Faithfulness > Fame: Understanding Salvation

Faithfulness in the minutia of life within the context of suffering reveals far more about the eternal essence of our souls than anything that happens on a stage, screen, or social media platform. Many church goers assume the opposite to be true. They think that the great preacher with a massive congregation and an even more massive online following has been granted a direct line to heaven. Potentially he has. But according to Jesus, the massive public platform is not the main evidence of his faith. The primary evidence of faith consists of simply of doing the “will of my Father who is in heaven.” If a pastor can hold the attention of thousands for 50 minutes while spending the remaining 10,030 minutes of his week in a crumbling fortress of self-centered fear that produces frequent outburst of anger, greedy demands for more money, and a never-ending stream of insults, Jesus will have nothing to do with him come eternity. He will tell the pastor, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness (Matt 7:23).”

The same response will also greet exorcists and miracle workers who supposedly do great works for God while living lawless lives at odds with the salvation of the Lord that trains “us to renounce all ungodliness and evil passions (Ti. 2:12).” The great threat to the church is not the absence of the supernatural or the absence of human gifts. The great threat to the church proves to be the presence of the supernatural and grand gifts within hypocritical leaders. In other words, false teachers will gain entrance into the church precisely because they possess the supernatural or natural gifting needed to wow the masses. God tells Moses in Deuteronomy 13:1-4, that the false prophets will perform true signs and wonders, because

“God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

Those who make either supernatural or natural ability the measure of their spirituality or of the spirituality of their leaders will be sorely disappointed. God cares far more about whether or not we love our neighbor than whether or not we can impress our neighbor.

In other words, what matters first and foremost is not someone’s ability to expand this church or that denomination. What matters most of all is the person’s faithfulness in the minutia of life within the context of suffering.

Storms and Floods > Platforms

Jesus doubles down on the importance of faithfulness when he tells the famous story of the two builders: one who builds his house upon the rock and the other who builds his house upon the sand (Matt 7:24-27). At first, both seemingly build the same structure. Both go to church, attend Bible studies, discuss the latest evangelical twitter controversy, spend a week or two on a mission trip, and read their Bible. The wolf and the sheep appear to be quintessentially the same from a distance for few can see whether they habitually lie to their neighbors or if they always speak harshly to their kids at home.

But then their circumstances change. Adversity comes in the form of everything from cancer to seeing the deacons smoking behind the shed. The foundation begins to feel the weight of physical pain, emotional anguish, and institutional hypocrisy. Though the believer may deeply feel the spiritual weight of the adversity, he or she will not turn their back on Christ as the storm rages around them. As the Apostle Peter did in John 6:68, they will declare,

“Lord to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

They may shift their memberships from a dying church to a living church. They may shed tears and mourn the profound brokenness of this world as Jesus did when he encountered Lazarus’s death. True believers can be pushed to the brink of collapse by the intensity of their suffering, but their house will not fall. They will remain patient at the dinner table, speak kind words to their coworkers, and faithfully commune with God through prayer. As Jesus promises us in Matthew 12:20, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Jesus will never abandon those who have trusted in him for salvation. The righteous will withstand the storms affliction.

Conversely, the false believer, the wolf, or the hypocritical Christian will crumble when the storms beat against his home. The intensity of the storm can be as simple as a poorly timed sermon or as profound as the tragic loss of a child. But those who forsake the faith when life becomes difficult reveal that their peacetime faith was insincere. To cope with adversity, the wolf will return to its vomit for comfort, a vomit than can consist of alcohol, pornography, divorce, angry outbursts, and a host of other foul things that lead them away from worship, the local church, and Jesus.

Before the storm, the fake sheep often appear genuine. For this reason, a false Christian’s deconstruction can profoundly wound vast swaths of Christendom. As Jesus says, “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (v27).” Of this we can be certain, those who build their lives on the sands of lawlessness will fall and at times with a loud bang. The hypocrites will be exposed. The storms will come.

The Danger of Living in the Past

Though the discussion above can be applied posthumously to a whole host of situations, Jesus’s concern and our concern should not be for the past. We should not spend an inordinate amount of time conducting autopsies of dead churches and deconstructed believers. Rather, we should examine our own lives and the lives of today’s leaders in light of Jesus’s warning in Matthew 7. We should seek to preserve the living.

How are we doing? Are our leaders faithful in the midst of suffering? Are we faithful in the minutia of life in the midst of suffering?

Church Wolves Will Come

The downfall of pastors both great and small should sadden us. But such events should not surprise us. In Matthew 7:15, Jesus tells his disciples, his church, to “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” In other words, false teachers will come. Pastors will fall. The church should prepare for the arrival of wolves.

Why no Guards?

The prevailing sentiment of God’s people makes no allowance for the possibility of such false teachers. The local congregation sees no need to guard the pulpit or its ministry apparatus for it assumes that only qualified, sincere, and devoted candidates will express a desire to pastor or lead a class. The local church assumes the very inclination towards the pastorate, mission field, or Sunday school room is the greatest prove of the person’s qualifications for the said ministry. When a question or two does arise that challenges the persons fitness, the majority of the congregation falls back upon this or that positive experience that they shared with the pastoral or missional candidate. The members remark that he was pleasant a conversationalist at lunch the other day or that she passionately cared for the kids in nursery the other night. Moreover, they assume that if the soon-to-be installed leader were truly of the devil, he would tell us about his love of money, or she would list teaching heresy as one of her hobbies on her social media profile. Since he’s nice, he must be qualified to lead the youth group. Since she’s nice, we really should support her trip to Nepal. No thought is given to the possibility that that the nice face could just be a mask hiding the soul of a wolf.

Beware the Wolf

According to Jesus, we should entertain such a possibility. Instead of blindly trusting every person with a Bible, our savior longs for us to test the spirits. In other words, we should examine the fruit of those who aspire to church and ecclesiastical leadership. Jesus notes in Matthew 7:18, “A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” When a prospective leader arrives at the church, the church should pat down the person’s character to see what fruit he or she has produced. Anyone can say “Lord, Lord,” talk passionately for a few minutes, or make a charming impression at a church social. But a man called by God to serve as an elder will bear fruit well beyond the controlled interactions tied to his professional ministry. He will consistently affirm others with his words, demonstrate a love for his family, a compassion for his enemies, a contentment with his income, and sexual purity. The man who spews out hate, hungers for money, and focuses inordinate amount of his attention upon sexual topics should not be advance into the pulpit even if he seems sincere, passionate, and gifted. In other words, the man who justifies his moral failings through appeals to his ability (an ability he may truly possess) is unquestionably wolf. To borrow the words of Paul, a faithful teacher must be above reproach (Titus 1; 1 Timothy 3). There is no room for equivocation. A good teacher will not preach truth on Sunday and then lie on Monday. A godly leader will produce good fruit.

What A Wolf Does

Once the church grants the wolf unfiltered access to the sheep, the false teacher will feast on the lives, relationships, and finances of the sheep, leaving a path littered with the bloody fruit of sin. The wolf may not stop feasting until he has eaten that local church into extinction. The damage one wolf or a wolf pack can do stretches the limits of our imagination. If a wolf cannot be removed quickly, the sheep should flee.

What God Does

Though wolves remain a very real threat, no wolf will overthrow the Church. Local outposts may fall into disrepair when their pulpits are left unguarded, but the church militant will forever survive. Moreover, justice will come. Someday soon, the false trees will be cut down and cast into hell (Matt 7:19). The good shepherd will also attend to his wounded sheep, restoring them to health. God will always show himself faithful even during a wolf attack.

Though God will stand by his church, wisdom demands that local churches should exam a potential church leader’s spiritual fruit long before giving him the keys to the pulpit or the ministry framework. Not every wolf has to run rampant among the sheep if we will but stand guard. Will you?

Why This Pastor Goes to Church

While preaching remains the undisputed foundation of congregational worship, the pulpiteer is not the church. In other words, I as the pastor of a local church do not head to church to hear myself preach on Sunday mornings. I study, wrestle with, apply, and come to terms with the text during the week so that I arrive in the pulpit intent upon sharing my Scriptural convictions rather than forming them. I do not come for the academic insights.

I attend church every morning because my local church serves as a rallying point for God people through whom God edifies my soul. I find encouragement in the corporate singing of doctrinal hymns that encourage my soul , the prayers of my fellow believers that infuse my heart with hope, and the discussions that arise from the congregation after a sermon which guide me to great biblical clarity. I pastor as well as I do (whatever level that is) because I do so within the loving bounds of the local church. In other words, I go to church because the people of God convey me afresh to the throne room of Jesus. Or as David says in Psalm 26:8, “O Lord, I love the habitation of your house and the place where you glory dwells.”

With this conviction in mind, I refused to exclusively “live-stream” my church’s Sunday morning service when the COVID-19 pandemic sent us scurrying to our homes. I believed then as I do now that church is more than a pulpiteer and skilled pianist or music team. Church is the old lady who gives the best hugs, the child who wiggles and occasionally cries, the young couple who faithfully serves in the nursery, the sweet greeters who never meet a stranger, the faithful single wrestling through the idea of marriage, and the aged saint who stands ready to stop and pray with you the minute you open up about your latest struggle. While the sermon serves as one of the foundational pillars of the congregation, it is not the totality of worship nor of the congregation. The church is the body of Christ, the hands and feet of Jesus (1 Cor 12:14).

For this reason, I also require all of my counselees to attend a local church for the duration of their counseling. Just as I need the whole church, the wounded and smarting heart also needs the whole church. Yes, the counselee needs the intensity of the biblical counseling office and the reinforcement that comes through practical homework assignments. But she also needs those encouraging hugs, the hope found in a rich hymn, the loving prayers of the couple in the next pew over, and those moments of reassurance that come as she realizes through a lunchtime conversation about the sermon that she is not alone in her battle against temptation. The soul twisting in the wind needs the church just as much as the soul grounded upon the gospel.

The church fathers of old used to speak of the church as being a nurturing mother. Just as a baby dies without milk, so the believer will die if he or she neglects the food of the church. Stated positively, confessional corporate worship will as Hebrews 10:25 says, “stir up one another to love and good works.” The faithful local church feeds the soul.

The couple that can skip church for months to pursue their highschooler’s softball career no more understand the gospel of Jesus than a surgeon who thinks it’s fine to amputate a foot and then leave it on ice for a month or two understands medicine. We would undoubtedly question the skills of the surgeon. Understandably, the authors of the Bible question the spiritual life of those who willfully neglect the gathering of the church, the life-giving food of the Lord.

Christians need the local church, the whole body. Those who delight in God will forever delight in church: the old ladies, the wiggly kids, the awkward teenager, the tired mom, and the host of other personalities who make our local churches the household of God. As David said in Psalm 16:3, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” This pastor needs the saints. You need the saints.

So why do I go church? I go to church because it consists of the people of God who facilitate the worship of God. If you claim Christ and can make it to church this Sunday, I encourage you to go too. Will you?