What makes a person or church effective in ministry?
Note carefully the following words of Graeme Goldsworthy, “The life and ministry of the local church needs to be self-consciously gospel-centered if it is to maintain any kind of effectiveness for the kingdom of God,” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 129).
In Galatians 1:13-16, it is plainly evident that before Paul was sent on mission to proclaim Christ, Christ had to be revealed to him!
John Brown writes,
“…here I cannot but call the attention of all aspirants to the sacred office to the fact, that when God intended to make Paul a public teacher of Christianity, He ‘revealed Christ in Him.’ They have no reason to expect such an internal revelation as he received; but unless, in a very important sense, God ‘reveals His Son’ in them, they cannot be fitted for the office to which they are looking forward. The words of Perkins are weighty: ‘Ministers of the gospel must learn Christ as Paul learned him. They may not content themselves with that learning which they find in schools; but they must proceed further to a real learning of Christ. They that must convert others, it is meet that they should be effectually converted. John must eat the book, and then prophesy; and they who would be fit ministers of the gospel, must first themselves eat the book of God. And this book is indeed eaten, when they are not only in their minds enlightened, but in their hearts are mortified, and brought in subjection to the word of Christ. Unless Christ be thus learned spiritually and really, divines shall speak of the word of God as men speak of riddles, and as priests in former times said their matins, when they hardly knew what they said,” (Galatians, pp. 62-63).
The importance and necessity of knowing the gospel for effective ministry cannot be overstated.
Before I lost my voice, I was unfit for ministry. Though I thought I was fit for ministry, I wasn’t. Even after nine years of theological education and training, I had no clue that the Bible was primarily about God as He reveals Himself in Jesus Christ (Note: I am not discounting the importance of theological training. I am simply discounting insufficient or bad theological training. Sound theological training is critically important.).
Let it be stated clearly and firmly, the Bible is first and foremost about God as He reveals Himself in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and it is the preacher’s calling and responsibility, as Graeme Goldsworthy points out to “be absolutely scrupulous in making this clear,” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, pp. 60-61). Before seven long and heart breaking years, I wasn’t clear on this at all!
Prior to my seven year trial, I had a bad hermeneutic that led to legalistic and moralistic preaching. I had no clue that the gospel was the interpretive key that unlocks the whole meaning of Scripture. Thus, the Lord had to literally and graciously shut me up so He could give me a real learning of Christ, as Brown states above.
Regrettably and tragically, the gospel for many Christians is nothing more than a narrowly defined and isolated message about Jesus’ death and resurrection, which unbeliever’s believe in order to be “saved.”
After this initial experience of the gospel, churches quickly move their new converts on to the duties of discipleship and spiritual transformation. This is a terrible mistake. It is the bewitching of Evangelicalism (Gal. 3:1).
Graeme Goldsworthy speaks of this problem as pastors and churches possessing a theoretical gospel (what one says he professes) and an operative gospel (what actually influences and drives a person’s life/ministry; see Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 81).
In other words, pastors and churches today may theoretically profess a belief in the person and work of Christ (i.e, the gospel), but in practice the operative gospel becomes the dominant focus of all the preaching and teaching (e.g., Three Keys for a Happy Marriage and so on).
The problem with this understanding of discipleship is that it is not integrally related to the gospel. Such a truncated, narrow view of the gospel is one of the greatest problems plaguing the Evangelical church today.
The relationship of the Bible’s imperatives (i.e., the things we are commanded to be and do; e.g., “Be holy,” [1 Pet. 1:15]; “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger,” [Eph. 4:26] etc…) to the Bible’s indicatives (i.e., the things that are already a fact; e.g., “we have redemption through His blood,” [Eph. 1:7]; “since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,” [Rom. 5:1]) is critical.
Sadly, a great majority of preachers, believers and churches have no idea of this essential distinction, it is not even on the radar screen. Yet, without this distinction, one doesn’t possess a true knowledge of the Christian faith and therefore effective ministry is impossible.
What results is some thinly veiled, ineffective form of so-called “gospel” ministry (regardless of the size or apparent vigor of the church). This thinly veiled “gospel” is nothing more than moralistic, ethical, legalistic, soul-killing exhortations. When imperatives are consistently divorced from the wider context of the indicatives (i.e., the gospel), the default message so many churches end up communicating is that being a Christian is simply a matter of trying to live a good life.
Let me say this as plainly as I can: Preaching exhortations without the gospel is legalistic!
“The life and ministry of the local church needs to be self-consciously gospel-centered if it is to maintain any kind of effectiveness for the kingdom of God.”
Because fallen human nature is wired for the law not gospel, the propensity is to divorce the matters of ethics and godly living from the gospel. When this happens, the primary focus becomes law, not gospel and thus all the moral exhortations in sermons and Bible lessons become legalistic.
Typically, this kind of sermonic moralizing is done in the name of “relevance.” Quite frankly, I grow weary of this idea of “relevance.” Should the preacher be understandable. Of course! This is not the issue when it comes to the idol of “relevance.” Graeme Goldsworthy writes,
The gospel not only defines the problem and God’s response to it, it should also define the Christian buzz words that we use to assess sermons and talks. One might be tempted to say that two thousand people at a convention can’t be wrong when there is almost total approval of the speaker’s addresses. At the risk of sounding a little cynical, I would have to say that it is entirely possible for them to be wrong. So much depends on what people have been taught to expect. It is not only possible but highly probable, unless we are constantly vigilant in this matter, that human nature will take over. In short, what is relevant is defined by the gospel; what is helpful is defined by the gospel. The first question we all need to ask is not, “Was it relevant?”; “Did I find it helpful?”; or “Were we blessed?”; but “How did the study (the sermon) testify to Christ and his gospel as the power of God for salvation, (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 62).
The primary means of effective ministry and church growth, according to the New Testament, was through the preaching and teaching of the gospel (e.g., Acts 2:14-47). Paul told the Corinthians that he was determined to know nothing among them except Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 1:23: 2:2).
Yet today, instead of constituting the essence of the Christian life and ministry, the gospel, at best, is typically viewed as secondary and tangential (i.e., unrelated and unconnected). This is totally contrary and in complete disagreement with the Bible’s focus on and teaching of the gospel.
The Bible presents the gospel as an all-encompassing truth. The gospel is not only the interpretive key to the Bible (e.g., Lk. 24:44), but it is also the essential truth that holds together and drives the Christian life, justification in action (Gal. 2:20)!
The gospel is much more than a doctrine that provides an escape-out-of-hell-free-card, though it certainly includes this! The gospel is more than a doctrine to die with, though again it most definitely includes this. In addition to these, the gospel is also a divinely revealed truth to live by each and every moment of our lives (cf. Gal. 2:20).
Until an aspiring pastor (or any member who desires to serve in the church) comes to see the overarching emphasis and centrality of the gospel for every facet of life and ministry, he is not fit to lead the church or prepared for effective ministry.
In his chapter entitled, “Can I Preach a Christian Sermon without Mentioning Jesus?”, Graeme Goldsworthy frames the issue thus, “If we are not going to proclaim some aspect of the riches of Christ in every sermon, we shouldn’t be in the pulpit,” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 126).
Effective ministry must be defined by the gospel. In light of this fact, Goldsworthy writes,
“To the evangelical preacher, then, I would address one simple but pointed question, a question every one of us should ask ourselves as we prepare to preach (and certainly the answer should be crystal clear in our minds before we get up to preach): How does this passage of Scripture, and consequently my sermon, testify to Christ? There are two main grounds for this question. The first…is that Jesus claims to be the subject of all Scripture. The second is the overall structure of biblical revelation, which finds its coherence only in the person and work of Christ. To these we could add a third: it is no accident that the Christian Church has come to understand the Bible to be the word of God, while at the same time acknowledging that this title also belongs to Jesus (John 1:1-14).
Given these considerations of the nature of the Bible, I can think of no more challenging question for the preacher’s self-evaluation than to ask whether the sermon was a faithful exposition of the way the text testifies to Christ,” (Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture, p. 21).