The Glory of God and the Purpose of the Church

The first question asked by the Westminster Shorter Catechism is, “What is the chief end of man?”. Some of us know the answer, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” In the Catechism itself, there are nearly a dozen passages of scripture provided to support the answer.

If you visit many of today’s evangelical churches, or even visit their websites, you might come away thinking that the chief goal of most believers is to fine one’s special purpose, dream destiny, or most fulfilling life while occupying planet earth. If you doubt my assumption, just listen to some of the sermons from the most popular broadcasters on Christian television, or visit church websites. Listen to almost any sermon/sermon series and what hear is all about you. Even when scripture is used to support a lot of these sermons, they still end up being all about you instead of expositing/exegeting/explaining the actual text of scripture.

And then there are church web site ‘vision statements’. I can’t tell you how many vision statements I’ve seem that set as a goal of the church to help you find your ‘purpose’, or discover your ‘destiny’ on earth. While you might find a ‘What We Believe’ section with sound statements of belief, sometimes you have to dig deep to find them. The church vision statement is often boldly stated on a home page while a belief statement is several layers deep. The church vision is clearly a higher priority than the core beliefs of the church. I suggest that what we believe is far more important than a ‘vision statement’.

While the find your purpose/dream destiny goal sounds great and definitely attracts people, is it a biblical goal for the church? What does the Bible have to say about priorities in the life of the church and in the lives of individual believers?

Interestingly enough, we have a particular passage that dates back to Pentecost, when 3,000 heard the gospel proclaimed, repented and believed in Jesus as the Messiah (were ‘saved’).

Acts 2:42 describes the principle activities of these new believers;

“And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” (KJV)

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (ESV)
“They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (NASB)

Note the three activities of these new believers ‘continued steadfastly in’ or ‘were devoted to’:

  1. The apostles’ doctrine/teaching
  2. Fellowship
  3. Prayer

Is it a stretch to assume that all three of these activities glorify God? The purpose of the church, made up of individual believers, is described in Ephesians, Chapter 4:

11 And he (God)gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

We are told that God gifted the church with apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers (sometimes called the five-fold ministry) for specific reasons:

“…to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all (saints/believers) attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood,to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (emphasis mine).

Note for whom the gifts are given; “the saints”, believers in Christ. Note also that the gifts given to the church are “for the work of the ministry, for the building up of the body of Christ.” There is nothing here, or anywhere else in scripture (trust me) about the church existing for non-believers. There is also nothing here, or elsewhere in scripture, that even remotely suggests that those with the aforementioned gifts are to help folks in the pews (or theater seats) have their best lives now, discover special purposes, or achieve dream destinies.

Would it be a stretch to assume that the purpose of those so gifted might be to teach the ‘doctrine of the apostles’, the object of devotion for the new believers in Acts? I think not.

How does that translate to today – the apostles’ doctrine? A no-brainer? It must refer to what is contained in scripture, that which was inspired (breathed out by God)!

So, getting back to the chief end of man and the purpose of the church. When the subject matter being taught by evangelical leaders becomes all about you, who exactly is being ‘glorified’? I’ll leave it right there.

Oh, there’s one other little thing. Something that Jesus said:

“Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me’.” (Matthew 16:25)

I’ll leave that one there too. Any questions?

_________________

P.S. If you don’t know much about church catechisms, here is a link that lists some, along with additional links to the actual texts.

For What "Good" Is God Working All Things Together?

by Jeremiah Johnson at GTY.org

Here’s one example—a devotional reading from Joel Osteen. Romans 8:28 appears to be one of the prosperity preacher’s favorite verses—this is just one of the many entries he’s written on it, titled “When Life Isn’t Fair.”

Everyone goes through things that don’t seem to make sense. It’s easy to get discouraged and wonder, “Why did this happen to me?” “Why did this person treat me wrong?” “Why did I get laid off?” But we have to understand, even though life is not always fair, God is fair. And, He promises to work all things together for good for those who love Him.

I believe the key word is this verse is “together.” In other words, you can’t just isolate one part of your life and say, “Well, this is not good.” “It’s not good that I got laid off.” “It’s not good that my relationship didn’t work out.” Yes, that’s true, but that’s just one part of your life. God can see the big picture. That disappointment is not the end. Remember, when one door closes, God has another door for you to walk through—a better door. Those difficulties and challenges are merely stepping stones toward your brighter future. Be encouraged today because God has a plan for you to rise higher. He has a plan for you to come out stronger. He has a plan to work all things together for your good so that you can move forward in the victory He has prepared for you! [1]

With some variation, that represents many believers’ general understanding of what Paul meant in Romans 8:28—“Don’t let life get you down. God’s going to make everything better!”

Of course that oversimplification goes beyond the original intent of Paul’s words. There’s no biblical basis for Osteen’s promise that God always has a better door for us to walk through. In fact, His Word promises that life won’t always be happy, rich, and full—sometimes we’re meant to suffer (1 Peter 4:12).

It’s in the midst of that suffering that Romans 8:28 is most often deployed. We want to trust that God is working, even through our trials, to bring about His will. And there’s plenty of biblical evidence to back up that hope. The story of Joseph in the Old Testament is one of the clearest examples.

Joseph was severely beaten and sold into slavery by his brothers. He endured the illicit advances of his boss’ wife, and was thrown into prison after she made false accusations against him. He lingered in prison for years before he was released and brought in to council Pharaoh himself. He was given a position of leadership, in which the Lord used him to spare Egypt and countless surrounding communities—including his own family—from famine. At the end of his story, as he reconciles with the brothers who kick-started all his suffering, he acknowledges God’s sovereign hand working through it all: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but  God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive” (Genesis 50:20).

Stories like Joseph’s give us confidence that God is always working behind the scenes to bring about His will. But He might not have such monumental purposes for our suffering. Sometimes it’s simply for our own spiritual growth that the Lord allows us to suffer through trials (James 1:2). The Spirit’s refining, sanctifying work is often painful, but the spiritual fruit it bears is well worth the struggle.

In his commentary on Romans, John MacArthur explains that God is working out

our good during this present life as well as ultimately in the life to come. No matter what happens in our lives as His children, the providence of God uses it for our temporal as well as our eternal benefit, sometimes by saving us from tragedies and sometimes by sending us through them in order to draw us closer to Him. [2]

A Certain Eternity

In the immediate context of Romans 8, Paul is not dwelling on our current suffering, but looking forward to eternity. In verse 18, he mentions the “sufferings of this present time,” but only to say that they cannot compare to “the glory that is to be revealed to us.” From there he explains how creation groans to be free from the curse of sin (Romans 8:19-22), and how believers likewise long to see the fulfillment of their faith (vv. 23-25). Then he describes how the Spirit intercedes on our behalf according to God’s eternal purposes (vv. 26-27).

The theme continues in the verses immediately following:

For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. (Romans 8:29-30)

In the context of the believer’s eternal glorification, we need to understand the “purpose” for which God is working all things together as not merely our temporal good, but our eternal good. In that sense, Romans 8:28 isn’t merely a promise that God is watching out for us in this life; it’s a guarantee that He is working out all aspects of our lives toward His ultimate goal of our future glorification. It’s a promise that our eternity with Him is secure.

In a sermon on this passage called “Groanings Too Deep for Words,” John MacArthur explains that powerful promise this way:

The point is this: Because of the plan of God and the provision of Christ and the protection of the Holy Spirit through His intercessory ministry, God is causing all things to work together for our final, eternal, ultimate good. Not everything in this life works out for good—far from it. Oh, you might draw a good lesson from it. You might draw a good outcome from it. You might be drawn to the Lord. It might increase your prayer life. It might strengthen you. It might give you patience. It might perfect you, mature you. It might make you able to counsel other people and strengthen them because . . . you’ve been comforted by God in the same struggles.

All of those are wonderful realities, but that’s not the good that’s being spoken of here. The good that dominates this passage is that ultimate, final good that is the glorification of true believers. We are secured to that final good, that which is the best.

In His providence, God is sovereignly orchestrating all events according to His will, for His glory and our good. But we’re not guaranteed that all our struggles will be turned into blessing. Sometimes He will rescue us from tragedies; other times it’s our suffering that brings about His desired result. Our perspective on His sovereign goodness cannot be bound to our own circumstances—if Joseph had remained in the Egyptian jail for the rest of His life, would God be any less good, or His will less than perfect?

What we are guaranteed in Romans 8:28 is that regardless of what we have to endure in this life, our eternity with Him is unassailable. Nothing can stand in the way of His plans for our future glorification.

And in the midst of life’s struggles, what better promise could we cling to?

Sneakers & Evangelism

Did Colin Kapenick influence Nike’s decision to pull the Betsy Ross themed new sneakers? Some say yes, including CNBC, Wall Street Journal, and just about every news outlet on the planet.

The WSJ reported:

“Nike Inc. is yanking a U.S.A.-themed sneaker (the “Air Max 1 USA”) featuring an early American flag after NFL star-turned-activist Colin Kaepernick told the company it shouldn’t sell a shoe with a symbol that he and others consider offensive.”

One Radio Station reported that:

“Nike Pulls Shoes Featuring Betsy Ross Flag Over Concerns About Racist Symbolism”

Here is Nike’s first official response:

“Nike has chosen not to release the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July as it featured an old version of the American flag,” Nike told CNBC in a statement.

Given the reports of the world’s news outlets, only a very few people (those with ‘asparagus’ level intellects?) will buy Nike’s first official response. Later in the day yesterday Nike responded again:

“We regularly make business decisions to withdraw initiatives, products and services. NIKE made the decision to halt distribution of the Air Max 1 Quick Strike Fourth of July based on concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.

Well, Nike, CK and news outlets aside, I couldn’t help but think about how interesting it would be to write a similar article about much of today’s Christian evangelism. It could be titled,

“Evangelical Leaders Remove ‘Sin’ and ‘Repentance’ from the Gospel Message Because the Terms Might be Offensive”

Although there is a general similarity in the theme that something that might “offend” someone in both cases (sneakers and the gospel), there are significant differences between the two.

1. Nike made its decision just this week and received a ton of backlash. Evangelicalism’s removal of ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’ in the gospel message is nothing new, and can be traced back to the late ‘80’s, if not further in the past.

2. Due to the removal of ‘sin’ and ‘repentance’ from the message of the gospel occurring sometime in the past (a book by noted psychologist Carl Menninger “Whatever Became of Sin?” was published in 1988), whatever backlash that might have been received is mostly in the past.  There might have been strong opposition early on, but slowly the thought that we could win people to Christ just talking about how much he loves us became firmly entrenched in modern evangelical thought.

3. Finally (for now), the genuine gospel message IS a matter of offense to the unbeliever!

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Cor 1:18)

Because sinners love their sin and darkness (and all of us are sinners), it takes a sovereign act of God to open a sinful heart to pay attention to the gospel message that addresses man’s sinfulness. But since God is really good at opening hearts to hear the gospel (see Acts 16 and the story of Lydia). Hearts ARE opened, the true gospel is preached, and sinners are saved!

And that’s what the whole Nike/Colin Kapernick/Betsy Ross sneakers issue got me thinking about.

My question to you is this:

“What’s worse, caving in to cultural demands for inoffensive sneakers, ot sending people to hell with a false gospel?

Food for thought……………………………

Heaven’s War

image

Trapped between worlds! After a terrorist bomb explodes, US senator Jonah Thomas is forced into an epic battle fought somewhere between life and death, Heaven and Hell.

While FBI agents and terrorists fight for his life in one world, angels and demons wage war for his soul in another. Will Jonah learn the truth and find his way home before it’s too late?
One of the most powerful presentations of the gospel ever produced in film.”
– Tim Utekal, Secondly Magazine
“Awesome! A supernatural thriller that beautifully presents the gospel.”
– Jonathan Falwell, author, pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church
“A powerful story of the spiritual battle that rages around us for every human soul.”
– Edwin L Carpenter, Dove.org

General Observations:

The movie tackles the problem of sin and the reality of hell. In fact, at one point we see screaming people falling into a flaming hell, inducing corrupt politicians..

The truth that everyone will one day stand before the Judgment and give account for all deeds done in this life is well presented.

The power of prayer is presented mainly through Jonah’s dying mother and his wife.

The movie presents the message that Christ died for the sins of the world. The archangel Gabriel presents John 3:16 to Jonah Thomas while they are in the spiritual realm where Gabriel, with a little help from his friends, does battle with demons, over Jonah’s soul.

Jonah finally sees the truth (Gabriel’s goal) and surrenders to Jesus, giving his life to the Savior.

Spiritual warfare over the souls of men is the overarching theme of the movie. Some might think the spiritual warfare theme, complete with ‘battle’ scenes and CGI effects overshadow Jonah’s giving his life to Jesus.

There is a happy ending of course, with Jonah, his wife and daughter walking off into the distance and shining sunlight, the“light of Christ”.

The final narrative quote was interesting. As the trio are walking away into the light, we hear the narrator say:

“But for those who do the will of God, they will one day have every tear and every sorrow wiped away and they will live forever in the glory and love of our Lord Jesus.”

Personal Observations:

I purchased the DVD because I kept getting ads on Facebook (must be an algorithm). But rather than pay the full ‘sale’ price, I bought 4 DVDs. Other short reviews might follow this one. We actually watched one of the other DVDs first.

As with other contemporary ‘Christian’ films, I watched this one wondering whether there would be a clear presentation of the gospel. Oftentimes it’s missing. By that I mean a gospel message that included the issue of sin, the need for repentance, and the solution of Christ’s death for sin. For that, the film gets high marks. Christ’s death for the sins of the world was clearly presented. That Christ’s death was for the sins of the whole world, without further clarification, is typical when the intent is to communicate that Christ died for all of the sins of all men, a matter of debate between Calvinists and Arminians.

The film clearly communicated that Christ’s love can breach any obstacle to believing in his sacrifice for sins. And although final judgment is depicted, along with unbelievers being cast into hell, the fact that Jesus is both savior and judge seemed to be blurred. While Christ’s love is clearly presented, Jesus is not presented as presiding at the final judgment. Nevertheless, judgment for sin is clearly presented.

At the end of the day, salvation is presented as the result of Jonah’s free will decision, thus making human decision the determining factor in salvation, which is probably the prevailing opinion of the vast majority of evangelicals.

While salvation is rightly presented as a ‘free gift’, the final narration could communicate that final salvation is conditioned on ‘obedience to the will of God’, possibly conflating law and grace. Here again is the ending:

“But for those who do the will of God, they will one day have every tear and every sorrow wiped away and they will live forever in the glory and love of our Lord Jesus.”

The film seems to teach that although salvation is a free gift to be received by ‘giving one’s heart to Jesus”, living for eternity in the presence of Christ depends on human obedience.

It is my belief, from scripture, that genuine salvation unfailingly produces a life of obedience to the will of God, and naturally results in eternity with Christ. Perhaps the film’s producers also believe that, but it just could have been better communicated.

All in all, it was much better than most of today’s Christian film offerings, which are mostly adventures in missing the point of the gospel message.

On Still Small Voices and Allegories

– By R. Scott Clark on The Heidelblog

One of the first things I learned when I became an evangelical Christian in 1976, the year America elected a self-proclaimed “Born Again” Christian (Jimmy Carter), was that every Christian should expect to hear a “still small voice” from God. I learned this phrase from the King James Version (1611) of 1 Kings 19:12 long before I ever learned the location of the phrase in Scripture and long before I learned anything about the context of the phrase. I entered American evangelical theology, piety, and practice entirely naive about the history of the revivalism and Pietism. Rather, I was given to think that every Christian receives direct revelations from the Holy Spirit, specific guidance as to what to do in a given situation. Sometimes it was said or implied that whether one heard God’s “still, small voice” was determined by the degree of one’s faith. More typically, however, it was said or implied that hearing God’s still, small voice is a spiritual discipline not unlike proficiency in high-technology. The noise of life, perhaps our successes, it is said, can drown out God’s voice but if we quiet ourselves, if we attend to God, we can “tune out” the background noise and “tune in” to the Spirit’s still, small voice.

This question recently arose at a conference at which I spoke—I do not recall which one and it does not particularly matter. I try to collect the question and answer cards so that I can address those that we do not get to during the conference and this one was at the top of the pile on my desk.

That this use of 1 Kings 19 is so widely accepted is a testament to the pervasiveness of allegorical interpretation of Scripture among evangelicals and even among those who profess the Reformed faith. Beginning in the 3rd century (at least) there began to develop a way of reading Scripture that sought to ask and answer from a passage what it says about faith (doctrine), hope (eschatology), and love (ethics). These are good questions but the way by which the answers were often derived in the (late) Patristic and medieval periods were found wanting by the Reformers. They criticized this approach to Scripture because it sometimes assumed that a text must have embedded within it multiple senses. Second, they criticized it because it tended to ignore the literal or historical sense of the text in favor of one of the figurative (doctrinal, eschatological, or moral) senses. It was not that they did not know that there was a historical sense (the did) but that too often it was less interesting to them than the putative figurative senses. They were less interested in what the text intended to say in its original context or even in its broader redemptive-historical context.

The attraction of the figurative senses is as strong today as it was then. The real question behind the search for the figurative senses is one: what does the text mean to me or for me? It is one thing to ask, “What does this passage, taken in its original context, accounting for the intent of the human author—so far as possible—and the divine author–so far as the text allows us to determine it—teach us about what we ought to believe, for what we ought to hope, and how we ought to live?” and quite another to ignore the original context or worse, mention that context and then apply it as though the original context and intent is irrelevant. In some ways, the latter approach is even more dangerous because it is practical identical to the first but covers itself with a fig leaf of respectability. In truth, neither approach cares to allow original intent or the original context to govern how the text is understood and applied. To move from 1 Kings 19 to post-canonical “still, small voices” is an allegorical reading i.e., a figurative interpretation seeking a doctrine, of which Origen or Ambrose of Milan would be proud.1

I doubt that John Chrysostom used this text this way because he was so committed to the original intent and context of the text of Scripture. The first point to be made here is that neither you nor I are Elijah. This passage is not about you or me. It speaks to us about how God delivered Elijah but it is not about us. The proper approach to Scripture is not to haul it out of its context but rather, as Mike Horton has taught us, for us to seek to find ourselves in God’s story of redemption. 1 Kings 19 tells the story of the consequences of Elijah’s slaughter of the prophets of Baal, of the wrath of an ungodly ruler (Jezebel), and Elijah’s unbelieving response. Jezebel had sworn a covenant, an oath “So may the gods do to me and more also, if I do not make your life as the life of one of them by this time tomorrow” (1 Kings 19:2; ESV). This was a blood oath. This is the same sort of oath Yahweh himself had implied when he walked between the pieces (Gen 15). Elijah was terrified (v. 3). He knew what such an oath meant. He was depressed (vv. 4–8). It is in this context that Scripture says that the Word of Yahweh came to him (v. 9). The God of the covenant, who himself had sworn a covenant to redeem his people, queried him and Elijah laid out his complaint to the Lord, that he, Yahweh, was falling down on the job by allowing his prophets to be killed and persecuted (vv. 9–10). Yahweh responded by instructing him to stand on a mount “before Yahweh.” A great wind passed by, an earthquake shook the earth, and fire raged but Yahweh was said not to be “in” them. Counter intuitively, he was, however, in “the still, small voice.”

The point of the passage is that Yahweh defied Elijah’s expectations. He was no less sovereign than he had been when he slayed the prophets of Baal or when he had defeated Pharaoh. His point was that, despite Elijah’s unbelief and fear, he was fulfilling his promise. He was with Elijah. He was not done saving his people. He had not abandoned them. Elijah was wrong. He was not alone. There were yet 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Baal (v.18).

The intent of the passage is not to teach a doctrine or practice of secret revelation or private guidance. The point of the passage is Yahweh’s faithfulness to his promises. Nothing in this passage suggests that we should be listening for a “still, small voice” from Yahweh. The point is the salvation comes in unexpected ways. It would be a far better application of this passage to say that Jesus is God’s still small voice. The Jews were looking for a Messiah with earthly, political, and military power. They would not accept a crucified and risen Messiah. Like the “still, small voice” God the Son incarnate was unexpected and unsatisfactory. People often ignore the fact that Elijah continued to complain after the “still, small, voice.” He wanted more.

At the conference the objection was made that God is still able to speak in still, small voices. Certainly but the objection misses the point. He is also able to use his prophets to slaughter false prophets, of chasing his prophets into the wilderness, and of using his prophets to install kings. He is also capable of speaking into nothing and making worlds. God is what he is. What God is able to do is beside the point. What matters here is what God has promised to do and what he has commanded us to do.

He has nowhere promised to reveal himself privately, directly, specifically apart from his Holy Scriptures. God’s Word written is sufficient for the Christian faith and the Christian life. Sola scriptura. Everything we need to know, to believe, is revealed in his Word. Everything we need to know to live the Christian life, all the guidance we need is in his Word.

The abuse of 1 Kings 19:12 presumes that Scripture is not sufficient. The truth is the God is not going to tell you directly, privately, through a “still, small voice” whether to attend this college or that, whether to take this job or that, or to marry this person or not. He has commanded us to work. He has told us to fulfill our vocation in this world, to love God with all our faculties and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Education is a good thing. Which school to attend is a prudential judgment. Which person to marry comes down to the way one answers some important questions: is your intended a believer? Are you prepared to live with and love this person for the rest of your life?”

Asking God for special, extra-biblical revelation is not only unwise, it marginalizes God’s Word and seeks to know what is secret, what is hidden (Deut 29:29) at the expense of what has already been revealed. Perhaps we seek extra-biblical revelation because we are dissatisfied with what God has already said?

Whatever the reason, believer know that you are free to live your life without the bondage of the “still, small voice.” Unless you are Elijah the Prophet (and you are not) there is no such thing. The good news is that God has revealed his Word and his moral will and we are free in Christ to follow that Word and to obey his will, in union with Christ, in communion with his church.

MORE RESOURCES

1. “The Secret of Knowing God’s Will.”

2. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (1)

3. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (2)

4. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (3)

5. Audio: The Secret of Knowing God’s Will (4)

NOTES

1. I do not see the Fathers appealing to this text often. Tertullian appealed to it contra Marcion to defend the reality of divine manifestations in the OT. Matthew Henry uses the phrase to distinguish between the thundering of the law and the sweetness of the gospel. “Whenever it thunders let us think of this psalm; and, whenever we sing this psalm, let us think of the dreadful thunder-claps we have sometimes heard, and thus bring God’s words and his works together, that by both we may be directed and quickened to give unto him the glory due unto his name; and let us bless him that there is another voice of his besides this dreadful one, by which God now speaks to us, even the still small voice of his gospel, the terror of which shall not make us afraid.” Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 782.

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