Three Kinds of Legalism

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Nearly 500 years ago, a small-town professor accidentally ignited a controversy that would change Christianity forever. Martin Luther’s academic critique of the sale of “indulgences” – the promise of forgiveness of sins in exchange for money – expanded to a wide-ranging disagreement about the authority of the Pope, the importance of ecclesiastical rituals, and the relationship between tradition and Scripture.

At the root of Luther’s courageous stand against the abuses of his day was his recovery of the key biblical principle that there are two kinds of righteousness. One is the “proper righteousness” of actual good works in obedience to the law of God. The other is the “alien righteousness” which is ours through union with Christ by faith. Luther championed the biblical truth that our standing with God is based not on our proper righteousness, which is always inadequate, but only on the alien righteousness of Christ.

Luther’s insight had a profound impact on how his protestant heirs view the law of God. If there is one thing we protestants agree on, it is that we shouldn’t be legalists. But this agreement is a bit clouded by the fact that “legalism” isn’t a single phenomenon, but a general category for any kind of misuse of the law. Just as Luther distinguished between two kinds of righteousness, I think it is helpful for us to identify three distinct kinds of legalism.

1) Extra-biblical requirements. Often the first thing that springs to mind when we think of “legalism” is the practice of adding additional requirements to God’s law. This form of legalism appears in Mark 7:1-23, in which the Pharisees censured Jesus’ disciples for eating food without giving their hands a ceremonial washing.

The problem with the Pharisees’ attitude was that such a practice was nowhere commanded by God. It was “the tradition of the elders” (Mark 7:3, 5). The idea, it seems, was to guard against any possibility of contracting ceremonial defilement (which is a genuine concern of the Old Testament law). But by making their human traditions a requirement for themselves and others, they equated them with the very commandments of God, even to the point of setting aside those commands when they came into conflict with the tradition (Mark 7:8-13).

Everyone, of course, has extra-biblical practices; the problem comes when we make these extra-biblical requirements. The Bible doesn’t tell you that you must read the complete works of Jonathan Edwards, but it’s fine if you do. The problem comes if you look down on others (or yourself) for not reading them.

Extra-biblical requirements can be old traditions or new fads. If you consider yourself better than others or more acceptable to God if you fast during Lent or follow the Twelve Steps or read the One-Year Bible or complete the Forty Days of Purpose, you may be in bondage to the legalism of extra-biblical requirements.

2) Externalism. Jesus responded to the Pharisees with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrines the requirements of men” (Isaiah 29:13; Mark 7:6-7). The second part of this quote (“teaching as doctrines the requirements of men”) points us to the kind of legalism we’ve already discussed, the introduction of man-made, extra-biblical requirements to supplement or even supplant the commands of God.

But Jesus builds on the first part of this quotation to point out another problem with the Pharisees’ attitude to the law of God. It wasn’t just that they were adding extra requirements of their own (Mark 7:8-13). They were also leaving out the most important part of the law – the call to love the Lord with all our hearts – focusing instead on external behaviors and physical rituals (Mark 7:14-23). They were going “below the line” by reducing the law of God to something measurable, manageable, achievable.

The Pharisees were guilty both of adding man-made requirements to the law and of reducing the law’s scope to external behaviors and rituals. But we can sometimes be guilty of only one or the other of these forms of legalism. For example, some Christians seem to think that it is a sin ever to feel angry, lonely, or sad. This is not externalism – it rightly prioritizes the attitudes of the heart – but it imposes an unbiblical standard that Jesus himself did not meet (Mark 3:5; 14:35).

By the same token, we can be guilty of a legalistic focus on external behaviors even when we aren’t going beyond God’s commands. We may be doing what God says is right and avoiding what he says is wrong, but not out of desire to please and honor him. When I read my Bible without really seeking to hear from God, or bottle up my anger out of a fear of the consequences, or serve in ministry to demonstrate what a good person I am, I am not actually keeping God’s commands – I am only pretending to on the outside.

3) Works-Righteousness. This third kind of legalism is the deadliest of all – the attempt to be justified through keeping the law. It is the inherently futile quest to deserve the approval of God through one’s own behavior rather than through the perfect person and finished work of Jesus.

While extra-biblical requirements add to God’s law and externalism reduces it to a matter of outward behavior, works-righteousness fundamentally misrepresents the purpose of the law. It acts as if God gave us his law so that we could earn his approval.

Works-righteousness does not actually add anything to God’s word, because the law really does contain the promise that keeping it will amount to righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). But it also contains the prediction that those who received the law would not actually keep it (Deuteronomy 31:15-29). In fact, we all fall far short of the righteous standard of our holy God; it is only through the death and resurrection of Christ that we can be justified in his sight (Romans 3:9-24). Works-righteousness thus  goes “below the line” of God’s word by leaving out both the bad news (none of us meets the standard presented in the law) and the good news (Christ has met the standard for anyone who believes).

Though they can exist independently, these three kinds of legalism are often found together. After all, it’s a lot easier to think that you can be justified by your own works if you have reduced the law to a matter of external compliance, or if you have substituted your own achievable standard for the perfect law of God. On the other hand, if you recognize what the law actually requires, works-righteousness will either be accompanied by an extreme lack of self-awareness or a crushing consciousness of your failure to fulfill God’s commands.

As an earnest young monk, Luther keenly felt that burden of guilt. He knew how far he was from loving God with all his heart and soul, and none of the man-made penances he endured could make up for that fact. He was liberated from this legalism only by the biblical gospel that God justifies sinners who come to him by faith in Christ that. It was this message that went on revolutionize the lives of millions of others around the world and across five hundred years.

It was Luther’s commitment to God’s word that enabled him to hear this good news. This remains the only reliable remedy for all three forms of legalism. Whether we’re tempted to add to God’s commandments, reduce them to achievable externals, use them as a means to justify ourselves, or some combination of the three, we will keep from being legalists as we continually recommit ourselves to staying on the line of God’s word.

 

Image Credit: Ferdinand Pauwels – flickr, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3767049

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Hearing Jesus in the Psalms

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Right in the middle of most English Bibles, there is a collection of one hundred and fifty ancient Hebrew songs. Filled with emotion, imagery, and devotion to the Lord, they are a masterpiece of poetic expression as well as a profound source of encouragement, comfort, and guidance for believers in the midst of the trials of daily life.

But despite their beauty and transparent honesty, it is a mistake to think that reading the Psalms is a simple business. Very often when we read the Psalms, our natural impulse is to appropriate the experiences of the psalmists to ourselves. The “I” of the author becomes the “I” of the reader as we embrace their emotions and place ourselves in their shoes.

Unfortunately, it often becomes difficult to sustain this way of reading the Psalms. Sure, it works in Psalm 23. But what about when the psalmist calls for the destruction of his enemies, or asserts his blamelessness, or promises to offer a sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem? How do we apply these psalms to our lives? Do we try to force them into the categories of our own experience? Do we turn them into allegories? Or do we just ignore them and stick to our top ten favorites?

I think these sort of questions should prompt us to re-examine simplistic approaches to reading the Psalms. It’s not that we shouldn’t identify directly with the voice of the psalmist. But that isn’t the only way to read the Psalms, or even the first way we should be reading them.

There are multiple layers to reading the Psalms. The first is the historical context of each individual psalm. Before we rush to claim the words of a psalm as our own, we must first hear them as the voice of a particular person in a particular time and place. It’s vital for us to understand who the psalmist is, what the circumstances are which they are addressing, and what cultural, historical, and theological factors can help us understand the meaning of their words.

A second layer is each psalm’s place within the story of the book as a whole. As many biblical scholars have recognized, the five-book division of the Psalms is a reflection on the progression from the rise of David (Book 1, psalms 1-41), through the Davidic monarchy (Book 2, psalms 42-72), the fall of the Davidic kingdom (Book 3, psalms 73-89), and the life of the believing community in exile (Book 4, psalms 90-106), to the celebration of restoration and return (Book 5, psalms 107-150). Each book, of course, contains psalms written at other times than the period it reflects; but the overall mood of each book is implicit throughout, and each book’s place in the story is explicitly reflected in key psalms at the beginning and end.

Just as reading the psalms in light of the first layer enables us to hear the voice of the individual psalmist, recognizing this second layer enables us to hear the voice of the entire worshiping people of God. We approach the psalms not only as individual expressions of faith, but as the songs of a community spanning multiple generations and centuries united around the story of God’s faithfulness in the past.

Of course, if we leave the Psalms there, reading them will simply be an academic exercise, the study of the religious experiences of an ancient civilization. If we are to claim the Psalms as God’s word to us, we must have some way to bridge the gap between their original context and our own needs and concerns.

This brings us to the third layer to reading the Psalms. The story of God’s faithfulness does not end with the return from the Babylonian exile. So the psalms look forward to the complete fulfillment of his promises to Israel, and especially to the coming of another anointed King, another David – the Christ.

The idea of hearing the Psalms as the voice of Christ has a long history in the church, appearing in the thought of countless theologians from Augustine to Bonhoeffer. But its roots go back all the way to the earliest preaching of the apostles themselves. We see a great example in Acts 2. In his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter explains the resurrection and ascension of Jesus through an exposition of Psalms 16 and 110. Peter draws our attention to the fact that, though written by David, neither of these psalms was literally true of him. Thus he explains Psalm 16:10 (“You will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) as follows:

Brothers, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. Seeing what was ahead, he spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact (Acts 2:29-32).

Peter here is making a remarkable assertion: that the voice celebrating God’s deliverance in Psalm 16 is not that of it’s author, but of someone else. This doesn’t mean that this Psalm is not rooted in David’s own experience – far from it. But writing as the Lord’s anointed, the sacred king of God’s people, he wrote words that were only figuratively true of himself, but found true and literal fulfillment in the experience of another king, the ultimate Anointed One, Jesus, the Son of David.

This is not a one-off, anomalous interpretation; it is the apostles’ customary approach to the Psalms. Thus in Acts 4:10-11, Peter applies Psalm 118:22 (“the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone”) to Jesus’ rejection by the “rulers and elders of the people.” A little later in the same chapter (Acts 4:23-28) the church takes Psalm 2:1-2 – which describes “the rulers” conspiring “against the Lord and against his Christ [i.e. ‘Anointed’]” – as a prediction of the sufferings of Jesus, God’s anointed servant. Psalm 2 will reappear later in Acts along with Psalm 16 in the first recorded sermon of the apostle Paul (Acts 13:32-37).

The rest of the NT bears out this practice of seeing Jesus as the subject of the Psalms. Psalm 2, which we have already seen cited twice in Acts, appears everywhere from Matthew (3:17; 17:5) to Revelation (2:27; 11:15; 12:5; 19:15). Psalm 110, cited by Peter in Acts 2, is the most widely-quoted Psalm in the New Testament, appearing in nine different books and providing the central text for the sermon we call the book of Hebrews. Psalms 22 and 69 stand out for their use in the gospels, which see them fulfilled in the suffering and death of Christ (Matthew 27:34-48; Mark 15:24, 34; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:24, 28-29). Even psalms which speak of not of the Davidic king but of “the righteous man” (Psalm 34:19-20) or just “man” in general (Psalm 8:4) are explained as references to Jesus (John 19:36; 1 Corinthians 15:25-28; Ephesians 1:22; Hebrews 2:5-9).

In all this, the writers of the New Testament are only following Jesus’ own teaching and example. Jesus frequently presented himself as the subject of various psalms (Matthew 7:23; 21:9, 42-44; 23:39; 26:64; 27:46; John 13:18; 15:25). After his resurrection, he explained to his disciples how was the fulfillment of “things written … in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44-47).

It should come as no surprise, then, that when the writers of the New Testament read the Psalms, they neither left them as historical relics nor forced them into the framework of their own individual experiences. The voice they heard in the Psalms was neither a recording of long-dead heroes nor the echo of their own personalities, but the word of the living Christ in whom all the promises, prophecies, and pre-figurings of the Old Testament had finally reached their perfect fulfillment.

Reading the psalms this way makes a radical difference. Instead of laboring to make the psalmists’ words our own by trying to work ourselves up into the same emotional state as them, we can listen in as the Son of God embraces all the turmoil and mess of human experience for our sakes. Indeed, he experienced it all far more deeply than any other human ever has. David felt abandoned by God (Psalm 22:1), but Jesus actually was. David only imagined the joy of resurrection, which Jesus truly experienced (Psalm 16:9-11).

No part of human experience is alien to Jesus. He freely shared our pain, our weakness, our fear, our loneliness. And though he himself committed no sin, he bore our sins and took our guilt as his own, so that even our songs of confession can be taken on his lips (e.g. Psalm 40:12; compare verses 6-8 and Hebrews 10:5-10). And, as Augustine said, because he came to sing our song, we can sing his song.* Because we have been united with Christ by faith, his death becomes our death and his life our life (Romans 6:3-10; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:4-10). Because he joined in our lamentation, we can join in his song of victory.

It is in Christ alone that the words of the Psalms become truly ours. By entering into our fallen human experience, he is able to lead us out of it – out of our sin and lostness and into his glorious victory. Jesus thus becomes the bridge connecting our personal experience to the sometimes alien words of the psalms, so that in him we may claim them as our own. Despite our ongoing struggle with sin, in Christ we can boast of perfect righteousness (Psalm 18:20-24). Even when our own lives are a complete mess, in him we can celebrate a salvation worth proclaiming to every nation and generation (Psalm 22:25-31). Though this world sometimes beats down upon us, in Jesus we can look forward to sharing in his victorious exaltation (Psalm 2:9; Revelation 2:26-27).

Not only that, but even those psalms that seem straightforward and relatable to us take on new depths when we hear them as the words of Jesus. Not only the royal triumph of Psalm 21 and the righteous suffering of Psalm 22, but even the trusting intimacy with God of Psalm 23 can be fully ours only because it was first and most truly his. It is because he passed through the valley of the shadow of death for us that we can dare to walk there without fear. And it is because he eternally sits at the right hand of the Father that we know we have a dwelling place in his house, where we will join together at last with David and all the people of God in singing the new song of the Lamb forever and ever.

 

*Augustine, Enarrationes in Psalmos 30(2).1.3. “He spoke our words so that we might speak his words.” The original Latin of Augustine’s second exposition of Psalm 31 is available here. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find an English translation online.

Image Credit: Supper at Emmaus by Hendrik Terbrugghen, circa 1621; http://the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=89555

Recognizing Almonzo

AlmanzoLrgEvery day, after the lunch dishes are cleared away and the baby and toddler are diapered and put down in their cribs, either my wife or I will sit down on the couch with our two older children for story time.

Our kids love story time. For me and Rebecca, it’s a joy to watch their imaginations expand as we share with them beautiful, powerful, and challenging narratives. We read from classic children’s books, a chapter every day, whether it be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or Alice in Wonderland or The Secret Garden.

Our kids have especially enjoyed the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Beginning with Little House in the Big Woods and stretching through several more volumes, this series tells the (mostly) true story of Laura’s own childhood in a pioneer family in the 1870s and ’80s. It opens up a fascinating window into life on the frontier as the Ingalls family settles successively in Wisconsin, Kansas, and Minnesota, before finally establishing a permanent home in DeSmet, South Dakota.

But one of the books is different. Farmer Boy follows the daily life of nine-year-old Almanzo Wilder as he goes to school, works on his father’s farm, and dreams of being a farmer himself. Though it also presents daily life in rural nineteenth-century America through the eyes of a child, it appears at first glance to have little connection to the story of Laura Ingalls. Neither she nor any other member of the Ingalls family appears in the book, and the action is set in upstate New York, far from the woods and prairies of the frontier.

Nevertheless, Almanzo’s place in Laura’s story is clear from the beginning. Even without reading the later books, in which the two of them do meet, we know exactly who Almanzo is. We have been reading a story about a little girl named Laura Ingalls written by a woman name Laura Ingalls Wilder. It doesn’t take a deductive genius to see that Almanzo Wilder is clearly destined to be Laura’s husband. Farmer Boy really is part of Laura’s story – even though she hadn’t even been born at the time of the events it relates.

Then there’s this other book series that our kids love. We read from it every evening after supper. It’s a much longer and more complex series, but just like the “Little House” books, it also tells a single, true story. Though it can be a challenge at times to make sense of some of the characters or individual chapters and books, it all starts to fit together once you recognize who wrote the story, and who it’s all about.

I’m talking, of course, about the Bible. Especially when reading the Old Testament, it can be easy to come away scratching our heads and wondering what it’s all about. Why should I care about an ancient genealogy? What is the significance of a violent conflict between people who lived centuries ago and whose names I can’t even pronounce?

While taking the time to read the text carefully and study the historical background can certainly help with some of these things, the most important step we can take in making sense of the Bible is recognizing that the Bible, like the writings of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is an autobiographical account. God is both the author and the main character of the entire Bible. And just as Laura’s story builds toward her marriage to the hero of Farmer Boy, the Bible builds to the coming of God’s eternal Son as a man, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David and Seed of Abraham.

When we recognize that the entire Bible is the story of God’s redeeming work through Jesus the Christ, we begin to see how all the characters, events, and themes of the Old Testament fit into that story. In the sacrifices of Leviticus, we see foreshadows of the true and final atonement of the cross of Christ. In the flawed heroes of Judges we see God’s pattern of raising up Spirit-empowered saviors for his people, and we learn to long for one who will not be in such obvious need of saving himself. In the stories of the escape from Egypt and the return from Babylon we find a promise of restored fellowship with God. In Moses and Aaron and David we meet prototypes of Prophet, Priest, and King which will find their perfect embodiment in Jesus.

Just like recognizing Almanzo as Laura’s future husband helps us make sense of Farmer Boy, so recognizing the Old Testament as the back-story to God’s saving work in Jesus helps us hear it as God’s word for us. As you read that word yourself or share it with your own family, may you hear his voice and find yourself caught up into his great and all-encompassing story.

 

Image credit: Almanzo Wilder, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1000355

Seasonal Family Devotional Bookmark

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A couple of months ago, I posted a series of devotional readings for Advent and Christmastide, which walked through the highlights of the Old Testament and the Christmas narratives from the gospels. Then, just last week I shared a plan for reading through the Gospel of Mark throughout the season of Lent, supplemented by messianic psalms on the Sundays throughout Lent and Eastertide.

And now, here’s a printable bookmark that includes both these sets of readings in a handy format you can stick right in your Bible.  I hope you find it useful!

Also, I should note that I shortened some of the Advent readings, since they were potentially taxing on kids’ attention spans. So, if you found them too long, you might prefer this revised version.

Walking with Jesus: Devotional Readings for Lent and Eastertide

On March 1st, many Christians around the world will begin observing the season of Lent, a period of forty days of preparation (not counting Sundays) leading up to the greatest day of the church year – the feast of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast begins yet another forty day season – Eastertide, which commemorates the forty days Jesus spent on earth with his disciples before his ascension into heaven.

stained-glass-1234424As with Advent and Christmastide, our family takes a break from reading through the whole Bible in our daily devotions to follow a special reading plan for Lent and Eastertide. Every Sunday throughout these seasons, we read a psalm that depicts the Messiah’s sufferings (during Lent) and victory (during Eastertide). In addition, on the weekdays of Lent we read through the entire Gospel of Mark.

Of course, unlike Advent and Christmas, many evangelicals are wary of Lent, and with some reason. For much of Christian history, Lent has primarily been a time of mandatory fasting. Because the Bible nowhere commands such a practice, the protestant reformers rightly championed the freedom of Christians to ignore the ecclesiastical laws prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent. Many of the churches that embraced their recovery of biblical teaching have thus downplayed or outright opposed the celebration of Lent.

I am in full agreement with this response to the imposition of extra-biblical requirements. After all, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration, or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17). This means that, while fasting is a good and helpful spiritual discipline, no one can tell anyone else when and how they should fast. Observing a man-made festival does not make one a better Christian or more acceptable to God than someone who does not observe it.

All that to say, I don’t think observing Lent (or Easter, or Christmas, or any other traditional festival) is required of believers. But I do think that it can be a useful tool. In particular, I and my family have found the preparation time of Lent to be helpful in underlining the importance of Easter. This matters, because Easter really gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s the fact that the date of Easter moves around in a wacky and arcane way (it depends on the calculation of “ecclesiastical new moons“) or because the birth of a baby is easier to incorporate into superficial religiosity than the death and resurrection of the Son of God, Christmas is a much bigger deal in our culture and our churches than Easter, which is much more central to our faith.

In our family, we treat Lent in somewhat the same way as Advent – a time of preparation. As with Advent, we light candles at dinnertime. Only this time, instead of lighting more candles as we draw near to the celebration of Christ’s incarnation, we begin with seven lit candles in the shape of a cross and then extinguish one each Friday, symbolizing Jesus’ willing laying aside of his glory and humbling himself unto death. Then, on Easter Sunday all the candles are lit again and continue to be lit each evening until Ascension. We also spread out the consumption of our Easter Candy throughout Eastertide to savor the joy of the resurrection. And, of course, we read the Gospel of Mark on the forty weekdays of Lent and Psalms on the Sundays.

We’ve been following this reading plan for the last few years, and we’ve really found it a great way to renew our focus on Jesus and to dig deeper as a family into knowing him through his word. Mark is probably the earliest and certainly the shortest and most action-oriented of the four gospels, and our kids really get into hearing the story of Jesus directly from the Bible. The readings from Mark are mostly fairly short (though they get longer during Holy Week), and I’ve endeavored to organize them into groups that reflect the structure and message of Mark. The Psalms are selected especially on the basis of their use in the New Testament as prophesies or foreshadowings of the Messiah. We would love to have you join us in this devotional journey, either as an individual or as a family. If you’d like to give it a try you can download it here.

It is my prayer that God would use his word to draw my family and yours into a deeper sense of gratitude for the person and work of Jesus and a greater joy in the salvation we have through his death and resurrection.

Image credit: matt coley, http://www.freeimages.com/photo/stained-glass-1234424

12 Guiding Principles of Pastoral Ministry

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In my last post, I described the “what” of pastoral ministry. This time around, I want to address the “how.” How does one faithfully fulfill the calling to shepherd God’s people with the gospel of Christ?

But first, one word about why this matters. I don’t usually write about being a pastor. That is because pastors as such are not my target audience; there are many far wiser and more experienced shepherds who are far more qualified than I am to advise other pastors on how to fulfill their calling. My purpose in writing is to help Christians in general grow in Christ.

That said, understanding what pastoral ministry is all about is important for all believers, because all believers are called to a life under the care of pastors in the context of the local church. Knowing what the Bible says about pastors will help you shape your expectations of your current pastors and evaluate potential pastors when you are looking for a new church or considering a new pastor for your current church. And seeing the challenges and temptations that accompany ministry will help you care for and pray for the shepherds God has set over you, so that you may reap the full benefits of their joyful service (Hebrews 13:17).

So, guided by Scripture and with an eye to the needs of the church today, here are 12 principles that guide my approach to pastoral ministry.

1. I am called to proclaim God’s word, not my own. Whether preaching on a Sunday morning, leading a Bible study, or counseling a struggling believer, my message must be thoroughly shaped by the word of God. I believe that the best way to ensure this in my public preaching is to derive both the message and structure of each sermon from a particular passage of Scripture. As a general rule, I prefer to preach sequentially through an entire book of Scripture so that my hearers receive not my favorite topics, but the full scope of the word of God. For this to be true, I must first be continually shaped by Scripture myself. (1 Cor 2:1-5; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5)

2. Pastoral ministry is only one part of a life dedicated to Christ. Before I am a pastor, I am a Christian. My most fundamental calling is to know and glorify God in Christ, not to perform pastoral tasks. This calling includes ministry to my own family and the community at large as well as receiving God’s blessings. I may not allow the demands of the pastorate to crowd out these other facets of my life as a follower of Christ. (Col 4:17; 1 Tim 3:5)

3. I am called to humble and unreserved dependence. This is Christ’s ministry, not mine. Apart from him I can do nothing, but he is able to do infinitely more than all I can ask or think through the power of his Spirit. The knowledge of my weakness should humble me and drive me to my knees, while the knowledge of his sufficiency should give me such confidence and faith that I serve in ways that can only succeed if he is present in power. (John 15:4-5; 2 Cor 4:7; Eph 3:20-21)

4. Pastoral ministry is a shared responsibility. The pattern of the New Testament church is to have a team of elders who work together as peers in the pastoral oversight of the flock under their care. I must recognize that my fellow pastors (including full-time, part-time and unpaid pastor-elders) share equally in the same God-given calling and authority that has been given to me. We are thus accountable to one another, to the congregation as a whole, and to Christ, the Chief Shepherd. (Mark 10:42-45; Acts 14:23; 20:17; Phil 1:1)

5. I am called to do the work of a pastor, not of the whole church. The role of a pastor is to equip the church for the work of ministry, not to do ministry in place of the church. I have not received all the gifts of the Spirit, and I am neither called nor equipped to do the work of the entire body. I must therefore resist the temptation to try to do everything myself and refuse the expectations of others that I usurp the tasks of others to the neglect of my own proper work. Instead, I must invite and seek out other people who are gifted to perform particular kinds of service to the body, while I persist in equipping the whole body with the gospel motivation and biblical worldview that will enable each part to fulfill its God-given function. (Acts 6:1-4; Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12:14-30;  Eph 4:7-16)

6. Our congregation is only one piece of the Church of Christ. Though God has given me the responsibility of serving a particular congregation, I must never forget that he has many more children outside our walls, both locally and globally. His purposes do not begin and end with our membership roster. Other gospel-affirming churches are not competitors, but partners in the same mission. We should thus be on the lookout for ways in which we can individually and corporately love, serve and commune with our brothers and sisters around town and around the world. (Rom 15:7-8, 25-27; 1 Cor 1:2; 14:33, 36; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 6:18)

7. We should prioritize church multiplication. I am called to pursue the growth of the church of Christ, not necessarily the numerical growth of our particular congregation. In fact, a church that is faithfully sending out its people to plant new churches and carry the gospel to the nations may remain relatively small. Often such growth through multiplication of distinct congregations rather than accumulation of members under one roof may actually be better for the long-term health of the church. Instead of holding on to the growth God gives us, we should rejoice to become least and last by giving our growth away in gratitude to Christ who gave up everything for us. (Mark 10:41-45; John 3:22-30; Phil 1:12-18; 1 John 4:9-11)

8. I am called to serve joyfully, not for selfish gain. Shepherding God’s people is a privilege, not a means to power, wealth or esteem. My motive for service must always be the joy of seeing Christ glorified in the salvation and growth of his people, not my own self-interest and advancement. (1 Tim 3:3; 1 Pet 5:2)

9. I must seek Christ’s approval, not man’s. While I desire to serve God’s people, he alone is my Master. Whatever others may think of my performance, what matters is whether my ministry is pleasing in his eyes. I must always define success in ministry in terms of faithfulness to his call. (1 Cor 4:1-5; 2 Tim 4:1-8)

10. Pastoral ministry is about caring for and equipping people, not performing tasks and building programs. My goal is not simply to complete my assigned tasks; I want to make the biggest possible impact for Christ in the lives of the people around me. The structures, systems and services of our church can thus never be an end in themselves; they exist for people, not the other way around. We must constantly evaluate our habits, structures and culture to ensure we are genuinely meeting the needs (though not necessarily the wants) of those we are called to serve. (Mat 7:21-23; 23:23; Mark 2:23-27; 1 Cor 9:19-22)

11. I am called to work diligently for the growth of the church. If I truly desire to make the maximum possible impact on the church and the community, I must labor faithfully and wisely in the strength God provides. I will need the discipline to persist in the tasks before me, the discernment to plan, strategize and prioritize in light of the big picture, and the wisdom that begins with the fear of the Lord. We must sow and water diligently, but he alone gives the growth. (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Cor 3:5-9; 9:24-27; Col 1:24-29; 2 Tim 4:1-5)

12. Pastoral ministry entails suffering and sacrifice, but leads to joy. The life of a pastor is not an easy one, but it is eternally rewarding. I should expect to face demonic opposition, rejection by the world, betrayal, disappointment, temptation and all kinds of challenges. As I carry the word of Christ to those who need to hear it, I must not be surprised to find that my experience reflects the pattern of the Chief Shepherd, who suffered and died before entering into glory. So I am called to endure hardship for the sake of the joy of serving my Master, looking forward to the day when I will hear him say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Mat 10:5-42; 25:21; Acts 20:28-32; Jam 3; 1 Pet 5:1-11)

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A Philosophy of Pastoral Ministry

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I feel called by God to serve him in pastoral ministry. So, over the past several years, I’ve spent a lot of time learning about and reflecting on the natural and purpose of ministry within the local church. Based on Scripture and guided by the helpful insights of those who’ve gone before me, here is what I think a pastor is supposed to do and be.

The Context of Pastoral Ministry

Pastoral ministry takes place within the particular divinely-appointed context of the church. A pastor does not minister in isolation; rather, he serves as one member of the body of Christ. Pastoral ministry thus cannot be understood apart from a clear grasp of the identity and mission of the church. I like to summarize this as follows:

  • the church is the new community of God’s redeemed people established in Christ Jesus and expressed in individual congregations which are all bound together in the unity of the Spirit;
  • this community exists to experience, express and extend to all people the amazing grace of Christ our Savior in the power of the Holy Spirit for the glory of God.

The work of a pastor takes place in the context of this new community and is directed to fulfilling this divine mission. Of course, this is true of every believer. We are all called to use our gifts to build up the body of Christ and make disciples. A pastor is just as loved and called by God as all his brothers and sisters – no more, and no less. Nevertheless, though a pastor is no more valuable to God, pastoral ministry does have a unique and crucial strategic role in enabling the church as a whole to fulfill its mission.

1 Cor 12; 1 Pet 2:9; Gen 12:2-3; Eph 2:6-10; 19-22; 3:10; Mat 28:18-20

The Purpose of Pastoral Ministry

Pastors are given by the Holy Spirit to equip particular congregations with the gospel of Jesus Christ for the growth of God’s church both in numbers and in maturity. A faithful pastor thus works and prays for more people to know Christ, and for people to know Christ more. These two aspects of growth naturally go together, for as God’s people see and know more of Christ and his saving work for them, their joy in their salvation will overflow into loving and effective witness to that salvation. The pastor’s continual task will thus be to proclaim the good news that God has responded to our sin and rebellion by graciously sending his Son into the world to become one of us, suffer and die in our place, and rise again so that all who trust in him may have peace with God and eternal life in his glorious kingdom.

Eph 4:7-16; Rom 1:15-16; Col 1:5-6, 19-29; 2:6-7; Acts 6:1-7

Responsibilities of Pastoral Ministry

As a shepherd of the flock of God under the Lordship of Christ, the Chief Shepherd, every pastor is called to equip the church for gospel growth through some combination of the following tasks:

  • Feeding the flock. The first and most important function of a pastor is to supply the flock with the life-giving food of the word of God. He must be able and faithful to preach the whole counsel of God rather than the doctrines of men. Because Christ is the center of all of Scripture, all preaching must feature the proclamation of the gospel. Because the gospel message of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is what gives and sustains spiritual life, this focus on the gospel must extend beyond public teaching to permeate every facet of pastoral ministry. Whether leading, tending or guarding, a pastor should always be proclaiming the word of Christ in dependence on his Spirit.
  • Leading the flock. Together with the other elders, a pastor is responsible to exercise wise and faithful oversight of the flock under his care. First and foremost, this involves exercising spiritual leadership of the congregation by pointing them toward Christ through biblical teaching and godly living. In addition, a pastor must labor alongside the other elders to discern the Spirit’s leading on behalf of the congregation in setting direction and responding to challenges and opportunities facing the church. When such matters should be considered by the congregation as a whole, the elders are responsible to facilitate the process of seeking the mind of the Spirit and to assist their brothers and sisters in making wise and biblical decisions.
  • Tending the flock. A pastor should pay careful attention to the spiritual needs of the entire flock under his care. As pastors, the elders should work together to ensure that each member receives spiritual care and direction, whether through one of the elders or through another trustworthy, mature believer. They should both invite and seek out the hurting, broken, confused and guilty and minister to them according to their needs. In particular, they should pray for and anoint the sick in the expectation of God’s gracious healing power on behalf of his children.
  • Guarding the flock. A faithful pastor will be aware of and ready to face the dangers that threaten the flock. The pastors must confront and rebuke sin, both privately and (when necessary) publicly as they lead the congregation in loving and honest discipline. They must also correct errors and refute false teaching, so that the church will not be led away from the truth of Christ. Above all, they must constantly watch over the flock in prayer, calling upon God to guard and protect his people from every attack of the evil one.

Mark 4:14-20; Luke 24:25-27, 44-47; John 21:15-17; Acts 6:2-4; 20:17-35; 1 Tim 3:1-7; 5:17; 2 Tim 3:14-4:5; Tit 1:5-9; Heb 12:12-15; 13:17; Jam 5:14-16

 

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