Everything = Nothing

Recently, someone who knew that I was concerned about the matter, sent me a book in which the word “Gospel” (undefined, but grossly overworked) was used in conjunction with practically everything possible. In it the author speaks of “gospel mission, the gospel message, gospel change, gospel dynamic, gospel intentionality, gospel territories, the mission of the gospel, gospel community, gospel life, gospel-driven interactions, gospel truths, gospel care, gospel realities, gospel confrontation, gospel opportunities, gospel relationships,” etc. My friend wrote on the title page “When everything is the gospel, then nothing is the gospel.” How right he is!

In the book the writer states that the “gospel interprets, directs, and changes our lives.”

He writes of “experiencing the gospel.”

And one of his repeated phrases is “live out the gospel,” whatever that means!

He believes “Everyone needs Jesus and His gospel every moment of every day.”

He says, in one paragraph, “We need to correct and instruct others with the gospel so that we might grow in Christ and equip others to do the same.”

This book is symptomatic of what is going on all over the Christian world— people are obsessed with what they call the “gospel,” and believe that reflecting on so-called effects of their “gospel” (as they understand–or misunderstand—it) will help them grow as believers. People (in such contexts) are rarely called to “good works.” The work of the Spirit in the heart to produce His fruit is neglected. The gospel has been greatly misunderstood in their confused thinking. Reflection upon it, and other strange ideas, are being set forth as the means of sanctification.

The gospel is defined in 1 Corinthians 15: 1ff as containing two points:

  1. Christ’s death in the place of guilty sinners (upper ton hamartion hemon)
  2. His bodily resurrection from the dead.

Paul says that believing these facts “saves.” While the Gospel must be proclaimed in clarity, it must not be misunderstood or misused. Otherwise, it no longer is the “good news.”

Bridge Building

“I want to be a bridge builder.”

Didn’t know you’re in the construction business.

“I’m not. I mean between people with different views.”

For what purpose?

“To bring them over it to the truth.”

Oh! That’s interesting. I believe in trying to bring people to biblical positions. But why do you need a bridge for that?

“Well, I had in mind the counseling integrationists. Can’t see any other way of doing it.”

Really? What makes you think that’s possible?

“The fact that many of them are Christians.”

Can’t you have a proper relationship to them as brothers and sisters in Christ without building bridges? Isn’t the Gospel already the “bridge” if you want to call it that?

“Sure, but it’s a matter of building bridges with them about our counseling differences.”

Who’s going to cross over the bridge when it’s built?

“Uh . . . I’m not sure. Other Christians, I suppose.”

So you want to make it easier for Christians to find their way to integration land?

“Well, no. That’s not exactly what I have in mind.”

What, then do you have in mind?

“Well, I’m not sure. Being nicer to integrationists, I guess.”

You mean you can’t be nice to them without building a bridge to integrationist land?

“Well, no. . . uh, I mean ‘yes.’ Oh . . . I guess I just don’t know what I mean.”

Better be careful about building bridges until you get it all sorted out, then, don’t you think?

“I suppose so . . “

You see, you can only build a bridge when there is solid ground at each end of the bridge to rest it upon.

Provision Needed

The modern church, while excelling in every other convenience, has overlooked one that ought surely be supplied. A cloakroom for brains. Many people like to check their brains at the door when they enter a church.

This is understandable, of course. All week long they have been stretching their brains at work and home and its time they found a place where they could rest them. Since the average sermon preached today requires little or no thought, this is the ideal place to give your brain an hour’s rest once a week.

Unfortunately, there are those old fogies who want the preacher to stretch their brains even more, when everyone knows that isn’t the reason for the sermon. The smooth little essays, or the repetitious Gospel message wrung out of every passage preached from, is designed to relax and sooth the brainless.

Moreover, the songs sung are not composed for brains to tackle. Having but three or four notes, and messaging-like words that were chosen for rhyme rather than sense, they help lull one into unconsciousness. After all if emotion is the order of the day, every part of the service should aptly contribute to this end.

It is most disconcerting to go to church and discover that there is no place to park the brain, that there are others also looking for such a place. It disturbs the entire purpose of the service when one has to stuff his brain into the pew rack, and keep picking it up when it falls out! Brain rooms aid composure.

The invitation at the end of the service can be disrupting too, unless it is carefully orchestrated. The preacher must use it carefully to determine how well he is doing. But the church officers will use it too, to determine how long they want him to remain. If he doesn’t want to undergo the inconvenience of leaving every three years, he must encourage them to leave their brains home (in the absence of a cloakroom). But, if he is truly wise, he will lobby for the cloakroom, and then urge them to set a good example for the congregation by checking their brains there.

What Kind of Help?

From time to time Christian authors, in writing about counseling, submit as as their bonafides that they once had such and such a problem. While in 2 Corinthians 1 we are advised to help others with the same help that Jesus gave us in our problems, it does not say that this qualifies us as experts on any matter. When these authors describe their long struggles, particularly when these lasted over long periods of time, they are admitting that they didn’t find the biblical answers to them.

Note that the passage speaks about discussing the HELP, not about analyzing the problem. As a matter of fact, Paul expects us to find that the same divine help is there for ANY problem. It is upon that help that Paul wants us to focus. If I want to learn how to swing a bat so as to make home runs, I don’t turn for help to the person who has a long record of failure in doing so, but to the one who has a successful home run average for a long time. Having been divorced, for instance, hardly qualifies one for counseling others about marriage. Let’s talk about Christ’s faithful, wonderful, helpful grace—not all about our problems!

Here it is . . .

You wanted to know how it is that a person can change his lifestyle? The answer is simple:

Anyone can change if he is determined to do so. Some change for health reasons (they may stop smoking). Others change in order to please a certain girl—or fellow—as the case may be (they change their language habits, for instance). And, it is true, that there may be certain temporal benefits to the change. Life may be easier. But if the person isn’t a believer, then his change isn’t pleasing to God (Romans 8:8[1]). And in the long run, it isn’t for the better at all. Even a believer (by ignoring the Spirit) may change in the same way—and not please God (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, where believers were acting like unbelievers). True biblical change is different.

How so?

When a Christian changes in ways that do please God it is by

  1. Doing so because he wants to obey and honor Him. He seeks to make a certain change because it is God’s will for him to do so—as he finds it in the Bible; by
  2. Doing so by replacing sinful ways with righteous ones (or as the apostle Paul put it: by putting off the former and putting on the latter; Colossians: 3:9); by
  3. Doing these things through seeking the help of the Spirit a) enabling him to understand God’s will in the Word; b) empowering him to make the changes involved (cf. Philippians 2:13).

Thus, in essence, it is change that one makes in consort with God Himself. Thus both the motive and the method are of God as well as of the believer.

[1] To be in the flesh is to be without the Spirit of God.

Shepherding

There is nothing esoteric about this article. But to some it may seem so. I say that, because I recognize that there are preachers . . . and then, there are preachers! That is to say, among those who are reading this article there may be conservatives, and a few liberals. There may be Reformed, and a few Arminian. There may be large church pastors and small church pastors. There may be those who have great insight into pastoral matters, and there may be some who have very little. There may be pastors who are excited about the ministry, and there may be those who are disheartened. There may be some who are succeeding, and there may be others who are failing. There may be pastors who are in a good relationship with the Lord and their people and, then, there may be some who are not. Yes, there are preachers, and then . . . there are shepherds!

“OK. OK. Get to the point.”

Sure. Some things seem routine to those who are used to doing them, but on the outer edge to those who are not. Nothing could be more foreign to them. That is how it is with the subject of this editorial. To the former, what I have to say will not seem strange; to the latter it probably will. I am suggesting that out of love you ought to shepherd the people of your congregation by approaching them when you suspect that there is something wrong.

“Now wait a minute. Are you telling me to probe into their lives when they haven’t asked me to do so? Isn’t that asking for trouble?”

That depends.

If your relationship to your people is close (as a shepherd’s ought to be to his sheep), the thought may not seem strange at all. Not only will your congregation know that you care enough to do so, you will also know that they know. They may not always appreciate it, but on the whole they’ll recognize that not only are you doing this because it is your pastoral duty, but also that you are willing to do such difficult things because you care for them.

“But why would I take such an initiative? If I do so, won’t people begin to think of me as a snoop?”

Not necessarily. You see, there is a second thing as well. You must do it properly. In time, you will cultivate proper methods of approaching people. And you’ll do it because you know that to treat a wound when it’s fresh is so much better than waiting until it festers. As Spurgeon put it, “It is easier to crush the egg than to kill the serpent.” If you’re one who hopes that things will go away on their own, you’ll soon find those problems seldom go; instead, they grow!

“Well, I guess that I’ve seen that to be true at times. So, what’s the proper way to approach people about perceived problems?”

I like the way you put it; you just spoke of “perceived” problems. You’re already on the right track. You certainly don’t want to go around accusing people when you only have suspicions. What you think is only how you have “perceived matters.” You may be right. On the other hand, you may be quite wrong. Recognizing that fact is half the secret to pulling this off well—i.e., in ways that honor God and help His children.

Let’s take an example. It seems to you that Larry and Martha have been very unhappy lately. You have noticed this over a period of three weeks or so. Suppose you conclude from the data that you gleaned that they’re having marital problems. What will you do? Forget it? Or deal with it? If you go piling in, cornering Larry after a church service, and say, “Larry, I want you to tell me about it old man. I’ve noticed you and Martha lately, and it seems evident to me that you two must be having marital problems,” you may have made a colossal blunder. If, after that faux pas, Larry decides to tell you, he may say something like this: “Wait a minute, Pastor. Don’t accuse us of any such thing! Sure, we haven’t been as bright and cheerful recently, but it has nothing to do with our marriage. In fact, our problem has drawn us closer together, and to the Lord, than ever before. If you must know, I’ve had a biopsy for cancer of the liver and I am afraid that it may turn out positive.”

How would you feel if you blundered that way? Lousy? Certainly. Sputtering apologies, you’d probably walk away. Now, perhaps Larry should have told you and the elders of the church about his concern so they could pray for him. But he didn’t. And you did no one any good but, possibly, a great deal of harm by accusing them of marital difficulties.

“I can see that. But there wouldn’t have been any problem if I hadn’t attempted to become involved. It seems that it’s probably better to wait until people approach me. What your scenario with Larry does actually proves my point, doesn’t it?”

No, it doesn’t. There’s a right way to approach Larry that in almost all instances will cause no offence. If you follow it, and Larry is offended, it’ll be his fault and not yours. Consider the following. Suppose you phoned Larry and asked him to meet with you for a fellowship lunch. After the meal, over desert, you then say, “Larry, I suppose you wonder why I’ve asked you out to lunch. Well, there are a couple of reasons. It’s always good to meet with church members. I enjoy just talking over things that we have in common—the way we’ve been doing today. That’s one reason that I wanted us to get together. But there’s another too. I want you to know that, in my opinion, you just haven’t seemed to be your old cheerful self lately. Maybe you’re working late, and you’re overly tired. Maybe something’s come up that’s troubling you. I don’t know, and I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess about it. On the other hand, I may be seeing things that aren’t there. It all may be in my head. So, I also asked you to have a fellowship lunch also to raise the matter so that I could offer my help if it’s needed.”

Larry might respond to such an approach this way, “Well, you see, pastor, there is something wrong. I wasn’t going to tell anyone about it until I was sure, but . . .” and then he explains about the biopsy. Even if he doesn’t tell you about it (he and Martha may be “very private persons” ), Larry’s response should (and probably would) be something like this, “Well, pastor, this time I’m glad to say that you’re wrong. There isn’t anything that you need to help us with. But I do appreciate your offer, and if something does come up, I’ll remember to call on you.”

Now, you see, there are right ways to approach a matter. You don’t accuse, you don’t guess. You don’t even assume that your “perception” is correct. You allow Larry space to back off the matter, but you haven’t neglected him. And, if and when, the biopsy is positive, he may want to ask for prayer and counsel.

Does this seem foreign to you after all? If my words haven’t raised a matter that you believe you ought to consider seriously, then think about this. When a sheep has a problem, does the shepherd neglect it? Suppose it seems to be limping. Doesn’t he examine the sheep to see if something is wrong with its leg? If he discovers that it isn’t anything serious, he backs off with a sigh of relief—he doesn’t manufacture problems. But if there’s a genuine injury, he helps heal the sheep before the problem gets worse. Does the sheep think less of him for doing so? Not really. Indeed, in most cases, the experience draws shepherd and sheep closer together. Think again about what I have suggested—then about some members of your congregation who, like that sheep, seem to be limping.

Apophthengomai

The sermon brought people to faith in Christ. Why? Because it was biblical, it was timely, it was personal, it was used by the Holy Spirit Who empowered Peter to preach it. That’s the reason why you should study it. In Acts 2:4, 14 the word apophthengomai occurs. If you don’t know Greek, don’t try to pronounce it! This rare word means “to speak revelatory words by inspiration” (usually loudly and with authority). Peter, himself, lets us in on the fact that without this assistance, he would not have been able to preach as he did, the fact that his words were given by the Spirit of God.

“Since I can’t expect to get such revelatory help when I preach, I can’t see why I should study it.”

Ah! But that’s precisely the reason to do so.

“Can’t see it.”

The point is that this sermon demonstrates some of the ways that the Holy Spirit wanted a preacher to preach. From examining it in that light, you can learn a lot!

“Oh.”

Yep. Indeed, you can learn how to raise and answer questions, how to speak to people who are curious, how to deal with opposition, how to present the Gospel, how to . . . I could go on, and on, and on.

“Glad you didn’t. I’m curious enough to dig in and find out what I can for myself.”

Great. And when you’re through doing so (shameless plug alert), you might want to check out my book, Preaching According to the Holy Spirit for more suggestions about how to learn to preach from analyzing the Apostles’ inspired sermons.

Counseling by Cliché

How is nouthetic counseling different from just coming along side of those who are struggling and building relationship and speaking into their lives?

This was the question that was put to one of our students as he explained to his church elders his goal to complete his studies with us and seek certification. Though framed many different ways it is a common question—why the need for formal training and formal counseling? Why can’t our church people just help each other with problems informally? Isn’t this just the “one anothering” the Bible talks about?

Let’s think for a moment about how your church accomplishes the tasks it believes are important. You believe studying and learning the Scriptures is important so you have organized a Sunday School and other learning opportunities. You meet at a set time, someone is designated to teach, and when you meet everyone understands what the purpose of the gathering is. The teacher has studied, is prepared to take charge of the class, and leads the students in a structured way (if he is a good teacher) to make good use of the time allotted.

What about your choir? You have a goal of presenting a Christ honoring anthem in a way that will facilitate the worship of your congregation. How is that accomplished? The choir meets at an appointed time, a qualified leader who understands music is placed in charge, and he uses the rehearsal time wisely to prepare the choir to minister the following Sunday. Would the choir be ready if rehearsals were done informally with a few choir members meeting at different times, in different places, and informally going through music of their own choosing?

In Corinth the church tried to have just these kinds of worship services.

What is the outcome then, brethren? When you assemble, each one has a psalm, has a teaching, has a revelation, has a tongue, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.   (1 Cor 14:26)

The result was chaos. No one was being helped and nothing was being accomplished. Look again at the specific question as it was posed to our student. It consists of three abstract clichés strung together and asked as though this was the preferred way to minister to those who are “struggling.” Come along side how? Speak what into their lives? How will you decide if you have built a sufficient relationship in order to do this “speaking?” Does this same church approach other important ministries with similar vague and ill-defined plans?

Helping people deal with important problems in a biblical way that pleases God is far too important a task to do in such a haphazard way. It should be pursued aggressively, by people who are trained thoroughly, and done in a structured way so much can be accomplished as quickly and effectively as possible. Why should hurting people have to wait for a relationship to be built with a counselor before getting help?

Biblical counseling is not the only ministry going on in a church, but it is a vital one. Church members are taught and ministered to in a variety of ways, in various settings, and by many different people—all leading to the building up of the body of Christ. But when people’s lives hit the rocks (how’s that for a good cliché?) and they have problems that need immediate attention, what could be better than to have a cadre of well-trained men and women in your church who are ready to meet with them with the same kind of purpose and focus that your other church ministries are afforded? So much more can be accomplished—and much more quickly—if counseling is done “decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40).

Then . . . Like All the Nations (1 Samuel 8:20)

God had just become their King—when they complained about it! It didn’t take long for them to go astray.

They wanted an earthly king “like all the nations.”

That tragic desire and decision, was the beginning of the end. Soon, they would be living like those nations: worshiping idols, following practices that were opposed to Scriptural commandments, etc. Ultimately, it would bring destruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and the people for good! How tragic!

But it began early.

God’s people don’t outwardly cry out for a king other than Jesus Christ Who is the King over His church. But they often live like the world around them—which, in the end, is precisely the same thing.

Believer, do you find yourself wishing to be more like the nations (world) around you? Have you become no different from the unsaved people who live on your street?

Israel had no more than become a theocracy—i.e., a nation governed by God—than they went astray. Think about this thoroughly. If you need help, read the rest of the book of 1 Samuel and you’ll understand the results of doing so!

 

 

 

 

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