A Shepherd and His Unregenerate Sheep

Desiring God 2009 Conference for Pastors

Commending Christ


My life in Christ has not been without some God-ordained irony. I was transplanted to Texas form the Bay area. My father was military and they moved us across. My mother had a deep faith and my father wanted nothing to do with it. When we moved to Houston, a young man on the football team began to share the gospel with me. Christ radically redeemed and saved my soul. I became a ferocious evangelist in spite of the fact that I didn’t know anything.

My friends would come to know the Lord. It didn’t take long before my passion for the gospel and to see lost men and women saved started to rub against or collide with the church. And so it wasn’t very long, and I can give you dozens and dozens of stories, before I decided that if I was going to do this, I wasn’t going to do it as a churchman.

This break in me happened during my freshman year of college when I sat next to a 26-year-old single mother trying to get her degree. We began a dialogue about the grace and mercy of Christ in the cross. Some other guys and I would go over and babysit her child and try to talk with her. A friend of mine was in a band playing in the area and we invited her to hear him. She agreed. She thought it would be a concert. I knew better. It was shady and she agreed to come.

The minister got up and said we would talk about sex. He took a red rose, smelled it, and threw it out in the crowd and told them to smell the rose. He then began one of the worst, most horrific handlings of what sex is and isn’t that I ever sat through.

I’m thinking, with Kim beside me, “What are you doing?” As he wrapped up, he asked, “Where’s my rose?” Some kid brought the rose back and it was broken. His point was to hold up the rose and say, “Who wants this rose?” Anger welled up within me and I wanted to say, “Jesus wants the rose!” While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

I left there and said, “I’m done. If this is the game, I don’t know how to play it.”

I went into itinerant ministry and got really bitter and angry. I said, “If this is what it is, I’m not playing.”

Then, in study, I became convicted of my ecclesiology. I said, “Okay, maybe I should pastor.” I said, “We’ll plant a church, but we’re not doing it in Dallas. We’re going big. We’re going San Francisco. Hong Kong. Can’t-find-an-ichthus-on-a-car kind of place.” I gathered a team and talked about what we could do.

At the time I was running a non-profit organization and called a woman who was on the board. She said, “Matt, I would like you to turn in your resume to First Baptist Church of Highland Village.” As the director of a non-profit organization, I was in a quandary because you need money. I knew of the church. My little sister had landed there and I often argued with my sister about why she was there.

The church was so schizophrenic theologically. They were working on a constitution that would allow a woman to become and elder but wouldn’t allow a divorced man to become a deacon.

I decided to submit my resume and be brutally honest. I’m a 28-year old Calvinist, complementarian, believe in the gifts of the Spirit, etc. I thought this would be easy.

I went to the first meeting and was brutally honest. The doctrine of women came up and I explained how I thought the doctrine works. I left and called my wife on the phone and said, “Checkmate. It’s over.” On the drive home I got a call from the head of the search committee asking if I could come back and teach on complementarianism.

We passed that one, but I thought for sure the Calvinism would get them. I came in and they said, “What do you believe about predestination?” I said, “I believe it,” and thought I killed it there. There it went. I kept trying to not get the job. They asked if I could come and preach a sermon.

Before I preached, we did Q&A. I walk up and do a Q&A. I had to go buy slacks and do a Q&A with the whole church. The first question was, “Everybody buys a house knowing there is something about the house they are going to change. What is that thing here?” I said, “Bingo. The system of government is unbiblical. Maybe wicked. Nobody brings a Bible to church. I have no idea where to start.”

I get in the car, and here’s the thing. Up until this point I haven’t hardly prayed about this, because it’s not going to happen. I told my wife, “We’re going to get this job.” And sure enough, I got the job.

We prayed and we thought, “Okay, let’s go and do what we can for a few years.” I had a unanimous vote and had a CD that explained clearly what I wanted to do with the church.

We baptized a lot of people that first year. People would get in the water and share their testimonies. They would all say the same thing. They either had these stories of legalism or license, of being in church their whole lives and never understanding the gospel.

In December of 2002, despite my anger towards evangelicals, I became the pastor of a church of evangelicals in what Christianity Today called the “center of the evangelical world.” Despite the fact that my heart had always burned for the prodigal, God sent me to the older brother.

Sitting in those testimonies and those baptismal services, I saw that what I thought had been an enemy was really a casualty of religion.

1 Timothy 4

When John Piper asked me to come, my mind went immediately to 1 Timothy 4.

There are two ways to handle this. We could talk about the unregenerate sheep, how they got there. I decided not to go that route. The other way you could go here is talk to pastors about the reality that every weekend you walk up some stairs and stand behind a pulpit in front of men and women, some of whom, if not many of whom, will take the Lord’s Supper, have been baptized, have long histories in church but do not know him. They know about him, but they don’t know him.

I thought the better way to handle it in our time here is to look at what Paul tells Timothy to do in this context. 1 Timothy 4:1.

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons…

They’re there, but they’re not going to be. They’re sitting in the crowd and have their Bibles open. They’re in a home group and maybe leading a home group, but the Spirit says that there is coming a time when they will not be there.

…through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared… (1 Timothy 4:2)

Is this hard to believe that there are men like this elsewhere? Turn on the TV and look at the religious programs.

…who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. (1 Timothy 4:3-5)

This is bookend 1. Now, go down to 16. It’s the famous verse that’s on a coffee cup. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”

“The Spirit expressly says that in the latter times some will fall away, but Timothy, if you guard your life and doctrine closely, you will save yourself and your hearers.” There is a way to live and preach that reveals in ourselves and our hearers the presence of the Spirit.

Timothy is to live and preach in such a way that regenerance is revealed.

Let’s read in verse 6.

If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith [that’s the gospel] and of the good doctrine that you have followed.

Listen. The gospel matters. Getting the gospel right matters. If you get the gospel wrong and you don’t distinguish between what the gospel is and what morality is, then what you’ve done at best is restrain the hearts of people, but you won’t see their hearts transformed. If you don’t get the gospel right, you will inoculate your people to Jesus.

Paul is pleading with Timothy here. “Be trained in the gospel. Let it stir up your affections. Know the gospel.” Every new philosophy of ministry has to go through the filter of the gospel.

He doesn’t stop there, but says that not only is the gospel important but all the doctrines that flow from it.

I was at a large conference and I’m backstage eating with some of the other speakers. A guy called me “The Bible Guy.” The Bible Guy? Shouldn’t we all be the Bible-Guy, dumb-dumb? Somehow, hyper-fundamentalism and doctrine have become synonymous, and we’re lost as to how worship has faded. Seeing God rightly stirs the affections of the soul. Seeing God wrongly…Let’s do it this way.

Let’s say I just feel really stirred up towards my wife and come home to her and look at her and say I love her and, “I don’t know what caused it, maybe your black hair…” Some of you may think that’s okay, but my wife has blond hair. I’m in trouble at that point. I have to see her rightly.

Look at this next piece. Second imperative.

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. (1 Timothy 4:7-10)

I think this is complex. Paul is saying, “Avoid silly myths, but train your people in godliness.” This is complex because you can take one idea and teach it in a way that is irreverent or teach it in a way that leads to godliness.

Take the recession. In Dallas, you have creative teams who get together to teach their people about debt. You title a series, “Debt is dumb.” “Worship leader, write a song on ‘Debt is dumb.’ I’ve written a sermon series on ‘Debt is dumb.’”

The preacher gets up and says, “Listen, here is the problem with debt. You’re not happy. You’re marriage is difficult. Listen, do you want to be homeless? Do you want your mom to drive you around? Debt is dumb. On your way out, we have a bumper sticker that says, ‘Debt is dumb.’”

That’s Christless, expounding on nothing. Okay, now I’m not against topical preaching as long as it’s done exegetically.

How about we stand in our pulpits and say, “In Christ and his cross I’ve been set free from finding my identity in things and have been saved to use the creation to further God’s kingdom.”

Paul is pleading with Timothy to train his people in godliness. The gospel reveals the former errors. I can blatantly remember singing a song in Vacation Bible School about how God didn’t like liars. At the fourth grade level, I’m saying, “Uh oh. I’m singing a song about God’s hatred of me.”

Even topics such as debt, money, sex, power, marriage…the gospel illuminates all of those things.

Next imperative.

Command and teach these things. (1 Timothy 4:11)

I’ll piggy-back off of what Mark said last night. I think one of the most consistent problems with pastors is that they lack courage. They want to be liked. I think most people are like that. Most people don’t get up and say, “I want to be hated.”

Paul is telling Timothy that the gospel is always going to be the stench of death to some. There is just an arrogance to youth because life hasn’t gotten a chance to beat it out of you. I’m pleading with my generation that you will never make the gospel cool enough. You’re eventually going to have to mention the slaughtering of the Son of God. “Command and teach these things.”

At The Village we have these state of the union addresses and say that we’re going to start creating some space today because of the preaching.

I think there is an undue amount of pressure on all of us that success is somehow tied to numerical attendance. You don’t help your people by soft-peddling the gospel and the commands of God.

Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. (1 Timothy 4:12)

I learned this one the hard way. Two years ago, this was probably one of the most heartbreaking things in my years of ministry. I was at lunch with some people that had just gotten back from a missions trip in India.

I was listening to different people and was hearing a story. There were two buses that took our crew and another crew to get out to a place. Our crew decided to tell the best joke they’ve ever heard. When they pull up, the other group gets out and there’s tears running down their face.

It disturbed me. I couldn’t let it go. I didn’t know what to do with it. Why, on the way out to do missions, are people who are covenant members of The Village doing knock-knock jokes when the people in the other van are calling out for mercy to God?

One morning I was reading the Bible and journaling my thoughts. I had a surly professor in college who I loved and hated. He had an extreme, high expectation of you. He said, “Five years in, what’s wrong with your church is wrong with you.” I don’t know if he’s right, but the Holy Spirit said, “Remember?” I laid on the floor and sobbed because my witty, sarcastic humor had been embedded into The Village so much that on the way out to such a dark, spiritual destination, we’re doing knock-knock jokes. It devastated me. I constantly pray that God would protect the people of The Village from me.

Be the example in word, in deed, in purity, in love, in prayer. Be the example.

Let’s keep going.

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. (1 Timothy 4:13)

I preach through books of the Bible. The thing about doing that is that the Scriptures will gently and consistently, lovingly pressure your people’s assurance. It’ll press on it. I don’t think that by default most of us say, “I need to make everyone question whether or not they know this weekend.” But if you are faithful to the Scriptures, it will press on their souls.

You’d better decide very, very early what you believe about the Scriptures, or you will sell out to the idea that numerical success equals godliness. It’s subtle. Like those who are opponents of our faith. They are not going to come out and attack the faith. You just have to ask questions and never answer them. You’ll start to say, “You don’t have to go there.” You’d better decide early where your devotion lies.

I also don’t think you’ll wake up one morning and say, “I’m selling out.” It will happen incrementally.

Let’s keep going.

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. (1 Timothy 4:14)

No one unpacked for me that being a pastor was going to be a part of my own sanctification. It’s going to be the process of God disciplining me for the rest of my life. In this culture, it’s imperative to know that your calling is God’s calling to him on you for the body. If you don’t get this, then I don’t understand how you’re making it. God is the end. He is who we’re after. We get more of him by being obedient to his call to be pastors.

He’s the goal. Not more people. Not more baptisms. I am at The Village Church as an act of obedience. If anything else is your pursuit I don’t know how you will persevere. Sometimes it’s a long time that the baptismal waters stay still. I don’t know how you’re sustained in those hours if he’s not enough for you.

I came home for lunch a year and a half ago. I came home to be with my wife and my son was sleeping. We heard a noise and she runs upstairs. I hear her scream at the top of her lungs. She carries my son down the stairs and he’s convulsing and his face is blue and he’s fighting for air. We lay him on the floor and we call 911. I’m saying, “I know he’s not mine, I know he’s not mine.” Do you think I care in that moment how big our church is or how many conferences I’m speaking at? I’m thinking about God’s sovereignty over my son’s life. Thankfully, he let my son live.

If you misunderstand your call, I think it’s just a matter of time before all your zeal is dried up and your frustration sets in.

I also find that one of the things we don’t preach well is that ministry that looks fruitless is constantly happening in the Scriptures. We don’t do conferences on that. There aren’t too many books written about how you can toil away all your life and be unbelievably faithful to God and see little fruit this side of heaven.

Seventh imperative.

Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. (1 Timothy 4:15)

It seems that if we’re not careful, our faith can retard. What I mean is that Paul tells Timothy here that you are to be ever growing in these things. You are to be ever growing to the point that from year to year your people can notice your growth.

Can I plead with you? It seems to me that I meet a pastor whose heart is on fire for the things of God, and his brain when it comes to doctrine is just non-existent. Then I meet a pastor who has a gigantic head and they have this tiny, shriveled little soul. Some of that’s dispotion. I get that. But Paul is pleading with Timothy to let your growth be evident to all.

I think you should know your Bible a little bit better than you know your football team. I think that’s basic. People say that they’re not a good reader but can give me football statistics. They’re brilliant when it comes to 18-year-olds throwing a ball, but they can’t devote themselves to the Bible.

Paul says to pay attention to yourself and your teaching.

Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1 Timothy 4:16)

All of these things in our passage is the environment in which the unregenerate who think they’re saved because they got a bogus invitation, who maybe walked down at a camp that was built more on manipulation than truth, it is in an environment where previous errors are corrected, where accusations against license and legalism are made, that the Holy Spirit reveals to hearers where they stand with him.

I have to wonder if some of us are in need of repentance this morning. I wonder if we’ve lacked the type of courage it takes to do this. If we’re honest, it’s one thing to hear this preached and go “Yes!” It’s another thing to get up in your pulpit and do it. It’s one thing to regurgitate this to someone else. It’s another thing to cry out for this and beg God for this. Totally different things.

I wonder if I can give you just a second to let the Word read you? Are you teaching and preaching the gospel or have you bought into a lot of popular notions about relevance and contextualization? Have you been a coward when it comes to the commands of Scripture? Have you not wanted to touch that one? Have you? Or do you just believe that these people are not out there at your place?

Have you soft-sold the message in an attempt to hold on to people, and in so doing robbed everyone who sits in front of you of right, deep worship? I guess I’m asking, “Where are you with the Lord this morning?” Maybe we agree with David: “Restore to me the joy of my salvation.” Maybe we let Joshua speak over us: “Be strong and courageous.” Maybe we have to say, “There’s too much of me in this thing. I still care too much how I’m perceived or what people say. Put that to death in me, O God.”