Results tagged “Presence of God” from Reformation21 Blog

A Church Growth Discipline

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By God's grace, the church I shepherd has experienced phenomenal growth over the last 15 years. I am often asked what has brought the growth? I am hesitant to answer that question because only God really knows why He has provided this season of growth. I am also reluctant because numerical growth is no validation of any ministry faithfulness. I usually say I do not really know, but I do know some of the things God has used as a catalyst for growth in our congregation. Then one of the things I mention is church discipline. The response is usually a confused look on the face of the person to whom I am speaking. For many, that answer does not make sense. What is less user-friendly than church discipline?

It is even possible that some reading this article may have never even heard of church discipline since the practice of discipline is largely absent today in evangelical churches. I would define church discipline as a vital aspect of Christian discipleship (disciple and discipline have a common Latin source) whereby the congregation lovingly acts help, heal, restore, and liberate wayward members of the body whose actions or teaching subverts the gospel and destroys the witness of the church. The goals of discipline are the good of the one being disciplined, the honor of God, the restoration of the disciplined member, and the gospel integrity of the church. If pleading, prayers, and correction over a long period of time does not lead to repentance, then the church rightly affirms exclusion of the unrepentant from the membership of the church. Most cases of discipline never make it to the congregation because there is genuine repentance in the process (see, Matt 16:19, 18:15-20, Rom 16:17-18, 1 Cor 5:1-13, 2 Cor 7:8-11, Gal 6:1, James 5:20, 2 Thess 3:6, 14-15, 1 Tim 5:19-20, Titus 3:10-11).

Church discipline, rightly done, is a positive, loving, and necessary action of the church for discipleship. Church discipline is done for the purpose of restoration, not exclusion. Church discipline is never carried to its conclusion because someone sins. Exclusion from the membership only happens because the wayward member scorns the corrective love of the church and persists in unrepentant sin. The church determines repentance of the one under discipline and not the individual. The church must reject an unloving false leniency which excuses all behavior under the banner of "All have sinned" (Rom 3:23) and "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone" (John 8:7). The church must also reject unloving severity in discipline that stops seeking the good of the offender and simply wants vengeance. As Andrew Fuller wrote, "Love is the grand secret of discipline, and will do more than all other things put together towards ensuring success."

Let me give one example of how church discipline has been a catalyst for growth at the church I have the privilege to shepherd. Many years ago, we found out one of our young adult members was pregnant out of wedlock. If the young man had been a church member, we would have called him to repentance as well, but he was not.  We immediately connected with her to see how she was doing and to pray for her. We assured her of our support during the pregnancy and also talked to her about repentance regarding her sin. She balked at the idea of needing to repent and definitely at the notion of public confession, which we suggested since her pregnancy was going to be a public matter in the church community. We all continued to pray for her and women from the church reached out to her in love. As time went on, she softened and eventually called us to say she wanted to confess her sin publicly and ask the congregation for forgiveness.

She did so on a Sunday morning at the end of the service. People stood up, wept for joy, and applauded the gospel courage of this young woman. A forgiven people are eager to forgive. After her confession, I said to the congregation that the matter had been dealt with and we would do nothing but support her and celebrate the child in her womb. I added that if anyone from this point forward gossiped about the situation or otherwise treated her in an unloving manner, then we would come to them and call for their repentance. She was loved as she had never been loved before by the congregation with support, help, and encouragement. Some ladies provided a baby shower and many consistently asked her how she was doing.

Consider what would have happened if we would have handled that situation the way many churches respond. Everyone talking about it in hushed tones in the corner, smiling when she walks by, and then continuing the gossip when she is out of sight. The young lady would have lived in shame and isolation if we had done that. Few would have reached out to her for fear of seemingly condoning her sinful choices. In fact, that kind of shame, hidden sin culture, often creates a context that tragically pushes young women in the direction of the abortion clinic. How much better it is to lovingly have honest conversations and create an opportunity to celebrate the power and triumph of the gospel.

After that Sunday, and others like it, I have countless church members say how powerful a moment like that is  and how it causes them to delight all the more in the gospel and challenges them to honestly own up to their own sins. On the occasion of the young ladies public repentance a visitor told me they knew at that moment Ashland was the church for them because it was a place where "Jesus changes everything" is not just a slogan but a living gospel culture. As one lady said to me, "This place is real. Nominal Christianity had lulled me into lethargy as if it was all there was out there." The young lady who repented wrote me a letter a couple of years later after she had moved away that said, "Before, I believed the gospel message, but I had never felt and experienced gospel love like that before. All I can say is thank you." Of course, not all situations end as beautifully as that one, but all of them are an indispensable aspect of Christian discipleship.

Matthew 18:20 says, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them" and is often quoted as if it merely suggests that Christ shows up when we gather together for worship. The verse is actually more specific. It is  a beautiful promise of the presence of Christ in the hard work of church discipline when it is properly done as an expression of Jesus' authority. What an encouragement! Also, it should cause us to ponder what it say about churches that refuse to practice discipline? In Matthew 18:20, Jesus makes a direct promise of his presence regarding church discipline, "there I am among them," and at the end of Matthew he does the same after giving the Great Commission he says, "I am with you always" (Matt 28:20). One promise seems to anticipate the other as indispensable acts of faithfulness in His churches. Yes, church discipline can help your church grow.

The Church Jesus Attends

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A friend of mine was recently speaking to a pastor of a large congregation about how things were going in ministry. This particular pastor proceeded to tell my friend that a prominent public figure was coming to speak at the church he pastored. He then went on to boast about the large turnout that they expected at this event. To this, my friend said, "Oh yeah. Jesus comes to our church every Sunday." Though some might consider this to be a flippant, cynical or juvenile response, it is, in fact, one of the most under-acknowledged and under-appreciated truths to cherish. In every church where the word of God is faithfully proclaimed, the sacraments are rightly observed and discipline is administered, God has promised to attend His people with His presence. 

The true and living God has promised to manifest His presence when His people gather together to worship Him according to His appointed means of grace on the Lord's Day. If we really believed that God manifests His presence in a special way in the gathered assembly, we would prepare ourselves accordingly to come into His presence. We would prayerfully desire to come every Lord's Day in brokenness, humility, thankfulness and joy. We would, in the words of the writer of Hebrews, "draw near with boldness" (Heb. 4:16) as we come to worship Him in "reverence and godly fear" (Heb. 12:28).

In his letter to the church in Ephesus, the Apostle Paul explained that Christ "came and preached peace to you who were afar off and to those who were near" (Eph. 2:17). The question is, "When did Jesus go to the church in Ephesus and preach to those who would come to believe the Gospel?" There is only one possible answer. Christ was present in the preaching of the Gospel through the ministers He appointed. When the word is faithfully preached, Christ is preaching. The Apostle Peter explained this when he referred to Gospel ministers as "those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven" (1 Peter 1:12). The Holy Spirit is none other than "the Spirit of Christ" who spoke in the Old Testament prophets about the sufferings of Christ and the glories that follow (1 Peter 1:10-11). It was "by the Spirit" (1 Peter 3:18) that Jesus went and preached to those who were on the earth "in the days of Noah" (1 Peter 3:20). Noah was a preacher of righteousness (2 Peter 2:5) through whom Christ was preaching by the Holy Spirit. So it is with those men whom Christ has commissioned to preach today. Whenever Gospel ministers are preaching the word of God to the people of God through the Spirit of God, Christ is preaching through them. In a very real sense, in every true church where the word is faithfully proclaimed, the risen and reigning Christ is the minister who is preaching salvation and judgment.

The people of God should love Lord's Day worship more than anything because of the confident anticipation that they are going to hear from God. The late Professor John Murray gave the following observation about God's word:

"The Scripture is God speaking--as if we heard the word of God directly from heaven...I suppose that if we were told that at a certain location, on a certain day, at a certain hour a voice was to be heard from heaven--I suppose that if that were plainly certified...I am sure that all that community would be filled with people from hundreds of miles away. They would come from countries. I don't suppose that the fields would hold them. They would be there out of curiosity, if for no other reason. And yet, in the Scripture we have the voice of God just as surely as if God the Father spoke directly from heaven in an audible voice. And it is more sure (2 Peter 1:19) because it is more permanent...with the Scripture there is a permanent deposit and it is the voice of God with continuousness. And, it is the voice of God just as if we heard God speaking to us directly from heaven."1

We should also acknowledge that Jesus is present at the table when believers are gathered together in worship to feed on him by faith. The Westminster Confession of Faith explains the corporate nature of the Lord's Supper in chapter 29.3:

"The Lord Jesus has, in this ordinance, appointed His ministers to declare His word of institution to the people, to pray, and bless the elements of bread and wine, and thereby to set them apart from a common to an holy use; and to take and break the bread, to take the cup, and (they communicating also themselves) to give both to the communicants; but to none who are not then present in the congregation."

The corporate nature of the Supper is taught in 1 Corinthians when the Apostle came to address matters of the Supper. Paul repeatedly uses the phrase "when you come together," after explicitly tying the observation of the Super to the weekly assembly on the Lord's Day. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, he writes, "When you come together as a church..." After that, he repeats the phrase, "when you come together" three times (1 Cor. 11:20, 33 and 34). If there is any question about the meaning of this phrase, Paul again uses it when addressing how we are to conduct ourselves in the worship service (1 Cor. 14:26).

Then in WCF 29.7, we find the doctrine of the real, spiritual presence of Christ at the table when the divines assert the following:

"Worthy receivers, outwardly partaking of the visible elements, in this sacrament, do then also, inwardly by faith, really and indeed, yet not carnally and corporally but spiritually, receive and feed upon, Christ crucified, and all benefits of His death: the body and blood of Christ being then, not corporally or carnally, in, with, or under the bread and wine; yet, as really, but spiritually, present to the faith of believers in that ordinance, as the elements themselves are to their outward senses."

There is the promise of the covenant blessing of God attached to the worthy partaking of the sacrament. Paul writes, "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Cor. 10:16). There is also the promise of covenant curses attached to the unworthy partaking of the sacrament in the warnings of 1 Cor. 11:27-32.

Finally, there is the promise of Jesus being present when the church gathers to carry out discipline, according to his word. Murray again explained:

"Many have more respect for the presence of people than the presence of the Savior. And, if numbers are the criteria for our esteem for the presence of God then we miss entirely the comfort of our Lord where he says, 'Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of them.'"2

Jesus is highlighting the collective nature of the judicial pronouncement of the elders of his church when he promises to make his presence known in this context. It is with a view of the church collectively conceived (Matt. 18:17)--making a judgment about the spiritual condition of a professing believer who refuses to repent. Jesus is promising his presence to the gathered assembly who are seeking to obediently carry out his ordained process of discipline (Matt. 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5:3-5).

Jesus Christ is the King and the only head of the church. He mediates the presence of God to his people when he stands in the midst of the people of God who are gathered together to worship the living God. Jesus acts as the worship leader of the people of God (Heb. 2:12). He stands as the great High Priest of the Church, making the worship, prayers and praises of his people acceptable before the throne of God (Rev. 1:12-20). Whenever the people of God are gathered together to worship God in Spirit and in truth, according to the means that He has appointed for His church, God is present. Why wouldn't we long to be gathered together with the people of God every Lord's Day to listen to our great God and Savior speak, to receive his sacrificial service and to acknowledge his rule over us?

 

1. An excerpt from John Murray's sermon, "Holy Scripture."

2. An excerpt from Murray's sermon, "Christ Among His People."