Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Missional Application of the Seven Letters: Emphasize Warnings and Promises

It is clear from the seven letters that the reward of eternal life with Christ is conditioned upon perseverance. Persecution is not the only pressure that threatens the church and her mission so perseverance is not only to be thought of in terms of enduring suffering, but also persisting in doing good, in pursuing holiness, and in loving well.

Throughout the study of the seven letters we have seen that faithfulness to the witness bearing mission of the church requires fidelity to God as the sole object of worship and does not allow for a syncretistic blending of allegiances or affections. Moreover, the mission requires the church to keep itself clean from the stain of immorality and pursue holiness. Love is also an essential element of the witnessing task given to the church – a love for God, love for brotherhood of believers, and a love for the unbelieving neighbor. In summary, the church is to be a contrast people, their uniqueness serving to draw the world attention and ire.

Jesus takes the mission of the church quite seriously and threatens to come in judgment upon those churches that forsake, compromise or abandon their missional calling. It is, I believe, the duty of the the church and especially its pastors to issue these warnings to its members on behalf of Jesus, calling her to become “conquerors” and so fulfill the mission given to them and attain the promise of eternal life in the kingdom.

In five of the seven letters Jesus issues explicit warnings and calls to repentance. Jesus threatens to come to Ephesus and remove her lampstand if they did not return and “do the works they did at first” (2:5). The church at Pergamum would face Jesus waging war against them with the sword of his mouth if they did not repent of their toleration of false teachers leading them into idolatry and immorality. In Thyatira, Jesus had given Jezebel and her followers ample time to repent, but proving unwilling they faced judgment including being thrown onto a sickbed and death. Jesus will come against Sardis like a thief in the night if the church does not wake up. The Laodicean church is about to be spewed out because they have become indistinguishable from their culture and hence useless.

Maybe even more significant are the conditional promises given to each church. In each of the seven letters the inheritance of salvation is made conditional upon “conquering” (νικάω). Implied in these promises is a threat that those who do not conquer (or “overcome”) forfeit the promised inheritance in the future kingdom. Two examples will suffice to emphasize the nature of these implied warnings. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” Implied in these words is the warning: those who don’t conquer will suffer a second, eternal death. Also consider Jesus words to the church at Sardis, “The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life.” Again, it only those who conquer will have their names indelibly written in the book of life. Could the stakes be any higher?

When considered together, the seven letters present the church with an urgent plea to overcome all that will threaten her ability to faithfully complete her mission of bearing witness to the world. Conquering always includes maintaining belief and refusing to give into disbelief, but it also includes overcoming sin that is a stain on the church's witness, false teaching that threatens to shipwreck the church, resisting idolatry and immorality and, in summary, being the distinct people of God.

Moreover, it is clear that conquering or overcoming must be a persistent activity; one does not conquer once, but must continue conquering, persevering to the end. Even those churches that were commended are called to persevere in their faithful witness and lay hold of their eternal reward.

This concern for perseverance in faith must inform the teaching ministry of every pastor; yet, several factors conspire to make many pastors reluctant to emphasize these and the many other warning passages of Scripture as well as the conditional nature of many biblical promises.

Of course, threats and conditions will never be popular, even when the pastor is only communicating a threat made by the church’s Lord. But even courageous pastors are often reluctant to teach the biblical warnings. The main reason, I believe, is the lack of clarity regarding the complex of issues surrounding these warnings – issues related to the nature of faith, the importance of works, assurance of salvation, etc. In some cases this reluctance may be the fruit of an overly simplistic doctrine of perseverance of the saints or eternal security, while in others it may stem from a reluctance to preach anything akin to a work-based salvation.

While a complete study of the issues related to perseverance is not possible, a few truths need to be considered as important theological background to a proper presentation of these warnings. First, regarding faith, pastors need to acknowledge and teach a robust understanding of faith that is more than simple mental assent or belief. Schreiner and Caneday liken faith to a multifaceted gemstone and demonstrate how the many metaphors utilized in scripture for Christian faith are necessary to fully grasp what is required by the concept, metaphors that include athletic images (running a race, training, etc.), military images (fighting the good fight, armor, etc.), rational metaphors (knowing, understanding), sensory language (hearing, seeing), images of discipleship (following), bodily action (eating, drinking), and metaphors of endowment (receiving).

While some of these metaphors emphasize the passive aspects of faith, when taken as a whole it should not be missed that there are many active aspects to faith. Commenting on Hebrews 11, Schreiner and Caneday point out “In every case, faith sprang into faithful action. God commends each one [Abel, Noah, Abraham, Rahab, etc.], not merely for possessing faith, but for faith that obeys.”

This truth is also apparent, for example, in the letter to the church in Ephesus where Jesus calls them to “do the works you did at first.” Christ expected their faith to give rise to action. Schreiner and Caneday continue, emphasizing faith’s perseverance, “God is pleased with faith that perseveres; God does not commend a person for a singular act of faith that fails to endure. God does not reward faith that does not go the distance.”

This too is seen in several of the letters to the churches in Asia. To the church at Smyrna Jesus says, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.” This does, of course, raise the issue of a believer’s eternal security and assurance. How does one fit the necessity of perseverance alongside Biblical promises that seem unconditional and emphasize the believers secure standing before God?

In navigating these doctrines, teachers must avoid blunting the warnings by superimposing the promises overtop of the admonitions to persevere (and vice versa). Schreiner and Caneday are right, "We believe that God’s promises of assured salvation have their proper function to ground our faith in God and to assure us that God faithfully keeps his promises to his children. We also believe that God’s admonitions and warning have their distinctive function to evoke faith that perseveres in holy devotion to God’s heavenly call on in Christ Jesus. Thus, God’s warnings do not conflict with God’s promises. His warnings serve his promises, for his warnings elicit belief and confidence in God’s promises."

Pastors who blunt the warnings of Scripture, refuse to preach Biblical warnings, or avoid the conditional nature of biblical promises deprive their churches of the full counsel of God. In so doing, they fail to recognize that God uses these warnings, admonitions and conditions to reinforce faith and beckon the believer to persistence. Too often pastors get caught up explaining [away] these warning texts, importing the theological truths that those who truly comprise God’s people and have genuine faith will persevere till the end (being preserved by God’s sovereign power through his Spirit) and this truth’s corollary, that those who fail to persevere prove their faith was not genuine saving faith. But, the point of these texts is different.

The conditional promises of Revelation, let alone the repeated warnings, are not included in Jesus’ letters to the church to explain that those who have fallen away were not sincere in their faith to begin with (though other texts make this point), but to call the churches to repentance and encourage them to persevere and overcome. Schreiner and Caneday call attention to this propensity for pastors to interpret the “the biblical warnings from the retrospective vantage point of apostasy completed rather than from the prospective threat lest someone fall away.”

While the retrospective vantage point is the focus of some passages (i.e. 1 John 2:19), turning every passage this way is unwarranted and counterproductive – God inspired both the backward looking explanations of apostasy and the forward looking warnings for the good of his church. Just as the author of Hebrews urges individual believers to “lay aside every weight” that hinders them from running well and “run with endurance the race set before us,” so in Revelation 2 & 3 Jesus urges every church and every member of the church to cast off that which would hinder them from their mission of bearing witness and remain faithful so that they will numbered in the company of who conquer and lay hold of their eternal reward. Pastors must bring these pleas to their churches.