This last week, as a part of our 5 year celebration, I talked about what we mean when we say that our focus is on "being the church, not building a church." Realizing statements that are often repeated can become meaningless cliches if we dont take time to examine the truth behind the declaration I felt it was appropriate to explain what we mean by that particular phrase.
On Sunday I wanted to show that the truth behind this declaration lies in an embracing of the Gospel. That being the church means that we take the life, work, death, resurrection and glorification of Christ as both our means of salvation and our pattern for discipleship. That when a congregation remains focused on the Gospel of Christ, continually conforming to the likeness of Christ, we WILL "be the church."
As a part of my message I identified three expressions of Gospel devotion that would be required if we are to truly fulfill our goal of "being the church:" Commitment to Teach the Gospel, Conviction to Live the Gospel and a Compassion to Bring the Gospel. I wanted to expound a little on the first devotion because I had an experience lately that I believe is instructive when reflecting on the teaching of a Gospel message.
One of the points I made when discussing the commitment to teach the Gospel is that we must teach a "sound" gospel message and I believe it is a distinction that the apostle Paul calls us to in his epistles. Paul in Galatians 1 confronts the truth that there are those who teach "another gospel, which is no gospel at all". In 2 Corinthians 4 he states that he does not cunningly distort the word of God to attract devotees but presents the Gospel of Christ and if it is veiled to some so be it. His clear implication here is that there are those who do distort the word to attract people. In light of this apparent reality, how do we identify sound Gospel teaching as opposed to cunning distortions of the word of God?
Whenever I listen to a sermon I always start with the question, "Does it really say that?" Is the bible really trying to lead us to this truth? Unfortunately, too often I find that the answer is, no. The message might be brilliantly delivered, well constructed and might even lead me to something I think is true but if it is not the Truth that the Bible is declaring we have to identify that and realize it is simply a cunning distortion of God's word. We cannot give biblical authority to ideas that have not been authorized by the Bible. As I said earlier, I recently had an experience that I think brilliantly illustrates the way we must attentively examine all teaching to make sure it is illuminating Christ's Gospel and not expressing some convenient teaching.
I had the opportunity to sit in on a teaching from Philippians 3 and I was intrigued and delighted when I learned that this would be the text for that evenings message because I believe it is one of the most beautiful expressions of Gospel v. Law in all of Paul's writings. It is the passage that begins with Paul's declaration that those who require circumcision to be saved are "dogs, evildoers and mutilators of the flesh" and how he could take pride in his own "righteous" behavior (circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless) but that his accomplishments were rubbish because all that matters is Christ's righteousness (v. 2-9). He boldly proclaims that he desires to partake in Christ's suffering so that he would also partake in His resurrection. It is a brilliant call to "imprint" Christ's Gospel of sacrifice on the life of the believer to attain Christ's Gospel of resurrection (10-11). But as I listened to the message and asked the question "does it really say that?" I was disappointed with the answer.
The pastor who was delivering the message used v. 12-14 as his text, entitling his message "4 Steps to Successful Living". As I listened I was saddened to hear the way in which Paul's powerful exhortation to live the Gospel here on earth to achieve "the prize for which God has called me heavenward" was turned into a Tony Robbins seminar for success.
He stated Paul's declaration "not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect" (a clear reference to not having died and been resurrected) was evidence of Paul realizing that even though he had "accomplished" so much he had a right view of his imperfections. He saw this as evidence that "successful people go through the process of self-evaluation." He looked at Paul's conviction of "forgetting what lies behind" as evidence that Paul, like all successful people, "forgot past failures" (even though it seems clear this is a reference to Paul's past righteous behaviors that he lists in v.5-7 and not failures). He finds in Paul's statement "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward" evidence that Paul, like all successful people, was "goal oriented." (I guess if you are referring to the fact that all Christians' singular goal should be heaven, then I can get onboard with this but that didn't seem to be his point). And finally he believed Paul's commitment to "press on" is indicative of the trait of all successful people: determination.
Now, I bring this up not for the purpose of denegrating another teacher but to point out how easily the power of the Gospel message can be exchanged for "good advice." Listen, going through the process of honest self evaluation, forgetting past failures, being goal oriented and determined may be good advice. In fact every single sales seminar I attended during my incarnations as a car salesman and real estate agent taught these points but this is NOT what Paul is saying to the church in this passage. This is NOT what the Holy Spirit is trying to get us to understand in His inspired Word. And these ideas are NOT worthy of biblical authority.
Do not exchange the power of the Gospel for simple platitudes. Do not simply accept every teaching as biblical because someone "uses" the Bible. Every time someone tells you the "Bible says..." (including when I am teaching) ask the question, "Does it really say that?" Look for the Gospel in every sermon to which you listen, if it's not there it's not worth your time.
A commitment to sound Gospel teaching is essential to "being the church."