The Lord's Day Morning
October 22, 2006
II Timothy 3:1-5
“Where In the World is the Church?
Biblical Priorities for the Life of Our Church (1)”
Our Contemporary Context
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Amen. If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to II Timothy, chapter three.Last Sunday morning we completed a series where we worked through the five questions of membership, reminding ourselves what we had vowed individually when we became communing members of this congregation; reminding ourselves of some of the priorities that we have pledged ourselves to in our living of the Christian life together in this congregation.
It's appropriate, then, that we go on to consider something of the commitments that we have as a congregation — as a body, as a family, as the people of God gathered — things that we aspire to, things that we commonly believe, things that we want to do together. Indeed, the Bible has a lot to say about what we are, what we are to believe, and what we are to do together as a local fellowship of Christians, and I want to spend some time thinking with you about that in this series of topical expository messages called “Biblical Priorities for the Life of Our Church.”
And, I think it's appropriate that we do so now. We’re at a very significant transition point for our church. It's hard to believe that we've been out of our sanctuary and that part of our facilities for about a year and a half now. In just a little more than six or seven months, we’ll be into our new facilities, God willing. Perhaps soon on the heels of that we’ll be facing an election of new officers in the life of the congregation. We’re at a significant transition point for our church to think about together who we are, what we're here for, what we believe, what we're committed to, to cultivate a shared vision of ministry together. And so this provides us an opportunity to do that.
But we also are at a very significant transition point in our culture. Liberal Christianity has had a tremendous and devastating impact on the church in our culture. The churches that have been affected by theological liberalism are in a nosedive of decline. It's hard to imagine that in the middle of the 1950's the churches that made up the mainline branch of Protestantism accounted for around 45% of the membership of all the Protestant churches in the United States. Today, just 50 years later, the churches which are part of the mainline denominations make up less than 12% of the total churches in Protestantism. Our former denomination has been losing 40,000 members a year since 1967. It is less than half the size it was in the middle 1960's, and we could go along all of the mainline branches of Protestantism and tell a similar story.
It's also interesting even if you look at the theological seminaries. When Reformed Theological Seminary was planted in Jackson in 1965-66, they prayed that they’d have five students the first year. They had seventeen. And when that great event occurred, RTS would have just been a blip on the radar screen of the great seminaries in the land. If you had looked at the top twenty theological seminaries in those days, eighteen of the top twenty largest theological seminaries in the world would all have been liberal. Today not two of the top twenty would be liberal theological seminaries. They've all died. There are no people going there any more. Nobody's interested in going and learning to serve in the church, or to serve the living God, or to preach the gospel, or to go to the mission field. They may be interested in social work or in other things, but they’re not interested in the church or in ministry, and so there's been a massive, seismic demographic shift in the churches that have been influenced by theological liberalism.
On the other hand, there's a tremendous upheaval going on in evangelicalism today. Whereas the churches influenced by theological liberalism are in decline, the churches that are part of the evangelical quadrant of Protestant Christianity believe that the church has not been relevant to the world and to the culture, and that the way that we “do church” needs to change if we're going to reach this culture. And so the evangelical churches have been adopting business models, or entertainment models, or consumer-based models, in order to reach out to the culture around us…in order to connect with the people, in order to build up the congregations, in order to spread the gospel. And one of the things that has happened is that the gospel message itself has been watered down, and in some cases lost.
We look around us today and whereas fifty years ago in evangelicalism, if you went into an evangelical church — whether it was Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist, or whatever — you could be sure that those evangelical Christians there would probably know their Bibles better than churches where that Bible was not being preached, or churches where it was not held in high esteem — that is, churches that were more dominated by theological liberalism. Now, however, when you go out into evangelicalism, you will find everywhere on all sides everyone admitting that even evangelicals don't know their Bibles anymore. Why?
Well, because about thirty years ago some bright spark came up with the idea that if we're really going to reach out to people, we can't preach the Bible. We need to talk about things that they’re interested in. And lo and behold, thirty years later, guess what? Evangelicals don't know their Bibles. Duh! But this is a tremendous upsurge in evangelicalism today–a call to “do church” differently in order to reach out.
And so this is a very significant time in our culture, and it's important for us to think about what our responsibilities are in reaching the world. What are the things that we are called to be? What are the things that we're called to believe? What are the things that we're called to do?
If you have the outline this morning and you flip over to the back side, you’ll see some of the topics that we're going to try and cover in the course of this series. We’re going to think together about the importance of a commitment to expository Bible preaching. We’re going to think together about biblical worship. We’re going to think together about biblical doctrine. We’re going to think about how important it is for the congregation to be pursuing godliness, and to have a biblical approach to family life. We’re going to think together about why it's so important that the whole congregation understand the gospel, conversion, discipleship, evangelism; we're going to think about why it's important to have a biblical view of church membership and of church leadership, as well as a biblical view of how we're to relate to the world. And we're going to do this because we're not only in a significant transitional time in the life of our church; we're in a significant transitional time in the life of the churches in the context of our culture.
Now this morning we're going to set the stage for this series by looking at our present context, and we're going to start by looking at II Timothy 3:1-5. And before we read this passage, I want to tell you specifically what I'd like you to be looking for. Don't you hate it when preachers read a passage and then they go off and they talk about what they want to for the next twenty minutes, and it has nothing to do with the passage they've just read? Well, so that you won't even have an inkling of a suspicion that I'm going to do that, I'm going to tell you ahead of time what to be looking for!
First of all, I want you to see an emphasis in this passage that it is important for believers to understand their times. Now we're actually going to go to some other Bible passages to corroborate that emphasis here, but that's the first main thing I want you to see: It's important for believers to understand their times. Yes, we must understand the Bible. Yes, we must get our marching order from the Scriptures. But it is also important that we understand the times, and Paul says that to Timothy and to the Ephesian church in this passage.
But secondly, Paul also highlights things that are part of the thinking of the times in the first century. Three of those things are part, I think, of the dominant thinking of the times in our own time, and we're going to draw attention to them. In fact, let me tell you the words to look for. Look for the phrases lovers of self; lovers of money — and then, we won't read this passage at first, but we’ll come back and read it again in verse 7 of II Timothy 3 — always learning, but never coming to a knowledge of the truth. Keep those in mind, because I think those three tendencies are alive and well in our culture today, and impact us greatly even in the way we look at being a part of the church and a part of the church's mission to the world.
And then, thirdly, we're just going to ask the question: “How do these things influence us for good or for ill; how do they impact the way we reach out to this culture?” So as we read II Timothy 3:1-5, bear those things in mind. Now let's pray before we hear God's word.
Heavenly Father, we need Your help to understand the word. It's not that Your word isn't clear–it is. It's crystal clear. But sometimes our hearts are muddy and our minds are distracted, and our desires are elsewhere. We need the Spirit to correct those things so that we can hear clearly what You are saying to us in Your word and respond to it right. Help us, Lord. In Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
This morning I want to consider with you three factors that are a part of our current culture's outlook on life, three things that our current culture just assumes are as un-disprovable, as absolutely essential to the way the world is and ought to be, as air, or water or food. And I want us to think how those three current factors impact us in the way we view our involvement in the local church, and in the way we view the church's mission to the world. And as we do that, I want to do three larger things around those factors.
One, I simply want to emphasize that the Bible everywhere teaches that it is important for believers to understand their times. Secondly, I want to look at these three factors as three critical factors that are a part of our times; then, thirdly, I want to ask “How are they impacting us?” How are they impacting you and me? And how do the priorities that we're going to be talking about in this series over the weeks to come help to correct the unhealthy influence of these factors on us? And how do they help us speak to a world under these unhealthy influences?
I. The Bible everywhere teaches that it is important for believers to understand their times.
So let's begin by looking at the very first thing–and I mention this ahead of time: In II Timothy 3:1 the Apostle Paul says to Timothy and to the church at Ephesus: “Realize this, in the last days difficult times will come.” There the Apostle Paul is saying ‘Timothy, it is important for you to understand the context in which you are going to be ministering and living, and it's important for the Christians in the congregation at Ephesus to understand the context in which they will live and minister, or you’re going to be taken by surprise by some very important things.’ And so the Apostle Paul actually lays out some of the tendencies that are going to characterize the day and age in which Timothy and the Ephesian Christians live and minister.
But that is not just a message for Christians in the first century: that's a message for believers in every time and in every place, and you’ll find this message throughout the Bible. It's not unique to the Apostle Paul. For instance, turn with me back to I Chronicles 12, and look at verse 32. You've heard this verse quoted many times. You probably don't remember its context, though. A group of the former supporters of King Saul have gathered in Hebron to present themselves as new supporters of David, and various things are being told to us by the author of Chronicles about those people. And in I Chronicles 12:32, he says that the men of Issachar, though they were few in number (there were only about 200 of them), that they were “men who understood the times.” The chronicler is telling you that they were particularly valuable to David because even though there weren't many of them, they understood warfare; they understood the dynamics of how things were in the land in those days. The author of Chronicles is telling you they’re very valuable to David, and so he's commending the fact that they understood the times.
And of course you can find the same thing in the negative in Jesus’ teaching. Turn with me to Mathew 16:3. Matthew is recording this conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and He is chastising them because they’re really good at predicting the weather but they don't know their own times. They can look at the weather in the morning and tell you how it's going to be in the evening, but they have no clue as to what's going on in their own day and time, and so in Matthew 16:3 Jesus says this:
“Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but you cannot discern the signs of the times?”
Or in its parallel passage, if you turn with me to Luke 12:56, Jesus says this:
“You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the sky, but why do you not analyze this present time?”
In other words, this is just another example of how God tells us in the Bible that it is important for us to take stock of our times — to be aware of the times in which we live and serve.
One of the things that's against us in our own day is the way we live such a frenetic pace of life. We’re rushing from one thing to the next, and a couple of times a year we stop and we sit back in our lounge chair or in our most comfortable spot in the house, and it dawns upon us that we haven't stopped for five minutes to think about what's most important in life, where we're going in life, where we are in life, how our claimed priorities really live up to what we're spending our time and our efforts and our energy on. In other words, we rush from one thing to the next, and not only do we not think about the big issues in our life, we certainly don't think about the big issues in the culture around us. The Bible is telling us that as Christians it's very important that we discern the times.
II. Factors that impact us today.
Now, that having been said, I want to go right to my second point, which is simply this: I think there are at least three huge factors impacting us today as Christians, impacting the church today, impacting how we view involvement in the church today, that we need to understand and be aware of . And those factors are individualism, relativism, and consumerism. Now, those are big words, but they are one-word descriptions of things that it takes a lot more words to say, so maybe they’ll serve as a helpful place to hang your hat on three big ideas.
The first idea is simply this: We live in a me-centered culture. In our culture, it's all about me. And that me-centeredness deeply disorients Christians who buy into it, because if we really mean what we say…we mean when we say that we are created in the image of God…then it couldn't be all about me. If we're created in the image of God, it's all about God! If we're created in the image of God, we're supposed to be living, breathing, walking, talking pictures of the work of the living God in this world, always pointing back and saying, “It's all about God. God's my Creator. God's my sustainer. This world is God-centered.” Even though this world works hard to say ‘No, this world is me-centered,’ we're supposed to be pushing back against all those tendencies and saying, “No, the world is God-centered.”
And not only saying that it's God-centered, but when we gather together in a congregation, it's not about me first, it's about me serving my brothers and sisters in Christ; so that I am concerned not only about my personal welfare, but even ahead of my personal welfare I'm concerned about the well-being of my brothers and sisters in Christ. And so individualism, when it is adopted into the mindset of the believer, undermines that very important emphasis on God-centeredness and on the work of God in the church whereby we are here to serve one another and to love one another, and to care for one another, and to forgive one another, and to seek the well-being of one another: to love our neighbor as ourselves…to love one another. And those things cut against the grain of individualism, and yet individualism pervades our culture.
The next big trend or factor in our culture is relativism. Relativism is the denial of absolute truth. Relativism in religion says ‘All roads lead up the mountain. The Bible is not God's inspired, inerrant, authoritative word, the only rule of faith and life.’ A friend of mine just this past week paused to tell me about a large mainline church in San Francisco which advertises on its website: “This is a place where the Bible is not the final rule of faith and life. We value the opinions of the people who make up this congregation.” And so ‘We are sovereign, and God is not; and our thoughts are sovereign, and God's word is not.’ That is typical of our culture. We are relativistic to the core! We run away from truth with a capital “T”. We do not believe there is absolute truth. Just this weekend we had a man here in town who makes his career out of going around denying the absolute truth of God's word.
Now, interestingly, the churches in our culture have latched on to those two tendencies in two very unhelpful ways.
Liberals have latched on to relativism, and they've looked out for the last 200 years and they've said ‘You know what? People don't believe in absolute truth anymore, so here's what we're going to do in order to be relevant. We’re not going to believe in absolute truth anymore, and that way the culture will be attracted to our message.’ And guess what's happened? Well, what has happened is just what I told you at the beginning of the sermon — that their churches have emptied. Why? Because people are smart! And they figure that if your truth doesn't matter, then why bother getting up on Sunday morning? And so what has happened is wherever that strategy to reach a relativistic culture with a relativistic message comes, people leave the churches because they get 2+2=4…it adds up. If truth is not true, why bother?
Evangelicals, on the other hand, have tended to adopt individualism. They've said ‘You know, the big problem is not the message. The big problem is the church is irrelevant, and the church needs to change the way it does church if it's going to be relevant to the culture; so, we're going to build a church around you.’
A number of years ago a very famous pastor said ‘You know, the big thing that I see in churches today is that people think that God and church is irrelevant, and so we're going to make the church relevant by changing the methods, the ways that the church goes about reaching out.’ And what happens is the desires of the dominant culture become the things which are focused on. The church is built around what? The church is built around me, rather than based on the word of God, rather than based on the way that the Lord tells us in the word that the church is to be and to believe and to do. And what happens? In those churches, even if there are a lot of people there, the gospel message is watered down because the methods that are being used to spread to message actually undermine the message. Think of it. If Jesus’ message is “Take up your cross and follow Me” but the church adopts a method that says “Have it your way,” how do you ever get to ‘Take up your cross, die to yourself, and follow Me,’ if the way that you’re brought into the church is ‘Have it your way, buddy!’? And so the methods have undermined the message.
It's interesting. The liberals have said for 200 years now ‘Christianity will not work anymore. The message needs to change if we're going to be able to reach this culture.’ Evangelicals have said ‘Christianity won't work unless our methods change. If our methods don't change, we won't be able to reach the people.’1
We believe that God, however, has given us the message — the gospel — and the methods for spreading that gospel in His word. We want to be culturally aware; we want to understand the times; but we want to get our marching orders from Scripture. We want to be culturally aware, but we want to be Scripturally informed. We want the Bible to be setting our policy for both the message and the method of the church, and not allowing the culture to dictate that.
The third area which is impacting us is consumerism. We are the greatest consumer culture that has ever existed in the history of the world. The United States of America consumes more goods and services than the rest of the world, by far, and of course we consume more than any other culture has consumed in history. But it has become a pervasive part of our mindset. We can't even get out of the framework that we are consumers. Two hundred years ago, if you’d picked up a newspaper anywhere in the English-speaking world (if you had lived today and you had been transported back in time), one thing that you would immediately notice is the absence of something. You know what you wouldn't have seen in a newspaper 200 years ago? Advertisements. There would have been none. That was an invention of the middle of the nineteenth century. The pervasive ad culture has dramatically changed the way that we view ourselves. You now see, we are told, more than 1,000 advertisement images a day, whereas 200 years ago your forebears may have gone around for weeks and months without anyone advertising something to them, or marketing something to them.
And it's changed our mindset. One unhelpful way that it's changed our mindset is that we approach the church like customers, and we view the church as a spiritual goods and services provider. And if that particular Church A isn't meeting our needs, isn't living up to our standards as spiritual goods and services provider, then we’ll just move to the next place where it does. But that changes us. Instead of being sinners in need of grace, it changes us into customers, and it makes God our servant rather than our understanding that we are servants of God. And so the very consumer mindset dramatically changes the way we think about what it is to be the church. The consumer mindset, for instance, can convince some that, hey, if we're going to be effective and successful, we've got to get our market share in this community.
No. We have a message, and the message is not ‘Please come join us. God needs you. The kingdom's going to fail if you don't sign up, and we’ll do anything we can do to convince you to sign on the dotted line. We’ll promise you anything you want, we’ll tell you anything you want to hear. Please, please, please, just sign up.’ No. The message is ‘Dear friend, we love you, but we've got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is apart from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ you face a Godless, hopeless, helpless eternity, and only if you rest and trust on Jesus Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel can you know true meaning and joy and satisfaction here and hereafter. And so we do not come as beggars, begging you to please, please, please join in because we can't get on without you; we come as beggars who have found grace telling you that we don't need anything from you, but, boy, do you need something from Jesus Christ! Boy, do you need something from the living God! Boy, do you need something from God's word! And whether you accept it or reject it, it will not matter at all. God's plan will go on. The only question is will you participate in the blessing and the glory that God has ordained for eternity for all those who rest and trust in His Son. No, you are not in a position of a religious customer who will call God to account, to make it snappy and do it like you like it! No, you are in the position of standing in the dock and being judged and condemned, and your only hope is in Christ.’
III. These things impact the way we participate in the life of the church and the way we engage the culture
You see, that totally changes the dynamic of the way we relate to the world, and so I want to say briefly and thirdly that these things impact the way we participate in the life of the church and the way we engage the culture. If we accept these things — individualism, and relativism, and consumerism — it will change the church and make the church like the culture, and then you know what happens? The more the church is like the culture, the less relevant the church is to the culture, because it's not saying the one prophetic thing that it has to say.
But the irony of all this is — what? In this individualistic culture, in this relativistic culture, where is the kingdom of God growing? It's growing in congregations where the message ‘It is not all about you’ and ‘God's word is the inerrant, authoritative rule of faith and practice’ —where those messages are being preached. The churches that have adapted to relativism and individualism–in thirty years they won't exist. They literally will not exist. But if you look around the world where God is at work, the churches that are healthy, the churches that are proclaiming the truth, they are the churches that believe in the absolute truth of God's word; they believe in the God-centeredness of life, they understand that we're not spiritual religious “customers” and God's not the store clerk who had better provide what we want in the color that we want it, and do it snappy and with a smile. No, it's in churches that understand that God is the living God and we are His creatures, not His lord and master, and they proclaim with joy and they live out with authenticity and integrity the truth of that word, and the world says ‘You know, that's totally against everything else that everybody else is telling me in this culture, but that's strangely magnetic to me. It has the ring of truth to it; it has the ring of joy to it, and I want to hear more.’
May God, as we study these things together over the weeks to come, make us a church with biblical priorities that's aware of the culture around us, but is conformed to the word of God. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, help us to rest on You, to be the church that You call us to be in the word; to resist the siren song of the world; to understand how the world thinks, but not to think like the world; to understand what the world wants, but to be determined not to give the world what it wants, but what it needs; to love the world without loving the things of this world. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.