I've titled today's sermon, "Measuring Success by God's Standards." We have been looking at many of the foundation stones for this church, and one would have to be the Biblical view of success. What would this church have to look like if it was to be considered a success? I study church growth and church management and leadership, and you would be surprised at the diverse answers that are given. I talked to a church planter with a huge church, vibrant programs and outward success that would make most church planters very pleased. But this pastor was extremely discouraged and was upset with himself for some of the directions he had taken the church. He felt that he had emphasized all the wrong things and that the church was a failure from a Biblical perspective. As he described his church in more detail to me, I had to agree.
Several years ago I was struck by the contrasts found between the books I had on church growth and the books I had on personal growth.. The books on church growth emphasized programs, leadership methods and services that would meet the felt needs of a consumer generation. I looked through the books on personal growth and saw an entirely different emphasis. Almost all of them emphasized the need for transformation, total submission to God's Word, the need for the mortification or sin, the pursuit of holiness, the imperative of prayer, the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, influence in culture, etc. Of course, those weren't the guys writing books on how to grow a church!! And I wondered, why are these often not the standards for success in church growth? Judged by church growth standards, Jesus was a failure not only because He had a Scottish revival with dwindling numbers, but he was not sensitive to Generation X's demands. But the same was true of the growing churches in the book of Acts after the the Holy Spirit had been poured out upon the people.
One whole seminar that I attended two years ago on leadership and church growth was trying to convince people that Generation X people are not going to buy into certain things that the church has traditionally seen as imperative Biblical mandates. In fact, we kind of got a chuckle out of the situation because of how out of touch the speaker was with the audience. 100% of the audience was composed of pastors who were either planning to start church plants with less than 100 people or who had church plants with less than 100. This speaker who was waxing eloquent on everything that would be demanded of a church plant if it would be successful. Here are the things that are essential. One frustrated pastor asked him what the minimum size would be if a church plant were to be successful. He said without blinking an eye that you shouldn't even think of starting a church plant unless you have a core group of at least 600 people. Without that you can't provide the programs and services essential to minister to the new demanding generation. And I'm wondering, why do we want to reach more people if there is no transformation?
One of the important books in my spiritual development was Jonathan Edwards' book, A Treatise on Religious Affections. What an incredible book that was in discussing a positive and powerful Christianity we are called to seek. It caused quite a stir in his day. But one of the frightening aspects of that book was his convincing discussion of why many who think they are believers really are not. And maybe you are one who has placed your confidence in false signs of regeneration. Edwards shows how Satan has a counterfeit for everything that God produces. The Holy Spirit produces peace, but Satan produces a counterfeit peace. God gives joy, and so does Satan. God gives assurance, and Satan gives false assurance.
But there are times when the stark contrast becomes so clear. The Sermon on the Mount gives many of those contrasts, loving our enemies is not something the flesh delights to do. Rejoicing when we are persecuted and people say all kinds of evil against us falsely; serving for God's glory rather than for our own; giving our all to God. I was blessed by someone who told me this past week that God had prompted them to bow down and ask God to put His foot upon their necks and to be their master forever and promising to submit to His law. Do we love God only for what we can get, or do we love Him for who He is? The God many people love is a false God. They love a kindly old God who ignores their sin and who rewards their stupidity and rebellion, but they bristle with hatred against a God who would send people to hell and torture them for eternity. They hate the God of holiness. They hate the God of predestination. But they show themselves utterly unregenerate in that they make a god in their own image and hate the true and living God.
In this chapter, Ezekiel was getting excited about the apparent revival that was happening among God's people. In terms of modern church growth standards, he must have been doing something right because he was having phenomenal numbers, interest and enthusiasm. But God cautioned him by indicating that He did not consider what was happening to be a success at all.
Let's look first at what are inadequate signs of success.
Inadequate Signs of Success
Great Interest in the Pastor and His Message
First of all, we should not assume that because there is great interest in the pastor and his message, that it is a successful church plant. This is a mistake that many pastors make. The passage begins, "As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you." And the context indicates that they were not having roast preacher for dinner. They liked his preaching and were inviting others to come to listen to this great preacher. The first phrase indicates that Ezekiel was the talk of the town. It says, "the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls." This was private conversation. "and in the doors of the houses." This was more public interest in Ezekiel. Who could wish for higher visibility than Ezekiel achieved? But God indicated to Ezekiel that this was nothing to get excited about. There was no change of heart, and there was no genuine discipleship happening and there was no vibrant ministry that they were engaging in. Your love for theology and your love for my preaching is not a sign that you are regenerate. I think that the regenerate do have a love for the Word of God, do I'm not saying that you should start hating the Word of God. But there are many unregenerate people who also love to hear preaching so long as they don't have to put it into practice.
Now this next one may be a shocker, but your being a witness and even leading people to Christ is no indication that you are regenerate. One of the most successful evangelists in Canada was a man who later became an avowed atheist. And by the way, he became an atheist because the church provided no answers to his questions on evolution. He died recently. But here was a man that many slated to be the Billy Graham of Canada. There were many people who were truly converted by God's grace under this unregenerate man's witness. Now don't get me wrong - I think that believers should witness. But this passage indicates that those who were inviting others to church and who were talking about Ezekiel's message were not even saved. Remember, Judas was a witness too.
Thirdly, faithful attendance at church is not a sign of regeneration. Ezekiel's congregation of tares were faithful. Verse 31 says, "So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people do, and they hear my words, but they do not do them." Now don't get me wrong. God expects faithful attendance. After all, He says, "they sit before you as My people do," God's people do attend faithfully. But God lets Ezekiel know that not everybody who attends a church is God's child. Cars do park in garages, but because a bike is in a garage does not make it a car. Christians do attend church faithfully, but just because someone attends church faithfully does not make him a Christian. I have talked to people in mainline denominations that put our own people to shame in their faithfulness - not having missed a service in years, and yet they are totally strangers to God's grace.
What are your motives for attending church? Is it merely social etiquette or respect to custom? Is it because others will miss you, or is it because you long for the courts of God; you long to worship and fellowship with your Father? Do you come because your heart is drawn out to God? The one time it talks about God seeking something, it says, the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. True heart worship is important to God. But you can have faithful attendance without having true worship.
In Ezekiel's congregation there was also a great deal of understanding of the word. And that's tremendous. Their minds had been affected. Verse 32 says, "they listen to your words." That's an improvement over some churches. They actually listened to Ezekiel's messages. And verse 30 indicates that they discussed the messages. And if you read through the book of Ezekiel, it is clear that they had a knowledge of the Word, but that had not sunk in. "They hear your words, but they will not practice them." My measure of success for this church is not a congregation of people with heads full of doctrine. I believe doctrine is critically important, and I devoted an entire sermon on the foundation series to the importance of studying and applying God's Word. But understanding doctrine, while good, is not enough for God to be able to evaluate Ezekiel's congregation as being a success. If you have put your confidence in your doctrinal understanding, then ask God for a deeper confirmation. Jonathan Edward's shows how this can simply be a counterfeit Christianity. Did you know that Satan knows doctrine inside and out? He does. According to the Bible, He knows the Scriptures and can quote them.
Expressions of Devotion and Love
But this passage goes on to show another false criteria that was fooling Ezekiel. Verse 31 says, "with their mouths they express much love" or as the NIV words it, "with their mouths they express devotion but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain." The fact that you have a great animation, glow and zeal for the Lord, that even makes other Christians covet your relationship with the Lord is not a good indication that you have a genuine relationship with the Lord. I have seen enthusiastic, warm and tender cult members. With their mouths they express devotion but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. As Dr. Krabbendam used to always say, "The heart of the matter is the matter of the heart." Because their hearts had not been regenerated, their devotion to God was a purely selfish one. In Gardiner Spring's book The Distinguishing Traits of Christian Character, (and if you can't read Jonathan Edwards, Spring's book is a great summary) he says, "If a man, in his supposed love to God, has no ultimate regard except to his own happiness; if he delights in God, not for what He is, but for what He is to him; in such a sentiment there is no moral virtue. There is indeed great love of self, but no true love to God. But where the enmity of the carnal mind is slain, the soul is reconciled to the Divine character as it is." Do you find yourself making God in your own image? Do you make God a tolerant God because you have no intention of forsaking certain sins? Do you make Him a servant whose sole purpose in life is to answer your prayers and make life happy, or do you treat Him as your sovereign and Lord whose every whim it is your intention to obey? The God that many Christians have in their minds is a God whom it is easy to love because He is a man-centered God. But the God of the Bible is impossible to love apart from grace. Why? Because he is a God who hates all workers of iniquity and who has a plan of calamity and disaster; a plan of hellfire and brimstone for the non-elect. The carnal man cannot love that God of the Scripture. He cannot.
I know people who raise their hands in devotion on Sunday, with rapture on their face, but who justify abortion on Monday. I know a homosexual who has no intention of leaving his sin, but if you were to watch him worship you would think, wow, there is a man who truly loves God. But God would say of him as He says of this congregation, "with their mouths they express much love but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain.
It's amazing the things that people put their confidence in. They put their confidence in their feelings, or in their gifts. Did you know that you can have a spiritual gift of the Holy Spirit and not be regenerate? If you are in the covenant community like Judas was, you can. Nobody had the foggiest notion that Judas was not regenerate. The bible says that he cast out demons, healed the sick and preached the Gospel. Turn with me quickly to Matthew 7. In verses 15-20 He warns against a counterfeit Christianity, and says by their fruits you will know them (verse 20). But look at verses 21-23. These verses indicate that the fruits that we judge false prophets by is not the presence of gifts. No, it's quite different. He says, Not everyone who says to Me, "Lord, Lord," shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me [that word "many" is a scary word. "Many will say to Me"] in that day, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?" [Notice the presence of the miraculous in these counterfeit Christians. They themselves are shocked that Jesus will say they are not true Christians. They thought of themselves as Christians and demonstrated some spiritual power. But look at what Jesus says in verse 23:] And then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; [He didn't say, "I knew you once but you lost your salvation. No. They never were saved. He says, "I never knew you;] depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!"
Their practice of lawlessness indicates that their necks were never placed under King Jesus's feet. Now sometimes the counterfeits are good. Their lawlessness is hidden. None of the other disciples knew that Judas was a thief. His love for that sin, and his refusal to give it up demonstrated his unregenerate character. Judas engaged in the miraculous, and the reason is that God pours out His Spirit upon the covenant community. Hebrews 6:4-5 indicates that there are those who were once enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have become partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted of the good word of God, and the powers of the age to come who were utterly unregenerate. Having the gifts of the Spirit is not an indication of regeneration or of Baptism in the Spirit as so many charismatics wrongly assume. And of course, Satan can counterfeit every spiritual gift.
My mother knows a missionary out in Ethiopia who attended a service where she saw an Ethiopian speaking in tongues with such a look of rapture and devotion that she felt like she was missing something. Her life was somewhat dry at the time, and she thought, "If only I could have that joy and love for God." The elders escorted the man out of the service since he was violating Paul's rules, and she watched his countenance change to evil and to begin to curse and blaspheme. Others knew the man, but she had not yet been able to see the fruits of wickedness in his life. This is not a message on the charismatic gifts, but let me remind you once again that for every grace God has given, Satan has had his counterfeits.
But this verse indicates that verbal devotion without pursuing holiness is no indication regeneration. Thoguh we are justified by faith alone, we are washed and cleansed for the purpose of leading holy lives. Hebrews tells us pursue peace with all and holiness without which no one will see the Lord. God did not save us to make us comfortable in our sins. Matthew 1:21 says, He shall save His people from their sins. Titus 2:16 speaks of these counterfeits saying, They profess to know God, but in works they deny Him…
Enjoyed the Services
Let me give one more false evidence of success. Ezekiel's congregation really enjoyed the services. God says in verse 32, "Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument." Get that. They like hearing Ezekiel as well as going to a concert. And God's point was that as long as Ezekiel was entertaining and did not step on their toes, they were content. But their enjoyment of the worship services was no indication that they were ever regenerate. You can have every one of these things and still be as unsaved as Judas was. You can have great interest in me and my preaching. You can be a witness, have faithful attendance, understand a great deal of theology, express and maybe even feel devotion to the Lord, and enjoy the worship services yet be without the life of Christ within. Each of these areas can be counterfeited by Satan and can fool all of us. You are in the best position to know if your heart has been changed.
Evidences of Success in God's Eyes
And that is what I want to spend the remainder of my time on: the evidences of success in God's eyes. This passage deals with two evidences: first, heart transformation, or a reorientation of the whole heart toward God. Second, a passion for holiness. Let's look at the heart transformation.
Verse 31 says, "their hearts pursue their own gain. The heart is the center of a person - the seat of a person's will, intellect and emotions. And those three parts of the heart are the keys to knowing if you have a new hearts. Let's look at each one in turn.. First of all the mind.
Their mind had not been changed by God's spirit
God tells Ezekiel that their mind had not been changed by the Spirit. Verses 31 and 32 say that they heard his words and even discussed them, so their minds were in gear, but they were like those in Matthew 13:13 who though "hearing they hear not." Their mind understood Ezekiel's message quite well. It just didn't agree with it. And there are many examples that could be given. In verse 17 God complains, Yet the children of your people say, ‘The way of the LORD is not fair.' They knew what God's ways were, but they didn't agree with them. They didn't think they were fair. Their minds were judging what was equitable and what was not equitable in God's laws. The moment we do that, James says we have become judges of the law and are no longer subject to it. That is an indication of an unregenerate mind. This is what is so scary about the modern church: it hates God's law.
Does your mind submit itself unreservedly to God's Word or does some other authority sometimes step in between? Obviously there is growth in our lives, but at regeneration there is a definitive turn around in the orientation of the mind. Let me read some descriptions of this change in the mind from Romans 8. Beginning at verse 5 it says, For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. The first thing that happens when you are regenerate is that your mind begins to be more and more preoccupied with what God thinks rather than with what your flesh desires. Verse 6 says, For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. If the only time you think about the things of the Spirit is in church and devotions, that is a danger signal. When the Spirit indwells us He causes our minds to be oriented towards Him. Verse 7 continues: Because the carnal mind is enmity against God, for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be. I always get very nervous when Christians ridicule or simply ignore Biblical law because they believe the laws are out of touch with reality. God is ultimate reality and to the degree that we think He is too harsh, or too lenient; too narrow or too broad; we manifest a carnal mind; a mind that is at enmity with God. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him… But then he goes on to say that when we are regenerated, our minds are open and ready to be instructed: Who has known the mind of the LORD that he may instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ. The first test of regeneration is a mind that is willing to submit to what God says; a mind that believes that the issue is settled when God's Word speaks to it. A mind that refuses to ridicule, reject or see as foolish anything in the Scripture. A mind that is humble to the things of God.
The will too was averse to God
So the mind is the first part of the heart: "as a man thinketh in his heart, so is he." But the second part of the heart is the will. And so the second indication of a regenerate heart is a will that is aligned to God and His Word. Verse 31 says, "they hear your words, but they will not do them." Their wills were not submissive to God. They may have thought of themselves as submissive. "Nine times out of ten I do what God wants me to do." But that is like a child saying, "I submit when I want to submit." If you can be selective and submit when it feels good or when you agree, then it is not true submission. And unsubmissive wills are unregenerate wills. They give evidence that your heart has never been changed; that you are outside of Christ and dead in your sins and trespasses. 1 Corinthians 2:14 says, the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God. He is not receptive to the notion that one day in seven must be given to God. He is not receptive to the idea that their can be no exceptions to the rule of tithing. The natural man is not receptive to God's authority over marital relations, or the raising of your children. With Ezekiel's congregation it was not just a matter of cannot, but also a matter of will not.
Now it is true that people will have struggles in submitting to Christ's commands at certain times. And that is why Ezekiel 34 says it is so imperative for you to be under the oversight of a Shepherd who can give counsel and guidance. The book of Ezekiel calls us elders to lead, to rebuke, to discipline, to feed. But our shepherding assumes at least some evidence that your will submits to King Jesus. We cannot shepherd non-sheep. And this makes us as shepherds cast entirely upon the Lord. We cannot change your will. We are dependent upon God Almighty turning dead men into regenerate men; wills that are unsubmissive into wills that follow. Those of you who will not submit to God's law need to ask if you have been given a new will. You can't claim to be submissive if the times you were submissive were the issues you agreed with God. Only you can be judge of this. But examine your own hearts. Does your will ever willingly change to conform to God's will? Or are you selective?
Their emotions were attached to the creature rather than the Creator
The third and the final indication of a renewed heart is emotions or affections which are aligned to God. Verse 31 seems to indicate some love, but it says, with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain." The love is superficial. It is expressed with mouth, but it does not reach the heart. In fact, the very opposite was shown. It was their gain and their desires that they were seeking rather than seeking to please God. And as Gardiner said, this made their profession of love a sham. The true test of love is given in the Sermon on the Mount. And only the regenerate man could love in that way. It is supernatural. The Pharisees couldn't get around the command to love your neighbor, so they changed it to say, "You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy." They felt that that was something they could achieve. But Christ said, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven… Do you have any evidence that your affections have been realigned to do those sorts of things? He says that must be evident "that you may be sons of your Father in heaven." True sonship is evidenced by regeneration of your affections - a change in this third part of the heart. In other words, Christ is saying in the sermon on the mount that counterfeit love can only go so far and if you want to find evidence of regeneration, you have got to look for the presence of love where no unregenerate man has it. Do you pass the test? . 2 Corinthians 13:5 commands us, Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you —unless, of course, you fail the test? Where is the evidence of a supernatural power within you? It will be seen in the mind, the will and the emotions. Christ went on to say about the affections, For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Satan is ever so subtle in keeping people from believing that they may be unregenerate. He tries to make us satisfied with his counterfeits. But you must not be satisfied with anything less than loving your enemies, and loving God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind. When you shoot for less, you are aiming to accomplish what any unregenerate pagan can do.
But if your hearts of been transformed and given a new orientation, they will of necessity lead you to a life of holiness. And you will remember that that was one of the fruits by which we recognize the real McCoy in Matthew 7. He said, By their fruits you will know them and what was the fruit that showed the counterfeit? Lawlessness. Let me give you some proofs that new hearts lead to new obedience. Turn first to Ezekiel 11:19-20. Then I will give them one heart, and I will put a new spirit within them, and take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, [comma. Now notice, the result] that they may waolk in My statutes and keep My judgments and do them; and they shall be My people, and I will be their God. Here holiness is the evidence of regeneration; of having a new heart. Turn to Ezekiel 36:26-27. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of you flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. What is the evidence that we have a new heart and the presence of the Holy Spirit within? Holiness, walking in God's laws.
This was why Paul's goal with the church of Colossae was to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight. This is why Paul's goal with Corinth was that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. This is why Paul twice told the Corinthians that he feared that his labors for that church would not be successful. He told Galatia, I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain. What was Paul's criteria for success: regenerate hearts that were oriented toward God and that depended 100% upon God's grace and holy churches that hated sin, trembled at God's Word and hungered and thirsted after righteousness. And that is my measure of success for this congregation. There are many other things related to programs, outreach, discipleship that we will and must engage in. but I will be delighted if I can present you to the Lord, mature in Christ Jesus. And may He receive the glory. Amen.
I charge you to place your necks under the feet of Jesus and to trust Him and serve Him always. Amen.