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Normal Sunday Mornings and 24/7

By Timothy Lane
Here's how the public and private ministry of the Word look like in day-to-day pastoral ministry.


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It was a normal Sunday as I carried out my usual responsibilities of preaching the Word and talking with congregants. Just below the surface, though, God was moving and working in people’s lives. The text for the sermon that Sunday was Luke 13:1-9, about a tower that fell on 18 people and a group of Galileans whom Pilate had massacred. In response to questions about the cause of this, Jesus replied,

 

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

 

Most people would be happy to steer clear of this passage when in conversation with modern, enlightened individuals. Just think of all the apologetic issues it raises concerning the cause and nature of suffering. Who would think that there would be any pastoral comfort here? If there were, who would be up for the task of spelling it out in a one-to-one conversation with someone? As I preached the passage, I secretly worried about offending people who had suffered. On the surface, the passage seemed so direct and unsympathetic. I soon discovered, though, that for at least one sole sufferer that morning, Julie, this text was a breath of fresh air, a ray of hope, words of comfort displaying the grace, mercy, and kindness of God! Somewhat hard to believe, but true.[1]

 

After the sermon and benediction, Julie quietly approached me. You could tell that to initiate this conversation was a real step of faith. She nervously told me that she had found the sermon helpful and wondered if she and I could set up a time to meet. Much later on, I discovered that others had been involved with her and had encouraged her to come and talk to me. The body of Christ had been actively working long before I arrived on the scene, but now it was my privilege to play a small part in the grand redemptive drama that had been slowly unfolding in Julie’s life.

 

With Julie’s story functioning as a thread all the way through this article, I want to show the vital need for both public and private ministry of the Word. While our culture distinguishes preaching (public ministry) from “counseling” (private ministry), the Bible considers the two without any dichotomy.[2] This article stresses the importance of the private ministry of the Word, but it should not be understood as minimizing the critical place that public proclamation of the Word has in the life of the church. What follows is a particular example of what public and private ministry of the Word look like in day-to-day pastoral ministry.

 

As a pastor, you aim to show people how the truth that you proclaim on Sunday mornings must be believed, applied, and lived out on Monday mornings. You tend to think that what you say in 30 minutes from a pulpit is adequate for people to apply on their own. I mean, after all, didn’t God promise to bless the preaching of the Word? While God does bless the faithful preaching of the Word, God also uses people like Julie to show the utter need for much more detailed application of the redemptive truth of Scripture for sinners of all stripes. Thinking about meeting with Julie forced me to ask whether the Bible had anything more to say to her than just three or four general points from Luke 13.

 

Through Julie and many others, my understanding of the ministry of the Word has been stretched, broadened, and deepened. My skill in applying the Word has increased as well. This happened as I participated in and watched the redemptive power of Christ slowly and progressively run free in Julie’s life. I went from learning in seminary about the authority of Scripture to discovering in the practice of pastoral ministry the sufficiency of Scripture.[3] The public ministry of the Word and general application from the pulpit is just the beginning of ministry of the Word. In private ministry of the Word you test the boundaries of your understanding of Scripture and your skill to bring the Word to bear on people in ways that are useful, natural, and gospel-centered. I saw the public and private ministry of the Word flowing together in a redemptive way in Julie’s life, as well as in mine.

 

This linkage of public and private ministry of the Word is one significant challenge of pastoral ministry because it is easy to gravitate towards the one that you feel most adept at doing, while you might ignore the one that you are least skilled in. I had attended an excellent seminary where a Christian worldview and the authority of Scripture were front and center in the curriculum. Functionally, though, after classical teaching in doctrine, languages, church history, and Bible, what received almost all of our attention in practical theology was the public ministry of the Word. There was the occasional pastoral theology segment devoted to the mechanics of weddings, funerals, and hospital visitation. Very little, though, focused on the private ministry of the Word and the very common pastoral issues of depression, anger, marital conflict, eating disorders, guilt, fear, and the like. As a pastor, I soon discovered that in a typical work week, about 20% of my time was devoted to public ministry, while 80% involved private ministry. One-on-one meetings with staff, church officers, and parishioners took up the bulk of my time, but I had not been exposed much to this major aspect of ministry while I was training in seminary. Also, when I was originally licensed and ordained by my presbytery, only two out of hundreds of questions were devoted to private/pastoral ministry concerns.[4]

 

Let’s return to Julie and her story. She and I began meeting on a regular basis, while my wife, Barbara, reached out to her in an effort to get to know her. Soon, Julie became a regular part of our family and one of our children’s favorite babysitters. As we got to know her, the life-shaping events and patterns began to surface. Julie had been sexually victimized as a pre-teen for several years by a family member. In eighth grade, she entered counseling. In ninth grade, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for four weeks to treat depression and bulimia. She recounted how the therapy involved around-the-clock supervision which included putting her in an observation room to see what she was going to do with her food. Absent from her therapy were any discussions about her eating disorder and what might be causing it. When she returned to school, her friends and teachers apparently viewed her as a special “problem person.” She felt like a freak that everyone was watching. Subsequent to her time in the psychiatric hospital, she was placed in several group therapy programs and was monitored by a psychiatrist who kept up with her medication.

 

Between tenth grade and her sophomore year in college, Julie sought help from several different counselors, was hospitalized again for the eating disorder, and was diagnosed by any number of labels: post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, manic depression, panic disorder, and bulimia. Her problems in living attracted the best offerings of the entire pharmaceutical industry: Prozac, Paxil, Xanax, Zoloft, Celexa, Klonopin, Anafranil, Tofranil, Ativan, and Mellaril. Somewhere in the mix, Julie also sought the help of a Christian pastor’s wife. It was the first time that anyone raised the possibility that her behavior was wrong rather than a disease. The pastor’s wife then proceeded to meet with her and guide her in a study to see what “demons” were controlling her! Julie could not finish the study because of the fear that it evoked in her. By the time she and I met, she was hitting bottom. She had started cutting herself, her eating disorder was out of control, and she was suicidal. These behaviors all coincided in a vicious spiral.

 

Julie had sought help over an eight-year span of time. Her involvement with counselors started when she was in her early teens, and, when she and I met, she was in her early twenties. Three kinds of help had been prevalent during this eight-year time frame; one other had been absent. The first and most prominent form of help was in the secular counselors who were schooled in various forms of psychotherapy. The second form of help was in the psychiatrists who experimented with various forms of medication. The third form of help was in the deliverance ministry that sought to cast out the various demons that possessed her. All of these forms of help treated Julie as an utterly unique person with very special problems that had to be addressed by highly trained specialists.[5] Later she would admit to my wife that there was something selfishly satisfying about that because it was a way for her to get attention.

 

Strikingly absent from all of the forms of help available to her was a much more straightforward and robust kind of help. Lacking was a form of help that blended a rich sensitivity for Julie’s suffering with a deep confidence in the power of the gospel and Scripture to bring change through intelligent faith and repentance within the caring context of the body of Christ. In addition to the Luke 13 passage, she and I found that many of the Psalms addressed her suffering. Psalms 77 and 28 were helpful for her from the very beginning. Psalm 77 seemed to help her put words to her suffering while also pointing her to see the mercy and utter power of God in the midst of intense pain. Psalm 28 resonated in Julie’s heart due to its wonderful message of courage and trust in God in the face of fear. Genesis 50:20 enabled her to see that all suffering is not the result of one’s personal sin and that God is weaving something incredible into the lives of those He loves. Julie seemed to identify with Joseph because, like him, she waited for years even to begin to see what it was that God was up to. Most helpful were the passages that came from the lips of real people who had suffered badly. The Bible was much more than the rule book she had come to know it as in her fundamentalistic upbringing. The Bible was a story about real people crying out to a gracious God as they lived in the midst of injustice. Julie saw that all of these passages pointed in one incredible direction: to a God who Himself had suffered and voluntarily got bloody for at least two reasons: to cleanse her of her own sin and rebellion, and to help her make sense of and endure in the face of the sins of others against her. This was the kind of help that was sadly absent but, thankfully, was looming larger on the horizon!

 

Let me be very clear on two fronts. First, real ministry neither minimizes suffering nor makes the complex simplistic. Also, it does not arrogantly dismiss the compassionate efforts of those who had offered Julie their forms of help over the years. I am convinced that those who were involved with Julie truly cared for her and thought that they were doing the best thing for her at the time. It is likely that the interventions over the eight-year period of time preserved her life and kept her from suicide. God certainly was caring sovereignly for Julie and using the efforts of many people for her good. But in Julie’s own words, while the help she received was useful, she admits that the solutions that were offered came up far short. Ironically, they did not adequately address the reality of her suffering, her ongoing struggle, and her desperate need for hope that things could be different. Glaringly absent was a suffering Redeemer whom she could recognize as being on site and able to help her grapple with being sinned against, forgive her of her own sinful responses, and provide promises of growth and usefulness in service to others. Instead, the constant mantra was an existentialist call to courage and for her to find strength within herself in the face of absurdity and confusion.

 

In this context of private ministry with Julie and others, God was teaching me, as well. As is often the case, the helper was the one most helped by those he sought to help! The rich missionary who goes to aid the poor in a far-off land discovers her own poverty of faith, and humbly learns at the feet of those whom she sought to teach and uplift. Julie was one very important teacher amongst hundreds of other people from whom I had the privilege of learning.

 

This one-on-one interaction is vital to pastoral ministry. But often it either is not emphasized or else is limited to hospital visitation where we read a passage and pray. Hospital visitation is an appropriate part of pastoral care, but it is by no means all-inclusive. There are tremendous benefits for pastors and church leaders who engage in serious private ministry of the Word. What benefits does a pastor gain from the exercise of and involvement in private ministry of the Word? How is it essential to ministry in general and the public ministry of the Word in particular? Let me suggest at least six benefits that I think make private ministry of the Word vital.

 

First, public and private ministry of the Word belong together; one without the other is insufficient. In Acts 20:20, Paul places the two together when he says, “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.” Paul does not offer us a rigid methodology of house visitation in this passage. Rather, he describes an active philosophy of ministry that combines public and private ministry of the Word. For Julie and me, Luke 13 was just the beginning. It opened the door for many personal conversations about her suffering and its cause, her response to that suffering, the mercy of Christ, daily functional faith in the gospel, and her need to love and serve other people. It opened up opportunities to bring the specifics of her life to the table and the unfathomable depths of Scripture to bear on those particulars in redemptive ways.

 

The default position, often simply assumed and rarely examined, sees the Word of God as sufficient for public preaching and general application to humankind, but as insufficient for private ministry and specific personal application. When it comes to addressing the bitter or tangled details of people’s lives, Scripture is often viewed as inadequate. Recall the issues that were prevalent in Julie’s life. Consider the ways that her problems were labeled. Where does the Bible say anything about obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic attacks, bulimia, or depression? Perhaps it addresses depression, guilt, and fear, but the other problems don’t seem to be anywhere in Scripture. Therefore, it would seem that Scripture and the reality of the gospel are either ancillary, or, even if somewhat important, still not enough.

 

If you do have a robust confidence in the depth and insight of Scripture, though, public ministry and private ministry will naturally get linked. Each will lead to and feed the other. Public ministry will produce and create opportunities for private ministry. Private ministry will enhance and strengthen public ministry. The circle will continue to create richer public and private ministry of the Word. In fact, if public ministry does not create, encourage, and generate private ministry of the Word, chances are that the public ministry of the Word is weak in exegeting and applying the Word in a way that leads people to worship Christ, understand their lives more clearly, and experience change. If this is not happening in the context of corporate worship and larger public settings where the Word is proclaimed, the chances of people thinking that Scripture can effect this kind of change in one-on-one contexts will be very low! Through the combination of public and private ministry Julie became a disciple. She was convinced that Scripture had something to say to her.

 

The second benefit of private ministry of the Word is that it cultivates in the life of a believer an appreciation for the richness of God’s wisdom in Scripture. To take to heart a true, relevant, and well-crafted sermon is a rewarding and life-changing experience. But it is different from the experience of private ministry. James uses an obvious metaphor to describe how the Bible is to be used when he calls Scripture a mirror (James 1:22-25). But James says something interesting that runs counter to the way we often think about a mirror. He says that the mirror we are to use is one that we should be looking into all day! It is a mirror that we take with us and never stop gazing into. In weekly preaching, we hold up the mirror, but as people leave, they can easily walk away and forget what they have seen of themselves, their need for change, and their Redeemer who comes to bring that change. James is cognizant that the human heart has straying tendencies. We have a propensity to avoid truth and to believe lies. It is in the trenches of private ministry that the pastor has the opportunity to keep the mirror up and help the person continue to gaze into the “perfect law that gives freedom.” The redemptive revelation of God in Christ has been recorded and explained for us in Scripture. It comes to life as the Spirit of Christ uses it to address the deepest issues of life and to liberate us from seeking self-glory to pursuing God’s glory instead.

 

I was privileged to witness this as I met with Julie (and with countless others). Take a passage that bears on the issues of the person before you. Gaze into it with focus and patience to excavate everything that is there to find. Talk about it. Ask questions. Allow the passage to challenge and confront and comfort. Here is where the beauty of the wisdom of God in the Word of God shines. James talks about “gazing intently” to capture this sense of being utterly riveted on the Word in such a way that its truth gets big and bright and catches fire. James envisions us poring over the truth, and doing this until we cannot look at the passage without seeing our names written between the lines. A friend of mine once said that there is enough in one verse of Scripture to keep us dazzled and excited for a lifetime! How faint of heart we are and how quickly we lose a sense of wonder and amazement when it comes to the message of the gospel. In private ministry, you have the wonderful opportunity to slow down. You can draw lines from the passage back and forth between your own heart and the Word. In one-on-one ministry, Julie and I found both of our names between the lines particularly in Psalm 77. Our first reading together produced tears. Over time, the same Psalm produced joy and even laughter!

 

Third, we see in private ministry how Scripture is a mirror that changes the entire body of Christ, not just the pastor. If we see how vital it is to have this mirror before us at all times, how can we ever read Colossians 3:15-16 the same again? Paul instructs us by saying, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” “Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing songs with gratitude in your hearts to God.” This passage is a practical application of James 1:22-25 for the entire body of Christ. We are all “mirror holders.” The responsibility to hold the mirror belongs to every believer, not just to the pastor. This must happen between all believers. It must be done daily, throughout the week, between friend and friend, husband and wife, parents and children, and members in the body of Christ. We have the moral responsibility and privilege to encourage and admonish one another and keep before one another the mirror of Scripture that is rich with redemptive promises and loving warnings to flee sin and embrace Christ moment by moment. This vision of private ministry between believers is what is prominent in the mind of the writer of Hebrews.

 

See to it brothers, that none of you has a sinful and unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness (Heb. 3:12-13).

 

And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb. 10:24-25).

 

For most, these passages are very familiar. But they make most sense when combined with Colossians 3.

 

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God (Col. 3:15-16.

 

In Hebrews 3 and 10, the importance of the body of Christ is prominent. In Hebrews 10, the importance of hard work is emphasized by the writer’s usage of the word “consider.” The word for “consider” (katanowmen) implies work and forethought. This is combined with the word “provoke” (paraxysmos).[6] These words are intended to communicate something very strong about how important, intentional, and aggressive our fellowship must be. When you combine the Hebrews passages with Colossians 3, the importance of the Word of Christ is highlighted. These three passages link the body of Christ to the Word of Christ and focus on intentional, biblical, Christ-centered relationships for the purpose of growth in grace. We see the same thing in Exodus 18 when Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, encourages him to appoint seventy men to aid him in his work of settling disputes and guiding the people who come to him to “seek God’s will.”

 

Ironically, private ministry of the Word is not an individualistic activity. Rather, it is a community activity. It flourishes particularly when people live in close relationships with one another. It does, though, raise massive questions for equipping every member to think and speak in ways that are consistent with biblical truth. I have often wondered what it would be like if the leadership of a church had the capability to wiretap every person in their congregation for a week and record the conversations that occur between friends, spouses, children, and members! I understand that this would be illegal and highly unwise, but imagine what advice you might hear shared between individuals. How much of it would be truly gospel-centered and edifying? How much would be utter heresy? And how much would be a semi-confusing, semi-helpful combination of both? We might be shocked to find out that what passes between individuals under the guise of biblical, godly advice, is not actually “sharing” or “one-anothering” at all.

 

For Julie, thankfully, many key players were involved in her life besides me. In fact, my role began to ebb, as others in the body of Christ became a part of her life. Several families spent time with her while she served them by keeping their children. Countless informal conversations shaped her thinking about her life and her God. One family even let her live with them when she was financially needy. My wife met with her to talk about certain Psalms, to discuss Julie’s specific problems, and to pray together. Julie was also involved in the children’s ministry of the church. She loved to be around children because it provided a way for her to enjoy a time of life that she had never experienced. This shared responsibility by all kinds of people guarded everyone from playing “savior” and provided wise and balanced help and accountability for Julie.

 

Fourth, private ministry of the Word informs and strengthens the public ministry of the Word profoundly. As I met with Julie, she became one more particular person— name, face, details of life struggles— in the audience whom I had to think about as I wrestled with passages and prepared sermons. As you gain a keener sense of who your audience is and what their common struggles and temptations are, you are more able to press for application that will hit home for real people. Julie’s experience of suffering, her fear, desires to control her world, and guilt were all akin to where mostly everyone was living on any given Sunday. The only difference was in degree. Public ministry without private ministry usually moves in the direction of disseminating information and focusing on abstract ideas about exegesis, doctrine, and morals. The truth may be neatly and logically packaged, but it is largely antiseptic, with no “real life” edge about it.

 

Private ministry, instead, keeps you real! If you deal with people the entire week, you will not come to the pulpit cool, rational, or detached. If you wrestle with people in the thick of life, if you care, if you offer real comfort and challenge with the gospel throughout the week, then you will necessarily bring that passion, warmth, and urgency to the pulpit.

 

This in turn will have an impact on your audience. People will increasingly respond by pursuing opportunities for private ministry themselves! It is a glorious cycle where the power of Christ is acknowledged, experienced, and passed along. One of the things that was remarkable about Julie was how her presence in the lives of those who came to help her produced a mini-revival in these people and in the church. People saw the power of the crucified and risen Christ at work in her life. They were shaken out of their unbelief, and became more optimistic about the promises of God to bring change. Julie was a walking memorial to the presence of God in the midst of His people. She was a living invitation to His reality. She became like those piles of rocks that we find so often in the Old Testament that the people of God erected to help them remember God’s power, truth, faithfulness, mercy, and grace. Only, she was a better reminder! This, combined with several other situations where God was obviously on the move, created a sense of momentum and excitement. People began to come out of the woodwork for training in ministry.

 

Fifth, private ministry of the Word keeps you honest, humble, and dependent in ways that are different from public ministry of the Word. While a lack of humility may put a dent in your preaching, it will crush your private ministry. Sitting face-to-face with people who place the delicate issues of their souls into your care can weigh on you. If it doesn’t weigh on you, you’ve been hoodwinked by pat answers and counseling techniques. You think about how you are going to minister to this person, and what you will do and say. When Julie and I were meeting, I was pressed to think deeply about her life and what I would say. Pat answers, even if they were true, would not help. If I was going to help her see that God is good, wise, sovereign, and gracious, I would need wisdom from God to do this well. At that very moment, I was dependent on God and knew I needed a lot of prayer!

 

Your true, spiritual maturity is on the table as much as the person’s with whom you meet. Are you so sensitive to your own sinful propensities and properly humble about your own sin that you can steer clear of self-righteousness and pride when an obviously proud and unrepentant sinner looks you in the eye and justifies his behavior? In September of 2002, the nightly news focused on the physical abuse of a young daughter by a mother caught on videotape in a store parking lot. Surely sadness, righteous anger, and outrage are biblical emotions that a Christian would experience every time he viewed the tape. But what about humility? The mother on that videotape should be a reminder to me that I am capable of doing something like that as well.[7]If I am not aware of my own sinful tendencies, my anger over this abuse is probably not godly at all, but ungodly and self-righteous.

 

Recently, I counseled a couple struggling with anger and frustration with their children. It “just so happened” that they were being counseled by someone who was struggling with that very same issue himself at that moment! As they related their struggles to me, it highlighted my own sinful attitudes and behavior. As I shared this with them, they were encouraged. What opened up was a full discussion about how three of us needed Christ. We then began to work out what intelligent faith and repentance might look like and how Christ needed to be relied upon in those very specific moments of temptation. This is one great blessing and benefit of private ministry of the Word that is not the sole privilege of pastors. Every believer ought to engage in this kind of honest confession, mutual accountability, and mutual encouragement. Private ministry brings you face-to-face with sinners and sufferers in a way that public ministry does not, and it tests your spirituality as a result.

 

Or take a different example. How might you respond to the person who needs to be confronted lovingly but who is a large donor to the ministry of the church you pastor? Will you shy away or pander to him because you are afraid of rejection or accusations that you drove the person off and now the church is in financial crisis? In this case, it isn’t self-righteousness you are aware of, but fear of man or an over-desire for success. In public ministry the words are well prepared and scripted in advance. In addition, you are further removed from people. It is much easier to put on a pretense of spirituality. But private ministry is not scripted. It has a way of keeping you humble and dependent on God. It encourages more dependent prayer, more often. All this reveals the depth (or lack of depth) of your own communion with the Father, and the sanctification that is (or is not) occurring in your own life. If I call others to place hope and confidence in a Redeemer in whom I have no living hope and confidence, it will ring hollow. If I bring passages to bear on people’s lives and hold the people up before a mirror, but am not warmed myself by change, then I am just a clanging gong: all show, no substance. What I say will sound dry, rehearsed, staged, and fake. But if I come with persuasive, rich experience of the gospel in my own life, it will sing, encourage, and bring hope!

 

Sixth, private ministry is essential to the ongoing viability of the church in a culture that is saturated with thousands of other voices. Secularized people, psychologized people, materialistic people, desperately self-confident people all need to hear the gospel in a way that totally trumps the best answers that secular views have to offer. This must be done without compromising the eternal truth of Scripture. This task is not new to the church, though. Every missionary, every Bible translation, and every generation of Christians must do this. The task involves contextualization and “disenculturalization” at the same time. You speak in a way that the culture understands as you challenge that very culture. The Bible is a living example of this. At every point, biblical writers speak into the culture using common themes and images, while radically and subversively calling the culture and the people in the culture to faith and repentance.[8] Private ministry of the Word is apologetic and evangelistic in nature. If we don’t do the hard work of showing how the redemptive message of Scripture speaks to people’s problems, then God’s people and others will go elsewhere. They will conclude that the gospel is not the power of God unto change, that the Word of God is not the wisdom of God unto change, and that the church is not the redemptive community where sinners can find help and hope. One of my seminary professors once said that the prevalent problems in society represent the unpaid debts of the church.[9] The failure of the church to do the work of private ministry with wisdom, thoughtfulness, and intensity has left the sheep susceptible to all kinds of influences whose wisdom is not founded in Christ. Thousands of Julies sit in churches every Sunday. They’re ready to hear that God does speak with clarity and deep insight into their confused and confusing worlds.

 

I put Julie (and others like her) in the Hebrews 11 category: her faith and life speak. When Julie and I were first meeting, she exhibited faith like those Jesus commended, such as the centurion in Matthew 8:5ff or the sick woman in Matthew 9:20-22. Early on, Julie said words to this effect, “I have been everywhere for help. I have been psychologized, psychiatrized, and demonized, and I just want to know if the Bible has anything to say that can help me.” This was a simple expression of helplessness, a cry for mercy. It linked Julie to a mighty Savior who meets the humble of heart and lifts them up out of the mire.

 

Julie told me that something substantial— something very “normal,” biblically speaking— began to happen in her life. Very simply put, she discovered that Scripture spoke very clearly about what she had faced. It spoke in ways that were much more specific and persuasive than anything she had heard. She also realized that God was near. Focusing on Christ and the reality of His sacrificial work on her behalf provided a foundation for her to deal with her suffering, shame, and guilt. It moved her into a new communion with her Redeemer. This had been absent during all those years of therapy and drugs. At present, she is finding great comfort as life-dominating lies are confronted and dismantled by the God of Scripture. Julie has embraced the liberating truth that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is her new and real identity. Listen to how she describes things:

 

I began to see that the lies of the evil one were dominating me. Lies about who I am, what I am, and whose I am. For example, there was this constant idea in my head that I still had to pay for my sins, that somehow Jesus’ death was not enough. Hence the cutting. It was, more than anything, an atonement for my sins. I knew that I could never pay enough penance. Somehow cutting made me think that I was at least remembering how sinful I was.

 

One of the lies was that I was responsible for many of the things that happened in my life. I began to realize that while my choices were sometimes bad and sometimes sinful, another’s sin was not my own. My sinfulness showed up in how I reacted to whatever had happened, not in the sin committed against me. So this new understanding didn’t let me “off the hook” so to speak, but rather helped me see the truth. I still struggle with those issues, the eating disorder and the cutting, but their hold on me is very different. I also have learned that I truly can cry out to God in those times of pain and terror, and He will listen to and comfort me. I am still on Ativan for panic disorder, but I rarely use it. I have learned relaxation exercises and, more importantly, to pray and search Scripture for comfort until the panic has passed. I do still need the medication at times and that may take quite awhile to get past.

 

The church has been so influential in changing my life. I have gotten plugged into the children’s ministry, which helps me more than it can possibly help those I teach! God strategically has placed so many people in my life to be tangible representations of His love for me. I also still struggle with some of the abuse issues from my past. These have been very present lately because I started seriously dating a man whom I met this past summer. I have seen a picture of God’s patience with me through him. He knows about the “rubbish” from my past, yet he continues to stand by me. This relationship has been a lesson in learning to give and receive and let my guard down. One of the most awesome things that I have learned in the past two years is how to feel my emotions. For a very long time, I mislabeled or numbed all emotions. I have learned to cry and laugh till it hurts. Those are two of God’s most precious gifts.

 

The key themes of biblical truth for me have been that I am a new creation, I am a daughter of the King, and Christ already did it all for me. I don’t need to atone for my own sins; I can’t possibly even come close. But I don’t need to! That is awesome. When God looks at me, He sees Christ. It took me such a long time to understand that even remotely. He does not look at me and see the dirty, wretched, sinful waif that I see. He sees His daughter, clothed in the beauty of His Son’s righteousness.

 

Now that is a changed and changing life! This is real pastoral ministry. Who wouldn't want to be on the front lines like this! And yet, when we diminish the private ministry of the Word or substitute something in place of the Word, we miss these kinds of opportunities.

 

It is so refreshing to hear Julie speak in the language of the kingdom of God. There are some things she has already experienced and some she has not yet realized. Growth is progressive, slow at points, and sometimes messy. But it is still progress. Ministry of the Word does not promise a quick fix and panacea that makes all the bad things vanish. Rather, God leads us into a lifestyle of humble reliance upon the grace of Christ day by day. It all begins with this radical, alien righteousness from Christ that is imputed and continues by faith as it is imparted. So Julie is always in need of both public and private ministry of the Word, as are the rest of us.

 

Private ministry of the Word is not optional for the church. It is not optional for pastors. Even though some pastors are more gifted at private ministry of the Word than others, it doesn’t mean private ministry shouldn’t be done. Different degrees of gift do not preclude one from private ministry of the Word. And in light of Julie’s story, why push it to the periphery? While Julie’s problems are more complex and require wise and mature helpers, every believer struggles with sin, faces temptation, and needs help living the Christian life. Pastors and all believers have countless opportunities to play their part in the sanctification of each another. This is not just an aspect of church life; it is the very church in action.  

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TE Timothy Lane is a counselor and faculty member of the School of Biblical Counseling at CCEF and lecturer in Practical Theology at both Westminster and Biblical Theological Seminaries in Philadelphia, Penn.  This article is reprinted with permission and was originally published in the Winter 2003 issue (Volume 21 Issue 2) of the Journal of Biblical Counseling. 

 

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[1] I found out months later that another person sitting in the crowd was offended by the text and sermon. She was a non-Christian teenager who was attending church with one of the families in the church. What offended her was Jesus’ words clearly putting her, along with everyone else, in the category of sinners who deserve God’s judgment. Yet, the passage is rich in the hope of receiving God’s mercy if one recognizes one’s sin and repents and trusts in Christ. About a year later, I learned that this teenager had trusted in Christ and acknowledged that the text had served to shake her out of her “dogmatic slumber” of personal innocence and morality! This happened due to personal conversations she had with members of the family about the text.

[2] The Bible brings preaching and “counseling” together by assuming that the gracious, redemptive message of Scripture is sufficient for large audiences as well as in oneon- one conversations. The typical dichotomizing of public and private ministry of the Word accepts the sufficiency of Scripture for pulpit proclamation, but minimizes that same sufficiency in private ministry and makes psychological presuppositions primary, with Scripture and the gospel secondary. Also, consciously linking public and private ministry of the Word can assist the preacher in avoiding purely “doctrinal” preaching that minimizes the importance of robust, personal application from the pulpit.

[3] By sufficiency of Scripture, I don’t mean that insights from resources other than Scripture cannot be useful or instructive. Case in point, I learned a great deal about the experience and ramifications of sexual abuse from Julie. But even as we brought that real experience under the redemptive gaze and power of Scripture, Julie began to reinterpret her understanding of her experience. The “facts” are always in need of Scripture’s “re-casting.” The humbling aspect of all of this is that the task of “recasting” the facts is not an objective process either! This is where the work of the Spirit and Christian community aid us in making hermeneutical progress. And at the beginning and end of the day, Scripture must function as our starting and ending point while there will be a lot of data to process in between.

[4] One older minister asked what passage I would use to comfort someone who had just lost a loved one. Another minister asked me which passages I would use if a couple were seeking a divorce. Because the examination was largely used as a gate-keeping exercise to weed out anyone with errant theological views and so keep those views out of the pulpit, it was largely blind to what advice I might offer people in private ministry. Even these “which passage?” questions focused on Bible knowledge, not on skillful, theologically rich, Christ-centered, pastoral counseling.

[5] This does not mean that just anyone could help her. Because of the severity of her problems, she did need wise, skilled, and experienced counsel. The nature of her troubles, though, did not pose a problem that the Bible was incapable of understanding or addressing in a redemptive way.

[6] Useful exegetical work on Hebrews 10:24 has been done by F. F. Bruce in his commentary in the NICNT series, along with P. E. Hughes’s Hebrews commentary.

[7] I believe it was John Owen who said, “The seed of every known sin is in my heart.”

[8] Moses does this when he borrows the common Suzerain Treaty formula to structure God’s covenant with Israel. The Apostle John does this in John 1 when he refers to Jesus as the Logos. In both cases, common themes and ideas were employed while new and radical meanings were introduced.

[9] This was said on a number of occasions by the late Dr. Harvie Conn, professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, PA.




     


    God Substituting Himself for Man

    The concept of substitution may be said to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting Himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be; God sacrifices Himself for man and puts Himself where only man deserves to be. Man claims prerogatives which belong to God alone; God accepts penalties which belong to man alone.

    John Stott in The Cross of Christ



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