The Wood Between the Worlds

Back in February, 1979, I heard the Christian singer and songwriter Bob Ayala in concert. He told of being enthralled with the picture of the Wood Between the Worlds in C. S. Lewis’s book The Magician’s Nephew (one of the volumes in The Chronicles of Narnia series). The Wood Between the Worlds was how C. S. Lewis described a place of transition, like a forest glade, between the our world and other worlds such as Narnia. He mentioned how he said, in a conversation with a friend how much he wanted to do a song on the Wood Between the Worlds. His friend,who hadn’t read the book, asked, “What do you mean – the cross?”

Bob Ayala realized then that this turn of phrase was was even more descriptive of the cross of Jesus Christ. And this little turn of phrase describes how the cross itself stands between the believer in Christ and between the world as it is now. That piece of wood now stands between the person who has come to Christ and the world as it is now, and circumstances will never be the same for either of them.

This is what the apostle Paul declared in Galatians 6:14, of the eternal and irrevocable separation that the cross of Christ has laid down, between himself and the way things are now. And this is what is true of the believer in Christ, who has passed from death to life by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ: “May I never boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  

For the believer in Jesus Christ, ultimately, the cross of Christ is what matters most. This means that the highest joy will be in the cross of Christ, and that the cross will undercut and contradict whatever someone might have otherwise considered to his or her credit in this world. Above all, the cross of Christ cancels any joy in outward religious attainments; the religion of this world, of human effort, pride and self reliance, is turned upside down by the reality of the cross of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps less than twenty years after the death of Jesus on the cross Paul and Barnabas went to the area of Galatia – Antioch in Pisidia, Iconium and several of the other cities described in Acts 13 and 14. A problem cropped up when they had returned to their missionary base in Antioch in Syria. Supposedly converted Jews pounced upon the Gentile converts of Paul and Barnabas and told them that faith in Christ had to be supplemented with Jewish religiosity, namely, the initiation of circumcision and following Jewish commands, customs and traditions. So, at some time before Paul and Barnabas went to the council in Jerusalem in Acts 15, to decide the question once for all in conjunction with Peter, John and James, Paul dashed off this letter to the Galatians to set the matter straight – therefore Galatians may well be the first written book in the New Testament.

So the problem in Galatia demonstrated the folly of attempting to live by human rules and regulations as a way of salvation, even if someone can seem to provide some scriptural justification for the rules. In the Galatian churches the rules were even based upon the Old Testament revelation of God, but they missed the whole point of the coming of Christ and the crucifixion of Christ. So perhaps even for those who came up with the rules, there was the good motive of attempting to protect the Galatian Christians from going back to their immoral past ways, but their rules distorted the truth of the power of the grace of God through the cross of Christ to deliver from the power of this world.  So, after dealing with the whole system of rules, Paul comes down to this sentence in the conclusion to the letter, which deals with his finding his glory in the cross of Christ.

This is what the apostle Paul started out with: “May I never boast . . .” His intended contrast is what he finds joy in compared with the joy of the apostle with that of the Judaizers. Paul stated in verse 13 that their goal in pushing initiation into Judaism was mere outward show and bragging rights over those who had come to Christ through the efforts and ministry of others. His assertion is that their goal in ministry was not from genuine love for Christ and zeal for the gospel, but rather to gain religious reputation while they were avoiding the rejection of those who did not serve Christ. So their motivation was an example of true worldliness. This was not worldliness not in doing or not doing certain specified actions, even where they might find some kind of support in the scriptures, but the unified rejection of God’s ways and the power of the gospel. This is characteristic of those who are under the sway of their own fallen human nature and not the power of the Spirit of Christ.

So then, worldliness is an attitude which can underlie human religion, even that which claims the name of Christian. It is demonstrated in an attitude which looks for self satisfaction and reputation among other people through the use of religious words and actions, and it is  demonstrated in the rejection of the full scriptural revelation of the gospel of God in the cross of Christ. It comes with an elevation of human religious traditions and actions above God’s way of salvation, which begins, continues and completes through the cross of Christ. So this is what can be called both unregenerate and backslidden religion based in the attitudes of fallen human nature, where it means taking pride in one’s own accomplishments in efforts rather than what God has accomplished through the death, resurrection and exaltation of Jesus Christ.

Certainly many church people have this idea;  Catherine Marshall, wife of the onetime Senate chaplain Peter Marshall, and a considerable writer in her own right, once wrote about the misconception that many church people have that with Christ’s help they are to become ‘nice people,’ and that this means that with our self-effort and human endeavor we will be ‘man’s best with God’s help.’ And this may well be the impression that many, many are under who are in our evangelical churches have of what it means to be a Christian and what God expects of them.

So then, the joy of the believer in the cross is contrary to worldly joys; it’s contrary to what human nature would by itself normally find pride and self satisfaction in. God’s way of salvation through the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus is something contradictory to the human way of salvation, but it is the source of joy to the person who has received that salvation.

So the apostle continued to say the only thing that he would find glory in: ” . . except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. But the cross itself is a skandalon, a stumbling block to the people of this world, as the apostle found throughout his own preaching and teaching ministry. Yet he was finding joy in something that symbolized a curse to the Jews, the people of the Old Testament. They found only confusion of the Messiah conquering through his apparent weakness, shame and defeat by his suffering and death on the cross. Still the apostle was finding joy in something that exposed the utter sin and hopelessness of the world and the real need of each sinfully self reliant person. He was finding his pride and joy in the cross that declared the inability of each person to save himself. This was something so contrary to the way of this world that it demonstrates that the person who acts in this fashion is living by the standards of another world, and under the sway of a power greater than that of himself, namely, that of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.

In every generation, then, the cross of Christ is in some sense a stumbling block to religion that comes from the fallen and prideful human heart. It is a stumbling block to all the religion that says that self improvement and not death is the answer to sin.  The cross of Christ is the ultimate conquest of worldliness at its most subtle place, of its defilement of the capacity of human beings for worship of the one true God to a trust in oneself and self congratulation for one’s own religious efforts and attainments. But the person in every generation that finds the cross to be the power of God for salvation will find no need for the religion of this world, but rather find his satisfaction and enjoyment in what God has done through Jesus Christ.

This then is the kind of joy that will lead people to sing such hymns as, “In Christ Alone,” “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” “Alas, And Did My Savior Bleed,” “In the Cross of Christ I Glory,” and “The Old Rugged Cross” with joy, even if some may think that the subject matter is morbid and needs to be warmed and lightened up for the present generation. This is the kind of joy that can bring someone like Charles Wesley, on the day of his conversion, to write words like,

“His dying crimson like a robe
Spreads o’er his body on the Tree,
Then am I dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.”

(This is what had been originally the 4th verse to the once well known hymn, “And Can It Be?” Many churches used to sing that at least once a quarter, but I must honestly say that it’s been years since I’ve sung it in a church service. I don’t remember where I found this verse; it’s in no hymnal that I’ve ever owned or used.)

Worldliness is therefore first of all a matter of love and affection. So abstention from certain socially and religiously disapproved actions may only be a mask for a heart still filled with self love, self reliance and self righteousness, and at the bottom disdainful of the salvation of God through the cross of Christ.  But the demonstration of the understanding and full appreciation of the cross of Jesus Christ brings his freedom from the bondage to self centered religion and the heart sold out to this world, to self satisfaction and pride, and a genuine, deep and lifelong appreciation and satisfaction in what God has done through the cross, and the cancellation of pride in human achievement and religion. But this separation from the world is not only a matter of a center of different affections and religious concern, though; it is a matter of a new identity and standing before God.

The cross of Christ separates a believer in Christ from the world through an impenetrable and irrevocable wall of death. This separation comes by a death and a judgment not that has nothing to do with anything that the believer can or has done on his or her own efforts or attainments. The judgment of God that decreed death meant separation, so the cross is the declaration of the legal standing of the world of mankind and the believer in Christ, of a wall of death between them.

The world has been separated from the believer by the cross of Christ. This is something stupendous that many never realize, but it is true in the declaration of God himself. The cross is itself where the judgment upon fallen mankind, of deserving death, shows the world of fallen humanity in its true light before God .

The apostle declares then one half of the truth of the separation of the believer from the world through death:  ” . . . through which the world has been crucified to me . .”. But the world is still alive, someone may say; but the world has been declared judicially dead to the believer through the reality of the cross, and the judicial death of the world separates the believer in Christ from the world. Again, the crucifixion of the world here is not its actual physical destruction. Paul was smart enough to know that the final judgment of the world and its transformation at the coming of Christ had not yet arrived. Rather, this is the crucifixion of his world rather as a power hostile to God and as a power that holds with dominion over those not in Christ. So the world, the corporation of sinful mankind in its self reliance and rebellion against God, has already ben judged and conquered in the cross.  (Here the world would be comparable to the term ‘the old Man’ of Romans 6:6, of referring to the legal entity of mankind as represented in Adam). So the conquest of the world for the believer comes through the cross of Christ, and it is conquered not by the imposition of rules and regulations with the threat of judgment but upon the basis of the judgment already demonstrated in the cross of Jesus Christ.

And certainly this is comparable to what Paul’s brother in Christ and personal acquaintance (Galatians 2:9 describes their acquaintance and handshake), the apostle John, wrote about the world (a passage rarely heard nowadays, when we hear more about David’s adultery, the woman at the well from the Gospel of  John chapter 4 and more recently the rich young ruler): “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him; because everything that is in the world, the desire of the flesh and the desire of the eyes and the boastful pride of human existence, is not from the Father but from the world. And the world passes away and the desire for it, but the one who does the will of God remains forever” (I John 2:15-17). 

So then, the judgment upon this world and its ways declared in the cross is the source of the believer’s lack of love and affection for this world and its ways.  The cross is the demonstration that God holds the ways of sinful mankind under his judgment. So the believer in Christ can cheerfully part with the ways of this world, its pride, self righteousness and self reliance, since there is absolutely no need to have one’s heart entangled with what is under judgment and is passing away. This reality of death bringing separation even in a previously affectionate relationship  underlies the true separation of the believer in Christ from the atmosphere and influence of this world. This world previously loved separated by a new relationship and a greater love that imposes the wall of death between the believer and this world.

Nathaniel Hawthorne described in one of his novels (The Blithedale Romance, one of his lesser known novels) the breaking of a relationship in terms of death. He described his character’s alienation from a charismatic leader of their 19th century commune like this: “On the doorstep I met Hollingsworth. I had a momentary impulse to hold out my hand, or at least to give a parting nod, but resisted both. When a real and strong affection has come to an end, it is not well to mock the past with any show of those commonplace civilities which belong to ordinary [human contact]. Being dead henceforth to him, and he to me, there could be no propriety in our chilling one another with the touch of two corpse-like hands or playing at looks of courtesy with eyes that were impenetrable beneath the glaze and the film. We passed, therefore, as if invisible.”

The believer has likewise been separated from the world through the cross of Christ. The separation of one, by that irrevocable and impenetrable wall, means the separation of the other. So the death of the believer with Christ has also imposed the barrier of judicial death between him and the world.

The apostle Paul then concluded this remarkable sentence: ” . . . and I to the world”.  His release from dominion and influence was not through anything that he had done, through an agonizing self effort of personal adherence to any set of rules or regulations, but through the separation of his judicial death with Christ. The believer in Christ is now part of another world, part of the corporation of the new Man (the new Mankind, rather) as represented in Christ. This separation had already been achieved through Christ, because apart from being in Christ, all people are part of the world are part of a corporate power in opposition to God through being in the flesh and therefore under the dominion of fallen human nature. The deliverance of the believer from the world comes first of all through being included in the death of Christ in the legal reckoning of God, and this has already been accomplished if the believer has come to faith in Christ.

The separation of the believer from the world through death thus places him or her in a new relationship and association, that of being in Christ and therefore as part of a new Mankind and a new world as summed up in Christ. The believer is there not by a change of address but by a new relationship and by the declaration of the Word of God. This separation by death, by God having declared the believer in Christ to have been legally considered to have been crucified with Christ, means entrance into a new life in Christ. This means a separation from the world, and a new identity in Christ, and this new identity provides more than sufficient motivation and power to part with the ways and attitudes of this world.

In his book True Spirituality, Francis Schaeffer described the spiritual crisis in his own life which came in 1951-1952. He became deeply troubled by the lack of spiritual reality in lives of others, and himself. He spent some time alone and reviewed all the reasons for being a Christian, and found that it was totally intellectually satisfying to believe in the God of the Bible and the reality of Jesus in all he said and did. But he then realized that the reason for his trouble and dissatisfaction was that he had heard little about what the Bible says about the finished work of Christ for his ongoing life as a Christian. He found the basis of going away from the presence or absence of a list of do’s and don’ts for being a believer is not the rightness of wrongness of the taboos, but the place of the heart. He found that the scriptural way not because of social pressure, but in the inward reality of new life and affections through what Christ had done for him on the cross.

I think that there may be many in our churches who are in the same place as Francis Schaeffer was then. They’re being faithful in attendance, but it’s become a religious treadmill. They may have heard about the struggle of the believer with the world, the flesh and the devil, but they have been pretty much at peace with all three for quite a while. They may have heard a lot of do’s and don’ts over their lifetimes – though I think that this was much more characteristic of believers who grew up in churches from the 1920s through the 1960s. But those who have come through our churches since the 1980s may not have heard much about what it means for them to be in Christ – but they hear a lot about the grace of God, and it’s in such a loosey-goosey manner that antinomianism – the fruit of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, ‘cheap grace’, without the cross of Christ — is much more of a problem among them.  So I think that there are many who are still waiting to hear and to understand the truth of who they are in Christ, of what it means to have been crucified with Christ – but they are not receiving it from our current preaching and teaching, and certainly not from so many of the current praise and worship songs.

The cross of Jesus Christ, then, cleaves a separation of the believer in from this world and of the world from the believer in Christ. The realization of the new standing in Christ makes the separation in practice more consistent and real. It means that doing or not doing certain things is not a matter of the fear of man or of threatened judgments, but of a judgment already demonstrated and a new relationship to God through the cross of Christ.

The true conquest of this world by the believer in Christ does not begin in anything that he or she does or does not do, but through what God has already done for him or her through the cross of Jesus Christ. This is how a believer in Christ can be, as Jesus once expressed it, in the world but not of the world. This is how a believer can avoid being squeezed into the spiritual and emotional bondage of this world, from the wonderful realization that God has already made you free through the cross of Christ. This is not something that comes from your own feelings or circumstances, but simply from realizing who you are in Christ upon the declaration of the Word of God.

The understanding of the true nature of separation from this world and the true nature of worldliness would end the self righteousness and shallow sense of personal sinfulness among many professed believers in Christ. This means that they would no longer live in complacency or in adherence to a certain list socially approved prohibitions — some of which may not even be legitimate temptations. Rather, it means living in truth, in the awareness of the truth of what one is apart from Christ — namely, the utter lack of righteousness apart from Christ, and being in with the wrong crowd of this world in the first place – and the utter necessity of Christ to be right before God, and the satisfaction in who one is through Jesus Christ.

Even more, the realization of the true nature of worldliness and the true basis of separation from this world through Christ would free believers from the fear of this world to become stronger and more forthright witnesses in this world. I think that many fear to engage this world with the gospel because of fear of the temptations of this world or that others will see them engaging the world with the gospel and judge them as having become worldly. Rather, they would come to this world with the news of its judgment in a loving fashion without a harsh and condemning attitude, because the judgment of this world through Christ means the opportunity for the redemption of those in this world through Christ. Understanding this would provide a tremendous freedom to have redemptive contact with the sinners of this world without fear of being entangled in the sins of this world.

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The Pastor, Personal Prayer And Ministry in the Power of God

Back in my second year preaching class, I can remember Ravi Zacharias telling us how our sermons need to be ‘bathed in prayer’ – which he said with a dramatic gesture. Throughout the time of seminary preparation, there were also a number of dramatic and forceful calls to personal prayer as part of the pastoral ministry. I don’t recall much, though, practical instruction as to how, when, where and why prayer was to be a part of the pastoral ministry. I wasn’t personally at a loss, though, since I had long since developed the habit of tying my personal Bible reading and study and prayer life together and seeking the guidance of Christian authors for such matters.

Here are some books which deal with the personal prayer life that I would recommend:

Certainly no pastor has such a straightjacket on either finances or schedule that time and money cannot be found to go through one of these books during a year or two, particularly in the early years of ministry. The formation of a personal prayer life in accord with the scriptures will be something that can carry through for a lifetime of ministry. It’s noteworthy that the great pastors in earlier generations, such as Charles Haddon Spurgeon, were known much more for being men of prayer than for being great organizers, motivators, speakers, life coaches or fundraisers. And it’s also hard to doubt that that’s why their ministries were also known as ministries of spiritual power, and not human organization, ability and persuasiveness.

That phrase – the personal prayer life in accord with the scriptures – was a great focus of my own life during my time in seminary and ministry, and continues to be a great part of my life today. It isn’t something that I’ve ever shared much with anyone, except to guard quite jealously my time alone in prayer and prayerful study of the scriptures prior to the ministry of the Word. Over the years, though, I developed and refined lists of promises and guidelines from the scriptures which I’ve followed in prayer for myself and my ministry, for the church I’ve been serving with, and for the world as a whole. Below is one of these lists, with the scripture references. (My current list is about 1/3 longer.)You’ll have to look up and reflect on the scripture itself to see how it relates to how I am praying. Sometimes I pray according to scriptural patterns and promises, such as praying for deliverance like Daniel in the lions’ den while claiming the promises of Psalm 91. I just have references below, since these lists were developed during the last years of the typewriter, before copy and paste was available in word processing software. Some of the promises I had already memorized, but I personally was familiar with what the verses I gave references for were talking about.

Prayer for the ministry of the Word of God in preaching and teaching, and in personal evangelism and edification:

Purity of own life and heart (Psalm 19:14, 139:23-24), to be a fit vessel to receive the Word into my own heart (James 1:19-25, I Peter 2:1-3), for the Word to come forth in the right occasion (Isaiah 50:4), to be filled with the wisdom of God to understand spiritual realities and life consistently (Ephesians 1:15-20, I Kings 3:9,  Psalm 86:22).

In preparation for the illumination of the scriptures in study and application (Psalm 119:27, 33-34, 125, Ezra 7:10), for words to be prepared and taught by the Spirit of God to express spiritual realities (I Corinthians 2:13), to be spiritual weapons against the sinful thought patterns of this world (II Corinthians 10:3-6), and to be words of comfort (II Corinthians 1:3-5, Psalm 119:50, 71).

In actual delivery for the power of the word to be demonstrated through the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 4:12, Ephesians 6:17, I Corinthians 2:1-4, Jeremiah 23:29).

For prepared hearts among those who hear the Word of God and their edification to maturity and stability in Christ and to be equipped to ministry for him (I Corinthians 4:2, II Corinthians 13:8, Ephesians 4:11-12, II Timothy 3:16-17, Romans 15:4).

For the Word of God to be delivered in the love of Christ (Ephesians 4:15, James 3:17-18, II Timothy 1:7).

For the gospel of Christ to be shares with the witness and conviction of the Holy Spirit (John 16:8-11, 15:26-27, Acts 1:8, I Thessalonians 1:5, Acts 4:29, 5:32).

For there to be eternal results from the preaching and teaching of the Word, and personal evangelism and edification (Isaiah 55:11, Colossians 1:28, I Peter 1:23, I Thessalonians 2:13).

For the removal of the hindrances and obstacles of the enemy (Luke 8:12, 10:19, II Corinthians 4:4).

For all this to be to the glory of God through Jesus Christ (John 16:14, 14:13).

Prayer for personal needs in life and ministry:

Personal stand of entire consecration of my life to God through Jesus Christ, as someone who is alive from the dead in Christ, dedicated to do everything for the glory of God (Jeremiah 29:13, John 14:21, 23, Romans 6:11-13, 14, 12:1-2, Colossians 3:17)  and for the constant awareness of his companionship and blessings of his presence; forgiveness for all known offenses against God (I John 1:9, Proverbs 29:13).

Fruitful life and ministry to glorify God (John 15:8, Matthew 5:13-18).

Wisdom and guidance in ministry and in personal life (James 1:5, John 16:12-15, Joshua 1:8-9, Psalm 1:1-3, 25:8-10, 119:8-10).

Provision for personal financial needs (Matthew 6:11, 33, Proverbs 30:7-9, Philippians 4:13).

Forgiveness for all hurts and offenses, love to cover all offenses, and blessings upon any and all detractors and adversaries (Mark 11:25, Matthew 6:12, 14-15, Luke 6:27-28, Ephesians 4:32-5:2, I Corinthians 13:5-6, I Peter 4: 8.

Protection from the enemy, anointing of favor before men (Matthew 6:13, Psalm 5:12, Proverbs 16:7, Psalm 9:9-10) with discernment between the truth and the lies of the enemy (Ephesians 5:11-14, II Corinthians 10:3-6) with wise use of the authority of Christ (Luke 10:19).

Health for continued endurance in ministry, for healing and physical strength through the death and resurrection life of Jesus (Matthew 8:17, I Peter 2:24, Romans 8:11)

Prayer for the entire worldwide church, the church in North America, my own denomination: Edification of the church of Jesus Christ, to be glorifying to God, unified in the love of Jesus, full of the power of the Holy Spirit (follow with specific requests for specific parts of the world from a source such as Operation World or other sources of prayer requests worldwide)

Spiritual leadership: for pastors, teachers and leaders to receive fresh, renewed vision, purifying and power in ministry (Proverbs 29:18), to be grounded in the Word of God (II Timothy 4:2), to be full of the Spirit and of power and of wisdom and of prayer (Acts 6:30); to be prepared, tested, able to lead and guide in righteousness by word and example

Purifying and empowering revival among the people of God, to be cleansed by the Word of God (Ephesians 5:26-27, John 17:17-18), purified through the Spirit of God (Isaiah 4:4), unity of love among the people of God (John 13:34-35, 17:20-23, Ephesians 4:15), revived in heartfelt worship and joy (Psalm 85:6); burden for the lost and empowering for witness among the church (Psalm 67:1-2, Acts 2:27, 4:39-30, Matthew 9:37, John 15:26-27, Acts 1:8, John 16:8-11); protection from spiritual deceit, distraction, strife and worldliness (Matthew 6:13, John 17:18)

Spread of the gospel worldwide (Matthew 9:38, 24:14, 28:18-20); spiritual awakening and hunger among the unconverted (Isaiah 9:2, Luke 1:78-79, II Corinthians 4:6), the light of the gospel to destroy spiritual darkness (II Corinthians 4:4, Luke 8:12, Colossians 3:15, Ephesians 6:12, II Corinthians 1o:3-6)

National governments: for an atmosphere of freedom for the gospel (I Timothy 2:2-3), favor for believers (Psalm 5:12), wisdom for government officials, justice, peace and restraint of evil in the world

Prayer for the local church: for the glory of God through the salvation and edification of men and women in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit; for a local outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the church, for a spiritual awakening among the unconverted in the surrounding communities

Leadership of the church: for the calling and edification of Spirit filled leaders, with wisdom and insight, to be Christlike servants and responsible heads of stable families

Congregation: for the edification and establishment in the Word, in faith, in love and in witness and worship (II Thessalonians 1:11-12, Colossians 2:6-7); for their growth to maturity in Christ, in life, service and fruitfulness (Ephesians 4:11-16, John 15:8 ), to be receptive to the Word, filled with spiritual insight and knowledge  and to be growing in the knowledge of God (Ephesians 1:15-23, Philippians 1:9, Colossians 3:15-17), Spirit empowered and guided love and encouragement (Ephesians 3:16-21, Philippians 1:9, I Thessalonians 3:12, Hebrews 10:24-25), fullness of prayer through the Spirit in the name of Christ (Ephesians 2:18, 3:12, 6:18)

Fully open door for the gospel (Acts 2:47); leading to open hungry hearts, for the glory of God (John 14:13), salvation of many through the gracious desire of God himself (Ezekiel 18:23, John 3:17, I Timothy 2:4, II Peter 3:9), the bearing fruit of the death and resurrection of Jesus (John 12:23-24, I Timothy 2:6, I John 2:2, II Corinthians 5:14-15, Romans 14:9); manifestation of Christ in the gospel through the Holy Spirit (II Corinthians 4:6, Isaiah 9:2, John 6:44, 15:26-27, 16:8-11, I Thessalonians 1:5, Psalm 83:16) for witnesses to be sent and met ready and prepared hearts at the right time (Romans 10:14-15, Isaiah 50:4)

Seeing the World Through the Eyes of Jesus

Updated!

The Chinese pastor and evangelist John Sung had a fiery and productive ministry in the area of Indonesia throughout the 1920s and 1930s. One thing that he regularly told people still resonates today: “Do not think that following Jesus is only a matter of being uplifted inside. There are millions who do not know the Lord Jesus. Go out and take the gospel to them.”

The vision of the many who are without a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus should bring into us a desire to do something about it. It will bring a desire first to pray and then to go out with the gospel of eternal life. It will forge in us a realization that it is utter selfishness to be continuously seeking a personal blessing without any concern for the millions in our world and to have no concern for the reachable here and far away. This vision and burden will come from a sympathy with the Lord Jesus that comes from fellowship with him in prayer and in his Word. It will mean a desire to reach others with the gospel of his salvation.

The plan of the Lord Jesus has always been to use his people to reach other people with the gospel. Before he even gave the Great Commission, though, he called his disciples to pray for laborers to be sent into the harvest. He, as the Lord of the harvest, would be himself responsible for the calling, equipping and sending; but the need for his people to pray for the workers to be sent into the harvest comes from seeing the world through his eyes.

In his earthly ministry, the Lord Jesus passed on to the church through his apostles the necessity to reach the world with his gospel. It was a constant concern of his, and one which anyone who claims to know him and believe his Word needs also to take to heart. The believer, then, who sees the world through his eyes will have a renewal in thinking, an enflaming of passion and a guide to action beyond just maintaining the religious status quo. Even more, the perspective and power of his Word in our lives will mean that his vision of the world of needy and reachable people will become ours also, and it will drive us further into his Word and prayer to find his direction and power to reach the harvest of people ripe to respond.

Here is how Jesus demonstrated and communicated his view of the the world, in Matthew 9:35-38:

“And Jesus went around to all the cities and villages, and he taught in their synagogues, proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and healed every disease and every infirmity. When he saw the crowds he was filled with compassion for them because they were harassed and beaten down like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is great, but the workers are few; therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest.’”

If we see people as Jesus sees them, we will be filled with his compassion. Truly loving Jesus and living in fellowship with him means that we will share his perspective on the world, and seeing people from his perspective will mean that we also will be filled with his compassion.

Ministry to others comes from and deepens the compassion that comes from Jesus. The first step to having the compassion of Jesus for others comes from taking the steps of obedience into ministry. For Jesus, it didn’t come from his perfect knowledge, nor from his being filled with the Spirit at his baptism, nor from his nights in prayer. Rather, it came from his actual experience of ministry, and we need to understand his compassion in this passage as a compassion filling his perfect human nature as he engaged in ministry to the crowds, as a part of his perfect human emotional reaction to the needs of other people that he saw.

Jesus first experienced his growing and overflowing compassion which  when he engaged in his actual ministry to the crowds as the fulfillment of his earthly mission. This perspective did not come from any kind of academic background or theological training, but from actual compassionate contact, as  in verse 35, “And Jesus went around to all the cities and villages, and he taught in their synagogues, proclaimed the gospel of the kingdom and healed every disease and every infirmity.” His ministry was not demonstrated by holding back, giving advice, or looking out at people from a safe vantage, but from actually spending time in the ministry to people from his Messianic mission. Even more, it was not merely a ministry to physical needs for healing, but it began with and continued with his proclamation of the good news of the arrival of the Messianic kingdom in himself, King Messiah. His healing was out of compassion and care, but it was rooted in his own person as the Son of God, who had authority to proclaim the message of God and over the realm of physical disease and infirmity. And this ministry tour filled him with a deep compassion in his human nature as he came into contact with human need through his human nature. (Originally when I preached this message, I started after this verse, but now that I reconsider the passage, I consider verse 35 to be an essential beginning to what follows.)

It is one of the realities of actual ministry to others that the more a person ministers in serving Christ, the more a person sees the need of the world for the gospel of Christ and his healing sovereignty. Certainly times of prayer ministry are necessary, and there is much too little said in the modern church about the basic equipment for ministry being the Word of God, being filled with the Spirit and being a person of prayer. It is then the actual getting down close to others, making the journeys of ministry and encountering the need first hand that the awareness of the need deepens and fills believers with compassion for others. As with Jesus, taking the first step to share the gospel and minister to human needs will make us people filled with the compassion of Jesus not as a theory but as a living reality which demonstrates itself in our lives. Too often it seems like people are waiting for the right feelings first. They want to feel the need and the compassion before they will do anything, but like Jesus they rather need to get in contact with the real human need in on the path of obedience in ministry to experience the full compassion that comes from being close to Jesus and filled with his Spirit.

Thus, if we find many people who attend evangelical churches and whose stated beliefs are in line with sound evangelical doctrine, but lack the compassion of Christ, it may well be from too great an emphasis on Christians gathering and celebrating in worship rather than being equipped and sent forth in ministry. Look at how many songs seem to express that all God wants from us is praise and that we’re all right if we have the proper emotional state in a worship service. And it seems that there has been a benign neglect among many pastors, elders and church leaders, in the name of seeker friendly churches,  of their mission to equip the church for works of ministry, as stated in Ephesians 4:11-14: “And it was he [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers for the equipping of the saints unto the work of ministry, unto the building up of the body of Christ, until we all arrive at the oneness of faith and the full knowledge of the Son of God, unto a mature man, unto the full measure of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be childish as we are blown and carried around by every whiff of teaching by the trickiness of men in their sneakiness toward the scheme of error . . .” (Dale’s sight translation; unfortunately, there’s no modern English word or paraphrase that I can think of that can convey the emphasis of the preposition translated, “unto” in this passage as well). And it will be then that we come to know an emotional state that is more Christlike than being caught up in a thrill or warm afterglow of worship. It will be, as David Wilkerson once described the effect of any true baptism of the Holy Spirit, looking out and loving a lost world with the love of Jesus.

When we come into contact with others in the course of ministry, then, we will see other people with the compassion of Christ, as he did. And when this happens, we will see them in their true state, in the immensity of their need. So, as we come close to Christ, his compassion will come from knowing their state as he did. The Bible says then that, “When he saw the crowds he was filled with compassion for them because they were harassed and beaten down, like sheep without a shepherd.”  The description is not merely of their physical needs for healing, which he took care of generously when he was with them. Rather, the phrase recalls what Isaiah had written: “All we like sheep have gone astray: we have turned every one to his own way . . .” (Isaiah 53:6). Jesus knew that the real problem wasn’t the political domination of the masses by Rome or the economic exploitation of the masses by the rich nor their religious exploitation by their religious leaders. Rather, the true need was what he would provide in his death on the cross for them: “ . . . and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Because of sin, every human being apart from Christ is broken, harassed and helpless. Whatever the outward appearance of comfort or discomfort, satisfaction or dissatisfaction, the human brokenness that marks us all comes from the sin that separates us from Go. Thus we’re all left without his direction, protection, provision and life, and we ourselves are as helpless and harassed as sheep without a shepherd.  And this realization needs to infiltrate our perceptions of other people; it will enable us to see beyond our prejudices and the false fronts of others to the needs deep within their hearts and lives. It will mean seeing people according to the Word of God, from the perspective of a mind that has been renewed by the Spirit of God through fellowship with Jesus. This will draw us aware from the self centered defensive and passive life, and into a life of trusting God to meeting the need from the knowledge of the Savior and his power to save. 

Rees Howells once told of how this realization came to him, as a part of his own experience, and how it became the burden which led him to be a missionary and to found a college to train missionaries. He said, “I had heard many people speaking on the need of the mission field, but I never ‘saw’ the heathen in their need until that afternoon; the Lord gave me a vision of them, and they stood before me as sheep without a shepherd.”

But the realization of this need would be utterly crushing if we do not ourselves know the transforming power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For all the compassion of Jesus there needs to be a faith in the truth and power of the gospel that can and will come to the heart that will receive him by faith. Most certainly there needs to be a personal reception of salvation by faith in Christ, not necessarily as a dramatic experience, but certainly as a real understanding of having passed from death to life, from condemnation to pardon, from separation from God to acceptance by God through faith in Jesus Christ. This means, then, continuing in living in fellowship with Jesus and listening to his Word, and being filled oneself with the power of his Spirit for witness. This then will give us the belief in the power of the gospel that will be the foundation for a confidence to pray and to witness with the realization that the Savior can and will come to bring his salvation to those who are living like sheep without a shepherd.

Arthur Blessitt found that this was necessary when he began a continuing witness in 1967 on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, California. He found that the Christians who were witnessing with him really didn’t believe that the Lord was able to save the druggies, the freaks and the winos, as he described them. Rather, he found that he was only able to have an effective witness there as he worked with simple believers, without church connections or lots of theological knowledge, but whose lives had been changed by the gospel, by the power of God.

So then, the compassion of Jesus will deepen within us as we minister for the glory of Jesus, with his gospel, love and power in this world. It will lead to a continuing perception of other people as Jesus sees them, and we will never be able to see them as we have seen them before. It will mean a transformation of our thoughts and feelings about others, as our own experience of the transforming power of the gospel fills us with the compassion and hope of Christ. We will then realize that he can and will do the same for others as he has done for us, and the confidence to reach out to others with the gospel of eternal life.

Even more, then, the compassion of Jesus will lead us to seek from him the reinforcements we need to reach the world with the gospel. We will realize that his plan of reaching people calls for workers in his harvest, and this will call us to seek from him the workers to complete the work. Reaching the harvest field of the world, as represented in each community, each human being, calls for God to prepare, empower and send out the workers into the harvest field.

Jesus held out before his disciples the tremendous potential harvest, but noted that more would be needed to fill the harvest. This is how he described both the potential and the need: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few . . .”  He didn’t give them any false impressions of their ability and numbers as being sufficient to meet the challenge of reaching the world with the gospel. He didn’t slap them on the back and say anything like “I have confidence in you; go to it.”  Rather, he commanded them to pray: “ . . . therefore pray the Lord of the harvest to send workers into his harvest.” He gave them a specific request, and it’s one that he definitely intended to fulfill, to pray for workers to be sent into the harvest field of the world of mankind apart from Christ.

Evangelism and missions, reaching people in this world with the gospel of Jesus Christ, then, comes from the initiative of the Lord of the harvest, Jesus himself, to send the workers into the harvest. His responsibility is to send – which implies his calling, preparation, empowering and sending his workers into the harvest field of the world. Even more, it then becomes the responsibility of the workers to work – which implies the work of witness and disciplemaking. But Jesus Christ, the Lord of the harvest, commanded his disciples to pray for this to happen, in light of the magnitude of the harvest and the need for so many more to accomplish the mission.

Hudson Taylor, the founder of the China Inland Mission, came to the conclusion that this was the starting point when he was looking for 24 others to join him in the China Inland Mission. He wrote, “In the study of that divine Word, I learned that to obtain successful workers, not elaborate appeals for help, but first earnest prayer to God to thrust forth laborers, and second the deepening of the spiritual life of the church, so that men would be unable to stay at home, were what was needed.”

So often we look for people, but we want them to be of our own choosing, or to be someone like we’d be comfortable with, but Jesus’s command to pray first means that our wants and choices for our leaders, pastors and missionaries must recede into the background. So often, when we ourselves look for workers, we might be like the people of Israel, who want a king like the other nations, like the tall, good looking Saul, but we in fact need to wait for the Spirit filled tow headed kid David, who turned out to be the man after God’s own heart. 

That Jesus calls for prayer means that this is something that we are not equipped or capable of doing on our own, but something for which we need the wisdom, power and guidance of God. So often people within the church seem to operate on the assumption that they can look at others, decide what their gifts and talents are, push and prod them to go where they think that they ought to go, and boast and crow about their accomplishment in getting that person to do what they assume God wanted that person to do. Certainly the Lord of the harvest is more than able to call, equip and empower his workers for his harvest, but this does not mean that anyone within the church has the wisdom to tell from someone’s supposed natural talents or spiritual gifts precisely where the Lord of the harvest wants that person. Otherwise the command would have been something like, “Figure it out and make them go there.” Rather, the Lord of the harvest tells his church precisely to ask him to send out his workers where he wants them – into the harvest where they are needed.

The call to prayer means acknowledging Jesus as Lord of the harvest and it means that we seek the people that he wants for his workers in the places the that he wants them. It means that we must acknowledge and  follow his sovereignty in the calling, preparation and sending of his workers into his harvest, and being placed in the seas of human need where he would want them. This is what each one in denominational leadership and serving with mission boards needs to remember, that they are ever and always to be subject to the Lord of the harvest as he seeks to fulfill the prayers of his people for workers to come into his harvest.

But praying this prayer is not enough; praying this way also entails being ready to become such a worker oneself. Jesus gave this call for workers to those who had already been enlisted as worker and who would eventually be sent out as workers. Jesus gave this command twice: in this passage, to the twelve, and in Luke 10:2, when he sent out the seventy.  It seems that his issuing of this command was with the understanding that the needs that they would uncover on  their mission would move them to a sense of need and compassion for the people they would encounter, and that this would brand upon their souls the need for prayer for workers to continue the work of the harvest around the world.

The underlying principle, then, is that Jesus is not commanding them to pray for something for someone else that they would be unwilling to do for themselves. The disciple that prays that prayer needs to be someone who will be willing and ready to be sent out to fulfill that same prayer. To pray this without hypocrisy means that commitment to be a worker, wherever one is. It is understanding that having received the salvation of Jesus means being willing to be used to take the message of that salvation to others. It means the understanding that we ourselves are called to be missionaries ourselves, not necessarily in the sense of being in cross cultural or vocational ministry, but in the sense of being workers and witnesses for Jesus Christ wherever we are.

Wilfred Grenfell, the medical missionary to Labrador in Canada, was once a guest at a socially exclusive dinner in London, England. There was a lady who was seated next to him at the meal who asked him, “Is it true, Dr. Grenfell, that you are a missionary?”

He replied, “Is it true, madam, that you are not?”

So then, the vision of the harvest which comes from Jesus mean a calm trust in God to follow his instructions and methods for reaching the harvest. His plan always has been to use his people to reach other people, and the people he uses are those who have been sent into the harvest as his faithful workers. God does not give us a quick, easy, short cut way to become a worker, but commands us to start with prayer. So this means that we need first of all to address the Lord of the harvest with the need of the world, and request from him the people that we need to reach the world. His call is to bring before him the need for workers and laborers here and throughout our nation and our world. Even more, let us add on the request that the Lord will revive us with his Holy Spirit, and make us all witnesses to him in the power of Christ. The qualifications which we can see from scripture are not that someone is universally liked or socialized effectively to a lost and dying world, but rather, someone who is divinely dissatisfied with the world as it is, who sees those around him as sheep without a shepherd, and who is a believer in Jesus Christ, who lives in fellowship with Jesus Christ in faith and obedience, and who will witness to Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit.

God’s plan to reach the harvest calls for his people to reach other people.  If the Great Shepherd has found us, he calls us to reach those who are now like sheep without a shepherd. His plan includes the call and command to his people to pray for workers to accomplish his work of bringing in his harvest. The harvest today is as great today as it ever was, but the greatness of God is more than adequate to meet the need. His invitation to pray for workers to come into his harvest is also his promise to fulfill the prayer. Therefore pray this way with the confidence that God will answer the prayer, and let the love and compassion of Jesus move you to keep on praying for his laborers for the harvest.

The need for laborers then entails a willingness to  become a worker oneself. Make it a part of your praying for laborers the act of volunteering to be a part of meeting the needs  where you are. Look at the opportunities before you, and asked to be filled with the Holy Spirit, with holy and loving confidence and boldness, to be an effective witness for Christ. And include in this a willingness to be sent wherever he leads into harvest, as you recognized that the Lord of the harvest has the right to send you where he wants.

Even more, this is a request that needs to be much, much more a request that is an integral part of our prayer meetings when we gather together to pray. Too often church members have been notorious for bringing up physical needs and perhaps financial needs, and neglect to keep the prayer for workers to be sent into the harvest as a consistent part of their prayer requests. The needs for workers for the needs of the local church could certainly be brought under this explicit command and implied promise. Certainly a church which is between pastors can pray with this command and promise for a pastor – but they should then look for the one that they eventually call as God’s answer to this prayer, and the worker he has sent to their place in the harvest.

If the church which makes this request is seeking to be a part of reaching the world for Christ, this would then also entail being willing to live with what happens when the Lord of the harvest puts his nail pierced hand on the shoulder of someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister or friend or neighbor within the congregation, and points that person to a place in the harvest where he wants that person. Praying this prayer then means being willing to live with the consequences of God fulfilling this prayer as it touches the lives of those we know and love. It may mean sacrificing one’s own ambitions for that son or daughter and allowing the Lord of the harvest to put that person into a place of little recognition or even physical danger. It may mean letting go of someone who we may think needs to continue to be a part of our church fellowship for a long time more. But this really comes down living with the Lordship of Jesus Christ over that someone else’s life and not opposing it if I have other ideas or plans.

But there is still one more thing from these verses that needs to be emphasized: in the work of reaching the world with the gospel, the leaders and people within the church need to keep it in mind that Jesus Christ, the Lord of the church for everything in every way (Ephesians 1:21-23), is the Lord of the harvest. And this is where the wickedness of much of what happens among elders, pastors, church leaders and denominational officials that some call, ‘church politics,’ is highlighted, where it means behavior which is contrary to the explicit Word of God – rivalry, cutthroat competition, slander and backbiting as evil as anything which takes place in a secular corporation – and behavior which stands in any way in the way of the Lord of the harvest from sending his workers where he chooses. One of the consequences of someone seeing the world through the eyes of Jesus is often that others will seek to hijack, sidetrack, sabotage or stonewall that person as he or she seeks to follow the Lord of the harvest into his harvest field where he leads. Certainly that person is still responsible to obey God rather than man, as far as the leading is scriptural, but I personally find the, “That’s tough, just put up with it,” attitude toward church politics to be an unscriptural response. Rather, the situation calls for a healthy and holy respect for the Lord and Master of the harvest, the realization that his decisions are final, and the final acquiescence in the direction pointed by the finger of the right hand pierced by the nail of Golgotha.

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As far as some current trends in training people in pastoral ministry, vocational missionary work and denominational leadership, the following articles piqued my interest:

The Seminary Bubble 

Bursting the Seminary Bubble

What the author writes about ministry as apprenticeship is very apt. Though I value my friendships with my friends from my seminary years, I’ve felt his model of apprenticeship might have been a more effective preparation, and others such as John Wesley and Charles Finney felt the same way. I don’t think that a ‘ministry internship’ as part of a seminary education is the answer here.

Here is a further article on what another author sees as a coming bubble in higher education – and one which I would say had already arrived and is simply waiting to burst:

The Higher Education Bubble

Here are some thoughts which come to mind on these matters:

  • It’s becoming plainer than ever that a number of people have been educated beyond what they need to make a living.
  • It should also be said that many are being put into the higher education system who have no business being there in terms of their goals and personal capabilities.
  • Higher education often leaves a person overqualified for the work that they know how to find, and this often leads to a cycle of chronic underemployment.
  • Christian institutions of higher education do not do their students, graduates, alumni, staff and faculty and denominational sponsors good when they follow uncritically the same lines of thought and action as the secular institutions.
  • Much of seminary education is really not a preparation for pastoral ministry and missionary work but rather for continued higher education. In this I wholeheartedly agree with Jerry Bowyer. For instance, I personally found it extraordinarily difficult to draw a line between much of what was taught in New Testament exegesis and the actual understanding and application of the Word of God necessary for an effective preaching ministry. I found that the German theories on redaction criticism, form criticism and source criticism, for instance, had more to do with unsubstantiated, highly subjective theories on how some professors thought the text came to being than in actual interpretation and exposition of the text itself. And my background in classical studies, where much of the methodology of the German higher critics had already long since been repudiated, made knowing those theories more of an exercise in the history of Biblical interpretation than something that I could actually use in the pastorate. For myself, I found that ditching those theories in favor of more traditional paths of interpretation resulted in my being able to explain and apply the scriptures much more effectively in my preaching ministry.
  • It seems like there’s actually a pattern of overqualification and underemployment that dogs some people who come through Christian colleges and seminaries. I’ve read what others have written on this, but bore could be said on this, and I intend to write more on this.
  • I consider what I wrote above about the need of the world and the Lord of the harvest, and the number of brothers and sisters that I’ve known who have come through Bible colleges and seminaries who are no longer in vocational ministry. I don’t think that they can be dismissed simply with a cruel judgment that they never were really called to pastoral ministry or missionary service. There are a number of reasons why they may not have continued in vocational ministry. I myself wonder, with the need of the world and the call of the Lord of the harvest for workers, whether the need might be met more not just by continuing to send more and more through seminary and Bible college but by seeking to listen to, pray for and love those who may no longer be in vocational ministry, and understand that the Lord of the harvest may still have substantial work left for them to do.

Where Are the Legalists in Our Churches?

A little while ago there were some preachers that I know of who were going back to the book of Galatians and preaching a series of sermons on the foundational truths in that book of the atonement of Christ, justification and sanctification. Their explanation of the bedrock truths of the faith was very good. Where I think that they came up short was in attributing legalism in the modern church to a theological belief in righteousness by good deeds. That may well indeed be true of some people, but it is not generally not characteristic of many believers in modern evangelical churches who are most dogmatic about certain rules and regulations and setting themselves up as the authorities and judges of other believers where the scriptures are silent. In fact, many of these same believers may be at the same time extremely vocal about their conviction about salvation by grace through faith. So I don’t think that dealing with the theological truth is going to deal with the true motivation of their legalism. Moreover, I don’t think that most of them would ever see themselves in the place of a legalist however many sermons they heard that dealt with legalism as a mere theological belief that my good deeds will get me into heaven.

I think that the legalism that many are stuck in is the legalism that their religious convictions and obedience make them superior to others who do not believe in and practice the same things. This is often the perception of those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ of those in the church, and they are often right. In addition, I have also heard the same thing from those who had a profession of faith in Christ but who have fallen away. So, this attitude of religious superiority because of personal religious observances has been and will continue to be a great stumbling block to many both inside and outside our churches. And I don’t think that talking more about grace from a theological standpoint to those who are stuck in it will receive anything more than the protest that, “I do believe completely in the grace of God” – as a foundational plank in their theology.

Jesus told two parables in the gospel of Luke that showed what could be called practical and relational grace – how the grace of God deals with our own comparison of ourselves with others in our religious observances, and anything done out of obedience to God. I would myself preach sermons on these either as a preparation or as a follow-up to a sermon series on the book of Galatians.

The first one is in Luke 18:9-14:

“[Jesus] spoke this parable to those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and who lived in contempt toward others: ‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was a Pharisee and the other was a revenue agent for the Roman government. The Pharisee stood off by himself and prayed, ‘Oh God, I thank you that I’m not like others – thievish, abusive, sexually immoral, or even like this government revenue agent. I fast twice a week, and I tithe on everything that I have acquired.’ But the government revenue agent had stood a far way off, and he would not even lift his eyes toward heaven, but he was beating his chest as he was saying, ‘Oh God, be merciful to me – this sinner.’ I tell you, the government revenue agent went down to his home and had been justified rather than the other one; for whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.’” (Dale’s sight translation)

The next one is in Luke 17:7-10:

“[Jesus told the apostles], ‘When you have a slave who has been plowing or herding sheep and who then comes in from the field, who among you says to him, ‘When you have come in, sit down immediately to dinner’?  But won’t you say to him, ‘Prepare my dinner, and wait on me while I eat and drink, and then you can eat and drink?’ Will you give any special favor to that slave because he did what he had been assigned? In the same way, when you have done what you have been assigned, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have just done what we ought to have done.’’ (Dale’s sight translation)

In the first parable Jesus spoke to the Pharisaic sense of personal security and superiority that comes from comparing one’s own religious observances to others. This could be parallel to someone in a modern church having a testimony of having received salvation, but acting as if what he or she thinks, says and does in religious conformity as a part of a church makes him or her superior to those who don’t do the same things, or don’t do them as well. And believe me, those outside our church fellowships pick up on this quite easily. In the second parable, Jesus dealt with the idea that anything we do in obedience to God entitles us to any special favors from God in any way. The way that I’ve seen this work out – and I’ve been tempted with this myself – is to see that something that I’ve done entitles me to something special – some special privilege or permission – in some other way.

Very often this becomes an entrenched habit of thought and action and may well become the peculiar kind of religious superiority, authoritarianism and inflexibility that many see in believers who have been involved heavily with church activities for a long time. This may well be why often that someone in a position of church or denominational leadership seeks out or arrogates to themselves special privileges of position, offices, or even financial favors because of what they would call their faithful service to God in some way – usually in some church activity or office. Many times they may also extend this to their families, to where their religious involvement and observance means special privileges of church position, promotion or financial support for their family members.

There can often be an emotional incentive to this kind of legalism, because it feeds a person’s pride, self sufficiency and independence from God, and sense of superiority to others. After all, most adults in modern churches have never grown beyond the same social goals and skills as a high school senior. So  this kind of legalism can buttress the ‘formula driven’ forms of Christian involvement, where a person’s participation in the approved activities, saying the approved formulas and following the rules is normally perceived the outward indication that a person is ‘all right’ with God and with others. When coupled with a selectively proud and aggressive self presentation, this can be seen as nothing less than hypocrisy. Moreover,  this leads to, in some very competitive people, an aggressive use of the rules for personal aggrandizement and denigration and contempt of other believers.

Here are the signs that this kind of practical and social legalism are at work behind a theological profession of salvation by grace through faith:

  • Social conformity:  Believers seek to avoid sticking out and being different because this might attract attention and harassment by the social enforcers of the rules. In addition, this might lead to the idolatry of personal reputation that leads to a stubborn hypocrisy, where someone tries to preserve his or her reputation and outward conformity at all costs.
  • Social competition: This leads to a habitual quest to the demonstrate superiority over other people in some way, often by display of superficial Biblical or theological knowledge. An unbroken pride and an inflated self estimate does this to keep up a personal sense of having to be better than someone else in some way.
  • Social oneupmanship: Social conflict and aggression come from this sense to prove one’s superiority in following the rules over others. This is where some believers are on the prowl looking for areas in which others fall short, or testing them in short conversations or enlisting others to keep an eye on someone else.
  • Social control: This is where some try to keep the social group within the church in conformity to the rules. There may actually be an associated  sense of pride and explicit boastfulness how one has changed others to one’s own expectations and has actually been playing the Holy Spirit in the lives of others.

It is here where Galatians speaks most powerfully to these situations, with verses that deal with the personal and social effects of this kind of social legalism: “The works of the fallen human nature are obvious . . . fights, strife, jealousy, fits of rage, cutthroat competitions, vicious cliques, divisions,  . . . and such other things like these, which I already told you before that those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Galatians 5:19-21). With this citation, I’ve left out the sexual and addictive sins, but left in the sins of personal rivalry and conflict, which are the works of the fallen human nature (flesh) which can have the most prevalent religious expressions among us.

Rather, there needs to be a renewed emphasis on the fruit of the Spirit as the effect of genuine regeneration and walking in the Spirit of Christ: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control; against such things there is no legal sanction” (Galatians 5:22-23, Dale’s sight translation).

There are two last observations that I have from this:

I’ve noticed that evangelical believers when operating in the social environment of the church are extremely vulnerable to listening to and passing on vicious gossip and to being instigated against others by false gossip. I’ve also noticed that many times false impressions and malicious rumors about others may persist among some believers and Christian leaders long after others have seen through them for the falsehoods that they are and have moved on. My hypothesis is that these false impressions and malicious rumors have become baked into that person’s sense of personal superiority, and that they function to keep that person’s sense of personal superiority by giving them someone else to be superior to through this persistent sense of contempt toward someone else. This also was a problem in the Galatian churches: “If you keep on sniping at and chowing down each other, watch out that you annihilate each other” (Galatians 5:15).

The second observation is that the rules often become a weapon and a smokescreen of the person with an abusive personality.  This is most likely one of the reasons why abusive personalities too often find long term sanctuary in churches as long term members and even leaders.They may harbor within themselves a belief that they have a special right and the justification to treat others any way that they please  so long as their own outward reputation remains intact. It is why sometimes credible accounts of vicious long term abuse come out where someone had a reputation for being a perfect spouse or from a perfect family. They were adhering to the rules, but not showing the fruit of the Spirit within their own marriages and family.

Solomon Says: On Popularity and Friendship

With all the concern of so many for personal popularity, it’s interesting to read what Solomon, the man to whom God gave more wisdom than any other except for the Lord Jesus himself, had to say about it:

“A man of many companions may come to ruin
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

(Proverbs 18:24)

Solomon rather advised quality over quantity with friends, and depth of friendship rather than just popularity. Understanding this can keep a person from doing foolishness in pursuit of popularity and being liked by the crowd. Popularity and pleasing the peer group can become an idol in itself for many, but wisdom seeks through that for the false god that it is.

Here’s another thing that Solomon had to say:

“He who walks with the wise grows wise,
but a companion of fools suffers harm.”

(Proverbs 13:20).

People who are wise may not be popular, and hanging with them may bring some ridicule from the fools who seek someone’s companionship instead. In the long run, though real wisdom – defined in scripture as living a godly and productive life in God’s universe according to God’s rules – is far preferable to the harm that comes from pursuing close relationships with fools.