This is a collection of audio and video author interviews at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Having touched on what constitutes evangelism in the last post, we want to take our discussion a little deeper. Because some wrong thinking concerning evangelism may have pervaded many of our churches, it is critical to establish clarity by way of contrast. In this section, we are going to examine a few common ways Christians mistake the practice of evangelism for other important aspects of the Christian life.
Before we launch into these common mistakes, however, it is important to recognize that all of the practices listed below are legitimate—even necessary—activities for a Christian, and may serve as a way to build relationships with others for the sake of sharing the gospel. There are times when talking to someone about social issues will naturally lead to speaking to your conversation partner about the gospel. Conducting our lives in holiness and purity will also be vital as we proclaim the gospel. Our point in this section is to help you identify the ways you might be prone to mistake evangelism for something else so that you can make genuine progress in your efforts to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.
Having a conversation about God and religion
In various contexts, you might find it fitting to talk with others about God and the broader category of religion. Given the fact that God and religion are often topics of interest in the media and the larger culture, it is likely that there will be times to engage these important areas with unbelievers.
You might talk about the existence of God or the idea of a Supreme Being from a philosophical perspective. But these subjects, at most, are only ice-breakers to lead to evangelism and cannot be considered evangelism in and of themselves. And, as we will see in subsequent posts, it is not necessary to begin with such topics in order to move to talking about the gospel.
Talking about the Bible
Similarly, evangelism is not merely talking to someone about the Bible. Is it good to talk to unbelievers about the Bible? Absolutely! In fact, we will see in later posts that one of our primary aims in evangelism should be to get people into the Bible for themselves. But we can be tempted to mistake discussions about the Proverbs or the literary diversity and beauty of Scripture for evangelism. Again, these are useful topics (any topic involving God’s Word is!), and they may often lead to sharing the gospel, but we have not obeyed the calling to evangelize until we talk specifically about the person and work of Jesus Christ and the necessity to believe in him.
Defending the Christian faith
The practice of defending the faith against unbelieving arguments is usually referred to as apologetics. When someone engages in apologetics, they are not “apologizing” for the Christian faith; they are defending the truth of Christianity through specific argumentation, usually through appeals to evidence from the areas of history, philosophy, or science.
For example, a Christian might argue for the historical reliability of the gospels by providing an unbeliever with several sources outside the Bible that support the Bible’s historic claims. Or, a Christian might defend the reasonableness of Christianity by arguing that only the Christian worldview adequately explains reality, while all other worldviews are in sufficient to explain what we see, feel, and experience. A Christian might address the problems inherent in an evolutionary view of the origin of life. These are useful and important activities and may often intertwine with our evangelistic efforts. But until we have explained a person’s plight before a holy God and offered them the grace found in the death and resurrection of Christ, we have not evangelized.
Apologetics is defending the faith, answering the questions others have about Christianity. It is responding to the agenda others set. Evangelism, however, is following Christ’s agenda, the news about him. Evangelism is the positive act of telling the good news about Jesus Christ and the way of salvation through him.
Offering solid evidence for the reliability of the Bible in the areas of history, science, and philosophy, and geology is sometimes useful to defend the truth against attack. But we must keep in mind, as Dever observes, that when we do make such defenses, we are answering the unbeliever according to their agenda. They have questions about the reliability of the Bible and the truthfulness of the Christian faith, and they are presently making those questions the centerpiece of the conversation. We may engage those questions in order demonstrate the durable nature of biblical truth and the self-refuting nature of unbelief, but will be doing so from a defensive posture rather than an offensive one.
When we preach the gospel, however, we are addressing the unbeliever according to Christ’s agenda by positively proclaiming the nature of man’s dire situation and the glorious solution provided in Christ. We may muster a load of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but until we have told people that that they face God’s judgment and can be saved by repentance and faith in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, we have not evangelized.
Discussing important social issues
There are many of cultural issues about which Christians should be concerned. And walking faithfully to Christ will often require us to engage others on what they believe about, say, abortion and the sanctity of life. We may find warm agreement or sharp disagreement with unbelievers over various social issues and find these discussions intellectually and emotionally stimulating. But our conversations about these matters, even though we may be defending the biblical position, cannot be considered evangelism until we have explained the reality of sin and the meaning of the cross. Again, finding common ground on or engaging in mentally invigorating debate on these kinds of may be a means by which you move a conversation to the gospel, but they are not the gospel. As important is the abortion issue is, a person does not escape eternal judgment by becoming pro-life.
Telling someone they are a sinner
Because evangelism involves explaining to an unbeliever that they are sinners by nature and by personal choice, it might be easy to conclude that we have evangelized once we have told someone about their spiritual condition before God. Some so-called Christian groups have formalized this error in the way they conduct their “outreach” ministries by only telling people that they are worthy of God’s judgment. But telling someone that God is going to punish sin is not yet evangelism. Until we have offered Christ and his death on the cross as the only way to avoid this punishment, we have not shared the good news.
Doing good deeds
The Christian life must be a life fully of good works (Matt. 5:16). Jesus Christ died for the express purpose of creating a people that are “zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Believers are to be rich in good works and constantly engaged in providing for other people’s needs in practical, concrete ways (Titus 3:14). But providing food, shelter, clothing, and financial help is not evangelism. These good works adorn our evangelism and demonstrate that Christ is concerned about the whole person, not just the soul. But we have not yet evangelized until we tell those to whom we offer these earthly provisions about their sin and the solution God has provided in Jesus Christ.
Living a holy life
When we come to Christ, we immediately embark on a life of holiness (2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 4:24). God gives us new desires for holiness and purity, and we begin to walk in fresh patterns of life. Our interests change, our entertainment habits change, our lifestyle begins to change, and our time and energy is now stewarded differently. Sexual purity becomes a priority, integrity a non-negotiable, and we seek to guard our mind and heart from temptation. But we cannot mistake personal holiness for evangelism. Yes, it is important that people see a difference in our lives, but our holiness of life, in and of itself, cannot save someone. Granted, a holy life will adorn our words with authenticity, and a compromised, hypocritical lifestyle may hinder someone from believing the gospel, but our lives, by themselves, can save no one. Until we speak the truth about our sin and the goodness of Christ, we have not evangelized.
The image of God is a discussion that has gathered some attention in recent days. Christians should be thankful for this renewed discussion. Conversations surrounding the doctrine of the image of God have furthered appreciation for the sanctity of life, the dignity of all of humanity, and the responsibility to be an advocate on behalf of the oppressed.
Genesis 1:26-27 presents humanity as being created in God’s image, and thereby being the pinnacle of God’s creation. Though there are varying opinions regarding the doctrine of the image of God, we should at least agree that the divine image gives every person value.
Sin marred the image of God in humanity, but it did not destroy the image of God. God acted through Christ to redeem and restore those created in His image.
Though humanity is created in the image of God, Jesus Himself is said to be the image of God.
In Colossians 1:15, Jesus is introduced as the image of God and is shown to be the One who redeems us (vv. 13-14), the One who rules over creation (vv. 15-20), and the One who reconciles us to God (vv. 21-23).
Christ, the image of God, is presented as both the Creator (v. 16) and the Re-creator of believers into Christ’s own image. In other words, hope is given as people are reconciled through Christ, who renews us to a true knowledge according to His own image (Colossians 3:9-11).
With that brief discussion, I would like to offer three applications of how the divine image of God should affect our Christian conduct as we are being renewed according to His image. In sum, the doctrine of the image of God has implications evangelistically, socially, and eschatologically.
First, knowing Christ as the image of God should strengthen our public witness. Christians should understand that the only way for the image of God to be restored is through the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ. By God’s design, Christian witness is an irreducible link between the One who is God’s image and the ones who need to be restored into God’s image. Our conduct is critical no matter the medium through which our witness is presented.
The social media explosion has provided great opportunity for witness while simultaneously presenting temptations that would destroy our witness. Social outrage has become such a phenomenon that a quick search of the Chronicles of Higher Education returns almost 900 articles written on outrage through social media as it relates to higher education.
James 3:9 appeals to the people of God to be careful that their speech not “curse men who have been made in the likeness of God.” There are certainly times when anger may be the appropriate response to situations of injustice. However, diminishing the value of another person through treating them in an unseemly manner on social media is harmful to our witness of Christ’s work.
In a world that is overwhelmed with outrage, it should be Christians who come to the forefront as voices of reason, pointing others toward the dignity of humanity that is presented through God’s act in creation and Christ’s work in His incarnation.
Outrage tends to deafen the ears of our audience. We should be mindful that any indignation comes from a Christlike mindset that desires the restoration of the image of God within ourselves and within those around us. Otherwise, our witness will be drowned in a sea of un-Christlike anger.
Second, recognizing the image of God should encourage social responsibility. Jesus—the perfect image of God—acted on behalf of those who were created in God’s image. His primary action was to provide for their salvation, yet He also showed concern for their current situations of life. Carl Henry demonstrates that we can still prioritize evangelism and proclamation without sacrificing social concern. Indeed, social concern provides various avenues for evangelism.
Concern for the pre-born, the elderly, the opposite gender, or the immigrant should not be based primarily upon economics or politics (though these are important) but upon recognizing the dignity of every human life and seeking to alleviate their suffering with the hope that we might point them to Christ.
Jesus said that when we contribute to those who are in need, it is as if we are doing the same for Him (Matthew 25:40). He elsewhere states that He has come to be the fulfillment of the prophetic promise to preach the Gospel to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give sight to the blind, and set free those who are oppressed (Luke 4:18). Jesus cared for the oppressed because they, too, are made in God’s image. There is certainly an eschatological thrust to His words, but is there not also a compassion for those who are presently suffering?
Finally, the doctrine of the image of God should deepen our eschatological hope. There is a forward-looking hope that uniquely belongs to those who have been reconciled to Christ through faith. Our hope is not limited to a new dwelling place but also to a renewal; the renewal of bearing God’s image—“We will be like him, because we will see him just as He is” (1 John 3:2).
Until that time, the commission given to the Christian is to invite everyone to come and receive the hope and forgiveness provided through Christ. As Christians, the integrity of our witness is inseparable from our public conduct and our concern for those who are broken.
Those who are created in God’s image matter to Jesus. They should matter to us, too.
 Jerry M. Ireland, Evangelism and Social Concern in the Theology of Carl F.H. Henry (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2015), 5.
Those of us who have been Christians for many years or who have grown up in Christian homes may count the word “evangelism” a regular part of our vocabulary. We may not use it much in our daily conversations, but it’s familiar to us and we’ve heard it often among the members of our church community. Some of us may even say that evangelism is a vital part of our walk with Christ and something in which we participate on a regular to semi-regular basis.
Wherever we are on this spectrum, it is essential for us to visit, or, for some of us, revisit the topic of evangelism. Why do I say “essential?” For now, it is enough to say that we should reflect carefully on how to define this term for one simple reason: evangelism is the privilege and responsibility of every Christian. Whether you have been a Christian for a few months or a few years, Jesus Christ calls you, through his Word, to practice evangelism for his glory, your neighbor’s salvation, and your joy.Four essential elements
What is evangelism? In order to help us navigate this important topic, I’ll provide a basic definition at the beginning of our discussion.
Evangelism is the faithful proclamation of the gospel (i.e., good news) through which we invite unbelievers to repent from their sin and believe in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, full pardon and justification from God, and entrance into a new life of holiness.
Note that evangelism includes four essential components.
- Evangelism is verbal proclamation.
We cannot say that we have evangelized if we have not used words. Perhaps you have heard this popular quote often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” St. Francis never actually said those words, but this fact hasn’t stopped people from using this phrase or attributing it this friar from the 13th century.
Regardless of its origin, however, this statement—or, at least, the thinking reflected in this statement—can be found among many Christians today. The idea that the gospel is something we do rather than something we tell is more common among Christians than you might expect. In order to re-calibrate our thinking according to God’s Word, we must first say that true evangelism will always involve verbal proclamation. If we don’t use words, we haven’t evangelized.
- Evangelism will always include the gospel.
In the New Testament, the word translated “gospel” is the Greek word, euaggélion. To evangelize, then, is simply to proclaim the “evangel,” the good news. What is important to note here is that our conversations and proclamations must include a specific content or else we cannot call it evangelism. Understanding in greater depth the content of the gospel will be the aim of a later post.
- Evangelism must include truth about Jesus’ death and resurrection for sin.
We may talk to our friends or fellow students about the Bible or religion or important social issues, but until we have told them about Jesus’ death and resurrection for sin, we have not evangelized.
- Evangelism must include an invitation to repent and believe in Christ.
In order to say that we have shared the gospel, we must be able to say that we have told people how to receive the riches promised in the gospel. Without inviting a person to repent of their sin and believe in Christ, we haven’t given them everything they need. What use is the best news in the universe if a person doesn’t know how to apply it to themselves?
We don’t want to press this point too far, however. In our efforts to evangelize, there may be times when we are faithfully presenting the whole gospel to someone and, because of the circumstances surrounding our conversation or a person’s responsiveness there may be times when we are unable to offer an invitation to repent and believe. Nevertheless, faithful evangelism will include, on the whole, a call to repent and believe.
What’s hard about reading 1 Corinthians?
Who is this commentary for?
How do we interpret hard NT texts?
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Pastoring sometimes feels like riding an emotional roller coaster full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Day after day, you watch people you love make decisions that bring you joy and make you cry — sometimes in the same day. Anxiety increases as you hear the clack, clack, clack dragging you slowly up the peak of conflict only to be pushed over the top into the free-fall of relational chaos, knowing only that a sharp turn is just ahead. No one blames you if you feel overwhelmed and want to get off the ride. You’re not alone.
If we’re to endure faithfully in pastoral ministry, we need to remember that we’re leading the church in a time of tension — between the already and the not-yet. We’re called to shepherd the flock of God among us to the celestial city, laboring to point them to Christ and his glorious promises and warning them of the dangers of this present evil world, the temptations of our flesh, and the schemes of the Devil. If we’re to do this well, we must understand what Christ has gained for us already in these last days and what we have yet to gain on the Last Day. When we fail to recognize this tension, we’ll punch our ticket to the emotional roller coaster of pastoral ministry—a ride that often leads to disappointment, discouragement, and perhaps even pastoral burnout.Perils of an under-realized eschatology
When we don’t appreciate what Christ has accomplished for us, when we don’t account for what’s already ours through our union with him, as D. A. Carson puts it, we’ll be tempted toward pessimistic defeatism. Imagine doubting God’s forgiveness or questioning your standing before God. Such a perspective will eventually lead to despair as you’re left to your own devices to try and earn acceptance before God. It will be difficult—nearly impossible—to lead a church while dealing with such nagging doubts. Rather than run to Christ and rest in what he has accomplished, you may be tempted to leave the ministry altogether.
But I suspect the majority of us who continue in pastoral ministry have learned to preach the gospel to ourselves. We may not doubt our standing before God, but if we tend toward pessimistic defeatism, we may functionally doubt others’ standing before God. Just think about how this under-realized eschatology might affect your ministry:
Culture: Are you tempted to view this world as so irredeemable that you don’t associate with unbelievers? Are you tempted to believe that things are so bad “out there” that you should avoid it altogether and encourage your church to do likewise?
Evangelism: Do you view some unbelievers as beyond the grace of God? Are there unbelievers in your life that you’re convinced will never come to Christ, causing you to think, “Why even try?”
Discipleship: Are you so frustrated with church members who seem to struggle with the same sins again and again that you’re ready to give up on them?
Preaching: Have you come to the place where you feel it doesn’t matter how much you prepare or how faithfully you preach because it won’t hardly make a difference?
Leadership: Have you thrown in the towel in trying to raise up leaders in the church because you believe no one will rise to the biblical standards?
It’s no shock that such pessimistic defeatism will lead to burn out. When we don’t rest in the work that Christ has accomplished for us and for our people, we’ll be tempted to step into his sandals and rescue people ourselves. We’ll be tempted to think it’s finally up to us to change the culture; to convince unbelievers into the kingdom; to work out our people’s sanctification; to preach sermons that transform lives; to raise up biblical leaders.
But it’s not. We’re not the Savior of the world, and we’re not the Sanctifier of the Church. If an under-realized eschatology ever causes us to forget this, then burnout is inevitable.Perils of an over-realized eschatology
On the other hand, if we mistakenly believe that Christ’s finished work guarantees for us now promises that won’t be fulfilled until the consummation of all things, then we’ll be tempted toward overly optimistic triumphalism. While we may not actually believe this world is fully restored and the saints are fully sanctified, we may functionally hold to a sort of prosperity theology in which we expect a substantial down payment on our future inheritance now. This inevitably leads to disappointment and doubt when Christ doesn’t deliver what we mistakenly expect of him.
Think also about how an over-realized eschatology affects our ministry:
Culture: Do you believe that because Jesus is King (Eph. 1:19–23), we can go into our communities and redeem the culture so that we can cultivate a slice of heaven here on earth?
Evangelism: Are you under the impression that because in this new age sower and reaper are working together (John 4:35–38), that you should expect to experience a fruitful evangelistic ministry in your church?
Discipleship: Do you expect that because we all have the Spirit that all your church will equally love God’s Word, one another, and you? Do you think that because we’re all to be maturing in Christ, your church will never face conflict?
Preaching: Have you become convinced that because God promises that his Word will never return empty that every sermon you preach will have lasting impact on your congregation?
Leadership: Are you expecting every man who desires to be an elder to be qualified to serve such that you don’t need to put processes in place to raise up leaders?
Surprisingly, even optimistic triumphalism will also lead to burn out. Why? Because when we assume we have more of the future blessings now than we really do, we set ourselves up for disappointment and discouragement. And disappointment and discouragement lead toward doubt and eventual burnout.
So, where do we go from here?Tension must remain
If we’re to keep the tension between the already and the not-yet, then we must renew our minds and root our thinking in the gospel. In his first letter, Peter reminds the defeated Christians in Asia Minor that, because of Christ’s work (1:2), they already possess a future inheritance that awaits them at the consummation (1:3–4). Already, he writes, these Christians are living in a privileged time, the age of salvation the prophets longed to see (1:10–12). But until the consummation, he assures them that they will face suffering that God will use to strengthen their faith (1:5–9).
So with a right perspective, the suffering Christians in Asia Minor can live amid suffering by looking forward to the blessings that await them in the final salvation.
As for the triumphalistic Corinthians (1 Cor. 4:8–13), Paul admonishes them as his beloved children (4:14), exposing their spiritual immaturity (3:1–4) and calling them to love one another (13:1–13). Like Peter, Paul also grounds the Corinthians’ identity and standing in Christ. Because of Christ’s work, they’re no longer what they used to be. So, by faith, they are to live as those who have been washed, sanctified, and “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (6:11).Embrace the journey
It’s true that sometimes pastoral ministry feels like an emotional roller coaster ride and we’re just hanging on for dear life. But it’s also true that sometimes the reason for that feeling is confused expectations that lead to an inability to live by faith in the tension of the already and the not-yet.
Instead, we should consider the Christian life a journey. Jesus has already blazed the trail for us; he’s reached the final destination (Heb. 12:2). We’ve not yet arrived, but Christ has given us everything we need. Let us, then, fix our eyes on Jesus and run the race that he set before us (Heb. 12:1), knowing that as we follow in his steps, we’re not only following him into suffering, shame, and death, but also into victory, glory, and eternal life.
Editors’ note: This article was originally publishedat 9Marks.
Corporate worship is one of the fundamental purposes and actions of the church. Unfortunately, that which should unite us together in praise of the triune God often serves as a wedge to divide the people of God across fault lines of age, socioeconomic status, and personal preference. We often make decisions concerning the various aspects of corporate worship without searching the Scriptures to determine the priorities that God places on this central action of His body.
In His encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus emphasizes the divine priority of worship when He utters the incredible statement, “But an hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers. God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24). Here, Jesus describes authentic worship as that which is offered to the Father in spirit and in truth. Astoundingly, the Father is searching for those who will offer Him this type of worship. We must continually evaluate and adjust our worship practices in light of these Scriptural mandates.
Throughout his letters to the churches in Asia Minor, Paul continues to unpack the meaning of Christian worship. In the Epistle to the Romans, he locates the fundamental problem of humanity in its false worship whereby “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Romans 1:25). He spends considerable time correcting faulty worship attitudes and practices throughout 1 Corinthians. It is the twin Pauline passages found in Colossians and Ephesians that speak of “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” that provide us the best vantage point from which to examine the Pauline understanding of biblical worship through song.
Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father (Colossians 3:16-17).
This passage demonstrates that the Word of Christ—the truth of the Gospel about Christ—should indwell the music of the church. This means that the Gospel should permeate the lyrical content of what we sing together as believers. In the School of Church Music at Southwestern Seminary, we train men and women who will serve God in a variety of capacities, with many of them serving as worship and music leaders in their churches. One of the priorities that we emphasize countless times is the pastoral responsibility they bear as they place the Word of God on the lips of the people of God.
Music possesses tremendous power to guide the thoughts and affections of those who listen and, more importantly, actively participate. Singing the truth of the Word of God drives these doctrines deep into the minds and hearts of the congregation. It is necessary and beneficial for the people of God to express their love, devotion, and need for God, but often the music of the church can lack the revealed truth of the Bible. Just as we urge preachers to “let the Word speak,” so also must we “let the Word sing”!
And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ (Ephesians 5:18-21).
This parallel passage in Ephesians similarly emphasizes singing to the Lord with thankfulness, but the prominence shifts from the work of Christ to that of the Spirit. Here, we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit as we address each other and sing to the Lord. Paul concludes by instructing believers to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. These dual mandates teach us a powerful truth: Worship is corporate in nature, and the Spirit uses our times of worship to shape us into the image of Christ.
Corporate worship is not just a collection of individuals who happen to be worshiping God in the same room. When we lift up our voices to praise the Lord together, we are united in spirit and in faith. In fact, corporate times of singing are the only times when we are all doing the same thing at the same time. The Spirit of God uses these experiences to mold us into the body of Christ, where we set aside our stylistic preferences for the good of the body and the sake of the Kingdom of God.
Sing praise to the Lord, you His godly ones, and give thanks to His holy name (Psalm 30:4).
Let the Word of God be on our lips as we sing praises to Him, and let the Spirit move among us as He becomes more and more the object of our worship!
“Should I join a church?” I’ve been asked this question many times — not just through my Practical Shepherding website, but also in my own church by visitors. It is a common scenario. You move to a new area. You get find your new residence and job. You get the kids enrolled in school. Where you settle in a local church often becomes a longer, more drawn-out task.
After checking out all the churches you desire to visit, here are four questions to ask yourself as you narrow the search to make a decision.Is this a church where my family will be regularly fed by God’s Word?
This is the first question that needs to be asked. Not just are they faithful to the Word of God, but will this church preach and teach in such a way that my soul and the souls of my family will be nourished? In other words, are they preaching expositionally through books of the Bible as the regular, steady diet of the congregation? This approach does not automatically answer this question, but it is a great place to start and evaluate.Is this a church where I am convinced the care of my soul will be a priority?
Does this church have real pastors/elders who see their primary task to be the spiritual care and oversight of the souls of the members? In other words, just because they have powerful, biblical preaching does not mean your individual soul will be tended to on a regular basis. Ask the pastors. Ask other church members. It will not take much investigation on whether this work is a priority of the leadership of the church.Is this a church where my family will experience meaningful Christian fellowship and accountability?
To know this, it will require a bit of a commitment to one church for a time to build relationships, attend some church fellowship events, and get to know some of the pastors and leaders. Yet you must have a realistic expectation since you are not yet a member, and so you should not expect to be treated like one.Is this a church where I can serve God’s people and use my gifts for its benefit?
It will help to know where you are gifted and what some of the needs of the church are. Some needs can be filled by your simple presence and commitment. Also, do not assume you know what those areas of need are by your limited observations.
You should be able to know the answers to these questions within a few months of attending one church if you give yourself to the process. If you can answer in the affirmative to all four of these questions, it is a good possibility you have found your next church. At that point, I would encourage you not to delay but to pursue membership.Final element
One final element is the key to persevering with the zeal required in this search. You and your family should feel a sense of persistent unease knowing that you are not in covenant fellowship with a local church and are not under the authority of undershepherds caring for your souls. The freedom and absence of accountability many experience in the search for a new church can cause a sinful complacency.
In other words, you do not ever want to become comfortable being one of God’s sheep who has wandered away from the fellowship of the flock and the accountability of shepherds to care for you, even if that journey at the time feels fun and exciting.
Editors’ note: This article was originally published at The Gospel Coalition.
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For years, I’ve heard of the joys of pilgrimaging to the holy land, but I had no opportunity to visit until now. Joining a large group from Prestonwood Baptist Church led by Pastors Jack Graham and Jarrett Stephens, we crisscrossed our way through the Promised Land to various biblical sites, including Caesarea, Capernaum, Jericho, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, and, of course, Jerusalem. Walking these sites did much more than satisfy my love for history; it was a spiritual experience that stirred in me a love for pilgrimage.
In its simplest form, pilgrimage is “voyaging to see and pray at a specific holy place,” and there is a long history of this practice. In Genesis, God calls Abraham to journey to a new land (Genesis 12:1) and then, years later, uses Moses to lead the Hebrews out of exile to the same place. When he delivers the Law, Moses stipulates that the nation should pilgrimage to Jerusalem three times a year for religious festivals (Deuteronomy 16:6). As they traveled, they sang the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134), and it’s not hard to imagine their emotions as they approached the temple singing, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’ Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem…”(Psalm 122:1-2).
In the New Testament, we see pilgrimage in the journey of the magi who come to visit the newborn king. Then, at the age of 12, Jesus, along with Mary and Joseph, pilgrimages to the temple for the Feast of the Passover (Luke 2:41-42). After the Lord’s resurrection, we also find the Ethiopian eunuch traveling to Jerusalem, where he meets Philip and discovers the true identity of the suffering servant of Isaiah 53. These stories illustrate the reality that all Christians are “sojourners and exiles” journeying toward the Kingdom that is to come (1 Peter 2:11).
In the early church, pilgrimage to holy sites dramatically increased. Origen and Eusebius, for example, resided in Caesarea, and Eusebius boasts that Origen’s knowledge of Scripture was supported by visits to important biblical sites. It was the Christianization of the empire under Emperor Constantine, however, that truly paved the way for the expansion of pilgrimage.
Not everyone was impressed with the developing culture of pilgrimage. Gregory of Nyssa warned against it because of the dangers in traveling to these sites. Egeria, a fourth-century nun, lamented that many sites were “being touted, with dubious historicity, by local monks who already witnessed to the ‘tourist trade’ element of pilgrimage.” These criticisms were recycled by the Protestant Reformers, such as Martin Luther, who in his Address to the Nobility of the German Nation condemned the abusive practices, saying, “All pilgrimages should be done away with. For there is no good in them, no commandment, but countless causes of sin and of contempt of God’s commandments.”
While many shared Luther’s feelings, others found the concept of pilgrimage helpful, the most famous being John Bunyan in his Pilgrim’s Progress. Like Bunyan, Christians from Anabaptists to Puritans continued to draw on the theme of pilgrimage as they imagined the Christian life as a progressive journey of sanctification toward the Kingdom of God.
With its biblical examples and spiritual allure, it seems that Christians cannot escape the attraction to pilgrimage. For all its problems, pilgrimage is deeply rooted in the evangelical yearning for relationship and communion with God. It offers a form of spiritual discipline that educates and edifies the faith of the believer.
After returning home and reflecting on my own travels, I see many benefits in Christian pilgrimage. First, pilgrimage undoubtedly sheds new insights into the events of Scripture and Christian history. It reminds us that Christians are decidedly anti-Gnostic and devoted to the work God accomplished in time and space. To stand in a synagogue in Magdala, where Christ most likely taught, or to stroll among ruined walls of the temple in Jerusalem, where Christ certainly walked, is a staggering reminder of the wonder of the incarnation. These stones, fields, seas, and rivers heard His voice and bowed to His miraculous works.
Second, pilgrimage sets aside concentrated time to reflect on the work of the Lord for spiritual renewal. Pilgrimage is a form of spiritual discipline that nurtures prayer and contemplation. Just as the Lord “would often slip away to the wilderness and pray” (Luke 5:16), so does pilgrimage offer a kind of retreat from the daily routines and troubles of life. As I walked the seaside where that the Lord restored Peter in John 21 or gazed out over the Judean wilderness where the Lord was likely tempted, I found myself praying, reading Scripture, and remembering the His works.
Finally, pilgrimage, especially with a group of fellow Christians, generates a deep sense of Christian community and fellowship. As we traveled, we joined together with so many Christians over the centuries to celebrate the works of God. I will never forget gathering in the fields on the outskirts of Bethlehem, where the shepherds heard the angelic voices, and joining in a chorus of Christians singing together, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
While pilgrimage has a rather checkered history, the allure of journeying to holy sites continues to edify the Christian pilgrim. Few if any in our group from Prestonwood left Israel unmoved by what they experienced, and I can only hope that many more will have the opportunity to share in the joys of Christian pilgrimage. When they do, my prayer, following the sentiments of N.T. Wright, is “that they may make the right use of their time journeying: to learn new things, yes, to pray new prayers, yes, but most of all to take fresh steps along the road of discipleship that leads from the earthly city to the city that is to come, whose builder and maker is God.”
 John A. McGuckin, “Pilgrimage,” in the Westminster Handbook of Patristic Theology, 274.
 John Gatta, “Toward a Theology of Pilgrimage,” Institute for Faith and Learning at Baylor University, 2016, accessed at: https://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/270260.pdf.
 For a similar discussion of the benefits of pilgrimage, see N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today, Eerdmans, 2014; or Ted Olsen, “He Talked to Us on the Road: The Surprising Rewards of Christian Travel,” April 3, 2009, accessed at: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/april/15.23.html.
 N.T. Wright, The Way of the Lord, 11.
Legalism does not work. It never has and it never will. Legalism is the pursuit of good works — obedience to God’s law and the ethical commands of the Bible (and beyond) — abstracted from faith in Christ in order to be acceptable before God. The legalist approaches the Bible as a law-centered document rather than a Christ-centered one. Legalism attempts to domesticate the law of God and exacerbates sin rather than killing it because it feeds the flesh.
Legalism always produces two kinds of people: Those who know they do not measure up to God’s standards; and those who pretend that they measure up to God’s standards. I have often asked people, “What are your personal standards for what a person should say and do? Have you, in every instance, lived up to your own standards?” The answer is always no. If we haven’t lived up to our own standards, then we can be certain we have not lived up to God’s standards either.The problem with the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees
The Sermon on the Mount turns on Matthew 5:20: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus’s assertion would have been startling to his hearers. Who could enter the kingdom of heaven then? The hearers would have been wondering: “How can anyone have better righteousness than those experts in the law?” At the end of the next section (Matt. 5:21-48), Jesus clarifies, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48).
In Matthew 5:21–48, there are six sections addressing various examples of the better righteousness: (1) murder (5:21–26); (2) adultery (5:27–30); (3) divorce (5:31–32); (4) oaths (5:33–37); (5) vengeance (5:38–42); and (6) love of enemies (5:43–48). Each of these begins “You have heard that it was said” (vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43), and then “But I say to you …” (vv. 22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44).
Jesus’s teaching in this section is often described as “antitheses,” but that is a poor description of his instruction. After all, Jesus had already clarified, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).
A close reading of this section reveals three common words and phrases that Jesus uses throughout this section. These three formulas hint at Jesus’s primary takeaway for his disciples:
- The gospel according to the legalist: “You have heard that it was said”
Using this phrase, Jesus refers to a particular Old Testament law and exposes the way a legalist would wrongly interpret and apply the command.
- The gospel according to Jesus: “…But I say to you”
Next, Jesus explains the way the law is rightly to be understood and applied in light of deeper kingdom dynamics because, in him, the kingdom of heaven was at hand.
- Don’t pit Old Testament vs. New Testament: “If,” “so,” or “then”
Jesus also, with one exception, provides examples of how one could take steps that would demonstrate the obedience of faith — the better righteousness.
Some wrongly pit the Old Testament against the New Testament, asserting that the OT is law-focused and external while the NT is heart-focused and internal. Even a cursory reading of the OT makes clear that true righteousness always involved internal faith and a transformed heart.
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart (Deut. 6:5-7).
Rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2:13).
The legalist abstracts the biblical command from the canonical gospel narrative. Thus, according to the legalist, if you have not murdered, committed adultery, and have not given a deceptive oath, then you are righteous; if you have, then you are unrighteous. The legalist also concludes, since they are righteous, they have a right to give a certificate of divorce, administer vengeance, and hate their enemies. Their focus is on the self.
The citizen of the kingdom of heaven hears the commands of God as embedded in the biblical gospel narrative. This is why the beatitudes do not make sense to the legalist but they do make sense to kingdom citizens. The Bible is not law-centered (another way of saying man-centered), but it is Christ-centered and gospel-focused.Contrasting patterns of thought
Consider below and contrast the pattern of thinking of the legalist and the kingdom citizen. They can read the same laws and come to opposite conclusions because they have opposing starting points. The fundamental issue with Jesus’ six examples in Matthew 5:21-48 is that they are not abstractions, they exhibit the way kingdom ethics work. The examples should be considered as a part of the same gospel cloth and not as independent abstract commands.
The pathway of legalistic thinking is:
- The law
- Their righteousness
- How much their righteousness will please God and others
The pattern of the kingdom citizen’s thinking is:
- God in Christ.
- Christ’s righteousness and law-keeping for me.
- How can I serve God in Christ and others by rendering the obedience of faith?
With the first way of thinking, a legalistic approach to applying the “You have heard it said” commands make sense, yet Jesus’s responses (“But I say to you”) do not. The kingdom citizen reverses the focus, trusts in Christ’s righteousness, and walks in line with the gospel.