If I just lost you, that’s okay. I get that this may come across as a weird statement to anyone reading who is 1) not a Christian, 2) a new Christian, or 3) a “progressive” Christian who disagrees. And it’s downright laughable to the skeptic who denies it on scientific or historical grounds. I’m okay with that.
I made a rather significant decision when I was seventeen years old. I was struggling with God’s calling on my life and my father-in-law gave me a copy of W. A. Criswell’s autobiography, Standing On the Promises. While reading Criswell’s words, I not only became convinced God was calling me to be a Pastor, but also that the foundation for preaching and leadership is the inerrant, infallible Word of God found in the Bible. Criswell recounts this story:
“Don’t you ever doubt, Dr. Criswell?” a seminary student once asked me in a graduate class I was teaching. “Don’t you ever have doubts about the Word?”
Feeling the young man’s pain and remembering myself the long, difficult years of study and preparation, I answered simply.
“No, son,” I said quietly. Then, after a long pause, I added, “Trust the Word. Never quit believing it, all of it. Use your brain to the limit,” I said, encouraging the young man to use every intellectual power at his command to study the Word. “But what you cannot understand, accept on faith, and God will honor your faithfulness.”
Personally, I’ve followed Dr. Criswell’s advice for nearly twenty years with no plans of changing my course. I believe the Bible – all of it. Why does this matter? Because we live in a world that assaults the Christian faith constantly. And we happen to live in a generation that feels it is somehow more enlightened than any before it. The world around us is ready to render the Bible obsolete.
This is nothing new. Voltaire vowed to turn the Bible into a mere museum exhibit within a century. A century later, the Bible was being being produced on a printing press unable to keep up with the demand by people craving the Word of God in their everyday language.
Yesterday World Vision, a Christian parachurch organization with a focus on humanitarian aid announced a change in its policy that will allow people in same sex marriages to work for the organization, claiming to pass the theological buck on to the church. In reality, World Vision has made the decision to accommodate a liberal view of Scripture, thereby completely fuzzy-ing any definition of itself as a “Christian” organization.
Today, the Supreme Court of the United States will determine whether Hobby Lobby, and any other business entity, must be forced by the law to provide funding for abortion-causing medications, suppressing the religious freedom and conscience of its owners.
Tomorrow, another issue will arise in the war for the soul of our culture. But here’s what I know. Regardless of the outcomes of these and other controversies, I will still carry a Bible in which I completely trust. I believe it to be timeless truth as a whole and in all of its parts. Therefore, I have an absolute truth that guides my moral decision-making and my sense of what is right and true. I have the promise of a Redeemer who gave His life for me and rose again. And I rest completely assured that He will return someday and truth and justice will reign forever.
Think me crazy. Call me simple. I’m okay with that. Because at the end of the day, I don’t have to be right. But God is. And I choose to trust Him.
Baptists sometimes miss out on great ancient resources found in some great theologians and leaders of the past who probably impacted our theology as much or more than the Reformers, but the Reformers get all the kudos.
Take, for example, Balthasar Hubmaier, an early anabaptist leader. (It’s not capitalized because the word “anabaptist” was never a particular sect or denomination, but rather a term loosely applied to those who “re-baptized” those who had already been baptized as infants. They were also called “radical reformers” and many lived and died martyr’s deaths before Luther and Calvin walked the earth. But I digress…)
Hubmaier was heavily influenced by Erasmus and other Swiss leaders early on, but soon found plenty of platforms upon which to debate, particularly on the issue of believer’s baptism. Hubmaier had the gaul to assert that people should be baptized as responsible adults who were making the decision to follow Christ on their own, and that such baptism should be by immersion, and further that such baptism accomplished no particular saving work but was rather an act of obedience to Christ. In Hubmaier’s own words…
Baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is when a man first confesses his sins, and pleads guilty; then believes in the forgiveness of his sins through Jesus Christ, and turns to live according to the rule of Christ, by the grace and strength given him from God the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. The he professes this publicly, in the eyes of men, by the outward baptism of water. He is then truly baptized, even if the baptizer did not speak these words over him.
via Hubmaier “The Christian Baptism of Believers.” In The Writings of Balthasar Hubmaier, by Davidson, 128.
What really catches my attention most in Hubmaier’s writings is his assertion that religious heretics probably shouldn’t be burned at the stake, be-headed, thrown in the stocks, or otherwise tortured, maimed or killed by the church, or by the state, or by the church-run state, or state-run church (it all gets so convoluted since Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and many other “reformers” who left Catholicism continued to rely on state powers for the prosecution of heretics).
And on the issue of sola scriptura, Hubmaier again pushed a crazy agenda – that the Bible alone should be the authority in regards to God’s pattern for the church and for the individual believer’s life. He often used nothing but Scripture in his debates with leaders who relied as much on the writings of church leaders and fathers as they did on the inspired testaments.
Hubmaier was a pacifist, but not entirely so. Though he opposed war, he did recognize the allowance that Scripture made for military defense, but clarified that this power rested in government alone and never in the church, and further that military might should never be a means of imperialism, even in the name of “converting the heathen to Christianity.”
Hubmaier wasn’t perfect in his theology by any means, ever-clinging to his belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary and a few other odd details, but on the whole, he looked like a modern-day Baptist.
His death was, like so many others, a sad testament to a portion of Christian history that we may as well be brutally honest about. He was killed by Christian leaders in Austria because of his beliefs about baptism and because he baptized Zwinglian adults who converted to his teachings. Yep. Jesus is perfect, but His bride can have a nasty side. As Patheos bloggers Fred Sanders writes,
Balthasar Hubmaier (born around 1480) was martyred on March 10, 1528. Hubmaier was trained in Roman Catholic theology on the eve of the Reformation, earning a doctorate with the Johann Eck who would later be on the front line of attacking Luther. He became convinced of Protestant doctrines and allied himself with the Zwinglians at Zurich. As he continued his studies, he became convinced that water baptism is for adult believers, not babies.
It’s hard to remember how radical this view, believer’s baptism, was considered to be back in the sixteenth century. If you became “baptist,” you were considered not just doctrinally wrong or unpopular, but a positive danger to the foundations of civic order in Christendom: an enemy of the state. The Roman Catholic church and the Protestant churches agreed that you should repent or die; the best you could hope for was exile from established civilization. Hubmaier himself had the distinction of being imprisoned and tortured in Zwingli’s Zurich as well as in Catholic Vienna.
When placed on trial, Hubmaier prepared a careful statement that emphasized the common beliefs held by all Christians. But he was burned at the stake for the handful of points that deviated from the consensus of the day.
So many of my Baptist friends claim that our traditions must be rooted in the Reformation or else we have no roots at all. To this I would say, first of all, that what matters most is our doctrinal, practical, and missional alignment with the church as it is found in the New Testament, even if nineteen hundred hears of total heresy had to be skipped. But I would also say, read up on the radical reformers and the anabaptists of six hundred-ish years ago and I think you’ll find some fathers with whom you identify well.
As it stands in the present, in 2013, the church has spoken about whom she hails as a hero. Unequivocal proof is found on Facebook, of course, by looking at the “likes.” At present, it’s:
A casual observer of the modern church planting movement might conclude that we have a generation of leaders who are aggressively launching churches in the same way serial entrepreneurs start new businesses. With the right model, enough talent, and piles of cash, we can build a show sure to attract enough attenders to reach critical mass so that a large church is produced. But underlying any church planting movement blessed by a sovereign Creator must be a theology of the church rooted in an ever-deepening understanding of the Scriptures.
I’m a church planter because God has called me to be so, but it is my ecclesiology (my beliefs about the biblical nature of the church) that frames my vision and values. As time passes, I’m more and more convinced that in addition to a great prospectus, a leadership profile, and a thorough interview process, potential church planting candidates ought to also be able to articulate and defend their viewpoint on the definition and mission of the New Testament church. While studying various methodologies can answer the how? of church planting, it is our ecclesiology that answers the why?.
As of this writing, I’ve preached the first message in a new series of foundational studies for Grace Hills Church called Church On the Move. I’ve already had to face the difficult task of determining what not to teach as I race through the first eight chapters of the book of Acts. The Old Testament prepares the stage for the church. Jesus prepared people to lead it. The epistles flesh out the finer details of the church’s structure. But it is the book of Acts that records the story of the church’s initial expansion in the world.
From the whole of Scripture, but especially the portions of the New Testament that give special attention to the formation of the early church, I’ve come to some solid and somewhat unique conclusions about the church, as Jesus intended us to understand it. I’ve believed these things for quite some time, and while I was preparing our church’s bylaws, planting timeline, and missional strategy, I was filtering my methodology through this list of conclusions. For example…
Jesus Founded the Church
Evangelicalism takes for granted that the church was “born” on the day of Pentecost, but I think that position sells short the church planting work of Jesus, whom the New Testament declares plainly to be the Head of the church. Jesus called the apostles to follow Him and become fishers of men. He commended their baptism and instituted the Lord’s Supper with them. And He declared that He would build His church (Matthew 16:18).
The Church Is a Local, Visible Assembly of God’s Kingdom People
Hyper-dispensationalists will pick on this point, but I embrace a very simple understanding of the phrase “kingdom of God.” God’s kingdom is that realm over which He has given oversight to His Son, and it includes all who submit to Him as their ultimate authority. It includes people from every walk of life and many denominational backgrounds. But it is the church that He has chosen to bring about the kingdom’s expansion during this present age.
The New Testament gives very little, if any, attention to the concept of an “invisible” or “universal” church. Well over 100 times, the New Testament refers to the church in the context of a local, visible assembly of baptized believers. A church can have Pastors and Elders, organize itself for the spreading of the gospel, and gather together regularly for worship, all of which would be impractical, if not impossible, for a universal, invisible church.
All believers, regardless of affiliation or church membership, are fellow members of God’s family and fellow subjects of His Kingdom. But the church that carries out the work of missions is a local body, or the local body as an institution, representing all local bodies collectively.
The Church Has Been Commissioned and Empowered
Some variation of what we call “the great commission” can be found in each of the four gospels and the book of Acts. But it is in Acts that we see the context of its giving and the immediately following event of Pentecost. Jesus made it clear that the apostles were to be His witnesses in every part of the world, but they were also to wait for the promise of the Father – the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Scholars and teachers have debated hotly in the last century the meaning of the baptism of (or with) the Holy Spirit. Some seek a second experience of God’s grace beyond salvation. Others conclude that this baptism of the Holy Spirit occurs at the moment of salvation. My assessment of this issue is that the baptism with the Holy Spirit of which Jesus spoke in the first chapter of Acts was fulfilled days later, when Pentecost came.
I don’t seek a repeat of Pentecost today. Nor do I seek a separate experience of the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Instead, I simply want to join the story that began nearly two thousand years ago when God poured out His Spirit on the church once and for all for this present age. Peter quoted Joel, who predicted that in this era, which he referred to as the “last days,” God would pour out His Spirit, and the events that unfold in Acts chapter two detail the fulfillment of his words.
He empowered the church that day, and that empowerment is still available for all who will join God in His redemptive purpose through the church.
True New Testament Churches Have Existed Since Jesus
Even in the darkest ages of what the world has called Christianity, in secret meeting houses and underground movements, there have always been churches that have held true to a New Testament ecclesiology. The Protestant Reformation was vital to church history, but not as the re-birth of a lost church. The Reformation merely accelerated and made public the beliefs and practices of Christians who had been reflecting a biblical theology under secrecy and persecution.
When I was a student at Western Kentucky University, I completed a research paper on the Waldensians, an underground group tucked away in the Swiss Alps for five centuries, unbeknownst to most of Christendom, but all the while honoring the pre-Reformation principles of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone. They promoted social justice centuries before it became cool to do so. And they are one of many similar groups that have carried the torch through the corridor of the church age.
The Church Will Last Until Jesus Comes
Don’t misunderstand. Your church and my church are never guaranteed perpetual survival. In fact, I would venture to say that countless millions of dollars in kingdom assets are currently tied up in dilapidated and unused structures belonging to congregations that should have given themselves a proper burial decades ago when they stopped caring about the lost and broken. No particular church is guaranteed eternal survival, as is evidenced in the churches mentioned by John in the Revelation, which for all intents and purposes have ceased to exist long ago.
But the church, as God’s ordained institution for kingdom expansion, will continue its life and ministry until He returns. After all, Jesus Himself declared that the very gates of hell should not prevail against it.
The Church Must Be Both Faithful and Fruitful
It is not biblical doctrine alone that serves as the criteria for true New Testament churchhood. It is also our practice. Charlton Heston was well known for saying of his old rifle, “you can pry this from my cold dead hands.” Plenty of churches can say the same about their doctrinal teachings. There is no life, no love, and no vitality in them, but they continue to shout the truth. But Jesus’ intention was that the church would be faithful to truth, and fruitful in its mission.
So the church, while holding dearly to biblical truth, must also be spiritually healthy and missionally vital to the surrounding culture. And a church that is all of these things will show itself mature when it has reproduced another local body of believers. Multiplication is not merely a growth strategy or modern buzz word. It is the biblical goal of the church Jesus founded.
You may not agree with all that I have written, but do take my challenge seriously. Before you plant or lead a congregation, define your own ecclesiology well, and let it drive you toward the fulfillment of God’s purposes. It is our theology that determines our motives and our methodology that determines our outcomes. Don’t embrace one to the neglect of the other.
Don’t read any of this as dry theological banter. Instead hear my heart: Jesus started, commissioned, and empowered the living organism of the local, New Testament Church as the sole custodian of His Kingdom work in this world, and we are guaranteed by a sovereign God to be successful!
What ecclesiological truths fuel your passion for this crazy thing called “church?”
Rick Warren said, “If you read only one book this year, make it this one. It’s that important.” The gospel is a message that never loses its relevancy and always needs retelling. I found Matt Chandler’s The Explicit Gospel to be an awesome retelling of it.
Chandler’s explanation of the gospel is ultra-clear, and while I detect that hint of his Reformed leanings (to which he alludes a time or two), his book avoids extremes, stays between the theological rails, and at least once even seems to rebuke calvinists for making the TULIP the central issue of the gospel. (To be fair, he rebukes anyone who makes anything other than the biblical gospel central to the gospel.)
The first four chapters of the book could stand alone as a great summary of the most essential truths ever articulated. I love this for several reasons.
First, we need to realize that there is nothing “deeper” than the gospel. The gospel – the good news of God’s holiness, wrath, and love in giving Jesus as our substitute and raising Him again so that all who repent and believe in Him will have their sins forgiven – is the essence and entirety of our faith. It is both the introduction, the body, and the conclusion of the Christian faith.
Second, I love Chandler’s example to Pastors. Augustine, Spurgeon, Criswell, Piper, Stott, and so many other voices of influence in the history of Christianity were what we might call pastor-theologians. Many of the greatest had little formal religious education, yet they were willing to study hard and articulate theology from the viewpoint of a practitioner who shepherds people living through real circumstances. I applaud Chandler for writing the book, and I hope to see many other Pastors with the courage to enter the arena of writing theologically.
In the second part of the book, Matt takes the church to task – not in a way that is condemnatory or condescending, but rather as a passionate plea to return to the biblical gospel. He writes…
The moralism that passes for Christian faith today is a devastating hobby id you have no intention of submitting your life fully to God and chasing Him in Christ. (p. 70)
… Rick Warren was onto something when he opened his best-selling book with “It’s not about you” and subtitled it What On Earth Am I Here For? (p. 106)
His book serves as a stern warning against our wanderings and our extremes. Any deviation of the church from the gospel once delivered to the saints is dangerous no matter how “good” it may seem for other reasons.
Though it occupies just one chapter, I also love Chandler’s treatment of eschatology, which he refers to as “consummation,” keeping it in line with the centrality of the gospel’s power to make all things new. I’ve felt his tension of hoping to avoid the subject of the end times because so many have treated and represented this area of theology so poorly and too dogmatically. But I love how he brings it all back around to the eternal enjoyment of the results of the gospel. Redemption is forever.
My biggest personal takeaway is the need to avoid reducing the Christian faith to mere moralism. It’s a trap that I’ve fallen into in the past in my life and leadership, and I want to be careful stay focused on Jesus instead. Hear Chandler’s excellent explanation…
“The person who understands the gospel understands that, as a new creation, his spiritual nature is in opposition to sin now, and he seeks not just to weaken sin in his life, but to outright destroy it. Out of love for Jesus, he wants sin starved to death, and he will hunt and pursue the death of every sin in his heart until he has achieved success. This is a very different pursuit than simply wanting to be good. It is the result of having transferred one’s affections to Jesus.”
The gospel is not about doing better. It is about Jesus, and the change that happens in us when we fully surrender to Him in repentance and faith. Our doctrine determines our direction, and soaking in the goodness of the gospel will do more to change our direction than a hundred practical tips for better behavior.
Pastor Rick Warren has often said that “you never win your enemies to Christ, only your friends.” And he’s gone far past the limits most believers are willing to broach in order to form friendships and love a world in need of Jesus. Because of this, he’s often the target of unfair criticism and unfounded rumors. If you’ve longed for Pastor Rick to clear the air with boldness and clarity, keep reading.
Along with another article I wrote about how Rick is a bridge-builder, this article answers the questions you might be asking. It’s the transcript of an interview between Rick, the Christian Post, and myself. Read on…
God is love. We hear that statement but because it has become so cliche, we fail to feel the full weight of it. We, in our unloving and often unloveable finite human minds will never fully comprehend it. And to emulate that which we cannot comprehend is extremely difficult. If only we had a through, biblical description of this word love… Oh wait!
Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, and is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.
If I want to be love in the way that God is love, it will take more than words. It will require that I…
not be jealous
not be boastful
not be proud
not be rude
not demand my own way
not be irritable
keep no record of being wronged
refuse to rejoice in injustice
rejoice when the truth wins out
never give up
never lose faith
always be hopeful
endure through every circumstance
We really couldn’t ask for a more perfect list. Each of those phrases, rightly understood, describes the character of God. (Even though God is called jealous, He is jealous in a righteous way about requiring exclusive devotion to Himself, not in the envious way in which we are often jealous.)
If you want a practical way of determining if you’re really loving God and others, try putting your name in front of each of those phrases. Then do two things:
Challenge yourself to grow in love so that these phrases describe you.
Thank God that while none of us measure up to this list, His love compelled Him to provide a Savior for us.
“Preaching it” is easier than living it. This creates significant problems when our speaking talent outweighs our personal character. Therefore, it is imperative that we, as shepherds, shepherd ourselves – that we hear the Word, do the Word, and preach to ourselves first. That’s why I love Joe Thorn’s book Note to Self: The Discipline of Preaching to Yourself (Re: Lit Books).
We often buy books to help us prepare sermons. You should buy this book to help prepare yourself. The book is divided into three sections, all revolving around the gospel. The first section leads our hearts to assume a posture of praise. The second teaches us how the gospel impacts our relationships with other people. The third reminds us of the impact the gospel should have on self. Here’s a line we need to hear concerning our wives…
You should seek to be the brightest representation of Jesus she sees, as you represent Christ as Savior and servant to her. That would look like seeking her out when you get home from work, instead of seeking solace for yourself. It means affirming her calling and gifts, listening to her, speaking words of encouragement to her, and at all times working for her good. Jesus loves you this way, and in like manner you are called to love your wife.
The gospel is not simply a salvation message intended for people who are lost and apart from Christ. The gospel is the central core of all that we are in Christ and all that we do for Christ. Believers need to be fed from the message of the gospel, and this book drives it home in the hearts of those of us who are most at risk for taking the gospel for granted – preachers.