April 21, 2012 - 11:00pm — Chris Strevel
The world is not going to seek out the light but flee it (John 3:19). The denial of this is behind many church efforts to make worship less like worship, preaching less like preaching, God less like God – more like concerts, inspirational talks, and an inner force. The fervor driving this movement is understandable. The world is perishing before our eyes, this particular culture losing whatever wispy vestiges of the older faith remain. Believers are often too burdened by their own concerns and paralyzed by their fears to speak even a few sentences about what Christ has done for them. If individuals refuse to seek and speak to lost and dying men, dynamic churches must entice them to “check us out.”
Reformation-conscious churches – and by this is meant churches that believe the Bible does not provide general guidelines but divinely inspired and comprehensive commands for worship, doctrine, and practice – are often guilty of the same mentality. We try to make our preaching, our piety, and our ministries as biblical as possible. We speak against the perversions and compromises in the broader church. We are drawn to the “older paths” and cannot understand why others are not. Something must be wrong – with “them.” We have the best of everything. Even if this were true, the world would not come. In fact, the truer it is the less likely the world will be remotely interested. Even other professing Christians are not likely to come. Expository preaching is a mystery to many, for ignorance of the Bible is pervasive and most believers simply lack the spiritual stamina to search out patiently the mind of the Spirit. Simple worship is an immediate turn-off when screens are everywhere. The vast majority of men will never be drawn to generally faithful churches because they perceive we are smarter, more biblical, more doctrinally and historically astute. Holding on to this delusion breeds pride, frustration, and cynicism.
Consider this line in Acts: “And the word of God grew, and multiplied” (12:24; 19:20). Its uniqueness merits our attention. How can it be said that the word of God grew? It cannot be a reference to the writing of inspired books that are now part of the canon, though this was already or very soon in process. It must mean that the word of God spread, grew in influence and power. It might be equivalent to “and the church grew,” for new congregations were certainly being planted as the gospel moved west. But it means more than that. It looks to the source of the church’s expansion, to the power behind its growth. It was nothing other than God’s own gospel word and apostolic doctrine spreading, increasing daily, confronting evil and converting men, giving hope and raising dead men to new life in Christ.
This did not occur by magic. It was through the preaching and testimony of believers, first, the apostles and their close associates, then those converted and gathered by them into churches. To say that the word of God grew is to say that it was spreading from God’s mouthpieces to new disciples, from them to other new disciples. We must not lose sight of this. The growth of God’s word in God’s leaders and people leads to the growth of his word in the world – to the world not being the world any more. It multiplies: from one to one, then from one to another, until larger groups of believers are gathered into congregations, but then continuing to grow as the word of God continues to grow in them. It does not stop, for Christ’s power cannot be exhausted. It is his word that is preached; indeed, he is the preacher, the omnipotent Prophet (Heb. 2:10). Causing the growing and multiplying was the power and presence of the risen Christ through the preaching, sharing, and living of his word by his disciples (Acts 2:42; Col. 3:16). This is the promise of the Father: “of the increase of his government and peace there shall never be an end” (Isa. 9:6). The fulfillment of this promise is the growth and multiplication of the word of God.
Recall that they had nothing that we would call “something:” no fancy slogans, nifty attention-getters, mother’s morning outs. The culture in which they lived was dead in its trespasses and sins, if anything, more jaundiced, perverse, and guilt-laden than ours. Local governments were very unfriendly to the proclamation of “another King, one Jesus.” All the cards were stacked against them. Still, the word of God grew, and multiplied. Men were converted to Jesus Christ. The gospel spread west. Local, then regional churches were planted. Presbyteries were formed. Believers clung fiercely to the word of life; many suffered for it.
This faith must be recaptured by the church in the West, or “Ichabod” may be written over our churches for many centuries. Church growth is the wrong goal. It always leads to the wrong methods. Worship and preaching are almost always watered down, for if the growth of a particular church is the aim of its existence, then whatever seems to be required, as long as it is not overtly evil, will be pursued. It has never worked; it never will. Yes, individual churches may grow, becoming mega-centers of inspirational messages with a plethora of offerings for every niche of spiritual consumers. But would anyone honestly say that the word of God is growing? If it were, they would be centers of expository or at least careful exegetical preaching; they are not. If the word of God was growing, their worship would look less and less like the world; in fact, they would be quite unconcerned what the world thought of their worship. They are very concerned. They would be bastions of doctrinal clarity, deep piety, and bold confrontation of sin; sadly, most are not. The reason is close at hand. Apparently positive spirituality may be growing, of some variety. Love for a favorite motivational speaker may be growing. The latest worship fads may be thriving. It is all of man. The Lord certainly works some small good through them, to be sure, but this is far from the apostolic model: “and the word of God grew, and multiplied.”
So, what are we to do? First, we must not abandon our love for God’s word: its preaching and practice. But we must be more specific. We must not love God’s word because it fulfills a spiritual need, satisfies our intellect, or fosters feelings of superiority. We certainly must not love it because it is our cherished tradition, which it is. When we come to hear God’s word, we are coming to hear Christ himself. This is the most important thing. It is the fountain from which all kingdom growth comes – he is. Commitment to the word of God, however passionate or intelligent, without commitment to the person of our Savior will always lead to cold, self-contentedness. We love the word because we love the Word. The Scriptures are about him (Luke 24:27). Thus coming to his word, our hearts are humbled. It casts down our pride. More and more, our prayer and desire is: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We delight in him, walk with him, and meditate upon his word. Thus united to him in a living bond of fire and faith, for he always baptizes with fire those in whom he plants a saving love of his word (Luke 3:16), we grow up into him. He is more our life. “For me, to live is Christ.” By his Spirit, we draw from him life, strength, love, and fervor for the glory of God and the wonders of his mercy.
Then, we must seriously ask whether that word is growing in us. Are we more Christ-like in our attitudes and priorities than we once were? Do we love men more? Are we more patient, less self-focused? Self-enfolded spirituality is the opposite. Even mastery of the Bible for the sake of mastery of the Bible is the opposite. We must want the word because we want Jesus Christ: to learn of him, know him and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings. We crave the word because we would know more of: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” This requires taking the word of God we hear and praying over it, turning it over in our minds and hearts, relating it to the person and work of our Savior, and seeking from him the grace and wisdom to put what we hear into practice.
Then, as the word of Christ is dwelling in us richly, he is growing in us. We love him more. We want to speak of him, and we are able to do so. His Spirit speaks within us. Our hearts burst with zeal to tell others of the treasure we have found: Him. We would have them be justified from their dead works through the righteousness of God in Christ. We would have them know the fullness of joy of his presence, his grace, his victory over sin and Satan, his power over the grave, his wisdom for our lives. This is Christ Jesus reaching out to the world through his life and presence in us. His word will grow; it will convert the world. This will occur in no other way than believers being much in the society of our Master, his word growing in us, his life in us saving the world. He has lost none of his power, his freshness. It is our hearts that have grown cold, worldly, fearful. The reason the world may be growing darker is because we are not seeking for his word to grow in us. We are too used to it. We have forgotten it is his voice. O, may the Lord of glory rekindle a holy passion for his word in us that the world may be filled with believers who cannot but speak those things they have seen and heard – because they have been with Jesus!