Biblical Priorities for the Life of the Church: Biblical Priorities for the Life of the Church (1) – Where in the World is the Church – Our Contemporary Context

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on October 22, 2006

2 Timothy 3:1-5

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The Lord’s Day
Morning

October 22, 2006

II Timothy 3:1-5

“Where In the World is the Church?

Biblical Priorities for the Life of Our Church (1)”

Our Contemporary Context

Dr. J. Ligon
Duncan III

Amen. If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with
me to II Timothy, chapter three.Last Sunday morning we completed a series where
we worked through the five questions of membership, reminding ourselves what we
had vowed individually when we became communing members of this congregation;
reminding ourselves of some of the priorities that we have pledged ourselves to
in our living of the Christian life together in this congregation.

It’s appropriate, then, that we go on to consider
something of the commitments that we have as a congregation — as a body, as a
family, as the people of God gathered — things that we aspire to, things that we
commonly believe, things that we want to do together. Indeed, the Bible has a
lot to say about what we are, what we are to believe, and what we are to do
together as a local fellowship of Christians, and I want to spend some time
thinking with you about that in this series of topical expository messages
called “Biblical Priorities for the Life of Our Church.”

And, I think it’s appropriate that we do so now.
We’re at a very significant transition point for our church.
It’s hard to
believe that we’ve been out of our sanctuary and that part of our facilities for
about a year and a half now. In just a little more than six or seven months,
we’ll be into our new facilities, God willing. Perhaps soon on the heels of that
we’ll be facing an election of new officers in the life of the congregation.
We’re at a significant transition point for our church to think about together
who we are, what we’re here for, what we believe, what we’re committed to, to
cultivate a shared vision of ministry together. And so this provides us an
opportunity to do that.

But we also are at a very significant transition
point in our culture.
Liberal Christianity has had a tremendous and
devastating impact on the church in our culture. The churches that have been
affected by theological liberalism are in a nosedive of decline. It’s hard to
imagine that in the middle of the 1950’s the churches that made up the mainline
branch of Protestantism accounted for around 45% of the membership of all the
Protestant churches in the United States. Today, just 50 years later, the
churches which are part of the mainline denominations make up less than 12% of
the total churches in Protestantism. Our former denomination has been losing
40,000 members a year since 1967. It is less than half the size it was in the
middle 1960’s, and we could go along all of the mainline branches of
Protestantism and tell a similar story.

It’s also interesting even if you look at the
theological seminaries. When Reformed Theological Seminary was planted in
Jackson in 1965-66, they prayed that they’d have five students the first year.
They had seventeen. And when that great event occurred, RTS would have just been
a blip on the radar screen of the great seminaries in the land. If you had
looked at the top twenty theological seminaries in those days, eighteen of the
top twenty largest theological seminaries in the world would all have been
liberal. Today not two of the top twenty would be liberal theological
seminaries. They’ve all died. There are no people going there any more. Nobody’s
interested in going and learning to serve in the church, or to serve the living
God, or to preach the gospel, or to go to the mission field. They may be
interested in social work or in other things, but they’re not interested in the
church or in ministry, and so there’s been a massive, seismic demographic shift
in the churches that have been influenced by theological liberalism.

On the other hand, there’s a tremendous upheaval
going on in evangelicalism today.
Whereas the churches influenced by
theological liberalism are in decline, the churches that are part of the
evangelical quadrant of Protestant Christianity believe that the church has not
been relevant to the world and to the culture, and that the way that we “do
church” needs to change if we’re going to reach this culture. And so the
evangelical churches have been adopting business models, or entertainment
models, or consumer-based models, in order to reach out to the culture around
us…in order to connect with the people, in order to build up the
congregations, in order to spread the gospel. And one of the things that has
happened is that the gospel message itself has been watered down, and in some
cases lost.

We look around us today and whereas fifty years ago
in evangelicalism, if you went into an evangelical church — whether it was
Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist, or whatever — you could be sure that
those evangelical Christians there would probably know their Bibles better than
churches where that Bible was not being preached, or churches where it was not
held in high esteem — that is, churches that were more dominated by theological
liberalism. Now, however, when you go out into evangelicalism, you will find
everywhere on all sides everyone admitting that even evangelicals don’t know
their Bibles anymore. Why?

Well, because about thirty years ago some bright
spark came up with the idea that if we’re really going to reach out to people,
we can’t preach the Bible. We need to talk about things that they’re interested
in. And lo and behold, thirty years later, guess what? Evangelicals don’t know
their Bibles. Duh! But this is a tremendous upsurge in evangelicalism today–a
call to “do church” differently in order to reach out.

And so this is a very significant time in our
culture, and it’s important for us to think about what our responsibilities are
in reaching the world. What are the things that we are called to be? What are
the things that we’re called to believe? What are the things that we’re called
to do?

If you have the outline this morning and you flip
over to the back side, you’ll see some of the topics that we’re going to try and
cover in the course of this series. We’re going to think together about the
importance of a commitment to expository Bible preaching. We’re going to think
together about biblical worship. We’re going to think together about biblical
doctrine. We’re going to think about how important it is for the congregation to
be pursuing godliness, and to have a biblical approach to family life. We’re
going to think together about why it’s so important that the whole congregation
understand the gospel, conversion, discipleship, evangelism; we’re going to
think about why it’s important to have a biblical view of church membership and
of church leadership, as well as a biblical view of how we’re to relate to the
world. And we’re going to do this because we’re not only in a significant
transitional time in the life of our church; we’re in a significant transitional
time in the life of the churches in the context of our culture.

Now this morning we’re going to set the stage for
this series by looking at our present context, and we’re going to start by
looking at II Timothy 3:1-5.
And before we read this passage, I want to tell
you specifically what I’d like you to be looking for. Don’t you hate it when
preachers read a passage and then they go off and they talk about what they want
to for the next twenty minutes, and it has nothing to do with the passage
they’ve just read? Well, so that you won’t even have an inkling of a suspicion
that I’m going to do that, I’m going to tell you ahead of time what to be
looking for!

First of all, I want you to see an emphasis in
this passage that it is important for believers to understand their times.

Now we’re actually going to go to some other Bible passages to corroborate that
emphasis here, but that’s the first main thing I want you to see: It’s important
for believers to understand their times. Yes, we must understand the Bible. Yes,
we must get our marching order from the Scriptures. But it is also important
that we understand the times, and Paul says that to Timothy and to the Ephesian
church in this passage.

But secondly, Paul also highlights things that
are part of the thinking of the times in the first century. Three of those
things are part, I think, of the dominant thinking of the times in our own time,
and we’re going to draw attention to them.
In fact, let me tell you the
words to look for. Look for the phrases lovers of self; lovers of money
and then, we won’t read this passage at first, but we’ll come back and read it
again in verse 7 of II Timothy 3 — always learning, but never coming to a
knowledge of the truth.
Keep those in mind, because I think those three
tendencies are alive and well in our culture today, and impact us greatly even
in the way we look at being a part of the church and a part of the church’s
mission to the world.

And then, thirdly, we’re just going to ask the
question: “How do these things influence us for good or for ill; how do they
impact the way we reach out to this culture?”
So as we read II Timothy
3:1-5, bear those things in mind. Now let’s pray before we hear God’s word.

Heavenly Father, we need Your help to understand
the word. It’s not that Your word isn’t clear–it is. It’s crystal clear. But
sometimes our hearts are muddy and our minds are distracted, and our desires are
elsewhere. We need the Spirit to correct those things so that we can hear
clearly what You are saying to us in Your word and respond to it right. Help us,
Lord. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is God’s word:

“Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For
men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers,
disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious
gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless,
conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God; holding to a form of
godliness, although they have denied its power; and avoid such men as these.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

This morning I want to consider with you three
factors that are a part of our current culture’s outlook on life,
three
things that our current culture just assumes are as un-disprovable, as
absolutely essential to the way the world is and ought to be, as air, or water
or food. And I want us to think how those three current factors impact us in the
way we view our involvement in the local church, and in the way we view the
church’s mission to the world. And as we do that, I want to do three larger
things around those factors.

One, I simply want to emphasize that the Bible
everywhere teaches that it is important for believers to understand their times.
Secondly, I want to look at these three factors as three critical factors that
are a part of our times; then, thirdly, I want to ask “How are they impacting
us?”
How are they impacting you and me? And how do the priorities that we’re
going to be talking about in this series over the weeks to come help to correct
the unhealthy influence of these factors on us? And how do they help us speak to
a world under these unhealthy influences?

I. The Bible
everywhere teaches that it is important for believers to understand their times.

So let’s begin
by looking at the very first thing–and I mention this ahead of time: In II
Timothy 3:1 the Apostle Paul says to Timothy and to the church at Ephesus:
“Realize this, in the last days difficult times will come.”
There the
Apostle Paul is saying ‘Timothy, it is important for you to understand the
context in which you are going to be ministering and living, and it’s important
for the Christians in the congregation at Ephesus to understand the context in
which they will live and minister, or you’re going to be taken by surprise by
some very important things.’ And so the Apostle Paul actually lays out some of
the tendencies that are going to characterize the day and age in which Timothy
and the Ephesian Christians live and minister.

But that is not just a message for Christians in the
first century: that’s a message for believers in every time and in every place,
and you’ll find this message throughout the Bible. It’s not unique to the
Apostle Paul. For instance, turn with me back to I Chronicles 12, and look at
verse 32. You’ve heard this verse quoted many times. You probably don’t remember
its context, though. A group of the former supporters of King Saul have gathered
in Hebron to present themselves as new supporters of David, and various things
are being told to us by the author of Chronicles about those people. And in I
Chronicles 12:32, he says that the men of Issachar, though they were few in
number (there were only about 200 of them), that they were “men who understood
the times.” The chronicler is telling you that they were particularly valuable
to David because even though there weren’t many of them, they understood
warfare; they understood the dynamics of how things were in the land in those
days. The author of Chronicles is telling you they’re very valuable to David,
and so he’s commending the fact that they understood the times.

And of course you can find the same thing in the
negative in Jesus’ teaching. Turn with me to Mathew 16:3. Matthew is recording
this conversation between Jesus and the religious leaders of His day. Jesus is
speaking to the Pharisees and Sadducees, and He is chastising them because
they’re really good at predicting the weather but they don’t know their own
times. They can look at the weather in the morning and tell you how it’s going
to be in the evening, but they have no clue as to what’s going on in their own
day and time, and so in Matthew 16:3 Jesus says this:

“Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but you cannot discern
the signs of the times?”

Or in its parallel passage, if you turn with me to Luke
12:56, Jesus says this:

“You hypocrites! You know how to analyze the appearance of the earth and the
sky, but why do you not analyze this present time?”

In other words, this is just another example of how God
tells us in the Bible that it is important for us to take stock of our times —
to be aware of the times in which we live and serve.

One of the things that’s against us in our own day
is the way we live such a frenetic pace of life. We’re rushing from one thing to
the next, and a couple of times a year we stop and we sit back in our lounge
chair or in our most comfortable spot in the house, and it dawns upon us that we
haven’t stopped for five minutes to think about what’s most important in life,
where we’re going in life, where we are in life, how our claimed priorities
really live up to what we’re spending our time and our efforts and our energy
on. In other words, we rush from one thing to the next, and not only do we not
think about the big issues in our life, we certainly don’t think about the big
issues in the culture around us. The Bible is telling us that as Christians it’s
very important that we discern the times.

II. Factors that impact us today.

Now, that having been said, I want to go
right to my second point, which is simply this: I think there are at least three
huge factors impacting us today as Christians, impacting the church today,
impacting how we view involvement in the church today, that we need to
understand and be aware of . And those factors are individualism,
relativism,
and consumerism.
Now, those are big words, but they
are one-word descriptions of things that it takes a lot more words to say, so
maybe they’ll serve as a helpful place to hang your hat on three big ideas.

The first idea is simply this: We live in a
me-centered
culture.
In our culture, it’s all about me. And that
me-centeredness deeply disorients Christians who buy into it, because if we
really mean what we say…we mean when we say that we are created in the image
of God…then it couldn’t be all about me. If we’re created in the image of God,
it’s all about God! If we’re created in the image of God, we’re supposed to be
living, breathing, walking, talking pictures of the work of the living God in
this world, always pointing back and saying, “It’s all about God. God’s my
Creator. God’s my sustainer. This world is God-centered.” Even though this world
works hard to say ‘No, this world is me-centered,’ we’re supposed to be pushing
back against all those tendencies and saying, “No, the world is God-centered.”

And not only saying that it’s God-centered, but when
we gather together in a congregation, it’s not about me first, it’s about me
serving my brothers and sisters in Christ; so that I am concerned not only about
my personal welfare, but even ahead of my personal welfare I’m concerned about
the well-being of my brothers and sisters in Christ. And so individualism, when
it is adopted into the mindset of the believer, undermines that very important
emphasis on God-centeredness and on the work of God in the church whereby we are
here to serve one another and to love one another, and to care for one another,
and to forgive one another, and to seek the well-being of one another: to love
our neighbor as ourselves…to love one another. And those things cut against
the grain of individualism, and yet individualism pervades our culture.

The next big trend or factor in our culture is
relativism
. Relativism is the denial of absolute truth.
Relativism in
religion says ‘All roads lead up the mountain. The Bible is not God’s inspired,
inerrant, authoritative word, the only rule of faith and life.’ A friend of mine
just this past week paused to tell me about a large mainline church in San
Francisco which advertises on its website: “This is a place where the Bible is
not the final rule of faith and life. We value the opinions of the people who
make up this congregation.” And so ‘We are sovereign, and God is not; and our
thoughts are sovereign, and God’s word is not.’ That is typical of our culture.
We are relativistic to the core! We run away from truth with a capital “T”. We
do not believe there is absolute truth. Just this weekend we had a man
here in town who makes his career out of going around denying the absolute truth
of God’s word.

Now, interestingly, the churches in our culture
have latched on to those two tendencies in two very unhelpful ways.

Liberals have latched on to relativism,
and they’ve looked out for the last 200 years and they’ve said ‘You know what?
People don’t believe in absolute truth anymore, so here’s what we’re going to do
in order to be relevant. We’re not going to believe in absolute truth anymore,
and that way the culture will be attracted to our message.’ And guess what’s
happened? Well, what has happened is just what I told you at the beginning of
the sermon — that their churches have emptied. Why? Because people are smart!
And they figure that if your truth doesn’t matter, then why bother getting up on
Sunday morning? And so what has happened is wherever that strategy to reach a
relativistic culture with a relativistic message comes, people leave the
churches because they get 2+2=4…it adds up. If truth is not true, why bother?

Evangelicals, on the other hand, have
tended to adopt individualism.
They’ve said ‘You know, the big problem is
not the message. The big problem is the church is irrelevant, and the church
needs to change the way it does church if it’s going to be relevant to the
culture; so, we’re going to build a church around you.’

A number of years ago a very famous pastor said ‘You
know, the big thing that I see in churches today is that people think that God
and church is irrelevant, and so we’re going to make the church relevant by
changing the methods, the ways that the church goes about reaching out.’ And
what happens is the desires of the dominant culture become the things which are
focused on. The church is built around what? The church is built around me,
rather than based on the word of God, rather than based on the way that the Lord
tells us in the word that the church is to be and to believe and to do. And what
happens? In those churches, even if there are a lot of people there, the gospel
message is watered down because the methods that are being used to spread to
message actually undermine the message. Think of it. If Jesus’ message is “Take
up your cross and follow Me” but the church adopts a method that says “Have it
your way,” how do you ever get to ‘Take up your cross, die to yourself, and
follow Me,’ if the way that you’re brought into the church is ‘Have it your way,
buddy!’? And so the methods have undermined the message.

It’s interesting. The liberals have said for 200
years now ‘Christianity will not work anymore. The message needs to change if
we’re going to be able to reach this culture.’ Evangelicals have said
‘Christianity won’t work unless our methods change. If our methods don’t change,
we won’t be able to reach the people.1

We believe that God, however, has given us the
message — the gospel — and the methods for spreading that gospel in His word. We
want to be culturally aware; we want to understand the times; but we want to get
our marching orders from Scripture.
We want to be culturally aware, but we
want to be Scripturally informed. We want the Bible to be setting our policy for
both the message and the method of the church, and not allowing the culture to
dictate that.

The third area which is impacting us is
consumerism
.
We are the greatest consumer culture that has ever existed
in the history of the world. The United States of America consumes more goods
and services than the rest of the world, by far, and of course we consume more
than any other culture has consumed in history. But it has become a pervasive
part of our mindset. We can’t even get out of the framework that we are
consumers. Two hundred years ago, if you’d picked up a newspaper anywhere in the
English-speaking world (if you had lived today and you had been transported back
in time), one thing that you would immediately notice is the absence of
something. You know what you wouldn’t have seen in a newspaper 200 years
ago? Advertisements. There would have been none. That was an invention of the
middle of the nineteenth century. The pervasive ad culture has dramatically
changed the way that we view ourselves. You now see, we are told, more than
1,000 advertisement images a day, whereas 200 years ago your forebears may have
gone around for weeks and months without anyone advertising something to them,
or marketing something to them.

And it’s changed our mindset. One unhelpful way
that it’s changed our mindset is that we approach the church like customers, and
we view the church as a spiritual goods and services provider.
And if that
particular Church A isn’t meeting our needs, isn’t living up to our standards as
spiritual goods and services provider, then we’ll just move to the next place
where it does. But that changes us. Instead of being sinners in need of grace,
it changes us into customers, and it makes God our servant rather than our
understanding that we are servants of God. And so the very consumer mindset
dramatically changes the way we think about what it is to be the church. The
consumer mindset, for instance, can convince some that, hey, if we’re going to
be effective and successful, we’ve got to get our market share in this
community.

No. We have a message, and the message is not
‘Please come join us. God needs you. The kingdom’s going to fail if you don’t
sign up, and we’ll do anything we can do to convince you to sign on the dotted
line. We’ll promise you anything you want, we’ll tell you anything you want to
hear. Please, please, please, just sign up.’ No. The message is ‘Dear friend, we
love you, but we’ve got some bad news and some good news. The bad news is apart
from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ you face a Godless, hopeless, helpless
eternity, and only if you rest and trust on Jesus Christ alone for salvation as
He is offered in the gospel can you know true meaning and joy and satisfaction
here and hereafter. And so we do not come as beggars, begging you to please,
please, please join in because we can’t get on without you; we come as beggars
who have found grace telling you that we don’t need anything from you, but, boy,
do you need something from Jesus Christ! Boy, do you need something from the
living God! Boy, do you need something from God’s word! And whether you accept
it or reject it, it will not matter at all. God’s plan will go on. The only
question is will you participate in the blessing and the glory that God has
ordained for eternity for all those who rest and trust in His Son. No, you are
not in a position of a religious customer who will call God to account, to make
it snappy and do it like you like it! No, you are in the position of standing in
the dock and being judged and condemned, and your only hope is in Christ.’

III. These things impact the way we participate in
the life of the church and the way we engage the culture

You see, that totally changes the dynamic of the way
we relate to the world, and so I want to say briefly and thirdly that these
things impact the way we participate in the life of the church and the way we
engage the culture.
If we accept these things — individualism, and
relativism, and consumerism — it will change the church and make the church like
the culture, and then you know what happens? The more the church is like the
culture, the less relevant the church is to the culture, because it’s not saying
the one prophetic thing that it has to say.

But the irony of all this is — what? In this
individualistic culture, in this relativistic culture, where is the kingdom of
God growing?
It’s growing in congregations where the message ‘It is not all
about you’ and ‘God’s word is the inerrant, authoritative rule of faith and
practice’ —where those messages are being preached. The churches that have
adapted to relativism and individualism–in thirty years they won’t exist. They
literally will not exist. But if you look around the world where God is at work,
the churches that are healthy, the churches that are proclaiming the truth, they
are the churches that believe in the absolute truth of God’s word; they believe
in the God-centeredness of life, they understand that we’re not spiritual
religious “customers” and God’s not the store clerk who had better provide what
we want in the color that we want it, and do it snappy and with a smile. No,
it’s in churches that understand that God is the living God and we are His
creatures, not His lord and master, and they proclaim with joy and they live out
with authenticity and integrity the truth of that word, and the world says ‘You
know, that’s totally against everything else that everybody else is telling me
in this culture, but that’s strangely magnetic to me. It has the ring of truth
to it; it has the ring of joy to it, and I want to hear more.’

May God, as we study these things together over the
weeks to come, make us a church with biblical priorities that’s aware of the
culture around us, but is conformed to the word of God. Let’s pray.

Heavenly Father, help us to rest on You, to be
the church that You call us to be in the word; to resist the siren song of the
world; to understand how the world thinks, but not to think like the world; to
understand what the world wants, but to be determined not to give the world what
it wants, but what it needs; to love the world without loving the things of this
world. This we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

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