Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Humiliation and Humility of Christ

Last Sunday I preached from Philippians 2:5-8 on the Humiliation of Christ. This passage never fails to shatter my pride and expose my selfishness. Here are some thoughts I shared with our congregation (and with my own soul) in seeking to answer the question of why Jesus would volunteer for such humiliation.

The second answer to this question of “why” is found in the immediate context of our passage. Paul is writing to encourage these believers to demonstrate humility to each other. He is trying to pry their hearts away from their own interests and get them to minister to each other and love each other with humble hearts. He is seeking to hit them with some truth which will shatter their pride and engender some humility.

So, what does he do? He presents before them the shocking example of Christ’s humility and says, “Do you see the attitude Jesus exhibited? Now, you go and think and act like Jesus did.”

Beloved, this text should absolutely shame our pride. Have you ever heard someone say, “That’s beneath me?” In our hearts don’t we do that? We think to ourselves, “it is beneath me to be patient with that person. After all, they are a few pay grades below me.” Or we say to ourselves, “I shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of treatment.” Or in our hearts we think, “I’m too important to socialize with them.” We are hard wired because of the fall to want others to serve us.

But the Bible commands us to have Jesus’ attitude. Was it beneath Him to leave the radiant glory of heaven and come to this sinful planet rife with the stench of sin? Was it beneath Him to endure opposition from sinners and be mocked and crucified by hateful, despicable people? Was it beneath Him to wash His disciples feet? Was it beneath Him to live among people He created and subject Himself to their vile treatment? Was it beneath the Creator of all the water on the earth to put Himself in a position to be thirsty? Was it beneath the Maker of all the wheat and grain in the earth to put Himself in a position be hungry for bread? Yes. It was beneath Him. It was so far beneath Him. But He did it. He volunteered to come here and die. Because of love, He did it. Now go and follow Jesus. Live your life with this kind of humility.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Evidence of a Crisis in Preaching

Someone well said that a mist in the pulpit will be a fog in the pew. USA Today published an article regarding commonly held viewpoints among religious people. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life released a report demonstrating the disconnect between popular viewpoints found in the pews and the official teaching of various religious groups. Consider these statistics:
  • 52% of Christians do not agree with the doctrines many religions teach, particularly conservative denominations.
  • 54% of people who attend weekly religious services believe there are multiple ways to heaven, including 37% of white evangelicals and a whopping 75% of mainline Protestants.
  • Of the 65% of people who held this open view of heaven's gates, 80% named at least one non-Christian group — Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists or people with no religion at all — who may also be saved.

In another article, Cathy Lynn Grossman led out with this assessment, "Religion today in the USA is a salad bar where people heap on upbeat beliefs they like and often leave the veggies — like strict doctrines — behind." Referring to an earlier study done by the Pew Forum, Grossman reports how people have a desire for some kind of spirituality, yet without the doctrinal precision of years gone by. People are depending more on their own personal experiences and tailoring their religious tastes to fit personal preferences.

How is it that adherents to a particular religious denomination would develop beliefs and practices so inconsistent with the theological convictions of their group? This is especially disconcerting for evangelicals which have historically championed the importance of biblical doctrine. Dr. Albert Mohler commented that these findings represent "a theological crisis for American evangelicals. They represent at best a misunderstanding of the Gospel and at worst a repudiation of the Gospel." Dr. Mohler went on to say that the survey results constitute "an indictment of evangelicalism and evangelical preaching."

As a pastor, myself and my pastoral colleagues often lament the deplorable spiritual condition and biblical illiteracy of the church today. The hard truth is that we don't have to look very hard to find the root of the problem. It is us. We have too often abandoned the clarity of the biblical message for something that goes down easier and attracts more people. We have equivocated and apologized for the gospel. We have softened doctrines like depravity, substitutionary atonement, and hell. We have forsaken the systematic teaching of the whole counsel of God for feel-good messages that have wide appeal but little biblical substance. I fear that we have allowed the culture to set the agenda for the pulpit instead of the pulpit confronting the culture with the gospel.

All is not lost. God blesses the preaching of His Word. Let us preachers return to declaring the truth of Scripture with passion and compassion. Let the gospel sound clearly from our pulpits and the difference between genuine Christianity and social churchianity will become abundantly clear. Let the goal of our preaching be the glory of God rather than the conciliation of culture. Let the mist in the pulpit clear and give way to blazing rays of biblical truth. Then the fog in the pew will dissipate and people can see their way clearly through the haze of competing religious claims.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Twenty-Five Years

As of tomorrow (12/17/08) my wife Jamie and I will be married 25 years. Of all the human relationships God has given me, my relationship with Jamie is the most treasured. She is my best friend, my encourager, my confidant, my most constructive and helpful critic, my most ardent supporter, and no one loves me more than she does. She has been my sweetheart since high school days. We were both convinced that God had brought us together when we said our vows 25 years ago. I am more convinced now than ever.

Her influence on my life is incalculable. She loves her family. She has served me and our children in hundreds of ways over the years. She continues to spend herself for our benefit as part of her service to Jesus. I have learned a great deal about consistent sacrifice from her.

Her love for Jesus and His people has been a continual encouragement to me. She loves God and the things of God. She has a deep and abiding fellowship with Him. She doesn't zone out when I come home talking about some theological concept. She engages joyfully in such conversations. She is a fantastic student of the Word and teacher. She has a deep fellowship with Jesus. She loves the ministry. She doesn't resent the unique challenges of being a pastor's wife. She embraces them.

I really can't imagine my life without her. She's not perfect. But, like the writer of Proverbs says of the woman who fears the Lord, "her husband praises her..." (Prov. 31:28). I thank God for blessing me with such a wonderful gift. Like Adam, I feel that my wife is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. She compliments and completes me in so many ways. I love her. She has been not only a source of joy and blessing but an indispensable partner. God has used our relationship to make me more like Jesus. So, this is one little way of giving testimony to the goodness of God to me.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ministry Is Not a Career, It's a Calling

US News and World Report ran a story called Best Careers 2009: Clergy. In this story they noted that millions of peoples lives are anchored in religion. People need clergy in the big moments of life like birth, marriage, death, etc. People also need clergy during times of crisis. Such times are likely to increase with the current state of things in our world. The article noted median salary information and some specializations available in the field.

Notwithstanding the accuracy of these observations, the whole approach of this article is precisely what the church does not need. We do not need people who are looking for a career path. We do not need people who approach the ministry as a "helping profession" like medicine, psychology, or education. The biblical model for ministry has nothing to do with a career or a professional guild. Ministry is not a career, it is a calling.

The Christian ministry would not have appeared on the "Best Careers" list in the first century. As a career path, it was alarmingly short-lived. Rather than leading to a cozy retirement it often led to a violent death at the hands of people who despised the message you were preaching. There were no professional perks or standing in the community. Most people looked upon them as foolish, deluded, dangerous, or all of the above. These pastors were known more for their jail time than their tee time. They would never get a key to the city but they might get thrown out of the city. Christian ministers were not the toast of society, they were considered the dregs of society.

Given this situation, why would anyone enter into Christian ministry at all? The answer is the call of God upon a person's life. Over and over again the Apostle Paul spoke about the call of God which made him a minister of the gospel. In Romans 1:1 for example, Paul says he was "called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God..." In 1 Timothy 1:12, Paul refers to God "putting me into service..." Sharing his personal story in the book of Acts, Paul refers to his entrance into ministry as being "appointed" by God and "sent" to be a minister of the gospel (Acts 26:16-18). In 1 Corinthians 9:16, Paul refers to his preaching of the gospel as a "compulsion" stating, "woe to me if I do not preach the gospel." Paul preached because God called him, appointed him, separated him for this work, and compelled him to preach the gospel.

The church does not need men who are looking for career options. The church needs men who are dying to preach the gospel because the call of God burns in their souls. As James McDonald said, "I preach because nothing else can satisfy the urgency and passion that God has ignited in my heart for His truth and His people. The same should be true for you. If you can go sell cars or shuffle stocks instead of being a pastor and preacher of God's Word, then go do that." This sense of calling and compulsion is essential to true Christian ministry.

In the preface to his challenging book, Brothers We Are Not Professionals, John Piper writes, "The title of this book is meant to shake us loose from the pressure to fit in to the cultural expectations of professionalism. It is meant to sound an alarm against the pride of station and against the expectation of parity in pay and against the borrowing of paradigms from the professional world. Oh for radically Bible-saturated, God-centered, Christ-exalting, self-sacrificing, mission-mobilizing, soul-saving, culture-confronting pastors! Let the chips fall where they will: palm branches one day, persecution the next." Strong words, but true.

As long as pastors and their congregations look upon the ministry as a profession or a career path, the power of the pulpit and the passion of the preacher will be diminished. When tough times come, those who view ministry as a career will change careers. They really should. Career men don't ignite reformations like Luther. Career men don't translate Scriptures upon pain of death like Tyndale. Career men don't spend themselves in hostile cultures like Carey. Career men don't run the risk of getting speared like Elliott. God give us called men, not career men.

Monday, December 01, 2008

More from Dr. Mohler on Preaching

Dr. Al Mohler offers this observation about what is happening in so many evangelical pulpits:

The sheer weightlessness of much contemporary preaching is a severe indictment of our superficial Christianity. When the pulpit ministry lacks substance, the church is severed from the Word of God, and its health and faithfulness are immediately diminished. (He Is Not Silent, p. 49)

Weightlessness...what an inexcusable attitude when presumably handling eternal truth as a spokesman for the living God. It struck me the other day while I was driving to work how the contemporary church, in many cases, has worked so hard to rid the pulpit of the gravity it deserves. How many people would go to an oncologist who dressed like a superhero to diagnose a potentially fatal disease? How many of us would seek out a neurosurgeon who approached his work with a careless attitude? Yet, so many pastors have stripped their pulpits of any sense of seriousness by using costumes, props, and gimmicks.

Even if attempts are made to address the serious issues of the soul, those attempts ring hollow because the preacher and his pulpit have come to possess all the seriousness of a sitcom. This is far from the sense of gravitas the apostles possessed. Paul said things like, "woe to me if I preach not the gospel" and "knowing the terror of the Lord, we persuade men." His understanding of God and the gospel affected both his view of himself as a preacher and the task of preaching.

We preachers must get over our infatuation with giving people what they want and start giving them what they need. We must declare God's truth with clarity, passion, and a sense of heaviness. We must feel the heaviness of our responsibility to God. We must feel the heaviness of the broken and sinful condition of our listeners. We must feel the heaviness of what is at stake in the proclamation of God's truth and the response of our hearers.

The approach of the church to the task of preaching reveals a great deal about our theology. May it never reveal that we view God, sin, the gospel, heaven, hell, or Scripture as weightless realities.