Gathering the church God's way

I have been so challenged to read Terry Virgo's latest blog post (HT: Life on Wings), entitled Spirit Inspired Preaching. As a pastor, I have a burden to see the church built - for people to be saved and added to the local church, but also for them to grow in maturity, in love for Jesus, in passionate worship, in joyful service. I long for the church to display the glory of Christ to the surrounding area, even to the nations.

Indeed our church's vision statement is "To see the glory of God in the transformation of lives, of the community and of the nations through the Gospel of Jesus Christ." I know the Lord desires transformed hearts, leading to transformed lives, and I know that as pastor I am called to see the church grow. Yet I don't want to see the church grow by human means. Churches can grow through the force of a leader's personality, or through the eloquence of their preaching, or (sadly) through the application of rules and regulations that people follow thinking that they are pleasing God.

Terry gives a very different view:

"Holy Spirit-inspired preaching brings about an encounter with God that demands a verdict and produces a changed life based on revelation, faith and love, not cold obedience to external rules."

"God’s flock will intuitively hear His voice and respond as truth is fed to them by called and anointed pastor/teachers. Gradually a culture of God-centredness will emerge characterised by worship, faith, grace, mercy, respect, service and the awareness of being an alien people whose fundamental citizenship lies elsewhere (Phi. 3:20)."

The amazing key here is the anointing of God. I believe it was Rob Rufus who said that "God hides His power in His presence". Ern Baxter reminds us that the Glory-Cloud speaks of the presence of the Holy Spirit. So the key to church growth is for me, as a pastor, to be in His presence. That's not a legalistic thing - I can't earn the favour of God as I already have it in Christ - it is simply a statement of reality. God's presence is the place to be - to bask there and drink in the anointing and under that anointing to share with the people so that they "intuitively hear His voice and respond as truth is fed".

Terry goes on to add:

"The shepherd’s ability to feed and be a channel of God’s grace will result in the gathering of a flock. The sheep gather to the gifted anointing of shepherding and thus a flock forms."

If a shepherd is anointed by the Lord, and is a channel of God's grace - then the sheep will gather. They won't have to be beaten into submission by a legalistic declaration that "you must be at every service." Rather they will gather to feed, because God is speaking through the anointed pastor.

That is the kind of pastor I want to be. As Terry concludes:

"God has promised ‘shepherds after his own heart’. May we be the fulfilment of that promise."


A quick definition of theology

Yesterday, I read this comment of the puritan William Perkins -
Theology is "the science of living blessedly for ever."

Too much is said today about the need for theological academia. But theology is not about academics, it is about knowing God so that we can live blessedly for ever. And notice he doesn't speak simply of heaven - it is about living now in the blessing of God because we know Him and as we know Him we love Him and enjoy Him.

It is the truth that sets us free.


Why are we so wary of grace?

My good friend Dan Bowen has started a new blog highlighting the ministry of Rob Rufus. It's called Rob Rufus - Grace and Glory and contains notes of many sermons that Dan has listened to, including notes from a recent conference Rob had in Hong Kong (which Dan attended). There is some interesting stuff here. {edit: Although I wouldn't endorse everything that Rob Rufus teaches now (or even when I first wrote this post), his messages about grace really helped my to understand the radical and wonderful truth about God's amazing grace.}

Some of this material, particularly that on grace, has really made me think hard. It has almost made me uncomfortable. Here are some examples from the most recent post:

"In the re-born nature all “have-tos” are off and are transformed into “want-tos!”. We are free! Totally! Legalism tells you that you aren’t free and gives you a price for it."
"The power of the blessing supersedes your weakness! It is bigger than your failings! How much do you really want to sin? When your sin and grace meet in a boxing ring then grace always wins. (Romans 5:19) – I am constantly in an infallible obedience! He perfectly kept the law on my behalf. You cannot balance grace – it is extreme!"

"You don’t change by keeping laws and rules – you truly change in the glory! The Father isn’t interested in behaviour modification but heart transformation and one day you will see victory! (John 16:10)"

"The Holy Spirit won’t leave you because you are perfect forever. Nothing is criticising or condemning you from heaven because you are perfect forever! Once you see this – you can’t get deceived anymore. You need to go on a grace diet!"

I have been pondering on what makes me feel uncomfortable, and I have concluded that it is the total and utter separation of our performance from our standing before God. "You are perfect forever." Somehow deep down, a part of me wants to contribute something. I am used to feeling guilt when I sin. But grace says even when I do sin, nothing, absolutely nothing, can alter my standing in the presence of God and His favour towards me.

Much of the early teaching I received spoke of not disappointing the Lord, of living to a certain standard and not living on "cheap grace" (a phrase which is a complete contradiction in terms, for grace is totally free by definition, the price was His not ours), and while have been exposed to good teaching on grace for a number of years, it still sounds almost too good to be true.

Why? And why am I not alone? Why does Rob's teaching on grace (and also the teaching of Terry Virgo) get met with the charge of antinomianism (being against the law)?

The theological objection

I believe that one issue is theological - what is the purpose of the law to us as Christians? Jesus Himself said "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle, will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled." (Matt 5v17-18). So if Jesus hasn't abolished the law, who does it apply to?

Well the scripture tells us very clearly. And, helpfully, Adrian Warnock has just quoted John Piper on this very subject:

“The reason the law is not against the promise is precisely that it was designed not to give life but to hold under sin and lead to Christ who gives life [Gal 3v19-25]. Paul says that if the law had given life, then it would have been against the promise. It would have short-circuited the purpose of the promise to make Christ the basis of life and righteousness. . .

"[He continues stating that 1 Timothy 1 shows us that] to use the law lawfully (v. 8) is to understand that it is designed to lead people to the gospel of Christ and to indict what is not in accord with the gospel. In this way, the lawful use of the law leads to the transformation of the heart through “sincere faith” (v. 5) and thus leads to love, which is in turn the aim of Paul's preaching (v. 5) and the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:8). The key defining criterion of the life-change that Paul is pursuing is whether it is “in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God” (v. 11). Using the law lawfully means using it to convict people of living out of accordance with the gospel. . . .We bear fruit for God (love) by being joined through faith to Jesus, not through the law. That is what the law was ultimately designed to show."

The law leads us to Christ, and it is basis of our preaching to unbelievers to bring conviction of sin and a coming to Christ. The law is not the basis of a believer's relationship to God - we no longer need a school master, but have grown up. We are full sons with the full inheritance (Gal 5v25-26).

The practical objection

If we teach these things, won't people simply do what they want? Won't our churches be filled with people who say "if nothing can change my standing with God, then surely it doesn't matter how I live?"

But that is exactly the question that the apostle Paul brings out in Rom 6v1, "What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound?" I believe it was Lloyd-Jones that makes the point that if our preaching does not lead to this question then we have failed to preach the gospel properly.

But of course Paul's answer to the question is very interesting. He doesn't respond by saying "of course not, you must remember what the law says." Rather he says, "Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it? Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death?" (Rom 6v2-3). His response is that - we have died to sin, we have been transformed, and so how can we continue to live in sin?

Rob Rufus puts it: "The Father isn’t interested in behaviour modification but heart transformation."

So much is written with sincerity to help other believers overcome certain sins. I have read the books on overcoming anger and dealing with lust. I have sought to apply the different rules about praying more, reading the Bible more, not looking at this or that. I have read the advice to young women that they must dress in a particular way to help their brothers - and I have in the past given such advice myself. And yet all these things miss the point entirely.

The Father isn't interested in behaviour modification but heart transformation. Rules and regulations cannot help us. In fact, they have the opposite effect. Paul tells us, "These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and the neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh." (Colossians 2v25)

On the other hand, the teaching of grace, rather than causing people to throw off all restraint and to run into sin, sets people free to love the Lord. The awe that the gospel of grace brings has such transforming power that all the rules of the self-help books are simply irrelevant. We love Him. He is the best. I don't need to have my gaze upon things that will stir up sin, why do I need that, when I am free to enjoy the glory? The Father loves me unconditionally. I am fitted to enter in to the Most Holy Place. Nothing else matters.

So grace sets us free.

The personal objection

Such declarations of liberty lead to another question. If we are free from the law, then how do we know what the Lord requires of us. Are there no rules at all?

Romans 13v8 says "...he who loves another has fulfilled the law." After describing the fruit of the Spirit, Pauls says "Against such there is no law." (Gal 5v23).

Our whole obedience to the Lord now flows out of relationship - of love for Him and love for others. We no longer need great lists of rules, we need love! And for every single child of God - "the love of God has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us." (Rom 5v5).

Our obedience flows out of our relationship with the Lord by the Holy Spirit - and that is scary because true obedience has nothing to do with completing a list of requirements. We cannot measure ourselves up and say "well I have prayed for an hour each day this week." We cannot hide from intimacy with the Lord behind a list of requirements.

The heart of Christianity is about enjoying God in the Spirit. There are times when the Spirit will shine His light upon things, as Ern Baxter has said - Christ is our advocate with the Father, and the Holy Spirit is the Father's advocate with us (John 14v16). This relationship of love will lead the Holy Spirit to speak into our lives, not conviction or condemnation, but revelation of the Father's purposes for us. These revelations will often challenge our walk and will lead to further changes - because we love Him.

And I believe that I find this the greatest challenge of all - I have been saved, not for a law, but for an intimate and most precious relationship with the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit. I have to pursue Him, rather than satisfying my performance mentality, prayer programme or anything else. And pursue an ever closer relationship with Him who loved me and gave Himself for me.

In summary...
So why are we so wary? Well - grace challenges our theology, challenges our practice (we are no longer sinners contrained by law, but born again transformed saints), and challenges us personally - to pursue Him above every other thing.


The glory of being in Christ

I have been so helped for many years by the truth that we are "in Christ." It is a term that is used by the apostle Paul to describe our position and blessings as believers (eg: Eph 1v3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 2v6, 10, 13 etc). This is an awesome truth and it is great to stand firm in the truth. We are in Him - clothed in His righteousness, safe, secure, forgiven, elect, precious, the apple of the Father's eye.

Many have written and spoken on these things far more eloquently than I, but recently I saw something fresh that I had never seen before. I was in conversation with a dear brother and we began talking about what we "look like" in Christ. When the Lord looks at us what does He see? Of course, He sees all things for He knows the heart, but He sees us in Christ. He treats us as He would His belov├Ęd Son.

What do the devil and his demons see ? They see us clothed in righteousness divine. Spotless and without blemish - because we are in Jesus. The accuser is silenced by the blood.

But what does that righteousness look like? What does His glory look like? Well we are told in Revelation 1v13-16! Of course, we are not divine like He - but it is His beauty, majesty and glory that clothes us. This is what we look like - because we are in Him!

"...In the midst of the seven lampstands [was] One like the Son of Man,
clothed with a garment down to His feet
and girded about the chest with a golden band.
His head and hair were while like wool, as white as snow,
and His eyes were like a flame of fire;
His feet were like fine brass, as if refined in a furnace,
and His voice as the sound of many waters;
He had in His right hand seven stars,
out of His mouth went a sharp two-edged sword,

Our Saviour reigns in majesty, glory and power - and we are clothed in Him. Let us glory in this awesome privilege. Let us fear no demon of hell, listen to no accusation, but enter in awe with freedom into the presence of the One who has clothed us so beautifully and fitted us for the presence of His glory.


The heavens declare

One of the advantages of a period of recovery from sickness is that it gives time to read. I must confess that since pastoring a church became my "job", I have not read enough. This was one of the things that the Lord laid upon my heart while I was ill. When I return to work full-time, that is something I have to follow up. In the meantime, I have extra time on my hands to read.

At the moment I am reading Jonathan Edwards: A Life by George M Marsden. It is a fantastic biography, an inspiration and a challenge, and so I give it a whole-hearted recommendation.

Anyway, today I attended a fraternal of local ministers in the neighbouring district of Herne Hill. Before we started a couple of the brothers were talking about simply enjoying the splendour of God in His creation - particularly at this time of year as the leaves on the trees turn all kinds of glorious colours.

On returning from this meeting (where I was prayed for and do feel quite a lot better!), I picked up Jonathan Edwards: A Life and continued to read. And I read this, a quotation from Edwards himself (in Miscellany no. 108):

"When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ; when we behold the fragrant rose and lily, we see His love and purity. So the green trees and fields, and singing of birds, are the emanations of His infinite joy and benignity; the easiness and naturalness of trees and vines [are] shadows of his infinite beauty and loveliness; the crystal rivers and murmuring streams have the footsteps of His sweet grace and bounty... That beauteous light with which the world is filled in a clear day is a lively shadow of His spotless holiness and happiness, and delight in communicating Himself."

Often we can rush around completely unaware of what is around us. That is particularly easy to do living in a big city like London. It is good to stop, pause and worship. Look around - God made all these things (and yes, there are trees in London). Not only should we be amazed at God's wisdom in these things - but Edwards reminds us that these reflect only a shadow of what God is like in Himself.

He is altogether lovely and delights to communicate Himself - not simply to the mind, but to the heart, to our whole beings. The creation, which declares the glory of God, points us to the Glorious One Himself, who is to be pursued and experienced and enjoyed.

So let us worship God for all He has made, and let us look beyond what He has made to He Himself, who delights to be enjoyed by us.


If it be so, why am I thus?

It is with some embarrassment that I return to the blogosphere after an unexplained absence of almost two months. Also, given that this blog is devoted to talking about the glorious extension of God's Kingdom, as the waters cover the sea - including the outbreaking of His mighty power in healing and miracles - it might seem strange to report that my absence has been due to illness - an illness that will not go away (yet!).

A little over a week after my last post I started feeling "under the weather" with a sore throat, cough and tiredness. Within three days this had transformed into raging fever, a constant cough, sleeplessness for nights on end and, when I did sleep dark dreams, where I was being pounded by demons, and I was totally exhausted - hardly able to get out of bed.

Various visits to the doctor achieved nothing, my prayers seemed to be receiving no answer. I had pneumonia, or something very similar, and a whole load of spiritual attack. After two weeks of this, the elders came to pray and anoint me with oil - and I slept!! Properly for the first time in two weeks. I began to get better, but so slowly. My mind and heart were renewed but my body seemed to still be miles behind.

I did get back to preaching for two consecutive Sundays, which was great. But then last week again, I began to get worse. I have now been told I have suspected plurisy (which is inflamation of the lining of the lung) and am awaiting the results of an x-ray.

So that is a brief history of the last seven weeks! I have spent much of the time very discouraged, wondering where the complete healing was that I had prayed for. I had laid hands on myself and rebuked everything I could think of, and I was not fully healed.

I do believe the Lord has used this season to teach me much. In terms of my personal walk and ministry, I have been called back to intimacy with Himself, and away from overdoing activity. I have been challenged to make Him, and not my ministry, the priority. I have been reminded that the Lord tells us to "redeem the time." All these things have been so precious, and worth experiencing the darkness to learn.

But - this week I have been saying to myself "I am still not healed, what is wrong?" During the last few weeks I have been "helped" in different ways - one of which was to tell me that if the sickness is not responding to prayer then I have lost my authority in Christ - so I must not be standing in righteousness. I didn't take such things on board, but such attacks play on the mind.

I suppose the question is - if as children of God we a blessed of the Lord, how can things still go wrong? This morning I was helped by a scripture pointed out to me from Genesis 25v22.

Answered prayer but still a battle

In Genesis 25v21 we are told that Isaac sought the Lord for his wife because she was barren. That prayer was answered. So everything was fine... Was it?

I have received answers to prayer during this season of sickness. I have received partial healings and steps forward, and had precious times in God's Word and a taste of the intimacy that the Lord had spoken to me about. But was that it? Alas no - there was still a battle.

Genesis 25v22 tells us of the battle that followed Rebekah receiving the answer to prayer. There was a mighty struggle within her, and she was distressed. We can experience similar things - both struggles within and without. We receive a new job in answer to prayer, but it is a great battle. We receive a call to a new ministry and it is so hard, fruit is so long in coming. We move to a new location, and we wonder if God has left us. We get married, absolutely certain that God has brought us together with our partner, but it all seems to be falling apart. Or, we receive answered prayer for healing and the next moment we get ill again.

It might have been very easy for Rebekah to wonder if there was something wrong with her. That appears in the question: "If it be so, why am I thus?" (Gen 25v22, KJV). Why couldn't she be like her mother-in-law Sarah - a straightforward pregnancy? Part of the reason is that God simply deals with people differently. We might ask the question - why isn't my church growing like the one down the road? Of course there may be issues that we have to address, but often there is simply the purpose of God. There are lessons to learn, character to be developed, and the mercy of God in bringing us to a place of desperate crying out to Him, where prayer moves from being the formal duty of a Christian, to the desperate need of a hungry and hurting child of God.

The cry of the heart

Rebekah could have prayed, "Lord I thank Thee for Thine omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence, that Thou knowest all things, the struggles and ups and downs that Thine providences in my life give unto me. I thank Thee that Thou art always so abundantly merciful. I realise that Thou hast a purpose with this affliction I am suffering at the moment, and I chose to submit to Thy afflictions and pray that Thou wouldst teach me Thy way and lead me in the path everlasting...."

But instead there is a cry of the heart - if you have blessed me, why is it still such a struggle?

There are times when we need to get the politeness which many of us have been brought up on - the lie that it is impolite and reflects a lack of faith to ask God "why?" If we believe that, then we condemn Rebekah here, as well as the psalmist.

God is able to take our questions. He is merciful to hear the cry of our hearts at the lowest point of all. We shouldn't be shy of struggling, but nor should we settle for struggling. We must cry out, and He is gracious to answer. I believe I have received some answers over the last seven weeks that my perhaps more polite and rounded prayers before hand could not receive. I also believe that there are still battles to fight when the answers come, and that we should not be discouraged by a continued fight.

And I believe that the desperate cry of "why am I thus?" is not some major theological heresy, but a cry that the Lord will answer. After all He is good, and His mercy endures forever. He remembers that we are dust and He has compassion upon us as a Father upon His children. He knows the thoughts He has towards us, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give us a future and a hope.

And He says we will find Him when we seek Him with all our hearts. Sometimes the valley is the place where we truly seek.

And I thank God too, that He is the mighty healer. I thank Him for the journey, for the progress towards healing, and for the complete healing that shall come - and the battles that shall follow.