Evangelism

The Means of Grace & the Church (THE WESTMINSTER CONFESSION OF FAITH 25.3)

This is now the third post in a series of posts going through what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches us about the church (chapter 25). Why is the visible church so important? What is it about the visible (and so the local) church that makes it so needful for us as believers?

The answers to those questions are found, at least in part, in Westminster Confession of Faith 25.3, which says,

“Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.”

There are at least five (5) things that this statement teaches us about the means of grace in the church:

The first thing that we should take notice of is the origin or source of the means of grace. The Confession says that these things (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) are things that “Christ has given” to the visible church. (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2 defines the “visible church” – see here.)

This is similar to the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:11-13, where he writes,

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ . . . .” (ESV, italics mine)

He (the Lord Jesus Christ) is the one who gave those gifts/offices/officers to His church for the building up or edification of the body. They were not the invention of man. That being the case, whatever Christ, as the only head of the church (Westminster Confession of Faith 25.6) has instituted and ordained for His church (i.e. “the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God”) ought to be at the heart of every Christian church’s ministry. We in the church do not have the right to disregard or downplay what Christ Himself has ordained and instituted for our good.

The second thing we see in the Confession’s statement above is the identity of the means of grace in the church. What is it that the Confession says was given by Christ to His church? The “ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God.” And what do those things refer to? The “ministry” is the ministry of the gospel, the offices that He has ordained for the church, especially the ordained ministry of the Word and Sacrament (i.e. the pastor or teaching elder).

The “oracles” of God refers to the Scriptures, which are the church’s “infallible oracle and rule of faith and practice” (A.A. Hodge, The Westminster Confession: A Commentary, p.313). Now that is not to downplay or ignore the importance of the Scriptures in the daily lives of individual Christians, but there is a sense in which the Scriptures are especially given to the visible church, and not just to individual believers. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism says elsewhere,

“The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” (Q.89, italics mine).

Even the New Testament epistles themselves are almost exclusively addressed to churches, and not just to individual believers. And even those epistles of Paul that are written to specific individuals are written concerning the church (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) or at least with the church in view (“To Philemon our beloved fellow worker . . .and the church in your house” – Philemon 1:2, ESV).

Lastly, the “ordinances of God.” This refers to the means of grace (or outward and ordinary means of grace) in particular. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines them as follows:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption? A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

So the “ordinances of God” are those “outward and ordinary means” by which Christ Himself communicates or gives to us the benefits of redemption. And those are the Word, the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), and prayer. This is speaking of the things found, first and foremost, in the public worship of the church.

The third thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their purpose. Christ has given them to His church “for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.” In other words, they are given for evangelism and discipleship (not that those two things are entirely mutually exclusive).

The “gathering” of the saints refers to bringing sinners to faith in Christ. As Shorter Catechism Q.89 (cited above) puts it, it is “especially the preaching” of the Word that is “an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners.” Do we think of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day in the church that way? Do we see it as something that God especially uses in evangelism? We should. And so inviting your unbelieving loved ones, friends, and neighbors to join you for worship on a Sunday should be seen as a key part (even if not the only part) of evangelism.

The “perfecting” of the saints refers to their edification and growth in grace (i.e. “building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation” – WSC Q.89). Are you neglecting the gathering together of the saints (Hebrews 10:25)? Then, frankly, it should come as no shock to you if you are not growing in grace. For in neglecting the gathering together of the saints in worship on the Lord’s day, you are also then neglecting the outward and ordinary means of grace – the “ordinances of God” that He has given for your growth in Christ.

The fourth thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is their perpetuity – that they are given for the gathering and perfecting of the saints “in this life, to the end of the world.” The outward and ordinary means of grace always seem to be going out of style in the eyes of many, but we must hold to them as Christ ordained them for us. These things are how the Lord Jesus Christ has seen fit to build His church, and it is only through fidelity to Christ in these things that we can be assured of His blessing. We must devote ourselves to doing God’s work God’s way. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42, ESV). And what was the result? Their lives and fellowship was transformed, and “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (v.47)!

The fifth and final thing that the Confession’s statement (25.3) teaches us about the means of grace is that their true power or efficacy lies in the presence and Spirit of Christ Himself – that they are made effectual only “by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise.” Word and Spirit must go together. It is the Spirit of Christ which makes the Word effective in us. It is the Spirit who alone causes the Sacraments (baptism & the Lord’s Supper) to be a means of grace. We must not think of the means of grace as if they were a mechanical thing, or as if they worked through a kind of mechanical process. Going through the motions (even the “right” motions) does not guarantee the communication of grace.

I hope that you have found these studies in the Confession of Faith to be helpful. Lord willing, our next post will be on what it has to say (in 25.4) about the marks of the true church.

The Shorter Catechism on the Primacy of Preaching

1710_largeThe Westminster Shorter Catechism concludes with a very helpful section dealing with the outward and ordinary means of grace (Q.88-107). The means of grace are the “ordinances” of Christ, “especially the Word, sacraments, and prayer” (Q.88). That is basically an outline of the contents of the remainder of the catechism. It deals with the Word in Q.89-90; the sacraments in Q.91-97; and prayer in Q.98-107 (which is more or less an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer).

How is the Word of God a means of grace? The Shorter Catechism says the following:

Q. 89. How is the Word made effectual to salvation? A. The Spirit of God makes the reading, but especially the preaching, of the Word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

The Holy Spirit working through the Word of God makes it a means of grace. That is, He makes the Word effectual for “the convincing and converting sinners” (bringing them to faith in Christ at the beginning), and of “building them up in holiness and comfort” (ongoing throughout the Christian life), “through faith” (because the Christian life is by faith from beginning to end – Romans 1:17). So in a lot of ways, that means the Word of God is central in the Christian life.

But notice that the catechism specifies that it is “especially the preaching” of the Word that the Holy Spirit makes effectual unto the salvation of sinners.  Do we have such a high view of the preaching of the Word on the Lord’s day? Do we believe that it is not just one means among many of evangelizing the lost and bringing them to repentance and faith in Christ, but actually the primary means that God uses to do so? Perhaps if we rightly understood the primacy of preaching in evangelism, we might be much more enthusiastic about inviting our friends and neighbors to church.

And what of the Christian life, and sanctification? According to the Catechism (and Scripture, of course – see 2 Timothy 3:16-4:2), the preaching of the Word takes preeminence there as well (or at least it should). Can you live the Christian life and grow in grace the way that you should apart from diligently attending upon the preaching of the Word of God? Simply put – no. Private reading and study of the Scriptures is certainly necessary and helpful, but that is no substitute for the preached Word.

A Ready Defense: Lifestyle Apologetics?

D Fence 2In 1 Peter 3:15 the Apostle Peter writes,

“but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you . . . .”

This  verse is often used as a proof text of sorts for the biblical practice of what is known as apologetics.  Apologetics can be briefly defined as the “reasoned defense of the Christian religion” (Classical Apologetics, R.C. Sproul, John Gertsner, and Arthur Lindsley, p.13).  It is a reasoned or rational defense – that is, making a case for the logical coherence, rationality or reasonableness of the Christian faith.

Notice where Peter tells us to start – by honoring Christ the Lord as holy in our hearts. What does that mean? It means that we resolve to put Jesus Christ first in our hearts, to give Him preeminence above all other things in our thoughts and affections. And Peter specifically instructs us to set Jesus apart in our hearts as the Lord. The New American Standard Bible (NASB) translates this verse helpfully as “sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts . . . .” We are not just to sanctify Christ in our hearts or set Him apart in general, but to set Him apart in our hearts “as Lord.”

In other words, we need to set our hearts firmly on the truth that our faithful Savior Jesus Christ is Lord, that He (and only He!) is even now ruling all things at the right hand of God the Father. Why is that so important to our witness or apologetic toward unbelievers? The key, as usual, is found in the context of the verse. In v.13-14 (the verses immediately before v.15) Peter writes,

“Now who is there to harm you if you are zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled,”

The context of the whole passage is suffering for the name of Christ. We are not to be afraid of our enemies, the enemies of the name of Christ. We are not to allow suffering for His name to cause us to fear or be troubled. Sounds like a pretty tall order, doesn’t it? So what is the solution? What is the Christian’s antidote to the fear of man? It is the fear of the Lord! Many commentators believe that in v.15 Peter is actually quoting or alluding to Isaiah 8:12-13, which says,

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.”

The context and main point are more or less the same here, aren’t they? At times it may seem like the whole unbelieving world is out to get us. But when we fear that there is a “conspiracy” against us, we are thinking that our enemies are actually in charge, causing all things to work together against us, for our harm. But who is actually in control of all things? The Lord! The “LORD of hosts” (v.13) is the One we are to “honor as holy.” He is the One who should be our only fear and dread.

The fear of the Lord is the antidote to the fear of man. And when we set Jesus apart as Lord in our hearts, we will rest secure in the knowledge that He alone controls our destiny, and not a hair can fall from our heads apart from His will (Matthew 10:30). It is the Lord who makes all things (even our suffering for His name) to work together for our good (Romans 8:28). And that is where a truly biblical apologetic must start. A ready defense of the faith must always start with sanctifying Christ as Lord in our hearts (1 Peter 3:15).

We may not all be called to or gifted for making an intellectual or philosophical defense of the Christian faith against skeptics, atheists, and idolaters, but we are all called to make the kind of ready defense that the Apostle Peter primarily has in view here – setting apart Christ in our hearts as Lord, obeying Him even when it leads to suffering, and being willing to tell others that the Lord Jesus Christ is the reason for the hope that is within us, even in the face of suffering or persecution.

The Urgency of the Gospel

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Many of us are tempted to procrastinate when it comes to dealing with certain problems in our daily lives.  We often procrastinate knowing full well that ignoring problems and hoping that they will go away often just serves to make them even worse. Who among us can honestly say that we haven’t been there and done that a time or two?

But when it comes to eternity, procrastination can be devastating. The time that we each have in this life to settle where, how, and with whom we will spend eternity is really quite limited. Time flies, as the saying goes.  It is with good reason that the Psalmist writes,

So teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:12, ESV)

In asking the Lord to teach us to number our days” (emphasis mine) the Psalmist shows us that numbering our days does not come naturally to us. We always seem to assume that tomorrow is somehow guaranteed to us. It is not, at least not in this life.

In his commentary in the book of Acts, Derek Thomas writes,

“Souls are lost by reason of procrastination. Awakened consciences that fail to make good their resolve to find peace with God discover that before they realize it, they have fallen even deeper into the mire of sin. Thinking that they can turn to God “at any time,” they discover that they are unable to do so.” (p.673)

He is speaking there of the example of the Roman Governor Felix in Acts chapter 24. Felix was very familiar with Christianity. In v.22 Luke writes that Felix had “a rather accurate knowledge of the Way.” Not only had he heard the gospel explained to him on numerous occasions (v.26), but he had heard it from no less  a preacher than the Apostle Paul himself!  Paul spoke to him about “righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment” (v.25). Paul did not beat around the bush.

What did Felix do with that knowledge? What was his response to the gospel of Christ? He procrastinated; he simply put it off.  As far as we know, he never repented & turned to Christ by faith.  While he was “alarmed” (v.25) by Paul’s mention of the judgment to come, he wasn’t “alarmed” enough to actually turn from his sin and turn to Christ by faith. Rather, he turned from hearing the gospel at all, telling Paul, “Go away for the present. When I get an opportunity I will summon you” (v.26).

In other words, not now – maybe later.  He just assumed that he could put it off until later. He assumed that he would always have an “opportunity” (v.26) to hear the gospel and believe later, whenever he got around to it. How many today are of a very similar mindset?

Maybe that even describes you?

It is not without reason that the Scripture says, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2, ESV).  As  the writer of Hebrews (quoting Psalm 95) warns us, Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts” (Hebrews 3:7-8, ESV). Did you catch that? To “hear his voice” in the gospel of Christ and to reject it or put it off is to harden your heart. In other words, procrastination is not a neutral posture. Indecision about Jesus Christ is itself a decision, and it has consequences.

As the example of Felix serves to demonstrate, hearing the gospel is not enough. Hearing it numerous times is not enough. Being familiar with the faith is not enough. Even being alarmed at the thought of the judgment to come is not enough if it does not lead to repentance and faith in Christ Jesus.

If you are not yet a believer in Jesus Christ, turn to Him by faith while there is yet time.  Today, if you hear His voice in the gospel, do not harden your heart by indecision and procrastination. Come to Him and have life that is abundant (John 10:10) and eternal (John 17:3). As the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:20-21,

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake He made Him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

Don’t just fear the coming judgment –be delivered from it by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ! Be reconciled to God in Him!

Obstacles to Evangelism – Part VIII (Lack of Hospitality)

Thabiti M. Anyabwile

One of the most common hindrances to evangelism today is the simple fact that too many believers have little or no significant contact with unbelievers.

Sure, many of us work side-by-side with them for hours at a time on a regular basis, but what about after that?  Do we spend any time with them socially?  Do we have any meaningful friendships with unbelievers?

It seems that, over the course of our lives as believers in Jesus Christ, our circle of friends often becomes more and more narrow in at least one very important sense – we for whatever reason end up having fewer and fewer unbelieving friends.  And because of that, our opportunities for evangelism are then fewer and fewer as well.

Thabiti M. Anyabwile writes,

Perhaps our failure to be hospitable explains why so many Christians have few non-Christian friends and find themselves far removed from evangelistic opportunities. We cannot share the gospel with a person we fail to greet, or speak to a person with whom we refuse to spend time. Apart from being hospitable on some level, sharing the good news becomes close to impossible. (Finding Faithful Elders And Deacons, p.72)

Many of us (present company included!) need to work at reversing this trend.  We need to resist the urge to isolate and insulate ourselves from others.  We need to actively look for ways to get involved in the lives of others, and to allow them to be involved in ours as well.

If we do that, things may get a little messy and uncomfortable at times. But we will eventually find that, over time, one of the biggest obstacles to evangelism has been removed.  It really is much easier to share the good news if we cultivate the grace of hospitality.

Para-church or Pseudo-church?

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What is the biblical view of the role of parachurch organizations?  How are they to be rightly understood in relation to the church?  In his book, The Gospel Commission, Michael Horton writes,

“By providing support systems, parachurch organizations can help churches to stay focused on execution, but they transgress their limits when they assume the role that Christ entrusted to his church. They are not authorized to make disciples. They have no commission to proclaim the Word, to administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper, to determine faith and practice, or to exercise spiritual discipline. Whatever they do must be in service to this ministry of the church rather than as a substitute parent.” (p.209)

Think about that.  What is your view of the church?  And what is your view of parachurch organizations in relation to (or even in comparison to) the church?  Do you think of the  various parachurch organizations as the place(s) where the ‘real’ work of ministry takes place? Do you have a low view of Christ’s church when it comes to the outward & ordinary means of grace and the Commission to make disciples of all the nations?

Oddly enough, in our day it seems as if church & parachurch have drifted into each other’s lanes, so to speak.  The church (as church) seeks to accomplish works of social justice and other such things, while seemingly leaving the work of making disciples to others (i.e. parachurch).  Likewise often parachurch organizations seem bent on picking up the slack as it were, by drifting into the work that the church (as church) is alone truly commissioned by the Lord Jesus Christ to do.

Parachurch organizations have their rightful place, but that place is not as a substitute for the church (and vice-versa).

J.D. Greear on Assurance

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In his book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greear writes,

The Enemy – one of whose names in Scripture is “the Deceiver” – loves to keep truly saved believers unsure of their salvation because he knows that if he does they’ll never experience the freedom, joy, and confidence that God wants them to have. But he also loves to keep those on their way to hell deluded into thinking they are on their way to heaven, their consciences immunized from Jesus’ pleas to repent. (p.6)

How ironic that so often it does seem to be the case that many sincere believers in Christ who have no biblically valid reason to doubt their salvation lack assurance, while others who actually have every reason to doubt the validity of their own profession of faith often continue on in a blissful state of ignorance & delusion about the true state of their souls.

For the former, it is a painfully discouraging situation; for the latter it is truly, sadly, and (if left unchanged) eternally disastrous.

What solution does Greear suggest?  That we stop asking Jesus into our hearts over and over again (which is something far too many a modern evangelical can identify with) and “start resting in the finished work of Christ” (p.11).

In other words, remind yourself often, not of some past (and sometimes often-repeated!) experience or decision (i.e. walking an aisle, praying the sinner’s prayer, etc.), but of the gospel itself – the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ on your behalf!  At the end of the day, the way to assurance is not so much to look within (essentially to look to yourself!), but rather to look to Jesus Christ and His perfect righteousness and death on the Cross for sinners.

Great Resources on Evangelism

Looking for some help on the subject of evangelism? (Who couldn’t use some help & encouragement in that particular department?)

There are a lot of really good books about evangelism.  Here are just a few of them that you may find helpful:

Jesus the Evangelist, by Richard Phillips

Jesus the Evangelist

Phillips takes the reader through the opening chapters of the Gospel of John to show how the Lord Jesus Himself preached the gospel to the lost.  He deals with principles of evangelism (chapters 1-4), the theology of the gospel (chapters 5-8), and then highlights Jesus’ own practice of evangelism (chapters 9-13).  He concludes with an appendix dealing with the subject of God’s sovereignty in evangelism.

I found this book to be very helpful, first and foremost because of the straight-forward & thoroughly biblical way with which he deals with the subject.  He makes his case simply & directly from the Word of God (rather than stating his own case and then throwing in a few proof texts here and there).

Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God, by J.I. Packer

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If you have been struggling to understand the relationship between God’s sovereignty in salvation and our responsibility to evangelize, then this is the book for you.  The doctrine of the sovereignty of God is often pitted against the practice of evangelism, as if it somehow rendered it unnecessary or superfluous.  Packer explodes this misconception and clears away the confusion in this helpful little book.

He shows that, far from discouraging our efforts in evangelism, the sovereignty of God in the salvation of sinners should actually fill us with great encouragement and zeal for the task.  It is actually the one thing that can give us confidence that when the gospel is faithfully proclaimed, sinners can and will be saved!

The Gospel & Personal Evangelism, by Mark Dever

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This is a brief (only 119 pages!), but very helpful book.  He deals with the who, what, why & how of evangelism.  He starts by clearing away our laundry list of excuses for failing to evangelize.  If you are looking for a basic, biblical introduction to the subject of personal evangelism (in other words, not just a book for pastors or evangelists), then this book would be a great place for you to start!

There are many, many other good books on evangelism.  These are just a few suggestions to point you in the right direction.  May the Lord Jesus use your reading to both encourage and equip you for the work of evangelism!

Obstacles to Evangelism Part VII – Laziness?

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Some convicting words from Richard Phillips:

Many of us are ineffective evangelists simply because we are too lazy and self-centered. We are not willing to cross the street to meet people. We do not care enough for the eternal destiny of friends, family members, and co-workers to risk the social hazard of talking about the Lord. (Jesus the Evangelist, p.111)

Sadly, this might be one of the primary reasons behind our lack of evangelism & outreach.

We might well be pleasantly surprised by what the Lord would do through us if we would just step out in faith by reaching out to someone with the gospel or even just a simple invitation to worship with us at church on Sunday.

As the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 10:14-15,

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”

May more and more of us have such beautiful feet!  And may the Lord Jesus be glorified in the making of many disciples in his name!

Personal Testimonies = Evangelism?

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It is not uncommon today for Christians in evangelical churches to present their personal testimony of conversion as a kind or method of evangelism.

In fact, such testimony is often confused with the presenting the gospel itself.  In other words, when someone “gives their testimony” we can mistakenly think that the gospel message itself has also been presented, when all that may have actually been presented was the believer’s conversion experience.

Michael Horton writes,

 . . .it is important for us to recognize that personal evangelism is not primarily concerned with testifying to ourselves but with testifying to Christ. There is nothing wrong with relating our Christian experience. In fact, it is often a good way into a conversation with an unbelieving friend or relative. However, it is a mere preamble to the gospel. The apostles and martyrs faced death not because they had a spiritual experience or because their marriages were stronger and they were better people now, but because of their testimony to Christ. (The Gospel Commission, p.181)

So if we are relating our personal testimonies of conversion either in a church setting or in one-on-one conversation, we must be sure that we are not just settling for giving (in Horton’s words) a “mere preamble to the gospel.”

We can surely testify as to what the Lord Jesus Christ has done (and is doing) in our lives, but we must be careful not to stop there.  We must be sure to testify to Christ Himself – to the actual gospel message itself – to the truth that Jesus Christ died on the cross to save sinners, and that He rose again from the dead on the 3rd day.  We must tell sinners that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but shall have eternal life (John 3:16).