This is a pretty good example of spiritual abuse from the pastor of one of the nations newest mega-churches. Ironically, this "what have you done for Jesus lately" preaching simply replaces one type of Pharisee with another. It is a gospel-less message.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Either through neglect or outright denial the church is in danger of losing her most valued treasure – The Gospel. This rarely happens because of malice. We are just prone to be carried away by fads. It seems this is especially true for pastors. In a day when people show more loyalty to a grocery store than their church, pastors are under increasing pressure to “liven things up” or provide something “new and exciting.” This, however, is a dangerous tendency because it leads very often to being carried away by whatever happens to be fashionable at the time. Since the Gospel has never been fashionable the results are predictable. Rather than being central, the Gospel becomes neglected.
The Gospel is often narrowed to a small corner of the Christian experience. It is treated as something we do when we “get saved” or as simply an outline to memorize for evangelism. What is lost is the all encompassing reality that the Gospel holds over the entire life of the Christian individually and the church collectively.
To begin with, the Gospel is a message. It is the good news that Jesus died in the place of sinners and rose victorious from the dead. The Gospel is not something we do. It is an announcement of what God has already done in Christ. But the power of that message transforms people. It does not leave us as we are. It changes us. It changes our values, our loves, our attitudes, and actions. It effects how we serve. It makes us willing to sacrifice for the good of others. It makes us merciful instead of wrathful. It makes us forgiving instead of begrudging.
So, what do we mean when we talk about the church being “Gospel-Driven”?
1. The Gospel is the church’s chief message.
Nothing we proclaim is more important than the Gospel. When pastors begin preaching moral lessons and life skills rather than the Gospel then there is a problem. The Bible is first and foremost the story of God’s redemptive program for His people. When “life lessons” crowd out that central message then the Gospel is being lost. Paul calls the Gospel “the matter of first importance” (I Cor. 15:3). To the church at Corinth he wrote that he had “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (I Cor. 2:2). “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified…” (I Cor. 1:22-23).
2. The Gospel is the church’s primary theme for praise.
The primary content of the praise of God’s Old Covenant people was their deliverance from Egypt. That deliverance was the supreme Old Covenant shadow of the redemption to come in Christ. It follows therefore that Christ and his redeeming work on the cross will be the primary theme of the church’s praise. This is why we sing so many songs about the cross. There is simply no greater theme for our praise.
3. The Gospel is the church’s highest motive for ministry.
We reach out in love toward strangers, even enemies because that is what Christ did for us. We make a place at our table for others because Christ has made a place for us at His table. We seek to alleviate the suffering of the poor because Christ made himself poor for our sake.
4. The Gospel is the church’s supreme rationale for fellowship.
Why should people who are so different begin to call each other “brother” and “sister”? Why is it that we should forgive when we are hurt? Why should we show mercy? Why should we be patient? Why should we pursue reconciliation? Did not Christ do all of these things for us through the cross? The Gospel breaks down all man-made barriers. The Gospel is the message of the ultimate act of reconciliation and fellowship.
I used to think it was old-fashioned and a bit silly to call each other “brother” and “sister”. But my attitude has changed. To use these words to describe each other is an announcement of the Gospel. It is an announcement that Christ has broken down the dividing wall between us and has turned strangers into family. So when we call each other “brother” and “sister” we are, in a roundabout way calling attention to the Gospel.
5. The Gospel is the church’s lasting power for mission.
The Gospel is STILL the power of God unto salvation for all who believe (Rom 1:16). We do not go into the world with an insecure hope that people will desire what we are trying to offer them. We do not approach evangelism and missions the way a salesman seeks to sell a product. We go to the world with the confidence that the Gospel we proclaim carries the very power of God.
The Gospel does not need our help. It does not need to be dressed in modern garb. It does not need to be made more palatable for modern or post-modern tastes. It can stand on its own. It is that good. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!...So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:15b, 17).
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
I find chapter three in “The Great Work of the Gospel” by John Ensor to be most helpful in understanding why Judge is not merely a replaceable metaphor for God. Ensor points out that Jesus says more about hell and God’s wrath than anyone else in the New Testament. Indeed, the most graphic and horrifying descriptions of God’s punishment upon the wicked come from the mouth of Jesus. Ensor quotes the great theologian W.G.T. Shedd:
“As none but God has the right and would dare to sentence a soul to eternal misery for sin…so none but God has the right and should presume to delineate the nature and consequences of this sentence. This is the reason why most of the awful imagery in which the sufferings of the wicked are described is found in the discourses of our Lord and Savior.”
This is an important point because even among “the churched” there is a tendency to all but forget about this part of God’s nature. I have often heard it said, even from pastors, that God sends no one to hell. People send themselves to hell. As Ensor points out, this is utterly false. Knowing what we know about hell, no one would ever send themselves there. But more importantly, the aforementioned sentiment robs God of one of his self-revealed roles in an effort to protect an image of him that is loving and compassionate.
The faulty assumption is that God cannot be loving and merciful and still cast the wicked into hell. And as Ensor points out, it is the wicked, the unrighteous, the unrepentant that God will cast into hell. These are not just “people” in a generic sense.
“When speaking of God’s final judgment, the Bible uses a variety of terms that reflects the substance and foundation of our moral nature. We are called the ‘righteous’ or the ‘wicked.’ God’s judgment is not on people but on the wicked. So we read, ‘The wicked will be cut off from the land’ (Prov. 2:22) and ‘The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous’ (Prov. 3:33)…God will separate the ‘wheat’ from the ‘weeds’ and the ‘good fish’ from the ‘bad,’ and the ‘sheep’ from the ‘goats’ (Matt. 13:36-42, 47-48; 25:32). It is the ‘unrighteous [that] will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (I Cor. 6:9)…
“When we speak of God’s wrath coming on people rather than on the wicked, we invariably sense a oneness with them rather than with God. But this puts us in opposition to God and the righteousness of his ways…The people of God will rejoice when God brings an end to the wicked. This is not beyond our current judicial sentiment. Law-abiding, peace-loving people rejoice when the corrupt are judged and removed from power or the violent are judged and removed from the presence of the community. How much more will we say of the perfect Judge, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty…for rewarding your servants…and for destroying the destroyers of the earth’ (Rev. 11:17-18)…
“[It] is simply not possible to square the idea that God does not send the wicked to hell – that they choose to go there – with either reason for Scripture. It is the proper and reasonable role of all judges to execute punishment. This is not a passive role. When a man is sent to prison for his criminal behavior, he is sent there. He does not choose to go there. In the same way, when final judgment comes, God is active, not passive, in his role as the righteous Judge.”
Too many Christians are embarrassed by God. That is, they are embarrassed by the God who is truly there. This is why Joel Osteen stammers and stutters and ultimately dodges questions about hell and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ when he is on Larry King. A God has been fashioned within the walls of the evangelical church that never offends, never frightens, and never inspires awe. He always affirms, is always positive, is deeply interested in our self-esteem, and never passes decisive judgment upon those who know not His Son. He is the god of our sentiments. He is the god of much popular Christian literature and worship songs. He is the god whom many preachers proclaim will help us “find the champion within,” assist us in “slaying our giants,” and be our key to “living the victorious life.” This is the god of the American dream but not the Consuming Fire of Scripture.
Let us give our God His due. He declares and we believe. He commands and we obey. He pronounces judgment and we say, “The Lord of the universe has done right!” But there is more. It is THIS great God who loves us, is merciful toward us, is kind, and compassionate. He bears with great patience those who have spurned his great salvation. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. He has given us all good things to enjoy. He seeks those who are not seeking Him. He lays down the life of his beloved Son for sinners. He turns his enemies into his friends. He brings home the prodigal. He reconciles the alienated.
Who is like our God? Has He not done right? Has He not been good?
Monday, September 24, 2007
Based upon the speakers the event hosts, the copy for the brochure should go something like this:
“Come hear a pastor from Dallas who preaches prosperity and denies the doctrine of the Trinity but he’s on TV a lot and has a really big, huge, awesome church. We also have a retired general in the army who will tell us a lot of really cool awesome things about leadership. There will also be this well known leadership guru who will tell us awesome stuff from his awesome book about how to be an awesome leader. But wait, there’s more! A famous NFL quarterback is going to speak about how awesome it is to be an awesome quarterback in the NFL. We’re pretty sure that some of these speakers aren’t Christians but they are awesome really cool leaders and we’re sure you will learn some awesomely cool stuff about leadership and how the future of the church rests in your hands!”
Okay, so that’s a bit of a raw spot for me. But if you go to enough of those kinds of events (and I have) then you will become 1) a high functioning workaholic who builds an awesomely cool church because you are able to perform at a level that most of humanity cannot or 2) you will become disillusioned and hate yourself and the church because you cannot perform like the guy who “pastors” the ginormous church or 3) you will simply drop off the “consult the expert” treadmill and trust that God’s Word has far more valuable words for Christian leaders than do all the false teachers, military experts, leadership gurus, and professional athletes put together.
One book that continues to challenge, encourage, and rebuke me is D.A. Carson’s The Cross and Christian Leadership. It is an exposition of the key texts in I Corinthians that pertain to Paul’s role as a leader in the church. It is a book that all those who care about the church ought to read. Pastors should read it for obvious reasons. But those who are not involved in “leadership” per se in the church ought to read it to gain a better understanding of what God expects from those who lead His church.
“The person who daydreams about being a leader in almost any field imagines what it is like to be the best, or at least to be better than most others – to succeed where others fail, to be stalwart where others stumble, to create where others merely perform, to win adulation and applause, perhaps after some initial hardship and rejection. To be a leader may mean fame, money and some freedoms from the responsibilities and humdrum existence of ordinary mortals. To be a leader means to win respect. Only rarely do those who dream of leadership, but who have never experienced it, think through the responsibilities, pressures, and temptations leaders face. Almost never do they focus on accountability, service, and suffering.”
Commenting on I Corinthians 4:1-7 Carson writes:
“Two elements stand out, and both are tied to things Paul has already explained. (1) Christian leaders are ‘servants of Christ’…Christian leaders do not try to be independent gurus, all wise teachers. They see themselves simply as servants and want other Christians to see them that way, too. But they serve one particular Master: they serve Jesus Christ. (2) At the heart of the commission they have received from their Master lies one particular assignment. They have been ‘entrusted with the secret things of God’…The gospel itself is the content of this mystery, God’s wisdom summed up under the burden of Paul’s preaching: Jesus Christ and him crucified…
“What it means to be a servant of Christ is to be obligated to promote the gospel by word and example, the gospel of the crucified Messiah. That is absolutely fundamental. There is no valid Christian leadership that does not throb with this mandate…Moreover, they must beware of politely assuming such a stance, while their real interest lies elsewhere…Those who are servants of Christ, those who are entrusted with the secret things of God, do not see themselves winning popularity contests – not even within the church’s borders. That is what Paul means when he says, ‘I care very little if I am judged by you or by any other human court’ (4:3). There is only one Person whose ‘Well done!’ on the last day means anything. In comparison, the approval or disapproval of the church means nothing.”
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Friday, September 21, 2007
“In the American colonies, the Great Awakening, under the leadership of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield, heralded the good news of God’s justifying grace in Christ. However, by the Second Great Awakening an antithetical theology became the working theology of many Protestant bodies in the new republic. The church is a society of moral reformers, said its leading evangelist Charles Finney…
“Finney’s critics charged him with Pelagianism – the ancient heresy that essentially taught that we are not born inherently sinful and that we are saved by following Christ’s moral example. Going well beyond Rome’s errors, Finney’s “Systematic Theology” explicitly denied original sin and insisted that the power of regeneration lies in the sinner’s own hands, rejects any notion of a substitutionary atonement in favor of the moral influence and moral government theories, and regarded the doctrine of justification by an imputed righteousness as ‘impossible and absurd.’
“Concerning the complex doctrines that he associated with Calvinism (including original sin, vicarious atonement, justification, and the supernatural character of the new birth), Finney concluded, ‘No doctrine is more dangerous than this to the prosperity of the church, and nothing more absurd.’ ‘A revival is not a miracle,’ he declared. In fact, ‘There is nothing in religion beyond the ordinary powers of nature.’ Find the most useful methods, (“excitements,” he called them) and there will be conversion. ‘A revival will decline and cease,’ he warned, ‘unless Christians are frequently re-converted.’ Toward the end of his ministry, as he considered the condition of many who had experienced his revivals, Finney wondered if this endless craving for ever-greater experiences might lead to spiritual exhaustion. In fact, his worries were justified. The area where Finney’s revivals were especially dominant is now referred to by historians as the ‘burned-over district,’ a seedbed of both disillusionment and the proliferation of various cults. Ever since, Evangelicalism has been characterized by a succession of enthusiastic movements hailed as ‘revivals’ that have burned out as quickly as they spread…
“It does not seem wide of the mark to regard Finney’s theological assumptions as Pelagian and his influence remains with us today, in both mainline and evangelical Protestantism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this clearly in his visit to the United States, describing American religion as ‘Protestantism without Reformation.’ In spite of the influence of a genuinely evangelical witness, the rapid spread of Arminian revivalism, especially in the developing West, proved more effective in producing ‘results.’ Doctrine in general, and Calvinism in particular, just got in the way of building a Christian America. ‘Deeds, not creeds!’ has a long pedigree in the movment’s history.”
American Evangelicalism has taken on a “do-it-yourself” approach to doctrine and spirituality. We have become pragmatists. If it works then it must be good. If it gets people “down the aisle” and gets them to “pray the prayer” then it is good. This is Finney’s legacy to us and we are still buying in.
You can read Dr. Horton’s entire article (and many other outstanding articles) at www.modernreformation.org.
Thursday, September 20, 2007
“Jesus was betrayed by a disciple, falsely accused by those he came to serve, denied justice in the courts, abandoned by his friends, humiliated, beaten, and hammered to the cross and mocked till his dying breath. ‘When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly’ (I Peter 2:23). His pain was fuel for prayer: ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:24). We, too, must pray like this for those who have hurt us. And we must keep on praying. Persistent grudges must be met with persevering prayer until we obtain the grace to forgive.
“In spite of Jesus’ example…we still think our case exceptional. ‘It’s easy for you to talk about forgiveness,’ a man trying to be reconciled to a family member once told me. ‘You don’t understand how badly he hurt me.’ He wanted sympathy, not surgery. He wanted understanding, not prescriptions. But he was on the hook. I did not put him there. I replied that forgiveness only counts when it hurts. We are not called to forgive the holy and righteous. He was not pleased. He squirmed, but the hook did not bend.
“I have enough of my own raw experiences to realize that this is pain talking. Grudges love to be nursed, not nuked. Given enough time and fertilizer, our grudges will grow so big they will wrap themselves around our very personality and cove us like ivy covers a house. Grudges force us to play the role of victims, never victors. Holding on to grudges is like crying out for a life preserver while clinging to the anchor! We have to choose either one or the other. ‘If you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Matt. 6:15). Our grip on grudges must be released. Our very life depends on it.”
If you don’t mind, I am going to be a little honest with you. I was angry all day yesterday. I don’t like being gossiped about. I don’t like being misrepresented. Who does? But instead of acknowledging the hurt and taking my pain to the Lord in prayer I swallowed the poison of anger and raged inside (and a little outside). I pitied myself. I played the victim. It is an ugly thing and I felt the filth in my heart. I was nudged and what spilled out of me was not pretty. This is no one’s fault but my own.
God’s great work in the Gospel is transforming. That is, it not only saves us but it transforms us. This doesn’t happen overnight but it does happen. For one thing it turns us more and more in to those who show mercy and forgiveness. When we realize the grand offense that God forgave us it makes the lesser offenses we suffer forgive-able. The Gospel also helps us to see our own sin as a more serious matter than the sins of others. As Gary Thomas has written, “Mature Christians have a double standard. They are hard on themselves when it comes to sin, but gracious and gentle toward others.”
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
This is one of the reasons I read biographies. When I read about Bunyan, Whitfield, Judson, Spurgeon, and Simeon I am taken for a much needed trip to the woodshed, as it were. They dealt with situations regularly that would turn all my hair gray instantly. I am astounded by the grace that sustained these men as they faced heartbreaking and sometimes terrifying opposition. I read J.C. Ryle’s book, “Five English Reformers,” and I tell you friends, I have not suffered.
When I read about what was done to John Rogers and Hugh Latimer, and John Wycliffe I shudder both at their sufferings and my frailties. Being gossiped about and accused falsely hurts quite a bit but not nearly so much as being burned to death. I don’t think I require any experience in this to speak definitively.
Charles Simeon who preached to filled aisles but empty, locked pews for twelve years knew a thing or two about the pain of ministry. Simeon became vicar of Trinity Church in Cambridge in 1782. The parishioners, for the most part, did not want him as their minister. And they had very clever ways of letting him know. For years Simeon was slandered. As mentioned already the pew holders refused to attend on Sunday mornings and locked their pews so no one else could be seated. This persisted for over a decade. A lesser man would have left. But Simeon endured and remained on at Trinity church for an astounding 54 years. He became known as one of England’s greatest preachers and men of God. He was a mentor of many other ministers and to this day is revered for his commitment to Scripture and the cause of evangelism.
Reflecting on his endurance in the face of great opposition Simeon wrote, “With the sweet hope of ultimate acceptance with God, I have always enjoyed much cheerfulness before men; but I have at the same time labored incessantly to cultivate the deepest humiliation before God.”
The great William Wilberforce wrote of Simeon: “Simeon with us – his heart glowing with love of Christ. How full he is of love, and of desire to promote the spiritual benefit of others. Oh! that I might copy him as he Christ.”
One final thought from Simeon himself that always rebukes my whining spirit:
“I was an object of much contempt and derision in the University. I strolled forth one day, buffeted and afflicted with my little Testament in my hand, I prayed earnestly to my God that He would comfort me with some cordial from His Word, and that, on opening the book, I might find some text which should sustain me. It was not for direction I was looking, for I am no friend to such superstitions…but only for support. The first text which caught my eye was this: ‘They found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to hear His cross.’ You know Simon is the same name as Simeon. What a word of instruction was there – what a blessed hint of my encouragement! To have the cross laid upon me, that I might bear it after Jesus – what a privilege! It was enough. Now I could leap and sing for joy as one whom Jesus was honoring with a participation of His sufferings.”
Tuesday, September 18, 2007
For all of us, I suppose, people are both a supreme source of joy and a crippling source of pain. This is especially true for pastors. We are expected to be always on top of our game – always kind, loving, organized, supportive, visionary, understanding, patient, forgiving, self-less, creative, administrative, tough, tender, and available. People deny that they have these expectations. That is only partly true. No one expects their pastor to always be all those things for everyone…but them. “Todd, you cannot please everyone.” It’s interesting. People only say that to me when I have disappointed someone else.
No one likes to be criticized. But pastors have to field a seemingly endless stream of criticism. How many people can long cope with knowing that they are ALWAYS letting someone down? Even on our best day, pastors know they still have not fully measured up. We preach too long and too short. We use too much Greek and not enough. We exert too much control and not enough. We spend too much time with people and not enough. We are told to let go of things; to delegate. That is a wonderful idea. But we know what it is like to delegate important tasks only to have them neglected by the well meaning volunteer who then leaves us holding the bag.
I cannot adequately describe the pain of having a friend break fellowship. For someone with a shepherd’s heart it is excruciating to lose a member of the flock. The hurt is ocean deep when someone in whom you have invested so much leaves without even a word of explanation. I have come to know this pain well over the past 12 months. I know what it is to have once close friends speak unkindly about me, misrepresent my beliefs, and tarnish my character. The days are many when I honestly do not know how much more my soul can bear. I am learning why so many pastors are abandoning the idea of being shepherds and instead preferring the role of church CEO. They drastically shrink the number of people to whom they give access and they insulate themselves from meaningful involvement in the lives of those they are called to pastor.
If you are tempted to say, “C’mon Todd! We all have to deal with not meeting everyone’s expectations. You can’t please everyone!” But I wonder who, other than a pastor, has to navigate the strange reality of leading an army of volunteers who also pay their salary? How do you treat the people who pay you? How concerned are you about what they think about you? How many people are there to whom you answer? Do you have one boss? Two? Five? Would you like to have over 700? What if they all had differing expectations?
It probably sounds like I am getting cynical. Perhaps I am. I don’t want to be. I want to be positive. I want to be a joyful and happy pastor. But there are days when I am not so sure that is possible. Metro East is filled with great people. I am a blessed man to be called to be their pastor. Perhaps I am just having a hard day.
I know it is risky to write like this. People get insecure when their pastor is struggling. It may even cause frustration. Yet again, I may let someone down with my bluntness. But I know there are other pastors, many of them, who daily battle with the things about which I have written. Perhaps they will be encouraged by knowing they are not alone in their feelings.
This is an interesting exchange between John MacArthur and Doug Pagitt, a leader in the emerging church, on the subject of Yoga. Not only does Pagitt take Scripture WAY out of context but his ideas on what makes Christians "whole" are quite troubling.
Monday, September 17, 2007
Our joy in the Gospel is directly proportional to our understanding of sin. In other words, how can we rightly revel in Christ’s redeeming work on the cross if we don’t think our sin was that big of a deal? In this, many contemporary evangelicals have not been well instructed. I have found not a few Christians who do not even know that outside of Christ we were enemies of God (Colossians 1:21). One brother told me not long ago, “I know we’re sinners but we were never God’s enemies.” Sadly, he is not alone in his assessment. People who think our situation outside of Christ was bad but not that bad will never rightly understand the cross. They will never fully appreciate salvation. They are like ones who have been raised from the dead but believe they were only cured of a bad flu. They are thankful to be sure but not enough to reorient their lives around this profound reality.
Ensor writes about as well as anyone on the subject of forgiveness. One of the reasons his writing on this subject is so affecting is because he spends ample time explaining from the Scriptures the tragic reality that necessitated our need for forgiveness. He writes, “So the prerequisite work of God in grace is an examination of guilt. God, the surgeon of our souls, cuts deep into our natural pride to convict us of the reality of our guilt. The desirability of God’s forgiveness can grow only as the deniability of our own sinfulness shrinks.”
But fallen humanity will always resist a full and accurate acknowledgement of sin. We are dodgers and twisters. We take what may be known about God and ourselves and distort the truth according to our own sinful lusts (Rom. 1). Confession of sin has fallen from David’s “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…” to “I’m not perfect. I’m only human.”
Ensor writes, “Even when we feel guilty, we do not believe it is because we are guilty.” He places much of the blame, and justifiably so, on humanistic trends in counseling and psychotherapy:
“The solution, many suggest, is to treat guilt as a psychological condition. We look to therapists to sift through our memories until they find the clinker that set off our guilt, so we can remove it. We achieve success when we hear, ‘Really, there is not justifiable reason for you to feel guilty – it’s not your fault.’ Plenty of books will tell us this, as will religious swamis. People spend thousands of dollars to confirm that the origin of their guilt is found in what somebody else did to hurt them” (p. 33).
Don’t misunderstand. There are godly men and women who labor at the art of biblical counseling. These are people who have worked hard at learning how to get under the layers of troubled hearts in order to get them to the wholeness that is discovered in Christ. But every good biblical counselor knows what anyone familiar with the Scriptures knows: that men and women outside of Christ cannot be relieved of their guilty conscience until they come to Christ and taste of His full forgiveness.
Interestingly, I have encountered many professing Christians who struggle with debilitating feelings of guilt and condemnation. Sometimes it is the result of an unhealthy preoccupation with self. Other times there is abuse in the past that left them so scared that feelings of condemnation overwhelm them. But for many others, their source of guilt feelings spring from the fact that they have never truly reckoned with the nature of their sin. They may have “prayed the prayer” when they were a child but they never understood their need for forgiveness. Now as adults they are burdened with a guilty conscience and all that the therapeutically minded church can do is teach them a baptized version of “I’m Okay. You’re Okay.”
These therapeutic approaches are offered in an effort to help. But the person with a guilty conscience will not be helped until him realize that his sin is worse than they can imagine. This seems counter-intuitive, even cruel in an age of “feel good” spirituality. But only after an honest confession of sin which is often preceded by mourning can there be a proper appreciation for the fact that “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
“I find no balm for a sore conscience, and a troubled heart, like the sight of Jesus dying for me on the accursed tree.
There I see that a full payment has been made for all my enormous debts. The curse of that law which I have broken has come down on One who there suffered in my stead. The demands of that law are all satisfied. Payment has been made for me, even to the uttermost farthing. It will not be required twice over.
Ah! I might sometimes imagine I was too bad to be forgiven. My own heart sometimes whispers that I am too wicked to be saved. But I know in my better moments this is all my foolish unbelief. I read an answer to my doubts in the blood shed on Calvary. I feel sure that there is a way to heaven for the very vilest of men, when I look at the cross.”
- J.C. Ryle
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
In the latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine David Gibson has written an excellent, albeit disturbing article entitled “Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel.” In it, Gibson traces an all too common trend among organizations that once held to and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus’ sacrificial atonement for sinners: “Proclaiming, assuming, denying.”
“You may have heard the story of the Mennonite Brethren movement. One particular analysis goes like this: the first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.”
This story has been repeated, to one degree or another, many times over. One thinks of the United Methodist Church, The Disciples of Christ, The PCUSA, The Episcopal Church, The American Baptists, etc. These denominations and others have experienced the devastating spiritual atrophy that comes with moving away from the church’s one essential message.
But this is not only a problem with those denominations and groups that are typically considered “liberal.” It can happen to any group of so-called “conservative” Christians who find themselves ignorant of, bored with, or preoccupied with anything more than the Gospel and its concerns. It is not unusual to find legalism, moralism, political activism, and humanistic pop-psychology being proclaimed from “evangelical” pulpits. I would suggest that the enemy of our souls is happy with any preaching, liberal or conservative, that diminishes, misconstrues, or assumes the Gospel.
Evangelicalism as a word means little or nothing anymore. As a movement, it no longer resembles the Gospel-centered revolution that Martin Luther helped to launch. It may well be headed toward the historical ash heap with the many other formerly Gospel movements. David Gibson believes that Evangelicalism is in the middle stage toward outright denial; the stage he calls “assuming.”
“Assumed Evangelicalism believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, Assumed Evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others, and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day.”
I think many of us who grew up in evangelical churches, although we rarely recognized it, were growing up in churches that assumed the Gospel. We were more likely to hear a moralistic message on how we should be more like Abraham or how to slay the giants in our life than we were a careful and doxological proclamation of the atonement. Not many of us were raised to understand that the Bible from Genesis to Revelation declares Christ. Not many of us were taught to see the work of Christ foreshadowed in the garden, in the lives of the patriarchs, in the preaching of the prophets. These stories were taught to us primarily as lessons on living because that is what people want to hear. It’s “practical for everyday life.”
People get tired of hearing about Jesus all the time. They want to hear “Relieving Stress the Elijah Way” or “Rockin’ to God’s Oldies” or “Five Smooth Stones for a Happy Family.” After all, must everything come back to Jesus? Can’t we just hear something that encourages us? Can’t we just hear something that comforts us? We already know the Gospel…And just that quickly, the Gospel is minimized, marginalized, and ultimately lost.
In chapter one of The Great Work of the Gospel John Ensor makes an observation that is incredibly important. It is important precisely because of our tendency to assume the Gospel. It is important because of our natural tendency to drift away from the Gospel rather than toward it. He writes, “[The Gospel] seeks to scratch where we feel no itch. It offers as a matter of first importance what we consider of least concern – God’s forgiveness, reconciliation, and new life through the life and work of Jesus Christ.”
We will always tend to “feel” that there are matters of greater or more pressing importance than the Gospel. Among evangelicals, the Gospel is rarely, if ever lost in one grand movement of apostasy. It is gradually lost through small battles of attrition. Churches become family-driven or purpose-driven or morality-driven. Don’t misunderstand. Strong families, a God-centered sense of purpose, and biblical morality are wonderful things that ought to characterize every church. However, when the Gospel becomes simply one priority among many then the church loses her way. The church must be Gospel-driven.
“Some evangelical biographies and histories give the impression that difficult decisions only need to be made when we reach a watershed moment, a clear-cut choice between truth and error. In reality, such crisis points come about because of daily decisions, made on a minute scale and over a period of time, either to assume evangelical distinctives or actively articulate them. Individually, every day, we face the choice whether to sit under the Bible alone, to run to the cross alone and look to Christ alone, or to begin to shift our gaze on to other things. Once we begin simply to assume these truths, then we are already beginning to stop ‘acting in line with the truth of the gospel’ (Gal. 2:14). The potential consequences for ourselves are harmful; for the generation following us they are disastrous” (David Gibson).
Monday, September 10, 2007
As a part of the new sermon series, The Gospel-Driven Church, and in harmony with the report from the Strategic Ministry Planning Team we will be reading John Ensor’s book “The Great Work of the Gospel.” I am happy that so many of you who are a part of the Metro East family will be participating in this important time in our church’s life. I know of no other book that feeds my mind and heart so well concerning the nature of the Gospel. Ensor writes beautifully about forgiveness – why forgiveness is needed and what was required for sinners to be forgiven by a holy God. Ensor rightly demonstrates the shallowness of popular sentimental notions of God’s love and holds high the robust, biblical theology of Christ’s cross work. While the sentimental stuff is indeed sweet it ultimately leaves us spiritually emaciated. Only a deep understanding of why the cross was necessary and what exactly was accomplished on that dark but Good Friday will offer to us the lasting hope and security that our souls crave.
Read a chapter of Ensor’s book each week in addition to your regular intake of God’s Word. Along the way I will be posting thoughts on the readings that I hope will be an encouragement to you.
I am thankful that God, by His grace, has afforded me an opportunity to begin a series of messages entitled The Gospel-Driven Church. The Lord used the Strategic Ministry Planning process to form this in my heart. I trust that the first sermon “The Gospel, The Church, and The World” was an encouragement and challenge for you. The message was drawn from I Peter 2:1-17 which served as the inspiration for our new statement of purpose:
“By God’s grace, Metro East will make known in word and deed the Lordship and love of Jesus throughout Wichita and the world for the sake of God’s glory and the salvation of sinners.” - I Peter 2:1-17
In the coming weeks the messages will address each of the Seven Pillars outlined in the Strategic Ministry Planning Team report. The Seven Pillars of Metro East Baptist are:
1. Honor God with biblical and excellent worship that engages both mind and affections.
2. Faithfully Proclaim the Word of God.
3. Strive for a fellowship that demonstrates in both word and deed the beauty of the Gospel.
4. Train disciples of Jesus who gladly reflect the holiness of God in all of life.
5. Equip and send out disciples to love our community with the mercy and hospitality of Jesus Christ.
6. Give cheerfully and sacrificially from our God-given resources for the building up of the church.
7. Advance the Gospel throughout our city and around the world.
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
In the article, Dr. Olson makes a not-so-veiled reference to John Piper. He expresses concern that many young people are being swept up into the doctrine advanced by Dr. Piper (and many others). But what Olson describes as if it was a cult is actually the doctrine held dear by some of the greatest theologians and preachers in church history. Personally, I don’t consider the doctrine of Augustine, Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, Calvin, Tyndale, Knox, Owen, Bunyan, Whitfield, Edwards, Carey, Judson, McCheyne, J.P. Boyce, J.C. Ryle, and Spurgeon to be dangerous. Nor do I consider the doctrine of D. James Kennedy, James Montgomery Boice, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, John Piper, Al Mohler, Alister Begg, Mark Dever, D.A. Carson, Sinclair Ferguson, and Joni Ericson Tada to be dangerous.
Perhaps the most provocative statement in the article is, “The God of Calvinism scares me; I’m not sure how to distinguish him from the devil.” Dr. Olson had better tread carefully. Did he once consider that he just might be wrong before he wrote those words? Of course, it’s too late. The genie is out of the bottle. If Olson is wrong, as I firmly believe he is, then he has not only slandered many of his brothers and sisters in Christ, he has blasphemed God. Is Dr. Olson unaware of all the biblical texts that explicitly affirm the total sovereignty of God in all that comes to pass? Or is he like so many of the Arminian professors I had during my education who were not conflicted about ignoring certain pesky portions of the Bible? Incidentally, God scared Noah and Moses and Isaiah and, well, everyone else as well, but that is another subject.
God’s sovereignty over creation, providence, and salvation is basic to biblical faith and worship. One of Scripture’s most prominent descriptions of God is the King who reigns from his throne (I Kings 22:19; Psalm 11:4; 45:6; 47:8,9; Isa. 6:1; Ezek. 1:26; Dan. 7:9; Heb. 12:2; Rev. 3:21; 4:2). The Bible tells us repeatedly that God exercises dominion over everything, great and small alike (Ex. 15:18; Ps. 47; 93; 96:10; 97; 99:1-5; 146:10; Prov. 16:33; 21:1; Isa. 24:23; 52:7; Dan. 4:34-35; 5:21-28; 6:26; Matt. 10:29-31). God’s sovereignty is total. He acts precisely as He wills and everything he purposes comes to pass. The Lord exercises his rule through seemingly ordinary events, extraordinary events, and even through what appears to us to be chaotic or accidental.
God’s rational creatures, angels and humans, possess free moral agency. That is, humans and angels do what they consciously choose to do and are thus held accountable by God for all their actions. This free agency, however, does not diminish or limit God’s sovereignty for He ultimately rules over human actions so that all his purposes come to pass. Mysteriously, this overruling power of God does not diminish the meaningfulness of human action (Gen 50:20; Acts 2:23; 13:26-39).
It seems that Dr. Olson wants to force a choice between a God who is entirely good or a God who is entirely sovereign. His implication is clear: If God is entirely sovereign then he cannot be good because of all the calamity going on in the world. On the other hand, if God is entirely good then he must not be entirely sovereign. In contrast, Calvinists have always affirmed that God is both entirely good and entirely sovereign because this is what the Scriptures explicitly affirm. This seems only to be a problem for Arminians, open theists, Pelagians, and atheists.
Dr. Olson knows for a fact that Calvinists heartily affirm the goodness of God. I am giving him the benefit of the doubt because I cannot imagine him being a very good theologian if he has not interacted with the writings of the Reformers and the Puritans. I defy anyone to find writings that sing more beautifully of the goodness of God than those of our forerunners from the 16th and 17th centuries.
Olson concludes his article by writing, “In light of all the evil and innocent suffering in the world, he [God] must have limited himself.” God limits himself? So this is it? This is the big conclusion? It’s not that I don’t understand. This is precisely the refuge I sought comfort in for years. It’s the “I can’t logically reconcile the Bible’s teaching in this area so I will manufacture an explanation that makes more sense to me” syndrome. Dr. Olson offers no Scriptural support for the claim that God limits himself. He just asserts it. It’s logical. It’s neat and inoffensive. It gets God off the hook for the unpleasant things that happen. But how can a theologian make a sweeping statement about the very nature of God without any appeal to the words of God? God has, after all, told us a great deal about Himself and nowhere does He claim to be limited. Dr. Olson and his Arminian brethren seem to be saying, “I can believe in the goodness of God so long as I can affirm the limitations of God in running his universe.”
How exactly would Dr. Olson suggest that God limits Himself? Does He only limit his sovereignty or does he also limit his love? “Oh certainly not!” But how do you know? “Because the Bible says that God is love.” But the Bible also says that God is sovereign. What about goodness? Does God limit His goodness? His holiness? His justice? Arminians think that God’s limited sovereignty preserves His goodness. This is a fallacy. Is it a good and loving God that wants to stop calamity and human evil but chooses not to because he loves human free will so much that he will allow untold millions to suffer and die because of it? Under this scheme do you think the average lost person who ends up in hell will wish that God had tampered (even a lot!) with their free will? Does a Christian parent hope that God will “tamper” with their children’s free will by drawing them to saving faith? Isn’t this, after all, how we pray for the salvation of others? How can we pray for God to save the lost if He has subordinated His entire redemptive purpose to the “free will” of man? If God so values this kind of unfettered free will on the part of his human creatures then why does He not preserve it in heaven? Isn’t it unfair and unloving for God to take away our ability to sin in heaven? How can I truly love God in heaven if He robs from me my “free will” to sin against Him?
Is it comforting to have a God who refuses to stop evil and calamity because he has chosen to limit himself regardless of the consequences? Is that more reassuring than a God who sovereignly works all things including calamity and evil and human salvation according to the council of His will (Eph. 1:3-11)? Is meaningless suffering outside the sovereign plan of God more comforting than the truth that one day He will make it clear that everything we have suffered served His good and glorious purpose (Rom 8:18-30)? It seems that Olson is more comforted by a God who means well but cannot quite bring it about. God “wishes” things were better but He’s not in control. That sounds an awful lot like…me.
I was confronted in the church parking lot one Sunday after services by a very angry (now former) church member who proceeded to “explain” to me that God’s sovereignty does not mean that He is in “control” of anything much less everything. Sovereignty, he told me, simply means that God is a king and like any king there are many things in His kingdom that are outside His control. Of course, he could offer me no Scripture to back up his rather novel definition of sovereignty. How quick we are to project our own limitations upon God. Where in Scripture does God claim to be a King who “rules” with the same kind of limited power as earthly kings? Indeed, does God ever claim to possess the same weaknesses and limitations of His human creatures? Is God, God or is He simply man writ large?
Certainly, Scripture tells us that Jesus “made himself nothing” (Phil 2:5ff); that he willingly entered into humanity in order to become our “sympathizing high priest” (Heb 4:14ff). But the Triune God was still enthroned and in control. The Father and the Holy Spirit were not incarnated in frail human flesh. Indeed, even Jesus, the one who “emptied himself” told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” (John 10:15-18; 19:10-11). Even God incarnated in human flesh who took on the role of a servant does not sound very “limited.”
Olson includes more curious theology when he offers a statement from none other than God Himself: “And God says, ‘Pray because sometimes I can intervene to stop innocent suffering when people pray; that’s one of my self-limitations. I don’t want to do it all myself; I want your involvement and partnership in making this a better world.’” Is this truly the God who has revealed himself in His Word? When you read the Bible do you behold a God who wants to make things better but needs our help to get it done? Certainly God uses His people as means to accomplish his purposes but this is a far cry from being dependant upon us.
I am curious as to where Olson received this insight. Is this truly what God has said? Perhaps God told him this in a dream. The Professor needs to get word out. He has just reformulated the purpose of prayer and it was apparently no less than God who gave him this fresh insight. One must be careful when attributing a quote to God. Notice that in the imagined statement God says, “sometimes I can intervene…” Does this seem more than just a little pathetic? “If you pray I may be able to heal the cancer or stop the accident, but then again I have limited myself. I am particularly limited on Mondays but if you catch me on Tuesday you’ll help your odds.” This formulation really gets God off the hook. If the cancer is healed then praise the Lord He didn’t limit Himself that time! If the cancer persists then it’s not God’s fault. After all, he has limited himself. I would love to have that little responsibility in my work.
I wonder how Dr. Olson would comfort someone whose child is diagnosed with cancer. Would he assure them that God would change it if he could? Would the Professor comfort the family by telling them that their beloved’s cancer is random and meaningless; that there is absolutely no purpose in it whatsoever? Would he give them the hopeful news that since God has limited himself there may be little he can actually do to help? Would Dr. Olson tell them that maybe, just maybe, enough people will pray so that God will receive sufficient help in turning the situation around? Or would that come dangerously close to violating someone’s free will? If I find myself in a hospital room, please don’t send Roger Olson. I need a man with a more robust (biblical) theology.
Olson gets hung up on how exactly God can ordain evil without being the “author” of evil. Welcome to the club professor. This is knowledge too wonderful for us. There are deep mysteries here to be sure. But can anyone well acquainted with the Scriptures deny that they give witness to God’s sovereignty even over the wickedness of men while at the same time affirming His complete “otherness” from sin? Is Dr. Olson aware that Scripture walks this very mysterious path? If John Calvin, or John Piper for that matter, attributed the evil actions of Joseph’s brothers to the sovereign and good plan of God without diminishing the brother’s culpability would Dr. Olson be outraged? Would Dr. Olson have corrected Joseph when he said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil God meant for good”? Would Olson be “scared” by a God like this? Would this God remind him of the devil?
What about the cross? How could God ordain the greatest evil ever perpetrated and still hold the ones who committed the act responsible for their actions (Acts 2:23; 13:26-39)? I suppose such a thought seems absurd, unfair, and devilish to Dr. Olson. Perhaps he believes that the crucifixion of Jesus was simply a random act of evil carried out by people completely free from the sovereign decree of God. Maybe if the disciples had prayed then God could have acted to intervene and stop the crucifixion of Jesus.
How can Dr. Olson, or any Arminian for that matter, affirm that the crucifixion of Jesus was the sovereign design of God? Doesn’t this violate their understanding of God’s limited abilities? Did God keep His fingers crossed hoping that men, of their own free will, would crucify Jesus? And what if they chose not to? After all, they had free will and God never messes with free will. What if everyone refused to crucify Jesus? What if they stoned him instead? What if they beat him and let him go? What would have happened to God’s redemptive plan?
After reading Dr. Olson’s article I was perplexed on so many levels. It did not seem that I was reading the words of a man who had interacted meaningfully with the book of Job, for instance. What about King David’s census of the people (II Sam 24:1ff)? Was this action not condemned as being an act of hubris? Did not God judge the people for David’s action? Confoundingly, however, Scripture declares that God was ultimately sovereign over David’s action so that He might use it as an occasion to judge his stubborn people. Surely Dr. Olson is familiar with these texts and the many others like them.
To deny God’s sovereignty in these events is far easier than to grapple with the mysteries of God’s Word that often escape our very limited and fallen minds. This is why I was so surprised at Dr. Olson’s statement that a belief in God’s sovereign control is an “easy” answer. Is “You meant it for evil but God meant it for God” easier than simply, “You meant it for evil”?
Isn’t it easier to believe that things “just happen”? Isn’t it easier to believe that there is no purpose in suffering? Isn’t it easier to believe that Joseph’s brothers acted in complete libertarian freedom and God, nice fellow that he is, would have stopped them if he could have? Dr. Olson indicates that while God is “in charge” he is certainly not “in control.” A limited God is far easier to deal with than one who is truly in control. I am astonished that a scholar like Dr. Olson would make such a sweeping comment like, “God limits himself” without any Scriptural support. I might want God to be blue. It may make me feel better if God were blue but that does not make it so.
Dr. Olson asks the question, “So where is God when seemingly pointless calamity strikes?” Considering what Olson believes about the very limited nature of God’s sovereignty, why would he use the term “seemingly pointless”? According to Olson’s reasoning, all calamities are actually pointless, not seemingly. The believer in God’s total sovereignty would affirm that calamity seems pointless but ultimately is not for it is shot full of meaning because of the sovereign God who overrules all that comes to pass for His glory and His people’s good. While Dr. Olson thinks that God sounds like the devil I believe it sounds very much like the God I read about in His Word.
This is my Father’s World
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong
Seems oft so strong
God is the Ruler yet
The very first Southern Baptist confession of faith was the Abstract of Principles of 1859. It served, and still serves, as the foundational doctrinal statement for the first Southern Baptist Seminary – The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY. Echoing the teachings of Scripture, the Abstract states that lost man has a “nature corrupt and wholly opposed to God and His law.” Since those early years of Southern Baptist life, however, lost man has experienced a creeping ascendency. As it turns out, lost man is not in as bad a condition as the Southern Baptist founders once thought. It seems we’ve grown up as a denomination. Our humanistic tutors have taught us that man, contrary to Scripture, is not “dead in sins and trespasses” but merely hampered by sins and trespasses. After all, how can a dead man have the kind of free will that we flatter ourselves as possessing? But I am getting ahead of myself.
Early Southern Baptists widely held to the biblical doctrine of “Total Depravity” or “Radical Sin.” It is a doctrine that is often misunderstood. After all, Adolf Hitler or Jeffrey Dahmer may have been totally depraved but certainly not the average person. But Total Depravity does not mean that we are as wicked as we could be but that no part of us (mind, body, will, or emotions) has escaped the consequences of the fall. Sin corrupts the total person.
Total Depravity also assumes unregenerate man’s inability to turn to Jesus in repentance and faith apart from a work of God’s grace that inclines the heart toward Him. This work of God’s grace is known as “regeneration” or “the new birth.” So, regeneration (the new birth) must occur before conversion (repentance and faith) is possible. The Baptist Faith and Message understands this order of salvation. It defines regeneration as, “a work of God’s grace whereby believers become new creatures in Christ Jesus. It is a change of heart wrought by the Holy Spirit through conviction of sin, to which the sinner responds in repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are inseparable experiences of grace.” Incidentally, John Wesley, an Arminian affirmed this.
While total depravity was largely affirmed by Southern Baptists in the mid-19th century it was not long before cracks began appearing in the foundation. By the early 20th century it was not unusual to find prominent Southern Baptist pastors and seminary professors presenting a view of man that seemed to differ from the anthropology taught in Scripture.
E.Y. Mullins who once affirmed the Abstract of Principles preached:
“You may choose to believe in God or choose not to believe. Again the choice is in the highest degree momentous. You may freely will to believe in God. Indeed, when we look at the spiritual nature of man closely it becomes quite evident that he is so made that faith is the natural or normal expression of his nature. There are certain deep instincts in him which cannot be evaded. They impel us to believe in inalienable right. The instinct of thought and of conscience, the instinct of prayer and of suffering, the instinct of courage and of hope – all these vindicate man’s right to believe.”
Does this sound like the portrait of fallen man painted in the pages of God’s Word? Does this sound like Paul’s assessment in Romans one and three? “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God…No one does good, not even one” (3:10ff). Do Mullins’ words sound like what is affirmed in I Corinthians 2:14 ("The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned”)? It seems an odd thing to say; that man has the “right to believe.”
R.C. Campbell, a Texas Baptist leader in the early 20th century wrote, “God sees in us the ability to overcome our selfish desires and inclinations. It is an inspiring sight to see an individual who forgets himself in unselfish service for humanity.” I have no doubt that man likes to think of himself this way but let’s be clear: this is not the witness of God’s Word.
An Oklahoma pastor, M.F. Ewton wrote in a sermon, “God cannot go beyond your own heart and its desire. If you remain hard of heart and stiff of neck then there is nothing that God can do. The matter rests with you.”
In a book published in the 1940’s by the Southern Baptist Broadman Press, Llew Northern wrote, “In Jesus’ standing at the door of the hearts of men knocking, one is struck with the valid significance of a symbol of man’s character by finding that the Lord Jesus respects the privacy of the human soul. He does not batter his way into this privacy, nor resent a kind of barrier between man and him. Quite gently and lovingly he comes to the hearts door and knocks…He would enter to cheer, to council, to instruct. He would have an abiding place within the heart. He will await the opening of the door.” Northern parrots the oft repeated error that the image of Jesus standing at the door knocking is an evangelistic text intended to woo lost people. In reality, Revelation 3:20 is written to the church; to Christians. The distinction matters. God does not approach those who are dead in their trespasses and sins in the same way that he approaches His sons and daughters.
In another Broadman book from the 1940’s entitled Christ and Human Liberty, Adiel Moncrief offers this optimistic view of human nature: “Belief in human liberty and in man’s free institutions involves the greatest measure of faith in man. Jesus has that measure of faith in man. He believes in the boundless possibilities of mankind to become free sons of God.”
I am wondering if any of these men ever read Genesis or John or Romans or Ephesians. I am not trying to be disrespectful. I am just wondering why the things they said about unregenerate man are so different from that which the Bible affirms. We should not be surprised, then, that in subsequent years, Southern Baptist preaching became increasingly man-centered and focused on therapy rather than Gospel. Intentionally or not it was increasingly communicated that we are not rebels against God but, rather, basically decent people who tend to be a bit rambunctious. It is not that we need saving so much as we need better coping skills or life strategies. Jesus is not the One who delivers us from the just wrath of God through His substitutionary death as much as He is the one who assists us in feeling better. “Believe in the God who believes in you,” as Robert Schuller has said. In this scheme, nothing less than the Gospel itself is lost.
In her very insightful book All is Forgiven Marsha Witten studied scores of sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. She limited her study to sermons written by conservative Southern Baptists and more liberal Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastors. The results were fascinating. Witten found that there was no substantive difference between the liberals and conservatives in their understanding of human nature. Her findings revealed that both liberal Presbyterians and conservative Southern Baptists portray “a God whose primary function lies in providing psychological benefits to individual church members.” She writes, “…Modern Protestantism in the United States has been greatly influenced by general trends toward secularity, specifically by tendencies toward individualism, trust in psychotherapy, ideological relativism, and reliance on rational procedures that mark our culture as a whole” (p. 5).
There have been a few notable exceptions to this trend away from biblical anthropology. The venerable R.G. Lee wrote:
“My own definition of the grace of God is this: the unlimited and unmerited favor given to the utterly undeserving. Let us think of the strength of grace. Sin is very powerful in this world. Sin is powerful as an opiate in the will. Sin is powerful as a frenzy in the imagination. Sin is powerful as a poison in the heart. Sin is powerful as a madness in the brain. Sin is powerful as a desert breath that drinks up all spiritual dews. Sin is powerful as the sum of all terrors. Sin is powerful as the quintessence of all horrors. Sin is powerful to devastate, to doom, to damn.
“Here is the sinner’s only hope, although, until quickened by the Spirit of grace, he does not know it. No man can rescue himself from the tyranny of sin. Men may reform, but they cannot regenerate themselves. Men may give up their crimes and their vices, but they cannot, by their own strength, give up their sins. Can the Ethiopian change his skin? No. Can the leopard eliminate his spots? No.”
In a sermon on the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus in John 3 Lee writes:
“Nicodemus was blind and blind to the fact that he was blind. Nicodemus was ignorant – and ignorant of the fact of his ignorance. Nicodemus was dead – and dead to the fact that he was dead. Nicodemus was lost – and lost the fact that he was lost. He did not know that unless men are converted and become as little children – not masters in scholarship, not philosophers of the academic grove – they cannot see the Kingdom of God. Adam, the federal head of the race, plunged into sin and carried the whole human race with him…Nothing but regeneration will save this generation…
“I repeat, the natural man, in his unregenerate state, cannot understand the things of the Spirit (I Corinthians 2:14). He is blind (II Corinthians 4:4); he is dead in trespasses and sins (Ephesians 2:1-3); his understanding is darkened (Ephesians 4:18-19); full of evil thought (Genesis 6:5; Jeremiah 17:9), and unable to please God (Romans 8:8).”
The late W.A. Criswell, long time pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas did not shy from explaining what the Bible declares about unregenerate man.
“We are dead. We are corpses. We are born in that death. We are born in sin, even conceived in sin. All of our propensities and affinities flow in the direction of sin. We are by nature set in a fallen direction. Have you ever stood by the might of Niagara? The great river falls over that precipice. It naturally does. It is un-coerced. It falls by nature…I am bound, paralyzed between two steel rails, one, my fleshly lust and the other, my own fallen will…The initiation of our salvation, of our calling, of our regeneration, of our new birth, of our salvation is in God and not in us. Consequently, our new birth, our regeneration, our calling is a gift of God.”
Criswell goes on to quote the Isaac Watts hymn:
Why was I made to hear thy voice
And enter while there’s room
When thousands make a wretched choice
And rather starve than come?
Twas the same love that spread the feast
That sweetly force me in
Else I’d still refuse to taste
And perish in my sin
* I am indebted to Dr. Mark Coppenger’s article in issue #25 of the Founder’s Journal for many of the quotes from early Southern Baptists.