THE GOSPEL GRACE OF WELCOMING (2)

How Embracing Others with Differences of Conscience Protects Church Unity

In my last post, I introduced this subject of dealing redemptively with so-called gray areas in the church.

Business handshake and business people

In this post I want to continue the discussion by unpacking the gist of the gospel grace of welcoming that helps preserve unity in this challenging area of church life.

The gist of welcoming is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters. Paul speaks in Romans of two different categories of believers.

In 14:1 he refers to those weak in faith. In Rom. 15:1 he talks of we who are strong. Notice he counts himself among the strong by using the 1st person plural we.  What does he mean?

He gets very concrete in 14:2 – One person believes he may eat anything (the strong), while the weak person eats only vegetables. Over the issue of food, these believers fought, probably not from a nutritional perspective but from a religious one.

The vegetarians probably worried that eating meat might make them guilty of idolatry, if that meat came from offerings to idols (see 1 Cor. 8 for similar concerns in that fellowship).

The meat eaters lost no sleep over that so-called problem at all.

In verses 5ff Paul introduces another area of controversy plaguing the church – One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.

In both matters of eating and day keeping, he categorizes the opposing positions in terms of strong and weak. By strong, including himself, he means the spiritually mature, fully able to enjoy their Christian liberty, completely emancipated from un-Christian inhibitions and taboos.

By weak, he means the spiritually immature, not yet fully liberated by the gospel and its call to freedom (Gal. 5:13), but rather constrained in their conscience not to do certain things for fear of displeasing God.

Jim Boice used this example of strong vs. weak:

Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of his age, but he was frequently criticized for being funny. When one woman objected to the humor he inserted into his sermons Spurgeon told her, “Madam, you would think a great deal better of me if you knew the funny things I kept out.” A young man asked what he should do about a box of cigars he had been given. Spurgeon solved his problem. “Give them to me,” he said, “and I will smoke them to the glory of God.” On another occasion Spurgeon was criticized for traveling to meetings in a first class railway carriage. His antagonist said, “Mr. Spurgeon, what are you doing up here? I am riding back there in the third class carriage taking care of the Lord’s money.” Spurgeon replied, “And I am up here in the first class carriage taking care of the Lord’s servant.”

Both sides, strong and weak, judged one another. Consider Rom. 14:3. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.

The Greek word for despise is a strong word. It means to consider as nothing, to treat with contempt. The strong who ate judged the weak who didn’t as legalists; the weak who abstained judged the strong who didn’t as libertines.

That built walls between them in the community. That created chasms in their fellowship. And to that Paul strongly objected giving this command: welcome one another.

The word is proslambano – literally, take to oneself. It means accept or receive. I like the word embrace. Perhaps one of the best concrete biblical examples we have of the spirit behind the word comes from Acts 28:2 – The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.

To welcome is to draw someone into your fellowship and companionship, to treat them gently and kindly, irrespective of their views on morally neutral issues – and not, by the way, for the purpose of disputing about those things according to v. 1 – welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.

Forget that! Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). Mine is not to change my brother’s mind; mine is to embrace my brother, strong or weak, eating or not, drinking or not, smoking or not, movie and theater going or not, and a host of other doubtful things, principles of conscience, for which the Scripture colors no black and white.

So the gist of welcoming as a grace of gospel-shaped community is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters.

 

The Grace of Welcoming

Today’s message in the Graces of Gospel-Shaped Community series is now on the web. You can listen to the audio for Romans 14:1-15:7, The Grace of Welcoming, here.

Here is how I summarized the message:

The gospel shapes our community by constraining us to manifest the grace of welcoming – an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters. The ground for this grace is two-fold: the gospel of God who has “welcomed” us in Christ and the judgment of God before which every believer ultimately stands or falls. The goal of this grace is the glory of God reflected in the harmony and unity of His church.

For the full text of the Max Lucado piece, Life Aboard the Fellow-Ship, with which I closed the message, click here.

The Grace of Serving (Part 1)

Today’s message from Galatians 5:1-15 is now on the web. You can listen to the audio here.

I articulated the main theme of the text this way:

So here is my main take away from this text in terms of what it means through love serve one another. Beware turning liberty in Christ into license to sin by serving others through love by practicing biblical peacemaking. Love one another well through a devoted bondslave-like service in so-far-as-it-depends-on-you-live-peaceably-with-all (Rom. 12:18), God-glorifying, Christ-imitating, biblically-informed conflict resolution at every turn.

As promised, here is the link for the September 22-25, here in Orlando, Peacemaker Ministries National Conference, with the theme of Hope in Brokenness.

The Cross Centered Life

Lately the Lord has seen fit to slap me around a bit about my lack of attention to the gospel as the main thing in my ministry. Believe me, not even someone as thick-headed as me could miss the many messages from on high.

As a consequence I’ve made it my mission the last couple of months to get my hands on as many reading materials as possible to help recalibrate my pastoral trajectory.

Someone lent me C. J. Mahaney’s little jewel The Cross Centered Life: Keeping the Gospel the Main Thing to take on our recent trip to Idaho. Nancy and I read through it for our family worship devotions.

The founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries explains his purpose this way: to restate the obvious, yet oft-neglected, truth of the gospel, to bring it before you one more time (p. 16). Actually he means to bring the reader to the gospel one more time with a view to keeping it everlastingly at the forefront for all time! Mahaney doesn’t say a lot in terms of volume (it’s only 89 pages, small pages at that) but he says an awful lot in those pages just the same.

Candidates for reading included those who often lack joy, aren’t consistently growing in spiritual maturity, their love lacks passion for God, and are always looking for some new technique, some “new truth” or new experience that will pull all the pieces of their faith together.

He tempts the reader right out of the chute with these enticements about learning to live the cross centered life:

  • breaking free from joy-robbing, legalistic thinking and living
  • leaving behind the crippling effects of guilt and condemnation
  • stopping basing your faith on your emotions and circumstances
  • growing in gratefulness, joy, and holiness

Particularly helpful was his chapter entitled The Cross Centered Day – Practical Ways to Center Every Day around the Cross. He calls these ways to preach the gospel to yourself on a daily basis. They include

  • memorizing the gospel
  • praying the gospel
  • singing the gospel
  • reviewing how the gospel has changed your life
  • studying the gospel

Pick up a copy for your own library, read it, and you may end of feeling like Martin Luther who said, I feel as if Jesus had died only yesterday.

No Sixth Sola Banner Period

I nearly drove off the road with excitement the other night as I headed home from the office and saw the steel begin to go up on the property. We really might get to do this building!

The closer we get the more decisions we need to make. Recently someone from the interior design team sat me down over lunch and asked me what I as pastor-teacher envision this place looking like. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about it. But one thing I imagined came to mind quite quickly. I would love for us to hang banners from the sanctuary ceiling naming the five solas of the Reformation – scriptura, Christus, fide, gratia, and deo gloria – Scripture alone, Christ alone, faith alone, grace alone, and to the glory of God alone. These things put the grace in the “G” of OGC.

But I can assure you that a sixth additional banner must never fly from our rafters – sola bootstrapsa. I ran across that term not long ago in reading Bryan Chapell’s excellent book Christ-Centered Preaching – Redeeming the Expository Sermon. He explains:

Messages that are not Christ-centered (i.e., not redemptively focused [pointing listeners to the gospel and the finished work of Christ on the cross as the ground of their sanctification]) inevitably become human-centered, even though the drift most frequently occurs unintentionally among evangelical preachers [tell me about it]. These preachers do not deliberately exclude Christ’s ministry from their own, but by consistently preaching messages on the order of “Five Steps to a Better Marriage,” “How to Make God Answer Your Prayer,” and “Achieving Holiness through the Power of Resolve,” they present godliness as a product of human endeavor. Although such preaching is intended for good, its exclusive focus on actuating or accessing divine blessing through human works carries the message, “It is the doing of these things that will get you right with God and/or your neighbor.” No message is more damaging to the true faith. By making human efforts alone the measure and the cause of godliness, evangelicals fall victim to the twin assaults of theological legalism and liberalism-which despite their perceived opposition are actually identical in making one’s relationship with God dependent on human goodness.

He goes on to answer a critical objection:

Preachers may protest, “But I assume my people understand they must base their efforts on faith and repentance.” Why should we assume listeners will understand what we rarely say, what the structure of our communication contradicts, and what their own nature denies? Can we not as preachers confess that ever we feel holier when our devotions last longer, when we parent well, when we pastor wisely, or when tears fall during our repentance? While there is certainly nothing wrong with any of these actions, we deny the basis of our faith when we begin to believe or act as though our actions, by their own merit, win God’s favor. Were this true, then instruction to “take hold of those bootstraps and pick yourself up so that God will love you more” would not be wrong. But sola bootstrapsa messages are wrong, and faithful preachers must not only avoid this error but also war against it (p. 288-89).

Let it be known and never questioned that OGC stands for the doctrines of grace and will always champion the solas of the Protestant Reformation. For that reason we will never hang a sixth sola banner, especially bootstrapsa, period, end of discussion.

That of course is the easy part. The hard part comes with keeping this preacher from avoiding the error, given his nature, and even warring against that error by a relentless proclaiming of the gospel of Jesus within every text of Scripture that serves as the basis of his sermons. You don’t have to hang a literal banner from the ceiling to communicate the same deadly message. It just takes a lethal case of gospel amnesia coming from the pulpit.

God forbid.

A Particularly Disturbing Question

ProdigalI have just finished reading Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Dutton, 2008, 138 pages).

In it he presents a treatment of the familiar story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. He is inclined to rename the parable The Two Lost Sons. He believes that Jesus takes aim in the story at both irreligious outsiders and moralistic insiders. Both, Keller claims, are lost and in need of salvation. Jesus, in particular, he argues, targets moralists in telling the story to show them their need for the gospel as much as the younger brother types who give themselves to profligate waste.

Early on Keller tips his hand where he is headed with all this by offering his answer to the question why people like Jesus but not the church.

Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsider Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think (p. 15-16).

When I first read that I put a question mark in the margin. I am not entirely sure I agree with the logic behind Keller’s argument. I’ve learned to do that over time rather than just take everything that comes down the pike from a respected author (and make no mistake, I highly respect him – I just purchased copies of his book The Reason for God for several members of my family for Christmas).

My question to his question is does the conclusion in the last sentence from that quote hold water? I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since. Is the church in corporate worship as an entity of God’s called out ones supposed to be inherently attractional to either kind of brother? It seems to me that rightly done the church gathered may be offensive to either crowd and only attractive to the gospel enthralled given its unique purposes.

I haven’t come near to the end of my reflections on this question but I wonder if we simply need to be more concerned with taking the gospel of our extravagantly gracious God “without” to the lost (that seems to me to be the thrust of the story in Luke 15 as far as Jesus’ aim is concerned) and “within” the church more consistently rebuke both the wayward and the legalistic who think they know Jesus but deny hin by their actions until they do come to grips with the heart of the Christian faith which is gazing upon the glory of the grace of Jesus.

What do you think?

By the way, I recommend the book. Definitely a worthwhile read.