Equipping the Saints: Murder in the Church

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Talk to enough Christians and it’s apparent that whatever is wrong with the world is also wrong with believers. Not a person reading this doesn’t know a dozen Christians who struggle constantly with their Faith, staggering from one ditch into another.

For years, I used to be on a team at church who prayed for folks who came up after the service. The stories I’ve heard…more hair-curling than a beauty salon. What I’ve learned in those times makes for discernment that never fails and a word of wisdom that always applies.

What did I learn? It’s in these words of Jesus:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.
—Mark 8:35

The reason many Christians suffer needlessly is because we don’t know what it means to die to self. Nearly every problem we make for ourselves we make because we’ve skirted the cross and gone on our own merry way.

Consider any issue facing the American Church today. Below the surface, the crux of that issue goes back to one thing: not enough dead-to-self Christians.

Take the phrase “not enough are dead to self ” and see how remarkably it answers the following questions:

Why aren’t Christians more interested in evangelism?

Why do so few Christians know the Bible?

Why are Christians so prayerless?

Why do so few Christians serve their neighbors?

Why do so many Christians look just like the world?

Why do so many Christians get divorces?

Why do our Christian youth apostasize in such large numbers while in college?

Why are Christians making so little impact on our society and culture?

The number of such questions that can be answered with “not enough are dead to self ” accumulates rapidly.

A chilling verse:

For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ.
—Philippians 3:18

The Cross...I’m sure each of us could draw up a list packed with names of people or groups we would deem enemies of Christ.

But notice Paul’s phraseology. He chooses his words carefully. He did NOT say “enemies of Christ” but “enemies of the CROSS of Christ.”

That hits harder because it hits closer to home. In fact, such enemies may populate our churches. Worse yet, they may be you and me.

Paul concludes:

Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
—Philippians 3:19

Sounds like America 2009, doesn’t it?

What else explains the crossless preaching from our pulpits that tickles so many ears?  What else explains Christians who can’t seem to abide even the lightest correction or systematic discipleship? What else explains Christians who look just like the world?

Simple: They haven’t been to the cross.

Perhaps one Christian in 1,000 can say the following without risk of perjury:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith– that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
—Philippians 3:7-11

Jesus makes the the dividing line even more obvious:

So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.
—Luke 14:33

And that dividing line is the cross.  The cross is death to anyone who lays hold of it with both hands:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.
—Galatians 6:14-15

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
—Colossians 3:2-3

But for those who die at the cross, a new hope exists:

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.
—Galatians 2:20

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
—2 Corinthians 5:17

The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him…
—2 Timothy 2:11

Here’s one of the strongest spiritual truths: People who aren’t dead to self are nigh unto useless for the Kingdom. Most of what they do for God will be of the flesh, and that junk neither lasts nor produces genuine fruit.

But a man or woman dead to self and alive to Christ is unbounded. You can’t shame such people because you can’t shame the dead. You can’t hurt the dead because they feel no pain. You don’t have to dance around the willfulness of the dead because, hey, no will of their own; they pretty much do whatever you tell them.

And that’s the kind of person God will use immensely.

If we want to talk about equipping the saints, we also have to talk about de-equipping them of themselves.

Too few Christian leaders are bold enough to tell people to their faces that the sole reason for the majority of their annoyances is that they aren’t dead to self. Too few Christian leaders have the cajones to go up to lingerers at church and say, “The reason you’re useless for God is because you have no idea what it means to be dead to self. Maybe if you stopped crawling off the altar God would use you to fix the problems in His church that you’ve been griping about for decades.” Or something to that effect.

If people get offended, too bad. It’s one of the signs they’re not dead to self. Sadly, the cemeteries are filled with the bodies of those who walked away from God because He didn’t fulfill their expectations. And each one of those people left because they couldn’t get past the cross and dying to self. Isaiah, in one of the most potent verses in Scripture, describes such people vividly:

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’?
—Isaiah 45:9

You can tell when someone isn’t dead. While a dead body reeks of decay, a person not dead to self reeks of something far worse: pride.  Meanwhile, the sweet aroma of the Christian who is dead to self is that of humility, the first fruit of the image of Christ.

If we aren’t getting people to the cross, then all the equipping in the world will be worthless. If the raw material we’re hoping to see molded into the image of Jesus isn’t dead first, we might as reevaluate our fancy-dancy educational programming until it is.

Will that be hard? Heck, yeah! But it’s the only way that achieves great results for the Kingdom.

31 thoughts on “Equipping the Saints: Murder in the Church

  1. Sulan

    You bring up very good points, Dan. I have seen ministers at Bible studies try this very thing, and watched as the group dwindled.

    It is sad to say, that in todays world, when saints don’t like what is being said, no matter how true, they boogie to another church, where their ears can be tickled as they are used to — a tickling that is free — no cost involved, no dying to self.

    Salvation comes at no cost to me, but at a great cost to Jesus and God. Spiritual growth, if I am willing to go that way, is ever so costly to my flesh, my will, my desires. But the ensuing knowledge of God is so awesome compared to some smelly burning flesh — that it is indescribable.

    And I do recommend this dying to flesh to all! The rewards are so far beyond anything that anyone can say or describe.

    Thanks Dan, for bringing another needed topic of discussion out of the dark!

    • David,

      A healthy diet helps in losing weight too. I read the other day that exercise is okay, but diet is the main reason that people are out of shape. I think the church metaphor works on that one as well.

      • David

        It also points to the attitude Americans especially have taken to attaining any goal: “No credit, no problem!” “No waiting!” “No God, No Hell!”

        The current brouhaha about medical care in this country is indicative of the attitude we have towards our wants and needs. It’s not only Christians, but because of our position in the Kingdom, we should be providing an example of how to be, rather than the example of what not to be.

        The message from one of our Elders yesterday was about that very real issue that we are in the mess we are in because we want things our way, and blithely ignore the fact that the One who created us and everything around us just might know better.

        But it’s easier just to do it my way.

  2. Hi Dan,

    A quick side note, a little tangential to the topic of the blog.

    You ask: Why do our Christian youth apostasize in such large numbers while in college?

    Two other answers to this:

    1. Studies have shown that Christian youth who don’t go to college apostasize in even greater numbers.

    2. Almost all significant spiritual decision are made before the age of 24, whether decisions to join a faith, or leave a faith.

    Now getting back on topic. Have you read the book “Spirit of the Disciplines” by Dallas Willard? I think it helps answer the question “How do we become dead to self.” Here is what one reviewer had to say about the book.

    Dallas Willard has written a compelling argument for a revival of the spiritual disciplines. It’s a book that goes beyond “what would Jesus do” into the deeper question of “how would Jesus live.” Willard argues that for us to live the life of Jesus “under pressure” we must adopt his overall lifestyle, which was punctuated by the spiritual disciplines. Though individual disciplines are examined, “The Spirit of the Disciplines” isn’t primarily a book about “how to” practice the disciplines but “why to” make them a central part of your life. It is challenging, thought provoking, and potentially life changing.

    I certainly found it a helpful read as well.

  3. People do not want to die. Christians do not want to die.

    That is why God has to kill us off to self with His strong Word of law.

    When a person enters a church door, he doesn’t need to be made ‘better’. He needs to die. he needs to be killed off to the ‘I’m really not that bad, and with a little help I can be a lot better’ project.

    So the STRONG unmitigated word, does the deed. It shows us that we are not what God intended us to be and that we don’t really want to live as God demands we live. This Word kills us off and drives us to Christ.

    Then we hear the gospel message of love and forgiveness and we are raised again, with Christ.

    This is the life of the believer. Dying and rising. Repentance and forgiveness.

  4. Dan,

    I agree.

    All the more reason for preachers to stop watering down the law so that it is managabe (biblical principles for living the Christian life), and time to start preaching it full force (the way Jesus did at his Sermon on the Mount).

    This way there is NO wiggle room. God’s Word (the law and the gospel) will do it’s job.

  5. Dan,
    That was a very insightful and timely article. However, on reading it I can see an attitude that we all tend to cling to that is either a symptom of the problem or perhaps one of its main causes.

    That attitude is one of compromise †“ even in pointing out the problem there is the compromise of allowing those who have not died to self to continue to be considered as being Christians.
    Maybe we should step back and take stock of our lives and the assumptions that help us to continue with our un-crucified lives: those assumptions that allow us to continue living like the world and still consider ourselves to be disciples of Jesus.
    Jesus made it clear that such duel standards do not exist. We can not be a friend of the world and its ways and also be a child of God.

    You wrote:
    “Here’s one of the strongest spiritual truths: People who aren’t dead to self are nigh unto useless for the Kingdom. Most of what they do for God will be of the flesh, and that junk neither lasts nor produces genuine fruit.

    Maybe its time we were honest enough to recognise that those who are not dead to self are not only useless to the kingdom, they are most likely NOT IN the Kingdom. We tend to broaden the boundaries as much as possible to make sure that we ourselves will somehow fit into God’s kingdom.
    Maybe we should pay more attention to Jesus’ response to the rich young ruler. There was a price to be paid †“ and unwillingness to pay that price made that man ineligible to be considered a follower of Jesus.

  6. Dan,
    how often is immaturity used as a cover for continued wilful disobedience?

    The genuinely immature will surely display evidence of maturing as they continue with their Christian life.

    Many remain “immature” because they THINK they’ve already qualified for everything they wanted from Jesus – that is a ticket to heaven.

    The time is perhaps well overdue when we start to listen to Jesus and what HE has said and trust HIM rather than the church traditions that may well have lulled us into a false security.

    • Onesimus.

      As someone who considers himself a Christian educator, no one has less tolerance for immaturity than yours truly.

      HOWEVER, we must also recognize that maturity is a growth process and that mature disciples do not spring forth fully formed. It takes time. That timing is different for everyone. Remember, He makes all things beautiful in HIS time, not ours.

      I say this because I have often witnessed on the Web (and real life) self-proclaimed “mature” Christians dismantling less mature people. Some even take a thrill in doing so. They are the wick-quenchers and reed-breakers of the world. And our churches are littered with such people, who for all their smug sense of maturity aren’t mature enough to listen to the Spirit when it comes to dealing with fragile and immature people.

      So no, we can’t tolerate people continuing on in willful disobedience. But likewise, we need to do a better job coming alongside people. I think of Jesus walking with the two to Emmaus.

  7. Good thoughts. I recall that many years ago, a pastor asked our church who wanted to share the sufferings of Christ that we might be more like him. Of about 150, mine was the only hand that went up. Not good numbers.

    I disagree with this statement, though:

    “You don’t have to dance around the willfulness of the dead because, hey, no will of their own; they pretty much do whatever you tell them.”

    Truly dead Christians are going to do whatever God tells them, regardless of how unpopular it may be.

  8. TruthBeTold

    Hi Dan,

    Liked your post.
    The dying to self is a continual process…as well as the resurrection….and this only comes about by the work of the Holy Spirit.
    The desire to die to self, the desire to pick up my cross, is all the work of the Holy Spirit….so that I am not able to boast of anything.
    The best that I can do is cry out “Abba help”….help me to be willing to die to whatever it is that you show me that needs to be dead to.
    It is always the little foxes that spoil the vinyard….and these little foxes come up all throughout our day….we sometimes only look at the big stuff but the Lord is interested in ALL of us….every property within (what we look at, listen to, our desires, our emotions, our attention, our mind, our WILL, ect)…..and He will put His finger on what needs to go and what needs to be nourished.
    It is all His work….and He will finish what He has started ….that is the good news arn’t you glad!

    To Jesus Christ be praised and given all the glory!

    Be blessed,
    TruthBeTold

  9. George

    Onesimus is on target — bullseye! Dan, though you may be on target, your shot landed in an outer ring.

    The irony is that evangelicals look askance at mainstream Christians who count observance of sacraments as proof of salvation while they themselves use the 7 word sinner’s prayer — I accept Jesus Christ into my heart — as their own proof of salvation, making that prayer their sacrament-equivalent. In doing so they reduce the meaning of belief to a simple utterance. Oh, yes, they may also expect true Christians to own a bible and to attend an approved bible-teaching (evangelical) church altho not “requiring” either, as that would be “legalistic.”

    Consider for a moment that conversion may take place after even years of flirting with the gospel. What some may claim to be early-Christian immaturity is sometimes an attempt to imitate.

    While the good thief was accepted on the basis of simple confession, typically people were called with the command to “Follow Me.” Men like the rich young ruler should not be used as role models for the faith.

    • Steve,

      I don’t think we need to preach the law every Sunday to growing, born-again believers. There’s a point at which we move on to the deeper things. Sure, it’s fine now and then, especially for some of the newer people to hear, but I can’t see every Sunday. That’s a “one step back, one step forward” teaching mentality and I’m not sure how that moves people forward in the long run. It tends to create guilty saints. Sometimes you just have to push onward and forgot what was behind.

  10. Dan,

    You have rightly described the differences between the ‘theology of glory’ and the ‘theology of the cross’.

    Onward and upward is the prevalent Evangelical theology, while a dying and rising, daily, is the theology of the cross that is not practiced by most Christians.

    I believe (and I am not alone) that the theology of the cross, that repentance and forgiveness, is the shape of the life of the believer.

    • Steve,

      It should not come down to either/or. It must be both, but it must also be in right proportion. We can forever wallow in our status as sinners (as I see many Christians doing) or we can acknowledge that we are sinners, yet daily move into the sainthood we must claim. As we become more like Jesus, we become less like the world.

      As to what is most practiced, for some reason the Web is filled with what you describe as “theology of the cross” teaching, but next to none of the “theology of glory.” I hope that Cerulean Sanctum strikes an appropriate balance!

  11. You do a nice job, Dan.

    But, since Jesus tells us that not one jot or tittle of the law will be removed until He ushers in His New Kingdom, the law still needs to be preached (to create repentance) to the hearts of all men, including believers.

    This keeps us grounded, and off the ladder of the religious self holiness project and the accompanying despair and self-righteousness that goes along with it.

  12. Hard words, Dan, but good ones.

    It seems to me that dying to one’s self must occur daily (ie. “take up your cross daily”). It also, at least in my experience, occurs somewhat incrementally. In the beginning of my walk with the Lord, I thought I’d died to this world – achieved “absolute surrender” – when I finally quit smoking and anti-depressants. Little did I know, those things were just the tip of the iceberg! And so I keep on dying. Now is being willing to gladly give up our home, should it become necessary, to better serve the kingdom. Now it is letting myself be treated like a fool, for the sake of love. Who knows what it will be tomorrow.

    Blessings to you.

    • Laurie,

      Too many “pinch-faced” Christians don’t understand the incremental part. You are absolutely correct. And then they judge other people who are elsewhere along the increments than they are.

      Very sad.

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