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Founders Ministries Blog

  • Santa Claus, the Gospel, and the Church


    It happened again last week. I received an email from a friend of a friend. The first line read, “It appears I am being forced out of my pastorate.” The story that unfolded in the rest of that email and upon further inquiry is filled with themes that are tragically too common.

    When Founders Ministries began thirty years ago, our efforts were motivated by the strong desire to see a recovery of the biblical gospel and the reformation of local churches. Through the years, that two-fold agenda has been refined and recalibrated into a variety of strategies that span the range from conferences to publications to social networking and personal consultation. But our focus has remained consistent.

    Over the last three decades we have seen incredible blessings from the Lord in a widespread return to healthier understandings of the message of salvation and church life. This is especially true among the rising generation of pastors. In many respects we must confess that far more has occurred in the way of biblical reformation than many of us ever expected to see in our lifetimes. For this we praise God.

    But the need for that to which Founders is committed has hardly disappeared. In fact, based on the emails, phone calls and other contacts that I receive, in some ways one might argue that the need for gospel recovery and church renewal is greater today than ever before. It certainly seems that way because of the high number of clashes that continue to exist between pastors and churches.

    I am the first to admit that sometimes the problems that arise between a pastor and congregation is primarily or perhaps even exclusively the pastor’s fault. Even the most faithful pastor makes mistakes, and too often men who have no business being in gospel ministry find themselves there and are inflicted on churches to the painful detriment God’s people.

    But from my observation, most of the conflicts between a pastor and church arise because a pastor who has been seriously gripped by the gospel and biblical understandings of healthy church life is called to serve a congregation who has remained entrenched in deficient understandings of what the gospel is and what a healthy church is. When those competing visions collide, often serious sparks fly.

    Frequently, the result is an effort to fire the pastor in ungodly ways (I have written on a right way to fire your pastor here). From what I have learned about the situation mentioned above, that is the case in the situation facing the pastor whose email I received. This man is an experienced pastor who has served this Southern Baptist church for over two years. After the first year, he encouraged the deacons to agree not to have Santa Claus as the center of attention at the next year’s Christmas celebration service. They reluctantly went along with him but after a drop in attendance at that service by 80% from the previous year, the deacon chairman recently announced, that “Santa is coming back to church. This isn’t a discussion. We’re doing it.”

    At the next month’s business meeting, attendance was up by 400% with twice the number of deacons present compared to what is usually the case. The motion was made and passed that, indeed, Santa is coming back to that church at this year’s Christmas service.

    When I asked this pastor about his call to the church, specifically how careful he had been to discuss his theology and philosophy of ministry, I discovered that he and the church’s search committee held five lengthy interviews, including a seven-hour(!) theological interview covering nearly forty pages of questions (including questions on election). The church is self-consciously conservative and affirms the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. A final step of the candidating process involved the pastor writing a letter that outlines his doctrinal views. A copy was given to each member and was also read publicly to the congregation before they voted to call him to come serve as their pastor. The only point of contention that was raised during the whole interview process centered on race. In response to a question the pastor said he would not be “referring” non-Anglos to other churches. This was not the answer they were hoping for, but they did not regard it as a deal-breaker.

    Granted, I do not have all the facts and because of that I am in no position to render any kind of final opinion on the situation. But I have learned enough, both in the last week and over the last thirty years, to recognize the pattern. This pastor is deeply committed to the lordship of Christ, the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, biblical evangelism, regenerate church membership, and promoting the glory of God in the church. He is confessionally reformed in his understanding of salvation. Both in writing and in conversation, he expressly declared his views and approach to ministry in the interview process with the church he was called to serve.

    The church is on record as being committed to the inerrancy of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ, and all things conservative in general. They were very careful to guard against inadvertently allowing a liberal to become their pastor. They strongly profess to believe the Bible, but, despite having inerrantist pastors in the past, don’t have a very deep understanding of what the Bible actually says. The leaders believe the gospel message is true, but don’t really know how to articulate the gospel and have little regard for the all-encompassing nature of life under the lordship of Christ.

    When a pastor as I have described begins to pastor a church as I have described, there will inevitably be conflict. It is simply unavoidable. Tragically, in this case, the issue is purportedly over getting Santa back into Christmas. But as is frequently true in church conflicts, the issue is not really the issue. That is, the rallying cry of the church leaders—“Santa is coming back to church!”—conveniently covers up the deeper issues related to the gospel and the church.

    I would argue that the gospel has been lost in this church, although the leaders and members would undoubtedly say that they believe it. My fear is that they, like so many others, have assumed for so long that they believe it that they have never really stopped to examine it, weighing its provisions, power, and attendant duties. They probably have an inadequate understanding of the nature of saving faith in comparison to the various kinds of faith that do not save.

    I would also argue that the church has deviated far from the biblical foundations prescribed by Christ and the apostles. Though they affirm regenerate church membership in theory they do not pursue it in practice. Though they have officially adopted the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 as their statement of faith, their method of making decisions in the church is ruled by pragmatism far more than biblical conviction. They are in desperate need of being biblically re-formed so that how they live more closely reflects that they profess to believe.

    What will rescue this kind of situation? Nothing short of a recovery of the gospel and the reformation of the church.

    Pray for this church and brother. Ask the Lord to move in ways that will humble all of them under the authority of His Word and the lordship of our Savior. And pray for the inevitable conflicts that will occur in thousands of other churches as the faithful ministry of God’s Word is introduced (or reintroduced) by men who are committed to both.

  • Following Jesus' Training Model

    by Phil A. Newton

    Jesus “was his own school and curriculum” when it came to his training model, observed Robert Coleman. Despite lacking knowledge of a specific curriculum that Jesus used in training his disciples, contemporary pastoral mentors can certainly utilize the broad areas in which Jesus implemented training for their own mentoring ministries. In previous posts we looked at the local church as the training ground for ministry and how Jesus majored on building relationships with those he trained. In this post we will look at three areas of priority in Jesus’ training model that serves as a model for pastoral mentors: relationships, proclamation, and focus.

    First, since Christian ministry is relational, Jesus trained his disciples in relationships. He brought them into a circle of relationships in which they would face the challenge of applying the love, service, forgiveness, gentleness, encouragement, et al. that they saw and heard from him. Here the local church setting proves comparable to the close community in which Jesus trained his disciples. Jesus folded the intimacy of the family structure into the community that walked with him. He brought together diverse backgrounds and cultures into one congregation. His followers did not attend a meeting but rather they engaged their lives with one another in community. Friendships crystallized with the Twelve and the Seventy as Jesus sent them out by pairs for ministry. Not that tensions never surfaced! Relationships bring fallen beings into close enough proximity for disagreements to multiply and pride to irritate. Yet that is just the point in this setting as one of the best platforms to validate the power of the gospel. In the local church mentoring setting, mentees learn the consciousness of being God’s fellow workers who engage in teamwork for pastoral and missionary work.

    Second, since mission involves the message of the gospel, Jesus trained his mentees in proclamation. As Paul later wrote, “And how will they hear without a preacher?... So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10:14, 17). Both preaching and teaching in Jesus’ ministry ultimately pointed to his death and resurrection, a model that shaped Peter’s sermons as his mentee (e.g., Acts 2:14–42; 3:11–26; 10:34–43; etc.). This proclamation has its basis in Scripture, modeled by Jesus’ discussion with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–50). Local church mentors face the challenge of training their mentees to be heralds and teachers who rely upon the gospel message to transform those to whom they minister. When Jesus sent out the Twelve and the Seventy he actually entrusted them with the ministry of proclamation despite their apparent weaknesses and immaturities. He had modeled and taught them but only by releasing them to teach and preach would the training reach its goal. Pastoral mentors may hesitate to turn a mentee loose in a preaching opportunity. Yet by actually doing proclamation and receiving the mentor’s wise critique, as Jesus did with his own (Luke 9:10), a mentee learns to faithfully proclaim the good news.

    Third, Jesus kept his disciples on focus for their mission. Distraction seems to come easily for those in ministry. Jesus used care, however, to make sure that the relationship between him and his disciples did not drift into a “lecturer-student connection,” and thus lose sight of their kingdom-focus. He modeled the outward (missional) kingdom-focus by his ministry to tax collectors, Gentiles, and sinners of all stripes (Luke 14:1–24; 15:1–32; 19:1–10). Jesus’ person-oriented rather than task-oriented mentorship offers the appropriate model for mentors to embrace in keeping focus with those they train. Incrementally, Jesus led his disciples in shattering the barriers that could easily have halted their focus on outward mission. He did not expect more of his mentees than he had prepared them to deliver. After training and modeling this focus in mission, Jesus left his followers with the certainty that they would take the gospel across every conceivable barrier erected by the prejudices of men (Acts 1:8). This same incremental, layering approach that Jesus used in training for mission remains the model for pastoral mentors as they build a kingdom-mission focus in their trainees.

    The idea of mentoring young people for ministry might appear too daunting to even start, yet the simplicity in the model of Jesus encourages potential pastoral mentors to embrace the challenge of training the next generation for ministry. Like Jesus, stick to the simple training model that he displayed by giving priority to relationships, proclamation, and focus.

  • 3 Reasons for God’s Moral Law

    Recently, after our family had completed its daily devotional time together, my oldest son asked me a very insightful question: How do the Ten Commandments apply to us today if they were given so long ago in the Old Testament?

    It is a basic theological question that many Christians have asked throughout the history of the church, and it is an important query. Many answers have been given to that, not all of them good. Obviously, there are two answers that are dead wrong and lead to two opposite ditches that the follower of Christ must avoid: Antinomianism (the law of God has no place in the life of the believer and he/she is free to live however they please) and legalism (I am saved by how closely I adhere to God’s commands—works righteousness).

    One of the best and most helpful answers, in my opinion, that has been given was set forth by the Genevan reformer, John Calvin. In his venerable systematic theology, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin set forth three “uses” for the moral law of God. The Lord of history has given His law, Calvin wrote, to serve as:

    A mirror. Calvin argued that the law functions to expose our sin and unrighteousness. When a sinner looks into the mirror of God’s law, he sees himself as he really is: depraved, sinful, wretched, undone, lost, and in need of cleansing, in need of a savior. This reality causes sinners to despair of their own righteousness and leads them to flee to the Savior, the cross of Christ, for mercy. Wrote Calvin:

    “The law is like a mirror. In it we contemplate our weakness, then the iniquity arising from this, and finally the curse coming from both—just as a mirror shows us the spots on our face.... The apostle’s statement is relevant here: ‘Through the law comes knowledge of sin’ (Rom. 3:20).”

    A restrainer of evil. The law of God functions to keep evildoers from being as bad as they otherwise might be. Thus, to some degree it serves to protect God’s people from the sinful machinations of the ungodly, Calvin argued. The law certainly cannot regenerate a sinful heart—that is the domain of the Holy Spirit through the gospel alone—but Calvin wrote:

    “They are restrained, not because their inner mind is stirred or affected, but because, being bridled, so to speak, they keep their hands from outward activity and hold inside the depravity that otherwise they would wantonly have indulged. Consequently, they are neither better nor more righteous before God. Hindered by fright or shame, they dare neither execute what they have conceived in their minds, nor openly breathe for the rage of their lust.”

    A revelation of the will of God. Believers, who have been transformed by the gospel, Calvin wrote, need the law as well, certainly not as a means of salvation, but as a guide to sanctification. The law reveals God’s perfect righteousness and reveals that which is pleasing to him. A believer can come to delight in God’s commands, however, only after he his heart has been regenerated by God’s grace through the gospel. Wrote Calvin:

    “Here is the best instrument for them (believers) to learn more thoroughly each day the nature of the Lord’s will to which they aspire, and to confirm them in the understanding of it. It is as if some servant, already prepared with all earnestness of heart to comment himself to his master, must search out and observe his master’s ways more carefully in order to conform and accommodate himself to them. And not one of us may escape from this necessity. For no man has heretofore attained to such wisdom as to be unable, from the daily instruction of the law, to make fresh progress toward a purer knowledge of the divine will. Again, because we need not only teaching but also exhortation, the servant of God will also avail himself of this benefit of the law: by frequent meditation upon it to be aroused to obedience, be strengthened in it, and be drawn back from the slippery path of transgression. In this way the saints must press on; for, however eagerly they may in accordance with the Spirit strive toward God’s righteousness, the listless flesh always so burdens them that they do not proceed with due readiness. The law is to the flesh like a whip to an idle and balky ass (donkey), to arouse it to work.”

    Calvin’s is a helpful paradigm, I think. But perhaps best of all, Calvin reminded his readers, in speaking of the first use of the law, that the law—like a schoolmaster—prepares one to receive the good news of the gospel. The law of God demonstrates that man has no righteousness in himself that is pleasing to God. Sinful man must be given a righteousness that is extra nos—outside of himself. As the Puritans, Calvin’s theological ancestors, famously put it, the law wounds and then the gospel arrives and heals. Wrote Calvin:

    “While [the law] shows God’s righteousness, that is, the righteousness alone acceptable to God, it warns, informs, convicts, and lastly condemns every man of his own unrighteousness. For man, blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to know and to confess his own feebleness and impurity. If man is not clearly convinced of his own vanity, he is puffed up with insane confidence, in his own mental powers, and can never be induced to recognize their slenderness as long as he measures them by a measure of his own choice. But as soon as he begins to compare his powers with the difficulty of the law, he has something to diminish his bravado. For, however remarkable an opinion of his powers he formerly held, he soon feels that they are panting under so heavy a weight as to stagger and totter, and finally even to fall down and faint away. Thus man, schooled in the law, sloughs off the arrogance that previously blinded him.”

    As followers of Christ, we are a people of grace and not law. But it is God’s law that demonstrates his spotless character and shows our need of grace. Calvin saw this clearly. As Paul admonished young Timothy, may God teach us how to use the law lawfully (1 Tim. 1:8).

  • 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)

  • About 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