About Phil Newton:
Pastor Phil Newton began South Woods Baptist Church in 1987. He received his education at the University of Mobile, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and Fuller Theological Seminary. In addition to his pastoral responsibilities, Phil serves on the Executive Board of Founders Ministries, has taught as an adjunct professor at Crichton College in Memphis and Theologique de Nimes (France), and enjoys leading foreign mission trips annually. He has published articles in several journals and has authored Elders in Congregational Life and The Way of Faith.
Church planting and church reformation have everything to do with each other. I want to show you this in Acts 14. We should not be satisfied that we have planted a church and walk away; there must be an ongoing reformation in the church.
Text: Acts 14:21-23 (click)
I did not realize what I was getting into 21 years ago when I planted a church. I knew what church planting was, I understood about finances, buildings, community engagement–but what I didn’t know or expect was combining the necessity of reformation to church planting. If I just planted a church the way I wanted, everything would be perfect and pure. Had I known what had happened, I might have been frozen in might tracks, but after thinking about it, I would have continued because it has been a remarkable journey.
When I started, church planting was a novelty and church reformation was a rare thing. They are not new innovations; this is just biblical. Plant churches and continue the work of biblical reformation.
1. Church planting in a nutshell
Church planting takes places once persecution took place after Stephen’s martyrdom. Churches began to be planted in Judea and Samaria, and then we find the gospel going to the Gentile world with Cornelius, and so on. From Antioch with a missionary spirit inherent in the gospel, Paul and Barnabas was sent out by the Holy Spirit. It is in the first missionary journey of Paul we find the text. Everywhere they preached the gospel, however, not all places churches were planted (e.g., Perga).
I want to look at these two elements in church planting.
A. Preaching the gospel with a reliance upon the grace of God to work.
That’s the NT pattern; no circus shows, high-wire acts, mud wrestling, etc. Over and over, they were preaching the Word of God. They were hearing the word as though God were speaking it to them through the gospel. They relied on the grace of God to work through biblical proclamation. There is a temptation today for making things happen–to rely on ourselves. Do you rely on the power of God to work? Or do you seek out some clever device that will really make people respond?
When the gospel was preached, the hand of the Lord was at work. They witnessed (saw) the grace of God at work among the people. There was a continual dependence upon the Lord. We are to preach the gospel with all the passion and vigor we can, depending upon God to do th work only He can do.
We teach techniques, and there is a place for that, but gospel preaching seems to be an afterthought. Biblical exposition is glaringly missing from the curriculum of church planting today. If gospel proclamation and biblical exposition are not central, it is not a church. Paul did not shy away from meaty theological themes when preaching the gospel. Paul shows a good example of why we should never shy away from biblical, doctrinal preaching. Evangelistic preaching should be more, not less doctrinal preaching, than any other kind of preaching (Lloyd-Jones). We need meaty, theological messages–not the stuff hard to understand, our sermons becoming mere exercises of academia, but there is a richness when we deal with the word of God in its context and see its rich application on every level. Paul’s preaching was theological precise, saturated, and rich. It was experientially decisive–it called for a verdict. There is no other alternative than repenting and believing in Christ. It was only through Christ, not through the Law, would anyone be justified. We should not be hesitant in the call for action, the call for repentance. We need to press people to look to Christ.
Paul’s message was theologically oriented and experientially decisive. I would encourage you to read and analyze Paul’s sermon in Acts 13. There is a logic that Paul uses. There was a sense of reasoning set on fire in Paul’s preaching. It made sense, conclusions being drawn for the hearers, urging hearers to understand and believe. Is there a sense of urgency and passion in you? Why the doctrinal, logical, passionate preaching?
To make disciples.
A disciple is a follower of Christ, and they are made through the faithful and fervent proclamation of the gospel. Paul was not wanting to drum up professions of faith; he wanted to make disciples. Paul was never contented to report the numbers to headquarters; he was committed to making disciples. If you are not a disciple, you are not a Christian. There are no levels to Christianity (pre-disciple level). I wonder if the wrong picture has been modeled for a couple of generations that all we need to do is get people to make decisions.
Those disciples were organized into local assemblies and congregations. That is why disciple-making and church planting must go together. It is natural and should be in our own settings. There was no headline in Acts when a church was planted; it was simply expected. It was in the DNA.
2. Ongoing Reformation Was Taking Place
We fail to understand the nature of reformation and the nature of the church itself. The Reformers were never convinced that they had done all that need to be done. It is an ongoing process of taking the church back to the word of God, back to the source, back to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This takes place in the midst of both internal and external opposition.
A. It involves strengthening the souls of the disciples.
“strengthening the souls of the disciples . . .” (22)
Paul wanted them to stand in the impregnable force of the power of the gospel. Why did Paul talk about “strengthening souls”? At Pentecost, about 3,000 souls were saved. It is the soul that gives heed to or rejects the prophetic word (ch. 3). There is a rational, thinking, decisive nature in the soul. These disciples were discerning in thought, decisive in action, engaged in the instruction and application of the word of God. Paul wanted these believers to live out the gospel and experience it daily in their lives. It called for establishing and stabilizing them in Christ, that they may be steadfast, immovable, and abounding in the work of the Lord. We are teaching them to live like Christians when they face trials, as well as in times of great success. Simply, we are teaching them to be grounded in the gospel.
Don’t we need this today?
B. It involves encouragement to continue in the faith.
It is a coming alongside someone to urge them on. It requires a passion for others for their good. Paul and Barnabas had gone back to the cities and were encouraging them to continue in the faith to persevere in the midst of great opposition. Paul reminded Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead . . ..” Paul was reminding Timothy of the reformation that must continue in our own lives. We must continue in the faith that has once for all been handed down to the saints. How are you going to live like a Christian? Continue in the faith. Reformation cannot exist without confession. Many lack a solid foundation of truth when trials come. That’s why faithful exposition of God’s Word is so critical in an ongoing reformation, because it takes us back to the Word of God which changes our lives.
Notice how Paul qualifies this.
“through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God”
We are not inviting Christians into a picnic–this is a spiritual battle. The rationale for encouraging the saints is a realistic view of the Christian life. There is no self-help program or steps with a money-back guarantee to fix your life. Expect tribulation, consider yourself worthy to suffer for the sake of the gospel. The trials and tribulations have not changed. We should not expect anything less than what Paul and the disciples experienced.
C. They appointed elders for them in every church.
The elders gave a structure for ensuring sound doctrine and exercising redemptive discipline, offering wise direction for the church, and modeling Christian distinctives. Reformation affects our polity, because how you function as a church relates directly to your mission. I am not advocating anyone run home if you church does not have elders to use that title. The title is not worth dying on, but qualifying men for this office is a hill worth dying on. Leaders in the church must be taught biblically, and must see themselves as an example to the flock. This will not happen overnight by fly-by pastors. It takes years of laboring in the pulpit, in small groups, in one-on-one teaching. Many reformation has been squelched by proud, unqualified men.
Take seriously Christian leadership. What you call the leaders is not the most important thing; the qualities of the leaders is most important.
D. There is a reliance upon God for faithfulness in the work of reformation.
“they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed”
Thank the Lord for His faithfulness. Christ will build His church. It is His. It is not our church. Their confidence was not in Paul and Barnabas. They committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. They placed them before the Lord, saying, “They are yours, O Lord.” Have you done that lately? Have you said, “Lord, this is your church. I just want be used as you are pleased to use me”?
Paul lived daily with the burden of the churches, but he recognized that he was a servant and steward, having been entrusted with the gospel and care of God’s people.
You may not be able to do everything that you want to do, but plant churches and continue the work of reformation. Do not assume that planting churches is enough. There must be ongoing reformation. Stick with that work of strengthening and encouraging and developing faithful leaders, and remember whose church you serve, who holds and secure your people, and commend them to the Lord.