Tuesday, November 6, 2012

What Happens When the Church Loses its Gospel-Centered Focus

Several years ago I had the pleasure of attending arguably Evangelicalism’s premiere seminary, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, for two years. One of my professors there, who would dramatically impact my life, was Old Testament scholar Willem Van Gemeren, author of the book The Progress of Redemption. It was in that class that God would reveal to me the hermeneutical key that would unlock my understanding of the Bible and the mission that it outlines. As a result of this newfound revelation, I began to read the Bible in light of God’s unfolding, overarching drama of redemption. I discovered that there was a thread that was woven throughout Scripture, an overarching story, as it were, that unfolded beginning with God’s perfect creation, then the Fall, and finally God’s plan for redemption. Everything written after Genesis 3 would outline God’s great plan of redemption, and central to this plan, of course, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Since the Gospel is the central theme in God’s redemption plan, the Gospel must then be properly defined. According the Graeme Goldsworthy,

“The gospel is the event (or the proclamation of that event) of Jesus Christ that begins with his incarnation and earthy life, and concludes with his death, resurrection and ascension to the right hand of the Father. This historical event is interpreted by God as his preordained program for the salvation of the world. The gospel centers on what God did for us in the incarnate Christ in order to save us from sin, the devil and death. Its goal is the new creation where the people of God redeemed by Christ will enjoy the presence of God for eternity. The gospel is what we must believe in order to be saved. To believe the gospel is to put one’s trust and confidence in the person and work of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. To preach the gospel is faithfully to proclaim that historical event, along with the God-given interpretation of that event."

Thus, in the climax of God’s redemption plan, Jesus atones for sin, satisfies God’s wrath, and provides victory over sin and death. It is the gospel, or good news, that redeems fallen man. This idea should be central to forming the Church’s overall mission. What happens then, when the church loses its Gospel-centeredness? When the church fails do read the Bible and define its mission using a gospel-centered hermeneutic, failing to make the gospel its central focus, many defects begin to emerge. Below are five defects, but many more could be added.

1. Transfer Growth Defines Success- Transfer growth becomes the defacto ultimate goal, where success is determined simply by numerical growth. If a church is continually adding new people and the finances roll in, a church is deemed to be successful. Yet, when this happens, there is an important measurement for growth that is absent – conversion growth. Every church must ask itself this question: Is the church participating in God’s plan of redeeming lost people to a holy God? If the answer is no, how in light of God’s plan can that church be seen as being successful? Perhaps most troubling is that many times that church intentionally draws saved people by appealing to that segment of the population, but fails to reach out to the lost. If no one is in heaven at the end of the day because of that church, I am afraid that their success is only a mirage.

This is the first installment in a series of blogs that deals with the ramifications of failing to be gospel centered. Other pitfalls that I will address include the gospel of moralism, a distortion of missions, pragmatic preaching, and the justification of divorce.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Puritans and Revival

What do you think when you hear the word revival? Some believe it to be dramatic manifestations of God’s Spirit, while others see it has God’s sovereign act to bring people to repentance. This theme has been a continued theme since our nation’s inception. The theme of revival can be attributed in great part to the Puritans. This quest for revival began when the Puritans were still in England, eventually bringing this emphasis to America in the beginning of the seventeenth century. Men such as John Winthrop would lead a group of Puritans to America from England. However, before setting sail to America, Puritans attempted to reform the Church of England, but failed. They sought greater purity of doctrine and worship, thinking that the Anglican Church, because they embraced many Catholic ideas, had become corrupt. This reform was met with much resistance from the Church of England, which included intense persecution. Consequently, Puritanism was shaped, in many ways, by those trials and tribulations that they faced at the hands of the mother country. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and these experiences caused the Puritans to seek reformation by seeking personal revival.

Hungry for Revival

They became hungry for revival. They wanted so much to see God revive the Church of England and reform it. If you have ever been in a church that is in unfaithful to its witness and were desperate to see God move, you probably understand the Puritan mindset. To them, reform and revival were synonymous. While in England and later in America, one of the Puritan motivations for reform was to create an ideal society, a sort of Christian Utopia. They wanted to create a society that glorified God by becoming the model Christian culture. To aid in this reform endeavor the hearts of the people had to be changed. This meant that their hearts needed to be made right, and the way to do this was for God to bring personal revival. However, as several decades passed trying to bring about reform in England, the Puritans realized their dream to bring about such reform would never happen so they decided to set sail for the New World and pursue those goals there.

The Puritan story, then, is a revival story, as J. I. Packer points out, striving for a “spiritually renewed nation”, a theme that is still prevalent in America today. Revival as he sees it is “a work of God by his Spirit through his word bringing the spiritually dead to living faith in Christ and renewing the inner life of Christians who have grown slack and sleepy.” Revival thenceforth brings a dramatic change in the lives of God’s people as well as the places they live. This was the Puritan vision. Their understanding of revival was much different from the contemporary talk of revival that permeates today’s church where hyper emotionalism rules the day with little change expected in the heart. The Puritans viewed revival as a heightened awareness of sin leading to truly repentant hearts; it is where a joy fills the believer’s soul, and a deep, permeating love for God becomes evident to all. This theme was reflected in a great part of their writings.

John Owen

In every great move of God there are key people who emerge to define the movement. When we think of the time period where early church fathers were center stage, people like Augustine come to mind. When we ponder the Church during the middle-ages men like St. Anselm and Thomas Aquinas are usually at the top of the list. Similarly, when we think of the Puritans, John Owen, the famed church leader and theologian during the Puritan era, should always be in the conversation, particularly when speaking about revival, as he delivered volumes of sermons and writings that pertained to this topic.

The way God shaped him in a story in itself. This deep sense of personal connection to God was birthed out of tragedy, enduring the hardship of having eleven children with only one of them surviving beyond adolescence. The one daughter who did survive would die later in Owen’s home after she endured a failed marriage and moved back to live with her father. Such experiences would have crushed the spirit of lesser men, leaving them embittered and detached. Owen, however, didn’t succumb to such temptations but overcame them with divine assistance. Such experiences shaped him into a powerful man of God who wielded much influence.

His writings reflect a call to revival. One example of this call is his focus on the wickedness of the human heart and man’s continual need for repentance. Issues such as this are dealt with in such works as Sin & Temptation: The Challenge to Personal Godliness and my personal favorite, The Mortification of Sin. Other revival subjects that were reflected in his writing are a call to intimacy with God in his book Communion with God. This work reflects the kind of person that Owen was, a man exhibiting a good balance of intellectual rigor, devotional piety, and a pastor’s heart, a rare combination of strengths. The power of the gospel is yet another theme that is reflected in his writing, particularly in the works entitled The Death of Death in the Death of Christ and The Divine Power of the Gospel. These works are only a sampling of the many works written by the Puritan divines.