Article 1 in this series is here
The Lord Jesus Christ is not now on earth for us to show our appreciation to him, but his family, the church, is. And true love is relentlessly practical.
‘By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk, but in deed and in truth’ (1 John 3:16-18).
The whole law of God is a law of love. The glory of the new covenant is that the Spirit of love comes to dwell in us and write his law on our hearts (Romans 8:1-4). He teaches us to love God supremely and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
If words like ‘cold’ or ‘rigid’ are justly associated with our churches or leaders, then something is wrong. It indicates that we have the kind of Christ-centredness which is not the real thing.
The apostle Paul was an awesome theologian and worked harder than any of the other apostles in his church-planting ministry (1 Corinthians 15:10), yet, supremely, he deeply loved the people he served.
He wrote that glorious chapter about love, 1 Corinthians 13. He was moved to labour from house to house, in public and private, and plead with his people with tears in his eyes that they would keep following Jesus (Acts 20:19).
The elders from Ephesus wept when they heard him say they would not see him again (Acts 20:37-38). When Peter made mention of him he called him ‘our beloved brother, Paul’ (2 Peter 3:15).
I wonder whether we actually have that vision of Paul in our minds. We know his deep, glorious systematic theology. Do we know and have his heart? To him Jesus Christ was all. ‘For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2).
‘I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ’ (Philippians 3:8); ‘but our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 3:20).
If we see Jesus as Paul saw Jesus, we will also love as Paul loved. This is a barometer for us. How do we measure up?
Is our ministry as churches gospel- or law-based? The law of God is holy, righteous and good (Romans 7:12). It forever remains the revelation of what godly living looks like for God’s people in all ages (Matthew 5:17-20).
Nevertheless, the revealing of God’s law is not at the heart of the new covenant ministry. From that point of view (the heart of the covenant), God’s law is abolished. It is not the basis by which God’s people relate to him or receive blessings from him. It is not the motivation which drives us. It does not and never did equip us with power to please God (Romans 6:4; 7:7-25).
All of those things come from Christ. Christ has established and sealed the covenant with his own blood. We come to the Father through the Son. All blessings are mediated to us as free grace. They come on the basis of what Jesus has done himself, completely, once and for all.
We are pleasing to God only through Christ, not because our service goes some of the way and Christ goes the rest, but only because Christ’s entire righteousness is imputed to us (Romans 8:1-4; Philippians 3:2-11; Hebrews 8:6-12).
Our motivation in serving is to show his glory to others (Ephesians 3:8). It is to express our gratitude to him, though our expressions can never approach the slightest fraction of what he deserves. Our power to serve comes from his Spirit whom he has sent to us.
As such, our whole message to everyone should essentially be Jesus Christ and him crucified, risen and ascended. This is true with respect to unbelievers, beginners in the faith and mature Christians.
When believers go astray, supremely they have dishonoured Christ, put aside his lordship and soiled his name before the world. Whatever sin it is, they have failed to recognise some fundamental truth about Jesus.
When the Corinthians fell into fornication, they had forgotten that their bodies were members of Christ, who could never be joined with a prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:15).
When they kept a fornicator in their company, they had forgotten that Christ as their Passover lamb had been slain to make them a pure people without the leaven of sin (5:7-8). When they broke up into factions, they had forgotten that Christ was not divided (1:13).
When their spiritual gifts gave rise to jealousy and contempt, they forgot that they were the body of Christ (12:12-13). When they questioned the possibility of resurrection, they forgot that Jesus himself is already risen (15:3ff); and so on.
Do ministers approach pastoral questions like Paul did? Is Christ our presupposition, foundation, method and aim? Having good confessions of faith about Christ is not enough. We must actually have him at the centre in all our church practice.
The old covenant failed for the nation of Israel, because law is not enough. We should not repeat the Pharisees’ mistake by having a legally based approach that exalts God’s law out of its proper place!
Nobody comes to the Father except through Christ (John 14:6), the mediator of the new covenant in his own blood; and therefore all authentic Christian worship has Jesus obviously right at its centre.
A Muslim can preach a ‘good’ message, even about themes Christians approve of, such as the virtues of love and honesty and the evils of sin. He can speak about ‘God’ and his greatness, and draw ‘lessons’ from various familiar Old Testament figures; that is, if we think that it is possible to have a ‘good’ message or ‘lessons’ without the centrality of Christ.
We would, of course, never invite a Muslim to lead one of our worship services. Yet sometimes we should ask, what difference did not inviting a Muslim to preach make today?
Have the coming, death and resurrection of Jesus been so central to our worship that if we removed them it would have been like joining another religion? Or would it not have been that different after all?
Is our worship personal and Christ-centred? Are the Word and Spirit of Christ leading us to commune with Christ himself? Or is it merely a routine of correctly observed rituals? We might follow the ‘principles’ of worship accurately and yet fall down on the main point.
There is a mighty difference between preaching about Christ and preaching Christ. Even the devil can occasionally preach about Christ if he is constrained to admit to truth. His demons could cry out, ‘I know who you are, the holy one of God!’ (Mark 1:24).
We have to be careful about counterfeits. We do rejoice if Christ is preached, even faultily (Philippians 1:18). Yet it is not enough to give out information about Jesus, even true, rich and deep information.
True preaching presents Jesus himself to the sinner. Evangelistic preaching shows and offers the perfect sufficiency of Christ as a personal Saviour; pastoral preaching does exactly the same. Both draw our attention to certain truths, but that is for the purpose of leading us to the Truth himself.
Sometimes preaching is more ‘doctrinal’, in that it deals with matters in a more technical way. But, if this is at the expense of preaching Christ, preachers have failed, for all doctrine must draw us personally to Christ.
We must never be just spectators when we come to God’s Word, just to look at it and remark on it. We must come as needy sinners who are called to yield to it and receive it into our own hearts.
To be continued