Examine the Ministry Message
- Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Few who seek to apply Scripture to developments in the evangelical world would argue that things are bad in many ways. It is certainly easy to point to cheap grace rampant in our churches, the merchandising of the gospel in our stores, the peddling of false gospels through much of televised religious programming, a lack of discernment in our ministries, and a woeful ignorance of the Scriptures and related issues on the part of the masses in evangelicalism today.
One concerned commentator shared a recent conversation he had on an airplane with a woman that is comically tragic. She asked, "'What are you reading?' I showed her the cover and said, 'John Owen's book on mortification; it is an explanation of how God calls people who trust in the Lord Jesus to live.' She responded very excitedly, 'Oh! Our church just studied one of his books! Oh, what was the name of it....Oh yeah! It was The Purpose Driven Life!' I gently explained the mistaken identity and couldn't help but wonder if there was a rumble at Bunhill Fields in London, as old Owen rolled over in his grave (www.founders.org/blog/)!"
It therefore behooves us to examine our own ministries with particular reference to the message we proclaim, the method we use to advance that message, and the motive behind it all. At the same time, as informed and discerning Christians, it behooves us to examine the ministries of others as well. If someone is going to preach to us, we must be very sure they speak for God and not for themselves. Generally speaking, at least five questions may be asked to evaluate a ministry in question, whether it be our own or that of someone else.
First, when examining ministry (message, method, and motive), ask the question: does it have the ring of truth and purity? True gospel preachers do not convey a message of error, nor do they employ a motive of impurity, nor do they utilize a method of deceit.
Consider the hype surrounding The Da Vinci Code. We must see it for what it is. Erwin Lutzer speaks to the difference between that false gospel grounded in Gnosticism and the truth. "Read the Gnostic Gospels, and you will not be struck with their similarity to the New Testament but, rather, their radical differences. In the New Testament, Jesus is not just a great teacher but a Savior; indeed, the book of Hebrews shows in detail how he fulfills the whole sacrificial system of the book of Leviticus. The Suffering Servant of Isaiah and the prediction of 'Someone greater than Moses' as found in Deuteronomy are fulfilled in Jesus with breathtaking detail."
He then recounts a personal experience. "I was standing in line at a bookstore when the man ahead of me was purchasing a copy of The Gnostic Bible. The woman behind the counter said, 'You will enjoy reading this . . . it will give you an entirely different picture of Christianity,' Of course, I could not let that pass. I smiled and said, 'Do you realize that the Gnostics were not eyewitnesses? And did you know that the early church was aware of these teachings and refuted them? The New Testament has much more historical credibility.' To which she replied, 'Well, we all have our interpretations, but I prefer The Gnostic Bible.'"
Lutzer comments, "And this explains why many who read The Da Vinci Code are prone to believe it: Forget historical investigation; forget the need for consistency; forget the need for continuity with the Old Testament. It comes down to the desire to have a tolerant faith that lets us pick-and-choose our beliefs, cafeteria style (http://go.family.org/davinci/content/A000000058.cfm)." How tragic. And yet, we have a word from God that tells us to look for truth and not error simply because we prefer it for one reason or another.
Consider that Paul had to defend his ministry in Thessalonica. He and his companions had been accused of using deceit to exploit the believers there. Those opposed to the gospel knew very well that if the messengers of the gospel could be discredited, then the message itself would then be discredited. So, Paul speaks of not only the truthfulness of their message but also of their own integrity as they brought the message.
The apostle appeals to his former entreaty toward them. They had come as men of God with the gospel of God. Paul's opponents apparently were saying that their message sprang from error and that their motives were impure. They were lumping them in with the variety of pseudo-philosophers who used deceit to captivate their listeners. Paul answers these charges directly by plainly stating, "For our exhortation did not come from error or uncleanness, nor was it in deceit (1 Thes. 2:3)." They brought the good news of God's redemptive plan, not error. They preached Christ, not error. Moreover, they did not employ flattery to convey their message. They simply proclaimed the truth. No deception was to be found in their message or their actions. Their motive, action, and message sprang from love (v. 8). By way of application, true gospel preachers do not minister in error, impurity, or deceit.
Second, when examining ministry (message, method, and motive), ask the question: is it viewed as a sacred trust from God? A document emerged recently from the "Together for the Gospel" conference put together by four evangelical leaders: Albert Mohler, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, and C.J. Mahaney. Guest speakers at the conference included John MacArthur, John Piper, and R.C. Sproul. The concern of the four men who put the conference together is expressed in no uncertain terms.
"We are convinced that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been misrepresented, misunderstood, and marginalized in many churches and among many who claim the name of Christ. Compromise of the Gospel has led to the preaching of false gospels, the seduction of many minds and movements, and the weakening of the church's Gospel witness." They further state, "We are concerned about the tendency of so many churches to substitute technique for truth, therapy for theology, and management for ministry." Further still, "We are also concerned that God's glorious purpose for Christ's church is often eclipsed in concern by so many other issues, programs, technologies, and priorities. Furthermore, confusion over crucial questions concerning the authority of the Bible, the meaning of the Gospel, and the nature of truth itself have gravely weakened the church in terms of its witness, its work, and its identity (www.togetherforthegospel.org)."
The conference was a serious attempt to examine the nature of the gospel and gospel ministry in the face of much defection. The call has been issued to evaluate our ministries as gospel ministry is a sacred trust.
Our concern should be that of Paul. "But as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel, even so we speak, not as pleasing men, but God who tests our hearts (v. 4)." He asserts that he and his companions had been approved by God. That is, they had been tested and found faithful. As such, God approved them to convey His divine message of grace, mercy, and salvation in Christ Jesus.
Because God had tested and approved them for this service, He entrusted them with the gospel. The gospel had been given to Paul and his co-laborers as a trust. They were to be stewards of that which God had given them. They were not in this thing for themselves or for personal gain. They were under obligation to preach the message and to do so with purity. They were trustees who could not break the sacred trust that had been extended to them by God. The charges against them were indeed all the more grievous in light of this entrustment. Therefore, true gospel preachers are tested by God to determine the heart, approved by God for the gospel ministry, and entrusted by God with the precious gospel.
Third, when examining ministry (message, method, and motive), ask the question: is it geared toward pleasing men or pleasing God? We must ask ourselves: Are we seeking to please God or please man with a watered-down message that we might brag at the local pastor's conference about the success we are having? Are we guilty of flattering ourselves and that before others that they might flatter us? Are we motivated by a self-centered greed in terms or money or even the praise of men?
Consider the state of evangelism in the church today. With reference to a drop in baptisms in the SBC, a concerned pastor wrote: "I don't evaluate that as negatively as some--perhaps most--do. Again, don't misunderstand me. I am not saying that winning fewer people to Jesus Christ is a good thing! My evaluation of the report takes into consideration the pernicious pattern of shallow evangelism that characterizes recent Southern Baptist practice. In light of this, I think it may have been a greater tragedy if we actually reached the 'million more' goal. Had it happened, I fear that the self-congratulatory triumphalism that characterizes much of SBC life would have been unleashed and the soul-destroying problems that plague much of our evangelism would have even less of an opportunity to be honestly faced (www.founders.org/blog/)."
We can pat ourselves on the backs and speak of how well we do things. But, if we are not conveying a pure gospel with methods that don't confuse people into false security for God's glory and not our own, then we are guilty of violating God's sacred trust.
As a trustee of the gospel of God, Paul affirmed that he spoke as a trustee. A two-fold dynamic is involved in such speech. In the first place, he and his companions did not speak as pleasing men. Their message was often rejected, sometimes considered, and rarely received. Had they desired to gain a multitude of followers for personal gain they would have proclaimed a different message. They did not employ flattery or deception because their goal was not to please men. Their interests lied elsewhere.
In the second place, they spoke to please God. Their interests were with Him. In order to please God, they had to speak His message as He had given it with His glory in view. The only way to be a faithful steward of the trust God has given is to deliver God's message, God's way, for God's glory.
This simple concept is a much needed corrective in the church today as God's message has been adulterated on many fronts, delivered in a myriad of unbiblical, worldly, and sinful ways, and that for purely selfish motives. Well might purveyors of religion receive the accusation of the errorists at Thessalonica with a view toward repentance that they might be enabled to stand with Paul and declare with integrity that their message does not spring from error or deceit nor is it conveyed to please men, but God.
Paul extends his thought a bit. "For neither at any time did we use flattering words, as you know, nor a cloak for covetousness--God is witness (v. 5)." He flatly denies the use of flattering words. This employment was common among the false and pseudo-philosophers but not Paul and his companions. Further, he appeals to the fact that the Thessalonians knew this to be true. They observed Paul's life and witness. Paul is saying, "you know we did not flatter you."
Again, Paul affirms the purity of his motive. They did not use a cloak of covetousness. Their hearts were clean and they were not after money as so many of the false philosophers were. Paul's day was not unlike our day. As preachers of religion employed many ways to extract money from their listeners in Paul's day, so too they do in our day. One cannot watch religious programming on television long without being exposed to error and deceit with a view toward extracting money from the listening audience. Paul flatly denies a money motive and tells the Thessalonians they know that to be true.
We may summarize. True gospel preachers seek only to please God, do not use flattering words, and are not motivated by greed. How we need to hear these things today!
Fourth, when examining ministry (message, method, and motive), ask the question: can it stand the test of God's searching eye? Yet another document emerged from "the culmination of two days of discussions involving about 31 Southern Baptists from a variety of perspectives," according to Baptist Press. This document, known as "The Memphis Declaration," in part, is concerned with a variety of troubling issues in the Southern Baptist Convention.
The first point of the declaration deals with triumphalism. The signers of the declaration state: "We publicly repent of triumphalism about Southern Baptist causes and narcissism about Southern Baptist ministries which have corrupted our integrity in assessing our denomination bureaucracy, our churches, and our personal witness in light of the sobering exhortations of Scripture. Therefore, we commit ourselves to a renewed pledge to integrity demonstrated by accountability in our denomination, both before God and each other, lest in preaching the meekness of our Lord to others we ourselves will be found guilty of wicked, sinful pride (www.baptistpress.com/bpnews.asp?ID=23180)." Let us not forget that God can see our hearts and that He tests them and that no witness, whether for us or against us, matters other than His!
Paul says two things in his defense that are quite powerful. He says that God is the One who tests our hearts (v. 4) and that God is our witness (v. 5). What is he saying?
In the first place, Paul affirms the integrity of his message, method, and motive by appealing not only to his goal of pleasing God, but to the fact that God is the One who tests our hearts. Paul will answer to Him. While this reality should cause many to tremble before the God of Holiness, it was a source of comfort and defense for Paul. He is saying that God tested his heart and his heart was for God.
In the second place, Paul appeals to God as his witness. It is God who is his witness because only God can look upon the heart. God knows that Paul did not come to Thessalonica with a covetous heart. There is no higher appeal. Would that preachers of religion become gospel preachers and be able to appeal to God as their witness. Too many who attempt to appeal to God would find themselves under condemnation rather than approbation.
The implied message here is two-fold. Initially, we should all examine our hearts. Then, we should understand that true gospel preachers know and relish the fact that God tests their hearts and that God is their witness.
Fifth, when examining ministry (message, method, and motive), ask the question: does it seek to glorify man or glorify God? True gospel preachers seek only God's glory and therefore make no selfish demands.
With regard to his message, method, and motive, Paul has one further thought. "Nor did we seek glory from men, either from you or from others, when we might have made demands as apostles of Christ." There is no sense in which Paul was seeking personal gain or notoriety. He did not seek glory, honor, or praise from men. He did not seek such from the Thessalonians or any others. He only sought the glory of God. That, of course, is the Christian's ultimate motive.
Paul then appeals to his position and due in connection with that position. As an apostle, he was due to make his living from the gospel. The Scriptures are clear on this point. In 1 Cor. 9:14, we read a summation of Paul's defense of this concept in the broader context of that chapter, "Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel." In more than one place Paul notes, "For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain,' and, 'The laborer is worthy of his wages (1 Tim. 5:18).'"
Paul indeed had a right to make demands as an apostle of God. But, he did not. That is his point. He could have made demands. He had the right to do so according to the Scriptures. Yet, he did not. The fact that he made no demands surely proves the sincerity of his message, method, and motive. He did not take what he deserved. How could he be seeking even more? The opponents are thus shown to be what they are: liars and enemies of Christ. Paul and his men in contrast were heralds of the greatest message ever sent: the gospel of Christ. May we be the same.
Dr. Paul J. Dean is the pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greer, SC, and hosts a daily, live, call-in radio talk show: "Calling for Truth." He serves as the Director of Applied Ministry at the Greenville, SC extension of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a Regional Mentor with the International Association of Biblical Counselors.
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