As I said in a previous blog post, follow-up is an important aspect of the missionary task — not just follow-up with individual new believers, but follow-up with churches that have been planted. I want to look at several of Paul’s epistles to see how Paul did this follow-up for churches he planted.
Galatians provides us with an example of the need for church-planting follow-up, as well as a model of how to do it. Paul’s letter to the churches of Galatia was probably written about a year after he and Barnabas planted those churches on their first missionary journey in Acts 13 and 14. Elders had already been appointed (Acts 14:21-23). The disciples had been filled with the Holy Spirit (Acts 13:52). Yet, a year later the purity of the gospel was under attack.
Remind them where the gospel originated
Paul is astonished that they are so quickly deserting Christ and turning to another gospel (Galatians 1:6). He says they are foolish to think that having begun the Christian life by faith, they are going to be perfected by works (Galatians 3:2-3). He is perplexed (Galatians 4:19,20) about them and anxious that Christ be fully formed in them. Paul uses strong language to make clear that there really is no other gospel (Galatians 1:6-9). This false gospel brings a curse. As Carson, Moo, and Morris write,
“What the Galatians were doing was not adding some interesting new insights into the meaning of Christianity but denying the essential Christian message.”1D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament,(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1992, 296.
In defending the gospel he preached, Paul stresses that it is not man-made but came through a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:12). He explains how this revelation turned his life completely around. He once persecuted the church but now preaches what he once tried to destroy (Galatians 1:23). His subsequent visit with the “pillars” in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1-10) confirmed that the gospel he preached was the same as that preached by James, Cephas, and John.
In the same way, an important part of follow-up in church planting is to remind new disciples that their faith in Jesus is not something that people from another culture thought up and imposed on them. Instead, their new faith is rooted in the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Bible. The Bible is God’s written revelation, the authority for all matters of faith and conduct. Studying and submitting to Scripture will keep the churches we plant from deserting the true gospel and turning to a false gospel.
Warn them about slipping back into trusting in works
Justification by faith in Christ is central to the truth of the gospel. It is the doctrine by which the church stands or falls as the reformers said. Paul states categorically that justification is not possible through the works of the law, but only through faith in Jesus Christ (Galatians 2:16). Our justification through faith in Christ rests in our union with Christ in his crucifixion (Galatians 2:17-21). The believer has been crucified with Christ, Christ lives in the believer, and the believer lives his life by faith in the Son of God. This life-giving union with Christ is the grace of God. Faith in Christ produces behavior that is in step with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14; 5:6, 13).
The default religion of mankind relies on human works to achieve a relationship with God or appease spiritual powers. Therefore we need to follow-up with the churches we plant so that they do not slip back to their default religion of seeking to please God by works. We don’t contribute to our salvation. In Christ, we are complete. This total reliance on the finished work of Christ in his death on the cross and resurrection is counter-cultural. The gospel cannot be modified to accommodate adding human works. Tim Keller reminds us:
Paul condemns any teaching that is not based on the fact that: -we are too sinful to contribute to our salvation (we need a complete rescue). -we are saved by belief in Jesus’ work – the “grace of Christ”- plus nothing else. 2Tim Keller, Galatians for You, 19.
Show how the whole Bible points to Jesus
Galatians 3:6-4:31 provides an example of the importance of tracing the Bible’s story-line for understanding the gospel. As Paul writes in the book of Romans, and also in Galatians, Abraham was justified by faith. The law came after the promise and does not nullify it. The law could not give life because fallen mankind cannot obey the whole law (Galatians 3:21,22). In fact, the law brings a curse from which we can only be delivered by Christ’s crucifixion. He became a curse for us to redeem us from the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13). Christ fulfills the promise to Abraham and Paul explains how the law relates to this promise.
Tim Keller comments on the function of the law in the Christian life:
The law shows us as we really are. And so the law points us to see Christ as He really is: our Savior, the one who obeyed the law on our behalf and then died in our place so that we might receive the promised blessing. The law allows us to love Jesus, and enables us to show our love in grateful obedience to him. 3Tim Keller, Galatians for You, 87.
So we need to help new believers see how the law and the promise prepare for the coming of Christ and how he fulfills both. We have the whole New Testament, not just the book of Galatians, for guidance on how Christ fulfills the law and the prophets. The law could not give us new life (Galatians 3:21,22). So we boast, not in works of the law, but in the cross of Christ (Galatians 6:14).
Emphasize that the gospel changes behavior
Justification by faith in Christ produces a new life in the power of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-25). Behavior matters. Paul’s confrontation with Peter and Barnabas (Galatians 2:11-14) was because their conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel.” The battle between the flesh and the Spirit characterizes our lives (Galatians 5:17). Only faith in Christ can deliver us as we walk in the Spirit. Our union with Christ means that we have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24). What matters is “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6) and “a new creation” (Galatians 6:15). Our behavior is the result of our justification through faith in Christ, not human effort to achieve justification.
In follow-up with new believers and churches, we want to avoid any suggestion that justification by faith can be turned into permission to sin (Galatians 5:13). On the other hand, we do not want to revert to legalism in which they try to gain approval by works of obedience. We obey because we belong to Christ. We don’t obey in order to belong to Christ. Christians begin their new life receiving the Spirit by hearing with faith (Galatians 3: 2). They grow in their faith walking by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16, 12). It is a battle though (Galatians 5:17-18). We need to explain and model the dynamics of Galatians 2: 19-21 for new believers.
In summary, Paul’s follow-up with the Galatian churches shows us how important it is to get the gospel right, how crucial justification by faith is, how the gospel relates to the Old Testament promise and law, and how the Christian lives in the power of the Spirit by faith. We need to provide the same follow-up with the churches we plant today lest they drift away.