Hacks (1 Thessalonians – part 4)

1 Thessalonians is like a training manual for a young church.  So far, we have thought about the impact of the gospel, giving ourselves to build up the body of Christ and praying for each other to thrive spiritually.  Chapter 4 is like a catalogue of Christian truth-hacks – things that will help people to thrive in a challenging world.  As pastors and preachers, we need to know these truths and share them with our churches:

1.  They can know God’s will.  Bruce Waltke made a fascinating point in his book about guidance.  He says that divine guidance is often treated as a bit of a conundrum.  However, he points out that in the ancient world, pagan religions were obsessed with finding some sort of guidance from the higher realm.  They would diligently study the ashes, entrails, or whatever other indication they could find in order to get a hint from beyond this world.  Sometimes Christians act like we are in an ancient superstitious religion trying to make something out of nothing.  In reality, we have an entire collection of books inspired by God.  In some churches the Bible is subtly (or not so subtly) pushed aside in favour of some kind of speculative new revelation and guidance from God.  People engage in a game of celestial hide and seek with a God who is never easy to pin down.  And yet, we have the Bible.  Properly read, it will not tell you which specific college to attend or person to marry.  But it will tell you the kind of wisdom needed to make such decisions.  It will reveal God’s values so that as you know him more and more, you can better reflect his values in the decisions you make.  And in chapter 4 of 1 Thessalonians, it does underline something that should be self-evident if you have spent time in God’s Word – his will for you is your sanctification.  You do not have to wrestle with whether or not God wants you to succeed in your sinful scheme.  He does not.  And if your goal is to please Him, then you already have the Spirit of God, so live holy.

2.  They can know a human shortcut for decision-making.  There is always complexity in making decisions, but sometimes the Bible gives us some simplicity too.  For the Thessalonians, they were loving one another, and they simply needed urging to do so more and more (see 1Thess.4:9-12).  It is a bit like Colossians 3:12-14, where Paul gives a list of instructions and then says, “above all these, put on love, which binds them together in perfect harmony.”  They should live in such a way that they are not making an unnecessary show of themselves, or being an unnecessary burden on others, or giving an unhelpful testimony to outsiders.  Do the loving thing.  I know there is complexity in that, but let’s be thankful for the simplicity too!

3.  They can know encouragement in the face of death.  This young church was introduced to the hope of Christ’s return during Paul’s brief visit to their town.  Bizarrely, we live in a time when secular reporters and political leaders might use the language of “disasters on a biblical scale,” “Armageddon,” “apocalyptic,” etc.. Yet, the church can be eerily quiet on our subject of eschatology.  The Thessalonians were not concerned with sinister global plots.  They were concerned because some of their fellow believers had died.  When death hits a congregation, the focus is understandably localised.  Did those who had died miss out on Christ’s return?  Paul wrote to encourage them, and to encourage them to encourage one another.  That’s what a biblical understanding of the end times will do for a church – it will stir hope and a heavenward, Christ-ward gaze.  Death is brimming with the pain of separation.  But we have a hope that answers that pain.  Those who have died will be brought “together with” Jesus when he comes (v14).  When Christ calls, we will be caught up “together with them” in the clouds.  Together, our forever state will be “together with the Lord” (v17).  Death, for believers, stirs anticipation of being together!  As death becomes a more prominent feature of your congregation’s experience in the coming years, let’s encourage one another with these words (v18).

Preaching Holiness – part 4

Holiness2This week we have been pondering the preacher and the theme of holiness.  There is so much more that could be said about each point, but hopefully we have had something to think and pray about.

15. Every sliver of unholiness will be judged and purged.  We really have no clue of how good that will be!  (That includes the unholiness of “older brother” religiosity . . . which means more of our lives will get there “as through fire” than we probably realize.  Nevertheless, what an utter relief the purging of all sin will bring to ransomed souls.)

16. When we make holiness sound like sour pickled vegetables we don’t motivate anyone to think beyond this life.  The New Creation will be wonderful in many respects, not least because of the total absence of sin and pain and tears, as well as the presence of Christ Himself.  Too many in our churches still have lingering images of sterility and fun-free hymnathons.  The Bible gives a lot of future glimpses to motivate us in the present.

17. Jesus was holy and magnetic, often our version of holiness is anything but.  The truly holy person is fully alive.  At the same time that person will be profoundly attractive and deeply offensive.  (And if the Gospels are an indicator, then such Christlikeness will be attractive to needy people, and offensive to religious people.)

18. The great threat to holiness in the church is not just the worldliness of culture, but also the pseudo-holiness of church culture.  Just as a weekend of binge behavior in a degraded society is horribly empty, so too is a relationally empty performance devoid of meaningful engagement with God and others (sometimes polite conversation can be empty too).

19. Preaching for holiness cannot be restricted to applications of conduct, nor even of conforming the mind…it must seek to engage and stir the heart.  It is not what goes in from the outside that defiles a person (i.e. religious duties and traditions), but what spews forth from the heart.  So preach in such a way as to engage the heart.  Informing the mind and pressuring the conduct will never suffice when the heart of the problem is the, uh, heart.

20. The overwhelming use of the term “Holy” in the New Testament is in reference to the Spirit of God.  Let’s be sure that our preaching is pursued with a thoroughly biblical and growing understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit in respect to our sanctification.  Too much Christianity still ignores the Spirit or turns Him into some sort of battery pack (either highly visible or highly invisible).  It is by the Spirit that we are united to Christ.  True relationally rich holiness is our privilege in the Gospel!

21. If you long for greater holiness in the lives of people in your church, don’t preach for “holiness.”  Instead, pray and preach for spiritual vitality in their relationship with Christ.  If we, and they, will love God, then what we want to do will be profoundly holy.  The Gospel does a work on our wants!
So much more could be said, but let’s pray for the beauty of God’s holiness to pervade our lives, our ministry and our churches . . .

Preaching Holiness – part 3

Holiness2This week we are chewing on matters of preaching and true godly holiness.  I won’t review where we have been already, but please do go back to the first posts if you missed them.

10. People need instructing in holiness, but never in a sermon severed from the glorious good news of the Gospel.  There are plenty of instructional sections in the New Testament epistles, for example.  Don’t go joyriding in an Imperative Harvester, but instead keep the instructions firmly planted in the rich soil of Gospel content within the context of their own Bible book.  We might take weeks to preach an epistle, but the original hearers heard them in one sitting.  So make sure you aren’t plucking instruction and losing the rich theological setting for them.

11. The preacher’s personal holiness matters beyond words.  This is more than conformity to high standards of integrity.  It also shows in your love, your joy, your peace, your patience, your kindness . . . oh wait, I see what is going on here (it’s back to the tangible reality of the Holy Spirit again!)

12. Holiness is not merely movement away from something, it is movement towards someone.  False holiness will come across as a sour reaction against everything, whereas true holiness involves movement toward God, and out of ourselves toward others.  Christlikeness involves being like Christ, who was no sour hermit.

13. We must think root and not just fruit in respect to holiness.  If we ignore the appetites deep within, then we can give the impression that holiness is something people should pretend to like (while really only obeying through gritted teeth because they would much rather be sinning).  The new inner relish given by the Spirit results in genuine hatred of sin and delight in God’s holiness.

14. The world should not be allowed to define holiness … neither contemporary culture, nor your parents’ culture.  While some let contemporary cultural values shape their own, others let the cultural values of a previous generation do the shaping. Be Bible soaked so that it shows in your life, your personality, your attitude, etc.

(Probably) the final part of the series will go live tomorrow…

Preaching Holiness – part 2

Holiness2We are pondering God’s holiness and our preaching.  Let’s continue the list of thoughts:

5. The Gospel is not just a solution for the guilt of our un-holiness, it also includes a recipe to generate true holiness.  Often preachers offer a way to get rid of the guilt, but leave listeners feeling that the pursuit of holiness and their ongoing commitment to Christ’s cause is a burden planted firmly on their shoulders.  The Gospel isn’t simply about forgiveness of sin, it also includes the transformation of the human heart and the wonder of union with Christ by the indwelling Spirit of God (the Holy Spirit).

6. The compulsion stirred in a Gospel-gripped heart is infinitely stronger than our most vehement tirade.  We will always be drawn to the notion that our pressurized guilt trip will bring about change, but only because we don’t fully understand humans or the Gospel.  Peer and preacher-pressure may manufacture diligent religious duties, but a delighted heart will give anything for the One loved.  Preach Him that others might love Him.

7. Show me a heart that truly loves Christ, and I will show you a life that is growing in holiness.  If the people in our churches could just catch a glimpse of the wonder of God’s pure love in Christ then the result would be incredible growth in holiness.  Our privilege is to seek to know Him more and offer Him more effectively.

8. True holiness momentum comes not from the pulpit, but from the stirred heart.  So preach and present the One who stirs hearts.  Our task is not primarily to instruct and constrain.  It is to present and invite.  Offer the most compelling Christ that you can and you will barely scratch the surface of the richness of the One who for all eternity has brought infinite delight to the heart of the Father in heaven.  We could always do better at preaching Christ.  Let’s stop wasting time and energy preaching performance and give ourselves to the Christian minister’s great privilege.

9. What spills from the preacher’s heart on Sunday must first thrill the preacher’s heart during the week.  If our lives are too caught up with the business of the church enterprise instead of prayer and ministering the Word, then we may give leadership speeches, but we won’t be preaching Christ out of the overflow of our own hearts.  In this sense, holiness momentum is generated via the pulpit, but the starting point is private delight in the wonder of Christ.

More tomorrow…

Preaching Holiness

Holiness2Holiness is a huge theme in the Bible.  It should be a huge theme in our preaching.  Sadly, what is often preached about holiness seems to fall woefully short of the richness of the biblical reality.

I remember hearing one preacher say confidently that what our nation needs is to be moralized.  I suspect he didn’t understand what he was saying.  Moralizing is a danger in preaching, not because we don’t want to see society transformed, but precisely because moralizing won’t do the job.  Pressuring people to conform to certain standards won’t generate holiness in our churches or our land any more than pressuring a tone deaf choir to sing in tune will lead to sweet music.

Here are a few key thoughts to ponder on holiness and preaching:

1. People don’t make themselves holy, God’s Holy Spirit makes people holy.  It is so tempting to pressure people to conform to some standard, but we must preach out of a conviction that God changes lives.  The clue is in His title, the Holy Spirit.  This reality should influence our pre-preaching prayer, our content and our manner in the pulpit.

2. When we only present holiness as being “set apart from” something, it can sound so sour and empty.  What passes for holiness in many churches is so sour and strange that it seems a million miles from the wholeness of life and love we see in Jesus as we read the Gospels.  True holiness is not pinched, it is fully alive.  True holiness is not a barrel of vinegar, it is a feast of true and abundant life.

3. God’s holiness is not sour, it is infinitely beautiful and attractive.  When we present God as a celestial killjoy, we misrepresent the God whose abundant heart created and infinite generosity created unfettered joy and vibrant life.  God’s holiness is not the sterile hygiene of an operating theatre, it is the fullness of the rich loyal love He enjoys within the Godhead…

4. God’s holiness is not balanced against His love – it is the reality of His loving Triunity.  Too often we offer strange balancing acts that seem somewhat foreign to the presentation of Scripture.  God is not infinitely loving, but only 50% that way.  It is not true that He is love (but also something else, with the “but” being an adversative).  God is love.  And that love is perfectly faithful, loyal, pure, just, righteous and holy.

The list continues tomorrow…