December 3, 2009

Rejoicing in the Ministry of a Church-Planting Church

A few months ago, I was introduced to a pastor in London, England, Barry King, through the kind words of another pastor in Farmersville, Texas, Bart Barber. Dr. Barber knew of my long experience with the British churches and of my own desire to see a revival occur in Great Britain. Christianity has fallen on hard times all over Western Europe; for instance, in England, church attendance is limited to less than 5% of the population, and the fastest growing religion is not even Christianity but Islam. I have been sharing the faith with unbelievers in Great Britain for some 15 years during my frequent visits there including a three-year residency at Oxford University. It has always been difficult for me to recommend that a new Christian attend a church there, knowing that many of the most vibrant evangelical churches are unfortunately disorderly in their doctrine of the church. And, as for those churches who possess a more New Testament polity, they are typically consumed with unbiblical oddities such as theological liberalism, the modern charismatic movement, or hyper-Calvinism.

However, now I am elated to report that there is a church—indeed, a growing family of churches—that possesses three important characteristics of a proper church: a missionary mindset, a healthy view of scriptural proclamation, and a Christ-exalting New Testament ecclesiology. It is in these three areas, among many others, that Grace Baptist Church, whose home congregation is located in north London, excels. Six years ago, Brother King resigned another church in London because he could not affirm certain aspects of their philosophy of ministry. Having sought to maintain peace with that church even as he departed her service, he was subsequently approached by two men whom he had recently begun to disciple. They encouraged him to consider establishing a new work, one that would emphasize biblical teaching and missionary outreach.

Barry prayed about the matter with them and his family and they began meeting together weekly for worship and fellowship. A year and a half later Barry was approached by the remnants of a small evangelical Baptist church who possessed a building but were soon to be without a pastor. After further prayer, the group meeting with Barry and this small group of believers entered into a new covenant as a new congregation with an old building. The result was Grace Baptist Church, Wood Green, Haringey. Because of their missionary mindset, they chose to start new congregations in other parts of London whenever possible. Indeed, every time the church has grown to a certain size, they have sent several families off to start a new congregation elsewhere in London. To date, they have begun five new congregations with work set to begin in two additional areas early in the New Year, who remain in affiliation with Grace Baptist Church and whose ministers Brother King is mentoring in the Word of God. (They currently have opportunity to begin some 20 other congregations and desire to see a church-planting church in each of the 41 boroughs of London with work in each of the 635 neighborhoods in London.)

Recently, sitting in a coffee shop early one Sunday morning in Wood Green, I had the pleasure of questioning Barry as to how he began and was continuing the work. We noted that his congregations were primarily composed of new believers. Then, I queried him, “And how were these new believers won to Christ?” At first, Barry looked at me quizzically, but recognizing that I was being intentional in my questions, he responded, “Well, I meet somebody, say, in a coffee shop, and then I talk to them about what the Bible says about their need for reconciliation with God and how Jesus Christ is the only answer.” He then explained that he believed in the gospel of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection as the means of the salvation of all sinners, who must be born again with faith and repentance. He also explained that he believes biblical proclamation is the divinely ordained method of delivering that good news to lost people. I learned that he relied neither upon some humanly contrived church planting principle nor upon some emerging social ministry as his method for reaching the lost. Rather, he relied upon the Bible’s own method, which is to speak the Word directly in the hearing of as many lost people as will listen, encouraging them to believe (cf. Romans 10).

After this refreshing conversation about missional truth, we then proceeded to his church building, which like many in the British dissenting tradition was located off the main thoroughfare in a residential area. There, I was privileged to preach on the doctrine of believers-only baptism by immersion out of Romans 6 to his congregation. And during the service, I witnessed a wonderful man leading an expectant people to worship God with all their hearts and to hear God’s Word as the sole authority for their lives. We also heard reports from the ministers who are leading the church plants. These reports were, to say the least, personally inspiring and highly informative. Door-to-door evangelism, personal evangelism, street witnessing—Grace Baptist Church and its associated congregations were reaching the people of secularized multi-ethnic London, a society too many have deemed impenetrable, through a means that has been written off as old and unworkable, direct biblical proclamation.

Moreover, to my great delight, I was informed beyond a shadow of doubt that these churches followed the New Testament model in structuring and conducting their own lives as congregations. They begin with a covenant; they teach the entire counsel of God from the Bible regularly; they engage regenerate church membership by accepting only believers who have witnessed to their conversion through biblical baptism; they maintain authentic church membership through the regular meaningful observance of the Lord’s Supper; and, when necessary, practice redemptive church discipline. I was shocked. Here, in modern London, is a group of churches who recognize and honor the same truth as the first Baptist churches of seventeenth century England, who in turn emulated the New Testament church as established by Jesus Christ.

Well, there is so much more to report—the unremarked yet wonderful composition of the churches across ethnic, racial, and national boundaries; the intentional outreach to those who evangelical ecumenists may unwittingly and hastily mistake for true Christians (because, unlike Grace Baptist Church, they neglect to exercise spiritual discernment); the placement of the need for new congregations as primary and their own church building as important yet secondary; the centrality of the Bible in worship and the prominence of the gospel in every verbal action. Let me summarize what God is doing in north London through the ministry of Barry King and Grace Baptist Church by saying that I find great joy in this man’s ministry. He is leading people to follow Jesus exactly as the Lord has revealed His will in Scripture, not from legalistic motives but with thanksgiving in response to God’s saving grace. Moreover, as a non-Calvinist, I am overjoyed to report that Barry and his congregation were more concerned about what Scripture had to say than about whether or not I was personally holding to their own quite orthodox and evangelistic Calvinist convictions. May God glorify Himself far into the future through the joyful ministry of this church-planting church extraordinaire.

October 12, 2009

Karl Barth Demonstrates the Insufficiency of Reformed Theological Prolegomena

In The Formation of Christian Doctrine, I discussed four major options for Christian foundations in theological method. These were the (1) Roman Catholic, (2) Liberal Evangelical, (3) Reformed Evangelical, and (4) Free Church models. At one point, I criticized Gerhard Ebeling for ignoring the Free Church model in his understanding of Christian history, wherein he offered only a threefold paradigm, subsuming the Free Church understanding under the "Enthusiastic" as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Reformed models. Here, I would like to extend the critique of insufficient paradigms toward that premier Reformed theologian Karl Barth.

In his Church Dogmatics, I/1, under his discussion of "The Task of Prolegomena to Dogmatics," Barth, similarly to Ebeling, presents only three possible models for Prolegomena: (1) Roman Catholicism, (2) Protestant Modernism, and (3) Protestant Evangelical. These three models correlate to the first three models that I set out in chapter 2 of my book. The fourth model, that of the Free Church, is, however, woefully underestimated by Barth.

Barth, incredibly, subsumes the Free Church understanding within Protestant Modernism. Indeed, without any historical justification for such a dependence, he states that the assumption of Friedrich Schleiermacher, that faith is prior to dogmatic formation, has its "origin in English congregationalism" (p. 38). He then cites articles 20, 23, and 24 of the Platform of the Savoy Declaration as proof, adding further, "They and they alone could authorise Schleiermacher to commence his basic work of introduction with statements borrowed from ethics. And of themselves they are sufficient to characterise these borrowed statements as dogmatics, i.e., dogmatically heretical statements" (ibid.)

So, there you have it, according to Barth, the Free Church theological method is really the basis for Evangelical Liberalism, and the result is "dogmatically heretical statements." Unfortunately, Barth does not justify these statements beyond his cryptic reference to the Savoy Declaration. Later, in the Church Dogmatics and in numerous other writings, Barth will pursue, repeatedly and without satisfactory finality, the problem of relating ethics with dogmatics, a subject treated exhaustively in many of the works of my old professor, John Webster, now at Aberdeen University. Barth never could make the transition from dogmatics to ethics, try as he might, because he was constantly worried that human agency just might impinge upon divine grace.

As I argued during a lecture delivered at Aberdeen a few years ago, Barth would have benefited by a close reading of the work of Pilgram Marpeck. Marpeck, in my opinion, was able to weave his way clearly through the problem of grace and discipleship by allowing the latter an integral function within his theological foundation. In doing so, Marpeck demonstrated a way past the knotty problem that has held Reformed dogmatics in an irresolvable philosophical grip, a grip demonstrated in Barth's own philosophical ruminations regarding the doctrine of election. (Yes, even Barth, in spite of his Christological reading of Romans 9, could not escape the Stoical bases of Reformed thought.)

What I find of especial interest in Barth's flippant dismissal of the Free Church tradition is that he utilized the Savoy Declaration, in its discussions of the Gospel and Grace (art. 20), Oaths and Vows (art. 23), and the Civil Magistrate (art. 24). The Congregationalists/Independents who adopted the Savoy Declaration were, in many ways, just as enamored as Barth with Reformed speculations regarding divine election. However, in article 20, an article that they added to the Westminster Confession, they did leave some room for human response and personal transformation: "for the producing in them a new spiritual life."

And in articles 23 and 24, this opening is explored again. In discussing the taking of an oath, the human person is protected from external coercion with this statement: "neither may any man bind himself by oath to any thing, but what is good and just, and what he believeth so to be, and what he is able and resolved to perform." Again, though in an apparently post-conversion context, the idea of a fully involved personal response by a human being is advocated.

Barth's reference to Article 24, on the Civil Magistrate, is highly disturbing, for in the Westminster Confession, the government is called upon in no uncertain terms to enforce the godly faith. The Savoy Declaration, however, respectful of human responsibility, qualifies the role of the government, bringing the liberty of individual consciences into direct conversation with government authority, protecting the former, in a limited sense, from impingement by the latter.

Let me wrap up this little exercise by noting the problems here with Reformed theological methodology, as exemplified in Karl Barth. By divorcing discipleship from doctrine, Reformed theology has created an irresolvable dilemma that prefers speculation about election to dependence upon scriptural affirmations. By citing his difficulty with the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is uncomfortable with personal responsibility and personal transformation, which are integral to any biblical doctrine of faith. Finally, again, by citing the Savoy Declaration, Barth has demonstrated that Reformed theology is, in its genesis, grossly dependent upon the coercion of consciences through, though here he is later equivocal, infant baptism.

October 5, 2009

Is Communion for Sinners?

Recently, a friend passed me the link to a video promotion for a DVD entitled "Communion." It is an interesting video (and painfully slow, so be warned!) It is interesting in that the author(s) seems to present the Lord's Supper as indiscriminately intended for all sinners. But this is too simple of a solution, and does violence to the biblical witness.

It is an indisputable truth that all human beings, other than Jesus Christ, are tainted by sin. This is what makes us worthy of the eternal punishment of death. Death, of course, is separation from God. And the Son of God took on our humanity in order to suffer the penalty of death for us on the cross and rise from the dead so that we might have eternal life. Christ came to save sinners from sin and its consequence of death, which ends in eternal punishment away from the comforting presence of God. One is saved through being born again, which accompanies faith in Him and repentance toward God (John 3).

Unfortunately, the video's author, in this short promotion, presents the Lord's Supper as being intended for all sinners indiscriminately. But is this the case? Is communion intended for all sinners? Absolutely not!

When the Corinthian church demonstrated a penchant for gross immersion in the sins of the wider culture of their day, Paul rebuked them in no uncertain terms. The point he repeatedly made in the Corinthian correspondence was that the Lord's Supper was to be reserved only for the regenerate church. Those who were still infatuated with the sinful culture of Corinthian paganism were reminded that communion with God and communion with the devil are incompatible (1 Cor 10:20-21). The Corinthians were warned that they must be separate from the world: "'Come out from their midst and be separate,' says the Lord, 'and do not touch what is unclean; and I will welcome you'" (2 Cor 6:17).

In other words, I believe that, according to Scripture, the ordinance of communion, practiced by the churches at the direct command of Jesus Christ, is to be reserved for sinners who have been born again and are pursuing a life of repentance. Are the unholy invited into communion with the Holy One? Yes, indeed. But, first, there must be a transformation prior to communion. Sinners must repent and believe; otherwise, they are still sinners subject to the judgment of God. Moreover, such repentance from sin and faith in Christ must continue to characterize the Christian's life.

Paul warned that those who continued in sin are subject to divine judgment precisely because they were unrepentant sinners. "For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly" (1 Cor 11:29). The body must be judged. "The body," of course, is a common Pauline metaphor for the church. Individual Christians, in other words, must examine their own consciences (1 Cor 11:28), and Christians in the local church must hold one another accountable for one another's doctrine and conduct (1 Cor 11:29).

A concrete example in Corinth occurred with a young man involved in gross sexual sin. The speech of the Corinthian church had become so saturated with vice that she overlooked a situation by which even the pagans would be shocked (1 Cor 5:1). But rather than pass over the matter in silence, or make excuses for it, Paul called the church to take immediate action. As an Apostle, Paul recognized the need for the congregation itself to exercise governance through the application of discipline. The church must repent of its habit of condoning gross sin and excommunicate the sinner. When the church gathered, it must remove the sinful person "in the power of the Lord Jesus" and return him to the realm of Satan, i.e., the world (1 Cor 5:2-5).

The action of the Corinthian church in disciplining the unrepentant sinner was necessary, in spite of the difficulty it might bring to all involved. Yet, the difficulties were worth what seems to have been the result. Rather than continue condoning sexual sin, the majority of the Corinthian church seems to have obeyed and applied church discipline. This resulted in getting the sinner's attention, bringing to him great sorrow, and as a result, he repented. Paul then called the church to restore the repentant sinner to fellowship (2 Cor 2:1-9). Through discipline, an unrepentant sinner who thought he was already a Christian but did not act like it, was brought to repentance and faithfulness towards Christ.

My friends, our churches must seek to maintain their public purity. On the one hand, the church will never be perfect until all Christians gather (for the first time as one) at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:7-8). On the other hand, the members of the church are commanded by Christ to help one another towards repentance and a faithful lifestyle even now. If an individual Christian will not repent of publicly-known sin, then he or she must be excluded by the church (and only by the church--there is no room for elders arrogating to themselves the power of church discipline) for the purpose of loving redemption (Matt 18:15-17).

Let it be clearly noted that the intended outcome is, ultimately, the redemption of the sinner. Punishment is entirely in the purview of God alone, but loving discipline is given by the Lord to the church to practice when necessary. The church is to separate from unrepentant sinners in order that they might prompt one another through the covenantal life of the community to follow Christ completely.

So, we come back to the question prompted by the subject video: Is communion for sinners? Yes, but not without discrimination. Communion is only for sinners who have been born again. We know we are truly born again only because we are repenting of sin and are seeking to live lives faithful to the high call of Jesus Christ in discipleship.

Perhaps the video that prompted this short essay goes further into these matters. Unfortunately, the website does not clarify. I hope the full content is better than the presentation available publicly, for what they have posted online presents a highly distorted picture of the scriptural witness. For more on the biblical understanding of the regenerate church practicing close communion, see the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 articles on the church (art. 6) and on baptism and the Lord's Supper (art. 7).

Jesus is the Lord of His churches, which means that He is to be followed in what He commands them.

September 25, 2009

Unauthorized Consent: An Old Essay Addresses New Problems

Yesterday, somebody affiliated with the Baylor community re-posted a paper on their discussion forum, which I originally wrote in 2002 . If you have not heard, the Baylor University Administration is seeking to shut down all dissent by swallowing the independent Baylor Alumni Association whole. Read about their attempt here.

For Moderate Baptists

It is somewhat curious to me that a school community affiliated with the more moderate side of the Baptist equation now includes an appeal to the work of a conservative Baptist scholar. Why? Because moderate Texas Baptists, who have prided themselves on being Baptist, find that they are losing their Baptist way of being community. If that popular-style essay, written some 7 years ago, is of any help to these fellow Baptists, I will rejoice, even across the moderate/conservative divide.

A Warning For All Baptists

But moderate Baptists are not the only ones who need to be reminded of our principles. In light of the fact that we are always in danger of losing our Baptist identity when some Baptists seek to remove other Baptists from their rightful place at the table, I am re-posting that essay. "Unauthorized Consent" applies to more situations than the gross practice of liberal-leaning self-perpetuating boards.

The only way we will remain Baptists (i.e. New Testament churches) by conviction is when we remember the theological principles upon which we are built. The priesthood of all believers and congregationalism are non-negotiable essentials in our Baptist identity. If we neglect those truths, we will become Baptists by convenience rather than Baptists by conviction, and, eventually, we will lose the name as well as the substance.

You may access the essay, "Unauthorized Consent," originally published in the Missouri Baptist Pathway, in Adobe format here.

September 11, 2009

Top Twelve Reading List Recommended for All Christians Everywhere

Recently, I was asked (yet again) for a recommended reading list for young people preparing for ministry. Next to the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, I recommend that every Christian read the following works, which span the history of the Christian witness. They will increase your personal faith and deepen your theological convictions as you also bear witness to a fallen world of the saving grace available only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. I do hope they compel you to a closer walk with the Lord, as they did and still do with me.

Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word

Augustine, Confessions

Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther

Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Balthasar Hubmaier, The Christian Baptism of Believers

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress (both books)

Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria

William Carey, An Enquiry into the Obligations of Christians to Use Means for the Conversion of the Heathens

J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (or simply, Discipleship)

John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Note: Some of these books are longer than others; some will be more difficult than others (so don't get bogged down, just keep going!); some may be available in multiple translations; some are available freely on the web; others will require purchase or library loan. If you can read these books in the original Greek, Latin, German or English forms, so much the better; however, modern translations will be more than adequate. Although it would be best for you to learn both Greek and Hebrew, so that you may more adequately approach the original biblical texts, you may want to begin your biblical language studies with an Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, or an interlinear text that correlates the Greek New Testament with your own primary language.

September 10, 2009

A Tribute to My Father

My father is known as Mel Yarnell to his friends and family. He is the son of a Pennsylvania farmer who left the farm to join the United States Air Force, where he served for 27 years as a security officer and recruiter, before retiring in Louisiana. A strong believer in Jesus Christ who is a consistent witness to lost souls, he has always looked for ways to bless others who are in need. The dynamic nature of his love for others is seen in how he continues to do what he can for them in spite of having suffered a debilitating stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body a few years ago. My father's life story was recently summarized in "The Posse Press," a publication offered by the Bossier Sheriff's office. This provides some details about my father, a Christmas blessing to the people of Korea, and how he met my mother. I am proud of both of them.

June 5, 2009

The Relevance of the Past for a Great Commission Resurgence

FIRST-PERSON: The relevance of the past for a Great Commission resurgence
By Malcolm Yarnell
Jun 4, 2009

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--At the beginning of the 20th century, Southern Baptists numbered 1.6 million people. And now, at the beginning of the 21st century, Southern Baptists number over 16 million people.

The story of Southern Baptists in the 20th century is the growth story of a communion of free churches who focused upon telling lost people the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, in recent years, our baptisms have slowed and our growth has been tempered. Why has this happened? And does our past hold any lessons for our future? How may we truly reclaim the growth habits of our forefathers and the resurgence in our hearts of Christ's Great Commission?

As the editor of the Southwestern Journal of Theology, I have been reading through our earliest issues. In the midst of that, I repeatedly encountered denominational leaders issuing powerful affirmations of the fundamentals of the Christian faith alongside equally powerful affirmations of the fundamentals of Baptist identity. They understood the fundamentals of the Christian faith to focus on Christ, Scripture, the cross, divine grace and personal discipleship. They understood the fundamentals of Baptist identity to focus on the Lordship of Christ and His will for His churches. These leaders, from many places and walks within the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, simultaneously shared a passion for the Gospel along with a passion for obedience to the commands of Jesus Christ, especially His Great Commission.

In the midst of this reading, I also discovered a general foreboding about the future of Christianity, alongside a sense of profound excitement, especially regarding the future of Southern Baptists. As we know from our current vantage point, Southern Baptists entered their period of greatest growth in the middle decades of the 20th century. Our amazing growth was truly the work of God in the midst of our churches. And the mid-century growth was laid upon the foundational work He performed with our forefathers in the early part of the century. What characterized the foundational work of those early 20th-century forefathers? And what may we learn from them about how to prepare for an advance in the Great Commission of Jesus Christ?


To answer these questions properly, some historical matters in the early 20th century must be addressed. During this period, the United States entered and emerged from its first engagement in world war. At that time, Americans were at war with German imperialism, just as now, we are in the midst of a war against Islamic terrorism. Also, in the religious realm, things were similar to today. There had been a powerful call by evangelical missionaries for a common missionary endeavor both in the United States and throughout the world. Internationally, these efforts were centered in the famous meetings in Edinburgh in 1910, which culminated in the World Council of Churches.

In the United States, the drive for ecumenism was led by John R. Mott, a young evangelical who succeeded the great revivalist D.L. Moody at the YMCA. Mott's efforts gained steam and became known as the "Union Movement," because it called for lowering denominational barriers between evangelical Christians in the name of "efficiency" and "unity" in Christ. From within the Southern Baptist Convention, L.R. Scarborough, president of Southwestern Seminary, led the effort to denounce unionism in its various forms. Even as he defended a biblically based spiritual unity, Scarborough and other Southern Baptists excoriated cross-denominational ecclesiastical unity for impinging upon the prerogatives of Christ over His churches.

Thus, many saw ecumenism as dangerous to spiritual Christianity, while others were interested in forming coalitions with other Christians for the greater cause of the Gospel. Things looked fairly bleak in the late 1910s as evangelical Christians divided into camps. In particular, it seemed as if Southern Baptists might dissipate their strength in a fight over evangelical cooperation. J.B. Gambrell, pastor and seminary leader, spoke soberly of the deep challenges leading into the 1919 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Atlanta, saying:

"The great war forced on Southern Baptists grave issues. They were precipitated on us in such a way that each man had to decide on his own course without any wide council. Unusual efforts were made by outside forces to capture and take over the leadership of the Southern Convention in the interest of plans destructive of the faith of the Gospel. The Convention in its Atlanta meeting was at the parting of ways. There was much heart-searching, and much prayer. Personally, I do not doubt that God, the Holy Spirit, dealt with the hearts of His people all over the South and prepared them aforetime for what happened in Atlanta. The Convention was the greatest ever assembled on this Continent, 4,200 messengers plus. It was widely representative. All the estates of Israel were there."

In spite of the troubles, perhaps God was not done with Southern Baptists. With the heaviness of his previous comments in mind and the largest-ever convention gathering before him, Gambrell believed that God still desired to move mightily in the midst of His churches. Reflecting later about what had happened at the 1919 meeting, Gambrell concluded, "The Spirit of grace and power was on the assembly." And looking back from here, we perceive that Gambrell may have actually understated the wide-ranging impact of God's grace and power in this convention.


And what did the Spirit of God lead the messengers of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention to do during their 1919 meeting? Out of a dark period arose something profoundly God-honoring and world-moving from within the Southern Baptist Convention. Alongside their defense of Christian truth and their defense of Baptist identity, our forefathers were interested in reaching the world for Christ. And God honored Southern Baptists as they followed a three-fold pursuit.

The efforts of our early 20th-century forefathers manifested themselves in three significant planks in our denomination's foundation: a compelling goal, a defined identity and a common program. First, their compelling goal was the fulfillment of the Great Commission of Jesus Christ. Second, their defined identity was evangelical Christianity of a firmly Baptist type. Third, their program was to further the Great Commission efforts of the local churches in ways respectful of the local church's authority.

In the case of the first plank, Southern Baptists had long received the Great Commission as their own, as sermons delivered in the churches and the writings in those early issues attest. Indeed, the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 has historically been the loudest refrain of the Baptists in general and of Southern Baptists in particular. The Great Commission was their compelling goal, just as it is ours.


But there were two additional acts representing the two other planks that Southern Baptists needed to form the basis for their future growth: a defined identity and a common program. According to Gambrell, "The Convention rose to its greatest height, and did two vastly significant things. It disposed of all questions of alliances with other orders holding different standards of faith and practice, by passing, with amazing spirit and unanimity, a carefully considered report, which defined the Baptist position so clearly, that all the world may understand. And the convention put on a program so large, so noble and so commanding as to challenge Southern Baptists as they have never been challenged before in their history."

In the case of a defined identity, the convention appointed a committee to write a Fraternal Address, which was soon followed by the first version of The Baptist Faith and Message. To drive home the point that Southern Baptists would maintain their Baptist identity, Gambrell, the president of the convention during that important year, listened patiently to the address of J.C. White. White had come from the evangelical Inter-Church Movement and was granted a place in the SBC program. After White spoke, Gambrell publicly grasped him by the hand at the podium and declared, "Baptists do not have popes. They never put anybody where they can't put him down ... and another thing: Baptists never ride a horse without a bridle."

"Baptists," according to the bold Gambrell, "do not have popes." This fierce defense of Christ's direct prerogative over His people has been echoed through the years, not only in the Southern Baptist Convention, but in the local associations and state conventions that preceded the national denomination by decades and centuries. Most importantly, that sense of singular devotion to Jesus Christ has its basis in the New Testament pattern of the local church, which is the only institution created by Jesus Christ to fulfill the Great Commission.


In the case of a common program, these earlier Southern Baptists believed that the local churches may and must support one another in their mutual efforts. The mutual cooperation of free New Testament churches for the purpose of fulfilling the Great Commission of Jesus Christ was the genius behind the programmatic efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention. And this third plank of Southern Baptist success, a common program, was dependent upon respect for the local church for its success. New Testament churches are autonomous under Christ and their independence was zealously guarded.

But Southern Baptists in these years also sought ways for the free churches to move forward together for the Gospel. They began by improving the church-supporting structure of the convention they had received. They recognized the need to help their two great foundational mission boards (Home and Foreign), as well as their growing number of seminaries and the Baptist Sunday School Board through improved means. In 1917, they created the Executive Committee as a better means to coordinate their broadening administrative needs. And in 1919, they wholeheartedly adopted the 75 Million Campaign as a better means to fund their common efforts to preach the Gospel and plant Baptist churches worldwide. The end result was the Cooperative Program and the basic structure of the national denomination as we see it, today.


And what was the result of this compelling goal of the Great Commission, the defined identity of Baptist Christianity, and this common program respectful of the local churches? Gambrell's own words resonate with our hope for a renewed sense of commitment to the Lordship of Jesus Christ over His churches, a commitment that is expressed as the churches fulfill the Great Commission given to us by Jesus Christ:

"Thus the healing tides of Southern Baptist life met and Jordan overflowed its banks. As never before in all their long history, Southern Baptists are together after Paul's ideal of efficiency -- 'in one spirit, with one mind, striving together for the faith of the Gospel.' At Atlanta a new era opened and we are in that day now. What Isaiah cried out for and some in our day have longed for came to pass. Southern Baptists awoke. They broke forth on the right hand and on the left hand. They are putting on their strength. They are enlarging the place of their habitation, and there is a new high note of courage and joy sounded out from every hilltop...."

Oh, Lord, send us a three-planked revival, again! Restore to our hearts an overwhelming to desire to fulfill Your Great Commission as defined by Your Word. Restore to our voices an evangelical identity of a distinctively Baptist type as gleaned from the New Testament. And restore to our ways remembrance that Your local churches are your ordained means and therefore our ordained program.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

© Copyright 2009 Baptist Press

Original copy of this story can be found at

June 1, 2009

Christ My Pleasure

Lord God, pity me: my infancy was stupid, my boyhood vain, my adolescence unclean. But now, Lord Jesus, my heart has been set on fire with holy love, and my disposition has been changed, so that my soul has no wish to touch those bitter things which once were meat and drink to me.

Such are my affections now that it is nothing but sin I hate, none but God I fear to offend, nothing but God in which I rejoice. My only grief is for sin, my only love is God, my only hope is in him. Nothing saddens me except wrong, nothing pleases me except Christ.

Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love (1343), ch. 12

May 6, 2009

The Pride of Scholars

Before, I supposed myself profound through Aristotelian dogmas and argumentation with men of limitless shallowness, when You touched me at my core with Your heavenly truth, dazzling me with Your scripture, scattering the clouds of my error, showing me how I was croaking with the frogs and the toads in the swamp.

Richard Fitzralph, Archbishop of Armagh (Mid-14th Century)

The recurrent temptation of those who have been blessed with the life of the mind, the contemplative life, is to find sufficiency in one's own mind. The above quote from Richard Fitzralph, a medieval theologian who exercised great influence upon John Wyclif, the so-called "morningstar of the Reformation," is only one such remonstration against such an attitude. As an historian at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary relays, the temptation to professorial elitisim was alive and well in the early 20th century.

Because scholarly pride continues to waylay the unwary academic in the early 21st century, I encourage my brothers and sisters in the academy to avoid such hubris as if it were a deadly virus. Some of my colleagues have wondered why I am so harshly critical of useless speculation in biblical and theological studies. The reason I despise scholarly pride is that it blinds us to our radical need for God and His grace towards us, both before and after justification. Academic arrogance also leads those who look to our words as authoritative down unbiblical paths. In other words, for me, scholarship or the scholar's attitude toward his or her work is fundamentally a spiritual issue.

After all, let us not forget that the first sin had to do with the tree of knowledge.

May 5, 2009

Another New Appointment

Thanks to the folks at B&H Academic Publishing in Nashville, Tennessee, for their recent appointment of this professor of theology as "Associate General Editor" for the "Studies in Baptist Life and Thought" series.

Alongside the appointment to a Fellowship at the "Centre for Baptist History and Heritage" at Oxford University, I am deeply honored.

April 24, 2009

The Relevance of a Change to Biblical Methodology

Yesterday, we learned that the baptism numbers reported by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention suffered another slight decline from 2007 to 2008 (3,743 fewer baptisms during the year or minus 1.08% to a total of 342,198). Total membership, too, suffered another even slighter decline (down 38,482 or minus 0.24% to a total of 16,228,438).

In comparison with the alarm being raised by these numbers, the use above of the words “slight” and “slighter” may seem something of a misnomer. However, an accurate description of the situation as “slight” should not be seen as an excuse, for the numbers indicate that at a number of local churches there really is a problem. Any decline in baptism or membership is a sign that we are not what we ought to be as instruments of God for converting the world. As a result of these declines, one leading denominational figure asked a pertinent question indeed, “What is the needed change and do you have hope that change is coming?”

“Change,” of course, can be understood, from a value perspective, in different ways. Change could be a transition for the better, that is, towards God’s will—the New Testament refers to this positively as “repentance toward God” (Acts 20:21). Or, “change” could be a transition to the worse, that is, away from God’s will—in the Old Testament, God refers to this negatively as when people “turn from following me” (1 Kings 9:6). A third alternative is to utilize the language of “change” as a mere mantra to cover some hidden agenda. For instance, many Americans, jaded by long experience, are apt to consider a politician’s call for change as deceptive and self-serving. When other Christians use the concept of “change,” we should assume the best, that they mean neither a turn from following God nor a hidden agenda.

With that positive call for “change” or “repentance” in mind, what would be a positive change on our part that may prompt God to bless the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention in manifestly great ways once again? By the way, let us assume that every one of those 342,198 baptisms in 2008 represent real blessings from God upon those born-again persons primarily, and secondarily upon their churches, their families, and their friends. When but one sinner repents and believes, the angels in heaven throw a party because they recognize God has glorified Himself in another life (Luke 15:7, 10).

With such appropriate celebrations in mind, still we should ask, “How might we see even more believers arise?” Our desire should be for even more souls to repent and believe in the divine-human person of the Lord Jesus and in His substitutionary work upon the cross and His resurrection. The focus in recent decades in our convention has been upon a pragmatic solution to such problems. There is some truth in pragmatism, but pragmatism must always be firmly grounded in Scripture to be truly effective. So then, what new method should we adopt to see a revival of God’s blessing upon Southern Baptists? What biblical method might there be to foster true revival in our churches?

The Biblical Method for Revival

Well, Scripture provides some answers that are quite clear. For instance, let us examine the tried and true locus classicus for every self-respecting church revival in which I ever participated: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).

Now, some crack Bible scholar might object that this passage is technically for Israel and not the church, which is certainly true in the literal sense. However, a similar restriction in application would deny Christianity use of the Old Testament as its own Scripture. Recognizing the Old Testament as Christian Scripture, I would argue that the church is certainly able to see itself in this promise. Moreover, the New Testament also promises Christians that God intends to bless the humble (James 4:10), those who pray (Luke 21:36), who seek His presence (Acts 3:19), and who turn away from sin (Acts 2:38).

Scripture, then, seems to affirm at least this fourfold methodology for bringing about revival: self-humbling, prayer, seeking God’s face, and turning away from sin. Now, I can offer you no social survey to verify that this method actually works to the satisfaction of men. Yet this method is advocated within the Word of God itself, so the believer may take it on faith that this is a divinely ordained method to seeing God bless our churches mightily once again. Let us consider the method in its four parts.

1. Self-humiliation

Self-humbling implies that the minister and the people of our churches must evaluate themselves honestly. Exactly who are we? Are we the giants about which we read in Scripture? Where is the Moses who can lead his people into what human logic would necessarily consider a dead-end wilderness, but faith sees beyond into the promised land? Where is the David who has encountered God in the difficulty of his own failures and yet trusts that God redeems those who will cry out in true repentance (Psalm 51)? Where is the follower of Jesus who understands that glory comes through self-renunciation on behalf of the other, and who is therefore more than ready to bear the cross? After all, the cross is the Christ ordained methodology of true revival, and such true revival focuses on the soul and takes its eyes off of the world (Mark 8:34-37). Revival begins with biblical evaluation and humility.

2. Prayer

Prayer teaches us that the minister and the people of our churches must not look to their own power to bring revival. “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,” is the method that the Lord gave to the people of Israel. And he gave it to them at their weakest point after returning from the Exile to the promised land (Zechariah 4:6). In a true revival, the leaders and the people of God will start their work in weakness, yet faith, and they will finish their work with shouts that it was grace from the beginning and grace to the very end that brought about the great work.

There is no room for human glory in a true revival; indeed, from a human perspective, true revival occurs in “the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). As the remnant that returned from exile discovered, it was only in their weakness that they were able to complete a great work of God. This is why they could finish the capstone work with shouts of “Grace, grace to it” (Zechariah 4:7). Ultimately, it is not a humanly devised method that wins men to God; it is divine grace working through a willing though weak people that wins men and women and children to faith. Our access to God’s sovereign grace on behalf of others begins and ends with humble prayer.

3. Seek God’s Face

Exactly what does it mean to seek God’s face? The answer lies in the biblical references to God’s face. “The face of God” is another way of speaking of the powerful disposition of God toward a creature. When Jacob saw God “face to face,” he walked away a changed man and considered himself blessed, in spite of the crippling blow he received from God (Genesis 32:30). True spiritual blessing is accompanied by a palpable change, sometimes even physical, always profoundly spiritual, in a person. Perhaps the memory of Jacob’s crippling blessing prompted Moses to turn away from God’s face at first (Exodus 3:6). People typically want God’s blessing; we just don’t want the temporarily painful and truly humbling transformation that comes with it. For one cannot have God’s presence without having His discerning holiness, too.

Solomon in his wisdom understood, moreover, that the face of God must be visible if salvation is to be possessed (2 Chronicles 6:42). When we want God to bless other men, men who in turn wish a blessing from God, then we must seek His face. If we will seek God’s face and if they will turn to God, He is faithful to bring a blessing (1 Kings 13:6). Perhaps what is holding back revival today is that many of us Christians refuse to surrender to God’s method because we don’t really want to see His face. For God’s face profoundly changes us, since we cannot see Him without seeing who we really are.

Today, standing under a tree, I myself saw the face of God in a fellow Christian, who reflected back to me the difficulty of my calling with regard to the deep things of God. The encounter changed me profoundly in ways that blessed me even as I felt the man within me crippled (again) by the reminder of both my task and my weakness. I thank God for letting me see His face in my friend. I pray that we Southern Baptists will follow His method and embrace the change He demands within our own souls, change that we may fear, change that we may not understand before it happens, but change that will benefit and cripple both us and the people whom God seeks to be His own.

4. Repentance from Wickedness

Positive change is not only about turning towards God through faith in the gospel of the grace of Jesus Christ. Positive change is also about turning away from cultural wickedness. Moreover, true repentance is impossible unless God gives it (John 16:8-10), even as true repentance must likewise be the personal exercise of the human being (Matthew 4:16, Acts 17:30).

Why is it important to repent from wickedness? First, those who do not truly repent of sin have cast a shadow of doubt upon their salvation. Second, those who do not repent of wickedness stifle the working of the Spirit of God in their lives. Third, those who continue to live in sin even while they claim the gospel of Jesus Christ bring disrepute to the church and cast aspersions upon their Lord’s character.

On the one hand, faith without repentance is the experiential basis of the ethical heresy of antinomianism. On the other hand, faith with repentance is the definition of true Christian conversion. I am reminded of Jesus’ haunting words, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). One cannot claim Jesus is Lord but then ignore His Lordship. Jesus is Lord of our lives and Lord of our churches. To deny Him sovereignty over one’s own life is to deny He is Lord. To deny Him sovereignty over His churches is to deny He is Lord. The fourth part of the biblical method of revival is repentance from wickedness, whether that sin is personal or congregational.


The question of my first friend, the denominational leader, is a good one. “What is the needed change and do you have hope that change is coming?” On the basis of Scripture, I would argue that the needed change for Southern Baptists is self-humiliation, prayer, seeking God’s face, and repenting of wickedness. This comes home to me personally now. I see the need for change in me and in my church. I also have hope that God can sovereignly use me, in spite of me. Why?

First, I have been humbled by God’s sovereign and very personal movement. Second, I have seen God’s face in a friend and was reminded of my difficult task. Third, I ask you to join me in prayer. For fourth, this weekend, I join my three sons and some twenty students alongside a seminary president as we go into the highways and byways of the Cross Timbers Association in west Texas. We go there to call men to repent of their wickedness and believe in the free gospel of Jesus Christ, a free gospel that can change anyone because it has changed me. Pray that men, women, and children will repent and believe and be baptized into the churches, including some churches that have not seen any baptisms this last year.

April 20, 2009

Southwestern Seminary Does Not Affirm Ecumenical "Tomfoolery"

The Union Movement does not go out with the idea of allegiance to doctrine and loyalty to the teachings of Jesus Christ. It goes on a spiritual camouflage of these doctrines. It asks the people to lay down their convictions of the truth. They propose for [...] all to lay down their former convictions and go into a church of scrambled religion. The church they would organize would sprinkle, pour and immerse. You would not have to claim any experience of grace to become a member. If you were opposed to baptism in any form or mode you could get in. You would neither have to have religious conviction nor moral character to be a member. You would have no distinctive doctrine to bind you. You would have to be led solely by a desire to get together in some form of worship so that you would save money in church buildings and local expenses, and be more efficient, as they think. All this sort of molly-coddle talk is tomfoolery. It is against the strength of character produced by conviction and allegiance to the truth of God. I am for Unionism as far as men can unite on a conviction and a loyalty to the Word of God and Jesus Christ. I am not for a patched up, convictionless Unionism. Unless there is unity in faith, doctrine and practice there can be no union and successful effort following. Christ laid down a program for uniting all people. It was that they should all repent of their sins, believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and by open and public confession of their faith in Him, by a baptism which was an immersion in water, and by a union with His regularly constituted church, followed by a life of loyalty to Him and His truth as laid down in the New Testament, and of heartful and spiritual service for the winning of the world to the Savior and the building up of His glorious kingdom. Any union of religion based on any other program is contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and cannot hold and will not hold together. If men cannot agree on the doctrines of the Word of God they should not unite in a church through which they propose to worship and serve God. But they can and should co-operate as far as their convictions of the truth will allow them, for the general good and uplift of humanity.
L.R. Scarborough, Editor-in-Chief, or C.B. Williams, Managing Editor, The Southwestern Journal of Theology, 3.1 (1919): 5-6

April 17, 2009

Rebuke One Who Has Understanding and He Will Discern Knowledge

For over a year now, I have been deeply concerned about some of the teaching that is being propagated by the leader of a Seattle church and of the Acts 29 movement, Mark Driscoll. Although previously expressing misgivings about the man's flippancy in an interview with New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in March 2008, I have since remained relatively silent. However, one of his more recent missives, released in November 2008, was absolutely horrifying to my wife and me. And now, at this time, because Mark Driscoll continues to gain recognition, and in order to support publicly the sober response of another minister, I have chosen to speak again to the matter.

One man's ministry that has repeatedly inspired many ministers to be more biblical and thus more like our Lord Jesus Christ, in word and in deed, over the years, is Dr. John MacArthur. Dr. MacArthur recently concluded a short series in Pulpit Magazine on proper and improper exegesis of the Song of Solomon and on the need for purity in the pulpit. His four-part series is a restrained approach to a recent rash of improper but otherwise unchallenged conduct by Mark Driscoll. MacArthur has shown incredible foresight even as other ministers, who continue to support Mark Driscoll, have apparently been rather reluctant to register rebuke.

The doctrinal moral of this sad tale is that any time that a preacher attempts to appropriate worldly methods to aid in the propagation of the gospel, he has already fundamentally compromised the gospel. The recent movement towards claiming that, "As long as our doctrine is correct, we can agree to use various methods," certainly carries some truth, but such a position is not to be taken naively. Methodology, too, is restrained by the commands of Christ, both positively with regard to the church's actions (preaching the Word, celebrating the ordinances, worshiping in spirit and in truth, etc.) and negatively with regard to personal and communal doctrinal and moral integrity. The issue in the present case is moral integrity: there simply is no way that the sacred and the profane, or Christianity and Hedonism, may be blended, even for altruistic "missional" reasons. In the very act of combining the holy--that which has been separated unto God--with the unholy, the result is assured to be profane (1 Cor. 5:6, 10:21).

Earlier this evening, as I spoke tenderly but firmly to my oldest son about how to treat a young lady properly when on a date, I prayed for him to have wisdom in such situations and he bowed his head in agreement. And later, as I tucked my two precious daughters into bed, moved in the depths of my heart by concern for them in a sinful world, I prayed for the Lord to give these girls godly husbands, who would treat them with a holy respect, in word and in deed, and they smiled in agreement. And tonight, as I conclude this post, I pray that the ministers of our nation, young and old, will see their task not to engage their cultures with reckless abandon but to carry their Christ-given crosses with bold holiness. Oh, Lord, hear this prayer! And, oh, reader, consider the wisdom of Proverbs 19:25!

Thank you, Dr. MacArthur, for your bold and needed stance in reminding us of these truths. May others see the wisdom in your words. (Note: If you are not a mature believer, please do not read the posts linked here. Although Dr. MacArthur handles the issues circumspectly, they are nevertheless for the mature.)
Dr. John MacArthur, "The Rape of Solomon's Song" (part 1)
"The Rape of Solomon's Song" (part 2)
"The Rape of Solomon's Song" (part 3)
"The Rape of Solomon's Song" (conclusion)

April 13, 2009

Centre for Baptist History and Heritage

Robert Ellis, the Principal of Regent's Park College at the University of Oxford, and his colleagues were kind enough to offer me a Fellowship of the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage. This is quite an honor and comes with a three-year appointment as a "Visiting Fellow."

The only disappointment is that Dr. John H.Y. Briggs, Director of the Centre for Baptist History and Heritage, and author of a number of excellent studies, will be retiring in the near future. He is a class scholar and his contributions will be sorely missed.

Take note also of the Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Regent's Park College. A few years ago, when I was a PhD student, they were kind enough to offer me a stipendiary Fellowship in that Centre. It was a blessing for a student supporting a growing family in a foreign land.

April 11, 2009

"Rediscovering Jesus is Lord"

John Mann, pastor of LaJunta Baptist Church, Spring, Texas, asked permission to post the audio file of the sermon I preached there on Sunday, 5 April 2009. It was a pleasure to fellowship in the Word with this leading young pastor and his wonderful church. Following is the outline of the sermon:

Introduction - Malcolm Muggeridge, Jesus Rediscovered
Text - Romans 10:1-4
Verse 1 - The Apostle's Desire
Verse 2 - Israel's Zealous Ignorance
Verse 3 - Locating False Righteousness
Verse 4 - Christ is the Goal
Conclusion - Kenneth Wuest, Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, on hupotasso, "submit":
Appropriation by faith of God's righteousness involves not only the discarding of all dependence upon self and self-effort for salvation, but also the heart's submission or capitulation to Jesus as Saviour and Lord.

April 4, 2009

Supernatural Word vs. Natural Words

Supernatural good is not a kind of supplement to natural good, as some Aristotelians would like to convince us for our greater comfort. It would be pleasant if it were so, but it is not. In every poignant problem of human existence, there is a choice only between evil and supernatural good. If words pertaining to the lower level of values--democracy, rights, person--are placed on the tongue of those who live in affliction, it would be a gift likely to lead them to no good and would inevitably cause them a great deal of harm. These ideas have no place in heaven. They are suspended in mid-air, and for that very reason they can have no influence on earth. Only the sunlight falling constantly from the sky can furnish a tree with the energy necessary to thrust its powerful roots deeply into the ground. Only the things that come from heaven are capable of making a real imprint on earth. If we wish efficaciously to fortify the afflicted, we must put on their lips only the words whose proper dwelling place is heaven...
Simone Weil, "Beyond Personalism" (London, 1942)

The voice said, "Cry out!"
And he said, "What shall I cry?"
"All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever."
Isaiah 40:6-8 (NKJV)

April 1, 2009

Don't Be Eager About This World

"Are you astonished at the world going to pieces? You might as well be astonished that the world has grown old. The world is like a man; he's born, he grows up, he grows old ... the world has grown old; it's full of troubles and pressures ... Don't be eager to cling to an aged world."
Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 81.8, Reflecting upon the Barbarian Invasions

"Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who reside as aliens, scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, who are chosen"
1 Peter 1:1

March 30, 2009

The Family of Christ

Then His mother and brothers came to Him, but they could not meet with Him because of the crowd. He was told, “Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, wanting to see You.” But He replied to them, “My mother and My brothers are those who hear and do the word of God.”

Luke 8:19-21 (HCSB)

Yesterday, Sunday afternoon, my two oldest sons were late on their homework and were diligently seeking to finish their work before Monday. However, a kink was thrown into their plans: the evening service at our church was scheduled to celebrate communion. I explained to the oldest boy that Christ commanded us to celebrate the Lord's Supper until He comes again and that our church practiced communion at set times but with less frequency than my own desire. There was no way any of us were going to miss out on obeying the Lord's command when given opportunity. Without delay, the three of us packed into the car and joined my wife with the other three children for worship.

Over the last two years, during previous celebrations of communion, I was in the practice of whispering to my youngest son, who is now a 9-year-old, what the Lord's Supper means. The Lord's Supper is a memorial celebration performed as a communal confession of the atonement of Christ worked upon the Cross. The fundamental reality of the body broken and the blood that Jesus Christ, the sinless one, voluntarily poured out on behalf of our sins is powerfully represented in the bread and the cup. The accompaniment of the visual practice with the audible Word has a powerful effect upon the observer of this second of the great Christian ordinances.

But participation in the second of the great ordinances commanded by Christ for His church to practice in its worship is reserved for those that have been born again and witnessed to that regeneration through participation in the first of the great ordinances commanded by Christ for His church: baptism. Previously, my youngest son had requested permission to participate in the Lord's Supper in our church. He understood the meaning of the Lord's Supper and his Christian faith prompted him to desire to participate in this great communal confession. Unfortunately, he had not yet followed Christ in the first public act of a Christian believer: baptism by immersion. He was definitely part of my family, but not yet visibly part of the family of Christ, and Jesus Christ had set certain standards for membership in His family, standards over which we have no authority to dispense or alter.

In our age, as in previous days, there is a thoroughgoing antinomianism at work with regard to the commands of Christ. This is true with regard to personal ethics and with regard to communal ethics, ecclesiology. Indeed, whole churches have bought into ecclesiological antinomianism. They dispense with the commands of Christ in mission and in communion. Mind you, many individual members do so out of ignorance, but disobedience is still disobedience, whether performed by churches or by individuals, who have been misled by churches. The family of Christ is identified not by blood kinship, but, according to Jesus, it is composed only of those who "hear and do," that is, "hear the Word" and "do the Word." The antinomian confesses that he or she has heard God's Word, but then refuses to carry out God's Word.

Antinomians, whether individuals or organized into communities, have the fundamental problem that they say they know Christ but then dispense with His commands entirely or alter His commands to their own liking. This hypocrisy is usually excused through some type of man-made theological innovation: for instance, in the doctrines of baptismal regeneration, covenantal infant baptism, sprinkling or pouring rather than immersion, etc. More closely to home, this hypocrisy is often propagated by those who hold (correctly) to the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone. The problem these sincere Christians have is that they seem to forget that true discipleship is not just properly confessed in word, it is also properly confessed in deed, both personally and communally.

The Great Commission of Jesus Christ explicitly includes the practice of baptism, and the ordering given by our Lord and subsequently practiced by the apostles was that baptism succeeds faith but precedes further instruction in our Lord's commands (Matt. 28:18-20: 1-going, 2-making disciples, 3-baptizing, 4-teaching all things commanded by Christ). "Baptism," of course, means "immersion" in the original Greek, so proper Christian baptism occurs after conversion and is by immersion. As with the Lord's Supper, the visual act of Christian baptism accompanied by the confession, "Jesus is Lord," is a powerful memorial to one's personal faith in the God who is Jesus, who died and rose again. This is the way Jesus intended it to be and those who dispense with His commands by attenuating the Great Commission or by altering its order will stand before God to give an account of their disobedience.

Baptism is the first act of the public Christian life and thus should be obeyed before one is able to participate in the other commands of Jesus Christ for His churches, including the Lord's Supper. Again, note the order laid down by Jesus: 1-going, 2-making disciples, 3-baptizing, 4-teaching all things (inclusive of the Lord's Supper) that Christ has commanded. When I explained this to my son, he accepted the biblical order of close communion, a logic confessed in my own denomination's Baptist Faith & Message. However, it took some time before he was able to overcome his fear of standing before the church to request entrance into the church covenant and the right of participation in the Lord's Supper.

I praise God that my son overcame human frailty by the power of the Holy Spirit and obeyed Christ by requesting public baptism in the name of his Triune Lord. I praise God that I was prompted last evening to remember His command that we participate in the Lord's Supper until He comes again (Matt. 26:26-29 and par.; 1 Cor. 11:23-26). After the service, I asked my oldest son, "Aren't you glad we obeyed Christ and came to see your brother profess Him as Savior?" His reply, of course, was in the affirmative, though the homework still remained to be done.

I praise God that my family of blood kin includes members of the family of Christ, too. I praise God that He has given us the grace of salvation, a grace confessed visibly and necessarily in the grace of obedience. I praise God that He has led our church to recognize that baptism is to precede communion and that it is a confession and not a magical rite that is disconnected from the individual human will. (I also praise God that He has led our church not to affirm those improperly baptized, for to affirm an error is to participate in that error.)

Oh, Lord, help us to hear your Word clearly, and do your Word diligently! And where we have erred, please illumine the Bible so that we may understand correctly and empower us by your Spirit so that we may live correctly! I thank you that You have led my son into Your family, whose Father is so much superior to his earthly father. Your ways truly are effective. Your truth truly is invincible.

March 13, 2009

The Relevance of the Word of God

By Malcolm Yarnell
Mar 13, 2009

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--We often hear today that Christians must make the Word of God relevant to their culture. During my first full-time pastorate, I learned a difficult lesson that challenges such an idea. Because of prior training in finance and economics, my assumption was that it was the essential actions of the pastor and the people that determined how successful the church would be.

More specifically, I assumed that man was the effective agent rather than the instrument in the health and growth of the church. I knew better than that in my formal doctrine but not in my lived doctrine. With this assumption of human power in heart, I set off to grow that first church through man-generated evangelistic fervor and organizational manipulation. In the process I learned a lesson in the relevance of God's Word.

Now, mind you, God honored that activity and that active spirit; however, He did so not because of my man-centered assumption but in spite of it. What I discovered, experientially and scripturally, was that all my efforts to make God's Word relevant to the people failed week after week. However, when I reached the end of my own efforts and relied only upon the Word of God, the church thrived. I may not be the sharpest tack on the board, but the repetition of 1) failure through my efforts, followed by 2) success through focus on preaching the Word alone, demonstrated a pattern.

When I began to cry out to God as to why there was so much heartache with my own efforts on His behalf but marvelous and often unexpected results from focusing on preaching His Word, He opened my eyes to the relevance of His Word. Indeed, the Bible declares the utter relevance and power of the Word, even as it teaches the temporal and weak nature of human action.

Is the proclaimer of the Word a necessary agent in God's redemptive plan? Absolutely! Is it the teacher of the Word who makes the Bible relevant to contemporary culture? Absolutely not! A review of Scripture's witness to the relevance of the Word may be helpful here.


The Hebrew uses of "Dabar" and related terms for "word" are important in Old Testament theology. The book of Genesis begins with a Trinitarian work: in verse 1, God creates; in verse 2, the Spirit of God forms that creation; and in verse 3, the Word of God speaks creation into existence. Thence onward, the Word of God is considered in dynamic terms.

Repeatedly, the Word of the Lord was said to come upon the prophets and compel them to speak. The Word of God "came" to Jeremiah bringing joy and delight (Jeremiah 15:16), except when the people rebelled against the Word and persecuted the prophet. Yet, when the prophet tried to remain silent, the Word would literally consume his inner self like a fire in his bones (Jeremiah 20:9). The prophet was an instrument that the Word employed in order to proclaim God's will and ways to humanity.

According to Isaiah, the Word of the Lord is eternal while man is temporal and quickly passes away (Isaiah 40:6-8). Moreover, the eternal Word comes down from the Father in heaven in the same manner that rain or snow falls. And just as the rain brings forth the harvest, "so shall My Word be that goes forth from My mouth." The Word comes from the Father and does not return to Him without accomplishing what God sent the Word to do (Isaiah 55:10-11). The Word of God is presented as actively accomplishing the Father's will.


The Word of God, as we know, was not only spoken through the prophets; the prophets also recorded the Word of God in writing. They did this because they were inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so (2 Peter 1:21). God inspired the written Word so that, even today, people might hear Him and be redeemed, instructed, and perfected by God (2 Timothy 3:15-17). This is why many theologians speak of the Word of God as being both the Word intoned or spoken and the Word inscribed or written. The Word of God, whether written or spoken, speaks actively to people.

A third way to speak of the Word of God -- next to the Word intoned and the Word inscribed -- is as the Word incarnate. The eternal Word, participating in the very nature of God, came to this earth and assumed to Himself our humanity, thus participating also in the very nature of Man.

The Word of God is therefore powerful because the Word of God is first and foremost the Second Person of the Trinity. Moreover, the Word of God is known clearly today through the written Word of God, which is the inspired and inerrant Bible. Finally, the Word of God is clearly proclaimed when believers speak the Bible to others. God the Word speaks powerfully through the proclamation of the book that His Spirit inspired.


In the New Testament, the Greek words for "word" are "Logos" and "Rhema." According to the Gospel of John, the Word is both "God" and "with God." This is true in the very beginning or from eternity (John 1:1). Moreover, in the person of Jesus Christ, the Word "became flesh" (John 1:14). Thus, in all three ways of speaking of the Word -- spoken, written, and enfleshed -- there is a definite active meaning. There is no hint whatsoever that the Word of God lacks power or relevance; God acts in His Word.

The relevant nature of the Word of God becomes absolutely clear in Hebrews 4, where we are told that the Word is "zon" ("living") and "energa" ("active"). This energetic Word is neither passive nor impotent. Like a Machairan, a double-edged surgical knife, in the hand of the Great Physician, God approaches the human person and pierces down into the deepest part of his or her being.

God's Word penetrates and probes into the inseparable aspects of the human soul and spirit, delivering divine judgment upon what He finds there. For the Word is "a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart" and nobody can hide from Him (Hebrews 4:12-13). In this passage, the Word is not seen as a static object that man dissects; rather, the Word is the subject that reads and dissects man!

The activity of the Word in Hebrews 4 is to judge man, while the activity of the Word in Romans 10 is to present salvation to man. Drawing upon a number of Old Testament texts, the Apostle Paul presented the Word as coming from God through the preacher to the human ear. But the Word does not stop there, for the Word engages a person by coming "near you, in your mouth and in your heart" (Romans 10:8).

And there, when the Word is believed it is by reason of its proximity to the heart. The Word is also confessed, having come into the proximity of the mouth (Romans 10:9-10). Thus, the Word that has been called out by God in turn empowers human faith, enabling a person to call back to God (Romans 10:13). The truth that faith comes through hearing is supplemented by the truth that hearing itself is an activity empowered by the Word of God as the effective agent (Romans 10:17).

Yet, God has also ordained that the churches and their preachers are the chosen instruments of God in the proclamation of the Word. The churches send the preachers as they are led by God's Spirit (cf. Acts 13:2-4); the preacher preaches the Word; the listener hears the Word; the believer believes the Word and calls back to God in faith, and is thus saved.

The temporal ordering of Romans 10:13-15 is significant in this regard: sending—preaching—hearing—believing—calling. Through every step in the communication and reception of salvation, the Word of God is active. The Word by His Spirit provides the power of salvation; the preacher is instrumentally used to deliver the Word; and the believer receives the Word then in turn calls back to God.


The Word of God is energetic, being active in judgment and salvation. This Word is theological -- He is God Himself. This Word is scriptural -- the Bible is God's written revelation. And this Word is proclamatory -- the speech of God is on the lips of His gospel preachers. Because God is a living and active God, His Word is also living and active.

The active relevance of the Word is a reminder that His human instruments are both blessed and humbled. It is the greatest blessing to be the instrument by which God saves a human being -- "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace" (Romans 10:15). It is the greatest humbling to recognize that the initiating and effective agent alone is God Himself speaking in His Word.

We may add nothing to the Word of God to make the Word relevant. We may only speak the Word in the ears of the people of the world. When we speak from the Bible, the Word opens ears and hearts to God's truth. The Word reveals to the listener what is truly relevant: that God is sovereign, that man is sinful, that judgment is at hand, and that the cross of Jesus Christ is man's only hope.

Ever since I learned this lesson from Scripture and witnessed the life-transforming power of God's Word, I have found that there is no greater joy than being a preacher of the Word. Let us be instruments of the Word of God -- let us read it constantly for our minds and lives; speak it consistently to our families; bear witness of the Word boldly to lost souls everywhere; and, preach the Word faithfully and expositionally to His churches. When we do so, we shall rediscover that the Word alone provides relevance.

For the glory of God alone in the power of the Spirit alone, let us preach the Word alone.


Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology and director of the Center for Theological Research at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

© Copyright 2009 Baptist Press

Original copy of this story can be found at

March 11, 2009

But Those Who Serve Christ Are Always Glad, Whether in Tribulation or Not

The Burning of Savonarola, Florence, Italy, 23 May 1498

The men of the world are without grace and and have no consolation above in that they are turned toward the things of the world, from which they draw no consolation, for the more you own, the more you are anxious. But those who are in the grace of Christ, grace enlightens, draws, and leads. And so you see, all those who love Christ are glad and joyful in their tribulations, while those others, among all their pleasures, do not have such joy, and even if they do, it lasts but a short time. But those who serve Christ are always glad, whether in tribulation or not.
Girolamo Savonarola, Sermon XLIV, 1 April 1496

And when they had preached the gospel to that city and made many disciples, they returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, "We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God."
Paul and Barnabas, Acts 14:21-22

March 5, 2009

Southern Baptists: "Our Problem Is That We Do Not Look Or Live Like Jesus"

Today, we do not know who we are. The world does not know who we are. Our lost friends and neighbors do not know who we are. In the New Testament world, believers lived differently than their neighbors. That is how they came to be called Christians, a term of derision, not respect. Our problem is not that more of us don’t witness to our neighbors. Our problem is that more of us do not look like and live like Jesus. How long has it been since you heard a joke about Baptists? This is not necessarily a good thing. If we do not produce children, youth, and adults who live out a biblical worldview, no strategy for doing church will make us salt and light in the world.
Dr. Charles (Chuck) S. Kelley, "The New Methodists: Reflections Upon the Southern Baptist Convention"

Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me.
The Lord Jesus, Mark 8:34

March 2, 2009

Freedom Begins with Seeing the Evil Within Us All

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, the essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of my youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments, I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there [in the Gulag Archipelago] on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes, not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts ... And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: "Bless you, prison!"
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 312-13.

For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.

Paul the Apostle, To the Romans, 8:2.

February 28, 2009

When Man's Hope Ends, Eternity's Begins

It is precisely when every earthly hope has been explored and found wanting, when every possibility of help from earthly sources has been sought and is not forthcoming, when every recourse this world offers, moral as well as natural, has been drawn on and expended with no effect, when in the shivering cold every faggot has been thrown on the fire, and in the gathering darkness every glimmer of light has finally flickered out -- it is then that Christ's hand reaches out, sure and firm, that Christ's words bring their inexpressible comfort, that His light shines brightest, abolishing the darkness forever.
Malcolm Muggeridge, Confessions of a Twentieth-Century Pilgrim, 89-90.

February 27, 2009

New Essay: "A Call to Theological Maturity"

Robin Foster and I wrote a short essay together that tries to bring some maturity to the use (or not) of "theological triage." You can find this essay at the website, SBC Today.

February 25, 2009

Upon This Rock

I have been asked to provide material from the theological sermon delivered at the Fall 2008 Baptist Distinctives Conference at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. The sermon was entitled, "Upon This Rock I Will Build My Church: A Theological Exposition of Matthew 16:13-20." The sermon can be heard and the paper itself viewed at through the Baptist Resources page, under "Southwestern Baptist Resources". The accompanying visual aid, a powerpoint presentation, can be found by clicking on the title above. The paper itself will be published in an upcoming book entitled, Upon This Rock: The Baptist Understanding of the Church, edited by Thomas White, Jason G. Duesing, and the current writer, published by B&H Academic, forthcoming 2010.

February 22, 2009

The Lordship of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew

The pastors and laypeople that attended the Theology Conference at Grace Baptist Church in Parkersburg, WV, requested a copy of the powerpoint. In honor of that request, please click on the title above for the powerpoint. Special thanks are extended to Bill and Alicia James for sponsoring the conference and to Pastor Todd Hill and Grace Baptist Church for hosting it and to Dottie and Chuck Tommey for the idea and then the incredible servanthood in the kitchen and beyond!

February 21, 2009

The Desire for Relevance

By Malcolm Yarnell
Feb 20, 2009

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)--Relevance before the culture is a great concern for many Christians, and rightly so. When a person repents of sin, believes in Christ, and then is baptized as a testimony to faith, he or she is left in this world and its cultures in order to bear witness to the world to come. God typically does not remove a new Christian from the world but leaves him or her in it for a time, so that others might hear the Gospel and believe, too.

The Apostle Paul felt the tension between the desire to be in the immediate presence of God and the desire to preach the Word to the world. First, in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul spoke of his desire to bring the Gospel to all peoples. In verse 22, he spoke passionately of his missionary mindset: "I have become all things to all men that I might by all means save some." Paul, a Jew, from a nation bound by covenant to God's law, submitted to the old law in order to be a better servant to the Jews in the hope of winning them to Christ.

However, Paul was not confined in his witness to the nation of Israel. He also lived among the Gentiles during his fruitful ministry. And to the Gentiles he also preached the Word of God. Gentiles, not living under Israelite law -- i.e. being "without law" -- required sensitive yet bold proclamation. That is, the Gentiles were subject to Christian proclamation even though they lacked the old law (1 Corinthians 9:21).

Yet Paul was careful not to leave the idea that sensitivity toward Gentiles entailed a forsaking of all standards whatsoever by the Christian missionary. In a significant qualification, Paul claimed that in spite of no longer being under the old covenant, he is still "subject to the law of Christ" (verse 21). The law of Christ, we learn elsewhere, is not the means of salvation, but it most definitely is the means of guidance for the lives of Christ's disciples.

On the one hand, Paul wrote to the Galatians that they are justified only by grace through faith. Therefore, they must not become subjects of the old law, as if such observance was necessary for salvation (Galatians 5:1-4). On the other hand, Paul went on to explain that a new law would be operative in their hearts, minds and bodies. The Christian must "walk in the Spirit." Walking in the Spirit is not submission to Israelite law, nor, we are strongly reminded, is it giving free reign to "the lust of the flesh" (Galatians 5:16).

The desire of the Christian church is not set upon this world and its sinful ways. The desire of Christians is for God above all. This brings us to a second great desire in the heart of the Apostle Paul. If his desire in 1 Corinthians 9 is for the conversion of all people, his desire in 2 Corinthians 5 is to dwell in the presence of God in heaven.

Again, this second desire is an embodied desire. Yet, the bodily form of this heavenly desire is not identical with this world's forms. Paul is quite clear that his desire is to leave behind "this earthly house" and to take on the resurrected body, "our habitation which is from heaven" (2 Corinthians 5:1-2). Paul is not prematurely embracing death in some perverse way of thinking. Rather, this is his way of saying that his ultimate goal is "to be present with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).

Paul is ready and willing to stay here and continue his witness to men in service to God. (Elsewhere, we learn that his courageous efforts on behalf of the Lord brought him many persecutions.) But his overarching desire is to please God: "Therefore we make it our aim, whether present or absent, to be well pleasing to Him" (2 Corinthians 5:9).

So, a tension of desires pulled Paul's heart between this world and the presence of God. And yet, his primary desire always was for the holy presence of God. He desired a presence in this world only as a means to be pleasing to God. Paul's desire for God trumped his desire for the world. Moreover, he found much in this world to reject, because it is filled with lusts, or false desires.

Paul was content to remain in the world, but not so that he might enjoy the world. Paul was content to remain in the world, so that he might win people for God. What was ultimately relevant to Paul was not the world or its nations and their cultures. What was relevant to Paul was not even his contributions to the world (he considered his best works filthiness, Philippians 3:8).

What was relevant to Paul is Jesus Christ and His atoning work upon the cross. Making Christ and His cross known to the world was Paul's singular focus, and everything else paled before the relevance of the cross. For the cross of Christ is the only means for bridging the gap between God and man (1 Corinthians 2:2). (The cross is not only the unique bridge for our forgiveness; it is also the exemplar for the Christian life, Mark 8:34-36.)

Does this mean Paul found human existence in the here and now irrelevant? By no means! But he did believe that relevance truly occurs when people forsake this doomed world and its ways in order to be transformed by faith in Jesus Christ. This is spelled out for us in his great letter of justification to the Romans.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul called upon Christians to present their bodies as living sacrifices to God. We must submit our lives to God in service of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Two Pauline words particularly stand out for the current context, a context where many Christians are eagerly desiring relevance before the cultures of the world: "conformed" and "transformed."

Paul teaches that we must not be conformed to, literally "schematized with," this world. Rather, we must be transformed, literally "metamorphosed" or "changed," by the renewing of our minds and wills. Such transformation in the Christian life begins with consistent and prayerful meditation upon Scripture and results in lives entirely submitted to Jesus as Lord. Such transformation is not in words only but also in deeds.

It is God's desire that the justified will be sanctified. He wants His children to be transformed by the Word and to become instruments for transforming others. This means that the people of the world must be transformed in their attitudes as to what is truly relevant. Scripture determines what is relevant, and people must adopt its holy outlook, leaving behind the world's sinful outlook.

The only proper means of relevance is immersion in the Bible. And as we win people's hearts and minds to the relevance of Scripture, we must remember that we will never successfully transform an entire culture. Some will believe, and some will not. And it is our job not to determine who will and who will not. Our job is to proclaim the Gospel freely to all, so that "some," as Paul said, might be saved. Our job is also to see our own wills transformed to what is pleasing to the Lord.

It is my deep and heartfelt prayer that we will have a desire for the relevance of pleasing God. We can do this through preaching the faith to this world and through living the faith faithfully in this world, looking forward to the day when we will be in His very presence. That is the only relevance worthy of a Christian's desire.
Malcolm Yarnell is associate professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

© Copyright 2009 Baptist Press

Original copy of this story can be found at

January 21, 2009

B.B. Warfield, "The Idea of Systematic Theology"

In spite of a genuine appreciation for his important contributions to pneumatology and bibliology, one ought not care for Benjamin Breckenridge Warfield's definition of systematic theology as a discipline shaped by human philosophy, nor may one agree with his rejection of theology as a Christocentric enterprise. Like many theologians and preachers today, Warfield was never able to comprehend fully the diversions from biblical theology that often result from Reformed commitments. However, one must laud the final paragraph of his essay, "The Idea of Systematic Theology." While downplaying such ideas earlier, Warfield in the end indicates how theology must inculcate a living faith through biblical preaching in order to be truly orthodox, thus demonstrating why the free churches have some limited communion with the evangelicals. It is repeated here in its full Victorian structure:

"If such be the value and use of doctrine, the systematic theologian is preeminently a preacher of the gospel; and the end of his work is obviously not merely the logical arrangement of the truths which come under his hand, but the moving of men, through their power, to love God with all their hearts and their neighbors as themselves; to choose their portion with the Saviour of their souls; to find and hold Him precious; and to recognize and yield to the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit whom He has sent. With such truth as this he will not dare to deal in a cold and merely scientific spirit, but will justly and necessarily permit its preciousness and its practical destination to determine the spirit in which he handles it, and to awaken the reverential love with which alone he should investigate its reciprocal relations. For this he needs to be suffused at all times with a sense of the unspeakable worth of the revelation which lies before him as the source of his material, and with the personal bearings of its separate truths on his own heart and life; he needs to have had and to be having a full, rich, and deep religious experience of the great doctrines with which he deals; he needs to be living close to his God, to be resting always on the bosom of his Redeemer, to be filled at all times with the manifest influences of the Holy Spirit. The student of systematic theology needs a very sensitive religious nature, a most thoroughly consecrated heart, and an outpouring of the Holy Ghost upon him, such as will fill him with that spiritual discernment, without which all native intellect is in vain. He needs to be not merely a student, not merely a thinker, not merely a systematizer, not merely a teacher--he needs to be like the beloved disciple himself in the highest, truest, and holiest sense, a divine."