Our Lives Are But a Mist

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“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” James 4:13-14

In 1861, Horatius Bonar penned a hymn entitled, “Nothing that My Hands Can Do.” (It was recently redone by Sovereign Grace Music.)  In verse 3, there is a little line which says, “My life is but a fleeting sigh / A tear within the sea.” Dr. Bonar understood, even over 150 years ago, something that many Western people fail to see.

We are all guilty.  Every one of us.  All of us are wrapped up in the here-and-now.  And we read over passages like James 4:13-14, giving them little thought.  But, the truth is, we have invested so much time into this life that we think very little of the next.  We Americans – especially us Americans – whether or not we claim to be followers of Christ, have come to believe one of two very great lies.

The first is that we have been deceived into thinking that caring for our families, our bodies, and our churches is unnecessary. Society constantly assaults us with the lie that our greatest end is to take all we can, doing what is best for ME, and doing so without consideration for anyone else.  It is true, you won’t hear an advertisement telling us not to do good, but we certainly do hear – on a daily basis – things like “live for the moment” and “follow your heart.”  The only problem with these voices is that “living for the moment” totally ignores the truth that eternity is forever, and that we “are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”  Living for the moment, if fulfilling our own appetites, disregards an unending eternity. Following our heart doesn’t work either, because “the heart is deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9), and will always lead us away from the things of God.  So, those who have believed this lie take little care to train their children in the things of God.  They eat and work to satisfy their fleshly cravings.  The poor and needy are cared for, only when it is convenient.  Those who believe this lie are living for the moment. And this moment is about one person: me.

The second lie is much like the first, but manifests itself differently.  The second lie tells us to really care for our bodies, protect our possessions, and give our children the best.  This lie tells us that our greatest end is to invest in the here-and-now by doing whatever it takes to stay healthy and stay happy.  So, those who believe this lie work to preserve their bodies.  They eat healthy and exercise constantly, then love what they see.  They, too, are living for the moment.  They ensure that their kids have the best of everything, and that their homes and valuables are insured to cover loss.  But you see, those who believe this second lie are also “living for the moment.” They say, “let us do this to improve our lives,” all the while forgetting that their life is but a mist – our days are numbered, and one day, this will all end.

Now then, where does this bring us? Well, we should now ask ourselves, “Have I come to believe either of these lies?” And if we are honest with ourselves, we will likely admit to the affirmative.  So, what do we do? Let me help us get some better perspective.

Friends, eternity is forever. This life we live is just a moment in the grand scheme of time. And everything we do in this life is shaping what our eternity will look like.  Paul says it like this:

“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.  If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).

Without fully expositing this text, here’s what I believe the apostle is saying.  He is saying that the way we live our lives now is preparing a life for us in eternity.  We must first begin with the foundation, who is Jesus Christ.  If we do not start there, we will never see the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus Himself said that no one can come to the Father except through Him (John 14:6). We must all come to the place where we see that our sin is repulsive before a holy and righteous God, and then see that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, came to the earth to satisfy God’s anger toward our sin by perishing on a cross.  Jesus said that whoever believes in Him will gain eternal life (John 3:16; 17:3). Without the forgiveness of sins, we will perish in eternal damnation apart from God.  If however, we have trusted in Jesus to forgive us our sins, He will cleanse us and give us life anew (1 John 1:9; John 10:10).  This is fundamentally what it means to be a Christian.

And yet, we cannot simply claim a faith in Christ if we will not follow Him.  Ephesians 2 talks about how those of us who are saved were granted salvation from sin’s punishment through the grace of God (verse 8), but it goes on to say that we were created in Christ for “good works…that we should walk in them” (verse 10)!  This means that when God chose to save us, His intentions in saving us were that we might live lives that are pleasing to Him.  He intended that we work to help others receive the gift of salvation (by giving them the good news of the Gospel), and that we live in such a way that eternity is always before our eyes.

If, however, we have fallen into believing either of these two lies I’ve mentioned, we are building up our lives with “wood, hay, and straw,” things that will be burned up before God on the Day of Judgment. We must stop living in such a way that if we lost what we have built, we would have no reason for living.  We must stop living for the here-and-now, preparing our bodies and souls for this life only – this is a fool’s errand!  And yet, there lies before us a greater reward, far beyond the temporary satisfaction we gain in this life, if we will but start preparing our bodies and souls for the life to come.

How do we do this? Well, firstly, it is imperative that we trust in Jesus.  Without His forgiveness, everything we do in this life is worthless before God to save us.  Religion cannot save us.  Works cannot save us.  Only His unearned grace is powerful enough to forgive the blackness of our souls.  So, ask yourself, “Have I been washed clean by the blood of Christ? Have I been forgiven? Do I have true, deep-seated joy?”  These are all the result of trusting in Christ alone for salvation.

Secondly, once we have been given new spiritual life, we are motivated by the love of God to live differently.  This means committing daily to teaching our children the things of God.  This is building on our foundation with gold, whether or not we presently see results. We parents will all stand before God some day, giving account of the way we managed the divine stewardship of parenthood.  Let us care for our bodies, but only in a way that our minds and spirits are made alert to “redeem the time” we’ve been given (Ephesians 5:16).  We are building with gold when we see that our bodies have been given us to serve Christ – not our fleshly desires.  Let us consider, not only our own interests, but also the needs of others (Philippians 2:4). As we do, we are preparing for ourselves eternal reward!

Our lives are but a mist – a fleeting sigh.  Let us be careful how we make use of this short time.

 

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Church Membership: Continuing the Conversation

Yesterday on the Lord’s Day, I delivered a sermon entitled “A Survey of Biblical Church Membership.” (You can listen to it here, although about a quarter of it was lost due to technical difficulties). I tried to present a case for church membership out of 1 Corinthians 12, showing how the local church is defined by a composition of diverse members who are called to a specific location in the body. I then gave several identifying marks of church membership as conveyed in the New Testament. These were commitment, submission, and a visible representation of Christ to the surrounding community.

And yet, there are so many more of these identifying attributes that help us see God’s vision for the Christian in belonging to a local church. Among these evidences are corporate prayer, corporate worship, and even church discipline. But there is one I have in mind that I believe to be so crucial in our Christian lives: the grace of discipleship.

Discipleship is a lifelong process for the Christian.  It is the way that a believer becomes more like Christ.  It is the way we pursue our growth in sanctification. And discipleship may just be the most overlooked, yet most important, identifying mark of biblical church membership.

In my sermon yesterday, I used the term “Christian nomads.”  This is a term having a similar meaning to “church hopper” that I used in my last post.  A Christian nomad is self-declared believer who is more of a separatist – one who is content to be separated from a local fellowship of believers.  They may indeed visit various churches, but are more content to live out their life alone. But is this God’s will for a true believer? More specifically, can a believer in Jesus Christ be shaped into Christlikeness and holiness if he or she rejects a commitment to a local church? For this answer, we turn to the Word of God.

We begin by looking at Peter’s second epistle to his fellow believers abroad.  At the conclusion of the letter, Peter says:

14 Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things [the new heaven and the new earth], be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; 15 and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, 16 as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:14-16)

He continues:

17 You therefore, beloved, since you know this beforehand, beware lest you also fall from your own steadfastness, being led away with the error of the wicked; 18 but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory both now and forever. Amen. (2 Peter 3:17-18)

What is the apostle saying to these Christians?

  1. Firstly, Peter reminds them that because the Day of the Lord is imminent, and that the heavens, the earth, and the elements will be burned up, we ought to be a people that strive for holy and godly conduct (v 10-15).
  2. Secondly, “untaught and unstable people” will appear in the world and “twist” the truth of the Scripture.  Paul, John, and Jude also warned of these false teachers that would come (2 Corinthians 11:33ff; Galatians 1:6-9; Titus 1:10ff; 1 John 2:18ff; Jude; et al) – even into the church “to deceive, if possible… the elect” (Matthew 24:24).
  3. Thirdly, since they “know this beforehand,” these Christians are to “beware” that they don’t fall away from their own “steadfastness” (“stability,” ESV; v 17); and
  4. Fourthly, that they rather “grow in the grace and knowledge” of Christ (v 18).

Strive for holiness as we await Christ’s return, know that false teachers will try to deceive Christians by twisting the Scriptures (which point to Christ); therefore, be on guard so we do not get tricked by their deception, but rather, grow in both the grace and knowledge of Jesus.

If this Christ-denying deception is a reality in the world today (and John says it is, see 1 John 4:3), then how can we resist falling into deception? I mean, the reason why deception is so deceptive is because it sounds true. Further, how can we best experience Christian growth to maturity?  To answer this, I am reminded of the letter to the Hebrews. I mentioned these verses yesterday in church, but I would like to add an extra verse or two. Hebrews 10:19-20; 23-25:

19 Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus,20 by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh… 23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, 25 not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching.

Okay so, the writer of the Hebrews has just finished a beautiful dissertation on the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice in order to bring the people of God to Himself.  Jesus made the way for the people of God to enter into the presence of God through His substitutionary death and glorious resurrection.  Therefore, says Hebrews, “let us hold fast” our confession of Christ “without wavering,” because Christ is faithful to finish what He has begun in us (v 23).  And yet, immediately after this, the writer tells us something very similar to what Peter said in 2 Peter 3: the Day of Christ is drawing near.

Therefore, taking verse 23 and pulling it together with verse 24 and 25, what is the means by which we are to be on guard against the deception in the world that would work to destroy our faith in Christ? Further, how can we experience the grace of God in our lives and develop into Christlike Christians? Hebrews tells us: “consider one another” (v 24) in order to spur on in each other a greater love for Jesus, His bride, and this world; and encourage each other to pursue the works which accompany this love. Where is this growth – this discipleship best experienced? Verse 25 tells us: in the fellowship of the assembly of Christ-followers.

Where does this assembling actually occur? In the local church.  It is there in the local church that God has chosen for us to become like His Son.  This happens in a number of ways, though I am thinking mainly of three reasons why it happens most successfully as we are in relationship with a group of believers.

Reason #1: Differing personalities stimulate our sanctification.

The local church is filled with people of diverse and sometimes drastically different personalities, though we are all unified under the banner of Christ’s love.

As more Christians commit to a local body with such a diversity of people, our assemblies will be colored by various personality types.  As a result, conflict can and will occur in the local church. (Avoiding conflict is a reason is why many “Christian nomads” keep to themselves.)  And yet, it is with conflict that the Christian grows in maturity. Someone once said, “Where there is no pressure, there is no diamonds.” God has composed His body with many diverse parts in order for each part to help strengthen the other.  Because we are unified by Christ’s love in the local church, this strengthening often happens through encouragement and care for each other.  However, there are times when God allows conflict to occur in order to strengthen His body. To use a practical analogy, our physicals bodies will become weak if we do not subject them to the discipline of exercise.  Exercise, though painful, strengthens our muscles and develops endurance. If we ignore exercising so we can stay comfortable, we will grow increasingly unhealthy.

Likewise, we Christians cannot flee the first sign of interpersonal conflict just so we can be happy.  In fact, we will become unhealthy if we always keep to ourselves and deny ourselves the blessing of corporate relationship where conflict can arise.  This conflict, when embraced and resolved with humility will produce Christlikeness.  Jesus Himself modeled for us this example of humility when He totally submitted to those who hated Him.  As we face our own hardships (with people or life in general), we can find comfort in knowing that the joy of the end result will far outweigh the struggle. Diamonds are produced when pressure is present:

“…Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God…consider Him…lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls..” (Hebrews 12:2-3)

Therefore, neglect not the assembling our yourselves together, for it is there that conflict produces Christlikeness.

Reason #2: The shared benefit of the same pulpit ministry.

Because Christians in the local church sit together under the same pulpit ministry, they have a common bond under the Word of God.

As members of the local church hear the sermon each week and engage in small group Bible study, each member can encourage the other primarily through the Scriptures.  Again, the makeup of a local church is composed of diverse personalities, those from differing social statuses, and those with differing maturity levels.  These believers then, because they are all impacted by the same Word of God, can use the Scriptures to encourage and sharpen one another. One more mature believer may be able to take his or her insight from the verses preached during the Sunday sermon and minister to a less mature believer. The result is deeper relationship between the members, greater mutual excitement over the Word, and a more steadfast walk of faith as they endure life both independently and together during the week.

Reason #3: An environment of mutual care.

The local church provides an environment where each member can be involved in the mutual care of the other.

I gave this Scripture yesterday, 1 Corinthians 12:26:

And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

Perhaps this is the greatest benefit to our Christian growth in maturity: having relationship with fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who will help us to endure through both the good and bad times in life. The Christian nomad and the church hopper do not experience this mutual care as fully as the church member.  This is because God has designed His Church to be the place (physically and spiritually) where each member can find comfort and strength when they need it most.  Sure, the nomad or hopper may find this comfort from a fellow believer independent of the church.  More than likely, however, the nomad and hopper will fulfill his or her need for comfort from someone in the world. For the church member, though, it is in the gathering of at least 2 or 3 where Christ is present most fully (Matthew 18:20).  Here, the comfort of love and encouragement abounds because each member displays a dependence on the other that is centered on the living Christ.

Consider when Peter and John were arrested for preaching Jesus (Acts 4).  When they were released from the court of the Jewish leaders, they immediately returned “to their friends” (v 23, ESV), or their local fellowship of believers, and “reported” their experience.  Then what happened? The church raised their voices to God and prayed that He would strengthen, embolden, and encourage His “servants” to continue to preach Christ (v 24ff). At the conclusion of their prayer, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (v 31). The nomad and the hopper simply cannot find this care, encouragement, and spiritual support independent of the local church.

So, let us embrace the local body of Christ.  I said this yesterday and I’ll say it again: Christ died so that His body would be unified under Himself, who is the Head.  It is here in this assembly of unity that we become like Jesus, ever growing into His image.

Let us not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. The Day is fast approaching, and we need the local church to help us get there, to the glory and praise of God.

Church Membership: Beginning a Conversation

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This week and next, I am preparing to preach a series of sermons on the topic of church membership. This is a topic that I think many Christians in the United States have a clouded understanding of. For many, church membership means filling out an application, committing to attend every service, and vowing to put their tithes in the offering plate.  But, is this really what it means to be a church member? I mean, does the Bible even talk about church membership? If it does not, then joining a church is optional.  It is something the church has continued because it loves tradition. If it does, however, then it most certainly cannot be ignored, but must rather be explored, studied, and even enjoyed as a blessing from God.

It is my contention that church membership is completely biblical. Let’s begin this conversation by trying to define church membership.  For this definition, I will turn to Jonathan Leeman’s book, Church Membership: How the World Knows Who Represents Jesus, a short volume that is a part of series of books from 9Marks on building healthy churches. Keep in mind that Leeman draws his definition from the ten “indisputable themes” of church membership that ran throughout the first days of the early church (for more, read chapter 2 in his book). But for now, here is his definition:

“Church membership is a formal relationship between a church and a Christian characterized by the church’s affirmation and oversight of a Christian’s discipleship and the Christian’s submission to living out his or her discipleship in the care of the church.” (p 64)

Though it is a long definition, it is an excellent one.  Leeman points out that there are three elements present in this definition.

Affirmation – “A Church body formally affirms an individual’s profession of faith and baptism as credible” (p 65).

In other words, in order to enter into a “formal relationship” with the body of Christ, a person should actually be a member of the body of Christ.  This is affirmed through the church’s recognition of an individual’s affirmation of faith and the visible act of Christian baptism.

Oversight – “It promises to give oversight to that individual’s discipleship” (p 65).

The local body has the primary responsibility to ensure that every member is given the proper tools to grow in their relationship with Christ.

Submission – “The individual formerly submits his or her discipleship to the service and authority of this body and its leaders” (p 65).

Specifically, a church member acknowledges the local church as the body responsible for the oversight of his or her soul. This means that, in joining up with a local church, each individual member is placing their spiritual care into the hands of that church’s leaders and members. Likewise, he or she will do the same for the other members – work to care for them spiritually and physically.

So, this is a brief description of what it means to be the part of a local church. Doesn’t quite seem so simple as signing a card and agreeing to a statement of faith, does it? There is more – far more to entering into a formal relationship with a local church than merely agreeing to pay your tithes to it.  In fact, to join with a local body in some ways is similar to the marriage covenant between a man and a woman. On the one hand, unlike the marriage covenant, it can be a breakable union. There are appropriate times and reasons to break the formal relationship of church membership.  On the other hand, however, to join with a local church does not mean that its members can simply stop investing their time and resources with the church when they don’t like something (or someone).

Unfortunately, this is the epidemic of our day.  You’ve heard of the term “church hopper,” right? A church hopper is a person who moves from church to church, sometimes indefinitely, due to a number of possible reasons.  For example, Church A has too early of a worship service, so they visit Church B.  Church B, however, has boring music, so they go to Church C.  In Church C, though, the preacher is too “long-winded,” so, they visit Church D.  Now, I will be the first to say that it is important to belong to a church that is teaching solid doctrine. After all, the local church is responsible to “give oversight” to a member’s discipleship.  But, there is a very visible theme running through the epidemic of church hopping. Did you catch it? Self-centeredness. The church hopper says, “I am not satisfied with what I see, so I will search until I am satisfied.”

However, there’s a problem with this reasoning. No church can satisfy every desire we have. Church A may provide a good worship service, but 10 AM is just too early on a weekend. Church C doesn’t start till 11, but the preacher cuts into lunchtime.  The deeper issue in each of these excuses, though, is the church hopper is focused on his or herself and not the body of Christ. Church membership for the hopper is mainly about “what others can do for me,” and not about the commitment to serve others. If the church seems like it will meet the hopper’s needs, he or she may decide to join.  They may stay for a time and even get involved.  But over time, something will annoy them.  If the annoyance is heightened enough, they will leave.

For the epidemic of church hopping, the Bible offers us a cure.  Hebrews  10:24-25 (ESV) says:

“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

Here, perhaps more bluntly than any other passage, the inspired Word of God shows us that the cure for church hopping is to stop looking at ourselves.  In fact, the mandate for biblical church membership teaches us to be ever mindful that Christ’s return is near, and to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13)!  Sin is deceptive, and the local body of Christ wields a power that is able to unmask and overcome sin’s trickery in one another and encourage each other toward holiness.  In both of these texts, church membership is centered on one member’s care for the other. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Church membership is about the progress of the whole body.

This interpersonal encouragement will involve a long-term commitment to one another.  It will involve personal sacrifice and Christlike humility. But as we enter into this commitment, we will find that the local body of Christ is displaying Christ to the world.  Its members will discover the soul-care and maturity that is needed to endure until Christ returns. And, dare I say, people will want what we have!

So, as we explore this topic together, let us pray that God opens our eyes to the beauty of the Body of Christ and our need for one another. I think we’ll see that the Bible says a whole lot more about church membership than we’ve ever thought before!

With you as we study together,

Pastor Josh

Good Friday: A Poem

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Today is Good Friday.  At the time I am typing this blogpost, some two-thousand years ago, our Lord Jesus Christ had been hanging, nails through his body, upon a cross.  He was entering His sixth hour there, still alive, gasping for His last breaths.  The land was dark, and for the first time in all of eternity, perfect fellowship between the Father and the Son was broken.  Jesus had become sin.  The Father had to look away.  And for all those who would believe, Jesus bore God’s white hot wrath upon His own body.  

I am not a poet.  But while I was in my study this morning spending time with the Lord, I was moved to write this poem.  It is entitled, simply, “Good Friday.”


Dark and cold, the seconds fell
Morning light began to tell
Of an act so loving none could dare
Know why God could this much care

There up the hill as blood drew from
My Savior’s body, death to succumb
Raised up high, put on display, for
Hell and heaven to watch and wait 

Then as the sky grew black as night
His arms outstretched from left to right,
The Father turned His back to break
Unbroken bond none else could take

The earth did shake, the seconds fell
O what could urge this bleak farewell?
Sin’s debt was mine, too grim to bear
In my stead, Christ, my soul did spare

What might I give my selfless King
For loving me through His suffering?
I own no good that I could give
“Lord, take my life and through it live.”


Don’t let your day pass by today without seriously meditating on the great love of God in Christ toward sinners.  Repent of your sins, receive God’s free gift of grace, and be saved from the wrath to come.

Praying for you,

Pastor Joshua Earl

 

What I Did Last Week

Seven Reasons Why I Will Be Attending T4G in 2016 (Lord willing)

Last week, I was blessed with the privilege of being able to attend the biennial Together for the Gospel conference for pastors in Louisville, KY.  After having attended my first Gospel Coalition conference last year and being so wonderfully blessed and refreshed from it, I jumped at the chance of attending T4G this year. I was in Louisville for 3 full days hearing the word of God being preached, singing songs in praise to the Lord, and fellowshipping with fellow believers from around the world.

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So, what is Together for the Gospel (henceforth T4G)?  Here’s what the T4G website says about its history:

Together for the Gospel began as a friendship between four pastors. These friends differed on issues such as baptism, polity and the charismatic gifts. But they were committed to standing together for the main thing—the gospel of Jesus Christ.

So a biennial conference began in 2006 to serve one main purpose: to encourage other pastors to stand together for the same gospel. In the years since, faces have changed, the culture has shifted, and churches have encountered new challenges. Yet the conference has grown, and more and more church leaders have discovered they share this same gospel-centered ambition.

T4G is convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been misrepresented and marginalized in many churches and among those who proclaim the name of Christ. Therefore, the goal of these friendships and conferences is to reaffirm the central doctrine of the Christian faith and to encourage local churches to do the same.

I am deeply passionate about the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  My one singular goal as a pastor and preacher is to help those under my care see how the finished work of Christ powerfully affects every area of our lives.  The Gospel is the hope of all people because all are lost in sin and are in desperate need of a Savior who died to forgive that sin.  It is also the continued refuge and hope for every believer from the moment of salvation to the moment of glorification.  Thus, as one given the responsibility to strengthen the body of Christ, I will ever stand behind the sacred pulpit and proclaim the power of Jesus Christ and Him crucified as long as the Lord permits.  All praise be to God that He has provided His people with such amazing gatherings as T4G where we are able to have our Gospel vision renewed, as well as our minds and bodies.

So, while my recent trip to Louisville is still fresh in my mind, following are seven reasons why I will be attending T4G again in 2016 (Lord willing):

1. Rejuvenation

One might look at the life of a pastor from the outside and think, “Man, he really does have the life! Works from home, comes and goes as he pleases – that’s the good life.”  Don’t get me wrong, it is a great joy to be able to see my children grow up and have the pleasure of seeing my beautiful wife of (almost) 9 years throughout the day.  But, there is something about the pastoral ministry that is unlike any “job” I have ever worked.  For one, you can’t “leave your work at work” because the pastor’s whole life is his work.  As a result, I have found in my three short years as a pastor that it is very easy to become weary of the work if one is not careful.

Brian, me, and Brandon

Brian, me, and Brandon

Understand, I don’t say this to discourage any of my church family from coming to me with their needs. I see myself as divinely privileged to be involved in the lives of so many precious people.  I wouldn’t trade this for the world!  And yet, if the pastor does not take the time to care for his own physical body and emotions, the “ministry” could drive him away before God wills.  Case in point – when these kinds of conferences come up, I make every effort to attend because I know that every moment will be used by God to refresh a tired man.  This year I made plans to drive and lodge alone, simply so I could use that time to think and pray.  And I’m so glad I did!  Just getting out of town would have been a blessing – but to be ministered to by men who have been doing this much longer than I was so incredibly refreshing for my spirit.  I was also refreshed by the fellowship from my good friend Brian Ottinger, and a fellow brother and elder from his church, Brandon Gray.  Brian is always such an encouragement whenever I am able to see him! The love of Christ bleeds through his humble spirit.  I also enjoyed getting to know Brandon a little bit.  They both made the trip better.

2. The Praise and Worship Times

KauflinPicture this: close to 8,000 (mostly) men singing as loudly and passionately as possible, “Before the throne of God above, I have a strong and perfect plea: a great High Priest whose name is Love, who ever lives and pleads for me!” I’m telling you, when you are surrounded by a great throng of believers singing praises to the Lamb seated on the throne, you cannot help but feel just a little closer to the heart of God.  With hymn after hymn, led by Bob Kauflin (who, by the way, is one of the sweetest, gentlest brothers I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting – pictured right), those gathered sang beautiful, deeply biblical theology back to the ears of our glorious Father.  And I’ll be honest, when the Spirit moves on a body of believers like this, I don’t care how tough you are, you weep – that’s right, weep!  To think that God could love me as much as He does in putting forth Christ as a sacrifice for my sins (a message that was incorporated in EVERY hymn we sang) is a thought which cannot be truly pondered without every part of your person being moved to humble gratitude.

3. The Books

booksIf you know me, you know I’m a book junkie. No – I can’t waste my time reading the run-of-the-mill mystery novel.  Give me books written by men and women that wish to declare the greatness of God.  I have a growing library in my study, and am always adding to it. In addition, I’ve got a small library at church filled with sound volumes available to anyone who desires to know Jesus better.  So, you can imagine my surprise when I found out that the conference organizers would be giving away 13 FREE books to everyone in attendance!  In addition, the conference featured an acre-size book store (sponsored by LifeWay) loaded with amazing titles at prices much cheaper than Amazon.  Needless to say, I came home with a few extra books for my library.  God bless my sweet wife for putting up with my book addiction!

4. The Sermons

Listening to the Word being preached is definitely one of the most memorable parts of the trip.  Over the course of 3 days, I was able to hear sermons preached by some of the most biblically faithful men in the modern day.  Among these were Thabiti Anyabwile, Matt Chandler, Mark Dever, John Piper, Ligon Duncan, John MacArthur, and others.  There were a total of 9 sermons preached, each at about an hour long.  I wish I could express in words how amazing and timely these messages were.  The theme of this year’s conference was on evangelism, so every message spoke to this subject.  As a man who does not consider himself an effective evangelist, I was anxious to attend the conference.piperpreach

Now, imagine this with me.  I am a preacher.  I preach perhaps 50 of 52 Sundays a year, as well as teach in various bible studies throughout the year.  I am not there yet, but I’m just starting to “get” preaching.  What I mean is, I am learning how to preach.  Now, imagine sitting in a large conference, and hour after hour hearing faithful men preach messages that you yourself couldn’t preach in a hundred years.  The biblical knowledge, the ability to engage the crowd, the Holy Spirit at work – wow! I cannot tell you how God used His Word last week to poke and prod at parts of me I didn’t know existed.  He burned in my soul the vital urgency of sharing Christ with people.

Before each sermon was delivered, a video was shown containing interviews of men and women who met Jesus because someone shared the gospel with them.  These words from each video are emblazoned in my heart: “Hi, my name is _____.  Today I am a Christian because someone shared the Gospel with me.  Be unashamed.”  Listen brothers and sisters: the Word of God will not return to Him void (Isaiah 55:11).  Last week, God accomplished some amazing things in me through His Word, and I hope to bring these things back to my church family in the coming months.  I just need more time to process what I heard!  If you want to be blessed as I was, here’s the link to listen to the sermons preached last week. Particularly memorable were Ligon Duncan’s message on the Gospel in the book of Numbers, and Matt Chandler’s message entitled “Christ is All,” but they were all memorable!

5. John Piper

Okay, so if John Piper is not in attendance in 2016, I will still be there.  But, God blessed me so richly last week by allowing me to meet the man who I consider to be my spiritual father.  John Piper is probably the one preacher that I have followed closely over the past several years.  I first heard Pastor John preach live at a Passion Conference some years back.  Ever since I first heard him, I have been drawn to his intense love for this amazing God we serve.  I have listened to many of his sermons (all free at desiringgod.org), and am slowly reading through his extensive collection of authored books.

Well, you might think I am cheesy, but while walking to a “breakout panel” at T4G, I prayed some version of, “Lord, if you would find it in your grace, please allow me to meet Pastor John.” I arrived at my session early, found a seat near the front, and waited for it to start.  After a few minutes of looking down at my phone, I looked up and saw Pastor John about 20 feet away from me (he was there to introduce the speaker).  There were a few men like myself gathered around, and I thought, “Nah, I’m not going to be the average young guy walking up and asking for an autograph.”  I sat. For like a minute. Then I got up, because I couldn’t lose the chance.  After waiting for another fellow to finish talking with him, I went up to John Piper with my hand out and shook his hand.  I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I do remember thinking “Don’t talk about yourself like everyone else.”  I think I said some version of, “Today is a great blessing for me, because I am privileged to meet my spiritual father face to face.”  And, just as quietly and sweetly as can be, he thanked me and conceded for a picture with me.

Piper

As Christians, we don’t worship anyone but God, so there is a small degree of concern that being “star struck” by a fellow minister is some form of idolatry. And maybe it is. But all I know is, the Lord answered my prayer, no matter how silly it was, and He graciously blessed me that day with allowing me to meet the brother who has shaped my theology more than any other.

6. Meeting People

This is a huge bonus for attending these kinds of conferences.  You gain the pleasure of meeting some incredible men and women who love Jesus like you do! I purchased the meal plan that was offered by T4G, so I was able to sit down in the same building at lunch and dinner each day and meet fellow pastors and their families.  I was honored to meet such precious folks from around the world who are just trying to be faithful in their own calling.

CappsHere’s something pretty cool, too.  Last year when I attended the Gospel Coalition Conference, I was blessed to meet a great brother named Matt Capps.  Matt is the brand manager for the Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources.  Because of Matt, we have been able to bring the Gospel Project curriculum into our local church.  For the past 8 months or so, we have been teaching our youth and kids the Gospel of Jesus Christ every week!  Anyway, I ran into Matt again this year and we chatted for a bit.  On the last day, I was heading up to the conference arena when Matt called out to me and tossed me his “reserved seating” pass.  There was a section up near the stage reserved for the speakers’ family and friends.  Well, I was stoked, and obviously, thankful!pass

After getting into the arena, I went down and put my stuff on a seat.  Then I casually walked around before the first session began.  In that time, I was able to meet brothers like Mark Dever, Matt Chandler, David Platt, and John MacArthur, as well as several guys serving with these men.  Matt Chandler in particular spoke such wisdom to me in response to a question I asked him.  John MacArthur was exactly like he is behind the pulpit – very direct and assertive, yet still very kind and didn’t mind taking a #selfie.  So, thanks Matt! What a blessing that was!

David Platt

David Platt

John MacArthur

John MacArthur

Mark Dever

Mark Dever

Matt Chandler - He's 6'5"!

Matt Chandler – He’s 6’5″!

7. Renewed Vision

 This is what I most gleaned from the conference – a renewed vision for myself, my family and church.  Have you ever been involved in some work or project, doing the same thing over and over again, and you forget why you are doing it in the first place? Pastoral ministry can become that way, and the vision God has given you for His church can be clouded by the busyness of ministry.  Attending T4G was so helpful in just “clearing” my mind and bringing me to that needed place where God could remind me of what is most important.  As I’ve already said, the Lord has reignited within me a passion for people – something which ironically can be lost in the ministry.  If they aren’t careful, pastors and lay people can develop a “necessary duty” mentality concerning their calling, and they can forget that every calling is designed to bring glory to Christ.  Getting away, whether to the woods or a conference, is a great way to rekindle the passion God has given us for His people.

I leave you with a picture of Louisville, taken from the hotel room window.  It is a good reminder that there are untold millions who have yet to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and His atoning work for sinners. My prayer for you as you read this is that you too will be reignited with a passion to help all see how beautiful Jesus is.  Apart from Him, we have nothing. So, be unashamed.

“For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes…” Romans 1:16

Louisville