God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 4

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

5). Is this action consistent with my new life in Christ?
Do you not know that the unjust will not inherit God’s kingdom? Do not be deceived: no sexually immoral people, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, revilers, or swindlers will inherit God’s kingdom. Some of you were like this; but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. – 1 Cor. 6:9-11

Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own… – 1 Cor. 6:19

Followers of Jesus are brand new creatures. We are now temples of the Holy Spirit corporately (1 Cor. 3:16) and individually (1 Cor. 6:19). One aspect of this “newness” is that we honor God and bring Him glory in our bodies (1Cor. 6:20). This is a Pauline way of saying glorify God all the time in every way with all that you are. Body, mind, will, and emotions are all to be brought under His Lordship and control. Unfortunately, we sometimes forget this and tragic consequences follow. Christ is hidden rather than displayed in our lives. Let me illustrate. Sometimes in our desire to communicate the gospel clearly and without unnecessary baggage, we go too far and actually miscommunicate the message and send an uncertain sound. To gain a hearing from our “cultural despisers” we adjust our vocabulary, compromise purity and holiness, and we are reckless with what we do with our bodies and thereby cloud or even hide the glorious gospel that transforms and changes life. German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg in a First Things article entitled, “How to Think About Secularism” provides needed words of wisdom in this context:

The absolutely worst way to respond to the challenge of secularism is to adapt to secular standards in language, thought, and way of life. If members of a secularist society turn to religion at all, they do so because they are looking for something other than what that culture already provides. It is counter productive to offer them religion in a secular mode that is carefully trimmed in order not to offend their secular sensibilities.

Christians should not shy away from the fact that our lives are centered on the divine things. We offer a different way of making sense of reality and a different way of living, which go against the grain of what modern society offers as the norm. We also should not shy away from referring to the wrath of God against human sin even though most moderns ignore, disbelieve, or sweeten the pill with deceptions about God’s complaisance over sin (Wolfhart Pannenberg, “How to Think About Secularism,” First Things 64 (June/July 1996), 31).

Tim Keller wisely informs us, “All of our personal problems and church problems come because we don’t come continually back to the gospel to work it out and live it out….Christians are enormously bold to tell the truth, but without a shred of superiority [remember 6:9-11!], because you are sinners saved by grace. The balance of boldness and utter humility, truth and love-is not somewhere in the middle between legalistic fundamentalism and relativistic liberalism. It is actually off the charts” (Tim Keller, “Being the Church in Our Culture”). When considering how to live for Christ in the 21st century, our new life demands that we proclaim and live the message with great boldness, holiness and humility. We are to live a life that is in harmony with who we are as new creations in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).

6). Will this action violate my conscience?
Eat everything that is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake, for the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it. If one of the unbelievers invites you over and you want to go, eat everything that is set before you, without raising questions of conscience. But if someone says to you,” This is food offered to an idol,” do not eat it, out of consideration for the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake. I do not mean your own conscience, but the other person’s. For why is my freedom judged by another person’s conscience? – 1 Cor. 10:25-29

It is risky, even dangerous, to ignore the inner voice of conscience. It is God-given and under redemptive-reconstruction thru the Spirit, Word and fellowship of the Christian community. A well-informed, Scripture-saturated, Spirit-sensitive conscience will be an asset in warning us of things that are sinful, evil, and unwise.

Now, I do not think Paul would say, “Let your conscience be your guide,” as if conscience by itself is a sufficient umpire or arbitrator when it comes to good decision-making. Rather he would say, “Let your conscience guided by Scripture and controlled by love be your guide.” This will involve some tension in your lifestyle preferences, but it will also result in God conforming you more to the mind of Christ (Phil. 2:5). We must get used to living with this tension. While most would love for every decision to be crystal clear (I certainly would!), that is naïve and simplistic. It would also stunt spiritual growth and maturity as we grow in Christ. Thus, Christians must know what is going on in their own cultural context. The internal voice of a believer’s conscience can be a great aid when guided by Scripture and controlled by the ethic of love. It can give you peace in what you are doing and joy in the doing. Romans 14:23 reminds us, “Whatever is not from faith is sin.” Living with a clear conscience before Christ and others is a worthy goal for all of us to pursue.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence (Part 7): The United States in Great Commission Perspective

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence (Part 7):
The United States in Great Commission Perspective

Note: This post is one in a series entitled, “Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence,” wherein we hope to give some definition of what constitutes a GCR, why the SBC needs a GCR, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life.

In the first five installments of the “Contours” series, Danny Akin, David Nelson, and Ken Keathley have written about a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). Parts Six and Seven clarify the “GC” of the “GCR.” In the last post, we discussed “the nations” in Great Commission perspective, while in this post, we will discuss “this nation,” the United States of America, in Great Commission perspective.

A Painful Truth

It is our conviction that missions matters because God is a missionary God. Therefore, His people must be a missionary people. Indeed, He commands us in Matthew 28: 18-20 to make disciples of all nations. Baptists often have heeded this call, and yet the painful truth is that, in North America, and indeed in our own country, God’s glory often is not clearly or consistently displayed. His gospel often is preached in a way that is neither faithful nor meaningful. There are millions of lost who have little chance of hearing the gospel preached in their community in a clear, compelling, and biblical fashion. We have not made disciples of our own nation.

The task of the evangelical church in general, and of the Southern Baptist Convention, therefore, is to create and implement a missiology that will enable them to win the lost, make disciples, and plant churches in an increasingly larger array of American socio-cultural contexts. We must plant churches that are grounded in inspired Christian Scripture, sound in their doctrinal foundations, contextual in their cultural forms, aggressive in their evangelistic orientation, and intentional in crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Our Mission Must Be Cross-Cultural and Cross-Linguistic

The United States is increasingly multicultural, multiethnic, and multilinguistic, as immigrants from around the world now live in our own cities, suburbs, and even rural areas. Many of the nations, peoples, and languages of Revelation 5 are right here on our doorstep. Further, there is a dizzying variety of sub-cultures within the broader American culture, each with their own distinctive beliefs and ways of life. Many of them are non- or post-Christian, in that they do not have even a basic understanding of Christian worldview or vocabulary. Southern Baptists missionaries and pastors in North America must take their own cultural contexts as seriously as Southern Baptist missionaries take their international contexts. Ed Stetzer, among others, has made this point many times and in many ways.

We must seek to understand the cultures and sub-cultures around us so that we can preach the gospel faithfully and meaningfully within the framework of our neighbors’ cultural and social contexts, and plant churches in those same cultural contexts. The gospel must be preached faithfully, being defined and delimited by the Scriptures. It must also, however, be preached meaningfully, in such a manner that the hearer understands the gospel in the same way that the the biblical author, and the preacher, intends it. The concept of the gospel might be foreign to them, but it can be communicated in language and constructs that are not. By doing so, we seek to preach the gospel clearly within the framework of the audience’s cultural and existential context. In other words, we must talk in a way that allows them to see and hear and grasp the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel we proclaim.

There are many in our convention who embody the ability to “speak the language” of a particular socio-cultural context. I think of Danny Akin’s marriage conferences and college campus invitations, Paige Patterson’s Great Game banquets, and Al Mohler’s engagement in Western social and political circles. This is not just an issue of “style;” these men and others have worked hard to be able to proclaim the gospel in multiple contexts, adjusting the delivery where needed so as to proclaim the gospel faithfully and meaningfully in each unique context. In particular, I think of Junior Hill, who has the uncanny ability to disarm listeners across the spectrum of ages, races, and cultures. Through the hard work and experience of years of preaching, he can “get to the heart of a matter” with a broad spectrum of people, and do so while being faithful to the gospel and meaningful in his presentation.

Our Mission Must Be Multi-Faceted

In addition to proclaiming the gospel from inside of the four walls of a church building, and in addition to community outreach programs and door-to-door visitations, it would behoove our churches to teach her members that everything they do matters to God. Perhaps drawing upon Martin Luther’s conception of vocatio, we may teach that every believer has the privilege and responsibility of bringing glory to God in each of his callings, whether it is family life, workplace, or community life. The workplace is an almost unparalleled opportunity to bring God glory and to love one’s neighbor. This is one area where we need to give special attention in the years ahead. The possibilities and potential are enormous.

Further, we ought to take every opportunity to glorify our Lord in the various spheres of culture, including especially the arts (e.g. literature, music, movies, visual art), the sciences (e.g. biology, physics, chemistry, sociology, anthropology, psychology) and the public square (e.g. law, politics, economics, journalism, moral philosophy). In so doing, we recognize that we may not abdicate our responsibility to glorify God across every square inch of His good creation. After all, Abraham Kuyper reminds us, He stamps all of it with the exclamation, “Mine!”

Our Mission Must Be All-Encompassing

The sometimes cross-cultural and always multi-faceted nature of our task also demands that we take care not to neglect any geographic or demographic dimension of our great country. Of the many things we could mention, here are three: First, we must not neglect the great cities of the United States. While evangelicals and Baptists have been fairly successful in the Bible belt, we have been less successful in the great cities. We recognize the strategic nature of urban involvement and seek to heighten Southern Baptist involvement in the largest, least churched, and most influential American cities. Urban centers such as New York, Boston, and Los Angeles are the nerve center of North American socio-cultural activity, having massive influence on our continent and across the globe, and yet they are among the least churched cities in America.

Second, we may not neglect either the cultural elite, on the one hand, or the down and out, on the other hand. Southern Baptists have reached the upper and lower middle classes, but often we have not reached the cultural elite or the poor and disenfranchised. In reaching those who are “down and out,” we must be work hard to build churches who intentionally minister in the inner cities, who are willing to embrace those with HIV, who may never be able to contribute in a significant way to the church financially, but who are nonetheless God’s image-bearers and deserve our love and attention every bit as much as anyone else. Treasuring Christ Church (Raleigh, NC) under the leadership of pastors Sean Cordell and Travis Williams, is a church that is doing just this. In reaching those who are the cultural elite, we must build churches that intentionally reach out to artists, scientists, philosophers, moral and political movers, and others.

Third, we must build churches that do serious-minded student ministry, both for youth and college students. It will be a good day indeed when youth ministries become places that are known more for sound doctrine and genuine cultural savvy than they are for cutesy Bible studies and superficial cultural gimmickry. Moreover, we pray that the day comes that our churches seek, consciously and consistently, to minister on college campuses. On the campuses of our American universities walk the students who are the future of our nation and in many cases the future of our churches, as well as international students who are the future of their nations and of their nation’s churches. We must make college ministry a priority in our churches, even during those times when it seems not to bear spiritual fruit, and even during those times (most of the time) when it does not make financial sense. The Summit Church (Raleigh-Durham, NC), under the leadership of J. D. Greear, and Providence Baptist Church (Raleigh, NC) under the direction of David Horner and Dave Owen, are two of the churches leading the way in making major inroads on college campuses such as Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill, and N. C. State University.

Our Mission Must Center on Church Renewal, Church Planting, and Cooperation

Our mission will not succeed without healthy churches. This requires, first and foremost, an emphasis on church renewal. We must work hard to build churches that are biblically faithful, sound in their doctrine, aggressive in their evangelism, intentional in crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries, and contextual in their cultural forms. It is only from such healthy churches that we will see a church planting movement that is capable of reaching our own country. Only healthy churches will faithfully and meaningfully proclaim the gospel of our Lord and build churches across cultures and sub-cultures, languages and races, vocations and dimensions of culture, cities and suburbs, rich and poor, young and old. Capitol Hill Baptist Church and IX Marks Ministries (Washington, DC), under the leadership of Mark Dever, is important in just this respect, as it seeks to foster church renewal through sound doctrine, biblical practice, and intentional evangelism and church planting.

Finally, our mission will not fare well if it is not cooperative. This includes local church cooperation with other churches, through local associations, state conventions, seminaries, and agencies. The daunting nature of our task demands that if any of the above associations is unwilling to fulfill their missional calling, then healthy churches will seek other ways to cooperate in order to fulfill the calling God has given them. It must be the hope and prayer of the churches of our convention that the associations, conventions, seminaries, and agencies that we now have will prove to be sufficiently willing and able to take on this God-given calling. If not, God will likely pass us by and we will have nobody to blame but ourselves.

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Pt. 6: “The Nations” in Great Commission Perspective

Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence, Pt. 6:
“The Nations” in Great Commission Perspective

Note: This post is one in a series entitled, “Contours of a Great Commission Resurgence,” wherein we hope to give some definition of what constitutes a GCR, why the SBC needs a GCR, and what such a movement might look like in SBC life.

In the first five installments of the “Contours” series, Danny Akin, David Nelson, and Ken Keathley have written about a Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). Parts Six and Seven clarify the “GC” of the “GCR.” In this post, we will discuss “the nations” in Great Commission perspective, while in the next post, we will discuss “this nation” in Great Commission perspective.

A Mission Organized, Energized, and Directed by God

People often think of the terminology “Great Commission” with reference to Matthew 28:16-20, but we mean more than just a single selection of verses. Jesus’ commission at the end of Matthew’s Gospel is like the tip of an iceberg; when we say “Great Commission,” we refer not only to the tip, but to the whole iceberg, which includes God’s mission, the church’s mission, and the church’s mission to the nations. Before speaking of the church’s mission to the nations, we must speak of the church’s mission, and before speaking of the church’s mission we must speak of God’s mission (missio Dei). As David Nelson pointed out in Part Two, It is the God of life and love who created and shared that life and love with man. And it is the same God who responded to man’s sin by promising the Messiah, thereby setting in motion his mission to redeem a people for himself, to win the nations to himself, and indeed to reconcile all things unto himself. In God’s promise to send the Messiah, we see the beginnings of God’s mission.

Mission, therefore, is God-centered rather than man-centered, being rooted in God’s gracious will to glorify Himself. Mission is defined by God. It is organized, energized, and directed by God. Ultimately, it is accomplished by God.

A Mission Focused upon the Nations

In Matthew’s gospel, our Lord instructs us to make God’s mission our mission: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” In this passage, our Lord instructs us not only that we must win the nations, but how we must win the nations.

The first phrase, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth,” makes clear that followers of any other lord must repent and follow Jesus, and that this is on the basis of the supreme authority of the Lord of the universe. Based on this authority, our Lord gives the imperative, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In this command, we are instructed to make disciples, and not merely professions of faith. Moreover, we are given directives for disciple-making. We are to do so through baptism (and therefore in the context of His church) and in the name of the Triune God (who alone can save). Finally, making disciples includes “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

In relation to this final element of Matthew’s text, we note two things. First, the “commands of Christ” are contained in the Christian Scriptures. There is no true evangelism or discipleship apart from the proclamation of the Word of God. Second, the “commands of Christ” are not limited to those statements in the New Testament in which Jesus speaks in the imperative. Indeed, the entirety of Scripture, including Old and New Testaments, teaches us what God has done through Christ. Anything that Scripture teaches, Christ teaches. All Scripture is inspired by God, and hence also bears the insignia of Christ. Our evangelism and discipleship, therefore, will include the clear teaching of the entire canon of Scripture.

In the final phrase of Mt 28:20, our Lord promises, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Herein lies our confidence, that we go under the authority of Christ and in the very presence of Christ. Missiology is at its heart Christological. There is perhaps no better picture of the Christological nature of missiology than Rev 5, where we see the Lamb-Like Lion receiving the worship of the nations, as the nations sing, “You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made us kings and priests to our God; and we shall reign on the earth.”

A Mission across Cultural and Linguistic Boundaries

If, therefore, we are to make the gospel readily accessible to every tribe, tongue, people, and nation, we must be willing and able to cross vast cultural divides, overcome daunting linguistic barriers, and bear witness in the face of opposition. In other words, we must be intentional-we must be missional. (Note: It is necessary to cross such divides whether in an international context or in the United States. Ed Stetzer, in Planting Missional Churches, puts it this way: “Don’t confuse the terms mission-minded and missional. The first refers more to an attitude of caring about missions, particularly overseas. Missional means actually doing mission right where you are. Missional means adopting the posture of a missionary, learning and adapting to the culture around you while remaining biblically sound.”) [1]

Whereas a missional Christian is first and foremost a theologian, he also is a student of other disciplines such as global studies, current affairs, world religions, anthropology, and sociology. In studying global studies and current affairs, he gains an understanding of the international and regional context within which he ministers. In studying world religions, he learns to understand the core religious beliefs and religious practices of those to whom he will minister. In sociology and anthropology, he learns to pay careful attention to the immediate social and cultural context. Although he may never be an expert in these disciplines, he uses them insomuch as they are helpful in order to understand the global, cultural, social, and personal contexts of those to whom he ministers.

Indeed, our goal is to send forth missionaries who are grounded in the scriptures, culturally sensitive, prepared to make disciples, and equipped to plant churches. These churches should be healthy, reproductive, and able to reach their own people group and nation. In doing so, we must meet several challenges.

One challenge is that of focus. With a limited number of missionaries, to which parts of the globe do we send missionaries? It is our conviction that the majority of international missionaries should be sent to unreached people groups, have little or no access to the gospel. There are vast stretches of the globe (Asia and Africa in particular) where a person could leave his house and search for days and weeks and months and never find a church, a Christian, or a Bible in his language. In these places there is no church that is capable of reaching its own culture. It is our conviction that we should take the gospel to these people groups.

Another challenge is that of strategy. What is the central focus of our missionaries? It is our conviction, along with that of the International Mission Board, that our focus should be church planting. We seek to plant churches whose immediate goal it is to plant other churches, until there is a cascading chain of churches planting churches. Indeed, it is our hope that there will be a church planted within walking distance of every house in the world.

A final challenge is contextualization. In order for the gospel to be preached contextually, it must be preached faithfully, meaningfully, and dialogically. It must be preached faithfully, being defined and delimited by the Scriptures. It must be preached meaningfully, in such a manner that the hearer understands the gospel in the same way that the preacher intends it. And it must be preached dialogically, in conversation with the host culture, as they prayerfully seek to allow the gospel to critique the very language and categories of their own culture.

Conclusion

What, then, is our task? Our task is to make the gospel readily accessible to every tribe, tongue, people and nation; it is to do so even in the face of formidable financial challenges and potential personal cost, to do so joyfully even when we might suffer for the sake of the gospel. This is no small task.

The magnitude of our task, however, is matched and exceeded by the magnitude of our biblical convictions: That God is a missionary God; that all people without Christ are lost; that a central theme in the Scriptures is God’s desire to win the nations unto Himself; that since the coming of His Son, God has chosen that all saving faith be consciously focused on Christ; that the church’s task in each generation is to proclaim the gospel to her generation; and that this progress of the gospel to the ends of the earth may be hindered temporarily, but we have no doubt about its final triumph.

Notes:

[1] Ed Stetzer, Planting Missional Churches (Nashville: B&H, 2006), 19.

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