The Gospel Partnerships invited me to share some the ways in which God has been at work in and through City Church Birmingham since we began to meet in 1999. The Gospel Partnership site contains a growing set of resources on training, multiplying congregations and evangelism. Well worth returning to the site on a regular basis for input from a whole range of churches.
We’re preaching through a series at City Church entitled Perfected in weakness. Here’s an extract from the sermon I preached last Sunday entitled the weakness of inadequacy.
Madonna once said:
My drive in life comes from a fear of being mediocre. That is always pushing me. I push past one spell of it and discover myself as a special human being but then feel I am still mediocre and uninteresting unless I do something else. Because even though I have become somebody, I still have to prove that I am somebody. My struggle has never ended and I guess it never will.
Clinical psychologist Oliver James in his best-selling Affluenza puts his finger on just what is at work here:
Constantly comparing your lot with others leads to insecurity. You will have a nameless sense that there is always something you should be doing, a free-floating anxiety. You will be obsessively running yourself down because you do not do as well as others, moving the goal posts if you do succeed.
That sense of inadequacy is something we bring with us into church life. Maybe you look around your church and think ‘I’m not as good looking as that person, I’m not as trendy as that person, I’m not as godly, or gifted, or confident as the person sitting next to me.’ And you fear being ordinary at best and what you really fear is being irrelevant.
If ever there was a passage written to help us with the weakness of inadequacy, it is 1 Corinthians 12.
1) God’s design: unity in diversity
If you are a Christian you share with every other Christian the same identity; an identity that has nothing to do with your performance or popularity. We are children of God, united together with other Christians through being united with Christ. Through the same Spirit of Christ we know Jesus Christ – that’s the thrust of Paul’s introduction in v.3. But our unity is expressed in diversity. In verses 4-7 three times Paul talks of ‘same’and yet ‘different’. It’s surely impossible to miss Paul’s point: unity is not uniformity.
What works for a British Lions rugby team, made up as it is of 15 players of all shapes and sizes, and the very thing that makes the sound of an orchestra sublime, is true of the church. The God who loves us the same has given us different abilities and roles. Paul wants us to know that God is a God who loves us and loves diversity: that includes personalities, characters, abilities and gifting.
Paul says that God gives gifts to each one (11), he arranged them . . .just as he wanted them’ (18), God has combined the members (24), God appointed the gifts (28).
It has been said ‘when we freeze water, we make ice cubes – everyone the same. When God freezes water, he makes snowflakes – each one different.’ And David Prior notes that ‘we differ from one another because God wants those differences to be moulded into a special unity which is demonstrably his own doing.’
1. If the gifts we have are from God then we should use them
2. If the gifts we have are from God then we should be thankful for them
3. If the gifts are from God we should trust that he knows which gift to give us (even if we would rather he had given us a different gift)
4. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be useful
5. If the gifts are from God then he intends them to be used for the building up of the church
David Prior says that every Christian is ‘unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, unrepeatable. . . this is the glory of the church as the body of Christ.’ Is this how we think of ourselves and each other?
The problem is that we, like the Corinthians, have a hard time accepting what Paul is saying.
Two tendencies that we’re going to look at in turn. The first is to say ‘but I don’t belong’ and the second is to say ‘but I don’t need you.’ You see, we can’t expect that the church will be healthy unless we have the right attitudes to ourselves and our place; we need to have the right attitudes towards one another. We need to know that we belong together and that God has made me to play an important part.
To help us understand this Paul uses a powerful analogy for our life together and the picture he uses is the human body. There it is in v.12 (NIV), ‘the body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.’ And yet for some Christians the weakness of inadequacy is always at work. And we recognise it has a paralysing effect. So, v. 14, ‘because I am not a hand, I do not belong’ and again in v.16, ‘because I am not an eye, I do not belong’. The church is full of people who can see all that others have to offer, but very little sense of why they are needed.
Well, what is Paul’s response?
2) ‘I don’t belong’ – Accepting the way God has made me
If we were all the same, v.17, all an eye, or all an ear, we would be useless. God knows what he is doing when we remember, v.18, God has arranged the parts, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. The reason Paul’s analogy works so well is that it’s pretty obvious to us that for a body to function the various parts must be different. The eye can’t do the job of an ear nor the ear the job of an eye. The whole point of a body is that it depends on diversity. It simply must have many different parts to function. And God knows what he needs and what he’s doing in putting you in this body.
Now I don’t know quite how my body works, I just know the various parts do their work and God puts it all together. In one sense it’s a relief to me that I don’t know or need to know. The one thing I do know is that I feel a whole lot better when every part of my body is working as it should. So with the church. Just as I don’t need to know how my body works, so, I don’t need to know quite how God will use every member to play his or her part to build up the body of Christ. I don’t need to know quite how we will make a difference in the body of Christ. We simply trust God to build the body as we each get on with playing our part.
You and I don’t have to try and measure your contribution – we simply have to trust that God wants to work through you. Sometimes we get an insight. Sometimes someone says a particular thank you for something we’ve done, but not often. So don’t require or expect uniformity. That’s not the way God made us. And if God has put us in the body, to play our part, there’s really no place for feeling inferior on account of difference.
But Paul goes further than simply saying we’re all different. He wants us to see that in the way God has designed the body, he turns the standards and expectations of the world on its head. Paul is quite sure that it is precisely those who think they have least to offer who often make the greatest contribution.
Our key verse for that idea is v.22 those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. Do you see that in this verse Paul recognises that in a human body there are what he describes as weak organs? He has in mind the internal organs that need protecting; our liver, lungs, heart. You don’t see them, they are fragile, but they are indispensable.
I think v. 22 is a really encouraging verse. What it seems to say is that weakness is something from which we are all to learn. Maybe it is true that you are not as gifted as someone else, or have the same place of honour in the body but God says through this passage ‘be content to be who God made you to be, because God has a purpose for you.’ When it comes to the human body it is the weakest members who have the greatest impact. I can manage without an eye or an ear. If tragedy strikes I can learn to live without the use of my legs or arms. But the liver is essential and the heart is indispensable. In other words the weakest members of the body only seem weak. And so with the church. Those who appear to have little to offer often make the biggest impact, don’t they?
In our own congregation those going through sufferings or struggles of various kinds are often the greatest encouragement. A mother raising a disabled child, a member battling cancer, whatever it may be, there is much to learn from those who seem weak. Quite simply, because God works through weakness. Pablo Martinez writes: ‘God can use us in very different ways from those we might have expected or imagined, even in surprising ways . . . God wants to give meaning to every life, however limited or useless it may appear to human eyes.’
There were those in the church at Corinth who felt they had nothing to learn from weakness. And today there are those who cannot see that Christ is powerfully at work in someone battling same-sex attraction, depression, loneliness, and so they fail to learn, and they fail to be encouraged or inspired, and they fail to give glory to God.
3) ‘I don’t need you’? – Learning from those who are weak
As you go on in life and as you grow up in life so you realise that you have more to learn than just the theology of Wayne Grudem, and that God has given the church teachers in many forms. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis in 1945 has written arguably the greatest book on Christian community, Life Together. In this he states ‘the exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ.’
If we only seek out the impressive, the connected, the intelligent, I wonder whether you would ever have sought out Christ? In Isaiah 53:2-3 (NIV) we read ‘He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.’
When we think of Christ’s origins, raised in a working-class town in the north of the country and when we think of his appearance dressed as he was in ordinary clothes and when we think of his ministry and reputation, rejected by the thinkers and leaders of his time, if we were looking for someone to impress us we might just have missed him.
It is so easy to overlook the presence and power of God in the church – it is found in weak people.
Paul rejoiced in weakness and therefore if we share his joy we too will look to learn from those who are conscious of weakness. Once you realise that one of the primary ways, if not THE primary way of growing up in the Lord is through your weaknesses, then your attitude to the weak begins to change.
The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak – because he sees something he didn’t see before – Christ’s power at work. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he seeks to learn from them. The wise Christian seeks out the company of the weak because he longs to be blessed by them.
So far in this series we’ve considered how preaching needs to be both biblical and gospel-centred. A sermon is biblical if the big idea of the passage being preached is the main application of the text. A sermon is gospel-driven if the preacher shows how the big idea of the passage is fulfilled in Christ and points to him as saviour and Lord. We turn now to consider gospel-driven preaching.
What is gospel-driven preaching?
A gospel-driven sermon is one that not merely shows how the passage is fulfilled in the gospel but then builds further to show how the gospel enables both our justification and sanctification. The gospel enables the Christian life from beginning to end and thus drives our lives.
Whether or not we have grasped how the gospel enables our obedience of faith will shape the way we preach. Bryan Chapell has said Ultimately, the issue all preachers must confront is what they believe to be the relationship between people’s conduct and God’s acceptance.
How does gospel-driven preaching work?
1. The goal of gospel-driven sermons is to make real to everyone who hears them, both Christian and non-Christian, that they need Jesus more today than yesterday. In particular the Christian increasingly grasps the sense in which he needs to continually trust in Christ and look to him in order to live the life he wants to live.
2. In application, gospel-driven sermons celebrate that the Christian life from beginning to end is a work of grace and a work of God. Our justification is a free gift of God and our sanctification flows from our justification as the spirit-enabled work of God in our lives.
Typically, as we consider Christ, we ask that by his Spirit he might stir up godly-affections, renew our minds and motivate our wills to live for him. But importantly we give the necessary time and consideration to ask just how the gospel, rightly appropriated, can enable the life of faith.
Reading through Ephesians 4:17 to 6:9 we see, time and again that Paul uses gospel indicatives to drive gospel imperatives. Perhaps the most developed example in this passage is Paul’s instruction to husbands to love their wives. He gives us gospel reasons and incentives to obey: we love our wives because Christ loves the church. But through-out the section we find micro-examples eg. don’t get drunk on wine but be filled with the Spirit.
5:1-2 summarises the principle when Paul says Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
Good preaching won’t just tell you to do it but will i) move you to obedience and ii) show you what that obedience looks like.
3. Gospel-driven sermon must avoid both legalism and moralism
Tim Keller has helped me, more than any other, to realise that the non-Christian listening to your sermon thinks your message, unless you correct him, is one of legalism. He thinks that religion amounts to ‘obey to be accepted.’ The gospel of justification is the message of free grace. It says ‘because you are accepted, obey!’ Romans 6, Romans 12:1-2, Titus 2:11-14.
The Christian listening to your sermon thinks the message of the gospel is moralism where Christianity amounts to ‘because Jesus has done this for you, you now do this for him.’ Moralistic preaching has terrible consequences for both the individial believer and the church.
The basic problem, is that even Christians do not ordinarily live as if the gospel is true. We don’t really believe the gospel deep down. We are living as if we save ourselves. – Tim Keller
4. Gospel-driven application works hard to make the connection between
- The message of the text as understood by its original hearers
- How it is fulfilled in Christ
- How it leads to gospel change in the lives of Christians and non-Christians
5. Gospel sermons recreate what Tim Keller calls the gospel-renewal dynamic.
At the heart of gospel-driven preaching is the fundamental conviction that the Christian life we are called to live is one we cannot live but Christ can live in us.
[Gospel] preaching assures God’s people that their relationship with him is secure by virtue of God’s provision [and] nourishes the faith that becomes the motivation and enablement of true holiness. God’s people serve God out of love for him and with confidence of his provision. – Bryan Chapell.
6. The result of all of this is that gospel sermons preach the gospel to Christians and non-Christians at one and the same time.
As Keller has often said we need to preach the gospel to the Christian because she needs it for sanctification and the non-Christian who needs it for sanctification.
Some questions to ask of our sermon:
• How do I know that I have preached a gospel sermon over against a moralistic one?
• Have I just told people to obey, to ‘just do it’?
• Have they left thinking that the life the gospel calls on them to try harder?
• Is the heart of my application that the Christian life is a life we cannot live, that Jesus has lived for us and now in him we can begin to live.
In the first extract from my seminar notes on ‘Gospel-centred Biblical preaching’ I focused on the need for preaching to be preaching that does not abuse the text of scripture, nor even use the text of Scripture but serve the text of Scripture. Biblical preaching is preaching in which the Bible sets the agenda for the content of the sermon because the big idea of the passage is the main application of the text.
However, it’s not enough to be biblical (in that sense). Every sermon needs to be biblical in that it is Christ or gospel-centred. In this post we ask how Jesus is the answer to every question a sermon raises, the fulfilment of every hope put forth and therefore the centre of every text.
1. Every text is there to teach us about Jesus
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:27 NIV)
For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Rom 15:4 NIV)
The Bible is not Christ-centered because it is generally about Jesus. It is Christ-centered because the Bible’s primary purpose, from beginning to end, is to point us toward the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus for the salvation and sanctification of sinners. – Darrin Patrick
2. Every text teaches us of our need for a Saviour
A sermon without Christ as its beginning, middle, and end is a mistake in conception and a crime in execution. However grand the language it will be merely much-ado-about-nothing if Christ be not there. And I mean by Christ not merely his example and the ethical precepts of his teaching, but his atoning blood, his wondrous satisfaction made for human sin, and the grand doctrine of ‘believe and live. – C.H. Spurgeon
What does this all look like?
There are a growing number of good books and resources showing how to find Christ and I particularly commend Preaching the whole Bible as Christian Scripture by Graham Goldsworthy.
Tim Keller has said
Once you know that all the lines of all the stories and all the climaxes of the inter-canonical
themes converge on Christ, you simply can’t not see that every text is about Jesus. For example:
+ Jesus is the true and better Adam who passed the test in the garden and whose obedience is now imputed
to us (1 Cor. 15).
+ Jesus is the true and better Abel who, though innocently slain, has blood that cries out for our acquittal,
not our condemnation (Heb. 12:24).
+ Jesus is the true and better Abraham, who answered the call of God to leave all that was comfortable and
familiar out of obedience to God.
+ Jesus is the true and better Isaac, who was not just offered up by his father on the mount but was in the
end sacrificed for us all. God said to Abraham, “now I know you love me, because you did not withhold
your son, your only son whom you love, from me.” Now we can say to God, “now I know that you love me,
because you did not withhold your son, your only son whom you love, from me.”
+ Jesus is true and better Jacob, who wrestled with God and took the blow of justice we deserved. Now we,
like Jacob, only receive the wounds of grace to wake us up and discipline us.
+ Jesus is the true and better Joseph, who sat at the right hand of the king, and used his power to forgive
and save those who betrayed and sold him.
+ Jesus is the true and better Moses who stands in the gap between the people and the Lord, who mediates
a new covenant (Heb. 3).
+ Jesus is the true and better Job —the innocent sufferer who then intercedes for his foolish friends (Job 42).
+ Jesus is the true and better David, whose victory against Goliath was imputed to his people, even though
they never lifted a stone to accomplish it themselves.
+ Jesus is the true and better Esther, who didn’t just risk losing an earthly palace but a heavenly one, and
who didn’t just risk his life but gave it—to save his people.
+ Jesus is the true and better Jonah who was cast out into the storm so the rest of the ship could be brought
I’ve also been helped to see that when it comes to a specific narrative the ‘hero’ functions in that story in 1 of 3 roles.
• a type of Christ – see Keller’s examples above
• a type of believer trusting in Christ – that could be Abraham being justified by faith Gen. 15, Rom. 4 or David confessing his sin in the psalms eg. Psalms 32, 51.
• a type of unbeliever needing to trust in Christ – for example Abraham in Egypt, Gen. 12.
Let’s take one passage as an example of how New Testament authors quite clearly find Christ in Old Testament narrative – Exodus 2:11-25.
In this passage Moses strikes dead the Egyptian beating one of his own people. How should we find Christ here? When I preached this passage recently I called it God’s rescuer renounces his royal throne to rescue his brother(s). Two very important New Testament texts help us with this passage; Heb 11:24-26 and Acts 7:23-25. In them we find Moses commended for his actions.
Hebrews reminds us that Moses gave up a kingdom to rescue a people because he knew he would inherit a better kingdom
Acts reminds us that the one God raised up to rescue his people rejected him as their rescuer.
So in my sermon I argued that
Jesus is the greater Moses because he saw the suffering of his people and decided to get involved in our world. He is the greater Moses because didn’t forsake a human throne to come to the aid of his brothers he left his throne in heaven to save us. He is the greater Moses because he chose to suffer with his people not just in experiencing loss of status and reputation but choosing to suffer to the extent that he gave his life to death on a cross He is the true Moses because he delivers his people not just from slavery to Pharaoh but from sin and death itself through his own resurrection. Jesus is the true and better Moses because he too was prepared by God to deliver his people through suffering…
3. Every sermon must centre on Jesus
Biblical preaching is gospel-centred preaching. It shows us Christ as our only hope but does so not by
a. assuming the gospel (but not stating it). So in the sermon we learn about faith and life through David, Joshua, etc. but Christ is not mentioned.
b. bolting on the gospel in a way that eases our conscience but is not from the text. We hear valuable gospel truths but cannot relate them to the passage preached.
Instead it shows us Christ as saviour and Lord from a careful application of the passage demonstrating how it always pointed us to Christ.
In the next post we will look at what it means for preaching to be not just gospel-centred but gospel-driven.
On the day of the funeral of Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s longest serving Prime Minister of the last 150 years, tributes continue to be been paid from all-sides of the political debate. Love her or loathe her no one denies that, through her leadership, she changed the face of a nation and her influence continues to be felt across the world to this day.
Looking back over her time in office, what made her the leader she was? Here’s a personal take on seven qualities identified by Thatcher and those who knew her that shaped her leadership. Seven qualities that all leaders can learn from starting in this post with 1) conviction and 2) clear vision.
Margaret Thatcher famously said above all I am not a consensus politician but a conviction politician. Her leadership was borne out of a strong moral conviction that what she believed in was what could make Britain great again. And Thatcher was to attribute her success to this unswerving conviction in the rightness of her cause. After nearly ten years in office she still maintained if you just set out to be liked, you would be prepared to compromise on anything at any time and you would achieve nothing.
Leadership not borne of strong conviction is leadership that will fail. Even when at her lowest political ebb, in 1981, she argued pragmatism is not enough, nor is the fashionable word consensus. To me, consensus seems to be the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies. So it is something in which no one believes and to which no one objects.’
Lord Saatchi, in an interview on the BBC the morning after Margaret Thatcher’s death, paid tribute to this quality. He summarised her outlook in the following way:
The aim in that period when she was leader of the opposition was to present an ism, called conservatism, which in her mind was a philosophy and the object of the exercise was to explain that philosophy and see if people would support it and now we have a situation all these years later where you can tap anyone on the shoulder any where in the world and ask them ‘what did Mrs Thatcher believe in?’ and you will get a straight answer in a second.
Applying this principle of leadership to churches we might well ask whether it is obvious what we, as a church, stand for? We also have to ask are our principles matters of conviction,derived from God’s word and God’s purpose for the church in the world, rather than our own ideas? Do we lead from conviction or consensus?
2. Clarity of vision
Thatcher had not only strong convictions which guided her actions but a clear vision of where she wanted to take the nation. Henry Kissinger comments on why he thought Thatcher was a breathe of fresh air as a leader in her generation: The appearance of a leader that confidently asserted a vision of the future and, was wiling to tackle the economic problems of the day based on an alternative theory, had both a practical impact and also a psychological and moral impact on the period in which she lived.
He concludes her view was that leaders should define themselves by clearly articulating for their public their vision of their future.
What can we learn? It couldn’t harm if we as Christian leaders were to ask ourselves just how clearly are we articulating a vision for our particular churches? Are we able to assert not just guiding values that under-pin our ministries but a compelling vision as to where such principles might take us? For example, it is surely a good thing for a church to affirm the spread of the gospel as a necessary core value, it is another thing to set out a vision for how the church will seek to see the gospel go out over the next, say, 5 to 10 years.
In our next post we consider what it meant for Thatcher to be a leader defined by courage, clear communication and commitment to her cause.
The following is an extract from a talk I gave at Week 1 of New Word Alive last week on 1 Peter 1:22-2:10:
Two for one deal
We know it’s not always easy to love your family. Yet, the God who brings us to new life in Christ also brings us to a new love for his people. Peter says (1 Pet 1:22) ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’ by which he means we have believed the gospel. But in the very same verse he tells us of something else we have along with our new life in Jesus: v.22, you also ‘have sincere love for your brothers.’
With new life comes a new love. It’s a two for the price of one deal. And we ought to expect love to flow out of life because the God who gave us this new life is the God is love. God is life and God is love and if his word has entered our hearts then the word that brings us to life in Jesus will also brings us to love our brothers.
Bible logic says ‘you do love, so love!’
But there’s one other thing that Peter knows and it’s this loving your new family is not easy is it. The comedian George Burns once said ‘happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.’ It’s the day to day business of getting along together as a family that proves so hard. No wonder Bible logic says, v.22, ‘you do love one another’ and then in the very next sentence also say ‘so go on loving one another deeply from the heart.’ We all know that we can say of many people ‘I do love and yet I need a lot of help to love you as a fellow Christian at times.’
And it’s a big ask to love as God loves. Peter doesn’t say tolerate one another, nor does he say love one another when someone obviously needs love, or love the people you like, or the people you want to like you but love one another (that’s every brother or sister) and love them deeply and love them from the heart.
Our society says love people for what they do for you, or give to you – the gospel says love your brother or sister simply for who are they are – your family in Christ. That’s how families work. Family is about the one place where you love people despite what they do! Family is the one time you choose hang out people you have nothing else in common with except that you are family. Any other group and you’d walk away but because its family you make it work.
And Jesus shows me just what this looks like. He knew how to love deeply and from the heart. When Jesus loved he seemed to make life more difficult for himself rather than less. He picked out they people most difficult people to love. Don’t you think that Zacchaeus was probably a really irritating person? Don’t you think the disciples were a frustration to Jesus at times and at other times a disappointment and an embarrassment?
Love is about what you don’t do
And Peter wants you to know that loving someone is as much about what we don’t do as what we do do. In chapter 2v1 he says ‘rid yourselves of all malice, deceit, hypocrisy and slander of every kind.’ Love isn’t always about how I feel towards someone, love in the Bible is rarely sentimental. Love means deciding not to damage other Christians by my words and my example, not to put myself and my feelings first, not to be so constantly full of my own opinions and ideas that I speak too hastily and harshly to others. Everything that Peter describes in 2v1 – all of these flaws and failings – are sins that damage other Christians, things that destroy our life together.
God has put you into a new family that you might help one another to grow. The goal of life together is that we, v.2, ‘grow up in our salvation’
The church shouldn’t be a place where we just tell each other to grow up but where we help each other to grow up.
Maybe you can think of one or two people whom God has used just in the past few weeks or months to do just that for you. And growing up is what your new life is all about. I have a 2 year old son. He is full of new life. He is for the most part adorably cute – or at least I thought so until Monday afternoon when he decided to put a roll of toilet paper in the sink, blocking the plug hole, turned both taps full on and flooded the downstairs bathroom.
Do you know what I thought to myself as I mopped that bathroom floor? I thought a few things actually but one thing was this; I can’t wait for you to grow up but then I also thought and it’s my job to help you. I have a responsibility to make sure you do grow up.
The word of God brings us to new life and its brings us to new love and we know that a church is living out the gospel as we help our Christian brother and sister grow up into their salvation. That’s not easy. Living together in the Powell household is not always easy and it’s not always easy in our church family either
Growing up is a messy business we need a lot of patience with each other we will let each other down, we will hurt one another, we’ll do and say stupid things we’ll accuse one another of being immature – it’s then that we need to remember that we’re growing up together.
Growing up is not only a messy business it’s a slow business we aren’t the people we want to be. Ask any child how frustrating it can be when they know they want to be riding a bike without stabilisers or swimming without armbands. Why do I find it so hard to change? Why do I keep making the same mistakes? Only a deep love from the heart can enable me to overcome my many failings.
Growing up may be a messy business and a slow business but more than anything else it is a necessary business isn’t it. I hope my son is not putting toilet rolls in the sink when he’s 10!
And the key to growing up together? Well ask any new born baby its craving milk. For Peter that is the milk of the word. Like new born babies lets crave God’s word so that the truth of the gospel changes hearts and minds and grows that new life to maturity.
A small group of Muslim men turned up at church from the local mosque to ask a few questions on Sunday evening. Unsurprisingly conversation soon turned to the Trinity. As it turned out we had just returned from a church weekend away reflecting on how essential the doctrine of the trinity is if we are how to live well in the world. Here’s a sketch of my notes from a talk I gave on the weekend.
A. How does God define our relationships?
I wonder when you last spent some time thinking about the Trinity? I guess many Christians find understanding what it means that we believe in One God in three persons a little confusing if not a little awkward to explain. Maybe we find the trinity intellectually embarrassing if and when we are challenged by a non-Christian and I suspect we do find the doctrine a little irrelevant when it comes to living everyday life.
Well this morning its not my place to give a defence of what Christians believe or the history. But my job in just 30 minutes is to show you how life-changing it is to know that you love and serve a God of relationships.
The Bible affirms that there is One God in three persons. That means because God is eternal relationships (between Father, Son and Spirit) have always been at the heart of ultimate reality. And my big point this morning is that ONLY the Christian can say that!
And that means that only the Christian has a foundation for relations.
Whoever we are, our doctrine of God IS the foundation for our relationships.
B. What we think of God defines and shapes the nature of our relationships
Maybe the best way to look at this truth is by way of comparison with the other ways of looking at relationships.
The dilemma of modern man is simple: he does not know why man has any meaning. He is lost. Man remains a zero. This is the damnation of our generation. – Francis Schaeffer in He is There and He is not silent.
We don’t know how to live in the world and we cannot agree how we should live in this world;
- If there is no God then there is no basis or standard for relationships (there is nothing informing our relationships!)
- We can recognise the problems in our relationships but cannot find a binding answer (the world would be a better place if we all got along…but we can’t agree on what that means)
- We define relationships for ourselves (every man, and woman, does as he sees fit)
- Relationships are an aspect of ‘survival of the fittest’
Richard Dawkins summed up how the absence of God impacts his ethics in the following sobering words: If someone used my views to justify a completely self-centred lifestyle, which involved trampling all over other people in any way they chose I think I would be fairly hard put to argue against it on purely intellectual grounds.
Fellow Oxford intellectual Peter Atkins puts it this way when quoted by Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the rainbow: We are children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.
Is it enough to believe in ‘god’ to understand the nature of relationships and living well in the world? As we will see the answer is ‘no’. All depends on the nature of that god.
No word is as meaningless as is the word god. Of itself it means nothing unless content is put into it. – Francis Schaeffer.
- God is not a personal god. He exists in ‘splendid isolation.’ Even in paradise God will not be with us.
- God and relationships are separate thing – God is not a God of relationships for before he ever created he was alone.
- God cannot inform our relationships (we cannot look to him to teach us) and our relationships are not an aspect of image-bearing.
- When God is teaching us about relationships he is not teaching us about himself
- God may be loving (toward his creation) but he is NOT love because in eternity he has no-one to love. He had to create in order to love and experience love.
3. Pantheism (Hindism, New Age, etc..)
- God is an impersonal force
- Impersonal forces cannot define or inform personal relationships. In fact, more than that, they undermine relationships. The holy men of Hinduism retreat from relationships and community.
- Our final goal as human beings is to join the impersonal ie become one with the impersonal force.
- Relationships and personality are temporary
The truth is that if you exchange the truth about God for a lie it will not only damage you but destroy community and confuse society.
Look with me at Romans 1:18-30. What is the result of humanity suppressing the truth about God. It is two things i) a turning to worshipping other gods and ii) a break down of relationships. The SIN of rejecting God leads to all sorts of SINS damaging to community. Looking at the list at the end of the chapter (vv.28-30)
Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy.
Only Christianity has at its heart a God who IS a God of relationships and God’s own relationship makes your relationships meaningful.
C. What can we learn from the God of relationships?
The Father, Son and Holy Spirit have always existed in perfect relationship. They express and define perfect love.
Therefore (for example) we can learn how to love one another within a marriage by learning from the relationship between Father and Son.
|Bible verses||Nature of relationship|
|John 14:31, 3:35||Perfect love seen in a desire to bless the other.|
|John 17:1,4||Other-person centredness. A seeking after the glory of another ahead of own. Love involves service, sacrifice.|
|John 10:30||Unity. One in Being. One in purpose. One in ministry.|
|John 5:30||Difference. Unity does not mean uniformity. There is an order to the relationships. The Son does the will of the Father and obeys him even though they are both fully God.|
As God’s image bearers in the world God shapes and defines our relationships. Whether that be relationships between husband and wife, parent and child, employer and employee, authorities and those subject to authority. All our relationships reflect in some way the God of relationships. Our relationships are defined by love, other-person centredness, unity yet difference.
Reasons to rejoice in the Trinity!
There is no other sufficient philosophical answer than the one I have outlined. You can search through university philosophy, underground philosophy, filling station philosophy – it does not matter—there is no other sufficient philosophical answer to existence, to Being, than the one I have outlined. There is only one thought, whether the East, the West, the ancient, the modern, the new, the old. Only one fills the philosophical need of existence, of Being, and it is the Judeo-Christian God –not just an abstract concept, but rather that this God is really there. He exists. There is no other answer, and orthodox Christians ought to be ashamed of being been defensive for so long. It is not a time to be defensive. There is no other answer. – Francis Schaeffer, He is There and he is not silent
Part 2 of this series will consider just how our relationships are to be based on the God of relationships.
A sad and sobering report in the Telegraph of a University of Montreal study in which they could not find a male student who had not consumed pornography.
The study found that the average age at which boys were introduced to porn was 10 years old.It also found that single men viewed pornography 3 times a week for an average of 40 minutes each time and men in relationships 1.7 times a week for 20 minutes each time.
What does all this mean for Christians? Who’s keeping watch in your church? Here are 12 questions that spring to mind that need the attention of any leadership team.
2. How and when should be raising the issue with our children? At what age? In what way?
3. How and in what context should we be talking about these issues with the men of our church? When did we last talk to the men about this?
4. What do we need to say to wives and girlfriends? Do they understand the nature of the struggle?
5. How do we protect marriages from ‘virtual-adultery’? Are we helping husbands and wives to talk wisely and appropriately about this issue?
6. What are the statistics for women? Is this a growing issue for both sexes?
7. What accountability structures do church leaders have in place for their own behaviour? Who is asking them whether they are viewing pornography? How can they model godliness in this area of life?
8. What support and accountability do we offer for those willing to acknowledge that this is an issue for them? What church discipline is appropriate too?
9. What are the lies that capture our hearts and make pornography a battle for every man? Do we understand its power?
10. Do we know how to fight this battle through the gospel rather than by mere will-power of self-control?
11. What do we want to say to non-Christians who might be part of the wider church community?
12. How do we help apply the gospel to those who have a ‘past’ in this area even if it is no longer a dangerous issue?
If you’re anything like me your natural temptation is to want to forget the mistakes you’ve made in ministry. Some are embarrassing because they highlight our immaturity or weaknesses, others are difficult to recall because we remember the impact they had on others. Bad news is for burying, isn’t that right? But maybe God wants to teach us through our mistakes (and our failures for that matter).
Ten most common mistakes made by new church starts is a book that aims to take our errors and put them to use. In their introduction Griffith and Easum write ‘Those of you who are already church planting will recognise yourself as we go along. If the pain gets too bad, take an aspirin or two.’
I think I probably made at least 6 of the mistakes they list. One of the mistakes I recognise was called ‘Failure of the Church to Act Its Age and Its Size.’ The key principle being that in a planting context decisions need to me made about what ministries should be started when. In other words there is the world of difference between knowing something is the right thing to do and knowing when is the right time to do it. When we started talking about buying a building as a one year old plant we certainly didn’t help ourselves or our congregation to ‘Act our age!’ Great idea, wrong timing. The same can be said of wanting to start a full-blown kids work from age 0-14 to draw in families to the plant at a time when our eldest child in the congregation was just 1.
Stepping out in faith is not the same as running ahead, unaware of the risks and at a pace that cannot be sustained by even the most servant-hearted, faith-filled congregation. Nor do plants begin ministries only to please guests. ‘It’s better to just let them walk away than to overextend and burn out. It’s also better than making promises you can’t keep.’
At our next 2020birmingham Planters meeting we will be sharing our mistakes and in turn I’ll try and share some on the blog.
God not only lets us make mistakes, he wants us to learn from them. He also wants us to teach others through our mistakes. The Bible is full of stories of those who failed from Abraham to Moses to David to Paul. Their examples are for our instruction. God has included their mistakes to teach us humility, patience, God-dependence and above all else that He is the one building His church sometimes because of us and sometimes despite us.
We live in a world where no-one will ever say they were wrong. As Christians we are free from the need to prove ourselves, our ministry successes and failures do not define us. But they do shape us and others. Let us put them to good use.
Jon Tyson is lead pastor of Trinity Grace Church in New York City. I found a sermon he preached in December from Matthew 1:21-23 really enlightening, not to say a little disturbing. Tyson (about 19 minutes into the sermon) highlights a hidden danger inherent in the hearts of men and women driven by a noble desire – living for God.
What could be wrong with such a fine ambition? Essentially, Tyson points out, the danger comes from failing to recognise that our lives were never intended to be lived for God but with God. When our passion is not Christ but doing stuff for Christ we become vulnerable to that most subtle danger of ‘importing worldly ambition into Christian ministry’.
Tyson draws on a blog post written by Skye Jethani entitled Has mission become our idol to expand his point. Jethani writes
Sometimes the people who fear insignificance the most are driven to accomplish the greatest things. As a result they are highly praised for their good works which temporarily soothes their fear until the next goal can be achieved.
How easy it is for Christian ministers to believe that the worth of our life is determined by the achievements of our ministries. Jethani quotes Gordon McDonald who says of this condition (which he defines as missionalism);
Missionalism starts slowly and gains a foothold in the leader’s attitude before long the mission controls almost everything; time, relationships, health, spiritual depth, ethics and convictions.
How many Christian ministers are actually pursuing a worldly ambition –driven by a desire to prove themselves through their ministry – rather than joyfully living out their lives and fulfilling their ministries with Christ?
What might be tell-tales signs that your ministry has morphed into a self-serving idol?
Here are 5 symptoms I recognise in myself;
1) An aggressive self-promotion of our own ministries. Every conversation, blog-post or tweet is an opportunity to talk about ourselves through the vehicle of pushing of a ministry rather than an opportunity to bless others with the gospel.
2) A lack of interest (let alone joy) in the ministry of others. If my sense of self-worth is located in my ministry then the success of others disturbs and threatens me. They become a threat to my security and rob me of my joy.
3) When our ministry is an idol, and its success becomes our consuming goal, relationships suffer. When our focus is our ministry our relationships begin to be defined by the extent to which they can be useful to us in fulfilling our objectives. Family life suffers because they don’t advance our cause and instead slow us down by demanding time and energy we want to invest elsewhere. In essence the idol is seen to be at work when I am only interested in others to the extent to which they can assist in the completion of my projects and plans.
4) When we are defined by our ministry we find it next to impossible to rest from our work. The idol of worldly ambition enslaves us and we fear falling behind.
5) When ministerial success is essential to our identity what keeps us awake at night is not the fate of the lost, or the glory of God but a fear of personal failure.
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