Revised text of a lecture for the Bible Seminary in Aguascalientes, Mexico in February, 2008.
Every pastor should want to see his church grow. What we mean by “grow” can be explained by what a pastor literally is. A pastor is a man who takes care of God’s flock. He is actually a shepherd serving under the Great Shepherd. We think of Psalm 23 – “the LORD is my shepherd.” We think of John 10 where Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.”
So, what kind of growth does God look for in his flock of sheep? It’s the same kind of growth that any shepherd would look for. First, he wants to see the sheep growing. He wants to see the lambs become full grown adult sheep. Second, he wants to see the flock grow bigger. He raises the lambs to become adult sheep who will produce more lambs.
A pastor must share God’s concern for the growth of the flock. He wants to see his people grow in grace and knowledge. He wants to see his people getting married and having children and seeing the church grow through that. He also wants to see his people reaching out with the gospel and having the church grow through new converts.
So, how can we help our churches to grow both in terms of spiritual maturity and in terms of numbers? Is there a connection between those two things? I should say that I will work with the idea that you are a pastor of a church. You have people who are members of your church or who regularly attend your church. The situation is a little bit different when you are a pastor who is a missionary, starting from nothing and trying to get a church started. I have been in both situations. I was a missionary for five years. Now I am a pastor of an established church in Canada. I pray that I can bring my experiences and knowledge to you in a helpful way. Let us begin with spiritual growth.
The prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley. We find this in Ezekiel 37. That valley was full of dry bones. These were people who had been dead for a long time. God asked Ezekiel, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Ezekiel said that God knew the answer to that question. Then God gave him the command to speak to the dry bones. He told the dry bones to hear the Word of Yahweh, the LORD. After he did this, the bones were joined together and flesh came on them, and skin too. But one thing was still missing: life. So, the prophet listened to God. Ezekiel told the Spirit to come and fill the bones with life and he did.
This is an Old Testament picture of how God brings life to those who are dead in sin. He does it with his Word and with the Holy Spirit. Romans 10:17 says, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” The Word of God in Romans 10 is the Word that is preached. It is particularly the gospel contained in the Word. People are converted through the Holy Spirit working with the Word. People are convicted through the law which says that we must be perfect like God is perfect (Matt. 5:48). When people realize that they cannot do that, they come to faith through the preaching of the gospel. They hear that there is a Saviour who is perfect. There is a Saviour who has paid for their sins and lived a perfect life for them. When we believe that for the first time, we could say that’s the beginning of the Christian life.
But how do people grow from there? There are those who say that the gospel is good for the beginning of the Christian life, but then afterwards what Christians really need is the law. They need to be told how to live. They need to hear advice for Christian living. They believe that Christ is a Saviour for the beginning of the Christian life, but afterwards it’s up to Christians to bring about growth. That is not a biblical way of thinking. That view has a lot in common with the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church says that grace comes to you at the beginning, but after that it is up to you. You have to work hard so that you do not fall from grace.
In that way of thinking, Jesus Christ is half a Saviour. However, the Bible teaches that Jesus Christ is a complete Saviour. He saves us from the wrath of God against sin. Another way of saying that is that he saves us from the curse of sin. Through Jesus Christ, we are justified. That means that God declares that we are right with him. But there is more – the good news gets better! Jesus Christ not only saves us from the curse of sin, he also saves us from the power of sin. Through Jesus Christ, we are sanctified, we are being made like him. Both of those things come together in Titus 1:14. Paul speaks there about Christ “who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from every lawless deed [the curse of sin] and purify for himself his own special people, zealous for good works [the power of sin]. Christ is a complete Saviour. We and our people will grow in the Christian faith, in knowledge and obedience, when we are fixing our eyes on Jesus.
That means that the gospel is not only for the beginning of our Christian life, but also for every day afterwards. The gospel is what we and our people need to hear, over and over again. We need to hear that Jesus Christ took our place on the cross. We need to hear that he suffered and died for us. But we also need to hear about his perfect life. Jesus Christ never sinned. He always obeyed God’s law. Romans 5:19 tells us that Christ’s perfect obedience is given to us. That means that when God looks at us, he not only sees a people who are forgiven (because of Christ’s suffering and death), he also sees a people who are perfectly righteous and holy (because of Christ’s perfect obedience). Our people need to hear that message of good news.
And hearing the good news over and over again is going to help people to grow in faith. They will learn how sweet Jesus Christ is. They will see all his perfections, his wonderful qualities. They will be impressed with him. And as they grow in faith, the amazing thing is that they will also grow in maturity with respect to a Christian lifestyle.
For a pastor, the most important thing he can do to help his congregation grow spiritually is to preach the gospel. Put the emphasis on what Christ has done for them. Every Sunday tell them the good news that they have a wonderful Saviour in Jesus. Yes, we must preach what Paul calls the whole counsel of God. We have to preach to our people about living a Christian life – we find that in the Bible as well. But the commands always flow out of what Christ has done. This is the pattern of Paul in the book of Romans. The first chapters speak about our sin and misery. Then there is a big section in the middle about our salvation. Then Paul builds on that from chapter 12 onwards about living a Christian life. It is clear that the power to live a Christian life comes from looking to Jesus Christ and what he has done. So before and above every thing else, if we want our people to grow, we need to preach Christ. Preach his person and work. Preach his perfections, his blessings – but preach Christ! Many times when I’m working on a sermon, I will write this in my study notes: make sure you preach Christ.
Think of what Paul said in the first two chapters of 1 Corinthians. The Corinthians were immature. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3 that they were babies in Christ. They needed to grow in so many ways. They had many lifestyle problems. But notice what he does with them and where he puts the emphasis. He says in 1 Corinthians 1:17 that he was sent to them to preach the gospel. Then he tells us what that gospel is: it is centered on the cross of Jesus Christ. In chapter 2 he says that he decided not to know anything among them except “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” In 1:30, he says that Christ is our wisdom from God, our righteousness, our sanctification and redemption. Notice that he says “sanctification”! Paul preaches the gospel to Christians, to church members and then from the gospel follows more good news: Christ is our sanctification. And then once Paul has laid that out, then he can talk about the problems with lifestyle in the Corinthian church. But it all begins with the gospel and the emphasis has to be on the gospel. Brothers, we are called to be preachers of the gospel, not life coaches and not therapists.
To be continued…