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Five Warning Signs: Have you abandoned your first love?

In a short letter to the church in Ephesus, Jesus told them, “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (Rev 2:4).

1. What does it mean to abandon your first love?

It means that at one time in the past you had greater love than you do now. You aren’t necessarily running on a completely empty tank, but you’re on fumes. That original fullness of love has been diminished.

Think back to your conversion and the kinds of spiritual experiences you had at first. Maybe your had some poorly formed understanding of the gospel, not really a developed knowledge of God. Yet while the mind wasn’t fully informed, the heart was beating fast, passionate.

For me that early period was my high school and college years. I was excited about discovering new things about the faith. I stayed up late nights in my room reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology and any book by John Piper I could find. I memorized Scripture. We had a group of guys that met each week and read books together and kept each other accountable for growing in the faith and prayed together. We were going to downtown Madison to talk about the gospel with university students. There was vitality and zeal.

You can probably think back to some of those early formative experiences in the faith. Maybe some of you are going through that period right now. It’s like a budding romance, the honeymoon phase, the newborn. And Jesus says that first love should be our always love. And so we have to honestly ask…

2. How do you know if you’ve lost it? How do you assess that? Here are five warning signs.

Warning sign #1 is that you talk about spiritual growth in the past tense. When you think about transformative truth you’ve learned, or dominating sins you’ve defeated, they aren’t recent things. Maybe God has done some amazing things in your life, but that was in prior years or decades. If you aren’t learning new truths and taking new steps in following Jesus, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #2 is that you have a hard time loving others. You’re easily irritated with those around you. Criticism of other people is a steady part of your conversation. Or when you think of those who disagree with you politically or doctrinally, all you feel is disdain and disgust. John says to you, “He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21). Or else he is a liar. You may be able to explain the Trinity with precision, but does your own family, or whoever you live with, do they really believe you love God wholeheartedly, and do they see that love reflected in the way you treat them? If you have a hard time loving others, then maybe your first love is long gone.

Warning sign #3 is that you can’t remember the last time you shared the gospel with a non-Christian. Christians can do all our evangelism in an echo chamber. We talk about doing evangelism but never actually do it. And that slowly morphs over time to the point that we love the fact that we’re right about the gospel and care little about the fact that others don’t know it. We have a zeal to be right, but not a zeal for Christ to be known. If you haven’t talked about Jesus with a non-Christian lately, maybe you’re low on love.

Warning sign #4 is that your love for the world is stronger than your love for the Father. John says, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15). God gives earthly gifts to be enjoyed. Paul said, “Everything created by God is good…and should be received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim 4:4). The question isn’t whether you enjoy earthly things, but whether you’re enjoying them more than God.

Warning sign #5 is that you are harboring some known sin. David’s secret adulterous sin with Bathsheba was corrosive to his love for God. He thought he could continue as God’s king without honoring God’s laws. When David finally repented of that sin, he pleaded with God, “Renew a right spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” A lot of people try to worship heartily on Sunday morning and harbor sin all week long. You can’t grip God and sin with the same fist.

3. How do you get it back? If you’ve lost your first love, how do you recover it?

If you have in your head an initial diagnosis of having left your first love, don’t ignore that thought. Paul says “the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal 5:17). What the Holy Spirit wants is the death of your sin. The Spirit’s interest revolves around revealing your sin, and leading you to put it to death. Don’t ignore that diagnosis if that’s what you’ve come up with.

But don’t go to self-condemnation over that either. Psalm 103 says that God knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust. Jesus was divine righteousness. We are dust from the earth. And God doesn’t expect divinity out of humanity. He forgives our failings and is sympathetic with our weaknesses. So don’t respond with neglect, but don’t respond with despair either. Instead, consider how to recover that first love. Here are five suggestions.

First, repent of known sin and reconcile where needed. Let’s go back to that known sin we were just talking about. We all know that there is a lot under the surface of life, and the reality is that we all are walking in forms of hypocrisy, where our belief is better than our conduct. But are you hiding and covering sins, or are you actively dealing with them, repenting? The Christian is not marked by perfection, but by repentance. And if your sin requires relational healing with someone, attend to it immediately. Love toward God grows along with love toward others.

Second, after repenting of sin, ask God for growth in love. Follow the example of David in Psalm 51, go back and read that passage, where after repenting from sin, he pleads with God, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation.” Where does love for God come from? Where do we go to get it? 1 John 4:7, “Love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.” To love God is a gift that he gives. Ask him, and don’t stop asking. Repent of sin, then ask God for growth in love.

Third, apply the gospel to yourself every day. A mature Christian is one who applies the truth of the gospel regularly to their heart and life. John Newton said the word that is most descriptive of the mature Christian is “contemplation” (Newton, Select Letters, 14). Because the mature Christian has tried to maintain obedience for a long time, and has realized the inevitability of our failure, and the insufficiency of our self-effort, and thus the absolute necessity of the forgiveness that is offered through Jesus Christ. And the more our self-understanding is shaped by the forgiveness of the cross of Jesus, the more we will love God and others. To have the “first love” is to be constantly aware of the forgiveness that has come to you through Jesus Christ. Apply the gospel to your sin.

Fourth, share the gospel with others. Remember, Jesus intended for the church in Ephesus to be a lamp stand (1:12, 20, 2:1). To remedy the loss of love, Jesus says, “remember from where you have fallen, do the works you did at first.” He calls them to renew their status as an effective gospel lampstand. Let your light shine before men that they may see your good works and give glory to God (Matthew 5:13-16).

Fifth, do all this as part of the church. This letter to the church in Ephesus addresses the church as a whole: “You all have left your first love.” We should each examine ourselves individually, but it is also true that just as you have individual flaws and virtues, so also your church has distinctive flaws and virtues that reflect patterns among its many members. Every Christian has to own the responsibility of their church as a whole. No one wants to be blamed for the sin of others, but here in Revelation the church is addressed as a whole. And so we must think not only of our own individual health, but also of the health of our church.

 

Seven Marks of a Healthy Church

The seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3 represent Jesus’ assessment of what was good and what was not good in these churches. These were actual churches in historical cities in modern-day Turkey (Asia Minor), but in many ways, these individual churches represent churches of all time. The virtues they demonstrated as well as the flaws that marked them are shared in common by churches of every age.

So we can take these letters together, and assess the health of our own church by what we find here. The overall themes are doctrinal fidelity, holy behavior, gospel witness, and sincere, lively love toward God. Any church could assess itself against the seven qualities that Jesus calls these churches to exhibit. Each point of assessment could be accompanied by a set of diagnostic questions to help determine the church’s state of health.

  1. Authentic Love (2:1-7, Ephesus). They were commended for rejecting false apostles, but critiqued for abandoning their first love. They had doctrinal fidelity without sincere love. Jesus calls them to correct this discrepancy in their church by pursuing authentic love which combined concern for doctrine with zealous affection for God.
    • Is our church high on doctrinal fidelity, but low on spiritual passion, especially in the form of witnessing of Jesus to non-Christians? Do new people tend to come to our church because of our doctrinal depth or because of our spiritual passion?
  1. Enduring Faithfulness (2:8-11, Smyrna). Jesus has only commendation for Smyrna. Because of their faith in Christ, they are materially poor, and yet they are spiritually rich. As slander, economic exclusion and persecution increased for them, Jesus calls them to enduring faithfulness. The need is for fidelity in the midst of oppression.
    • Is our church prioritizing faithfulness to Jesus over acceptance in society? Where dominant cultural trends are at odds with the Christian faith, are we maintaining a counter-cultural stance?
  1. Pure Teaching (2:12-17, Pergamum). In some ways, the church in Pergamum was the opposite of Ephesus. Pergamum was holding fast to Jesus amid extreme opposition, and yet they were permitting false teaching in the church. Jesus calls them to repent and remove the false teachers from the church. Jesus calls them to pure teaching.
    • Is there any teaching in our church that does not align with Scripture, but we aren’t dealing with it because it would be too difficult, or we’re afraid it might hurt feelings?
  1. Holy Separation (2:18-29, Thyatira). Jesus commends them for being full of good works, but rebukes them sharply for tolerating sexual immorality as well as pagan idol worship. Jesus calls them to separate themselves from every form of idolatry and immorality.
    • Are we turning a blind eye toward members in our church that we know are indulging in various forms of immorality or blatant worldliness? What are some clear examples of worldliness that cannot coexist with faith in Jesus?
  1. Gospel Behavior (3:1-6, Sardis). Jesus commends a handful of Christians in Sardis who have been faithful, but he has nothing good to say about the church as a whole. They have not continued in living as faithful followers of Jesus. The letter is not specific about precise features of their unfaithfulness, but there are some clues that they have not continued witnessing the good news of Jesus Christ. Beale points out that if Christians in Sardis had “maintained too high a Christian profile in the city, they would likely have encountered persecution of various sorts.”
    • Does our church’s service in our local community reflect the gospel to anyone outside the church who observes us? If our church vanished from the city tomorrow, would anyone notice that we were gone?
  1. Bold Perseverance (3:7-13, Philadelphia). Jesus has nothing negative to say to the church in Philadelphia (as with Smyrna). Philadelphia receives a similar exhortation, but with a particular emphasis on continuing to speak of Jesus with others, even though they may feel weak or intimidated. Jesus encourages them continue in boldness despite opposition.
    • How frequently are the members of our church (collectively) speaking of Jesus to those around them? As society more broadly rejects theistic explanations of reality, how faithful are we in continuing to point others to transcendent truth as revealed in Jesus?
  1. Spiritual Vitality (3:14-22, Laodicea). Smyrna was spiritually rich but materially poor. But Laodicea is the other way around. They say, “I am rich and prosperous.” But Jesus says, “You are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked.” This church is on the verge of not being considered a believing community at all. Jesus says to them to beware of the dangerous position they are in, repent of these obvious patterns of sin in their faith community, and to renew their sincere commitment to Jesus.
    • Is there clear evidence that members of our church are regularly repenting of sin? What demonstrations of continuous renewal of commitment to Jesus do we see in our church?

Every one of these letters concludes with this exhortation: “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” These letters demand reflection that results in Spirit-empowered transformation, both for individuals and congregations.

The Two Values that Bind Americans Together: The Isolating Coherence of an Incoherent Culture

What are the shared beliefs or “values” that hold our society together?

I’ve just finished reading a sociological work titled Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, a collaborative effort by five sociologists led by Robert Bellah (University of California, Berkeley).

They highlight the central role of individualism in American life going all the way back to the analysis of Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America (1835 and 1840). Tocqueville wrote about the mores (cultural values) of colonial America, which he called “habits of the heart.” And it was Tocqueville that helped to give currency to a new word. “‘Individualism’ is a word recently coined to express a new idea,” he said. Tocqueville went on,

Individualism is a calm and considered feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows and withdraw into the circle of family and friends; with this little society formed to his taste, he gladly leaves the greater society to look after itself.

As the authors note, Tocqueville saw the isolation to which Americans are prone as ominous for the future of our freedom. They point out that individualism has a fragmenting and separating effect on society. As everyone pursues his own interest, society tears at the seams.

As they put it, the main question is “whether an individualism in which the self has become the main form of reality can really be sustained.” Is such a society sustainable? Their conclusion is that individualism develops into an incoherent society, “separation and individuation” become pervasive.

So they ask, “how is it that our culture holds together at all?” In the midst of incoherence, what common values hold us together?

  1. First, the dream of personal success, usually defined in material or economic terms. Whatever economic rung a person is on, they want to climb higher. This economic ambition is fed by television and media, which present a “consumption-centered version of the good life.” This is utilitarian individualism.
  2. Second, the portrayal of vivid personal feelings. This is expressive individualism, where the most important thing in life is to be true to one’s feelings. To accurately understand the self and effectively pursue the interests of the self in each situation or relationship.

But these two integrating themes of society are really “pseudo-integration,” not really binding us together but isolating us further as each pursues his own good but neglects societal good. As Matthew Arnold said in 1852, “in the sea of life ensiled… / We mortal millions live alone.”

Thus, the only two unifying narratives of American society turn out not to be unifying at all, but rather isolating. The values we have chosen to bring coherence actually bring further incoherence.

The sociologists not only critique, they also offer hope. Many of those whom they interviewed were hopeful, that “though the processes of separation and individuation were necessary to free us from the tyrannical structures of the past, they must be balanced by a renewal of commitment and community if they are not to end in self-destruction or turn into their opposites. Such a renewal is indeed a world waiting to be born if we only had the courage to see it.”

They envision a society that holds in balance the dignity and freedom of each individual, but also obligation to and participation in the wider community.

It struck me that the church should be a model of this kind of society. The church is a community bound together by an integrating narrative, the gospel. And around this narrative we affirm the role and dignity of the individual, as well as the necessity of the whole community and vital participation in it.

 

The Messiah in the Old Testament: Participant’s Guide

I’ve just finished teaching through a summer Bible study on the theme of the Messiah in the Old Testament. We studied the progressive development of the idea of messianic hope from it’s earliest form forward. Obviously in a ten week study we didn’t look at all the messianic passages in the Old Testament, but tried to select some of the most important based partly on how heavily the Jesus and New Testament rely on them. For instance, I included Isaiah 53 because by some counts it is alluded to over four hundred times in the New Testament.  Here’s the participant’s guide:

Messianic Hope – Participants Guide

I’m also happy to share my teaching manuscripts and weekly class handouts. If you’d like them just send me an email or leave a comment below.

messianichope

 

 

The Messiah From Isaiah to Revelation

Isaiah has at least eighteen direct messianic references.[1] And by some counts, Isaiah’s prophecy is referred to over four hundred times in the New Testament. J. Alec Motyer says, “The Isaianic literature is built around three messianic portraits: the King (chapters 1-37), the Servant (chapters 38-55) and the Anointed Conqueror (chapters 56-66).”[2]

One example from Isaiah’s portrait of Messiah as king is found in Isaiah 11:1-10.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.

Notice this figure is a king who judges with equity (vv. 3-4), destroys the wicked who oppose him (vv. 4-5), and will bring knowledge of Yhwh (v. 9). Then in verse 10, the idea of a shoot from the stump is repeated:

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

So Isaiah sees this messianic world-savior king as a root of Jesse; Jesse’s true offspring, the greater David. The tree of Israel has been chopped off in judgment so that only a stump remains. But from that stump a tender shoot comes forth. And what was Israel’s hope? “There shall come…”

“There sounds out from the oldest to the latest sources…the mighty ‘he comes’ (cf. Gen 49:10), ‘he appears’ (Num 24:17), ‘he cometh’ (Zech 9:9), ‘he is born’ (Is 7:14; 9:4), ‘he comes forth (11:1), ‘he comes forth (Mic 5:1), ‘he is raised up’ (Jer 23:5), ‘until he comes’ (Ez 21:32), ‘I will raise up’ (34:23), ‘I bring’ (Zech. 12:8), ‘I saw, there come’ (Dan. 7:13).” This continually recurring assurance that the Paradise-prince will come to destroy all enemies and judge even to the ends of the earth, forms the deepest core of the mystery—it is expressed by a single word in Hebrew, in English, “He comes.” It stamps the religion of the Old Testament as specifically a religion of hope.[3]

The ultimate answer to Isaiah 11 comes in Revelation 22:7, “Behold I am coming soon.” And 22:12, “Behold I am coming soon.” And again 22:20, “Surely I am coming soon.” And who is it that is coming? He identifies himself in 22:16,

“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright and morning star.”

Christian have a messianic hope still today. Certainly we have an advantage in the fullness of Scripture. We have not only Isaiah but also Revelation. But we can certainly understand the psychology of hope/anticipation that existed in Israel. Our worldview is not so very different from theirs.

We are still looking forward to a future world in which a world-saving king will reign, and will right all the wrongs, and will reverse entropy, and will establish harmony. All the things Isaiah wanted as Israel was on the verge of exile are the same things that we want and foresee as we are in the midst of exile.

And so the Christian ends where Isaiah points and Revelation ends, “Even so, come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20)

 

 

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, The Messiah in the Old Testament, 155-156.

[2] J. Alec Motyer, Isaiah: Introduction and Commentary, 13.

[3] B. B. Warfield, “The Divine Messiah in the Old Testament,” here he is both quoting and distilling Ernst Sellin.

Celebrating Many-ness: Abraham Kuyper’s “Pluriformity”

Diversity is a beautiful byproduct but an impossible end goal. Diversity must be built upon unity. Aspiration needs foundation. Within the church we should embrace diversity aimed at enjoying God, but reject diversity for it’s own sake. Outside the church, we can affirm the goodness of diversity but must insist that it may only be found by shared vision of the good life, based on a standard of real truth.

One the greatest evangelical thinkers on culture and diversity was Abraham Kuyper, a Dutch pastor, theologian, and politician between 1860 and 1920. In 1869, Kuyper delivered a lecture in Amsterdam titled, “Uniformity: The Curse of Modern Life,” in which he asserts that humanity strives for coherence and unity, though it is a counterfeit unity not oriented toward the Creator. Such was the unified rebellion demonstrated on the planes of Shinar where the tower of Babel was erected.

God’s Unity and “False Uniformity”

Kuyper begins the lecture by pointing to God’s creative work. “Unity is the ultimate goal of all the ways of God…one day by his will all dissonances will dissolve into harmony.”[1] The unity which is God’s ultimate goal is this: that all of his creation should acknowledge its Creator. Everything in the universe has its coherence in the Son of God. “In him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17).

Kuyper then shows that human history reflects recurring counterfeit efforts to achieve unity apart from God. This he calls “false uniformity.”

But as with counterfeit currency, the similarity is only in name. In God’s plan vital unity develops by internal strength precisely from the diversity of nations and races; but sin, by a reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity, seeks a false, deceptive unity, the uniformity of death. The unity of God is written in the blueprint of the foundations; the unity of the world is merely painted on the walls. The Lord’s unity is like the organic strength which holds together the fibers of the oak tree; the world’s unity is like the spider web which upholds tenuous tissues in between. Organically one or an aggregate, a natural growth of a synthetic formation, become or made, nature or art—there, in a word, lies the profound difference distinguishing the spurious unity of the world from the life-unity designed by God.[2]

Kuyper’s point is that human aspirations toward unity in the midst of diversity, apart from reference to the divine, are counterfeits that are bound to fail. Kuyper spoke with prescience to millennials.

The cries for brotherhood and love of fellow-man are but a slogan. Not fraternity but a false uniformity is the goal toward which its glittering images drive us.[3]

When diversity becomes an end-goal, then it becomes uniformity. There must be a coherent meta-narrative around which diversity structures itself. Many truths descend into no truth, and finally those who claim real truth are silenced. Those who resist diversity as an end-goal are not allowed to be diverse. They are excluded. This is the “reckless leveling and the elimination of all diversity.” Thus diversity becomes a human idol, the “ism” of multiculturalism, and it cannot sustain itself.

Pluriformity Rather Than Uniformity

What Kuper calls for is pluriformity. Pluriformity is diversity with a foundation. “The unity of the human family may only be looked for in its origin and destiny, never in the developmental phases it passes through on its way.”[4] Diversity needs a foundation for its fullest and freest expression. And the true foundation of diversity is unity toward God, life according to the design of the Creator. Or even if divine revelation is rejected, then the “theater of nature” itself implies the same reality.

The starlit heaven does not show us innumerable identical stars but endless groups of stars all different from each other. Precisely in this multiform distinction the beauty of the firmament shines. So it may not be assumed that God meant to have uniformity in his human world and that pluriformity arose as a result of sin…Moreover, the very fact that God created male and female proves conclusively that uniformity was not part of the creation plan.[5]

As the church seeks to affirm the cultural embrace of diversity, we must be cautious not to over-embrace. The church must never embrace diversity as the end goal. Rather, the end goal is to enjoy God and to worship him.

Outside the church, we see in broader Western culture a top-down push toward multiculturalism. Diversity is nearly a new religion. While we can affirm the rightness of diversity, we must offer the warning that diversity must be enjoyed within common commitments. Otherwise it will lead to fragmentation.For instance, there are places that are no-go areas for police in London because Sharia law is operative in those areas. Other areas are particularly Hindu, and those customs dominate and rule. So rather than the next door neighbor being Muslim or Hindu, instead what has happened is increasing segmentation.

Kuyper suggests a practical policy for the church and for the state. For the church, Kuyper says that in regards to the tension between unity and diversity, “I know of no other solution than to accept—freely and candidly, without any reservations—a free multiformity.” (39) He was speaking in the context of an established state church. Instead he envisioned free and autonomous denominations. For the state, Kuyper suggested strong national identity as opposed to all nations being pressed into the mold of one global form (he would have voted in favor of Brexit).

Further Resources

 

 

[1] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 21

[2] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 23-24.

[3] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 24.

[4] Kuyper, “Uniformity,” 35.

[5] Kuyper, “Common Grace in Science,” Kuyper: Centennial Reader, 445.

Vocation: Assessing Desires, Gifts and Opportunities

The question is often asked, “Am I called to vocational ministry?”

The Bible’s teaching about “calling” is primarily about God’s calling people to salvation and to walk in holiness. Romans 8:30 says, “Those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified.” So there’s the calling to salvation. And then Ephesians 2:10 says, “We were created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.” Compare that with 1 Thessalonians 4:3, “This is the will of God, even your sanctification.” Those two verses give us the call to good works. So when we talk about being “called,” we have to base our understanding of that term not in contemporary usage, but in Biblical usage. And the Bible fundamentally teaches that our calling is unto salvation and holiness.

It may be worth noting as well that the calling is rooted in God’s will. He predestined those he called. And he prepared the good works for them to walk in. His calling is rooted in his purpose. But that will or purpose is going to play out in some specific arena of life. Every Christian has been called to salvation and holiness. But that holiness is going to be lived in some specific context, a mechanic’s garage or an office desk, with three messy kids or lines of upset customers. And so we must further think about God’s specific calling for each individual. The question we all have in mind is, “What am I called to?” And that question is synonymous with the question, “What is God’s will for my life?”

When I was in college I asked a professor those questions, “Am I called to ministry and how do I know God’s will for my life?” And he gave me three points to consider—three ingredients that when mixed together then comprise a fair assessment of God’s will and calling. Here are those three points with some Scripture and comment on each.

First, consider what desires God has put in your heart. We often shy away from evaluating our own desires as if there is something inherently ungodly about considering what we want. But scripture doesn’t have that same hesitancy. Rather, scripture tells us, “Delight yourself in the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). This led Augustine to say, “Love God and do as you please.” In other words, if our delight is rooted in God, then the desires of our heart will generally be a good launching point from which to begin considering where God may be calling or leading us. The New Testament also confirms this when giving instruction for how to determine pastors-elders in the church, “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Now of course that statement speaks to the dignity and legitimacy of the office of elder. But it also speaks to the legitimacy of a person desiring a certain role and aspiring towards that desire.

So zoom out on this principle and let’s apply it more broadly than just the role of elder. When you’re considering where God may be leading you, what he might be calling you to, what his will for your life is—a good question to start with (after confirming you’re saved and walking in obedience—the fundamental callings) would be this question, “What has God given me a desire to do?” (Note: there are varying levels of desire, but is there something that rises to the surface in your desires, perhaps as the strongest desire you have? Pray that God would give you desires in a specific direction that you might know them and seek to follow the desires he gives). But desires alone don’t determine calling.

Second, consider what gifts God has placed in your hands. God has given gifts to every member of the church in order for each of the members to contribute according to the type of grace they have received so that as every member works together contributing their unique input, the whole body may be built up in love. Does that sound familiar? It’s not my idea; it’s straight from Ephesians 2:7-15. And the point is that members should serve according to their individual gifts with a view towards the benefit of others and the unity of the body (i.e. people aren’t trying to insert themselves in roles that they are not gifted to serve in).

Another text that provides sure-footing for us on this point is 1 Peter 4:10, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace.” In other words, God’s “grace-gifts” come in various shapes and sizes. Some are wired for public leadership and speaking. Some feel more at home with hospitality. Still others would rather be working and serving behind the scenes. There is a role for each. And the whole body is happiest when gifted people are serving in roles according to their gifts. This process comes by the grace of God, “in order that in everything, God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

Some practical advice on this point: don’t decide for yourself what your gifts are. We are prone to misperceive our strengths and weaknesses. Second point of practical advice: don’t rely on a spiritual gifts inventory assessment. Again, we are prone to misperceive ourselves, and most of these tests are just a matter of you answering questions in order to tell yourself what you’re good at. They are a guided self-assessment. Nothing more. And while self-assessment is good (it would be related to assessing your desires), it is also important to draw out and listen to the assessment of others, so that by their input you might more accurately perceive yourself. Ask your pastors and spiritual mentors what they see you doing well at. Ask them where you appear weak. Consider this also: what do people most regularly thank you for and tell you they’ve appreciated about you? The answer to that question will likely be a pointer to your gifting.

Don’t be satisfied with your own opinion on this. If your gifts are intended not primarily for your own fulfillment, but for the edification of the body, which is what Ephesians and Peter point to, then it is the body’s assessment of your gifts that is actually more important than your own assessment of your gifts.

Once you have determined your gifting, then you are in a better position to survey the possibility of God’s calling on your life. Especially if the desires of your heart and the gifting of your hands are strongly related to each other. But there is at least one other important consideration.

Third, consider what opportunities God has laid before you. Let’s say a guy wants to be a preacher, and he thinks he has the gift of preaching, but no churches are willing to offer him that role. Is he called? Well most people would say yes. In our evangelical culture, we regularly hear people talk about how they were “called to preach” at a certain age, like thirteen or even nine. However, it may be more appropriate to say that is when he first sensed the desire to preach, not the call to preach. Then maybe some time later he realized he had the gift of teaching—which would definitely indicate that he is moving in the right direction. But I would say that even then he is still not called—because God’s calling is always set in the context of serving the body.

Consider this example. Paul wrote Titus a brief letter about how to lead the church in Crete, and gave this direction, “This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained in order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you.” Now the men Titus appointed, they were called. This is clear because in addition to having the desire of 1 Timothy 3:1 (to be overseers), and the gifting necessary for the role (“able to give instruction in sound doctrine,” Titus 1:9), they also now had a specific context to exercise the desire and gift, that is, the church in Crete. They weren’t “called” until Titus “appointed” them for a specific role.

Again notice how the body functions in regards to opportunities. The individuals weren’t determining their roles and gifting alone, and then forcing themselves into certain realms of service. They were being appointed by the body. Consider how this pattern shows up in Acts 13 as well:

“Now there were in the church at Antioch prophets and teachers, Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen a lifelong friend of Herod the Tetrarch, and Saul. While they [the church] were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, ‘Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.’ Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”

Do you see how men who were recognized as gifted, were then called to specific opportunity by the body? This is a good principle for us to pursue when trying to evaluate calling, whether to gospel ministry in the church or not. In other words, there is a sense in which this divine wisdom is proverbial and thus applicable to consideration of any role or job. In America, we have great freedom to pursue jobs and careers (specific opportunities) that match our desires and giftedness (remember, this is a historical anomaly). But we would be wise to always seek input from the body in making these decisions.

Finally, it’s important to realize that each of these three considerations are essential to determining a calling. I can’t base my determination of God’s will on any one of these things. Desire alone doesn’t mean I should move in that direction. Giftedness doesn’t mean the timing is right. An available opportunity doesn’t mean you have the skill-set to meet the need. All three must be present, and you would be wise ask for the honest, candid feedback of others to determine if you are perceiving your desires and gifts accurately.

Further Resources: Called to Ministry by Edmund Clowney (concise, 1976); Decision Making and the Will of God by Garry Friesen (comprehensive, 1980).

How to Study the Bible: A Ten Step Approach

 Here is the short version of the ten steps, then explained more fully below. This approach is from Grant Osborne. (Other great resources are Kay Arthur’s How to Study Your Bible and How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart.)

  1. Outline the book as a whole
  2. Line diagram of a specific passage
  3. Grammatical study based on line diagram
  4. Semantics study: meaning of key words based on context
  5. Syntactical study: what is the relationship between the words, phrases and ideas in the passage?
  6. Historical background: what internal evidence is provided about the original setting?
  7. Genre: OT narratives, poetry, prophetic, apocalyptic, NT narrative, epistle
  8. Historical interpretation: how has this passage been understood throughout church history?
  9. Doctrines: what doctrines are taught in this passage; what other parts of the Bible teach the same doctrine?
  10. Homiletical synthesis: what is the significance of this text for Christian living and for the church?

As I sat at my desk this morning I opened my Bible to Hosea 1 intending to read chapters 1-7. In this process there were two primary entities (though I’m tempted to include my coffee as a third). Those two entities were the text before me (Hosea) and me the reader. The writer Hosea and his mind are no longer present; the only record we have is this text he left behind.

My interaction with this text unfolds in a dynamic that Grant Osborne describes as a hermeneutical spiral, by which he means the movement back and forth between the reader and the text, leading to a probable understanding of the author/Author’s intended meaning. This process culminates in the reader’s understanding of the passage for the current context and significance for the church.

This back and forth between text and context is the essence of the hermeneutical spiral, and assumes the reality that the interpreter approaches the text with “pre-understandings.” The reader comes with his own language, culture, and assumptions to the text. The spiral describes the process by which the text challenges those pre-understandings and reshapes the mind of the interpreter, who then engages the text again with a new point of reference based on the text itself.

Osborne points out that this spiral occurs throughout the interpretive process, a process that he outlines in ten steps. These steps progress from inductive study to deductive study, from the exegetical to the theological.

  1. The first step is for the reader to outline the book as a whole, in order to understand the broad intent of the author in writing. This allows for clarity in understanding any particular portion of the book or letter that has been written.
  2. The second stage then narrows attention to a particular passage, completing a line diagram of that passage. A diagram of the passage allows the interpreter to identify the individual linguistic elements of the passage.
  3. The third stage is then a grammatical study based on the line diagram, in which the relationship between various phrases is explored. Here the interpreter could be looking for transitional words such as “and,” “but,” “yet,” “neither,” “thus,” “therefore,” and other words like these, which signal the nature of the relationship between the concepts before and after the word. The goal of grammatical study is to identity flow of thought. How are the various small thoughts in this passage linked together to fit within the author’s broader purpose?
  4. The fourth stage of the process is a semantics study (“semantics” is the study of word meaning). This zooms in still further to the individual words of the passage. What do the significant words in this passage mean? Here Osborne points to the significance of context, believing the meaning of any word is found in the congruence of two factors: the semantic field (possible meanings of a word) and the immediate context in which the word is used.
  5. The fifth stage is syntactical study, evaluating the order and relationship of words and phrases. This moves beyond grammatical study in terms of precision, based largely on the new understanding gained in studying word meaning.
  6. The sixth stage is to reflect on the background in which the text was produced. What internal evidence does the document give as to its author, purpose, location, and audience? This historical material will often shed further light on the intended meaning of various explanations or exhortations the author provides.

These first six stages comprise “general hermeneutics,” which could be applied in a “scientific” sort of manner toward any text. They are not unique functions of biblical hermeneutics.

  1. The seventh step begins to address the Bible in particular. This step will involve the process of biblical study and theology. Specifically, the interpreter will want to begin by evaluating the genre of the book in which he is working. It has been pointed out that genre establishes the rules for the language game. In order to interpret sensibly, one needs to understand the type of literature he is handling.For instance, when interpreting Hebrew poetry, a student will want to give particular attention to the feature of parallelism, how the lines are linked together and what the relationship between these pairings might be. When reading narratives, it is important to identify the various characters and to evaluate how they are each portrayed. Their actions and outcomes may form the theological lesson that the author has in mind. Apocalyptic and prophetic literature rely heavily on symbolism, imagery, and symbolic use of numbers. Interpretation must allow for symbolism to function as a literary feature without demanding a woodenly literalistic understanding of these symbols.Beyond genre, the student of Scripture will want to evaluate biblical theology, how the Bible develops theology from the Old Testament into the New Testament. How are the testaments related to one another generally? How does a particular New Testament writer employ quotations or observations from the Old Testament?
  2. The eighth step moves into the realm of applied hermeneutics, beginning with an evaluation of the way in which Christians have understood the text historically. Are there key debates the church has had regarding how to interpret this passage? What doctrines has the church historically understood to flow from this passage? An especially helpful tool for this step is the Scripture index in Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg R. Allison.
  3. This sets up the interpreter for the ninth step, which is a study of particular doctrines that the text addresses (systematic theology). This sort of evaluation will help the reader place a particular passage within the teaching of the Bible as a whole. How do the concerns of this passage fit with similar or apparently contrasting concerns in another passage?
  4. These nine steps prepare the interpreter of Scripture for the final homiletical synthesis of all the material. The main question in this tenth step regards the significance of the text being studied for the current church context and Christian living. Thus, Osborne describes the spiral as a meaning-significance model, where the meaning of the passage as intended by its author yields the significance of the passage for the church today.

The interpreter has not reached his goal until this tenth step has been finished. This is where the interpretive process culminates. As has been said, the goal of hermeneutics is the sermon, meaning that interpretation is aimed at understanding the way the passage challenges the Christian in a contemporary setting. The sermon is aimed first at the reader and then at the congregation that the reader might address.

The spiral motif is helpful in that it points out the dynamic relationship between the reader and text, encouraging the interpreter to seek the confrontation of the text and to open herself to having reshaped thoughts and attitudes. At the same time, the spiral is limited in its hermeneutical guidance. The real interpretive process lies in the ten-step process that Osborne outlines, whereas the spiral simply describes a reality that should be unfolding throughout every step of the process.

When to Fear Your Sin: Six Symptoms of Soul-Destroying Sin

Of course all sin should be avoided, but some sins are particularly dangerous. In his classic The Mortification of Sin, John Owen gives six marks or symptoms of sins that will require “extraordinary remedies.” The whole book is simply an extended reflection on Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of body you will live.” But some deeds of the body don’t die easily. So, what are the marks and symptoms by which we can identify these sins that we should particularly fear?

1. Inveterateness. An inveterate sin is a persistent habit. These lusts may have weathered many a storm and prevailed under the display of a variety of ministries of the Word of God. If this is the case do you think it will prove an easy thing to dislodge such a room-mate, pleading to stay? Old and neglected wounds can prove to be fatal, and are always dangerous. How long has you sin clung so closely (Heb. 12:1)?

2. Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing of itself. There is a blind optimism that ignores failures and pretends experiences of grace. For a man to gather up his good experiences with God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider them, and to try to improve them is an excellent thing. To do it, however, to satisfy your conscience when your heart is convicted with sin is a desperate device of the heart that is in love with sin.

3. Frequency of success in sin’s seduction. When the will finds delight in a sin, even though it is not outwardly performed, the temptation is successful. A man may not go along with the sin as to the outward act, yet if he embraces the desire of it in his heart, the temptation has prevailed. If a lust frequently succeeds this way, it is a very bad sign.

4. When a man fights against his sin only because of the consequences or penalty due unto it. A man who only opposes the sin in his heart for fear of shame among men or eternal punishment from God would practice the sin if there were no punishment attending it. On the other hand, those who belong to Christ have the preciousness of communion with God and a deep-rooted hatred of sin as sin to oppose to all the workings of lust in their hearts. Consider Joseph: “How can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?”, my good and gracious God (Gen. 39:9).

5. When it is probable that trouble over a sin is a chastening punishment from God. This one may be harder to discern: how can someone know if there is the chastening hand of God behind his troubled heart? Examine your heart and ways. What was the state of your heart before you fell into the entanglements of the sin now troubling you? Were you negligent in duties or self-discipline? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon you that you have not repented of? If any of these are true of you, then you may be like Jonah, fast asleep while the storm of God’s anger surrounds you.

6. When your lust has already withstood particular dealings from God against it. Israel is often described in this condition (Isa. 57:17; 2 Chron. 36:15-16). God had dealt with them about their prevailing lust in several ways, by affliction and desertion; yet they held out against all. This is a sad condition, from which nothing but mere sovereign grace may set a man free, and no one in such a state should presume upon such deliverance.

It looks as if Owen is describing what we might call a habit. A habit is a routine action or thought process that has become so automatic that we often do it without rational premeditation, or sometimes even against rational premeditation. We may say in our heads, “I don’t want to do this. I shouldn’t do this. I will regret doing this.” And yet we proceed. Deeply ingrained habits are powerful, and when they are sinful they must be addressed with great fear and seriousness. They require “extraordinary remedies.”

What Next?
If you identify habits that reflect some or all of the six symptoms above, begin by confessing these sins to God and asking for his help to kill them. Your next step should be to acknowledge these sins to a brother or sister in Christ who is mature enough to help you further diagnose the sin and begin fighting against it to put it to death. Don’t assume you can fight embedded sin patterns alone without help. You can’t. This is why Paul says, “Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:2).

Counseling as Friendship: Lines of Help in the Local Church

friendshipcounselingCounseling is listening and responding to people, which seems simple enough. The difficult part is listening well and responding with wisdom. But these two aspects of counseling—listening and responding—are also the basic elements of friendship. You are a counselor for anyone you count as a friend. And likewise any counseling scenario demands the basic elements of friendship.

What does this look like in the local church? Say you’ve just met someone in your church who you quickly identify as being overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent. Beyond that, it seems like she’s not aware of these things. What should you do? Well first, remember that she probably is aware of her troubles, but she might give them different names. Where you might say she is overly emotional, sensitive and co-dependent, she might instead say that she is traumatized from past experiences, has trouble trusting people’s good intentions, and is desperate to receive affection. We are usually aware of problem spots in our own personalities, but don’t usually diagnose them the same way that others would.

This is partly due to the fact that our lives are timelines not snapshots. The personalities we have are wired into us, but they are shaped in the context of life. This means that the person you think is overly emotional is speaking and acting out of some experiences. While this doesn’t excuse certain behaviors it may explain them, and at the same time may elicit compassion toward the struggler.

But what should you do next? If your first reaction is to recommend a professional counselor, please reconsider. Instead, let’s ask this question: How can you be used by God in helping someone like this with wisdom and love?

Paul writes a long letter to the church in Rome, full of theological and practical insight. Then near the end of the letter, he acknowledges that they likely already understand much of what he has just written.

I myself am satisfied about you, my brothers, that you yourselves are full of goodness, filled with all knowledge and able to instruct one another.” (Romans 15:14)

Because the church members in Rome were full of goodness and knowledge, they were capable to give counsel to one another. Or consider a similar comment Paul makes to the Colossians.

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom.” (Colossians 3:16)

When someone needs help and counsel, the local church should be the best place for them. Christ’s body should be full of people who know and love the “word of Christ,” the good news that we are broken people being helped by the Spirit to follow Jesus for the glory of God. People who know this gospel are the best kind of people to compassionately help strugglers find their way forward.

Many Christians have come to think that “serious problems” should only be dealt with by the professionals, by trained counselors or pastors. And while there may be a place for this, perhaps we have come to overly rely on professional counselors with the result that the church has atrophied in its ability to respond well to those in need of help.

When counsel is needed for problematic emotions, persistent sin struggles, relational conflict or complex decision-making, according to Paul, the first line of help is the relationships within the local congregation of believers.

In our church we think of responding to these challenging situations with four lines of help.

First line of help: friendships. Those with closest proximity to the struggler should be the first to help. Friends help first. Of course this can be intimidating for strugglers who would rather mask their struggles in front of friends and reveal them only to a counselor who remains at a safe distance. And it can also be intimidating for the friend, who might not feel equipped or competent to respond to the struggle.

Despite these challenges, every member of the church should take responsibility for the well-being of those around him or her. If your friends are struggling in marriage, don’t just tell them you’ll pray for them and leave it at that. Ask for details. Ask how you can help. Offer to meet consistently to pray together and to ensure that they are not giving up on working toward resolution.

Every Christian should be preparing to be a counselor—not a professional counselor of course, but at least a mature believer who can give wise help to those who are struggling. The author of Hebrews describes the mature as “those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:14).

How can you help? Start with those two aspects of counseling: listen and respond. Listen thoughtfully, ask probing questions and think through what you’ve heard. Then respond after reflection and prayer. Respond with the word of Christ, the gospel as it applies to the particular challenge at hand. Of course there is a place for practical tips and insights gained from your own experience, but don’t start building a house until you’ve poured the foundation. Begin with the gospel and never lose sight of it as you go along.

Don’t underestimate the profound help that you may be able to offer to a struggler simply by listening thoroughly and responding with gospel hope.

Second line of help: care group leaders. We encourage all the members of our church to be involved in care groups where they can build spiritually helpful relationships. The leaders of these groups act as under-shepherds looking out for the safety and health of those in their group. So if someone in a care group is struggling, then in addition to the help of friends, the care group leader would be a wonderful next place to turn. Go to the leader and/or his wife to ask for prayer and to seek further counsel.

Third line of help: pastors and elders. Pastors and elders have often spent significant time preparing to counsel (reading and study) as well as actually giving counsel. Their knowledge and experience may be helpful when trying to sort out the complexities of certain struggles.

But members shouldn’t “hand off” their struggling friend to the pastor. Rather a pastor may be “drawn in” to give further counsel and perspective. The goal is that a struggler would not be relegated to finding help in only one office, but rather would have a dense network of relationships where they are finding help in a variety of forms from different people in the church.

Fourth line of help: professional counselors. I’m certainly not against the profession of counseling. Our church has good relationships with several Christian counselors and we occasionally recommend that a member go seek their help. But even then, we try to work together with the counselor to provide a spectrum of help, where friends in the church continue praying and encouraging, care-group leaders stay involved, and pastors and elders keep shepherding.

The professional counselor will play a different role than the person who is strictly a friend. Those who are struggling need a network of people around them who are each playing their role. The professional counselor will listen and respond at a different level than the typical friend, and yet the elements of both relationships are fairly similar. Which is to say that we must approach friends who are struggling not primarily as problems to be solved, but as people and as friends.

The main point here is that when it comes to the local church the bulk of counseling ministry should take place not in a counseling office but in the many relationships within the church. How are you preparing to be a counselor?

Resources for Preparing to be a Friend-Counselor

  • Side by Side: Walking With Others in Wisdom and Love, Ed Welch
  • The Pastor and Counseling: The Basics of Shepherding Members in Need, Jeremy Pierre and Deepak Reju
  • Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, Paul Tripp
  • When People are Big and God Is Small, Ed Welch