So what is sin? We need to be pondering that if we are going to preach effectively in a sinful world. Here is a brief video that is hosted on the FOCLonline.org site – click on the image to go to it.
Recently I was getting my hair cut and the radio was playing in the background. Bizarrely there was a phone-in on the radio with an expert in building cracks. Since I had no option but to listen, I listened in as callers explained the nature of cracks appearing on various walls in buildings that they own and the expert responding with, “that is not serious, ignore it” or, “you need to get that fixed or your building will collapse!”
It made me think about the cracks that we sense in our relationships. It is so easy for a crack to develop between two people. Maybe it is with your spouse or a close friend. Maybe it is with a co-worker in the church, or a fellow church member. Whatever the relationship, cracks are serious.
In Colossians 3, Paul recognizes the challenge of maintaining harmonious relationships in the church and offers the vital recipe for dealing with the cracks that will inevitably form between people. After listing several other Christlike characteristics in verse 12, he comes to patience and pauses to develop the thought. “…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other, as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
Most issues between people can be dealt with by Colossians 3:13. Bear with, forgive. But it is important that we do that. Too easily we can leave the cracks to spread and to grow wider.
I really appreciated Andy Stanley’s teaching related to this. He explained how we all have expectations of one another, but what should we do when there is a gap between our experience and our expectation? We expect someone to do A, but they instead do B. There is a gap. Andy Stanley teaches that we are to fill the gap with trust. We can assume that there is something we don’t know and that the person is trustworthy. However, there will be times when we cannot fill the gap with trust. Then what? Simple. Then we need to approach them.
One of two things will happen when we approach someone over a gap between our expectations and experience. When we go and assure them that we want to trust them, but there is this gap… Either they will be able to fill us in with the information we are missing, thus re-establishing the trust in the relationship. Or they will be given the opportunity to own their sin and they will ask us for forgiveness. Either way, the relationship is honoured and Christ is pleased.
So what do we do when we sense a crack developing in a relationship? We are to forgive first, then either we can bear with, or we need to approach and proactively address the situation. Notice that forgiveness is not dependent on the other person apologizing to us. Forgiveness takes only one person. If there is a breakdown in the relationship then it will take two people to reconcile, but we should forgive before we ever approach the other person. It is vital to do this so that our manner and tone can be genuinely humble and loving, rather than confrontational and touchy.
So this leaves some non-options. There are several things we must not do when cracks appear in a relationship. We may be tempted to do all four of these, but we must not, or the cracks will only spread further or grow wider.
1. Leave it. We cannot simply leave it. Ignoring cracks in relationships will not cause them to go away. These things do not self-heal. Some cultures are very committed to avoiding any conflict, but this can simply compound the problem and create a bigger mess once addressing the issues becomes unavoidable.
2. Label them. It is always tempting to label other people. “He is touchy. She is weird. They are sensitive.” But if the crack in the relationship has not been addressed, then this is a label based on incomplete information. We like to think we know enough to make such judgments, but we don’t, and we are usurping God’s role as the all-knowing One!
3. Retreat. Not only is it tempting to leave the issue alone, it is also tempting to retreat from the other person. We can avoid people without even consciously planning to do so. Our self-protection radar beeps quietly and we can navigate life without meaningful or awkward contact, but it is awkward, because the relationship is cracked.
4. Report. How very easy it is to spread the label we’ve applied to others. Gossip occurs when our communication about someone reduces the esteem others have for that person. Do not go there. Learn to sense gossip and stop it in its tracks. When someone starts to cross the line with you, you can ask them, “have you spoken with them about this?” or “do they know you are sharing this with me?” Gossip is aggressive crack multiplication in the local church.
So how is it possible to proactively address cracks and pursue harmony in the body of Christ? Colossians 3:12-17 gives several critical pointers for us.
First, we won’t achieve this by looking to ourselves and determining to do better in this. We must first look to Christ. The whole letter points us in Christ’s direction, see 1:15-23, or 3:1-4. In fact, look at how verse 12 begins: we are God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved – our gaze needs to be on Christ and our union with Him, not on ourselves and our determination to do good.
Second, we have the peace of Christ at work in our midst like a referee with a whistle. Verse 15 in its context is not about a private guidance mechanism. It is all about how the Spirit works to promote unity amongst believers. When we say something unhelpful, or when a crack develops, God is at work with a gentle whistle to highlight the issue to us. Let’s pray for a growing sensitivity to that refereeing of our relationships.
Third, the word of Christ dwelling in us will feed our healthy mutual interactions – verse 16 underlines our need for this.
Fourth, gratitude will be a wonderful gel in group dynamics. Three times Paul points to the need for gratitude amongst the believers.
So keeping our gaze fixed on Christ, with His Word very much at home in our hearts, with the Spirit’s whistle gently nudging us when cracks develop, we can gratefully pursue a proactive unity and harmony. Always forgiving, usually bearing with, and sometimes approaching when necessary, we can be part of a harmonious group of believers whose Christlike corporate culture create a Christlike impact in a world desperate for authentic and loving community.
Dan Hames is a curate at St Aldates, Oxford, as well as a PhD student at VU Amsterdam. He also helps look after articles, talks, and a podcast at UnionTheology.org. If you haven’t spent some time on the Union Theology site, you are missing a treat. I am thankful to Dan for this guest post on the subject of God’s grace.
Grace. It’s what your grandma says before dinner. It’s the way a ballet dancer floats across the stage. It’s a polite person reacting coolly to criticism. It’s also one of those theology words that we don’t often explain.
When I was naughty as a boy, I used to think that God could show me mercy, which simply meant he wouldn’t strike me with a bolt of lightning. Or he could show me grace, which was that, on top of sparing me, he would actually be nice to me. As I grew as a Christian, I began to see that grace was something more fundamental in God. God loves to give his grace. His undeserved kindness to us is the whole shape and flavour of the gospel. I was encouraged to ‘trust grace’, ‘love grace’, and ‘preach grace’. God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense. Unmerited favour. A gift we don’t deserve.
So is that grace? I’ve come to believe it’s even better than that. In John 14:23, Jesus says something quite remarkable, ‘My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.’ In the gospel, God isn’t kind to us by just giving us forgiveness, a sense of purpose in life, a family in the Church, and the hope of heaven. He gives us himself through Jesus.
Grace isn’t a thing God ladles out like a dinner lady with custard; it’s not even the generous frame of mind he’s in when he hands out blessings to us like a supermarket Santa. God’s grace is that he loves you and has made his home with you by the presence of the Holy Spirit. It’s not God’s riches, but God. From the moment of your salvation, the living God moved in with you and will stay with you through your whole life, and beyond your death into eternal glory.
Let’s encourage our hearts by thinking less about the word ‘grace’ in the abstract and more about the gracious God who shows mercy, blesses, and loves the undeserving – but who most of all gives them himself.
Let’s ponder two simple reasons (loaded with multiplied motivations in pregnant-with-meaning summaries):
1. Because we love God. The God we love is the God who loved us first – who loves, who speaks, who gives of his riches, who gives himself. This captures our hearts and gives us something to say. We love God because he is the best news we have ever received, and so we want to spill that thrillingly good news to others. We want to see God’s work built up, and it is a work done not by force, but by proclamation, presentation and appeal. We are not mere recipients of a good message, but we are drawn into the eternal conversation out of which that message has come – the Spirit of God is at work in us pointing our hearts to Christ in whom we see the heart of the Father. God is at work in hearts and we get to participate in that.
Preaching as an act of devotion, an act of worship, and even preaching as obedience to God’s Word and as obedience to his calling on our lives – these could all be added. But the bottom line surely is this: as we take stock of our own motivation in preaching, are we still gripped and driven by a vertical responsiveness? This can so easily grow dull or become corrupted by a self-elevation and self-worship. Surely the best thing to do here is to spend time on our face before God and ask Him what our motivations are (ask yourself and you may respond with a lie!)
2. Because we love others. Loving God shapes our loves to conform to his. He deeply loves the people who will sit in the church on Sunday, or who will visit for the guest event, and so gradually our love for these people grows too. We want to serve them by offering the very best news there is. We want to preach because people need to hear the good news – both those who still live as dead in the realm of darkness, and those who are in the family, but feel the constant pull of the flesh toward self-reliance. We preach because we want others to have the joy that comes from not only receiving, but also spilling to others according to the way God made and wired them.
Love the Lord, love your neighbour . . . simple.
Dr Hershael York is the Senior Pastor at Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. He is also the Victor and Louise Lester Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. I really appreciated his books Speaking with Bold Assurance (2001), that Hershael co-wrote with Bert Decker, and Preaching with Bold Assurance (2003). I am really thankful for this post on the enduring relevance of Acts for us as preachers in today’s world – a reality I hope is demonstrated in Foundations (forthcoming from Christian Focus). Over to Hershael:
The New Testament epistles would leave us puzzled and perplexed if we only had the gospels without the book of Acts. We would not know how the gospel advanced to the Gentiles, who Paul is, when Christianity spread from Jerusalem to the world, or even why the church took shape and functioned as it did. Perhaps most significantly, we would not know the components and contours of apostolic preaching.
About half of the Book of Acts consists of speeches, discourses, and letters. In fact, like the Greek historian Thucydides, Luke actually moves the narrative forward through careful reconstruction of speeches by followers of Christ and their opponents. He records eight addresses delivered by Peter, Stephen’s lengthy sermon that enraged the Sanhedrin, Cornelius’s brief explanation, a short authoritative address by James at the Jerusalem Council, the advice of James and the elders in Jerusalem to Paul, and nine sermons and speeches by Paul. Clearly Luke believes that what the church said impacted what they did.
But Luke is more than a historian. He is also a theologian. He is not merely recording the words spoken, but the heart of the Christian message, the kerygma, that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation, Lord of Heaven and Earth, and that his crucifixion and resurrection provides redemption from sin for all who will repent and believe.
While manners and modes of communication change through time and across cultures, that core message of the gospel is the unshakeable and irreducible axis of Christian proclamation on which faith rests. The message of what God has done through the person and work of Christ is not merely a historical chapter that we have advanced beyond. Now as much as in Acts, the preaching of Christ is what God uses to move the narrative forward until Christ returns.
I had one series of just four sermons and desperately wanted my hearers to hear the critical building blocks of belief. I could have gone to Ephesians or another epistle. I could have gone to the Gospels. I decided to go to Acts.
Preaching from Acts is an exciting challenge because you are entering into other peoples’ sermons as well as their situations. The first apostles were communicating the timeless gospel to the first hearers as the message spread. Perhaps what they preached then would be ideal for expressing the life transforming message today? It is.
Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t is forthcoming from Christian Focus Publications. It is a little book that I hope will pack a big punch. In Foundations we see how the Apostles addressed the very questions that we should be asking, but typically we don’t.
Acts contains messages preached under the glare of imminent threat, thus making every word count. Acts contains messages preached to staunch Jews ready to defend the honour of their heritage, a couple of purely pagan crowds who did not know Othniel from Oprah, some brand new believers in Christ, and every other possible combination of listeners. In Foundations we hear Paul addressing the sophisticated philosophers in Athens, over-zealous pagans in Turkey, and some of the judges brought in to put him on trial. We see how the apostles united when the gospel faced its first major attack, and how they made it so clear how the foundational questions must be answered by all.
Underneath our beliefs there is a foundation, and often it sits there unchallenged. The most important issues for life and eternity are regularly engaged in the Bible, but we often ignore this foundation. We too easily think it is all so obvious that we would be wasting our energy to linger longer than it takes to give a momentary tip of the hat to these issues.
Foundations is a fast read, but I hope it will help preachers and listeners, young believers and those established in the faith. It might even be used to clarify the wonder of the gospel to those who are still looking in from the outside. This guest post series is going to run over the next weeks to help mark the launch of Foundations.
Thanks to everyone who will contribute to this guest series. And thank you to everyone who helps spread the word about Foundations – by encouraging others to follow on Twitter (@4BigQs) or Facebook (Facebook.com/4BigQs), pointing people to FourBigQuestions.com, or buying several copies to pass on to friends and pastors so that in a small way, the great wonder of the Gospel can grip the hearts of as many as possible.
Sincerely, thank you.
Last year I ran a guest post series to mark the launch of Pleased to Dwell. There were some great posts from folks including Darrell Bock, Glen Scrivener, Dane Ortlund, Peter Comont, David Murray, Rick McKinley, John Hindley (click a name to see the post!)
Starting in the next few days I am going to run a guest post series to mark the launch of Foundations: Four Big Questions We Should Be Asking But Typically Don’t. This book is based on the sermons and speeches in Acts, so it should be a helpful little read for preachers, but it is targeted much wider. Maybe it will be a useful book in your church? Perhaps for a small group study, or as an encouraging giveaway, maybe for youth, maybe for your leadership team, maybe to folks on the fringe, perhaps even to some not-yet-believers who might be open to its message.
I am thankful to the friends who will be offering posts in this series and I hope it will be helpful for you. I will continue to intersperse my own posts related to preaching during these weeks.
If you are able to help spread the word about Foundations, please do. Momentum is building toward the launch and every social media comment encouraging others to follow, like, buy, etc. is appreciated. Here is the Facebook page, here is the twitter link (@4BigQs) and the book’s own website is FourBigQuestions.com. Thanks so much!
Christ is very careful with us. He knows how to shepherd hurting and discouraged souls. For an example, consider John 21. The gospel of John seems to come to a crescendo at the end of chapter 20. Thomas gets to give the great punchline of the book when he declares to Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” Then John seems to wrap things up at the end of the chapter. But then we get chapter 21.
John 21 does not really teach anything new about Jesus. The big themes of the gospel seem to have come to a conclusion, but still John adds this final chapter. Why? Probably because we need to focus on the disciples for a moment.
They were tired. Probably they were drained. Perhaps they were discouraged. Certainly they felt a bit down. The adrenaline of being in Jerusalem for the previous three weeks was gone and now they were coming to terms with being in the aftermath of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. He was going back to heaven, and they would have to get used to this new life. So Peter went fishing, and six others went with him.
At least that was something he could do right, or so he probably thought. They caught nothing. And so begins a sequence of déjà vu’s designed to tenderly shepherd the hearts of these men.
Déjà vu #1: Calling – The man on the shore told them to cast their nets on the other side of the boat, and suddenly they had an overwhelming catch of fish. Hang on, does this seem familiar? Didn’t this happen one time before, about three years before? It was in Luke 5. It was the point at which Christ called Peter and Andrew, as well as James and John, away from their fishing business and into the business of fishing for people. Now Jesus gently nudged them back on track with a careful reminder. “I called you to fish for people. Keep the focus.” He could have rebuked them, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
Déjà vu #2: Provision – As they arrived on shore and sat down to enjoy breakfast, Jesus passed out the bread and fish. Hmm…hang on, is this familiar? Jesus providing bread and fish for everyone, besides the Sea of Galilee, maybe even in this very spot? That was in John 6 (and other places). Maybe Jesus was gently reminding them that as he had provided for their needs before, so he would continue to provide for them now. Keep trusting. He could have told them bluntly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
Déjà vu #3: Purpose – Jesus works with us in groups, but also individually. As Peter walked up the beach he would not have struggled to recognize the relevance of a charcoal fire. There is only one other mentioned in John’s Gospel – the one where he had denied his Lord three times. Now Jesus was ready to talk things through with Peter. Actually, they would surely have talked about the matter on Easter Sunday, but now there were six other disciples needing to hear what Jesus had to say to Peter.
So began the famous conversation. “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” It was a poignant and even painful question for one who has betrayed the Lord he loved. But Jesus tenderly reinstated Peter, making it clear for him and for us all, that even though he had failed, he was not finished. That is a message we all need to hear.
So Peter was not finished, but what was he called to do? Feed sheep, tend lambs, tend sheep – that is, to be about Jesus’ other great concern. Again Jesus nudged his disciples gently back toward the priority issues – fishing and feeding. That is what life is about for all who follow Jesus. We either fish for people, or support those that do. We either feed the sheep, or help those that do. It is a simple reminder of what matters to Jesus – people. How easily we forget, or get discouraged, or distracted. We are to keep giving ourselves to people ministry. Jesus could have commanded it harshly, but he knew the best way to tend their hearts. He still does.
And after the déjà vu came the future view. Peter had claimed to be ready to die for Jesus. In the strength of his own resolve he had lasted mere hours. Now Jesus told him that he would get that privilege, but it would be when he was old that he too would be stretched out to die.
How was Peter supposed to live with that knowledge? He had not made it through the night before, but now Jesus tells him that he will be martyred in his old age. Now things were different. Peter knew Peter just a little bit better. And Peter had a very simple instruction to bring him through these next decades toward death – he was to “follow me.” Simple.
But Peter was distracted by his lifelong friend who was walking along near them by this stage. So Peter asked about John. Jesus told Peter not to worry about him, but to stay focused – “you follow me.”
As we live our lives we are called to fish and feed. Some will be more fisher, others more feeder. Some will be more front line, others more supportive. And we are all called to follow faithfully. We may be on the Peter path, or we may be on the John path. Neither are easy. The Peter path of martyrdom is so intimidating that Jesus typically doesn’t give us decades of warning. But the John path of growing old, being alone, dying of “natural causes” – this is also uniquely challenging. The key to both is clear, “follow me.”
As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find our values reflect his, for we will be driven by giving ourselves to people – fishing and feeding. As we keep our eyes on Jesus we will find ourselves following faithfully, all the way to the finish line that he ordains personally for us. Christian? Follow me.
17. Too many will boast about outward issues in ministry, but God evaluates the heart (2.Cor.5:11-12) God knows what is going on inside the minister of the Gospel. Others will only ever evaluate based on externals since that is what they see. Don’t evaluate your own ministry based on what “fans” say who only watch the outside stuff. They may be impressed, but prayerfully ask God what is going on inside you and you will probably get a clearer glimpse in a few seconds than others see in many months. We must not rely on handshakes, compliments and twitter comments to overshadow the reality of our own hearts.
18. The New Covenant minister is constrained and controlled by the love of Christ (2.Cor.5:13-15) While we may be considered out of our minds for not going the way all others go, it is not our thoughtful strategies that drive us, it is the love of Christ. The New Covenant means that we are so gripped by the death of Christ that we live each moment in light of that love. It is only in the death of Christ that we can know the cure to the self-obsession of the human heart. So because he died, we don’t live for ourselves.
19. We must stop evaluating people according to worldly measures (2.Cor.5:16-17) We humans once evaluated Christ by worldly measures and he was found wanting. But he lacked nothing. How wrong we were. Now anyone who is in Christ is a whole new person. So we must stop judging each other the way the world does. How impressive is he? How outwardly pretty is she? What are they wearing? How powerful is their ministry? How knowledgable are they? How will I benefit if I connect with them? STOP! If anyone is in Christ then they are a new creation . . . and if we are spiritual, then we will find them to be fascinating and infinitely more valuable than what this world offers.
20. God has given us a ministry of reconciliation as ambassadors in a fallen world (2.Cor.5:18-21) God is appealing to a world of self-absorbed fleshists through us to be reconciled to him. What can overcome the total corruption of human rebellion? God made the perfect Christ to be sin, so that in Christ we might become the righteousness of God. This message is no legal fiction or contractual loophole, this is the glory of the New Covenant gospel – sins forgiven: fully, finally, freely, forever!; new hearts given; and the Spirit dwelling within us that we might be reconciled to full relationship with God in Christ!
Let me encourage you to chase the theme of the New Covenant throughout the Scriptures – there is more there than we tend to realise!
14. The Spirit guarantees our hope, not our circumstances. (2 Cor.5:1-5) God has given us the Spirit as a guarantee of what is to come. This earthly tent is fading (this earthen vessel is being increasingly broken), but the stirring of the Spirit within whispers the dawning of eternal immortality as we anticipate the fuller life that is to come. So in ministry we don’t cling to false promises of easy life now, but we are willing to serve in the midst of groans because there is something far greater to come!
15. We are away from the Lord now, but we are living in anticipation of seeing him (2.Cor.5:6-10) The Spirit within us stirs courage in our ministry, and He stirs our motivation to please the Lord. Why? Because even though we are not with the Lord now, we long to be. And we know we will be. And when we see him, we know that he will evaluate us and so we long to please him in all we do until that day comes. Strength comes not from our circumstances, but in the midst of whatever circumstances as we live to please our coming Lord.
16. The anticipation of evaluation, the fear of the Lord, motivates us to action (2.Cor.5:9-11) Is the fear of the Lord compatible with a New Covenant emphasis on intimacy with God by the Spirit? Absolutely. The fear of the Lord is dependent on God’s greatness, and his love is not in opposition to his great power, presence and strength. So as we anticipate evaluation by the Lord, it stirs us to long to please him (a love response to loving greatness). And as we take the Lord so seriously, we seek to influence others to take him seriously too – we persuade.
The final post is coming next time . . .