Monday, July 17, 2017

Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by J. Mack Stiles

Crossway, 126pp 

Evangelism. It's about programmes, right? Special meetings, Christianity Explored, Life Explored. Centrally organised by the church. Partly, yes. Those things have value. But Mack Stiles' book is not about getting churches to buy the latest off the shelf programme. Results guaranteed. Rather, he wants to encourage what he calls a 'culture of evangelism'.

But first of all Stiles needs to define what he means by evangelism. Which he does:

"Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade."

The author then unpacks what that means, beginning with the gospel, the evangel we are meant to be ising.

You don't need to run a church programme to evangelise, or bring in an expert Evangelist. Evangelism so defined is a discipleship discipline for every believer. Just as much as prayer, Bible reading and faithful Christian living. 

A culture of evangelism means every church member will be looking to 'teach the gospel with the aim to persuade' as part of their daily lives. They will take it upon themselves to reach the unreached, build meaningful relationships non-Christians, offer to study the Bible with people who want to know more about the Christian faith, bring friends along to church where they will hear the gospel preached, and so on. 

Where a culture of  evangelism isn't embedded in the life of a church, people will tend to think that it's the responsibility of the organised church to do evangelism for them. An example is given of well meaning believers stuffing shoe boxes full of essential things a disadvantaged group of people. And then expecting a pastor with links to that community to dish them out. Why didn't they go beyond stuffing shoe boxes and make the effort to engage personally with the needy community? Someone else's job. 

I certainly agree with Stiles on the importance of creating a culture of every member evangelism. But church-organised programmes can sometimes help to prime the pump. We have a 'Door to Door' Evangelist working with the churches I serve. Members accompany him to visit people in our community. As a spin off from that a church member has organised coffee mornings where men get together for a chat at a local cafe. A mixture of Christians and non-Christians. That was his initiative, not the result of a directive from the church leadership. Similarly, there have been a number of opportunities for developing relationships with parents who attend our Parent and Toddler Group and other church-run activities.

It's not a matter of either/or. 

In fact, I picked up my freebie copy of this book at a Grace Baptist Partnership day conference on 'Evangelism and the Local Church', aimed at supporting a week of mission in the South West of England. 

The task of the 'organised church' is to equip the 'organic church' to live as everyday disciples of Jesus. An everyday disciple will also be an everyday evangelist. Organised activities can serve as a powerful catalyst for spontaneous, organic outreach by church members. But centrally organised activities can't be the be all and end all. The 'organic church' can and must go to places the 'organised church' simply cannot reach.

From the book it seems as though J. Mack Stiles is one of those 'speak to anybody about Jesus, anytime' extroverts. Not all of us are in that category. But the writer provides some practical hints and tips on Actually Sharing Our Faith that even the most shy and retiring introvert will find useful. 

If we are to succeed in the urgent task of winning people for Christ in this generation, we are going to need churches with a deeply embedded culture of every member evangelism. 

This title would be a useful aid for stimulating discussion in a Home Group, or a Bible Study series on how the whole church may speak for Jesus. 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification by Sinclair B. Ferguson

 Banner of Truth Trust, 2016, 277pp 

Back in the early 1990's I heard Sinclair Ferguson speak on sanctification at the Banner Ministers' Conference. The addresses made a lasting impression upon me. I remember being struck by the awesome fact that God calls believers to be holy as he is holy. Bits and pieces, of Ferguson's messages have lingered in my memory almost 30 years later. The biblical texts he expounded, the theological arguments he advanced and the practical applications he made have had a lasting impact on my Christian life. We have reason to be grateful that the teaching given at Ministers' Conferences and more besides has been gathered together in this book and made available to a wider audience. 

Books on 'holiness' can sometimes seem little more than a list of dos and don'ts. But that is holiness divorced from the gospel, which is no holiness at all. It is only through the Father's saving work in Christ and by the Spirit, that sinners can be cleansed from sin and devoted God. Ferguson places his teaching on sanctification within a framework of thoroughgoing trinitatian theology. For that is what the Bible itself does in the 'Blueprint Passages' the writer expounds such as 1 Peter 1:1-25 and Romans 8. 

Another key theme is that of the believer's union with Christ. As Paul teaches in Romans 6 and Colossians 3, the person who is in Christ has died with him to the old life of sin and has been raised with him to a new life of holiness. We must therefore put to death what is sinful (engage in mortification)  and bring to life what is holy (vivification). It is vital that we grasp the interplay of indicative and imperative, position and performance, dynamic and doing, so that our Christian lives are a conscious expression of who we are in Christ. The New Testament does not teach sanctification by guilt trip, but sanctification by gospel grace. 

The Holy Spirit's role is to fashion those who are in Christ into the image of their Saviour. The 'fruit' he produces in us is Christlike character. God's ultimate goal is that we should be conformed to the image of his Son by grace and in glory. 

Ferguson gives attention to the role of the law in sanctification, where he defends the traditional Reformed perspective over and against the 'New Covenant Theology' position. He argues his case with fine exegetical insight, theological skill and practical penetration. While the law in itself cannot sanctify any more than it can justify, it is none the less God's law that provides us with a pattern for holy living. Jesus has fulfilled the law, not abolished it. That same law is fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. The gospel turns the duty of obedience into delight. An appendix is devoted to the Fourth Commandment. 

The writer anticipates and responds to the objection that while Paul may be helpful when it comes to the general principles of sanctification, he does not enable us to get to grips with  nitty-gritty practical matters. The chapter In for the Kill nails that one, showing how Paul provides the mindset, motives and method for sanctification. 

While sanctification is a deeply personal thing, Ferguson avoids an individualistic approach by giving due weight to the importance of the church as the community in which we give expression to our devotion to God through love for one another. The 'fruit of the Spirit' in Galatians 5:22-23 are deeply relational and are brought to ripe maturity in the fellowship of God's people and as we serve the Lord in the world. 

Devoted to God has the makings of a contemporary classic on holiness. It deserves to be read carefully, prayerfully and reflectively. Robert Murray M'Cheyne famously prayed, 'Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner is able to be made'. This work will have the reader echoing that prayer. A life changer.