Founders Ministries Blog

Founders Ministries Blog

Founders Ministries exists to work for the recovery of the gospel and the biblical re-formation of local churches. They have a myriad of ministries that are given to that two-pronged effort, including a church planting network, an online study center, a publishing house, a quarterly journal, regional conferences and events, minister search list, friends list, and church list. In addition to this their website is populated with loads of resources for pastors, students, church leaders and serious Christians.

Contributers to the blog:

Dr. Tom Ascol, Senior Pastor, Grace Baptist Church, Cape Coral, FL

Dr. Tom Hicks, Pastor of Discipleship, Morningview Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL (Tom is the team leader of the blog).

Dr. Fred Malone, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Clinton, LA

Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

Dr. Phil Newton, Pastor, South Woods Baptist Church, Memphis, TN

Dr. Kenneth Puls, Director of Publications and the Study Center for Founders Ministries, Cape Coral, FL

Dr. Jeff Robinson, Pastor, Philadelphia Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL

Jon English Lee, Ph.D. Student, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY

Avoid Legalism: Emphasize the Law

by Tom Hicks

Many of today's young evangelicals have happily thrown off the legalistic fundamentalism of their childhood. They've come to a greater understanding of God's abundant grace, and the gospel has liberated them from slavery to guilt and fear. That's a very good thing. But I submit that recovering the gospel alone isn't enough to keep legalism at bay. We need a renewed emphasis on the law of God or else legalism will inevitably reemerge. Specifically, we need a clear emphasis on (1) the law as a covenant, and (2) the law as a standard or rule.

The Law as a Covenant

The law as a covenant says, “Do this and live” (Lev 18:5; Ez 20:11; Lk 10:28; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12). It demands perfect obedience for eternal life (Gal 3:12; 5:3). It makes no provision for forgiveness of sins (Gal 3:10). The law covenant is inflexible and absolute. Even one sin against the law covenant brings guilt and eternal condemnation. That means we're all condemned in the court of the law covenant because we're all sinners. The good news is that Christ's perfect obedience to the terms of the law covenant brings justification and eternal life for all who belong to Him.

If, however, we forget the law covenant's strict requirement of perfect obedience for justification and eternal life, then we'll inevitably start to think that we can imperfectly keep the law for our justification and eternal life. This isn't theoretical. While I appreciate many of the things N.T. Wright says, I believe he's wrong about this in particular. Wright, popular among many evangelicals, teaches that we initially receive justification and life by grace, but we retain our justification and life by a kind of imperfect soft-obedience to the law. Wright, and those who follow him, have forgotten the strict demands of the law as a covenant.

Evangelicals who follow Wright on his doctrine of justification will find themselves re-enslaved to the legalism from which they thought they were liberated. They'll keep the law to retain God's saving love and favor. They'll fear losing Christ and His good graces; so, they'll perform. Moreover, the works they do won't really be “good” because they won't flow from faith resting in Christ's complete satisfaction of the terms of the law as a covenant. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23).

The Law as a Standard or Rule

In Christ, we're free from the law as a covenant! But we're not free from the law as a standard or rule. After Jesus justifies us, He graciously points us to His good law as our guide in sanctification. As believers, we express our love for Christ by learning to keep the standard of His law more and more. The law of God is the Christian's “rule of walking” faithfully in Christ. Romans 7:12 says, “The law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.” Paul says, “I delight in the law of God in my inner being” (Rom 7:22). Romans 8:4 says that Christ satisfied the law so that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”

If we don't emphasize the law as our sufficient standard of faithful conduct, then we'll start to make up our own standards. Preachers will teach “practical” ways of applying the gospel that aren't anchored in God's law but only in their own experiences and preferences. That's authoritarianism. Church cultures, rather than God's law, will tell us how to live in light of the gospel. Extra-biblical emphases and practices will arise by the “leading of the Spirit,” while God's own law is marginalized. If young evangelicals don't emphasize and apply the biblical doctrine of God's law, they'll inevitably be re-enslaved to the legalism from which they were liberated.

The Bible teaches “through the law comes knowledge of sin,” (Rom 3:20), “where there is no law, there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15), and “sin is not counted where there is no law” (Rom 5:13). The doctrine of Christian liberty is based on the Bible's doctrine of the law. If we lose the doctrine of law, then we'll lose our liberty. We will become legalists again. But when we emphasize the law of God, we'll be free from all extra-biblical commandments to walk wisely in light of His sufficient commands.

The gospel alone isn't enough to keep us from legalism. The law of God, correctly understood as a covenant and a standard or rule, is a necessary and powerful protection from legalism.

Preparing for Gathered Worship: Come to Christ


Those involved in leading gathered worship know that much planning and preparation go into each service. The time we spend worshipping God together as His church is valuable. So time is invested praying and preparing the message, selecting and rehearsing the music, checking the sound and media, cleaning and making ready the building. When we arrive, we expect all to be ready. We assume that our leaders and those serving in various ministries will be in place.

But what of the church family? What should be expected of us? What are our role and responsibilities in gathered worship as a congregation?

This is the first in a series of posts in which I hope to probe these questions. How can we best prepare for, participate in and respond to corporate worship? We begin with preparing. The first thing we must do to prepare for worship may seem obvious, but is the most important.

We must come to Christ.

If we are to come to God and worship God, we must have Christ! Jesus said in John 14:6 that He alone is the Way, the Truth and Life. No one comes to the Father except through Him. Our greatest need, as we prepare for worship, is knowing and loving and being in Christ.

In John 4 Jesus enters into a discussion with a Samaritan woman at the well. He asks her for a drink and then tells her in verse 10:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”

He then explains to her that He is the source of living water. Verses 13-14:

Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

As the conversation continues, Jesus confronts the woman with her sin in verse 18 by asking her to call her husband. She responds by changing the subject and asking Jesus a question about worship in verses 19-20.

The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

She was asking about the place of worship, but what she needed most to know was the Person to worship. Notice how Jesus answers her question. He tells her in verses 21-24:

“Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

She needed the Spirit of God to quicken her spirit that she might receive truth and know and recognize and come to Christ. Her reply in verse 25 indicates that God was indeed opening her eyes. She says to Jesus:

“I know that Messiah is coming (he who is called Christ). When he comes, he will tell us all things.”

Jesus then tells her plainly in verse 26: “I who speak to you am he.”

What the woman does next is marvelous. She has found Christ. And now she is no longer curious about this mountain or that mountain. She leaves her water pot, goes into the town, speaks with people she may have otherwise avoided, and tells them in verse 29:

“Come, see a Man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?”

This is our great need as well. If we are to worship God, we must first “come see a Man.” We need our eyes and hearts opened that we might see and know and come to Jesus. We need this certainly when God first rescues us from our sin and draws us to Himself. But we need it continually. We need always to look to Christ and stay anchored in the hope of gospel (Hebrews 12:2).

So, as you prepare for worship, keep your eyes on Jesus. It is only because of Him that you can come into the presence of God and fear no condemnation. It is only because of Him that God receives you and delights in your worship. You can come into the gathered worship of the church and enjoy great fellowship, sing favorite songs, hear the reading of God’s Word and the prayers of His people, learn right answers to good questions—but if you miss Christ, you will miss worship.

6 Battle-Tested Ways to Become More Content

As Tom Hicks outlined in a recent post here, so unusual is contentment in a fallen human being that Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs called it “a rare jewel.” Nothing exhibits Christian maturity like contentment in Christ and nothing unmasks our immaturity like discontentment, which I examined in part I of this series. Yet, contentment is elusive. The writer of Proverbs alludes to this in 27:20b, “... never satisfied are the eyes of man.”

What is contentment? Burroughs defines it this way: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.... It is the inward submission of the heart.” Similarly, Michael Scott Horton asserts that “Being content with life means accepting the circumstances in which God’s providence has placed me.”

My own definition is brief but strikes at the heart of the sin of discontentment: contentment is the opposite of covetousness. It is the opposite of covetousness because the coveting heart says, “I deserve better than what God has given me, a better ministry position, a better job, a better spouse, better children, a better socioeconomic position... better.” Discontentment runs at cross purposes with the tenth commandment. And fallen man is a discontented lot.

But there is good news for followers of Jesus Christ. In Philippians 4, Paul says he learned the secret of contentment in any and every circumstance. Paul, the great apostle, Paul the author of Romans and Galatians and Ephesians and much more, Paul, whom the Lord took up into the third heaven, who encountered Jesus tangibly on the road to Damascus, had to learn contentment. That fact alone encourages us with hope and reminds us that sanctification indeed progresses in fits and starts over the course of a life.

How did he do it? Paul cultivated contentment in his life by reaching a settled conclusion that Christ was enough for him. He was willing to say in fashion similar to Luther, “Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also….” As I pointed out previously, that is at the heart of the meaning of Phil. 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s not a promise that adding a little Jesus to my daily repertoire will push me to perform superhuman feats, but a promise that is far more expansive: I can find peace and joy in this life, no matter the intensity of the storm that swirls around me, when Christ is my pearl of great price.

But how may I cultivate this most elusive of virtues? With a little help from Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his exposition of Philippians coupled with few of my own insights, here are a six thoughts:

1. Conditions and circumstances in life are always changing, therefore my satisfaction and joy must not be tied to circumstances. Jesus must not be one who merely meets our material and physical needs. Jesus is not a divine ATM. John Piper’s words are sobering and penetrating here: “I’ll tell you what makes Jesus look beautiful. It’s when you smash your car and your little child smashes through the windshield and lands dead on the street, and you say, through the deepest possible pain, ‘God is enough. He is good. He will take care of us. He will satisfy us. He will see us through this. He is our treasure.’ Whom I in heaven but you and on earth there is nothing that I besides you, my flesh and my heart and my little child may fail, but you are the strength of my heart and my portion forever. That makes God look glorious as God, not as giver of cars or safety or health…. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him in the midst of loss, not prosperity.” Thus, contentment comes when I melt my will and my desires into Christ’s will and desires, even when I struggle to understand my circumstances.

2. What matters supremely in life is my soul and my relationship to God. Christ’s death and resurrection is my only hope. Hope may be our most powerful possession. Hope is the sunshine and rain of our life—it is what makes us grow and thrive. Without it, we won’t flourish. An old saying applies here: “Human beings can live 40 days without food, four days without water, and four minutes without air, but we can’t live four seconds without hope.” And we have a sure and settled hope as the anchor of our souls (Heb. 6:19).

3. God is concerned about me as my Father, and nothing happens to me apart from His will. Even the hairs on my head are numbered. He is meticulously sovereign. He is good and he delights to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:7–11).

4. God’s will and God’s ways are a great mystery, but I know that whatever he wills or permits is for my good. Every situation in life is an unfolding of some manifestation of God’s love and goodness. Therefore, my business is to look for each special manifestation of God’s goodness and be prepared for surprises and blessings. Romans 8:28 is not a trite cliché, but a glorious promise for God’s children that serves as solid ground for their feet.

5. I must not regard my circumstances and conditions in and of themselves, but as part of God’s dealings with me in the work of perfecting my soul and bringing me to final perfection. In a life east of Eden, suffering will be a major part of this. We must burn into our minds and hearts the words of the psalmist in 145:17, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works.”

6. Whatever my conditions may be at this present moment, they are only temporary, they are passing, and they can never rob me of the joy and the glory that ultimately await me in Christ. To be content, I must realize that my inheritance is in heaven and it is being guarded to be revealed on the last day (1 Peter 1:4). Paul called his affliction momentary and light (2 Cor. 4:16–18), even though he suffered in ways the vast majority of us never will. See his ministry resume in 2 Cor. 11:16–29 for a stunning laundry list of Paul’s sufferings in service of the gospel.

Next time, in part 3, I will examine what a contented life in Christ looks like in the full-court press of everyday life.

What are You Teaching?

“I’ve been a Southern Baptist all of my life but I’ve never heard these things. Why didn’t they teach this to me?”

The question struck a nerve. I had just finished an hour-long discussion with several people, including the lady who asked the question. We had talked about basic things concerning the Old Testament and New Testament. Our talk focused on what Jesus declared to the religious elite who hid behind their religious façade, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me” (John 5:39). Jesus also set the example for what He meant when He met the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, and “beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (Luke 24:27). All of Scripture points to Jesus Christ, God’s work of redemption through Him, and how He has accomplished the work necessary to bring sinners and rebels into relationship as sons and daughters of the living God.

Yet this lady had not heard of this basic kind of teaching. So how would that affect the way that she reads the Bible? Would she grasp the continuity between the testaments? Would she understand the first gospel statement in Genesis 3:15, and the way that God’s redemptive message continued through Malachi? Would the statement of John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), make sense to her? Would she grasp what redemption, atonement, propitiation, and reconciliation meant through how both testaments develop these doctrines?

I could understand if she had not been taught some intricacies in historical theology or the various interpretations of Hebrews six or even the different theories of the atonement. But what we considered should be basic in every congregation.

Questions to Consider

To help us think through on this subject, let me offer a few questions to consider as we reflect upon our local congregations.

1. Do we take seriously teaching “the whole counsel of God”? Paul told the Ephesian elders that he did not shrink back from this kind of full-orbed teaching of God’s Word with them (Acts 20:27). What does that include? It certainly goes far beyond the so-called “Roman Road!” Would it not be useful to consider how our confessions of faith offer a compendium of what we must teach over a period of years with our churches? Should not these doctrinal standards work out in our regular preaching?

2. Do we preach through books of the Bible in order to show the continuity of God’s Word? Here’s what I mean. Preaching through a book, if done properly, can never be done in isolation from the rest of Scripture. Each biblical book has been informed by and/or connected with other portions of Scripture. Faithful exposition does biblical theology as the sermon unfolds. Plus, preaching/teaching consecutively through a book also teaches good hermeneutics, so that those listening learn through that process how to properly interpret God’s Word. Expositions should model how to study the Word.

3. Do we organize opportunities to help our members grasp biblical theology, church history (and historical theology with it), biblical discipleship, ecclesiology, and missions? Obviously, I can add more fields of study, but surely, the ones that I’ve mentioned are essential for church members to understand their relationship to the body of Christ, their part in God’s mission, the practice of spiritual disciplines, and their growing understanding of God’s Word. These might take place in small groups, Sunday bible classes, discipleship groups, men’s and ladies’ studies, student studies, Wednesday night classes, etc. Shouldn’t we be embarrassed when cult groups understand their “faith” better than evangelicals? Let’s take away the excuses that our people make for not knowing the Christian faith well enough to explain it with passion!

4. Do we prepare our congregations to face trials, adversity, and even death by having saturated them in the Word? Several years ago, it hit me that a major part of my pastoral role is to help people face trials, adversity, and death. Rarely do we have warning that these ever-present realities of living in a fallen world are about to meet our people with shocking force. But if they are prepared by having steeped in the richness of the Word, then when we come to the moments of bringing comfort and encouragement, we’re not scrambling to make up for lost years when we should have made them ready for most everything that providence lays at their feet.

Over a two or three-year period, we walked through great trials with three of our families, each of whom lost a child. We wept with them as we sought to encourage them through the weightiness of a child’s death. Yet as we journeyed, each made some comment to the effect that the Lord had been preparing them through His grace to bear up under their loss. Scripture they had stored up came to the forefront of their need.

What are you teaching your congregation? Let it never be said of us, “They didn’t teach me these things.” Instead, proclaim Jesus Christ, admonish and teach every person under your charge with all wisdom, in order that you might present him and her complete in Christ. Labor and strive to do so in Christ’s power that works mightily within you (Col 1:28–29).

Preparing for Gathered Worship: Put on Love


If we are to worship God in a way that honors Him, we must first be in Christ, resting in His righteousness alone, trusting in Him alone for our acceptance before God. But we must also, as people called by His name, put on love.

In Colossians 3:12–15 Paul tells us:

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, 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. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.

When Jesus was asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” (Matthew 22:36), He did not say: “Know all that you can know about God so you can understand and explain all the great mysteries.” He did not say: “Have great faith so you faith can move mountains.” He did not say: “Give all that you have to feed the poor” or “be willing to die a martyr’s death in the fire.”

Note what Jesus did say:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 22:37–40).

Love to God and love to one another is what should mark us out as followers of Christ.

We should love God supremely—with every part of our being—all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. And we should love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus concludes: “On these two commands hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

It is our love for one another in the body of Christ that identifies us as disciples of Jesus. Jesus told his disciples:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).

This love is manifest in numerous ways. It exults and celebrates with those who are rejoicing. It reaches out with compassion and hope to those who are struggling. It offers encouragement to those who are discouraged and weighed down. It shares in both joys and sufferings, in trials as well as triumphs. It pursues with discipline those who have strayed and turned down bad paths. It admits wrongs, seeks forgiveness and accepts with open arms those who repent and seek reconciliation.

Jesus sets our priority on love.

This is what He taught Moses, when He gave His law on Mount Sinai. It is what He lived out when He perfectly fulfilled His law and went to the cross to die for desperate, needy sinners. It is what He taught His disciples:

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another (John 15:9-17)

As we prepare for worship, we must put on love. Without love—it does not matter how well we go through the motions or say the right words. Without love—it does not matter how good we sound in our prayers and our singing and our preaching. Without love we are a sounding brass and a clanging cymbal (1 Corinthians 13).

Responding to Opposition and Persecution

It is impossible to live a faithful Christian life without experiencing opposition and persecution. Jesus promises his disciples that in this world we “will have tribulation” (John 16:33), and Paul warns Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly live in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). Given this inevitable reality, how then are followers of Jesus to respond to such treatment?

Jesus clearly answers that question when he says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) and “bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28). This is what apostles teach, as well. “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse” (Romans 12:14); “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Peter 3:9).

It is natural to become defensive or combative when mistreated, but the way of Christ calls us to respond with humility and love. As we remember our sin and what we actually deserve, we are humbled. As we remember our opponents and what they actually need, we desire to see them blessed.

Two examples stand out in my mind as illustrating this kind of grace at work. The first comes from a fascinating scene in the life of King David. When his son Absalom usurped his throne, David was forced to flee Jerusalem. Early in his journey Shimei confronted him and his entourage by throwing stones at them and cursing David, “Get out, get out, you man of blood, you worthless man! The LORD has avenged on you all the blood of the house of Saul, in whose place you have reigned, and theLORD has given the kingdom into the hand of your son Absalom. See, your evil is on you, for you are a man of blood” (2 Samuel 16:7–8).

Those words had enough truth in them to pierce David’s conscience. One of his mighty men, Abishai, wanted to decapitate that “dead dog” Shimei, but David, reminded of his own sin and God’s sovereignty over even these events, refused to allow any vengeful response and to leave the matter with God.

The second example comes from the life of George Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist who was greatly used in the Great Awakening. He was often abused by opponents, even having rotten fruit and dead cats thrown at him on occasion. Perhaps nothing wounded him more deeply than to be vilified in the name of Christ by fellow ministers of the gospel. He describes one such occasion that took place on a Sunday morning in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1740.

In the morning, I went to church, and heard the Commissary [representative of the Bishop of London] preach. Had some infernal spirit been sent to draw my picture, I think it scarcely possible that he could have painted me in more horrid colours. I think, if ever, then was the time that all manner of evil was spoken against me falsely for Christ’s sake. The Commissary seemed to ransack church history for instances of enthusiasm and abused grace. He drew a parallel between me and all the Oliverians, Ranters, Quakers, French Prophets, till he came down to a family of the Dutarts, who lived, not many years ago, in South Carolina, and were guilty of the most notorious incests and murder.

How would you have responded to being singled out, lied about, and scorned in such a way in a Sunday morning sermon? Whitefield’s response shows us the way of Christ.

To the honour of God’s free grace be it spoken, whilst the Commissary was representing me thus, I felt the Blessed Spirit strengthening and refreshing my soul. God, at the same time, gave me to see what I was by nature, and how I had deserved His eternal wrath; and, therefore, I did not feel the least resentment against the preacher. No; I pitied, I prayed for him; and wished, from my soul, that the Lord would convert him, as he once did the persecutor Saul, and let him know that it is Jesus Whom he persecutes. In the evening, many came, I was informed, to hear what I would say; but as the Commissary hinted, that his sermons should be printed, and as they were full of invidious falsehood, I held my tongue, and made little or no reply.

This is precisely the way that our Lord responded when he suffered to accomplish our salvation. In doing so he has provide us with an example of how we who follow him are to respond. “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

Christians must remember that our Master secured our salvation through suffering and crucifixion. The path that we are called to walk as we work out that salvation in our own lives is no different. As servants, we are not above our Master. By the grace that comes from our Lord, we can learn to live by faith in him so that we do not respond to opposition and persecution in the same way as those who do not know his grace. As we do so, we demonstrate that there is a power greater than our own strength at work in our lives and provide a platform for the source of this power to be proclaimed with persuasive credibility.

Participating in Gathered Worship: Worship with Eager Submission

In the last several posts we have asked the question: How are we to join in the gathered worship of the church? We must make an effort to come and gather. We must enter fully into worship when we arrive. And we must worship God in spirit and in truth.

Another key element of our participation in worship is a submissive, teachable heart. When we come to worship, we should pray that God will subdue and humble our hearts. We too often show up to corporate worship with our own agendas and assumptions. We get set in our ways and no longer expect God’s Word to challenge and change us. We need God to come and work in us—to bend our will to His. We need to pray and then obey: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). We need to learn submission so we can joyfully love and serve and follow Him together.

This includes submission to church leaders, pastors, and elders who shepherd our souls. We are told in the book of Hebrews:

Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you (Hebrews 13:17).

And it includes submission to one another in the fear of God, as we walk together in the light of the gospel.

submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21)

Most importantly, we are to be attentive and submissive to the Word of God. We must come ready to hear and receive and do what God teaches us in Scripture. This is the desire of the psalmist in Psalm 119: “I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (Psalm 119:112). James admonishes us: “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves” (James 1:22). It should be our predisposition as followers of Christ to believe and to do all that He says in His Word. We see this mindset displayed in Peter (Simon) in Luke 5:

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking (Luke 5:1–6).

Peter had just heard Jesus teaching the Word of God. He had provided his boat so Jesus could teach the crowd. But then Jesus asked Peter to do something that did not make sense. He told him to go out to the deep part of the lake and cast his net. Peter was a fisherman and he knew the lake well. He knew the best times and the best places to fish. He had been out fishing the previous night without catching any fish. Yet, because Jesus told him to go and cast the net, he did so. He was predisposed to obey his Master. “But at Your word, I will let down the nets.” Peter obeyed and a bountiful catch was the result.

We need to nurture such a disposition in our own hearts. Let’s cast off reluctance, hesitation, and lethargy, and pursue a readiness and inclination to do what God says in His Word. Participation in worship requires a submissive, teachable heart—one that is opened, humbled, and readied for obedience by grace. May God work in our hearts by the power of His Spirit, each time we sit under the preaching and teaching of His Word, and grant us an eager submission—ready to hear, ready to learn, and ready to obey.

See a Table of Contents (thus far) for this series: Gathered Worship in the House of God

(Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)

Participating in Gathered Worship: Worship in Spirit and in Truth

What would you consider essential to worship? What is truly necessary if true worship is to occur? Is it a certain style of preaching? Is it a certain type of music? Is it a sense of reverence and awe? Is it a sense of excitement and praise? Of course it is important to be intentional and thoughtful about our preaching and singing in worship. And it is important that we respond in appropriate ways as we worship. But Jesus points us to something deeper at the heart of worship.

In John 4, in the midst of a conversation at the well with a woman from Samaria, Jesus revealed the essence of true worship. He said in verses 23–24:

But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth (John 4:23–24).

In these verses Jesus teaches us two essential truths about worship. Those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth. These are not two different or distinct ways of worshipping God, but two essential parts of the same worship.

If we are to participate rightly in worship, we must worship in spirit.

Our worship must be heart-felt and alive in the power of Holy Spirit. In order for us to worship in spirit, we need the Spirit of God to seek us out and make us alive. God must first come and draw us to Himself, awaken us, quicken us, and enable us to come. As the Holy Spirit indwells us and enlivens our spirit, we see Christ as precious—we see our great need to be in Him, clothed in His righteousness alone—and we are able to worship God in spirit.

If we are to participate rightly in worship, we must worship in truth.

Our worship must be saturated with God’s Word and offered in submission to God’s Word. In order for us to worship in truth, we must pursue God and know God as He has revealed Himself to us in His Word. John begins His gospel pointing us to the Word.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:1–5).

If we are to worship in truth, we must have Christ. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus said of Himself:

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

God gives us Christ, who is truth, and His Word. His Word is truth (John 17:17). It is through the Word of God that we know Christ and know the gospel, as the Spirit of God illumines the Word in our hearts and gives us understanding of truth.

God would have us worship Him in spirit and in truth. This is the essence of true worship. God is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. We see this in both the Old and New Testaments.

In Isaiah 66 the prophet delivered the truth that Jesus was teaching in John 4: God cannot be confined to one place. He cannot be contained in a temple of stone.

Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD (Isaiah 66:1–2a).

But notice where God’s presence does abide:

But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word (Isaiah 66:2b).

God looks upon those who are humble and contrite in spirit (worship in spirit) and who tremble at His Word (worship in truth).

Worship in spirit and in truth described the worship of the early church:

And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness (Acts 4:31).

They were filled with the Holy Spirit (worship in spirit) and they spoke God’s Word with boldness (worship in truth).

Worship in spirit and truth framed Paul’s instruction for music in the church in the parallel passages in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 that speak of psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs:

Worship in Spirit:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart (Ephesians 5:18–19).

Worship in Truth:

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16).

“God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” This has significant implications for us as we worship God today. As we plan worship, and lead worship, and participate in worship, there are two things we must do that are most essential:

  1. We must saturate our services with the Word of God. We must read it and preach it and pray it and sing it. We must obey it and follow its instructions as we order our services of worship.
  2. And we must pray for the presence and power of the Spirit. We need God’s Spirit to enliven our spirits and illumine His Word if we are to hear and understand and respond rightly to His Word.

May God grant us hearts that are sensitive to the presence of His Spirt and submissive to His truth as it is proclaimed whenever we gather in His name to worship.

We confess, without Your grace,
Vain our efforts in this place.
You must come and warm and stir,
For true worship to occur.

For Your Word, O Lord, we yearn;
Empty, let it not return.
Come, accomplish all Your will—
Draw, convict, give life, and fill.

(from “Lord, We Come to Hear Your Word”)

See a Table of Contents (thus far) for this series: Gathered Worship in the House of God

(Scripture quotations are from the Holy BIble, English Standard Version (ESV) ©2001 by Crossway)

Why Expository Preaching?


A few years before his death, I was talking with Dr. Stephen Olford about trends in preaching. The notable British expositor spent the last twenty years of his fifty-plus years in gospel ministry teaching biblical exposition from his preaching institute in Memphis and around the globe, influencing thousands of pastors over the years to “preach the Word.” He told me of sitting in an office discussing preaching with one of the country’s best-known young pastors. That megachurch pastor was not then and, to my knowledge, not presently given to weekly exposition. Rather his focus has been on topical sermons, typically lively and visually illustrated, even elaborately choreographed. In a somewhat shocking reprimand to the older preacher, this young man said, “Expository preaching is a thing of the past.” He went on to espouse his style of preaching as in vogue with the present generation.

I have often thought of that conversation with Dr. Olford, whose influence on my understanding of preaching from the time I was a junior in college continues to the present day. Olford rightly turned away from the trendy styles of preaching to stick with the practice that continues to transform lives and congregations after twenty centuries: biblical exposition. Does that mean that some of the trendy approaches to preaching cannot minister to people? Certainly not, for if God’s Word is read and opened to any degree, that Word goes forth to accomplish His purposes. Paul even gloried in Christ being preached by those who were antagonistic toward him, stating, “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice” (Phil 1:18). So even with styles that will fade when the next trend rolls around, the Lord is pleased to use weak, faulty messengers to convey truth that gives life.

Yet does that suggest that we may be careless when it comes to our approach to preaching? God forbid! As those who will give an account for the way that we handle God’s Word and shepherd His flock, we must guard against allowing opinion polls and marketers to shape the way that we preach the Word. Consequently, one does best to steer clear of any approach or preaching method that hinders or clouds or confuses the message of God’s Word. Desiring to be “trendy” melts before the gaze of Him before whom we will one day stand to give an account.

While not wanting to discourage, but rather, to clarify, all attempts at expository preaching are not genuinely expositional. I know that I have failed to expound the biblical text many times in my attempts at exposition. Some have the idea that if a nice, alliterated outline is used then the sermon is expository. But finely crafted outlines and rhyming terms do not an exposition make! Others provide a running commentary laced with quips and quotes that lacks clear explanation and application. That, too, falls short of exposition by unfortunately coming across more like a sterile, historical, or linguistic lecture than the Word of God opened and applied to the hearers. Does that also mean that all exposition is monolithic? Absolutely not! One can see the variety in the sermons recorded in the New Testament, as well as faithful expositions throughout the centuries.

I have found J. I. Packer’s explanation of biblical exposition to be most helpful. “The true idea of preaching is that the preacher should become a mouthpiece for his text, opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers, talking only in order that the text may speak itself and be heard, making each point from his text in such a manner ‘that the hearers may discern how God teacheth it from thence’ (Westminster Directory, 1645).” Let’s consider a few things that Packer brings out.

First, the basis of biblical exposition is the Holy Spirit inspired, divinely authoritative text of Scripture. One must be convinced that the Bible is the revelation of God before he approaches it with a passion to expound it. God has no more to say to us than what He has spoken in His Word, yet that is much more than we can fathom in a thousand lifetimes! In reflecting on the present power of God’s revelation, Packer notes, “Which means that when we read, or hear read or expounded, the biblical record of what God said in Old or New Testament times, we are as truly confronted by a word of revelation addressed by God to us, and demanding a response from us, as were the Jewish congregations who listened to Jeremiah or Ezekiel, or Peter, or Christ, or the Gentile congregations who listened to the sermons of the apostle Paul.” With that pinpointed revelation the expositor begins his work.

Second, since the Word is divinely inspired, then the burden of coming up with something clever or unique or provocative no longer rests on the preacher as though he is just another orator attempting to impress his audience enough to keep them coming back. Instead, a different burden weighs upon him—that of serving as a mouthpiece for the biblical text to speak to the hearers. In his preparation, delivery, and after the sermon, the expositor must keep the question riveted in his thoughts: ‘Am I a mouthpiece for the text or am I using the text to say what I want to say?’

Third, as a mouthpiece for the text, the preacher engages in “opening it up and applying it as a word from God to his hearers.” Here’s where the spade work in the study pays off, as the preacher (1) so digs into and wrestles with the biblical text until he understands it well enough to explain it, and (2) meditates on the implications and applications of the text to his hearers. Only after he has understood the text and applied it to his own life will he be ready to expound it to his hearers.

Why biblical exposition? Quite simply, because the thing that matters most to those who listen to us preach is not what we say but what God has already spoken. Our responsibility in preaching, therefore, must always be to serve as a mouthpiece for the text to speak effectively to those who listen. We’ll think more upon this subject in subsequent blog posts.

Where to Look in Dark Times


“Then I saw in my dream, that the Interpreter took Christian by the hand, and led him into a place where was a Fire burning against the wall, and one standing by it, always casting much water upon it, to quench it; yet did the Fire burn higher and hotter.”

There are times when theology can be very practical, times when what we believe and what we preach to ourselves can have a profound impact on our spiritual well-being. Nowhere is this more true than when we face times of darkness—suffering, persecution, trials, and temptations—times when we are doubting, distressed and unsure how to press on. John Bunyan offers a vivid illustration of this in his allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress.

In Bunyan’s story Christian is directed to the House of the Interpreter (the Bible) where he is shown “excellent things” that will help him in his journey. In one of the rooms Christian sees a Fire burning against a wall. He also observes one standing by the fire casting water on it, trying ceaselessly to quench it, yet the fire continues to burn higher and hotter. Christian cannot understand why the fire doesn’t go out. From his perspective the fire has no chance against such a diligent effort to douse its flames.

As Christian ponders the scene before him, he asks: “What does this mean?” The Interpreter explains that the Fire is the Work of Grace, accomplished in the heart by the Holy Spirit. The one who casts water on the fire is the Devil, who would like nothing better than to see the heart grow cold and still. Satan is hard at work in his endeavor, constant in his efforts. Scripture speaks of him as walking about as “a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Yet, in spite of his attempts to drown the heart with temptation and doubt, God’s work of grace burns higher and hotter, that is, it is not diminished in heat or light.

This imagery arises from Bunyan’s own experience with temptation as he describes in Grace Abounding:

Then hath the tempter come upon me, also, with such discouragements as these: You are very hot for mercy, but I will cool you; this frame shall not last always; many have been as hot as you for a spirit, but I have quenched their zeal. And with this, such and such who were fallen off would be sent before mine eyes. Then I should be afraid that I should do so too; but, thought I, I am glad this comes into my mind. Well, I will watch, and take what heed I can. Though you do, said Satan, I shall be too hard for you; I will cool you insensibly, by degrees, little by little. What care I, saith he, though I be seven years in chilling your heart if I can do it at last? Continual rocking will lull a crying child asleep. I will ply it close, but will have my end accomplished. Though you be burning hot at present, yet if I can pull you from this fire, I shall have you cold before it be long. [par. 110]

As Christian wonders at the sight of the flames’ perseverance in the face of such opposition, the Interpreter has him come around to see the backside of the wall previously hidden from his view. Here Christian sees the means by which the fire perseveres. A Man with a Vessel continually feeds the fire with Oil. Though water may pour endlessly to douse and discourage it, so also the oil continually revives it and sustains it that it may never go out.

The Interpreter continues his explanation: The Man with the Vessel is Christ and the Oil is His Grace that faithfully maintains the work of God in the heart, even through the dark times of suffering, persecution, difficulty and temptation. We see in Scripture that the apostle Paul faced all of these things, yet his faith held true. Paul was given “a messenger of Satan” that he might be humbled and learn to rely only on the grace of God. He testifies:

And lest I should be exalted above measure by the abundance of the revelations, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I be exalted above measure. Concerning this thing I pleaded with the Lord three times that it might depart from me. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong (2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

The confidence that Paul knew from trusting in the strength and power of Christ, he desired others to know as well. Though himself in chains, he wrote to the church at Philippi of his confidence in the power of the gospel:

being confident of this very thing, that He who has begun a good work in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:6).

We can glean at least three important truths from this lesson.

First, that Satan is ceaseless in his attack upon the believer. Christian has yet to learn in the Valley of Humiliation how fierce the Devil (Apollyon) can be in his hatred and oppression against those who seek the Celestial City. The Interpreter teaches Christian now so that he will be prepared when that opposition comes. We must not be caught off guard in the face of certain oppression and darkness.

Second, that the perseverance of the saints is all of grace. Without the Oil of God’s grace continually applied to the heart, we would quickly grow cold and dark. While we must be diligent in working out our own salvation in fear and trembling, we must remember Christ and set our hope in God who works in us “both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). The strength to persevere is not in us, not in our determination, not in our creativity, not in our optimism. We press on only by the grace of God.

Third, in times of darkness, we must remember to “look behind the wall.” The times when it is most difficult to understand God’s work in us and rest in His grace are often the times when we face the fiercest temptation and oppression. Through seasons of spiritual refreshment and growth, our faith may be strong; yet when these are past and times of difficulty arise, we can too easily find ourselves weak and unbelieving. Bunyan himself confessed in the conclusion to Grace Abounding:

I have wondered much at this one thing, that though God doth visit my soul with never to blessed a discovery of Himself, yet I have found again, that such hours have attended me afterwards, that I have been in my spirits so filled with darkness, that I could not so much as once conceive what God and that comfort was with which I have been refreshed. [par 3 in the Conclusion]

Though at times we may face darkness and even lose our sense of God’s presence with us, we must rest in the promise of His Word that He continues to abide with us (though unseen), pouring His grace out for the nourishment of our souls. We may be forgetful of His mercies, but He is never forgetful of our needs. We may not understand all the events and circumstances that God uses to shape our lives, but He has infinite wisdom and is always working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). We must remember this vantage point of faith that permits us to see the hand of God at work holding us, sustaining us and fitting us for heaven, even when we cannot perceive or comprehend it.

The lesson of the fire burning against the wall made its impression on Christian. When he is asked later in the story to recall his experience at the House of the Interpreter, this lesson is the first he mentions. The lesson, in fact, proves essential for Christian in his pilgrimage. Later in the allegory when Christian enters the Valley of the Shadow of Death he becomes confounded with the darkness and is unable to perceive the presence of God with him. He is fiercely attacked and tempted to turn back and forsake the Way. Christian survives the night by trusting in the promise of Scripture:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil;
For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
(Psalms 23:4)

Christian knows and trusts that God is with him, even though as he says: “I cannot perceive it.” God has promised: “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). This promise is just as certain when God seems (at least from our perspective) to be far off, as when we sense His nearness. We must learn to trust God at His Word and believe as Paul, that whether our path is filled with light or with darkness, “He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day” (2 Timothy 1:12).

From A Guide to John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress / A Fire Burning Against the Wall

Preparing for Gathered Worship: Expect to Meet with God


What are your expectations when you come to worship? Do you anticipate hearing an edifying sermon? Do you look forward to singing favorite songs or seeing friends? Are you eager to come to the weekly services of the church? Or has worship become just one more item to manage on your schedule?

As we prepare for gathered worship, it is important that we regularly check our expectations. They too easily can become mired in our own motives or pulled down by our own lack of aspiration. We are easily dulled, distracted, and discouraged. We sing about God’s glory while wondering how long it is until lunchtime. We pray for the preaching of His Word, then step out for a drink of water when the sermon starts. We speak well of God and yet forget that He is with us and is the very reason that we are gathered.

We must remember that worship is not about us; it is about God. We are coming into the presence of our Creator, who made all things, including us, for His own glory. We are coming into the presence of our King, who rules and reigns over us and all things. We are coming into the presence of our Father, who loves us and who gave His own Son to rescue us and bring us near. Christ shed His blood that we might have bold access to the throne of grace. David reminds us in Psalm 16:11 that in God’s presence “there is fullness of joy.” At His right hand there “are pleasures forevermore.” Our expectations, when rightly kindled, should be that worship is a glorious opportunity for us, together as the people of God, to draw near and enjoy the very One who is our joy and life and salvation.

We see an example of such expectation in the opening verses of Psalm 42.

As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
When shall I come and appear before God?
(Psalm 42:1–2)

Last time we considered the need to pray for the power of the Spirit as we come to worship. As we pray, we should anticipate that God will hear and answer our prayer—that He will be present and active in our times of worship, and as a result, we will leave challenged and changed by His Word.

May God guard us against simply marking time in our services. If we really grasp the reality that we are coming into the presence of our God, it will change our attitude and actions. We will not be casual or careless. We will come full of expectation, ready and intent upon looking to Him, rejoicing in Him, and loving Him. We will come with humble expectation, delighting in His truth and ready to submit our thoughts and lives to His Word. We will come with great expectation, knowing that we love and serve a great God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20). May this be the passion of our hearts as we look forward to gathering together to worship the One true God.

Before You Leave a Church, Check Your Motives and Guard Your Tongue

A few weeks back, I asked the question, “When Do You Leave a Church?” here on the Founders Blog and promised to continue dealing with this issue in a second post. With this post, I want to examine the issue of how to leave a church. When it becomes necessary to find another congregation we must keep a close watch over our hearts and our motives and we must be careful what we say and how we act “out the door.”

Both as a pastor and a church member, I have seen many people leave the church, and once they have done so, they have continued to heap untold damage upon their former congregation through slander, gossip and complaining about leadership and other members. Curtis Thomas, in his excellent volume Life in the Body of Christ (Founders Press, 2006), delivers a good dose of wise pastoral counsel on the manner in which one might leave a church without leaving the bridges in flames behind them. Thomas advises that:

1. We must check our motives very carefully.

2. Our reasons must be well grounded and clearly articulated.

3. We must be in regular, earnest prayer about the matter.

4. We must guard our tongues very carefully.

5. We must be extremely careful that we do not unnecessarily create unrest in other members.

6. Our discussions with the leadership must be characterized by love.

7. Our attempts to correct matters must be with great respect, care, and patience.

8. If our concern is over personal preferences, rather than biblical matters, we must consider others’ interests more important than ours.

9. Great care should be taken that we submit to the leadership of the church, unless we determine with proper counsel that there is a serious biblical issue at stake.

10. If the leadership will listen, we need to give them plenty of time to consider the matter.

11. If the leadership will not listen to us, or will not take proper action to correct the matter and we are thoroughly convinced that there is a serious biblical issue, we should ask for a meeting of the church in which to express our concerns.

12. We should ask ourselves what we have personally done to correct any wrong or deficiency in the church with which we are concerned.

13. We should evaluate if our leaving would do harm to an otherwise good church.

14. We should never leave, nor encourage others to leave, unless we are thoroughly convinced that one or both of the following conditions exist: 1) that the church has become an apostate church (where serious unbiblical teaching or practices are allowed), or 2) that we are convinced that, over the long haul, we cannot find a place to serve in the church or that our families will not be spiritually fed in that body.

Church membership is a solemn matter, one of God’s great gifts to His people. We will give an account for how we dealt with Christ’s body, and we will give an account for every single word we have spoken in this life (Matt. 12:36). Therefore, if we must find another congregation for ourselves and our families, let us do so in a manner that honors the Lord of church.