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Look for the Yellow Hats

With more than one million man hours and three million meals given away per year, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) agency plays an important role in disaster recovery. In 1968 the SBDR was formed to help meet needs of those affected by natural disasters. Since that time, SBDR has become the third largest disaster relief agency in the United States (behind only The Red Cross and Salvation Army).  Right now, over 95,000 volunteers have been trained by the SBDR in every arena from chainsaws crews to day care workers. Despite receiving zero federal funding, both the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott and Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence expressed their appreciation to the SBDR at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. All funds and volunteers for the SBDR are supplied by local Southern Baptist Churches.

As these volunteers don their trademark yellow caps once again and respond to the aftermath of hurricane Florence, perhaps it is a good time for to remind ourselves why Southern Baptists formed an entire agency with emphasis on disaster relief.

The Image of God

Irenaeus, one of the first Christians to address the imago Dei, wrote that there is a distinction to be made between the ideas of image and likeness. He theorized that image formed a baseline for all humanity. However, likeness—the degree to which we are similar to God in character and action—has been affected by sin. To some, that may appear to be a distinction without a difference, but the manner in which Southern Baptists respond to crisis-after-crisis may help shed some light on the subject.

The Yellow Hats

When an act of God throws a hurricane on the American Coast, Southern Baptists respond by offering help for every man, woman, and child. In so doing, their commitment to the imago Dei is put into practice—the baseline of God’s image is respected. Think of it like this: Southern Baptists are pro-life for all of human life. While our belief concerning the imago Dei gets more media coverage in our opposition to abortion, every man, woman, and child from the womb to his or her eternal destiny bears the image of God. As such, SBDR reaches out and works to rescue every person possible—every image of God—in a disaster. Their reasoning for doing so is not to gain political power, increase revenue, or place the SBC in the spotlight. Instead, 95,000 volunteers, capped in yellow, get up, go out, and rescue others because “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.”

Offering Help

When Irenaeus wrote on the difference between image and likeness, he recognized that despite mankind being created in the image of God, there was a discrepancy between mankind’s status and character. This gap can only be bridged by a change in man’s heart—a change only possible through the gospel. Offering help to others is not the finish line for practicing the imago Dei. SBDR will care for anyone regardless of their sins. Drunkards, abusers, the sexually immoral, etc.— all receive a baseline of care. Help is offered to all. But, SBDR is not only disaster relief and victim care; it proclaims the gospel and calls for response.

Offering Hope

In 2017 the SBDR recorded over 4200 gospel presentations. They also reported that more than 800 people responded to the gospel in faith and were connected with local churches. Earthly disasters are temporal but a spiritual disaster is eternal. As such, the goal of SBDR is not merely to save people from flooded communities, but also to redeem communities from the flood of sin. Some perils are overcome by bread, but eternal peril is only overcome by the Bread of Life.

So look for the Yellow Hats. Undoubtedly they’ll be living out Southern Baptist doctrine and fulfilling the words an old hymn:

Rescue the perishing
Care for the dying
Tell them of Jesus mighty to save.

Let’s Talk about Guarding the Purity of Church Membership

A 1993 study (holy cow! can that really be 25 years ago!) by the Home Mission Board (now termed, North American Mission Board) of the Southern Baptist Convention found that in that year, the majority (60%) of adult baptisms in Southern Baptist churches could be termed rebaptisms. While some were legitimately the baptism of those previously baptized as infants in other denominations, 36% of these adult baptisms were of people who had been previously baptized in Southern Baptist Churches! In fact, when asked why they sought rebaptism, many said that it was due to having not been regenerate believers when they were baptized the first time. (See Phillip B. Jones et al., A Study of Adults Baptized in Southern Baptist Churches, 1993 [Atlanta: Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, 1995], 5).

These numbers led theologian John Hammett to conclude, “Either these individuals were unusually deceptive or . . . some churches and pastors baptized these individuals without clear assurance that they were baptizing believers” (John Hammett, Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2005], 112).

While no pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention would celebrate the discovery that he is unintentionally baptizing unregenerate people into the membership of the church, discerning the best manner in which to prevent such practices is difficult. Some pastors will opt to provide classes for those who respond to the gospel in their churches. This practice has historical precedent as far as the second century. Others see the narrative in Acts as determinative and regard it their responsibility to baptize as soon as possible after each profession of faith.

However a given pastor chooses to move forward, I offer these points to consider as they strive to protect the purity of church membership.

1. Offer a clear gospel presentation

We get excited to see someone respond to the gospel—we should! Scripture is clear that the angels in heaven rejoice with us. But sometimes even in my own ministry, I’ve seen people respond more to what they heard than to what I thought I said. So whenever someone responds to the gospel after a service, I ask them to explain the gospel to me. Do they understand Jesus’s Divinity? Do they understand his real death? Do they understand the reality of his bodily resurrection? Do they understand that they bring nothing to their salvation apart from the sin that makes it necessary? I want clear confidence in these things before moving forward.

*A note about children
Children of believers often demonstrate faith at early ages—this should not surprise us. Those raised in a home that opens the Word of God together, pray together, and go to church together should demonstrate faith early. But when they do, I look for a legitimate definition of sin. Do they understand sin? Even more importantly, are they convicted of their sin?

2. Provide a clear description of baptism

Baptism is the first step in obedience to the commands of Christ. Baptism is the means by which a person joins the local church. Baptism is dying to oneself and identifying completely with the Lord Jesus Christ. Baptism is not “sealing the deal” of salvation, nor is it the literal washing of sins. Counsel new believers to be baptized, but be especially sure that they understand exactly what it does and does not mean.

3. Explain church membership

Many pastors require premarital counseling before committing to officiate a wedding. (If you don’t, you should. We’ll have to talk about that another time.) It’s critical that expectations are laid out and that someone lead the prospective bride and groom to consider questions that may have been overlooked in the dating process. Whenever counseling someone before they join the local church, a similar process needs to take place.

Provide a safe place for them to ask questions about the church. Explain to them how joining a local church is different from joining a civic club or society. Explain how church membership is pledging one’s self to the health of the body. Explain what expectations exist for members of the local church. Explain the church covenant that lays out for them exactly what is expected of them.

4. Explain the church’s confession of faith

It is virtually impossible for a church to be healthy without a confession of faith. It does not need to be overly strict; in fact, many Southern Baptist churches simply opt for the Baptist Faith and Message. Without a confession of faith, however, there is no doctrinal line to discern who does and does not belong. There is no standard to which pastors and teachers are called to adhere. Anyone considering joining your fellowship needs to understand what the church believes.

5. Practice church discipline

For some, points 1–4 were sufficient. No one likes church discipline. And yet, unlike a new member’s class or catechumenism (the state of a person undergoing doctrinal instruction and testing before baptism), church discipline is clearly taught in Scripture. In Matthew 18, Jesus provides a means by which the church is to guard the purity of its membership.

If your brother sins against you, go and rebuke him in private. If he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he won’t listen, take one or two others with you, so that by the testimony of two or three witnesses every fact may be established. If he doesn’t pay attention to them, tell the church. If he doesn’t pay attention even to the church, let him be like a Gentile and a tax collector to you. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will have been loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you on earth agree about any matter that you pray for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them.
Matthew 18:15–20 (CSB)

Notice that goal of church discipline is not the removal of a believer from fellowship. Rather, the goal is that he would receive correction, repent, and be restored to the fellowship. Church discipline is the recognition that when someone refuses to acknowledge his sin and repent, he has hardened his heart against God. By removing him from fellowship, he will either demonstrate repentance and return, or he will continue to harden his heart and distance himself from the gathering of believers.

Conclusion

At the end of the day, I don’t have all of the answers. If we’re being honest, none of us do. We’re all trying to live in light of our understanding of God’s Word. None of us, however, would be thrilled to learn that we have unwittingly been baptizing unbelievers and offering them an assurance of salvation.

So, if not these, what steps have you taken?

What is Church Revitalization?

In SBC life, the concept of church revitalization is gaining momentum among pastors and church practitioners. While the conversations regarding the best ways to return a church to health are needed, there has been a tendency to bring every aspect of church planting and church growth under the umbrella of church revitalization. Which brings us to the question . . .

What Church Revitalization Isn’t

Before we can provide an accurate definition of church revitalization, we must first understand what it is not.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Planting

Biblical church planting is evangelism that results in new churches. Another way to consider this concept is that it is evangelism that results in new disciples, who then gather together and self-identify as the local expression of the universal body of Christ.
JD Payne, Apostolic Church Planting

Traditionally churches have been planted when believers move intentionally to a community of non-believers, wherein they practice evangelism and discipleship, eventually forming a new congregation from the new converts. The gospel is seeded in a community resulting in the salvation of members of that community, the new believers are then discipled, and a church is planted.

Church revitalization differs from church planting in that church revitalization occurs within an existing church whereas church planting seeks to begin a new church. The church planter is called to start a new church and the church revitalizer is called to bring a dying church back to health.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Replanting

Church replanting is another term often confused with church revitalization. In church replanting, an original donor church donates their resources and personnel in an attempt to begin a new church with existing resources.

In the church replanting process, a new pastor comes in with the intentions of beginning a new church body from within the old church. Over the course of time, the expectation is that the older donor church will receive new leadership, new ministries, a new identity, and (in some cases) a new church polity.

Church revitalization differs from church replanting in that church revitalization does not seek to replace the existing church. Whereas the church replanter attempts to begin a new church with the resources gained from an older church, the church revitalizer seeks to restore the original church to health.

Church Revitalization is Not Church Growth

Church growth (or church vitalization) has also been grouped into church revitalization. Though sharing many of the concepts and methodologies, these two are not the same as church revitalization.

Church growth is the implementation of certain methodology in order to lead a church to grow. As such, church growth can apply to a church of any size in any stage of health. Church growth strategies can be applied to a new church plant with only a handful of members or to an established church on the cusp of crossing over into the megachurch category.

Church revitalization differs from church growth in that revitalization deals with churches in trouble. To be sure, church revitalization may incorporate similar strategies as church growth but the desired result is not growth, but survival. Church Revitalization intentionally works with churches that are dying and strives to restore to life.

So, What is Church Revitalization?

Church Revitalization is the process of leading a dying church back to a healthy state. Restoring the church’s purpose of glorifying God and mission to reach the lost in their community.

Closing

The terms surrounding Church planting, growth, and revitalization can be tricky. However, there needs to be clarity among Christians. Each of these approaches requires different actions which produce different outcomes.

Who Gets to Divine the Divine? A Response to Union Seminary’s Statement

On September 5th, 2018 Union Seminary released statements of belief on their twitter account. The release appears to be a reaction to the recent petition concerning Social Justice. This petition has garnered over 6000 signatures, including that of John MacArthur and Voddie Baucham. In addressing the statement on social justice, Union Seminary established their views as the polar opposite of those put forward in the petition. Below I’ll address two tenets put forward by Union Seminary.

1. On Scripture

“While divinely inspired, we deny the Bible is inerrant or infallible.”
-Union Seminary on Scripture.

When Union Seminary states, “divinely inspired,” it is qualified as an errant fallible inspiration. The justification for Union Seminary’s view derives from their doctrine of sin. Since the Bible was authored by men, Union Seminary argues, it must contain some form of sin—particularly bias and prejudice. The sinful prejudice of the Bible is evidenced by the demographics of the biblical authors. Since biblical authorship lacks diversity in race, gender, and sexuality, how could modern readers believe the Bible is free from prejudice? Modern biblical scholarship exists, Union Seminary claims, to help readers sift through the words of the Bible to discover that which is divinely inspired and that which is prejudice. Therefore, they must qualify divine inspiration by stating, “we affirm that biblical scholarship and critical theory help us discern which messages are God’s.”

Let’s consider the logic of Union Seminary’s statement for a moment—the Bible is divinely inspired, but human sin and prejudice have obscured God’s message. Therefore, human scholars—human sinful scholars—are needed to clarify that which was divinely inspired from that which was mere human prejudice. Infallibility and inerrancy are affirmed by Union Seminary’s statement, but not in the words of Scripture, but rather in the discernment of biblical scholars.

So I have to wonder, if authors divinely inspired by the sinless Holy Spirit could not overcome their own prejudices, how can we expect non-divinely inspired scholars to do better? Are biblical scholars qualified to sift the divine from the drivel by way of critical theory? If so, the scientific method of  scholarship trumps divine inspiration.

Does Union Seminary’s statement concerning scripture give critical theory powers of divination? When Union Seminary states, “while divinely inspired,” they make divine inspiration a conditional clause reliant on critical theory. For proof, lets observe their statement on the imago Dei.

2. The Image of God

We affirm that God created every person in God’s own image. Accordingly, we deny that vitriol directed towards people because of how God made them (i.e. sexual orientation or gender identity) is in any way faithful, biblical or godly.
-Union Seminary on Imago Dei.

In this statement, Union Seminary makes some very large claims. First, they affirm every person is created in the imago Dei. They deny binary gender as vitriolic and unbiblical. Consider the verse referenced by these statements:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
Genesis 1:27

In order to reach Union Seminary’s understanding of the imago Dei, one must affirm the first clause of verse 27, “So God created man [meaning humanity] in his own image.” However, one must also accept that the author of Genesis revealed his prejudice by espousing gender in a binary fashion. So, when the divinely inspired author wrote, “male and female he created them,” he was unduly influenced by his sin and/or prejudice. But who decides which clauses are God’s message and which are man’s prejudice?

Who gets to divine the Divine? When Union Seminary denies the Word of God as infallible and inerrant, they ratify the infallibility and inerrancy of scholarship. Inerrancy and infallibility are not removed from their consideration; they are transferred to a new location.

Union Seminary leaves us with an unfortunate truth. In a postmodern, post-Christian culture, leaving inerrancy and infallibility in the hands of God is a liability. From a social aspect, it costs too many followers. From an economic standpoint, it costs too many patrons. In terms of politics, too many offices. So, inerrancy must be outsourced.  And where should we house it? The fickle slums of human wisdom has always been the cheapest option.

And so, the question of Genesis 3 becomes relevant once again, “did God actually say?” Either divine inspiration or the scholar’s method is infallible and inerrant. Who is inerrant: God? or humanity?

Before we answer too quickly, we must remember that dust with a PhD, is still dust.

Ministering through the Muck

A pastor’s job is not one that would generally make anyone’s list of most difficult professions (unless the person making the list were a pastor or a pastor’s wife). We’ve all heard the dismissive comments about how nice it must be to only have to work one hour each week. And, if we’re being frank, more pastors fit this sad perception than we’d like to admit.

It’s not that we only work one hour per week—me genoito! (there’s a super-nerdy Greek joke for you)—but if the ministry survival rate means anything, at the very least it means that there are many who understand the pastorate in such a way as to believe that anyone could do it, only to then discover the foolishness of such thinking. For too many, the pastorate is seen as a introvert’s dream career—a quiet, secluded, air-conditioned desk job that requires very little heavy lifting apart from old, dusty books in order to prepare a thirty-minute lecture each week about how everyone else is wrong.

But that make-believe world gets shattered into pieces once ministry begins. Ministry is messy. Even the best weeks require hard work and grit and discipline. Even the best weeks demand that we say “No” to certain opportunities in order to maximize our time and fulfill our vocation. But during those weeks, we get to see lives changed by the very gospel we preach, we get to hear stories of our church members leading others to Christ, we get to experience the Body of Christ caring for one another.

Other weeks—tough weeks—we experience the muck. That family that you thought was rock solid and you were planning to invite them to lead a small group? It turns out that they’re on the brink of divorce. That person that you’ve been counseling each week, patiently removing barrier after barrier between them and Christ, learns of the hatred of some other believers and decides that the way of Christ isn’t the path he desires. That new Christian stumbles . . . in a massive way. Your family needs more of your attention than usual. And to top it all off, you have no idea what to preach on Sunday and your prayers seem to bounce off of the ceiling.

What then?

How do you minister through the muck?

Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as something done for the Lord and not for people, knowing that you will receive the reward of an inheritance from the Lord. You serve the Lord Christ.
Colossians 3:23–24


Slaves, obey your human masters with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart, as you would Christ. Don’t work only while being watched, as people-pleasers, but as slaves of Christ, do God’s will from your heart. Serve with a good attitude, as to the Lord and not to people, knowing that whatever good each one does, slave or free, he will receive this back from the Lord.
Ephesians 6:5–8

Whatever is happening down in the muddy trenches of ministry, it is imperative that we remember that we are not serving ourselves, nor are we merely serving our church members; we serve the Lord Jesus Christ. And every activity we undertake, every ounce of effort we apply, has a singular telos—the glory of God. And in my experience, when the muck seems the deepest and the work seems the hardest, it comes as the result of my believing that the results of my efforts—and not the efforts themselves—are that which bring him glory. I mistakenly believe that I have to get it done to honor Christ.

And that simply isn’t true.

The results of our efforts rest in his hands. Why else would we ask him to bless our efforts? Why else do we come to him in prayer, asking that he give us success? Is it not because we know that, ultimately, the results are his arena?

So how do we minister through the muck?

We work to the glory of God and trust him with the results.

Submission and Courage in the Pulpit

Billy Sunday Preaching by George Bellows, Metropolitan Magazine, 1915

Religious freedom is under assault in our culture.

Churches and preachers which have stood as the chapels and chaplains for a majority Christian America are finding themselves increasingly pushed to the fringes of political and public discussions in light of increasing secularization. Government and public opinion have determined that any speech which labels homosexuality as sin is hate speech and that decrying the legal murder of the unborn is refusing the woman’s right to choose. Merely holding the opinion that gender and sexual identity are fixed biological realities rather than the free-for-all, choose-your-own-story Wild West ensures treatment as a social pariah. And make no mistake, despite the best efforts and intentions of the First Amendment, churches and seminaries and religious schools will not be exempt from LGBTQ+ anti-discrimination policies. It’s just a matter of time.

And in response, some pastors will stand behind the sacred pulpit on Sunday morning and attempt to provide a softer, more genteel, more tolerant message of Christianity to their churches and communities. Some will simply tone down the rhetoric while still holding the same convictions, albeit quietly. Others still will re-evaluate the entirety of biblical teaching and judge it to be outdated and culturally-irrelevant.

Many, in fact, have already done this.

In Numbers 22, the king of Moab attempts to coerce the prophet of God to provide a message contrary to the will of God. He wants Balaam to curse those God has commanded him to bless. He wants to force the prophet to up-end God’s judgment—to reverse God’s order. And in so doing, the king of Moab places Balaam in much the same predicament many pastors find themselves every Sunday morning in churches around this nation and around the world. The king solicited a man of God to give validation and approval to something contrary to the will of God. (This was his purpose for calling Balaam, and the prophet’s acceptance of his invitation to do so is what prompted the popular story of Balaam’s conversation with his donkey.)

If Balaam would just bow the knee and kiss the ring of that which is acceptable and culturally preferable, all would go well. He would receive payment and acceptance. He would receive comfort and an extended audience with the king. And yet, Balaam’s response to the king demonstrates both the submission and the courage that should characterize the preacher.

Have I now any power of my own to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth, that must I speak. (Num 22:38b)

This verse gives the reader insight into Balaam and his submission to the authority of Yahweh. Rather than allowing a desire for riches and honor to deter him from the will of God and curse that which God has blessed as Balak demanded (or, as our present circumstances demand, bless that which God has labeled sin), Balaam submitted to the command of Yahweh.

He was not angry or indignant. He was not hateful. He was, however, submitted to God. And that submission made him firm in his resolve and steeled his spine to stand before the king.

Will our submission to God give us courage before men?

As the angel of the Lord had commanded him, “speak only the word that I tell you,” Balaam obeyed (Num 22:35). In response to the pressures of Balak, Balaam answered, “Am I able to speak anything? The word that God puts in my mouth—that must I speak” (Num 22:38). When the stakes are high and our public opinion is low, will we kiss the ring and speak with the authority of kings and presidents and courts?

Or will we recognize a higher authority, strengthen our backs, and speak only that which has already been given to us in God’s Word with submission and courage?

Minding the College Gap: It’s about Priorities

In my previous post, I sought to explain that wise parents don’t assume that their son or daughter will participate in a local church during their collegiate years by default. Rather, as demonstrated by the example of George Scarborough and Benajah Carroll, instilling the importance of local church participation begins before a child heads off for college and requires that parents play a role in helping their children find a biblically-sound college church home.

My Story

I began college with all of the excitement of so many freshmen in the Fall of 1997 at a private Baptist college. I recall moving into my first dorm room, carrying my new bedding and dorm refrigerator up the stairs, meeting new people with each step. My roommate was an athlete that first semester, and his schedule was dramatically different that my own. We rarely saw one other, which didn’t bother me. I was on a mission. I was going to do what I wanted to do, study what I wanted to study, live how I wanted to live, and become who I wanted to be.

I had been reared in a small town and this was my first taste of freedom. There were no parents to rule over me. Looking back, my experience at that school was a mixed bag; I had both good and bad times. But I was on a mission of self. I wasn’t a Christian and most of those around me didn’t look or act like Christians. Being a private Baptist college, we were required to attend Bible classes, but the theology was loose and liberal; our New Testament Survey professor gave us more cause for doubt than faith. Eventually, I dropped out. I had only managed to make a mess of my life in my mission of self.

One year and two moves later, I gave college another shot, this time at a small liberal arts college. It was drastically different from the private Baptist university I had attended before. The president was a well-known and vocal atheist and anything the mindset both on and off of campus was “anything goes.” Each spring trimester, the cool fraternity would throw the “Bros and Hoes” party; it was like scenes from the old National Lampoon’s Animal House. And my life reflected this worldly mindset. It was from this environment that the LORD saved me. You see I had been on the mission of self, but that path was lonely, and headed for self-destruction. I too was worldly.

My Turning Point

At this second university, I met, carefully-watched, and listened to a group of college students who were Christians. Each of them prayed, witnessed, and loved me despite my sin, and they lived out a genuine faith in Christ that I had never seen before. The Gospel was on display and lived out before my eyes. They were like Christian Soldiers straight out of the sixth chapter of Ephesians. Their mission was different from mine. They had been called by Jesus Christ. They had been armed with a strong faith in God the Father, abided in the Son, and were empowered by the Holy Spirit! They heeded the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote to his young son in the faith,

Don’t let anyone despise your youth, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, and in purity (1 Timothy 4:12 CSB).

I owe a great debt of gratitude to the LORD God for his having surrounded me with this collegiate mission force. Their influence changed my life for Christ and they rejoiced greatly when I surrendered my life to him and joined God’s mission. I remain on that same mission even today.

None of them could have had any idea that one day I would one day marry and be called into the Gospel ministry as an evangelist. Nor could they have known that I would (Lord willing) one day complete a PhD in evangelism, while regularly sharing Christ with others and introducing precious souls to Jesus. They were participants in God’s plan to redeem my life from the pit of destruction and lead me into the bliss of forgiveness, mercy, and the grace of Jesus Christ.

It Comes Down to Priorities

Looking back, here’s the lesson learned: God had brought this group of individuals together for his eternal purposes even during their college years. Their first priority was serving God; education, for them, was only of secondary importance. They weren’t perfect, but they were obedient to Christ and deeply in love with him; they were involved in various local churches and the Baptist Student Ministries (BSM). They chose to live for God’s glory. They had a heart for the lost around them because they had been discipled and taught how to share their faith without fear. They were fearless soldiers of the cross.

Perhaps as a parent, you’ve heard others lament the spiritual conditions of our colleges and universities or you’ve taken your family to watch God’s Not Dead in theaters and you’ve wondered, “What can I do?” And God has answered that question in the person of your own college-aged student.

God can create in him or her the mind and heart of a soul-winner. He or she is the mission force of God on the campuses around the world. Revival can still break loose on campuses world-wide. Train up your children now to be personal evangelists. Teach them by example. Take them door-to-door evangelizing in your neighborhood and model what sharing your faith looks like. Go on international mission trips together and work in the harvest. Disciple your student and instill in their hearts a love for the lost, the Scripture, and the things that Jesus loves and then encourage them to live it out before their college classmates. Kingdom first; education second. No greater impact could be made on college campuses for Jesus Christ than the one your college student and their friends could make. Raise up a generation that will mind the college gap.

Suturing Wounds with Mercy

“I’m starting with the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways.”

Ever sing the classic Michael Jackson song? It’s catchy. There is one real problem with the song, however: it relies on self-reflection and the self improving the self.

I often look into the mirror first. I often catch myself believing the lie that I can somehow begin with my own failures and create change in myself. I will find an issue and then want my own reflection to change itself. Many Christians, no doubt, have taken up this same mantra of self-improvement.

As is so often the case with other secular worldviews, we may even notice a modicum of success. Positive changes can come by sheer strength of will sometimes! The problem with self-willed self-improvement, however, is that sin and failure do not posses the ability to heal our broken souls.

God does not use sin to bind up the wounds of life. Sin is a gangrenous sore festering at the core of our being. Such infections cannot be removed by human willpower. Sin must be cleansed by grace. The stitches which God uses to suture our lives is mercy.

Hebrews helps make the point clear:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
Hebrews 4:16

Self-improvement and sanctification stem from different places. Self-improvement focuses on the self—specific sins and failures to be overcome. However, sanctification—Christian growth—ought not begin with self-reflection, but rather with self-abdication. There can only be one man in the mirror—Jesus or myself. We do not change by focusing on failures and sin. We change by drawing near to God. We grow by kneeling before the throne of grace.

That which is true about ourselves is true of our neighbors as well; relationships heal when mercy flourishes. As we are to draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, others should be equally confident in drawing near to us. Reminders of past failures and sins should not frequent our marriages, friendships, or our families.

Below are two suggestions for helping cultivate a relationship built on mercy rather than self-reflection:

1. Sacrificial Love Heals

The consequences of sin are real. Equally real are the consequences of sacrificial love. Prodigal sons don’t need a laundry-list of changes to be made before being welcomed home. The parable from Christ is clear—the Father runs to and embraces the prodigals. When we sacrifice our right to anger or justice upon the altar of love, we let God’s example (the example of his Son) heal our wounds. Convalescence begins with mercy.

Let mercy be the outward flourishing of all relationships. Just as the Father forgives, forgive. Sin cannot unite. Reminding people of their past sins cannot unite. Mercy alone binds us to Christ and therefore to each other.

2. Mercy is Fruitful

Do our children trust us with their tough emotions? Can a friend come to us in confidence? God’s mercy leads the psalmist, David, to come boldly before God to ask for mercy. God has shown himself to be merciful. Since we know God is merciful, we can come with open hearts and confess our sins to him—sins he already knows. Therefore, by cultivating mercy in our relationships, those who know us can come to discuss the deepest wounds of sin.

When we allow sin to keep our relationships at arms-length, we make mercy superficial. Keep in mind Jesus’s parable. If we choke everyone who owes us a penny, should the King (our Father in heaven) forgive us of our mountains of debt? If God used the same measure of mercy that we use, could we come to his throne confident in his mercy?

Herein lies the real problem. In order to have mercy on someone, we have to be wounded by them. With such deep wounds, how can we be as merciful as God? That’s a man-in-the-mirror question. And we all have a tendency to start with the man in the mirror. But, if instead we begin with Christ in the mirror, we can know his mercy will change our ways. Our mercy to others ought to be a pure reflection of God.

“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Luke 6:36

Household Baptisms and the Danger of Inference

Any discussion with someone from a paedobaptist faith tradition (infant baptism) concerning the meaning and proper recipients of baptism soon turns to the issue of household baptisms. In the book of Acts, Luke wrote in verse 15 that Lydia “and her household were baptized.” Mere verses later, he recorded, the Philippian jailer “and all his family were baptized.”

The inference made by those who advocate for infant baptism is that included in these families were children—perhaps even infants—who could not believe in the gospel, but were baptized anyway.

In the mid-late 19th century, Elder James Smith Coleman debated William L. Caskey (a Methodist) in Calhoun, KY. As Coleman anticipated, Caskey did not hesitate to state that it was only reasonable to infer that infants were included in the households mentioned in Acts 16 and therefore, he argued, infant baptism had scriptural precedence.

Coleman’s reply merits quotation.

I am surprised at Brother Caskey’s limited information concerning Lydia’s household. He has inferred that Lydia had children, under the age of accountability, and that, therefore these children were baptized. I am surprised, Sir, that you do not know that Lydia was a widow, and a traveling cloth merchant, and that she never had but one child, and that was a daughter, who married a red-headed, one-eyed shoe-maker, and had moved off to Damascus, and had not been at home for years, and that her household at that time consisted of herself and servants, who assisted in her business. I am surprised, Sir, that you did not know this.

As one might expect, this startled the old Methodist, who then asked Smith how he could have possibly gained this information.

Coleman replied, “I inferred it, Sir, just like you inferred that there were children in the household.”

As it turns out, for those who approach Scripture without a pre-conceived paedobaptist ideal, the issue of household baptisms turns out not to be an issue at all.

Perhaps, then, it would be wise to consider what inferences we may be bringing to the Bible without even knowing it. Alas, that’s another post . . .

In the Meantime

This one goes out to all my brother-pastors who find yourselves, for whatever reason, searching for your next ministry assignment. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the author of this post finds himself right there with you. I trust we are good company for one another.

Regardless of where you are in your search (and depending on the circumstances that led to your search), you have likely experienced the full range of emotions, from excited anticipation about what’s next to a gripping fear that you’ll never get there. Personally, these days I’m especially grateful that the Lord gave us the Psalms through which I can share the Psalmist’s praises and his confidence in the Lord, but also in his lament and verbalized uncertainties.

To be caught between what was and what will be grates against our sensibilities, in part because our pride demands that every step of our journey be accompanied by great clarity and confidence. But this is not the way of faith; no, the way of faith brings us low, not necessarily granting us eyes to see what’s around the corner, but to see the One from whom nothing is hidden.

So as you and I wait, what ought we do in the meantime?

Be Patient

Waiting can leave you feeling a bit like a fool—out on a limb, hoping for rescue before the splintering starts. Each time your phone vibrates or a call comes from an unknown number, immediately you wonder if it might be the contact you’ve been waiting for. It leaves you a bit like Charlie Bucket opening up that next Wonka bar in hopes of finding a golden ticket, only to realize the email was just another LinkedIn update. Disappointment and discouragement set in.

Will it ever happen? Is something wrong with me? Did I miss the Lord’s will somewhere along the way? The questions rush in and patience grows thin. Still, be patient; the Lord will not withhold the good He has planned for his children. As Romans 8:32 tells us, “He did not even spare his own Son but offered him up for us all. How will he not also with him grant us everything?” Rest patiently in his good promises.

Be Faithful

Where are you now? I mean, physically, where are you now? Where do you live? What church are you serving—either as a pastor or member? Wherever that is, be faithful there while you wait. In Acts 17, Paul referred to the Lord’s providential work in placing each of us exactly where we are, even at this very moment. “From one man,” Paul preached, “he has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live.” In other words, the Lord knew you would be right where you are and how long you are to be there.

Yes, this may be a season of transition; but honor the Lord by remaining faithful where you are for as long as he would have you wait. Don’t shortchange the people near you by constantly looking over or around them for the next thing.

Be Prayerful

Prayer is an excellent calibrator. In seasons of waiting, we have a tendency to be sillier than usual. Like Abram and Sarai (Gen 16), we attempt to concoct our own solutions in order to help out the Creator of the heavens and earth with his plans. Because He surely needs it, right?

The very nature of prayer focuses our attention upon who we are and who God is. Each prayer serves as a confession that we don’t know all there is to know, can’t do all there is to do, and that we are not in control; our knowledge and power are woefully insufficient. Simultaneously, in prayer we recognize that God does not suffer such limitations. His knowledge and power are inexhaustible, as are his other attributes; and he is faithful and true. Prayer recalibrates and stabilizes us by reminding us that we are the needy dependents, and He is the great Provider.

Be Courageous

A season of waiting can be fertile soil for fear and uncertainty. When there’s no end in sight, doubt creeps in, you grow weary of waiting, and (to borrow a line from King David), you ask, “How long, O Lord? How long?”

But let us not forget the oft-repeated command of Scripture during this time: Don’t be afraid. Oh, how easy it is to look at our seemingly impossible situation and devolve into fear and trepidation. But how gracious our Lord is to us, who “knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14, CSB), and, coupled with the command not to be afraid, he has promised to be with us and never forsake us. May we never believe his apparent silence or assumed inactivity means His absence. He is with us and he is working all things to the pleasure of his good will, so be of good courage.

Conclusion

As much as we might hate it, waiting is good for us. It takes us by the hand and walks us into deeper dependence on and satisfaction in our Lord. The ministry the Lord has next for us is a gracious gift, yet even it cannot satisfy our deepest need. So remember, even now—in the middle, while we wait—you and I have all we need in our Savior, and we will be better pastors for the waiting.