Life Together: Our Church Covenant – Part I

Our covenant begins with this preface:

Together we enter into a covenant as God’s people and make the following commitments to each other.  These commitments are not burdensome but rather they are our joy as we live out our faith in Jesus and fulfill the biblical command to love our brothers and sisters with whom we share union in Christ:

We are reminded at the very outset what this whole “covenant” thing is about – it is our mutual pledge (“commitments to each other”) and it is not primarily a matter of duty but of Christian delight (“not burdensome but rather they are our joy”).   Further, this is not to be thought of as a list of rules to keep, but rather a tangible expression of living by faith (Gal 2:20-21) and obedience to Christ’s command to love one another (John 13:34-35).

But even more fundamental than establishing a context of living by faith and loving one another is our mutual fellowship in Christ Himself (“…with whom we share union in Christ”).

The whole reason we can covenant together in the first place as Christ’s people is because we are, in fact, Christ’s people.  Our fellowship with one another is not a matter of simply deciding we need some people to get along with in life, or that we are living out some version of a “social contract” where we define laws to protect ourselves.  No, it is something far more than that.  We cannot even talk about our lives together as a church without first talking about who we are in Jesus.  We are, after all, His body.  We are in Him, He is in us, and He is with us.  We possess the Spirit of Christ, and therefore have fellowship not only with God but with one another.

It is on this foundation that everything else is built.  It’s as if everything else we could say about life together in the church is really just putting details to this reality – that we are the body of Christ.  What does this look like?  What does it mean for a people to take this shared identity seriously?  That’s what the rest of the covenant addresses.


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Life Together: Our Church Covenant – Introduction

Timmy Brister has shared some helpful insights into life together as a church family:

For instances, God commands that we forgive one another as God in Christ has forgiven us. That assumes that we live in such proximate intimacy that we are going to sin against one another and be offended/hurt by one another (the Bible expects this). The proper response (which the Bible expects also) is to lovingly engage the one who has hurt/offended us and seek gospel reconciliation by making peace through repentance and forgiveness. Others include bearing one another’s burdens (context is addressing a sinning brother) and loving in ways that records of wrongdoings are not upheld and hoping all things at all times is applied.

For a church that has articulated a clear set of mutual commitments to one another in defining their relationship together (a church “covenant”), this is important because it can protect us from confusing a church “covenant” from a church “contract”:

This is important to remember because we are in danger of misunderstanding grace-based church covenant and making it into a condition-binding contract. In a church contract, when the conditions are not met by other members in our church community, you feel that you are justified in leaving that congregation in pursuit of a more perfect community. 

The whole article is helpful in thinking about the nature of life together as a church body, but the upshot for me is that it has gotten me thinking about our own church covenant, our mutual commitments, and how we think about them (when they are fulfilled and when they are not).  So I have decided it would be a helpful and hopefully edifying exercise to review our church covenant section by section in order to remind us of our identity in Christ and its implications for our life together.  Look for the first installment soon!



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Works vs. Hearing

In preparing for last week’s sermon (Galatians 3:1-9), I was struck by what was compared to the works of law.  In chapter 2, the contrast is between works and faith; but in chapter 3 the contrast became something subtly different.  The contrast is not specifically between “works” and “faith,” but “works” and “hearing.”  The issue fundamentally is one of promise (which God speaks and we therefore “hear”) versus acquiring righteousness ourself by our own efforts.  I attempted to give an explanation of this in the sermon, but in case it wasn’t clear I have come across a quote that I think helps make the point – perhaps more clearly than I was able to make it.  This quote describes Martin Luther’s perspective:

“This is the easy mistake to make when thinking of justification by faith alone: it can sound as if, instead of all the old works and penances, faith is now the one thing we must ‘do’ – even work hard at – to be saved.  The danger then would be that we would fall straight back into Luther’s old tortured introspection, wondering if we’re ‘doing’ the act of faith enough.  It might be more helpful to describe what Luther discovered as ‘justification by God’s word’ instead of ‘justification by faith,’ because it is God’s word that justifies here, not our faith.  Faith, thought Luther, is not some inner resource we must summon up; if it were, it would by his definition be sin!  For him, the question ‘Have I got enough faith?’ completely misunderstands what faith is, by looking to and so relying on itself, rather than Christ.  Faith is a passive thing, simply accepting, receiving, believing Christ – taking God seriously in what he promises in the gospel.” (Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame)

Let us re-commit ourselves to hear God’s Word well, to hear with faith.

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The Service of Christ and the Favor of Men

Herman Ridderbos on Galatians 1:10 and the incompatibility of seeking to please men and Christ (from his now out-of-print Commentary on Galatians, p. 56):

It was therefore the motive of obedience to God that prompted him to speak as he had spoken.  But for this he would not have taken so radically thoroughgoing a position.  The last part of the sentence confirms all this by pointing to the fact that human desire and the service of Christ are incompatible.  This is so not merely on the basis of the general rule of Matt 6:24, but especially also because of the nature of the service of Christ.  The service of Christ goes straight against the grain of what people naturally love to hear (cf. 5:11 and 6:12); the service of Christ demands precisely a readiness to surrender everything for His sake, and most particularly this favor of men.


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You Cannot Have It Both Ways

“When we are presented with a wrong gospel, are we going to be God-centered enough to oppose it or nice and pleasing to people so that we run with the hares as well as hunt with the hounds?” – Josh Moody, in No Other Gospel

Galatians 1:10 reminds us that we can not seek to please both God and man.  We must choose to seek to please one or the other.  This has important implications, one of which is indicated in the above quote – when presented with a wrong gospel, do we care more about pleasing God or pleasing people?

One of the lessons of Galatians is that one of the foremost dangers of the fear of man is the loss of the gospel – either accepting it or, even worse, teaching it.  For a helpful book on overcoming the fear of man see When People Are Big and God Is Small by Edward Welch.


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Did Jesus Have a Wife?

(UPDATED to include link to new article and re-worded for clarity).

The internet (and probably traditional media, though I can’t say I really ever watch the news on TV any more) is all abuzz over the question, “Did Jesus have a wife?”  At the heart of this renewed question is the discovery of a piece of text that includes Jesus saying something that begins with the phrase “My wife…”

The discovery of this fragment of text has been considered authentic by some scholars (Tyndale House, for example) who have reviewed it, though some are skeptical.  But let’s assume that it is in fact genuine.  The question that many are pondering is, does this mean Jesus had a wife?  Here is one response, and in the rest of this article I will give you my response. (UPDATED: Timothy Jones has posted a more comprehensive review of the issue.)

Let me answer this question in two ways.  The first is a reasonable consideration of the data.  If you have the New Testament with thousands of textual witnesses (manuscripts), with the original texts written within the lifetime of those who knew Jesus personally that would consider such a claim absurd, but then find one fragment (not complete) of text that dates from at least one hundred years after Jesus’ death that has Jesus saying “my wife” (the rest of the statement is cut off), what would be the reasonable assumption?

Or to put it another way – if you woke up on Monday and believed in the reliability of the New Testament, there is no logical reason to suddenly discount it.  If you woke up on Monday and disbelieved the New Testament, you certainly still disbelieve it but probably not for any additional reasons, just the same ones you had on Monday.

The second way to skip the story as portrayed in the media and go straight to the source – which, in this case, is the article written by Dr. Karen King which is forthcoming in the January 2013 edition of the Harvard Theological Review – but which, thanks to the internet, can be found here.

So what is Dr. King actually asserting in this discovery?   In the first paragraph we read (emphasis added):

It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.  Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.  Just as Clement of Alexandria (d. ca 215 C.E.) described some Christians who insisted Jesus was not married, this fragment suggests that other Christians of that period were claiming that he was married.

What Dr. King is submitting for consideration is that this discovery says something about the debates going on in the early centuries of the church.  In other words, this is not a discovery that contributes anything to an understanding of the historical Jesus, but instead a discovery that contributes to the study of church history.  Further, the extent to which it actually contributes anything to even the study of church history is debatable, as it (a) remains only fragmentary evidence (what is the rest of Jesus’ statement?); (b) has not yet been fully authenticated and (c) the textual tradition behind it (how old is the text in question?) has not been established.

Assuming the authenticity of the fragment, the question it contributes an answer to is not, “Was Jesus married?”, but instead, “Were there some in the 2nd century (or 4th century, or whenever) who believed Jesus was married?”  This is certainly not a question that should affect your personal faith in (the single, never-married – except to his church) Jesus Christ.


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What is the gospel?

From the perspective of the book of Galatians in particular, this is Paul’s gospel.  Why Galatians in particular?  Because if we want to understand what had Paul so worked up in Galatians 1:8-9 (calling down curses on those who preached a different gospel), we must know precisely what it is that Paul wanted to clarify in making the contrast to the false gospel preached by his opponents.  I intend to try to spell this out in greater detail and exposition as we continue through the book of Galatians, but for now, here is the gospel as given by Christ (Gal 1:11-12) and preached by Paul explicitly in the book of Galatians:

The gospel is the proclamation of the good news of redemption in Jesus.  God is our holy Creator and Judge, and in our rebellion against him we have earned for our law-breaking a curse (a sentence of condemnation and death).  That curse hangs over us like a cloud, one from which we cannot escape because we remain enslaved to the thinking and desires of this present evil age and entrapped in the flesh with only the law as a possibility of escape – and a hopeless hope it is.  But at the right time, God the Son became flesh, born of a woman, born under the law in order to redeem us from our hopeless condition and make us children of God and heirs of his promise!  He did this by becoming the curse for us on the cross, taking our punishment in our place (the curse) and thereby replacing our cursed status with a blessed status – we now receive the promise of the Spirit (and are thereby delivered out of the present evil age into the new one)!  Because of the very nature of this salvation – it can only be by faith (by trusting in the promise).  We are therefore not only forgiven of our sin and declared righteous by virtue of Christ’s death on our behalf, but we also become part of the people of God and participants in the new age.

So repent, and believe this good news.

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The Launch of Project 13:3

I received a tweet tonight that tomorrow marks the launch of Project 13:3.  In honor of this, I commend to you this video which highlights the “Why?” of caring about the persecuted church.

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Being Present and Productive – Building Gospel Partnerships

“I have sent him [Tychicus] to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts…they will tell you everything that has taken place here…[Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus] have been a comfort to me.“ – Colossians 4:7-11

There is something truly biblical, and empirically verifiable, about the benefit of “face” time with partners in the gospel.

Skype helps with this, it provides quasi-face time with others, but it is still no substitute for true presence – for a real face-to-face conversation.  Tomorrow I will be on a Skype call to Albania, and I am looking forward to it and hope it is an encouragement to both of us.  But it is no replacement for, as the Albanians say, “having a coffee.”  Some things are just better said, or asked, or heard in person.

But true encouragement doesn’t come merely from presence, but what I might call “intentional” presence.  Encouraging face time is when we share the gospel with one another as we tell our stories, we pray for one another in our struggles and hopes, and we ask the important questions of each other.  This is why I am grateful to God for the time I was blessed to spend with old and new friends at the Radstock Round Table last week, as well as during our week in the Balkans.

But it was even better than that – because it’s even better when that time being present together is focused on the gospel mission.  If we are going to share together in the work of the gospel at some point we have to get to the who, how, what, and when of proclaiming Christ and planting churches.  This is what I experienced at the Radstock Round Table.  It was about real gospel partnership – making real plans with real people to proclaim a very real gospel.

There are discussions our church needs to have about how and what we do next, and since we haven’t yet had time to start those discussions I would be speaking out of turn to blab about them on the internet; but I can say this – there are real possibilities for us to consider that weren’t real possibilities two weeks ago.  And it is quite possible that our plans for 2013, and for every year after that, will be deeply affected by the time I got to spend with partners in the gospel.

This is why I’m grateful to my family and to our church for the time they let me get away to England for this year’s Radstock Round Table.  Was it worth the extra two days at the end of a trip, after having already been gone for over a week?   Was it worth the expense of travel, lodging, and food?  Was it worth the time that was taken away from other important work that has to be done?  Yes – because productive, encouraging face time with gospel partners is valuable.  If we aren’t willing to believe this, then I don’t think we’ll ever actually have gospel partnerships.


Note:  Recently I spent two weeks traveling Europe – a little over a week in Albania, Kosovo, and Macedonia; a day in Greece (just for fun); and two days in London.  This article was originally written to reflect on my experiences at the Radstock Round Table held in London, but I realized that for me the whole experience – from Albania to Kosovo, Macedonia, and the UK – was really one whole that I couldn’t separate into pieces. So while this mostly represents my experience at the Radstock Round Table, it also reflects the whole experience of meeting with pastors and church leaders in the Balkans as well.  I hope to write another post soon focusing on my thoughts and experiences in the Balkans in particular.


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Preach the Gospel to Yourself

As we celebrated a new year together yesterday we heard from 1 Corinthians 15 about what is of “first importance.”  Not what you do for God (or try to do), but what God has done for you in Jesus – taking your sin to his grave and rising again – is the most important thing to be reminded of as you start a new year.

Here is a sermon by Dr. Paul Tripp that might be helpful for you as you resolve to make the gospel of first importance in your life this year.

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