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Things to remember from Timothy Keller’s book Center Church

1. “Moralistic behavior change bends a person into a different pattern through fear of consequences rather than melting a person into a new shape. But this does not work. If you try to bend a piece of metal without the softening effect of heat, it is likely to snap back to its former position. This is why we see people try to change through moralistic behaviorism find themselves repeatedly lapsing into sin… But the gospel of God’s grace doesn’t try to bend a heart into a new pattern; it melts it and re-forms it into a new shape. The gospel can produce a new joy, love, and gratitude—new inclinations of the heart that eat away at deadly self-regard and self-concentration” (Timothy Keller, Center Church [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012], p. 67).
 
2. “It is quite easy to assume that if we understand the gospel accurately and preach it faithfully, our ministry will necessarily be shaped by it—but this is not true. Many churches subscribe to gospel doctrines but do not have a ministry that is shaped by, centered on, and empowered through the gospel. Its implications have not yet worked their way into the fabric of how the church actually does ministry” (Timothy Keller, Center Church, p. 28).

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Do the Work of an Evangelist

Timothy is exhorted by Paul to “do the work of an evangelist.” And work it is, as Paul knew well. The Scripture uses the imagery of sowing seed and reaping a harvest. The picture given in Scripture is not surprisingly an accurate one, and a labor-intensive one.

Sowing seed takes lots of work and lots of time. Further, we are never guaranteed a harvest. The Spirit blows where it wills (Jn. 3:8), though He does use means. We must be faithful to sow and cultivate all the while remembering that God brings the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). We must labor on even when there is no sign of life. We can rest assured that the gospel is the power to salvation and if we are faithful to sow gospel seed a harvest should come. We must always remember that the seed we sow, the only one that can bring new life, is “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23). In the book of Acts, we see that the Word, when “planted,” continued to increase and prevail mightily. It is only when the word of truth, the gospel, is proclaimed that there is fruit and growth (cf. Col. 1:5-6).

We would do well to remember many of the prophets’ experience and realize sometimes the seasons are long and at times we may see droughts. In these seasons, when there seems to be no life, we must remind ourselves that God’s Word will not return to Him void but it shall accomplish its purpose (Is. 55:10-11). Though, sometimes God uses His Word to harden (cf. Is. 6:9-10; Matt. 13;14-15; Acts 28:26-27) we must continue to be faithful to go to the highways and byways and compel people to come to Him (Lk. 14:23).

We have a difficult task, ye impossible. Hear Spurgeon in The Soul Winner:

“We are sent to say to blind eyes, ‘See,’ To deaf ears, ‘Hear,’ to dead hearts, ‘Live,’ and even to Lazarus rotting in that grave, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ (John 11:43). Dare we do this? We will be wise to begin with the conviction that we are utterly powerless for this unless our Master has sent us and is with us. But if He who sent us is with us, ‘all things are possible to him that believeth’ (Mark 9:23).”[1]

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[1] C.H. Spurgeon, The Soul Winner (New Kingston, PA: Whitaker House, 1995), 157.        

Is Numerical Church Growth a Biblical Mandate?

Churches don’t necessarily have the mandate to grow but they do have a mandate to deploy all their resources to advance the message of the good news of Jesus Christ. Churches must utilize all that God has given them to make disciples, it’s why they exist. It’s a matter of stewardship. 

Churches are not unfaithful if the chairs are not filled but they are unfaithful if those who fill the chairs are not working at telling the broken world about Jesus in word and deed. So what churches must evaluate is not merely if they are reaching the lost community around them but if they are even intentionally thinking in that way. Jesus came to seek and to save the lost and He has called us to carry out His mission of making disciples. 

Winston Churchhill used to give out commands labeled “Action This Day.” These tasks were to be done with urgency and intentionality. How much more our Lord’s command?! It is labeled “Action This Day!” It is high priority.

So, is numerical church growth a biblical mandate? Not exactly. After all, it’s the Spirit who gives life. Yet, intentional discipleship and ministry of the Word very often leads to numerical church growth. So, we must work to intentionally love and reach people with the good news of Jesus but not merely for numerical church growth. 

The question churches must ask is not simply “how can we grow this church?” but “how can we best deploy all our resources for the furtherance of the gospel and the growth of God’s Kingdom?”[1] So, as we strategize about our church we must not forget about the Church

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[1] I have found Jeff Christopherson’s book Kingdom First: Starting Churches that Shape Movements very helpful on this subject. 

10 Quotes from Greg Gilbert’s book *What is the Gospel?*

  1. “An emaciated gospel leads to emaciated worship. It lowers our eyes from God to self and cheapens what God has accomplished for us in Christ. The biblical gospel, by contrast, is like fuel in the furnace of worship. The more you understand about it, believe it, and rely on it, the more you adore God both for who he is and for what he has done for us in Christ” (Greg Gilbert, What is the Gospel, p. 21).
  2. “That I have rebelled against the holy and judging God who made me is not a happy thought. But it is an important one, because it paves the way for the good news” (30).
  3. “Nobody wants a God who declines to deal with evil. They just want a God who declines to deal with their evil” (44).
  4. “Since the very beginning of time, people have been trying to save themselves in ways that make sense to them, rather than listening and submitting to God” (102).
  5. “If we say merely that God is redeeming a people and remaking the world, but do not say how he is doing so (through the death and resurrection of Jesus) and how a person can be included in that redemption (through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus), then we have not proclaimed the good news. We have simply told the narrative of the Bible in broad outline” (107).
  6. “The message of the cross is going to sound like nonsense to the people around us. It’s going to make us Christians sound like fools, and it most certainly is going to undermine our attempts to ‘relate’ to non-Christians and prove to them that we’re just as cool and harmless as the next guy. Christians can always get the world to think they are cool—right up to the moment they start talking about being saved by a crucified man. And that’s where coolness evaporates, no matter how carefully you’ve cultivated it” (110).
  7. “Sins don’t shock us much. We know they are there, we see them in ourselves and others every day, and we’ve gotten pretty used to them. What is shocking to us is when God shows us the sin that runs to the very depths of our hearts, the deep-running deposits of filth and corruption that we never knew existed in us and that we ourselves could never expunge. That’s how the Bible talks about the depth and darkness of our sin—it is in us and of us, not just on us” (54).
  8. “It is only when we realize that our very nature is sinful—that we are indeed ‘dead in our trespasses and sins,’ as Paul says (Eph. 2:1, 5)—that we see just how good the news is that there is a way to be saved” (55).
  9. “Faith and repentance. That is what marks out those who are Christ’s people, or ‘Christians.’ In other words, a Christian is one who turns away from his sin and trusts in the Lord Jesus Christ—and nothing else—to save him from sin and the coming judgment” (73).
  10. “If you are a Christian, then the cross of Jesus stands like a mountain of granite across your life, immovably testifying to God’s love for you and his determination to bring you safely into his presence” (117).

The Missional Mandate for Christians

As followers of Jesus, Christians have a missional[1] mandate (Matt. 28:18-20). Christians are pupils and apprentices. We follow Jesus and we do as He did. We give our lives away in love and we tell people about the good news of Jesus. To be a disciple is to be missional. We are not true disciples if we are not missional.

We lovingly engage with the people around us. We do not shut ourselves off in “God ghettos,” we do not create Christian castles. Jesus said that we are to be lights in a dark world (Matt. 5:15). Paul said we are not to leave the world (1 Cor. 5:9-11) but be messengers of the King in the world (2 Cor. 5:20).

So, we as followers of Jesus…

Leave the “bubble”

We remove excess emphasis on Christian bubble activities and programs and instead spend time relationally engaging together with peers, neighbors, and coworkers. We are intentionally in the world. Jesus intentionally went to the world, He left heaven. He incarnated Himself (Matt. 1:22-23; Jn. 1:14; Phil. 2:7).

We follow our King and we enter the world in love (Matt. 5:13-16; Eph. 5:8; Phil. 2:15; 1 Pet. 2:12 cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-10; Jn. 17:15-16).

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Insights from Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret

I really enjoyed reading Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret. You should read it. Here are some observations from my reading…  

Summary of the book: Trust. Trust and unreserved commitment to the Lord is how I would summarize Hudson Taylor and this book. Before he went to China he said: “‘I shall have no claim on anyone for anything. My only claim will be on God. How important to learn, before leaving England, to move man, through God, by prayer alone'” (33). And that’s what we see happen. He learned to trust God alone. He trusted God even with his children. He said, “‘I find it impossible to think that our heavenly Father is less tender and mindful of His children than I, a poor earthly father, am of mine. No, He will not forget us!'” (125). And in dark days, God enabled[1] Taylor to say: “The battle is the Lord’s, and He will conquer. We may fail—do fail continually—but He never fails” (p. 154).

Insights from the book:

  1. The impact that one person can have is tremendous when they trust the Lord and have an unreserved commitment to do His will (cite the number of believers in China now, p. 12).
  2. “We want, we need, we may have, Hudson Taylor’s secret and his success, for we have Hudson Taylor’s Bible and his God” (p. 16). That is such a good reminder. The same God that brought Israel out of Egypt, rose Jesus from the dead, and provided for Hudson Taylor is the same God who is Lord of all now.
  3. Hudson Taylor wore Chinese clothes even though this was unprecedented and looked down upon by some (cf. e.g. p. 65). This is an important reminder that God and His Word must govern us, not the expectations of others.
  4. Hudson Taylor had “the Lord’s own yearning of heart over the lost and perishing” (19 cf. p. 32, 112). “We may have more wealth in these days, better education, greater comfort in traveling and in our surroundings even as missionaries, but have we the spirit of urgency, the deep, inward convictions that moved those that went before us; have we the same passion of love, personal love for the Lord Christ? If these are lacking, it is a loss for which nothing can compensate” (p. 127). This reminds me that I need (God help me!) to develop at heart for the lost and love and passion for the Lord Jesus Christ who is their only hope.
  5. “It was not easy to keep first things first and make time for prayer. Yet without this there cannot but be failure and unrest” (p. 22). Prayer and delighting myself in God is vital.
  6. “The One Great Circumstance of Life, and of all lesser, external circumstances as necessarily the kindest, wisest, best, because either ordered or permitted by Him” (p. 79). I need to have a bigger view of God. This is vital in part because “The secret of faith that is ready for emergencies is the quiet, practical dependence upon God day by day which makes Him real to the believing heart” (p. 100).
  7. “’My father sought the Truth,’ he continued sadly, ‘and died without finding it. Oh, why did you not come sooner?’” (p. 95). This quote reminds me of the absolute importance of heralds going to share the good news of Jesus.
  8. “In these days of easy-going Christianity, is it not well to remind ourselves that it really does cost to be a man or woman whom God can use? One cannot obtain a Christlike work save at great price” (p. 27). This quote—and Hudson Taylor’s life—reminds me and reinvigorates me to seek hard after the Lord.
  9. “How then to have our faith increased? Only by thinking of all that Jesus is and all He is for us: His life, His death, His work, He Himself as revealed to us in the Word, to be the subject of our constant thoughts. Not a striving to have faith… but a looking off to the Faithful One seems all we need; a resting in the Loved One entirely, for time and for eternity” (p. 158). This quote answers a very important question. How to have more faith? Meditate on Jesus!
  10. “If God should place me in a serious perplexity, must He not give me much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me” (p. 165). This is a good reminder that whatever I face, God will be there with me as my ever-present, every-ready, and all-powerful help.

Personal application:

  1. I need to trust the God who is simultaneously the Lord of the universe and my Father.
  2. I need to faithfully pray in reliance and desperation to the One who is Lord and Father.
  3. I need to renew my commitment to spend and be spent for the Lord. I need to renew my commitment to discipline myself for the sake of godliness.
  4. I need to meditate more on Jesus (His person and work).
  5. I need to trust that God can use one poor and needy sinner such as I to accomplish great things for His glory.
  6. I need to develop more of a heart for those who are without hope and without God in the world.
  7. I need to keep first things first and seek God above all things—even good, healthy, and productive things.
  8. I need to remember that whatever challenges are in front of me God’s grace is sufficient. God is all-powerful and He is with me. He is my Father!

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[1] Taylor says, “I was enabled by His grace to trust in Him, He has always appeared for my help” (p. 153).

God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility to Evangelize

Introduction

How should we understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty and our responsibility to evangelize? J.I. Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, is a helpful book for those considering this important question.

God’s Sovereignty and our Responsibility

Packer gives various examples of the sovereignty of God. He points out that just by praying to God we acknowledge His sovereignty.[1] Packer points out that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are taught side by side in Scripture.[2] And “far from making evangelism pointless, the sovereignty of God in grace is the one thing that prevents evangelism from being pointless. For it creates the possibility—indeed, the certainty—that evangelism will be fruitful.”[3]

God’s sovereignty is a great means of encouragement to us in our evangelism. Packer helpfully says that in our evangelism we

have every reason to be bold, and free, and natural, and hopeful of success. For God can give His truth an effectiveness that you and I cannot give it. God can make His truth triumphant to the conversion of the most seemingly hardened unbeliever. You and I will never write off anyone as hopeless and beyond the reach of God if we believe in the sovereignty of His grace.[4]

So, we are responsible for sharing the gospel but God is sovereign. A proper understanding of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility is important and practical. It is important for us to realize, as Packer says, that “it is God who brings men and women under the sound of the gospel, and it is God who brings them to faith in Christ. Our evangelistic work is the instrument that He uses for this purpose, but the power that saves is not in the instrument: It is in the hand of the One who uses the instrument.”[5] So, “the belief that God is sovereign in grace does not affect the necessity of evangelism.”[6] Will Metzger, in agreement with Packer says, “We should not consider… sovereignty and responsibility as enemies but rather see them the way the Bible does—as friends!”[7] So, God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility may seem at odds but they are really not, although we may not understand.[8] We must remember that the secret things belong to the LORD but the things that have been revealed belong to us that we may do what God has called us to do (see Deut. 29:29).

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