Jonathan Edwards on Personal Bible Study

Far too few of us are willing to pick up the pickaxe of sound exegesis to labor and uncover the treasure of truth in the Scriptures that awaits us. As Christians, we are people of the book, birthed and formed by the word of truth (John 1:18). Though we live in one of the most literate countries in the history of the world with easy access to God’s word, far too few are giving the Bible a cursory reading let alone searching the Scriptures with the sort of intensity God desires for us. We tend to reduce Bible reading to just another task on a to-do list. This “get-it-done” mentality appeals to our pragmatism and mirrors the shallowness that typifies our culture, but a superficial reading of the Bible robs us of the slow and meditative reflection through which the Spirit forms us by his word.

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Three Key Passages on Community in the Church

Yesterday, I announced to my church about our move to community groups this upcoming fall. For us, community groups will be multi-generational, home-based, sermon-discussion, small groups. Our leadership team has been working very hard preparing for this move, and if you are curious your an read more about it on our church website. Today, I thought I would share with you three key scriptures that have led our church to make community groups an essential component of our discipleship strategy at Forest Hills. lightstock_31957_small_joe_woolworth-1140x760

1. Hebrews 10:19-25

“Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:19–25, ESV)

This passage teaches us that community protects us from wandering. Because of the Gospel of Jesus, we have confidence that we have been cleansed by his blood and washed with pure water. We can now enter into God’s presence through the work of our great high priest, Jesus. Yet, now we must “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” Temptation comes and attempts to waver our faith. Every day we are bombarded by demonic lies tempting us to abandon Christ for worldly treasures. Then the writer tells us the best defense from falling away from the faith. That defense is community. We are called to stir up on another to good works. We are brothers and sisters in arms, in the trenches of the Christian life together. So, we should not neglect meeting together. We must intentionally surround ourselves with the community of the church so that we can receive and give ministry one to another. This means that you have a God-given responsibility to make sure that the person sitting in the pew next to you makes it to the finish line. We must meet together, encourage one another, and stir up one another to obedience to Christ until the day of his returning draws near.

2. Ephesians 4:11-16

“And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (Ephesians 4:11–16, ESV)

This passage teaches us the aim of community, which is building up one another in love. Paul describes how leaders of the church, including the pastor-teacher, equip the body of Christ for the work of ministry. As the body is equipped, it grows into maturity, no longer tossed to and fro by the world. So the body is an organism, held together and joined, and when each part is working properly, the entire body grows itself up in love.

This means that you have an important roll to play in the maturity of the person in the pew next to you. God calls you to minister to them, build them up in love, speaking the truth to them, and growing them in love. This work of equipping does not just take place by the pastors (though they do lead the way), but the entire body builds itself up in love. Every church member covenants together to build one another up.

3. Acts 2:42-47

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42–47, ESV)

This passage shows us the power of this simplistic but supernatural community. What does Gospel-centered, spirit-driven community look like? Look to this passage. We see the church devoting themselves to the teaching of the word, the breaking of bread and prayers. The people lived in close, intimate proximity with one another. They gave of themselves and they even gave of their financial resources. Each day they gathered together, they ate together in their homes worshiping the Lord. What was the result of this sort of community? Explosive, Gospel growth. “The Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Community is more than just being in the same room, but its life on life, intimate, personal, vulnerable ministry to one another. This means you share laughs, you share tears, you share your burdens, you share your soul with one another.

Which Kind of Church Kid Are You?

I grew up in the home of a pastor. I spent my youth rolling down the aisle in fisher price cars and stuffing my face with communion bread after the service. I know church kids, because I am the stereotypical church kid. I was at every church function whether I wanted to be or not. Church kids are an interesting breed and in my experience there tend to be two different types of church kid: Pharisees or Tax Collectors.

The Pharisee Church Kid

There often is not much in between. When you grow up in the Church before the regenerating work of God, these two seemingly opposites develop. On the one hand, you hear the demands of the Law, demands like “do not commit adultery”, “do not lie”, or “do not steal”. The young little self-righteous Pharisee will hear these words and begin to immediately be puffed up in pride. “I can do this” so we think, and in our self-righteousness we become blind to our sin and thus follow the letter of the law and miss its spirit.

The pharisee lives there live comparatively. They are not interested in genuine righteousness, just comparative righteousness. He lives his life constantly evaluating everyone else. He will go to school and grow up amongst his peers denouncing them in self-righteous judgement. “I’m better than that guy”, so he thinks. The church kids who are probed to Phariseeism become moral little monsters, puffed up with a judgmental self-righteousness. How do I know so much about these little moral monsters? Because I am a recovering Pharisee.

The Tax Collector Church Kid

On the flip side, many church kids become the tax collector. Unlike the pharisee church kids, they become so fed up with rule following that they just give up Christianity completely. They realize they cannot get more gold stars than the Pharisee kids and that they struggle to live for God and constantly find themselves in sin. Some how along the way, either by their own hardness of heart or the incredible failure of their church, they completely miss the Gospel. The Tax collector kids realize early how unable they are to keep God’s law. They realizes that they are unable to obey and rather than becoming sorrowful over sin, they check out and abandon Christianity. These are the church kids who end up doing keg stands in college. They become so frustrated with their works based religious upbringing that rather than resisting their sin, they embrace it.

We Cannot Do It

Yet, the Gospel has much to say to both of these two types of people. In this sermon Jesus rebukes both the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus’ strongest rebuke is to the pharisees. It is often those who have the thick headed metal skull of Phariseeism that need a vicious blow to the head to get their attention. The hardest people to share the Gospel to are those who think they already believe it. So it is with the Pharisees.

Jesus regularly exposes the religion of the Pharisees as a complete sham, especially in the Sermon on the Mount. Yes, the Pharisees may be sparkling clean on the outside, but inwardly they have the grotesque stench of a decaying corpse. Jesus shows that the Pharisees have greatly missed the intention of the Law of God and shows them that they actually have not been keeping it at all. They have loved their neighbor, but hated their enemy. They have not committed adultery, but they indulge lustful thoughts. They take oaths, but manipulate the system so they can get away with deceit. This is the great frustration Jesus has with these Pharisees, they are hypocrites!

Now it easy for us to take a sledge hammer and beat the snot out of the Pharisees as if they are those people and not us. Yet more often than not when we are talking about Phariseeism we are talking about ourselves. Many of us are moral little monsters who place our hope in our religious performance. We pride ourselves on our moralistic skill and desire the praise of others to boost our spiritual ego.

Jesus teaches us this, there is no spiritual somebodies in the kingdom of God, there are only spiritual nobodies. Blessed are the poor in Spirit! Blessed are those who recognize their spiritual inability, for there’s is the kingdom of heaven! This is Jesus’ whole point, that the tax collectors are closer to entering into the kingdom than the Pharisees, because the tax collectors at least know they cannot do it on their own.

Church Kids in Need of Jesus

Yet both of these church kids, the Pharisees and the tax collectors are lost and in need of a savior. Both groups have completely misunderstood and distorted Christianity. The Pharisees create a religion of moralism while the tax collectors a religion of hedonism. The Gospel of Jesus Christ both rejects moralism and hedonism. Salvation cannot be earned through good works. We only enter heavens gates through the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ that we receive by grace through faith. At the same time Christ calls us as children of God to live in a manner worthy of the Gospel .

If you grew up in the church, I don’t know which kind of kid you were. Maybe you were the self-righteous pharisee or maybe you were the hedonistic tax collector. Regardless of your rebellious inclination, the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for all people, even church kids. If you are like me, along the way my pharisaical heart began to realize that I was not nearly as righteous as I thought I was. God began to show me how much of a sinner I truly am and that I needed a great savior. God was gracious enough to show me my short comings and to lead me to Calvary where my sins were paid. It is only through the gracious work of God that this little moral monster became an adopted son of God.

5 Potential Dangers of Youth Christian Camps

I wrote earlier this week on some of the benefits summer camps can offer your youth or children’s ministry. Often times they do provide great opportunities for discipleship. However, despite their benefits, summer camps have potential to be dangerous. Most of these dangers can be avoided by selecting a good camp and through some careful pastoral care along the way. Yet, these potential dangers must be spotted less they because to cause destruction in the spiritual lives of your students. So to help I’ve identified five potential dangers of youth summer camps.

1. The Christian Bubble

One of the dangers of Christian camps is that it is a week long Christian fantasy world. It is a bubble and while in that bubble it is easy to live for Jesus because everyone is living for Jesus. Many young people can become adapting to the Christian camp bubble and can often put on their Christian mask to fit in with the crowd. In addition to the temptation to hypocrisy many Christian young people have a hard time adjusting going home at the end of the week.

Many of these young people live in difficult situations such as unchristian homes and lost friends. Sometimes a Christian camp is like training a solider at a kids laser tag party. At the Christian camp it is easy to follow Jesus. Everyone is doing it, no one is trying to hurt you, and it is a lot of fun! However the real Christian life is a spiritual war zone with real danger and temptation lurking in every corner. Many students fail to make any real changes in their lives when they get home because living for Christ is much more difficult in the battlefield of life than the laser tag game of Camp.

2. Spiritual Manipulation

This one varies from camp to camp, but spiritual manipulation is common and a regular occurrence at many of them. Because the students are in the Christian bubble and emotions are running high, it is easy to twist some one’s arm into making a forced decision for Christ. With loud worship music and a dynamic speaker who cares more about notches in his evangelistic belt than your students, spiritual manipulation is common. Unfortunately in our pragmatic church culture we are so tempted to forcefully fabricate a work of God so we can feel better about ourselves. All the while we miss that conversion is a great work of God. It is the Spirit who saves, not us. As a result no amount of manipulation will ever bring someone to Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who converts as we faithfully proclaim the Gospel and call for a decision, which camps should do. Yet I want my students to respond to Jesus not to the camps “worship experience”.

Another danger of the heavy spiritual manipulation at camps is their tendency to cause the faithful Christians in your group to doubt their salvation. I can’t tell you the amount of counseling I’ve had to do with some students who evidently follow Jesus who begin to question their salvation. The perseverance of the saints is a wonderfully encouraging and comforting doctrine, yet the spiritual manipulation tends to just damage the faithful Christians and often fails to see genuine conversion in the lost.

3. Conviction is Confused by Emotionalism

I had one of my students tell me one time “Why does this girl get emotional and cry every year at camp only to go back living in sin as soon as she returns home?” Camps can be very emotional experiences. The last night at camps tend to be the most emotionally intense. It is so easy to confuse an intensity of emotion as a true spiritual experience. Yet an intensity of emotions is no sure sign of a work of God as Jonathan Edwards helpfully explains in his book Religious Affections. Similarly, Thomas à Kempis said:

“Don’t think highly of yourself, or consider yourself to be especially loved if you have strong feelings of devotion or sweetness, for it is not by these feelings that a true lover of virtue is known. Nor does the spiritual progress and perfection of a man consist in these things.”

Heavy emotions are an unreliable sign of true spirituality. As a result biblical, Holy Spirit wrought conviction is confused by emotionalism. Many students might be heavily grieved over their sin and weep, then they find themselves engaging in the same lifestyle as soon as they get off the church bus at home. Yet the Scripture is clear that “Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” (2 Cor 7:10) True biblical sorrow and mourning over sin leads to repentance. An emotional experience at camp that doesn’t lead to true repentance isn’t godly grief but a wordily grief that produces death.

4. A Perpetuation of a Roll Coaster Christian Life

Many Christian young people (and adults!) immature in their faith often find themselves living an a spiritual roll coaster. Their spiritual life tends to center around big Christian events that lift them up to the mountain of spiritual ecstasies then real life hits and they go into a spiritual valley of disobedience only to zealously look for the next event, camp, or program to take them to the spiritual mountain top again. This is spiritual immaturity. How do I know? Because I’ve been there.

I’ve heard many a student say to me, “I can’t wait to get to camp this summer so I can get right with God!” Wait, what? Do students really think they can only follow God or experience the joy of His presence at camp? Unfortunately many do. Camps can perpetuate a roller coaster Christian life in which young people look to the next camp, retreat, mission trip, revival, or ski-trip to pump them with enough Jesus to make it to the next event. They hope the momentum of the last big event carries them up the hill to the next one.

This sort of inconsistency long term can be very damaging to our spiritual lives. We must help our students learn how to follow Jesus every day and not depend on big events to get them through. We must teach them the discipline of studying the Scriptures, the habit of prayer, and the priority of regularly attending worship and participating in the life of the Church.

5. A Cynical Attitude Towards the Home Church

Camps are purposefully contextualized to the generation they are trying to reach. As a result the songs, style, and format is uniquely geared towards communicating spiritual truth to that age group. Many young people greatly connect with the modern style and then get frustrated at their home church. You may hear comments like, “I wish our worship band was like this” or “I wish our pastor told more funny stories like that speaker does” or “I wish we had cool LED lights in our sanctuary”.

Camps can create a cynical attitude about the home church. We must remind ourselves and our students that what unites a local church together is not worship style, preaching style, or worship technology but the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We should teach the importance of local church who exists for their discipleship and to send them out on mission. Keep an ear out for any cynicism about your church and quickly squash it with the truth.

There are Benefits, but Be Cautious

Camps again can provide wonderful opportunities for discipleship, yet there are some potential dangers which leaders should be aware. Camps are often a mixed bag and it takes a youth leader with a pastors heart to help shepherd his or her group towards the Gospel while correcting any errors that come along the way. I pray that as many of you may be taking your students to camps this summer that the Lord moves powerfully. I pray that the Gospel is heard, believed, and treasured. I pray that your lost students would be saved. Summer camps are used best as a catalyst for long term discipleship and life long mission. Don’t squander the opportunity and carefully disciple your students not only at camp, but especially when you return home.

Are there any dangers I missed? How can we best minister to our students to avoid these errors? Love to hear you thoughts in the comments below.

How Jesus Made Disciples

Making disciples is why the church exists. At the very heart of the Great Commission is to "make disciples." Yet there has been a growing realization that many churches are failing to train and release disciples. All the wonderful programing we have innovated from Sunday School to Small Groups, there seems to be a lack of disciple making. Many churches are brimming with activity but usually fail to see the rapid reproducing of the early church. Part of the reason is the Spirit came in great power in that first century church. However, I think part of the reason we have not seen the multiplication cause by true discipleship is because we have failed to follow the biblical methodology of Jesus for disciple making. I think Jesus' method of disciple making can be boiled down to three basic elements–intellectual, relational, and missional.

Intellectual

A huge part of Jesus' ministry was teaching. He would constantly stand before the crowd and teach for long hours into the day. The crowd ate it up and loved hearing this man who preached with authority, unlike the scribes and pharisees. (Mt 7:28-29) Jesus taught in a way the masses could understand, but he also taught some deep things that were difficult for his own disciples to grasp. As he spoke in parables, the disciples would fail to get the point of the nice story. Jesus was the patient teacher pulling his twelve disciples together for a small group discussion, explaining the meaning behind his teachings.

A key part to their discipleship was being trained by the Rabi, Jesus. He taught about the kingdom, about money, about prayer, and the list continues. Jesus' taught his disciples everything they would need to know to lead and shepherd the early church.

As we look at churches today, some churches are strong in this area or weak. Some churches teach robust biblical doctrine in their classes and have a pastor who carefully preaches the word through expository preaching. This is a great gift and blessing. Knowing theology and learning the Scriptures is vital to any growing and reproducing disciple. Although education and the intellect  is important, without the other two elements you will have just a church full of pharisees.

Relational

Jesus built relationships with his disciples. He poured his life into theirs for three years. When Jesus called his first disciples he gave them a simple command "follow me". We are told that Simon and Andrew dropped their fishing nets and immediately started following Jesus (Mt 4:19-20). The disciples hung out with Jesus 24/7. Every day for three years these men enjoyed nightly long dinner conversations with the messiah. They spent their days following the dusty road behind the saviors shadow. They lived life with him. Everything Jesus did, they did. Everywhere Jesus went, they went.

This relational component is one that is largely lacking in our modern discipleship methods. Discipleship is more than just meeting once a week for an hour, whether it be at a small group or a church service. Part of discipling someone is to invite them into the rhythm of your life. The disciples learned a lot from Jesus' teaching, but they learned just as much from watching his life. They watched Jesus as he was hungry, criticized, tired, and sad. They saw how a Christian was supposed to live by watching the life of Jesus. Relational discipleship is often messy, takes time, and can be inconvenient. We are often private individuals and do not want someone up in our business. Yet, Jesus opened his entire life for his disciples to watch and imitate. We must do the same in our discipleship.

Missional

If we are missing the relational component in our modern discipleship methods than the missional component is not even on our radars. Jesus discipled with a purpose. He called out to Simon and Andrew and commanded them, "Follow Me". Why are they to follow Jesus? For what purpose is Jesus beginning this discipleship with them? Well Jesus tells us, "Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." (Mt 4:19) You see the reason we disciple is to train and release people to make more disciples.

Even in their three year discipleship, Jesus gave his twelve hands on ministry experience. In Matthew 10 we see Jesus send out the twelve under his authority to do ministry. He sent them out by twos on junior local mission trips preparing them for the Great Commission in which they were to go into all the world.

Churches often bring new Christians into the church for great teaching and maybe even some relational disciple making. Bringing them into the Christian subculture is easy. Releasing them into the culture as missionaries is much more difficult. In our discipleship methods, we are far to content producing well behaving Christian people than life giving soldiers marching to the orders of their king. A key component to our discipleship needs to be pushing disciples to participate in the Great Commission. We must encourage them to share the Gospel with their neighbors or the coach on their kids soccer team. We make disciples who are reproducing, going on to disciple others.

Making Disciples Like Jesus

If we can fire our discipleship process on all three cylinders, I can only imagine what God will do through our churches. We must train people intellectually in the Christian faith, teaching them the Scriptures. We must mentor and pour our lives into people in our relationships. We must challenge every Christian to be a missionary and reach their community and world for Christ. If we start making disciples as Jesus made disciples, perhaps we will recover the organic wild fire that was the early church.