Monthly Archives: October 2016

The Gospel attracts

“Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Him.” (Luke 15:1)

Jesus is attractive! And Jesus is the Gospel, remember. He is God’s message. In this our Lord has been grossly misrepresented. He is wrongfully portrayed, frowning disapprovingly, the holy God who hates sin. That much is true – He does hate sin. But He is not the God of the frown. He is the God of the warm, open-hearted, beckoning smile, for He has dealt with sin. He did so, once for all, through the cross of Christ. When He looks at His world, He does so to save, not counting humanity’s sins against them. These were credited to Jesus’ account.

c0qcsmwIt’s also good continually to remind ourselves that this world is His world, and He loves it. He created it, and He is its Redeemer. The Lord does not labour under the same sacred-secular divide we do. He loves all men, and does good to all. He sends rain on the righteous and on sinners. All good gifts come from Him, and He does not limit them to His children. God is good to all, for God is good. So it was that the grace of God, which saved us, touched our lives long before we ever placed our confidence in Jesus. We’ve all observed the way in which children exhibit profound, unfettered faith. You and I were once that child. Like most others, you and I in all probability were educated out of that faith, this through the influence of others and the messy business of just living. Yet, again and again along the way, we were also the beneficiaries of the prevenient (going ahead of) grace of God.

Coming to faith in Christ is a personal journey. While there is most often a clear moment of believing, there is also almost always process involved. For some the journey is shorter and sharper, the Gospel heard and believed, but for others it is a long and protracted one. The very idea of being born again helps us to understand this, for spiritual realities are reflected in the natural realm for the benefit of our insight. When the proud parents announce that their baby was born at 05h15 in the morning, they are not implying that everything took place in a moment. We know that the moment of birth was the culmination of many months, starting with conception, through gestation, and finally the rigours of labour.

j8rxvtJesus is the way to the Father. The Gospel – good news about good God and what He has done – is empowered by the Spirit to unfurl this attractiveness to men and women the world over, no matter who they are, or what their circumstance might be. Jesus is a suitor who woos His bride. Be sure, the Jesus-way is a narrow road, for it is an exclusive one – no one comes to the Father but by Him – yet at the same time it is the broadest highway imaginable, for our Heavenly Father desires that all men be saved. It is a road without condemnation, disapproval, rejection or demand. No toll fees to be paid. No strings attached. No obstacles to be overcome. It is the easiest thing imaginable to come to faith in Christ, for God has made it so. Were it at all difficult, then many, if not most, would be excluded. Rather than difficult and obstacle-ridden, the way to the Father is by grace alone through faith alone. It’s Good News Boulevard, a highly incentivised pathway, for along it can be found provision, healing, deliverance, acceptance, restoration, opportunity, mercy, loving-kindness, and much, much more besides. These are there for the taking, for Christ has given all, and He asks nothing in return. The mystery is how, in so doing, we are won heart and soul, and will give anything back to Him in return.

It is therefore not ours somehow to make Jesus attractive or appealing by the way we do church or share the Gospel. Neither is it ours to make Him relevant in any way. He is attractive and He is relevant. Our challenge is not to distort the unconditional beauty of Perfect God, who is Love itself, in our bearing witness to Him.

One of the surest signs that we’ve moved away from the Gospel is that we are no longer attractive to sinners. It happens all too easily. Our Christianity inadvertently becomes about ourselves, and more about what we’re doing, than about Jesus and what He has done. It’s a subtle shift, from Jesus to Jesus plus – Jesus plus prayer; Jesus plus worship; Jesus plus evangelism, revival, holiness, our church, or some other vision – good things all, but before long, religiosity begins to rear its ugly head.

Jesus plus can be very popular with some Christians. At times they’ll flock in droves, even travelling great distances for it. Not that there is anything inherently amiss in events that are by Christians for Christians about secondary matters. It’s just that these should not be the dominant norm. They should not define, let alone consume us.

farfalle-notturne-4561Surely it is obvious, to the point of being self-evident, that Christians and churches should be like Jesus – magnets to sinners and repellent of Pharisaic self-righteousness. Sinners can sniff out a fake a mile off. Being attractive to sinners is not something you do, it’s something you are! The Gospel is more than something you believe; it is something you embody. You do not as much have it as it has you. If the Gospel has you, ministry flows, to believer and unbeliever equally generously. None of us has anything better to offer another than Christ and His perfect work. Embattled saint or rebellious sinner – both find hope and life in Jesus. Any local church that gets to grips with this will have no problem filling their building. Their gatherings will be condemnation-free zones, and their singing, preaching and prophesying all about what Jesus has done. These gatherings will likely be a bit messy, pleasingly reminiscent of the crowds around Jesus. To fix this is to lose it. To love unconditionally is to partner with God in the bringing to salvation those for whom He died. New Covenant discipleship is teaching people to love and trust Jesus. As we shall see, it is He who transforms lives.

Like moths to a flame. This is the Gospel!

Adapted from the e-book “Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever!” by Gavin Cox

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The Gospel informs

tragic-jesus-crucifixion-pamela-johnsonThe first thing that the Gospel does is inform. It tells people who Jesus is, what He did, and why He did it. It conveys the facts.

“How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14)

As it does so, it addresses any number of things that folk are confused about. Given the amount of trouble in our world, people are surprisingly ignorant of the fact that the mess we’re in is not God’s fault. As we share the Gospel with them, they discover that He is good, and that His intentions towards us are good. They also learn of His plan of salvation, and they learn that it is a free gift already given to them, no strings attached.

imagesAccurately conveyed, the Gospel has been appropriately described as the greatest story ever told. The ability to communicate it precisely, creatively and skilfully, is within reach of everybody. This is thanks to the fact that the Jesus story is a story that the Holy Spirit just loves to help tell. It’s also all been couched in picture-language and story-form, remember. And besides, every good gift, random kindness, or incident of unmerited favour speaks of it. When you understand this, luck and coincidence cease, and are replaced by a serendipity whose architect is Grace.

Right at the centre of it all is Jesus, last Adam, who identified with our humanity in any and every way. Consider the following: Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, and so was effectively born to a single mom. He was adopted and raised by his step-father. His birth was to a relatively poor family, and in a stable. He spent a part of his early childhood in exile, for His were a subjugated and oppressed people. During His relatively short life He experienced significant loss (His cousin John was unjustly executed), and He was consistently misunderstood. He was also misused, the needy extracting from Him without thanks or concern for His well-being. Then, having done nought but good, He was wrongfully accused, unjustly condemned, and brutally executed even though clearly innocent. Alongside injustice of every kind, He endured frenzied and seething hatred, riotousness, imprisonment, mocking, horrific beatings, public humiliation, betrayal, abandonment, deprivation, loneliness, fear and shame. He died destitute, and even tasted separation from God as He became a sin offering.

cross-211989_640During His lifetime Jesus consistently embraced the marginalised, aided the poor, delivered the bound, and healed the sick. He touched lepers, engaged prostitutes and adulteresses, and dined with tax collectors and sinners of all kinds. He held and blessed babies, stepped over cultural divides, and even had time to engage the thief crucified alongside Him.

The five major metaphors of salvation underline all the more the degree to which Jesus identified with humanity in all of its frailty. In the law courts of heaven those who were once guilty are justified; in Christ they are declared not guilty. Through the cross of Christ those who were enslaved to satan, sin and flesh find their freedom. Those once imprisoned are redeemed, ransomed, set free. Jesus was tempted and tested by the devil. Enticed and opposed, He triumphed. The serpent (satan) bruised His heel (the crucifixion), but Jesus crushed his head (total defeat on every front). Christ is the victor in whom any embattled man or woman can find victory. The cross breached every divide. In Christ, God and sinner are reconciled, and because of this reconciliation, every other divide becomes reconcilable. Thanks to the cross even the worst of our enemies might yet be our friends. Furthermore, Jesus taught us that meaning in life is found in the will of God. For this we were created, and to this we are saved. Everyone has purpose, for accidental pregnancies are a reality, but accidental children are not. All of us are the work of His hands.

electrifying-jesus-crucifixion-pamela-johnsonThe oft-overlooked crux of the matter is well illustrated using a sci-fi analogy. Should we finally discover life on another planet – let’s call it Zork – then the best way by far to establish relationships with the Zorkians would be to travel to Zork as a Zorkian. Jesus laid aside the glories of Heaven and became another Adam. Just like us, He came to us, and so we can understand Him, for He understands us. His identification with us even enables us to understand the ways in which He is different from us, for example, His sinlessness and righteousness, because they are in direct contrast with us and ours. And, thanks to His identification with us, He is well able to explain the things of Heaven to us in ways we can understand.

Anything and everything provides a starting point for sharing the Good News of the Gospel. The good things, that reflect His grace, and the bad things, which attract His compassion and mercy. At every point of celebration, we joyfully give thanks to God, from whom all good gifts come. He is willing and able to bless, and not so only for the deserving. A baby born or promotion earned; reason both for words of gratitude or a prayer of thanks. And no matter the adversity, we can sensitively tell of our God, who understands. He is able to comfort, for He identifies.

Herewith something of a postscript thought of exceptional consequence in this day and age: When God tells us that He hates divorce, He makes the statement as a divorcee. The Scriptures are clear that He issued unfaithful, wayward Israel a certificate of divorce, and that He has bound Himself to the bride of Christ, a second wife if you will. His heart towards divorcees is compassion, not judgement; He knows their pain.

cross-666948_960_720The facts about Jesus – who He is, what He did, and why He did it – inform life on earth of the realities of Heaven, no matter the circumstance at the time. The Gospel reveals Jesus. Simple as that!

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The power of the Gospel

The Gospel is the power of God for salvation!

“I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.  For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Romans 1:16–17)

1This glorious Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection is not passive, but active. It works. It does stuff; it accomplishes things. It’s also not just that the Gospel can be powerful when put to appropriate use, for example by powerful preaching or testimony, or when accompanied by confirming signs and wonders. The Gospel is powerful all on its own without any of these very good things attending it. Stand-alone, the Gospel is powerful! It is the power of God for salvation. It’s glorious to partner with, and it certainly makes good use of our gifts and callings, but the Gospel all on its own is able to save, for saving is its purpose, and save it does.

EarthGlobeAfrica.tif.746x600_q85The creation account helps us to understand. God the Father decreed; He spoke by the Living Word, Jesus; Holy Spirit did the work. Will, Word and Works, and there you have it – the Trinity in glorious synergy bringing something out of nothing. Into the dark, formless void that was, Father decreed, and that which was Spoken was accomplished by the Spirit, who was to be found brooding over the project to do all that was willed. In exactly the same way, salvation in Father’s will, through and in Jesus, and by the Spirit. When the Gospel is proclaimed, the Good News and the Spirit work together in creative synergy – Will, Word and Works – their sublime redemptive poetry, joyfully engulfing, loving, and saving, just as choreographed to do before time began.

GerminationJesus Himself made the same point very simply when He described the Gospel as a seed. Fertile seeds are powerful things, containing everything necessary for maturity, including life, thanks to their ingenuity in design. The whole oak is in the acorn. In the same way, the freedom and fullness secured for us in Christ is in the Gospel. Jesus crucified, died, buried and raised – such a tiny seed – yet therein lies every provision and every victory, sufficient for everyone who believes, and in an abundance befitting eternity. Just as fertile seeds can lie dormant for decades before conducive conditions facilitate germination, in the same way the Gospel shared can patiently await its appointed time. Like any seed, harvest depends upon the soil into which it’s sown, but scant harvest on occasion in no way reflects upon the perfection of this seed. On the contrary, just as we’ve witnessed plants of all kinds breaking through paving or rock, the Gospel produces exceedingly abundantly above expectation, again and again, even in the most adverse of circumstances.

Both Jesus and Paul demonstrated their confidence in the power inherent in the Good News in a rather noteworthy way. Both encountered self-appointed ministries whose motives were questionable, and neither sought to put a stop to them. Both knew that the Gospel was well able to look after itself. Good motive or bad, the power of the seed remained unchanged.

picture1This blog post sets up a series of a further ten posts, each expanding on what the Gospel does. It works wonders; awesome wonders. The Gospel bears fruit; plentiful, abundant, lasting fruit. The Gospel does all that the Lord designed it to do. It is ever so worth our while teasing out the richness of the Gospel’s power, so as to better to understand, admire, appropriate and communicate it. The beauty is that the Gospel doesn’t justify or redeem or reconcile or …; it justifies and redeems and reconciles…. Where one stops and another starts is of little consequence, for the colours, flavours and facets (pick the metaphor you most prefer) work off and into one another in magnificent, enriching, enhancing and compounding splendour.

downloadContemplating the Gospel in this way is comparable to gazing into the night sky. It will always be breathtaking, and there will always be more to see. This is the nature of the infinite. Describe what you see in terms of planets, stars or galaxies, whichever you prefer, for magnificent remains magnificent, even when perspective shifts. My prayer is that this exercise in Gospel-gazing will whet your appetite for a lifetime of exploration. Together we will forage on the fringes of the inexhaustible, exploring the limitless bounds of the revelation of our Lord that will keep us captivated for all eternity.

Adapted from the e-book Why the Gospel is the Best News Ever! by Gavin Cox

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A broad multi-laned highway

i-80_eastshore_fwyThis is the fifth and final in a series of posts documenting the paradigm-altering revelation that has fashioned my understanding of the local church, and of the Gospel that shapes her. All five revelations came as one-liners from the Lord. Read about the first four here: Open the windows and doorsPreach the New CovenantDon’t fence the waterholeNo flags.

The fifth one-liner came in ways just as dramatic as the other four. Having settled in my spirit over a period, a visiting ministry sounded it out by giving it to me word for word over dinner, having received it for us as a word from God: “The Lord is building a broad multi-laned highway here”.

Bear in mind that at this time we were going through some significant challenges as a local church. Before all was said and done our list of trials maxresdefaultwould include two church splits, with the second precipitated by relationship-ending ultimatums from the family of churches of which we had always been a part. We were numerically and financially devastated, disorientated and displaced, and focused on little more than survival. With all respect to New Yorkers, we referred to the meltdown as “our 9/11”, and thought about rebuilding as from “ground zero up”. All we had was the foundation of the New Covenant, which is indeed all you need.

Traditional wisdom in that kind of situation was to get back to basics. A metaphor gleaned from the corporate world expresses it well: “Get the right people on the bus”, and “get the right people in the right seats”. In other words, get the vision clear and build your team accurately, playing to strengths. This is sound leadership advice for any performance-orientated environment: Do it, and everyone will know where you’re going, who is who in the zoo, and what needs to be done, by whom, and why. This was how we had done things in the past, and the only way in which we knew how to operate as a leadership. The only problem was that it was not a good fit with our freshly adopted New Covenant paradigm, which was not performance orientated. We’d been through an extreme makeover, and our Christianity was simply no longer about what we needed to do, but about what Jesus had already done!

How profound then is a “broad multi-laned highway”. What this one-liner did was change leadership’s role from vision generating and casting to facilitating vision. From then on the “vision” for the church no longer lived in the hearts and minds of the leaders, but in the hearts and minds of the people. Everyone was to be encouraged to do the good works prepared by God for them to do. Nothing more; nothing less. These were the vehicles that would populate the highway.

32093299-tropical-fruit-mix-stock-photo-fruit-fruits-vegetablesThis has all been an extraordinary game-changer. We’re as supportive as we know how, and have watched as the Lord thrust our congregation into service. Some have changed jobs. Others have adopted children. A few have started NGOs. A number have volunteered for service in these NGOs, and in other organisations like them. Folk are reaching out to others. They’re caring for immediate and extended family in new ways. There are those that are approaching their jobs, businesses, recreation and art with new eyes. It doesn’t matter what the good work is; the important thing is that it is God-given and done in faith.

This “doing the good works prepared for you to do” is the only significant point of accountability amongst us, and presupposes necessary accountability in character underpinning the outworking. Momentum is gathering all the time, even though we as a leadership have done little to create or sustain it. Congregants are treated as responsible for their own lives, well able to hear God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and appointed for good works in Him. Treating them in this way has made the Gospel to be the self-fulfilling prophecy the Lord crafted it to be. It saves, transforms, enables and deploys.

tmbspnbfClarity about this has simplified church life no end. The preaching encourages folk in the fullness and freedom that is theirs in Christ. They then hear the Lord and get on with it, following the Spirit, with us providing pastoral support, coaching and mentoring as appropriate. “In the church” the children’s ministry runs itself. So does the worship team. There are also some small groups that are by and for the congregation, but these are few. Most of the activity is “out there”.

From a church leadership point of view this “broad multi-laned highway” is something of a two-edged sword. The great positive is that as a leadership you’re living the dream. Congregants take responsibility for their own lives, have their hands full of kingdom business, and are fulfilled in life, call and destiny. The down side is that their time, energy, gifts and resources are directed to the coalface of their endeavors, and there is little left for doing church in traditional ways. On any given Sunday morning (not to mention midweek) a number of the congregation are “out there” doing the good works prepared in advance for them to do, which means that they are not “in here” making church better. The net result is a very fruitful local church that masquerades as a loose and disorganised affair that is not very successful at all. Unless you know what to look for, that is!

13781279-transportation-icons-set-stock-vector-vehicles-icon-truckAnd so it is that a broad multi-laned highway continues to form. On it are vehicles of all descriptions, driven by congregants of all ilks. Some are very committed to us as a local church. Others are pretty much passing through. Some are small single-seater ventures; others veritable buses that need “the right people on the bus” and “the right people in the right seats on the bus” in order to get where they’re going. Each is legitimate in its own right.

It might be helpful, in conclusion, to mention a few of the essential adjustments necessary in our leadership paradigms in order to migrate from “bus” to “highway” thinking.  1. You have to get over your insecurities. Leaders are no longer in control, and personal loyalties no longer factor in the equation. Some members will even get serving in other churches while still considering yours their home. Deal with it. 2. If you want people to be healthy and productive, you have to place a high value on rest. If folk have families and are shouldering careers and ministries, they’re stretched. They are going to take Sundays off quite regularly in order to stay healthy. Get used to it. Attendance measures nothing useful in this environment. 3. As David taught us, those who stay with the bags get the same reward as those on the front lines (I Sam 30:21-25). Sometimes all people can do in life is hang on, and this can be so for an extended period. During these times they appear to contribute nothing. A New Covenant environment does not penalize or prejudice them in any way for a lack of performance. It’s Holy Spirit’s job to get God’s children fruitful. Make peace with it. All of that to say this: Fruit is fruit. In preaching the Gospel we after week, you pay attention to the root. The fruit comes, and is His business, not ours. The Father, not the elders, is the vinedresser.

jesus-walking-on-waterA final thought, and as a friend puts it: This New Covenant is an extraordinary and remarkable thing. It’s like being out of the boat and on the water. It feels insubstantial and transient, fragile and unpredictable. It’s easy to yield to fear and insecurity. Yet no surer foundation can be found, for we stand on the work of Jesus and the promises of God, all of which are infallible. And Jesus is quick to rescue us when our faith fails us. This is not about us. It is all about Him!

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No flags

flagpole-49506_640“No flags.” Another one-liner from the Lord, and this one as pithy as they come. As usual, I knew exactly what He meant. Since gaining numerical significance, the people of God have always carried tribal overtones within their unity. Jacob’s sons became the heads of twelve tribes, each with distinctives in character and calling. Benjamin, Levi, Judah – these are names with a great deal of meaning to anyone who has a handle on Old Testament history.

But problems arise when unity begins to fracture along these tribal lines. It is but a small step in the heart from Benjamin, Levi and Judah to “I’m of Apollos”, “I’m of Cephas”, and “I’m of Paul”. As Paul pointed out to the fragmented community in Corinth, we’re actually all of Christ, and this polarising stuff is counterproductive. The lesson is this: while we cannot avoid having distinctives, these should not define us. Christ alone does that. Some of our distinctives are primal, like skin colour and gender; others are nuanced, like doctrine and calling. No matter which, our carnal tendency is to quantify and categorise, define and delineate, and then associate and/or disassociate accordingly. The result is Christ divided; a house that crumbles. A fundamental error repeated over and over again.

So, no flags! No flags marking our allegiance to any faction of the church above another. And no flag calling for allegiance to this part of the church above another. Autonomous, inter-dependent local church – nothing more; nothing less – under the responsible government of it’s Biblically appointed eldership, and relationally connected to the important trans-local gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, pastor and teacher. Nothing could be simpler or clearer.

b9317967944z-1_20150704151929_000_gohb8pva9-1-0Yet walking in this has been challenging in the utmost. The reason is not that other church leaders don’t understand or disagree with the position. Rather, it’s regarded as some sort of lofty idealism. Consequently, the Lord’s church is so divided along the lines of it’s respective distinctives, that it has often become the purveyor of a its respective brand of Christianity, more so than of the Gospel. Just gather with other leaders. The first question typically goes to who you’re “under”. For me this question raises something of a red flag (excuse the pun), because you soon discover that you’re welcome everywhere on a superficial level, but nowhere on a significant level. Unless of course you subscribe to the finer points of the distinctives of the brand in question.

To state this is to state the obvious: The New Testament church was one congregation, many apostles; not one apostle with his many congregations. Again, to state the obvious: Paul’s reference to some who he had raised up as sons was descriptive, not prescriptive. If the shoe fits, wear it, but let’s not insist that everyone dons our preferred brogues. All that does is corrupts and weakens the gene pool by incestuous inbreeding. Why should everyone we invest in undergo some sort of DNA transfusion in order to become just like us?

The flag issue ultimately addresses ownership. It is my strong conviction that the church, and by that I mean the local church, belongs to Christ. The Scriptures are clear on local church structures – elders and deacons; with elements of episcopal, presbyterian and congregational approaches, dependent on context. Any structures that emerge between these autonomous local churches and the glorious eternal church are man-engineered. They may facilitate health and mission, but they arise out of pragmatism (us) rather than Perfection (Him). Let’s hold onto them lightly. And when they begin to define us in ways that supersede our identity in Christ, let’s jettison them in haste.

Every local church has distinctives. These is nothing wrong with that. But so strong is our need to define ourselves by association that even a flagless local church runs the risk of becoming part of some no-flag movement, where flaglessness becomes the defining characteristic, and where like good teenagers, we all non-conform together in identical ways. See above, and count us out.

downloadOne last thought, and I include it simply because I encounter it so often. My resistance to defining alignment within the wider body of Christ is not because I’m hurt, bent and buckled. It seems there are those who resist relationships of depth and accountability because they are wounded, and it is true that living rogue doesn’t produce much by the way of good fruit. But I’m not rogue. Neither are many others who share these convictions. And we are walking in, and healthily desirous of, trans-local relationships of depth and accountability. We’re just not prepared to become card-carrying movement members, for doing so would have us perpetuating an exclusivity and elitism that needs to be flushed out from amongst the people of God, and not reinforced and entrenched.

imagesSo it is that the proverbial flagpole rises high above the roof of the building in which our local church gathers on Sunday mornings. Around us, any number of believers, and more commonly leaders, eye its vacant tip with considerable perplexity, and at times more than a little disdain. We know this because they agitate about it, and subtly raise the matter with us again and again; and at times not so subtly. But long may it so remain, and soon may those whom it bothers come to see that it really is OK. For a flagless flagpole does not default to a Jolly Roger (the skull-and-crossbones, and pirates ahoy!), or half-mast (another failed church and perhaps a building for sale). If it defaults anywhere, it’s to a white flag, and this part of the body of Christ unwilling to be at war with the rest of itself.

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