I want you to open your Bible tonight, as we continue our sort of family talks about the state of the church, to 1 Thessalonians chapter 5. And I want to share with you a couple of verses that might set a biblical framework for the thing that we want to talk about tonight.
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5, the apostle Paul is giving a list of the most essential components of Christian living. They are very, very important - and some years back, not too many, we went through these in our study of 1 Thessalonians - particularly looking at verse 20, you will notice, just as you glance at the page on your Bible, that there are a series of brief commands, and they do, in great measure, sum up our Christian responsibility and privilege.
But in verse 20, Paul says, “Do not despise prophetic utterances.” Another way to say that would be, “Do not despise those who are gifted to speak to you the Word of God.” In other words, “Listen to the Word of God from your gifted teachers, and in listening” - verse 21 – “examine everything” - that is said by those who speak, they say, for God, but – “examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; abstain from evil no matter how it appears.” In other words, you’ve got to look behind the initial appearance. You’ve got to take a careful examination of what is said to make sure that it’s true. When you find out if it’s true, you hold onto it; if you find out it’s not, you shun it.
I suppose the actual demonstration of this that is most commonly known to us is the Bereans who, in the book of Acts, are commended by the Lord because they search the scriptures to see if the things that the apostles themselves said were so. Even when an apostle speaks, we are still required to examine and test those things and make sure they are so. This is a very important word to the church.
As you know, recently I wrote a book called Reckless Faith: When the Church Loses Its Will to Discern, because in the end, that really is the major problem. It is when the church lacks discernment that everything begins to go wrong. Absolutely crucial that the church maintain discernment. Or we get a case of spiritual AIDS. As I have said before, people don’t die of AIDS; they die of whatever diseases they contract because their immune system has been destroyed. And when the church’s immune system is destroyed, it will eventually catch every aberration, every false doctrine and be unable to distinguish it, and maybe even seeing it as life giving when in fact it is death dealing. It would be safe to repeat a phrase or a line from Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who – now with the Lord – said this about 30 years ago, “Evangelicalism is fighting for its very life.” He saw that as true 30 years ago in England. Certainly it is true in American today.
Scripture warns about ear-tickling teachers; it warns about doctrines of demons; it warns about perverse teaching, commandments of men, seducing spirits, speculations, deceptions, worldly fables, false knowledge, empty philosophy, traditions of men, worldly wisdom, corrupters and adulterators, conmen, hucksters of the Word. Scripture warns about wolves who come in sheep’s clothing.
By the way, just to tell you what that means in Matthew 7, a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a false prophet. Sheep’s clothing is wool. Prophets wore wool. He is saying somebody might come dressed like a prophet, but they’re really a destructive wolf come to rip and tear. We have also been told in the Scripture that there is an escalation of this as we get closer to the end times. And we know no matter how our world may cry, “Peace,” no matter how they may have their Peace Accords – and we saw it illustrated – didn’t we? – yesterday in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, the Prime Minister of Israel – and no matter how much they talk about peace, there never is peace, and certainly not in that part of the world. As we move closer to the end of the age, these kinds of deceptions escalate and increase, as we are told clearly in the New Testament.
As I mentioned to you last time, Satan comes with his Trojan horses, and the gates of evangelicalism have been thrown wide by the utter lack of discernment, and the city has become literally filled with Trojan horses, and the soldiers are coming out, spreading all of their satanic deceptions.
Now, you look at this lack f discernment, and it manifests itself in a number of ways. We could call these reasons or causes for this, or we could call it symptoms of it. And perhaps that’s a better way to define it. The absence of discernment in the church today has these symptoms – and I shared some of them with you last time – one of them is the massive escalation of mysticism, the tremendous increase in this mystical approach to one’s relationship to God. That is to say that being related to God is not a matter of the mind; it is a matter of the feeling; it is a matter of the emotion. You come to truth by what you feel, what you experience, what happens intuitively in your mind. And this is rampant in evangelicalism. Frankly, it’s been there for a long time, only it’s been sort of kept in check by a commitment to doctrine. But once an abandonment of doctrine came along - and doctrine is no longer popular, and that, dear friends, as I’ve told you before, is the primary – the primary legacy – negative legacy – of the charismatic movement to the church. The fact that they speak in tongues or even the fact that they believe in miracles isn’t nearly as devastating to the church as the utter absence of a sound theology and of a diminishing of the importance of theology.
And so, as there is a decline in the emphasis on doctrine, there is an escalation in the personal definition of spirituality so that everybody can define his own spirituality in whatever terms he would like.
I was reminded as I was listening to Joseph’s testimony tonight – quite a moving testimony – wasn’t it? – about coming out of the Roman Catholic Church. And this was the final break. I want you to know that we put testimonies from the waters of baptism on the radio. We have a Grace to You weekend program. I don’t know how many stations it’s on, probably 60 or 70 radio stations around America. And very often, we run baptisms on those radio programs on the weekend program, and occasionally even on the weekday program, as some of you know. We will incorporate a baptism. And I was reminded that we would not be able to put that kind of testimony on Grace to You because it wouldn’t be able to be broadcast over Christian radio stations because they wouldn’t allow anybody to say anything like that against the Roman Catholic Church system, because it might offend somebody.
The issue is not doctrine; the issue isn’t even whether the radio station is evangelical, or whether it believes the gospel. The issue is we’ve got to leave people some space to define their own spirituality in whatever terms they feel comfortable with and not really speak against that.
So, we talked a little about mysticism. I don’t want to beg the issue, but mysticism is simply that philosophy that says, “I will define spiritual truth and my relationship to God in my own terms and by my own feelings. It is not cognitive; it is not through a process of understanding truth, understanding Scripture, understanding clear doctrine, but rather it’s a matter of how I feel.”
And you have to be very careful, even when we emphasize the idea we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, not to overstate that, because I think it leads to something very dangerous. And when we overemphasize saying, “I have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” we might be convincing ourselves that we have no responsibility to the church at large, and that’s certainly not true. When you were saved, certainly there was a personal miracle that took place, but there was also the incorporation of you into the church which is the body of Christ. Right?
And so, while God has worked personally in your life, He has, in that personal work, connected you permanently and eternally with every other believer, and you have a responsibility to the life of the church, to you fellow believers, and to those whom the Lord has given to the church as gifted men to teach and to lead and to guide your life.
So, we have to be careful when we talk about mysticism and about feeling the Lord and feeling things in our spiritual experience. As I said last time, I’ve never felt the Lord; I’ve never felt the Holy Spirit, and I’ve never felt God.
You say, “Do you believe that God is leading your life?”
Yeah. I just don’t know what it feels like. But I can look back and see His hand in my life. And I believe He has a purpose sovereignly in my life, and He’s working that purpose out. I just can’t feel it. There’s no emotion that defines it for me.
People say, “I feel the Lord’s leading.”
I don’t know what that feels like. You’re not sensing the Lord’s leading because there’s nothing in the Scripture to indicate that you could define that.
You say, “Well, does that mean the Lord’s not leading?”
No. The Lord is leading you life; the Lord is leading my life. He is sovereignly bringing about the features of our life; I understand that. I understand that. It is an amazing thing. It is an amazing thing.
I was preaching somewhere recently, and I was given a check. And I never expected to get a check, and it was a rather large one. And I came home, and I said to Patricia, “Look what they gave me; this is amazing.” And it wasn’t a matter of a few days until we came across someone who shared with us kind of a heartbreaking need in the amount of that check.
So, I said, “Well, now I know why.” I know God does things in my life, but at the time I can’t feel Him doing them. The only thing I can be sure of is that which is the Scripture affirms. But you have a kind of Christianity today that is running loose all over the place. And mysticism is a factor; it is a symptom of this lack of discernment. Nobody wants to question what anybody says, because everybody has a right to define their own spirituality and their own belief about God and how He works in whatever terms they want to define temptation.
Secondly, another symptom, and I’ve already mentioned it, is a lack of doctrinal conviction, a lack of doctrinal clarity as well. In fact, if you take a strong stand on doctrine, you’re going to be accused of splitting the church. This is really astonishing; this is really amazing. The norm today is to gaze lazily at the surface of Scripture and then justify some personal, cavalier shallowness as the desirable generosity toward those who differ.
If I find somebody who’s in error, my compelling instinct is to correct them. And it’s not because I think I’m right about everything; it’s just because I think there are some things that are clear in the Scripture that could bring to bear on their error, and they need to know the truth about what God says. But in so doing, I am classified as dogmatic and undesirable. And because I tend to be so narrow in my understanding of truth, this is doctrinal apathy, and the culture certainly is pushing this as well.
As this culture becomes more mystical, as the New Age mentality goes further and further, as we move away from cognitive things into more and more of the bizarre. I mean just take a look at the whole MTV generation; I don’t understand any of that. It is not rational; that’s part of it. As the society becomes less and less cognitive and less and less rational, and it presses itself against the church, it feeds that what I call selfish ego-centered approach to religion as well as a foolish one in which you define truth in your own heart, and that is the truth. Increasing relativism because there’s no commitment to doctrine.
Relevant Christianity today is not mental; it is not rational; it is not doctrinal. In fact, I even had a thesis written on me in which the guy concluded the thesis with this statement, “MacArthur is biblical; he’s just not relevant.” That was a doctoral dissertation somebody – somebody got a doctor’s degree for coming to that conclusion. How can you be biblical and not relevant? Only if the Bible is irrelevant. What is relevant is emotion and experience and so forth.
I remember David Watson, who was an early partner of John Wimber in the Vineyard movement. And David Watson was a pastor in the – in England in the Anglican Church. He criticized the Christian church for concentrating on the mind. And he said this, “Most churches rely heavily on the spoken or written word for communication and then wonder why so few people find the Christian faith to be relevant.” End quote. I don’t even understand that statement.
Most churches rely heavily on the spoken or written word and then wonder why so few people find the Christian faith to be relevant? How else could we find a relevant Christian faith if it isn’t through the spoken and written word. God wrote His Word down. Is that irrelevant? It was to David Watson. It was to John Wimber, and that’s what launched the Vineyard movement, a movement that gives little deference to Scripture and great deference to experience. And it’s issued in the Toronto blessing, the so-called “laughing revival.” And as I mentioned to the 25,000 Southern Baptist pastors in the Georgia Dome, when I was there, if God ever did show up in Toronto, nobody would be laughing, because God would be busy confronting their theology – or lack of it.
So, the church, in a sense, has descended from the lofty task of preaching doctrinal truth to the mind, giving the whole counsel of God to the mind, giving people knowledge. The church has descended from that to inducing pleasant feelings, personal comfort, and satisfaction. Worship which once was built around – and still is here – loft theology and the Scripture, singing great theology has now descended to be more interested in the tune than the words. And I’m kind of sure that Satan knew we wouldn’t buy liberal theology; so, he just sold us their style.
Preachers are told now to be showmen, storytellers, counselors, miracle workers, and not preachers of doctrine. People don’t want to hear that; they don’t want to hear Bible exposition. And this is a symptom of the utter absence of discernment which leaves the church totally vulnerable to everything – a totally devastated immune system, and the patient eventually catches every disease.
My friend R. C. Sproul said, “I never thought I’d live to see the day when the Christian evangelical movement would have people clinging” – “have people” – I’m sorry – “denying the simplest creed of Christian faith.” Never thought he’d see the day when people would deny the simplest creed of Christian faith and cling to their experience. It’s amazing. Amazing. They say doctrine divides, doctrine is not interesting. It’s not relevant; it’s not pleasant; it lacks power. It’s a sad, sad situation.
And along that line – let me just say something that we’ve been talking about recently that is of great concern to me – we’re living in a time – to contrast that a bit with the past – we’re living in a time when no longer is the church – listen carefully to this – no longer is the church and its great leaders and its great theologians and its great minds and its great Bible scholars defining evangelicalism. That’s not how it is; that’s not what’s happening. It’s not the people who are the most skilled in the handling of the Word of God who are defining it; it is largely being defined by the leaders and the philosophies of parachurch ministries.
Now, parachurch ministries have these entrepreneurial, celebrity, well-known, highly gifted, highly visible, recognizable individuals who are strong – you know, sort of the SNL – the SNL is an old term for the strong natural leader – the empire builders, the entrepreneurs, bright minds, aggressive, clever, innovative, incurable visionaries, indefatigable in their labors to build their great organizations. And they get the largest profile. They write the books; they capture the popular media’s attention; they get interviewed. They are the ones that get on television. They even build television networks, radio programs, and all the complexes of things that they build. And if you will notice, you will find that this is true: parachurch ministries generally are doctrinally weak or even doctrinally nondescript. Some of them wouldn’t even have a theological statement or a doctrinal statement or be in any tradition of theology or be committed to any creed. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, the large parachurch ministries that draw in the great masses of funds, that have the highest profile, that publish, that are on television, that are on radio, that are ubiquitous, that are everywhere, and that are led by very prominent, very gifted, very capable, talented individuals are doctrinally weak, nonspecific, or imprecise.
And yet their leaders become so visible, have such wide influence through the tremendous power of the organization, that they become the definers of the Christian faith and experience. I’ve actually sat down with a publisher, in the process of writing a book on doctrine, and had the publisher say to me, “I’m concerned that so-and-so” – who heads a big ministry – “will be offended” - And speaking of a man who is neither called to preach, gifted to preach, ordained to preach, or trained to preach, or that’s to know the Word of God, and yet the concern is that if this individual, with this much power and this much influence would be offended by this doctrinal approach – “perhaps we ought to change it.”
Well, I’m not – I don’t mind changing some things, but there are things I won’t change. And so, we get into a little tussle at that point – friendly. And my response to that is, “Wait a minute. Why should an ungifted, uncalled, untrained individual, by virtue of nothing more than his power and influence determine what the evangelical church will hear and believe?”
It’s gotten out of the hands of the theologians. It’s gotten out of the hands of the gifted, called pastors. It’s gotten out of the hands of the people who really know the Word of God, and it’s been placed into the hands of the people with the influence. And I say it again – and you just kind of look around and bear it out – parachurch ministries tend not to be doctrinally clear or strong.
You can – for example, here’s a typical illustration – Lance is sitting there, and in his hand he has a book by Jerry Bridges. Jerry Bridges is a – in the Navigators, an outstanding man of God. I know Jerry. We’ve had him speak at our seminary graduation banquet. His material is excellent. My wife, Patricia, has studied many of his books repeatedly. A wonderful guy. NavPress publishes that. You can pick up a book from NavPress that will advocate human psychology, and you can pick up a book from NavPress that will advocate the Roman Catholic faith written by a Roman Catholic. And the question is do they not have a position?
I picked up a magazine the other day, and I opened it, and it was a magazine on preaching. In fact, it’s called Preaching Magazine. It’s a good magazine generally. I mean it has to be pretty good; they gave our book on expository preaching the Book of the Year Award. So – you know?
I picked up the magazine, and I opened it up, and the first article in there was a tremendous article on expository preaching as a mandate by Walt Kaiser. Dr. Walt Kaiser, one of the, if not the, finest Old Testament mind in our country. A tremendously gifted man, brilliant, brilliant biblical scholar and a total devotee of Bible exposition. And this article was classic. I mean it was just the best, laying down a mandate for exposition.
As I was reading through the article – you know how magazines are? – the article skips the ads; so, it says, “Go to page” - whatever - and you have to skip. This had two full-page ads inserted into this article. Both of them were for preaching conferences which involved three leaders – two different preaching conferences, one with one man, and one with two – who are the most aggressive opponents of expository preaching. And I thought to myself, “The magazine has this wonderful article advocating expository preaching interspersed with ads for two conferences which will attack expository preaching.”
And then at the – I was scratching my head and saying, “Wait a minute, where are these people? Is everything like this? Is all of evangelicalism like this, you just sort of throw everything out there?”
And then I came to the end of the article, and at the bottom there was a cartoon. And this little cartoon showed a dog in a pulpit preaching, big floppy ears, and a couple of dogs sitting on the front row listening. And one dog on the front row said to the other dog, looking up at this dog expounding, “Oh, his bark is far worse than his bite.” And I read that cartoon, and I realized that that cartoon was a commentary on what I had just seen. They were barking about expository preaching, that it had no bite. That’s so typical of evangelicalism today. Nobody wants to be in a position of advocacy. And you get these people who are out in these ministries and do not have strong, historic, theological tradition, training – men who are in the great heritage of biblical doctrine and biblical exposition, and they’re all over the map. And largely these are the ones that define evangelicalism.
Take a publisher. Take a publisher. You could almost pick any publisher - and it’s very difficult; there are some, and I thank the Lord for some, and some that I work with – it’s very difficult, though, to find a publisher that has any kind of narrow, theological commitment - any commitment - “This is where we stand, and this is what we publish.”
There are some, but most of them – I said to the largest Christ publisher, the president – I said to him one day, I said, “Why in the world did you publish Benny Hinn’s book?” In his book called Good Morning Holy Spirit, the first edition, he had nine members of the Trinity. It said there were nine members of the Trinity, along with a lot of other goofy things. I said, “Why would you publish a book like that?”
And I was told, “Well, you know, if you think it was bad when it came out, you should have seen when we first got it.” Then he said, “Well, we had to go back. We had to be back, and in further editions we reduced the Trinity to the proper number.”
I said, “Why would you publish a book like that?”
And the answer was simply, “Oh, we publish everything.” Like, “Why would you ask a question like that? We publish everything.” Is that an answer? I guess it’s an answer. I’m not picking on them; I’m just saying that’s the mood of the hour.
So, you look at evangelicalism and you see this wild mysticism in which everybody sort of has a definition for their own spirituality that fits them. You see this lack of doctrinal clarity, this real intolerance of clear doctrine, and those are symptoms of an absolute lack of discernment. People don’t want to do the hard work of discernment. They don’t want to think; they just want to feel their way along – much easier.
A third thought, and this is an important one, in dealing with this issue of discernment. “There is a failure,” as Jay Adams says in one of his books – “There’s a failure to be antithetical.” You know what that means. That’s another way of saying it’s a failure to be black and white. You know when you say someone is really black and white what you mean? I mean that they really draw some lines between truth and error, between right and wrong, and those lines are very clear to them.
Well, we have an evangelicalism today that is not black and white; it is not antithetical. That is to say it doesn’t see a thesis and an antithesis; it doesn’t see truth and its opposite clearly. It’s all blurred. And antithetical preaching is seen as fanatical and as offensive.
Proverbs 16:21 says, “The wise in heart shall be called discerning.” That’s not true anymore. To be discerning and to be antithetical means that you can distinguish truth from error, you can distinguish God’s thoughts from man’s thoughts; you can distinguish God’s ways from man’s ways. That’s basic. I mean you go back into the Old Testament, and I believe in the Old Testament early on, when God gave the Law through Moses, He was teaching people to think antithetically. He said, “There are clean and unclean animals, there are clean and unclean foods, there’s a way to do this and a way not to do it.” And you remember He gave all those laws and ordinances and stuff to Israel that we sort of classify in the ceremonial side of the Law. They weren’t moral. And you look at that ceremonial law, and there were certain things they did with birds and birds eggs, and certain kind of animals, and certain kind of farm deals, and certain kind of cleanliness things, and all those law – laws about slaves, and daughters and sons, and marriages, and all those kinds of things. And what was God doing? He was developing an antithetical mentality.
In other words, He was showing people that there was God’s way and there was every other way. And God’s way was going to be distinct, even in things like that. He was developing an antithetical mentality. Like you want to do, I hope, with your children. You don’t want to raise your child in a nebulous relativism.
So, when your child says, “Well, why do I need to do that,” or, “Why do I need to do this, nobody else does this?”
“Well, this is the way we do it, and this is the way God wants us to do it, and we don’t do what everybody else does.” Right? How many times have we made that speech? We’re teaching them an antithetical view of life. That is literally being assaulted today in our educational system, in our media, certainly in the schools and the universities. It is being dulled today by the psychologists, the pragmatists, the marketers.
Everything is synergism; everything is eclectic; everything is pluralistic. And people don’t know how to separate. Everybody talks about integration. I like to talk about separation. James 1:27 says that we’re to keep unspotted from the world.
And so, learning to think antithetically, learning to say, “Wait a minute, this is what God’s Word says. This is God’s way, and every other way is not God’s way.”
Another thought – and there are so many of these issues that I could bring out and I could cast them in so many different shapes, but let me tell you another thing that gravely concerns me with regard to the church, and that is a preoccupation with image, a preoccupation with image and influence, as if that was the key to evangelism.
In other words, the belief that in order to evangelize people, somehow we’ve got to have an image. Somehow we’ve got to have them like us. And as I’ve said before, if they like us, they’ll like Jesus. And this whole deal is to be user friendly, seeker sensitive, and do things that make the world really like us. In fact, make church entertaining, make church fun. Let’s not say anything that offends anybody. They’ll just like us into liking Jesus. The idea that somehow the gospel works if we can create the right image. It’s a marketing thing.
I suppose in the classic sense we would say it is a semi-Pelagian view or an Arminian view. That is to say that salvation is not a matter of the sovereignty of God, but it is a matter of the sovereignty of man, and so we’ve got to do any trick we can do to get man to exercise his will on his own and be saved. And prestige, influence, market strategy, popularity, making church fun and entertaining, and “if they like us, they’ll like Jesus,” it’s still around.
It’s still around, and the truth is it has absolutely no impact on salvation – on anybody’s salvation. That’s the truth. The truth is those that are going to be saved have already had their names written in the Lamb’s Book of Life from before the foundation of the world, and the Lord is going to save every one of them, and Jesus is going to lose none of them but raise them all up at the last day, and that the salvation that God has planned for those individuals is not connected to the prestige or to the popularity or to the influence or to the market strategy of the church, but rather to the church’s faithfulness to proclaim the gospel which can be mixed with faith. And that’s what produces salvation.
Another symptom of this lack of discernment is the disinterest in proper interpretation of Scripture. The disinterest in the proper interpretation of Scripture. Now, there are circles in which there’s a great in it. But in the general mass of Christian people, there’s not a lot of interest in the interpretation of Scripture, in understanding what the Bible says in digging into the Bible.
Let me just simply illustrate that by saying if you put a commentary on the gospel of John on the shelf next to the book How Believers Can Have a Fulfilled Sexual Life or How Believers Can Make Money or whatever, I mean people are going to grab that book – or How to be Comfortable or How to Deal with Your Problems. I mean we’re so focused on ourselves and so little concerned toward rightly dividing the Word of God. That transfers itself also in a little interest or a small interest in those who preach definitively the things of Scripture. I could tell you that personally. In all honesty, I don’t draw crowds. We sure do draw a lot of loyal people; we really do.
In fact, recently, I was in a city, and I was outdrawn five to one by a singer in another building. That doesn’t surprise me. There is little interest in someone coming in to definitively interpret Scripture. But you understand the – you understand the result of that? When there’s no interest there, when it’s not desiring the Word like a baby desires milk - and Peter is giving us a tremendous analogy; he says, “You ought to desire the Word like a baby desires milk.” And frankly, a baby desires milk very strongly. In fact, they scream and they get obnoxious - even my own grandchildren at times. I mean they want that milk. And life is really simple with them; you just give them the milk and deal with the consequence and then fill them up again. And that’s the way Peter says we should desire the Word. But that is not common. That is not common in evangelicalism today. There is some interest, and I thank God for it. There is certainly a faithful remnant of folks, but, in the main, there’s not a desire for the proper interpretation of the Word of God, for the unfolding of the Scriptures, for the deep understanding of the Bible. And so, there’s little interest in hermeneutics – that is the science of Scripture interpretation. And then you’ve got all these people running around footloose and fancy free - these people who tell us they’re prophets of God - and they get visions and revelation and, as Kenneth Copeland calls it, revelation knowledge comes to them. This network of prophetic people who ignore logic, reason, the senses, study, the languages, theology. And as one of them said, the Spirit shows him the truth, and he feels it as a pain in the upper abdominal area.
I’ve had a pain in the upper abdominal area ever since I read that, actually. And it’s never helped me interpret anything in the Scripture. It’s frankly quite distracting.
People move in and out of false doctrine, and preachers very often are inept and lazy and careless with the Word of God. That is a very serious thing for those of us who have to give an account - self-appointed leaders.
Another thing that I think needs to be said – and I’m almost done; I have much more to say, but for tonight anyway – is a failure to discipline in the church. As soon as the church tries to become a place where sinners feel comfortable, a disaster has occurred.
Frankly, a church ought to be a place where sinners feel miserable. Right? I’m not talking about just the unconverted; I’m talking about us. If I can make you feel comfortable, I’ve done you no service. I mean look, I have to study all this stuff all week long and be in discomfort, and I enjoy having you join me. I’m not going to suffer all alone for this. I’m not going to lower the standard of the Word of God to make you feel comfortable. That doesn’t do you any service. How do we get to the place where we redefine the church as a place where people who don’t believe in Christ should feel comfortable and the standard of holiness is lowered, compromise is tolerated?
But when you deal with sin, and discipline takes place, and you know it’s taking place, and you understand how important that is, the standard is maintained.
People told me years ago, when we first started this – I first came to Grace church, and I said, “You know, I’m pretty clear on the Bible; it says you have to discipline sin, tells you how. Go to the person; take two or three witnesses; tell the whole church; and a fourth step, put them out if they don’t respond. And I was told by a number of pastors, “You’ll empty the place.” That’s not true. That’s not true because God’ll bless a pure church and because people who love Christ and hate sin want to be in a place where there is real confrontation and where they’re assisted in their spiritual development. I don’t know how you are, but when I hear a message, or when I read something that penetrates my heart and calls me to conviction. I don’t like the feeling, but the feeling I don’t like is the feeling of my own sin and disgrace before God. The pursuit of holiness I love. Those are the things that should be going on in the church, but where the church won’t hold the standard up and won’t deal with sin because it somehow wants to make unbelievers feel comfortable, you’re literally bending the church toward the unholy.
Well, I suppose finally we could say that another symptom of this is spiritual immaturity, with little deep knowledge of the truth, little deep knowledge of doctrine, with a little concern for study of the Word of God and the mental process and the hard work that it takes, you’re going to have spiritual immaturity. I did an interview for Leadership Magazine, and it – I just was reminded that when they asked me this question – and I haven’t read the whole article yet; they sent me a copy of it before its publication – but when they asked me what is the most difficult challenge in the ministry, what is the most difficult part of the ministry, I think it was kind of surprising – I don’t know, there’s a lot of people who they interviewed, but my response was the most difficult part of the ministry is the discipline of study. It’s the endless, relentless discipline of study in preparation.
Now, I suppose that some of you may think that I’m just clever enough to come up with this stuff while I’m standing here. Occasionally I do come up with things while I’m standing here. But they are the mix of things that have taken years and years and years and hours and hours and hours to put into my mind. There really is no easy way. I remember when the first – the first time I ever met with the elders of Grace church back in 1968 – 1969, in February, I came here – the first time I ever met with them, they said, “Well, if you are our pastor, we know what you would do on Sunday, but what would you do all week long?” And I told them, at the time, I would need 30 to 35 hours a week to study the Word of God, “Because,” I said, “I’m young, and I don’t know enough. And everything I know I will have preached in a few weeks.” And that was right. In a few weeks, I had preached more than I knew. And I needed 30 to 35 hours of study, and that’s the way it was, and that’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is. And that kind of – that kind of effort is what makes the difference. And that’s what produces spiritual maturity, the willingness to dig deeply into the truth of the Word of God and not just amuse yourself.
And, you know, you can go into the ministry. It’s pretty popular to go into a ministry now. I mean we’ve got churches all over the place – independent churches all over the place, people starting churches almost willy-nilly. And it’s great. They feel a desire to lead people and maybe to teach people and have an impact on people’s lives. But in many, many case, they’re not willing to do the hard, hard work.
Sometimes people say to me, “You know what – how do you get all the material? You write commentaries, you preach, you do radio, you write books.”
And I can only tell you that look, I couldn’t do – I couldn’t do all of this when I was young, but for the last 25 years of study, I have accumulated this kind of information, this kind of material, and now it becomes the source for all the things that the Lord sort of draws out of me and out of our ministry.
And, you know, the benefit of all that is a maturing in my own spiritual life. And I’m thankful for that, because when I was young in the ministry, I used to worry that somehow I’d go off track. And I used to always ask the Lord, “I want to be mature. You know, I want to be strong; I want to know the Word; I want to have victory over temptation and all of those kinds of things. I want to get to the point where I have peace in my heart that reigns supreme, where the joy runs deep, all the things that really are evidences of spiritual maturity.” And as I’ve grown in the knowledge of the Word of God, that has happened.
And I’ll tell you another little thing that you probably know, what really seals what you learn in the study is teaching and preaching it. What I give away I never lose; what I don’t give away I never keep. I can’t remember everything I’ve ever led, but I remember most of the things I’ve said. Occasionally, I can’t remember. And somebody asked me if I ever listened to my own tapes, and I’ve said, “Only to find out what I believe on a certain subject because I preached on it a long time ago and can’t remember.” But generally the teaching process has embedded it in my heart. There’s no magic to spiritual maturity; it’s a matter of taking in the Word, and taking it in, and taking it in, and taking it in. And as you start to take it in, you eventually move from the milk level of spiritual truth down into the meat level of spiritual truth, and that’s when maturity comes.
So, you look at evangelicalism today with no appetite for that, and you’ve got a legacy of terrific spiritual immaturity. And that’s why they run off after every conceivable allurement. Ephesians puts it this way, that believers are like children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine. That’s how children are; they’re immature.
So, as you look at the church today, you have to recognize all of this. I suppose there have been many eras in the past where preachers have preached similarly to what I’ve said to you tonight. There is obviously a lack of interest in the Scripture, a lack of interest in the holiness of God, and underestimation of the holiness of God. There is a – I don’t know how exactly to say it, but there is a – there is almost a disdain, in some ways, for the lordship of Jesus Christ, a sort of a practical antinomianism or disinterest in real obedience to His law.
Shallow gospel is preached. Shallow evangelism. The church becomes selfish, self-centered, self-indulgent. It becomes trivial. It becomes superficial. That’s why even with all the counseling on family and marriage, we have more divorces and more messed up families than ever, because so much of it is shallow. It’s a – it’s superficial.
And then you have what is really a tragedy, the collapse of Christian leaders as models. All of a sudden, these people who rise in this environment don’t live the life. And then when they fall, great is the fall, and it’s like Humpty Dumpty – all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put him together again.
And what is the church going to do when it sees its leaders crash and burn? Well, you would hope the church would say, “We want to pray for that man; we want to restore that man; we want God to work in that man’s heart.” And so we’re going to put together some means of restoration so that he can be brought back to a place of purity before the Lord so that he can be brought back into the fellowship of the church. But, he can’t go back into the pulpit because he’s not above reproach. But what does the church say? It doesn’t say that. It says, “Well, we took a vote, and we want him to stay.” Or some other church says, “Well, we’ll take him.” Because that’s the mentality.
Well, this is not a time for weakness, but we’ve got it. Let me close with having you turn to Romans 1. In Romans 1, just to point out something briefly to you, and I’m going to say – I’ll probably cover some of this one more time next Sunday, but in Romans 1, verse 18, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”
Now, let me just take a thought here. The wrath of God is revealed. Now, what are we talking about? When we say “wrath of God” there could be lots of different forms of the wrath of God. Probably five of them would sum it up. There could be, here, the reference to ultimate wrath. The ultimate wrath of God will be punishment – eternal punishment in hell, right? That’s the ultimate wrath. That’s not what he’s talking about. Not talking about hell here. It’s not talking about sending people to hell.
A second kind of wrath would be – not ultimate wrath but let’s call it eschatological wrath, and that would be the wrath at the end of the age, the wrath described in the book of Revelation from chapter 6 through 19 in the seals and the bowls and the trumpet judgments, the terrible, terrible holocaust of divine judgment that come upon the earth in the period of the tribulation – eschatological wrath. That’s not what he’s talking about either.
A third kind of wrath would be a cataclysmic wrath, the kind of wrath that God unleashed on the world in the flood, or at the Tower of Babel, or on Sodom and Gomorrah; or the kind of judgment that falls from heaven in some of the national – natural disasters, I should say, that wipe out whole populations of people. Cataclysmic wrath. But that’s not what he’s talking about.
And then there’s a fourth kind of wrath. We could call it sewing and reaping wrath. That simply means that sin has its own built in consequences, and whatever a man sows he reaps.
People always say to me, “Is AIDS the wrath of God?”
Yes, in the sowing and reaping aspect, that it is the consequence of wickedness. That’s not what he’s talking about here either. He’s talking about a fifth kind of wrath. What kind of wrath is it? Well, he defines it down in verse 24, 26, and 28. “Therefore God gave them over.” Verse 26, “For this reason God gave them over.” Verse 28, middle of the verse, “God gave them over.” Three times he says, “This wrath is the wrath of God giving them over.”
To put it another way, it’s the wrath of abandonment. It’s that form of wrath which God expresses when he simply abandons sinners to their sin. You could say it this way, he removes restraint. He removes restraining grace. His Spirit no longer strives; He steps back like Samson who pillowed his hand in the lap of Delilah, confessed under her allurement that his strength was in his hair, associated with the spiritual commitment he’d made in a Nazarite vow. So, while he was there, she cut his hair. The Philistines come running into the room, and she says, “The Philistines are here,” and he says, “I will arise at other times.” And the scripture says, “He didn’t know that the Lord had departed from him.” That’s the wrath of abandonment. He was on his own.
You have it in the Old Testament. “Ephraim is joined to idols; let him alone.” Jesus says to the disciples of the Pharisees, “They are blind leaders of the blind; leave them alone.” That’s the wrath of God’s abandonment. God just steps back and says, “I’m out of the way; I’m out of the picture. You are left to your own sins and the consequence of them.”
Now you say, “Why are you pointing this out?”
I’ll show you why. It is very clear in this passage when and how the wrath of God, in this form, works. Let me show you. Verse 24, the first thing that happens is “God gave them over in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, that their bodies might be dishonored among them.” First step, when God abandons a society is sexual sin. Sexual sin. That society then begins to dive headline into sexual sin. That’s exactly what that says.
Second step is in verse 26, “God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural” – that’s what we call lesbianism, homosexuality; verse 27 – “and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.” That, by the way, is the sowing and reaping judgment. That’s AIDS. They receive in their own persons the due penalty built into that sin. But the judgment of God here being described is that God simply gives them over to homosexuality.
So, when you look at a society and you see them become preoccupied with sexual sin, that’s step one. And then when you see them deeper into that sexual sin until they allow and advocate homosexuality, you know that God has abandoned that society. Sound familiar? Sexual revolution of the ‘60s, homosexual revolution of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
Finally, in verse 28, God gave them over to a depraved mind. That’s the bottom. The third step is the mind is useless. It means useless. It means tested and can’t function. It’s useless. It’s gone. And then they do all kinds of things: unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, and unmerciful.” And all that stuff is in every day’s edition of the paper.
So, when you look at a culture and you see it becoming sexually preoccupied, when you see it begin to prize homosexuality, advocate it, legalize it, that’s step two. And step three is when the mind goes. And, you see, when the mind goes and advocates all that, you can’t ever recover because the mind is gone. The only way back would be for somebody to stand up with a reasonable approach to this thing, but you never hear that, do you? You never hear it. Instead, the president of the United States wants to sign a law that every employer with 15 or more employees has to hire homosexuals if they apply, taking an advocacy position.
You say, “Wait a minute, this is an educated man. Can’t this man see the result of this lifestyle? What – where are the minds? Where are the minds in the courts? Where are the minds in the congresses and the senates and the legislative bodies? Where were the heads here? Where are the minds in the universities and the schools? Who can advocate this and get away with this? Can’t somebody stand up and say, ‘This is insane?’”
No. The mind is gone. Down in verse 32 it systems, “They not only practice these things, they not only do them, but they give heart approval.”
You know what that is, don’t you? That’s the studio audience clapping for the perverts on the platform on the talk show. That’s what that is. They not only do it, they applaud it. That’s where we are.
All of that to say this: the church is in a chaotic time. Absolutely chaotic time trying to find out what it is. We have a major identity crisis in the church. This is not a good time to have that – is it? – when we are a nation under judgment, and when the church should be confronting this nation as to its iniquities, confronting individuals as to their sin, rescuing brands from the burning, we’re trying to be so subtle that nobody really is ever offended, and then let everybody define their own spiritual experience in whatever terms they’re happy with and make sure we never ever criticize whatever their interpretation is. How frightening. How frightening.
This is a time – not a time for weak preachers, with weak messages in weak churches. This is a time for strength. And it isn’t in us; it’s in the Word, isn’t it? Well, enough; let’s pray.
Father, thank You for our time tonight, for this precious congregation, for the tremendous work that You’ve done in the hearts of so many here, and the joy of sharing in this church and ministering to these people and being ministered to by them. Thank You.
Thank You for our eldership. Thank You for the leaders You’ve given us, as well as the faithful people. Thank You, Lord, for the years that You’ve led in this church. And, Lord, we don’t take anything for granted, and we don’t take any credit for any of it.
You have done it; it is all at Your hand, and we know You could remove Your blessing if we deviate from Your truth. Keep us by Your Spirit faithful and continue to bring glory to Yourself, as we endeavor to honor You, and the Word, and the Son in whose name we pray, Amen.
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