Wednesday, August 17, 2011
As I walk through
This wicked world
Searchin’ for light in the darkness of insanity.
I ask myself
Is all hope lost?
Is there only pain and hatred, and misery?
And each time I feel like this inside,
There’s one thing I wanna know:
What’s so funny ‘bout peace love & understanding?
~ Nick Lowe
If you have been reading and following Jean on his blog “Knots” - and I recommend you do - you couldn’t help but notice that he has addressed many variations of a concern that go something like this: “With all this overt grace coming from the pulpit, what’s happened to the things we are supposed do?” What do you have against telling us what Scripture teaches about the spiritual disciplines? I mean, doesn’t the Westminster Standards in the Shorter Catechism question #3 say that Scripture principally teaches what man is to believe concerning God AND what duty God requires of man?”
Similarly, one critique that is leveled at small groups is that they are weighted too much on the fellowship side and not enough of the disciplines of the Christian walk. I have had more than one person say something like, “I don’t need another social gathering, what I need is accountability. I need to be with other believers so we can recite the Scripture memory verses for that week, go over the completed lessons from the previous week, and engage in an intense time of prayer. I have little time for anything else.” Now on the other hand, I have an equal number of people tell me they really only have time for the small group gathering and really can’t give any time for a lot of homework between meetings let alone be held accountable to do spiritual disciplines.
Let me go on record as saying that the Christian walk is not less than the spiritual disciplines. I contend it’s more. It’s your very life that you share with others (1 Thess 2:8) It’s being poured out as a drink offering in the service of others (Phil 2:14-18). It’s living as a person-in-community where your faith in God is fed as a means of grace and by the means of grace - see all the “one another” passages, including Eph 4:2,”with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love…”
So, what about the spiritual disciplines? Is there a place for them in all small groups or just the more serious and intense leader’s groups? And which spiritual disciplines list is best? Is there a definitive list endorsed by Southwood or as a Small Group ministry? Or should we even be talking about disciplines when grace is in the room?
In fairness, most lists of the spiritual disciplines with which I am familiar include the widely agreed upon means of grace such as regular Bible reading and meditation, prayer, worship, and Scripture memorization. Some lists include fasting. Others like Richard Foster’s list in his classic book Celebration of Disciplines add solitude and simplicity.
Now, no doubt, the content of all the strongly evangelical Christian disciplines lists out there can find support in the words of Jesus and throughout Scripture. Jesus taught his disciples through his words and example to pray (Matt 6:9-13) fast (Matt 6:16-18) witness (Matt 28:18-20; Acts 1:8) engage in solitude (Mark 1:35) and simplicity (Matt 6:28; Lk 9:58; Mark 6:8). But, Jesus on one occasion lists just two things to do: Love God and Love others (Luke 10:25-28) On another occasion, he gave just one - Believe Him:
Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
So what are we supposed to do? Just believe? Love God and others? Should we actively promote and pursue spiritual disciplines, or does grace make that seem legalistic? I mean, “What’s so funny ‘bout prayer, Word and sometimes fasting?”
Two things are helpful here.
First, in his book, The Disciplines of Grace Jerry Bridges compares the Christian life to an airplane. It needs two wings to fly. On the one wing he labels Dependence, which represents the truth that we are totally resting and relying on God’s grace alone to sustain and sanctify us. On the other is the wing of Discipline, which represents our need to regularly recognize and embrace God’e means of grace. You can’t fly the plane of being a Christ follower on one wing. It’s not just Dependence, nor is it just Discipline. The Christian life needs two wings to fly: Dependence and Discipline. It’s both/and.
Second, one of my seminary professors Richard Pratt taught us the Christian life isn’t a linear progression with steps you take in a particular order with results that move you to the next level. I learned from him, and my life has borne this out, that the Christian life is better described as organic rather than linear. It’s more like being a circus performer spinning many plates on thin sticks at the same time. You can’t keep every plate spinning at full speed at the same time. There is always a plate or two (or ten!!) that is slowing down and about to come crashing off the stick. Like spinning plates, there are some things in our hearts and lives that need more attention than others. Depending on the circumstance and situation in your life, some spiritual disciplines will be more necessary than others given the ever shifting context of our life experiences. Sometimes it’s suffering that is the means of grace God uses to re-present himself as our true comfort and longed-for refuge. Other times, during a relative time of ease and comfort, it may be through the means of living life in community that God renews and builds your faith in Him and pulls you away from worshiping at the alter of the god of ease and comfort that is slowly capturing your heart.
What then is needed? The very same disciplines that we will continually run to at every point in our journey, whether it was when we first saw our need of a savior, or years later when we see our need again for the millionth time yelling at the kids as we pull the car into the church parking lot on Sunday, namely, faith and repentance. We are to constantly see our need of Jesus by turning to the truth by faith and turning away from idols by repentance. We are to continually return to the truth of the Cross and away from our sin that provoked Jesus to the Cross.
Furthermore, it’s important that an understanding of why and how we engage in spiritual disciplines include context and not just content. Suffering is a means of grace as well as Scripture. Life in community as well as time alone in prayer. What is helpful, then, is a framework through which to view the disciplines and to identify disciplines that embrace faith and repentance and our identity as people-in-community experiencing and responding to the precious and wonderful grace freely and lavishly given to us.
The Spiritual Disciplines and Southwood Small Groups
What’s to follow is a framework for how Small Groups at Southwood will view and understand the spiritual disciplines, and what’s more, which disciplines we will adopt and emphasize in the Small Group environment as we move forward.
First, faith and repentance. The faith and repentance dynamic is the primary framework for all of the Christian life. This continual cycle of turning to truth by faith and away from idols through repentance is what we are to be about on a moment by moment basis. It is the fruit of our continual awareness and deepening understanding of our need for Christ and His grace. Faith and repentance turn our gaze to the Cross where we see our need of grace and the infinite cost Jesus suffered to give us grace.
Second, we will refer to spiritual disciplines as “Means of Grace.” This an important nuance when considering the purpose of the spiritual disciplines. Tim Chester wonderfully says it this way, “The means of grace are the means God uses to feed our faith in Him.” (You Can Change, p.140) Feeding our faith in God is critical especially as we are constantly faced with a choice - The choice of whether to give in to our hearts and our sinful desires that live there by willingly engaging in sin through believing lies about God instead of what God’s Word reveals is true about Him. And so, for the endurance to persevere, or courage to speak truth in love, or the strength to overcome fear and worry, our faith in God must be what we lean into rather than faith in ourselves or in others. Thus, we are to regularly engage in and acknowledge God’s purpose in the means of grace, namely, to feed our faith in Him through the truth of the Gospel of grace.
Finally, what than are the means of grace that Small Groups will emphasize and encourage? With the means of grace defined as “the means God uses to feed our faith in Him” we could make the case to include any number of activities. Fully acknowledging that they are not exhaustive, nor the only means of grace, the items in the list below are offered as guides to deepen faith and repentance. The Small Group environment will move forward with adopting these seven means of grace toward which we will train leaders to emphasize and embrace in their own lives, in the lives of their group members, and in the relational life of the group.
Means Of Grace - What God uses to feed our faith in Him*:
1) The Bible:
It speaks liberating truth to our enslaved hearts, both as we read it for ourselves and as we speak it to one another. The Bible, by revealing the glory of Christ, reinforces our new spirit-given desires.
God is the great change agent in our lives, when we realize this, prayer will inevitably move up the priority list. For some, this will require “planned neglect” - deciding to neglect other activities to make the space for prayer.
One of the reasons God has put us in Christian communities is to help us change. The church, including the small group environment, is to be a community of change. What’s more, our identity as people-in-community (Ex 6:7; Rev 21:3) compels us to live our lives in and among people because we simply cannot be who we were created to be without connecting to other people.
When we worship God, we are reminding ourselves that God is bigger and better than anything sin offers. It’s not just an affirmation that God is good. It’s an affirmation that God is better. We not only call others to worship God, but also we call one another away from the worship of other gods.
We often think of service as the fruit or sign of change. But, it’s also a means of grace that God uses to change us.
Often the events of our lives appear to be meaningless and irrelevant. But all the while God is training us in grace and godliness. Suffering always presents us with a choice. We can get frustrated, angry, bitter, or despondent as our desires for control, success, love, or health gets threatened, or we can take hold of God in a new way, finding our joy in Him and our comfort in His promises.
Thinking of Jesus’ return, and the New Heaven and New Earth loosens the hold that the world has on us and sets us free from the desperate need to squeeze the most out of this lifetime. (2 Peter 3:10-14; 1 John 3:2-3) This quote from James Smith demonstrates the power of hope to feed our faith in God, “I shall have three grand holidays: one when the Holy Spirit sets my soul at liberty, another when death sets me free from this mortal clay, and and another when Jesus comes to be glorified in his saints.” (Christ Exalted )
And so, yes, spiritual disciplines - ah, rather, the means of grace - are essential to the growth of a follower of Christ, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” (2 Pet 3:18). They’re essential because a disciple - or a Christ follower, or however you wish to term it - is someone who is engaged in the lifelong, daily struggle to believe the truth about Jesus. Someone who is actively working to believe the truth about Jesus by faith and turn from the idols that have captured their hearts through repentance. The Lord gives us what we need to feed our faith in Him, and so, let us eat at His banquet table what he puts before us with faith and by faith. In upcoming posts I will begin to write about how faith and repentance and the means of grace impact how we pastor one another in our small groups with the gospel in the everyday ordinary of life.
* These seven means of grace can be found in Chester’s book You Can Change. Most of the subsequent explanations are also from the book, but are taken from my journal notes I wrote down as I read the book. All that to say, this is not original to me, and it can be found on pages 140-148 (Chester, You Can Change).
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You'll find most of my recommended books available in the Guest Center at Southwood.
You Can Change
How do we mortify sin? How do we address the sin in our lives that reignite like a trick birthday candle we thought we had already blown out of our lives? This is a careful and thoroughly theological book that is hopeful without avoiding honesty. It is practical without being legalistic. It gets to the root of the sinful areas of our lives without offering a prescriptive regimen to hide behind avoiding the grace that has the only true power to teach “us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” Titus 2:11-14
Relationships: A Mess Worth Making
Timothy Lane & Paul Tripp
Small groups would be easy if weren’t for the people in the group! This book will help equip you to see your own sin first and provide the courage and humility to address it in others.
The Heart of a Servant Leader
This is a collection of letters written by Jack Miller to people experiencing real-life concerns and struggles. Through these gracious and honest letters you will learn how to humbly offer to others (and yourself!) hope, repentance, and courage that flows from the truth of the gospel of grace. Though this isn’t a “how to” book full of nifty steps to Your Best Gospel Life Now. It’s a glimpse into the heart of a person who has found food at the Cross, and you watch (and learn) as he humbly points others to the feast.
Comforts From The Cross
Elyse M. Fitzpatrick
This 31 day devotional will bring you to the foot of the cross to remember and celebrate the truth of the gospel of grace, and develop skills that will help “inform, free, gladden, and enliven your soul every day.” Becoming proficient in applying the Gospel of grace to our own hearts is a key skill that is well worth our effort to develop.
- Christ PCA - Nashville
Scott Sauls and CPC Staff
Listen to sermons from Senior Pastor Scott Sauls and other CPC pastors at a sister church.
- Lookout Mountain PCA
Joe Novenson and LMPC Staff
Check out sermons by Senior Pastor Joe Novenson and other LMPC pastors at a sister church.
- Steve Brown Etc.
Steve Brown’s unique blend of orthodoxy and controversy, humor and profundity, and a refusal to play religious games will give you permission you have needed to stop being so uptight. And even if it’s for 30 minutes, you just might experience radical freedom, infectious joy and maybe even a bit of surprising faithfulness.
- Tim Chester: reformed spirituality and missional church
Tim has an incredible way of applying the Gospel of grace that is both practical and honest with a consistent skillful affinity to point us to Jesus. He is director of The Porterbrook Institute; a church planter with The Crowded House in Sheffield, UK; and the author of over a dozen books including Total Church and You Can Change.
- Of First Importance
Living Each Day in the Good of The Gospel
Here you will find a growing collection of gospel-centered quotes to help reorient your thoughts toward the splendor and grandeur of the person and work of Jesus.