Cultural Commentary

Two Readings of Scripture, Two Views of Jesus

(Note: the following is a guest editorial written for the Frankfort State-Journal for July 5, 2015)

The Supreme Court may settle disputes of American law, but cannot establish right and wrong. A bitterly divided Court can, by the slimmest possible margin, dictate what is legal but cannot determine what is moral. 

    Same-sex marriage is now the law of the land. The same institution that once justified slavery and defined African-Americans as less than human, that has bestowed personhood on corporations but denied it to unborn babies, that vacillates—and will again—on whether or not capital punishment is acceptable has found a way to read the constitution innovatively and differently than any previous generation of citizens or legal scholars. The majority has found something there that none of its authors intended or even thought about.

The heart of the argument is about hermeneutics, how a document is read and understood. Liberal justices contend that the Constitution changes meaning with the culture, while conservatives insist that the meaning is fixed and that the amendment process should be used as society evolves or modifies its views.

Within Christianity the same debate rages about the Bible and stands at the epicenter of the current impasse about homosexuality and gay marriage. Some of us believe the Bible is God’s Word, a special and perfect revelation of himself, written by humans inspired by the Spirit who wrote what God led them to record. We believe that the proper way to read the Bible is the same way we want our pharmacist to read our doctor’s prescription, discerning the author’s original intent rather than imposing any foreign meaning on the text. 

Furthermore, we believe that the sixty-six books of the Bible together form one book with one grand narrative, the story of God’s redemption. That story of creation, fall, anticipation, the gospel, the church, and Christ’s return to reign is a single story. Though many human activities and practices within that story are shameful and highlight the need for redemption, God’s moral will and standard of holiness revealed in Scripture does not change through time and is not subject to the vicissitudes of culture. At the beginning of that story is the marriage of a perfect man and a perfect woman. At the end of that story is the marriage of a glorified man, the Lord Jesus, and his sanctified bride, his church. 

Other Christians, however, see the Bible as stained by human frailty and riddled with error, requiring more enlightened thinking to discern the good parts from the bad. These Christians are embarrassed by and denounce parts of the same book that they read in weddings and funerals, sermons and Sunday school classes as a model for faith and life. They see no contradiction in quoting Paul’s lyrical description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 while at the same time denouncing his instruction on gender roles in 1 Corinthians 11. They fear no inconsistency quoting Jesus when he says “Judge not” in Matthew 7:1, though simultaneously judging Jesus calling people “pigs” and “dogs” in Matthew 7:6. Scavenging Scripture selectively like a picky eater at a smorgasbord, they consume only what appeals to their taste and what they have already learned to like. 

Ultimately, that approach to Scripture inevitably leads to the same understanding of Jesus. How can one claim that Jesus is Lord and yet insist that Jesus needed to be corrected for his insensitivity when he spoke to the Gentile woman in Matthew 15:21-28?

To be candid, I can accept that many people do not agree with historic Christianity that homosexuality is a sin. I understand when people not guided by a biblical worldview adopt a simple live-and-let-live mentality because they do not think in categories of God’s design and purpose. 

I cannot comprehend, however, how people who claim that the Bible is God’s Word and Jesus is their Lord can either ignore or pervert the clear meaning of Jesus’ endorsement of God’s purpose for marriage. When asked about the lawfulness of divorce, Jesus answered by going back to creation and looking at God’s design. What was God’s intent? Jesus answered the question about divorce by saying much more about marriage than merely its duration. “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matthew 19:4,5). 

Jesus could have answered the question about divorce by simply explaining that marriage is for a lifetime, but he went beyond that. He defined marriage by the number of people in that relationship as well as the sex of those in that relationship. Some may voice honest disagreement with Jesus’ words, but I cannot respect the kind of intellectual dishonesty that denies the plain and natural reading of his words. When someone says they take the Bible seriously but not literally, I take their words literally but not seriously.

Two thousand years of church history render a virtually unanimous opinion about the definition of marriage. It seems the epitome of arrogance for a Christian to hear Jesus’ words and the church’s verdict from antiquity only to say, “But I know better.” The Bible is not an instrument by which we justify the opinions of Christians, but the revelation of God in which we discover our justification in Christ.

The Only Decision that Matters

I am excited. While I would not choose this direction for our country or our culture, and though I lament the very real harm that this Supreme Court decision will do in millions of lives, I also believe that a sovereign God rules supreme in human affairs and He is at work making of the nations a heritage for His Son.  The Triune God has not called an emergency session and will not be announcing a strategy of response to the latest development. He is working all things—even and especially this—to His glory for our good.
Because of this Supreme Court ruling Christians who have contented themselves with a nebulous theology and a generic commitment to the parts of the Bible they deem palatable will now be pressed to probe the Scriptures and their own presuppositions like never before. Congregations who have survived on a cultural predisposition toward churches are about to discover what it means to thrive on Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. Believers who have worked to keep their faith separate from the rest of their lives will discover that they can no longer be secret disciples because they are going to be asked bluntly and sometimes with great hostility.
    Two exhilarating possibilities emerge: revival among believers and a greater gospel impact beyond our walls. Think about it like this: has the church in the United States ever had a more advantageous time to stand in stark contrast to the world, to distinguish itself from the prevailing understanding of morality, to present a true counter-culture, to model the gospel? When we had greater numbers and political influence the world thought our great concern was with numbers and political influence. If we profess Christ and stand on the Word when it costs us dearly, however, then even our detractors and persecutors will see that it’s not about us, but about our Savior.
    I anticipate that the churches who stand firmly and lovingly on the Word of God, who focus on the gospel of Christ and preach the necessity of genuine faith and repentance for salvation, are about to experience an indisputable and authentic movement of God’s Spirit. The Christ-modeled balance between an unyielding commitment to the Word and a lavish love of people will offer the world something that they desperately need but cannot find anywhere else.
    People are no more lost now than they have ever been, and Jesus is no less Lord now than He will ever be. We dare not cower in our churches as though God has lost anything. The only decision handed down that matters is that the gates of hell cannot prevail against His church!
    The first marriage was between a perfect man and a perfect woman. The last marriage will be between a glorified man, the Lord Jesus, and his sanctified bride, the church. Between those two weddings, humanity has marred and defaced the institution of marriage in many ways, including this new way. But the Lord Jesus will have the last say. Until then, I am doing all I can to make my marriage reflect the love of Christ for his church and to share the gospel of grace with everyone. No handwringing, no fear, no hatred, no bitterness. Just love of the Lord Jesus, of the truth, of my wife, of the Lord's church, and of my neighbor--ALL of my neighbors. Though something in our culture has definitely changed, everything in the Word of God remained the same. I rest in that.
    It may seem like we’ve hit the bottom. By God’s grace, we are about to discover there’s a Rock down there.

David Platt Is the New President of the IMB (and that's a good thing!)

I am happy to share that the Trustees of the International Mission Board just elected Dr. David Platt as our 12th President. We did this for one very stark, simple reason: this man is anointed by God and has a passion for missions like no one else. He is a gifted leader and a brilliant strategist, but the purity and humility of his heart sets him apart as unique. I am encouraged beyond words and convinced that under the leadership of Kevin Ezell at the North American Mission Board and David Platt at the IMB, the greatest days of Southern Baptist missions lie ahead.

            Many have taken to their blogs and social media to object to him based on two things: his Calvinistic soteriology and his church’s low giving to the Cooperative Program. Though many others will write a lot about Dr. Platt and about these two things that they find objectionable, I hope my perspective as a trustee might shed a little light and provide the rationale that the majority of other board members and I used in support of his election.

            First, David Platt’s supposed Calvinism is really a balanced and biblical understanding of what salvation is. He unequivocally affirms that God loves everyone and desires everyone to be saved, that believers are commanded by Christ to preach the gospel to every person, that the atonement of Christ is sufficient for anyone who will repent and believe to be saved, and that men and women are responsible before God for their sin, for natural revelation, and for their response to God’s command to repent and believe. At the same time, he affirms that the Bible also speaks specifically of Christ’s death for his people, for the church. His belief about salvation is completely and comfortably within the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 and in line with many other contemporary and historical Baptists.

            No brother who can clearly affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 should be treated as though his beliefs are unwelcome, unacceptable, or out of the mainstream. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 was written intentionally broad enough to accommodate different nuances of soteriology, so no one should be shocked when different streams of thought run through our SBC institutions. It would have been improper for me to oppose Dr. Frank Page’s election as President of the Executive Committee, for example, because he’s not as reformed in his view as I am. He is clearly within the Baptist Faith and Message, and that should be enough. I don’t even make it a litmus test to be on my church staff, so the venom with which some commentators attack brothers who are confessionally within the BFM2K always dismays me. It’s not right.

            Furthermore, isn’t the most common objection to a high view of election that it undermines missions? Can anyone reasonably cast that stone at David Platt? The man breathes missions. No one I have ever known is more passionate or strategic about reaching the lost than he. Forgive my historical reference, but I say of his Calvinism what Lincoln said when Grant was accused of imbibing whiskey: “Find what he’s drinking and send it to the rest of my generals!” If Platt’s soteriology drives him to reach the nations with the gospel for the glory of Christ, then may we all get a dose of it! In all seriousness, whatever fear anyone might have about reformed theology undermining missions is laughable in Platt’s life. I don’t rejoice that a supposed Calvinist is president of the International Mission Board. I rejoice that a man who seethes and churns because the enemy keeps much of the world in darkness and who will stop at nothing to send them the light is president. I really don’t care if he’s a Calvinist or not, but rather that he is saturated with Christ and his gospel.

            The second issue that troubles many is that the church Platt pastored did not give significantly to the Cooperative Program. I want to be clear. I love the Cooperative Program. Even in the midst of a multi-million dollar relocation project, Buck Run and I are committed to not cutting back on our Cooperative Program or missions giving. The Cooperative Program is largely the reason I became a Southern Baptist. But missions going and giving is bigger and more expansive than the Cooperative Program.

            Going through this process has been healthy for David Platt. By his own admission he now sees the beauty and the usefulness of the Cooperative Program as a missions dynamo for a large denomination and would certainly do things differently. That’s not enough for some, but that is the truth. In his zeal to be intimately involved in going and giving, he led his church to give nearly one third of their budget to missions causes--most of them Southern Baptist causes--directly. This year their budget sends over $700,000 directly to the International Mission Board, for instance. Simply put, when we stand before Christ, he’s not going to question us about which fund we used, but about what we did to reach the world with the gospel for His glory. David Platt and his church can certainly answer for that more confidently than the majority of churches.

I love and will fight for the Cooperative Program, but I don’t idolize it or equate it with God Himself. While not supporting the CP significantly, David Platt and his church have clearly made Christ and His mission the priority, and that should not disqualify him from leading, not even an institution that is funded and fueled by the Cooperative Program. All analogies break down, I know, but if we were choosing the CEO of a big soft drink company in Atlanta (avoiding trademark issues here!), would our biggest concern be how much of the product a candidate drank or how much of it the candidate could lead the company to sell? I am convinced that no one will excite and energize a young generation for missions and, by extension, the Cooperative Program like David Platt. Perhaps instead of fussing and fuming about the young Southern Baptists who don't support the Cooperative Program we should ask why they aren't excited about it and have not bought into it. I do not mean to be unkind, but I can't help but notice that many of the ones whose recriminations ring loudest are the very ones who have presided over our precipitous decline in giving, missions, and baptisms. David Platt was 5 years old the last time Cooperative Program giving went up! Maybe it's time we allow some of the disenchanted, disaffected but deeply devoted young leaders to share the burden of leadership.

I’ve been in ministry all of my adult life. I’ve known Adrian Rogers, W. A. Criswell, Stephen Olford, John Stott, and many truly great men of God. I say this carefully and reverently: I have never met anyone on whom the anointing of God rests as powerfully and comfortably as David Platt. A few months or years from now, people will grow tired of talking about how much his church gave to the Cooperative Program, and his relentless drive to reach the nations will swamp and drown those driving the chariots of anti-Calvinism in a sea of irrelevance. The anointing of God on his life will be what matters. His ability to capture the imagination and harness the passion of new and succeeding generations for the Great Commission will still be relevant when all the current objections seem silly in our memories.

I am gloriously optimistic and joyful about the future of Southern Baptists. While the culture around us is growing increasingly hostile to biblical truth, Southern Baptists are doubling down with the gospel! We are getting more focused and more intentional. We have greater tools and opportunities to reach the world than at any time in history. Our King is returning soon! What a day to be a Southern Baptist.

We trustees made our decision. We have our man. And if you are a Southern Baptist, he's your man, too. Now let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice, and get behind him with prayer and encouragement for the sake of the gospel. A lost world hangs in the balance.

            

Are You Walking with Christ?

When Christian "speak" becomes more important to you than Christian service, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When how you appear to others is more important to you than what you know God sees, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you keep commitments you make to teams, to your job, or to yourself, but you do not keep the commitment you made to worship with your brothers and sisters, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you expect others to meet your needs, but do nothing to learn of theirs, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you easily offend and are just as easily offended, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you readily see the sins of others and feel justified in yours because of theirs, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you claim to love Jesus, but care nothing for his bride, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you speak tritely of God's forgiveness, even while you refuse to forgive others, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you speak lightly of his grace, even while continuing in determined disobedience, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you claim to miss the people of God but feel no obligation to them, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you are more troubled by the speck in your brother's eye than the log in yours (and yes, you have one), you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you easily feel anger toward correction rather than brokenness over sin, you cannot be walking with Christ.

When you can easily live with conviction, denying it and ignoring it, until you have grown so accustomed to it that you hear its pleas and rebukes no longer, you cannot be walking with Christ.

But when the Holy Spirit so troubles you, humbles you, and breaks you, making your sin seem to you greater than that of the whole world, and you finally lay all your excuses, blame, self-righteousness and self-justification at the foot of the cross to receive and grant to others the forgiveness that only the broken can ever understand, leaving there your sin, self-centeredness, insufficiency, anger, bitterness, resentment, and disobedient spirit because it has no place in the presence of a Savior who was crucified for that sin--then you are beginning again to walk with Christ.

Today, more than life itself, I want to walk with Christ.

Why Seminary Can Never Qualify Anyone for Ministry

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“I do not have the authority to expel you, so I’m asking you, please withdraw and leave the seminary.” I realized the weight of my words and fully appreciated their potential effect. Only after several lengthy attempts to correct him, learning that he was not plugged into any local church, and then subsequently conferring with the dean did I let them fall so profoundly and heavily on his stunned ears. The young man had preached several sermons in my preaching practicum, each one more disturbing and irresponsible than the last. Finally he crossed the line from unbalanced to untrue and promoted something that I judged to be egregiously wrong, contrary to the gospel, and antithetical to everything Southern Seminary stands for. When he remained resolute in his position and belligerent at my attempts to reprove, I knew that the tragedy of his departure from the truth would be exponentially compounded with a seminary degree. So I asked him to leave, and he did.

While I still grieve that student’s departure from sound doctrine, I have never regretted the severity of my words to him. I could not stop him from preaching error, but it would be far worse if he did it with a degree from Southern. 

My primary concern was not that someone would think he received his doctrine from my colleagues or me—though I certainly found that thought disquieting. My greater anxiety was that some church would mistakenly think him qualified to serve as pastor and would welcome him and embrace his false doctrine, simply because he had a degree from a seminary. 

When it comes to qualification for ministry, ordination should carry much more weight and provide much greater evidence of a man’s readiness for service in the church than any seminary degree.  A seminary alone is not sufficient to qualify anyone for ministry, no matter how faithful the faculty or how hard it tries. A seminary is a rigorous academic program, but that is very different from being a church in which the student can serve and demonstrate his gifts and calling while he is under its teaching, authority, and discipline.

A large portion of my life has been devoted to seminary education, both my own and that of thousands of others. I am committed to quality theological education in the seminary and believe it to be a marvelous way to learn the Scriptures from brilliant and devoted men and women of God whom he has raised up for this purpose. I love seminary and would encourage every young minister of the gospel who has the opportunity to enroll in seminary—especially in a residential program, but that is a subject for another time. I love and believe in seminary education, to be sure. Even so, something important needs to be said.

A seminary is not the church. Jesus made teaching and training part of the Great Commission given to his church. He loved the church and gave himself for it. Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages. He has set some in the church. The Scriptures don’t say a single word about seminaries, not only because they did not yet exist, but also because they aren’t integral to God’s plan for making his name great among the nations. The church, on the other hand, is God’s plan for global evangelism and discipleship.

To be clear, seminaries—at least Southern Baptist seminaries—operate on behalf of the churches and are, in fact, owned by the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. The seminaries, therefore, hold a sacred and binding trust to train ministers of the gospel on behalf of the local churches in which they will one day serve. Seminaries make it possible for churches to offer a depth of theological training in multiple disciplines to those who have surrendered to ministry that they would not have otherwise. Churches have the right to delegate a portion of that training to a seminary and expect that their sons and daughters will be taught by great men and women of God and equipped in numerous ways, but churches cannot and must not abdicate their primary responsibility to train ministers of the gospel and to declare them ready for ministry when the time comes.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with the system, unless, of course, by wrong we mean unbiblical or, at the very least, extrabiblical. To the degree that any seminary circumvents and ignores the very body for which Christ died, forgetting that it exists to serve churches, that seminary has become unbiblical and will produce men and women more committed to a denomination or to a theological persuasion than to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. Dry orthodoxy disconnected from local churches leads to death as certainly as a liberal denial of the veracity of the Scriptures.

Since the seminary is an academic institution and not a church, it cannot really observe the student adequately to know if he demonstrates a true sense of calling, and most definitely does not have the right to declare him a God-called minister. That calling will be found at the intersection of desire, gifting, opportunity, and the testimony of the church. I can certainly gauge the gifting and, to a large degree, the desire of a student to fulfill a call to preach, for example, but in the three hours a week he spends with me I will not know anything about the opportunities that he seeks or that the Lord provides for him, and still less will I have the daily opportunity to observe his steadfast perseverance, the “fire in his bones” that testifies of his calling. I cannot gauge his true effectiveness in real life situations. I do not know how he treats his wife, or parents his children, or how generous he is with his resources, or whether or not he struggles with pride or lust. Only a church can do that and only over a significant period of time.

That is why ordination, taken seriously and done rightly, should mean much more than any seminary degree. When a church ordains a man for ministry, the members are testifying that they have observed his calling and they have found evidence of its reality. He has consistently and persistently expressed the desire to fulfill that calling and has also shown that God has provided him the basic skills to do it. In all candor, God is not going to call someone to do something that he just can’t cut no matter how long he persists nor how hard he tries. With the calling comes an enabling, and only the church can observe him closely enough to verify that God has provided what the young minister needs to fulfill the calling he claims.

In addition, the church can provide opportunities in order to bear witness whether or not the young minister will avail himself of and perform those with a seriousness that testifies of his calling. I can make assignments in my class and force him to preach or to perform certain ministries because I hold the power of a grade over him. When he has done those assignments, even if he has done them well, I cannot be sure that he would take the same care and careful deliberation if he were not needing a grade. The church, on the other hand, sees the novice minister in real-life situations and can much more realistically determine his genuine level of commitment.

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A seminary is an academic institution and awards an academic degree because a student completed a prescribed course of study. Though we do everything possible to make it a spiritual pursuit and to tie it to a knowledge of Christ and a commitment to the local church, an intelligent Buddhist could fake his way through and graduate from a Baptist seminary. If a student chooses to go through the seminary and do only what is required of him academically, he may perform very well in classes and even graduate at the top of his class. Without true connection and accountability to a local body, however, that student is not qualified as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and would not be qualified to lead a church until he has been faithful in serving a church and submitting to the elders (Hebrews 13:17; 1 Peter 5:5). My prediction for such a student would be that he would wipe out in the real world of church life and ministry. 

The success of ministry depends on the strength of calling. Academic training cannot ever bestow on a student the dogged persistence and the love for God’s people that he must have in the inevitable beat-down that ministry brings. Low pay, long hours, lost church members, and very little affirmation will often be a pastor’s lot, and at such times his rigorous academic training might actually work against him, contributing to feelings of entitlement and inflated self-worth that tempt him to cut and run. In those dark moments of opposition and spiritual dryness, he had better have something more significant than a seminary degree to keep him faithfully engaged and committed. He needs a fire in his bones, not a diploma on his wall.

On the other hand, I have seen many godly men who never made it to seminary lead vibrant and productive lives for Christ in the local church. As pastors, worship leaders, student ministers, or associate pastors, they exhibit a sense of calling, the skill set that demonstrates that anointing of God, and a passion that drives them to seek opportunities and to improve in their calling.

Put another way, the church can exist without the seminary. It has done so before and could do so again. The seminary, on the other hand, cannot and should not exist apart from the churches. The seminary has been tasked with giving young ministers a theological education on behalf of the churches, and we had better not ever forget that, but a theological education is only part of qualification for ministry. 

A little over a year ago I spent a week in Cuba and I saw God moving in ways I had never seen before. Hundreds of thousands a year are coming to Christ and churches are multiplying with incredible speed. Under tremendous deprivation, oppression, and persecution, the gospel is preached and the Spirit is moving mightily. Almost none of the pastors there have a seminary education, but I noted with great interest that almost all of them want one. Even though they are experiencing a revival that is perhaps more significant than any other place in the world right now, they feel that the depth and breadth of knowledge that a seminary education affords could make them even more effective and productive in the ministry.

Can we have both? Can we have a robust, full-orbed, theological education coupled with a passionate, Holy Spirit-anointed commitment to evangelism and church planting? Can we produce ministers who have an intelligent, thoughtful understanding of theology and a heart to walk through the hurts and sorrows of life with a congregation? We can, when the churches accept the primary responsibility for the spiritual formation of ministers and when those whom God has called understand that seminary training can enhance and enrich their service to the church but never supplant it.