Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida.
Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention, Traditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous.
Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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By Allen S Nelson IV — 10 months ago
I am grateful to the Lord to be the father of five children. Being the father of five by no means makes me a parental expert, but it does mean I’ve had some repeat experiences with each child. One of those experiences is taking your newborn to the pediatrician for their first appointment. The nurse measures, weighs, and may even do a bilirubin test on the little one. And then the doctor gives you the results. As a father, what I was always most interested in with these exams is, “Is my child healthy?” The doctors, you see, have a standard, and by this standard, they are able to give you a pretty good idea of whether or not your precious baby is on a healthy track.
As Christians, we have a standard too. We have the Word of the living God. The Bible is a sufficient plumb line for measuring the health of an individual Christian, individual local church, or even a group of churches choosing to cooperate together like we have in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Much has been written over the last few years about areas of drift in our convention. I am among those who’ve written about matters of concern. But this is not what I want to do in today’s post. My goal is to give you a standard for what a solid, healthy convention looks like, not based on history or experience, but on the Scriptures. I do not mean to suggest history and experience have no place. Of course, they do! But the goal of today’s post is to give you God’s standard for what constitutes a strong group of churches. In doing this, I urge you to consider our convention’s state for yourself and pray for any area that we are weak in based on this evaluation.
I am sure other verses could be used for such a test, but the passage I want to examine is found in Ephesians 4:7-16. I have a couple of disclaimers before we begin. First, I cannot get into verses 7-12 in this post as that could take a whole book to get through! Secondly, I understand that Paul is writing to a specific local church here. However, the same principles that apply to one local church necessarily apply to a group of local churches.
With that being said, and understanding this is not a full exposition, let’s dive in. Our focus is primarily upon verses 13-16. What does a strong convention of churches look like? Here are seven signs:
“until we all attain to the unity of the faith…” (v.13)
As local churches focus on Bible-centered, prayer-saturated, local church loving, Christ exalting ministry (cf. v.11-12), they are brought into greater unity. This unity is not centered on secular ideas, skin color, or social issues. Instead, this is genuine unity created by the Holy Spirit of God (cf. Eph. 4:3) as He continually grows us together by faith in Christ.
Because of Christ’s sovereign and gracious gifting each local church may have certain areas of ministry they thrive at better than others. But the diversity of gifting comes together in a convention only to strengthen cooperation together in unity for the same mission: Seeing Christ exalted over the nations.
Churches rooted in the Scriptures, bowing to their authority and trusting their sufficiency, and focused on the glory of Christ have genuine unity even if they may disagree on certain peripheral issues. Not every church in a strong convention will look exactly the same. But each one will have full dependence on the gospel as the hope of the nations and seek to have the Bible as their final standard on all matters of the faith, including soteriology, anthropology, ecclesiology, and so on.
“and knowledge of the Son of God…” (v.13)
Knowledge of the Son of God is certainly necessary for any person to be a Christian. Yet, it is also true that a strong Christian, church, or group of churches is continually growing and standing firm in the knowledge of the Son of God.
A healthy convention is one that is faithful to sound doctrine. It possesses confessional integrity. And this doctrinal fidelity leads to greater unity! Curtis Vaughn writes,
“Unity” is to be taken with both “faith” and “knowledge,” and the latter two words are both modified by “of the Son of God.” What Paul contemplates is a oneness of faith in, and a oneness of knowledge concerning, the Son of God…The word “faith” is to be taken in the sense of trust and confidence. The Greek word for “knowledge” is a particularly strong one, denoting full, accurate, and true knowledge.
A strong convention is one strong in the doctrine of the Son of God and all of the implications for His local churches that flow out of His life, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and coming return.
“…to mature manhood…” (v.13)
A strong convention is a mature convention full of mature and maturing local churches and Christians. This doesn’t mean there is no room for those who need to grow because we all need to grow!
It does certainly mean, however, that the leadership of such a convention consists of those mature in the faith. The metaphor Paul uses here is one of “manhood.” True, the church is often referred to as the “Bride” of Christ. But here, there is another image: one of a strong, healthy adult man unwavering in his convictions and resolution in his commitments to Christ.
Churches in a strong convention seek to spur one another on into greater maturity in the faith, holding one another accountable to the Scriptures and the convention’s stated confession. A mature convention is not afraid and even compelled to separate from churches that repeatedly and persistently show a lack of concern for God’s Word or growing in Christ.
“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” (v.13)
This is how we know maturity is never finished. Because our goal for maturity is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Complete conformity to Christ is something not fully and finally realized until glory. Yet, a healthy Christian, church, or convention constantly strives toward sincere holiness of life.
Being full of Christ means loving all He loves and hating what He hates. It means, like Jesus, we are concerned first and foremost about the glory of God. It means having the powers of our discernment trained in differentiating between good and evil. It means loving the Word of God, biblical worship, the local church, and the lost. It means bearing the fruit of the Spirit and understanding the moments that call for humble compassion and those that call for a strong rebuke.
In sum, a strong convention is a holy convention seeking to follow Christ in all areas.
“so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (v.14)
A healthy convention of churches is one that shall not be moved. It is not a ship drifting too far from the shore or a crumbling leaf blown around by an autumn wind.
The contrast here in this passage is between a grown man and a small child. A child can be easily tricked, but not a mature man. Thus, a strong convention is on guard against the godless ideologies and worldly philosophies constantly seeking to infiltrate the church.
A healthy group of churches understands that the Evil One is perpetually seeking to destroy the work of Christ on earth. It understands that today’s liberal tendencies might not look exactly like yesterday’s because Satan is crafty and will adapt his tactics custom-made for every epoch of history. Therefore, a strong convention will stand resolutely upon God’s Word and warn and even rebuke churches or leaders who are not showing appropriate care when it comes to guarding against deceitful schemes.
“Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v.15)
A strong convention speaks the truth in love. That is, churches do not speak deceitful schemes or faulty doctrine. Rather, they speak, preach, teach, and live out the truth of the Scriptures. The only way to “grow up” is through the Word of God. Therefore, a healthy convention of churches loves to speak the truth to one another and to a lost and dying world. It holds the inerrant, infallible Bible as its highest authority and it trusts the Bible to teach it on all matters of the faith and to speak a sufficient word to every generation.
Often, this speaking the truth encourages and edifies the churches. But at times, the truth will convict, challenge, and rebuke people. Consider the opening illustration of taking your newborn to the doctor. If something was wrong, you would want to know, right? It would not be loving of the doctor to lie to you. So, a healthy convention of churches speaks even difficult truths to one another. Yet, all of this is done in love. In the words of R.C. Sproul, “we call attention to the truth in an extraordinarily compassionate and tender and loving spirit.”
And finally, when speaking the truth to the unregenerate, a healthy convention does not seek to minimize God’s Word. Instead, it calls upon all to repent of every sin and come to Christ in faith, finding Him as the only suitable and all-sufficient Savior for all mankind.
“from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” (v.16)
A strong convention of churches builds itself up in love. Though its churches may be in different geographical locations, have diverse demographics, and possess a variety of gifts, there is a genuine love for God and one another that binds the convention together.
A love for the triune God and bringing Him glory in all things means that a strong convention is concerned about honoring God in all things, from worship to evangelism, to everyday life, to convention practices. Loving God means that a convention of churches seeks to please one another by first and foremost pleasing God. A strong convention understands that we love one another best when we love God most. And it is through this that a convention will be continually built up in love.
This is not an exhaustive list, of course. But it reminds us that God would not have any convention of churches to be childish. A strong convention must be growing in the Lord, aspiring to mature manhood. A childish convention would have symptoms that are the opposite of the signs of health above, like Superficial Unity, Confessional Infidelity, Acceptable Immaturity, Worldly Conformity, Drifting Carelessly, Hating Honesty, and Cultural Affinity.
God has given us a standard, brothers and sisters. It is by His own Bible that we are to assess our spiritual health. May we not compare ourselves to contemporaries or generations past. We must look into the mirror of the Word of God. Take some time today to consider your own walk with the Lord, the state of the local church you are a member of, and the Southern Baptist Convention. Pray for our health. Pray that the Lord would be pleased to bring about the recovery of the gospel and the reformation of churches in our convention.
 Curtis Vaughan, Ephesians, Founders Study Guide Commentary (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2002), 95.
 R. C. Sproul, The Purpose of God: Ephesians (Scotland: Christian Focus Publications, 1994), 107.
By Kenneth Hayward — 11 months ago
It’s easy to be against something. Within any wrong system (i.e., Church Planting Movements theory), we find much fodder for articles on why a particular method isn’t biblical. But it’s not always as easy to write the articles on positive alternatives. So, while not shirking our responsibility to point out error, let’s make extra effort to champion what is biblical.
This essay focuses on sanctification in the task of making disciples and details the discipleship “plan” once someone has trusted Christ.
Fruit and the Centrality of the Bible
The biblical text must be our guide. All of us want to be fruitful, especially those of us overseas. First Timothy 4:16 says, “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 Bible is all sufficient. Yet certain teachers of popular methods, while affirming the sufficiency of Scripture, smuggle in extrabiblical formulas for rapid growth: encouraging lost people to share the gospel, the preeminence of goal setting, and an overemphasis on participative Bible study groups. Our fruitfulness is intertwined with the biblical text, not popular methods.
Second Peter 1:3-8 says, “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him…. to supplement your faith with virtue… knowledge… self-control… steadfastness… godliness… brotherly affection… love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Christian growth isn’t so much about goals and a disciple’s activity, but about God-centeredness.
If we think we earn God’s blessing through our outward behavior, we end up with little joy.
We also see God’s work and faithfulness in making disciples more like himself. “His divine power has granted….” While we know the Lord uses the means of grace to grow us in Christ, this only happens as we keep leaning into the gospel. If each time we gather, we taste God’s greatness and mercy in the biblical text, disciples will bear fruit. God makes sure it happens (2 Corinthians 3:18). As we gather to hear his Word, we can become entranced with God himself and realize we bring him nothing (Psalm 50:12). Our growth is character transformation from the inside out, as saved sinners help each other look to Jesus. We can only grow or serve because of what Christ has done for us. For instance, in 1 Thessalonians 5:22-24, Paul says to abstain from evil. Apparently, the Christian life is filled with things to do, but the foundation is God’s faithfulness, not our performance. We will put forth effort, but that effort must be fueled by what the Lord has done through his resurrection. We need him desperately, and many Christians need to celebrate more that Christ did what redeemed sinners never can do. Believers keep resting in what Christ has done on the cross. The biblical text guides us to trust God’s faithfulness.
A Simple Way Forward in Missionary Work
The pathway toward healthy discipleship is fleshed out well in the article, “Gospel-Driven Sanctification” by the late Jerry Bridges. He carefully distinguishes between healthy Christian growth and a performance mentality. He avoids some common pitfalls of Obedience Based Discipleship theory. Too many churches base the Christian life on performance. While the process of healthy discipleship isn’t formulaic, leaning into the biblical text (and not primarily in what we can do for God) ultimately will be more biblically fruitful.
An overview of Bridges’ article reveals the gems in his basic “plan.” Bridges points out real dangers of too much focus on performance in the Christian life. Bridges shows us how our mentality can be close to the biblical picture, yet slightly off. We might think God’s blessing depends on our disciplines. How many believers, especially missionaries, live under constant guilt for not sharing the gospel more? Bridges does not encourage disobedience but promotes a proper emphasis on how grace works in us to obey Christ’s commands. Obedience is in order, but driven by something deeper than outward behavior: dependence on the Holy Spirit. Bridges wisely points out that God’s blessing doesn’t depend on how we perform. If we think we earn God’s blessing through our outward behavior, we end up with little joy.
Bridges quotes Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” We are free to obey Christ because we already are accepted. We must daily return to passages that remind us of what the gospel is, objectively in history, and what it means in our lives. Our Father accepts us because of Jesus, not because we got our act together after salvation. Bridges stresses definitive (or positional) sanctification, that believers are dead to the penalty and dominion of sin. To walk actively in this dead-to-sin life, we consider ourselves dead to sin (Romans 6:11). Bridges shows this is not something to do but something to believe. Struggling with sin is a sign that Christ lives inside. This truth has helped our disciples overseas.
The gospel is not just a tool for the overseas worker; it’s the Christian’s key to growth.
Bridges notes that, while we’re positionally seated with Christ in our sanctification, ongoing daily growth involves our progress in the faith. We cannot grow by our own strength but must have what he labels “dependent effort.” It’s not earning (performance and bad); it’s effort (good). As we grow in holiness, we see our sinfulness. Such insight into our badness keeps us going back to the gospel for help, not merely trying harder with outward behavior. We’ve tried to apply these truths to the lives of our national disciples in Asia, and they have found them helpful. We suggest it’s because all disciples need encouragement in these areas more than they need certain methods about evangelism or discipleship. Some methods are appropriate, but gospel truth always is profitable for life and godliness because it’s a foundational element in Scripture. It nourishes growth but isn’t reducible to mere church planting principles or how to evangelize or multiply disciples. It’s basic and paramount, yet not something we can put in a spreadsheet to report back home.
Fuel for our souls
The key is God using the gospel, which gives us what we need to bear fruit, as we keep looking to Jesus. We must live prayerfully dependent on the Holy Spirit. The more gospel-oriented we are, the more we’re going to bear fruit and, hopefully, the more our national friends will bear fruit. Bearing fruit, however, must be more than seeing the lost repent. Christ died because of sin and has risen to destroy the works of the devil. Such truth aids the believer not just with information for the lost, but to help himself fight sin—and to assist other disciples.
The gospel is not just a tool for the overseas worker; it’s the Christian’s key to growth. So, while discipleship may be a process, it’s not so much a strategized plan. It certainly shouldn’t be formulaic, even though many teachers of CPM and Disciple Making Movements disagree with that. Bridges himself states it best: “But the success of our struggle with sin begins with our believing deep down in our hearts that regardless of our failures and our struggle, we have died to sin’s guilt. We must believe that however often we fail, there is no condemnation for us (Romans 8:1).”
We can’t guarantee this approach will lead to a movement, but it will lead to solid disciples and healthier churches.
*Kenneth Hayward (pseudonym for security reasons) has been overseas with his organization for approximately 15 years, lives in Asia with his family, and can be contacted at: stand4truth 777 at hotmail.com (no spaces and with @).
By Hannah Ascol — 1 year ago
The Heidelberg Catechism is a great aid in encouraging Christians to live in humble gratitude to God for all the grace He has given us in Christ. It was published in 1563 in the region of what today is the nation of Germany. Its primary authors were Zacharius Ursinus and Casper Olevianus who produced a “summary course of instruction” at the urging of the civil ruler of the region, Frederick III. It is my favorite catechism because it is so warm and personal, and it focuses clearly on the grace of God in Jesus Christ. That’s why I edited a version for Baptists that we use in our Truth and Grace Memory Book 3 published by Founders Press.
The first question and answer from this catechism is rightfully well-known as a summary of every Christian’s hope for this life and the life to come. The second question and answer is less popular, but it sets out a summary of what we must know in order to live in the comfort of the gospel. That summary also provides the outline for the rest of the catechism. It reads as follows:
What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort?
Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.
Guilt. Grace. Gratitude. To live and die in the joy and comfort that are found in Jesus Christ you must have a deep experience of your own guilt and of God’s grace. And when you do, you will live in deep gratitude to God for delivering you from your sin. The reason we so often live with ungrateful hearts is because we so quickly lose sight of the wickedness of our sin and therefore of the greatness of God’s grace in rescuing us from it.
The story of the ten lepers whom Jesus healed illustrates this point both positively and negatively. In Luke 17:13 we read that they loudly pled with Jesus, even as they kept their distance from him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” They were miserable. Leprosy was a curse in that there was no known cure and those who were afflicted with it were not allowed to live in community with those who were not lepers. In fact, under Old Testament law a leper was required to “wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean’” (Leviticus 13:45).
It is because they knew their situation was desperate that they called on Jesus to heal them.
The reason we so often live with ungrateful hearts is because we so quickly lose sight of the wickedness of our sin and therefore of the greatness of God’s grace in rescuing us from it.
Leprosy is a graphic illustration of the far more serious condition of sin which afflicts all of us. Sin ruins us. It separates us from God and we cannot deliver ourselves from it. To be saved from sin we need the power of divine grace in Jesus Christ. By life, death, and resurrection He alone can “break the power of canceled sin” and His blood can “make the foulest clean.”
As those lepers heeded Jesus’ voice they were cleansed of their putrid disease. “Then one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice; and he fell on his face at Jesus’ feet, giving him thanks. Now he was a Samaritan” (Luke 17:15-16). The grace that he had been given resulted in gratitude he could not keep from expressing.
The rhetorical questions that Jesus asked in response are an indictment on thanklessness. “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” (17, 18).
When we offer thanksgiving to God—when we express it—we give Him praise. It honors Him. Our expressed gratitude to God puts on display to all who observe us that He is worthy of praise.
Of course, every Christian knows that God is indeed praiseworthy. To be a Christian is to be the object of saving power and grace. We have been loved by God when we were still His enemies. We have been rescued from His rightly deserved wrath. We have been forgiven of sin and granted new life when we were dead in trespasses and sin. We were justified by God when were ungodly.
Our expressed gratitude to God puts on display to all who observe us that He is worthy of praise.
How, then, can a Christian live an unthankful life? When a believer falls into ingratitude, he reveals the poor state of his soul at that moment. A complaining, thankless disposition is a sin that must be ruthlessly put to death because it so greatly detracts from the glory of our gracious, praiseworthy God.
So, Christian brothers and sisters, think often of the guilt that your sin justly incurred before your righteous God. Think more often on the great grace in Jesus Christ that He has lavished on you in salvation. Then resolve to live a life of perpetual gratitude as you acknowledge the blessings that are yours in Christ.
That first question of the Heidelberg Catechism is a wonderful reminder of these blessings and the comfort that belongs to all who belong to Christ.
What is your only comfort in life and in death? NB: that’s an important question!
That I am not my own, but belong–body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to Him, Christ, by His Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me whole-heartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
That is real comfort. Real encouragement—and it comes from knowing Jesus Christ savingly. And when we rightly understand and remember it, it will lead to living a life of real thanksgiving to God.
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