A couple of days ago, I wrote about how the only ministry failure is the failure to remain faithful. You can read that post here. Our call is not to success in numbers, finances or ministry output but to obedience to our call and faithfulness to Christ. But I want to be clear, there is no straight line between faithfulness and blessing.
A while ago, our church went through something of a rough patch. I won’t rehash the gory details but it was a less than pleasant time that those still with us – chief amongst them myself and my wife – are delighted is long behind us. It is also notable that, not long after that time, things began to happen for us as a church.
We had been praying earnestly, for years, that the Lord would send us workers. Almost immediately after the unpleasantness, we were getting enquiries from people who were interested in joining us. We had long been praying about the financial situation of the church, we which continually in deficit and seemingly getting worse. Suddenly, we were being contacted with people wanting to give us money. We had been praying about reaching particular people roundabout us and doors began flying open that we simply didn’t even know were there. We still need workers, we still have a deficit, we still have ministry gaps, but the total lack of movement over years, things seemed to turnaround and begin moving in the right direction seemingly overnight.
Everybody could see that this was the Lord’s doing. But, naturally, they wondered why the Lord had chosen to do this now? We had needed all this stuff before but it seemed so timely. Given all the unpleasantness that had gone on, and the timing of these things coming to pass, there was one conclusion many wanted to draw: the Lord must be blessing our faithfulness.
Should we have been in Israel, under the Mosaic covenant, with its evidently conditional land promises, some might say maybe. But Deuteronomy 9 makes it clear enough that Israel didn’t possess the land because they were faithful; it specifically says it was despite their lack of faithfulness and goes on to document a raft of examples showing just how unfaithful they were. Deuteronomy 28, however, makes clear that although Israel entered the land for reasons apart from their faithfulness, they will only retain the land and be blessed therein should they continue to obey God and keep covenant. And, of course, we know how well that went. So the initial blessing of the land was overtly not based on Israelite faithfulness and only their ongoing possession of the land rested on their faithfulness.
But we’re not OT Israel. Neither are we under the Mosaic Covenant that found its fulfilment in the New Covenant to which it points. The land promises find their typological fulfilment first in Christ, who inaugurates the New Covenant, second in believers as God’s new covenant people and finally in the new creation to come. So even were we inclined to suggest a conditional/unconditional distinction between the covenants (which I don’t think holds easily), we’re not under the Mosaic Covenant with its covenant conditions.
However, just like the land promises under the Mosaic Convenant, we enter into the New Covenant, not based on our faithfulness, but according to God’s gracious election of his people, his promise to save a people for himself. Similarly, the conditions that God places within the New Covenant – and despite what some wish to claim, there are most certainly stipulations rendering the distinction between Old and New Covenants something other than conditional v unconditional – are made sure by the work of the Holy Spirit within the elect. It is not that God’s promises in the New Covenant are unconditional, it is that he has ensured the meeting of those conditions by the seal of the Holy Spirit that he has placed within his people.
What has that got to do with the straight line between our faithfulness and God’s blessing? Though we enter into the covenant purely as a result of God’s gracious election of us, receiving the seal of covenant membership (the indwelling Holy Spirit) by faith that he works in us, it would be wrong to say the Lord doesn’t bless our faithfulness. However, our faithfulness is predicated still on God himself at work in and through us. What is more, the blessings that the Lord promises in accordance with our persevering faithfulness (which, we must keep noting, is not based upon our working but his Spirit working in and through us) are the spiritual blessings of election, adoption, redemption, forgiveness of sin, eternal life, growth in Christ-likeness, fruits of the Spirit, and a share in the inheritance the belongs to Jesus. All of these come to us and through us by virtue of our standing in Christ which comes about as a result of God’s grace at work in us to produce faith and his Holy Spirit causing us to persevere and remain faithful.
This is important because the Lord simply does not promise us a large church, healthy finances, extra workers or any such thing if we are faithful to him. We may be ultra-faithful by the Spirit at work in us and labour away with nobody listening, nobody converting, no workers coming, no money finding its way to us or any such thing. We need only look at some very large yet extremely unfaithful megachurches, with their ample finances and large congregations, and compare that to some of the tiny 5, 10 or 20 person concerns that you know labouring away faithfully for the Lord to see that there simply is no straight line between faithfulness and material blessing.
Why, then, did the Lord choose to give us what he gave us at the point he gave it to us? I think there are three complimentary reasons. First, it served his glory to do it. The Lord’s ultimate purpose – his highest priority – is his own glory. In giving us what he gave us when he gave it to us in some way maximises his glory.
Second, it served the cause of the gospel. The Lord’s highest goal is his glory but tied inextricably to his glory is the advance of the gospel. We may do crude calculations that equate numbers on seats to gospel advance. But the Lord may see people leave churches and consider that gospel advance for a number of reasons. Maybe those who leave are impeding gospel work, maybe they impede right teaching of the Word, maybe they impede the growth of other members of the church. There are a whole host of ways in which removing people may lead to gospel advance, even if it leads to numerical decline. Why did the Lord help us when he did? It helped the gospel to advance and maybe the Lord was waiting to remove those who would impede it before giving us materials that would help us in our efforts to advance the gospel locally.
Third, the Lord knows what is required to save whom he wants saved, to keep whom he wants to keep and to maintain what he wants to maintain. The Lord knows the ministers he wants to keep in ministry and he knows the members he wants to keep in membership. He knows the purposes he has for any given church and he knows just what is required in order to bring those purposes about. I don’t think it is speculative to say that the Lord’s decision to encourage us this way was any less than one of the means he uses to encourage his people to continue faithfully serving where he would have them.
It is entirely possible that the Lord knew many in our congregation would view both the stuff itself and the timing of its coming as significant. It’s not that the Lord blesses because of our faithfulness, but that he knew those who had been faithful would be encouraged to press on as a result of this blessing. The ultimate cause is that it serves his glory and advances his gospel. But the Lord ultimately works through means and that includes knowing what is needed to keep his people doing what he has called them to do. The Lord isn’t wanting us to draw straight lines between our faithfulness and his blessing in this way, but he may well use this sort of encouragement to keep his people faithfully pressing on in the work he would have them do because serves his glory and the advance of his gospel.