Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Can a Pastor be Faithful AND Successful?

I have heard it many times.  In fact, much to my embarrassment, I have even said it.  The statement goes something like this:  “Not every pastor will be successful.  Sometimes we are called just to be faithful where God has placed us.”  A statement like this assumes that there is a dichotomy between a successful pastor and a faithful pastor, and that being faithful is at times the antithesis of being successful.

There is great comfort to thinking this way.  For most of my time in the pastorate, I pastored small (under 75 people) churches.  Both those churches were located in small towns (250 and 600 people respectively).  Many years there would be little positive change in the number of people attending the church.  A pastor in rural ministry realizes that their church is not likely to turn into a mega-church any time in the near future.  As a result, we begin to condition ourselves to think that success is not what we were called into the pastorate for.  Rather, we think, it is much more important to be faithful than to be successful as a pastor.

In some cases, thinking this way causes us to be become lazy in our responsibilities.  When we do not anticipate success, we spend less time in the word of God and less time in prayer.  We slap together a lesson rather than prayerfully seeking God for insight, guidance and understanding.  Sometimes we even take a measure of pride in our faithfulness, and in some twisted way, look down our noses at more successful pastors, thinking to ourselves, “they might be successful, but we are the faithful ones.”  We assume, in some cases, that they are successful because they have compromised the message of the cross, and in our false humility, we assume that we are not successful because we have held firm to the message of the cross.

But is all this true?  Is there truly a dichotomy between successful and faithful?  Can a called man, faithful to the gospel, be certain of success in the pastorate?  That last question was the question posed to me as I attended the Rocky Mountain Bible Mission’s Shepherd’s Conference last week.  The main speaker, Art Azurdia from Trinity Church, Portland, OR and Western Seminary, spoke on this very thing.  His main text was John 15:16 which says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.’ (ESV)

There are a lot of things in that verse – the idea of sovereign appointment and the centrality of prayer – but I want to highlight one particular thing that hit me.  Here it is:  Jesus appoints people for ministry and then sends them out with an expectation of success.  We are appointed to go and bear fruit, fruit that abides or lasts.  We are ordained to fruitfulness.  The path of a pastor may be hard at times, but it is not futile.  It is not meant to be empty of success.  The question I need to ask myself is this:  do I expect something to happen when I preach?  Do I expect the gospel message to transform the lives and hearts of those listening to me?  Jesus says I should.  We don’t always know when or how success will happen, or what fruit will look like, but Jesus does say that those appointed to ministry should be both faithful AND successful.

Of course, in order for that to happen, we need to passionately believe what we preach.  The passion comes out of our own encounter with the transforming truths of the Word of God.  As Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones once said, “If there is no passion, you are not a preacher.”  With God at work in our hearts, we will preach with a passion born out of spiritual desperation – a personal desperation in our own hearts and a desperation for the hearts of our beloved flock.

So the question I need to ask myself as I prepare a message, plan a Bible Study, lead a Sunday School class, or sit down with AWANA kids is this:  do I expect something to happen when I help someone encounter God’s Word?  I should, because God, through His gospel, is in the transformation business.  He has called me to go and bear fruit that lasts.  He has called me to His ministry, and He has called me, in His power, to be both faithful and successful.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Saved by Works

Every believer is saved by works.  Did you know that?  Right now, some of you are wondering what happened to me.  Others of you are contemplating finding a new church to attend.  Still others are getting out their Bibles to counter my assertion.  But before you do that, let me finish.  Every believer is saved by works – just not their own works.

In my devotions I have been slowly making my way through the book of Romans.  The other day I was struck again by the importance of something.  When we think about salvation, we think about the cross, and the resurrection, and rightly so.  But one part of salvation we do not think about enough is the perfect righteousness of Christ.  Jesus’ perfect life plays an important part in our salvation.

Romans 5:19 says, “For as by the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man's obedience the many will be made righteous.” (ESV)  This verse is talking about two individuals.  In the context of this passage – Romans 5:12-21 – we learn the first man is Adam.  In Adam’s disobedience, the many were made sinners.  Adam’s sin had consequences for the whole human race – in Adam all people are born guilty, born under the condemnation and the reign of sin.  Of course, Adam’s sin is just one of our problems – we confirm the true impact of Adam’s sin with our own personal sinful choices.

Thankfully the truth of the matter does not end there.  Romans 5:19 speaks of a second man – in the context this is Jesus Christ.  Like Adam, Jesus’ life had far ranging consequences for people.  Just as Adam’s sin brought the condemnation of sin, Jesus’ obedience brought righteousness to many. 

Jesus obeyed by fulfilling the law of God perfectly, something no other human could ever do.  Every single moment of every day of his life was spent in obedience to the law of God.  Every day Jesus earned and fulfilled righteousness.  And the most amazing thing is – Jesus did it for us.

I love how author Elyse Fitzpatrick puts it in her book Found in Him:

What was he [Jesus] doing while he played in the dirt as a toddler?  While he labored in the carpenter’s shop as an apprentice?  When he helped with dinner as a twenty-something?  He was being perfected so that he could find you and make you one with him.  He loved God and those around him for your sake, in your place.  Everything that you’ve left undone, he did for you.  Every sin you’ve committed, he joyfully shunned out of love for you.  Day after day for thirty years his one desire was to please his Father and live perfectly in your place so that he could bring you to glory. (Found in Him, p. 60-61)

Think about that.  Jesus’ perfect obedience fulfilled the law.  He did for us what we could never do for ourselves.  And so, when he died on the cross, he died in a state of perfect righteousness. When God draws us to Him and saves us, he declares us righteous, legally justifying us in His sight.  When he does that, the basis for his decision is not theological myth.  He is not making things up.  His verdict is based on a righteousness that actually exists – the righteousness of Jesus Christ applied to our lives.  God takes Jesus’ perfect righteousness – his works – and applies them to our account through faith.  We are saved by works.  Praise the Lord, they are not our insufficient and flawed works, but the perfect, righteous and totally sufficient works of Jesus Christ!

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: The Explicit Gospel by Matt Chandler

I suspect that if you are reading this blog, written by a pastor of a Bible-believing church, you are probably familiar with the gospel.  The gospel, of course, is the good news of Jesus Christ – his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection, his ascension, and his return some day.  The gospel is the story of what God has graciously done for us in Christ in response to our rebellion against Him.

A common temptation is for Christians to shunt the gospel into a “past tense” status in our lives.  We look back at that moment in time when we came to the recognition that we had placed our trust in the good news of Jesus Christ.  And while it is true that faith has a beginning in our lives, the work of the gospel is not merely in the past.  Rather, the work of the gospel in us is a reality now and will continue on throughout eternity.
In light of that, it is good idea to remind ourselves of the truths of the gospel and how those truths can change our lives completely.  That is the purpose of Matt Chandler’s book The Explicit Gospel.  In a world where far too many things are explicit – language, sexual content, violence – Chandler does a good job of reminding us of the raw truths of the gospel and how those truths should provide direction for our lives.

The Explicit Gospel is divided into three main sections.  The first two deal with “The Gospel on the Ground” and “The Gospel in the Air.”  “The Gospel on the Ground” unpacks the personal truths of the gospel.   It reminds us who God is, who we are as sinners, who Christ is, what He has done, and how we should respond to these truths.  It is personal invitation to allow the truths of the gospel to penetrate our lives.

The section entitled “The Gospel in the Air” deals with the truths of the gospel on a cosmic level.  Chandler takes the same gospel, flies up into orbit around the earth, and looks at it from the perspective of creation, fall, reconciliation and consummation.  He shows how the gospel fits in with the great plan of God to restore the world to its once perfect condition.

Both these perspectives are necessary, because there are dangers in holding too closely to one perspective or the other.  In the last section of the book, the author takes a look at the implications of grounding our lives and teaching in one perspective only.  For example, if our gospel stays exclusively on the ground, we face the danger of being blind to the big picture purpose of God and we are tempted to make faith a self-centered exercise.  If our gospel stays exclusively in the air, other dangers lurk.  We can fall prey to removing Christ from our gospel or making culture, rather than the Scripture, the arbiter of truth.  As in so many things in life, the challenge it so balance both aspects of the gospel.

The author ends the book with a wonderful chapter on the dangers of Christian moralism.  If we are not careful, it is easy for forsake the truths of the cross for a moralism that focuses on doing good without a true, heart-centered work of grace in our lives.  This chapter alone is almost worth the price of the book.

I found this book to be a great reminder that in my thinking, my preaching and my teaching, I need to have an eye on both of these facets of the gospel truth.  It is indeed personal as much as it is cosmic.  The gospel gets down to the ground level in our lives; it also displays the wonders of God’s purpose.  We need both perspectives in order to a full understanding of the wondrous grace God has poured out into our lives in Christ Jesus.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Book Review – Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor by D. A. Carson

I have always enjoyed a good biography.  In the past few years, I have read biographies of a great variety of people from a great variety of walks of life.  There is one thing in common with all those biographies – biographies generally get written about famous people.  Authors write biographies about generals and kings and financial giants.  They tend not to write biographies about people you and I have never heard about.

That is where the book Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor comes in.  This book is about Tom Carson, a man I had never heard of.  I am familiar with his son, the Bible scholar D. A. Carson, and have been blessed by what he has written over the years.  In Memoirs, Dr. Carson sets out to chronicle his father’s life of ministry in the Canadian province of Quebec.  Using a collection of personal reflections, excerpts from his father’s journals and remembrances from family and friends, Dr. Carson presents a portrait of a man who was far from ordinary.

Tom Carson, although not French Canadian by birth, spent his life as a shepherd in Quebec, Canada.  In order to familiarize the reader with the culture Tom Carson ministered in, his son begins the book with a sketch of the history and culture of French Canada.  Even though I grew up in Canada and was born in the largest French Canadian enclave west of Ontario (St. Boniface, MB), I was surprised by what I learned.  Tom Carson began ministry at a time and in a place where the Roman Catholic Church had complete control of most aspects of life in Quebec.  Converts were few, churches were small, harassment and opposition was common, and ministry was hard.  On top of it all, Tom Carson had to learn the language and the distinct culture of Quebec in order to be effective in reaching the people of Quebec.  In many ways, today we would describe what Tom Carson did as the work of a missionary, rather than the work of a pastor.

The thing that struck me most about this short book was the profound portrait of faithfulness found in Tom Carson.  He was faithful in so many ways.  He was faithful to his Lord.  Throughout his life, Tom Carson kept journals, and from those journals the reader receives a portrait of a man who never stopped seeking God.  Even when times were tough and discouragement was there, he looked faithfully to God.  Tom Carson was faithful to the gospel.  He never wavered from teaching the truth of the Scriptures and the good news of salvation, even in the face of opposition from the Roman Catholic church and influence from various cults.  Tom Carson was faithful to his family.  Although life was busy, he fought for time with his family.  When the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease reached into his wife’s life, he faithfully cared for her at home until he could no longer physically do it.  After that, he was faithfully present at her side until the Lord called her home.

What stood out to me as a pastor was Tom Carson’s faithfulness as a shepherd.  He was faithful to the flock God had called him to.  He was faithful in small churches in difficult places.  He was faithful in teaching the word and visiting the sick and struggling.  He was faithful in doing the work God set before him – reaching into the lives of French Canadians with the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

His son titled the book, Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor.  If only every pastor in North America was ordinary as his dad was ordinary.  We need more “ordinary” pastors like Tom Carson – men who are faithful to their Lord, His Word, their family and their flock.  All too often spiritual leadership is about building our kingdom or making a name for ourselves or pursuing our satisfaction.  But God is not interested in any of that – he calls us to be faithful servants.

Tom Carson was not perfect – his son shares both his triumphs and his struggles.  He was also not ordinary.  He may have ministered primarily in little churches in out of the way places far from the halls of power or prestige, but he did not live an ordinary life.  Lord, help me to be an ordinary pastor in the mold of Tom Carson, faithful in all things till the end, for your glory.  Amen.