Deviation is Death (but grace…)

To be honest, Leviticus usually gets short shrift from most Bible reading plans.

Not that it isn’t included as one of the books to be read along with fan favorites, but believers who come along Leviticus in those plans, or who are looking for devotional material to start or end their day, don’t typically remain there long.

All Scripture, it is said, is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Theoretically, then, it is also profitable for preaching, though one who goes looking for examples in all the sermon outline resources will find that Leviticus is among the least represented. When I undertook to preach through Leviticus at Covenant Grace Baptist Church [Troy AL], I knew of only two other pastors who had done so, neither of which I actually knew, and one of which had been exposed as a heretic. Those facts did not give me much with which to persuade the congregation that the project was worthwhile.

Sample logic chain: all pastors who preach through Leviticus are either unknown or heretics; you are a preacher; therefore, if you preach through Leviticus it will make you either insignificant or apostate (and listening to it can’t be good for us, either).

Fortunately, the premises of the syllogism are untrue: it isn’t “all pastors,” and preaching doesn’t “make” the results.

What, then, does a Bible-believing congregation of Christian believers do with Leviticus? It’s Law, after all, and we are “not under law, but under grace” (Romans 6:14).

What one finds in Leviticus is, among other things, a corrective to a “law-less” grace, a grace that gives ample room for additional sin in order for grace to abound (Romans 6:1). More on that later.

Deviation is Death

A bird’s eye view of Leviticus, with its many provisions for sacrifices, cleanliness, festivals, behavior and temple accoutrements, leaves us with the immediate impression that DEVIATION from the standard of God means certain DEATH. Deviating from God’s standard of holiness results in the death of animals in the burnt offerings, purification offerings, reparation offerings, and others. Sons of Aaron, who offered “strange fire” to the Lord and deviated from his command, suffered instant and dramatic death (during a worship service!). And many violations of God’s commands carried the death penalty.

But Grace is Life

It would be easy to think that Leviticus is no place to find grace, but to do so would be a terrible mistake.

It is, after all, the same holy God who judges sin who also gives instructions for men to be able to come into his presence and not be burned to a crisp. It is the same God who sends unclean people outside the camp who also provides for the manner in which they can re-enter the camp. It is the same God who punishes his people repeatedly, severely, and dramatically who also promises that he will not “forsake them utterly” (Leviticus 26).

One of the first things we see as we come to Leviticus is that we must come without seeing God according to the caricature of God: in the Old Testament, God is angry; in the New Testament Jesus has softened him up.

Furthermore, DEVIATION is still DEATH: either our own, for our sin, or else Christ’s, for our sin. And, while grace is most completely demonstrated in the person and work of Jesus Christ, Leviticus shows us that even in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament and the penalty of death for law-breakers, God was showing his grace to people who did not deserve it.

The Reformed Pastor: he disciplines the flock

In The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter challenges pastors to lead their congregations in light of the responsibilities of the calling of God and the proclamation of the gospel.

Monument to Richard Baxter at St Mary's, Kidde...

Monument to Richard Baxter at St Mary’s, Kidderminster, Worcestershire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of these responsibilities is the exercise of church discipline. Many of us would prefer to leave this idea of church discipline with Baxter in the 1600s, as though we have progressed far beyond such antiquated notions of holiness and sanctification, which are obviously personal and optional preferences akin to Baxter’s hairdo and clothing choices.

Baxter advocates for initial private attempts by the pastor to bring a sinner to repentance, acknowledging the need for particular skill in the matter and sensitivity to the particular temperament of the offender.  Even so, Baxter emphasizes the need to “shake their careless hearts” with respect to the sin that they commit.   Baxter anticipates the objection that his hearers would surely raise, and which might as well have been prepared for those in our own time who don’t immediately agree with the concept of biblical church discipline. Those protestors would suggest “there is little likelihood that public reproof will do them good,” and that instead they would be “enraged by the shame of it.”

In response, Baxter proposes primarily that it is of little consequence to suggest that God’s “ordinances” (commands) are useless. The utility of a command from our perspective is not the test, but rather our faithfulness to obey it.   Further, Baxter argues that there is great utility in “shaming of sin and humbling the sinner,” and in a time such as ours in which “self-esteem” is put forth as the god who led us out of the land of Egypt, and in which we maintain a contra-Pauline philosophy that sin should abound so grace may abound all the more, he could be speaking to our hubristic generation, directly.

Baxter also addresses the fact that discipline is not only for the offending believer, though the goal is repentance and restoration to church fellowship, but that it is also for the witness and testimony of the church. For if the church proclaims the sufficiency of the gospel for salvation, and asserts that those who are in Christ are new creatures transformed by the grace of God, lives that remain unchanged and bound in sin testify more loudly than those proclaimations and assertions.    Church discipline is not easy, or popular, yet for Baxter the reformed pastor is duty-bound to so disciple the flock.

The Reformed Pastor: he shepherds the flock

Richard Baxter first published The Reformed Pastor in 1656, but stepping on toes and tipping sacred cows was apparently known then, too.

English: Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

English: Richard Baxter (1615-1691) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Baxter pulls no punches in describing The Reformed Pastor , and pays particular attention to hitting would-pe pastors with the reality of their responsibility to shepherd the flock.Before going further, I should say to those who might recoil at the idea that Baxter, or I, suggest that all pastors must be Reformed, or that his instructions and guidance are only for those pastors who are Reformed, that the “reformation” Baxter refers to is not theological, but practical. Baxter does not address the pastor who has Reformed theology, solely, but all those who should be reformed, practically, which a quick perusal of the contents of his book would persuade us includes pastors of all theological stripes.

Baxter focuses on the biblical admonition to “take heed the flock” (Acts 20:28), and gives pastors specific things that heeding the flock involves. The pastor should:

First, “know every person that belongs to our charge.”

Here Baxter reminds pastors that the charge and responsibility are not simply to manage the flock as a whole, but to care for each individual who is a member of it.

Second, “be acquainted … with the state of all our people…their inclinations and conversations.”

The pastor’s care for each individual goes beyond simply knowing his name and whether he contributes to the offerings regularly.

Third, know the “sins of which they are most in danger.”

This requires that the pastor not merely preach on sin generally (if he overcomes the spiritual inertia and cultural pressure to do even that), but also be aware of the particular sins and temptations that plague individuals, specifically.

Fourth, know “what duties they are most apt to neglect.”

It might seem that this is the easiest component of “taking heed the flock,” at least in the areas of attendance and giving, but once a congregation exceeds a certain size, even this measure of spiritual duties becomes difficult to maintain. Further, Baxter’s encouragement would include other, less visible spiritual duties, such as Bible reading, prayer, and evangelism.

Baxter concludes this admonition by reminding the pastor that “if we know not their temperament or disease, we are not likely to prove successful physicians.”

Are Baxter’s notions antiquated? Impossible? If the pastor is not doing these things, or ensuring that they are done, who is actually shepherding the flock?

Why Pastors Should Not Avoid Counseling

A representative of a state ministry agency, which provides counseling services, explained to a group of local pastors how his agency could partner with the local association of churches to provide counseling, once a week, by a counselor from another city. As he described the various types of counseling cases he frequently encountered, one pastor was led to exclaim, “Wow! Who counsels you after hearing about all these people’s troubles?” The counselor responded, matter-of-factly, “I go to my pastor.”

This episode reveals common misconceptions about biblical counseling and about a pastor’s role in it.The good thing about it was that someone realized that church members need counseling. The bad thing was that pastors were too eager to hand off the responsibility for counseling their own sheep to an outsider.

There are many reasons why any given pastor might decide to refer the counseling needs of his congregation to others: a lack of time; a perceived lack of ability and training; or even a preference to spend time and energy doing the more “glamorous” tasks of ministry, such as preaching and evangelism.

 

Let’s face it: biblical counseling does deal with people’s troubles, which are frequently ugly and reveal sinful hearts, and counseling can take an extraordinary amount of time and energy.

 

There will be times that the pastor must delegate counseling to others in his church, and there will be times that the pastor needs to enlist the help and support of more experienced, more specialized counselors. But the bible is clear that the counseling task is the responsibility of the pastor (and elders) in the context of the local church. The counseling task is part of the discipling ministry of the local congregation.   Stated negatively, various problems arise for the pastor when the counseling ministry of the local church is delegated to outsiders:   

 

1.  He proclaims the power of the gospel to save on Sunday, but denies its power to sanctify on Monday. In other words, the image that the congregation — and the world — gets is that the pastor is confident that the Scriptures are sufficient to make men saved, but is not quite so confident that the Scriptures are sufficient to make men holy.

 

2.  He abdicates one element of shepherding the sheep and gives it to an outsider. Regardless how confident the pastor is in the outside counselor’s abilities, biblical foundation, and biblical method, it remains the fact that the pastor has no authority over the outside counselor who is not a member of his congregation. This can have serious implications for shepherding.

 

3.  He avoids knowing the sheep as he should. If the only communication between the pastor and the sheep is the preaching on Sunday, and other formal teaching times, then the pastor naturally will not know the particular issues his sheep face, and won’t be aware of where spiritual warfare is taking place. The role of the shepherd is not only to provide grass to the sheep, but to tend wounds and mend broken bones.

 

There are, of course, ways for pastors to keep biblical counseling within the church as much as possible, and many benefits accrue to a church’s attempt to be faithful in this area. Look for that discussion in an upcoming post.

Preaching at funerals

Members of the Christian Church often view death and dying as the surrounding culture does, especially when it comes to funerals. Here is what Harry Reeder III says to about that, in the context of preaching at funerals:

Most of your listeners believer their loved one or friend has just gone from ‘the land of the living’ to the ‘land of the dying.’ You must proclaim to them that the exact opposite is actually true. They have not left the ‘land of the living’ to go to the ‘land of the dying’; they have left the ‘land of the dying’ to go to ‘the land of the living.’

The Functional Authority of Scripture

Here’s a good description of how Scripture should operate in the life of a believer:

Merely affirming that the Bible is inspired accomplishes very little. Asserting its authority isn’t much better. The inspiration and authority of the Scriptures are of value to us only so far as we change our beliefs to conform to its principles and alter our behavior to coincide with its imperatives.

(Sam Storms, in the Foreword to Note to Self: the Discipline of Preaching to Yourself, by Joe Thorn: Crowssway 2011).

This description is offered for us to cherish the Word of God as superior to to any other pretender for ultimate truth. Does the Word change us?