Thinking Through The Four Observations — Observation #3. (by Jon Shuler)

Believing that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people.

It is natural for men and women who first encounter the love of God in Christ Jesus, who repent and welcome him into their lives, to want to convey this Good News to their immediate friends and neighbors. It was this desire that led Andrew to go and find Peter, and Philip to go and find Nathaniel. This first instinct is inspired by the Holy Spirit, but the fulness of God’s intention for the spread of the gospel is greater. He cares for all the peoples of the earth, and he desires that they know and walk in the liberty of the children of God. Whenever reformation comes this truth comes to the fore.

Today in the West many see all cultures and religious traditions as equally valuable and good. They should be left alone. But the love of God, as it has been revealed in Christ Jesus, is meant to be taken to every corner of the globe. This amazing news, manifest in the life and death of Christ, is Good News for every people and nation. No one is to be excepted.

The first outflowing of this grace will touch those near at hand, but it will soon spread to others from the nations. Strangers and sojourners who live in the lands of the new anointing will hear the truth, and the Spirit of God will awaken in some of them a desire to go back to their own people, to share the joyful news they have heard. New communities of faith will be formed in those places that have never before heard of Jesus the crucified Redeemer. And the faithful church, if there, will re-awaken to the unending command of the Lord Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations.”

Some will then be called to leave their own lands to take the blessing to others. To find men and women with receptive hearts and share with them a love that will never let them go, and never forsake them.The kingdom of God will break in among them.

Reformation can never come, however, to a church that will not embrace the Father’s heart for the lost. Failure to mobilize to carry that love beyond the walls of their own hearts, their own families and friends, or beyond their own buildings is a sin. When those to whom the gospel has come close their hearts to those who have not yet heard, it is only a matter of time before the forbearance of the Lord is exhausted. He will seek those who will worship and serve him in Spirit and in Truth.

Yet most of God’s people need not go far. The eyes of their hearts will be opened by God’s Spirit to see those they are called to serve right where they live. Their mission field is very near. But they must learn to see as God sees. There are people everywhere waiting to hear the Good News from someone who will share it in love. Someone who will be faithful to reach outside the boundaries of their community of faith. Someone who will not rest while any have not heard in their town or city. When this change occurs in a faithful few, and then a few more, reformation begins.

 

Next Week: Observation #4: The Church is organized to make disciples.

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Thinking Through The Four Observations— Observation #2. (by Jon Shuler)

Believing that the Word of God is true.

Astute readers will know why this second observation is directly related to the first. Since the period of history known as the Enlightenment, educated men have undermined faith in the Word of God as true. This began in the 18th century, with non believers, but by the late 19th century it had deeply penetrated most of the institutions that trained Christian leaders in the West. By the late 20th century, many in the older historic families of the church were being led by men who no longer believed the Word of God could be trusted. “Modern” thought had shown its (so they said) many errors. At least by 1950 in the West, if not sooner, men and women who did not believe in and follow the clear teaching of Jesus and his apostles, as revealed in Holy Scripture, were leading and training the next generation of church leaders. The Enemy of all that is good and true was having a field day. The church entered into precipitous decline.

It is in times like these that a few dear saints of God cry out to heaven for mercy. Please God renew in our day what our Fathers have told us you did in days gone by. Faithful witnesses call down the consuming fire of heaven to burn away what has become corrupt, and purify what is called to be holy. And in the fulness of time God acts.

When God begins to move in power, and Holy Spirit reformation of the church begins, it is always in the places where God’s clear Word is being trusted, and the preaching and teaching of “Jesus Christ and him crucified” is coming back to the center. When the truth of the gospel “as it is in Jesus” is restored to the heart of the church’s life, the church begins to grow. And that growth is seen in the lives of humble folk who kneel before their Lord in repentant faith and are born again of the Spirit of God. Obeying the Word of God begins to be their desire, because they love him who is the Word of God incarnate. A new day of reformation dawns when leaders begin to be moved to that repentance, and submit afresh to Jesus as he is revealed in the Word of God.

Of course such men are usually accused of breaking the rules, or not being faithful to the traditions of their denomination, or of being enemies of God. But they know something has happened in their hearts that has called them back to their first love. Or they have at last become truly converted men. In either case, they are brought under the sovereignty of the Word of God written, and they begin to be used for the spread of the kingdom of God. That kingdom and his righteousness becomes what they seek first. They are no longer in thrall to the traditions of men.

The darkness begins to be penetrated, when those days come, and the light of Christ Jesus begins to shine in heart after heart, congregation after congregation, and community after community. The gospel of Christ Jesus begins to change the culture of those places where it is preached and lived. A reformation from God has begun. Times of refreshing have come.

 

Next Week: Observation #3 – Believing that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for all people.

Principles for a New Reformation? (by Jon Shuler)

Some years ago I accused a dear brother of not believing in “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” which we both say we “believe in” every time we recite the Nicene Creed. His response to me was: “I believe in it. I just don’t think you can organize it on earth.” That day I disagreed. Now, on the basis of a long journey of intentionally trying to follow Jesus, I think I believe his answer was correct. But I remain a part of an historic church that I was called by the Lord to serve, and I remain loyal to that call, so what do I do if I believe a new reformation must come?

As a global missionary I have sometimes seen the hand of God move in power by the Holy Spirit, and everywhere I have seen that grace, or heard about it, there are a four things that always seem to be present. So let me posit that these things might need to be in place if there is to be a new reformation in our day. I am persuaded these observations might point us to some foundational principles.

First, and perhaps surprisingly to some of my readers, when true reformation comes the senior leadership of the existing church has usually not been trained in the traditional seminary system of the West. It is not that the leaders are uneducated, but that they are free from many of the cultural blinders that generally are placed over the eyes of men trained (usually in an historic tradition) in a Western rationalist way.

Second, the senior leadership of the church believe that the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, are true. They believe the Word of God written has come to them from the hand of God. They believe they are bound to submit to it.

Third, the senior leadership believe that the gospel of Jesus Christ is true. Absolutely true for all people, at all times and in all places. No people or culture is to be neglected. For these leaders obedience to God’s Word as revealed in Jesus Christ is always the final court of appeal.

And fourth, the local church – when true reformation breaks out – is organized on the basis of small gatherings of believers, which exist for the purpose of making disciples who can make disciples. They are not for fellowship, alone, nor for teaching, alone, but for the primary purpose of equipping every believer to be a disciple-making follower of Christ Jesus.

So if, after hearing these four things, someone then asks: What happens when the current senior leadership of the church are confronted with these things?” I would ask that person: “What happened when Jesus confronted the religious leadership of his day?” Those who ask usually have the answer, but they rarely are attracted to the conclusion.

If there is to be true reformation in existing churches, the senior leadership must repent.

 

Next Week: Thinking Through The Four Observations.

Apostolic Tradition? (by Jon Shuler)

“Truth or Traditions?” last week stirred deep feelings in some readers. “We only keep Traditions (with a capital “T”) that are apostolic,” they said. “These are not separate from the ‘Truth.’ ”

How shall we unpack that?

Luke the Evangelist and Church Historian left us a significant record of the first days of the church after Pentecost. The new believers “devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship….” What was it that the apostles taught?

Can anyone doubt it was what they had learned from Jesus Christ their risen Lord? It was this that they conveyed to new converts. The gospel of Jesus Christ, enfolded in the memory of all that he had said and done. In a very short time this was recorded in four gospels, and expounded in apostolic letters and writings. It is the heart of what we call the New Testament.

When there was dispute about the truth in the subsequent years, the leaders returned to these writings to resolve the conflict. They did not invent new teachings. They conveyed what had first been conveyed. Little by little they became deeply convinced that God had given them what we now call the New Testament to stand in the place that was once taken by the apostles themselves. To depart from these writings was to depart from the community of the Lord’s people, the church of Jesus Christ.

But they were human beings, and they did organize themselves in confidence that the Holy Spirit was with them, and leading them, as Jesus had told them he would. Traditions grew up among them while the apostles were still alive.

We know that everywhere there were Christians, they met on the Lord’s Day for worship and to hear the message of the gospel, to baptize and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and to share in the fellowship of love brought to them by the Lord. And we know that from the beginning there were leaders who had responsibility to oversee the local body in the truth, leaders who were in accountable connection and submission to one another. We know their leaders met with other leaders too, and adjudicated later disputes. But none of this was of greater authority than the truth given by Jesus. The truth we have in our New Testament. For the better part of 500 years these things were described as “apostolic traditions.” These are the things that missionaries took throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

If someone wants to appeal to these traditions as “Traditions,” I have no complaint. Nor did any faithful leader in the early church. They do not overturn the truth, they uphold it.

But what of traditions (small “t” ) added later? Things not in the apostolic record?

 

Next Week: Drawing a Line?

Truth or Traditions?  (by Jon Shuler)

Some of my friends have objected to the last few posts. Our leader is a “real believer,” they said, “even though our church is not flourishing. He has a personal walk with the Lord.” How to respond?

First let me say this is encouraging. I am always pleased to meet and know others who are pursuing the righteousness of faith. May God increase their number.

But all too often this protest masks a deeper problem, which is preaching and teaching the traditions of men, while verbally professing the things of God. Or as the great prophet of Israel said: “This people draw near with their mouth…while their hearts are far from me….”

Our Lord himself, drawing on this same prophet was even more emphatic: “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” How does this happen if leaders are truly walking with the Lord?

My own experience teaches me that it happens slowly and subtly, especially in a community with a strong liturgical heritage. The weekly recitation of ancient words, many deeply biblical in origin, gradually becomes a way of praying without thinking. The beauty of earlier formularies lulls the leader into a kind of awe. There begins to be a readiness to defend ancient ways, and ancient words, in the face of alternative ideas and practices. The theological sophistication of the few becomes the bulwark of the many, while the daily “hearing the voice of the Lord” becomes rarer and rarer, in private and in public. In time, the people spoken against are those of the faithful who call for the Lord to be obeyed, as revealed in his Word, even if the tradition must be set aside.

Early in my own awakening to these things, I thought this was a uniquely Anglican (or catholic) problem. But I have come to realize that it happens in every family of the church. “Our way” of following the Lord becomes “the right way,” and the Word of God is placed in a second position, even as the official profession is that it is first.

This problem of truth versus tradition is precisely what the Lord Jesus faced in his earthly ministry. He was opposed by leaders who thought he was undermining Godly and good traditions. He was spoken against by those who defended the ways of their fathers, even when those ways were leading God’s people astray. The Son of God came among them, speaking God’s Word, and they attacked him for not honoring God. Is there any way out of this dilemma? Our Lord Jesus explicitly taught his followers that there was one sure test of the fidelity of their discipleship: he said they would abide in his word.

So too the faithful church.

 

Next Week: Apostolic Tradition?

Preaching that is True (by Jon Shuler) 

A student of church history will confirm that the sermons of any given age reveal the central focus of that season in the life of the church. A believing historian knows that when sermons focus on the Word of God written, the church flourishes. When sermons become opportunities for moralizing or personal opinions the church goes into decline.

The sermon evidence in the Anglican Family over the last hundred years shows a marked decline in the centrality of the Word of God. The date of the beginning of this declension is debatable, but the outcome is indisputable. The Anglican witness in North America (which includes the Episcopal Church in the United States) has been weakening every year since 1915. That is if one simply measures church attendance.

But attendance at church is no guarantee of faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only the Spirit of God, living in a true believer, can produce true believers. And that Spirit accompanies true preaching, not false. Faith comes by hearing the truth.

What happens when the clear Word of God is not preached week by week? The believing community goes into inexorable decline. Godly people die off, some believers leave to find a community that upholds “the faith once delivered to the saints,” and many who remain become captured by something other the the truth of the gospel. Only a very few, a faithful remnant, remain. There are always some who have not “bowed the knee to Baal,” but they are “like sheep without a shepherd.”

But what are they to do? If the leader (for Anglicans the priest in charge) does not have a secret life with God there is almost no hope of faithful growth. If a leader does not walk with God he can not lead others to God. If an ordained leader is not born again of the Spirit of God he will not preach, he will not teach, he will not live by the teachings of the Lord Jesus. Why? Because he is is not submitted to the lordship of Christ.

What is absolutely true, however, is that the faithful remnant can, and must, flee to the one true shepherd, the only good shepherd. If the remnant flee to Jesus, he will come to their aid, and lead them into right paths. First he will sustain them by their daily time in the Word of God. Second he will give them a few other believers to meet with. Third he will lead them to pray earnestly for a godly leader. They will pray that either the current leader be converted, or that he be removed, and a believing leader be sent.

Of course this may not happen quickly. God alone determines the time. But the earnest prayers of the faithful must be for God to give them a leader who has a living relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. That leader will have a hidden life with his Lord. That leader will draw deep from the well of God’s Word. That leader will teach what the Lord Jesus teaches. That leader walks in the teaching of the apostles, which always leads the hearers to Christ Jesus.

 

Next Week: Truth or Traditions?

The Inner Life of the Leader — Part III (by Jon Shuler)

The Sovereignty of God was not much discussed in the Anglican world I grew up in, but I have come to hold to that doctrine as I have grown older in the faith of Jesus Christ. Mercifully, as a child, I was surrounded by Episcopalians who were true believers, even though they were weak in the knowledge of how to share their faith in words. They were ill equipped to stand against the waves of false teaching that began to buffet them in the 1960’s, however, and I suffered for their lack.

But from them, and even more from the words of the Book of Common Prayer (1928) that I heard every Sunday, prevenient grace affected my life. I did learn that there really was a moral right and wrong. I did learn to have an intellectual belief that the Christian Faith was true. But I did not live up to the moral teaching or know how to defend that faith. When I fell in love with a woman who held fast to those moral teachings, I determined to live by them. That determination led me into the arms of God, when I failed miserably to be able to live what they taught. I know now it was all of grace.

Later the stirrings of a call to ordination emerged in me, and I went to see my childhood rector. He took me to the bishop of the diocese, who sent me to the Standing Committee. They tentatively approved me, and I was sent to a psychiatrist, and finally I was recommended as a Postulant for Holy Orders. The bishop arranged for me to go to the most liberal seminary in the Episcopal Church, but I asked if I could study in England. I had some the notion England would be better. He agreed, and I was spared. Not once in the entire sequence of events was I asked to explain my personal faith.

By God’s good grace, I found myself in an Evangelical Church of England Theological College that held to and taught the faith that once the whole Church of England proclaimed. That faith which laid the first foundations of the Episcopal Church in this country, and contributed to the spread of that faith worldwide. The men and women who taught me in that college helped me to truly know Christ Jesus as my Savior and Lord.

In 1973 when I was about to be ordained, I asked for a preacher who would proclaim the true gospel. Because he was from another diocese, and unknown in mine, the request was granted. That day, after the service, my childhood rector asked the preacher to lay hands on him and pray that he might receive the Holy Spirit, but within a few short years my rector took his own life. My home parish and diocese covered it up.

What happened to those of us who grew up in that leadership culture? The answer is painful but clear: we did not learn the true faith. We did not understand, most of us, what distinguished between a formal faith and a true heart faith. We went off to college, the Navy, the Army, careers, and marriages with no real grasp of the Truth of the Gospel. As the church of our childhood moved further and further away from its historic moorings, most of us ceased to be part of any organized parish or congregation. The tragedy I mentioned several weeks ago played itself out.

 

Next Week: Preaching that is True