The Lord’s Day Morning
March 18, 2007
Matthew 28:19-20; I Timothy 1:5; Philippians 2:12-13
Biblical Priorities for Church Life
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Since October of last year, we have sporadically been working through a series of topical and expository messages on biblical priorities for the life of our church. We’ve been asking ourselves the question, “What does God say in the Bible characterizes a healthy local congregation of believers?” What are the characteristics? What are the qualities? What are the priorities? What are the emphases of a local congregation of believers that are being informed in their faith and practice, in their belief, in their life, and in their ministry by the word of God? What are the things that God says in the Bible are most important to healthy congregational life? And we’ve been asking that question not to pat ourselves on the back, but to learn, to be corrected, and to grow in our own aspirations and experience of what it means to be believers together.
We started out by asking about the context in which we live and minister, and we said that it’s important for a church to understand the times, because the times do impact how we live and minister — sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. The times sometimes create obstacles for our lives together; sometimes they give us opportunities for the gospel.
But then as we began to ask positively what does God want in a healthy local congregation of believers, we emphasized the importance of the expounding of the word of God; of biblical expository preaching; the importance of Christ-exalting, God-centered worship; the importance of our congregation’s grasp of truth; and, our appreciation for the significance of Bible teaching and doctrine. We talked about the expansion of the word of God, or the establishment of the next generation in the word of God through family religion and the ordinary means of grace. We talked about the importance of a congregation understanding the gospel…what is our message, what is the message that God has given us to share with the world. We talked about the importance of conversion — God’s transforming work in our hearts and lives. We talked about the importance of making disciples through evangelism and outreach, through the work of missions.
We talked the last time we were together about the importance of church membership, and we asked very bluntly, “What’s so important about church membership?” And we gave a three-part answer: that it’s biblical; that it’s vital; and, that it’s not optional. And we went on to suggest that one reason that American Christians don’t value church membership is because it doesn’t cost us anything. And we contrasted that to Christians around the world today, and argued that church membership is in fact essential and necessary for discipleship and witness, and safety and encouragement and accountability.
So, we’ve been looking through biblical qualities of the life of the church, and today we come to discipleship and growth. The message is listed in your bulletin under the title “Let’s Grow,” and it’s titled that way deliberately because God cares about our growth, and He tells us in the Bible how we go about growing in the church, and He explains to us that spiritual growth is the sign of spiritual health in a church. And so we’re going to look at those things together today.
We’re going to begin in Matthew 28. It’s a verse that we’ve looked at at least three times in the course of this series because it’s so key. We’re also going to look at I Timothy 1 and at
Philippians 2. In fact, I’d ask you to keep your Bibles handy. We’re going to be looking around a lot (in the New Testament, especially) together today as we work through the issue of discipleship and growth.
Let me just tell you ahead of time, before we begin, that we’re going to be looking to emphasize four things as we study the Bible’s teaching about discipleship and growth. First, we’re going to be emphasizing that God cares about spiritual growth. Secondly, we’re going to be emphasizing that God tells us how spiritual growth happens in the Bible. Thirdly, we’ll be emphasizing that spiritual growth (growth in Christ-likeness, growth in godliness) is the sign of spiritual health. And, fourth, we’re going to emphasize that it is the church’s business to promote spiritual growth in its members, in the believers that are part of the congregation. We’ll be looking at those four things together today as we study God’s word. Let’s pray as we prepare to hear His word read.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your word. We acknowledge that when Your word is read in the gathering of Your congregation, it is like Your voice speaking to our own ears and souls; so help us to hear Your word for what it is – not the words of men, but the very words of God – and, to respond to it in faith and in obedience. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hear the word of God in Matthew 28:19-20:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you….”
Now in that verse I want you to just note two things. First, note that Jesus says go make — what? Go make disciples. So the goal of our evangelism, the goal of our missions, the goal of our outreach is the making of disciples. Secondly, I want you to notice that He calls for the making of disciples in the context of the church. Notice how He puts it: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit….” So those disciples are going to be discipled where? In the context of the place where they’re baptized. Where’s that? The local church. So their discipleship is going to happen in the context of the local church.
Now turn forward with me in your New Testament to I Timothy 1. It’s a passage we’ve looked at on a number of occasions over the last seven or eight years as we’ve tried to think about the issue of discipleship. I Timothy 1:5…here is Paul explaining what the aim or the goal of his teaching ministry is. Now when you hear something like that, your ears want to perk up. What was Paul’s aim or goal in his teaching ministry? Well, he tells you point blank in
I Timothy 1:5:
“The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.”
So he is aiming to produce in Christians love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.
And then, if you’d also now turn to Philippians 2:12-13, we find Paul saying to the Philippians this (it’s the second half of verse 12 that we’ll start in). Philippians 2:12, second half of the verse:
“…Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”
Now again there are two things I want you to see about that passage. First of all, when he says “work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” he’s not telling you to save yourself. He’s not telling you that salvation is by your works and effort, or by your really working hard, or by your being scared and working hard. When he says salvation in this passage, he is especially talking about your sanctification, and so what he’s saying is take your sanctification seriously. Be in awe about the awesome responsibility to grow in godliness.
But then, secondly, I want you to see that he says
“…for it is God who is at work in you.”
So the point there is emphasized that God doesn’t save you from your sins, justify you by grace, and say, ‘OK, buddy! Now you’re on your own! The rest is up to you. I justified you; now sanctification is on your own. You just do the best you can, you work as hard as you can to grow in grace and godliness, because it’s all up to you.’ No. What does it say?
“…For it is God who is at work in you….”
In other words, God not only calls you to apply yourself to sanctification, but He continues to work in you for your sanctification and growth. Thus ends this reading of God’s holy word. May He add His blessing to it.
Keep your Bibles open, because we’re going to continue to look at them.
Now let me ask you a question. What if your child was not growing in stature or maturity? What if there was not apparent physical or biological developmental reason why your child wasn’t growing, but you had an 18-year-old boy who was seven with regard to his physical and social maturity? Well, let me tell you, as a parent you would be doing everything you could to figure that out, and you would have been doing that for about ten years by the time that child got to 18! Why? Because as a parent you are concerned for your children to mature. If a child begins to lag substantially behind the normal rates of development and maturity, an observant parent would want to do what was within their reasonable bounds of responsibility to do to help promote that maturity, because we want to see our children mature. It’s vital to their performance in this life to all manner of things that relate to their lives. As parents we’re concerned about our children’s maturity. Well, surprise, surprise! God is concerned about our maturity, too! He wants Christians to grow. He does not want us to stay infants. He does not want us to stay children. He does not want us to stay adolescents. He wants to see us grow up into maturity, and He talks about it all the time in the word–and that’s where we’re going to go first this morning.
I. God cares about our growth.
God cares about our growth, and that is one reason why a healthy church focuses on discipleship, because a healthy church wants to see Christians growing. God cares go much about growth in the Bible that He commands it.
Let me ask you to turn in your Bibles to I Peter 2:2-3:
“Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation….”
So there God is saying through Peter to you that you are to long for the milk of the word like a newborn babe wants his or her mother’s milk. Why should you long for the word? So that you will grow! There is a concern for growth there.
Again, turn to II Peter 3:18, and look at the second half of that verse. Here’s God saying through Peter:
“…Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
So not only does God say through His son Jesus Christ to the church that we are to go and make disciples, but God says that we who have been made disciples of Christ are to grow in our discipleship. That is, we are to grow in respect to our salvation (I Peter 2:2), and we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (II Peter 3:18). God cares so much about growth that He commands it, and He commands us to be concerned about it.
But God not only cares so much about growth that He commands it, He cares so much about growth that He causes it. Now that was one of the emphases that we saw in Philippians 2, that God is at work in us, both to will and to do His good pleasure. But let me point you to some other passages that emphasize this, as well.
Turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, chapter four. Here Jesus speaks about the growth that God causes in the kingdom of heaven. Mark 4:26:
“The kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil; and he goes to bed at night and he gets up by day, and the seed sprouts and grows — how, he himself does not know. The soil produces crops by itself; first the blade, then the head, then the mature grain in the head. But when the crop permits, he immediately puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Now one of Jesus’ points there is that yes, we’re called to sow the seed, but God is the one who gives the return — even to the point of us not quite knowing how the kingdom of God grew. We just did what He told us to do, and God gave the growth.
Again, Paul will emphasize this in I Corinthians 3. Turn with me there…I Corinthians 3:6,7. The Corinthians are really big on their religious heroes, whether it be Apollos or Paul, or someone else, and they put great stock on who their discipler was. And in response to that Paul says in I Corinthians 3:5-7:
“What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but…”
Who gave the growth?
“…but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants and the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
It is God who has such a concern for His church to grow that He gives servants to the church, officers to the church, shepherds to the church, pastors to the church, so that the church grows. But guess who grows the church? Not the pastor! Not the elders! Not the shepherds! Not the teachers! Not even the apostles! But God grows the church. He uses means — pastors and shepherds — but God is the one who gives the growth.
Then again, this is why Paul can say in I Thessalonians 3 (turn with me there)…
I Thessalonians 3:12. If God didn’t cause growth in the church, Paul couldn’t say this, but Paul says:
“May the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another.”
Now, Paul has said ‘the whole goal of my teaching is…’ — what? — “…love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith.” The whole thing I’m aiming for is that you will grow in love from the very depths of your being. But what does the Apostle Paul say in
I Thessalonians 3? Who is the one who causes love to abound? God! God is the one who causes you to grow in love. Yes, the teaching of God’s word, the preaching of God’s word, the discipling of God’s people in God’s word is a means — it’s an instrument, it’s a tool that God has appointed for that to happen — but who is the one who gives the growth in love? It’s God. God is so concerned about our growth that He grows us. He is in the business of growing.
And, my friends, if God cares so much about our growing that He commands it and causes it, guess what? We ought to care about our growth, too. We ought to care deeply about our spiritual growth. That means that pastors and elders need to care about spiritual growth. How often in both the Old and the New Testaments do you see an indictment brought by God against the religious leaders of God’s people for doing — what? Not caring about the spiritual well-being and growth of God’s people. You can see Ezekiel bringing a strong charge against the religious leaders of his day:
“Woe to you, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding themselves! Should you not have been feeding the flock?”
What’s the whole point? Those shepherds have only been concerned about their own welfare. They haven’t been concerned about doing — what? — growing the sheep. And so Ezekiel brings this strong indictment in Ezekiel 34:2-4.
But you see the same thing when Jesus speaks in John 10, when He contrasts Himself as the good shepherd who wants to do — what? — care for the sheep, in contrast to the hireling who, when the wolf comes, runs away. The good shepherd wants to see the sheep grow. The good shepherd is concerned for the spiritual progress and well-being of the sheep, and so the pastors of the church, the elders of the church, need to be concerned for growth.
But, my friends, you, too, should be concerned to grow! You ought to have a desire to grow, and Paul speaks about that in Ephesians 4:14-16. Turn with me there. Ephesians 4:14-16:
“As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine…but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head….”
So, if you are a believer, if you are a disciple, if you are a church member, it ought to be a standing concern of yours to grow. You ought to want to grow. You ought to want to grow in your Christ-likeness, to grow in your discipleship, to be more like the Lord Jesus Christ, to be more and more what a disciple is intended by God to be.
Now, that’s the first point: God cares about our growth, and that’s why discipleship is so important in the church.
II. God, in the Bible, tells us how growth happens.
But here’s the second point: God tells us how this growth happens, in the Bible. Yes, we’ve emphasized that God does it, but God tells us what He wants to do that He uses in order to grow us, and He tells us in the Bible. God gives us instructions on how to go about discipling in the Bible. Turn with me to II Peter 1, and look at verses 3-8:
“Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
Now there’s the first thing that you see about how you grow. How do you grow in godliness? How do you grow in grace? How do you grow in discipleship?”…Through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
In other words, godliness is planted as we receive the knowledge of God. The knowledge of God is the means by which we grow in godliness. Godliness grows as we believe the promises of God. Godliness is reflected in our character becoming conformed to Jesus Christ, and godliness comes to fruition as we become useful in the knowledge of God. The character traits listed in
II Peter 1 are all things that make us useful and fruitful in the service of God, so the knowledge of God is not simply given to us to make us smarter. It’s given to us so that our character is formed and changed, and we become useful and fruitful.
Some of you, a number of years ago, may have gone to see over the course of two days the absolutely astounding film production of Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit. Some of you may have read Little Dorrit before. I can’t remember exactly the last line (but I’ll bet Derek will), but the last line is something like this. After this massive novel that Dickens has written, his final line is that “They both went out and led useful lives.”
“They paused for a moment on the steps of the portico, looking at the fresh perspective of the street in the autumn morning sun’s bright rays, and then went down. Went down into a modest life of usefulness and happiness. Went down to give a mother’s care. Went down to…”
You know, you’re waiting for “and they both lived happily ever after,” but the emphasis of Dickens is that this couple, when they finally get together, they were useful to their society…to their community. And that was as high a compliment as Dickens could give, and there’s a lot of biblical truth in that. We’re called to be useful. We’re not just called to know stuff; we’re called to be useful. And so God’s truth is designed to create a godliness in us that is useful and practical.
III. Growth in godliness is the only sign of spiritual health.
Thirdly, God tells us that growth in godliness is the only sign of our spiritual health. Growth in godliness is the only sure sign of spiritual life and health. Turn with me to James 2. You will remember this exchange that happens there. James asks this question (James 2:14):
“What use is it, my brethren, if a man says he has faith, but does not have works? Can that kind of faith save him?”… (19)”You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless?” …(26) “Just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead.”
And what James is saying there is that simply mentally assenting to certain truths about God is not a sign of spiritual life. It’s when that truth has taken hold of the life so that the life is transformed by the truth that we see — what? – a sign of spiritual life. So, if we’re looking for signs of spiritual life, a mere cognitive knowledge or mental assent is not a sure sign of spiritual life.
Moving spiritual experiences aren’t a sign of spiritual life. Do you remember in Matthew 7 — you may want to look at 7:22…it’s at the end of the Sermon on the Mount…Matthew 7:22. Jesus says that on the last day there are going to be people who say, “Lord, Lord! Did we not prophesy in Your name, and do miracles?” And what is Jesus going to say to those people? “Depart from Me; I never knew you.” Now, very interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say to them when they say, “Lord, Lord! Didn’t we prophesy in Your name and do miracles?”…He doesn’t say ‘No, you didn’t.’ He doesn’t deny their experience of the supernatural, but He does deny their knowledge of Him, and so moving spiritual experiences and supernatural experiences are not a sign of spiritual life.
What is? Well, Jesus says in that passage…who is it that He’s going to receive on the Last Day? Those who have listened to His word and done it. Those who have embraced His word and lived it out. Those are going to be the ones acknowledged as His disciples.
You know, on one occasion Jesus’ own family, including His mother, came to see Him while He was speaking. And the crowd said, “Jesus, Your mother and Your brothers are here and they want to see you.” And do you remember what Jesus said? “Who are My mother and brothers? The ones who do My will, those are My mother and brothers.” Jesus emphasizes that it is in response to the truth in godliness that we have a sure sign of spiritual life.
Numerical growth is no sign of spiritual life in the church. The only sign of spiritual life in the church is growth in godliness, growth in grace, growth in discipleship. Over and over again Jesus emphasizes this in His word:
“A good tree does not produce bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot produce good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. You will know them by [their] fruits.”
And so Jesus says, What’s the index of the spiritual health of First Presbyterian Church? The index is, is the congregation growing in godliness? Are we becoming more Christ-like? Is the truth that is being pumped out in every direction resulting in growth in grace and godliness?
IV. The church’s business sis the promotion of spiritual health and growth.
Finally, fourthly, God tells us that the church’s business is the promotion of spiritual health and growth. The church’s primary obligation is in nurturing the growth in godliness of Jesus’ disciples. Again, turn back with me to Ephesians 4:11-16, and notice again what we’re told. God has given us some apostles, some prophets, some as evangelists, some as pastors and teachers — what? —
“…For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ,” [so that we are] “no longer children, but grown up in all aspects into Him, who is the head…” [so that] “…the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working out of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.”
And so what the Apostle Paul is telling us there is that the church is the primary place and the primary means of promoting the spiritual maturity; and you’ll notice if you look at verses 15 and 16 closely, he specifically indicates how he uses a local church to develop the maturity of its people.
First of all, in the local church truth is spoken in love. Truth is spoken in the context of loving relationship. And, secondly, there is a proper working and service of each part of the body. The body builds itself up in love, Paul says (verse 16), by the proper working of each individual part; so, corporate growth happens as we each serve in the ways that God has called and gifted us to do as individual members of His corporate body.
Just as there were truths that I learned in concept and in a measure understood in seminary– and then I got married! And those truths, some of which I was very excited about, ceased to be theoretical and became imminently practical; and things that I thought I understood, I suddenly realized I didn’t have a clue when I thought that I understood that. So it’s all fine and good to sit in a systematic theology class and learn about total depravity, but when you get married you see the selfishness of your own heart. You don’t have to have somebody give you a lecture about the theoretical selfishness of the human heart. You see the selfishness of that. And what happens? You learn the truth in the context of marriage in a way that you couldn’t have learned it otherwise.
The same thing happens in the church. All of those things that we learn in the word, as we live them out in the context of the church we learn them at a level at which we never could have learned them. And then we begin to express them and experience them, and live them out and serve in accordance with them in ways that we could not have done on our own. And so the church is designed as the perfect nursery — seminary — place of education in growth in grace and godliness and discipleship by God. God cares about growth. He tells us how we grow. He tells us that spiritual growth in godliness is the only index of spiritual health. And He tells us, ‘The place where I want that to happen, the place where I designed that to happen, is in the context of the church.’
Heavenly Father, we want to be a growing church. Lord, we do want to reach more people than we’ve ever reached before. We’d love to fill up that new sanctuary quicker than we imagined; but, Lord, more than this we want to make sure that we are reaching deep down as we reach way out. We want You to grow members and not just numbers. We want to grow in grace, as You’ve told us in Your word that we’re to make disciples. You’ve told us in Your word that Your truth is so that we would grow up in love. You’ve told us in Your word that You want us to have a deep, profound, respectful concern for our sanctification, and that You’re about that work in us, and so we want to be characterized as a growing church, and thus a healthy church: a church that’s growing in grace; a church that’s growing in Christ-likeness; a church that’s growing in godliness; a church filled with disciples that are becoming more like Jesus. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.
[Congregational Hymn: Christ Is Made the Sure Foundation]
Grace to you, and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
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