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Success: Relative to Whom?

Jamie and I went car shopping in June 2012. Who doesn’t love car shopping? We found that part of the car dealer’s plan is to get you inside, sitting at a desk where they can direct the conversation and show you what they want you to see. It seemed like the longer they had you sitting down, the better the chances they thought you would buy a car. Maybe they assume that once you’ve invested two hours at their dealership, you’d feel like it was a waste of time if you didn’t “get into” something.

One dealer showed us a chart of all the minivans in a 50-mile radius at other dealers—their prices and mileage. This chart was evidence that they had the best price around, and they did. When the dealer walked away, I told Jamie, “It’s great that they have a good price relative to everyone else, but the only person this must be relative to is me. I’m the buyer. I don’t care how the price matches everyone else if it doesn’t work for me.”

This is the great mistake churches make when they begin to ask, “What is everyone else doing? How do our programs compare to the programs in the churches around us?” It is very easy to measure our success based on how our small groups out-do another church’s small groups, or how our children’s ministry is better and more exciting than another church’s. All of a sudden we aim to please ourselves and the Christian sub-culture around us rather than God. But what does God think about this? Is He worried about how our programs stack up against any other local church’s? Or does He simply want us to be obedient to Him?

The real questions we must ask ourselves are, “How does what we’re doing to make disciples please God? How are we being obedient to Him, participating in His kingdom on earth here and now?” That’s it. That’s the plumb line that everything is relative to.

In Acts 4:1-12, the Peter and John were faced with a difficult decision after they had healed a man.


The priests and the captain of the temple guard and the Sadducees came up to Peter and John while they were speaking to the people. They were greatly disturbed because the apostles were teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead. They seized Peter and John, and because it was evening, they put them in jail until the next day. But many who heard the message believed; so the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.

Peter and John had healed a lame man. The priests and Sadducees weren’t happy. Part of this was because the Sadducees especially didn’t believe in resurrection. The other part was a popularity contest: they realized, just as they had months earlier with Jesus, that the disciples were gaining a following, and this infringed on their sense of power. They throw Peter and John in jail until the morning. Interestingly, Luke notes how their healing ministry led to greater numbers–something we associate with success–and yet this is almost said as an aside as the narrative keeps moving along.

The next day the rulers, the elders and the teachers of the law met in Jerusalem. Annas the high priest was there, and so were Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others of the high priest’s family. They had Peter and John brought before them and began to question them: “By what power or what name did you do this?”

In verses 5-7, the big dogs have arrived. Annas had actually retired as high priest 20 years prior, but was still a recognized authority. Caiaphas was reigning high priest, Annas’ son-in-law, installed by Rome just as Annas before him. He is the one Jesus stood before during His trial in this same location just months before. John was one of Annas’ five sons and would become high priest in a few years. Evidently Rome had a good thing going with this family.

Their question is about power. It is at this point that Peter has a choice to make. As Luke told the story of Jesus’ final night, he said that Peter had followed at a distance and made his way into the courtyard of the high priests’ home. It was here he had denied Jesus three times, after which Luke says, “The Lord turned and look straight at Peter.” Peter has already told the lame man and the onlooking crowd that it is by the name and power of Jesus (Acts 3:6, 12-16).

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Peter boldly speaks.

Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them: “Rulers and elders of the people! If we are being called to account today for an act of kindness shown to a man who was lame and are being asked how he was healed, then know this, you and all the people of Israel: It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed. Jesus is ‘the stone you builders rejected, which has become the cornerstone.’ Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved.”

There is no mincing of words here. He says that if they are being put on trial for an act of kindness shown to the lame man, it is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And he doesn’t stop there. “Whom you crucified.” He’s standing right in the place where Jesus was put on trial with the people who had him killed, and he has the audacity to say this. Think about how that goes over in our day! Relative to the religious leaders of Peter’s day, Peter has this whole God-thing wrong.

In verse 9, Peter calls what they had done an “act of kindness.” This was a social norm in their day called benefaction. Normally a benefactor, a wealthy person, would act on another person’s behalf with a gift of finances or other support. In return, benefactors received honor and loyalty from those who received their gifts. Caesar and Herod were benefactors. Peter labels this healing as such an act, as if what they are giving is on par with what the emperor would give. They are doing something that the true Lord, Jesus, did, on his authority. This is a statement of unquestionable authority.

They have not just healed a man, something we think is extraordinary in its own right. They did it by exercising the authority of the true Benefactor.

Here’s the deal: We are quick to hone in on Peter’s words about salvation, but normally pass right by how he thought about what he was doing. By exercising authority in Jesus’ name, Peter knew where the power came from, and he stood up to the ruling authorities who could easily have sent him along to Pilate also because Christ so filled him with His Holy Spirit.

In Peter’s mind, he was acting in accordance with Jesus. He was continuing on in the ministry of Jesus. And in this, there is the true measure of success. Continuing the ministry of Jesus at our church in the months and years to come with define success for us.



Ordo Salutis 4: Repentance

After we acknowledge our sin, it is time to repent of it. Generally this all happens in one moment, but we have to know the difference between confession or acknowledgment and repentance.

John Wesley called repentance a “change of heart from all sin to all holiness.” Where once we had lived in sin with little thought of God, now we have had a change of mind. Sin must be forsaken, God must be followed. The true end of repentance is a change of mind. For sure it involves an awareness of our sinful condition and a conviction that we must do something in response to it, in cooperation with God. But in the end, repentance is a function of the mind where our thoughts are changed.

Repentance has been one of the elementary teachings about Christ since the time of the early church (see Heb. 6:1). We repent by turning from our former way of life and turning toward the God who can save us from it. Repentance must come before any initial, true belief in Christ and it must come before further spiritual formation as Christians. Oden writes, “Godly repentance refuses to be comforted until the work of conviction is thoroughly done. It is a radical act of self-examination reaching into every chamber of the house of willed experience…. Repentance includes both contrition and reformation–not only a genuine sorrow for sin, but also a desire to make reparation for sin to counteract the consequences of our previous decisions so as to show forth fruits fitting to repentance” (Classic Christianity, p. 572).

One can confess sin and acknowledge sin and still not repent. I can say that I’ve been wrongly angry with my children, but until I repent of this sin, I will continue in a pattern of anger without a heart softened and changed by the mercy of God. God’s mercy will not flow through me to my kids on a regular basis; I may be able to control my anger from time to time, but this is a matter of willpower, not an act empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Jesus said in Luke 5:32, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” At the end of the very first Christian sermon, Peter said that the proper response to the gospel was, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39).

Other passages about repentance include:

  • Ezra 9: Ezra prays a prayer of repentance for Israel’s sin of intermarriage with women from other nations.
  • Psalm 51: David’s prayer after his adultery with Bathsheba is one of the most powerful prayers of repentance.
  • Daniel 9: Daniel prays a prayer of repentance for the sins of Israel, noting God’s mercy and ability to forgive.
  • Luke 15:17-21: The prodigal son repents to his father for running off.
  • Luke 18:13: The tax collector who prays for mercy because he knows full well he is a sinner, in contrast to the Pharisee who is self-righteous.

Repentance in the sense of turning from sin and turning to God is the natural next step after hearing the good news of God. There is no other response. What about repentance after you become a Christian?

One of the answers to this question is that we remain sensitive to our sins through the witness of the Holy Spirit. We turn from them as we are made aware of them. Another answer is that repentance is a necessary part of salvation, but that it does not stop there. At this point in the ordo salutis (way of salvation), repentance refers to the repentance of the sinner. This step cannot be skipped, however uncomfortable we are with it. The context may change, but the call must remain.

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