Friday, November 22, 2013

The Cool Pastor: An Oxymoron or Just a Regular Moron?

I had to do a double-take when I saw the tour bus.

There it was, idling softly in the parking lot, with the pastor’s name and newest book title emblazoned large--in bright yellow letters--across either side. Being advertised on that conspicuous rolling billboard was a “special evening,” (no doubt repeated dozens of times in select cities across the nation) with the newest “it” pastor.

His similitude to a rock star was highly intentional. Autograph sessions would soon follow as well, of course.  

You may not recognize him as a pastor at all at first. It will take a moment for the fog machine to clear up, as he takes center stage. But soon enough you will be able to identify him clearly: he’s the guy wearing the sneakers and the torn jeans, possibly even a hoodie and a snap-back too. He doesn’t carry a Bible under his arm—that would send the wrong signal—he carries his tablet computer.

He is the “cool pastor,” the next big thing.

He didn’t come to your city for a show? No problem. He’s building a satellite campus in your suburb next. In fact, there are already dozens of wannabes cropping up in churches near you. They are the next generation. The hipster pastors.

But this whole celebrity minister phenomenon has me wondering: isn’t “cool pastor” an oxymoron?

Don’t get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with being current. There is nothing wrong with using modern communication tools. There is nothing wrong with speaking in a relevant way to current trends, both societal and cultural.

But the closest thing to the pastoral job description in the Bible is found in 2 Timothy 4:1-5,

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 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. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

No mention of having panache or chic jeans there. If anything, it sounds decidedly arduous. Difficult. Even subversive.

If I can be completely honest, there was a time in my life when I craved to be considered a “cool pastor.” In the early years, as the morning dawned on my pastoral vocation, I honestly believed it was possible to walk in both worlds, that is to say, the world of cultural approval and the world of Biblical fidelity.

More and more, however, I am not sure this is even desirable.

I am not suggesting that pastors return to monkish albs or don black robes exclusively. (Full disclosure: I do own a robe, but I haven’t worn it in over five years). I am however convinced that my desire to win cultural approval as a minister must die and die soon!

Our current fascination with our pastors’ book sales, name recognition value, and proliferating multi-site video venues ought to be considered a dangerous trend. Never before in the history of Christendom has a pastor’s reputation been graded by any other factors than his doctrine and his personal ethic. Today, we would add his fans.

No, my highest goal as a pastor is not to secure the greatest number of Twitter followers, but rather to model one man: our Lord Jesus Christ. His message must be my own. His methods must be sufficient for me. His majesty must be my highest end.

Though Jesus attracted a large following at times (Matthew 19:2; Mark 4:1; John 6:2) there were other moments when His doctrine and His fiery preaching sent men running in the opposite direction (John 6:66). If we should ask whether our Lord was more often cultural or countercultural, the preponderance of the Gospel materials emphatically suggest the latter.

I am sure there will be some who will appeal to texts such as 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to justify the coolness factor as the necessary “cross we must bear” to make the Gospel intelligible in a modern context. They will argue that this is how we “become all things to all people, that by all means we might save some.”

But isn’t it ironic how those who use that Pauline text to defend a dogged pursuit of “relevance” end up making the Gospel less relevant to their hearer’s salvation and sanctification? At the very least, interpreting 1 Corinthians 9 as a methodological “free pass” makes light of the historical context surrounding the tensions between the Jewish and Hellenistic Christians to whom Paul ministered.  

To assume the role of the pastor is to assume the role of the prophet. I do not need to dress like John the Baptist, but I had better be ready to preach like him as well as to be treated like him. The pastor must more frequently confront a god-forsaken culture than conform to it.

Whether or not I am even aware of it, the subconscious and non-verbal communication that I put out is as instrumental in articulating the Gospel as the words I preach. Unfortunately, the more conspicuous the “show” surrounding my sermon, the less magnanimous the Gospel appears in juxtaposition. It is obscured by bright lights and video clips, high-wires and hair gel.

I will never forget the moment I met John Piper, although I doubt he could possibly remember it. His brown belt didn’t match his black shoes, and his well-worn slacks and tweed jacket wordlessly whispered, “This world has nothing for me!” He wasn’t the least bit slovenly or unkempt, but his entire demeanor adorned the very message He preached: Jesus Christ is supreme above all things.

Here is the bottom line. The unbelieving world will always do “cool” better than the Church. When the Church adopts coolness and relevance as its corporate values, it slavishly agrees to follow, lagging always one step behind the world. (This is why Christian music always ends up ripping off the sounds and styles of their secular counterparts, while Christian film often has a cheesy “cringe factor”).   

The church is not called to be the caricature of modern culture; it is called to be the critique (even the foil) of that same culture. When we explicitly model ourselves on the unbelieving world—whether its art, architecture, or ethos—we are implicitly and foolishly endorsing it.

As a pastor, I cannot afford to act so foolishly.

-Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. He is the author of Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of1647 (Reformation Press, 2012). He blogs regularly at

Monday, November 11, 2013

Conversion at the Eleventh Hour: Five Truths from the Thief on the Cross

Today I have the privilege of doing the funeral of a man who was converted just days before his death. In his honor, here are five observations from the conversion of the thief on the cross in Luke 23:32-43.

1. The soul continues to exist, even after death. Jesus said, "Truly, truly I tell you, TODAY...!" (Luke 23:43, emphasis added). The criminals were sure to die on the cross. Death was inescapable. Crucifixion resulted in a 100% chance of death. The only question was “when would death come?” The Romans were experts at crucifixion. Nobody ever got off the cross and lived to tell about it.

These are our chances as well--100%. All men die. And yet the Bible is clear that all men will continue on in eternal consciousness after death. James say, "Yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes" (James 4:14).

Have you ever thought about what will happen when you die? Have you ever considered the fate of your own soul ten seconds after you die? 

2. One of the two destinations is called paradise (or Heaven); the other is Hell. "Today you will be with me in PARADISE" (Luke 23:43, emphasis added).  What makes heaven so great, is that Jesus is there! We will be with Jesus, as He Himself promised the thief personally. If I had to define Heaven in as few words as possible, I would define it as “eternity with the Ever Living God.”

3. If any man should go to Heaven, it is by grace alone. Notice this man's honest confession. "We are receiving the due reward for our deeds" (23:41). How could a criminal like this ever be admitted into heaven? The only answer is by grace! Most people believe that people go to Heaven based on our good deeds. If this were so, the thief had no chance. He was literally pinned to the cross. What good could he do now? He could not serve the poor. He had no chance to ever again walk a "little old lady" across the street. He could not reach into his wallet to drop a quarter into the Salvation Army bucket. Surely he did not deserve forgiveness, and yet Jesus gave it to him by grace alone!  

4. He was admitted to Heaven based on a profession of faith in Jesus. He said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom" (Luke 23:42). This isn’t the most complete theological statement about Jesus in the Bible, but it is a faithful one! He called Jesus a King. There is much that the thief leaves out (Jesus' divine nature, His Preincarnate glory, His resurrection etc.) but it is a believing profession. A simple plea of faith. A simple request—“save me.” 

5. It is better to be converted at the latest possible moment, than not at all. The other Gospels tell us that both criminals mocked Jesus at first (Matthew 27:44; Mark 15:32). But Luke's Gospel implies that the second thief had a change of heart for some reason. Perhaps it was based upon the manner in which Jesus testified on the cross. In other words, it was Jesus’ death on the cross that changed his heart. 

But if there is one thing of which I am sure--it is better come to Christ at the eleventh hour than not at all!

-Matthew Everhard is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Brooksville, Florida. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Give Wycliffe His Due!

By Wilfred A. Bellamy
In the context of Reformation Sunday and the birthday celebrations of the Reformed Faith, all of which are well conceived and justified, one man appears to quietly slip through a crack in the memory of the Church. His name is John Wycliffe.

Our tradition reminds us of the ministry of Martin Luther and of 95 theses nailed to the door of the Cathedral Church in Wittenburg, Germany on October 31, 1517 -- a banner occasion for the Reformed Church. It also brings to mind the several issues of confrontation with Rome that were the hallmark of Luther's career. We recall them with gratitude.

Yet it was John Wycliffe whom history has dubbed: "The Morning Star of the Reformation". Born almost 200 years before Luther, in the obscurity of a tiny village in North Yorkshire, England, Wycliffe completed his early childhood education in a one-room school and made his way to the University of Oxford. There he studied first as a student of philosophy and theology, and then became a full professor in the same field. He was of stoic demeanor, not given to frivolity, a serious minded man whose primary interest was always the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. He consistently argued that the Word of God was the primary authoritative source of Christianity and that it would remain so for all time.

Despite the consternation that he caused in the Roman Church, from his earliest days as an Oxford Don, he postulated several of the key arguments later embraced by Martin Luther. He wrote a number of tracts and books to make his ideas known, and especially denounced the notion of a purchased salvation by means of paid-for indulgences. In addition he warmly embraced the Biblical doctrines of "Justification by Faith" as a single act of Sovereign Grace; and Sanctification as the process which means the Holy Spirit directs in the life of the believer. Both almost unheard of in their day. Supremely he saw Christ as Sovereign Lord and God, the Savior of Mankind, and trusted in His substitutionary death.

In his zeal for truth, Wycliffe set to work on his magnum opus , the translation of the New Testament into the English Language. This had the dual benefit of delivering the Word of God to the common people of Britain, while removing the Church from the role of sole interpreter of truth. Wycliffe's action was fiercely opposed by Rome and vigorous efforts were made to destroy his work and unseat him from his position at Oxford. Indeed, some copies of the New Testament were destroyed, but because there were so many of them, zealously copied by believers, many survived.

John Wycliffe, a gentle giant, valiant for the faith once delivered to the saints, died of a stroke in 1384. It was thirty years later that the Roman Church, still incensed and still smarting because of Wycliffe's great influence and his role in pioneering the reformation of the church, had his bones dug up and publicly burned.

But give John Wycliffe his due! He was long gone and safe home. He had already received his "well done, good and faithful servant," from his Lord.

Wilfred A. Bellamy, Ph.D. 
November 2013

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Grace of Judgment: Is Hell Consistent with the Love of God?

God has appointed a day, wherein he will judge the world in righteousness by Jesus Christ, to whom all power and judgment is given of the Father. In which day, not only the apostate angels shall be judged; but likewise all persons, that have lived upon earth, shall appear before the tribunal of Christ, to give an account of their thoughts, words, and deeds; and to receive according to what they have done in the body, whether good or evil (The Westminster Confession of Faith, 33.1).

It seems a bit strange for the Westminster Confession of Faith--such a joyful and God-rejoicing document--to end with a chapter on judgment. Yet, it is not that grace is lacking in this text. There is plenty of peace here. For instance the next section of the Confession speaks of “the manifestation of the glory of His mercy in the eternal salvation of the elect,” and “the fullness of joy and refreshing which shall come from the presence of the Lord” (see 33.2). And yet we remember that this is a Puritan document. And so it is quite fitting that this great confession, as it was originally written, ends with a stern warning to obedience and faith. For this reason we are not surprised to hear of hell mentioned in the closing words as well.

Is the concept of hell consistent with a loving God? It is.

Jonathan Edwards explains why:
“The crime of one being despising and casting contempt on another, is proportionally more or less heinous, as he was under greater or lesser obligations to obey him. And therefore if there be any being that we are under infinite obligations to love, and honor, and obey, the contrary towards him must be infinitely faulty. Our obligation to love, honor, and obey any being is in proportion to his loveliness, honorableness, and authority…But God is a being infinitely lovely, because he hath infinite excellency and beauty…So sin against God, being a violation of infinite obligations must be infinitely heinous…and therefore renders no more than proportional to the heinousness of what they are guilty of.”[1]

The Christian faith is no “lollipop religion.” It is not the chaff of popular self-esteem banter. It is not the easy-to-digest frivolity of “do it yourself” religion. And the Westminster Confession of Faith makes no pretensions of recommending such glitter. The Christian faith does, however, remit serious warnings of judgment as often as it promises incomprehensible rewards; often in the same breath. And so the Confession ends here, a bit like the Apostle John ends his first epistle, with a staunch reminder of the sheer weightiness of the matters presented within the rest of the document.

When we decide to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ with our lives, we have also decided to worship and serve the one who will judge us on that last day (John 5:22, 27). This is wonderful news. The one who will judge us is also our Savior!  If our own judge took off His garments of honor and nobility to condescend to be our Savior, how much more then will His judgment be according to His own mercy.

As we consider the sternness and mercy of God today, let us pray with the Reformer John Calvin regarding this great and terrible doctrine of the judgment,
“Almighty God, our heavenly Father, grant us the grace that, being warned by so many examples of Your wrath and vengeance (in the Bible), the memory of which You have willed should endure until the end of the world, we might learn thereby how redoubtable and terrible a Judge You are against the obstinate and those who have hardened their hearts. Grant us also the grace that, today we might not be deaf to this doctrine which we have heard from the mouth of your prophet. Rather, grant that we might apply all our studies in order to appease You and find favor in Your sight, and, abandoning all hope in mankind, present ourselves directly to You. Moreover, being supported by Your loving kindness alone, which You have promised us in Jesus Christ, may we never doubt again that You are our true Father. May we be so touched by a spirit of repentance, that, even if we have been bad examples for one another, and scandalized each other, we might rather become banner-bearers, or guides, to the right way of salvation. And may we strive to help our neighbors by living a good and well-ordered life, so that all together we might attain that heavenly and happy life which Your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has dearly acquired for us by His blood. Amen.”[2]

I have sitting on my desk a tiny trophy that I “earned” for playing T-ball as a young boy. T-ball is the kind of baseball that is played before children are able to hit and pitch the ball on their own. The baseball just sits there on the tee waiting for the batter to strike it. At the end of my first season playing for the “T-ball Tornados” the coach handed us each a small, itty-bitty trophy no higher than six inches. It sits modestly on a 1-inch high pedestal of plastic. What seemed to me a more than generous reward for my efforts as a child, now seems to me a humorous reminder of the irony of my achievements. Our earthly trophies are so small and ignoble compared to the righteousness of Jesus, aren’t they?

Often I have found that the more I can meditate on the day of my own judgment, the more I am able to ferret out the wood and hay before I am foolish enough to try to build something out of them.  Philippians 2:12 warns us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” We fear, not because we are concerned that God will destroy us, for there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1); rather we fear because our hearts have been regenerated in order to love Him more and more. Our fear is not that we would ourselves be condemned, but we fear that we would live in such a way that the honor of God is tarnished. Similarly, we tremble not because we are afraid of punishment, but with the ground-shaking responsibility of carrying His name-plate on our hearts. 

The above has been adapted from Matthew Everhard's book, Hold Fast the Faith: A Devotional Commentary on the Westminster Confession of 1647 (Reformation Press, 2012). Matthew is the Senior Pastor of Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, quoted in John Piper, Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. (Sisters OR: Multnomah Publishers, 2003) p. 60.

[2] John Calvin, quoted in Steven J. Lawson, The Expository Genius of John Calvin.  (Orlando FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2007) p. 127-128.