Together for the Gospel

I spent many hours from Wednesday night to Friday afternoon with about 3,000 men at the “Together for the Gospel” conference here in Louisville. The conference was put together by Mark Dever, C.J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, and Albert Mohler, and it included their special guests R.C. Sproul, John Piper, and John MacArthur.

If you are interested in the particulars of what each speaker said, go to Justin Taylor’s post that gives the links to each one of Tim Challies’ blogs (thank you, Justin–even though you don’t read this–for the hard work of linking to each one; you saved me the trouble of having to do it myself).

My favorite messages were given by R.C. Sproul and John Piper. Sproul lectured on the centrality of justification by faith in our preaching, giving a historical overview of the controversy that surrounds that doctrine and setting the Protestant view against the backdrop of the Roman Catholic view. He really grabbed my attention when he argued (persuasively) that the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification is not, in fact, good news, but the Protestant doctrine is the best news imaginable. Perhaps I will unpack the differences in a later post.

My main focus for this post, however, is John Piper’s message on how expository preaching is particularly glorifying to God. Without a doubt, of all the speakers Piper spoke to us with the most insensity and passion (as is customary for him). The most memorable quote he gave was this: “The mantle of preaching is soaked in the blood of Jesus and singed with the fires of Hell. Are you wearing this mantle?” The point is this: when we preach, eternity is at stake. We should feel the weight of our subject matter and reckon with the truth that our hearers will either have eternal life or eternal torment based on how they respond to the gospel that we proclaim. Preaching is no place for slapstick nonsense, and if we proclaim a text of Scripture without the earnestness that is appropriate to its message, we may speak true words but give false communication. We lie about the weight of what we are saying if we do not speak with the kind of emotion that is appropriate to our message.

I have thought a lot about eternity lately. New trends in theology have brought a renewed focus to the redeeming work of Christ as it pertains to this world. I could cite authors as diverse as Brian McLaren and Russell Moore to that effect. I have no quarrel with the desire to understand how Christ’s lordship impacts life in the here-and-now; that is crucial to the life of the church and the lives of individual Christians. I don’t want to be accused of being a “pie-in-the-sky, sweet by-and-by” Christian who is of no earthly good.

However, we cannot let the pendulum swing too far. I believe one clear sign that it has swung too far is when anyone downplays or denies the absolute, ultimate importance of eternity. What is more important than eternal happiness (not as an abstract good but as the happiness that comes from knowing God and being with him) versus eternal, conscious torment (again, not in the abstract but as a result of being cut off from God’s presence)? Nothing is more important than that. Everything that we have in this life is dust on the scales, a drop in the bucket, a vapor that appears for a split second and then is gone, in comparison with eternity. Annihilationism (the doctrine that unbelievers will cease to exist for all eternity), post-mortem evangelism (the doctrine that unbelievers get a second chance after death), and universalism (the doctrine that all are saved in the end) all threaten to detract from the seriousness of the matter of eternity. They are creative attempts to soften biblical truth.

Hell has become an unacceptable reality for the modern mind. That is understandable, given the unimaginable horror of it. Before we had our baby, I used to lie awake at night trying to fall asleep (but since he has come I have had no trouble sleeping at all!). During those times when I was lying down with my eyes closed but not yet asleep, it was easy to imagine myself being dead; after all, I was lying in the appropriate position. I would begin to reflect on my own death and on matters of eternity. It was during those times especially that I could feel something of the weight of eternity, and I would even, on occasion, begin to tremble at the thought of eternal conscious torment in Hell. I know that is what I deserve, though Christ has redeemed me from it. My mind cannot comprehend such a thing; it overwhelms me that any of God’s creatures could experience unending suffering to that degree.

But this is where my theological method gets tested: do I believe only what I can wrap my mind around and accept with my limited understanding, or do I believe whatever God says, no matter how difficult it is to accept? I have always tried to do the latter, and so I continue to believe in Hell as the church has historically understood it, which is the true biblical doctrine. If Hell is real, then, as Piper said, the mantle of preaching is singed with its fires. How can we possibly preach with anything but earnestness and passion, knowing what is stake? The pulpit is not the place for stand up, for slapstick, or for dazzling displays of human creativity; it is the place to proclaim the Word of God and to lead unworthy sinners to their eternal rest with Christ.

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4 Responses to “Together for the Gospel”

  1. Bradley Says:

    good review, helpful thoughts

  2. Dee Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on the conference.

    By the way, the Journal of Biblical Counseling (which I recommended to you earlier) is available on one of the computers at the SBTS library. Check it out if you have time. I think you will like it.

  3. Adam Phelan Says:

    “The pulpit is not the place for stand up, for slapstick, or for dazzling displays of human creativity.”

    I’m wondering if you could clarify who is guilty of this type of preaching. You seem to be taking shots at an abstract idea.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Adam,

    Have you never heard a sermon that was nothing more than a series of funny stories, or one that was delivered with such light-heartedness that the weight of eternity could not have been felt? I certainly have (more often from youth speakers, though certainly not limited to them).

    I know as a preacher I am often tempted by what I think people will think of me: have I been creative enough with this sermon to impress my hearers? That takes the focus off of Christ and puts it on the preacher.

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