The Church’s Perspective
“We live by faith, not by sight.” II Corinthians 5:7
This statement by the Apostle Paul, “We live by faith, not by sight,” draws such a startling contrast with modern thinking that it disrupts our normal thought patterns. We might conclude that he was expressing some obscure philosophical idea. Not at all.
Paul explains his meaning with a concrete illustration in the verse that follows: “ ‘We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord.’ ” The Apostle is saying that what is only visible by faith is a greater reality for the Christian than what can be seen with the human eye. Accordingly, the preferred life right now is being “at home with the Lord.” That is where complete reality exists for the believer.
That is not isolated New Testament teaching. Paul and other writers of Scripture repeat the same elsewhere. For example, to the Philippian church he writes, “Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:19, 20). The writer of Hebrews says:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on the earth . . . Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” Hebrews 11:13-16 (See also Hebrews 12:25-27; II Peter 3:13-16)
For the Christian, ultimate reality is truly not about this earth. In the words of a song not often sung anymore, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passing through.” Do those words express the present day church?
Is the Church Adopting the World’s View of Reality?
What has happened to produce such a change in the church’s perspective? Perhaps the evangelical church is losing the greatest of all battles through hundreds of small, insignificant accommodations to its secular culture that eventually add up to capitulation.
It was Alfred North Whitehead who observed, “It takes an unusual mind to analyze the obvious.” It is right before us but we can’t see it! Paraphrasing Dr. Whitehead, can we say, “It takes an unusual mind to admit to the obvious”?
You see, we can get an answer, but only if we admit to what has become most important in our day: The secular world’s definition of reality has been adopted by the church. This, of course, contradicts Jesus’ teaching “to be in the world but not of the world” (John 17:16-18). In so doing, the Church of the Firstborn has become the Church of Modernity.
What has been the church’s response to the major secular, materialistic principle of the modern era? This concept is the foundation for scientific inquiry and discovery in our day.
Copernicus and the Scientific Method
Secularism as we know it today has evolved over a long period. To set a starting point for the modern/secular/materialistic era, let’s go back to Copernicus in the mid-1500’s. Copernicus, you may recall, claimed that the earth was not the center of the solar system. The sun, he found, was the center around which all the planets revolve. With the use of a primitive telescope, he could provide visual data to prove his hypothesis. That discovery, however, got him into hot water with the “church” of his time.
As it turned out, the Copernican “revolution” contained the seeds of the scientific method, a belief that reality is defined by what can be observed. It would take a century or so, however, for the scientific method to mature into full bloom during the “Age of Reason,” or the “Period of Enlightenment.”
The critical principle underlying the scientific method is that reality can be fully determined by applying human reason to what can be seen, touched, measured, heard, smelled, etc. Much of what we consider improvements or advancements for our lives in technology, medicine, manufacturing, etc., has come through the application of the scientific method in testing, experimenting and developing new products and processes. The big ticket items of our time—widespread use of systems in the utilities, home appliances, transportation, synthetics, plastics, medicine—were brought into being through scientific discovery outside the framework of the church.
The scientific method has had a pervasive influence in the formation of our secular culture and its values. We now depend so much on the “fruit” of the scientific method that we have come to accept the stuff of the material/secular world as the essence of reality.
Few would debate the enormous benefit to humanity brought about through the scientific method. Taking just two areas—medicine and food production—we must acknowledge that much pain and suffering has been alleviated. However, it is exactly at that point where the problem arises. They cannot transfer spectacular achievements through methodology from the physical world to the spiritual. Those achievements are limited to substances that are visible or measurable. Not only is the scientific silent on spiritual reality, many of its proponents deny the existence of a spiritual world. Thus, little time or energy is available in our culture for spiritual reality. Our hi-tech laboratories squeeze reality into the flat dimension of the physical where, as we noted, they have achieved astonishing successes. As a result, they have effectively elevated the physical/material world to deity-like prominence. What is the outcome? For most on our continent, the truly important matters of life get brushed aside in our rush to get to the early morning sale at the mall!
What strengthens the secular/material position in our culture is that the results of the scientific method have made our lives much easier. Gone are the tedious tasks of washing clothes by hand and cleaning the house with a broom. Offices are comfortably furnished and air conditioned. Travel to the next state is a matter of minutes or hours rather than the long and laborious days and nights it might have taken with the horse and wagon. We now enjoy health without pain, income without sweat, education without study and any shade of hair we want.
With our physical lives made so easy, expectations for our spiritual lives have deceptively changed. The comfort and ease in the physical appear to have been transmitted to the spiritual. The “advances” of the scientific community have placed within our reach the creation of an “advanced” church—the Church of Modernity!
The Power of the Physical/Visible Dimension
The physical dimension dominates us so completely that we have adopted our culture’s definition of reality as the fundamental basis of our lives. Its grip is so strong that we spend most of our time and resources getting the “stuff” of this age. That stuff has become so important to us that families are being destroyed by workaholic (and absent) husbands (or nagging wives) determined to get more and better things. We cannot stand to see others in our town or neighborhood getting ahead of us in this life.
Yet, listen to the Psalmist:
“Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart (singleness of purpose). But as for me, my feet had almost slipped; I had nearly lost my foothold. For I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. “They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens of the common man . . . “This is what the wicked are like—always carefree, they increase in wealth. Surely in vain have I kept my heart pure; in vain have I washed my hands in innocence . . . “When I tried to understand all this, it was oppressive to me till I entered the sanctuary of God; then I understood their final destiny . . . “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me to glory. Whom have I in heaven but You. And earth has nothing I desire besides You.” See Psalm 73
Oh, the incredible change to our living if these words from Scripture expressed our view of reality! However, I am afraid we have all eaten of the fruit of the reality defined by the scientific method. What has taken place in our lives individually we now see in the church. We have forgotten that truth for the church relates to the eternal, not to the visible.
Read how the Apostle Paul describes reality for the believer:
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” II Corinthians 4:18
The Apostle Peter adds even more descriptive detail about our reality:
“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” II Peter 3:10, 11
The writer of the Hebrews sums it all up with amazing insight:
“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” Hebrews 11:1(King James Version), 2
The Permanence of the Invisible
What is visible is temporary; the unseen is eternal. What by human experience we consider to be real (the visible) was born out of what we think of as unreal (the invisible). When we accept the secular world’s definition of reality for the church, we reject the compelling truth of Scripture.
For example, our secular world measures success by the kind of car we drive, the size and location of our home, the restaurants we patronize, the clothes we wear, the title of our job, etc. But let’s recall exactly what Jesus said about these very things in His first recorded sermon:
“ ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? . . .’ “ ‘So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” “ ‘For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first His kingdom and his righteousness and all these things will be given you as well.’ ” Matthew 6:25-34
Was Jesus really speaking the truth when He said these words? Can you validate His words as you look at your church and the issues that are critical to it? What “things” do pastors settle first before they accept the “Lord’s call” to a church?
Isn’t it interesting that there were no “church” structures before 300AD. It was only after the Empire formally recognized the church that its resources were directed to real estate and buildings. Until that time, the “church” was either a group of people in a certain city or the Church Universal which is made up of all believers of all time. The “church’s” primary activity was to bring people into relationship with, and maturity in Christ.
Today, however, when one mentions “church,” what comes to mind is a building somewhere or a church denomination. People are rarely thought of as a church. The visible (secular importance) has superseded the invisible (eternal importance). If we would reverse that order, it would launch a rebirth of the Church of the Firstborn.
Until we accept and appropriate reality as defined by the Scriptures we will never be free from the tyranny of things. It was Jesus Who said, “Where your treasure is there will also be your heart” (Matthew 6:21). To recover our standing as the Church of the Firstborn, we must be willing to renounce the secular reality that has become our security. We need a good dose of heavenly reality to set us free.
Does Truth Become Obsolete With Age?
The first Psalm can set the stage for this question.
“Blessed is the man (person)
who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked
or stand in the way of sinners
or sit in the seat of mockers.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
and on his law he meditates day and night.”
Psalm 1:1, 2
One of the few absolutes of our age, Truth is Relative, applies to one’s own time and place. Within the writer’s lifetime of some sixty years, a steady downgrading of truth has taken place to what we now have as we end this century. As an example, within the church a great new truth has emerged: If it works, it’s right!
So the “truth” we hear expressed in many of our theological training centers is that as church leaders, we have to be pragmatic. Don’t go around doing things that are not going to appeal to the world. In sum, truth is what works. How have we gotten to the point where absolute truth is drowned in a sea of relative opinion? Our previous chapter helped to answer that question.
The church’s fundamental error is that we are looking for truth in the wrong place. By embracing the rules of the scientific method for the church we have ended with the Church of Modernity rather than the Church of the Firstborn! It’s much like the man who was observed searching the ground for something. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’ve lost my keys and I’m looking for them.” The questioner then asked, “Where did you lose them?” The man pointed, “Over there. But there is more light here than over there, so I’m looking here.”
Unfortunately, we have forgotten the words of Scripture: “We live by faith, not by sight.” The shinning achievements of human and scientific invention have detracted us and we have turned our backs to the eternal light given us by God Himself:
“For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (Emphasis added) II Corinthians 4:6
We have wandered away from God’s revelation and we must return to where we lost it!
All our searching through the rubble of secular culture seems so reasonable to our human minds that it comes as a shock when we read what Jesus statement about truth:
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” Matthew 24:35 (see Isaiah 40:3-8)
We give that proposition nominal mental assent: “Yes, I believe that what Jesus says, the truth of the Scriptures, is the eternal truth.” Does it go beyond that? Does it get into my life in a way that disturbs my normal pattern of living?
The Word is Eternal
The Apostle John, who was as close to Jesus as any of the disciples, opens his gospel with these astounding words:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.” John 1:1, 2
Although books have been written about these words of introduction, let’s itemize briefly what John is telling us about Jesus through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:
* Jesus, as the Word, is the verbal expression of God
* Jesus, as the Word, is a coequal with God
* Jesus, as the Word, is coeternal with God
* Jesus, as the Word, supersedes all other existence, thought and action.
In the twelve verses that follow, the Apostle fills out the detail of his opening statement. Then, John uses the rest of his gospel to develop a radiant enlargement of those verses.
However, the two introductory verses summarize and settle the question about truth: God’s eternal arrangement is that Jesus accurately, completely and permanently discloses the person and purpose of God to humanity. Not attempting to trivialize this matter, Jesus came “to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” about God. By His very nature that is the only thing He could do. As Jesus testifies, the miracles He did were so “you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father” (John 10:38). He restates the same thought in John 14:10: “Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work.”
Later, He tells that His work of revealing the person and purpose of God would continue through the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit:
“‘These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. “‘All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’ ” John 14:24-26
The disciples knew they could not, on their own, recall all the teaching Jesus had given over three years. Jesus declared that the Holy Spirit, as the Divine Agent, would remind them. Through the Holy Spirit they were to be the “biographers” of the revelation from the Father begun by the Son of God.
The question the church needs to face is not whether Jesus is the Son of God. Nor is it whether Jesus represented God to humankind. Most would answer those two questions positively. The critical issue to be examined by today’s church is: What will we do about truth? That question is compelled upon us because of the overwhelming wave of relativism in our secular culture that is suffocating the vitality of the church today.
In the Church of Modernity all that is necessary to be in tune with everyone else is to be orthodox about the cardinal truths. Decade by decade these truths have been whittled down to the point that all that is left is a bland, “Do you believe in God?” To that question, even President Harry Truman concurred: “What do you think I am, a pagan?” And the Scriptures say that the demons also believe (James 2:19).
It’s not that all church leaders have sunk to the defense that “I am not a pagan!” The danger is, like Lot, we can now afford to be moderately orthodox and still look good because so many other church leaders have gone over the edge. As we noted earlier, we feel safe and comfortable since we have some kind of support from other church functionaries.
By now, we have so softened our stand on the “nonessential” doctrines, we can be “forthright” on what remains and hardly offend anyone in the church or in our secular culture. We even take pride in our sloppy doctrinal stands by publicly stating, “We tolerate diversity on the ‘nonessential’ doctrines, but have ‘unity’ on the essential doctrines.” The essentials, unfortunately, keep slipping through our fingers.
In fact, none of God’s truth is obsolete. Jesus Christ is still the Son of God Who forever revealed to us the person and purposes of God. The Holy Spirit did continue the work of direct revelation to the Apostles codified in the New Testament. Jesus is still the Savior. The Holy Spirit is still the Comforter. Our heavenly Father is still God. The revealed truth of Scripture has not changed. Nevertheless, something radical has happened in the modern response to that truth.
Churches have taken upon themselves to decide what truth it will obey. We believe it all—but we will apply only what we want! Remember Jesus’ charge to His disciples: “Teach them everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20).
Jesus Christ is not the Leader of the “Church of Multiple Choices.” He is the Head of the Church of the Firstborn. The nature and character of His Church are clearly explained through the continuing work of reminder by the Holy Spirit. For us or any other group to abandon what the Scriptures say about the content and proclamation of the Gospel can’t be excused as just some adaptation to contemporary culture made necessary to attract people. If that is what is going on, it is no longer the Gospel!
In words beyond any contradiction, the Apostle Paul wrote:
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all . . . I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned.
“Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-10
These words of truth, coming from the eternal Word—are they now obsolete? Are these words now out of date—coming from the One who said, “My words shall never pass away”? Was the Holy Spirit serious when He gave these words to Paul? Was this something that by our century we could discard because of advanced technology and superior wisdom?
The warning of everlasting condemnation applies to the person in the pulpit as well as those in the pew. We can only ignore what the Scriptures say if somehow God has ceased to be God or if He has for some reason changed His mind. Notice what God reveals to John about the nature of the Gospel as we near the closing of human history:
“And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred and tongue, and people . . .” Revelation 14:6 (KJV)
At the very end of this age the Gospel being proclaimed by the angel is the one from everlasting; the Gospel of the Holy Trinity, conceived of in eternity and conveyed to humankind over the centuries; consummated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, and transcribed in the Scriptures under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If it is the everlasting Gospel that today’s church is proclaiming, why are the results in the lives of people today so different from New Testament times? Has the everlasting Gospel lost its power? Or can it be that the gospel now being preached is no longer the Gospel of the Word? Have we made the Gospel so relevant to our secular culture that the truth of the eternal Word has been lost in the transmission?
While we have achieved soaring church membership statistics in churches across America, we have plunged to new lows in morality both inside and outside the church. Is this the church that is supposed to turn the world upside-down? (Acts 19:23-29) Is this the church that Jesus proclaimed was to be “salt and light” to the world? (Matthew 5:13-16)
Relevant to Scripture or Culture?
From the author’s limited observation, it appears that relevance to the culture has become so important to us that we have sacrificed the Scriptures to relevance. In practice, the truth of the Bible has, in fact, been rendered irrelevant. As we progress farther in this chapter, we will provide some indicators of this. However, let’s draw attention to a couple of glaring and unfortunate illustrations to confirm the point right here.
One truth in our secular culture is that a person’s personal life is not important to job performance. Never mind, for a moment, that you may not personally agree with that proposition. We’re talking about our American culture. Thus, a celebrity may be living a life of infidelity and worse, but it is perfectly OK to go to a performance by this person or go to the movies to “take in” the entertainment provided by this individual. Character has no bearing on performance. Has this attitude infiltrated our churches?
Within the last few years, several well known “televangelists” were discovered in sexual sin with someone of the opposite sex. It was only after particular incidents were exposed by the secular media that the church said anything. Yet, in these cases, there were all kinds of publicly available data that these “preachers” were perpetuating fraud on the donors to their causes. They were misappropriating funds for personal and other unintended purposes. Was there any protest regarding this from anyone in the church that you heard about? None! It was only when the media exposed the sexual sins that fellow church leaders expressed uneasiness. In one case, perhaps their silence had been brought on by the fact that the celebrity preacher in question was dumping millions of dollars into the denomination’s coffers.
Let’s select another example, perhaps closer to home. Is it wrong to lie? If so, is it wrong to exaggerate in order to deceive people? We are not here talking about hyperbole that is a respected literary device used to emphasize a point.
Have you heard the phrase, evangelistically speaking? Do you know how that expression came into common use? It came from the well-worn custom of some preachers to “inflate” the numbers of people present or making “decisions” for Christ at their meetings. We are talking about church leaders who believe it is all right to alter the truth in one area while they profess to represent the Person Who said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” If church leaders are losing their integrity over such simple issues, what has become of the Church of the Firstborn?
That is why we must ask the question of ourselves and of our church. Has truth become obsolete in our time, our secular culture, our church? What kind of truth do we practice? Do we withhold information at church business meetings to assure the passage of a motion? Do we use propaganda techniques of half-truths and selective truth to enhance our “image?” Would that kind of “truth” be sup-ported by the Scriptures? Once we start adjusting truth for any reason, we have opened the door to compromise on every front. Remember Jesus’ approving words about Nathaniel, “ ‘Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false’ ” (John 1:47). Oh, for that to be true of us all.
Has Emotional Impact Replaced Genuine Conviction?
Let’s ask a question for serious thinking: What is God’s purpose for the church? You may have heard conflicting reports of what the Church of the Firstborn is all about. While church theorists have muddied the water, the Scriptures remain clear. In one of the most frequently quoted verses of the Bible, we read:
“And we know (absolutely) that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
In the next verse, God identifies His purpose in history:
“For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Romans 8:28, 29
As we turn to the writings of the Apostle John, we find many confirming references of God’s purpose for the Church and, in particular, for our lives. For example, he writes:
“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called the children of God! And that is what we are! . . . Dear Friends, now we are the children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know (absolutely) that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure . . . “But you know (absolutely) that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning.” I John 3:1-6
Then, so that everyone could understand, the Apostle writes:
“Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.” I John 2:6
That is not too complicated. We can all get that, can’t we?
We now return to our first question—God’s purpose for His Church. God established the Church of the Firstborn so that, primarily, individuals would be “conformed to the likeness of His Son.” To be like Him. To be pure, even as He is pure. To be holy, even as He is holy (Romans 6:22). That is the great purpose to which God has called us—a transforming relationship with His Son. However, is that the direction we are headed?
As we saw earlier, emotionalism is a distinguishing feature of our secular culture. In our day, people seek movies, entertainment, theme parks and, yes, even churches that give them a thrill. We, of course, have sanitized the word thrill with the spiritually correct word inspire. Nevertheless, the emphasis remains the same: To attract people with something new, novel and exciting. Rather, we should be confronting people with the truth about sin, their condition before God, their eternal destiny, and the ultimate purpose of God their lives.
God’s Truth is Disturbing
God’s truth is a very disturbing thing. He calls for total commitment in the life of one who calls him/herself a Christian. This is troubling in a secular culture where having fun is paramount. It means that what happens between the hours of 9:00 and 12:00 A.M. on the Lord’s day has to go far beyond “I enjoyed the service” kind of sentimental expression. You see, people cannot be “entertained out of hell.” The work of salvation required Jesus to commit Himself to the Cross of the everlasting Gospel.
The magnitude of that commitment, the utter incongruity of the eternal Son offering Himself on the cross for my sin is not something I can absorb in some entertaining way. In the Church of the Firstborn, that is serious business. It demands more than the shallow response from a casual, temporary emotional reaction.
We have wandered so far down the entertainment road of our secular culture that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Philippians sound like a foreign language today:
“Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. “Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life . . .” (Emphasis added) Philippians 2:12-16
Fear and trembling? Isn’t it supposed to be all joy and gladness? What were Jesus’ words to His disciples concerning the end time? “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn” (Matthew 24:30). That phrase is repeated by the Apostle John: “. . . and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all peoples of the earth will mourn because of him” (Revelation 1:7).
The flippant, flimsy fakery classified as “worship” in the church is nothing more than a thinly disguised replica of the world’s depraved system of entertainment. It directs us to exercise our emotions without engaging our minds. We have even gone as far as importing “worship” styles from churches of other cultures infected by centuries of emotional excesses. Those very excesses have lead to a flood of crimes and sins of passion that are so prevalent now they no longer receive serious judicial treatment in those societies. This is the result of looking into the world to find redemptive value rather than searching the eternal Truth of God.
Yes, there will be a time of “joyful assembly” when the redeemed of the Church of the Firstborn will participate in the songs of paradise in a sinless heaven. Yet, in the mean time, the same writer admonishes us,
“Since we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’ ”
Hebrews 12:22-28 (Deuteronomy 4:23, 24) The appeal to emotions has an insidious way of immunizing us from thoughtful commitment that is a matter of the will. If we can laugh a little, we don’t have to take it too seriously, right? It’s like the observation of Sir Thomas Gresham centuries ago: When two coins of the same face value but with different intrinsic value are in circulation, the one of greater intrinsic value goes out of circulation. Thus, the emotional devices used in churches today have driven out “the greater intrinsic value” of commitment. Emotionalism has driven commitment “out of circulation” in the church.
Will the Gospel of Convenience Grow Into Commitment?
The gospels tell the story of a man who came running up to Jesus, brimming with enthusiasm. He stopped to ask Him life’s most important question: “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus immediately directed the anxious man to the law (the Ten Commandments) and in particular to what addresses our relationship with others. The man’s reply, while innocent on the surface, revealed the content of his heart. He responds, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus’ answer to his statement, however, uncovers the truth: “One thing you lack; go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then, come follow me.” (see Matthew 19:16-30; Mark 10:17-26; Luke 18:18-30)
While seeing how this wealthy man responded is interesting that was really not the point for including his story in the gospels. Jesus is reinforcing a principle He has consistently presented in His conversations and teaching. Regardless of status, age, sex, occupation or financial condition, the first requirement Jesus imposed on any who would be His follower was total commitment. His was never a “gospel of convenience.”
Once, someone proclaimed, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus tells the man the cost of following Him: Total commitment. He ends the passage by saying, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62). Those are the rules of engagement in the Church of the Firstborn. Is that what we see today?
In the contemporary church, every attempt is made to market a gospel of convenience. There is a sadly mistaken idea that people will eventually grow into commitment. We must distinguish this false notion from the person who makes a total commitment and, with time, fulfills that commitment. True believers continue to complete their commitment.
The Apostle Peter, often fast with his lips, told Jesus he would follow Him no matter what. We know, of course, that hours later, he denied he even knew the Master (Luke 22:54-62). He failed in his commitment—but not because Jesus had failed to call him to it (Luke 5:8-10).
Now, people are eased into relationship with the church with such timidity that when someone talks about the cost of discipleship or the Lord’s ownership of their possessions, they walk out. No wonder. They came in via the gospel of convenience. When did this business of commitment sneak in? That was not part of the bargain!
This is like the kind of marriages that predominate our culture. With no commitment at the very beginning, minute incidents inflame quickly into major conflicts that end up in divorce court. The gospel of convenience has to be constantly managed and manipulated lest new “converts” run away with their money to some other entertainment center.
Those who handle the finances in our churches will tell you the gospel of convenience never grows into commitment, financial or otherwise. It’s an old saying but never so true as today: “Either He is Lord of All or He is not Lord at all.” What is seducing so many is the connection between “the gospel of convenience” and growing church membership.
Does Growing Church Membership Mean Success?
Several authors have recently dared to take on the “church growth” movement. It is about time. I believe the church growth movement of the last thirty years or so has done as much harm to the church as any other single wrong teaching. It is largely responsible for converting the mission of the church from “bringing people into conformity with God’s Son” to a worldly inspired “big numbers” game to be achieved through modern marketing techniques.
Under the protective umbrella of “church growth” principles, the three big “E’s” of our culture—Ego, Emotion and Entertainment—have achieved prominent status in our churches. Many false practices we are seeing today are the direct result of a compulsion foisted upon church leaders by church growth merchants. It’s as though something is wrong with churches that do not leapfrog in membership from 300 to 3,000 in three years. Those that do get special awards and recognition—here on earth!
It is possible that the church growth movement grew “like Topsy.” Or, perhaps it was the “law of unintended consequences.” They never intended the results we see today at the beginning—“It just happened to grow up that way.” Nevertheless, there may be a purposeful, step by step accommodation within the church growth movement to the ever-changing values of our secular culture. In fact, they can accomplish the “church growth” goals of today through current secular methods and standards exclusively. The only “vital statistics” necessary to prove success today is taken directly from the worldly culture that surrounds us.
The church growth material that they have developed focuses on the “user” to decide what the message and method should be. Pity the prophet today who dares to proclaim, “Thus saith the Lord!” as was the custom in Bible times. Yet, that is precisely the message we need to hear again. We must return to the heavenly Founder/Leader of the Church to reclaim what He announced as important for church growth. Jesus, and His apostles, did not overlook this subject in teaching us how to be His followers.
Whether by design or ignorance, the modern-day church growth movement has abandoned what the New Testament church believed: The Scripture is the church’s growth manual. Instead, they have cut their methods and programs from the fabric of our secular culture. Since all indicators point to the ever declining morality of our culture that does not bode well for those following the “Pied Pipers” of church growth. We are off track and we need to get back on. And where should we begin?
What is the Purpose of The Church?
As we have established, the purpose of the Church of the Firstborn is to bring individuals into conformity with the likeness of the Son of God. Just Who is this Son of God? Many passages of Scripture present the Person of Christ. The Apostle Paul develops a complete picture for us in his letter to the Colossians:
“He (Jesus) is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Colossians 1:15-20
You might want to read those incredible words again. As you do, can you see Jesus as the master Planner? How much power does He have? Do you believe He has enough power to accomplish the task assigned to Him by the Triune God, of which He is a part? Do you believe that anything can prevent Him from completing His assignment? Do you believe there is anything we might suggest that could improve on His plan? Accordingly, should He not be in charge of the Church?
Sadly, it has become fashionable in the church to make the attractiveness and success of the Gospel mean something other than what Jesus said. You will recall that Jesus was having trouble getting Nicodemus to understand the basics of God’s Kingdom. So He explains to Nicodemus the root or the foundation of the Gospel:
“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” John 3:14
Jesus is not only the center; He is the energizing power of the Gospel. Without Him, we are left with the worthless ashes of human effort and plans.
The Church has only one thing to do today or any other day:
“Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men (people) to myself.” John 12:31, 32
Our job is not to “make” our church grow. We don’t have to read books, hold seminars and pay consultants to figure out what the church is supposed to be doing. It is the church’s job to present Jesus Christ—to be His witnesses—to the world. Paul and the other Apostles preached Christ. They wanted “to know Christ and the power of his resurrection” (Philippians 3:10). Strange things took place with they preached. They knew it was not their own doing.
“With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’ Those who accepted his message were baptized and about three thousand were added to their number that day” . . . “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:40, 41, 47
The apostles recognized it was their job to witness. It is the Lord’s job to bring results. Jesus said, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people unto me.” This brings us to another critical issue for the church today.
How Was Christ Lifted in The New Testament Church?
To answer this question, we will return to the young Pharisee, Saul, on the road to Damascus. Here, the risen Christ confronts this man who is on his way to imprison followers of Jesus. You will remember that Jesus asks Saul,
“Why do you persecute me?” Saul’s response is, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord replies, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (See Acts 9:1-6).
Jesus told Saul (soon to be Paul) in the clearest terms possible: “When you persecute these followers of Mine, you are persecuting Me. They are My Body. When you strike one of them, you are striking Me. When you imprison them, you are putting Me into prison. When you stone one of them, you are killing Me again.”
The implications of what Jesus is telling Saul are fantastic: Every time one of My followers has contact with someone in the world, that person is meeting Me, Jesus Christ. Jesus’ statement that He would “draw all people to himself” has the potential of being fulfilled daily by millions of people in the world. Believers are the authentic presence of Jesus Christ to the world. It is the living believer, rubbing shoulders with the unsaved in everyday life that brings them into contact with Christ. That is why God’s purpose for us is to become like His Son.
While Peter and Paul may have stood up and “preached Christ,” Christians who lifted up Jesus in their lives were witnessing to Him continually. See how this translates in the words of the Apostle Paul:
“I have been crucified (lifted up) with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Galatians 2:20
Paul declares here that his body is the clothing for the Son of God, “Christ lives in me.” Lifting up Jesus Christ to the world was not accomplished by a repetition of Jesus’ crucifixion, but through daily lifting Him up in Paul’s life—and your life and my life! The Son of God enables us to do just that. Notice how he explains that kind of life.
“You are all sons (children) of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” Galatians 3:26
The Church of the Firstborn does not come clothed in entertaining programs and techniques sewn from the fabric of our secular culture. It comes as people, alive with Christ in their neighborhoods and where they work. The world needs to hear the preaching of the Gospel in the public square through the everyday meeting between people who are clothed with Jesus Christ and those who do not know Him. That being true, only two questions need our attention:
Are we really preaching the everlasting Gospel?
Is my life truly conformed to the likeness of Christ?
That is where the truth and the proof of the Gospel are found. There are no substitutes! It is the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit that enable us to live like that.
Have the Scriptures and Prayer Become Useless?
“Why did God give us the Bible, His Word?” That is an important question we need to answer. “What was His purpose in providing special revelation to humanity through the inspired writings of Scripture?” Whenever we pick up the Bible to read, we should ask ourselves the question, “Why did God give me this Book?”
Conversely, “If there were no Bible, what would my life be like?” Since God’s Word is important to our Christian vitality, the question we should also probe relates to the church: Has the church discarded the Bible?
In a much publicized decision in 1962, the United States Supreme Court ruled that prayer and Bible reading in publicly funded schools violated the separation of church and state provisions of the United States Constitution. As a ninth grader in a public school in New Jersey, I can recall that our classes routinely opened with prayer, the pledge of allegiance and, often, the reading of some Scripture. No one thought we were participating in wholesale defiance of our nation’s constitution. We did not expect the police or the F. B. I. to come storming in to stop our praying and reading.
Without passing judgment on the Supreme Court’s decision, let’s ask another question: Did our educational system discard the Bible before or after the Supreme Court’s 1962 ruling? Yes, the formal policy to remove prayer and the Scriptures from public education did have profound consequences in our schools. That has been well documented. However, to argue that our educational system had not already long abandoned any reliance on prayer and the Bible would be equally absurd. Much earlier than the Court’s action, the American educational system had generally adopted the permissive philosophy and lowering of standards that sprang out of human secularism. You will recall that educators held no angry protests against the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision about Bible reading and prayer. For most, it was already “a done deal.” Although they may have read the Scriptures, they had long abandoned its principles.
Yes, prayer and Bible reading in schools had value. However, it was not considered significant. For most classes, Bible reading was a tradition and routine to go through, someone’s performance. It was not something taken seriously. The loss of respect for God and His Word in most of the educational system occurred long before the Supreme Court spoke in 1962. Its ruling just formalized what had already taken place.
What is the connection to the church? Just like the American educational system, the church can discard the Bible while it continues to read it! As a living analogy, we could cite the liberal church in the United States. The irrelevance of the Scriptures to personal and corporate life within that branch of the church is pervasive. For them, there are no miracles, no Son of God, no substitutionary death, no resurrection, and thus, no heaven or hell. However, they don’t really claim to be people of the Word. As evangelicals, we do make that claim. Is that claim valid?
Scripture Reading As Theater
Theater takes us into the world of make-believe. We know that the actors in a theatrical production are not really the characters they are playing. For the duration of the play, they are carefully following the direction or script written by some author, whether it is a live production or movie. Always, when the play ends the actors return to their true and normal lives. No one attending the theater production will criticize them for discarding their lines and their costumes when the “play” ends. Everyone understands the meaning of theater.
One of the first signs that a church is discarding the Bible is how it treats the public reading of Scripture. The Apostle Paul, in an interesting set of instructions to his young associate Timothy, gives him a series of warnings. He prefaces what he wrote in this manner:
“Although I hope to come to you soon, I am writing these instructions so that, if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God . . .” I Timothy 3:15
Two verses later, he continues:
“The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars . . . They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods . . . For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. “If you point these things out to the (people), you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, brought up in the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.” (Emphasis added) I Timothy 4:1-6
The Apostle is warning young Timothy and giving specific instructions about the content of his preaching. What is to be his frame of reference? How can he insure that he stays on track? We read on:
“Command and teach these things. Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity. Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching.” (Emphasis added) I Timothy 4:11-13
Notice the bridge the Apostle constructs between his reading and preaching and teaching the Scriptures and the kind of life he was to live. Paul tells Timothy: What you read, preach and teach from Scripture is not theater. Scripture is not to be treated as a script, as part of a Sunday morning performance, put aside at the end of the “play.”
To Timothy, he declares, “It is to be the foundation and essence of your preaching and teaching and living.” In effect, Paul is saying that to be faithful to God’s call to ministry, we must make much of the Word of God—in our speaking and in our living. Devoting ourselves “to the public reading of Scripture” will keep us on track as ministers of “the church of the living God”—The Church of the Firstborn.
Where did the Apostle Paul ever come up with such instructions? Could it be that he had talked things over with another Apostle, Peter, or perhaps Luke? When writing his second letter to Timothy, Paul says, “Only Luke is with me” (II Timothy 4:11; both Luke and Mark are mentioned). What had they told him? Let’s look.
“(Jesus) went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place here it is written:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . .’
“. . . and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’ ” Luke 4:16-18, 21
As already noted, this passage immediately follows Luke’s recording of Jesus’ temptation, where Jesus rejects Satan’s attack by using Scripture. To Jesus, the Scriptures were a vital, indispensable part of His life. He testifies that they are seeing the Scriptures come alive in His life. He, the living Word, could not live without God’s Word. He could not preach without God’s Word. Nor could He die without it:
“Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, ‘I am thirsty.’ . . . When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” John 19:28-30
The Gospel writers not only recorded Jesus’ use of Scripture; they and the New Testament church followed His example.
“As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead.” Acts 17:2
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” II Timothy 3:16, 17
How is it at your church? Have the Scriptures become an occasion for performance? Is it part of the “entertainment package” of the service? Or does it carry the awe, reverence and place accorded to it by the early church as directed by the Lord of the Church and confirmed by the Holy Spirit? What do we do with God’s Word after they conclude the service? Is it the most important or the most neglected Book we possess? (See II Kings 22:11-13; 23:1-3).
Prayer As Programming
In the Church of the Firstborn, along with the Scriptures prayer was elevated to a high position. Notice what the Apostles in Jerusalem thought about prayer as a part of their lives and work. They were on the verge of being trapped into the administration and management processes of the early church. As important as those functions might have been, as leaders of the church they had a higher priority.
“Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Emphasis added) Acts 6:3, 4
How unlike a well-known evangelical church leader who announced during a public meeting he was going to devote himself to prayer—when he retired. That is not what the Apostles believed nor how they lived. Neither should we! Prayer is not something we leave to the “old people” of the church or until we retire.
It is not something pleasant to keep in the Sunday morning service—as long as it is short (and woe to the person who runs over the allotted thirty eight seconds!) It is not part of a script used for a “transition” to another part of the program. Prayer is consistently presented in Scripture as direct communication between us and God. When it becomes just another piece of the program, it has been discarded. When that happens, the church has become the Church of Modernity.
If we as individuals, as church leaders and churches, are going to be the Church of the Firstborn, something must first take place. It is a principle that was most difficult for Jesus’ disciples to comprehend—they were very slow to get it. As He nears the time of the cross, Jesus explained it again:
“Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. The man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.’ “ John 12:23-26
Jesus said He would be “glorified” by His death. He offered eternal life to those who followed Him.