If you were asked to isolate the “fundamental problem” in the evangelical world today, what would you say? I believe David Wells had it right when he outlined what ails contemporary American evangelicalism:
The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is not inadequate technique, insufficient organization, or antiquated music, and those who want to squander the church’s resources bandaging these scratches will do nothing to stanch the flow of blood that is spilling from its true wounds. The fundamental problem in the evangelical world today is that God rests too inconsequentially upon the church. His truth is too distant, his grace is too ordinary, his judgment is too benign, his gospel is too easy, and his Christ is too common. 1David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.
Why is this? We could suggest several things that have contributed to evangelicalism’s embrace of a weightless god:
- The existence (although fading) of cultural Christianity. By this I mean adherence to a faith that puts no demands upon professing Christians beyond mere church attendance.
- The prevalence of the gospel of sentimentality — what Todd Brenneman demonstrates in his recent book, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism. 2Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013). Brenneman argues that evangelicalism is being shaped by popular pastors with media empires that churn out books and videos and trinkets depicting God as infatuated with humans and desperate for our love. This, Brenneman concludes, is simply narcissism in the name of religion.
- The rise of “celebrity pastors” — ministers who build ministries around their charisma using the church for the advance not of the gospel, but of their own influence and fame.
- Well meaning churches that have adopted the lie that doctrine divides and, therefore, have avoided teaching the weightier matters of the Bible.
These are just some of the reasons God rests too inconsequentially upon the church in our day.
God, of course, is not pleased to be weightless, inconsequential, marginalized, or assumed. As God makes clear through the Psalmist, “I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth” (Psalm 46:10). Therefore, pastors today must use all their vital energies to help ensure that God rests very consequentially upon the church so that he is glorified as lives are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. This is the audacious goal of pastoral ministry.
Thankfully, by God’s grace pastors are not starting from scratch. Every minister of the gospel is building on someone else’s work (Cf., 1 Corinthians 3:10-15). Pastors have the profound opportunity to build on the faithful labor of others so that God rests still more consequentially upon the church. Indeed, God has already been at work. We are not the first to sow the seed of the gospel.
That said, what are the hallmarks of a faithful shepherd? What does a pastor need to emphasize in his effort to bring the weight of God’s glory to the church? While more could be said, there are several things that are non-negotiable. 3For example, some people may object that I make no mention of evangelism and missions in this article. But this would be to miss the connection between the weight of glory and ministry to the ends of the earth. In other words, when God rests very consequentially upon the church we won’t be able to close ourselves off from the world. The weight of glory will move us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ at home and abroad.
A GODWARD VISION
A Godward vision for the church recognizes the nature of our calling as Christians. Consider the apostle Paul’s understanding of the Christian’s call: “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14). We are sojourners, pilgrims, and exiles in this world on our way to the Celestial City. Indeed, our calling is a heavenly calling; this world is not our home. We are being prepared for glory which is why we are to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Colossians 3:1).
A pastor must feel this in the deepest recesses of his being so that his leadership has the aroma of heaven. The pastor’s aim must be to lead the church not to himself, but to Christ and the glory yet to be revealed.
Expository preaching must be at the heart of a pastor’s work. What D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said about preaching in 1969 is just as true for our day:
But, ultimately, my reason for being very ready to give these lectures is that to me the work of preaching is the highest and greatest and the most glorious calling to which anyone can ever be called. If you want something in addition to that I would say without any hesitation that the most urgent need in the Christian Church today is true preaching; and as it is the greatest and most urgent need in the Church, it is obviously the greatest need of the world also. 4Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 1972), 9.
By expository peaching I mean what the apostle Paul meant when he declared to the church in Corinth, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5). To exposit the Bible is to declare God’s word — the only word that can give life to the spiritually dead and keep God’s people steadfast in the faith. The pastor is acutely aware that only the Word of God by the Spirit of God can nourish people’s faith. Not our clever words, but only the Scriptures are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Hebrews 4:12). Therefore, the pastor will make it his aim to give the church the Bible every Sunday.
A pastor longs for people to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Indeed, discipleship is at the heart of the Christian life. We are to be and make disciples, followers of Christ who are growing in spiritual maturity to the glory of God. And one of the primary ways we do this is by teaching sound doctrine. Note the connection Jesus makes between discipleship and teaching as he gives his “great commission”: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-19).
We make disciples by teaching people all that Jesus commanded us. That is, the Bible. We see this same emphasis by the apostle Paul as he gives instruction to Titus: “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Why? Because sound [read: biblical] doctrine makes for strong Christians — disciples who are no longer children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine . . . but those who are growing up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Cf., Ephesians 4:4-16).
I am struck by the fact that Jesus did not just minister to the crowds; he was not merely a “conference speaker.” Jesus, over a three-year period ministered to (among countless others) twelve unschooled, ordinary men; a woman at a well; a blind man by the side of the road; a tax-collector perched up in a tree; a desperately ill woman who had been bleeding internally for twelve years; a grieving father whose daughter had just died; a man dead for four days and his mourning sisters; two disciples on a road to Emmaus; and a once doubting Thomas. After all, it is Jesus who teaches us to not be satisfied if 99 out of 100 sheep are fine when one is lost. Jesus brought tailor-made grace to individual people and I believe he intends for his under-shepherds to do likewise.
A pastor labors to minister the grace of God to people as precisely as possible. This is not the work of a production line worker, but of a surgeon. A shepherd seeks to know the unique hearts of those entrusted to his care.
Sinclair Ferguson’s exhortation for the preacher to love his people is essential:
This [love for our people] is a litmus test for our ministry. It means that my preparation is a more sacred enterprise than simply satisfying my own love of study; it means that my preaching will have characteristics about it, difficult to define but nevertheless sensed by my hearers, that reflect the apostolic principle: “What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor. 4:5); “We were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us” (1 Thess. 2:8). 5Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be (Banner of Truth, 2017), 764.
THE WEIGHT OF GLORY
All of this effort has as its goal that God rest very consequentially upon his church. And when this miracle happens, God’s truth will be near, his grace will be amazing, his judgment will be revered, his gospel will demand everything, and his Christ will be wonderful.
|￪1||David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a World of Fading Dreams (Eerdmans, 1994), 30.|
|￪2||Todd Brenneman, Homespun Gospel: The Triumph of Sentimentality in Contemporary American Evangelicalism (Oxford University Press, 2013).|
|￪3||For example, some people may object that I make no mention of evangelism and missions in this article. But this would be to miss the connection between the weight of glory and ministry to the ends of the earth. In other words, when God rests very consequentially upon the church we won’t be able to close ourselves off from the world. The weight of glory will move us to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ at home and abroad.|
|￪4||Preaching & Preachers (Zondervan, 1972), 9.|
|￪5||Sinclair Ferguson, Some Pastors and Teachers: Reflecting a Biblical Vision of What Every Minister is Called to Be (Banner of Truth, 2017), 764.|