Note: The following sermon was preached in the weekly chapel service of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina on September 8, 2008. I want to thank the executive leadership of the BSCNC for the invitation to preach and their blessing in publishing the sermon manuscript here at Between the Times. The sermon will be published in two parts.
Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats
1 Corinthians 1:18-31
At the turn of the 20th century, the major railroad companies had the opportunity to invest in automobile technology. But the companies balked at that opportunity, arguing that they were in the railroad business, not the automobile business. What the railroad companies failed to understand is that they were actually in neither the railroad business nor the automobile business, but they were in the transportation business. Their myopia in this matter ultimately resulted in a loss of influence for the entire industry as automobiles gradually replaced trains as the primary means of transportation in America.
This morning, my question for you is this: What business are you in as the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina?
In 1830 missionary Baptists in North Carolina formed a state convention, and according to the BSCNC Articles of Incorporation, that convention exists for two purposes:
- To assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission; to promote missions, evangelism, education, social services, the distribution of the Bible and sound religious literature; and to cooperate with the work of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
- To do any and all acts and things which may be deemed desirable or expedient for the benefit of the programs of the Convention
I think you will agree with me that the key phrase is “to assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission.” The convention is a servant to the churches, which means every program, every conference, every curricula, and every service must ultimately be about assisting churches in their divinely appointed mission. With this in mind, I think it would be helpful this morning to remind ourselves about the type of ministry the Bible teaches ought to be embodied in our churches.
In 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 Paul describes for us the type of priorities he pursued and encouraged the Corinthian church to embrace. In a shameless knock-off of Rick Warren, I am going to call Paul’s vision the “gospel-driven church.” As we look at this passage together, I think we will see two different characteristics of a gospel-driven church.
Before proceeding, I think it would be helpful to note why the characteristics of gospel-driven churches matter for denominational servants. As you know, I am a seminary professor, which means that like you I too am a denominational servant. Furthermore, because my seminary is located just about 29 miles north of here, our constituencies overlap; we are assisting many of the same churches. My conviction is that the more denominational servants like you and me understand what gospel-driven churches ought to look like, the better we can assist those churches in their divinely appointed mission.
I. Gospel-Driven Churches Proclaim the Right Message (1:18-25)
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Paul calls the right message “the word of the cross,” which I believe is another way of saying that the right message is the gospel itself. I think this is a reasonable assumption for me to make because Paul himself argues that the gospel is about the cross later on in 1 Cor. 15:1-4:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .
So Paul claims that the gospel he believed and preached is that Christ died for sinners and was raised from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures.
I think it is worth noting that in Paul’s mind, the crucifixion and resurrection are foundational doctrines, but they are also more than mere doctrines; they are part of a bigger story. Paul says Jesus’s death and resurrection are in accordance with the Scriptures–in this context the Old Testament–meaning that they were both meant to happen and that they were consistent with all that led up to them in redemptive history. Furthermore, when we think about the crucifixion and resurrection as part of the grand storyline of Scripture, we are reminded of why these things are necessary, what they accomplished, and how these events have changed the course of history.
The gospel is the story of creation, fall, promise, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ at the center of the plot. It is only in this great “Story of Stories” that all of our individual stories find their true meaning. So when we think of the salvation of individual sinners (which is the way we most often think of the gospel), we might say that the gospel is the good news of all that God has done on the behalf of sinners through the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the “word of the cross,” and this is the right message that our churches are called to proclaim.
Now when we look back to 1 Cor. 1:18-25 we see that different people respond to the message of the cross in different ways. The gospel is folly–silliness!–to those who reject it. This remains true today. Our own world also has its Jews demanding signs and Greeks demanding worldly wisdom. And Paul tells us this will be so because the gospel is a stumbling block to many.
But God’s foolishness is wiser than the accumulation of all the wisdom of the world, and his weakness is stronger than the multiplied might of all the armies of the earth. Though it may seem like silliness in the eyes of fallen men, the gospel is the very power of God for all those who are being saved. It is the proclamation of this gospel and the living out of this gospel in local communities of the redeemed that is the divinely appointed mission of our churches. Gospel-driven churches are churches that keep the gospel at the center of all that they do.
So how can you as denominational servants at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina assist our churches in proclaiming the right message?
First of all, every one of your programs and initiatives must be tethered to the good news of what God has done in Christ. You must provide resources that assist churches in evangelizing the lost with the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches as they disciple new believers through the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches in teasing out the implications of the gospel for all of life. If you want to assist our churches in proclaiming the right message, that message must be at the heart of who you are as denominational servants.
Second, the gospel should be clearly articulated in every piece of ministry literature you produce, every conference you sponsor, every annual meeting you host, every new ministry you launch, and every existing ministry to which you give your blessing. If you want to assist our churches in making the gospel clear, you must do the same in all that you do.
Gospel-driven ministry proclaims the right message, and if those of us in this room–and those of us at my seminary–are to be anything more than a mere Baptist bureaucrats, we must assist our churches in proclaiming this message in both word and deed. This is the only reason we exist.
(To be Continued)