Tag Archives: discipleship

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Beware of This Trap

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

I remember sitting in a room with other pastors listening to a leader who was highly respected for his discipleship materials, teaching us about righteousness. Specifically, he was telling us how the Old Testament Law was God’s revelation of how one lives righteously. He said we needed to double down and train our people to take spiritual lessons from the law so their lives would reflect God’s glory.

For the first time, I realized I was in the presence of someone Paul would call a purveyor of another gospel. I suppose I had missed seeing this before because his books seemed so helpful and his style so compelling. But the foundation of his teaching really contradicted Jesus’ gospel.

The fact is that Galatians was written because of this very issue. Some were teaching that the way you become a righteous follower of Jesus is to obey the law of the Torah, which had been handed down from God through Moses to the chosen people. As the first to trust in Christ, it appeared to them that the gospel and the law were a match made in heaven.

Paul violently pushed back. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:6-8)

Catch that? If you teach this different gospel, you will be under God’s curse! Not a lot of wiggle room here. So pay attention to what Paul is talking about. This is not a different gospel because it teaches that people will be justified through the law. It is a different gospel because it teaches that people will be sanctified though the law. Their formula was Jesus + The Law = Righteousness.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is the part of the gospel Paul sees being left out of this different gospel. Instead, believers are being encouraged to pursue righteousness by being circumcised and living out the Torah laws’ requirements. It is a total dependency on one’s flesh to become like Jesus. For Paul, this is an utter denial of the gospel. It is no gospel at all!

But this seems to feel right even today to too many believers and a number of teachers, although it is rarely stated so starkly. The law is holy. Many of the earliest believers, who were Jewish, followed the Mosaic Covenant. It would seem that it was a natural continuance to, say, keep the Ten Commandments. To point to those commandments as the standard of what God expected of all of us who followed them into the faith. I mean, everyone gets the Ten Commandments, right? We memorize them, put them on courthouses and believe they are the summary of what God gave on Mount Sinai.

Why would this be a denial of the true gospel? —Precisely because it is focused on the wrong thing. It’s Christ—his life—that is our righteousness! “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Paul is not saying that believers should be without any guidelines, that nothing is sinful. In other letters, he goes into some detail about what we should not be doing as believers. But what he wants us to know about the gospel is that Jesus is enough. Jesus will both justify us and sanctify us—by the empowering presence of the Spirit.

Since we live in the Spirit . . .” is the first step of keeping in step with the Spirit. If you are going to be transformed into Jesus’ likeness rather than try to reform yourself to look like Jesus, you have to be convinced in your mind that there is no other way. No other version of the gospel. The Spirit’s power is the only way. Or you have nothing at all that will remake you into the righteous person God has already decided you will become.

-Steve Smith

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Saints and Super-saints?

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Saints and Super-saints?

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Jesus did not come to send us on our own personal spiritual journey, but to build his church. Each believer is a living stone of that church. Jesus is not calling us to be part of a Kingdom where we are competing for the top seats. He came to restore us from brokenness and sin into a people who are known as his because they love one another.

Looking back through church history, you have to be struck by the arrogance people have hadand still do have—concerning their siblings in the faith. When I met my wife, she had just transferred from a Bible school seemingly founded on the principles of separation; separation from the world; separation from anything that smacked of sin, or that was edgy; from anything that did not meet the prescribed rules of the institution. As a result, students divided themselves into two categories. The largest group was referred to as the saints. But then there were the super-saints. These were young adults who had already scaled the heights of holy living and could, and did, look down on those who were merely saints.

When Paul gets into Peter’s face at Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff), saying, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’(v.14 NIV) you see that the same dynamics had been at work. Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers had been living life together with the Gentile believers for some time. They ate together as a sign in their culture of being one family. After some teachers showed up from Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas switched sides and returned to the practice of separation. “It’s not that we can’t eat with you. It’s that we won’t eat with you because we are righteous in a way you are not and may never be!” is the underlying theme.

Paul was brutally honest. He saw these actions as not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). He immediately demotes the Torah to the level of merely Jewish custom rather than allowing the idea to stand that those practices constituted a superior means to righteousness. A means that was allowing the Jewish believers to believe they were super-saints.

The truth of the gospel is that all of us came into a relationship with God as sinners (Galatians 2:17). This is everyone’s confession if they are to be included in Christ. Jew, Gentiles, male, female, slave, free—are all equally needy at the foot of the cross. We bring nothing to Jesus he wants or needs but our miserable lives, which are not only justified by the cross alone, but are transformed by the Spirit alone.

What this confrontation at Antioch reveals is that whenever we forget this reality that all of us are level at the foot of the cross and fall into thinking we are superior saints, division and distrust break out in the church. People who should encourage each other, serve each other, spur each other on to good deeds begin to divide into different camps, sure that theirs is the one blessed of God. This is what Paul is referring to as not in keeping with the truth of the gospel.

The reason I have looped back to this matter is because of the verse that follows “keep in step with the Spirit.” Paul warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26) He indicates that not keeping in step with the Spirit creates a toxic fellowship for believers. Instead of loving each other, we end up at each other’s throats. We find ourselves looking down on the others in our congregation, internally motivated either to fight or to gossip about them.

So if you… belong to a faction in your church looking to grab the power,… or if you find yourself looking down on others as failures in the faith instead of realizing that, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’… or if you find yourself holding on to grudges and speaking disparagingly about other believers to people in your own circle, then you can be certain that you are not keeping in step with the Spirit. And, like Paul’s cold slap in Peter’s face, it should bring you up short because you are not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is a necessity for each of us separately and together. If we are going to be part of a healthy, hope-filled faith community, keeping in step with the Spirit is something we cannot disregard.

 -Steve Smith

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Are You Cursed?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

Why does Paul talk about keeping in step with the Spirit?

I really think that the issue here for Paul, in the earliest of his letters, is the basic difference between the teachings of Jesus over against the beliefs of the Pharisees. Remember that Paul got his religious start as a Pharisee who was murderously against Jesus and his followers. I am sure his recollections of his days as the chief enforcer against the church were populated with memories of debates about law and how what Jesus said—and did—never measured up to the demands of holiness expected of real Jews. And forgiving people—what was Jesus thinking?!

It was all about power to obey. Both Jesus and the Pharisees were all for righteousness. But unlike the Pharisees, Jesus recognized the pathetic inability of his hearers—all people for that matter—to live out the righteousness of God’s law. Hard as it is to believe, Jesus knew his hearers could not do what he was teaching them to do—to obey his commands.

I find that this is often overlooked in the way we think in the church. We look upon the commands of Jesus as completely doable and many believers deeply desire to do them. Except that each of Jesus’ commands overtaxes our abilities.

Take for example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:43-45 NIV) We all think that we love our enemies, but there are people you know that you do not love—you don’t need to search your memory to know this is true. For some, it’s the abortionists who routinely rob babies of their future life. For others, it’s the LGBTQ advocates who demand full acceptance of their lifestyle, even to the point of intruding into their child’s bathroom. What about the atheists who actively work to remove Christianity from the public square? What about the people who make up ISIS? When they cruelly and casually kill people, is your first thought to love them? And what would that even look like to love them?

Yet God so loved the world! Everyone was his bitter enemy, living out a life that shouted denial at God’s right to reign over those whom He created. But instead of mass destruction, God came near, lived among us as a human and died for the sins of the whole world.

We all know this. But we don’t know how to do this. And the power to actually love in this kind of way is quite beyond us all.

This is why Jesus promised that God would send us the Spirit. We needed power we did not have. This is what sets the gospel of Jesus apart from the teaching of the Pharisees. And this brings us back to why Paul is talking about the Spirit.

Because of his own experience, Paul was concerned that the Galatian believers were going to be under the curse. “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (Galatians 3:10 NIV)  He points out that the law curses you if you fail to keep it, instead of you living in freedom. Deep anxiety is ahead. Feelings of alienation from God will mark you. Fear and failure will dog your steps if you try to do in the flesh what the Spirit only can do for you.

Are any of these emotions part of your experience with God? Do you suffer anxiety, fear or sense you are alienated from God? I did. I remember the years I spent preparing for ministry, first at Bible college followed by seminary. I wanted to be used by God. I studied hard the biblical languages, interpretation, preaching and all the other subjects that would be useful for teaching people how to know God’s Word. But in my personal time with God—well, I didn’t really have a personal time with God. I was afraid of Him. When I did get before Him, I groveled. I expected judgment because I was not measuring up to what I found in the Bible and how I was urged to live by men and women older than me.

I lived as if I was under the curse. But I did not have to be. And eventually, as I trusted in the power of the Spirit, my relationship with the Father changed from unhealthy to whole. And I now understand why Paul was so exercised over the misdirection that the Galatians were receiving. There is nothing freeing about depending on one’s own strength to keep even the best of rules.

Keeping in step with the Spirit is our only hope for freedom.

-Steve Smith

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Why Don’t We Teach This?

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Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

“Why hasn’t anyone ever taught me this before?” is a common refrain from the men and women who go through Key to Deep Change training. I identify with them. Growing up in the church I do not recall anyone discipling me concerning the Holy Spirit or even giving a cohesive lesson on walking in the Spirit. To be honest, the Spirit himself was a mystery to me.

I knew the Trinity was made up of three persons, the Father, the Son and, the Holy Spirit. The Father created the world and reigned over it. Jesus came to die for our sins and now sits at the right hand of the Father. And I understood that the Spirit came to live in me. But that was as far as it went. I thought that the Spirit was kind of an extra conscience, prompting me to do good and avoid being bad. Like, “Psst! You aren’t reading your Bible enough.” or “Remember to give your tithe this week!”

In my later teens, a couple of my friends started telling me about the way they experienced the Spirit at their churches, with people speaking in tongues and falling onto the floor. Yet these outward displays did nothing to really change their everyday lives. Talking about spirit power and experiencing manifestations unfortunately did not also mean they knew how to depend on the Spirit the rest of the week.

Instead, we were taught that we have responsibilities. We are responsible to obey. Responsible to read the Bible, pray, witness, tithe, be kind, honor our parents—responsible to be like Jesus.

Of course, the work of the Spirit was sometimes mentioned in passing. But references to him almost felt like a drive-by shooting. For example, I own a 24 full-page study full of good stuff about putting off sin and putting on righteousness. One small introductory paragraph mentions our need for the Spirit to accomplish this, but it did not go on to explain how to surrender to his work. If you study most basic discipleship materials, learning to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit seems assumed. There is nothing that can make disciples feel more hopeless than teaching as if people already know what it means to keep in step with the Spirit. What they really hear from us, whether we mean it or not, is ‘just be obedient.’

This is why it’s tough to find good materials for making disciples. So many discipleship materials begin in the middle of Ephesians—urging believers to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” These resources teach a whole lot of good things that every Christian ought to do. What is missing is the foundational instruction from the scriptures on how the Spirit makes the walk walkable, or standing in warfare possible. I sometimes call this the ‘Twice the Child of Hell’ approach to discipleship (Matthew 23:15). Although my tongue is firmly in my cheek when I say that, I remember the despair of ever measuring up when it came to living the life I believed God expected of me. —Despair that almost led me to give up altogether. —Despair that others have confided in me that almost drove them away from God.

“Keep in step with the Spirit.” This is why this verse matters to you and me. It is Paul’s sign-off conclusion of the whole letter to the Galatians. Instead of tolerating the fact that people to whom he taught the transformational gospel were going down the wrong road, he breaks back into their world like Batman out to destroy the Joker—what these guys are teaching you is unacceptable!

I am not going to just talk about how to understand this truth. I am going to help you live it out in your life. And there are two important reasons why you need to understand how to keep in step with the Spirit.

  1. It leads to the formation of Christ’s character in you. What Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ is who Jesus is. He is love, joy, peace, patient, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, kindness, and self-control. He did not work to become this way and neither can you. You are led to become these things. So you should want to know how instead of wasting time trying and failing.
  2. It gives you the power to live the life and not be blindsided by the flesh. ‘Flesh’ is Paul’s word for the part of us that has been affected by the Fall. We, like the first couple, are born with the illusion that we are in charge of our life. When we seek to be righteous on the strength of our flesh, we find ourselves living a destructive life—not intentionally, oh no! But that’s where we ultimately end up.

If you have never been taught this before, you are going to find out that this is one of the freeing parts of the gospel. It will lift your confusion about how to live the faith life. No false guilt or shame will be placed on you, but you will gain a transformational knowing that you cannot shake. Come along with me as we explore this topic.

-Steve Smith

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What Do You Want?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 6: What Do You Want?

I recall the year I woke up and began to establish a transformational culture within my congregation. I had been pursuing personal transformation for twelve years already. The truths I was learning were showing up in my sermons. But I was not intentionally discipling others about transformation as I now knew it. I had not developed a pathway to make accessible these life giving truths to people trapped by the reformational model as I had been. Yes, I was still leading my church reformationally. All of that changed when someone challenged me to start teaching a small group of men how to pursue intimacy with God. That led to a second go-round with these men, because they confessed that what they were learning was so different from past beliefs that they needed to hear it again. This revealed a reality I never forget—before people can learn the truth about intimacy with God, they have to unlearn lies they learned as truth.

As intentional as this became, it took some years before a transformational culture emerged, mainly because I was learning how to do it as I went along. The church’s leaders, disciplers, and counselors had to come to embrace these truths. We worked hard to make sure that we had a consistent message, not straying into shaming and false guilt. We had to learn to be transparent and confess our own sins. We had to actually restore people trapped by the sin of their choice gently and with humility, to see them receive freedom from the addictions that came from the deadly sin in me choices they had made. More importantly, we learned to hold up the pursuit of God as the ultimate goal of our life together. Like the Corinth church, it was messy. Not everyone wanted to go down that path. But for the vast majority of the congregation, it was amazingly hopeful and freeing.

This kind of transformational culture is possible for your church. But I cannot create it for you. This culture is the product of God’s work, first in you and your church’s leaders, then in the lives of the people who make up the congregation. To have it will cost you. You will have to deal with your own unfinished business. This will be painful at times and Satan will still try to take you out through his lies. But you will progressively emerge as the person you were created to be. You will never regret the process God has to take you through to get there. And, to paraphrase Jesus’ words to Peter in Luke 22:32, when you have turned back, you will be able to strengthen the rest of Jesus’ family.

Why establish a transformational culture? Here are a couple of reasons that I think are close to the heart of everyone who shepherds in Jesus’ church.

  • First, it’s about being the church Jesus said he was building. I am not talking about a new model of the church. I am sure that if you have lived long enough, you have seen plenty of new versions of how to do church come and go, just as I know that you probably have heard why your version sucks. This is not about how to attract more people through the door to have a larger congregation. This is about life. People need the life Jesus offers them. They need it made as plain to them as Jesus made it plain to his first disciples.

The life Jesus still offers is called zoe—life that Jesus gives means a new quality of life, life as it was created to be lived in Eden, full of joy, peace, love, God. This can never be had through a church model. It is God’s gift that grows more apparent as one is continually being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory (2 Corinthians 3:18).

  • A second significant reason is so people can be free from the mistaken belief that keeping the rules will make them whole. Rule keeping is epidemic in churches. Not wanting to offend God and recognizing that they don’t know what is exactly right or exactly wrong, people often adopt rules that they hope will help them resist sin. I grew up with a well-defined set of rules for living that people of my tribe can still recite at the drop of a hat. Where did these rules come from? Mostly from our negative reaction to the culture we were growing up in. But the rules did more to make us more anxious or foster rebellion in us than to help us become holy.

Wouldn’t you love to live with people who are becoming whole because of what God is doing in them instead of being held hostage by iffy rules that make no inroads to real change? To spend time with people who are learning to forgive as Jesus forgave them? To experience transparency in relationships, even if that means engaging in helping people with their inside mess while they are on their way to being changed? To see your church family producing people who are not afraid of God? To be with people who want to see their neighbors, co-workers—their city—transformed as they have been transformed?

To be part of a church that produces cutting-edge disciples, you have to be willing to do whatever it takes. To be willing to be on your own transformational journey, and then to take the time to invest the truths you are learning from the Spirit into those you shepherd. If this is what you want, don’t hold back for a minute. Go for it. And I am here to help if you need me.

-Steve Smith


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Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 3: Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

Is your church focused on teaching people how to deal with their symptoms OR, to deal with their unfinished business? If you asked me when I was part of the reformational church what I was learning about my inner mess, I would have said that they were nailing me. They were putting their finger on every symptom, every sinful flaw, every wayward tendency in me. They offered me a place of repentance and were willing to help me through accountability and by prayer.

But they never got down to asking where these symptoms were coming from. Nor were they showing me how to be healed and delivered from them—so I wasn’t.

Many biblical churches fail to disciple believers to look deep enough. We all know the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. We learned that this was the genesis of our separation from God. We also know the gospel is the cure—the bridge over which God, in mercy, brought us back from our self-imposed exile. But the often overlooked consequences of the Fall still beckon each of us to personal destruction. We cannot by our own strength close our ears to their siren song because they are rooted in our hearts.

The first of these consequences is the hurts we have accumulated from living in a world where everyone has been affected by the Fall. As each of us lives our unconscious version of being god—determining what is good or evil for ourselves—our decisions inflict pain on the lives of others around us. These blows rock those we love—or don’t love—and act as a painful bone spur in their souls. Those people do it back to us as well. And none of it heals with time. Right now, you are possibly unaware of the multiple hurts guiding your life decisions.

The other consequence in your heart is sin living in you. Paul talks about this disconcerting truth in Romans 7. He is confused about why he does not do the good he wishes, instead doing stuff he’d be ashamed for his mother to find out about. When he sorts out the cause of his addictive behaviors, he finds his choices are coming from sin in him. Paul uses his own experience to explain why all believers continue to struggle with obedience. We all have sin present in us.

Here is the outcome of the presence of hurt and sin in our hearts. We were not created to live with pain. Therefore, when we hurt, we look for comfort. Sin offers an emotional release from the pain, so we choose it over being healed from the pain by God (remember, this is the result of our personal godhood myth). We do this unconsciously when we are young, but as we age, we can be very deliberate about this choice. The outcome is that our hurt and our sin choice bond together, becoming inseparable in terms of how we live. This bonding produces the destructive outward actions or symptoms that everyone can see.

I grew up in the reformational church. They were all about obedience to rules. They recognized that these symptoms were destructive. They preached hard against these symptoms, calling the symptoms out for what they were. People “Amen’ed” this kind of preaching.

What I and others who grew up in a reformational environment experienced was hopelessness. We lacked hope we would ever really do much more than manage these symptoms. One young disciple I know pushed back at his pastor with, “I sense you are saying that not only are we required to follow Christ’s commands, we are obligated to do them perfectly even though we don’t. We aren’t commanded to try really hard. We are told to live a life worthy of the Gospel. I feel like you’re pressing me to repent of some sin that I’m not aware of, and to start getting my act together ‘or else.’” He ended up leaving this church in despair of ever being able to be obedient enough for God.

Churches without a culture of transformation are, lamentably, a culture of disappointment and quiet desperation. They teach the biblical truths of how God has designed His people to live. They challenge people to reform—to stop acting out the symptoms and start acting on these truths until they reform the pattern of their lives. And so often that is what people in these churches do—they put on an act.

Transformational churches seek to address the root issues of believers’ unfinished business. They do this not just through sermons, but by discipling people to pursue intimacy with God so that their inside issues will be addressed by Him through the empowering presence of the Spirit. They counsel people that it is their unfinished business, not their symptoms that is wreaking havoc with their lives, their marriages, their children, their future. Transformational churches have a culture that communicates that believers are changed from the inside out by the Spirit instead of by modifying their behavior. This is the good news of the gospel, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, people are being set free (2 Corinthians 3:17).

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Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 2: Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

There’s a big push among North American churches to be transformative because leaders realize how spiritually impoverished the country has become. Both newly started and established churches are adopting the adjective ‘transformational’ as part of their current label: “We are a transformational church.” “We exist to transform people.” “We exist to bring transformation to our community.” Conferences are convened and seminars are offered to teach churches how they can have a transformational impact on their neighborhood. “And after all,” we might think, “where there is all this smoke, there must be fire.”

Or is it just smoke and mirrors? Maybe it’s just a lot of talk. You cannot have transformational churches if they are not producing transforming disciples. If you consider the kind of disciples being produced, it is not hard to see that transformation may not be what many churches actually are pursuing.

There are two kinds of churches. One is the reformational church, where people are taught God’s truth and encouraged to obey it without being taught how the Spirit, who is in them, is empowering their obedience. These kinds of churches present a reform-yourself-into-the-image-of-Jesus approach, which puts the entire obligation on the believer to be obedient.

In contrast, a truly transformational church, while teaching God’s truth, knows and teaches that no one can obey God in their own strength. This is why God gave the Spirit to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. It is by his empowering presence that believers are conformed into the likeness of God’s Son. Because of our inability to be good for God in our own strength, transformational churches disciple people to keep in step with the Spirit—to surrender to his work.

All churches have the potential to be transformational because of the presence of the Spirit. But regrettably, they don’t necessarily focus their teaching and discipleship with this in mind.

Transformation is the practical application of this gospel we proclaim—that God sent Jesus to die and return to life in order to restore us who put our faith in him back to the persons we were created to be. Paul said this eloquently in Romans 8:29. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Paul’s point is that Jesus is the second Adam—completely human in the way that was lost when Adam and Eve chose the lie of the enemy over the truth of God. Though the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3 were potent, the gospel is more potent still. No one who humbles themselves before God and receives what He offers should remain broken, rebellious, deceived, confused and soul sick. Instead, we are becoming the person we were created to be all along. We progressively become like Jesus. The topper to all of this is that God already planned to do this in every believers’ life and whatever He has planned, He will do—whether we go willingly or kicking and screaming.

The temptation at this point is to present a superlative description of the ideal transformational church. But the truth is that transformational churches are just as messy as any other living church body. If you look closely into one you will see lots of people making bad personal choices. You will see people who need restoration. You will see the mud that was thrown at others recently. These churches attract a lot of ‘extra mercy’ required people. The sinful nature shows up. Transformational churches are full of people who have a long way to go before they ‘reflect God’s glory with unveiled faces’.

Consider the Corinth church. In his two letters, Paul writes some of his most stirring transformational words—“by the grace of God I am what I am.”—“and we are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory.”—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”—“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”—to a church that was full of factions and doctrinal confusion. Packed with believers who were taking each other to court and others having to be told that their freedom in Christ doesn’t stretch to cover having sex with temple prostitutes! Where the church bumper sticker might have proclaimed “I have the right to do anything!” Corinth was a transformational church in process, not a finished product.

If Corinth can be described as a transformational church, can’t it be argued that all churches are transformational? That’s a pretty good question, because ‘transformational’ is the trendy word for the church today.

In practice, many churches essentially follow a reformational model. In the reformational model church, people are encouraged to be submissive to Jesus and live out the Christian life laid out in the Bible. These churches—and they are legion—emphasize personal obedience and sincere effort, which has a strong flavor of rightness about it, but misleads people away from the essential core of the gospel as Paul characterizes it in Romans chapter 8. The gospel is not just about obedience. It includes a core change that takes place in us by the Spirit. We become like Jesus, demonstrating his character. Obedience is a by-product of that.

So is your church teaching people to reform or to be transformed?

-Dr. Steve Smith


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Is Your Church Making Cutting Edge Disciples?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 1: Is Your Church Making Cutting Edge Disciples?

“It doesn’t matter whether you go to a traditional or a contemporary church. It seems that they are focused on what they do to attract people but they do not seem to be producing changed people.” I sat across from a friend of mine who worked for a major parachurch organization, listening to him voice his frustration over not being able to find a church in his neighborhood that he felt was making a difference within the community. He was not lamenting any lack of evangelistic zeal. He was questioning why so few churches were actually transformational. He wondered why they desired to be cutting edge in style but are generating so few cutting edge disciples— disciples who are becoming more like Jesus.

He’s not the only one to wonder about this. I often hear this lament from people. Why is it that our churches seem to be full of people more like the ones that crucified Jesus than followed him? People who are so careful about their personal purity they are ready to throw those who fail to measure up under the bus? Who are fine as long as the church rolls along in calm waters but become aggressive sharks when the pastor or the leaders falter? Why are churches full of people who wander away from the faith as casually as changing phone services? People who seem indifferent to holy living and stay spiritually underdeveloped long after the time when they should have gone on to maturity?

What if you could see deep change in the lives of those who claim to follow Jesus? What if you could be part of a church that is regularly having more and more of its people truly become more like Jesus? What if you could see this kind of deep change in your own life? What if you could become transparent about your own failures and bold in your dependence on God to transform you? What if you could see the people of your church impacting your community with the evidence of the gospel in their lives? Would you be willing to pay the price to become the person who initiates that?

You have to start by humbly admitting that your church has a culture that does not produce such people if it doesn’t. Maybe it produces hard-working people. Maybe it produces pretty obedient people. Or maybe it produces biblically literate people who are friendly and generous. I have been in many churches that have such people but have found fewer churches which produce disciples who have been changed deep down in their soul. Whose journey toward intimacy with God has given them unshakable hope even though they know they are not whole yet. Who know they are safe in His love for them. Who are changing the world around themselves by living as light in the dark, as salt.

Perhaps you describe your church as exciting and full of enthusiastic people. I sat in a new church that was popping out of its sanctuary with new growth. The place was electric with excitement. But when I checked in with the pastor later that week, I saw the underside of the congregation. Quizzing the pastor, I realized that excitement was a substitute for spiritual life. From experience, I knew that the excitement would pass just like that new car smell. When it does, people’s lack of knowing how to pursue God in intimacy would create a backlog of counseling for the pastoral staff. It always happens.

It’s possible you have never thought of this before because how you ‘do church’ feels so natural. You have never understood why people are not being deeply changed. Do you really want to see deep change in the people you do church with? Do you want to see them being used to change the surrounding world? Then be willing to unlearn what you think you know about transformation. Learn the truth that helps people pursue real spiritual transformation. Let me show you what it means to address the under-the-surface discipling issue that can allow you to build deep into the lives of the disciples you make.

More next week….

-Steve Smith

A book about this subject: Build Deep: Developing a Transformational Culture in Your Church

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Where does keeping the rules lead?

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A Righteousness by Faith #18: Where does keeping the rules lead?

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. Colossians 2:20-23

Believers often hold to the mistaken belief that keeping the rules will make them whole. Rule keeping is epidemic in churches. Not wanting to offend God and recognizing that they don’t know what is exactly right or exactly wrong, people often adopt rules that they hope will help them resist sin. I grew up with a well-defined set of rules for living that people of my tribe can still recite at the drop of a hat. Where did these rules come from? Mostly from our negative reaction to the culture we were born into. But the rules only made us anxious or fostered rebellion in us more than helped us to become whole.

This is the fundamental problem with living under the law. Many people I know want to be whole. They want their life in Jesus to matter. They do not want to be a detriment to their church family. So unwittingly, they are drawn into trying to fight fire with fire. Except they are the ones getting burned.

Where does rule keeping lead us? In a nutshell, it leads us to seek to control our flesh by depending on our flesh. Let me unpack that confusing statement. It does make sense.

The Colossian believers, who largely came out of a Gentile background, were being herded towards rule keeping by teachers who were savvy about the Law. They knew how to package the Law to make it sound like the lifeline believers had been looking for. How to live free from all the stuff Jesus had rescued them from. All of these destructive practices came from the broken part of people that is drawn to sin—doing your own thing apart from God (the part we call ‘the flesh’). So those teachers crafted a set of rules that would control the flesh. From Paul’s description, these rules sound like they were meant to take all the pleasure out of the world, while at the same time resembling Jesus’ commands. Deny. Sacrifice. Die to self.

And Paul does agree that in a perverse way they do look like wisdom. But, he adds, they have absolutely no power to stop your flesh from winning (loose paraphrase).

Why is that so? —Because these rules demand to be kept. They demand that you keep your eyes on them. Follow them completely. Allow them to narrate your life. You have to keep them. And if you do, your flesh will finally be under control. Except

Here is Paul’s except…Except these rules cannot. “They lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” Why? Because rule keeping depends on you keeping the rules. And the only power you have is your flesh—the part of you that’s broken. So how long do you think your flesh will allow you to triumph over your flesh?

How good is your flesh at rule keeping? Not just the ones that others—mom & dad, your boss, teacher, the military, the state—came up with for you. How about your own rules? How well do you do at, say, New Years’ resolutions? Turning over a new leaf? Defeating your old bad habits or fending off a new one? Being whole?

Perhaps you are tired of living in a world where keeping rules is substituted for zoe life but did not think there was another option. Perhaps rule keeping is a way of life for you and all the churches you have attended or led. Have you had enough?

Wouldn’t you love to live with people who are becoming whole because of what God is doing in them instead of being held hostage by iffy rules that make no inroads toward real change? To spend time with people who are learning to forgive as Jesus forgave them? To experience transparency in relationships, even if that means engaging in helping people with their inside mess while they are on their way to being changed? To see your church family producing people who are not afraid of God. To be with people who want to see their neighbors, co-workers—their city—transformed as they have been transformed?

This is the life righteousness by faith provides. Paul is not merely seeking to win an argument. He is guiding us to true wholeness. Wholeness that brings order to our messy lives by the Spirit.

-Steve Smith

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Of All the Stupid Choices, Why Sin?

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Restoration in a Transformational Community 10: Of All the Stupid Choices, Why Sin?

In “You’ve Got Mail,” Tom Hanks’ character plays the ‘worst version of himself’ at one point in building a relationship with his future love. He is shot through with remorse almost immediately for what he said and did, but it flowed out of him so naturally you can imagine him treating others in his world the same way. Hanks’ acting captures on film the reality of many people who are surprised at their dark side—they didn’t know they had it in themselves to be so bad.

If only this were fiction. Or just stuff that happens to people who are still lost. The Bible is full of saints who blew it, who with their eyes wide open denied God’s right to reign over them, who preferred sin over righteousness. Not that we should be shocked. Intellectually we would all agree that sin is bad in a destructive kind of way. Practically, we find ourselves doing and saying things that are shockingly sinful—or not doing and speaking out for righteousness, which is also sin. And many times, unlike Hanks’ character, believers do not necessarily feel immediate remorse. Their choices lead them step by small step deeper in until they find themselves caught.

Why do believers get caught in sin? The seductively simple answer is that we are sinners. But that answer really doesn’t explain what would motivate a believer, who has been given the indwelling Spirit, to embrace sin over wholeness. What brings us back to being caught in sin again after experiencing the grace and mercy of God?

If you are serious about learning the practice of restoring believers caught in sin, you have to know the answer to these questions. Not just that they sinned. But why they would take such a path. Because if you do not know, you will not guide them back to spiritual bedrock. Oh, they may be sorry for the moment that they are confronted and pledge radical change. But when the pressure of life returns, they will turn again to the same sin as sure as the sun comes up in the east.

So what is it that leads any of us to be caught in sin? Like a coin, the answer has two sides. Heads is they have neglected pursuing intimacy with God. He has become a distant Father to them and His power in them a rumor instead of a reality. Tails is they have believed the pretty lies of the enemy that sin comforts the hurt they still carry in their heart. Since they have allowed their hearts to wander from intimacy with God, they have come to the ‘only’ source they think is left to them to deal with what is painful within.

Understand that they did not get here in a day. They took steps—often tiny ones—that led them to the pit they are in. It may have been 10 or 100 or 1000, but they chose to take every one of those steps. All because God had become less real and the lies of the enemy had become golden. If you understand this, you will understand your own impulses to sin. And if you understand your own impulses, you will better understand your brother or sister who is now caught in sin.

Steve Smith

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