I’m a confessional Calvinist, but I have the nagging sense that God slipped up when he allowed me to pastor a church. A number of questions go through my mind as I consider God’s decision to allow me to pastor at Dayspring Church (PCA). Is the church in such dire straits that I can actually be a help to her? Are things that bad? Or am I so ineffectual in my administration, my leadership, my influence, that I have not the will or ability to harm a church? Or perhaps, in the best of worlds, the postmillennial folks are right and the church, while gimpy, is steadily limping towards victory such that dragging one more weak pastor along will hardly slow her progress. But even that positive spin doesn’t help me — it still looks like I’m not up for the job.
You may say that I’m being too hard on myself. Or perhaps you think I’m just joking. But as I look at my vocational history, I remain troubled. For instance, editing has always been a game for me. A challenge, a competition with the author to find his failed facts, to demonstrate his dangerous leaps in logic, and to make his flat language perky and interesting enough for public consumption. Performing this exercise of ego in the presence of remarkably heart-touching and orthodox content — this makes it even worse. The beauty and truth of God may be all around me, but my soul gets the most joy from spotting a comma splice. Sharp eyes, but a dull heart.
My preaching and writing isn’t much better. Too often, communication is my way to demonstrate what the world should have understood already — that I am extremely smart and spiritual and worthy of being paid and admired. The words I’ve been called to write often speak of humility, of God-sized truths that transcend our tiny space and time, and yet I see in my heart — and on the page — me writing words to glorify…me.
The reality of self-actualizing ministry has left me silent, stammering, and remorseful at times. My prayers know it, my God knows it, my congregation probably knows how full of me I really am and how woefully empty I am of Christ. I know this is true. And now so do you.
Having said all that — there is hope. The presence of pride in the hearts of pastors and laypeople is foreseen in Scripture, and Christ gives the antidote. That medicine is both the cure and the tonic for future health in the church.
“Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). At the beginning of Christ’s ministry, He points us to humbling repentance as the first step along the path of following Him in faithful ministry. There are other ways that the Gospels record this summary statement of Christ as He begins His public ministry (for instance, see Matt. 4:17). In the other Gospels, the word believe is omitted. Why? Because repentance wraps up or includes belief. You cannot repent of sin without repenting to someone. If I sin against my wife — no, strike that — when I sin against my wife, the repentance that I do when I come to my senses presupposes that I believe she exists and that she matters. Repentance both presupposes and strengthens a relationship that matters.
All through the Gospels, in the middle of His most active ministry, Jesus continually calls people to a lifestyle of repentance, an active life that is marked most of all by a faithful fleeing from sin to Christ. But this is not a simple relocation, it is actually quite painful — at least the way Jesus puts it.
Luke 9:23 says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” But Jesus, you may say, I don’t want to deny myself, my needs, and my desires. I want to follow you, but I want to bring everything with me, my stuff, my commitment to comfort, and my desire for respect. “No,” Jesus says. There won’t be any room for all that, because your arms and back will be busy with something else.
So the very act of following Christ, from beginning to end, is a moment-by-moment, day-by-day, denial of our ourselves. It’s a work of synergistic sanitation, throwing out the useless rubbish that clutters our lives, putting down our plastic idols, and then walking the path that Christ walked, following His bloodstained footsteps up a hill.
John 12:24 says, “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” But Jesus, I don’t want to die! When we are in conflict with others, especially over religious matters, we don’t want to die. We want them to die, or at least to be quiet so our opinions, our ideas, and our arguments will win the day.
The end goal of a lifestyle of repentance is union with Christ. How can I tell if my repentance is true? If I’m growing closer to Jesus, then it’s working. If Dayspring Church is growing more God-centered, then it’s working. If my elders are growing more humble as well as more orthodox — then it’s working. And one day, all His church will stand in awe as His crowning achievement is unveiled — His repentant people, now fully glorified as we see Him as He is (1 John 3:2). We will finally be done with repentance because we will then be like Him.