Are You in a Gospel-Shaped Community?

*Article written by Pastor JD Greear and originally posted at jdgreear.com

Acts 2:41–47 gives us 5 “tests” of gospel-centrality. If we are preaching the Spirit-anointed gospel, these 5 things will be the result in our churches, just as they were in the very first one:

1. Evangelistic effectiveness AND doctrinal depth (Acts 2:41-42, 47)

Acts 2:41 tells us that in one day 3,000 people were saved and baptized, and verse 47  reports that God added daily to their number those who were being saved. The first church grew in a hurry. At the same time, the people were “devoted to the teaching of the Apostles” and were possessed by a great sense of awe over God’s glory.

I often hear church depth place at odds with church width. The early church clearly did both. In reality, the one is impossible without the other. Churches that grow wide without growing deep are not creating “sustainable” width, only generating a little temporary excitement. Churches that don’t grow wide are probably not nearly as deep as they may think. Gospel depth almost always produces gospel fruitfulness (Mark 4:16-17). Understanding the gospel gives you a sense of people’s lostness. You understand the wrath of God against their sin, how imminent His judgment is, how great His grace is towards them. Understanding the gospel gives you humility, because you realize how lost you were before God saved you. Understanding the gospel gives you the faith to believe God for great things, because the gospel reveals how willing and able God is to save. You show me someone characterized by a sense of urgency, humility, love and the boldness that comes from great faith, and I’ll show you someone who will be an effective evangelist!

Healthy churches do both (Col 1:5-6). Certain churches within the gospel-centered movement are suprisingly unconcerned with, or ineffective at, evangelism.  They talk a lot about “mission” and “planting churches” but somehow that never translates into evangelism. Some wear smallness as a badge of honor. They love to critique everyone else’s evangelism, but do very little of their own. Charles Spurgeon—no theological lightweight—said, “I would sooner bring one sinner to Jesus Christ than unpack all the mysteries of the divine Word, for salvation is the thing we are to live for.”

A lot of the criticisms directed at rapidly-growing churches seem (to me) to be motivated by about 30% theological concern and 70% jealousy, fear and laziness. This is not to say that there is no validity to the theological concerns, just that those making them should pay attention to their motives. Our arrogance may keep us from receiving the grace God works even in the midst of theological shortcomings. We ought to be humbled by the zeal for souls present in movements that do not achieve, in our view, a full gospel-centrality. As D. L. Moody said to one Reformed critic of his, “It is clear you don’t like my way of doing evangelism. You raise some good points. Frankly, I sometimes do not like my way of doing evangelism. But I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.”

2. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by the presence of God. (Acts 2:43)

This first church was full of the Spirit. There are a few things in that chapter that we will not likely experience in our congregations, but verse 43 gives you a classic description of the effect of the fullness of the Spirit—it says the people were “filled with awe.” D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said (and I paraphrase), The presence of God is a felt-sense of the attributes of God as revealed in the gospel. Their sense of the “presence of God” was not the result of a musical crescendo or an emotive preacher. It came simply from the preaching of the gospel by ones who really believed it and felt its passions within their souls. Another of my favorite theologians, Jonathan Edwards, described his sense of the presence of God like this:

“Sometimes only mentioning the name of Christ or an attribute of God will cause my heart to burn within me. . . . Suddenly God appears glorious to me. When I enjoy this sweetness it seems to carry me outside of myself. I cannot bring myself even to take my eye from this Glorious Object.” 

Note that this sort of experience is not at odds with doctrine, or even beyond doctrine, but flows out of good doctrine. It’s not less than doctrine, it is more. God’s beauty and majesty are not just to be perceived with the mind, they are to be felt in the soul.

Where this happens, there is the joy you see in Acts 2:46-47. It is hard for me to believe that a church can really “get” the gospel when its services are not characterized by joy. Yes, there are times for somberness and mourning and repentance in worship, but the predominant motif of biblical worship is joy. Multiple places in Scripture command us to clap our hands, shout with joy, and to sing and delight in God. They tell us that in God’s presence is “fullness of joy” (Psalm 16:11). So how can we claim to have gospel-centered churches if our services are not characterized by exuberant joy? 

3. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by fervent, faith-filled prayer (Acts 2:42)

The gospel produces a faith in the church that  makes bold requests of Jesus. You see that referred to here in Acts 2, and fleshed out later in Acts 4:24-31. They expected great things from God, and then attempted great things for God.

The early church was born from prayer. After Jesus ascended to heaven, Acts 1:14 reports that the disciples “were devoting themselves to prayer.” This went on for ten days before the arrival of the Spirit on Pentecost. These believers prayed for 10 days, Peter preached for 10 minutes, and 3,000 people were saved. Today we’re more likely to pray for 10 minutes, preach for 10 days, and see 3 people saved.

Acts shows us a profound connection between corporate prayer and our community getting a sense of the glory of God. When we pray, our eyes are opened to the glory of God. When our eyes are opened to His glory, we preach with boldness, passion and power (Acts 4:24-31). In Acts 7:55-56, we see Stephen lift his eyes to heaven in prayer, catch a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, and in awe begin to proclaim it to those around him. When this happens on a city-wide scale, what you get is a spiritual awakening. Tim Keller gives a glimpse of what this looks like:

In New York, in 1857, a man named Jeremiah Lanphier was hired to witness to a local neighborhood. He was frustrated by utter ineffectiveness, and so in desperation he turned to prayer. One day he invited people to pray with him—six people showed up. The following week, 20 people came. The next week, 40. Two months later, hundreds were gathering to pray. Soon the entire downtown area was filled with men and women praying. Evangelistic meetings sprang up all over the city, and in 9 months, 50,000 people came to Christ at a time when the population of NYC was 800,000. This was known as the great prayer revival of Manhattan.

I really want to see that happen in Raleigh-Durham. If you scaled the proportions, that would be like 100,000 people coming to Christ in a 9-month period!

4. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by empowered members. (Acts 8:1, 28:15)

A stubborn theme throughout the book of Acts is that God’s most effective vehicles are “regular” people. Consider these facts from Acts: Thirty-nine of the 40 miracles in the book of Acts occur outside the walls of the “church,” in the workplace. The longest sermon in Acts is by Stephen, a layman. That sermon led to the most significant spiritual moment in Acts, the conversion of Saul (Paul). Acts 8:1 notes that when persecution rose up against the church, the church was scattered around the world preaching the gospel. But note that Luke tells you this worldwide fulfillment of Acts 1:8 did not include the Apostles. These anonymous Christians were so effective in ministry that when Paul showed up in Rome to preach the gospel “where Christ had never been named,” he was greeted by “the brothers” (Acts 28:15). Early church historian Stephen Neill notes that the anonymity of the major gospel movements in the ancient world is breathtaking: “But in point of fact few, if any, of the great Churches were really founded by apostles. Nothing is more notable than the anonymity of these early missionaries… Luke does not turn aside to mention the name of a single one of those pioneers who laid the foundation. Peter and Paul may have organized the Church in Rome. They certainly did not found it…” (History of Christian Missions, 22)

This flows from the very nature of the gospel. The gospel is not about recognizing the gifted, but about gifting the unrecognized. Church leaders who understand that gospel won’t try to build their church around a handful of mega-talented superstars, but rather dedicate themselves to empowering and releasing the church for ministry (Eph 4:11-13). They become committed to raising up other leaders. They judge their success not so much by seating capacity but sending capacity.

5. Gospel-centered churches are characterized by extravagant generosity. (Acts 2:45)

The gospel is that Jesus “became poor for our sake so that through his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). When a church gets this, they become extravagantly generous toward others. The first Christians didn’t just give out of their excess. They voluntarily sold their stuff so that their were no needs among them. 

Eventually this sort of gospel generosity overflowed into the streets, but it started in the church. As the apostle Paul says in Galatians, “Let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10). Ultimately, the love that Christians show to one another is a profound statement to an unbelieving world. It is by our love for one another, Jesus said, that the world will know that we are His disciples (John 13:35; cf. 1 Peter 4:9). As Francis Schaeffer said, “the final apologetic that Jesus gives is the observable love of true Christians for true Christians.”

Evangelistic effectiveness and doctrinal depth; fervent, faith-filled prayer; a sense of the presence of God; empowered members and extravagant generosity are 5 things that the gospel produced in the early church. How present are they in your church? If one of these characteristics are missing, is it possible that we don’t understand the gospel as much as we claim to? These are the indelible marks of a gospel movement.

If these are missing from your church, the answer is not to “go and try harder.” We need to ask ourselves, “Why is the gospel I [love] not producing these things?”

Prisoners Of Self: Incessant Autobiography in the Smartphone Age

*Article written by Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) (tonyreinke.com)

*Article written by Tony Reinke (@tonyreinke) (tonyreinke.com)

The man doting over a smartphone screen, scrolling through media with his fingertips, is like a gorilla meticulously picking out little bugs from his own hair. 

That was the subversive quip of anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita. For both the screen addict and the gorilla, neck-down focus is the attentive posture of self-image grooming.

The association here is funny (and not funny), and if C.S. Lewis were alive in the digital age, I think he’d be letting out a hearty laugh at the correlation. He would certainly offer up many warnings to us, and probably one of them would be the dangers of getting preoccupied with self-image care, or, what he called, “incessant autobiography.”

In his absence, I’ll do my best to explain his connections.

Satan as Globetrotter

Lewis’s warning against “incessant autobiography” originates from his reflections on John Milton’s Paradise Lost in a little book Lewis published as A Preface to Paradise Lost.

There Lewis is struck by Milton’s Satan, and his repressive self-focus. 

Milton’s Satan, not unlike the Satan of Scripture, is a globetrotter, traveling from the heights of heaven all the way to the depths of hell. A freewheeling presence with limitless powers of travel and presence, teleporting around the cosmos with what seems to be a freedom of range unmatched by any other creature (Isaiah 14:12–13Job 1:72:2Luke 10:181 Peter 5:8Revelation 12:9).

But by his cosmic travels, Satan is driven deeper into a corrupting narcissism. Unconcerned with any values or judgments outside of himself, he becomes his own god, or so he thinks. In reality he is a creature stuck inside the eternal prison of himself. He seems to have an unlimited supply of frequent flier miles to travel the cosmos, but in reality, he is bound inside the solitary confinement of himself, a prison he can never escape. 

Milton’s Satan is stuck. Everything he says is propaganda about himself. He has no hope of escaping the acid of his narcissism. He cannot simply be a creature in the presence of his Maker. He speaks only about himself. He loves only himself. He is focused on only himself. 

Thus, writes Lewis, “To admire Satan in Paradise Lost, is to give one’s vote not only for a world of misery, but also for a world of lies and propaganda, of wishful thinking, of incessant autobiography” (102).

Adam in Quarantine

In stark contrast we find Milton’s pre-fall Adam, who thrives in the reverse condition, observes Lewis. 

Adam talks about God, the Forbidden Tree, sleep, the difference between beast and man, his plans for the morrow, the stars and the angels. He discusses dreams and clouds, the sun, the moon, and the planets, the winds and the birds. He relates his own creation and celebrates the beauty and majesty of Eve. . . . 

Adam, though locally confined to a small park on a small planet, has interests that embrace “all the choir of heaven and all the furniture of earth.” Satan has been in the Heaven of Heavens and in the abyss of Hell, and surveyed all that lies between them, and in that whole immensity has found only one thing that interests Satan. (102)

Satan has been everywhere, and all he can think about is himself.

Adam has been just about nowhere, and all he can think about are the wonders around him.

Adam is confined, and yet his mind fixates on universal marvels. This profoundly insightful comment from Lewis opens up to us a whole world of thought in the age of smartphones and social media (not to mention global travel). 

Sin’s Boredom

We cannot miss these two contrasts. 

First, Satan is a picture of self-centered boredom; Adam is a picture of God-centered awe.

Satan has fallen in a trap Tim Keller calls “advanced sin.” Advanced sin makes you especially bored and especially boring. Why? “Because all you’re ever worried about is how you’re doing, how you look, how things are affecting you. There’s always a grievance. Incessant autobiography. You can never get out of yourself. You’re always feeling sorry for yourself.

“Sin makes you mediocre. There’s nothing more boring than somebody who’s always worried about how they look. Sin makes you these very uninteresting, unprincipled, shallow, boring people. Sleepless, unsmiling concentration on the self. That’s the essence of sin. Sin does not make you bad before it makes you boring,” warns Keller. “That’s the primary thing about sin. Incessant autobiography.”

“There is indeed something Satanic about a person who has no interests other than themselves,” says Lewis. Such self-consummation, such narcissism, reflects the truest and deepest boredom of Satan himself.

Smartphones and Travel

Second, we see a profound contrast about the ways boundaries allow the mind and heart to feast on the wonders of God and creation. 

Adam has embraced his embodied finitude, embraced his home, his local garden, and from this rootedness, his heart expands out into all the expanses of the cosmos around himself. Adam is alive to wonder and filled with heartfelt celebration as he focuses on what is outside of himself. This is because Adam is grounded.

Milton saw it. Lewis saw it in Milton. Keller sees it in Milton and Lewis. And Chesterton saw it, too.

There is a humility that allows us to be rooted people. “The moment we are rooted in a place, the place vanishes. We live like a tree with the whole strength of the universe,” G.K. Chesterton once wrote:

“The globetrotter lives in a smaller world than the peasant. He is always breathing an air of locality. . . . The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men — diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons. The man in the cabbage field has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men — hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky. . . . [The] globetrotter . . . has not the patience to become part of anything” (Works, 1:60).

Adam’s life is intentionally rooted in one place. He was created for one place. Called to serve one place. And once you find yourself rooted deep in such a place, then your interests naturally branch out into the cosmic and universal. 

Wonder’s Boundary Line

Living within physical boundaries and limitations — like the boundary line around orthodox theology — awakens us to new glories. Boundaries evoke a new sense of worshipful wonder, said Chesterton, as “the largest wilderness looks larger seen through a window.” 

Physically, this is what rivets us to movies like The Swiss Family Robinson(1960). “Though at first the ocean surrounding the island on which the Robinsons shipwreck seems like a limiting edge, after a while they realize the wealth and beauty of the island and create their own society, a society that we (the audience) find rich and adventurous — thus the appeal” (Harden, 17).

But the limiting edge of our mortal lives gets lifted in the digital age. Smartphones are a portal into the heights and depths of the known universe. Our addiction to smartphones is the love of freedom from boundaries, the ability to escape all the limits of space and even of time. We become globetrotters. And all our freedom merely breeds inside of us more boredoms, making it harder to wonder in the presence of universals.

Are You Stuck in the Mirror?

The sum of all this? We are quick to use technology and travel as escapes from the boundaries of place-ed-ness. We hate being confined to our physical location. We are desperate for escape. We travel so that we can validate ourselves on social media. We take trips, not so that we can enjoy other places, but so that we can showcase ourselves. 

For many, global mobility is driven by the desire to craft the next chapter in our “incessant autobiography.” And while at home, we travel the virtual world but find ourselves stuck inside of our own narcissism. What we project to the world becomes our driving motive, the aim of our travels, and the end of our digital lives. We become boring and blind to wonder. 

Whether we find ourselves addicted to global travel or addicted to scouring the worldwide web, we need Christ to sever the narcissism of our hearts, to protect us from the poison of relentless self-focus, and to free us from the awe-killing prison of our own “incessant autobiography.” We were made to be rooted, and to be rooted, to find awe and wonder outside of ourselves.

A HUMBLE EXALTATION

READ: Luke 18:9-14

The Christian life is marked by a realization that we are in desperate, daily need of a Savior. While we are all made in the image of God (Gen.1:27), we are permanently marked by sin and thus separated from God (Rom. 3:23). In our brokenness, and distance from our loving God, it becomes easy to seek out approval, recognition and validation in the world. We see this nearly every day in nearly every one.

In this parable, Jesus paints a stark dichotomy of two hearts, two men and two very different expressions of faith toward the Lord amidst a broken society. The Pharisee’s heart is one marked by personal pride, and mistaken faith that he had favor in the Lord based solely upon his own spiritual discipline. Perhaps it would be easy to see this as warranted. He was favored amongst his worldly peers, and likely validated as such. Yet, ironically, this quickly poisoned his heart with pride, and ultimately love, toward
the world — not God.

As Jesus shows, the raw plea for mercy towards God is the purest expression of love. The tax collector, even in the midst of his own self-evident sin, maintained his reverence towards the Lord. He looked up, not down. He recognized his own distance from justification. This, Jesus says, leads to exaltation, righteousness, and reward in the form of salvation.

As Christians, trusting Jesus Christ as Savior of our lives is an act of humility, and our continued daily dependence on Him for our salvation is a testimony that we have found a savior. After all, a humble heart before the Lord and a desperate dependence upon His own act of love and mercy is the very deepest expression of love we can offer to God.

God isn’t interested in us presenting any form of validation towards Him. He already presented the ultimate sacrifice on our behalf in the form of his Son – Jesus. We are to lay down our life to Him.

PRAY: God, may You be glorified in me, just as I am. May I trust in You always.

THE POWER IN PRAYER

READ: Psalm 116:2

As I sat down to write this devotional, I did what probably any of us would do when we are struggling with where to start something. I turned to Google. I quickly realized 2 things:

First, there are a lot of
‘experts’ and information out there on prayer. From quotes, to examples of prayers, instructions on how to pray, even the ways God answers prayers. It all was quite overwhelming.

Second, the only place I should be looking for inspiration on writing a devotional on prayer is God’s word.

Max Lucado said “Our prayers may be awkward. Our attempts may be feeble. But since the power of prayer is in the One who hears it and not in the one who says it, our prayers do make a difference.”

The power of prayer is in the One who hears it and not in the one who says it.

So many times I feel like we have to ‘say the right words.' That our prayers have to be some perfectly thought out work of literature, or they’re just not quite good enough. But in reality, the words we say and how we say them are not what’s important. He knows what we need before we even ask, remember Matt 6:8?

We need to just simply be spending time in conversation with God. I have numerous conversations throughout the day – with my family, with the children I teach, with coworkers. None of these conversations are difficult to have. Our prayers with God should be that simple - a conversation.

PRAY: Almighty Father, thank You for knowing my heart and knowing my needs even before I do. Help me to worry less about the words I say and focus more on spending time daily in conversation with You.

A PURE HEART

READ: Isaiah 29:13

The Lord says: "These people come near to Me with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of Me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.

We all want to do the “right thing.” And, if we’re really honest, we all want others to see or notice that we are doing the “right thing.”

It’s even better when others praise us for our “right” actions. As a people pleaser, this gets me every time.

God does not just require “right” actions, though. Any worship of God, whether it’s fasting, praying, serving, giving, etc., must be done with a pure heart or it’s just hypocrisy.

An extravagant offering given to show off wealth is meaningless to Him. A beautiful song sung for the praises of men is just noise in His ears. In Psalm 139 God warns His people that He will always test our hearts to find our true motivations.

What does God want, what does He require?

Micah 6:8 tells us what God really wants from us is a humble and pure heart. There’s nothing wrong with “right” actions, but we must always make sure those actions come from a pure heart.

PRAY:

Just as Psalm 139 says, search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way of everlasting. Help me to live out of a pure heart of worship for You, and not for the praises of others. Make my motivations be pure and pleasing to You.

JESUS SAYS, PRAYER IS...

READ: Matthew 6:1-18

Is any of you good at prayer? Are you a good prayer? Any prayer warriors?

I am not a great prayer. I have tried lots of different prayer forms and practices over the years. My prayer life is pretty hot and cold —and by hot and cold, I mean at times I’ve used an orthodox Jewish prayer rope, praying with repetition...ACTS prayer, open- ended prayers, guided prayer-books, etc.

And with each of these, I fizzle out and end up going on for periods without good communication with God... I go weeks without intentionally praying to God.

2 Major reasons people don’t pray:

-Not knowing what to do in prayer -Not have a sound theology of prayer

Often when we pray, we focus on praying instead of focusing on God. Is this familiar? “God, I’m here today to avoid the guilt of not praying today.” Maybe not the words...but at least the sentiment...

The syntax of prayer has less to do (not nothing...) with its forms (posture, what, how, when) and more to do with your relationship with God. AND SO: Love, honesty, and relationship is the true syntax of prayer because it is speaking and listening to the God who is love.

Why should we have confidence that God hears our prayers? Christ was the true Son of God...perfect in relationship, perfect in Image...And at the point in which He raised Lazarus from the dead, He prayed: “Father, I thank You that You have heard me. I knew

that You always hear me,”. Christology is the vital basis of our confidence that God is “UP THERE” listening. What belongs to Christ, now belongs to all who trust in Him. If the Father always hears the Son, then He always hears those who, in Christ, are sons. Galatians 4:6 agrees: “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba Father! ”

PRAY:

God, I’m here. [Spend a moment communicating to God what you appreciate and love about Him.

Offer Him your praises of His character and activity.]

[Now, spend a moment talking with God about the condition of your heart and mind on this day.

What worries you? What do you care about?]

[Close your prayer with 3-5 minutes (or more) of silence. When you feel distracted, say: “I’m listening God.]

WHAT'S INTEGRITY

READ: Psalm 15

[in-teg-ri-tee] – The quality of being of sound moral principle; uprightness; honesty, and sincerity

What would you do if your boss asked you to put untrue information on a report? What do you do if you are taking a test that determines your admission to a university? How would you respond to someone who is harassing you or your children? These and many more situations are faced almost daily. What situation last challenged your integrity?

How can a person gain INTEGRITY?

Psalm 15:2 tells us how:

-He/She whose walk is blameless
-He/She who does what is righteous
-He/She who speaks the truth from his/her heart -He/She who has no slander on his/her tongue -He/She who does his/her neighbor no wrong -He/She who despises a vile man but honors those who fear the LORD

Why should a person desire INTEGRITY?

-God UPHOLDS them – Psalm 41:12 In my INTEGRITY You uphold me and set me in Your presence forever.
-VICTORY over enemies – Proverbs 2:7 He holds victory in store for the upright and a shield for those whose walk is blameless. -God GUARDS them – Proverbs 2:8 He guards the course of the just and protects the way of His faithful ones.

-PEACE – Proverb 16:7 When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD He makes even his enemies live at peace with Him.
-REWARDS – Proverbs 11:18 The wicked man earns deceptive wages, but he who sows righteousness reaps a sure reward.

PRAY: Heavenly Father, I love You. Help me keep my eyes on You and forgive me when I don’t. I can do nothing without You, so live through me today and my words will be Your words and my actions will be Your actions. That is the only way I can have INTEGRITY.

STUBBORN YET DEARLY LOVED

READ: Ephesians 2:4-8

Parenting is tough. There are days when I tell my son "no" and right in front of me he carries on as if he didn’t hear me. The worst is when he looks directly in my eyes while a sly grin spreads across his face and immediately does what he knows he was not supposed to do!

Stubborn. Yes- The seed of sin grew in me and was planted in him at birth.

And yet I can't help but think of how God must look out on His creation and see our rebellion much the same way... His children whom He created and loves, taking His law and tossing it aside. My child’s faults are merely a reflection of a broken world that he merely inherited. But there’s good news for our broken world. 

God had a redemption plan that was established from the beginning of the Fall. It led to the reason why we celebrate Easter today. Jesus’deathpaidforoursinsandHis resurrection defeated those sins once and for all. No matter how many times we rebel against God, He loves us and wants us to experience true victory through Him.

PRAY: Dear Lord, We thank You for loving us despite our many failures. We celebrate You and the redeeming work You accomplished on the cross. Remind us to live in faith because of that victory.