Summarizing “Nine Marks of A Healthy Church”

This blog post relates to two sermons from Luke 11:37-54, intended for Jesus’ people gathered as Felton Bible Church (FBC).  One was preached last week, the other is planned for tomorrow.  If you’d like, you can access both sermons via the FBC website.

 

Brothers and Sisters,

During our consideration of Luke 11:37-54, I mentioned to you a book authored by Mark Dever (currently serving as senior pastor for Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D.C.) titled, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church.  In his book, Dever articulates “nine marks” that characterize a healthy local congregation.  He’s clear to point out that these are not the only nine marks of a healthy church, but rather a select few that many churches miss or set aside.  I’ve read much (perhaps most) of Dever’s book by this point and affirm the importance of each mark.  Let me briefly review them for you (Note: The page numbers indicate a reference to Nine Marks):

Mark #1: Expositional Preaching – Expositional preaching is the regular proclamation of God’s Word, the Bible.  Such preaching seeks to explain the text and to apply it to life in a manner aimed at the transformation of hearts and lives into Christlikeness.  It is preaching that responds to Scripture itself, and not to the whim of a preacher (pg. 44-45).  Dever writes, “The first mark of healthy church is expositional preaching.  It is not only the first mark; it is far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all of the others should follow” (pg. 42-43).

Mark #2: Biblical Theology – Biblical theology refers to an understanding of God, his ways, and his works that is shaped by the unfolding of Scripture, especially in its grand storyline (pg. 67).  Dever says this, “One of the chief marks of a healthy church is a biblical understanding of God in his character and his ways with us” (pg. 68).

Mark #3: The Gospel – As we’ve preached through Luke, I’ve referred often to the “Gospel Kingdom of God.”  The Kingdom of God that Jesus came to inaugurate stands on the Gospel – the good news of God glorified in his work to save us from sin and judgment, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  As followers of Christ, we are “Gospel people.”

Mark #4: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion – Conversion is the move from death to life that happens when our hearts turn to Jesus in obedience to the Gospel.  There’s so much to say here!  I’ll just let Dever’s words suffice for the moment: “Conversion includes both the change of the heart toward God that is repentance, and the belief and trust in Christ and his Word that is faith” (pg. 111).

Mark #5: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism – Evangelism is the joy-driven, love-motivated effort of Jesus’ people to tell others the Gospel message we have believed (pg. 136, 140).  It is not first a matter of “technique,” but faithfulness (pg. 134).  Dever quotes the following sentence from John Cheesman’s The Grace of God in the Gospel: “To evangelize is to declare on the authority of God what he has done to save sinners, to warn men of their lost condition, to direct them to repent, and to believe on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Dever, 136).

Mark #6: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership – Dever defines the church, according to the New Testament, as, “a local collection of people committed to Christ, to regularly assemble and have his Word preached and obeyed, including Christ’s commands to baptize and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper” (pg. 157).  Church membership is the vehicle through which an individual believer associates themselves with a local expression of Christ’s body.  Membership “puts into practice what the Bible teaches about the self-conscious commitments that should exist within a church – the commitments between an individual Christian, his or her pastors, and a defined gathering of Christians” (pg. 160).

Mark #7: Biblical Church Discipline – Church discipline, broadly speaking, describes all that we do to help each other walk faithfully after Jesus.  Dever helpfully writes, “Without hesitation, we should all admit our need for discipline, for shaping.  None of us are perfect, finished projects” (pg. 182).  At times, exercising discipline means dealing publicly with the sin of those who will not receive correction and repent.  Discipline, done well, is always an act of love, and it should always come with a heart for another’s obedience to Jesus and fellowship with his body.

Mark #8: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth – The point here is not first a question of numbers but a question of maturity.  A healthy church longs to see people growing into the likeness of Jesus, maturing in their faith – “The New Testament idea of growth involves not just more people, but people who are growing up, maturing, and deepening in the faith” (pg. 213).

Mark #9: Biblical Church Leadership – Finally, a healthy church is one led according to Jesus’ design for church leadership.  Leadership in the church begins with Jesus; it takes seriously the God-given authority of the congregation itself (what Dever describes as the “congregational context” to leadership in the church – see pg. 232); and it is especially exercised by qualified men who serve as faithful elders (pastors, overseers) of Jesus’ sheep.

I’m convinced that pursuing these nine marks of a healthy church will, by God’s grace, help preserve us from expressing the nine marks of religious hypocrisy we’ve seen in Luke 11:37-54.  Why do we want to flee hypocrisy?  Because we love the Lord Jesus…and we want to glorify him from a heart (individual and collective) of integrity!  May God find us faithful to do so!

Why Baptism before Communion?

A week ago Sunday one of the budding young men in our body asked me an astute question (put here in my words): “Why should someone abstain (‘fast’) from communion before receiving baptism?”  I so appreciate his inquiry!  Let me take just a moment and briefly outline why I think it is wise, and even necessary, for baptism to precede communion in the life of a Christian.

Jordan River
“Jordan River near the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism.” (Picture and caption courtesy of Todd Bolen, “Photo Companion to the Bible: Luke” from BiblePlaces.com)

We should begin by considering the nature of communion. What is communion?  Communion, or the Lord’s supper, is a regular, symbolic, meaningful “meal” eaten by the church together “in remembrance” of the Lord Jesus Christ and his work on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-26).  It is the New Covenant expression of the Old Covenant Passover.  It belongs to believers (the covenant people of God) and has no efficacy or impact for those who do not follow Jesus – except as a testimony to them of their need and a warning of their rebellion.  I consider communion to be a means of grace among the body of believers. In other words, the Spirit uses communion to work things in us he will not do in other ways.  In the best of circumstances, when we permit or invite someone to join us in communion we concurrently recognize that individual as a fellow disciple of Jesus. 

With that understanding of communion as a background, consider how baptism functions in the life of a believer.  You may recall some months ago when we addressed baptism during our Sunday morning sermon.  On that occasion, I described the “what” of baptism in the following terms:

1) Christian baptism is a bodily act of worship, a symbolic washing with water that glorifies Jesus by identifying us with him; and it is an experience of joy in which we taste the love of God.

2) Baptism by water is a faith-driven, God-worked act of identification, whereby Jesus – through the ministry of his church – publicly marks-out those whom he has saved, and ushers them into a tangible experience of God’s love.

 Baptism is something we (the church) do, through which Jesus marks an individual as his disciple, based on their confession of faith, indicative of God’s work to predestine, call, justify, and eventually glorify them (see Romans 8:29-30). Baptism does not save anyone. Rather, it acknowledges what has already taken place in the life of a person – namely their conversion from self to Christ; from sin to salvation; from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light.  A person may be saved (and often is) well before their baptism, but the confessionof that conversion – the public expression of their faith and obedience to Christ – is incomplete apart from baptism.  The unbaptized person among us is someone we have not yet recognized in the fullness of a walk after Jesus.  Of note, the Bible has no category (so to speak) for a persistently unbaptized follower of Jesus Christ.  The New Testament assumes, and demonstrates repeatedly, that baptism is the normal expression of devotion to Jesus as his disciple.

 Now, let me see if I can put these two concepts together – communion and baptism.  Communion is a celebration that belongs to the church; a celebration in which the Spirit works and through which we affirm each other’s obedience to Jesus as his disciple.  Does it make sense for us to recognize someone publicly, through communion, as a follower of Jesus apart from their own willingness to declare that faith (and the church’s willingness to affirm it) in baptism?  If the confession of a person’s conversion (both by themselves and the body of Christ) is incomplete before baptism, why would we pre-emptively recognize that conversion by fellowshipping with someone in communion?  Why would we encourage someone in their partial pursuit of Jesus by accepting them in communion before they are willing to follow him in baptism?

What I’ve outlined above is a brief theological defense for why believers should obey Jesus in baptism before celebrating him in communion. To this theological argument I might also add practical reasons of pastoral practice in a local church, one of which I’ll mention here.  By encouraging baptism before communion, we help to guard the importance and sanctity of baptism.  Particularly in the pragmatic, individualistic, consumeristic culture we inhabit – one that generally lacks edifying symbols of real substance and meaning – it’s easy for the church to slowly lose the importance of baptism. It’s easy for us to view baptism as an “if I feel like it” step of personal faith that I can take or leave, rather than a consequential step of obedience to Jesus that is centralto the Christian life.  By encouraging (even requiring) one another to refrain from communion before baptism, we wisely exhort each other to obey Jesus in full; to offer up our bodies a living sacrifice to God, receiving from him the blessing that is baptism; baptism with its God-spoken, church-recognized affirmation that our faith is real and salvific in nature.

Just to demonstrate that what I’ve outlined here is not contrary to the practice of Jesus’ people through the ages, consider the early church. Everett Ferguson, writing in Church History: Volume One – From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, describes how the church approached baptism and the eucharist (what we call communion, or the “Lord’s supper”).  While different churches in different places may have had somewhat different practices, here’s how Ferguson depicts the early church’s Sunday worship: “Perhaps by the end of the third century there was a separation of two parts of the service. The first part centered on instruction in the Word, to which all were welcome.  The second part centered on the Lord’s supper, to which only baptized believers not under discipline were admitted” (Ferguson, 151).  In short, what I’ve outlined above stands consistent with the practice of the church, or at least portions of the church, even in its earliest days.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading!  I hope this has proven helpful to you.  It is, I trust, an effort toward biblical wisdom. There is no proof text of Scripture that demands what I’ve argued for.  But, the flow of God’s Word, the examples we read of in the New Testament, and the longstanding historic practice of the church all combine to make the point.

 

It’s Time to Ditch Netflix

I am going to start this post with a rather strong statement.  You should seriously consider canceling your Netflix subscription.  Why?  Well, because just yesterday the company took an official and public stance in support of abortion, against Georgia’s House Bill 481, the “Living Infants Fairness and Equality (LIFE) Act.”  Among other things, HB 481 defines an unborn child as a “natural person” and prohibits abortion after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, except under certain provisions.

If you didn’t know, Georgia is now a major location for America’s film and television industry.  Recently, elements of this industry have voiced their advocacy of abortion and their displeasure with Georgia by threatening to remove business from the state in response to HB 481.  Yesterday, Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, made the following statement in response to an inquiry from Variety: “We have many women working on productions in Georgia, whose rights, along with millions of others, will be severely restricted by this law.  It’s why we will work with the ACLU and others to fight it in court.  Given the legislation has not yet been implemented, we’ll continue to film there, while also supporting partners and artists who choose not to.  Should it ever come into effect, we’d rethink our entire investment in Georgia.”

Did you catch that?  Setting aside Sarandos’ lamentable construal of rights and disregard for human personhood, notice his assertion that Netflix, as a matter of policy (i.e. not just Sarandos’ own personal opinion) will work to oppose HB 481.  The company has clearly and publicly sided with the evil that is abortion on demand and is, apparently, involving itself in a legal battle concurrent with its stance.  This is not neutrality and inaction in the face of a moral travesty (i.e. abortion) – which may be bad enough – it is active support of that moral travesty.  How can we who register such concern with the sin of abortion remain a subscriber to Netflix in light of this development.  I think it’s time to walk away from this particular company.

Now, there’s a difficult question that arises when one starts down the road I’ve suggested here.  Where does it stop?  There are so many prominent, mainstream organizations in our culture supportive of social or political positions that are profoundly wicked.  Indeed, I suspect the list of those who explicitly support abortion “rights” (so-called) would be quite long and comprehensive.  So, when do we stand for the right by refusing to patronize a company or support an organization, especially in terms of our finances?  How do we keep from becoming paranoid crusaders who see a social boogie man at every turn?  In other words, how do we simply live in the world and context God has given to us, consistent in our stand against evil and our advocacy of truth, without tying ourselves into convictional and emotional knots?

It’s a good question…with a number of facets to a good answer…and too extensive to take up in a short blog post.  For the moment though, specific to the question of Netflix, consider this point: Being entertained by Netflix is not essential to life; it is not integral to daily living well in the society and culture God has put us in.  In other words, patronizing Netflix is entirely a matter of discretion and it falls squarely in the “entertainment” arena of life, an arena we probably give far too much time, and attention, and money to anyway.  Can I not walk away, for Jesus’ sake, from an entertainment company when that company takes a public stance in support of an evil like abortion?  If not, then what am I willing to demonstrably give up in obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ?  If I can’t lay down my entertainment habits, then how can I claim that I am following him with my whole heart, and soul, and mind, and strength?

It’s a penetrating question indeed…

So, be encouraged…and say goodbye to Netflix.

Struggling with Emotions…1600 Years Ago

Did you know that one of the giants of church history, Augustine (died A.D. 410), struggled with his emotions?  He struggled to keep emotion in its proper place with respect to reason; with respect to truth.  In a day and culture where emotion – i.e. Augustine_Lateran“feeling” – runs rampant as the domineering god of the moment (or rather, the tool of many domineering gods), it’s worth hearing from Augustine again.  Here he is then, from his Confessions,as he reflects on the struggle with emotion (interestingly, through the lens of his conflicting views about church music…indeed, there is nothing new under the sun):

“I notice that the different emotions of my spirit, by their sweet variety, have their appropriate expressions in the voice and singing, by some hidden relationship which stirs them up [My Editorial Note: Meaning, certain church music has a unique way of stirring up Augustine’s emotions].  But this gratification of my flesh, which must not be allowed to take control over my mind, often beguiles me.  My feelings do not serve reason, so as to follow patiently, but after having gained admission for the sake of reason, strive to grab the reins and take the lead. Thus in these things I sin without knowing it, but realize it afterwards…

“Yet when I happen to be more moved by the singing than by what is being sung, I confess that I have sinned gravely, and then would rather not have heard the singing.  See my condition now!  Weep with me and weep for me, you who can so control your inward feelings that good results follow.  For you who do not act this way, these things do not concern you.  But O my God, hear me and look up on me, and have mercy on me and heal me, you in whose presence I have become a puzzle to myself; and this is my infirmity.”– (from The Confessions of Saint Augustine: Modern English Version, Hal M. Helms, page 210).

Now, don’t trip over Augustine’s hang up with church music (though perhaps we should share more of that hang up at times than we often do these days).  Rather, just notice his clear sense that emotion is right, it is good, it is necessary, but it must not be preeminent.  Borrowing from the words of a biblical counseling curriculum titled Unbound (from Truth in Love Biblical Counseling), “A key point to gaining and maintaining emotional stability is by understanding that while emotions are real they simply are not the truth.  Even though our emotions may be based on the truth, they themselves are not the truth…We have to choose: either our emotions will control us and determine the path of our lives, or we will get our emotions under control and allow reason base on the Truth to guide and direct our lives…” [emphasis in the original].  Elsewhere the same curriculum says, “Making decisions based on our emotions is like allowing a drunk to get behind the wheel of a school bus-the bus will be all over the road and it isn’t going to turn out well for anyone.  Emotions can have a ‘seat on the bus,’ just not the driver’s seat.”

It’s good to know that my struggles in life are neither new nor solitary.  Thanks Augustine for giving me some insight into your challenges 1600 years ago…

God is “Right”

I am slowly reading through John Piper’s book The Future of Justification: A Response to N.T. Wright (hopefully I’ll actually finish it at some point).  Today I came across the portion quoted below, and I can only respond with a hearty (and joyful), “AMEN!”:

(From The Future of Justification, pages 63-64) – It is not very satisfying simply to say that God’s righteousness is his commitment to do what is right, because it leaves the term “right” undefined.  We don’t feel like we have gained very much in defining “righteousness” if we use the word “right” to define it.  To be sure, it is not an insignificant thing to say to a child, “God is the kind of Person who always knows and loves and does what is right.”  That is a wise and true thing to say.  But someday that child is going to become a teenager and ask, “How does God decide what is right?  Who tells God what is right?  Is there a book of laws or rules that God has to obey?”  Answering those questions gets at the deeper meaning of righteousness.  What is the “right” to which God is unswervingly committed?

The answer is that there is no book of laws or rules that God consults to know what is right.  He wrote the book.  What we find therefore in the Old Testament and in Paul is that God defines “right” in terms of himself.  There is no other standard to consult than his own infinitely worthy being.  Thus, what is right, most ultimately, is what upholds the value and honor of God – what esteems and honors God’s glory.

 

The Historical Saint Patrick

Last Sunday (Saint Patrick’s Day) I had the chance to do something I’ve been looking forward to for some time, namely give a biographical talk on the historical Patrick.  Patrick’s life is a compelling story of God’s faithfulness in the building of Jesus’ church.  If you care to do so, you can listen to the talk by clicking here: Saint Patrick Biographical Talk (March 2019).  Please bear with some of the sound quality issues and the noise of exuberant children in the background!

 

 

Folks…It’s Saint Patrick’s Day!

Or it will be…on Sunday, March 17th.  Saint Patrick’s Day is my second favorite holiday (that isn’t really a holiday) next to Christmas.  I’m looking forward to celebrating it this year on a Sunday, an altogether appropriate day of the week to remember God’s work in the life of a pioneer Gospel missionary.  Below is an article that I wrote for one of our “small town” newspapers here in Santa Cruz County.  As I understand, it should run tomorrow for publication purposes:

Saint Patrick: Truth Stranger than Fiction

There is an old adage that says, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”  Sometimes this worn-out trope is actually correct. Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction.  Come March 17th, the strangeness of truth will once again impress itself on our consciousness, even if we miss it altogether.  Consider this: On March 17ththere’s a good chance that you’ll remember to dress yourself with at least one article of green-colored clothing.  You might even take strange delight in buying bottled root beer, labeling it “Guinness,” and then serving it to your family and friends with an odd sort of triumph. Not that I’ve ever done such a thing…every year…multiple years in a row.  Why such a buzz for March 17thin particular?  Hello!  It’s Saint Patrick’s Day of course!

Perhaps you’re one of the millions in America, like me, with a strange affinity for a small island nation because of your ancestral background (however distant and remote).  Or maybe you’re the type who will gladly accept any excuse for a good party – New Year; Valentine’s Day; Chinese New Year; Saint Patrick’s Day; Cinco De Mayo; Memorial Day; Fourth of July; Labor Day; Halloween; Veteran’s Day.  If you look hard enough, the party can continue year-round.  Or maybe you just have bad childhood memories of too many unsolicited pinches on the arm every March 17thwhen you went to school forgetting to wear green. Whatever the reason, there’s a good chance you’ll at least be aware on March 17ththat one of those unofficial annual holidays has come again.

Regardless of how you experience this strange little “holiday” of shamrocks, leprechauns, Lucky Charms cereal, and the corned beef you eat once a year, it’s worth knowing just a little of the real history that undergirds our frivolity. Because, as I noted above, sometimes the truth really is stranger than fiction.

In the case of Saint Patrick, the story begins in the Roman-British town of Bannaventa Berniae, probably located somewhere on the west coast of Britain, perhaps “during the reign of the Roman Emperor Theodosius” (Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 2).  Patrick grew up in a well-to-do family of British landowners and churchmen (of a sort), though even into his teenage years he himself had no interest in spiritual matters.  Before reaching the age of sixteen, Patrick was taken prisoner during an attack by raiders from Ireland.  Sold into slavery, he spent the next six years of his life shepherding sheep, apparently on Ireland’s west coast.  During that time, Patrick awakened to a new faith in God.  He eventually escaped slavery, clearly guided as he understood it by God, and made his way back to Britain.

The strange part is what came next.  Inexplicably, through a series of dreams, Patrick came to realize a God-given call on him to return to the land his captivity and abuse.  He began to burn with an irrepressible desire to share with the Irish the Christian gospel about Jesus Christ; about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and God’s great love for people – especially the Irish.  After an undetermined period of study, Patrick did exactly that…he went back!

Space precludes me from telling Patrick’s tale in full, but, undoubtedly, he spent the rest of his life sharing the story of the Bible with his persecutors, the Irish. We know of his work through two primary source writings – a scathing letter of protestation and mourning against the actions of a British warlord named Coroticus, and Patrick’s semi-autobiographical defense of his ministry commonly titled, The Confession.

So why is all of this worth reflecting on in the lead-up to Saint Patrick’s Day 2019? Well, if you’re a Christian – a Bible-believing follower of Jesus Christ – you may be encouraged by reading Patrick’s words.  If you do, you’ll recognize a brother you’ve never met, and you’ll be stunned all over again by the rich history of our ancient faith.  Whether you’re a Christian or not, Patrick’s story, when told in full, presents us with a remarkable challenge.  It is, undeniably, a tale of deep humility, fabulous grace, and genuine love in the face of hurt, exploitation, abuse, and real evil.  How could a man so poorly-used live so well? How can we partake of the same spirit and genuine authenticity that so captured this saint among saints?

Indeed, truth is stranger than fiction…

(P.S. Please consider joining us at Felton Bible Church at 5:00 pm on Sunday, March 17thfor a biographical presentation on Patrick.)