Friday, October 31, 2014

He Is God All By Himself!

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is no amalgamation. It is not an admixture of two separate entities. Nor is it the confluence of the eternal purpose of God with the whimsical agency of mankind.  As I have heard from my friends of the African-American Church: “He is God all by Himself.” 

The Word made Flesh is singular, solitary and sole. To borrow from the title of a contemporary hymn, it is “In Christ Alone.” Or hearkening back to the Reformation: “Solus Christus.” 

Any Gospel ministry that adheres otherwise forsakes the ability to provide traction.  It is unsustainable.  Thus the well-meaning desire to see fruit that will remain eludes many sincerely intentioned ministry leaders resulting in disappointment and frustration.  Oft the accompanying plea is, “Where did I go wrong?” For many the allure of ministry is an enchantment - the spell of which must be broken. If we are only disillusioned, the illusionment remains - and we quixotically charge of in pursuit of another. 


The above paragraphs were sparked by my reading from the International Standard Version: ‘Jesus told them, "I AM."’ John 18:5  Almost all other versions insert the pronoun ‘he’ but it is not there in the original.  Once again His reply to those who had come to take Him captive was no amalgam. Christ Himself had initiated this discourse by asking: “Who are you looking for?” He provided the question that He might also provide the unequivocal answer: “I AM.”  The pronoun is not only unnecessary, it is misleading. A pronoun is indefinite - of a general reference. There is nothing indefinite nor general about Christ’s response and His claim to Oneness with the Father–the One and Only source of eternal salvation. 


This discourse takes us back to our sincere pursuit of fruitfulness. In His eternal purpose Christ states: ‘This was to fulfill what he had said, "I did not lose a single one of those you gave me."’ John 18:9 (17:12).  Fruit that will remain comes in no other manner than through sovereign initiative. Peter’s impulsive response was to draw his sword and sever the ear of the servant. Might we say here that the drawing of the sword of the flesh will render the intended hearers of our message deaf?  The Savior’s immediate response was: “Put your sword back into its sheath.” The arm of man’s might is impotent to accomplish the purpose of God. He then announced: “Shouldn’t I drink the cup that the Father has given me?”  Only that which has been given by the Father is capable of being sustained - and that too, by him. 

One is reminded here of Christ’s words of commission to Peter: "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:17  This is followed almost immediately with a correcting rebuke when Peter began to waver from the truth: "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's." Matthew 16:23 


In my forty plus years of Gospel ministry I find this singular - holistic - truth primarily in the teachings and legacy of the Reformers which has come down to us as Covenant or Reformed Theology. The counter to unadulterated ministry is quick to come. Centuries before the Reformation Augustine had his Pelagius; Calvin and Beza had their Arminius; Spurgeon his downgrade controversy and so on.  All of which indicate a turning from the substantive traction of the truth to a slippery slope of amalgamation - “I am he.”  Christ alone becomes Christ and human agency - thus the pronoun he.  The allure is subtle, but then again all deception is subtle or it would not be deception. 

Many of the most fruitful praying, preaching, sending and serving ministries of the past centuries have had their roots firmly planted in the rich soil of the Reformation: Knox, Zinzendorf, Edwards, Whitefield, Newton, Wilberforce, Carey, Taylor, Carmichael, Muller and of course Spurgeon to name a few. And this is what is missing in many of our contemporary ministries. These men and women knew it was not about them, but God.  In our day of abundant resources we have not yet become so convinced. 

the LORD is one

God had said of Himself: “This is My name forever, and this is My memorial-name to all generations.” Exodus 3:15 There is no admixture here - no alchemy. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Deuteronomy 6:4  The glory of God is in no need of alloy.

A young pastor friend recently penned these words of caution to a contemporary setting: “My prayer is that they aren't decreeing their imagination, but the revealed will of God.”  He was expressing his concern for authenticity–there is nothing more relevant to a seeking society. 

Our God is not synergistic, but monergistic. He is not waiting on our cooperation. If the Messiah came in the fulness of the Father’s timing will not His Consummation come also likewise? Does God need our help - no!  Does He use chosen vessels (Acts 9:15) to serve His purpose - yes!  That singular purpose is that His Son would be the First of many (Romans 8:29) to bear the image of God (Hebrews 1:3). 

Recently I heard a radio commercial for a novel written on the life of Ruth. It spoke of her “chance encounter” with Boaz. I could hardly believe what I was hearing. There are no chance encounters in the eternal purpose of the One slain before the foundation of the earth. How have we become so shallow - exchanging the truth about God for a lie, and worshiping and serving created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. 

Why do we want to think it is about us?  Partly because we want to elevate personalities. We want to look up to Biblical “heroes” - yet every one of them was qualified solely by the sovereign choice of God. As has been said, “He doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called.” I am perplexed every time I hear someone referred to as a “great man of God.”  When are we going to see chosen men and women of a Great God? 

greatest motivating factor 

There is not one word written here that engenders passivity. This is the greatest motivating factor in all of the universe.  The conviction that I have been caught up into the eternal purpose of God spurs me on. Often by well-meaning friends we are referred to as the founders of this or that ministry.  My reply is, “We didn’t find it, it found us. We were not looking for it.”  “But Esaias is very bold, and saith, I was found of them that sought me not; I was made manifest unto them that asked not after me.” Romans 10:20 KJV 

There are no hybrids in the plan of God for hybrids are sterile - incapable of producing after there own kind. His plan is sons and daughters begetting sons and daughters that His Son might be the firstborn of a great company. “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;..”  Romans 8:29  These He will present to Himself - “so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:27 ESV 

Herein is no amalgam, alloy, hybrid or pronoun - Solus Christus: In Christ Alone. 

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life's first cry to final breath.
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ I'll stand.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Crisis of Ecclesiology

Local Church or Church in a Locality?

While reading a booklet on the role and mission of the church the writer noted a conversation with John Stott the noted evangelical leader and one of the principal authors of the Lausanne Covenant of 1974.  He asked the recently deceased English church leader what he considered to be the most neglected doctrine in the current odyssey of the Christian faith. To his amazement the reply was ecclesiology.  The word means the study and function of the church as in the Greek root ecclesia - which means a called out legislative body1 or congregation.

While being greatly encouraged by the contents of this booklet about midway the writer launches into a functional juxtaposition between the church universal and the church local. In so doing he begins to describe the latter entity as a “local church.” 

Although the term local church is very much a part of our common evangelical vernacular its use always causes me to pause and consider: what is meant when we use the phrase “local church?”  In my following observations I will attempt to avoid dogmatism and instead encourage healthy inquiry in the format of “come let us reason together.”

Is there such a thing as a local church? In thinking of the root word as locus - we can say that the church local should be defined by geopolitical boundaries. It is not to be identified by common affinities or ethnocentric traits - for only in its heterogeneity can it give full expression to the many splendored wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10), not by its homogeneity.  

The church is the community of God's people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology. The Lausanne Covenant

Yet, when the expression local church is used its unmistakable reference is to a specific congregational gathering usually defined by its commonalities. These units are vital indeed for ongoing relational encouragement - with all that that encompasses. But if we jump from there to the universal or catholic church - we will leap over the entity that is the commissioned organic instrument of societal transformation. That is the church as a whole that has its residence within certain geopolitical boundaries. 

We need to break out of our ecclesiastical ghettos and permeate non-Christian society. The Lausanne Covenant

The term geopolitical represents a duality, not a dualism for its parts are intrinsically joined. By looking at these parts we can keep in mind the analogy of a coin which has an obverse and a reverse (heads and tails), yet its integrity is that it is one inseparable coin. The obverse cannot be spent without the reverse also being spent at the same time.

Does the scripture recognize such an entity? Looking back at the word geopolitical lets take the second part first. Do we see the Word upholding political realities? By strong inference yes: "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's;” Matthew 12:21; “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Romans 13:1; “and the government shall be upon his shoulder,” Isaiah 9:6; (pray) “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” 1 Timothy 2:2.

Now considering the prefix “geo” as being short for geographical boundaries - even more definitely yes!  

Matthew 11:20 Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 

Luke 19:41 When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”

We have an unescapable conclusion here from the words of Christ concerning the realities of geographical boundaries - unfortunately it is the issue of condemnation that is our illustration. Where is the ecclesiology for this?  Our libraries are bare!

Also we have from Paul:

1 Corinthians 1:2 “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:”

Ephesians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus:”

Here is a little variation in that church is plural for this letter was not written to a city, but to a region: Galatians 1:2b “To the churches of Galatia:”

There is no more striking example than that found in the Book of the Revelation. It is the exalted Christ who says:

Revelation 1:20 "As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”  

And following - Revelation 2:1 "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:” And also to Smyrna; Pergamum; Thyatira; Sardis; Philadelphia; Laodicea.

Is there anything more that could be said?

It has been forty years since this concept was birthed in our hearts. There is only one church in a city/community - with many local expressions. Paul’s words to the Church at Philippi jumped from the printed page to indelibly sear themselves on our conscience: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;...” 1:27  

“Where’s it at?”  That is the query we often get when we tell folks that we are with the church in the city. Our reply, “It is in the hearts of the men and women of God who long for the reconciliation of the Body of Christ in their city and who are willing to sacrifice to see this reality come forth.” We never try to convince people.  We just look to see who is looking to see. And our Faithful Father has them. We call it the Simeon Principle - because he was looking to see, Simeon saw the hope and consolation of Israel. “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Luke 2:25 

Occasionally we will get a request from someone who wants to buy our domain name:  Without fail they do not represent their city, but a local congregation that wants to be known as the church in their city. How audacious! As a matter of principle there is no amount of money that could cause us to give up our hope. In times past in our community - maybe in yours also - a local congregation would rise up and proclaim that they were going to take the city. Every instance of this resulted in utter failure, often with dire consequences - for God opposes the proud.

World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. The Lausanne Covenant 

There are glimpses in history: Calvin’s Geneva; Knox’s Edinburgh and even Patrick’s Ireland. Our longtime friend and mentor Francis Frangipane has written: “It takes a citywide church to win a citywide war.”  

There is only one entity that has been so constrained by mandate for this epic struggle - for there is only one entity that has been so called and equipped. As it is written to the church in the city of Ephesus. 

Ephesians 4:11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints2 for the work of service, to the building up of 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 a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

This is the plan of God for the building of the Place of His abode within a city/community. It is foundational to the full accomplishment of His purpose - the revelation of His Son who is the Mature Man. And she is the only entity that the Father holds accountable for the gifts and callings that he has placed in her midst. No local congregation or denomination is so adjured. 

The Son Himself is at once the foundational cornerstone and the supreme capstone of this holy organic edifice. 

“And he will bring out the capstone accompanied by shouts of: Grace, grace to it!'" Zechariah 4:7

“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:20-22 KJV 

If you will allow me a play on words the convenient chronos of our current crisis of ecclesiology must be displaced by the appointed kairos of our Kyrios3. And our logos and egos supplanted by the Logos4 and the Imago Dei5 or Ego Eimi6.  “And he has put everything into subjection under his feet, and he has given him who is higher than all as The Head of the church,...” Ephesians 1:22 Aramaic

The Church is at the very centre of God's cosmic purpose and is his appointed means of spreading the gospel. But a church which preaches the cross must itself be marked by the cross. It becomes a stumbling block to evangelism when it betrays the gospel or lacks a living faith in God, a genuine love for people, or scrupulous honesty in all things including promotion and finance. The Lausanne Covenant

The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
Samuel J Stone - 1866

We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world. The Lausanne Covenant 

Yes, Lord, so be it!  We are looking to see...

1 It should be noted that this body functions only as the delegated representative of a higher power. Although a secular definition predating Pentecost the parallel relationship between the church and Christ her Head is obvious. 

2 Some translations insert a comma here leaving the erroneous impression that the called gifts of verse 11 are also to do the work of ministry instead of equipping the whole body to do the work of ministry. This unfortunate inference has gone far to saddle the church with the associated encumbrance of perpetual adolescence. 

3 Lord - “and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Philippians 2:11

4 Word - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1

5 Image of God - “For he is The Brilliance of his glory, The Image of his Being,” Hebrews 1:3 Aramaic 

6 I Am - “for unless you believe that I AM, you'll die in your sins." John 8:24 ISV

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

And they are still there today...

There are certain truths that have propelled us through this city-reaching journey - the following is one of them.

It is recorded as the Ark of the Covenant - transported via poles on the shoulders of the priests - was placed behind the veil at the dedication of Solomon’s temple: “These poles were so long that their ends could be seen from the Holy Place in front of the inner sanctuary, but not from outside the Holy Place; and they are still there today.” 1 Kings 8:8 NIV That is, their ends could be seen pressing against the veil. 

I have just concluded reading an extensive treatise on the Tabernacle of David.  It is quite thorough and I have benefitted much from the author’s research, yet as he draws to a close he covers the removal of the Ark of the Presence from the Tabernacle of David to the Temple of Solomon. He then says that the poles were removed from the rings of the Ark and that this is a type of the Church at rest.

This was a very disturbing conclusion for a truth that has gripped our heart for years is that the poles were never removed and that they could actually be seen protruding against the curtain as a testimony to the mobility of the Presence. It was with some perplexity that I attempted to discover his reasoning and I found it in the KJV rendering of the passage above: “And they drew out the staves,...” But this does not mean they were removed, but only lengthened in some way as a testimony of the transient nature of the Presence of God - never to reside in any certain place for a set length of time. 

To assert that the poles were removed would fly in the face of God’s instruction to Moses: “The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed.” Exodus 25:15.  It may be a comforting thought to believe the church is at rest - and in a manner of speaking this is true - but this does nothing to spur us on to love and good deeds. The Prophet Amos declared: “Woe to them that are at ease in Zion,...”

The question is then begged: In our heart of hearts have we removed the poles? Have we taken our ease? Has the early morning dew of fervor - that is our first love - lost its life-giving zest? 

The Church is at rest, but it is not a static rest.  God rested on the seventh day of creation, but He did not quit. Our Sabbath rest is in Him whoever lives to make intercession - it is intercession, not cessation. As long as His Church in any manner is still on this side of the eternal veil we are in desperate need of His divine activity. No remote deity is the Great I Am.

It is not possible for a static church to be a militant church. As much as we value Martin Luther’s great anthem “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” we must not mistake its intent for it is from this confidence that the Church sallies forth as soldiers of Christ: 

Like a mighty army moves the church of God;
Brothers, we are treading where the saints have trod.
We are not divided, all one body we,
One in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

She is a pilgrim people...always on the move, but moved by the pursuit of purpose. That purpose is singular - conformity into the image of His Son, both individually and corporately. 

The love of God never leads to complacency. Paul has said it so well: “For the love of Christ constraineth (controls) us;” 2 Corinthians 5:12 KJV John Gill has written: “Nothing more effectually keeps ministers, or other believers, in the work and service of their Lord, or more strongly obliges and constrains them to a cheerful discharge of their duty to him, and one another, than his love displayed in his covenant engagements,...”

The poles continue to swell against the veil in pregnant anticipation of the release of the Presence.  There is a travail in Zion: “for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.” It is the purpose of God that the divine glory be no longer cordoned off in the back room of a physical temple.  It is to be extended, drawn out, made visible - through his end-time image bearers.1

Where is the Ark of the Presence today? Although there is much speculation no one knows for sure.  What we can know for sure is that the poles remain in the rings awaiting that Prophetic Royal Priesthood that will carry it forth once again - in jubilation and in militancy.

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane,
But the church of Jesus constant will remain.
Gates of hell can never gainst that church prevail;
We have Christ’s own promise, and that cannot fail.

1 Appreciation to G.K. Beale in his “The Temple and the Church’s Mission” for the germination of this thought. He adds: “They are priest-kings who carry out the eschatological purpose that we have seen to be inherent in Genesis 1 - 2.”

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Standing fast, united in one spirit,

One Couple’s Perspective 

There is a scene - although seemingly so common - that is vividly etched into my conscience. The result of which compelled us into the right direction - from a definition of conscience. 

A Small Blue Book

The circa was 1970 - the year Nancy and I were married. Faith had been awakened in us and as we entered into the study of Brother John Conley - pastor of Fifth Avenue Church of God - I said to him something like this: “I need help in studying the Bible.”  I don’t remember if he said anything in reply, but I do remember that he turned to his right toward the bookshelves lining his office and retrieved a small blue book. As he handed it to me I saw that it was a devotional commentary including Paul’s letter to the Philippians.

Included on those pages was the author’s own translation of Philippians 1:27-28. And as that small blue book still sits on my own bookshelves this is it - word for word.

“One thing you must see to whatever happens–live a life that is worthy of a citizen of the Kingdom and of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you, or whether I go away and hear how things go with you, the news will be that you are standing fast, united in one spirit, fighting with one soul the battle of the gospel’s faith, and that you are not put into fluttering alarm by any of your adversaries. For your steadfastness is a proof to them that they are doomed to defeat, while you are destined for salvation–and that from God.”

Imprinted On Our Hearts

I am struggling not for a metaphor to describe what happened next - but which one to use. The one I have employed most frequently over the ensuing years is that the words leaped from the pages of this book and imprinted themselves on our hearts.  Another that comes to my mind is that they provided a key that unlocked the window to a vista that is so broad and breath-taking that it staggers the ability of our minds to comprehend.  Having said it that way an impetus is provided for the writing of this chronicle which may serve as an introduction to a larger treatise: A Chronicle of City-reaching from One Couple’s Perspective of 45 Years. 

Through these two simple verses a passion was released in our hearts for the reconciliation of the Body of Christ. The word unity is commonly used - but over the years our understanding has developed more toward the essence of the term oneness. Unity can often be construed as something we do - and as a result God responds to us. Oneness is the initiative of God as verified by Christ’s great prayer for us - His church - recorded in John 17.  He did not pray for unity - but for oneness.  As He only responded to the initiative of His Father, we can only respond to the initiative of our Lord–His prayer.

Being One In Spirit

Indeed Paul takes up this theme again in Philippians 2 - “then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.” 2:2.  The next verses - an early form of hymnody - lay the wherewithal squarely at the feet of the Saviour. While never being stripped of oneness with the Father, He did lay aside the cloak of this impervious equality to wholly and completely identify with us: “From heaven He came and sought her To be His holy bride;.” There is only one word capable of encompassing the breadth of His actions and that is humility: “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” 2:8.

The intercessory oneness of Christ is the seed from which springs forth the shoot of  humility in His Church thus giving rise to the fruit of unity. If our focus is only on the evidence - rather than on the authentic motivation - our efforts succumb when the drought of testing comes.

An Adequately Laid Foundation

This may seem to be a bit of a digression from the opening words of this chronicle - yet if this foundation is not adequately laid it would be the epitome of futility to set one more stone in the wall. 

Paul was writing to the Church at Philippi - the whole church - while under house arrest in Rome. He did not know whether he faced imminent release or death in the arena - yet he exuded a confidence for the Philippian Church that escaped the bonds of his current state: “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” 1:6. 

He longed to be with them once again - but realizing that might never happen his confident appeal was that he might hear a sound coming from them. This sound was the one voice of harmony: “that you are standing fast, united in one spirit, fighting with one soul the battle of the gospel’s faith,...” This is a clear and distinct “Caedmon’s Call”: “Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory” (Caedmon’s Hymn circa 658-680).

His Unfailing Call

This is the hope that sprang forth in our hearts for the Church in our city and our state - one that would eventually take us to the nations.  Though it has waxed and waned over the years–His unfailing call has proved to be our firm foundation. In this present day our expectation is heightened as never before.

Through the media of narrative - and what we believe is Biblical ecclesiology, it is our desire to share with you from our perspective and experience what was, what is and what is to come.

Elect from every nation, 
yet one o'er all the earth; 
her charter of salvation, 
one Lord, one faith, one birth; 
one holy name she blesses, 
partakes one holy food, 
and to one hope she presses, 
with every grace endued. 

Samuel J Stone - 1866

To be continued...