An Obvious Election

This is the fourth entry in our series entitled “Ten Marks of a Healthy Church.” The fourth mark of a healthy church is an “obvious election.” It comes from 1 Thess. 1:4 — “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you” (ESV).

The doctrine of election is one of those controversial topics that often arises between theologians and aspiring theologians. Election is clearly a biblical doctrine. Let us simply observe here that Paul claims to know these Thessalonian believers have been chosen by God. He does not say, “For we know, brothers loved by God, that you have chosen Him.” Paul bases his knowledge of God’s election on two proofs: (1) the experience of the missionaries and (2) the experience of the Thessalonians.

I want you to see that the primary thrust of this is evidence of God’s activity. What God does, no one can undo. And what He begins, He completes. “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Php 1:6).

How can you know someone is truly saved? They experience God’s Spirit at work on them, both convicting them of sin and convincing them of the gospel message with the result, and this is the key, that they embrace Christ Jesus as Lord by grace through faith. It’s that simple.

Often I encounter people who doubt their salvation. Instead of trying to assure them on the basis of what they did to be saved, I ask them, “What did God do?” For the longest time, as a child and teenager, I struggled with questions such as, “Did I pray the right prayer?”, “Did I really mean it when I asked Jesus into my heart?”, “Did I know, as a seven year old, what it all meant?” And those questions kept me from growing in the Lord. The reason is they were all based on what I did to get salvation.

In college, I began studying the Bible like I never had before. I was extremely hungry to know what it said. And I began to realize that God takes the initiative in saving people. I was the one who needed saving; only He could save me. And whenever I encountered those same old doubts, I began to change the questions. I began asking, “When I look at the time I made a profession of faith and was baptized, what was God doing in my life?” “What was God showing me?” “What changed in my thinking about God and how I related to Him?” “Did I become convicted of sin?” “Was I convinced that Jesus is the Risen Lord and my only hope?” And these diagnostic questions are not tests of what I did, but tests of what God was doing to bring me into a saving relationship with Himself.

That is what Paul is doing here. He is recounting the experience he had when he planted the church at Thessalonica and the experiences of those new believers. When he surveyed what happened, he saw clear evidence of God’s work. God moved powerfully on him and his coworkers; God accomplished a mighty work in the lives of the Thessalonians. In the next few verses he recounts those experiences. Nothing thrills the heart of a man of God more than to experience the power of God, the moving of the Holy Spirit, in his life and in the life of his church.

God has given us clear teachings in the Scriptures so that we may know where we stand with him. An entire book of the New Testament is devoted to testing one’s salvation. That book is 1 John. In 1 John we find a three-fold test of salvation. I would like to summarize that for you in the hopes that you may have assurance of salvation. 1 John 5:13, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.”

The first test is Belief in the Bible – “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him” (1 John 5:1). If you do not accept the Scriptural claims about Christ – that he lived a sinless life, died on the cross for our sins, rose again on the third day, is Lord of all, is the exclusive way of salvation, is coming again to claim his people, you are lost.

If you reject the Word of God, if you have no real desire to hear it or heed it. If you argue with its truth claims and try to dismiss them, you are not saved. If you make little to no room in your life for God’s Word, you do not value eternal life (see Acts 13:46). Second Timothy 3:15-16 says that the Scriptures are “able to make you wise unto salvation.” James 1:21 is similar: “receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” And 1 Peter 1:23 makes the statement, “you have been born again, . . . through the living and abiding Word of God.” Biblical truth plays an essential role in salvation.

The second test of salvation is Obedience to God – “But whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected. By this we may know that we are in him. Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked (1 John 2:5). “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him” (1 John 3:6). “By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 John 3:10). “We know that everyone who has been born of God does not keep on sinning, but he who was born of God protects him, and the evil one does not touch him” (1 John 5:18). Constant habitual sin that you do not intend to change or that you just accept as not a big deal is a strong indication that something is wrong between you and the Lord. You probably have never truly been saved.

The third test of salvation in 1 John is Love of the Brethren (Church) – “Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause from stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes (1 John 2:10-11). “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 John 2:15).

Years ago, a Christian counselor named Gary Chapman came out with a book entitled The Five Love Languages. It outlined how people express and receive love. The “languages” are Giving Gifts, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, and Physical Touch. God says if we love Him, we will love His church. What says we love his church? Do you spend quality time with his people or do you begrudge having to attend church? Do you speak words to build up the Lord’s church or tear it down?
Are you a regular, proportional, and joyful giver? Do you serve in the work of the church or are you content just to be served? Let us all evaluate ourselves, lest we be deceived (Gal. 6:7-8).

Advertisements

An Enduring Hope

Today’s post is the third mark in our series entitled “Ten Marks of a Healthy Church.” We are learning that churches are not merely organizations, they are bodies of God’s children united by covenant to Him and to one another.

The church is not like the Rotary Club or the Red Cross. In fact, no other organization on the face of the earth is like a Christian church. The church exists for the glory of God. No other organization, Christian or non-, is called the Bride of Christ; as such, she should be submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. And no other organization represents Jesus like His church. As Paul said, “Glory to God in the church.” When the church fulfills her mission, God is glorified. When the church fails in her calling, God is shamed and Christ is reproached.

Now a church can be healthy and strong, or it can be diseased and sickly. If one part of the church body becomes spiritually diseased or does not function properly, the other parts are affected. That’s what it means to be a body.

Evaluating church health can be difficult. We are very blessed to have the Word of God to help us evaluate everything according to God’s truth. And when it comes to church health, we have the first chapter of First Thessalonians to help us see the things that are praiseworthy in a church. In that chapter Paul says some marvelous things about the church there. In fact, what he is doing is remembering them and thanking God for them. And when he does, he identifies ten marks of a healthy church.

2 We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, 3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. 4 For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5 because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. 6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, 7 so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. 8 For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. 9 For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:2-10, ESV).

The first mark of a healthy church is a “working faith,” not mere intellectual assent, but steadfast trust. A faith that gets up every morning and goes to work. Genuine saving faith produces fruit and draws others to Christ. In a church marked by faith, you’ll see people wanting to serve God. They value the things of God. They sacrifice for God’s purposes and mission. They believe Jesus’ words, “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.”

The second mark of a healthy church is a “laboring love.” Loving Jesus and loving others means that you will often clash with the impulses you have naturally. To overcome is a labor. Healthy churches are motivated by love for God and love for others. Love drives selfless labor. Love cares; it is not apathetic. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Genuine love is a rare thing in today’s world, and that means the church has an opportunity to show the world something different.

The third mark of a healthy church is an “enduring hope.” The word ‘endure’ here is from the Greek word hupomone, and it indicates the “capacity to continue to bear up under difficult circumstances” (LN 25.174). The related verb hupomeno means to remain under. Again, here is an action based on a virtue. The virtue here is hope, an interesting and somewhat difficult word to define. It means “to look forward with confidence to that which is good and beneficial” (LN 25.59). The only way a person can bear under the pressure of internal and external trials is to possess an enduring hope.

Hope says, “This is not all there is.” Hope tells us, “The future is good, just, righteous, glorious.” (Eph. 1:18). What gets you through a difficult time? Hope is the biblical solution for dark days. The Thessalonians experienced persecutions and difficulties. They encountered problems. But no problem can extinguish an enduring hope. In fact, the phrase here could be translated your “steadfastness of the hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If you want to see hope personified look at Jesus. His hope was not contingent upon His circumstances; it was based on the glory to come. That hope in the future glory was what enabled Him to endure the suffering. Someone once told me the story of a farmer and his mule:

A farmer had an old mule that could no longer pull plow or wagon. The farmer could not bear the thought of putting down the beloved animal, so he decided that instead of waiting for the creature to die, he would just bury it alive. So he put Lucky in a large hole he made with some dynamite and began to cover the mule with dirt. Every time that farmer would cast a shovel full of dirt on the mule, the mule would just shake it off and step up. Shake it off and step up. He just kept doing that simple but effective act. When the farmer saw Lucky climb back out of his grave, he changed his name. He’s not Lucky, he’s Steadfast Hope.

You too will make it if you don’t give up. Shake it off, and step up. Brighter days are ahead for those of us who know Jesus. There are lots of things in this life that might bury you. But not a single thing can keep you down. You have a promise that nothing can destroy: Resurrection! And that’s where our hope should dwell. Christian, let your hope endure!

When a church has hope, they have a vision. And where they have a vision, they will not perish. Hope springs from the eternal. When we look beyond our present circumstances to the greatness and goodness of God, we can take that next step. Without hope, you will be paralyzed with fear and throw your faith out the window. We will turn aside to replacements for God. We will follow our own weak and miserable plans instead of God’s bold mission.

Without Christ, a person has no hope. Hope begins when you are rightly related to God. The Good News is that Jesus lived and died and lived again so that you might truly live in hope. Will you turn your life over to Him today? Will you embrace the hope of the ages? Yield your life to Him now and embrace the greatest hope of all.

A Laboring Love

This is the second characteristic in our new series entitled “Ten Marks of a Healthy Church.”

In our last entry we considered the first quality – a working faith, not mere belief, but trust. Such a faith is essential to being rightly related to God. Faith is the antidote to anxiety, pride, fear, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency, lust, and a whole host of other ills that plague us. We learned that the true nature of strong faith is found in day-to-day persistence. Faith gets up every morning and goes to work. Genuine saving faith produces fruit and draws others to Christ.

The second mark of a healthy church is a laboring love. Again, Paul has combined two terms here that bring together a quality (love) and an action (labor). The virtue of love (here the term is agape and carries the nuance of high regard and appreciation) is proven by what it does. In this case, Paul uses the word kopos. This word is a little different from “work,” with a bit of intensification. While “work” connotes normal activity, “labor” indicates hard work, toil, and hardship.

Love is not a natural response. Human nature protects, pleases, and promotes itself. Loving Jesus and loving others means that you will often clash with the impulses you have naturally. To overcome is a labor. If a church is going to be healthy, its members must be motivated by love. Why else would someone arduously labor, sacrifice, and work to the point of exhaustion? Love drives selfless labor.

If I were to ask you what is the opposite of love, you might be quick to answer “hate.” But I want to you reconsider that notion. When you expend the energy required to “hate” someone, you are really not as far from love as you might think. If loving someone is to care for them, then not caring would be its opposite. The word for that is apathy.

Our world is very self-centered. People in our world, Christian and non-Christian, have developed an overemphasis on self. And what that does is destroys relationships that should be built on mutual concern for one another. When you are hyper-focused on yourself, you do not care about others.

The church has a real opportunity in this culture. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Christians can show the world something different. Genuine love is a rare thing in today’s world. People do not care. And Jesus said, “Because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold” (Mt 24:12).

Paul offered this thought, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Tim 3:1-5). The word “heartless” is a shocking word. It means “a lack of love or affection for close associates or family—‘without normal human affection.’ [Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), 292].

Let’s take a quick look at love in the Bible. Let’s start first with Jesus’ teaching on Love. Matthew 22:34-40. The Greatest Commandment is to love God with all our being. The second greatest is like it — to love our neighbors as ourselves.

How did Jesus define Love? “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). Love is selfless and sacrificial.

Now let’s move to Gal 5:22. “The fruit of the Spirit is love.” Without the Spirit of God we can do nothing. If we are filled with the Spirit, we will show love. The Spirit of God empowers us to obey the Word of God – the commandment to love. If a person is not loving, they are not saved. 1 John 3:14 – “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death.”

What does love look like? We find that in 1 Corinthians 13. Genuine love cannot be divorced from truth. In contrast to the way love is defined in our culture, it is not purely emotional. Love is commitment . . . it does not fail; action . . . it is not words alone; choice . . . it is not a whim that comes and goes; selfless . . . it puts others first; sacrificial . . . it is willing to suffer for the good of others

Now, you may say, there are too many people for me to do that for everyone. And that is true. I believe that biblically we have a responsibility first to our immediate family – spouse and children and parents, in that order. Next we are responsible to the family of faith, fellow church members with whom we have covenanted ourselves. After that, those who are outside those circles. Christians are called to put their love to labor. Leave a legacy of a laboring love.

Love begins when we are rightly related to God. As Paul wrote in Romans 5:5-6, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.” The Good News is that Jesus lived and died and lived again so that you might truly live. Will you turn your life over to Him today? Will you let His love wash over you and change you? Yield your heart to Him today.


A Working Faith

Churches are not merely organizations. They are organizations (at least they should be organized) but they are not merely organizations. As is often said, churches are organisms. They have a life of their own. Consequently churches can be healthy and strong, or they can be diseased and sickly. Churches are kind of like people. In fact, one of the writers of the Bible compared the church to a body. The human body is made up of many parts. They all have functions. If one part of the body becomes diseased or does not function properly, the other parts are usually affected. That’s what it means to be an organism. Now all kinds of things can go haywire with our bodies. Some things are noticeable to others; some are not. The appearance of the body does not tell the whole story of what is going on with that body. Do you see where I am going with this?

Just as we can see some people and conclude quickly that they are not in good health. On the flip side, we can look at other people and think they are in good health, but they are not. The same is true with churches. We may look at a small, shriveled congregation and conclude that something is wrong. Usually that is the case, but not always. We may look at a large, rapidly growing congregation and think it is the healthiest church around. It may not be. In the human body, cells that grow very rapidly and abnormally are called cancer.

In this series, we are going to look at the first chapter of 1 Thessalonians. In that chapter Paul says some marvelous things about the church there. In fact, what he is doing is remembering them and thanking God for them. What does the apostle to the Gentiles thank God for when he thinks about a church? I call them ten marks of a healthy church. These are not the only marks of a healthy church, but I think they are perhaps the most important.

The first three marks of a healthy church come to us from a single verse, verse three, and reflect the Pauline trinity of godliness: faith, hope, and love: “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” These first three are what Paul remembers about them.

Today we are going to consider the first – your work of faith. Paul highlights their working faith. The Thessalonians possessed a faith that works.

The word for “faith” occurs in the NT 243 times. That is not counting its verbal forms. It is an essential element for any church, because it is essential to being rightly related to God. Faith is our posture toward God. It is that expectancy, dependency, trust, and confidence that keeps us going. Faith is the antidote to anxiety, pride, fear, shame, impatience, covetousness, bitterness, despondency, lust, and a whole host of other ills that plague us. The church at Thessalonica possessed an active, productive faith.

One day, a friend and former student of mine, out of the blue, sent me a definition he found of faith. It comes from Art Azurdia, a pastor and seminary professor in Oregon:

“Authentic faith is the confident assurance in events not yet seen. Faith is not a call to believe in things when common sense tells you not to. Faith is not a mindless stab in the dark. It is not a crossing of the fingers and hoping for the best. It is not a leap into apparent nothingness. It’s a word that speaks of reasoned, careful, deliberate, intentional thought. Thought upon what? God and his promises. If you are absolutely gripped by the coming realities that have been promised to you by God, then how you live your life in the present will be radically different than if you did not possess that certainty. This is what faith is, my friends! Positive certainty expressed in action.”

He points out in his definition what Paul highlights – a working faith. The word here for work is ergon, and it means simply the day-to-day work that one normally does. Other ways to translate ergon are workmanship, handiwork, occupation, business, or job. Now I really like this pairing of terms, because it expresses the true nature of strong faith. We do not see strong faith in flashes of brilliance, but in the day-to-day persistence in the mundane and the ordinary. Faith gets up every morning and goes to work.

Some years ago, I saw a commercial for Monster.com, the online job search site. In it, everyone in the city begins climbing out of bed and they start running . . . to something. They grab umbrellas, furniture, mattresses and all sorts of things. It is just before daybreak when they all dash up a hill and throw up their possessions as if to block this massive tidal wave. Then, as it always does, the sun comes up and its rays peek over the hill. When it overcomes the crowd, they all sigh and give up. They groan and head back to their houses dragging their implements behind them. Then the screen says, “Don’t fight Monday. Monster.com. Your calling is calling.”

You may have trouble welcoming Mondays, too. But perhaps it would help if you had faith. If you saw your day-to-day responsibility not as showing up at the job site or punching a time clock or having to do this job or task, but as expressing faith in God. Your calling as a Christian is a calling to walk by faith. Faith works.

Another passage of scripture that has to do with this subject is James 2:14-26. An active faith, according to James, is a real faith, a genuine faith. Genuine saving faith produces works.

Now Paul has made very clear elsewhere in the New Testament (Romans 3-4; Galatians 2) that salvation is by faith alone, apart from works of the law. You cannot work your way to heaven. The only one who works for someone to be saved is God working to save us. Salvation is a gift. However, let us not be confused. One who is saved and transformed by God will produce works. “It is faith alone that justifies, but the faith that justifies is not alone.”

When Paul surveyed the Thessalonian church, he saw fruit, the produce of a living faith. If I may paraphrase James here, and pose a question: What use is it, brothers and sisters, if a church says it has a relationship with Jesus but is content to do nothing of significance? Is that not a self-deceiving illusion? Can that “faith” be real? Healthy churches put their faith to work.

Let’s look at a few more scriptures. Romans 1:5 indicates that Paul’s purpose as an apostle was to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles. And in Romans 1:17, Paul quotes Habbakuk saying that the righteous shall live by faith. Then, Acts 16:5 says that one of the results of a church’s growing faith is the addition of more members. Authentic faith draws others to Christ.

You may want to know, How do I boost my faith? The Bible says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). If you want to boost your faith, meditate on the Scriptures. Ponder the things of Christ. Focus on the greatness of God. Faith does not grow when we look at the world. It does not develop when we look inside ourselves. We must look beyond ourselves, hear the testimony of the scriptures, fellowship with the faithful, and cast ourselves on the all-sufficiency of God. When we do that, the results are immeasurable.

10 Marks of Healthy Churches

For the past fifteen years, I have been in a position to instruct, train, and counsel those who are called to lead God’s people through full-time vocational ministry. And I have in the past few years counseled several of them who are just absolutely scared of what might happen to them and their families when they accept a call from a church to become a pastor.

One student expressed to me this concern in this way. He said, “I just do not want to go to a church with problems.” Now, I could have given him a variety of answers ranging from silly to profound, but I believe the Lord directed me to say to him, “If a church does not have problems, then it does not need a pastor. That’s the reason why God has given pastors to the church.” And it is true. On the other hand, let’s recognize that there are some churches that are more problematic than others.

Some churches command respect; some destroy it. Some churches are very hard on pastors; some are pleasant to shepherd. Some churches are easy to love, some not so much. Some churches require that pastors exert authority; others follow with gratitude and submission.

The churches in Macedonia during Paul’s ministry were great churches. When Paul wrote to the Thessalonians and to the Philippians, he had no need to refer to himself as an “apostle”; the title is conspicuously absent from all three canonical correspondences to these two churches. In each of these three letters he gives an extended thanksgiving for them and expresses great joy upon his every remembrance of them.

In reading Acts, you will find that Paul’s experiences in both places, Philippi and Thessalonica, were not the best of circumstances. In Philippi he was imprisoned; in Thessalonica he was run out of town by the Jews. But when Paul considered the character qualities of these churches, nothing could damper his rejoicing. Paul says he always gives thanks for all of them. The basis of his thanksgiving consists of ten characteristics I will call “Ten Marks of Healthy Churches.” We will blog about them in the days to come.