Where the Rubber Meets the Road

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Where the Rubber Meets the Road

by Dr. R.A. Hargrave

When asked by our GraceTrax staff to write an article on the topic, “where the rubber meets the road,” the first word that came to my mind was friction. As we all know, there is a lot of heat produced at the point of the rubber meeting the road and to my chagrin it took me more than a decade of ministry to figure that out. When theory, or in our case theology is practically applied in the body of Christ, the consequences may produce conflict. Theology is kind to the student in the seminary but the practice of it in the church-house is often an extremely hard pill to swallow for the congregation. Getting one’s theology into practice is one of the most challenging aspects of a pastor’s responsibility and that’s why it is often left undone. Why stir the hornet’s nest when theory alone keeps the peace? Well that’s the question I answered a few years ago in my own life and ministry and now I’m hopeful that my journey will be helpful to others. I must stipulate, however, that what you may discover in this lesson may not lead you to a bigger, brighter field of service or to greater heights of glory on the denominational ladder but to a journey in some degree of suffering and perhaps a large dose of being misunderstood. But before you jettison yourself from such a life of potential hardship let me remind you that the Savior was Himself a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. Clearly, being a man of such trials is not in opposition to a life of holiness and lasting joy, for Christ is the quintessential example of such a paradox in the human experience. No one ever knew the heights of the joy the Son of man had in His Father’s presence nor the depths of His pitiful suffering in the wrath of man not to mention the vengeance of His own Father due to His vicarious endeavor on the cross.

These are not words that merely fill the required volume of an introduction. They are foundational to the essential practice of one’s Christianity richly lived out. And make no mistake about it, true Christianity is not to be contained within a man but proclaimed through a man’s actions and words. The same is true of a local body of believers known as a New Testament church. If theology directs only the mind and never stirs the heart and imagination of God’s people to action, then it is a dead theology. Faith without works is dead according to the divine revelation and any notion of the possibility of a workless faith is foreign to Holy Writ. The sad reality on many occasions is that Bible preaching churches take great comfort in the correctness of the theory of the church while never becoming bold enough to endure the friction caused by actually putting it into practice.

Let me share with you a few lessons I’ve learned over the years as to the attitude one must possess when entering a field of service. When I came to my present charge in 1989, I was filled with two great convictions that spurred me onward in the face of nagging opposition. First, I was convinced that God had called me to the gospel ministry and had providentially led me to the church I presently serve. Secondly, and this is most vital in maintaining one’s sanity in the ministry, I was so thoroughly convinced of the first conviction that I knew that man could not take away what God intended. To put it bluntly, I stopped being afraid of the people. Now I don’t mean that in an arrogant or disrespectful way, but simply by virtue of the Sovereign God’s instilled fear in me, I began to see man’s vengeance as relatively puny. So as not to misinform some young preacher reading this, I’m not saying that I was convinced that if I stood for and demanded the actual practice of the truth the Bible taught I would not be fired. I knew it could happen and there were times I actually prayed for it, seeing that it appeared at the moment the easiest way out. No, it was not being convinced as to what the church would do, but as to what God would do. And what was it that I was convinced that God would do? I was convinced that He would work all things for my good and His glory according to His infinite wisdom and eternal decree. This, dear fellow-laborer is true freedom from the bondage of men-pleasing and the fear of losing one’s employment. Unless God rises up men who are not afraid of facing spiritual obstinance, rebellion and threats, we will continue our present slide into the abyss. If you think that the actual engagement of biblical truth in the very life of the church is going to be without hostile battles then, please, for the kingdom’s sake, get out of the ministry and let battle-readied men stand in your stead.

Let me take this occasion, for your edification and encouragement, to share with you a few concrete examples of putting faith into practice in the local church and the consequences of it. First, when I came to Ormond Beach, Florida I was thoroughly reformed in my soteriology. I believed in the two paradoxical truths of God’s absolute sovereignty and man’s full responsibility as taught in the Word of God. I was also convinced of the necessity of preaching by way of exposing the texts of Scripture to the extent that I informed our leaders and congregation that all we do would now be measured by the Word of God. I wish I could encourage you by telling you about the people lauding me as a great man of God and following the course I believed God had set for the congregation, but I would be less than honest in doing so. What did happen was that people started leaving and I don’t mean a little here and a little there. Dozens at a time became so vehemently opposed to my convictions of truth that some even informed the local newspaper about my poor policies and beliefs, which ultimately made print. There was also an anti-Roy rally at a local park where hundreds showed up with signs seeking my removal from the church if not the state itself. That’s right, and I was almost expunged from the great state of Florida. Some even signed a petition to send me back to Arkansas. I was so frustrated that I told them to bring the petition in, and I would sign it. And what was this over? Preaching the Word of God and admonishing the church to practice biblical truth for the church had been under a rather liberal pulpit for the seven or eight years (with the exception of my immediate predecessor who believed the Bible but was run off in less than 15 months) preceding my charge.

After that first round of losses (lasting the first four years) there was a brief respite, but soon new battles arose. When people began to listen more carefully to the content of my preaching, some of the members began to make accusations about my Calvinism. That’s right, though I did not use the terminology at that point in my ministry, preaching through Romans soon exposed the “hideous” fact that I believed in divine, unconditional election. (By the way, I told the pulpit committee when I was being called to the church in 1989 of my convictions but they apparently didn’t understand). People all over Daytona Beach area still come up to me and ask me if I’m the preacher who believes in predestination and their query is not usually for the purpose of exercising compassion upon the perceived poor misinformed preacher. What a sad and tragic reality it is, when people who are in church every Sunday, deride the preaching of doctrines that are spoken of explicitly in the Scriptures. Riverbend, the church I pastor, is still called by prominent Christians in our area a cult because of our belief in the great and wonderful doctrines of grace that men like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, Whitefield, Edwards, Dagg, Boyce, Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones, and other great stalwarts of the faith embraced, not to mention the prophets, Jesus and the apostles of the New Testament. The exercise of the opponents consternation of such preaching however, has been exponentially compounded not by the theory of it, but by the practical application of it in the life of God’s people.

Allow me to further illustrate the reality of such opposition to the exercise of actually practicing what is positionally set forth in the biblical text. After our first round of friction in our church some peaceful days were ordered by the good hand of God upon us, I began to realize that my practice nor the practice of the church I pastor was actualizing what we believed to be true. For instance, in believing that God is sovereign in salvation, that regeneration is monergistic and true conversion is of the heart, the practice of the “alter call” became a source of conviction to me and most of our people. Some may not be aware of the fact that the denomination we are in generally holds the altar call as the primary means of salvation in the church. To say the least, the removal of such tradition would be co-equal, if not greater than the perversion of an established Christian doctrine. When we removed the practice a number of people left to never return to our fellowship. Some of them said, without the altar call how can people be saved. Scary isn’t it? Then there was the New Testament teaching of church discipline which we were disobediently ignoring in practice. When I began to teach in greater detail the Scriptures concerning this doctrine and implement the actual carrying out of it for the purpose of purity in the body, repentance and reconciliation for the wayward, a couple of hundred people left to never return to our fellowship again. Most of them stated, we had become a church of hate and had become judgmental. By that time, however, our precious people at Riverbend had learned the high cost of believing and practicing biblical truth. They were battle ready and God used them mightily as a witness to the world in the Daytona Beach area.

Finally, we began to desire as a people greater purity of truth and practice in the fellowship and we required a much stricter scrutiny in receiving members into the body. Not unbiblical scrutiny but a demand for fruit meet for repentance as John the Baptist had called for. I’ve observed for many years, that its apparently easier to join a local church than it is to join the Moose club where men wear funny hats. So frivolous are we in our acceptance of warm bodies, that the F.B.I. can’t even find most of the members of our churches. When I came as the pastor in 1989 we had over 3500 members. Well I’ve labored in the vineyard for almost 18 years and I finally whittled it down to 1400 members. Of course in 1989 only 375 members showed up on Sunday and today we sometimes have more showing up for church than we have members. Almost 900 of them actually show up on Wednesday nights to worship God and learn more of His greatness. Membership means covenant relationship and accountability in the Bible and we take that very serious in our practice.

From this flowed greater demands on our leadership in the church. Now, among other things, we require all of our leaders to sign annually, before the whole congregation, an Affirmation of Faith, largely based on the 1689 Baptist Confession. Hundreds of leaders now sign it in one of the most moving services of the year. It not only gives each of us an opportunity to affirm publically our theological convictions, it confirms in the hearts of our children and young people that we mean business when it comes to the work of the Almighty. By the time many of our young children move into middle school they can recite the catechisms and converse about the great truths of Scripture.

As I look back on the ministry here, I see God’s good hand of providence guiding us through each phase of maturity. It is also apparent that God’s hand was strangely manifested in our midst when we actually launched out into the practice of N.T. revelation that truly flows out of the theology of N.T. revelation. Without an “altar call” we preach to minds and hearts the call to repentance and faith in the full, rich merits of Christ’s active and passive obedience. We are thoroughly convinced that the preaching of the whole truth of God’s holiness and love, wrath and mercy initiates the true invitation to salvation. Our church now glories in God over the salvation of a soul instead of patting the preacher on the back for giving a powerful altar call. This has also produced a people who speak of the things of the Savior in their homes, at school, the workplace and on the playground. The Lord has blessed us with a multitude of genuine conversions over the years who continue to prove by lasting fruits the validity of their faith. Though we have been attacked primarily by other Church people in the community due to misunderstandings theologically, the Lord has given us great favor among the unchurched, unreached people of the community. Christ has continued to build His church. I must also add, that great inroads have been made in many churches in our area, to reexamine their theology and practice. Let me encourage you to remain faithful, God’s Word is always triumphant over faulty philosophies.

After my first eight years of the ministry we relocated from a 3 acre campus to what has become a 114 acre campus. When I see 1300-1400 people on a given Sunday, a full house on Sunday nights and Wednesday nights, I rejoice, not in the size but in the blessings of a people determined to live out their days for the glory of God. Many are convinced that a church cannot thrive without acquiescing to a man-centered approach to ministry. User-friendly is the battle cry of our day but I say to that, folly! I certainly want to encourage young preachers in this, God is still on His throne and many people are hungering for the meat of Truth. Not only the Truth as it is taught but also as it is lived out by a congregation. Size is not the issue in my understanding of true biblical ministry. Faithfulness to the truth and the glory of God is what ought to drive us. Small is not necessarily godly nor is big necessarily ungodly. God’s providence determines all of that, let us rest in Christ and exercise our faith in practice for all to see, so that they may glorify our heavenly Father.

Don’t let anyone convince you that truth and the practice of it must be relegated to the back-burner if we are to win the minds and hearts of the 21st century man. Man’s root problem never changes, it is depravity which holds us captive. Therefore, preach doctrine, preach the law, preach judgement, hell and heaven, life and death, mercy, grace and love in all of its fullness. Preach the riches of Christ and let all of your doctrine flow forth from the precious blood of the great Redeemer so that it may retain it’s life-giving power. Don’t buy into the dead lifeless theology of our day. Keep pressing onward young preacher and lead a people to believe and practice the truth of God. We are not to be driven by pragmatic principles, we are to be driven by theological truth which points the way to our hope and rest which is Christ. Numbers are not our passion, the Glory of God is. God didn’t call us to build His church, Christ said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Thank God! The church we build is constantly pummeled by the minions of hell, but the church, the true church that Christ builds triumphs over the foes.

May the church believe the truth, but let her not forget to practice it also. Where the rubber meets the road there is always friction, but I prefer the heat to a cold church any day of the week. Fear not young preacher, young missionary, young teacher, be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves. Then you can die and enter the gates and hear from the blessed Savior, well-done good and faithful servant. Everything else is vanity!

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