Martin Luther, in his Table Talk #403, makes the statement that “an upright shepherd and minister must improve his flock by edification, and also resist and defend it; otherwise, if resisting be absent, the wolf devours the sheep.” Resisting and defending require that a pastor-shepherd stand firm on the truth of the Gospel and lead his congregation to do the same.
You have seen in this issue of Tabletalk that in the eighth century many challenges to the Gospel arose. From the Muslim advance to the iconoclastic controversy, standing firm in the truth was not easy. But, in reality, that century was no different from today, or any other century for that matter. Resistance to the Gospel will always be present.
In the early part of the twenty-first century, we find that the Gospel is under attack in ways that are not a lot different from the eighth century. From the new atheism of Dawkins, Hitchens, and others, to the watering down of the Gospel by many who claim to be a part of the church, to the pluralistic views that place all religions on the same authority level, our generation is pleading for pastors and laypersons who will stand firm on the truth of God’s Word. When writing to young Timothy, the apostle Paul called the church the “pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). As Christians we must labor to see that this is exactly what the church is in our generation.
For the past year I have been preaching through the book of Acts, and I have noticed a recurring situation. One evening I told my congregation that one thing was a constant in Acts, especially in the life and ministry of Paul: When the truth of the Gospel is faithfully proclaimed, somebody is going to get beaten up or thrown in prison. It is amazing to me that in the twenty-first century we have developed a mentality that if we are proclaiming the truth, then everybody ought to like us. This expectation makes it difficult to face the challenges to the truth that come our way as disciples of Jesus today.
The iconoclast controversy of the eighth century raised the question as to how the image of Christ could be presented. This is no less a struggle today. Oh, we don’t get too annoyed about pictures or statues of Christ; in fact, most evangelicals simply don’t bother to think about whether this is a violation of the second commandment or not. To most it is simply a non-issue. But this does not mean that the primary issue of the character and image of Christ is not still a matter that needs to be addressed.
In my thirty-seven years of ministry I have never before seen a day when the lordship of Christ was more challenged than today. Sadly, this is not coming from outside the church but from within. Preach a sermon on Christ’s absolute lordship over His church and His people, and you will see people squirm a bit. Make it the theme of your overall preaching, and you will find that some people will begin to resist it altogether. In my particular denomination, the idea of the church being a “democratic” body has so clouded people’s minds with respect to the concept of Christ as the church’s head that some are ready to fight you for “taking away our rights” when this doctrine is proclaimed. Where the lordship of Christ is not honored and lifted up, the sufficiency of Scripture is not understood, and all sorts of new ideas begin to flood the church. Someone’s near-death experience or the latest New Age offering on Oprah seem to be just as important to men and women in the church as is the Bible.
Paul warned Timothy: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). Of course, this had direct application to the city of Ephesus in which Timothy ministered, but do any words in the entire Bible give a better analysis of the twenty-first century church than these? The man-centeredness of many churches today makes a mockery of sound doctrine. While centering their message on how to feel better about yourself by self-improvement or how to have a better life now, these churches forgo the centrality of Christ and make mention of the Bible in only the most superficial ways. The grace of God is exchanged for the efforts and abilities of man for salvation and the Christian life. The attitude of “if it’s to be, then it’s up to me” has replaced the view of a sovereign God who is working out His purpose and plan in His creation.
So in light of Luther’s words, perhaps the greatest need for the church of Jesus Christ in the twenty-first century is to hold fast to the admonition of Paul: “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” (2 Tim. 2:1–2). The church must again realize that our strength for standing firm and for daily faith and obedience depends just as much on “the grace that is in Christ Jesus” as our initial salvation did. Paul is emphasizing that our ability to stand firm is not because of something in us — not our goodness, or power, or discipline — but rather it depends on God’s sustaining grace in Jesus Christ.