Church Planting


Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ

There is much talk today about the Christian doctrine of sin. A new book has just been released:

  • Jesse Couenhoven, Stricken by Sin, Cured by Christ: Agency, Necessity, and Culpability in Augustinian Theology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).

As a preacher in Churches of Christ, this book is a challenging read for me.

Many non-Christians in America are turned off by the Christian teaching on sin. Why would anyone want to go to church and sing about human failure, death, and dying?

Perhaps more surprising, however, is the fact that some Christians find the biblical depiction of human sin overly pessimistic.

  • When Scripture speaks of human corruption, some Christians speak of human potential.
  • When Scripture says “all have sinned,” some Christians say, “Yeah, but I have overcome all that now.”
  • When the Lord Himself says, “With men, [salvation] is impossible,” some Christians say, “Get over it—pull yourself up and let’s do this thing!”

In Churches of Christ, a movement born on the American western frontier and steeped in the rationalism of the Enlightenment, as well as the views of John Locke and Scottish Common Sense Realism, we deny the traditional, orthodox Christian teaching on “original sin.”

Many of our critics accuse us of being “Pelagian” in our view of human sin. Right or wrong, our critics do point out a serious issue in our theology, in our view of the human condition after the Fall.

My question to our people is, “What do we believe about sin and its effects on the human condition?” What did we inherit from Adam, if anything? What were the effects of “sin entering the world” through Adam’s disobedience? What is Paul’s point in Romans 5:12-21?

As a man who makes his living preaching in and for Churches of Christ, I want to know what to teach about the ability of human beings to overcome sin by themselves. Do I go with Christian orthodoxy and risk losing my position of employment? Or do I go with the party line and, while retaining my job, run the risk of violating the overwhelming testimony of our Sacred Text? This presents quite a dilemma.

I have heard sermons within Churches of Christ, many sermons, which could be accurately characterized as Pelagian. According to these sermons, even after the Fall human beings at birth are, following the philosophical view of John Locke, a “clean slate.” According to these sermons, every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life. Our logic is, “Otherwise, God could not hold us accountable for sin.” Or, “How could God command us to keep a law that is impossible for human beings to keep?”

Fair enough, at least according to “common sense.” But what about Paul’s clear teaching–teaching inspired by God’s Holy Spirit–that it is humanly IMPOSSIBLE to keep the Law, or any law, perfectly? What about Paul’s teaching that it was never the purpose of the Law, or law, to produce righteousness but, rather, to expose human sin?

Furthermore, the other side of the question is, “If every human being born after the Fall is capable of living a perfect life, why did it take the miraculous birth of Christ—the incarnation of God Himself—to produce a human being who could actually accomplish that feat?” Surely if it were possible for every human being to live a perfect life, there would be at least one example from history. Heaven knows many have tried. The problem is that each and every one who has tried has failed, most failing miserably–except One, and He was God-in-the-flesh.

My present sermon series is an expository journey through Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia. In this hard-hitting letter, Paul is attacking the human tendency toward self-reliance head on. He is intense, he is angry, and he is pulling no punches. Why? Because Paul has discovered hope—true hope for the human condition.

And true hope does not come from the power of positive thinking. No! True hope comes from “the truth of the gospel,” which is: Christ and Him crucified is the ONLY cure for human sin. This truth is pessimistic to some, but liberating to those who see its power.

In his new book, Jesse Couenhoven makes some very insightful observations:

  • The Christian teaching on sin seems pessimistic only to those who think we ought to be able to justify ourselves, by ourselves.
  • The view that we can justify ourselves degrades the Bible’s teaching on human sin.
  • The belief that we participate in—or even contribute to—making ourselves righteous offends God’s claim that righteousness (justification, salvation) is a free gift, given by grace.
  • The Bible’s teaching that we are not masters of our own goodness and cannot justify ourselves is not a counsel of despair but testimony to our only true hope—Christ and Him crucified.
  • Freedom is NOT an autonomous achievement but, rather, a free gift. One that we ought to receive joyfully.

I am still wrestling with this mystery. Regardless of which view one takes, there remain unanswered questions. It seems to be impossible to tie up all the loose ends in this challenging debate.

After more than three decades of struggle, however, my conclusion is this: Regardless of “who made me do it,” I have personally participated in Adam’s rebellion—I am guilty of sin.

And so I do not need a self-help remedy for my sin problem. I need a Savior.

Praise God that He has provided One for me—and for everyone else who comes to Him in humility, repentance, and submission.

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A few weeks ago I received an email from a group calling themselves Preaching Rocket. I thought it was some kind of joke. I almost deleted the email.

Instead, I opened it and read their offer. They were extending an invitation for me to participate in a free, online seminar (webinar) entitled, “Preach Better Sermons.”

The seminar was yesterday. It lasted 3 1/2 hours and was as inspiring and as helpful as anything I have ever experienced. I was impressed and very pleasantly surprised.

Dr. Charles Stanley is not someone I pay much attention to, until now. I have always associated him with those other televangelists. After his presentation I had only one thing to say: Dr. Charles Stanley is the real deal. A true man of God and a preacher’s preacher.

Louie Giglio was spot on. His preparation method? Study hard, study long, research to the max, then go for a bike ride and let it percolate. He does bicycles; I walk. The process is the same: the word of God gets in there–into the subconscious or somewhere–and becomes more than the notes on a page.

Dr. Stanley nailed it with this: meditate on the Word early in the process and then pray for the Lord to give you what to say. He almost always shows up and when he does, you cannot contain what he gives you. AMEN.

Anyway, I’ve decided to join their program. It is a one-year system designed to help guys like me–lonely, single-staff member preachers–do a better job at proclaiming the word of life. I am looking forward to learning from the best.

The woman was appalled at the audacity of this white-skinned newcomer. “How dare her attempt to instruct us on issues of morality. Why, look at her. It is indecent! Outrageous! A scandal! Imagine not covering one’s legs before coming out into public.”

Of course, the white woman (missionary) was just as appalled at the female “natives” who dared to come out into public with their breasts uncovered.

The challenge is that the Bible commands women to “dress modestly” (1 Timothy 2:9) but nowhere defines what, exactly, modestly means. The literalist says, “It means what it says and says what it means.” If that is our approach then our women had better stop braiding their hair, wearing gold or pearls, and wearing “expensive” clothing.

The term conscience traditionally refers to the part of a human being that distinguishes right from wrong. Our conscience has been educated not only by the Word of God but also by our culture. Sometimes it is impossible for us to discern the difference.

It shocks some that when Paul encounters a divergence of conscience among disciples he does not suggest that both parties merely “go read the Bible.” What Paul does teach is that disciples can have an equal allegiance to the authority of Scripture and yet still differ on many matters of conscience. Modesty to the western missionary woman means one thing; modesty to the indigenous female means quite another. What violates the conscience of one has no effect on the conscience of the other.

Is there any way these two can become and remain sisters in Christ with such divergent consciences? Asked another way, is there a “correct” (albeit secret or hidden) definition that we must all discover in order to be right with God? Is that what religion is all about then, seeking the “right” answer to all of these questions? If our answer to this question is yes then we must consider carefully what that says about the God who requires but nowhere gives us the “right” answer to these questions.

Rather than reach a conclusion that maligns the character of God (and destroys all chance of us ever having that “Blessed Assurance” about which we sing), I encourage us to openly examine Paul’s practical and liberating teaching on this issue.

Again, Romans 14:1 – 15:13 and 1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1 become extremely important–and useful–passages of Scripture for God’s people.


As Christians, We Must Re-Think Who We Are and Why We Exist

Our response, if any, to this challenge must flow out of the logic of the incarnation (John 20:21).

Incarnational Christianity is NOT:

  • The delivery of messages to believers, no matter how well those messages are prepared or delivered
  • The proliferation of programs for the churched (or even the unchurched for that matter)
  • The communication of truth to those who do not have it
  • The planting of new churches (gasp – this one hurts a guy like me ’cause I sort of make planting new churches the theme song of my spiritual pity parties)

Incarnational Christianity is

  • Being Christ in the world
  • Being Christ for the world

Being incarnational will never be easy. Living out the Great Commission, itself rooted in the incarnation and pointing us all toward a death to self-reliance and personal autonomy, will always lead us into conflict (many times violent, bloody conflict. And even more often with those within the church rather than those outside it).

Kairos is a Greek word usually translated with the English word “time.”But, as is so often the case, much is lost in translation. It means the right time, the opportune time, the perfect time. All things have come together for just such a moment as this.

The time is right for the church to reclaim its role in world history.The times in which we find ourselves are pregnant with God’s profound and hidden purpose. This is a kairos moment.

The question is, “Who is sick of playing church and is willing to live out the implications of the incarnation?”

I like to think that I am. But, I’ve been wrong (self-deceived) before.

For several months we’ve been trying to make our assembly “more inspiring.” A survey told us that inspiring worship was our “minimum factor” and that we need to use our strengths (loving relationships) to raise our minimum factor.

Several weeks ago we decided to send out an email exhorting the members to begin preparing for the upcoming assembly. I try to send these out on Thursday mornings. They normally have a brief overview of the message I intend to share that Lord’s Day.

This week I am not preaching. Instead, our missionary from Geita, Tanzania is here. Brett Harrison will preach during the AM assembly and give the church a report during our PM service.

As I tried to prepare this week’s email exhortation, I arose early, made my coffee, and then typed out what was on my heart. I’ve said this so many times in so many places that it just sort of oozes out of my pores.

When I had finished venting I made another cup of coffee, returned to the computer, re-read the exhortation and cut the heart out of it. Frankly, I am so sick of saying this that I am sick of saying it. It discourages me to say it over and over and over. I think it would discourage those who read it. And that would defeat the purpose of our weekly email exhortations. So I cut it all out.

But, you know what? Someone needs to say it. And keep on saying it.

So, I’ll say it here instead of sending it to every member of my church. That way I can feel good about myself that I at least said it and no one else will have to get discouraged that I said it (again). Except for those few who do read my blog. And to you I say, “Sorry if this is a little discouraging. It just comes with the territory of being a missionary on the inside and a Professional Pulpit Minister on the outside.”

Just one more note before I cut and paste the guts of my email exhortation here, the photo is of my oldest son, Austin, and his teammates in Mexico City. He and the entire AIM bunch are among those who are trying to stay on track.

Why do I enjoy spending time with missionaries? Because it reminds me of how easily we can get off track.

The organizing principle for the New Testament church is contained in the Lord’s Great Commission. It instructs us to

  • Go into all the world.
  • Make disciples of all people.
  • Baptize them into the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
  • And teach them to obey everything Christ taught us.

At first, Satan attempted to destroy the church—wipe it out, eliminate it from the face of the earth. He failed at that. Always has and always will.

Being the wise being that he is, Satan implemented Plan B—neutralize the church, render it ineffective, take away its power. How can he do that?

The place to start is with God’s organizing principle, the foundation, the core, the crux of the matter:

  • Instead of God’s people going into the entire world—meeting people where they are—let’s get God’s people to locate themselves in one place and then demand that nonbelievers come to them.
  • Instead of God’s people equipping, empowering, and releasing new disciples into the world let’s create an environment in which most non-professionals sit and watch while only the trained experts perform the activities of church life.
  • As crazy as it sounds, let’s get them to argue over the core initiation ritual of God’s New Creation. This will divide them, distract them, and neutralize them. (How this ploy gains so much traction I have never been able to understand. Read the NT and see what is pretty obvious: if you want to become a Christian, you get baptized.)
  • And here is the key to our success—the core idea that will neutralize God’s movement in them and through them: destroy their desire to become a multiplying organism. Whatever they do, they can never taste the power and glory of true multiplication, reproduction, and exponential growth. We must make multiplication and reproduction appear to be a negative thing instead of a God thing. How do we do that? Emphasize the institutional character of God’s kingdom. Any “sending out” of existing members to new places to teach new people must be viewed as divisive, detrimental, and destructive–a threat to the existing institution (“we will lose our best people and their contribution. That’s an absurd idea!”). This will keep them contained in one place, demanding that all non-believers come to them, join them, support them. And this brings us full-circle to a group of God’s people isolated and cut off from the rest of God’s creation assembling weakly and wondering why the world is not beating a pathway to its inner sanctuary.

Why do I enjoy spending time with missionaries? Because it reminds me that there are lots of people in the world trying to stay on track.

  • They are going into all the world—even the hard-to-reach, hate-to-live-here places.
  • They are making disciples instead of organizing church goers. Listen carefully to what Brett is about. He does not conduct church on Sundays (OK, sometimes he does, but only when they won’t let him sit back and allow them to do it). No. Brett’s ministry takes place throughout the week. On Monday nights he is with the small group of leaders from Church A. He teaches them, equips them, empowers them, and then releases them to carry out their ministry. He won’t even see them on Sunday. They are on their own. On Tuesday night he is with another group from Church B. And so on.
  • He baptizes people into the work of God. By the time they come up out of the water they know that God has a claim on their life and that they have been called into kingdom life.
  • His entire paradigm is driven by principles of reproduction. Don’t introduce anything into the culture that they cannot sustain themselves. Work yourself out of a job. Better yet, don’t agree to take the job in the first place—train one of them to do the job. [Try this as a “Professional Pulpit Minister.” You’ll be looking for employment in a heartbeat. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing]. Every job, every activity, every function within the kingdom is carried out by someone who understands this principle of reproduction. The only way a person can be doing a kingdom job is if he or she is equipping at least one other person to be doing that job as well.

Well, that is my rant for the day. It may be discouraging to see how far off track we are but hey, someone had better say it. And keep saying it.

The church of Christ is NOT a human institution. It is a living organism. And if we are going to be true to our Commission we had better stop treating it as a human institution and begin living within it as a living, thriving, reproductive organism.

We have heard references to North America being post-Christian for years. We are just now beginning to feel what that really means.

The vague term, post-Christian, comes into clearer focus when the bronze Bible is removed from our Courthouse, prayer disappears from public events, and “under God” in our Pledge of Allegiance is declared unconstitutional. But, the true nature of the cultural shift hits home forcefully when the principal of our child’s school requires us to change the name of the annual Christmas Party to the “Winter Festival.”

In the ever-intensifying fallout of this cultural upheaval the Church continues to worship her God. The question that demands an immediate and courageous response is, “As the Church in this radically different world, is it prudent to continue to define ourselves in the same old way?” I firmly believe that to do so means nothing short of total extinction. The Institutional Church cannot survive the collapse of Christendom.

From the inception of our nation the Christian Church has been able to depend upon the North American culture to be its ally. Our values have been supported by the majority, our rights have been ingrained in our legal system, and our beliefs have been corroborated in our educational institutions. No wonder so many of us are in shock (and perhaps denial) that our own culture has now become our greatest enemy. Our values are ridiculed, our rights are being eroded, and our beliefs have been relegated to the privacy of our church buildings. In the meantime, the Church is scrambling to find its mission in this horrifying new world.

Worshiping God Almighty is no longer an American Tradition. Like it or not, we find ourselves smack dab in the middle of—not a Christian Nation—but a pagan mission field. To continue to be an Institutional Church insures our demise; on the other hand, becoming a Missional Church may require vision, courage, and leadership but it is our only hope for survival. It is also our assignment from our Lord. I say let’s make being and planting Missional Churches the new American Tradition.

Paul traveled to the wicked, violent, and Gentile city of Corinth to preach the gospel. The Greek philosophers scoffed at him and the Jewish fanatics wanted to throw rocks at him. After a few days Paul’s inclination was to abandon the enterprise altogether—brush off his clothes and hit the road (Acts 18:6). But God had something else in mind. He told Paul so in a night vision (Acts 18:9-10). Paul stayed, sinners believed, and the church was established.

As it turns out, this church caused Paul more pain than all of his other churches combined. After he left he had nothing but trouble with them: immorality, factions, carnality—the list seems endless. Worse still, a mysterious group of intruders infiltrated Paul’s work and were vying for leadership. The fickle Corinthians didn’t know who to believe: Paul or these “false apostles.” The ugly things these intruders said about Paul did have some basis in reality:

  • He changes his plans all the time – you can’t trust him or his message.
  • He is no orator – perhaps he can write a decent letter but he sure can’t preach.
  • He is a nobody – his social standing is one notch below a tax collector.
  • He won’t let anyone pay him – if he were a true professional he’d accept our patronage.
  • He has no credentials – real players have letters of recommendation to prove it.
  • He’s a milk toast – if he had power from God he certainly wouldn’t look the way he does.

Paul’s response to these accusations is directed at his converts in Corinth; references to the intruders are indirect. His concern is for his beloved disciples of Christ. His purpose is to convince them to remain loyal to him, his message, and, ultimately, his God.

Although the letter we call Second Corinthians comes to us in a genre that seems strange (a very defensive autobiography) the message is powerfully relevant for the 21st Century Church: what makes a legitimate Christian Minister (diakonos)?

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