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Pastoring People Through Slow Change

Pastoring people is a slow, long-haul process. As church planter and pastors in established churches, we are called to lead people who are under construction. Unfortunately, until Christ returns, we don’t get to experience heaven here on earth. All people, pastors included, deal with the effects of indwelling sin on a daily basis. This means as pastors, we are called to drop into the mess of disordered lives and serve people who may be at their worst moments.

Most of us are familiar with the story behind the writing of the song “Amazing Grace”, by John Newton. Newton, a slave trader, was caught in an awful storm while plying his trade on the seas. The Lord used that particular storm to bring Newton to faith in Christ. In response to his conversion, Newton wrote “Amazing Grace”. What most people don’t know, however, is that Newton didn’t stop trading slaves for another ten years after his conversion! Yep, he used to drop off his cargo and go for walks across the meadow to think and pray. But, over those ten years, God slowly brough Newton to a deep conviction that slave trading was wrong. My point? The process of change in Christians is usually very, very slow. This doesn’t mean that we overlook sin, but it does mean that we are patient with people as they connect the dots – just as Newton did.

We also need to realize that in addition to being slow to change, people (including pastors!) easily drift away from being gospel-focused. Do you remember when Peter and Paul, the two titans of the faith, squared off in Antioch? When Peter initially arrived in Antioch, he was hanging out with Gentiles, enjoying both food and fellowship with them. But when the representatives from Jerusalem arrived, Peter drew back from the Gentiles out of fear. But Paul saw a deeper problem:

For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:12-14)

Paul interpreted Peter’s behavior not just in reference to the law, or some category of the heart, but in reference to what Peter’s behavior revealed about his understanding and application of the gospel. Peter’s conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. Peter had unconciously drifted into hypocrisy, but that was only a symptom. The cause was gospel-drift, and so Paul brought bring him back to the gospel.

Part of the pastor’s job is to help Christians regularly refocus on the gospel. To a friend who is bitter, we encourage them to, “…forgive, as God in Christ forgave you,” (Ephesians 4:32). To the husband who is passive: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her,” (Ephesians 5:25). In other words, we look at how the gospel speaks to a person’s struggles, fears, anger, and selfishness, and then help people apply the gospel to their particular struggles.

As Tim Keller says, “All of our problems come from a failure to apply the gospel.”

The call to plant and pastor is primarily a call to help people keep the gospel in focus.

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