A Call to IBC Reformation

Dec 6, 2017

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, To God’s elect, strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, who have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through the sanctifying work of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and sprinkling by his blood:  Grace and peace be yours in abundance.

Germany, and much of Europe and the world, has celebrated 2017 as the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church (Schlosskirche) in Wittenberg, Germany.  This act by Luther on 31 October 1517 is often viewed as the start of the Protestant Reformation, which changed much of European society and left a lasting theological and ecclesiological legacy around the world.

During our Annual Convention Meeting in October we looked at some of the ways the reforms of the 16th and 17th centuries continue to shape 21st century evangelical Christianity.  Roland Eskinazi, pastor of IBC Brussels, Belgium, brought a Gospel-centered challenge based on the “Five Solas” of the Reformation—

  1. Sola Scriptura (“Scripture alone”): The Bible alone is our highest authority.
  2. Sola Fide (“faith alone”): We are saved through faith alone in Jesus Christ.
  3. Sola Gratia (“grace alone”): We are saved by the grace of God alone.
  4. Solus Christus (“Christ alone”): Jesus Christ alone is our Lord, Savior, and King.
  5. Soli Deo Gloria (“to the glory of God alone”): We live for the glory of God alone.

Carsten Lotz, pastor of ICF Oberursel, Germany, spoke from 1 Peter 2:4-10 about one of the most important Anabaptist emphases — “the priesthood of all believers.”  Carsten said that many other Baptist distinctives — believer’s baptism by immersion, religious liberty for all — stem from the truth that all Christians are called to serve as priests for one another rather than having an exclusive priesthood or clergy.  He quoted theologian Timothy George who wrote, “Every Christian is someone’s priest. We are all priests to one another.”

Reformation and Radical Reformation truths helped to bring God’s people back to the Bible and its importance in our lives. They challenge us today to return to the Gospel and to God to live as New Testament Christians.  Karl Barth, prominent theologian of the 20th century, famously said, “The church is always in need of reform (Ecclesia semper reformanda est).  I agree.

A question for the IBC family: “Are WE in need of reform?”  If so, what is the nature of the reforms that are needed?   I do not presume to try to improve or replace the “Fives Solas” or the biblical teaching on the priesthood of all believers, but I want to suggest several ways that our international family of churches needs to see reform. These reforms, like our core values (fellowship, partnership, church planting, healthy churches, diversity, and unity), can provide a compass for our journey together toward the future. I take my points from the introductory greeting above, 1 Peter 1:1-2, where Peter brings God in His fullness into focus — Father, Son, and Spirit.  It is a Trinitarian greeting.

The unique understanding we have is that God is a Tri-unity. He is not like the God of Islam, which sharply distinguishes Allah from the God described by Jesus.  The Quran says, “Say not ‘Trinity.” Desist; it will be better for you: For God is one God. Glory be to Him: (far exalted is He) above having a son.”  And in another place: “Say: “He, Allah is One.  Allah is He on Whom all depend.  He begets not, nor is He begotten.  And none is like Him”  (Surrah 4:171 and 112).

In contrast, we believe that God’s very being from eternity has been as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Father is who He is by virtue of His relationship with the Son, whom He loves through the Spirit.  And the Son would not be the Son without the Father.  He is who He is because of the Father.  We come to know the truth about God best in Jesus, who speaks of Himself as the Son of God, and He constantly speaks of the love He has for His Father, and of the love the Father has for Him.  Like a fountain, the Father pours out His love through His Son.  While distinct in their persons, they are inseparable from each other.  They are who they are TOGETHER.

The IBC Summary of Basic Beliefs refers to one application of this truth when it says, “just as the Trinity is the model of eternal co-operation so we as IBC churches are to cooperate together in mission with God… .”

Toward the end of his life Peter writes, with the assistance of Silas (Silvanus), to a group of churches scattered throughout Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey.  It seems Peter sent the letter intending that all churches in these five Roman provinces would read them.  Perhaps Silvanus was the carrier of the letter (5:12).  If so he probably started in the north in Pontus, went south and east to Galatia, then to Cappadocia further south.  He then would have gone west in the province of Asia and back north and east to Bithynia.  All in all, he made a large circle, bringing a message of hope and warning and instruction to God’s people who faced similar challenges but in different locations.  Peter was probably in Rome, in prison, during the time of Nero, perhaps about AD 63 or 64. Official and widespread persecution of Christians had not started, but it was near.

Peter writes to a family of churches we can also identify with.  He calls them the “elect,” or “chosen ones.”  They were “chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father.”  God knew, had always known, who they were and where they were, even if they wondered at times.  They were precious to Him.

They are also, “strangers in the world, scattered… .” They were sojourners, a part of the so-called “diaspora.” (We might say today they were living outside their passport country. They were expats.) This description is a biblical one, often referring to Old Testament Israel during times of exile, but Peter’s readers were largely Gentile.  The country he is referring to is not an earthly fatherland but rather a heavenly one. They were citizens of heaven, living on earth.

We can identify with these scattered churches. Most IBCers live outside their passport country.  We know the hassles of expat life — standing in the longer lines at airports, going through mountains of paperwork to register, obtaining visas, opening bank accounts, getting driver’s licenses, learning a new language, adapting to cultural differences, on and on the list goes.  Most of these things are non-issues for nationals.  Beyond these kinds of issues are the spiritual and heart issues — the loneliness of being “away from home,” the fear of being misunderstood, or of being understood and rejected or ignored.  Many in our churches face more serious issues, especially if they are refugees and other displaced minorities.

Imagine the situations these churches felt as they received Peter’s letter.  All of them experienced challenges — “though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1:6) or “do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you” (4:12).  It is into these kinds of situations that Peter writes to a family of churches to encourage and to challenge.

The IBC is a scattered family — dispersed in 25 countries on five continents.  In some cases, yours may be the only evangelical church in the city where you live. Yours might be the only international church.  Your struggles and issues seem unique.  Your members are facing challenges of living in an unfamiliar place.  Multiple cultures and backgrounds are a blessing and a preview of heaven, but they also bring challenges to the church — in decision-making, time issues, worship styles, denominational differences, varying views of social issues, politics, and theology.

Scattered churches.  We need to hear this message of how God views us in relationship to Himself, to one another, and to the world we are called to live in and bear witness to.  Let’s consider this Trinitarian greeting, and let it instruct, encourage, and challenge us as a family of churches.  Peter reminds these churches: We are chosen by the Father, sanctified by the Spirit, and redeemed by the Son.

I want to make some particular applications to us as the IBC family:

1. We are a people of HOPE who belong to God the Father. God is the Creator of the world and the Author of the salvation of His people.  He raised Christ from the dead and gave Him glory.  We are His elect and chosen people.  He foreknew us.

When Peter says that we “have been chosen according to the foreknowledge of God the Father,” he says it to express and to emphasize the greatness of His goodness.  The goodness of God the Father draws us to love and serve Him with all our hearts and to place our trust and hope in Him. He is a kind and loving Father.  Martin Luther learned that knowing God as Father makes all the difference in our understanding of salvation and all our thoughts about God.  As an Augustinian monk in Erfurt, his mind was filled with the knowledge of the righteousness of God, the sin-hating God.

As a result, Luther came to hate the righteous God who punishes sinners.  “I was angry at God,” Luther said.  Not knowing God as a kind and willing Father, he found he could not love God.  So he turned his affection, with other monks, to Mary and other saints with their love and their prayers.  When Luther came to see God as the Father who shares, who gives to us His righteousness, glory, and wisdom, his life changed. He found that coming to know and love God as Father not only gave him assurance and joy — it also won his heart to God, and he came to love the God he once hated.

This truth that we belong to God the Father inspires us with HOPE.  We can be confident that God who foreknew us and chose us also knows us now and will know us tomorrow.  We too easily fall into anxiety about the future or into defeatism because of a lack of resources—people, training, or finances. When progress and growth are not obvious or when we see another church that seems to have resources we don’t have or lacks some of the challenges we face, it can be disheartening.

Knowing that we belong to God the Father lifts us beyond ourselves and to a greater kingdom purpose and hope.  We are part of the IBC family, and we are part of a global family whose address is heaven.  We belong to one another because we are family.  Harmony in our relationships reflects the perfect harmony of our Triune God.  As Carsten Lotz’s father, Denton Lotz, who served for many years as the General Secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, loved to say, “We belong to one another because we belong to Christ.”  And we belong to Christ because we have a Father who chose us.

An IBC core value is fellowship. Another is partnership.  We have a tendency to go it alone.  It is easy to forget our sister churches and pastors and leaders. Some pastors do not invest in the lives of other pastors and fail to let others invest in their lives.  And the result can be burnout or unnecessary frustration or a short-term pastorate.  When crisis comes they can suffer needlessly because they have not built into their lives accountability and friendships with others. And others suffer because we are not there for them.

We identify with one another in ways that others cannot.  We share the challenges and blessings of ministering in very diverse churches.  We share the challenges of “pastoring a parade,” “ministering in a revolving door” as people constantly come and go.  Our churches, if they are growing, are also always shrinking. We never come to a point where our leadership is in place, and we can move on to other issues of concern because our leaders are also constantly leaving and new leaders must be developed.  We watch our best people, people in whom we have invested, as they leave us.

Find hope today in knowing that we belong to God the Father. We were known and are known by Him.  He chose us to salvation, and He chose us to service.  We belong to His global, forever family.  There will be times when you are discouraged.  Find hope in the successes of your sister churches.  There will be times when you are seeing the fruits of God’s work in your midst.  Take time to pray for and encourage those who are struggling.

Hope is found when we see ourselves as pilgrims/sojourners/aliens who belong to God and whose real home and citizenship is in heaven. We have a living hope that goes beyond our next success or failure and beyond our next challenge and hardship.  Hope enables us to be faithful.  Hope enables us to endure hardships, even suffering — all kinds of trials. So we commit ourselves to His faithfulness as the Creator and Father, just as Christ did when He suffered unjustly.

2. We are a people UNITED by God the Holy Spirit, our Sanctifier. It is God’s Spirit who placed us together in God’s family and who is making us fit for our heavenly calling.  He is always at work in us and through us.  Our conversion as individuals and our existence as churches and as a family of churches are the result of the work of God’s Spirit moving to bring life.  He is like the water of a fountain pouring from the source of the Father’s love and life to us and through us.

The Spirit is active in every aspect of the life of our churches and our family of churches, for He is the Spirit of Life. He brings us into what the Father has made possible–a living hope through a new birth.  He unites us not only in name but also in spirit.  He moves us toward obedience to follow the Father’s plan.  He illuminates us to see the mission of God more clearly and draws us to move in accord with the Father’s wishes.  He enables us to do together what we cannot accomplish by ourselves.  He corrects and convicts us when we need it, drawing us always toward the Father’s plan. That same Spirit empowers us for evangelism and for the teaching and preaching of Christ.  It is the Spirit who enables us to the obedience that brings pleasure to God.

The Spirit is God’s gift of grace to us.  When God gives us His Spirit, He is giving us Himself. God gives us His Spirit so that we can know and enjoy fellowship with the Father and the Son.

One aspect of the Spirit’s sanctifying work is unity.  We are in fact united in Christ, but often we do not see it and do not strive to keep the unity of the Spirit.  We can allow our diversity to divide us inside our churches and even between one another. An independent, uncooperative spirit will always cripple us.

We are a family of churches bound by voluntary cooperation.  No one stands above anyone else to say, “You must do this or that in this or that way.” When we work together in voluntary cooperation, we form, as one leader put it years ago, “a rope of sand with the strength of steel.”

Our IBC vision is to see “a movement of global-minded churches reproducing healthy disciples, leaders, and congregations.”  I believe it is a vision that honors the Lord and should drive us forward in unity.  Achieving our vision does not depend on the size of our churches nor the amount of our budgets but it DOES depend on our moving forward together.

If each of us would take seriously and personally his or her role and responsibility to the wider family of churches in the IBC, I believe the Spirit would move in a powerful way to point us all outward.  We would see pastors and leaders and congregations becoming healthy, and we would see a greater number of healthy churches being planted.  We would see a movement that would amaze us all and that would glorify God.

Our vision calls us to a direction and destination worthy of the Lord, a vision that makes a difference in our churches and in the lives of many people who need the Lord.  But we need each other.  May the Spirit of God sanctify and reform us by uniting us toward the vision God has given us.  May He be the very oxygen of the new life that we breathe together.

3. We are a people cleansed by Jesus Christ, God the Son, our Redeemer, and put on redemptive MISSION.  From the outset Peter reminds his readers and us that it is the sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ that brings us into covenant with God.  We are who we are only because of the work of Christ, which God the Father foreknew and God the Spirit initiated in us.  Peter speaks of Christ as the Son of God and Lord of the Church.  The Father determined before the foundation of the world to redeem His people by the sacrifice of the Son. The Spirit, whose role is to speak of Him, bore witness through the prophets the sufferings which Christ would endure AND the glories which would come as a result.  Peter, having walked with the Lord and having seen His suffering first-hand, was a witness.  He also had a glimpse of the future glory of Christ seated at the right hand of the Father.  He was a confident witness of both His death and His heavenly glory.

In Jesus, Peter came to see and know God as Father, Son, and Spirit.  The Son was loved by the Father and anointed with the Spirit.  Peter saw in Jesus that God is so generous and kind that He gives Himself to us and comes to be with us.  And this is not because of who we are but in spite of who we are.  We are in need of God’s redemption.

Martin Luther defined a sinner as “the person curved in on himself.”  We can even behave morally or religiously but out of a love for ourselves.  And so we are in need of redemption; redemption prompted God’s love for the sinner.

The mission of God the Son was redemption and to that mission He calls us. His mission is our mission.  We cannot do what He did in providing a sacrifice for sins.  There is no need for that because, as Peter will tell us, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.”  He alone is Redeemer, but we are called to His mission of redemptive sacrifice — taking up our crosses daily to follow Him.  Without the cross, we could never know the depth of God’s love.  Out of love, Christ laid down His life.  Self-giving, generous love is our example to follow.

The IBC exists for the glory of God to help churches accomplish their God-given mission of “making disciples.”  The local church is God’s appointed method of reaching the world. Like these churches scattered throughout Asia Minor, we are called together to the redemptive mission of making disciples through living out the Good News, telling the Good News, and planting churches that teach and preach that Good News so that disciples are made and grown in local families of believers. And we do it in challenging times in challenging places with challenging people.

Reforming our Metrics of Effectiveness:

How should we measure our effectiveness as a family of churches?  God is calling us, the IBC family, to measure its effectiveness with Trinitarian metrics.

  • The metric of hope. Are we moving ahead in hope because we embrace together the calling to be God the Father’s chosen people?  We must pursue that calling as strangers and aliens in the world, living as citizens of heaven.
  • The metric of unity. Are we together being sanctified by the Spirit, including His work of uniting us to live as His people in a world that is hostile and resistant to the Gospel, refusing the temptation to go it alone?  We must pursue the unity that God the Spirit has already placed within us, making every effort to “maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
  • The metric of mission. Are we focused on living out the redemptive mission of God the Son, Jesus Christ, whose death brought us out of darkness and into the light, and doing it together?   We must never lose our wonder of what Christ has done for us.  And that wonder drives us in gratitude to pursue the mission of making Him known TOGETHER.

Hope, unity, and mission — let these blessings, which come from our 3-in-1 God, encourage and challenge us to be faithful and productive in our common work.  May God reform us and empower us to live as reformers that reflect who we are and who we belong to, and may we do it together for His glory.

Soli Del Gloria (To God alone be the glory).