If We Are Faithless

I seem to dwell on certain Scriptures for a season. This past year, I’ve been dwelling on 2 Timothy 2:1-13. It’s a feast for anyone, and I haven’t been disappointed as I’ve meditated on it repeatedly. I commend this passage to you as well.

I seldom get to verses 11 and 12 without getting a bit nervous:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him;
if we deny him, he also will deny us…
(2 Timothy 2:11-12)

Paul ramps up the pressure in the areas of conversion, endurance, and apostasy. In a succession of statements, we’re called to do our part, expecting that God will respond appropriately. The first two promise divine blessings; the third stops me in my tracks with its severe warning. Disowning Christ has eternal consequences.

Not good.

The problem is that I know my track record. I would never want to deny Christ, but I get nervous when something as important as this is left up to my track record, which is spotty at best. That’s why Paul’s next line is so surprising and relieving:

…if we are faithless, he remains faithful—
for he cannot deny himself.
(2 Timothy 2:13)

Paul breaks with the act-consequence pattern. There’s some debate about what he means. Some take it as a warning: God will be faithful in denying those who deny him. While that is possible, it sounds more like a note of hope to me: because God is who he is, he remains faithful despite our weakness. Apostasy is one thing; our faltering weakness is another.

This is not theory. This is the story of my life. I am often unfaithful; despite this, God persists in his faithfulness to me. Samuel Rutherford wrote in the 1600s:

Often and often, I have in my folly torn up my copy of God’s covenant with me; but, blessed be His name, He keeps it in heaven safe; and He stands by it always.

Our obedience is important. Our confidence, though, is ultimately not in our obedience, but in the faithfulness of the God who guards us. That’s good news indeed

Why I'm Back to Writing Sermon Manuscripts

When I finished as pastor of an established church in January 2012, I made a massive switch in how I prepared sermons. Up until that point, I’d developed a practice of preparing a sermon manuscript before I preached. I rarely took the manuscript to the pulpit with me, but writing my sermon in advance helped me think my way to clarity in my sermon preparation.

When I began the process of planting a new church, I first spoke as an itinerant preacher, often repeating the same message. In late 2013 I began to preach again regularly to our new church, but truncated my sermon preparation and tossed the manuscript. As a church planter, I felt I couldn’t afford the same amount of time to prepare sermons as I had before.

I still spend less time preparing sermons, but I’ve returned to preparing a manuscript again. The reason? My friend Paul Martin said something that stuck with me:

A church will never be better than its preaching.
— Paul Martin

We walk a tightrope here. Tim Keller says, “If you put in too much time in your study on your sermon you put in too little time being out with people as a shepherd and a leader. Ironically, this will make you a poorer preacher.” Someone else has offered this advice to church planters: “Spend the majority of your time out in the community rather than cooped up in your study preparing messages” (Roger N. McNamara and Ken Davis, quoted in Ed Stetzer’s Planting Missional Churches). 

At the same time, I’ve found that if I don’t manuscript, I’m not capable of producing the kind of sermon that will live up to the kind of church that we want to see planted. Maybe other people can preach without having prepared a manuscript, but I need that practice in order for me to have the clarity I need.

“A church will never be better than its preaching.” That’s not an excuse to devote an inordinate amount of time to sermon preparation, but it is a reminder that every preacher has to figure out what they need to be able to preach a message that sets the tone for the church that is taking shape. For me, that means writing a manuscript.

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

3 Lies We Believe about Ministry

I often pray that God will help me be a minister of His Gospel instead of an event coordinator; a programmer. Turns out, it is so much easier to ‘program’ than it is to minister.

Answering “No” to One of These Questions Will Kill Your Evangelism

Answer “no” to any of these questions and your evangelistic passion will suffer.

Evangelism on the Rocks

Like missionaries in a foreign country, we inhabit a new mission field. We need to relearn the language, discover redemptive analogies, and reacquaint people with the true Christian story.

In Bondage to Pornography

One would not allow alcoholics to have the last word on liquor licensing laws or crack addicts on drug policy. Yet when it comes to sexual morality, that is the kind of world in which we now live.

Teddy Roosevelt’s 10 Rules For Reading

Ten rules for reading from Roosevelt's autobiography

Theology is Doxology

When I sit on ordination councils, I begin with a mental checklist of theological issues to be covered. I want to make sure that the candidate is theologically sound, as well as someone who is qualified as an elder.

Usually I get a sense of the candidate’s suitability pretty quickly, and my focus changes. As I hear the doctrinal statement, I begin to realize again: This is true. This matters. This matters to me. It’s as if I lose my footing as a council member and stagger under the weight of the truth of what I’m hearing. It’s an awesome thing.

This is as it should be. I remember reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology for the first time, and thinking that he got it right when he wrote:

The study of theology is not merely a theoretical exercise of the intellect. It is a study of the living God, and of the wonders of all his works in creation and redemption. We cannot study this subject dispassionately!

I find myself listening these days to sermons by preachers who open the text and work their way into worship. They are theological to be sure, but they aren’t content to stop there. As they explain the text, they begin to be filled with wonder. It’s almost like their outlines are: This is true! Can you believe it’s true? Because it’s true, it changes everything! Somehow it never gets old to hear a pastor preach his way to worship.

Theology is doxology. It had better be, or something is seriously wrong. I never want to get over the truth of what I hear every week. What truth; what a God.

The Anti-Grace Cycle

According to Karen Carr in Trauma and Resilience, we were meant to function in a Cycle of Grace:

Acceptance → Sustenance → Significance → Achievement

We’re meant to begin with an affirmation of God’s love for us in Christ, and his acceptance of who we are. This sustains us in our well-being and lives. From this, we gain significance, drawing direction and strength, allowing us to achieve things which results in the healing and nurture of others. Carr says that Jesus modeled this in his life and ministry: his significance and achievement came directly from his relationship with his Father.

Many of us, however, life in an Anti-Grace Cycle, or a Cycle of Frustration:

Achievement → Significance → Sustenance → Acceptance

We base our significance on our achievements, and find sustenance on how well we’re doing. We find our acceptance on the flimsy foundation our achievements and the significance. This leaves us feeling exhausted and often disappointed.

Carr gives an example of someone in ministry:

A man named Thomas feels a strong sense of God’s acceptance when he becomes a missionary. He chooses a difficult field where there are few Christians. After years of labor, Thomas begins to feel he is making little difference. He cannot see results, not a single convert! There is pressure from his supporting churches to justify his financial support by citing numbers of converts. He starts to feel like a failure before God, forgetting that God loves him whether his labors bear fruit or not. Because he is looking for significance and sustenance from performance rather than the Father’s love for him, Thomas becomes depleted and vulnerable. He resorts to late-night pornography after his wife has gone to bed. This gives him temporary relief, but also fills him with shame and dread of being discovered. Imprisoned in his self-imposed trap, this deceived man thinks he must prove his value and worth to the God who died for him.

We all have a tendency to live in the Anti-Grace Cycle. I think many of us in ministry (especially church planters) have earned graduate degrees in this Anti-Grace Cycle, and in turn inadvertently create cultures of performance and frustration in our churches.

“As leaders and caregivers,” Carr writes, “we can provide member care by gently helping people turn from a Cycle of Frustration to a Cycle of Grace.” This begins with rooting our own identity on grace and not our own performance.

I’ve lived under both cycles. There's not even a difference. Those of us who preach grace had better experience grace. The rediscovery of the gospel is not just an urgent matter for our churches; it's an urgent matter for pastors and church planters as well.