Today's Compelling Story of Grace

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At my church, we have just completed the fifth week of an eight week segment concerning outreach in a postmodern world. I have greatly enjoyed the discussion. Yet, I know that nothing I will say in these discussions will change anything if the folks in my church do not grasp the present value of the gospel in their lives.

What do I mean? In Classis this past week, a fellow pastor stood up and shared his experiences in the CRC and our outreach efforts. He shared that since the mid-1980s, we have twice the amount of the churches we once did with the result of hundreds of thousands less on our membership roles. He shared that we have raced after different outreach models- the Crystal Cathedral, Willow Creek, Saddleback- and still nothing changed. Finally, he concluded that none of us know how to reach out into this culture and that evangelism is next to impossible. Why? All we do is shift the sheep from smaller to larger churches.

Well then. What incredible sadness this brings me. Yet, I believe he is stating the truth- he has no idea how to reach out and most likely his church has no idea how to reach those in our post-modern culture.

This does not mean it is impossible! It means that he needs better self-understanding and a better understanding of how our culture thinks and processes truth. Outreach is impossible if we insist on using the same old forms and church processes that illustrate a lack of adequate self-understanding and a lack of acknowledgment that our culture has changed.

Today I wish to focus on one dimension of this problem. I wish to help us gain some self-understanding by presenting how the gospel must be a present day issue and not a story of some long-ago past.

I was thinking today of how often believers in Christ do not present a compelling story of God's powerful work in their lives. I know that years ago, 1988 to be exact, God entered into my life in dramatic and powerful ways. He transformed me by His grace. He brought me to faith, and I could not help but declare His presence and truth to all who would listen.

At that time, people could easily see God's work in my life and my story was compelling. Many came to faith and many more were open to listening to the gospel because of my story. I praise God for remembering these wonderful times!

Yet, as time went on my story grew more stale and less compelling. Telling freshman in college my experience of three years ago did not have the weightiness that it did before. Why? I was a different person and my story of the past lost its luster. I was sharing a history lesson instead of a present reality.

After leaving college, my personal witness for Christ remained fairly lame for years. I did see some come to faith, but I also lost confidence in witnessing because it seemed no one really cared about my old, and growing older, story of God's work. The incredible fruitfulness of my first love of Christ slowly died away.

How about you? Does my story match your experience?

It took time, but I finally learned how to escape my barren witnessing. How? I learned that the gospel of Christ's love and grace is new every morning. I learned that people were still interested in what God is doing even as they were skeptical and bored with that God had done decades ago.

I know that many believers in Christ have not been encouraged to think in these terms. I offer the advice that if you wish your life and witness to count in the building of the Kingdom, you might need to change your thinking. The gospel story of grace given to sinners applies to each of us daily!

Where in your life are you struggling with sin? Please understand that these struggles are not about your lack of will-power. You lack will-power because your heart or soul is not right. In other words, your daily struggle with sin is due to your lack faith or trust in Christ to meet your needs and give you life. Instead of resting in Christ's love, we look to other sources for life, peace, acceptance, and joy.

The prophet Jeremiah describes this very human condition well. He declares from the Lord,

My people have committed two sins:
They have forsaken me,
the spring of living water,
and have dug their own cisterns,
broken cisterns that cannot hold water.

Jeremiah 2:13

Friends, this is the heart of sin and rebellion from God. It also matches the reality of all fallen humans! It sure matches my life. What can be done about it? I can try to ignore the truth. I can attempt to diminish its reality. I can compare myself to others and assure myself I am better than they are. I have tried all of these and they surely do not change me. All I get from these attempts is self-delusion and self-righteousness.

I offer that there is another answer. I should repent of my sin and believe in Jesus as my only hope. I should ask for and receive His love and grace. I should allow this grace to transform my heart. This is not merely the road to conversion, but also the less taken path to transforming daily grace.

When I walk in repentance and faith, I have a new story to tell. A new story of repentance and faith from today. A fresh tale of God's redemptive work in my life. A compelling story that matches the experience of all.

May the Lord lead us to repentance and faith today and this new week so we have a living and active witness to God's grace!

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"I was thinking today of how often believers in Christ do not present a compelling story of God's powerful work in their lives. I know that years ago, 1988 to be exact, God entered into my life in dramatic and powerful ways. He transformed me by His grace. He brought me to faith, and I could not help but declare His presence and truth to all who would listen."  The Risen Lord Jesus is constantly working in our lives usually in ordinary ways but sometimes in more spectacular forms.  But the quote above troubles me because I have no spectacluar story to tell.   Furthermore, at my age, as many seniors told me long ago, I see my own sins and failures far more clearly than half a century ago.  But my biggest problem is that what is described is basically talking about one'self and one's personal experiences.  While the Apostle Paul did on three occasions describe his confrontation by the risen Lord, his gospel was not about himself but about the objective reality of the bodily risen Lord Jesus.   This is clealry stated in II Cor. 4 where he says that we preach not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord.....   Jesus called the apostles to talk about themselves but about him and this they consistenly did.   My personal life's story is not the gospel and therefore it is not God's power unto salvation.  The gospel is always about the one who said in Rev. 1 that he was the "Living One" and that he was dead, but is alive forever more.  The concsistent essence and emphasis of the apostolic gospel message was always that the man who died on the cross was raised by God and that man by the resurrection was made Messiah and Lord and in him is the forgiveness of sins.  David's son is on God's throne with all power and authority.  Read Acts 2, 13, Eph. 1 and Col. 1.  Peter puts in clearly in II Peter 1:12 "Wherefore I shall be ready always to put you in rememberance of these things, though ye know them, and are established in the truth which is with you."  What things?  II Peter 1:8 "...the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ..."

The biblical witness is always about the bodily riisen Jesus of Nazareth and the fulness and wonder of the salvation accomplished in and hrough the expereiences of the incarnate word.  My story is insignificant compared to his.  My story will impress no one and very quickly becomes old and boring, in large part because the essence of sin is self-exaltation and each is obsessed with his or her own story.  It is the old, old story which is ever new because he is bodily risen with all power for the sake of the the church.  When I thought that I had to tell my story I found it next to impossible to witness.  When I learned I didn't need to tell others what a marvelous Christian I was, and that the liviing Lord Jesus in the full glory of his risen humanity is the Father's agent of sovereignty and grace was at the heart of the gospel - witnessing because a whole different matter.   His story never grows old.  How easy it is to simply tell others about who he is - his death and resurrection and that in him are to be found all spiritual blessings and all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.  He is the fulfillment of all God's promises.

It is not modern technique nor media but the risen Christ himself, the living Word which God has always spoken and continues to speak who by the power of his resurrection through the Holy Spirit uses our weak and feeble words of witness and preaching to actually reach into hearts and lives and bring them to faith and salvation.

Read the book of Acts.  Pay careful attention to what was written to the NT church.  It is all about the risen once crucified Jesus who is the only way to the Father.  John Calvin was extremely Christo-centric.  He consistenlty emphasized that the only way to the Father was throuth the "flesh" of Jesus born of Mary - through the Man Jesus to God the Father.  Of course this can be possible is because this Jesus in his one person is also the eternal Son and living Word. 

He is the One the church really needs to be talking about from the pulpit and to whomever the Lord brings across our paths.  This is the consistent apostilic practice and biblical pattern.  In Romans 15:5 Paul is concerned that "we be of the same mind one with another according to  Christ Jesus: that with one accord you may with one mouth gorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Dear Henry- I thank you for your comment.  You focus on Christ is very refreshing.  As I understand you, you wish to emphasize Christ in your witnessing.  You are deeply concerned and troubled that I emphasize personal experience over Jesus.  You also instruct me that Calvin was very Christ-centered.  I can not agree more!  

That being said, did you really read the post?  Did you wrestle with what I was saying or did you see it as another piece emphasizing personal experience, which you do not wish to do, so you wrote against such an emphasis?

You claim that you see your sin more clearly now than you did years ago.  I suffer from the same issue.  What can we do?  I repent and believe in Christ as my only hope.  I immerse myself in the promises of God and find the Holy Spirit not only forgives my sin, but also bestows grace upon me.  Such grace is transformative!

John Calvin is not only Christ-centered, but he is also known as the Protestant theologian who "re-discovered" the Holy Spirit.  When you tell others about the very real Savior who gave you grace this morning when you got upset with your wife over nothing, you can relate to both believers and unbelievers.   You also allow the Spirit to glorify Christ because you bring nothing but sin, while He gives grace and mercy.

You have all the theological pieces, I fear that you just have not quite put them in correct order.  You have rightly emphasized Christ, but somehow you have forgotten that repentance and faith are what tie you into the Vine.  When you live such repentance and faith, you cannot help but tell others about the One who forgives and loves you.  Such a witness is not "me" centered, but Christ-centered.

Please re-read my post (and others within my blog) and tell me if we do not agree in substance even if you prefer to state it a different way.

Again, I thank you for the comment and correction!

Dear Greg,

Thanks for the further comment.  I am well aware that faith unites with Christ.  Furthermore, as far as I can tell the theme of the Heidelberg Catechism is "Christ by his Holy Spirit" (See QA76).  In John 6 Jesus makes clear that the work the Father wants from us is "to believe in the one that he sent".  I have no problem trying to explain to others what it means that "Christ is my righteousness" or he is my self-worth, my self-esteem.  I do that because the essence of sin is self-exaltation which always prompts me to think that I am better than others.  This is not an explanation of how well I do this but rather the objective fact of his forgiving grace and truth. 

In your reply you uaed the phrase, " When you tell others about the very real Savior who gave you grace this morning".  There are two poles in this phrase.  The Savior - and me.  Which gets the emphasis?  Is it the objective reality of the Christ in whom we believe - or is it myself and what I think that I have experienced?  Furthermore - how do you prove to someone else that your experience is one of grace?  While the personal experiential side of life is tremendously important - think LD 1 which zeros right into the heart of the matter of our faith relationship to Christ - my story no matter how deeply I am convinced of God's grace in Christ  is simply not the good news.  My experientail life is the result that Christ effects by his Gospel through the Holy Spirit.  While that indeed is very good news to me and the apostles made very plain by their obsesson with the living Jesus Christ that they were deeply affected - the really did not preach "themselves" or their experiences. 

There is another factor that may be overlooked.  If I drive around in a :Lexus and you drive a 12 year old winter beater how are you going to feel if I keep telling you how wonderful it is to own and experience such a luxury car?  If I tried to tell someone how rich and wonderful it is to belong to Jesus, including all amazing things he is doing in my life to someone whose life is shattered or torn apart, even if that is a fellow believer - how do you think that person is going to react.  The only imagined response is that such would think that I am so blessed I could never understand their problems and pain.

In one church there were a handful of charasmatics who were considered highly "spiritual".  I had people tell me that they felt like spiritual failures because they could never be like those who were so "spiritual".  I calling is not to put our spirituality or superiority in the face of others.  I have personally been on the receiving end of both material and spiritual superiority being flaunted.

Clearly, when it comes to witnessing - we are always part of the equation.  Jesus sent Spirit led fallible men into the world to bear witness to him - to talk about him and all that he has experienced in the past as well as who he is today.

I think that I do have the peices in the right order.  The summary of the first sermons used the same outline.  The man you killed, God's holy one, God raised from the dead and in him is the forgiveness of sins.  If anyone could have talked about how much he was forgiven and the intimate reconciliation with the risen Jesus on that first day, was Peter.  He had a great story to tell - how he was so boastful that he would die with Jesus - how miserably he failed - and how tenderly he was reconciled.  But this story he does not tell.  While it is biblically obvious that the apostles saw themselves deeply invovled in the drama of gracious salvation - their passion was telling about the risen Christ, once crucified.  I'm sure you know Paul's word in Phil. 3 where he summarizes his passion - I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings.

As we age in Christ and see our sin more clearly we also grow in the wonder and marvel of his grace and love even to the point of asking how can I be forgiven, how can God possibly delight in me.  That wonder creates a passion, at least for me, not to talk about myself first of all, but to point other to Christ.  As John the Baptist said - He must increase  - I must decrease.

I do not think that we are very far apart.  You say, " When you live such repentance and faith, you cannot help but tell others about the One who forgives and loves you."  Allow me to restate this from my perspective.  "When you have this deep seated conviction that Jesus is Messiah and Lord and that you belong to him no matter what, you cannot help but tell others about the One who is the living Word, the one through whom all was made and hangs together, the one who hung on the cross, whom God raised from the dead, made him Messiah and Lord and gave him all the power and authority for our sakes."

The response of those Jesus joined on the way to Emmaus is high significant.  Luke 24:32, "And the said one to another, Was not our heart burning whithin us, while he spake to us in the way, while he opened to us the scriptures? (ASV)  And what had Jesus done?  Luke 24:27, "And beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself."  And finally Romans 10:9,10 "..if thou shalt confess with thy mouth Jesus as Lord, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved; for with the heart man  believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation."  And Romans 10:17 "So belief cometh of hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ."

Sincerely, he

 

 

 

Henry:

Again, I thank you for the clarification and comments.  I have taken two days to respond to this post because I wished to think about how to respond or even if I should.  As I stated earlier, I thought we were not that far apart.  It appeared the only differences were in how we were stating the same thing.  I was and am always ready to give you the benefit of the doubt and a generosity in how you state things.  Toward the end of you post, you say the same thing.  Yet, how you got to your statement of agreement was my point.

I am truly sorry that you had experiences with people who looked down on your spirituality because you had not experienced the HS as they did.  Obviously, this is an incorrect understanding of the work of the Spirit.  Authentic works of the Spirit promote humility and not pride.  They promote a desire to see Christ exalted in all things and not self.  Those who use spiritual experience as a club to beat others have fallen into error.

That being said, why would you posit or argue that I was saying this?  Do you realize that you insult my intergrity and I also believe the intergrity of the authentic work of the Spirit?  You proved you were "right" but in the process you lost me.

Why?  Where is the humility?  Where is the willingness to listen and engage?

When I said you had the pieces not in the correct order I did not mean theologically.  I meant that in sharing with people under age 40 or 45, you were proclaiming the gospel in a way they could not hear it.  Why?  You did not lead with humility but with a theologial correctness that makes it hard to want to listen to you.  I remain persuaded that you did not really listen to me.  Was this your goal?  Again in charity, I think not!

Witnessing to the reality of Christ to those in our culture- particularly those not raised in the church and under age 40/45- is easy and effective if you begin with humility.  Confess your need for a savior.  In the process point to Jesus as the only hope.  If you see this as theological compromise, then I fear you will not be an effective witness to those important young families, 20 somethings, and teens.  You will be "right" but not "all things to all people, that by all means I might save some." 1 Cor. 10:23

Repentance and faith leads to humility.  I do pray that you will not see this as a personal attack.  It was never intended as such and if you took any of it in that way, I apologize.  Please know it was not my intention.  My hope in this post and others is to help us learn how to reach out with gospel- and grace-centered evangelism.  I believe leading with humility is key.  Perhaps I am wrong.  Perhaps I am not.  I do know that effective outreach is a topic we in the CRC have struggled with for several generations!  We need to talk about and learn how to do it.

I thank you for adding to the conversation.  I will continue to "put myself out there" so as to advance the conversation further.  I am sure I wrong about many things and I hope to continued conversation will help all of us grow in grace so we can see the Kingdom grow through the CRC.

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