We all get circulars in the post. Pastors usually receive seasonal notices from para-church organizations of a recently released method(s) to congregational spiritual health or growth. When I read them two things strike me: first, the formulaic and methodological thinking in the“if you do this, then this…” or the “A”PLUS “B” will guarantee result “C” and second, the complete lack of a biblical definition of the church as the gift of God’s grace in Word and Sacrament that a confession like Article XIX of the Thirty-Nine Articles says so well.
Because so many of these methods come from “big-tent” movements that do not take a stand on the sacraments as a gift of God’s grace and mark of the church, their strategies must then remain profoundly man-centered, focussed on a congregation’s external behavior. The danger is in a confusion between inferences or consequences of the gospel with the gospel itself. In the section of Wilhelmus à Brakel’s text where he discusses the unique essence of the internal call of God to the sinner’s spiritually dead heart, highlights the problem in our modern methods:
“…the Lord generally uses some internal and external preparations, such as poverty, tragic occurrences, loss of property or loved ones, earthquakes, war, pestilence, danger of death, illness, or other things. This causes the person to become unsettled; he begins to contemplate repentance, the Word of God takes hold, he is convinced of sin, and he begins to perceive what eternal condemnation is. He also becomes acquainted with the Lord Jesus and with the blessedness of believers, and he desires to be in such a condition. He reads the Word, prays, joins himself to the godly, escapes the gross pollutions of the world, etc. These matters are but common convictions which are experienced by the unconverted as well as the elect. Many such individuals turn back and depart from the way upon which they first seemed to have entered. When the time arrives, however, the Lord will translate His elect into His kingdom by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit” [2.210]
The two sentences that struck me most were: “These matters are but common convictions which are experienced by the unconverted as well as the elect. Many such individuals turn back and depart from the way upon which they first seemed to have entered.” When God calls someone internally, they gain a disposition that is essentially different from anything that preceded it. It has a different nature. Thus the gift of God’s Word and sacraments to sustain His regenerating power in the believer is a logical deduction. What à Brakel points out is the futility in making an external disposition the litmus test of the believer’s integrity in Christ Jesus. They are the common experiences of the unconverted and the elect in the local church. A pastor cannot tell because he cannot see into their hearts, yet how many of us have made the mistake that we can? Man-centeredness is not just in the congregation, is it?
Pastors must keep the focus on God’s Word and Sacrament, His ordinary means of grace. It is because they are God’s promised and sure means. I know it’s a cliché, but it is cliché that is true.