When Martin Luther banged his mallet into the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg 500 years ago, he corrected the church and its leaders. Today, as we lament the downturn in baptisms and ministry effectiveness in many of our churches, it seems a good time to correct ourselves.
Luther’s 95 Theses were built under the authority of Scripture. That is where we must turn again. So, in the spirit of the Five Solas, here are five biblical charges to embrace for a modern-day Reformation:
1. “Thus says the Lord”
Preaching entails sharing God’s truth, not our own. A preacher must allow the Scripture to speak, not use the Bible as a “jumping off” point to spin our own ideas. Bringing the Scripture to light, including application from the text, is the only way to wield the prophetic voice, “Thus says the Lord.”
But the prophetic voice grows dim today. Many of us are devoid of conviction, shying away from suggesting we have a “word from God.” It seems more in vogue to suggest we do not have answers from God than that we do.
Every Sunday, however, I stand in front of people with a great need to hear what God says and little need for what I say. To quote Spurgeon: “This is the trowel and this the hammer of God’s builders, this the trumpet of his watchmen and the sword of his warriors. Woe to the man who … shall preach unto you anything but a ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ no matter what our character or standing, give no heed to us, but cleave unto the truth as it is in Jesus.”
2. “Woe is to me if I do not preach the Gospel”
Do not assume you will hear the Gospel in every church. A few years ago I listened to the latest sermons of 10 of the better-known preachers, documenting each time a tenet of the Gospel was explained and each mention of Jesus’ name. Almost half of the sermons did not explain the Gospel — at all. Worse, one-third of the messages never mentioned the name of Christ.
Many of these messages could have been preached verbatim for religious groups who deny Christ as Savior and would have been well-received. If you preach a message that would not have you kicked out of a Jewish synagogue or Muslim mosque, then you are not doing it right. Sermons without Christ are a major epidemic today. We must agree with the apostle Paul, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel.”
3. “Am I trying to please God or men?”
Luther was asked to recant his beliefs when he was on trial at the Diet of Worms. His response sends us proud chills, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” In that spirit, pastors must rely on core convictions centered on pleasing God instead of surrendering to ministry pragmatism. Our churches are being ravaged by those who constantly run after a type of “success” in ministry centered on success in the eyes of man, not God.
Many preachers fall victim to pragmatism in an attempt to impress others. We must not think too much of ourselves, overcompensating with attempts to wax eloquently in language, or to dazzle others in our appearance or gestures. If that was the way to do ministry, it would leave John the Baptist and Jesus both out.
When a pastor acquiesces his leadership to do “whatever it takes” to be successful, he surrenders himself to ever-changing leadership styles because, just like the trends he is chasing, they always shift. To reverse bad trends, we need leaders with core scriptural convictions based on impressing our Savior, not our neighbors.
4. “Do the work of an evangelist”
It is a devastating testimony that many of our churches are so shallow on evangelism and led by many who are not committed to it personally. So many of our churches have no zeal for evangelism and pulpits devoid of its importance. The word “evangelism” has been deemed by some as “out of date.”
Yet Paul commended young Timothy to lead others by his example of evangelism. It is difficult to think of a scenario that will reverse our churches’ steep decline in baptisms and church growth without a return to the key reason Jesus came to the earth: “to seek and save the lost.”
5. “Feed my sheep”
After Peter denied Jesus, he was reinstated with Jesus’ challenge to “feed my sheep.” Peter later commended other pastors to “shepherd the flock among you.” Jesus, as the Good Shepherd, tells us that He “lays down his life for the sheep.” As under-shepherds of Jesus, pastors have an important choice: We can act in the best interest for God’s sheep or our own, but not both.
You know a faithful under-shepherd by this primary challenge, “Do we serve in our own best interests or for the people God has entrusted us?” Most of the time it is not our words or demeanor exposing whom we are serving; most of us know how to protect that. Instead it is the tough task of discerning our actions. Daniel Akin puts it this way to us ministers: “Brothers, we are shepherds — and under-shepherds at that…. Shepherds who follow in the footsteps of the ‘Good Shepherd’ (John 10:11), the ‘Chief Shepherd’ (1 Peter 5:4), the ‘Great Shepherd’ (Hebrews 13:20), to love and lead their sheep.”
These five biblical imperatives will lead us back to great purpose and true effectiveness in Gospel ministry. It is time to get back to each of them, for much is at stake.
— Doug Mize is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Greer, S.C.