Not that long ago, a friend of mine who is church planting told me that one of the ministers in the church planting network to which he belongs told him, “You have to position yourself around guys who are excelling and who are well connected in order to get ahead in the church.” The minister was not saying this with any degree of criticism. I remember the deep sorrow I felt when I heard what this man had said to my friend. However, much to our shame, our actions reveal the sad reality that–in differing degrees and at differing seasons–we all think the same way. We all want to get to the top.
When our first parents stretched out their hands to take of the tree of which God commanded them not to eat they were seeking after a greatness that belongs to God alone. Ever since the fall, men have given the greater part of the time and energy to seeking to supplant others–and to propel themselves forward–in every area of life. There is a seemingly insatiable quest for greatness lodged deep within the sinful hearts of all men and women. We are often blind to the reality of it in our own lives. We might think that once we are redeemed by Christ this quest would be immediately eliminated, but sadly this is not the case. In order to help us examine ourselves, the Holy Spirit saw fit to include in the Gospel narratives a picture of it for us drawn out of the lives of the disciples. Consider the following ways in which Scripture teaches us how this insidious reality manifests itself in the lives of God’s people:
1. Seeking to Use Jesus to Get to the Top. There are three accounts that reveal this seemingly insatiable quest for greatness in the lives of the disciples. The first of these is found in the account of James and John putting their mother up to the task of asking Jesus to let them sit one on His right and one on His left in glory (Matt. 20:21; Mark 10:37). James and John not only wanted personal greatness, they sought to use the greatness of the Savior to get it. They were so subtle in their sinful desire that they put their mother up to asking Jesus for them, rather than going to him themselves. This reveals the sinister nature of the sinful quest for greatness that often lies in the hearts of believers.
The second is the seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus, “See, we have left all and followed You. Therefore what shall we have” (Matt. 19:27)? Peter was seeking greatness as a reward for what he viewed as personal sacrifice. Peter had convinced himself that he deserved a little piece of the greatness pie for having given things up to follow Jesus. Instead he should have said what Jacob said to the Lord: “I am not worthy of the least of all the mercies and of all the truth which You have shown Your servant” (Gen. 32:10).
Finally, it is seen in Peter’s statement to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. After seeing the inexpressible glory of Jesus on the mount, Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three Tabernacles–one for You, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Matt. 17:4). The Holy Spirit moved Luke to add the words “not knowing what he said” to help us see the great problem with Peter’s statement. Peter was essentially saying, “Forget about the other disciples; forget about Your need to go to the cross for the redemption of the world; forget about the mission for which you have chosen us to be messengers to take the message of Your substitutionary death to the world (interestingly the very thing of which Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah about on the Mount – Luke 9:31); we should just bask in our own greatness and personal privileges here with You, Jesus–together with Moses and Elijah.” While the worst part of Peters’ statement was His functional denial of the exclusivity of Jesus, the problem of the quest for personal greatness surfaced once again.
2. Asserting Ourselves and Our Gifts. There is another important account in the Gospel records that captures this quest for greatness. Just after coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus taught His disciples about His forthcoming sufferings (Mark 9:30-31). Immediately after telling them of His saving work the disciples are said to have argued with each other on the road (Mark 9:33). It was Jesus who drew out of the disciples what it was that they had been arguing about. Mark tells us that He asked them what they were discussing as they traveled. Matthew Henry helpfully observed that “Christ will be sure to reckon with his disciples for their disputes about precedency and superiority.” Instead of telling Jesus, “they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest” (Mark 9:34). The disciples were not interested in the Savior’s greatness, they were interested in arguing about which of them had more gifts and who would be rewarded the most for their labors. The quest for greatness flies in the face of Jesus’ sacrificial death.
Then there is the account of the disciples sinful desire for self-promotion juxtaposed against the background of the symbolism of the Savior’s selfless sacrifice in the Upper Room. No sooner did Jesus institute the Supper (Luke 22:14-20) and predict that one of the disciples would betray Him (22:21-22) that they began to argue with each other again about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24). The sin of self-aggrandizing is exacerbated by the initial response of the disciples to Jesus’ revelation that one of them would betray Him. With no interruption, the disciples go from “questioning among themselves, which of them it was who would do this thing” (22:23) to debating “which of them should be considered the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Instead of being humbled to the dust by the fact that Jesus had just acted out before their eyes what He would soon suffer for them, and, instead of being distrusting of themselves on account of Jesus’ warning, the disciples argued with each other about which of them was greater.
3. Teaming Up with Others to Get Ahead. There is also the subtle danger of latching on–with a party spirit–to others who are excelling in order to get to the top. This is perhaps the most common and subtle danger in our own day. It can fly imperceptibly under the name of “biblical fidelity” or “concern for good.” Often it manifests itself in men saying things like, “No one else is doing what we are doing,” or “We just want to be faithful to this aspect of minister as over against everybody else.” It can also manifest itself in someone pointing out flaws in others in order to exalt their own ministerial camp in the name of “excellence.” Such was the error of the Corinthians. They weighed the gifts and emphases of the various well known apostles and ministers and began to form factions in the name of one or another. Some said, “I am of Paul,” others, “I am of Apollos,” still others, “I am of Cephas,” and then the “Über pious” said, “I am of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4). The Apostle uncovers the root of this problem in 1 Corinthians 4:7 when he says, “Who makes you differ from another? And what do you have that you did not receive? Now if you did indeed receive it, why do you boast as if you had not received it?” It was not simply a liking of one style of preaching over another that was the issue–it was a quest to be superior to others, riding on the coattails of ministers who excelled in giftedness. The real problem was a sinful desire to get ahead of others.
There is one thing–and one only–that can quench this seemingly insatiable quest, namely, the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has always convicted and humbled me to think that all the accounts above are set against the background of the saving work of Christ. The greatest failings in the hearts of the disciples were, in each case, set in direct proximity to the remedy. Whether it was in their arguing about who was greatest immediately after Jesus predicted His death and resurrection in word and sacrament or in Peter’s statement on the Mount of Transfiguration where Jesus revealed who He was and what He came to do or in their seeking to team up with those who excelled in preaching Christ, the same insatiable desire for greatness clouded their seeing the One who excels all others and whose work is the most excellent of all works.
Nevertheless, the message of the cross is the only thing that can root out the desire for self-aggrandizing greatness. We must labor to return to Calvary every second of every day. When our hearts are gripped by the grace of God in the gospel we will seek to serve others rather than supplant them–to exalt Christ rather than exalt ourselves. Instead of using Jesus, asserting ourselves and our gifts or teaming up with others to get to the top, the cross teaches us to go low. Jesus teaches us the following principle: “If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35). The way up is the way down. May God remove from our hearts the seemingly insatiable quest for greatness and grant that we learn of our Savior and from our Savior this supremely important lesson.
This post was first posted at Nick’s blog and is posted here with permission.
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“What you really need is good news,” I told him. He didn’t understand. We had met time and time again and unbeknownst to him, he was trying to perform his way into the kingdom. “You can’t do that,” I exhorted, “otherwise you miss the entire point of Jesus and his performance on your behalf!”
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we all need good news. Not just good news, but better-than-anything news. News that announces something spectacular—like nothing you could ever imagine or fabricate. And until you recognize this need, you’ll be helpless. Like an engine with no gas, your life, without a constant barrage of Jesus-is-King news, will stall.
I often tell my congregation that I have 34 years left in my ministry here, and for those 34 years, you will hear the gospel over and over again, not because you don’t know it in your brain, but because knowing it in your brain isn’t enough. We must know it—I must know it—in our hearts, and in our hands. The gospel isn’t the starting point—it is the point. It’s the point of everything! And until we understand this truth, we will continue to be lured away, enticed by other false gospels that over-promise and under-deliver.
Martin Luther is reported to have said that he continues to preach the gospel each and every week because each and every week his people forget it. I’m sure he would include himself in this assertion because let’s face it, we’re all guilty as charged.
Because of this, I came up with five simple reasons as to why we need to hear about Jesus and his glorious gospel each and every day. “Give us Jesus” ought to be the rally cry of the church. Over and over again, our hearts should be yearning to hear the gospel again and again—like my two-year-old daughter begging for a “horsey-ride” on my back, let us go back to the truth that sets us free.
Give us Jesus and his gospel.
1. So Our Affections Are Stirred
Our emotions are impressed with many things. Whether a good movie, television show, football game, or shiny new Apple product, we love an emotionally stirring experience. We thrive on it. But what happens when those emotions become sour? What happens when we just don’t feel like worshiping Jesus and finding joy in him? What do you do when your affections are clouded with bitterness, jealousy, envy, and anger?
Jonathan Edwards is helpful: “Upon the whole, I think it is clearly manifest, that all truly gracious affections arise from special and peculiar influences of the Spirit, working that sensible effect or sensation in the souls of the saints.” It is the Holy Spirit that drives our affections towards gospel holiness and one of the means by which he does so is through gospel proclamation. We need it. Fighting for joy is absolutely that: a fight; but joy in him is absolutely worth it (Ps. 16:11). Only when old affections have been expunged by greater, far superior affections can we be free from idolatry. Give us Jesus so our affections are stirred!
2. So Our Identities Are Clarified
Whether it is a counseling appointment with a young man trying to understand what he should do with his life, or a newly-engaged couple looking for some premarital help, I am convinced that the root issue with all of our problems is an issue of identity. For example, no matter the marital issue, I can always trace the issue between the husband and wife back to the problem of a husband not being a biblical husband, and a wife not being a biblical wife. Identity matters tremendously.
If you think about it: sin is a loss of identity. When Adam and Eve sinned against God in the garden, they lost their identity as a covenant people with their covenant God. Subsequently, because of their transgression, their lives were marred by sin and ever since then, man, made in God’s image, has simply forgotten who he is in relationship to God. Everyone knows he exists (Rom. 1:20); however, the issue is identity amnesia.
Take the example of the pursuit of holiness. For the Christian, the battle of sanctification is a battle to be who you are. If you’re a redeemed saint, then act like one! Though we don’t have the time to get into this too far, the reality is, the indicatives of the gospel drive the imperatives of holiness. When we give ourselves to sin, we lose our identity—hence the need for the gospel. Again, and again. We need a reminder that we are freely justified in Christ to rest in him. Give us Jesus so our identities are clarified!
3. So Our Idols Are Uprooted
John Calvin once wrote, “The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.” Calvin was on to something. Every time we lose sight of the gospel it is because we have taken our eyes away from Jesus and placed them on an idol. Idols can be subversively deceptive, or they can be patently obvious. Either way, this side of glorification will undoubtedly be marked by a constant fight with idols.
One of my favorite quotes on idolatry and the gospel comes from Thomas Chalmers:
“The love of God and the love of the world, are two affections, not merely in a state of rivalship, but in a state of enmity—and that so irreconcilable, that they cannot dwell together in the same bosom. We have already affirmed how impossible it were for the heart, by any innate elasticity of its own, to cast the world away from it, and thus reduce itself to a wilderness. The heart is not so constituted; and the only way to dispossess it of an old affection, is by the expulsive power of a new one.”
This is brilliant. An idol cannot be uprooted by mere moral effort. It has to be uprooted and replaced by something far superior, namely, the gospel. And what better way to see an idol uprooted, than the goodness of the good news? The intensity of pain we feel when an idol is removed from us is directly proportionate to how far away we walked from belief in the gospel. If sin is trusting, confiding, believing and gaining identity from something other than God, then it follows that we ought to, through repentance and faith, trust, confide, believe and gain our identity in Jesus. Idols are destroyed when good news is heeded. Give us Jesus so our idols are uprooted!
4. So Our Covenant Is Kept
Whether we know it or not, the New Covenant instituted by our Lord is meant to be kept (it is, after all, a covenant!). Sometimes we do not often talk like this, mostly because in portions of our culture we’ve lost the key concepts behind covenant. Irregardless of unconscious ignorance, it is our duty—indeed it is commanded of us!—to “be holy” (1 Pet. 1:15-16; cf. Lev. 11:44). To be sure, Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30). However, we are still called to the covenant obligations of obedience. And because of the indwelling power of God the Holy Spirit, we can follow Jesus in obedience (John 14:21) because the law has been written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33; cf. 2 Cor. 3:6). How this happens is through the work of the Spirit leading us to truth (John 17:17) and glorifying Christ (the power of the gospel in us). You need to hear it, because the Spirit uses it to drive your obedience. Give us Jesus so our covenant is kept!
5. So Our Mission Is Spurred On
So having had our affections stirred, our identities clarified, our idols uprooted, and our covenant in check, what do we do? The answer? Make disciples. This is our mission. The gospel is news, therefore, it should be proclaimed. Boldly, I might add. After all, Jesus has been given all authority—we need not fear! (Matt. 28:18)
If we do not continue to go back to the good news again and again, we will lose sight of our identity, and purpose. The gospel is the engine that drives the mission! Without it, we are lost. Again and again, we need to hear, see, believe, experience afresh, enjoy and understand the good news of Jesus’ work on our behalf: his virgin birth, his perfect life under the Law of God, his perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures (including Israel’s story!), his substitutionary death, his resurrection, his ascension to the throne, and his current mediation—this is our gospel! Let it spur us on to do his work. Give us Jesus so our mission is spurred on.
“I have stored up your word in my heart,” the writer says, “that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11). The issue is not just hearing the gospel, but marinating in it as well. Whether proclaimed from the pulpit or shared over a cup of coffee, the gospel must take center stage, because we do not want to sin against God. When it is stored in our hearts and minds, we get all of the benefits mentioned above. But the ultimate benefit is that we get God. We need the good news because we need God. May all of us be immersed in the gospel of our Lord, Jesus Christ!
 Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 1 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008). 267. (Emphasis in the original).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2008), 55.
 Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection. (Minneapolis, MN: Curiosmith, 2012), 19.
A number of years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend who has a fairly substantial public ministry. We were discussing the issue of motives in ministry and the perception of opportunism among ministers. Knowing my own sinful heart and mixed motives within, I said to him, “I suppose it would simply be better not to use social media or to speak on conference circuits at all.” My friend wisely replied, “If God has given a man gifts and things to say to build up the church and to speak to a generation that is listening and that needs to hear solid teaching and preaching, why wouldn’t we seek to use our gifts as broadly as possible?”
That being said, I have observed a somewhat disturbing trend among ministers in recent years. If a man posts links to his own sermon audio, things about the church he pastors or to books, articles or posts that he has written then he is often painted by the social media police as being driven by self-aggrandizement, opportunism and desire for celebrity status. Judging the motives of others is an extremely spiritually unwise and unhealthy practice. The Scriptures say, “Let another mouth praise you and not yourself,” not “Let another man post links to your sermons, books and writings and not yourself.” We need to guard our hearts against sinfully judging the motives of those who do. In short, we must guard against setting ourselves up as self-appointed social media police. Judging the motives of others is an extremely spiritually unwise and unhealthy practice. The Scriptures say, “Let another mouth praise you and not yourself,” (Proverbs 27:2) not “Let another man post links to your sermons, books and writings and not yourself.” We need to guard our hearts against sinfully judging the motives of those who do. In short, we must guard against setting ourselves up as self-appointed social media police.
Martyn Lloyd-Jones once voiced the opinion that audio recordings of sermons were a “peculiar and special abomination.” Ironically, if it weren’t for audio recordings we wouldn’t be able to listen to Lloyd-Jones sermons and to learn from one of the greatest preachers of the modern age. Additionally, if it hadn’t been for cassette tapes we wouldn’t have the enjoyment of hearing him make such a ridiculous comment in his 1969 Westminster Theological Seminary lectures on “Preaching and Preachers!” While I understand that Lloyd-Jones was seeking to highlight the primacy of “real presence” in preaching–and agree with him that the God ordained medium is the personal presence of a preacher interacting with a congregation by a monologue proclamation of the Gospel rather than a video or audio recording–I have to insist that to write off this medium wholesale as a “peculiar and special abomination” is shortsighted at best. Similarly, judging others for their use of social media is shortsighted at best as well.
There is an old man/new man (flesh/Spirit) principle that will most certainly help us move forward in a Christ-honoring way. The new man rejoices when the Gospel is proclaimed on social media–even when there is a suspicion that the person’s motives are driven by pride. The old man disobeys Scripture and judges others motives in propagating truth on social media–before the time (1 Cor. 4:5).
The way forward is the way of constantly reminding ourselves of the following:
I need God’s grace in the Gospel to continue transforming my mind and heart to make me less judgmental of the motives of others. I need God’s grace to help me focus on my own motives. I need my own mind and heart renewed by the Scriptures and the gospel. I need to ‘judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each one’s praise will come from God’ (1 Cor. 4:5). I need love “to cover a multitude of sins” (Prov. 10:12). I need to be happy that others are preaching Christ even if it was with wrong motives (Phil. 1:18). I need to rejoice with those who rejoice–which means rejoicing when God uses others in greater or different ways than He seems to be using me (Romans 12:15). I need to remember that it is God’s grace that enables some to labor more abundantly–and in different settings–than others (1 Cor. 15:10). I need to realize that zeal is not coterminous with self-aggrandizing pride. I need to seek to remove what should appear like a log from my own eye before I seek to help remove what should appear only as a speck in the eye of my brother (Matt. 7:3).
Additionally, I would suggest that there are at least six reasons why ministers should continue to seek to use social media wisely:
1. The Church is Listening.
As a pastor, I cannot tell you how much it rejoices my heart to hear congregants tell me that they have benefited from a blog post by Tim Challies or Kevin DeYoung. I rejoice to know that they have gleaned something from a solid theological podcast. I love it when I see them retweet a thoughtful spiritual Tweet. I am grateful to know that the people of God are seeking to utilize the resources he gives for their own spiritual growth.
Add to this the fact that I travel around the world and find that people in the church are talking about the same subjects and the same issues. The internet, for good or ill, has made the world and the church a very small place. This, in turn, has helped the church stay on the same page. I see this as a largely beneficial derivative of Social Media.
2. The Evil One is Working.
Like it or not, the members of your congregation are having their minds filled with any number of things that they are reading online. If theologically sound and thoughtful ministers pull the plug on speaking into the world of social media, be assured that Satan and the world will not pull the plug. Disengagement will be paramount to surrender. I, for one, am happy knowing that the members of the church I pastor can read good critiques, listen to good sermons and find good recommendations to solid material by following thoughtful minsters online. We are in a spiritual war–and much of it is being waged online. If ministers stop seeking to spread the truth of Scripture and the gospel through social media, the church would be leaving the marketplace of ideas and foolishly handing things over to the kingdom of darkness.
3. The World is Watching.
When ministers are connected to unbelieving friends from high school, college or the community via Facebook it becomes an opportunity for evangelism. Don’t underestimate the power of a thoughtful stream of gospel-centered articles, posts and audio. I have actually had unbelieving high school friends contact me and let me know that they have benefited from things I have written (Acts 2:37). One of my own unbelieving family members told my sister that she reads everything I write. I have also had an unbelieving friend attack me for things I have written (Acts 7:54). In all this, we must remember that the world is watching. The church should be using Social Media to hold forth Christ to a lost and perishing world.
4. Ministers are Connecting.
Ministers who use social media thoughtfully are helping build up other ministers online. Legion have been the times that I have read some thoughtfully crafted theological meditation in my Twitter feed which has, in turn, shown up in a sermon. Theologically sound works and citations are spread from one minister to another by means of social media.
Social media is especially helpful at special seasons. For instance, the days leading up to Easter Sunday always prove to be profitable Twitter surfing days. The plethora of quotes and thoughts posted by men who are giving themselves to a focused meditation on the resurrection of Jesus are invaluable for sermons prep. The same is true at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Furthermore, the thoughtful social commentary posted by ministers when some particular cultural event has occurred can greatly help to keep ministers better informed and to better inform their own parishioners.
Social media has connected ministers around the world in a way that never would have happened before its inception. Criticisms of faux relationships aside, I, for one, can attest to the fact that I have developed several very meaningful and beneficial relationships with men across denominational lines throughout the years on account of social media. Say what you will, but the church is better connected because of social media.
5. Families are Growing.
I often marvel at the fact that my children are growing up in a home where they hear a stream of sermons by Sinclair Ferguson, Eric Alexander, John Piper, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, etc. What a privilege to have the audio sermons of these men at the press of a button.
I am also thankful for the helpful parenting resources my wife and I find through Facebook and Twitter. While many lament the deterioration of the family in comparison with those godly homes of bygone ages, the family today has more access to helpful resources than ever before in the history of the world.
6. Future Generations Will Be Gleaning.
I often wonder what it will be like for my children and my grandchildren if the Lord tarries. They will–unless some unforeseen catastrophe changes the landscape–have access to the writings and audio sermons of most of the ministers who are alive today. I have often wondered what it would be like to have been able to listen to recordings of John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, John Bunyan, George Whitefield, etc. Reading a description about their homiletical greatness or nuances doesn’t do what hearing someone for yourself does. Future generations will be able to listen to and read from the annals of church history in a way that we have only begun to do so.
To be sure, there are great dangers with any media platform. A heightened danger of narcissism, pride and self-promotion all come with the use of Social Media. There is also the ever present danger of wasting time scrolling through massive amounts of noise and reading things that will never help us or anyone else. But, it also carries with it a powerful potential to spread the gospel and sound doctrine to a church that is listening and to a world that is being inundated with falsehood. Surely then, we want to see pastors using social media to God’s glory.
This post first appeared at Nick’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
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A few years ago I read a few books on the life of President Richard Nixon. I have always been interested in American history, especially Presidential history. I’m fascinated by the inside look at leadership at the top levels.
But the one enduring lesson I gleaned from Nixon’s life was his inability to forgive. It ruined his entire leadership. Since he lost to John Kennedy in 1960 in an election that was possibly stolen from him, he vowed to never let anyone steal anything from him again. So even as he won two Presidential elections convincingly, that wasn’t enough. He was convinced all kinds of people were trying to sabotage him. He couldn’t enjoy his success, because he led from bitterness. It’s something that has sort of haunted me since. And now that I have been a leader of a church, am a husband, and a father, bitterness is something I must keep a check on.
The truth is all of us get hurt and hurt deeply, often by people close to us. Often it’s out of nowhere and we are completely blindsided. What do we do with this? Well as Christians we’re commanded to forgive as Christ forgave (Matthew 7:12; Ephesians 4:32). I’ve learned that it’s not so easy. You don’t just hit the Staples Easy button and forgive. It’s a process that God does in you as you draw close to Him. It’s a work the Spirit does in you. It can’t be faked.
Personally I have found it important to be in the Word of God consistently and in tune with good Bible preaching. It’s vital to have God’s Word speak into your soul. It’s also important to surround yourself with other people who won’t let you grow bitter.
Often your friends who stick up for you will want you to sort of fight back and will give you all kinds of excuses to be nasty. These friends don’t help you much. It’s the friends who will listen patiently to you, who will hear your concerns, will be defend you if necessary, but will gently and sometimes forcefully remind you of the duty of a Christian to forgive.
The bottom line is that when we gaze at the cross, we see the effect of our own sin. We see what we’ve done to Jesus Christ. It’s infinitely worse than any abuse I’ve suffered. And yet God through Christ forgave me.
Leaders must model this. We must set the tone, not just in our preaching, but in our conversations. Do we try to continually recruit folks to our side? Do we carry a chip on our shoulder around with us?
As leaders, we are responsible for the cultures we create. And when we lead from bitterness, we create fear, enemies lists, and an overall sense of negativity.
Which is why we must constantly remind ourselves that bitterness destroys. It destroys our own souls and it creates unhealthy spiritual climates for those God has called us to serve.
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Many years ago, I had an employer who was intent on trying to provoke me with a variety of sacrilegious jokes and statements. Having just come back from visiting her parents over one Easter weekend, she told me how she had visited their church that Easter Sunday. What she said next left an indelible mark on my thinking about congregational singing for many years. She said, “What I don’t get is why you people don’t sing like you believe what you are singing?” She then told me that the congregation was sort of mumbling the words of the hymn, “I Serve a Risen Savior.” Rocking back and forth, she mocked this particular congregation by mumbling under her breath, “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today.” Without hesitating, I agreed with her and said, “It is terrible that those who say that they believe that Christ is risen don’t sing as if they actually believe He is risen. They should be singing their hearts out because He is risen.” This leaves us with the question, “If the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of His people to stir them up to sing God’s praises is one of the sweetest of all His works then why do so many congregants fail to sing with all of their heart in worship?” There are many answers to this question, but here are a few suggestions:
Much of the scriptural teaching about the beauty of loud congregational singing has been lost by the injuries that have been sustained by both sides in the worship wars. In many performance-driven congregations worship teams overpower congregational singing and the singing that happens is akin to the drowned out admiration singing at a concert. In more traditionalistic churches, a perceived abuse of experience in the performance-driven churches has fueled a pushback that results in a dry and lifeless singing.
Additionally, too many in our churches are overly self-conscious about what others will think of them if they sing too loudly or, at times, out of key. The messiness of congregational singing is part of the beauty of God using weak and broken people. While we certainly want to strive for excellence in how we sing to our God, the sound of a child singing extremely loudly or, even at times, out of key, is a sweet sound that brings God great glory (Ps. 8). If we would simply seek to sing with joy in our hearts to the Lord we would lose self-awareness and embrace God-awareness. We would not fear what others might think about our singing.
If we could step back and lay aside stylistic preferences and fixate on the place and power of congregational singing, we would come to understand how special and beautiful it is in the life of believers. After all, on the cross Jesus purchased not only believers, but also their ability to sing redemptive praises to God from the heart. Add to this what Sinclair Ferguson says about hymnody: “When truth gets into a hymnbook it becomes the confident possession of the whole church.” In short, the gospel enables and encourages us to take up theologically rich Psalms and hymns and to sing our hearts out to God. Here are five encouragements to enjoy this privilege and its benefits in the life of the Body of Christ:
1. Singing Our Hearts Out to God is the Fruit of Redemption in Christ. Proverbs tell us that “whoever sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on soda” (Prov. 25:20). Singing praise is a human experience that belongs uniquely to the realm of joy in our experiences. Nothing produces joy so much as the truth of what Christ has done for His people through His death and resurrection. This does not mean that we never sing songs of lamentation, but the Scriptures always move believers from sorrow to joy (see Psalm 30:5; 42:5, 11; 43:5, Ezra 3:10-13 and 1 Thessalonians 4:13). Throughout the Scriptures we read of believers singing “a new song.” This has unique reference to the work of the new creation procured by Christ through His death and resurrection and established in full through the New Covenant (Ps. 33:3; 40:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5:9; 14:3).
2. Singing Our Hearts Out to God is a Witness to the Gospel. The Psalmist prayed, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord” (Ps. 40:3). When Paul and Silas sang hymns in prison, people were converted (Acts 16:25-40). Just as my former employer mocked this church for their singing, and concluded that their singing revealed that they did not believe what they professed, so the opposite will be true. If unbelievers in our services on Sunday witnessed the unrestrained pouring out of the hearts of believers in praise they should be able to say, “There is something true and powerful about what God has done in the lives of these men and women.” No band or musical accompaniment can manipulate what God the Holy Spirit does through the heart-wrought praises that He enables His people to sing together to Him.
3. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Fuels Our Own Spiritual Growth. When I was a young believer, my best friend would teach me new hymns and choruses. This encouraged me to sing throughout the day–in the car, when I was walking around by myself, etc. As I sang the hymns and choruses he taught me, I meditated on the truths that I was singing. This, in turn, caused me to grow in my knowledge of the Lord and in my life for Him. To this day, there are times when I am struggling spiritually, or downcast or complacent. Singing quickens my spirit and causes me to grow in fervent love to the Lord. The Puritans would sometimes speak of singing yourself into a state of worship. Singing Psalms and theologically sound hymns renews the mind and warms the heart to worship because theologically rich hymns are “mini-sermons for the soul to sing.”
4. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Fuels the Spiritual Growth of Other Believers. As mentioned in the previous point, my best friend’s singing aided my spiritual growth. It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul charged the church with the following words: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God” (Colossians 3:16) and “be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Eph. 5:18-19). Singing with other believers is a means of grace whereby we teach and admonish each other.
5. Singing Our Hearts Out to God Makes War Against our Enemies. We tend not to view what we do in worship as spiritual warfare, however so many of the songs in the Old Testament were songs of victory penned immediately after God had given His people victory over their enemies (e.g. Exodus 15:1-18; 15:21; Judges 5; 1 Samuel 18:7) and sung by the people as they were gathered together. What better way to make war against Satan and his host of enemies than by singing God’s redemptive praises in light of His defeat of them. When Paul and Silas started singing hymns in prison, God sent a earthquake to release them and the spiritual chains of the jailor. In this way, Paul and Silas made war against the enemies of God and the church (Acts 16:25-40).
So, believer, sing your heart out to God whenever you are gathered together with His people to worship Him. Make a joyful noise–even if you fear that it will be more noise than sweetness–to our God! “It is good to sing praises to our God; for it is pleasant, and a song of praise is fitting” (Ps. 147:1). After all, our Father is enthroned on the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3).
This post first appeared at Nick’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the calling of a Christian communicator. This could be your duties as a writer, whether blogs or books or articles. Or it could be your task as a preacher or teacher, whether in small group, pulpit ministry, or classroom.
To communicate the truth of the good news of the gospel, in any form, is a high privilege and a sober calling. I’m always mindful of James 3, which outlines the seriousness of the calling and the negative and positive effect of the words we craft.
So I came up with five resolutions that we might consider:
1) I will communicate well to serve others, even if I never become famous. To seek a wider audience is not wrong. Ambition, properly exercised under the Lordship of Christ, is not evil, and is good. But it may be God’s will that my books never reach the NYT bestseller list. It may not be God’s will that I become a popular conference speaker and pastor a church in the Outreach top 200 list. God may be more glorified in my obscurity and I need to be okay with that, if after my best efforts, I achieve only a small modicum of what we call success. Regardless of the size of my audience, I’m called to fully exercise my gifts. I’m called to serve well those God has called me to serve.
2) If I do achieve fame, I won’t become an entitled jerk. If the Lord does grant me “success” or “fame”, will I leverage that to fulfill my own desires or will I use that to better serve others? God does indeed grant fame and fortune to some. The test is, “What will you do with that fame?” Will I become a diva, a star, a demanding selfish man who sees himself as above the rules? Or will I stay humble, soft, sensitive, serving? I must resolve now to refuse the entrapments of fame that sink so many men and women. I must not view others as means to my own satisfaction and pleasure. I must value relationships above advancement. I must not overly personalize criticism and own my ministry to an extent that I see people God loves as enemies instead of friends. I must forgive easily and repent quickly.
3) I’ll carefully weigh every word I speak or write, all to the glory of God. Will I leave a body of work I can be proud of? Will I never forget the exalted position I hold? Will I do one more tiresome edit to ensure that I’m communicating clearly? Will the words I write and the sermons I preach have lasting value? Will others be able to read them, years hence, and still find nuggets of gospel gold? I must approach sermons and books and articles and blogs less as a job to be done and more as brushstrokes on a canvas. I must endure that one more edit to ensure I’ve said what the Spirit has led me to say. I must avoid being flippant in the pulpit, lazy at the keyboard, overly casual in conversation. I must pray, as Paul did, for increasing clarity (Colossians 4:3-4).
4) I’ll never stop learning. Whatever success I gain, I must not regard that as confirmation of my own brilliance, as the end of the road of wisdom. I must stay humble. I must stay teachable. I must realize that the more knowledge I gain about God and His world, the more there is to know. I must not allow my mind to grow soft and unchallenged. Will I consider myself the expert at everything and thereby shut off the flow of wisdom? Or will I consider myself, always, to the end, a student, a learner, a pupil at the feet of Jesus? Will I continue to read and grow and learn and stretch? Or will I allow my own flawed opinions to grow hardened and calloused over time?
5) I’ll never lose the awe and wonder of communicating for God. To write or speak or teach or even whisper in the dark about the unsearchable riches of God’s grace is a high and lofty privilege. Nobody owes me a platform. Nobody owes me a book contract or pulpit or teaching position. Every new opportunity to minister is a privilege. The gift I’ve been given is not one of my own choosing or making, it’s been granted by God and can, at any time, be taken away. Any work of art I create should point, not to me, the simple intermediary, but to the Creator who designs the artist and commissions the art. May I never think that my life was my own idea, that my work was my own genius. May I always bow in humble gratitude to the One who formed me.
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