A little over six and half years ago my family and I stepped into an unknown land. We had no idea what was in store for us. It was very much a time of uncertainty for us. We had no idea how everything would pan out. Part of the reason that even got us thinking of cross cultural service was my own personal experiences. Through them I got this burden to see gospel churches planted. It is so amazing to look back on divine providences and the counsel which ended up bringing us here 9000' in the Anders mountains of northern Peru. It has been an incredible journey so far. One filled with highs and lows. Never did we imagine we would be doing what we are doing. The first Sunday of September was our five year anniversary of planting our first church. By God's grace it is a church that preaches the gospel of God's free grace.
For the benefit of the world wide church, there has been a resurgence in conversations about the gospel, gospel preaching, gospel centered ministry and everything alike. I personally have received from so much of the material out there. One thing I wanted to be true to in ministry, and still do, is the gospel. Many things pass for gospel that in all actuality are not gospel. We must never confuse the benefits of the gospel or by products of the gospel as the gospel. It is easy to preach about the blessing of the gospel (and we should). It is easy to share all about the wonderful results of trusting in the gospel (and we should). But we can never confuse the results of the gospel with the gospel itself. There is a very real and great temptation to soften the message of the cross. The message of the cross is offensive. The message of God's free grace to sinners isn't something that is easily preached or received. I think many people take the sting out of the message and try to make it less offensive and soften the message, with maybe the best intentions. They want to see people trust Jesus so they talk about the blessing of the gospel or results or other facets. They will tell you to pray a prayer and then you are saved and all this type of stuff. All the while never even giving the gospel or the demands of discipleship. I am so blessed in my life to have been (and still am) surrounded by and discipled by, incredibly gospel centered men. Certain individuals have poured into me and I have great models to look and pull from. Years ago, I was sitting in a class on a Sunday afternoon and one of those men who pastors a church in Half Moon Bay said something that I can still hear in my head as clear as if I was sitting in that room right now. He said "I like to preach about the blood and the cross and sin." That has profoundly shaped me and the way I view ministry. Possibly that class on a whole, more than anything else has shaped me into who I am as preacher.
Recently in our pastoral training program that we facilitate, we were discussing being ashamed of the gospel. Talking about why and what that might mean or look like in their ministries. After some good natured banter I said listen guys, it can be very easy to be ashamed of the gospel. Maybe not in our minds, but by our actions. Tons of the methods that people have developed are because of shame of the gospel. I was very honest. I asked do I desire a big church? If I answer yes, why? I could say oh because then more people are coming to Christ and hearing God's word......bla bla bla. I said all the proper answers. But then I said we need to examine our motives. Cause in my pride, I would love to have a huge church. But why? So I could say look at me? So I could say I am so effective? Why? There is a fine line there. And I told them, I could have a big church if I wanted. I really could. I have no doubt I could get our church to explode. How? By softening the gospel. By getting away from the gospel. By preaching to the felt needs of people. By preaching on the blessings of the gospel only. I could teach a series on how to have a better sex life (sex sells!). I could do a series on how to better yourself. You know, self improvement, people eat that up. I could teach a 7 step course to financial freedom and how to give you a better life and build better relationships. Our church would grow! There is no question about it. But is that being a faithful minister of Christ I asked? And that is a question I ask myself everyday as I rise. Am I being a faithful minister of Christ?
When we look at how the Apostles did ministry we see that the focus of their preaching was the cross. They had an atonement centered message. They gloried in the message of the cross. They could not live without it and they were willing to die for it. And because they were, they exposed themselves to hardships, persecutions and even death. See, the message of the atoning death of Christ for sin is the heart the Apostles gospel and that is to be the cornerstone of the Christian faith. When we strip all that away, there is NO GOSPEL. Jesus told people to count the cost before following. We don't see much of that in our modern evangelicalism. We have a tendency to emphasize the benefits of the gospel but not the gospel! So many preach this easy believism. Just pray this prayer and wah-lah you are a Christian. It is like this magic formula. We had dinner the other night with one of the elders of the church and his wife and we were talking about that subject. Especially in this culture, to ask someone if they want to trust Jesus and pray this prayer, 99% of the time it will happen. This is a people pleasing culture. I told them I could get the whole restaurant at that point to pray the prayer. It just doesn't hold weight here. Besides we are called to make disciples not converts. Yes it is great when someone trusts Christ. We never want to minimize that. In Luke's gospel it says there is rejoicing going on in heaven when one sinner repents. But why do we make such a huge deal about the initial steps? I think that we should make such a greater emphasis on the finishing steps. Who celebrates because someone started a marathon? It doesn't matter how well we start. What matters is how we finish! That is a great thrust of the Scriptures. And many people, tragically, will not finish the race set out before them. And many times, it is because they don't know the race they are entering. Lloyd Jones (another one of those shaping influences who I was introduced to through PB on those Sunday morning classes) had grave concerns over this type of evangelism. He said "I can sum it up by putting it like this: I feel that this pressure which is put upon people to come forward in decision ultimately is due to a lack of faith in the work and operation of the Holy Spirit. We are to preach the Word, and if we do it properly, there will be a call to a decision that comes in the message, and then we leave it to the Spirit to act upon people. And of course He does." This is what we have done in our church. We preach, we pray that the Spirit would do His work and we trust in the power of the gospel. To God be the glory, we have seen people trust in Christ, but I am more concerned in how they walk and persevere than their initial trust.
Several of the pastors in our program use tactics and methods to get people to make professions of faith. Other ministries around here do the same thing. There are issues within the church that are reasons to divide over. Methodology for the most part wouldn't be one of them. I have great desire to set aside many of the non essentials to have unity. There are certain doctrines that we don't need to be dogmatic about. With that said, I would probably only attend one or two of the churches that are represented in our pastor training program. But through this program pastors are becoming more grounded in the truth and developing a true gospel centered ministry. That is one of the biggest goals of the program. We aren't pushing a certain methodology, but pushing the gospel. But one methodology we want to stay away from is any one that creates a false hope or false sense of security or false converts. Lloyd Jones talks about how the Puritans in particular were afraid of what they would call "a temporary faith" or "a false profession." There was a Puritan, Thomas Shepard, who published a famous series of sermons on The Ten Virgins. The great point of that book was to deal with this problem of a false profession. The foolish virgins thought they were all right. This is a very great danger. Never do we want to be guilty of producing this temporary faith or false professions. We are to preach to the minds and to the hearts and let the Spirit do the work of drawing that person to Christ.
Lloyd Jones says "the order in Scripture seems to be this – the truth is presented to the mind, which moves the heart, and that in turn moves the will." When we preach the gospel, the gospel will do its work. We, like the sower in the parable, just sow seed. Scatter and let God through the Word by the power of the Spirit operate. These six years have been a learning process. It will continue to be. There are times when I am so over my head and under water that I don't know how I managed to get some air. I expect many more days like that. I have made many mistakes and I know many more are to come. But one thing I know and believe with all my heart, the only thing profitable that I have to give is the gospel. The same gospel that my mentors have preached. The same gospel that the Apostles preached. The same gospel that our Lord Jesus Christ preached. The more I study it and read it and meditate on it and trust in it, the better I will be in giving and sharing and persuading and trusting in it myself. I am grateful for those who have gone before me and who have shaped and molded me. I am grateful for the small amount of influence I have in the lives of thirty pastors in this area to speak of these matters with them. I heard someone say the gospel is great and all but we need to help the people on a more practical level. Listen, ALL practical matters of the Christians life flow from the true gospel. We never move beyond it. The gospel is not just for non believers or new believers. Matter of fact if you get tired of hearing the gospel, you need to seriously have a soul searching time. The gospel should never be old or boring or unexciting. We do not meet Christ at the cross and then move past it or outgrow our need for it. One preacher said "All of our blessings are blood bought. And the only hope of avoiding false doctrine and heresy such as legalism or license to sin (abused grace), is to continually treasure the cross and the tremendous price of Christ's atonement." This is why we don't preach the moral code of Jesus or the example Jesus as the essential Christian message. The true message we need to preach, trust, and love is the atoning death of Christ on the cross. As difficult as that is. As hard as it can be. As offensive as it might be. That is the message. Christ and Him crucified. When I stand before the throne of God, I will not be judged on my "numbers" but I will be judged on my faithfulness. And it is not faithfulness in the things that I think are important but faithfulness to what Christ deems important. So I will maintain by God's grace to be faithful to the gospel of our glorious Lord Jesus!
Soli Deo gloria