On a Twitter account recently, someone posted the back cover of a book written to remind pastors of the dangers present in ministry. Three of the ministers who recommended the book are no longer in ministry. The advent of social media has made it easy to watch these happenings from a distance. As a pastor, I can tell you that falling away from the faith is not confined to celebrity pastors.

I’ve watched once faithful church members drift from church based on moral or ethical failings or just a pattern of lazy spirituality. These experiences can be disheartening. But let me draw a contrast.

The other day I had the privilege of sharing a meal with several older pastors. They reflected on their ministries and their ministry heroes. They are older ministers who remained faithful. We should all aspire to be older Christians.

Paul encourages the older men and women in Titus’ church to teach and train younger believers.

What is the difference between those who fall and those who are faithful? Paul writes, “and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech” (Titus 2:7-8). It seems to me that integrity in one’s teaching and conduct is what makes it possible to be faithful.

If you’re like me, you can already draw out inconsistencies between your life and your doctrine.

That’s why Paul grounds his command for integrity not in legalism, nor in our character, but in the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:11-14).

Paul is not demanding that we “do better.” He’s reminding us that we are not righteous, good and holy. But in Christ and in his gospel we’ve been made righteous, and we can be trained to be men and women of integrity.

Even when we fail, the gospel teaches us that God already knows our sin. We have grace so we must repent and return to Christ. Moreover, the grace that grounds our faith is also that grace that grows us in faithfulness and integrity.

Sunday School Lesson for the Biblical Recorder originally published here.

What do you do when life is unfair? Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers. He was wrongly accused and imprisoned. If anyone had a right to be depressed or downcast, Joseph did. But instead of remaining confined in the prison of his circumstances, Joseph looked around. We can find this account in Genesis 40.

Joseph noticed the sadness of the cupbearer and baker who had also been imprisoned. Even though he had been falsely imprisoned, treated with terrible injustice, he was compassionate toward others.

Focusing on your own problems only makes them worse, not better. Too many of us are in a prison of sorts—prison of circumstances or a prison of choices (our own or those others have made for us).

But focusing on our own problems is not a solution. I remember a number of years ago where a counselor at our church was leaving for a couple weeks on a trip. He was regularly counseling a lady through her sufferings and difficulties. He asked if someone could meet with her in his absence. I volunteered, mostly in order to gain some experience. This woman had a difficult life. But her biggest challenge was that she had seen a counselor (not my friend, but a secular one) who had taught her to focus on herself and get herself in a right place. I counseled, as did my friend, that she focus on others. What she needed was to see the hurt in others and focus her energy on helping someone else. But she couldn’t see past her own problems, her own suffering, her own prison. Every relationship she had, she had damaged, some irreparably. Her problems, difficulties and challenges were center-stage.

Regardless of the challenges you face or the issues you deal with (of your own making or someone else’s), the solution is not to live in them or focus on them. The solution, best applied when we realize we are loved and cared for by God, is to focus on how we can encourage someone else or improve their plight. The most delightful people to be around are the ones who care deeply about others and invest in them. They are the ones who focus their energy on you and your issues, rather than retreating deeper into their own prisons of unfair situations.

How do we notice? How do we focus on the needs of others rather than get caught up in our own circumstances? We are able to embrace a lifestyle of noticing, encouraging and serving when we apply the gospel to our situations and circumstances. The gospel—that Jesus suffered and died on a cruel cross and rose from the dead so we could be forgiven and made new—is the entry point into salvation as well as the maturing influence in our daily lives. The gospel teaches us that we are not isolated in our suffering, that our suffering is not permanent and that our suffering can be overcome. Jesus suffered separation and punishment for sin on the cross. Jesus suffered and died, but also rose to his permanent home in heaven. Jesus experienced resurrection and glory from the Father overcoming sin, suffering and death. Because Jesus suffered, we don’t have to feel alone in suffering. Because Jesus brought us into his family, our permanent experience is heaven, and we don’t have to be paralyzed by our suffering . Because Jesus overcame sin, suffering and death, we can overcome because we are victorious in him. And when we experience the blessings that come with the gospel, we have the privilege and right to encourage others with the gospel love we’ve experienced as well.  

When you focus on your situation, you become stranded. When you focus on your Savior, you can receive relief and release. Joseph was not defined by his prison—because he was defined by the Lord’s favor—as found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. What defines you? Your prison? Or the favor of God as you share with someone else?

During my ministry I’ve heard many errors stated by church members and attenders: I’d like to be baptized so I can go to heaven; I grew up in church so I know I’m a Christian; God made me this way, so how I feel about myself must be OK; suicide is the unforgivable sin; if I just have faith and pray enough, then God will give me my dreams; I don’t believe God will let those who have never heard the gospel go to hell.

Look at the statements closely.

They, along with many others I could’ve mentioned, are false claims built upon false teaching that is all too prevalent in today’s churches.

If you don’t think sound doctrine matters, just look at the recent public departure from the Christian faith like Joshua Harris and the questioning of faith like Marty Sampson. It is not my aim to pile on another article on their very public announcements, but their actions warrant a reminder to the church. In both cases, Harris and Sampson, question and disavow sound doctrine. In a responding post, lead singer of the band Skillet, John Cooper recently wrote:

My conclusion for the church (all of us Christians): We must STOP making worship leaders and thought leaders or influencers or cool people or “relevant” people the most influential people in Christendom. (And yes that includes people like me!) I’ve been saying for 20 years (and seemed probably quite judgmental to some of my peers) that we are in a dangerous place when the church is looking to 20 year old worship singers as our source of truth. We now have a church culture that learns who God is from singing modern praise songs rather than from the teachings of the Word. I’m not being rude to my worship leader friends (many who would agree with me) in saying that singers and musicians are good at communicating emotion and feeling. We create a moment and a vehicle for God to speak. However, singers are not always the best people to write solid bible truth and doctrine. Sometimes we are too young, too ignorant of scripture, too unaware, or too unconcerned about the purity of scripture and the holiness of the God we are singing to. Have you ever considered the disrespect of singing songs to God that are untrue of His character? 

You can see his entire post here.

In Paul’s pastoral epistles, he charged Timothy and Titus to know biblical doctrine and to teach it well because of the theological errors that abounded then and continue today. But if we teach the Bible as God’s inerrant truth, then we can expect opposition. We can expect to find theological error taught by former pastors, Sunday School teachers, traveling preachers, student camp pastors and television evangelists.

I’m not saying that everyone you listen to preaches error or that every error you might hear is a distortion of the gospel that requires immediate and direct correction. But I am saying that a healthy diet of sound doctrine will confront false beliefs and may even instigate theological conflict in the classes you teach and the churches where you preach.

Gospel preaching and orthodox theology are not always popular. Paul, Timothy and Titus faced opposition; we will also. That is why we must be students of the Word, interpreting the Bible correctly and faithfully exhorting those around us with the truth.

When we face deceivers and opposition by those who are in theological error we “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught,” and “give instruction in sound doctrine” and “rebuke those who contradict it” (Titus 1:9).

Adapted from Sunday School Lesson for the Biblical Recorder originally published here.

Have you ever felt abandoned? Have your circumstances led to spiritual isolation? Maybe someone in your life has died and you can’t hear God anymore because of the cacophony of grief ringing in your ears. You are not alone. David experienced feelings of isolation and abandonment. Read Psalm 22:1-2 where David cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” We are not certain as to the exact set of circumstances that led David to write this psalm, bit this man we affirm as a spiritual hero felt abandoned by God. 

He felt forsaken and in despair. He felt far away from God and from God’s salvation. He had cried out. He had called out. But he heard no answer and he found no rest.

We need these two verses. I’m so glad that when we read the Bible, we don’t find a bunch of successful people who have everything together. I’m glad that when we really read the Bible, we discover people that are broken, people that are stricken, people that are emotionally unstable, people that are hurting, people that are imperfect.

We need to admit our weaknesses and feelings of abandonment. We do ourselves no favors when we hide the truth about us from God. God already knows how you feel. He already knows the emotional turmoil building in your heart. He knows the sleepless nights brought on by panic and worry. He knows the internal fears about people and situations that haunt you. He knows the sorrows and pains that govern your emotional state. He knows.

Because he knows, admit your weakness and instability.

But know this, admitting your weaknesses and your turmoil and your sorrows does not mean that you surrender to them. Expressing your feelings of abandonment does not mean that you are abandoned.

Your feelings do not determine your reality.

Read the rest of the Psalm. David affirmed God’s salvation. David foretold the salvation from the Messiah a 1000 years in the future. And David experienced God’s grace and mercy.

If we will listen, there are Christians all around the world who can give us insights into an enduring faith. For some Chinese pastors, the seminary of imprisonment is required before one can pastor a congregation. For Christians in Muslim nations, conversion means at least being abandoned and shamed by one’s family – possibly martyred.

While Western Christianity has not faced such open hostility, contemporary morals have shifted so as to be in direct opposition to clear biblical preaching.

In the latter part of his second letter to Timothy, Paul defended the authority of scripture, reminded Timothy of the opposition he was sure to face and commended him to preach the word. Paul’s admonitions are just as true today.

Those of us preaching and teaching the word will give an account before its Author as to the veracity and consistency of our preaching and teaching with the Word of God.

Earlier this year, I preached a series of sermons on the gospel and human sexuality. Some in our community heard about the series and before I even preached a sermon, they condemned it through social media. This experience reminded me that God’s Word has never been popular.

There will always be people to discount and dismiss the Bible.

Biblical ethics will always run counter to self-centered morality.

In that sense, the experience of Paul and Timothy under Roman cultural mores are little different than the experience of gospel preachers in today’s America. But we must not fail or falter.

For we will not answer to the culture. And we will not ultimately answer to our churches. But we will answer to the One who wrote the Bible.

And He is looking for preachers and teachers who endure angst, anger and persecution to communicate the truth of the gospel.

From 2 Timothy 3 and 4.

Sunday School Lesson for the Biblical Recorder originally published here.

As Paul continues in chapter 2, he uses the language of reminder. It amazes me that much of the Christian experience is not novel, rather it is repetitive. We don’t graduate from the gospel. The gospel is our entry into the Christian faith, but it is also the conduit toward spiritual maturity.

Paul uses three more metaphors to conclude the chapter. These metaphors emphasize our responsibility to apply the gospel to our daily lives.

We need to embrace the diligence of a faithful student who correctly interprets God’s Word.

We need to embrace the holiness of an honorable vessel who shuns youthful sins.

We need to embrace the gentleness of a servant who teaches the truth while avoiding unnecessary quarrels.

Diligence is the key quality in these metaphors.

Paul charged Timothy to teach the gospel. The student, the vessel and the servant must diligently pursue gospel understanding and gospel clarity. The challenge of any church, any pastor and any teacher within the church is clarity about the gospel.

Today’s church faces the prospects of gospel distortions – prosperity gospel theology, moralistic preaching, manipulated responses and easy believism. Today’s church also faces the prospects of theological divisions on tertiary issues. It is the task of the pastor and church leaders to remain diligently focused on the primary goal of the church – communicating the gospel of Jesus and training others in the gospel.

Paul highlights one of the primary pastoral tasks: discernment in gospel teaching. Paul challenged Timothy to recognize distortions, divisions and distractions that will hamper the church in its mission. Diligence in study, holiness and gentleness is the means by which followers of Jesus will be able to discern these issues and remain faithful to the gospel.

Sunday School Lesson originally published here for the Biblical Recorder.

Paul begins chapter 2 with his restatement of our disciple-making mission, “You then, my child, be strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus, and what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
In order to lead others to follow Jesus, we need strength and grace. We also need focus. Paul uses six metaphors in chapter 2 to illustrate the focus and diligence we need to teach others to live and share the gospel.
The first three metaphors are found in verses 1-7.
We need the dedication of soldiers, the integrity of athletes and the hard work of farmers.
As we reflect the gospel personally and teach the gospel to others, we must engage in this task well.
If soldiers can be dedicated to their commanding officer to the point of suffering and death, then followers of Jesus must be equally dedicated to their Lord and Savior.
If athletes can compete according to the rules in order to win, then followers of Jesus must faithfully train themselves and others in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

If farmers can labor early, long and late in order to have fruitful crops, then followers of Jesus must labor in the strength and grace of Christ and expend themselves for the gospel.
Each of these metaphors implies focus.
Soldiers, athletes and farmers are judged based on short moments of glory: the battle for the soldier, the event for the athlete and the crops for the farmers.
But the quality of those fleeting moments is forged by their focus during the drudgery of suffering, preparation and hard work.
May we be so focused on the gospel. 

Sunday School Lesson originally published here for the Biblical Recorder.