By Shawn Lazar
Paul’s letter to the Galatians contrasts law-religion and grace-religion. The contrast applies not only to how you are justified before God, but also to how you live the Christian life.
One of the differences between law-religion and grace-religion shows itself in the pressures to have a “successful” ministry.
What usually counts as a successful ministry?
Numbers of people.
Numbers of dollars.
The bigger the church, the more successful it is. The richer the church, the more blessed it is. That’s how it is, isn’t it?
If a church has empty pews and can’t meet its bills, it’s either considered a failure or failing. We call them dying churches. And no one likes a dying anything. We’re uncomfortable with death. We want life! Success! Some appreciation and admiration!
The legalists in Galatia had the same approach to ministry:
For not even those who are circumcised keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh (Gal 6:13).
Apparently, the legalists were interested in numbers, not sincerity. They boasted in how many men they circumcised. The more “converts” they could get, the better they looked! But these conversions were just as shallow as the legalists’ own religion. The legalists wanted to mark men with the sign of law-keeping (i.e., circumcision), but even the legalists themselves didn’t follow the law. And apparently, they didn’t care! All they cared about were the numbers.
How many Christian ministries get trapped in the same numbers-based quest?
I heard one missionary to Asia claim to have led a million people to Christ in a single year.
Where did he get that number?
Were hands counted? Forms filled out? Are those Biblical ways of knowing if your ministry is successful? And what is the motivation behind making that boast—to raise more money from gullible donors?
That’s law-thinking. And it leads to hypocrisy or burn-out. Hypocrisy, because you end up inflating numbers without having any idea of the real spiritual impact of your work. Or burn-out when you take those numbers as the standard of success, and then relentlessly get condemned (and also condemn yourself) for not living up to them.
Of course, there are economic realities to doing ministry. Paul himself taught about grace-giving (Gal 6:6). But economics is not the measure of success.
What does success look like in grace-based ministry?
A solid Free Grace missionary to the Caribbean once told me he was happy if he led two people to faith in Christ per year.
That seems right to me.
There are no numbers to boast about there. But maybe we shouldn’t be boasting in numbers in the first place. But if not that, then what?
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Gal 6:14).
Paul didn’t boast in numbers but in the cross. He boasted about God’s gracious provision of salvation for the world. He boasted in Jesus’ sacrificial love. That’s the only thing worth boasting about!
That’s especially true when you think about what was happening in Galatia.
I suppose that at the beginning of his ministry to them, Paul could have boasted about all the churches he planted and all the people he had led to faith. He could have gone back to his supporters with lots of amazing testimonies to raise more money to support Gentile missions.
But look at the Galatians now. They started well, but then quickly began deserting Christ and falling from grace! Not much to boast about then, was there?
You can’t boast in numbers because you have no idea what people are going to do long-term. Will they continue to believe, or will they fall away? Will they continue onto spiritual maturity or rebellious carnality? Will they follow Christ or shame Him?
There’s no telling.
Hence, there should be no boasting.
Grace-based ministry leaves that thinking behind.
In grace-based ministry, all you can do is boast in the cross and die to the world’s standards of what is or isn’t a successful ministry. And when you do that, you’ll trade in pressure for peace.
Shawn Lazar is the Editor of Grace in Focus magazine. He is married to Abby, and they have three children. He is the pastor of Gateway Baptist’s Faith Fellowship in Denton, TX (www.faithfellowshipdenton.org).