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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Religious Performance is no Substitute for Real Change

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You can warm a seat in a church for many years and still have a cold dead heart. I did.

You can know the lyrics to all of the songs. You can memorize all of the right verses. You can be the son or daughter of a minister. You can talk, dress, and act in all the right ways and still not know forgiveness for your sins. Is this you?

Maybe you’re like me and John Wesley. In his book Am I Really a Christian, Mike McKinley writes:

“John Wesley was an Anglican minister and the son of an Anglican minister. By 1738, he was well known in England for his piety and his strict and methodical approach to his religion. He was not, however, a Christian. By his own admission he was trusting in his own goodness to earn God’s favor. He thought that his religious performance would make him right with God.

Then one day in May, right after Wesley had returned from a failed mission’s trip to the Americas, he had an experience of understanding God’s grace.

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society [meeting] in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle of the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while [the leader] was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given to me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” (131-32)

Like John Wesley, do you trust in your religious performance to make you right with God? Friend, are you really a Christian? It may be time to test yourself and examine your standing before God. Read more here

Topics: Conversion

Nobody Gets the Church They Want

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For the past few days I’ve been more or less confined to bed. That’s rare for me, since I’m twenty-seven and healthy. But I’ve got a degenerative disc in my lower back that flares up once in a long while.

As physical afflictions go, this one is mercifully minor. It’s nothing compared to the cancer that one member of my church is facing down, or the debilitating conditions other members battle. But it has still blown up my plans for the week. I’ve had to miss class, delay an anniversary day away with my wife, and lie in bed all evening instead of playing with my kids.

In all this God has been teaching me lessons I didn’t particularly want to learn. He’s teaching me not to turn frustration into hard words toward my wife, not to worry about how this condition might play out in coming decades, to know just how dependent on him I really am.

I didn’t want to learn these lessons this week, but God knows I need them. I’m confident that’s one reason, at least, why he didn’t give me the week I wanted.

I’d suggest there’s a lesson here for life in the church. To put it bluntly, nobody gets the church they want.

You may not bring a checklist and clipboard when you show up at church, but we all bring a want-list. Maybe you want a certain kind of music, a certain experience in worship. Maybe you want a preacher who can dive a mile deep into two verses in Romans. Maybe you want charismatic, extroverted leaders who can connect with anyone and always know what to say. 

Whatever might be on your list, I can guarantee this: not everything on your list is on God’s.

Mainly, I mean that you have opinions that go beyond God’s revealed will. One preacher I greatly respect has been known to say, “I don’t have opinions, I just believe the Bible.” I love the spirit there, but that’s impossible. Would you rather eat a burger or boeuf bourguignon? Would you rather sing “A Mighty Fortress” or “10,000 Reasons”? Either way, you’ve got an opinion, but you’ll have a tough time giving me chapter and verse for it.

But there’s another sense in which your list for a church won’t always match God’s: God has revealed his will for the church in Scripture, but no church perfectly fulfills that will. No church is as mature and holy as God’s Word calls it to be. Every church is a work in progress. Sometimes, then, even the good hunger to be part of a mature, thriving church might lead you to be impatient with the immaturities and struggles of your own congregation.

And God has revealed what churches should be and do. Churches should be led by a number of godly men who shepherd the flock and preach the Word (1 Tim. 3:1-7; 2 Tim. 4:1-5). What should you do if you’re in a church without plural elders? The answers are as endless as the variables in any real situation. But one likely option is for you to embody some of God’s own patience toward his imperfect people.

If God can patiently bear with his people in their immaturity and failure to follow his own directives, so can you. If you’re in a position of influence, deploy that influence humbly and wisely. But whatever you do, don’t let your good desire for your church to obey Scripture harden into frustration or bitterness.

Nobody—that’s right, nobody—gets the church they want. We all have opinions, preferences, and sometimes even convictions that won’t perfectly match any actual assembly of God’s people. We all will have to put others’ interests before our own, and sacrifice what we want for the sake of what the whole body needs.

In some ways, that’s the whole point of life in the church. God has made us members of the body so that we would learn to attend to the body (1 Cor. 12:12-27). God has made us co-laborers in the gospel so that we would image the gospel by putting others before ourselves (Phil. 2:3-4). Christ set aside his rights to serve us, and that’s what you do every time you sacrifice a preference to promote the body’s growth.

Putting others before yourself will cost you. In a culture saturated with consumerism, and in cities with a buffet of church options, the last thing we typically want to do is sacrifice our preferences. But that’s precisely what the gospel calls us to do.

So say your church sings a song that you don’t really like. The words are orthodox, but you grimace at the tune and the tone. Instead of silently smirking through it, dig deep and belt it out. Odds are that another member of your church loves it. So encourage that member, whoever they are, by addressing them with that particular hymn or spiritual song (Col. 3:16-17).

Get in the habit of letting go of your preferences so you can grab onto the good of the whole body. Train your heart, mind, tongue, and hands to run in the gospel grooves of giving up so others can gain.  

God may not give you the church you want, but he’s more than capable of giving you the church you need. So take a look around. Maybe he already has.

Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.

Topics: Discipleship

Am I STILL Really a Christian?

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We asked Mike McKinley a few questions about his book Am I Really a Christian? Here’s what we got.

Why did you write this book? 

The short answer is that I was struck on one hand by how much time the NT spends clarifying what it means to be a genuine Christian and on the other hand how little time most churches spend talking about it. As a pastor, I run into people all the time that are confused on these issues; some believers with sensitive consciences lack assurance, others with no evidence of conversion in their lives are presuming on the grace of God. My aim in writing the book was to help both of those kinds of people by examining what the Bible says on the topic.

Any funny stories about people's reactions to the title since it's come out? What about encouraging stories?

I had a near-death experience with a women’s book club of sorts that was reading the book. They invited me to sit in on one of their discussions, and then spent most of the time talking about how discouraging and upsetting the book was. After about an hour, one of the women who had until this point been silent spoke up and said, “But all of the things that you’re upset about are in the Bible. Don’t blame him, blame Jesus.” That was uncomfortable. 

But I’ve also heard some amazing stories of how God has used the book as a means of bringing people to Christ. The best are emails from people who gave the book to a friend or family member for whom they’ve been praying for a long time and the Lord saved that person. When I hear those stories I think to myself, “This might be the most important thing I ever do in my ministry”. 

Anything you'd change in the book since writing it? 

Maybe a different publicity photo, or a photo of someone better looking. Seriously, I don’t think so; not because it’s perfect but rather because it’s pretty simple. There wouldn’t be that much to change that wouldn’t change the basic message.

Get your copy of Am I Really a Christian? today. 

Topics: The Basics

Book Review: Embracing Shared Ministry, by Joseph Hellerman

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Joseph Hellerman writes Embracing Shared Ministry as a New Testament scholar and a seasoned pastor, seeking to apply the fruits of his scholarly activity to the problems of the church. In a 2005 monograph he argued that in Philippians Paul “intentionally subverts the social values of the dominant culture in the Roman colony at Philippi in order to create a radically different relational environment among the Philippian Christians” (11). This current book is an attempt to apply his thesis to modern abuses of power in the church, reminding us of Paul’s “cruciform vision for authentic spiritual leadership,” that is, “other-centered leadership—leadership in the shape of the cross” (14–15). In particular, Hellerman argues that biblical leadership lies in a community of leaders who are in relationship with one another.

The final three chapters alone are worth the price of the book. Here Hellerman gives several case studies of abuses of power in the church (pastors lying to staff members, firing them when confronted with sin, and so on), and he ties these abuses to the centralizing of power in one man. He sees such abuses in the American church rooted especially in the business model of pastoral ministry and the solo senior pastor common in Baptist churches (much of his ministry experience has been among Conservative Baptist churches in California). He explains the “aha moment” when he discovered that Scripture teaches a plurality of elders in passages like Acts 14:23, Acts 20:17, Phil 1:1, Tit 1:5, 1 Pet 5:1, and Jas 5:14 (241). And he argues that “a key answer to the problem of authority abuse that plagues numbers of our congregations is a team of pastors who share their lives with one another, and whose oversight of God’s people arises organically from the relational soil they enjoy as a leadership community of genuine brothers and sisters in Christ” (257).

The last chapter is my favorite part of the book. In it, Hellerman recounts his years of experience as one of the pastor-elders of Oceanside Christian Fellowship. His description made me want to join that church. The pastor-elders at Oceanside Christian Fellowship develop consensus through community—through the relationships they’ve developed as they meet together, share their lives, and pray for each other and the church. They emphasize character, transparency, and real community among the leaders in order to gain the trust needed to lead the church. Hellerman insightfully observes that “Scripture turns repeatedly to the quality of our relationships—particularly with our fellow Christians—as the foremost evidence of genuine love for God” (John 13:35; 282). He advises students looking for their first pastoral job to ask, “Does the senior pastor of this church have close friends in the congregation?” (297). Wow—great question. Finally, Hellerman models his advice in that he is strikingly personal and transparent throughout this book.

But even though I agree with Hellerman’s conclusions, I just don’t think the almost 200 pages of socio-historical background of Philippi and exegesis of Philippians actually lead to these conclusions.

Click here to continue reading. 

Book Review: Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits, by T.D. Jakes

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Dubbed “America’s Best Preacher” by Time magazine, T.D. Jakes has become a household name and a revered spiritual authority among many professed Christians and, even recently, among some conservative evangelicals. He is the senior pastor of the 30,000-member Potter’s House in Dallas, Texas: not just a church, but a “global humanitarian organization” employing nearly 400 staff members. Additionally, the church boasts thousands of ministry volunteers—I used to be one.

In the fall of 2007, I began regularly attending the church as I pursued formal training at the nearby Dallas Theological Seminary. My stay at the church was short-lived. However, I did get to observe and experience many things that year, including the release of Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits.

OVERVIEW

Jakes’ thesis can be summed up in a common phrase he employs in the first chapter: “…God helps those who help themselves.” His goal is to demonstrate that, with minor adjustments, one can take control of his or her destiny and attain what he calls “true prosperity” and “real success.”

Jakes’ writing style is as winsome as his oratorical flare. With many personal anecdotes, he appeals to the reader as one who genuinely desires to help by delving into the common lived- experiences of everyday people.

Reposition Yourself consists of fifteen chapters divided into three major sections: “The Sky’s the Limit,” “Beyond the Limits of Mediocrity,” and “Beyond the Limits of Success.” These sections could easily be titled, “Wanting Prosperity,” “Pursuing Prosperity,” and “Managing Prosperity,” respectively. The first five chapters are aimed at animating the ambition of the reader by exploring the pathology of what Jakes calls an “addiction to apathy,” and by championing the fight for a “better life.” The second section of the book deals specifically with finances and the how-to’s of success, while the final section devotes a couple chapters to women’s issues before moving to the legacy of success.

CRITIQUE

Simply put, Reposition Yourself is a self-help book—and a dangerous one, at that. I render this critique in light of the book’s own admission regarding Jakes’ methodology: “Mixing both sacred and secular insights, he shares a unique blend of practical and pragmatic steps coupled with the sage wisdom of Scripture for which he is noted.” While this approach might seem laudable, the resulting combination often yields erroneous conclusions. Two immediately come to mind.

Click here to continue reading.

Topics: Gospel

Prosperity Preaching: Deceitful and Deadly

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When I read about prosperity-preaching churches, my response is: “If I were not on the inside of Christianity, I wouldn’t want in.” In other words, if this is the message of Jesus, no thank you.

Luring people to Christ to get rich is both deceitful and deadly. It’s deceitful because when Jesus himself called us, he said things like: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And it’s deadly because the desire to be rich plunges “people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). So here is my plea to preachers of the gospel.

1. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes it harder for people to get into heaven.

Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” His disciples were astonished, as many in the “prosperity” movement should be. So Jesus went on to raise their astonishment even higher by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” They respond in disbelief: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).

My question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry focus that makes it harder for people to enter heaven?

2. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that kindles suicidal desires in people.

Paul said, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” But then he warned against the desire to be rich. And by implication, he warned against preachers who stir up the desire to be rich instead of helping people get rid of it. He warned, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).

So my question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry that encourages people to pierce themselves with many pangs and plunge themselves into ruin and destruction?

3. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that encourages vulnerability to moth and rust.

Jesus warns against the effort to lay up treasures on earth. That is, he tells us to be givers, not keepers. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19).

Yes, we all keep something. But given the built-in tendency toward greed in all of us, why would we take the focus off Jesus and turn it upside down?

4. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes hard work a means of amassing wealth.

Paul said we should not steal. The alternative was hard work with our own hands. But the main purpose was not merely to hoard or even to have. The purpose was “to have to give.” “Let him labor, working with his hands, that he may have to give to him who is in need” (Eph. 4:28). This is not a justification for being rich in order to give more. It is a call to make more and keep less so you can give more. There is no reason why a person who makes $200,000 should live any differently from the way a person who makes $80,000 lives. Find a wartime lifestyle; cap your expenditures; then give the rest away.

Why would you want to encourage people to think that they should possess wealth in order to be a lavish giver? Why not encourage them to keep their lives more simple and be an even more lavish giver? Would that not add to their generosity a strong testimony that Christ, and not possessions, is their treasure?

5. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that promotes less faith in the promises of God to be for us what money can’t be.

The reason the writer to the Hebrews tells us to be content with what we have is that the opposite implies less faith in the promises of God. He says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6).

If the Bible tells us that being content with what we have honors the promise of God never to forsake us, why would we want to teach people to want to be rich?

6. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that contributes to your people being choked to death.

Jesus warns that the word of God, which is meant to give us life, can be choked off from any effectiveness by riches. He says it is like a seed that grows up among thorns that choke it to death: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the . . . riches . . . of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).

Why would we want to encourage people to pursue the very thing that Jesus warns will choke us to death?

7. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that takes the seasoning out of the salt and puts the light under a basket.

What is it about Christians that makes them the salt of the earth and the light of the world? It is not wealth. The desire for wealth and the pursuit of wealth tastes and looks just like the world. It does not offer the world anything different from what it already believes in. The great tragedy of prosperity-preaching is that a person does not have to be spiritually awakened in order to embrace it; one needs only to be greedy. Getting rich in the name of Jesus is not the salt of the earth or the light of the world. In this, the world simply sees a reflection of itself. And if it works, they will buy it.

The context of Jesus’ saying shows us what the salt and light are. They are the joyful willingness to suffering for Christ. Here is what Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:11-14).

What will make the world taste (the salt) and see (the light) of Christ in us is not that we love wealth the same way they do. Rather, it will be the willingness and the ability of Christians to love others through suffering, all the while rejoicing because their reward is in heaven with Jesus. This is inexplicable on human terms. This is supernatural. But to attract people with promises of prosperity is simply natural. It is not the message of Jesus. It is not what he died to achieve.

This article originally appeared at desiringGod.org and has been reprinted by permission.

John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Topics: Gospel

A Softer Prosperity Gospel: More Common Than You Think

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While evangelicals have traditionally decried the prosperity gospel in its “hard” form, there is a softer form of this teaching that is all too common among us.[1] Often undetected by Bible-believing Christians, it assumes the gospel and leads its adherents to focus on things like financial planning, diet and exercise, and strategies for self-improvement. In contrast to the hard prosperity gospel, which offers miraculous and immediate health and wealth, this softer, subtler variety challenges believers to break through to the blessed life by means of the latest pastor-prescribed technique.

Of course, matters of personal stewardship such as money, health, and leadership skills should be woven into a whole-Bible theology of Christian discipleship. The trouble comes when Christians, and especially pastors, place greater emphasis on these secondary matters. What we choose to preach or listen to says much about what we value. And what I see among some evangelicals is a willingness to prioritize the lesser matters of the law over the weightier mercies of the gospel.

This is not a new concern. Others have described facets of this prosperity gospel under names like moralistic, therapeutic deism, Christless Christianity, and the commodification of Christianity.[2] In truth, all three descriptors overlap to describe a prosperity gospel that is easily missed, because it is seems reasonable to Christians who love God and the American Dream.

A SOFTER, SUBTLER PROSPERITY GOSPEL

For those with eyes to see, signs of soft prosperity are everywhere in evangelicalism. Christian radio offers a “positive, encouraging” experience, with innumerable songs beckoning listeners to be overcomers. Christian publishers market books that help Christians look better, feel more confident, and reach their maximum potential. Likewise, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 continue to be championed as mantras by Christians who want to make an impact on the world.

But of course, these examples are only symptoms, and the solution is not to demonize Christian retailers. Rather, we all must learn to think more deeply about the content of our faith and to refute the errant teachings of the soft prosperity gospel (Titus 1:9).

FIVE TRADEMARKS OF SOFT PROSPERITY

To aid in that discernment, let me outline five trademarks of soft prosperity, particularly as they show up in sermons and books.

1. Soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God.

First, soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God. When blessings are divorced from the triune God, compromise ensues. True blessedness resides in God alone, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). By consequence, to seek God’s blessing requires seeking him (Isa. 55:6-7; Matt. 6:33). Christ is the true treasure (Matt. 13:44-46), and any pursuit of blessing that makes God a means to another end is erroneous and idolatrous.

2. Soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible.

Second, soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible. When preachers present isolated verses as time-honored principles for claiming God’s blessings, a counterfeit gospel results. Instead of relating all blessings to Christ, they directly apply individual verses to people today.

Such a promise motivates the strong and extinguishes the weak. Unless a passage is rightly related to redemptive framework of the Bible, verses like Psalm 1:3 become treadmills on which earnest Christians tire themselves out. Genuine Christ-centered expositional preaching prevents this sort of textual manipulation, and guards against the gospel of soft prosperity.

More specifically, soft prosperity delights in the tangible promises of the Old Testament.[3] The error is often found in promising old covenant blessings to new covenant saints. Whenever we read the Old Testament, faithful interpreters must see how the promises first related to Israel in their historic and theocratic state; second, to Jesus who perfectly fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17); and third, to us. Because we live under the new covenant, there will always be continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament promise and its contemporary fulfillment. Preachers must learn how to interpret these ancient texts at the textual, epochal, and canonical levels.[4] Likewise, healthy churches must learn to see how every blessing is found in relationship to Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.

3. Soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.

Third, soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, blessedness is not an amorphous idea. Deuteronomy 27-28 specifies the content of the Mosaic covenant’s blessings and curses. Quoting these verses, soft prosperity preachers advertise divine blessings through greater obedience, but they ignore the fine print. Only one man has so perfectly obeyed God’s so as to merit God’s blessing (Heb. 10:5-10). And for Jesus’ covenantal obedience, he was sentenced to death on a Roman cross, accursed for the sins of his people (Gal. 3:10-13).

Perhaps the greatest problem with the soft prosperity is the way it assumes the cross of Christ, instead of adoring the Blessed One who bore the wrath of God in our place (Gal. 3:13). Soft prosperity preachers speak often about what you can do to experience God’s favor, but they rush past the cross, missing the fact that every spiritual gift has been secured for the believer by Jesus, who gives us his Spirit as the preeminent blessing (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:3). Although they don’t deny the Romans Road, they are driving on another highway.

4. Soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques.

Fourth, soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques. By assuming the gospel, soft prosperity preachers fill the vacuum with a full plate of therapeutic techniques. With the language of Zion, they emphasize the good works of the believer. Although not explicitly denying salvation by grace through faith, pastors who repeatedly insist on life tips, techniques, and strategies for saintly success undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints.

5. Soft prosperity largely addresses first-world, middle-class problems. 

While the previous four trademarks could in many ways apply to hard or soft prosperity preaching, one striking difference remains. Whereas hard prosperity preaching invites followers to name it and claim it, soft prosperity preachers inspire the upwardly mobile to reach for their dreams. In the former good health and a strong portfolio prove God's tangible salvation; in the latter preachers proclaim a religion of therapeutic solutions. To quote only one of their teachers: "Do I believe in supernatural return on giving? Yes, sir! Do I believe God blesses tithes and offerings? Yes, I do. But why should we teach you to claim a car without teaching you about the car payment and interest rates on loans."[5]

In a nutshell, T. D. Jakes' message promises the same gold, through a different line of credit—superabundant faith mixed with well-ordered works. In short, this softer prosperity preaching appeals to first world, middle class people who are too busy living to examine a message that reaffirms their natural aspirations for success. Tragically, "believers" who buy into this false gospel may remain ignorant of their greatest need—atonement for sin before a holy God—unless confronted with true gospel of Jesus Christ. 

A BETTER THEOLOGY OF BLESSING

In the end, the tragedy of the soft prosperity gospel is the way it focuses so much on earthly improvements. By offering Christians their best life now, the eternal realities of heaven and hell are lost. This brings the very real possibility that many who hear the soft prosperity gospel are and will remain lost.

In response, Christians must learn to recognize the error of soft prosperity. And we—especially pastors—must prayerfully work to liberate others from it. First we must confess the ways that desires for earthly success have latched on to our own hearts. Second, we must present the biblical gospel, which far exceeds the offer of saintly success. We must extol the riches of the true gospel and trust that when God’s sheep hear his call to repent of their sin and cling to Christ, they too will sell their soft prosperity and receive as a free gift the only treasure that counts—Jesus Christ, the only blessed king.

David Schrock is the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana.

[1] On the difference between hard and soft prosperity gospels, see Kate Bowler’s revealing study, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78.

[2] In order, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), esp. 65-100; Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), esp. 173-97.

[3] See a list of such verses in Michael Schäfer’s article, “The Prosperity Gospel and Biblical Theology.”

[4] For a helpful treatment of this approach, see Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1979).

[5] Cited in Bowler, Blessed, 119.

Money: An Instrument for Blessing, Not an Indicator of It

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I was in college. I was a young Christian. And I remember walking past my pastor’s luxury car into the church office one day, and was greeted by a sign on the door that read, “We are no longer accepting requests for benevolence due to budgetary constraints.” 

It’s not necessarily wrong for a pastor to own a luxury car.  It’s not necessarily right for a church to use all its discretionary money to care for the poor. But the juxtaposition of these two things in that moment caused me to start viewing the church through a different lens almost immediately, like when you buy a new car and then starting seeing that model everywhere.

Over the coming months I started noticing similar distortions throughout our church: in what it measured and evaluated (numerical growth, physical health, financial well-being); in what it celebrated (new cars for the pastor and his wife, new facilities); in what the church and its members did and did not spend our money on.

Here’s one way to summarize the larger pattern: Money and stuff and outward things generally were treated as an indication of God’s blessing. They weren’t treated as an instrument for blessing others and doing gospel work. So we spent it on ourselves. Cash came into our cul-de-sac and didn’t leave.

The church was its own little private kingdom. Ministers and up-and-comers were rewarded so long as they stayed “loyal” and supported the church. If someone tried to leave and start a new gospel work, the moral and financial support would stop. Missions and church planting and taking the gospel to the nations were seldom, if ever, mentioned.

If you haven’t picked up the clues, I was part of church influenced by the prosperity gospel.

To understand how churches and Christians should view money, we should start with a biblical view of blessing. Listen to what Psalm 32 says is true blessing: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.” 

The forgiveness of sins, as it’s declared and discovered in the context of a church community, is the true indicator of God’s blessing.

In other words, don’t measure God’s love and favor toward you by the money you have or think you should have. There are lots of rich people who are going to hell. Remember what Jesus said about the camel going through the eye of the needle?

You know he loves you and favors you because he’s forgiven you! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).

Money and resources, then, are instruments for propagating this message. Churches and Christians shouldn’t be cul-de-sacs for cash. They should be thoroughfares for finance.

Don’t be like the fool who only knew how to build bigger barns and horde what God had given him, thinking that it was his security. Spend what you have for the kingdom. Pay pastors to preach the gospel. Support other individuals, missionaries, and churches when they go out to do gospel work. Then ask God to give more so that you can spend that on kingdom purposes, too.

So forget about identifying the most blatant “prosperity gospel” offenders. What about you? Do you lead your church to view wealth as an indicator of blessing or an instrument for it?

Here are a few more questions to ask yourself:

  • How does the church that I lead view and manage resources? 
  • What are the things that our congregation celebrates? (Chances are they learned it from you.)
  • How long have we been “meaning” to increase our mission’s budget?  What things have we used our money for that have kept us from doing this?
  • Why am I so concerned with how many people attend my church?  Why is numerical growth so important, and why do I envy other pastors?
  • Why do I hope that our budget increases this year?  Why am I praying for God to provide more resources?

None of us are immune to faulty thinking on how to view the money that God gives us. Is money a blessing? In some ways, yes. But more than that, it’s an instrument for pointing people to the real blessing—a knowledge of him!

John Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia.

Five Things All Christians Have

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Are you a Christian? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Or did you ever think you needed to?

In his book Am I Really a Christian? Mike McKinley shows us the importance of applying 2 Corinthians 13:5 to “test” ourselves to be sure of our standing before God.

But how do you “test yourself”? Mike begins with five things all Christians have.

“I want to look at five things that the Bible says will always accompany true conversion. If you have these things, you have firm evidence of God’s regenerating work in your life. If these things are absent, you have reason to be concerned.

  1. Belief in true doctrine. You’re not a Christian just because you like Jesus.
  2. Hatred of sin in your life. You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin.
  3. Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don't’ persist in the faith.
  4. Love for other people. You’re not a Christian if you don’t have care and concern for other people.
  5. Freedom from love of the world. You’re not a Christian if the things of the world are more valuable to you than God.

God has commanded us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. These five things make up some of the criteria by which we can judge ourselves. For the professing Christian, then, the all-important question is: Do I have the fruit of the new birth in my life?” (39)

Read more of Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian? here.

Topics: Nominalism

Book Review: Let It Go: Forgive So You Can Be Forgiven, by T.D. Jakes

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“As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person.” Ed Welch said that a few months ago on CCEF’s blog.[1] It makes sense. It’s a compelling concept. But it’s also an alarming concept. What if someone with bad ideas is really good at describing people—their struggles, fears, and desires? Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s the case with megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes in his book Let It Go.

Jakes’ book falls under the category of “Christian life,” and you would probably find it in the “Self-Help” section of your local bookstore, Christian or not. It’s a book of practical theology.

SUMMARY

Jakes uncovers his wide-ranging purpose early on: “My hope is that this book will help you gain insight into what prevents you from being the husband you want to be, the wife you long to be, the mother or father you know is inside you, the creative person you were born to be—the most successful version of you possible!” (4). But tension in relationships hinders that success (5). As does the failure of people to truly understand one another (12). Thus, says Jakes, we need to embrace the big idea of forgiveness, of “letting go of the past and finding the grace to forgive” (18). Forgiveness is a “supernatural power that’s unleashed when we let it go” (34, emphasis his). Such power is foundational for Jakes’ entire outlook on life.

Click here to continue reading.

Topics: Gospel