Water is Wet

For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea.
~ Habakkuk 2:14

Thoughts on Gospel conservation

Maybe you’ve seen the recently published article, “4 Reflections after Listening to 18 Hours of Sermons in America’s Biggest Churches,” by Colton Corter. I’ve seen it shared numerous times on different platforms with various comments affixed to it.

Corter wanted to find out what the preaching was like in America’s biggest churches. He listened to four sermons from each of nine churches that could be described as evangelical mega-churches. He listened to 36 sermons that averaged about 30 minutes per sermon, and that’s where the “18 hours of sermons” came from. The body of the article enumerates his four reflections, but he noted his most important observation as the following: “in 36 sermons, the good news of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection was unclear 36 times.” Based on what he heard from these churches, he concluded the Gospel was absent, not being preached.

The article is worth reading and considering. I can’t envision anyone being shocked, surprised, scandalized, or stumped by what Corter found. Given the premise, finding the clear Gospel in popular churches in America today is about like finding full shelves of hand sanitizer and toilet paper at Walmart at the end of March 2020. It’s like jumping into 36 different pools, rivers, lakes, and oceans to emerge and announce, “Water is wet.”

An Experiment in a Different Direction

I’m not being critical of the article. I think we need to read it and consider it. The problem I foresee is with the reader and not the writer. Large, popular mega-churches are by far the minority of churches in the United States and, therefore, represent a minority of church-goers as well. As far as I have understood the data, most regular church-goers in America go to what are considered small churches. Those same small church-goers are probably naturally suspicious of mega-churches. They don’t expect to find orthodoxy at such places. They would have been surprised if Corter reported hearing the Gospel clearly preached in the sermons he listened to.

Most of us go to small churches and the danger for us is dismissing Corter’s findings and reflections as only a problem out there somewhere, with those people, and not a problem at home, with us. I was immediately struck by the article because I have been conducting a similar experiment, though running it in a different direction.

Over the last 2-3 years, I have been deliberately listening to sermons, reading articles, and paying attention to social media posts coming from small, conservative Baptist churches in the U. S. I’ve listened to sermons from regular services, special services, conferences, etc. and I’ve read articles in print and online. I’ve considered older as well as newer material. I have also read a few books. I haven’t kept an exact tally, but I do know I’ve listened to well more than 18 hours of sermons and spent many more than 18 hours reading.

I confess I have not been conducting a scientific experiment with rigorous parameters and controls, and such. My observations are admittedly anecdotal, but still concerning. On the positive side, my findings are not like Corter’s 36-for-36 lack of Gospel preaching, but I have found a discernible lack of Gospel preaching and Gospel focus. Even in articles and sermons with “Gospel” in the title, the Gospel was either unclear or unmentioned. I have listened to sermons with Romans 1:16 as a text where the Gospel was not preached. I’m not saying I didn’t find the Gospel at all, but that it was noticeably missing in places across the whole sample.

A Few Reasons Why the Gospel May be Missing

I can’t say why the Gospel is absent in all cases. It could be a number of reasons. I do want to give a few reasons from my own experience and observations. The following list is in no particular order.

  1. Gospel Confusion
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on just what the Gospel is. That may seem impossible, but I have heard preachers give different answers to the simple question: What is the Gospel? I’m not talking about mere differences of terms or formulation, but vastly different answers about the content of the Gospel. Sometimes the Gospel is confused with church traditions, doctrinal statements, or even a preacher’s personal convictions. A good place to start is Paul’s statement of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, or Romans 1:1-6, or the Apostolic preaching in Acts, and especially Paul’s sermon in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia where he preached justification by faith to unbelieving Jews (Acts 13:38-39). The Gospel is the good news of the life, death, resurrection, and return of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, for the salvation of sinners who believe in him and trust him fully for righteousness apart from any and all works of the law to gaining eternal life and to the eternal glory of God, the Father. For the Gospel to be preached, this message must be stated clearly, and people should be called without qualification to repent of their sins and charged to trust in Jesus Christ.
  2. Losing Focus
    Preachers are sometimes not clear on what priority the Gospel should have. I have actually listened to preachers debating whether the Gospel should be preached in church. I’m plum stymied as to how that could even be a disagreeable topic. How can there be any debate about that? But, there is. Paul writing to churches clearly stated his priority for preaching the Gospel, both in his first ministry and his continuing ministry among them (Romans 1:15; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 2:2; Galatians 6:14; Ephesians 3:8; Colossians 1:28). Paul even spoke of the priority of his calling in terms preaching the Gospel rather than baptizing (1 Corinthians 1:17). When we don’t maintain the deliberate priority of preaching the Gospel, we lose our focus and eventually our grip on the Gospel.
  3. Lack of Exposition
    When preachers are in the habit of parachuting into random passages to extract a word or phrase to preach their pet topics with apparent biblical support, the Gospel moves to the background, is tacked on as an afterthought, or is completely missed. All Scripture is about Christ (Luke 24:27) and when expounded properly, every part of the Bible contributes to the story of Christ’s redemption of sinners. Commitment to proper exposition will ensure the Gospel is clearly and regularly preached.
  4. Loading the Gospel
    Preachers sometimes undermine the Gospel in sermons through guilt-driven, legal preaching. Sometimes justification by faith and salvation by grace are stated as doctrinal truths, but the sermon focuses practically on a message of do this, don’t do that, try harder, do more, etc. The net effect of such preaching loads the Gospel with legal requirements and confuses the hearers about what the Gospel actually is and what it actually requires. Not only should we affirm the Gospel clearly in our doctrinal standards, we must also preach the Gospel clearly from the pulpit. We must clearly distinguish between the grounds of our justification by grace through faith and the fruits of salvation worked in us.

Conclusion

There are a lot of problems out there, but we need to start looking at the problems in here. Just start asking around what the marks of a true church are, and you will find some answers that don’t begin with the Gospel. How could the Gospel not be the first item on the list? The Gospel is not the only point of doctrine in the Bible. It is not the only concern for a church. However, Paul said the Gospel was of first importance (1 Corinthians 15:3). It’s where we begin and is central to all we do as a church. Conservative churches like to think of themselves as conservative, but what are we conserving? No matter how many things a church may boast of having, if it doesn’t have the Gospel right, it is not a church of Jesus Christ.

Call me Ali

They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.
~ Mark 10:37

’cause I’m the greatest

Doctrine. To some, the word causes fear, trembling, and gnashing of teeth. May the hooves of a thousand camels stamp it and may the last camel die upon it under the burning noon sun of the desert. May doctrine be as the filthiness of the Gentiles and not be once named among us. Don’t talk to me about doctrine. In other words, some people would rather avoid it.

To some others, doctrine is where it’s at. They’re all about it. Give me some of that doctrine. Though Isaac sustained Jacob with grain and wine, I will run in the strength of that doctrine for forty days. Though I start on the journey of a thousand miles and the sun is hidden from me behind wet, stone gray clouds, I will fear no evil as long as doctrine is beside me, beneath me, and before me. In other words, it’s all in all to such folks.

I suppose, by now, you suspect me of dealing in extremes and setting up my heroism in forging some middle way. Why would I do that? Why would I want to find a way to be in between follies? I could be slathered with mayo and mustard and paired with cheddar between two slices of problems and I still would only be lunch meat. No, I want to find a better road entirely, the biblical road. What does the Bible have to say about doctrine?

What is doctrine?

2 Timothy 3:16 tells us all Scripture is inspired by God and all of Scripture is useful for doctrine, or teaching. That is what doctrine is. It’s teaching. The Greek noun here is didaskalian, and it means that which is taught. When Luke refers to the Apostles’ teaching in Acts 2:42, he refers to their doctrine, the body of teaching they taught.

The doctrine of the Bible is simply what the Bible teaches. The biblical writers wrote consciously of a body, or system, of instruction in the Bible. Paul charged Timothy to stick to the pattern of Paul’s teaching (2 Timothy 1:13). The Apostles’ doctrine is sufficiently formalized so as to be a standard of measure for all teaching (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

Biblical doctrine is never imposed on the Bible in part or in whole. Biblical doctrine is the Bible. The Bible is a book of sixty-six books and each of those books is made up of narratives, poetry, and paragraphs of prose. We have to give detailed attention to the words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs of the biblical books. We have to study the flow, the logic, the grammar, the rhetoric, and the parallels and contrasts with similar passages in the other books of the Bible. Through this process, we come to the contextual meaning of the passage, and that is doctrine.

What is the purpose of doctrine?

The aim of the Bible’s teaching is not mere knowledge. Mere knowledge results in pride (1 Corinthians 8:1). Mere knowledge, no matter how vast its scope, is worthless (1 Corinthians 13:2). Paul often described doctrine in the pastoral letters with a Greek word that means sound, or healthy. The word literally means having good physical health. Biblical doctrine is healthy like a human body free of disease or sickness, but it also healthy like a nutritious meal that nourishes and enriches the body to perform its tasks (1 Timothy 4:6; 2 Timothy 3:17).

Biblical doctrine is foundational to growing in faith, obedience, and practical righteousness (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:1; 2:11-14; 2 Peter 1:3-7). Doctrine sanctifies us and fills us with joy (John 17:13-17). Doctrine grows our discernment and protects us from error (Hebrews 5:11-14; Ephesians 4:4). Doctrine is also instrumental in making disciples, as God’s word creates God’s people (Matthew 28:18-20).

Conclusion

As pastors minister in their congregations, we aim for people to be brought to faith, grow in grace, grow in love, grow in unity, grow in witness, grow in joy, grow in worship, and grow in expectation of Christ’s return. That does not, or will not, happen apart from good doctrine. We simply cannot feed the sheep without exposition of all the words God gave us that forms accurate doctrine, which is then applied to the very people in front of us. Doctrine is a vital part of connecting people today to the Bible written so long ago.

In other words doctrine is essential to ministry. You cannot jettison doctrine and maintain ministry. Ministry without doctrine becomes manipulation. Whatever the means employed, people are conformed to whatever vision the pastor has for them, but they are not really transformed by the teaching of God’s word. On the other hand, often doctrine is not viewed as essential to ministry but the entire goal of ministry. Doctrine becomes a measuring stick by which we can tell who will be the greatest in Heaven. It is a quick check by which we can measure our distinctiveness from our neighbor. People are prepped by such a ministry as if Heaven requires a No. 2 pencil and fully filled ovals.

Doctrine is essential. Doctrine that does not lead us to making more and more of Jesus Christ and less and less of ourselves, is not sound and is not biblical. On second thought, my name is not Ali after all.

God’s Gift of Peace

I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.
~ Numbers 24:17

A sermon on the coming King

6 For unto us a child is born,

unto us a son is given:

and the government shall be upon his shoulder:

and his name shall be called

Wonderful,

Counsellor,

The mighty God,

The everlasting Father,

The Prince of Peace.  

7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end,

upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom,

to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever.

The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.

– Isaiah 9:6-7

 

Introduction

Isaiah Chapter 9 is a part of the word sent to the kingdom of Judah and King Ahaz. The northern kingdom of Israel had made an alliance with the kingdom of Syria to counter the threat from the rising Assyrian Empire. Israel and Syria wanted Judah to join their alliance, but King Ahaz refused. Israel and Syria responded by attacking Judah in an effort to remove Ahaz from the throne. God sent word to Ahaz through the prophets Isaiah that he did not need to be afraid of Israel and Syria, but rather he needed to trust God. Ahaz refused to believe God’s word and out of fear and desperation, he secretly sought help from the Assyrians. The nation that Judah trusted in became their oppressor.

The surrounding chapters describe various judgments on Israel and Judah because they would not believe and keep God’s word. These judgments include captivity and exile for both kingdom. This time for Israel and Judah was characterized by battles and bloodshed, burning, enemy threats and oppression, darkness and the shadow of death (Isaiah 9:6-7).

The peace promised to Israel and Judah appeared very different from their present reality. Where will peace come from? The peace promised to Israel and Judah will extend to all the earth, but we don’t see it now. Throughout history we have seen monarchies, empires, republics, communism, socialist states, military regimes, and more, but none of those have brought any lasting peace and security to Israel or the world. How will it come?

 

What is God’s Answer?

Men have tried to find a solution and bring peace, but their solutions have tended to only become worse problems. God’s answer is quite different. His answer is to give us a child, a Son, “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given” (Isaiah 9:6). God’s answer points back to the prophecy to Ahaz two chapters earlier.

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall his name Immanuel.

– Isaiah 7:14

Isaiah went on to speak of this Son who will sit on “the throne of David” ruling over David’s “kingdom” (Isaiah 9:7). This Son is identified as Immanuel and the Messiah King, Son of God promised in Psalm 2:1-12. It is his coming that will bring joy and peace when all enemies are consumed in the fire of his wrath and all their battle garb and weapons of war will only be fuel for his fire (Isaiah 9:1-5).

This Son, Immanuel, will also be named Wonderful, a name that signifies miracle. He will be Counsellor, an adviser in truth and goodness, and a teacher of wisdom. His name The Mighty God means a warrior, or champion. He is also called The Everlasting Father, or father of the ages, pointing to the founding of his kingdom when he returns to reign. Lastly here, he will be called The Prince of Peace, a chief or captain of shalom, which is peace, prosperity, security, and wellness (Isaiah 9:6).

This Son will have “the government … upon his shoulder” (Isaiah 9:6). The kingdom he will bring is marked by abundance and unending peace. He will execute perfect judgment and justice that peace continues. He will sit on David’s throne reigning over David’s kingdom. The jealousy of Yahweh for his name and covenant will bring this King and kingdom to consummation (Isaiah 9:7). The covenant made with David so long ago will finally be fulfilled in David’s Son.

8 Now therefore so shalt thou say unto my servant David,

Thus saith the LORD of hosts, I took thee from the sheepcote, from following the sheep, to be ruler over my people, over Israel:  

9 And I was with thee whithersoever thou wentest, and have cut off all thine enemies out of thy sight, and have made thee a great name, like unto the name of the great men that are in the earth.  

10 Moreover I will appoint a place for my people Israel, and will plant them, that they may dwell in a place of their own, and move no more; neither shall the children of wickedness afflict them any more, as beforetime,  

11 And as since the time that I commanded judges to be over my people Israel, and have caused thee to rest from all thine enemies. Also the LORD telleth thee that he will make thee an house. 

12 And when thy days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom.  

13 He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever.  

14 I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men:  

15 But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee.  

16 And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever.

– 2 Samuel 7:8-16

Israel and Judah’s peace, which will extend to the entire earth will only come through this child, this Son promised through prophetic revelation. This child, this Son, came into the world around 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem in the land of Judah.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.  

(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)  

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.  

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)  

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.  

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.  

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.  

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  

9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.  

10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  

12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,  

14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.  

15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.  

16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.  

17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.  

18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.  

19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.  

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

– Luke 2:1-20

 

When Will There Be Peace on Earth?

If this Son was given 2,000 years ago, why is there not peace on earth since that time? Why is our life, joy, peace, safety, security, and all still threatened by enemies?

Matthew wrote of the birth of this Son as the fulfillment of the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy.

22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying,  

23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.

– Matthew 1:22-23

We have seen several names for this Son, but if we back up in Matthew 1 to verse 21, we find he has another name: “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” The name, Jesus, means Savior and is connected with his purpose to “save his people from their sins.” Recall the announcement of the angel to the shepherds, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

This Son is a Savior who saves his people from their greatest enemy. Men with swords, spears, guns, missiles, bombs, or badges is not our greatest danger. The greatest danger and obstacle to real peace, which is peace with God, is from our own sins. If we are ever going to see peace, we need our enemies defeated both externally and internally.

The child of promise was born and the Son was given that he might be have yet another name, the Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah 52:13). The Servant was given that might save from sins by bearing sins in his own body in his death.

1 Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?  

2 For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.  

3 He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.  

4 Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  

5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.  

6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. 

7 He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.  

8 He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.  

9 And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.  

10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.  

11 He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.  

12 Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

– Isaiah 53:1-12

So this child, this Son, was given in the first place as an offering for sin. He will bring his kingdom, which will we be an unparalleled time of peace on this earth (Isaiah 11:1-10). So between the manger and the kingdom is the cross in order to save his people from their sins.

 

Conclusion

God has given the gift of peace in the gift of his Son. His Son came to the earth once to put away sin through his own death on the cross (1 Timothy 1:15). God’s Son, Jesus Christ, is coming again to establish his kingdom on earth to bring peace to the world and blessings that have been promised long ago (Acts 3:18-21).

Will you see this peace? Will you see his kingdom and life that does not end? When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus by night, Jesus told him, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3). You will not enter his kingdom and enjoy his holy peace unless you are born again. Men and women are born again through faith in God’s word, the Gospel (1 Peter 1:22-25). If you will see life, you must repent and turn from your sin and trust completely in God’s gift, his Son Jesus Christ for salvation, the forgiveness of sins, and inheritance in his kingdom.

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