The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God.
I have read sentences I can’t escape — and I don’t want to escape them. They have helped me in deep and lasting ways. I thank the Lord.
For example, in What Is an Evangelical?, Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “Every institution tends to produce its opposite” (4). Decades later, that sentence still arrests my attention.
What is an institution? An institution is a social mechanism for making a desirable experience easily repeatable. Our church services are an institution. And it’s a good thing. What if we had to reinvent the ministry from scratch every Sunday? But a life-giving institution can drift into life-depleting institutionalization. That happens when the institutional delivery system itself becomes the goal, the end, the idol. Then undesirable experiences become absolutized and perpetuated.
And that horrible betrayal is not a distant hypothetical possibility. Every institution tends to produce its opposite. Haven’t we all seen evidence of this tendency in a church?
“A life-giving institution can drift into life-depleting institutionalization.”
Let’s keep our finger on the pulse of our churches, and keep realigning with reformation and revival. And for those of us who are pastors — who gave us the right to preside over dead and deadening religious institutionalization? Authentic Christianity is a revival movement. As long as the book of Acts remains in the Bible, which we ourselves call our final authority, we have every right in Christ to keep reaching for renewal in our churches.
His Work in His Way
Another sentence that is never far from my mind came from Francis Schaeffer in No Little People: “We must do the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way” (74). I believe this is the defining issue in our generation, and in every generation.
If we serve the Lord out of our own strengths, out of our own cool, even out of our own postmodern ironic self-mockery, we are not serving the Lord. We are insulting the Lord, while we flatter ourselves that we are serving the Lord. But if we will turn and humble ourselves, doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way, and in his way only, then the Lord himself will enter into our work with his glorious power.
It is wonderful when the Lord blesses the work of our hands. But it is altogether more wonderful when the Lord takes up the work in his own hands. The difference is publicly obvious. The glory of Christ will compel the attention of our world.
First Upheaval, Then Glory
The sentence I want to talk about most, however, follows the trajectory set by those first two sentences. In his book about the Puritan movement, A Quest for Godliness, J.I. Packer writes,
The end to which all church order, on the Puritan view, was a means, and for which everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out, was the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of lively congregations in which people met God. (39)
What a compelling vision for ministry priorities and pastoral courage! Packer’s bold sentence reminds me of Isaiah 40:3–5, where we read,
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
The logic of Isaiah’s prophecy can be summed up like this: “First some preparing, some rearranging, even some upheaval, and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” This world is not ready for the glory of the Lord. Too many of our churches are not ready for his glory.
The barriers against the historic display of his glory are firmly established in the trendy distractions of the world and in the dull routines of our churches. The only one fully ready for the display of Christ’s glory is Christ himself. Packer understood that. He understood that, for our churches to become filled with the felt presence and power of the risen Lord Jesus Christ, “everything superstitious, misleading, and Spirit-quenching must be rooted out.”
Pastor, have you accepted this prophetic call?
Would We Long for Less?
Yes, there are foolish and reckless ways to pursue this sacred purpose in a church.
It remains true, however, that every mountain of life-depleting institutionalization must be made low. It remains true that every valley of brokenhearted despair must be lifted up. It remains true that the Lord’s work must be done in the Lord’s way — by humble and constant prayer, by honest confession of sin and need, by living power coming down upon us from on high. And then the glory of the Lord will appear, more and more clearly, in this generation and the next. Would we dare settle for less?
“Pastor, God is patient. You can be patient too. Just be graciously unstoppable.”
As we pastors take these convictions to heart and redirect our steps to press forward, some wisdom from my dad can help. Dad used to say about pastoral leadership, “One step ahead of your people, and you’re a leader. Two steps ahead, and you’re a visionary. Three steps ahead, and you’re a martyr!” So the way of wisdom is deliberately to stay only one step, or maybe two, out ahead. After all, God is patient. You can be patient too. Just be graciously unstoppable.
Our Call Is Clear
With winsome persuasion from your open Bible, keep leading and guiding your church forward in this high, holy, joyous direction: the glory of God in and through the salvation of sinners and the building up of a lively congregation in which people meet God. What more could you hope for? It’s worth praying for. It’s worth working toward. It is worthy of your long-haul best. And it sure beats settling for a church that’s comfortably numb, with you picking up a monthly paycheck and holding out until retirement, don’t you think?
Yes, pastor, the obstacles are real. I know that. But I also know that your call is clear. And I know that God’s faithfulness, which has carried me all these years, will carry you too. So let this sentence from our friend J.I. Packer put new heart in you! The Lord himself will be with you.