Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Luther and the Book: A Reformation Reflection

Yesterday I had to make a road trip to see my son in Oklahoma. While driving I wanted to listen to something which focused on Reformation issues. So, I popped in my MP3 recording of John Piper's series, Men of Whom the World Is Not Worthy. This is a series of biographical talks Piper has given over the years at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors. The one I listened to yesterday was an overview of Martin Luther as a preacher and student of Scripture.

Piper began this talk by emphasizing Luther's discovery that God's Word comes to us in a book - the Bible. Piper comments,

In 1539, commenting on Psalm 119, Luther wrote, "In this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night constantly—but about nothing else than God's Word and Commandments. For God wants to give you His Spirit only through the external Word" . This phrase is extremely important. The "external Word" is the Book. And the saving, sanctifying, illuminating Spirit of God, he says, comes to us through this "external Word."
Luther calls it the "external Word" to emphasize that it is objective, fixed, outside ourselves, and therefore unchanging. It is a Book. Neither ecclesiastical hierarchy nor fanatical ecstasy can replace it or shape it. It is "external," like God. You can take or leave it. But you can't make it other than what it is. It is a book with fixed letters and words and sentences.

Piper applies this principle in Luther's life to those who are called to pastoral ministry. In this regard, Piper states,

The immense implication of this for the pastoral ministry is that we pastors are essentially brokers of the Word of God transmitted in a Book. We are fundamentally readers, and teachers and proclaimers of the message of the Book. And all of this is for the glory of the incarnate Word and by the power of the indwelling Spirit. But neither the indwelling Spirit nor the incarnate Word leads us away from the Book that Luther called "the external Word." Christ stands forth for our worship and our fellowship and our obedience from the "external Word." This is where we see the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:6). So it's for the sake of Christ that the Spirit broods over the Book where Christ is clear, not over trances where he is obscure.

This talk reminded me once again of the importance of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) as the formal principle of the Reformation. One of the factors that plunged the church into the dark ages was that the Bible was obscured and eclipsed by the Roman church and its emphasis on tradition and papal authority. The Reformers rediscovered the authority and power of Scripture and unleashed it in their preaching, writing, and living. Luther translated the Scriptures into German so the "man in the pew" could read it for himself. The captivity of the church in spiritual and moral darkness was due to the captivity of the Word. Luther and the other Reformers restored the Bible to its rightful place in the church.

There are still influences at work in the church which would seek to marginalize the Word of God. Subjectivism is epidemic even among evangelicals. Experientialism and emotionalism are constant dangers when experience and emotion are no longer tethered to the "external Word." When we consider the lives and labors of the Reformers, we are reminded of the necessity of keeping the Word of God central in the life and ministry of the church.

As we celebrate Luther's act of nailing the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg, let us also renew our commitment to Sola Scriptura.

For those interested in listening to Dr. Piper's talk on Luther, you can find it here.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Confessionally Conservative and Functionally Liberal

James Hamilton has written a provocative article entitled, The Greatest Danger Facing the Church (found here). It is one of those articles that caused me to evaluate my own ministry model and method. It would certainly be a good article for pastoral search committees to read.

Hamilton ably points out the dangerous influence of pragmatism on ministers and the ministry.

Pastors who present Christianity as therapy and self-help do not present Christianity. They are like the liberals that J. Gresham Machen denounced. Machen said that people who don’t believe the Bible should be honest and stop calling themselves Christians, because they have in fact created a new religion that is not to be identified with Christianity. Similarly, the promoters of the American religion of self-help and therapeutic pop-psychology ought to be honest: they don’t believe the Bible is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness" (2 Tim 3:16).

If they believed that the Bible really does contain everything we need to be saved and to live lives that are pleasing to God, they would preach the Bible from their pulpits. Not only would they preach the Bible, trusting that God has revealed what he thinks his people need, trusting that God knows better than they do what is relevant, they would organize their churches according to the dictates of the Bible rather than the dictates of the market and the corporate world.

Amen Professor Hamilton! One of the tell-tale signs that a church has adopted this approach to ministry is the disappearance of biblical exposition. Churches which have embraced the pragmatic approach to ministry still confess their belief in the inerrancy and authority of the Bible. In fact, many of them would be first in line to decry the "liberalism" of those who would dare dispute the doctrine of inerrancy. Yet, these same churches have largely abandoned the exposition of the Scriptures in their preaching and teaching. They are confessionally conservative but functionally liberal. They embrace the inerrancy of Scripture in their confessions and deny the sufficiency of Scripture in their practices.

By preaching the Bible, I am not referring to simply using a text of Scripture as a departure point for proclaiming your opinions. It is not using a biblical text as a launch pad for the latest "five steps to ___________." Preaching the Bible means making the point of your sermon the point of a biblical text. It is explaining the meaning of the biblical text, in its proper context, and making appropriate application for life from that text. It is allowing the text of Scripture to dictate the shape of the message rather than imposing the shape of the sermon on the biblical text. It is studying the text and allowing the text to set the preaching agenda rather than prioritizing our agenda and searching for some verses to prop it up.

Expositional preaching demonstrates in practice what our high view of Scripture dictates to us in theory. Exposition reveals that the preacher really believes 2 Timothy 3:16 - all Scripture is God-breathed and profitable. It is biblical conservatism in action. As Professor Hamilton rightly warns, preachers who eclipse the Word of God with a pragmatic "whatever works" approach to ministry pose a danger to the spiritual health of the church.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Incalculable Usefulness of Controversy

It is amazing to note the similarity between the religious atmosphere in which Spurgeon lived and the religious atmosphere in which we find ourselves today. During Spurgeon's day there was such an emphasis on unity that truth was suffering. It was considered by many impolite and "sectarian" to vigorously disagree with other Christians over issues of doctrine. It was a greater sin to be controversial than to be biblically incorrect.

Fast forward to our time. Do we not see the same tendencies prevalently displayed among many evangelicals? I am no expert on post-modernism, but certainly one of the effects of the influence of post-modernism in theological discussion is the tendency to avoid any sort of absolutism and embrace uncertainty. It is considered uncharitable to insist that certain things are absolutely and demonstrably true from the Word of God.

We can learn a great deal from Spurgeon in this regard. Spurgeon spoke of the "incalculable usefulness of controversy" in the church. He spoke about how such vigorous debate of theological issues serves to keep the church alert and always vigilant for the truth. In this regard Spurgeon wrote,

I am quite sure that the best way to promote union is to promote truth. It will not do for us to be all united together by yielding to one another's mistakes. We are to love each other in Christ; but we are not to be so united that we are not able to see each other's faults, and especially not able to see our own. No, purge the house of God, and then shall grand and blessed times dawn on us.

There are some issues being hotly discussed among Southern Baptists right now. Things such as baptism, private prayer language, and Calvinism are subjects which have created some controversy among us. We need not fear the civil, biblically-oriented discussion of these issues. Such discussions give us an opportunity to evaluate our convictions in light of God's Word and articulate them more clearly.

Ideally, the outcome of such discussions would be healthy in two directions. First, there is the opportunity to confirm with greater certainty the essential doctrines of the faith and articulate them with increased clarity and fervor. Second, there is the opportunity to clarify which doctrines define the distinctive confessional heritage of Southern Baptists. These two are not necessarily the same. In other words, there are some doctrines that define evangelical Christianity as a whole. Such doctrines would normally be considered essentials of the gospel itself. There are other doctrines that define us as "Baptist" Christians. These doctrines may or may not be among the doctrines which define evangelicalism in a larger sense. For example, Baptists insist on believers baptism as a prerequisite for church membership. This is a Baptist distinctive (not for Baptists alone, but a distinctive nonetheless). We do not suggest that one must hold to believers baptism to be an evangelical Christian. Yet, we do insist on it to be a Baptist.

Some among us probably lament these controversies. I do not. I agree with Spurgeon that such disagreements, when pursued in a Christ-like spirit, really do serve the church. Let us remember that when the Conservative Resurgence began in SBC life, there were those who cried down the controversy as unchristian and uncharitable. Where would be today if men like Criswell, Patterson, Pressler, Rogers, and countless unnamed pastors and church members had prized unity above truth?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Trifling or Trembling

I am currently reading The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray. Murray writes about Spurgeon's early years as a preacher at Park Street Chapel in Southwark . Thousands thronged to hear Spurgeon preach in the chapel and the meeting halls rented to accomodate their numbers. He was a popular preacher who quickly reached "celebrity status" in England. This is heady stuff for a young man in his early twenties.

The amazing thing is how grounded Spurgeon was in his understanding of his role as a preacher. He did not allow the clamor of the crowds to distract him from a singular focus on his responsibility to faithfully declare God's truth. The following quotes from Spurgeon cited by Murray give us a feel for Spurgeon's priorities in preaching.

We tremble lest we should misbelieve; and tremble more - if you are as I am - lest we should mistake and misinterpret the Word...To preach the whole truth is an awful charge. You and I, who are ambassadors for God, must not trifle, but we must tremble at God's Word.

It were better for me that I had never been born than that I preach to these people carelessly, or keep back any part of my Master's truth. Better to have been a devil than a preacher playing fast and loose with God's Word, and by such means working the ruin of the souls of men...

It occurs to me that our age is an age of trifling rather than trembling at God's Word. The Spurgeons have given way to the Osteens of the world. It seems that in some circles the less serious you take the Word of God, the more likely you are to get a large following. The urgent, careful, precise, pointed, and passionate preaching of the biblical text has been replaced by an amalgum of motivational speeches and stand-up comedy.

Little wonder that the church has lost its spiritual power and authority when the men behind her pulpits trifle rather than tremble at God's Word. What our churches need are men whose minds and hearts are on fire with God's truth; men whose chief aim is to please the One who called them to declare His glory to the people. I know this is what my church needs. When such men stand each week and preach the Word of God in this fashion, it will render churches which have a sense of the majesty of God and take His Word seriously.

We don't need a survey or a case study to know that this is true. God has already told us that He will bless preachers and Christians who embrace such an attitude toward His Word. He tells us in Isaiah 66:2:

This is the Lord's declaration, I will look favorably on this kind of person: one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and who trembles at My word.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Who Is Behind the Marginalization of the Cross?

I've been working through Matthew 16:18-23 for the last couple of weeks. Following the interaction between Peter and Jesus will give you a case of spiritual whiplash. In verses 13-20, Peter makes a stunning messianic confession about Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God. Through a play on words, Jesus then informs Peter that this confession and Peter's subsequent ministry of proclaiming it are the "rock" upon which Jesus will build the church (the words "Peter" and "rock" come from the same root word in Greek).

Then, in verses 21-23, Jesus begins to speak plainly to His disciples about what will happen to Him in Jerusalem. He will suffer and die at the hands of the Jewish religious leaders. Immediately Peter takes Jesus aside and rebukes Him telling Him that this will never happen! Jesus then says to Peter, "Get behind me Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests but on man's." Wow. Talk about going from a rock to a clod in record time.

This interaction between Peter and Jesus renders some penetrating thoughts. Peter was trying to get Jesus to take a path other than suffering and death on a cross. This is exactly what Satan was trying to do through tempting Jesus as recorded in Matthew 4. Jesus responds to Peter in the same words in Matthew 16 as He did to Satan in Matthew 4 - get away or get behind me. In addition, Jesus tells Peter that his attitude toward Jesus' prediction of His suffering and death reveals a man-centered perspective rather than a God-centered one. So, anyone who tries to marginalize the cross is pursuing a path that is characteristic of the devil and fallen humanity.

This has some far-reaching implications for individual Christians and for churches. For instance, when we Christians hide the gospel and its implications in personal relationships, business, leisure pursuits, etc. so as to avoid at all costs any kind of personal loss or suffering we are marginalizing the cross of Christ. When pastors gloss over or leave out the more offensive aspects of the gospel (sin, hell, substitutionary atonement) in order to draw larger crowds, we are marginalizing the cross. When churches lower the expectations of discipleship to the point where following Jesus is all about me, my family, my success, my happiness, etc. we are marginalizing the cross.

When we obscure the cross of Christ and the cross He calls us to carry, we are thinking and acting more like devils than disciples. When we "take Jesus aside" so to speak and rebuke Him by tyring to make His message more palatable to fallen human beings in the name of getting a better response, we are not promoting Christ's cause but Satan's. I wonder how often Jesus would like to say to me, "get out of my way...you are a stumbling block to me?" Would He say this to my church and yours?

May God help us to embrace the cross rather than apologize for it. May we never unwittingly play the pawn of the prince of the power of the air by avoiding the cross or distracting others from the way of the cross. Rather, let us follow Jesus in the way of the cross realizing that when we lose our lives for Jesus' sake, we truly find them.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

School of Providence and Prayer

I am writing this from the computer lab at NOBTS. This seminary is known as the "school of providence and prayer." I believe it. It is nothing short of incredible how God has enabled the school to remain strong during the aftermath of Katrina. Of course, things are not back to pre-Katrina status. Yet, NOBTS is not just surviving. It is thriving.

Last night we attended the presentation of a musical called "Someone Is Praying Me Through." It was a wonderful time of worship focused on the importance and power of prayer for the people of God. It encouraged my soul. It has been good to reconnect with friends from other places across the SBC. I also got to spend a little time with my good friend Dr. Stan Norman. I picked up his book entitled, "The Baptist Way." It is an excellent treatment of Baptist distinctives. I recommend it.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Off to New Orleans

Tomorrow I will make one of two annual trips to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary for a meeting of the trustees. It has been my privilege to be part of this board since 2004. It is a great experience being involved with other men and women from across Southern Baptist life in the task of providing oversight to one of our six SBC seminaries. During my short time on the board, the seminary has been through some interesting times. Early in my service we faced the issue of Sole Membership which had to do with how the legal relationship between NOBTS and the SBC would be defined. Recently, NOBTS has been dealing with the impact of Hurricane Katrina. Needless to say, it has been anything but boring.

I have marveled at the resilience of the seminary faculty and administration. I have marveled at the outpouring of support from the SBC family for the seminary during the dark days of Katrina. I have marveled at the steady and passionate leadership of Dr. Chuck Kelley. I have marveled at the financial administration of Clay Corvin (seminary finance man). I have marveled at the vigorous extension center program maintained by NOBTS. All in all, it has been a marvelous thing to behold!

I have a deep appreciation for theological education. It has been a major influence in my own life and ministry. Having experienced it from the "student" side, I now have the opportunity to get a taste of it from the administrative side. I am thankful to Southern Baptists for this learning experience. It is a powerful thing to see the impact that cooperation makes on the training of future pastors, missionaries, ministers, educators, and others who benefit from our seminaries.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Examining Our Criteria for Success

I read a thought-provoking article today about Pastoral Ambition here. The author of the article spoke frankly about the pressure of ambition in the church today. All honest pastors would say they have felt the seductive power of such ambition. Most pastors have attended pastors meetings or conferences where they feel the pressure to be able to boast of a "growing" church which statistically demonstrates increases in attendance, baptisms, budgets, and facilities. I have certainly felt this pressure and, to my shame, on occasion succumbed to it.

The prevailing culture in evangelicalism feeds this sort of suspender popping among pastors. When asked if their church is growing, many pastors only speak in terms of statistics and prestige in the community. If we examine it honestly, this criteria for growth and success in ministry isn't much different than the criteria used by big name retailers. Success is measured by how many customers we have, sales numbers, and return business. In this scheme, churches become retailers, pastors become salesmen or marketing strategists, and the gospel becomes a commodity to package and sell to consumers. It is no wonder in such an environment that pastors (and congregations for that matter) become enamored with ambition.

This model for success strikes me as patently unbiblical. How does the Bible define success? In a word faithfulness. Paul wrote 1 and 2 Timothy to encourage his spiritual son Timothy, who was serving the church in Ephesus. In these letters we see the sage advice of a seasoned veteran pastor to a younger pastor. Paul repeatedly encourages Timothy to pursue faithfulness.

This charge I entrust to you, Timothy, my child, in accordance with the prophecies previously made about you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience (1 Tim. 1:18).

Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim. 4:14-16).

But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith (1 Tim. 6:11-12).

Follow the pattern of sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you (2 Tim. 1:13-14).

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15).

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort with complete patience and teaching (2 Tim. 4:1-2).

The verses above remind us that the measure of pastoral success is faithfulness to God and His Word and faithfully discharging the duties of the ministry. We may all be surprised one day to find that the most "successful" pastors and churches were ones whose ministries garnered no worldly acclaim. They will be pastors and churches who labored in loving faithfulness with a single eye to the pleasure of Christ.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Primer on Being "Missional"

Our friends at Nine Marks Ministries have done another great service to us by providing some excellent articles on the concept of being "missional." The concept of being missional has come to the forefront of evangelical discussion primarily because of its prominence among the emerging/emergent movement. There is a lot of talk right now about missional churches and being missional as a person. The articles at Nine Marks will provide a good overview of this concept. The footnotes and citations will also provide other places to look for further study.

Click here to begin reading these articles.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Privilege and Peril of Being a Pastor

I cannot remember who decreed that October was to be "Pastor Appreciation Month." I think it might have been Focus on the Family or some group like them. In any case, for several years now, it has been a tradition at our congregation to recognize and appreciate the pastors of our church. It is always a humbling experience for me. It is an experience that makes me feel wonderful and uncomfortable all at the same time! Last night we shared such a recognition time with our people.

Being a pastor is a great privilege. It is an unrivaled privilege to be called of God to serve His people in preaching, teaching, loving, counseling, and leading. There is much said and written today about the duties of ministry and the responsibilities of pastoring. Yet, we who are pastors ought never to forget the great privilege that is ours to serve our Lord and His church. I sometimes can't believe that I get paid to do what I so love doing - pastoring.

It is a privilege to be in a position to watch God working in the lives of others. Sometimes I get to see people born into the kingdom of God. Sometimes I get to see things "click" in the minds and hearts of believers as they understand some biblical truth for the first time. Other times I get to see how godly people are sustained by the grace of God through horrible difficulties. Every now and then I get to see how a godly man or woman lays down this earthly tent and slips into the presence of Jesus. Pastors have the great privilege of proximity to observe these wonderful workings of God in the lives of His people.

While I revel in the privilege of being a pastor, I also recognize there are perils involved. In his classic book The Reformed Pastor, Richard Baxter writes very directly to pastors about the perils of ministry. Here are a few excerpts from just one subsection of his motives for the oversight of the pastors life.

Take heed to yourselves, for the honor of your Lord and Master, and of his holy truth and ways, doth lie more on you than on other men. As you may render him more service, so you may do him more disservice than others. The nearer men stand to God, the greater dishonor hath he by their miscarriages; and the more will they be imputed by foolish men to God himself.

O brethren, could your hearts endure to hear men cast the dung of your iniquities in the face of the holy God, and in the face of the gospel, and of all that desire to fear the Lord? Would it not break your hearts to think that all the godly Christians about you should suffer reproach for your misdoings?

O take heed, brethren, of every word you speak, and of every step you tread, for you bear the ark of the Lord, — you are entrusted with his honor! ... And you are not unacquainted with that standing decree of heaven, ‘Them that honor me I will honor; and they that despise me shall be lightly esteemed.’ Never did man dishonor God, but it proved the greatest dishonor to himself. God will find out ways enough to wipe off any stain that is cast upon him; but you will not so easily remove the shame and sorrow from yourselves.

Such words ought to pierce the soul of a pastor. These words echo the apostolic directive to "pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16)." These words drive me to Christ for His grace to persevere and protect the purity of my life and His gospel.

One of the most meaningful things that happened last night during our pastor appreciation time was the way it closed. One of our elders passed out some sheets of paper with Colossians 1:9-12 printed on it. He then proceeded to ask our congregation to pray for the pastors each day during the month of October. What a blessing it is to a pastor to have the congregation beseeching God on his behalf. Only by the grace of God can a pastor properly deal with the privileges and perils of his office.