“Promiscuous” Grace

Once there was a potato farmer in Blackfoot, Idaho who desperately needed additional workers to get his crop harvested and to the market by 6 pm. So he hired a bunch of day workers and promised to pay them a wage of $180 for 12 hrs of work. The workers were glad to have the opportunity to work so they agreed. They started work at 6 am. It soon became obvious to the farmer that he needed more help in order to make the deadline, so he went into town and drove by the Unemployment Office where he saw guys just standing around.

“If you want to work for a fair wage, I could use you right now.” They agreed and jumped in his truck and went into his fields. They began at 9 am. The farmer saw that he needed additional help and made two more trips into town to collect workers. One group started at 12 noon and the other at 3 pm. On an errand, the farmer drove by some more men just standing around. He pulled up in his truck and said, “Why aren’t you guys working?” They replied, “No one has hired us.” “I’ll hire you to help me finish picking my crop. Hop in the truck.” They started work at 5 pm.

When the whistle blew at 6 pm, all the potatoes were picked, washed, loaded, and on the way to a potato chip company in Pennsylvania. The farmer gathered all his hired help so he could pay them. He started with the guys who began work at 5 pm and gave them $180 each. The he went to the ones who started at 3 pm and gave them each $180; those who began at noon, $180; and those who started at 9 am, $180. He finally came to those he originally hired at 6 am. What do you think they expected? He gave them $180.

As they looked at their money one of them complained, “You paid these guys who started last and worked the least just as much as us- who started first and have worked the longest. It’s just not fair!”

“My friend, how much did I promise to pay you? And how much did I pay you? Don’t I have the right to be generous with whomever I choose- after all, it is my money. Are you jealous of these others because of my generosity?” (A direct quote, Matt. 20:15)

These men overlooked the generosity that had been shown to them because they were so focused on the generosity of the farmer towards those they considered less deserving. It was the same attitude depicted by the elder brother at the grace and mercy shown by his father towards the prodigal son.

I remember a dream that I had a couple of years ago. I think I had it because of a sermon series that I was preaching at my church. The dream was so vivid that I wrote it down. It was about an old man named Joe who shared with me his life story. He told me that when he was young he was a member of a violent gang; his alias was Joey the Fang. He told me about his crimes including rape and murder. He then related how he had heard the gospel and came to Christ and received God’s grace and mercy of forgiveness. I remember that instead of being happy I remember feeling anger and hatred towards him and felt like punching him out. And then I woke up and marveled that my reaction was so much like the Pharisees and the elder brother.

It is only in Christianity that we have this tendency towards “unfairness” because God is gracious, and no one is beyond forgiveness. In fact, God’s grace is so amazing that it can seem downright scandalous to our limited human sensitivities. The Puritans often called God’s grace “promiscuous,” because it was so indiscriminately given to those that least deserved it.

I wonder if some 18th century African Christians questioned the conversion of the old slave trader, John Newton; or perhaps some early Christians had been scandalized because Paul wasn’t punished for his crimes against the church. We are scandalized by God’s amazing grace until we become the objects of that grace. The workers hired at 6 am thought the farmer’s generosity unfair. Those hired at 5 pm were amazed by it!

I hope we have not only personally experienced God’s grace in the gospel, but that this grace has gone down so deep into our hearts that we have become “gracists” (coined by Pastor Dave Anderson). A gracist is someone who has been so overwhelmed by the amazing grace of God in his/her own life that they rejoice when any prodigal comes home. It is the gracist who can say along with Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.” (1 Tim. 1:15)

A Wounded Shepherd…

I am sitting in a seminar for pastors who are considering interim pastoral ministry. Most of us are seasoned veterans, yet it was humbling to hear a few of them share the pain of what they have endured because they were forced to leave their churches.

I am well aware that many pastors have caused pain to the churches they have served because of immorality, financial indiscretions, and other disqualifying sins. However, there are a lot of pastors (like my friends in this seminar) who have been forced out of their churches because they had incurred the wrath of a few powerful board members or influential people in the congregation. These are guys who are in their 50’s who who have lots of experience but do not have many senior pastor opportunities open to them anymore, so they are considering interim pastoral ministry (at which, I am sure, they will excel as wounded healers).

In our seminar we learned that 33% of U.S. churches have had a pastor leave due to a forced exit; 62% of ousted pastors were serving a church that had forced one or more pastors to leave in the past; 10% of churches have forced three or more pastors to leave.  What is truly amazing is that the driving cause behind a pastor’s forced exit most often comes from just 3-4% of the congregation, which in the majority of U.S. churches (with congregations of little more than 100) translates to three or four people.

I have been blessed with three churches over my forty years of ministry who have sincerely loved me and my family, but I am learning that this is not every pastor’s experience. The stunning facts are that 80% of pastors say that church ministry has negatively affected their family, 70% of pastors say that they do not have a close friend, 60% admit to being in some sort of crisis, 57% say they would leave the vocational ministry if they could find something else, and 50% are struggling in their relationship with God. There is something desperately wrong when statistics reveal that 400-500 pastors leave the ministry each week and that only one out of ten who begin actually finish their calling in the pastorate.

I realize that as an interim, I will be called to some toxic churches and will hear lots of stories and complaints about the pastor that just left, perhaps under painful circumstances. I will need to help a church grieve and rebuild, but my heart will always go out to the wounded shepherd whose pulpit and office I will fill for a time.

Who will pastor the pastor? Me…that is what I want to do. I also see the need of enabling churches to create a gospel-centered culture of love and candor that will not allow for the “functional anonymity of the pulpit” (Paul Tripp), but will draw the pastor into the very system of care that he is providing for others.

If you know any pastors beat up by the ministry or if you are one, here are some resources that may be of help:

http://www.pastorsintransition.net (Pastors in Transition provides comprehensive help to hurting pastors and their families who are transitioning out of a vocational ministry position, voluntarily or involuntarily).

http://www.pinmin.org (Pinnacle Ministries is both a pastoral care and church health ministry. They have a retreat site north of Milwaukee called Shalom House for pastors and their wives to go for rest, relaxation, and restoration, http://www.the shalom house.org).

http://www.interimpastors.com (Interim Pastor Ministries for those experienced pastors looking for an intentional interim position and for churches who have had a pastor depart and need help in transition and preparing a new pastor to come).

Revival (4)…

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

The final major characteristic that has attended revival has been the growth of the Church and its mission in the world. The Great Awakening of the 1740s produced 50,000 new church members. The Prayer Revival of 1857-8 produced half-a-million new church members and an additional 50,000 in Wales. In 1806 Samuel Mills, a freshman at Williams College, helped to lead a group of five students to pray for revival of the campus. One of those meetings took place beneath a haystack because of a thunderstorm. The subsequent revival was the impetus for what would become an unprecedented thrust in foreign missions. Out of it came the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, the American Bible Society, and the American Colonization Society. There is a plaque at the site of the Haystack Prayer Meeting that says; “The Birthplace of American Foreign Missions.” Richard Lovelace claims that “every major advance of the kingdom of God on earth is signaled and brought about by the general outpouring of the Holy Spirit in revival.”

It should also be mentioned that along with the missionary outreach of the Church, revival has also had clear social implications. Timothy Smith claims that genuine revival fuses the personal and the social aspects of the gospel. This can be seen especially in the revivals of the mid-nineteenth century which gave birth to the organization of trade unions, the abolition of child labor, women’s suffrage, the YMCA, the founding of colleges and other benevolent and missionary organizations, and the abolitionist movement. In fact, Smith quotes Count Agenor de Gasparin who concluded that the Prayer Revival of 1857-8 had actually paved the way for the election of Lincoln: “The great moral force which is struggling with American slavery is the Gospel.”

The social implications of revival are best summed up by Gilbert Haven, a Boston abolitionist who became a Methodist Bishop after the Civil War. “The Gospel…is not confined to a repentance and faith that has no connection with social or civil duties. The evangel of Christ is an all-embracing theme. It is the vital force in earth and heaven…. The cross is the centre of the spiritual, and therefore the material universe.”

Timothy Smith points out that the first stanza of the old Methodist revival hymn, “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify; a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky”; was followed by the second stanza, “To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill; O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.”

One final consideration is of the signs and wonders which sometimes attend revivals. At Pentecost there were signs that accompanied the coming of the Holy Spirit—the sound of a rushing wind, tongues of fire, a perception that the disciples might even be drunk. Yet, these exact signs did not attend all of the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the Book of Acts. Similarly, revivals throughout history differ as to the manifestations. A revival in Indonesia in 1965 was attended by the sound of a tornado and of a fire so loud that the fire company was called to the church, but there was a revival going on and not a fire. A 1973 revival in Cambodia was accompanied by miracles and healings. The 1994 “Toronto Blessing” saw an emphasis on the phenomena of laughing, rolling, crying, and some being carried out of the auditorium.

On the other hand, the campus revivals which started in 1995 with Howard Payne University and spread to Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth; then to Beeson School of Divinity in Birmingham, and on to several other colleges such as Olivet Nazarene and Wheaton College, were relatively free of manifestations. The records show deep repentance, continual confession, weeping over sin, deliverance from sexual sin and other life dominating issues, racial and familial reconciliation, but not attending phenomena.

Jonathan Edwards had to deal with the varying opinions on the phenomena that often accompany revival in his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, written against the backdrop of the First Great Awakening. He tried to walk the middle road between those who discounted revival because of the “hysteria” which often occurred, and those who believed that “anything goes” whenever revival comes. I would refer the reader to a very readable and brief summation of Edwards’ Treatise entitled The Experience that Counts, prepared by Dr. N.R. Needham and published by Grace Publications Trust, London. This little book is a wonderful primer on the nature of conversion.

Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
Break me, melt me, mold me, fill me:
Spirit of the Living God, fall fresh on me.
(Daniel Iverson, 1926)

(My message on Revival was given at Wheaton College Chapel on March 18, 2015. Click this link if you would like to view it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U3yw4jPqY5k&index=7&list=PL9GwT4_YRZdDOUAG_4JspC2LgcE7mo4gZ)

Revival (3)…

Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you? (Psalm 85:6)

The fourth characteristic accompanying revival down through history has been the confession of sin with the accompanying knowledge and certainty of forgiveness. The confession of sin is before God, but it is also before the church. In revival, there is an embodiment of the truth of James 5; “confess your sin one to another that you might be healed.” This is why we see recorded in the documents of most revivals the deep conviction of sin and the need to repent, but also the experience of joy and freedom which accompanies such repentance. Edwards describes the awakening in Northampton as such: “… the town seemed to be full of the presence of God. It never was so full of love nor so full of joy and yet so full of distress as it was then.”

The fifth characteristic of most revivals has been that they cannot be controlled. There is usually a sudden beginning and then a sudden ending. Martin Lloyd Jones writes: “While it is perfectly true to say that we can quench the Spirit and be a hindrance, it is never true to say that if we observe all the rules and the conditions that we can produce revival. No, God keeps it in his own hands, the beginning, during the course, and the end. In everything we are dependent upon the Holy Spirit and his power.”

This hallmarks for us an understanding that revival is a sovereign act of God. We may plan an evangelistic outreach or a service of worship, but we cannot plan a revival. It is an independent act of God accomplishing his sovereign purposes on behalf of his eternal plan for human history. This being said, we do not mean to minimize the importance of prayer in relationship to revival. If God’s sovereign will is the primary cause of revival, then prayer can be seen as a “second cause.” In other words, God chooses to accomplish his sovereign will for this world through the prayers of his people; just as God’s sovereign work of regeneration and conversion is accomplished through the “second cause” of evangelism. (For an excellent discussion of this, see J.I. Packer’s Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God.)

There is no better example of this relationship between prayer and revival than what we have already referred to as the Prayer Revival of 1857-8. Jeremiah Lanphier, a former businessman, started a noon-time prayer meeting at the Old Dutch Church in Lower NYC on September 23, 1857. For three months he had been knocking on the doors of boarding houses, shops, and offices inviting people to come and pray. On that day, he prayed alone at first and then others trickled in. The next week six people came; the next week twenty and the next week forty came. Then on October 14, the worst financial panic in history struck and banks around the city closed. People lost their jobs and children went hungry. No one could have anticipated this, but suddenly the Fulton Street prayer meeting exploded with crowds exceeding 3,000 and demanding more meeting sites around the city. Within six months, 10,000 people gathered weekly all around NYC.

This Prayer Revival spread to Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Albany, Washington, DC, and even Chicago. There was no hype or hysteria—just prayer. Finney said, “There is such a general confidence in the prevalence of prayer that the people very extensively seemed to prefer meeting for prayer to meeting for preaching. The general impression seemed to be, ‘We have had instruction until we are hardened; it is time for us to pray.’”

When the Prayer Revival was at its height, it was estimated that 50,000 people a week were converted with overall estimates ranging from 300,000 to one million. It is also estimated that the people who joined churches in 1858 amounted to almost 10% of the country’s total church membership. All of this is utterly amazing in and of itself, but this revival also had an impact in igniting awakenings that swept the British Isles in 1858-60.

More next week…

Lord, teach us how to pray aright
With reverence and with fear;
Though weak and sinful in your sight,
We may, we must draw near.
(James Montgomery, 1823)