June 14, 2017

The Cross Is Everything!

The following was written in support of the great works being done by all at the convention, on the floor and on the platform. I am proud of our Resolutions Committee and of our messengers, real proud, and I stand fully behind the resolutions, including the upcoming Resolution on Alt-Right White Supremacy:

While I skipped the Southern Baptist Convention in order to polish an overdue essay responding to my recently deceased friend, the Reformed theologian John Webster, my heart has been unable to escape the profound events occurring in Phoenix, Arizona. So many of my living friends and colleagues in ministry are there, and I have watched them with love and concern, exchanging messages with good people who are under both public and personal pressure to do well. With the incredible responsibilities placed on their shoulders, I want them to know they are doing well in spite of the heartache and disappointment all around. The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are working together slowly but carefully toward the future that God has planned for them. And the men leading the way are in a pressure cooker, and it hurts.

I have one word of advice to the leaders of the SBC and to every convention messenger and every spectator. It is an idea that could be taken contritely as a mere mantra were it not central to everything occurring this year: The Cross is at the center of everything the SBC is doing. But we may be somewhat oblivious to it. Some have glibly dismissed the resolution on the atonement that Owen Strachan and I offered as so much window dressing, but that is utterly wrongheaded. The Cross of Jesus Christ is at the center of everything that the SBC is doing this year. The Cross makes sense of the other significant resolutions, such as the ones on the Alt-Right and on Planned Parenthood. The Cross makes sense of the mission board reports and of Steve Gaines’s proposed task force. The Cross is everything!

As Leon Morris and John Stott demonstrated years ago, the Cross of Jesus Christ provides the meaning of the biblical text. The Cross is both center and circumference; it is both pervasive and without parallel; it is both paradigmatic and problematic. Open any New Testament book and before long, the Cross will dominate the discussion. For Paul, a highly educated Biblicist with pristine religious credentials, the Cross which was earlier a scandal to him subsequently became so big that he could see nothing else. In Galatians 6:14f, he stated,
But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation (Christian Standard Bible).
Paul, the inspired apostle, finally learned not to boast about how faithful he was to God’s law, or how many converts he made, or how many disciples enrolled in his ministry program. Success for Paul was upended entirely, such that he could boast in nothing, nothing except for the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Boasting in anything else was at an end. He did not boast about how pristine his doctrine was, though it was now. He did not boast about how other ministers looked up to him, for many did not, but he no longer cared. He did not boast about what his political party was doing, or not doing.

Christ and the Cross of Christ were everything to Paul; the world carried no ultimate meaning for him anymore. The world itself—the world with all of its physicality and its spirituality, with all of its culture and its intelligence, with all of its blessings and failures—the world was nothing. It had been put upon the Cross and had died in his eyes. “The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world.” When the Cross of Jesus Christ becomes the only filter by which you can think, speak, or act, everything else dies. And only in such a death lays the potential of life.

The Cross of Christ is utterly different from the priorities of this world. It is antithetical to our very way of thinking. The atonement resolution was necessary because without penal substitution, the other important doctrines that undergird our entire worldview collapse into chaos, as seen in the cultural crises enveloping the West today. Without penal substitution, our God becomes an unholy, sentimental, and unjust weakling while fallen men are deluded into conceiving their own righteousness. Without the Cross, there is no salvation for fallen men—there is no reason whatsoever to consider sin or its solution. Without the Cross, there will be no human flourishing and no evangelism. Without the Cross, there is no reason for the divinely created churches to meet, much less a humanly created denomination. Without the Cross, our social and political thoughts recede into mere vain and fleeting opinions.

But with the Cross of Jesus the Jew, the Alt-Right is seen for what it is—a worldly and deadly way of thinking. For the Alt-Right is concerned about preserving a dying culture, the culture of white supremacy, a culture that benefited many even as it denigrated others. The Alt-Right is the antithesis of the Cross of Jesus Christ. The Alt-Right says that one man’s culture is superior to another and the other must submit to me, but the Man on the Cross says that, though He is superior to everyone, He will submit to death for the other. The Cross is the antithesis of culture war. And we all know that cultures are at war with one another today—Islam versus the West, Sunni versus Shia, Secularist versus Religious, Liberal versus Conservative.

Cultures tell men and women that they must dominate the other in order to survive, but the Cross invites men and women to die with Christ and serve the other. Cultural preservation encourages people to bear the sword against the other, but the Cross encourages the sacrifice of oneself on behalf of the other. Planned Parenthood tells women they must kill the child in order to flourish, but the One on the Cross tells women they must embrace their own crosses in order for both them and their babies to flourish. Racists tell their races they must dominate the other races in order to flourish, but the One on the Cross empties the races of all their importance.

When Paul said circumcision means “nothing,” he was speaking about his precious culture, to which he previously gave so much of his life. He had fought for and killed for the preservation of Jewish culture, but then he found that his precious culture was nothing. “Circumcision,” the defining external mark of Jewish cultural identity, no longer mattered to Paul. His birth culture no longer mattered. But neither did his missionary culture. “Uncircumcision” no longer mattered to Paul either. He didn’t stop being a Jew in reaching the Gentiles, and neither did he become a zealot for Gentileness. His previously misguided zeal for culture was transformed, for he learned that cultures are ultimately “nothing.” If he were in Phoenix today, he would cry out, “White culture is nothing!” Then he would say, “Black culture is nothing!”

Well, if the cultures are nothing, then what is important? If all of our languages and customs and practices and arts and sciences are nothing, then what matters? For Paul, human cultures are no longer germane, for now there is a “new creation.” God was making something new and unitive out of the old and divisive. In Ephesians 2, he spoke of a new humanity made out of warring cultures, a humanity refashioned in Jesus. The Lord Jesus Christ is the Jewish messiah who died for both Jews and Gentiles; He is the God who died for all human beings. It is His Cross that we preach and follow.

As a pastor, I went home after the 1995 resolution that was spearheaded by the old ERLC leadership and defended it. As a professor and Bible teacher, I will go to my church and my seminary after the 2017 resolution that is advocated by the new ERLC leadership and defend it. In my old church, the first resolution was not appreciated by some; in my new church, this latest resolution may not be appreciated by some. (Anyone who doubts the problem of racism is in the SBC should read of my own experience here.)

Whatever the opposition, we as Christians must do what is right. Why? Because we must embrace the cross, including the suffering of shame for not speaking when we should have (as in 1845), or the suffering of broken relationships with those who refuse to repent (as we may now). Well, you get the idea, the Cross of suffering is not only our only way of salvation in the world to come, the Cross of suffering is the true Christian’s only way of life in the world today. Grow up and embrace the cross, Christian! Have that baby, my sister, even with the suffering a child may bring, though honestly children are really blessings! Reject your inbuilt racism, my brother, even if it means you have to walk back some of your words and your ways, and your politics.

I stand fully with my brothers and sisters at the 2017 Phoenix meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, and I urge them to embrace the Cross, and embrace all of these resolutions with all their heart. If we do that, then we may be ready to see a revival, a revival to which our President, the wonderful pastor and evangelist Dr. Steve Gaines, is calling us. We need a revival, a revival that compels prayer and evangelism. But here, too, we will not have a revival in witnessing and resultant baptisms until the Cross, the only way of salvation, means everything to us, everything. 

The Cross is absolutely necessary to our doctrine, to our ethics, and to our mission. The Cross must no longer merely be the center our message; the cross must also be the paradigm of our life. The world is nothing; the cultures are nothing; the politics are nothing; personal status is nothing; personal comfort is nothing; my life itself is nothing. These things are crucified to me. My brothers and sisters (adelphoi), look, look there at the Cross, for THE CROSS IS EVERYTHING!

May 31, 2017

Defendere Propitiationis

In the life of the church, it is often necessary for those who are called to be pastors and theologians to rise up in defense of a central truth of the Christian faith. This is one of those times. A quick review of recent Christian history may set the background for an action that Owen Strachan and I recently took together for the sake of defending the atonement.

A Recent History of Violence: The horrific decades of the early twentieth century with its two world wars resulted in millions of deaths among combatants and noncombatants alike. These were followed by several decades of constant fear that a scenario of mutually assured destruction might be played out in the Cold War between the East led by the Soviet Union and the West led by the United States, wiping out human civilization altogether. These historical factors played upon the Western psyche, among Europeans in particular, stoking great regret about the past and great concern for the future.

A Theological Shift: As a result, many Christians began to question the violence that so characterizes the human race. They displayed a proper revulsion against wanton violence done by humans against humans. After all, all human beings are made in the image of God and are, therefore, precious. However, the revulsion went so far that many began to see violence itself as ipso facto sin. A proper revulsion against flippant human violence now became an improper revulsion, for some Christian theologians revolted against the idea that God may bring about death through violence. European history was now shaping Christian theology, even in contradiction to the apparent advocacy of certain acts of violence in Scripture itself.

This improper revulsion against violence, which began in a proper revulsion against violence, has extended to the point that many are now calling into question the central act of God in the redemption of humanity, the cross of Jesus Christ. Some have even rejected the idea that the cross involves removing the wrath of God, which is summarized in the biblical word, "propitiation," and codified in the theological language of "penal substitution." For these theologians and preachers, the ideas of penal substitution and propitiation are themselves anathema. They cannot see how a God who is love could possibly place his Son on the cross in order to satisfy the wrath of the Father.

Defending the Atonement: Owen Strachan, a leading Southern Baptist systematic theologian affiliated with Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, exercises a powerful voice for truth in the midst of today's culture. Recently, we discussed with a common friend the difficulty that orthodox Christians face in such an environment. A liberal Christian culture is crying out against wanton human violence (while largely and perversely ignoring the mass murder of the unborn), but it is also endangering the central act of Christian redemption and compromising the perfections of God. As a result of these and related challenges, we co-authored a resolution on the atonement and submitted it to the Resolutions Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Our hopes and prayers are that this demonstration of inter-seminary unity, which is also a demonstration of unity across Calvinist and Non-Calvinist lines, will prompt Southern Baptists to rally once again around the cross as the central doctrine of Christian redemption. We truly believe that a loving God has put his Son on the cross in order to satisfy his just demand for holiness. Without the cross of Jesus Christ, there is no hope for sinful humanity. This is why we believe it is time to defend the atonement (defendere propitiationis).

March 13, 2017

The Day-Higginbotham Lectures of 2017, Now Available Online

During the first few days of March, I was granted the privilege of delivering the prestigious Day-Higginbotham Lectures for 2017. Previous lecturers have included R. Albert Mohler and Abraham Friesen as well as the late Thomas C. Oden and the late John Webster, each of whom I have counted as honored teachers and friends. It was a surprise and a pleasure when Craig Blaising and Paige Patterson offered me not only a new role at Southwestern Seminary as Research Professor of Systematic Theology but also the delivery of these messages. Thanks are extended to Drs. Patterson and Blaising for the invitation and to Dr. Jeff Bingham, our fine new Dean of the School of Theology, for organizing the lectures.

The series title was "The Image of the Trinity: Biblical Soundings toward a Doctrine of Humanity." Distinct lectures over three one-hour periods were offered on "The Image of the Trinity," "The Analogy in Male and Female," "Human Life Under Heaven," and "Before God." The respective Latin terms chosen were Imago Trinitatis, Analogia, Sub Sole, and Coram Deo. One may notice that these lectures will form the basis for one of my next major theological monographs, on Trinitarian Anthropology. (The second major monograph will be a co-authored piece with David S. Dockery on Scripture and Special Revelation, of which more will be announced soon.)

It was truly a pleasant surprise to see how well the lectures were attended by faculty and students. Indeed, the subject matter of the lectures has generated numerous requests among the faculty for further collaboration across the theological disciplines, both within the classical disciplines in the School of Theology, but also with the Schools of Music and of Family and Church Ministries. I especially appreciate the interest of Drs. Aaron Son, David Toledo, Richard Ross, Waylan Owens, Madison Grace, Josh Williams, and Ryan Stokes in furthering this work with thoughtful exchanges and the promise of more!

The lectures may be accessed here in video format: