and touching his chest with his forefinger, demanded without preface: “What is the chief end of man?” On receiving the countersign, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever” – “Aah!” said he, “I knew you were a Shorter Catechism boy by your looks!” “Why, that was just what I was thinking of you,” was the rejoinder. It is worth while to be a Shorter Catechism boy. They grow to be men.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I do think learning sound doctrine helps us grow up to be godly men. But the question is, what kind of men should we “rise up” to be? The Gospel should not so much turn us into men calm in a riot, but into men humble before God for our own sin. That should be the first and most telling result of sound catechesis in Protestant orthodoxy – meekness before manliness.

So, what shall we do then with “Rise up, O Men of God?” Well, I suggest we take its thoughts captive for Christ – a Christ crucified. I suggest we still sing it, but rewritten to reflect this humility the Gospel brings and to place the emphasis where it belongs – Christ’s work through us. Yes, we are here to bless the world, and yes, God uses us mightily – more than we often know, I think. But it is His work within us. We have this great power in jars of clay, to show that it is from God, and not from us.

So then, here is what I suggest we sing. Read it and see what you think.

Rise up, O men of God!
Have done with lesser things;
Give heart and soul and mind and strength,
To serve the King of kings.

Rise up, O men of God!
His kingdom tarries long;
But soon shall Christ bring in the Day,
And end this night of wrong.

Rise up, O men of God!
The church for you doth wait,
Your strength unequal to the task;
But Christ in you is great!

Lift high the cross of Christ!
Tread where his feet hath trod;
As servants of the King of kings,
Rise up, O men of God!

And so we are still calling one another to rise up and serve Christ and His Church. But rather than emphasizing our strength and our duty, we sing of Christ’s power and His sovereignty. We are but stewards, simply raced to participate in the great victory Jesus has already won.

 

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S0932093

For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.  To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews.  To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law.  To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.  To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak.  I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.   I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.

~ I Corinthians 9:19-23

Brothers, this week I want to make just one simple observation and one suggestion from this famous text from Paul.  This text is well known and well taught in our day as an apologetic for contextualizing our ministry – that we are to major on the majors and not let matters of Christian freedom become an obstacle to the Gospel.  How to apply that principle today – say to the question of worship music – is, of course, an item of hot debate and I do not intend to help at all in that effort.  Except to suggest that there is one kind of person, just as they are, we are not meant to reach.

The immediate context of this passage is a long answer Paul gives to one of the questions the Corinthians wrote to Paul – whether Christians may eat meat previously used in pagan ceremonies.  And in three chapters, Paul famously answers by saying:  sometimes yes, sometimes no, depending on your motive for eating it and what it does to your neighbor (cf. I Corinthians 8:4-13, 10:23-31).  If these three chapters are chiastic in structure as I think, then the two principles in 8:1 and 10:31 frame the debate:  first, that “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up;” and second, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”  In other words, the bigger questions when it comes down to matters of Christian Freedom are not so much whether to smoke or not smoke cigars, but to ask:  1) which choice most loves my neighbor?; and 2) which choice most glorifies God?

So it is important to understand this principle of contextualization within its original context.   Paul is trying to love both Jew and Greek as best he can to the glory of God and for the advancement of the Gospel.  But it is perhaps even more important to understand our text within the larger context of the whole of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  Paul wrote this letter to answer a number of questions the Corinthians had, and he does answer them in turn, beginning in chapter 7.  But before he even gets to their questions, he first deals with the real issues which are really going on, things he has heard from “Chloe’s people” (cf. 1:11).  (How would you have liked to be Chloe when this letter first got read out loud in church?) And what Chloe’s people reported is that the Corinthians were divided, quarrelsome and proud.  They were the mega-church of their day with many gifts and much wealth, but boy, were they dysfunctional.

So Paul spends the first six chapters going after the Corinthians’ pride, reminding them of their calling, that “not many of you were wise, not many powerful, not many noble; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world… so that no flesh might boast in the presence of God.” (1:26-29, sel.). Paul says that when he himself preached to them, he came not “with lofty speech or wisdom, but decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified; and I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling.” (2:1-3).   And when it came to church leaders, Paul reminded them that neither he who plants or he waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (3:7); that the truest leaders of Christ’s church are like “the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” (4:13).  Imagine being a Christian in Corinth who was proud of your church and its many gifts and achievement with your strong, polished leaders – and then reading that!

Now, all of that background is necessary if my simple observation and suggestion are to make any sense.  The observation is this.  In Chapter 9:20-22, Paul describes two pairs of people he “becomes like” in order to reach them – except that the second pair is incomplete.  Look at the text:

9:20 – Paul becomes as a Jew, to win Jews

9:21 – Paul becomes as a Gentile (those outside the Law), to win Gentiles

9:22 – Paul becomes as weak, to win the weak

Now, what is missing?  We have Jews and Gentiles, mentioned over against each other.  And we have the weak, then the…. nothing.  There is no counterpoint to the weak.  That is my simple observation.  Paul leaves off there, and never mentions becoming strong to win the strong.  Do you see that?

Now my suggestion is this, based on the main thrust of I Corinthians as a whole.  I believe that Paul left out “the strong” from his list quite on purpose.  He meant to leave off where he did to make a point.  Why?  Think about it.  We can make cultural accommodations at times in order for the Gospel to go forth, surely.  Few of us sing in Latin or worship in non-climate controlled church buildings, for instance.  And we can – and should – become weak, to those who are weak.  We are to follow Paul’s example in 2:1-5, so that when we preach, we preach not ourselves but Christ as strong.  We should preach plainly and passionately, of a Savior who was crucified – something that the weak will begin to understand, but the world will not until it is too late.

But following that same thinking, it makes no sense that we try to “become strong” to win the strong, because the very sin which is keeping them from the Kingdom is their own self-evaluation of themselves as strong in the first place!  How can we cozy up to a vainglorious man with our own pathetic versions of vainglory and hope to show them a crucified Lord in that?   We can’t.  We might win them to our church, or to a more moral lifestyle, or even as a friend.   But we will never win them to Christ that way.

And yet, I think, churches and ministries around the world are trying to do just that.  They are trying to become strong to the strong.  They may be growing their ministry that way but they are not growing the Kingdom.  Think about every time you try to get someone interested in your church because of how well things are going outwardly, some program or growth.  We all do it.  And it may get folks there, and there they may hear of Christ.  But telling them of successful programs and growth is not Christ.  And in fact, if we emphasize the successful programs, we actually may be undermining the Gospel since we would be trying to win people by strength rather than by a crucified Lord.

Now, one last thing.  I do not think we should give up on the proud and self-strong.  Otherwise, there would have been no hope for any of us.  We should try to reach them.  And I have no golden keys to share of how to do that – except to say that if they are to come to Christ, it will not be until they are humbled, until they are weak.  And so we must not try to “become strong” with them in order to win them, but rather, display our own weakness and tell them of Christ’s grace.  Such an approach will do two things – it will both attract and repel.  It will repel those who wish to remain strong in themselves.  But it will attract those who know they need God’s grace – those who know they are weak.  Them we can reach.  And if we aim to do that, to really aim for the weak, I think our churches will begin to overflow so that we become weak in our inability to serve them all, and must depend on God all the more.  That is the way of true growth.

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Cambria Depot

7Now he told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor, saying to them, 8“When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, 9and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place. 10But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you. 11For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” 12He said also to the man who had invited him, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. 13But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” ~ Luke 14:7-14

Brothers, when you attend presbytery meetings or other ministerial gatherings, whom do you seek out to spend time with and engage in fellowship? And for that matter, how about in your congregation and community? Why those folks? Jesus gives us food for thought about such questions in Luke 14.

I have only flown first class once in my life. But it was not exactly a luxury flight. I was packed onto a 747 with the rest of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Infantry, on the way to Desert Shield in 1990.   Our unit, the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division, was the first heavy division deployed to stop a threatened invasion of Saudi Arabia by Saddam Hussein and we were flown over in a hurry.

On the way there we made one stop at some random airbase in Germany. It is the only time I have ever been in Germany and I can’t even tell you where it was. But I do remember that at this airbase there were other American troops who did what they could to take care of us. They provided cots, fed us snacks, and loaded us up with insect repellent and sun block (neither of which we used). They greeted us, cared for us, and then sent us on our way. We never saw them again.

What about these troops in Germany? Did they provide us a valuable service on our way to war? Did they also serve? All they did was man a way station. I have often thought about them as I pastor a church in a college town. Like many of you, we see tremendous turn over every year.   The core members of our church pour themselves out into folks who will be here just a few years at most and then are gone. We send them off to other places and other churches. In many ways, we are just a way station. But the same is true for every church if we see clearly what we are about.

In Luke 14, Jesus gives clear guidance to how we should conduct our lives and ministries. He does so in two parts, each half wrapped around the axle of verse 11. Did you notice that? The first half of the text instructs how to act when invited to a feast, while the second half tells us what to do when we are the ones who throw the feast. But both lessons are wrapped around this theme verse: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is one of three times in the gospels where Jesus states this idiom, each time in a different context. If nothing else, the very fact that Jesus uses this same phrase to teach three different lessons teaches us the centrality of humility to the work of the Gospel. (The others are Luke 18; and Matthew 23, both of which deserve their own study. Look them up.)

So, how do we apply this humility to our lives and careers? First, Jesus tells us how to act when we find ourselves in the nether regions of the Totem Pole; when we are kept outside of the Inner Circle – say at an awards banquet, or in a committee meeting, or at presbytery. I remember going to church conferences as a recently fired pastor with no other prospects on the horizon.   It’s funny how quickly ministers can end a conversation once they figure out that you have nothing to contribute to their own situations.

So here is the question. When we find ourselves in such an unfavored position, what should we do? Jesus tells us: do not promote yourself but wait until you are invited up. Trust God. Be content with the position and the influence He has given you, knowing that man does not see how God sees. Otherwise, the widow’s two mites would amount to nothing. But in God’s sight, they are a fortune.

So use your gifts, plow your field, and trust God that if He wants to give you more influence in this world, He will. But none of us know the labyrinths of God’s plan, of why He has anyone where He does. If you think you do, just read Ecclesiastes one more time. In the meantime, don’t invite yourself up until God does. If you are like me and struggle with always wanting more influence, or desiring a group of men to respect your work, then I can recommend no better reading than CS Lewis’ little essay, The Inner Ring. Read it and ask God to purge this idol from you. I wish it were required reading for all ministerial candidates everywhere.

Then after all this, Jesus turns the situation around in verse 12, to when you are the one in a position of influence. You are the one throwing the party and need to decide whom to invite. But the same principle of humility applies. As you throw a banquet, are you trying to exalt yourself or humble yourself? Are you putting on that conference for your own benefit and reputation or legitimately to serve others?

And so Jesus is quite explicit about what we should do – invite those who cannot pay you back. Now, clearly Jesus’ teaching has an important social element to it – He says to invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind. And there is no reason to over-spiritualize that. As John Newton wrote, “One would almost think that Luke 14:12-14 was not considered part of God’s word, nor has any part of Jesus’ teaching been more neglected by his own people. I do not think it is unlawful to entertain our friends; but if these words do not teach us that it is in some respects our duty to give a preference to the poor, I am at a loss to understand them” (as quoted in Generous Justice by Tim Keller).

And so we must remember this text when asking who it is that our churches are trying to attract. Well, how about it, church planters? Are you happy for people to come who don’t obviously add to the ministry by their gifts or social status or tithing ability? We all need to ask that question as we seek to grow our churches to God’s glory.

But what interests most for our purposes is the motive Jesus gives to why we should invite the poor and lame. It is precisely because they cannot pay us back. It is not just to engage in some sort of social justice or leveling. It is to demonstrate our faith in the Gospel – that there is a place called heaven where our true reward lies. That is what Jesus says: “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (verse 14). By pouring ourselves into those who cannot pay us back, we are demonstrating that we are all pilgrims on the way to the New Heavens and New Earth.

But we have not always acted this way in our ministries, have we? Influenced by such books as The Master Plan of Evangelism, we have developed “key person” mentalities where we think it is our job to hang out with the “key” people in our church, and then let them hang out with the poor and so forth. I do realize there is much practical wisdom to be found in Robert Coleman’s book which was a welcome corrective to the event-driven evangelism that characterized so much of evangelicalism. But when we read Jesus’ words in Luke 14, we have to ask if such discipleship strategies have caused us to over-evaluate a person’s practical worth when we decide whether to invest time in them or not. We may come to think, “I need to pour myself into that energetic young couple because they can help lead our youth ministries,” rather than thinking, “I need to pour myself into that young couple, because they need Christ, period.” And then as part of their discipleship, you might look with them at how they might serve. But you do it out of love for them, not because some ministry hole in the church needs plugging.

Do you see the difference? Do you see how ministry is like throwing a banquet? You need to decide whom to spend time with, whom to invest in, and for whom to pour yourself out. And you can look at people in terms of how they will pay the church back – in the form of tithes or service. Or you can throw a banquet for those who cannot easily pay you back, pouring yourself into the sick, the elderly, the imprisoned, that drunken college student who may never darken the church’s doors. I realize there is balance, as Newton himself says. You need to invest in your elders and deacons and women’s ministry leaders. But do not neglect those on the fringe. Live for heaven, and treat every seeker and believer as valuable in Christ period, not for what they can bring to the table.

So, how about it? You know who the poor are in your community – to whom God is calling you – those who need the Gospel but will not be able to pay you back in this life. Pour yourself into those people, and your ministry will be like throwing a banquet for the poor. And you will show that you actually believe in a place called heaven where your true reward awaits.

A few years ago, I went and visited a member of our church who was recently put on hospice.   He is a dear, older man, who lost his wife many years before. He came to us a refuge from another denomination. He just wanted a church which preached the gospel. I had no earthly comfort to offer him other than a little bit of friendship and prayer. But whenever I talked to him about the certainty of his salvation in Christ and the sure promise of heaven, he always quietly nodded, looked away into the distance, and then lifted his hands a bit out of his lap, palms upward and empty, and says amen. I don’t even know if he realized that he made this gesture each time, but I see it. And it is the gesture of faith. Of knowing he was going to that better place, that place won for him by Christ.

Now, what good did it to the ministry of the Church for me to spend time visiting with this man on hospice?   What gift or service could he contribute?

Brothers, do you remember when I said that all of our churches are just way stations?   It is not just college churches, though it is painfully obvious to us each May. All of us are only here as pilgrims, plodding along with fellow pilgrims on that Gospel road. All we can do is to keep pointing the way to our fellow pilgrims, knowing that we only have them on our section of the road for a season. Our calling, brothers, is not to hold onto people and milk them for every gift they might have, treating them as one more commodity, some cog in the factory of our church.   Our calling is to point them to heaven, and help them on their way.

And when we remember that, that frees us up to pour ourselves into those who cannot pay us back for all who are in Christ are living for the next world not this one. It frees us up to put people before our reputations, and service above our careers. It frees us up to plant new churches, sending off dear families we love, rather than holding onto them, as if this life and our church’s size are all that matters. We will have time enough with them in heaven, as we put the kingdom ahead of our own ministries. We are way stations, and we throw banquets for those who cannot pay us back.

So, how about it, brothers? Whom do you seek to spend time with at ministerial meetings or in your congregation? Can you see how Jesus makes this a relevant question in light of His teaching in Luke 14? Will you exalt yourself by only hanging out with those who can repay you in some way? Or will you humble yourself and seek to serve someone, no matter how unimportant in the eyes of the world? Maybe it is just to listen to them for a bit. Or to pray with them. It may not be anything big. But then again, neither was two mites.

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Rockem Heads

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. ~ Ephesians 4:1-3

I sometimes hear stories about disturbances and unpleasantries in other churches and presbyteries, and am reminded of how good I have it in both of mine, by God’s grace.  Where does our unity and spirit of cooperation come from?  Vision statements and Confessions of Faith certainly help, but are those alone enough to sustain our unity in Christ?

Because here is the thing — disagreement is not always bad.  Otherwise we would not be called to sharpen one another (Proverbs  27:17).  There are times when truth must prevail over feelings, and even good men may disagree on how to apply that truth, as my denomination’s Book of Church Order says (Presbyterian Church in America, Preliminary Principle 5).  I don’t think it is for nothing that in Acts 16, God in His providence allowed Paul and Barnabas to split up right after the sweet unity brought about by the First Ecumenical Council of Acts 15 after considerable debate and prayer.  The point is that we should not hearken back to some Golden Age of the Church where there was no disagreement.

So, how are we to maintain our unity in Christ in the midst of disagreement?  In my ministry, I have found Ephesians 4:1-6 to be a helpful guide to this end.  As you know, Paul begins the practical section of Ephesians in 4:1 with the phrase, “Therefore, I urge you,” (the same as Romans 12:1), indicating the change from the doctrinal section of the letter to the application.  And what does Paul urge?  To walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which we have been called.  He then goes on to describe what that looks like in the rest of chapters 4-6.  Paul will discuss all sorts of things — church offices and gifts, what it means to put off the old man and put on Christ, spiritual warfare, and what godly relationships look like in marriage, work and family.  But before any of these things, he begins with what?  Church unity.  He begins by telling us to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (verse 3), and then in verses 4-6 reminds us that Christians have one body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism, and God, the Father of us all.  This priority of this order ought to instruct us of how important Church unity is to the application of the Gospel.

Right away, we learn several things from this order. First, Paul begins with the Gospel.  There can be no real unity where there is not agreement on the Gospel itself.  Where does Paul do this?  Well, in verse 1, he says for us to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which we have been called.  And who called us?  It was God the Father, who chose us before the foundations of the world (1:4).  We have been called and saved by grace alone as Paul states so clearly in Ephesians 2:8-9.  And even the resulting good works we are to walk in are only those which God Himself prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10).  So, we must begin with the doctrines of grace and hold the line there.  Any doctrine or habit which undermines grace necessarily will rot away at our unity.  So, we begin with the Gospel of Grace and make no apologies for drawing our dividing line there.

Second, even between those who embrace this grace, unity still takes effort, as Paul says in verse 3.  It is ours already in Christ, but we must work to maintain it.  It takes work and we are to commit ourselves to it.  That often means going the extra mile with brothers or sisters whom we do not appreciate at first blush.  It also means making an extra effort to overcome cultural differences since Christ has become our peace and made Jew and Gentile into one man (cf. Eph. 2:14-15).

Thirdly, from verses 3-6, another goal of church life appears to be a like-mindedness and doctrinal conformity to the truth, even if we will never attain perfect agreement as to what that looks like this side of heaven.  (Arguably, I believe we see similar sentiments in Paul in such places as Philippians 2:2, II Timothy 1:13, and I Corinthians 11:16.)  As elders, part of that means developing a self-aware and wise system of determining which doctrines we believe to be essential to salvation (such as Solo Christo), which doctrines are not essential but nonetheless important for church health (such as infant baptism), and which things are simply adiaphora, things indifferent (such as whether black horn-rimmed glasses and flannel in the pulpit fulfills I Corinthians 9:22, or not).

So, is that it?  Is having a common Confession of Faith all we need to maintain our unity?  Well, clearly, from all the anecdotes we have heard — and knowing our own hearts — no.  You see, I was not quite accurate when I said that Paul begins with Church Unity.  I missed a verse.  There is a link between verse 1 (Grace) and verse 3 (Unity), and that is of course, verse 2.

And what does Paul say there?  Paul tells us to walk “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”  That is the link between Grace and Unity, and we make a grave mistake if we pass it over, as I did earlier in this article.  In other words, it is not enough to know and understand the doctrines of grace, although such is essential.  Nor is it enough to have a common Confession of Faith, although such is very helpful.  If we are to be truly united in Christ, we must have humility.  And that humility then leads to gentleness and patience, and then as a result we will indeed bear with one another as forgiven sinners, more and more as the Holy Spirit blesses.

But here is the thing — if we have truly understood and embraced the Gospel of grace, how can we do any other?  As Paul says in Ephesians 2:9, we are saved by grace through faith, “not by works, so that no one may boast.”  That is the very first application of the Gospel — humility.

And for all my friends in reformed churches who most embrace grace, we Calvinists ought to be the most humble of all Christians.   Sadly, we often fail that test.  My wish would be that, whatever else the world thought of reformed Christians — goofy, weird, ineffective, whatever — they might at least say that we are a humble people.  Is your church marked by a Gospel humility?  Is your ministry?  Is your life?

If it is, then that too, is only by God’s grace.  And it can only lead to great fruit — foremost of which, is unity in Christ’s church.  That is the link between Grace and Unity — a Gospel humility.  Let us then make every effort to grow in our humility before God and man and thus maintain that unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

 

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Shamokin

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

~ I Corinthians 2:1-5

A few years ago while on vacation in another part of the country, my family worshiped in a sister reformed church. The sermon was on the eighth commandment and the preacher’s main theme was that we should not be “takers” but “givers.” Fair enough, and well in accord with both the commandment not to steal and Paul’s reiteration of it in Ephesians 4:28.

However, on the way home, I asked my girls what they thought of the sermon. My oldest daughter, around 14 years old at the time, said to me, “Well, he was a good speaker and it was OK…. except that he never turned the corner.” Turned the corner? What did she mean? She told me: “The minister did not tell us that we can never be good enough givers; that in the end, we have to be takers of God’s grace. He told us to be more generous, but he never mentioned Jesus as the one who was the ultimate Giver for us. Dad, he never turned the corner.” I have to tell you, both as a preacher and as a father, I have rarely been more gratified. At least someone got what I try to do each Sunday! By God’s grace, every sermon every Lord’s Day, I try to turn this corner.

Now, I know there is a place for preaching the third use of the Law. But is it to be the primary focus of our preaching? And isn’t that also why we have Sunday School classes and home groups? I also know that not all sermons are to be alike week to week. But are we really preaching the Gospel if we are not in some part of our sermon preaching “Jesus Christ and Him crucified?” And even when we do preach on specifics of the Christian life, what should be our focus?

The Westminster Confession of Faith actually has something to say to this. In the chapter on Saving Faith, we read: “By this faith, a Christian believes to be true whatsoever is revealed in the Word, for the authority of God Himself speaking therein; and acts differently upon that which each particular passage thereof contains; yielding obedience to the commands, trembling at the threatenings, and embracing the promises of God for this life, and that which is to come. But the principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF 14.2, emphasis added). So here we see balance. The Word of God is to instruct us how to live for Christ, acting differently and yielding obedience. But nevertheless, the principal acts of saving faith are always accepting, receiving and resting upon Christ alone. This is what our Confession teaches. It is also an accurate summary of what the Scriptures teach about the Christian life – what it is that makes us Protestant.

So, what does that mean? I would say that if we make principal what the Confession pointedly says is not principal, then our ministries – however unwittingly – are out of accord with our Confession and the Scripture’s emphasis upon the Gospel. In other words, if the general tenor of our ministries and preaching emphasizes our good works over against resting in Christ alone, then at that point, we are out of accord with our Confession. It does not matter what those good works are – whether missions, or Sabbath observance, or mercy; if they become principal, we should then ask ourselves if we indeed still “know nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” among our people.

In Covenant Theological Seminary’s magazine a few years back, Dr. Bryan Chapell gave an excellent report on the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization in Cape Town, South Africa. Although he was generally encouraged he also had this to say about the preaching: “Sadly, much of the Bible teaching was short, perfunctory, and, with notable exceptions, devoid of clear messages of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. The evangelical community is clearly struggling with how to communicate ‘the whole gospel for the whole world.’ While many presentations focused on the need to make our witness credible through social concern, there was also intense pressure to keep that witness from citing historic truths about justification by faith in the blood of Christ (and) propitiation from wrath by the sacrifice of Christ…”(emphasis added). Chapell gives us a frightening warning of what is happening across world-wide evangelicalism; and a temptation to which we in the PCA and sister reformed denominations should not feel ourselves immune.

That sermon my family heard many years ago was well delivered, well organized, and polished.   But it gave us not Christ. It gave us a goal to achieve – to be more generous with our time and money – and yet the minister never told us that we could never be as generous as God requires. That we need the Cross.

In a talk on this passage in I Corinthians 2, D.A. Carson presents a balanced approach to Paul’s preaching. He tells us that it does not mean that Paul was either a poor speaker or that he refused to contextualize his message. Rather, Paul is telling the Corinthians what it was he chose to emphasize in his preaching, in both its style and content. He did not want to try to impress people or become known for his great preaching. Instead, he simply wanted to bring people the message of a Savior – a Savior who died in weakness that we might live by His power – and His power alone. Carson writes, “These verses do not prohibit diligent preparation, passion, clear articulation, and persuasive presentation. Rather, they warn against any method that leads people to say, ‘What a marvelous preacher!’ rather than ‘What a marvelous Savior!’” (The Cross and Christian Ministry, p. 35).

Carson goes on to describe what Paul meant by focusing on the Cross, to know nothing among the Corinthians except Jesus Christ and Him crucified: “This does not mean that this was a new departure for Paul, still less that Paul was devoted to blissful ignorance of anything and everything other than the cross. No, what he means is that all he does and teaches is tied to the cross. He cannot long talk about Christian joy, or Christian ethics, or Christian fellowship, or the Christian doctrine of God, or anything else, without finally tying it to the cross. Paul is gospel-centered; he is cross-centered” (ibid., pp. 37-8). Elsewhere, Carson writes, “I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight” (ibid., p. 26).

Brothers, do you turn the corner in your preaching and in your ministry? Do you give people Jesus Christ in all that you do? And I don’t think we can just assume the Gospel. I think we need to articulate it clearly each week. Why? Because we need to hear it ourselves. We need to remember that we are justified not by our ministries or holiness, but by Christ’s. And if we need to hear it, then so do our people. It may not impress anyone – as do fancy illustrations, humorous stories or complicated applications. But it will save, because it is the Gospel.

But articulating the Gospel from each passage does not always come easily. Paul himself asked for people to pray for him that he would “declare the mystery of Christ… clearly, as I should” (Colossians 4:3-4). Let us each endeavor to declare the mystery of Christ each week, giving people the Cross, and to do so clearly. Each week, let us turn the corner to Christ the Savior.

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Natl Cathedral

I desire then that in every place the men should pray,
lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling ~ I Timothy 2:8

When I pastored in Statesboro, Georgia, one Sunday evening a month I went into the local prison to preach. How I ended up doing that is a long story – let me just say that it is the only time in my career when I proactively offered to preach somewhere without first being invited. I count it as one of the most valuable things I have ever done in ministry and owe much to those hot, crowded services in that dingy prison recreation room.

I remember a lot of things from those services. I remember the songs the inmates used to write and sing, including my favorite: “Trouble won’t last – God’s got your back.” I remember the simple, lovely Pentecostal couple who gave themselves to the inmates every Sunday, loving those brothers in ways that I could only hope to palely imitate. I remember the young guest preacher who stripped down to his gym shorts to try to show that he was no better than the inmates (true story; see argument # 87 for the Regulative Principle of Worship). I remember some of the skeptical inmates sitting in the back laughing at me as I preached. But most of all, I remember the faith of the believing inmates – the hunger they had for God’s Word and the pure joy and gratitude with which they received it. They needed to hear the Gospel of God’s grace each time, and they let me know it. You could see it on their faces.

But another thing I will never forget is the simple ritual we would go through before each service began. As the inmates filed in, those of us leading the service would greet them with “the right hand of Christian fellowship.” It was a receiving line of sorts and it became very important to the inmates that we greeted them this way. I remember feeling engulfed by their large, calloused hands. It was a work-prison and their hands showed it. And I remember wondering about the crimes each of those hands had done to earn them this place. Now, I would not be surprised if a few in that prison were wrongly convicted but the Christians I met there openly admitted their crimes and said that they deserved to be incarcerated and knew that God had them there for a reason. And so each time I preached the Gospel in that prison, I would first take into my hands the hands of others that I knew had committed dreadful crimes and sins.

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling.” Have you thought about what this means? It is easy to skip over since right afterwards Paul goes into the role of women in the church, a passage rightly needing keen attention in our day. But before all that, he gives positive instruction as to what the men are to do.

We have good reason to think that Paul has in mind here ordained men in public worship, and that for two reasons. First, because the passages which follow are about the role of men, women and officers in the Church, which Paul calls “the household of God” (I Tim. 3:15). But second, because in the Old Testament, whenever we read of men lifting their hands in prayer, it was almost always leaders in Israel. See for instance Exodus 9:29; I Kings 8:22; Psalm 28:2; 63:4; 134:2; 141:2; and Isaiah 1:15. This lifting of hands is more than just folks getting excited during a praise song. I Timothy 2:8 appears to be a prescription of how ordained men are to lead their churches.

So how? How are we to lead the church? First, with prayer. By turning our hands upward to God, empty; calling on His strength, His work, His salvation. Second, in such a way that leads to peace – it is to be without anger or quarreling. Why should we be angry? God has fully paid for all our sins and will take vengeance in His time on whatever enemies we have left. As much as it possible with us we should be at peace with all men. And why should we quarrel? Our sins are forgiven and so are those of everyone else who is in Christ. So the only thing we have left to fight for is the truth of the Gospel, while continuing to wage war against our own sin and disbelief.

But what interests me most is how Paul calls these hands, “holy.” Holy. Think on that. We are to lift up holy hands. How is that possible? Is it possible that Paul means hands made holy by our own sanctification? That we have done enough good things that we would want to present our palms to God as worthy of His blessing? Do any of you wish to approach God like that?

Brothers, stop right now and look at your hands. No, I mean really stop, and look at them. Those hands right in front of you have committed many sins. Oh, I know sin involves our thoughts and eyes, our tongues and our feet. But many of our sins come by our hands. Those same hands which Paul calls holy. What sins have your hands been party to? What item did they take, what page did they turn, what word did they write, what mouse button did they push? What child have they shoved, what face have they slapped? Don’t disown them. They are your sins. Your hands.

And yet Paul dares to call them holy and bids us lift them up before God’s people to pray. How can we do so? You know the answer. Because of the Gospel. Because our hands have been dipped in the blood of Jesus and are washed clean by His cross, His holiness. Because the baptismal waters which were poured over our heads drips also onto our hands, giving us the sure promise of God’s forgiveness, if we would but believe it. If we would but first hold our hands up, empty, devoid of merit, and thus receive the full pardon and blessing of God which is ours in Christ.

Now, think back with me to that crowded, hot dingy prison as I shook the sinful hands of all those inmates, remembering how they needed the Gospel. Brothers, it is no different with our people. Each of them comes to worship with sinful hands needing the cleansing promise of Christ. And you of all people are the one God has chosen to bring it to them. You, with your own sinful hands.

And yet hands now made holy by the Gospel.

Do you not know how God blesses your people through your hands? Each time you lift them up to pray? Each time you wave them around in the pulpit? Each time you break the bread, or lift the cup, or pour the water upon a new head? Each time you raise them to bless and send God’s people off in peace? Each time you shake a hand or pat a shoulder. It is through you and your hands that God is now working by His Holy Spirit. And we dare not call profane that which God has called holy.

Can you do your job? Can you love your people anew and bring them the Gospel each week? What else is it that you think you are supposed to do? They need this Gospel. They need it just as much as any prisoner ever did. And it comes, in part, through your hands, in themselves sinful but yet made holy by God’s grace. Brothers, lift up your holy hands in prayer, and lead God’s people in that grace.

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