Bonhoeffer on Church Growth

hillsongI’m no expert on the theology of the Church Growth Movement (or whatever clever moniker it goes by these days), but I can’t help but be disappointed at the continual emphasis on church growth (i.e., numbers) that is so rampant within Evangelicalism.  Everywhere you turn there are books, seminars, web sites, blogs, etc. dedicated to the next big thing (read ‘gimmick’) that will draw folks in.  Some have argued that the phenomenon of the ‘mega-church’ is on the wane, something I haven’t noticed around Houston, but regardless of whether this may be the case, the infatuation with growing larger churches continues continues to infect much of American Christianity.  At it’s core, I suspect the whole thing is largely about self-centered ‘pastors’ trying to build congregations, buildings, and programs to compete with the size of their own egos.

For those, however, who may be truly and sincerely trying to grow the size of their congregations for the glory of Christ and to really reach out to others with the gospel, one thing still jumps out at me from all the ‘experts’–church growth happens because of something we do.  That something may be related to preaching style, worship style, small groups, large groups, men’s groups, women’s groups, children’s church, Sunday School, or (insert issue of interest here).  Whatever it is, even as we ‘give God the glory’ for the increase of our congregation, at the core, that growth is understood to result from our work, our efforts, our programs, our gimmick.

Bonhoeffer disagrees.  He realizes, rightly, that Christ promised to build his church.  Such growth is his work, not ours.  As he writes:

If is not we who build. [Christ] builds the church.  No man builds the church but Christ alone.  Whoever is minded to build the church is surely well on the way to destroying it; for he will build a temple to idols without wishing or knowing it.  We must confess–he builds.  We must proclaim–he builds.  We must pray to him–that he may build.

We do not know his plan.  We cannot see whether he is building or pulling down.  It may be that the times which by human standards are the times of collapse are for him the great times of construction.  It may be that the times which from a human point of view are great times for the church are times when it is pulled down.

It is a great comfort which Christ gives to his church:  you confess, preach, bear witness to me and I alone will build where it pleases me.  Do not meddle in what is my province.  Do what is given to you to do well and you have done enough.  But do it well.  Pay no heed to views and opinions.  Don’t ask for judgments.  Don’t always be calculating what will happen.  Don’t always be on the lookout for another refuge!  Church, stay a church!  But church, confess, confess, confess!  Christ alone is your Lord; from his grace alone can you live as you are.  Christ builds.

–Dietrich Bonhoeffer (from No Rusty Swords, as cited in TDP, p. 841)

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Walther on Justifying Faith

One month after writing my initial post on the topic of justification in Galatians as presented in the NLT and ESV, I came across this reading by C.F.W. Walther this morning.  For those who may not be familiar with Walther, he was one of the founders and first president of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (see here for more).  Specifically, Walther addresses the question of justification ‘because’ (NLT) or ‘by’ (ESV et al) faith…the initial issue that got me writing in the first place.  In this sermon, he points out a common misconception of justification–in his mind–and counters with his understanding of the biblical teaching.  He says:

Many think that a person is righteous before God through faith and nothing else, since faith is a good work and a glorious virtue.  They maintain that a person makes himself acceptable and pleasing to God by his faith, which cleanses his heart, unites him with Christ, and brings forth the fruit of good works.

It is true that faith has all of these glorious qualities, but it is false to say this makes a person righteous before God.  Scripture never says a person is righteous before God because of or on account of his faith.  Instead, he is righteous through faith.  Faith, then, is not the cause of our justification but only its instrument.  It is the means by which we receive righteousness from God.

Faith does not make us righteous before God because it is such a good work and such a beautiful virtue.  Precisely the opposite is the case.  As [Romans 4.16] informs, faith makes a person righteous before God because righteousness can be obtained solely by grace.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp. 574-5)

Walther, then, understands justification in the traditional Protestant sense, as “the means by which we receive righteousness from God” not the reason we are considered/declared to be righteous.  I’m still struggling with the NLT rendering in Galatians and reading from my ESV a bit more these days.

Has anyone given this any more thought since last time? (crickets…grin)

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The End Times?

So…are we in the end times?  What do you think?

According to the testimony of the Word of God, the closer we come to the end of all things, the greater the world’s security and lust will become.  As the terrible hour nears, an hour in which all things visible and all the glory of the earth will suddenly be swallowed up, more and more people will, as the prophecies of Scripture inform us, immerse themselves in worldly good.  The more signs God sends to His children, warning that the world will soon be destroyed and the Judge of the living and the dead will soon appear in the clouds of the heavens, the less people will believe them.  Everything will continue secure and carefree, as if the world were to stand forever and the Last Day were nothing more than a fairy tale.

Our present age seems to fit perfectly the descriptions of the last days found in Scripture.  All of the signs in nature, in the kingdoms of the world, and in the Church which, according to biblical prophecy, must precede the end of all things, have taken place during the past centuries and especially in recent years.  By the most terrible events, God has loudly proclaimed the imminent destruction of the world.  But what has been the response?  With each passing year, the world sinks deeper and deeper into false security.  At no time has the notion of the Last Day appeared to be more laughable than it is now.  Almost universally, people have denied the Christ who has already come, and they greet with even greater mockery the preaching that says He will return soon.  Even those who believe God’s Word consider those who preach the nearness of Christ’s return to be fanatics.  We have obviously entered that midnight hour when even the wise virgins sleep.

What does Peter say in cautioning Christians about such a time?  He says, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.”  This does not mean that when the end of all things is near, Christians should no longer make use of the world, that they should deprive the body in self-chosen spirituality and humility and not provide for the necessities of the flesh.  Nor does it mean they are not allowed to rejoice in the bodily refreshment God gives them in this last time.  No, says the apostle, we should be serious and watchful only in our prayers.  Even in the nearness of the Last Day, we can eat and drink, but we should not weigh down our hearts in these pursuits.  We can like something in this world, but we must be prepared to sacrifice it readily to God.  We can have and continue to accumulate gold and silver, but we should not attach our heart to them, not rely upon them, and not mourn when we lose them.  We can build dwellings for ourselves, but they must be considered as lodgings for the night from which we will set out on the following morning (in other words, we must always prefer to go to the house of our heavenly Father than cling to our earthly abodes).  We can continue to plant and sow in the face of the Last Day, but we must be prepared not to reap the harvest, if that is what the Lord desires.  we can also care about the future, but only in such a way that our heart does not become burdened with worry.  We are serious and watchful in prayer when our heart is not trapped by any earthly thing.  It must always be free to be lifted up to God in prayer.  In the midst of the things, business, cares, goods, and pleasures of this world, our deepest desire must be for salvation and heaven.  We must seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  And we must pass through this world like strangers and pilgrims, pausing here and there to rest and refresh ourselves, but soon thereafter hastening on toward our heavenly goal.  Our entire life must be, as Luther expressed, an eternal Lord’s Prayer in which our principal desire is for God to deliver us from evil.  And we may add, “Come, Lord Jesus, take us out of this evil world, and take us to Yourself.”
(C.F.W. Walther, God Grant It, 445-447)

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Book Review: Reclaim Your Dreams by Jonathan Mead

ebookdreamcover-194x300For those of you who aren’t familiar with Jonathan Mead, he blogs at Illuminated Mind and is a regular writer at the insanely popular Zen Habits.  In his own words, “My purpose here is to explore the uncommon side of things that is often overlooked by the typical, mainstream approach.  Illuminated Mind is about finding freedom from what we’ve been conditioned to think will make us happy.”

Jonathan is a thinker and a questioner in the best sense of the word…one who is neither content with the status quo nor content to accept what anyone tells him at face value.  One of my most cherished theology profs once told me, “For every one book you buy that you know you’ll agree with, buy at least two that you know you will challenge you.”  For me, Jonathan Mead is one of those fellows who is both immensely enjoyable to read and simultaneously guaranteed to challenge.  Though we share fundamentally different worldviews, as far as I can tell, I love to read his writings and use his ideas as a springboard from which to do my part and shake up the status quo from time-to-time (my boss might read ‘time-to-time’ as ‘always’…but that’s a matter of perspective, I guess!).  With those thoughts in mind, I naturally jumped at the chance to read and review his recent ebook, Reclaim Your Dreams:  An Uncommon Guide to Living on Your Own Terms.

Though he never comes right out and says it, Jonathon Mead is a classic existentialist, interested in challenging authority and the status quo; following his dreams wherever they might take him; and in general, ‘suck[ing] out all the marrow of life.”  Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, and Kierkegaard would be proud of their faithful disciple.  While that might put off some of the regular readers of this blog, since Dead Poet’s Society is one of my favorite movies of all time…the former existentialist in me got really excited over this book and agrees wholeheartedly with many of Jonathan’s points, even if I don’t presently agree with all the finer points of his philosophy.  For example, some might be uncomfortable with his unashamed questioning of authority, but there certainly is nothing wrong, in principle, with a genuine, humble quest for the truth and desire to find a better way of doing things.  If we find out that those we question are right, great.  If not, we continue our search, being careful not to disregard the answers we’re given just because they clash with our personal desires.

If I could sum up the point of this book in two short thoughts it would be–your life/job/vocation doesn’t have to look like society tells you it should…define your dreams and go for them!  In an age when so many are trapped in the pursuit of productivity and the culture of the cubicle, Jonathan rightly recognizes that much of life’s joy is found in the journey.  As he writes, “Too often we let the fear of the unknown keep us from taking action, so we follow the herd where things are comfortable and predictable.”

Many of Jonathan’s frustrations will be all too familiar for those in corporate America, which largely seems immovably fixed in its ways and its culture of “the way we’ve always done it.”  Instead of being lemmings blindly following those who have gone before us, he challenges us to define our dreams, our purpose, our values and then relentlessly pursue them…all the while passionately enjoying the journey and not simply focusing on the goal at the end of the road.  In order to break free of the routine, Jonathan provides a multitude of practical exercises designed to get readers to think beyond any self-imposed limits, walk through the process of understanding / defining our dreams, and making those dreams reality.  His writing is not some divorced-from-reality motivational work, however, he is clear that living out your dreams is both risky business and hard work–both of which are instrumental in avoiding lives of “quiet desperation.”

In short, whether or not one subscribes to the philosophical worldview embraced by Mead, there are many gems in this ebook that can be put to good use by anyone seeking to clarify and then follow his or her dreams.  It is, to use his own words “a permission slip to be ridiculous…[and] an invitation to dream.”  Check it out here on Illuminated Mind.

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The Essence of Salvation by Faith Alone

The Holy Scriptures undeniably describe faith as the only thing necessary for salvation.  They also teach that good works cannot justify a person before God or contribute in the least toward the attainment of salvation.  The Old Testament says that Abram ‘believed the Lord, and He counted it to him as righteousness’ (Gen 15.6).  Habakkuk testifies that ‘the righteous shall life by his faith’ (2.4), and Jeremiah cries, ‘Lord, aren’t You looking for loyalty?’ (5.3).

This doctrine stands in even stronger light in the books of the New Testament.  They remind us that faith, not works, is the way to salvation and blessedness.  Whenever a person sought help from Christ, we read that Christ looked only for faith. ‘All things are possible for one who believes’ (Mk 9.23),  Jesus told the father who needed help for his son and had failed to find it in the disciples.  To another father who had lost all hope for help with the report that his daughter was already dead, Jesus said, ‘Do not fear; only believe, and she will be well’ (Lk 8.50).  When another suffering father directed his petition to Him, after seeking help from the disciples in vain, Jesus replied, ‘Let it be done for you as you have believed’ (Mt 8.13).  This was His usual answer to those who sought His help.  Therefore, the apostles’ Epistles speak in this manner: ‘And to the one who does not work but trusts Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness’ (Rom 4.5); ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apoart from works of the law’ (Rom 3.28); and ‘For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Eph 2.8-9).  There is still more.  In John’s Gospel, we are told that the Jews once asked Jesus, ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus replied by pointing to faith: ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent’ (6.28-29).

Many are ashamed to seek salvation through faith in Christ, the Savior of the sinner, and instead they build their hope for eternity on their upright life.  They carelessly regard themselves as good, without having examined their heart, their thoughts, their words, and their works.  Even if a man lives uprightly, he will daily perceive how his conscience accuses him and declares him guilty.  If a person examines himself according to the Law of God revealed in the Holy Scriptures, he will see countless flaws and weaknesses.  If he fails to find them, he must be completely blind, wantonly closing the eyes of his soul to the mirror God hold before us.

Although our sin causes us to forfeit our claim to a blessed eternity, God once again opened to us the possibility of salvation through the offer of faith.  If He had not revealed this to us, all who had come to knowledge of their sinfulness would have had to live in despair and doubt.

May no one think that this doctrine is too holy for those who are weighed down by the knowledge of their sin.  However, it is dangerous to those who are happy in the midst of their sin.  Although love and good works save no one, both are still necessary as evidences that a person is truly standing in the saving faith.  Faith and love are related and inseparably connected like a father and his child.  Whoever says he is justified through faith before God must prove himself by his love before man.  Otherwise he is a liar, for faith works through love.
(from God Grant It:  Daily Devotions from C.F.W. Walther, pp 235-6)

(Note:  I don’t normally just copy and post something in toto without any commentary or thoughts of my own, but piece surely stands on its own and needs nothing from me!)

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More Thoughts on Vocation

As I’ve written about before here and here, one of the great contributions of the Lutheran wing of the Reformation to Christian theology was the emphasis on vocation and the normalcy of the “ordinary” Christian life.  While Luther wrote on this quite a bit, the emphasis on the theology of vocation did not die within Lutheran circles.  This excerpt comes from the pen of C.F.W. Walther, one of the founding fathers of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  His take on vocation has a different emphasis from Luther’s and focuses on the Christian living out his or her life and vocation as a testimony to our faith:

We see that Christians should justify their faith before the world, above all, by conscientiousness and faithfulness in their offices and callings.  Unfortunately, many who show themselves as zealous Christians in pious exercises are slow, careless, and unfaithful in their callings.  They think the essence of Christianity consists of diligent praying and reading and churchgoing, of refraining from the vanity of the world, of pious speech, and of the holy appearance of many works.  When the world sees that those who boast of faith are indeed diligent in such seemingly holy exercises but are unfaithful in their work, as well as terrible spouses, parents, and workers, the world concludes that the faith of the Christians is an idle speculation, making people useless for this life.  In addition, it views Christians as either poor beggars or hypocritical deceivers.

Therefore, whoever wants to be a Christian must justify his faith before the world by the manner in which he conducts himself in his vocation.  The faith of a husband and father leads him to care for the temporal needs and the eternal salvation of his family, to love his wife as Christ loved the Church and to raise his children in the fear and admonition of the Lord.  The faith of a wife and mother prompts her to be subject to her husband in all humility, standing at his side as a true helper, caring for her children with tenderness, and teaching them the first letters of saving knowledge.  The faith of a businessman results in good work for his customers; if he works for himself, he does not enrich himself from the sweat of the poor, but rather regards his poor workers as better than himself.  The faith of the servant or day laborer is revealed in work that is performed, not for the sake of mere wages or for display before the eyes of men, but to serve men as Jesus Christ Himself.  The faith of those who work in churches, schools, and communities causes them to act out of love for their Savior rather than for financial or other worldly gain.

In all our pursuits, let us demonstrate that faith makes us the best we can be.  In this way, we justify our faith before the world.

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Luther on Vocation

As mentioned previously here, Luther possessed a revolutionary understanding of individual vocation that ran counter to the medieval understanding of his day.  For his contemporaries, some callings, jobs, positions, etc. were inherently more holy and/or pleasing to God than others.  A priest, for example, was held in higher esteem in the Christian community because of his overt service to God, while a housemaid would have been looked down upon as a merely common. 

Though separated by several centuries, this same sentiment is alive and well in some circles of Christianity today, including some parts of Evangelicalism.  How often do we speak of those who have ‘surrendered to vocational ministry’ as though they are somehow living lives that are more pleasing to God than, say, a single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and care for her children?  Why is it there such great pressure in some circles to steer young people towards missionary work, full-time church work, or other ministry-related vocations?  Is this phenomenon truly the result of a clear need within the church, or is there some part of us that still thinks like our medieval predecessors?  Luther will have none of this thinking!  He writes:

Everyone has a calling in life.  Believers serve God when they whole-heartedly take care of their responsibilities.  An official who governs well serves God.  A mother who cares for her children, a father who goes to work, and a student who studies diligently are all servants of God.

Many overlook this God-pleasing lifestyle because they consider simple, day-to-day work insignificant.  They look instead for other work that seems more difficult and end up becoming disobedient to God…God requires that believers work hard at their callings without worrying about what anyone else is doing.  Yet few people do this…

Few people are content with their callings.  However, there is no other way to serve God except simply living by faith, sticking to your calling, and maintaining a clear conscience.
(from Faith Alone: A Daily Devotional / LW 3:128)

Are you a mega-church pastor, small-church parson, unappreciated youth minister, or some other church worker?  Great–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you an engineer, factory worker, retail sales associate, or fast food server?  Wonderful–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

Are you ‘just’ a father, mother, or single-person seeking to honor and glorify God in your daily walk?  Thanks be to God–be faithful to God in all that you do and walk closely with Christ Jesus in humble belief. 

See the similarities?  I hope so.

Lord God, You have called Your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown.  Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go but only that Your hand is leading us and Your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

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