The good news of Jesus Christ is totally incredible. I love thinking of a God of grace who sent his Son to die for rebellious sinners. I love pondering a God of mercy who forgives sinners. I am in awe as I contemplate the justice and holiness of God and how he can be both just and the justifier of those who believe.
Yet, there are parts of me that want to run away from the truth of the gospel and try some other way of getting to God. There are parts that my pride doesn't want to admit exist and it chooses instead to ignore them. Two of these truths are justification by faith alone and sanctification.
My pride hates justification by faith alone. It hates the fact that Jesus has done everything for me at the cross. I want to contribute, I want to meet God halfway, so that when I stand before the throne of God above I can at least point to something in me as the reason why I can have confidence. My pride screams, "if only Jesus had done most of it and left the rest to me".
My pride hates the fact that Jesus has made me righteous in him. It hates the truth that I can stand before God, absolutely perfect, because I am clothed in the righteousness of Jesus. My pride shouts, "why couldn't Jesus give me a part in making those clothes, even just one stitch, then I could boast in what I had done".
Yet, my pride too quickly forgets how helpless I was. Dead in sin and transgression, with a debt I could never begin to pay and a condemnation looming I could never weasel my way out of. I had nothing to bring, nothing to lay on the table. I am so thankful that Jesus did everything and I will spend all of eternity boasting in him.
Last week I had the opportunity to take my two oldest boys to see a rugby match between Wales and Fiji. I jumped at the opportunity because the price was right, it would be a great experience for the boys and it gave us the chance to spend some 'quality' time together.
The night was good. We went with a local school so a minibus ride to Cardiff after stopping off at the internationally recognised food chain, MacDonalds. The Millenium stadium is massive and the atmosphere was noisy and generally free of the coarseness of tone that you find so often at football (soccer) games. The only problem was the performance of the Welsh team. They were lacklustre, disinterested and devoid of ideas and could only manage a draw.
Over the last week my Welsh friends have been commenting on the poor performance by their team and their disappointment. The coach called the game an embarrassment. The press and commentators have referred to the performance as inept. Hopefully they can muster a better performance this week against the All Blacks.
Where am I going with all this? The reason I'm writing this is not to give a report of a night out with the kids, but because I can't seem to get away from the obvious spiritual challenge in all this. The challenge to me as I write those words, lacklustre, disinterested and devoid of ideas, is that this too often describes me and describes the church in our obedience to Christ and participation in the great mission to make Jesus known. As I hear people talk about the Welsh players not being worthy of wearing the shirt, I cannot help but think of Paul's challenge in Ephesians 4:1, 'I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received'.
God challenges us in the Bible to live as those who have received amazing grace, as sinners who have been forgiven and are now children of God because of Christ and him crucified. When a sports star pulls on the shirt of their team or nation we expect them to try hard, to give their best and play recognising the great honour they have been afforded. Do we have that same expectation of ourselves as we live each day as Christ's people or do we easily settle for less?
On 20th October 2010 over 300 delegates came together for the second FIEC leaders conference at The Hayes conference centre, Swanwick. The purpose, as Colin Tamplin the new Trust Board Chairman put it, 'to further the cause of the gospel through our churches.'
The last two years have seen big changes in the structure of the FIEC. These have come as the FIEC seeks to adapt within biblical principles to face the challenges of gospel ministry in our day. This conference gave an opportunity for the new director, John Stevens (formerly the pastor of City Church, Birmingham), the new Training director, Trevor Archer (formerly the pastor of Chessington Evangelical Church) and the new Pastoral director, Richard Underwood (formerly the General Secretary of the FIEC) to share their vision of how the FIEC can be more effective in supporting and equipping it's member churches. The ideas and plans sounded great and I had a sense of excitement to be part of the FIEC as well as a realisation that these things won't happen overnight. There is a great need of prayer for wisdom and guidance throughout the FIEC.
The conference wasn't all vision and FIEC structures. Each morning began with a time of reflective worship and prayer led by John Gillespie, pastor of Grace Community Church, Looe, Cornwall. There was a selection of helpful seminars on a variety of topics including, leading through change, music in church, encouraging evangelism among women, resolving conflict and taking on apprentices. Then, each evening Ray Evans, pastor of Grace Community Church, Bedford, took us to the book of Philippians demonstrating and encouraging Christ-like leadership.
I came away refreshed and challenged through the ministry. I was encouraged through the fellowship with other believers in the Lord Jesus Christ and I am glad that I as a pastor and the church that God has placed me in are part of the FIEC. Just got to fill out the booking form for next year - 2nd - 4th November 2011.
I missed the first day ill in bed, but today has been a real encouragement. Some highlights in no particular order:
Another quote from Spurgeon as he talks about taking our gospel ministry outside of the confines of our chapel and church buildings:
No sort of defence is needed for preaching out of doors; but it would need very potent arguments to prove that a man had done his duty who has never preached beyond the walls of his meeting-house. A defence is required rather for services within buildings than for worship outside of them. Apologies are certainly wanted for architects who pile up brick and stone into the skies when there is so much need for preaching rooms among poor sinners below.
Lectures to my Students, p 254.
Here is my question: Where are we to go today? The apostles went to the temple, the synagogue, the market place etc. because here people gathered and were ready to listen. Where are these places for us?
I've been struck by Spurgeon's description of the early church and their preaching as he traces the history of open-air preaching:
There were gatherings of His disciples after His decease, within walls, especially that in the upper room; but the preaching was even then most frequently in the court of the temple, or in such other open spaces as were available. The notion of holy places and consecrated meeting-houses had not occurred to them as Christians; they preached in the temple because it was the chief place of concourse, but with equal earnestness "in every house they ceased not to teach and preach Jesus Christ."
Lectures to my Students, p 235.
What struck me as I read that was the pattern of New Testament evangelism. Evangelism for the early church was not about waiting for people to come to them, but about taking the gospel out to the world. The early church went where people were to tell them about Jesus. Paul's missions were also characterised by this pattern and strategy. When he went to a place he would go to the synagogue, the market place or wherever people would be.
As I examine the way that I have worked and the churches that I have been part of I have to admit that this is not always the pattern we have followed. The expectation has been that people would come to us. I have been guilty at times of an 'evangelical fatalism'. That if God wants people to hear the gospel he will compel them to come in so that they can, therefore all I need to do is preach the gospel in this place. So I am challenging myself with the biblical pattern of evangelism.
Jesus commanded his disciples not to hide the light of the gospel under a bowl. Evangelicals today preach the gospel, they believe the gospel, but are we hiding the gospel away in our buildings?
I find it too easy to forget the amazing grace that God has given to me in Jesus. Jesus said, 'I have come so that they might have life, and have it to the full' (Jn 10:10). I cannot get over the fact that God has given me, me a rebellious sinner, this life.
I've been chosen to be holy and blameless in his sight. I have been adopted as one of his sons with all of the status and joy that comes with being a member of the family of God. I have been redeemed from the consequences and power of sin. I have been sealed with the Holy Spirit of God to be kept for an eternity with Christ. And the list goes on and on.
Hallelujah, what a Saviour!
Next week I've been asked to kick off a session at our local pastors' meeting entitled, 'Change without a sledgehammer'. Today I've been able to do a bit of planning and preparation for this and surprisingly the biggest question that I had to face was, what does the title mean?
In Jeremiah God clearly states, “Is not my word like fire,” declares the LORD, “and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? " (Jer 23:29). In the OT, when Israel were stubborn God was not unaccustomed to getting out the hammer to get them back on track. Is it not the same today? When the church needs to change and is stubbornly resisting, God often puts down the small hammer that he is using to delicately shape us and gets out the sledgehammer to bang us back to where we should be.
So why the title? This is my take. It is because as pastors and leaders in the church we need to be incredibly careful over who is holding the hammer. It is one thing for God to do the hammering in the church, another for it to be us out of our desire to dominate and make everything the way we want it. 'Change without a sledgehammer' is change that comes from hearing God's voice and walking in obedience to his word. 'Change with a sledgehammer' is where we decide what needs fixing and drive it through whatever the cost.
If we were to rank questions that Christians should ask, I wonder what would be top of the list?
This weekend I've been asked to speak at a church weekend away on the subject of the gospel. What a subject? It's been a joy to sit with the Bible open, reading and thinking about Jesus, what he has done and what it all means. How could we ever get tired of this?
Yet, that is what we so often do. Maybe it's familiarity, maybe it's distraction or maybe we think we've moved beyond it. Whatever the reason, it is so easy as Christians to lose a wonder and delight for the good news of Jesus Christ. Too easily we find ourselves living outside of gospel truth while maintaining we believe in the gospel. Again and again I find I need to come back to the cross and remind myself what the it is all about.
Back to my original question. I'm beginning to think that the most vital question we can ever ask and keep on asking is this one: What is the gospel?