The Foundation and the Fire

What Gospel Preachers, Pastors, Leaders, and Teachers Must Understand

Gospel teacher, the Bible teaches that your work will sooner or later be exposed. Whether you build a true building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ, build a weak building on Jesus Christ, or teach an altogether false gospel (and those are the three categories), God will expose your work sooner or later – and that with fire. 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 says:

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–
13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done.
14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

However you teach, preach, minister, and lead, you are accountable to God for it: “the Day will disclose it.” Paul writes the same earlier, “He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.” Every minister is the same: an underservant accountable to God alone – not to numbers, not to other ministers, not to evangelical organizations, not mainly to the congregation, but to God alone.

So ask yourself two simple questions:

  1. Do I believe verse 11, “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ,”? Do I believe that Christ, not my words nor my ingenuity nor my attendees, is the foundation? Do I feel that deeply in my soul? Do I live and teach and preach that fact? If I do, servanthood and accountability in the ministry will flow out of that Spirit-filled fact.
  2. Do I believe 1 Corinthians 2:2, Luke 24:27, Luke 24:44, 2 Timothy 3:16, and a host of other passages which teach that teaching and preaching Jesus Christ alone from all the Scriptures for the salvation of sinners is the central, foundational, essential criterion by which all “Christian” ministry will be judged? If I do believe this, teaching Christ from the whole Bible will be not a chore, not a boredom, but a blessing of the “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 3:15).

If, however, you believe #1 but not #2, then your work will soon be exposed by the purifying fire of God Almighty.

If, even worse, you believe neither #1 nor #2, then verse 15 doesn’t apply to you, because you are not a Christian. Your life, rebelling against Jesus Christ’s lordship from head to toe, is no Christian life at all and will be consumed with fire.

We see then that this passage is not about heretical teachers but weak ones. Heresy – including the prosperity “gospel” lies (1 Timothy 6:6-10) – kills both the teacher and its believers.

Archives: “Do Stuff” Still Isn’t the Gospel

Talking with a friend tonight, we were both reminded of the great glory of the grace of God in the gospel. God requires not that we “do stuff” to earn His favor or His forgiveness, but commands us to trust Jesus Christ for forgiveness of sins and eternal favor. The gospel isn’t that we “do stuff,” but that Jesus has already done all we need.

Here’s a rundown:

  1. Jesus Taught Justification by Faith Alone
  2. Did Jesus Teach Justification by Works?
  3. What Preaching the Gospel Is, and Isn’t
  4. Matthew 23: More Reasons “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  5. “Do Stuff” Isn’t the Gospel
  6. Drink Deeply of Jesus Christ
  7. Hate at the Bottom of Your Heart
  8. Opinions We Make Into Law
  9. Is Your Church Characterized by Commands or Christ?

My prayer is always that we treasure Jesus Christ more through believing the gospel.

Afflicting the Unconverted

Mike McKinley’s Together for the Gospel 2012 talk about preaching to self-deceived unbelievers in our churches is full of gems. Here’s one:

“[Self-help teaching] only creates high-functioning citizens of hell.”

The whole thing is worth listening to, particularly if you don’t realize the effect of so-called “cultural Christianity.”

As McKinley reminds us, Christianity is a radical thing, not something you slide into because it’s convenient. It is our job, as believers, to help people see their true spiritual state.

Good Deeds And/Or Gospel?

I intentionally inverted the order in the title, because Paul gives us the correct connection in Titus 3:4-8:

But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness,
but according to his own mercy,
by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
so that being justified by his grace
we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things,
so that those who have believed in God
may be careful to devote themselves to good works.
These things are excellent and profitable for people.

As someone who struggles to be devoted to “good works” that are “excellent and profitable for people,” hearing a ton of “do better” from well-meaning advisors, it is refreshing and life-giving that God doesn’t do that here.

Let me repeat: the Lord of the universe, all-wise and powerful, full of zeal for His glory and compassion for His children, doesn’t just tell us to “be devoted to good works” first. Instead, He teaches his leaders to remember the gospel (v.4-7): that God saved us in His goodness, not because of our own, through the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, who justifies us and gives us a sure hope of eternal life. Then, because of this, he wants us to be zealous for good works.

Note the order: gospel, then good works. Gospel then good works. It’s not the other way around.

When people have a “works” problem, they really have a heart problem, and only the gospel addresses the heart. Good works can “adorn” the gospel (Titus 2:10), but never are the gospel.

So, when I fail in good works, remind me of the gospel. Remind me of God’s grace in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit to helpless sinners like me. Remind me that Christ died to redeem me from lawless deeds and purify for Himself a people for His own possession who are zealous for good deeds (Titus 2:14).

Then, and only then, there is a place to explain these good deeds. But, please, don’t just tell me to do good works. That’s “do stuff.” That’s legalism. That’s not the gospel.

No Other Message

Thomas Jones, from a 1976 lecture, “Preaching the Cross of Christ”:

True Christian preaching must center on the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross is the central doctrine of the Holy Scriptures. All other revealed truths either find their fulfillment in the cross or are necessarily founded upon it. Therefore, no doctrine of Scripture may faithfully be set before men unless it is displayed in its relationship to the cross. The one who is called to preach, therefore, must preach Christ because there is no other message from God.

[Quoted in Bryan Chappell, Christ-centered Preaching, p.271]

The Proof is in the Preaching

Lots of us (sinfully) enjoy moralistic sermons (“do good,” “be a better person,” “take care of your finances,” etc.), but Bryan Chappell warns that no preacher accidentally omits the gospel:

A message that merely advocates morality and compassion remains sub-Christian even if the preacher can prove that the Bible demands such behaviors.

(From Christ-Centered Preaching, p.268)

So give your favorite works-preacher a close listen, and see if he gives weight to the weighty gospel or to the weak man.

The Redeemer > The Redeemed

In his recent post,”What Does It Mean to be Biblically Balanced?” Tullian Tchividjian explains how the Bible places a premium on the gospel:

The emphasis of the Bible is on the work of the Redeemer, not on the work of the redeemed.

The Best Remedy to Turn Us Inside Out

A thought on why God ordains faith rather than works as the means of calling, regeneration, justification, adoption, salvation, sanctification, eternal life, and glorification:

In our sin, we are so wildly self-absorbed that faith is God’s only and best remedy to turn our affections inside out. True faith always blinds us to self and opens our eyes to Christ.

Faith Covers the Reprehensible

Calvin, commenting on Hebrews 11:32-34:

Then the Apostle ascribes all that was praiseworthy in them to faith; though there was not one of them whose faith did not halt. Gideon was slower to take up arms than what he ought to have been; nor did he venture without some hesitation to commit himself to God. Barak at first trembled, so that he was almost forced by the reproofs of Deborah. Samson being overcome by the blandishments of a concubine, inconsiderately betrayed the safety of the whole people. Jephthah, hasty in making a foolish vow, and too obstinate in performing it, marred the finest victory by the cruel death of his own daughter.

Thus, in all the saints, something reprehensible is ever to be found; yet faith, though halting and imperfect, is still approved by God. There is, therefore, no reason why the faults we labor under should break us down, or dishearten us, provided we by faith go on in the race of our calling.

Psalm 119: Life from the Word

Psalm 119 gives us the most thoughtfully thorough, devotionally rich, and theologically deep explanations of the supremacy of the Bible in the Christian life. Today, we’ll note a theme in the Psalm: God gives us life according to His Word.

  • v.25 My soul clings to the dust; give me life according to your word!
  • v.28 My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word!
  • v.107 I am severely afflicted; give me life, O Lord, according to your word!
  • v.114 You are my hiding place and my shield; I hope in your word.
  • v.116 Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope!
  • v.124 Deal with your servant according to your steadfast love, and teach me your statutes.

In this psalm, God says over and over again that He not only gives life according to His Word, but that He wants us to pray for life from this Word!

Several applications follow:

  1. Pray these kinds of prayers. God is happy to answer them – that’s why they’re here!
  2. Trust that the Word is for your good. God has in it spoken. He speaks again and again in it, but not against it.
  3. Trust that Jesus is the living Word. Christ is the embodiment, climax, fulfillment, and goal of all of God’s words! He is forever connected to the Book!
  4. Trust that the Bible promotes your faith in God’s Son. It isn’t mainly a list of rules, but a revelation of Christ Jesus, born, crucified, risen, and ruling.

We must not believe the lies that God mainly speaks outside of His Word. He has once spoken in it for our good in the glory of His Son, and He speaks it to us now by the power of His Spirit.

Every Command is a Gospel Command

A few years back, I remember hearing a young man ask the question at a youth retreat, “How far is too far to go with a girl?” The other leaders answered, “Well, you know when it’s too far,” or, “I wouldn’t even touch the girl until we got married,” and on and on.

But God reminded me at that moment that we aren’t primarily commanded to “do stuff” in the Bible, for doing stuff can never save us (not even from staining our purity before God). Lots of folks think the Bible is a list of rules (“DO pray; DON’T sleep around”), and that’s true to a point. There are lots of good rules. But it’s not ultimately true or good without the gospel.

Take John 20:30-31 for instance,

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

John could have written down a lot of other things for a lot of other reasons, but he tells us that by the Holy Spirit he wrote down what he did “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ.”

“But wait,” you say, “There is something there that we’re supposed to ‘do.’ It says we will have life.” Yes, I say, it does say we’ll have life “in [Christ’s] name,” and by particular means “by believing.” Whatever things we have or do is by trusting on Jesus and living by faith in Him.

This is not “Do Stuff.” It is the gospel.

Take again for an example Colossians 3. Paul will go on in verses 5-25 (and into chapter 4) to lay out several specifics in how Christians are to live: kill your own immorality, stop lying, be humble and kind to each other, forgive each other, live thankfully, work hard. But the way God lays those commands out and frames them in the gospel is utterly important.

Notice the first four verses:

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Under God’s Spirit, Paul begins the section by writing, “If then you have been raised with Christ.” The command of seeking heavenly things is couched in the reality of being raised with Jesus. Knowing His resurrection is the foundation of the command. The command is a gospel command.

Paul goes on to say that our lives are dead to this world and hidden with God because we died with Christ and He is hidden with God. We are to live out the truths of the gospel by believing these facts. Jesus is risen; all who believe are His.

These are gospel commands.

We could multiply examples:

  • In Ephesians 4:32, God tells us to forgive each other and be kind, as He in Christ forgave us.
  • Hebrews 10:19-25 tells us to draw near to God, hold fast to the faith, stir up each other to love, and continue meeting together because Jesus gave us entrance to God by His shed blood and constant intercession as high priest.
  • Even as Jesus commands anyone who would come after Him in Luke 9:23 to deny his own self, take up their cross daily, and follow after Christ, He is demanding that we believe His reward is better than life. Even in semi-cryptic terms, we must believe in the cross and the resurrection.

Sooner or later in the Bible, every command is a gospel command. The whole book is about one main event – the cross and the resurrection – in the life of its one main character, Jesus Christ.

So don’t believe those little children’s ditties and inscriptions on Christian paraphernalia that tell you the Bible is a list of rules. That looks true on the face but is rotten to the core. It only produces Pharisees. The Bible is a book about Jesus, and even when it tells us to do what is right, it is really telling us to live out what we believe and who we believe.

So back to my example (and you may be appalled that I left it alone for this long – what an issue!) – I did tell that young man that there were commands and standards, but I told him there were clear orders because of Jesus. Not because I say so or somebody else does, but because Jesus is risen. If you are to make a claim on Christ, you have to walk with Him by faith. His yoke is easy and His burden is light, because His commands are built on the gospel.

Works-Teachers, Don’t Forget Sin

When I listen to many evangelical teachers, I hear a similar refrain: “Just do what Jesus said to do, and then you’ll be like Him.” This appears true, but so does every false teaching on its facade.

There are several problems here. This works-teaching mangles faith into a “do this, do that, just do stuff” attitude, it ignores Jesus’ teachings on justification by faith alone, and it exchanges atonement for Christ-likeness.

Before all that, however, the “Just do what Jesus said and you’ll be like Him” teaching  misses the biggest problem we have with following Christ – sin. Works-teaching forgets that sin constantly stands in the way of our perfect fellowship with God.

We can never just “become like Jesus” without atonement.

In our sin, we deceive ourselves into thinking we can just up and follow Jesus on our own. But we are never, ever as well off as we think. We must return to the one-time-for-all-time sacrifice of Jesus for sins and kill our sin (Romans 8:1-13), but we must not deceive ourselves and say we have no sin (1 John 1:8-10).

Works-teachers, learn to deal with the heart first, learn to run to the Gospel, then the good works will follow when we have set our eyes upon Jesus.

Works-Teachers, Test Yourselves

Here is a handy checklist I use whenever I, as a husband, father, teacher, and preacher, suspect that I may be getting off the path of faith in favor of works:

  • Do you enjoy talking more about the commands of Scripture than Christ’s accomplishments in Scripture?
  • Do you get more excited about our personal obedience rather than Christ’s sacrificial obedience?
  • Do you reduce Christian “faith” to a list of do’s and don’t’s, however good those do’s and don’t’s may be?
  • When you feel unholy before God, does your mind run to your last good deed or to the crimson stains of the Savior?
  • Do you find your mind running more toward issues of social justice, moral excellence, and political activism rather than Christ’s justice, perfection, and lordship accomplished on the cross?

We are all legalists at heart, friends. The difference between a believer and an unbeliever is, when we see our sinful attitudes, whether we repent and believe the good news about the grace of God (Acts 20:24).

We Are Made to Be One with Christ

I was telling my daughter yesterday, “Yes, you can obey. You can listen to Daddy.” Then I remembered that we’re not morally able to obey . . . on our own.

I wondered, why then are we accountable for disobeying, not just Mommy and Daddy, but God?

God says that we are accountable because we were never meant to obey on our own. Being made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27) means that we were always intended to be in an asymmetric, unbalanced, all-dependent relationship with Him. We aren’t meant to obey on our own. We are meant to worship Him, love Him, trust Him, and then obey Him.

The reason we’re accountable is because we were created to be attached. We’re culpable under God because we’re meant to be connected to God.

The Bible teaches that all sin – from the greatest to the smallest, and there are differences in God’s eyes – is faithlessness. All sin comes from unbelief:

  • Moses is accountable for striking the rock because of his unbelief. When Moses and Aaron disobeyed God in Numbers 20, God responds, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.”
  • Israel is accountable for their rebellion because of their unbelief. When God sends Israel into exile in 2 Kings 17, He says of the people, “But they would not listen, but were stubborn, as their fathers had been, who did not believe in the LORD their God.” 
  • Inability to be saved by the gospel is because of unbelief. Jesus says in Luke 8:12, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.”
  • All that is done without faith is a sin. Romans 14:23 and Hebrews 11:6 are simple enough: “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” and “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

God is a kind Father and a good Judge. Since He made us to trust in Christ for our justification, our sanctification, and our redemption (1 Corinthians 1:31), He must also hold us accountable for whether or not we believe on Jesus through His Word.

Glory, Love, Learn: 3 Reasons to Work with Children

A few weeks back, we led a Bible club for the kids in our neighborhood, and I relayed to our teammates three good reasons to work with children:

  1. To see God’s peculiar glory. In Matthew 11:25-26, Jesus says, “I thank You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was Your gracious will.” God has a special glory that is revealed to children and those who have faith like children (Matthew 18:3-4). Working with children allows us to see it in us and them.
  2. Because Jesus loves children. In Mark 10:13-16, Jesus rebukes the disciples for keeping children away and takes them into His arms to bless them. Jesus loves children. He is not indifferent toward them or angry with them; He loves them.
  3. Because we need to learn from children. Christ says that if we don’t receive the kingdom of God like a child, we won’t enter it (Mark 10:15). And how are we to learn to be like children without these tiny teachers? In this way, we ought to learn more and be humbled more through children and young people more than any other group.

Looking back, we saw all three during that week, and why should’t we? Children are a blessing, and God is at work.

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