We often neglect talking about problems we see in the church because real human problems, problems of the heart and soul, are difficult to address. It’s like we avoid problems and just hope that, somehow, they work themselves out. I am going to talk about it because we need to if we ever hope to follow Jesus, which is the greatest privilege given to any person. I feel that I can now use this example faithfully, graciously, and knowing that God has helped me to forgive all wrongs. At the last church I pastored, God was so good to the people and continues to be good. He had built up the church once before, a long time ago, and was building up the church again. When the leadership there perceived success (whether or not they were defining success in godly terms), they assumed that it was their own work that had brought such a success. Human pride then gave way to a fall (spiritually and numerically) because they spent their time acting as judges rather than simply serving the Lord, who had been good to them and continues to be good. To be fair, there were only a few who were like this that I know of, but they were the most powerful people in the church and now the church is facing the end of its ministerial life. Once thriving because of God’s good graces, she limps along relying on the life-support that God provides (also by His good graces). I will never say that there is no hope because God is good. I hope that as you read this, you will take a couple moments and pray for this local church and others like it. I realize that every church and every person is in danger of this sort of pride, mistaking the privileged good graces of God as we walk this path to be the accomplishment of people. Scripture would reveal to us quite a different truth.
In John 15, we receive an amazing promise. If we abide in Christ and in His words, He will bear much fruit through us. It is promised by God that His people will experience godly success in this world as we seek to Advance God’s kingdom and genuinely love one another. We can celebrate this. God wins the victory in Christ and we get to rest in that victory even though we have nothing to offer.
This victory, though, can encourage a certain pride in our hearts. We know that God is good to people, even sinners. Sometimes we mistake this goodness to be something that we have accomplished or earned. When we receive good things, we forget that all good things are given by the gift-giver and that, if we experience any good at all, we are privileged because we could not have earned those good things. What sort of danger is there when we experience the good things of God and become prideful because we have become rich?
“Therefore, fear the Lord and worship Him in sincerity and truth. Get rid of the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and worship Yahweh. But if it doesn’t please you to worship Yahweh, choose for yourselves today the one you will worship: the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living. As for me and my family, we will worship Yahweh.”
The people replied, “We will certainly not abandon the Lord to worship other gods! For the Lord our God brought us and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, out of the place of slavery, and performed these great signs before our eyes. He also protected us all along the way we went and among all the peoples whose lands we traveled through. The Lord drove out before us all the peoples, including the Amorites who lived in the land. We too will worship the Lord, because He is our God.”
But Joshua told the people, “You will not be able to worship Yahweh, because He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not remove your transgressions and sins. If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, He will turn against you, harm you, and completely destroy you, after He has been good to you.”
Idols in the church
As we begin in this passage of Scripture, we know that the Israelites have come into the promised land. They have seen God do great things and they have experienced the success of the Lord and His goodness. Then, we see this command, “Get rid or the gods your fathers worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt.” There was an Idolatry such that the Israelites were still, even in the midst of God’s goodness and His grace that allowed them to bring about godly fruit, worshipping idols in place of God. They were still worshipping the false gods of Egypt and have, at this point, added more gods to their worship. Still, God was being good to a national people that He has chosen. Joshua is exhorting the people to put aside these idols, these false gods, and serve the Lord.
Here, I just want to deconstruct what we might refer to a works-based righteousness and I want to do the same with the prosperity Gospel, for they are essentially the same heresy. God was using Israel for His glory despite the plain idolatry that had been present from their days in Egypt more than forty years prior (probably around sixty or seventy years prior). So if we ever say, God will bless you if you practice faith, if you believe, or if you do this thing for Him is to misunderstand entirely the grace of God, which depends not on people. Immediately we recognize our stating that God will withhold His grace because our faithfulness isn’t great enough is heresy (false teaching) of the highest level because it is a blatant mischaracterization of God based on the way that God has revealed Himself in His own word. There is no treasury of merit and the message of Job is not, “You will receive ten times more than you give up on this earth.” Here, we see a scenario unfold where idolatry had abounded, yet God blessed a people, gave them a land, and brought about His predetermined purpose. God had regenerated people in this generation, Joshua and Caleb as mentioned explicitly, who would lead the rest of the people to follow hard after Him. Material blessings were not promised to people based on their degree of faith, and neither was God’s grace withheld because faith was lacking. God’s grace always abounds, and He distributes resources according to the counsel of His own will so that we might steward what ultimately belongs to Him.
Still, by the time we get to verse twenty, we recognize that God, though He is good to all people, will carry out justice against those who rejected His kingdom and worshipped foreign gods. If we apply John 15, then we also know that those who do not abide in Christ and in His word, though they get to experience a degree of grace, will not themselves produce fruit that only comes from Christ. Idol worship, then, has some very serious consequences for us. Before we get into those consequences, I want to mention some idols that people and churches may have in our day. So that we are not tempted to say, “We don’t worship any idols!” I want to consider Israel. They were God’s national people, chosen out of all other peoples, delivered undeniably by the God of the universe, and they still worshipped false gods.
As we walk on this path that God has carefully and thoughtfully placed for us to walk, what sort of idols are present and why?
- The property
- Whether we are referring to a church building or a man’s castle, our property can easily become an idol distracting us from the fact that God has a home for His people in Heaven. No matter how much I am given to steward, I can’t get too attached to this world. If I am a child of God, then I am a sojourner.
- The past
- We might exalt a spiritual experience or what we might call the “hay-day” of church ministry. Do we not realize that the fields are still ripe for harvest? Society changes, and so we must change so that we can serve God today. This is going to look different for each local church or campus, and we should always remain faithful to Scripture. Ironically, Scripture tells us to make disciples; which requires us to go and meet people where they are so that we can actually make disciples.
- The programs
- When we worship the programs of a local church and say that “We absolutely have to have these,” we glorify the work of people. Programs can be useful, but let us not forget that our identity is in Christ and not in the youth ministry or the senior adults’ ministry or in any other ministry. We are one church and have one Lord, Jesus Christ.
- The pastor
- Whether a celebrity preacher or a past pastor, too many people are guilty of loving a personality in place of Jesus. When we really love Jesus, our pastors become our partners for the gospel and we can actually see them as brothers in Christ rather than an employee or someone who is paid to make us feel good. Pastors, all of the sudden, have the freedom to be honest and to faithfully preach and teach God’s word as Scripture instructs, training the saints for ministry.
- The people
- We become inwardly focussed and more concerned about what we are gaining or how we are being entertained than with actually abiding in Christ, worshipping Him, and serving Him.
- The provision
- It is very easy in our culture to worship money and to be stingy with it while the Gospel would implore us to be generous as local churches and as individuals. Christ was not a pragmatist, neither should we be. Generosity is the rule for the genuine Christian.
- The power
- We concern ourselves with having our way or having some sort of authority (most often noticed in the church business meetings of a hyper-democratic organization). We cannot both present ourselves as sovereign and also claim to follow Christ.
- The property
The consequence for idol worship, according to verse 20, is that even though the Lord may show goodness to us for a time, there will be a day of reckoning on which God will exercise justice (against nations and against rebellious people either in this age or on the day of judgment). Secondly, we don’t get to see the fruit of God produced in our lives and in our local churches. It is so ironic that we say that we want to see God working, but still hold on to all of these idols even within the church walls. Even more amazing is the fact that God’s still shares a measure of goodness with us.
God is good to sinners.
“We will follow the Lord,” the Israelites cried out. They assured Joshua that they were all in and that they would not be turned. They were going to give up their idols! I want to point something out about intentions, here. We often intend to walk this path in the greatest manner possible, yet we fail just as often. The intention of the person is always to do good and rarely, if ever, is he or she able to do so. What we say our intentions are, then, is actually worth nothing until we follow through.
I think of the Apostle Peter in Luke 22:33-34:
“Lord,” he told Him, “I’m ready to go with You both to prison and to death!”
“I tell you, Peter,” He said, “the rooster will not crow today until you deny three times that you know Me!”
Peter made the same sort of promise that the Israelites made. I will follow you! Jesus, though, knew better. He predicted that Peter would deny Him outright. Peter had good intentions but was still a depraved person bent toward sin. When we make a statement like, “I will follow,” we elevate our own ability to produce faith. The truth is, we don’t. Any person and any church could have the best intentions in the world, but when we count on our own ability to follow, our own ability to plan, our own ability to bring success, or our own ability to live for Christ, we will lose because we are not resting in the victory of Christ; we are trusting in our own ability to win some victory by means that look religious or Christian. This is why churches, families, and Christians fail. We don’t follow Christ. We follow self and hope that God still produces fruit that can only come from Him.
When it comes to our intentions, then, we, as individuals and as churches, need to realize just who God is and why our need for Him is so desperate. No matter how pure my intentions, I cannot produce the fruit of God or gain eternal life. God is the one who produces godly fruit and it is He who distributes a measure of faith to me so that I might be the vessel through which that fruit is produced:
For by the grace given to me, I tell everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he should think. Instead, think sensibly, as God has distributed a measure of faith to each one. Now as we have many parts in one body, and all the parts do not have the same function, in the same way we who are many are one body in Christ and individually members of one another. According to the grace given to us, we have different gifts:
use it according to the standard of one’s faith;
if service, in service;
if teaching, in teaching;
if exhorting, in exhortation;
giving, with generosity;
leading, with diligence;
showing mercy, with cheerfulness (Romans 12:3-8).
God does not say, “Intend to follow me on this path based on your own strength and willpower.” We are to actually live according to the measure of grace given and according to the gifting given and trust that God will keep us securely in His hand and on His path. He is the sovereign, here, and we are not!
This is true for every person, those who are on the path and those who are not. Our intentions, as good as we might think them to be, mean very little. It is God’s faithfulness and our actual abiding that enable us to see the fruit that God is producing. Sadly, too many people and too many local churches stop at mere intention. This leads so many to try and self will the plan of God. People are okay with that because they get to maintain some sort of perceived control in one sense or another.
God keeps me secure.
To worship God or self
In verse 19 and 20, after the Israelites made this statement, “We will follow the Lord!” Joshua responds with a statement that really just throws us off balance, “You will not be able to worship Yahweh, because He is a holy God. He is a jealous God; He will not remove your transgressions and sins. If you abandon the Lord and worship foreign gods, He will turn against you, harm you, and completely destroy you, after He has been good to you.”
God gives gracious gifts and sometimes godly success even to the unregenerate person. Every good thing brings me further into privilege and I am not worthy of it because I was a sinner against the God of the universe. When I realize this, I realize something very important about what it means to be human. We are incapable of making either side, the dark or the light, any stronger. The kingdom does not rise or fall based on my accomplishments or my failures. I am unable to worship God, let alone try and keep myself on His path or serve Him rightly. I am unable to honor Him, unable to raise Him up, and unable utter one word that would glorify Him. I am only a steward of the graces that God gives and my objective is to be faithful with those graces. The same is true for every other person and for every local church. As we walk this path, our worship to God grows deeper because we realize that without first His grace and His work of producing faith in His people, worship is impossible. Having a godly home is impossible with our mere intentions, but God by grace gives faith. Having a godly church is impossible with the intentions of people, but God by grace is building His true church and some genuine local churches.
If we don’t want to rely only on Joshua’s statement to the Israelites we can consider other passages of Scripture and the victories of God:
“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day. It is written in the Prophets: And they will all be taught by God. Everyone who has listened to and learned from the Father comes to Me” (John 6:44-45).
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For the desire to do what is good is with me, but there is no ability to do it. For I do not do the good that I want to do, but I practice the evil that I do not want to do. Now if I do what I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but it is the sin that lives in me. So I discover this principle: When I want to do what is good, evil is with me. For in my inner self I joyfully agree with God’s law. But I see a different law in the parts of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and taking me prisoner to the law of sin in the parts of my body. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this dying body? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I myself am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh, to the law of sin” (Romans 7:18-25).
Let’s just count the victories, here, and see for ourselves where these victories come from. God creates the world and gives authority to people, who were created in His image to bring glory to Him. Lucifer rebels against God in Heaven, loses the battle, and is cast down to the earth (Revelation 12). God wins. Satan is now on the earth and under the representative authority of people who have been created in God’s image. No longer at the throne of God, Satan sits at the feet of Adam and Eve. Satan tempts Adam and Eve and gets them to rebel against God. God, curses the serpent and, by grace, covers the shame of Adam and Eve, promising deliverance from the serpent (Genesis 3). God has victory again and people did nothing to help. The whole world became corrupt and God saved one family through the flood for His glory (Genesis 9). Satan had to actually get permission from God to afflict Job (Job 1). At the tower of Babel (Genesis 11), people came together to build a tower for their own glory when God had given the command for them to fill the whole earth. God scattered them and won the victory. Israel sinned against God over and over again, yet God still used the small nation to displace the Canaanites and bring about the Messiah. God claims victory in a way that people cannot contribute. We are unable. Jesus comes and dies in our place, saving His people by grace so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:9). God wins the victory over sin. Jesus tells His disciples that He will build His own church (Matthew 16). In the book of Revelation, we read of how it is God who will accomplish the recreation. God wins every victory and does not depend on people. It is absolutely pompous for us to believe that we can sway the success of God’s work either way. If we experience success at all as we walk this path, it is only because God wins the victory and, according to the counsel of His own will, produces some fruit through us. This is why we must abide in Christ and in His word to see that fruit. Christ is the one doing and accomplishing His work. Those who are brought in are indeed privileged. Perhaps this is why we see Christians who have less and who are persecuted praising God more deeply than most American ‘christians.’ They know that it is only by God’s grace that they get to praise and serve because it would be impossible without such a grace.
For some reason, we picture this great battle between light and darkness. If we mess things up, somehow darkness wins? The truth is that darkness doesn’t have a chance. It is this feeble wormlike creature cowering just out of sight while God brings people into the light. Yet, we want to run to the feeble worm like we might find some semblance of security hiding with it. If God does not depend on us, then no number of people sway who wins the victory, yet everyone runs to the darkness. God has already won. He didn’t win the victory at the moment Christ died on the cross. He won the victory through Christ from the foundation of the world. He does not change! This is our God. This is why we cannot boast and why there are so many good things despite the degree of human sin. Let me not misinterpret any good thing that the Lord gives as my own success. For, I would rather stand with the Lion of Judah than with the feeble worm cowering in the darkness.
God wins my victory.
God is good to sinners.
God keeps me secure.
God wins my victory.