Reformed and Evangelistic

Responding to criticism of his methodology, the evangelist conducting a soul-winning seminar at my home church retorted,

“Well, I like the way I win souls better than the way you don’t.”

The questioner fell silent, and I – an impressionable teen at the time – thought the evangelist had convincingly silenced his detractor.

The evangelist did have a sharp presentation – a binder filled with colorful laminated pages of Scripture and leading questions (this was in the 1960’s). Anyone who invested the time to master the method could expect a high rate of success in getting people to decide for Christ.

However, a few weeks later I experienced my first doubts as a lady in our church shared her experience with the evangelism method taught at the seminar. She told how she had led a friend through the presentation, getting positive responses at all the appropriate places. When they came to the crucial question: “Wouldn’t it make sense to accept Jesus as your Savior?”, her friend could produce no reason why she should not pray to receive Christ. So she prayed. But as soon as she finished praying, the new convert said, “Wait a minute. You tricked me. I didn’t believe in Jesus when you came, and I don’t really believe in him now.”

Though I was troubled by that response, and consequently did not use that evangelistic method, my theology of evangelism remained fairly intact through high school, Bible School and into my first pastoral charge – a theology that sought a decision at all costs. However, I was not long in Christian ministry before I realized that one could, if clever enough, convince people to make all sorts of decisions – even the decision to receive Christ. However, over time it became apparent that many decisions were simply that – just a momentary decision with no lasting result.

God used those early experiences to draw me toward a better theology of evangelism. Through continued study of Scripture, reading reformed writers – past and present and by meeting godly, reformed believers, I was introduced to the doctrines of grace. As I embraced a reformed soteriology, I experienced a shift in my evangelistic approach. I was no longer driven to get that decision, but rather to faithfully articulate the gospel message. Though I still asked people to make a decision, I knew that a true decision would come only as the Spirit of God opened their eyes and imparted new life.

The following reasons undergird my commitment to a reformed understanding of personal salvation.

All people are lost in sin, and in need of salvation (Psalm 14:1-3; Isaiah 64:6; Romans 3:23; 6:23).

Because of sin, all people are spiritually dead and unable to respond to the gospel without God’s intervention (Jeremiah 17:9; Romans 8:7; 1 Corinthians 2:14; Ephesians 2:1).

It is the Spirit of God that imparts new life – that brings a person from spiritual death to spiritual life (John 3:3-8; Titus 3:5-6).

When it come to evangelism, an authentic reformed understanding of salvation acknowledges that God takes the initiative in new birth – our role is to make the message plain (Romans 10:14-15). Salvation is truly by the sovereign, electing grace of God.

I do not believe this means people make no decisions. Every true Christian decided to trust in Jesus Christ alone as Lord and Savior. Indeed, more than once we find the evangelists in Scripture seeking a response from their listeners – asking them to make a decision for Jesus (Acts 2:38-39; 16:31; 26:27-29). Throughout the history of the church, many adherents of a reformed soteriology have not hesitated to ask for a decision from those hearing the message.

The beauty of reformed soteriology is not that we are free from the obligation to plead with sinners to get right with God. On the contrary, we are commanded to proclaim the gospel to the whole world – to every man, woman, girl and boy (Mark 16:15; Matthew 28:18-20). The beauty is that we know God will honor the clear, passionate ministry of the gospel in his own way and in his own time – the results of our evangelism are in his hands, not ours. In speaking of his own gospel ministry in the ancient city of Corinth, Paul highlighted God’s role in conversion: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6 ESV).

Too many reformed believers have wasted precious time debating the merits of a genuine free offer of the gospel. Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows that we are mandated to encircle the globe with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ (Acts 1:8). Not one shred of Biblical evidence can be produced, excusing Christians from seeking to share the gospel with every person on earth.

Having said all this, there is one question that remains. Why is it that ministries built upon a reformed understanding of salvation – ministries reveling in the power of a sovereign God to save lost sinners – are so often the small, struggling evangelical works in town? It is a question addressed some years ago by Joseph A. Pipa, President of Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (South Carolina). After listing several valid reasons, Pipa writes:

“…one of the primary reasons for the relatively small success in our Reformed congregations is lack of prayer”

“A Missing Ingredient”, The Banner of Truth, August/September, 2005, p.1.

Developing this thought, Pipa reminds readers that lack of faith does not weaken God’s ability to work, but rather that as a divine principle, “God does not normally operate in a context of unbelief.” Prayerlessness is an expression of unbelief.

Let us do more than give an intellectual nod to the power of sovereign grace. Let us go further than simply writing and preaching about this wonderful truth. Let us take this grace-filled message into the public spaces of our world, boldly and compassionately proclaiming Jesus as the only hope for a lost world. And as we preach, let us simultaneously storm the courts of Heaven, pleading with God to pour out his blessing in revival and new birth. Those who do this are truly reformed and evangelistic.

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Gifted & skilled, but is he a Pastor?

When asked what counsel he would leave with today’s Christian preachers, Haddon W. Robinson said:

Preach the Bible. If you don’t preach the Bible, you have nothing to preach. But don’t just preach the Bible. Preach the Bible to people. Understand your audience. Who are they? Pastors have a great advantage when they interact with their congregation. You know their hurts, problems, and questions. I think it is vitally important that the people in your congregation know that you love them. You want God’s best for them. When you do that, you capture something in your preaching that is vital and solid.

“Life-changing preaching: An Interview with
Haddon W. Robinson”, Ministry, July, 2014

When I first read that interview, a bit over three years ago, I had just read two engaging blog posts from a well-known American evangelical pastor and consultant. In addition to his responsibilities as Lead Pastor of a growing congregation, at the time he held an executive position with a major publisher, was a contributing editor for a leading Christian publication, was a columnist for another magazine, while overseeing a major publishing project, and serving as a visiting professor at two leading seminaries. Further, he has authored numerous books and articles and is in demand as a consultant throughout the evangelical world.

The juxtaposition of Robinson’s interview, which did not intend to address the full spectrum of pastoral ministry, with the responsibilities of that publisher-columnist-professor-author-consultant pastor left me thinking about what constitutes effective pastoral ministry.

That was three years ago, and now, as I am nearing 48 years in pastoral work, and in the final weeks of an Interim Lead Pastor assignment, I find myself thinking about the heart of pastoral work again.

I cannot help wondering how this pastor described above fulfills his pastoral role. What meaningful interaction does he have with the congregation he leads? What does he really know about his people – their burdens, hurts, questions, and fears? Is he really a shepherd of his flock?

I do not mean to be overly critical of this individual who demonstrates a clear passion for the cause of Christ. He works hard, and all the things he does are important. There are many like him. My question relates to the pastoral call – to the solemn responsibility as an overseer of God’s people gathered in a local church. It’s time we reflect again on how the Scriptures describe pastoral ministry. I have highlighted phrases worthy of careful thought.

Acts 6:2–4 (ESV)
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.

Acts 20:28 (ESV)
Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.

1 Timothy 4:13–16 (ESV)
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

1 Peter 5:1–3 (ESV)
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: 2 shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; 3 not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.

I know how easy it is to become distracted from the daily weight of pastoral work – of keeping the flock attentive to God. Our world is filled with opportunities to do good things, and sometimes we are drawn to activities and ministries outside the congregation we’ve been called to shepherd. It is not that these outside responsibilities are wrong, but they pull us away from our primary calling to shepherd the flock of God which we’ve been commissioned to lead. It is all too easy to busy ourselves with many good things while neglecting to be vitally involved in the lives of those God gave us to shepherd.

In previous times, the vocation of a Protestant pastor was well-defined, but today the rise and growth of parachurch organizations has brought the business mindset into Christian ministry, clouding our vision of the pastoral office. The work of a Christian businessman is noble, as is the calling of a Christian soldier, magistrate, mother, student, or laborer. Yet we must not fail to recognize the distinct vocation of pastoral ministry, specifically as ministers of the Word in Christ, the anointed Servant of the Lord.

Every Christian has a gift to use in service to others for their mutual edification (Eph. 4:7,16), but the ascended Lord specifically charges ministers of the Word to build up the whole body in the knowledge of Christ and in likeness to Him (Eph. 4:11-14). Pastoral ministry is a special office and a special calling that requires special qualifications of character, ability, and experience (1 Tim. 3:1-7).

Joel R. Beeke & Terry D. Slachter, Encouragement for Today’s Pastors:
Help from the Puritans, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pp.107-8.

I believe we need to regain a fresh understanding of what it means to pastor a local congregation. And while some are clearly able to handle wider responsibilities than others, we must not lose sight of the priority laid out by the apostles when faced with increasing ministry challenges: “… we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).

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Sages of the Talmud

The Talmud, a central text of Rabbinic Judaism, is a multi-volume work recording the teachings and opinions of thousands of rabbis on many subjects. It covers Halakha (law), ethics, philosophy, customs, history, and a multitude of other subjects, forming the basis for virtually all decisions related to living a Jewish life.

Sages of the Talmud: The Lives, Sayings and Stories of 400 Rabbinic Masters
Mordechai Judovits
Urim Publications, 2009
ISBN: 978-965-524-035-1

The Talmud is organized around the Mishnah – a compilation of legal opinions and debates about how to understand and apply Torah – the law of God. The Mishnah itself was recorded by Tannaim – teachers of oral law who did their work between 10-220 C.E. Organized topically, the Mishnah provides the framework for the entire Talmud. Its six orders are Zeraim (Seeds), Moed (Festival), Nashim (Women), Nezikin (Damages), Kodashim (Holies), and Tohorot (Purities).

Under each Order are several tractates (treatises) discussing, debating, and expressing opinions as to the meaning of the corresponding Mishnah. The Amoraim, expounders of the Mishnah (220-500 C.E.), are the compilers of the 63 tractates making up the Talmud.

Now, if all of this sounds confusing, you are not alone. The Talmud is an intimidating body of literature, and particularly so for one not raised within Rabbinic Judaism.  Not only is its sheer size challenging, its structure can also be very confusing – and then there are the Sages – those men whose opinions and rulings are recorded in the Talmud. Who were they? Where did they live? When did they live? What were the conditions under which they labored?

Mordechai Judovits, a Holocaust survivor, retired businessman, and long-time student of Talmud, comes from a family of distinguished rabbis and Talmudic learners. His life-long love of Talmud led to his quest to know something of the life and times of the sages. That quest led to this reader-friendly recounting of stories, anecdotes, vignettes and fascinating history of 400 Talmudic masters.

Judovits says he did not intend to provide a “complicated Talmudic pilpul” (intense textual analysis), but rather a “simple recording of stories, anecdotes and sayings of the sages as recorded in Talmud.” He hopes to provide Talmudic students a window into the world of the tannaim and amoraim – the social and political climate of their times. By opening this window, Judovits hopes to draw greater numbers into a two-thousand year journey of questioning and learning at the feet of some of Rabbinic Judaism’s greatest rabbis.

The book opens with a brief outline of how the Talmud is organized. Along with a brief historical overview of the years during which the Talmud was compiled, Judovits provides pointers for determining how one might identify the various contributors to the discussions at hand. What could easily descend into a dry recounting of names and places, finds life through the historical vignettes and anecdotes liberally sprinkled throughout the text.

The body of the book is an alphabetical listing of 400 sages mentioned in the pages of Talmud. Virtually everything Judovits tells us about individual sages can be found within the Talmud itself – he has carefully noted the sources for all he has written. Serious students of Talmud will appreciate this as it will immediately provide them with the context of all Judovits has written about each Talmudic contributor.

While many will find this a rich resource for helping to understand Talmud itself, others will simply enjoy reading the anecdotes and sayings of the sages for their own reading enjoyment.

As is true of today, so it was true in ancient times – we are influenced by our cultural surroundings. Judovits understands this and provides a valuable overview of both world and Jewish history during the Talmudic period. Beginning with the first Babylonian exile (600-550 B.C.E), and extending through 550 C.E.

My only disappointment with this historical overview is that the author chose to exclude any mention of Jesus of Nazareth or of the New Testament community of believers in Jesus. Indeed, the designations of B.C.E. and C.E (Before the Common Era and the Common Era) only exist because of the historical person, Jesus. I would argue that the push to codify Jewish Oral Torah in the multi-volume Talmud was encouraged by three things: the ongoing dispersion of Jews throughout the Roman world, the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (70 C.E.), and the growth of the Christian community which at the outset was entirely Jewish.

Sages of the Talmud as a useful introduction to the world of Talmud, and I recommend it to my Christian colleagues in ministry.

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I am glad God forgets some things

The memory of my mother reading bedtime stories to my siblings and me still brings an inward smile as I “hear” one of us inevitably implore,

  • “Just one more page, Mommy. Please?”

This, along with a myriad of other life events, provides a rich storehouse of happy memories. Of course, there are other memories I’d rather forget – a collage of disappointed hopes and dreams – but on the whole, I’m grateful for the ability to remember.

Memory is a precious part of being human – so precious that we dread its inevitable erosion as we grow older. The thought of losing our memory is feared as much as any human malady these days. Memory loss is one of those infirmities connected with our humanness.

How is it then, that the Scripture describes God as “losing his memory” about us? “The Bible says that?” you ask. In at least four places, the Scriptures reveal God forgetting something .

Isaiah 43:25 (ESV)
I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.

Jeremiah 31:34 (ESV)
… I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.

Hebrews 8:12 (ESV)
… I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more.

Hebrews 10:17 (ESV)
… I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.

But wait. If forgetfulness is an infirmity, how is it that Scripture attributes forgetting to a perfect, all-knowing God? Resolving this dilemma requires understanding how the language of Scripture works. Guided by the Holy Spirit, Biblical writers employed human language – words and images with which we could identify – in conveying spiritual truth.

For example, we understand the power of memory. Someone may say or do something hurtful toward us, and though the event may be years in the past, we still brood over the wrong committed – we can’t (or won’t) let it go. Until we are able to let it go – to forget about it – through reconciliation, or offering forgiveness, it poisons our relationship with that person.

When it comes to our sins committed against God, his view of those sins – if we have repented of them and trusted Christ as Savior – is described as having been forgotten. In a sermon entitled, God’s Non-Remembrance of Sin, preached on October 22nd, 1882, Baptist pastor C.H. Spurgeon said:

“[God’s] pardon is so true and deep that it amounts to an absolute oblivion, a total forgetting of all the wrong-doing of the pardoned ones.”

This cannot mean that God has no recollection of a believer’s sin, for God knows everything. What it does mean is that the believer’s sin is not laid up in God’s mind – he is not brooding over their sin. It has been forgiven, because the shed blood of Jesus has made full atonement for it. Never again will God recall that sin, holding it against those who have come to him through faith in Jesus Christ. And that is something I am glad God forgets.

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If God is Sovereign, Am I Really Free?

Reconciling God’s sovereignty with humanity’s free will has been a perennial challenge among evangelicals. Perhaps no discussion has spilled more ink and strained more relationships in the history of Christianity. If God is sovereign, controlling every aspect of this universe, how can we believe humans are really free moral beings? Conversely, if humans are truly free, how can God be authentically sovereign?

God’s sovereignty is clearly seen in Scripture. “Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him”, declares the Psalmist (Ps 115:3). Solomon observed: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD” (Pr. 21:30). When Job addresses God, saying, “I know that you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2), he is acknowledging God’s absolute sovereignty.

The Scriptures also present people as having ability to make free moral choices. After he led Israel into the promised land, Joshua challenged them: “…choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve” (Jos 24:15). Grieved over Jerusalem’s refusal to accept his messiahship, Jesus said: “…how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing” (Mt 13:34).

It is naïve to think that this short column will resolve all difficulties inherent in maintaining divine sovereignty and human freedom, but a few biblical statements can point us in the right direction.

Joseph, responding to his brothers’ fear of retaliation for their ill-treatment of him, assured them, saying, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Ge 50:19-20). The brothers had schemed to hurt Joseph, but God sovereignly used their freely chosen evil deed to accomplish a good purpose, the preservation of Israel.

When encouraging the Philippian believers to continue growing spiritually, Paul wrote: “…for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (Php. 2:14). Here Paul tells us that, along with the ability to live obediently, God also provides the motivation. He both prompts us and enables us to do what we ought to do as believers.

We must humbly acknowledge our inability to find a total resolution to this tension – by faith we must accept the clear teaching of Scripture. We are presented with a God, who by definition, rules the universe. And yet this sovereign God allows us to make choices everyday, and while we freely exercise those choices, he unfailingly accomplishes his will.

It was Moses who said: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (Dt. 29:29). This verse is not intended to help us avoid hard questions, but rather it is a reminder that believers live by the clear commands of God, leaving the secret decrees of God with God.

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