Friday, 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.

Conclusion

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.

Monday, 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

Friday, 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)

Monday, 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.

Saturday, 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.

Saturday, April 04, 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)

Wednesday, April 01, 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