Archive for the ‘The Church’ Category

How to Be a Pilgrim

October 5, 2009

I am so thankful to God for the years I spent in the youth group at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas.  It was particularly when I was in the sixth grade that I first began to understand that the claims of Christ over my life are total and absolute.  Thus, my Christian faith cannot be tucked away in a private area of my life.  It must shape everything I do and think.  God knows I needed to hear that message at that particular time, and my life has never been the same.

But at the same time I was also introduced to textbook American evangelical activism.  I don’t mean that my youth group meetings were political rallies (we didn’t discuss politics).  I mean that, under the instruction of my youth minister, I dove headfirst into the “transform the world for Christ” mentality.  It has taken me years to recover from it, and I am still in process. 

Of course, a lot of good came out of that teaching.  I became more attuned to the public claims of the Christian faith.  I grew strong and bold (at least more so than I had been before) in personal evangelism.  I developed leadership abilities that have carried me through years of ministry.  I certainly don’t want to suggest that everything I learned in this regard was wrong or of no value to me.

But I also got entrenched in evangelical triumphalism.  I overestimated my own (and the church’s) ability to “build” God’s Kingdom on earth (as though that is something any human hands could do!).  I dreamed big dreams, and more often than not I ended up with big disappointments.  I still wrestle with the ramifications of those dreams today.  And in some cases I have had to smash those dreams because they were nothing more than sugar-coated idols.   

This article by Michael Horton strikes me as one full of biblical and theological wisdom.  Please read it for insight into the relationship between the “already” dimension of the Kingdom of God, the “not yet” dimension of the Kingdom, and the church’s role in between. 

Does God expect me to go out and change the world?  Probably not.  Imagine how few people in the history of the human race can claim to have done such a thing.  We are not all, as Christians, called to be world changers.  But we are all called to be pilgrims, wayfarers on the road to glory who may not pull off a global makeover, but if we faithfully worship, pray, love, and work, day in and day out, as the New Testament calls us to do, we may just end up leaving this place a little better than we found it.  Evangelical triumphalism may not be satisfied with that idea, but if I read the New Testament correctly, it seems that God is.  And that’s so much the worse for evangelical triumphalism.

At the command of God the Father and at just the right moment, the Lord Jesus will bring the consummation of the Kingdom.  It is not yours or mine to build.  Maybe if we lowered our expectations a bit about who we are and what we are capable of doing, we might just find that there is a depth of joy and contentment to be found in living a life of simple faithfulness.  Sure, every once in a while a Paul, an Augustine, a Luther comes along and turns the world on its head, but in between those unusual moments in history, millions of faithful believers pass out of this world unnoticed by the earthly multitudes even while they are welcomed as heroes among the hosts of Heaven.  If I can be one of them, then that will be enough for me.

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Bold Statement

October 4, 2009

In the context of his review of Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church, Kevin DeYoung makes this bold statement:

I don’t think there is a single insight from the emergent church that cannot be gleaned from the best of the evangelical, and specifically the Reformed, tradition. We don’t need a third way between emergent and traditional. We need a revitalized, reformed evangelical church.

If this is the case, then it would mean that the primary value of the (artist formerly known as the) emerging conversation is not what it offers to the church.  Rather, its primary value is what it reminds the church: that there is a richness in the roots of evangelicalism that we ignore (and have ignored) to our peril.  If the (artist formerly known as the) emerging conversation plays any role in sending us back to our roots, then we owe it a debt of gratitude. 

What do you, O plenteous multitude of readers, think of DeYoung’s claim?

The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 2

November 25, 2008

[Please see part 1 for the context of this discussion.]

Like John Bunyan before him, John Piper favors a policy of open membership at his church, a policy by which true believers who were baptized as infants and who cannot submit to believer’s baptism in good conscience (because they consider their infant baptism scripturally valid) would be allowed to join the church without being scripturally baptized.  I understand Piper’s theological and practical reasoning on this, and I think he has a good intention behind it, namely, to move some active attenders at his church into a membership status so that they can come under the full care and discipline of the church.  Nevertheless, I disagree with the policy for the following reasons:

(1) Even on its own terms, the policy is inconsistent.  Piper argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same requirements for membership in the universal church.  But this is manifestly impossible.  The vast majority of Christians (or, to use Piper’s terminology, members of the universal church) cannot join Bethlehem Baptist Church simply because they cannot, for geographical and circumstantial reasons, involve themselves in the life of that local body.  If I lived in the Minneapolis area, Bethlehem would be a likely place where I would seek church membership.  But I live in Louisville, and for that reason membership at Bethlehem Baptist Church is a closed option for me.  So what Piper evidently means when he argues that the requirements for membership in any local church should be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church is actually this: the requirements for membership in any local church must be the same as the requirements for membership in the universal church plus a commitment to be involved in the corporate life of that particular local church.  In many cases (if it is a healthy church), that commitment will be formalized by a church covenant, the terms of which any person must agree to abide by in order to join and maintain membership in that local church.  But obviously, signing the church covenant at Bethlehem Baptist Church is not a biblical requirement for salvation (membership in the universal church), so we have at least one additional requirement here that eliminates the vast majority of believers from membership at Bethlehem Baptist, simply because, as a local church, Bethlehem Baptist must be truly local, that is, restricted in time and space to a particular body of people.  Therefore, I find the argument that moves from universal church membership to local church membership to be lacking at this point.  It simply does not work.

(2) The previous observation creates a category of thought by which we can determine that membership in any local church involves particular commitments that not all true believers can make.  I cannot commit to the terms of Bethlehem Baptist Church’s covenant, if for no other reason because I cannot be physically present with that church on a regular basis.  Membership is not open to me unless I make significant personal changes.  I submit that baptism falls into the same category.  There may be true believers who are not scripturally baptized, and if we as Baptists restrict them from membership for that reason we have not done anything essentially different from restricting those who cannot commit to the church covenant for other reasons, though they may still be true believers.

(3) The foregoing observations lead me to conclude that it is simply wrong to equate denial of membership with excommunication.  The Baptist church that excludes evangelical Presbyterians from its membership over the question of baptism is not saying that these evangelical Presbyterians cannot be viewed as true believers until they repent.  It is saying, rather, that due to differences over a significant ecclesiological matter, there can be no institutional unity so long as these differences persist.  To take myself as an example once again, Bethlehem Baptist Church would not allow me to join so long as I live in Louisville, but that does not mean they view me the same way they would view an excommunicated member.  Granted, living in Louisville and having a faulty view of baptism are different matters (Scripture addresses one but not the other), but at least we have a category by which to understand that not allowing someone to join a church does not mean we automatically treat them as unbelievers.

(4) An open membership policy would lessen the significance of baptism considerably.  It would create a category of church members who are, by the church’s own definition, unbaptized.  There are several problems with this situation:

a. The New Testament knows nothing of an unbaptized believer/church member.  Granted, the particular situation we are facing today (where whole denominations hold to a faulty view of baptism) is not in view in the New Testament.  But simply because unbiblical anomalies exist does not mean that we should perpetuate them in our own practice.  As people of the book, we must do our best to conform our ecclesiology to Scripture.  Piper has done this very well at Bethlehem in other areas, leading to important changes that have conformed the church’s practice more to the pattern of Scripture.  I believe the open membership policy would represent a departure from that pattern in Piper’s ministry. 

b. If we will permit one category of unbaptized people to join our churches (namely, those baptized as infants and who cannot submit in good conscience to believer’s baptism), then what is to stop us from allowing other categories of unbaptized people to join, say, those who are professing believers but who believe baptism simply doesn’t matter, or those who are too shy to identify themselves publicly with Christ through baptism?  Could an open membership policy inadvertently decrease a church’s valuing of baptism to the degree that baptism simply ceases to be a requirement at all but something more like an option that some will take and others will refuse?  I fear that, after two or three generations of this kind of policy, when the rigorous theological thinking of those who originally instituted the policy has passed into history, it will be difficult to stop that kind of practical slide into a nullification of baptism as a necessary ecclesiastical rite. 

c. And that is why I always try to defer to tradition on difficult issues like this one.  In this discussion, there is an important point that must not be missed: Throughout the history of the church, baptism (however it has been understood) has been universally acknowledged as an entrance requirement for church membership.  Whether we are talking about Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Wesleyans, or Baptists, one thing they all share in common is that they have all agreed that baptism is a prerequisite to church membership.  Granted, they disagree on the proper subjects, mode, and meaning of baptism, but no church tradition (with the exception of radical groups like the Quakers) has ever made it a policy to accept the unbaptized as members.  And yet, this is what Piper proposes that Bethlehem should do in at least some situations, according to his own understanding of baptism.  I think there is a reason such a view is virtually unprecedented (with the exception of John Bunyan and perhaps a few other leaders and churches scattered here and there throughout history).  That reason is that the church throughout history has, by virtual unanimity, acknowledged the initiatory character of baptism and has guarded it from devaluation.  Before we decide to turn against the virtual consensus of tradition, we should have overwhelmingly good theological reasons to do so.  I believe Piper’s arguments lack that kind of warrant on this issue. 

Therefore, I would oppose the institution of an open membership policy at any Baptist church.  I know that in some situations that may put some groups in a difficult situation.  But I believe a major revision to a church’s membership policy that devalues baptism would create even bigger problems.  For this reason, I do not see open membership as the answer.

The Problem with Open Membership: Where I Disagree with John Piper, Part 1

November 24, 2008

Those who know me or who have read my blog for any length of time know how indebted I am to the ministry and teachings of John Piper.  I have read most of his books, quite a few of his sermons and articles, and I have heard him speak at conferences multiple times.  He is a tremendous gift to the church.  He is everything a pastor-theologian should be: rigorously biblical, deeply theological, and passionate for the glory of God in all things. 

But I do disagree with him from time to time, and this post and the following one will address one area of disagreement, namely, Piper’s proposal that his church, Bethlehem Baptist Church of Minneapolis, adopt an open membership policy (links to various articles and sermons can be found here).  Bethlehem has not, to this point, adopted the policy, but it looks like it will come up for a vote at some point.  I do not consider myself an advisor to Bethlehem Baptist Church on this issue, but as a Baptist I do believe it is important for all Baptist churches to think through carefully the terms of their membership policies.  In this post my purpose is to explain Piper’s position, followed by a critique in the following post.

Piper and all of the elders at Bethlehem Baptist agree that scriptural baptism is for professing believers only.  They do not recognize infant baptism as a true baptism in any sense.  The current proposal of open membership does not change that fact.  That Bethlehem would either start baptizing infants or recognize infant baptism as legitimate is not on the table at all. 

What is on the table is the possibility of allowing professing believers to join the church as members who were baptized as infants and who cannot in good conscience submit to another baptism because they recognize their own infant baptism as valid.  In other words, the church would not recognize infant baptism as legitimate, but it would, under this proposal, soften its baptism requirement in order to open membership to those who do not agree with the church’s position on baptism.  It is, therefore, more of a practical than a theological proposal.  A few years ago I spoke to a former member of Bethlehem about this, and he said that the policy would allow the church have a covenantal relationship with a number of Reformed believers who are regular attenders but who have not, to this point, joined the church because of their views on baptism.  In other words, the policy would allow these active attenders to become members under the care and discipline of the church without changing their settled convictions on the question of baptism.

As I said, the issue is primarily practical, but there is a theological component involved in Piper’s argument for the open membership proposal.  According to Dr. Piper, the requirements for membership in a local church should be the same as requirements for membership in the universal church.  If we recognize evangelical Presbyterian believers as true believers who belong to the universal church, according to Piper, then we should allow them to join Baptist churches without being baptized (according to our definition of baptism).  Very few Baptists would say that a gospel-believing Presbyterian is not a true believer just because he has not been scripturally baptized.  If that is the case, argues Piper, then we cannot exclude him from membership on that basis.  To exclude a true believer from fellowship in a local church is on par with excommunication, and differences over the nature of baptism should not lead to such radical action against true believers. 

However, the proposal on the table at Bethlehem Baptist does specify that, while membership would be open to professing believers who have not been baptized, teaching in the church would not open up to them.  The teaching ministries of the church will only be carried out by those who have been baptized as believers and who uphold the baptism of believers only as the only scriptural baptism. 

I hope I have represented the position fairly.  In the next post I will explain why I disagree with it.

What about Israel?

July 2, 2008

What should Christians think about ethnic Israel?  What does the coming of Christ mean for God’s relationship to the natural descendants of Abraham, and where do we as Gentile Christians fit into the picture?  Classic dispensationalists argue that we are two separate people.  According to them, the church age is a parenthesis in God’s plan of redemption, a time when his purpose for Israel has been suspended until the millennial kingdom.  Therefore, we must “rightly divide” the Scripture so as to relate Israel passages to ethnic Israel and church passages to the church.  For some dispensationalists, this division between the two peoples of God will endure through eternity, with the church inheriting the new heaven and redeemed Israel inheriting the new earth.  Covenant theologians have traditionally maintained the opposite view: the church has replaced Israel, and the Old Testament promises made to Israel are now fulfilled spiritually in the salvation that the church receives in Christ.  For many covenant theologians (but not all), there is no longer any significance for ethnic Israel in God’s plan of redemption.

I think both approaches are wrong.  My view is neither that Israel and the church are separate nor that the church has displaced Israel as the people of God.  It is, rather, that believing Gentiles become God’s people by being incorporated into Israel.  Conversely, ethnic Israelites who do not believe in Jesus the Messiah have been cut off from the covenant people.  However, ethnic Israel as such still holds an important place in God’s plan of redemption, for there is a coming day when the partial hardening will be lifted from them and “all Israel shall be saved” (Rom. 11:26).  Paul’s argument in Romans 9-11, particularly regarding the image of the tree, the broken branches, and the grafted branches, gives a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture on this subject.

Therefore, when I read the Old Testament prophecies about the restoration of Israel (e.g., Isa. 11:11-16), I try to understand them first as their original hearers would have understood them.  There can be no doubt that they would have understood “Israel” to refer to ethnic Israel, and thus I see the Old Testament hope relating to a future salvation for ethnic Israel.  And yet, there are also prophetic images of the Gentiles being part of this final redemption (e.g., Isa. 2:1-4).  And what the New Testament makes clear is that the Gentiles would be incorporated into Israel as true Israelites (not bound to the Mosaic Law, however, for the old covenant passed away with the inauguration of the new covenant).  Therefore, I also believe it is legitimate for us to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New, that is, with the understanding that the promised restoration of Israel includes the gathering of the nations, incorporated into a restored Israel, to Israel’s Messiah. 

The fact that Israel as a nation still exists and has preserved its culture, language, and heritage despite being hated and persecuted for centuries, is a testimony to the providential favor of God.  Though they are now, for the most part, covenant breakers, God has not fully and finally rejected his people.     

Why Certainty Matters

June 5, 2008

In my ecclesiology seminar this past semester, we discussed a snippet from Brian McLaren’s book The Story We Find Ourselves In.  I have not read the whole book, but the snippet was about a group of friends who, spontaneously around a dinner table, observe communion.  The major element of the story was the participation of one person, a woman (and a cancer patient) who had never professed faith in Christ and was still quite hesitant about the whole thing.  Immediately afterward, the group went outside to a stream and baptized this woman, who wanted to become a Christian on some level, but who also on several occasions repeated the mantra that McLaren wanted to hammer home with the story: “I’m not sure about [fill in the blank: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, etc.]…”  Reading between the lines, one gathers that McLaren’s point is that participation, not certainty, is what really matters in the church.

I wondered aloud in class about what would happen if we transposed this story to another key.  What if it happened in Saudi Arabia?  What if, when contemplating whether or not she should be baptized, the hesitant woman said, “I’m not sure about all this: the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and all of those things.”?  And then let’s say her Christian friends told her, “Well, once you are plunged into this river, the life that you know is over.  Your family will disown you.  Your closest Muslim friends will abandon you.  You will lose all prospects for living a respectable life in this community.  You will likely never hold down a good job or make a decent living again.  Your life will be threatened at every turn.  And you will have to worship with us in secret.  You will be far more likely than you ever were before of having your throat slit.”  What will this hesitant woman do?  She will say, “Well, that’s not for me.”  People don’t give up their lives for things they are not certain about.  Former Muslims who have lost everything for the Christian faith they now confess would likely be deeply offended by McLaren’s cavalier approach to baptism and communion.  For them, the line between belief and unbelief, between “in” and “out” is not fuzzy and imperceptible, as McLaren would have it.  It is, rather, clear and distinct, for it is drawn with the blood of those who have given up everything to cross it.

Athanasius was exiled five times because of his unswerving commitment to the word homoousios, which refers to the common substance of the Father and the Son, thereby asserting the full divinity of Christ.  Having already drawn the ire of the Pope, Luther stood before the Holy Roman Emperor at Worms and would not budge from his commitment to the sole authority of Scripture, knowing that from that moment on he would be hunted by both church and state.  The Anabaptists endured persecution from both Protestant and Catholic opponents because they did not recognize infant baptism as a legitimate practice.  Bunyan spent years in jail, all the while having the opportunity to go free if only he would agree not to preach without a state license.  Throughout history, countless martyrs have given up their lives for the confession that Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior, and Lord. 

What do all these people have in common?  Certainty.  They were all certain about what they believed, and anything less than a rock-solid commitment to their understanding of the truth would have sent them cowering in fear before their oppressors.  Only deeply held conviction leads to this kind of sacrifice, for men and women will not give up their lives for wishy-washy notions of postmodern fuzziness.  If we are constantly questioning the truth of what we believe, we will never have the kind of steel in the gut it takes to stand firm when the whole world tells us we are fools and then gives us a fool’s reward. 

Recently I have been reading the authoritative book on the Bush presidency.  The title really says it all: Dead Certain.  Whatever you may think about President Bush and his policies, one thing is clear: he has not allowed external pressure from the public or from the media to determine his actions.  He has been true to his convictions, for good or for ill.  The only way someone could have the courage to withstand the attacks and pressures he has been under day after day for over seven years now is by the power of certainty.  Only by being dead certain of the rightness of his actions has Bush been able to stick to his guns in spite of opinion polls. 

The point here is not to say that Bush has been right on everything.  It is, rather, to show that the power to resist external pressure arises from inward certainty.  The postmodern ooze that we have been getting from McLaren and much of the emerging church conversation will not produce a generation of courageous believers ready to die for their confession of the truths of the Christian faith.  It will produce a generation of “believers” who are unsure of where the line between belief and unbelief really is.  And no one who cannot identify that line will be willing to spill his or her blood over it. 

Together for the Gospel 2008

April 19, 2008

This week I had the privilege of attending the Together for the Gospel 2008 conference in Louisville.  It was wonderful.  I got to spend some time with my younger brother, Andrew, who flew in from Texas.  I met Kevin DeYoung (whose name tag Andrew happened to spot on an elevator), one of the authors of the new book Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be), a book that I read a few weeks ago and found very helpful.  I sang rich hymns about the gospel with 5,500 brothers and sisters, often moving me to tears.  Andrew and I got a picture made with John Piper.  We also got about 15 free, theologically substantive books.  And I heard some wonderful teaching, preaching, and discussion.

Ligon Duncan gave the first address by stressing the importance of systematic theology for the church and for preaching.  Thabiti Anyabwile deconstructed the idea of biologically determined race and argued, based on theological truths from Scripture, for a new way of relating to people whose skin is a different color from ours (more on that address in a future post).  I missed John MacArthur’s message on total inability (I was in class at the time), but I heard that it was wonderful.  I did get to hear the panel discussion with MacArthur afterward.  Mark Dever spoke on contemporary attempts to improve the gospel, and he exhorted us to ensure that we never try to do such a thing.  Instead, he called us to be clear on what the gospel is and to keep it distinct from legitimate implications that may flow from it, lest we generate confusion and ultimately lead people away from the gospel.

R. C. Sproul delivered what may be the best sermon I have ever heard in my life.  It was on the curse motif of the atonement, based on Galatians 3:10-14 but drawing from the blessing/curse teachings of Genesis 3, Deuteronomy 28ff., and Numbers 6 (the Aaronic blessing), as well as from the Day of Atonement ritual of Leviticus 16.  Unable to stand for a long period of time due to his health, Dr. Sproul preached sitting down from the depths of his soul and vividly communicated to us the horror and wonder of the cross.  I will never forget that message. 

Albert Mohler followed Sproul’s sermon with an address on contemporary rejections of the doctrine of penal substitution, and he (as always) brought clarity and strong biblical-theological reasoning to the discussion.  John Piper passionately exhorted us to embrace a radical ministry of suffering as we look to the ultimate reward, namely, Christ himself.  By treasuring Christ above all, he said, and enduring suffering and loss for his sake, we show the world his glory and value in a way that would not be shown were we never to experience suffering in his service.  C. J. Mahaney ended with a call to pastors to shepherd their flocks joyfully, exhorting us from Philippians 1 to pursue ministry with gratitude, faith in God’s promises for the future, and deep affection for those under our care.  In between these sessions were panel discussions with the four leaders of T4G (Mohler, Dever, Duncan, and Mahaney) together with whatever speaker had previously given his address. 

This week was a refreshing oasis.  It was like church camp for Calvinist pastors, only without goofy recreation time, goofy youth speakers, or goofy music.  No, I take that back.  Very little of it was like church camp.  It was much too rich for that kind of an analogy.  This week I saw 5,500 brothers and sisters of mine who are passionate for the gospel of Jesus Christ celebrating that passion together and drawing energy to go back to their churches in order to proclaim that gospel more faithfully.  Gatherings like these give me great hope for the future of the church.

More to come later.  I want to share with you first some of the things Thabiti Anyabwile argued about the concepts of race and ethnicity.  And I also plan to write a series of posts on the gospel based on thoughts provoked by this conference.   

Calvinists and Non-Calvinists in the SBC: A Proposal for Unity

April 4, 2008

It is no secret that Calvinism has been a hot topic in the Southern Baptist Convention in recent years due to the rise of Reformed theology among (mostly) younger leaders, especially seminarians.  A number of non-Calvinist SBC leaders have responded in print and from the pulpit by putting forth arguments against Calvinism, and of course, some Calvinists have responded.  This post is by no means a call for the end of theological debate.  I believe that debating our views in a spirit of charity with our brothers is good and healthy, and no one should feel pressured to privatize his views on this subject.  Rather, the point of this post is to issue a call for protocol, so to speak.  I believe that both Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists can live and minister together in the various entities of Southern Baptist life, including associations, state conventions with their various ministries, and the various entities of the national convention.  While the doctrines that surround the debate about Calvinism are very important theologically (even touching the heart of the nature of God’s grace, human sinfulness, God’s intention and accomplishment in the cross, and the nature of God’s love), I do not believe that either one side or the other has fallen away from the truth of the gospel.  I fear that theological conservatives, having won the battle for the SBC, have now turned to fight each other.  It would be a tragedy for the issue of Calvinism to create disunity at any level of SBC life.

So let us debate our views as we love one another and minister together.  Here are the rules of discourse that I propose for addressing important theological differences over our views on Calvinism:

1. Let us seek first to understand each other’s views.  This should really go without saying, but unfortunately, in our desire to refute theological opponents, we often respond too quickly before we have taken the time to hear their claims fairly.  Sometimes Calvinists accuse non-Calvinists of Semi-Pelagianism (the affirmation that God gives grace in response to some remnant of goodness left in sinners).  But this is not necessarily what non-Calvinists believe.  Those who stand in the Arminian tradition believe in total depravity, just as Calvinists do, but they affirm that through the cross God gives all people prevenient grace that enables them to respond freely to the offer of the gospel.  (Of course, I recognize that very few Southern Baptists are fond of the term “Arminian” because of its associations with liberalism and its doctrine of apostasy, but on the subject of conversion at least, many non-Calvinists would probably affirm the evangelical Arminian doctrine).  Calvinists should not paint their non-Calvinist opponents as Semi-Pelagians without sufficient evidence.  Similarly, non-Calvinists should not accuse Calvinists of teaching fatalism.  There are important differences between Calvinism and fatalism.  Calvinists affirm that God ordains all things, both the ends and the specific means to those ends.  Fate, on the other hand, is an impersonal force that compels us toward necessary ends, though without encompassing the specific means to them.  So a fatalist will say, “If I am destined to die today, there is nothing I can do about it.  So I might as well jump in front of a bus.  If it is my fate to die, I will die.  If it is not, then I will live.”  Calvinists do not say these things.  Calvinists affirm that both the ends and means fall under God’s sovereign decree, so that if God has decreed that I will die today, he has also decreed how that will happen, and it is a decree that incorporates decisions of free agents who are morally responsible for their actions.  So I will not, therefore, jump in front of a bus because I would be morally culpable for jeopardizing my own life and acting with stupidity. 

So, let both sides agree to do their best to hear what the other side is saying.  Not only does Christian charity demand that kind of fairness, but we also accomplish nothing when we argue against views that our opponents do not hold. 

2. Let us not hold our opponents accountable for what we perceive to be the logical outcomes of their beliefs if, in fact, they specifically deny those outcomes.  I know that is a lengthy sentence, so let me give an example.  Many non-Calvinists cannot fathom why a Calvinist would ever practice evangelism.  To a non-Calvinist way of thinking, the Calvinist doctrine of unconditional election renders evangelism useless.  It is fair enough for him to say, “I am concerned that unconditional election could lead to laxity in evangelism.”  It is not fair, however, for him to claim that Calvinists are not evangelistic, or that Calvinism by its very existence has killed evangelism wherever it has flourished.  These claims are simply not true.  The vast majority of Calvinists affirm evangelism as the church’s mandate until Christ returns, and they have stood alongside their non-Calvinist brothers faithfully proclaiming the gospel to a lost world.  Even if the non-Calvinist cannot make sense of that in his own mind, it is simply unfair for him to impute to Calvinists his perception of the logical conclusion to their theology if, in fact, that conclusion is something they specifically deny.  The same goes for Calvinists who cannot make sense of why a non-Calvinist would ever pray for a lost person’s conversion.  Just because Calvinists think such a thing is illogical (given the non-Calvinist theology), Calvinists would be unfair to impute timidity in prayer to non-Calvinists on that basis alone.  The point is this: just because I see someone else’s theology entailing something does not mean he sees it the same way.  Maybe he has a way of working it out that I have not considered, or perhaps he is simply logically inconsistent (but driven to that inconsistency by his commitment to the nonnegotiable truths of Scripture).  It is fair to say, “This is inconsistent with this.”  It is not fair to say, “You are not faithful in evangelism” or “You are timid in prayer” if, in fact, that is not the case.

3. Let us remember often and celebrate the important, weighty truths that we hold in common as conservative Southern Baptists.  Conservatives (whether Calvinist or not) in the SBC hold much more in common than they do in opposition.  Here is a list of our central beliefs: the inspiration, inerrancy, and supreme authority of Scripture; God as Trinity; God as sovereign over his creation (with differences in detail about how that works out); the divine-human person of Christ; Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross, whereby he bore the wrath of God in the place of sinners; the bodily resurrection of Christ from the dead; the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church; the expectation of the visible, bodily return of Christ; the necessity of conversion for salvation; salvation by grace alone through faith alone (again, with some differences as to how that works out); the church as a body of believers who have been baptized as believers and by immersion; separation of church and state (though not in the ACLU sense); religious liberty; soul competency (meaning every individual is directly accountable to God); the priesthood of believers; congregational government of the local church; the church’s mandate to evangelize the world until Jesus returns; and a commitment to voluntary cooperation among churches for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. 

I could list more areas of agreement, but this list, taken as a whole, is sufficient to demonstrate my point.  Yes, how one conceives of the nature of God’s sovereignty, his decree of election, and the nature of saving grace in conversion is important.  But I do not believe these issues are important enough to overturn our unity on the weighty matters listed above.  So let us keep these matters in mind as we debate the issue of Calvinism and remember that we will be stronger together than we would be apart. 

4. Let us pray for each other.  I know this sounds so simple and basic, but oh, how much this simple practice could change the tone and nature of theological debate!  What would happen if, before launching a theological attack on the views of someone else, you took a moment to pray for that person?  What if you asked God’s richest blessings upon him, prayed that, where he does not see the truth, he would be given eyes to see it?  And what if, humbly before God, you prayed the same for yourself?  What if you prayed for the grace to be fair in your interactions with this other person, to represent him fairly in his views, to understand why he holds them, and to advance only the truth (and not a personal agenda) when you set forth arguments against him?  What if you imagined being with this person 10,000 years from now in Heaven, where theological controversy will be a thing of the past, and there will only be joy and unity in Christ?  How might this kind of prayer change the way you debate theology?

I am not proposing that we be any less vigorous in our commitment to the truth, or that we shy away from making arguments with deeply held conviction.  If there is anything we need in the church in this age, it is deep conviction.  We live in a sea of relativism, and I do not believe unity can be forged by pushing doctrine to the side.  Such a unity would only be superficial.  So let us hold our convictions deeply, debate them passionately, but do so prayerfully, humbly, and lovingly toward one another. 

Making this point prompts me to say this: I know I have not been a shining model of this kind of discourse in the past.  I have rarely committed myself to prayer for a theological opponent before seeking to blast his views into the stratosphere.  To all whom I have wronged in this regard, I ask your forgiveness.  And I pray for grace to do better. 

If we set these four rules of protocol in place to govern all of our interactions on Calvinism within the SBC, I believe we could debate the issue passionately and still join hands for the purpose of spreading the gospel to the nations.  The result will be a stronger, healthier Southern Baptist Convention with (we pray) stronger, healthier local churches.    

The Priesthood of Believers and the Ministry of Confession

March 20, 2008

I think it is time for Protestants to revive the ancient practice of confession.  What I am referring to here is the practice of confessing one’s sins to another person.  But let me be absolutely clear about what I don’t mean.  I don’t mean that we should elevate one person to the status of priest, recognize him as one qualified to dispense grace through the sacrament of penance, and then depend on him to provide us with absolution when we confess our sins to him.  What I am here arguing is miles away from the Roman Catholic sacrament.

Yet historically, Protestants have been a confessing people (in more senses than one!).  Martin Luther retained the practice of confession in his theology and practice, even calling it a third sacrament in some places (though I disagree with him on that point).  Liturgies that have come out of churches of the Reformation have included a corporate confession of sins followed by an assurance of pardon.  But as Western society turned more toward the primacy of the individual and lost a robust understanding of the church, the practice of confession was one of the many unfortunate casualties (not to mention church discipline, biblical church membership, and a host of other things). 

I am tremendously thankful for my Baptist heritage.  I am thankful that I grew up in a tradition that upheld the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of believers.  Yet I fear that this biblical teaching has been distorted and misused far too often (along with the biblical teachings of soul competency and religious liberty).  Some people use the doctrine of the priesthood of believers to defend an unbiblical individualism that essentially cuts off the believer from any kind of accountability to the church.  But this is not what the doctrine means.

That we can approach God’s throne through our sole Mediator, Jesus Christ, and confess our sins with the assurance of forgiveness through his atoning work, I hold as a precious truth.  But that this aspect of our priesthood before God eliminates any need to confess to one another, I dispute.  Confession of sins to others is commanded in Scripture (James 5:16), so we must not think that it compromises the biblical teachings of the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement or the priesthood of all believers.  We don’t confess our sins to a brother in order that he himself may forgive us (that is, unless we sinned against him specifically).  We confess for other reasons.

Confession of our sins to a brother in the church brings our sins out of the darkness and into the light.  In most cases, there is no need to make one’s sins public knowledge.  But that does not mean that one should remain alone with his sins.  In the loving fellowship of the church, everyone should have at least one person with whom he can be open to make known his failures, his weaknesses, his frailties.  In some cases, confession may take place in small groups.  Whatever the mechanism, confession helps to break the power of sin by disabling its ability to remain hidden.  Sin that remains hidden has great potential to grow and fester, eventually poisoning one’s life and community.  Do not be alone with your sin.  Enlist someone you know and love (of the same sex, unless it is your spouse) to be your partner in bringing your secret sins to light.  Once they have been brought before another person (or perhaps two or three others), let them then evaporate.    

But isn’t this embarrassing?  Yes, it is, but only because of our pride.  We are only embarrassed to be open about our sins with others if we value too much the false understanding we think they have of us.  We want them to place us on  pedastal and believe (quite falsely) that we never struggle, that we never fail, that we have attained a level of spiritual maturity that is far beyond us.  But if we truly believed the good news that we are justified, that is, declared righteous before God, by faith in Christ alone and not because of who we are or what we have done, then we would have greater freedom to be sinners with one another.  I don’t mean that in the sense of gathering together for the purpose of sinning.  I mean it in the sense of being open and honest about who we are and how we have failed.  No one should be more aware of his sins than a Christian.  No community should be more aware of its sins than a church.  Why, then, do we express shock when it is discovered that the church is full of sinners?  Instead of pretending to be above it all, let us be open with one another as sinners, so that we may rejoice even more in the grace of God given to us in Christ.  I can be open with my brother about my own failings because I do not seek to justify myself.  I trust in the God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5).  If I leave off trying to justify myself before others and simply rest in the glorious truth that I am justified in Christ alone, exposing my sins will no longer threaten to undo me. 

And let us speak the promise of the gospel to one another.  If I confess my sins to a brother, I want him to assure me that God has forgiven me in Christ.  I want him, as a priest before God, to speak the promises of God to me, especially the promise of 1 John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  And I want to be the one who speaks that promise to my brother when he confesses his sins to me.  What exactly is the nature of this spoken word?  Does it effect forgiveness?  Does God forgive only through the mechanism of the spoken human word?  No!  The words of promise that we speak to each other do not force God to act.  They simply declare that he has already acted.  This is what Jesus meant when he gave the power of the keys first to Peter (Matthew 16:19) and then to the church as a whole (Matthew 18:18).  The Holman Christian Standard Bible represents a good rendering of the Greek: “I assure you: Whatever you bind on earth is already bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth is already loosed in heaven.”  God pronounces us forgiven in Christ, and he has empowered his church to proclaim his heavenly verdict on earth when a repentant sinner seeks forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s atoning death.  I want my brother to be the agent of proclamation of that decision to me, and I in turn to him.  To hear the Word of God spoken through the lips of another is to hear God speaking. 

I submit that this is part of what it means for us to be priests before God.  Our priesthood does not render confession unnecessary.  On the contrary, it demands that we act as priests to one another, not in the Roman Catholic sense, but in the robust Protestant sense of declaring the promise of God to one another.  Seek out a brother or a sister whom you love dearly and whom you trust, and never be alone with your sin again.