Sunday, 21 July 2013

Pastoring and the Importance of Conversion

The basis of the Church is the gospel, and this means that pastoring must always have in mind the call to conversion. People can only move on with God when they stand in a right relationship with him. Thus the Apostle Paul writes,
... the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. 9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. (Romans 8:7-9, NIV)
There is no spiritual progress without spiritual life and there is no spiritual life without the Spirit of God. But the Spirit of God comes only by hearing and believing the gospel message. As Paul writes elsewhere,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? (Galatians 3:1-2, NIV)
The churches in the area of Galatia were being infiltrated by people preaching a ‘Gospel-plus’ message — that believing in Jesus was good, but not good enough. Paul’s riposte is that it was enough for them to receive the Holy Spirit! But the lesson we can also take from this is that it is also necessary to receive the Holy Spirit. Without faith in the gospel, there is no Holy Spirit in the life of the individual. And so no matter how dedicated they may be to church or how keen they may be on religion, there is no way they can please God.
So pastoral ministry is a converting ministry. But why is this so important? Why does the very presence of the Holy Spirit depend on it? The answer lies in the way our acceptance of the gospel affects our relationship with God.
The gospel is the proclamation of God to the whole universe that Jesus is the Christ who came into the world with the express purpose of saving us from our sins by dying for us on the cross. Now when God proclaims something, what is the right response? The answer is obvious: you must accept and believe it.
So when God proclaims you are a sinner, how do you respond? Being told you’re a sinner is not a nice thing, especially if you’ve got a good opinion of yourself. Your first response is likely to be to deny or downplay the suggestion — unless you’re already well aware of your sinfulness, which is why Jesus observed that the tax-collectors and prostitutes going into the kingdom ahead of the chief priest and elders (cf Matt 21:31). The former knew they had a problem, whereas the latter denied it.
But the person who accepts and believes God’s proclamation that they are a sinner stands in a right relationship with God — the relationship of a sinner with nothing to offer in mitigation. That is why Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

14 “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14, NIV)
Notice how Jesus says the tax-collector was ‘justified’. He stood in a right relationship with God, which is a key sense of the word ‘justification’. To be ‘justified’ is to be put ‘rightwise’ with God. By contrast, the Pharisee was not ‘justified’ because, despite all his good works — or actually, because of them — he did not see himself as a sinner before God in need of mercy.
The gospel, however, does not stop at being a sinner. The gospel is salvation from sin. And so the person who hears the gospel and believes it will also believe in their forgiveness. The trouble is, too many people today believe in God’s forgiveness! Like Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is alleged to have said on his death bed, they take the view, ‘Of course [God] will forgive me. That’s his business.’
But here again, the gospel makes a challenging difference. We are not forgiven simply because it is God’s business to forgive, but because Christ died for our sins. Now for some people (sadly including some in the church), this idea is unacceptable. But it is what God says. It is central to the gospel proclamation: we are sinners, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures — and ‘according to the Scriptures’ means ‘as a sacrifice to take away sin and bring about reconciliation with God’. As we read in the Law of Moses, God says,
... I will set my face against that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people. 11 For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life. (Leviticus 17:10-11, NIV)
The law of atonement is ‘life for life’. And it is with this in mind that we read the words of Paul to the Romans:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:9-10, NIV)
So an essential part of conversion is not just believing that we are sinners, but believing that the death of Jesus is the answer to our sins. Both these beliefs are essential to being put ‘rightwise’ with God. By contrast, if we deny them — if we say we have no sin (cf 1 John 1:10), or reject the need for Jesus’ death in order for us to have eternal life (cf John 6:53) — we make God out to be in the wrong. And we obviously cannot be standing in a right relationship with him, or have a right view of ourselves, when we do that.
The deliberate pastor will therefore always be asking, particularly in a new situation or with new arrivals in the congregation, ‘Am I dealing with the converted?’ And this will mean checking to see whether people have understood things like sin, grace, the cross and so on.
Some people object that this is asking more than is required by the New Testament — that we are thereby erecting ‘hurdles’ for people to jump, or making judgements we are not qualified to impose. They think that the principles of Galatians 2:12, where Peter withdrew from eating with Gentile believers because they were not circumcised, mean we must accept uncritically the genuineness of faith in anyone who is baptized and prepared to say ‘Jesus is Lord’.
But St Paul was really not so sanguine about people’s standing with God. In 1 Corinthians 10, he points out to his hearers that the people of the Old Testament also had their equivalent of baptism and the Lord’s supper:
They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. 3 They all ate the same spiritual food 4 and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:2-4)
Nevertheless, as he points out ‘God was not pleased with most of them; their bodies were scattered over the desert’ (1 Cor 10:5). And he draws this conclusion:
These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come. 12 So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (1 Corinthians 10:11-12, NIV)
It is thus important for the pastor to be on the alert, listening and checking to see that those under his care actually have ‘received Christ Jesus’ (Col 2:6), that they have ‘come to know Christ’ (Eph 4:20), and that they have ‘first believed’ in him (Rom 13:11). This is not to cast aspersions on fellow believers, but to ensure that the sure foundation has been laid on which a suitable building may be constructed.
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  1. Thanks for this, John. Very timely. I've observed a growing tendency on both ends of the Anglican spectrum to over-contrast "pastoral" and "evangelistic" ministry, so that in fact very little of the latter gets done done by so-called "ordinary" clergy.


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