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A city on a hill

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20

The scene is one of the most dramatic in all of God’s word. The Galilean Carpenter stands on a massive outcropping of rock, 1150 feet above sea level, dwarfed by the gigantic cliff which towered above it.

Just a short distance away stands the brilliant white marble temple built to the worship of Caesar, hence the name of the place, Caesarea.

Nearby is the cavern where the Greeks said their god Pan was born.

Scattered around the hilly countryside are fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite god where the Syrians worshipped.

And nearby is one of the origins of the Jordan River, the holiest river to his own people, the Jews.

In the midst of such religious traditions and fervor, surrounded by every kind of god known to his culture, he asks his rag-tag band of peasant followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them declares, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And the Carpenter says, “On this rock I will build my church.” And the Church is born.

On this Heritage Weekend, we look back with pride and gratitude to our history and heritage. And even more important, we look forward to our future with faith. Jesus called us a “city on a hill, which cannot be hid.” Today I will tell you why.

See the rock on which we stand

First, let us consider together the heritage of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Jesus said, “On this rock I will build my church.” Which rock? Peter? No, the church does not stand on a man. Peter’s faith? No, the church does not stand on the faith of a man. Himself. Jesus pointed to himself, for Scripture is clear: “no one can lay any other foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). His Church, the church, belongs to Jesus Christ. He founded us, twenty centuries ago at Caesarea Philippi. We are his.

The Church is the idea and passion of Jesus, and his answer to the problems of mankind. Jesus could have established any institution, begun any movement. He could have left behind any entity to carry on his work on earth. And he founded the church. For this singular purpose and future: “the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18).

The Church exists to assault the gates of Hell. Not to withstand the assault of Hell upon us—to assault them. To take the gospel of God’s love into our fallen, dark, dying, decaying, immoral world. Not to wait for them to find us—to find them. To go to them with the incredible good news that God loves us.

On this Heritage Weekend, let us be very clear about our founding and our future. We exist by the creation of Jesus Christ, to take the incredible news of his love to our lost and dying world. This is the rock on which we stand, and the purpose for which we exist.

And this rock will stand forever. This foundation is sure.

The Golden Gate bridge was completed in 1937, at a cost of $35 million. It stands directly over the San Andreas Fault, and yet it can withstand an earthquake measuring 7.0 in the Richter Scale. Why?

Its two great cables contain enough strands of steel wire to circle the globe three times. The concrete in its piers would pave a five-foot wide sidewalk from New York to San Francisco. But the cables and the concrete are not the secret to the bridge’s great stability.

The secret is simple. Every part of the bridge, from the concrete roadway to the steel railings and cross beams, is related ultimately to two great towers and two anchor piers. The towers are deeply imbedded into the rock foundation beneath the sea. In other words, the entire bridge is totally committed to its foundation.

So should we be. Each of us. See the rock on which the Church stands today. No earthquakes, no storms can shake us so long as we are bolted to this foundation.

Celebrate the heritage we have been given

We’ve seen where the Church began. Now on this Heritage Weekend let’s draw the circle more tightly. Let’s remember where the Baptist church comes from, and this church. Then we’ll see why this heritage matters to your soul and mine.

Meet John Smyth. Smyth and his follower, Thomas Helwys, were members of the Church of England. But they became increasingly convicted about three facts: in Scripture, believers can come to God without a mediator or priest save Jesus; in Scripture, believers have a personal relationship with Christ, and are baptized only then; in Scripture, the state does not govern the church, or the church the state.

And so in the year 1606, Smyth and Helwys led a movement which broke with the established state Church of England, beginning the group known as Baptists today. To shorten a long story, by the year 1630 there were six Baptist congregations with 150 members. These Baptists experienced various periods of persecution and tolerance at the hands of the British monarchy.

As a result, in 1631 Roger Williams fled England in search of religious freedom. In March of 1936 he helped to found the first Baptist church in North America: First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island.

From such humble beginnings, Baptists have grown to become the largest Protestant denomination in the world. In time, Baptists moved across the frontier and became the largest Protestant movement in Texas, and in Dallas.

And so in early 1939, Dr. George W. Truett, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas and one of the greatest leaders Baptists have ever known, announced that “There ought to be a church” in the Park Cities. Park Cities Baptist Church was organized on Thursday evening, October 26, 1939, by the action of some three dozen persons gathered in the auditorium of the City Hall in University Park.

Our first services were held at the University Park Elementary School. The church family moved in 1940 to a house, at 4201 Lovers Lane, which they purchased for $11,000. On Mother’s Day of 1948 the congregation broke ground at this location.

This church family has grown from three dozen to 9,500 members, from a first offering of $36.35 to an annual budget of $8,989,615, and from a tiny congregation to the largest contributor to missions causes among Baptist churches in the United States.

Across our history as Baptists, our guiding principles and distinctives have been clear. We are different from most other denominations in several ways:

We believe in personal salvation. You are not born into this church. You must be born again to be a member of a Baptist church.

We believe in no creed but the Bible. We have no statements of faith you must sign to be a Baptist or a member of our church.

We believe in local church autonomy and freedom. We have no denominational authorities, no bishop or cardinal or pope. We cooperate voluntarily with other Baptists in Dallas through the Dallas Baptist Association, in Texas with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and nationally with both the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. But the leaders of these organizations have no authority over our church. They do not dictate our pastor or staff leaders, make policies, own our lands, or have any control of our decisions. We are a free, autonomous church, responsible only to the Lord Jesus Christ.

We believe in the “priesthood of the believer,” your right to come to God and to interpret his word as his Spirit leads you. We have no spiritual intermediaries, no need to confess our sins to a priest or anyone other that Jesus.

We believe that church and state should be separate, neither controlling the other.

And we believe that every member is a minister of the gospel, not just the ordained or seminary-trained “clergy” on our staff.

Embrace the future God has planned

So we have identified the rock on which we stand, and celebrated the heritage we have been given. Now, why does this history and heritage matter to your life today?

Let’s go back to our future again. We exist to assault the gates of Hell. To take Christ to this community, to this state, to this country, to this world. To make disciples of all nations, as the Great Commission charges. If IBM exists to make computers and Ford Motor exists to make cars, we exist to make disciples.

How does this future happen? Only when you and I make it happen. Baptists believe that every believer is a priest before God and a minister before the world. As we see it, in God’s eyes there are no members here—only ministers. Only women and men and young people called by God to take his gospel to our community, our culture, and our world.

Our church, and the Church, has a future only if we make it so.

To this end, I am delighted to make a very significant announcement today: the creation of the Herbert and Martha Howard Center for Christian Studies.

Forty years ago this month, then-pastor Dr. Herbert Howard led in the formation of the University of Christian Life, a strategy for helping Christians grow in their faith and fulfill their ministry callings. With the Howard Center, we will bring that dream into the 21st century.

Dr. John Plotts will lead the Center. Dr. Plotts is a member of our church, and has served as Executive Vice President of Dallas Baptist University before agreeing to assume this responsibility. His Ph.D. in educational administration and M.Div. from Dallas Theological Seminary qualify him to lead us effectively. And his heart and passion for equipping Christians to serve Jesus will encourage us all.

A donor has made available the funds to begin our Center’s work. We will work to develop Sunday school curriculum as needed, to make our existing LIFEtime courses even more effective, to make our training classes available on the Internet and by other communication technologies, to offer lectureships and a journal as well. Faculty from around the nation will be engaged by distance learning. In time, other churches and denominations will join us in this work. We will be able to train Christians to do their ministries, literally around the world.

With the help of the Howard Center and the excellent educational and program ministries already available at Park Cities Baptist Church, we are poised to seize the greatest future our church has ever known. To take Christ to every person in north Dallas, and to partner with others to touch the world.

Our heritage enables our future, to the glory of God.

Conclusion

Now, you are our future, under the leadership of Jesus Christ. Will you be a disciple of Jesus, his fully-devoted follower? Will you be his minister, his servant, a disciple fully engaged in the personal ministry he intends for your life? Not for the sake of your church, but for the sake of your Christ.

On this historic weekend, I call us each to the greatest and most passionate personal commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ we have known. I challenge you to identify and fulfill his ministry call for your life. I promise you the greatest power, purpose, and significance your life could know.

No members, only ministers. That is God’s will, our Baptist heritage, and our future together. All because we love Jesus.

Here’s a model for us today. This confession of faith was written by an African Christian, a man later martyred for his faith. It has been so powerful in my life that I have learned it and made it mine. On this Heritage Weekend, would you make this commitment yours as well, to the glory of God? Listen to this statement of passion for Jesus:

“I am part of the ‘Fellowship of the Unashamed.’ I have Holy Spirit power. The die has been cast. I’ve stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of His. I won’t look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colorless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals.

“I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don’t have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by his presence, lean by faith, love by patience, live by prayer, and labor by power.

“My face is set, my gait is fast, my goal in heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few, my guide reliable, my mission clear. I cannot be bought, compromised, detoured, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of compromise, pander at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

“I won’t give up, shut up, let up, or slow up until I’ve preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ.

“I am a disciple of Jesus. I must go until he comes, give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until he stops.

“And when he comes to get his own, he’ll have no problems recognizing me—my colors will be clear.”

Amen?