Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Christmas, Xtreme Church Discipline and the Regulative Principle

A few years ago our family was visiting a church on the first Sunday of December. The pastor stood up and announced, "Tonight, we will have the hanging of the greens." I leaned over to my wife and whispered, "I don't know what the Greens did but it must have been really serious if the punishment is hanging!" I was torn between rejoicing over the rare prospect of a church practicing discipline and shuddering at its severity!

Now I recognize that the "official" designation is the "hanging of the green" (singular) but the church was in the deep south and the pastor may have inadvertently been thinking of his Sunday lunch when he made the announcement [a note to the culinarily challenged--"greens" is the common designation for a southern delicacy that only the most refined palates can fully appreciate; the three most common varieties are mustard, collard and turnip]. Whether that was the case or not, both the singular and the plural are commonly used by churches who practice decorating their sanctuaries with green foliage as an act of worship. Whole liturgies have been written to guide churches in how to do this "meaningfully."

I applaud efforts to make places dedicated to the worship of the living God aethetically pleasing where that is possible. But I cannot applaud the introduction into corporate church worship those elements that God Himself has not prescribed in His Word. God has told us that He cares how His people worship Him (see the first two of the 10 Commandments, for starters) and therefore we should be very hesitant to look to Hollywood, Madison Avenue or Main Street for cues on what we do in our gathered times of worship. Scripture, Paul says, is sufficient to thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work--including the good work of leading God's people in worship (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Scripture should guide and regulate our worship.

I, for one, believe that greens are better served with hamhocks and cornbread around a kitchen table than hung with liturgies and candles around a church sanctuary.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Forgetful Believers

We observed the Lord's Supper last Sunday as a part of our worship that included a sermon on apostasy from Jeremiah 18:13-23. In verse 15 the Lord summarizes Judah's apostate condition with this simple charge, "My people have forgotten Me." That succinct assessment is repeatedly made in the first 18 chapters of the book (2:32, 3:21, 13:25). What an indictment it is! When those to whom the Lord has come forget Him they are doing something that goes against nature, is uncharacteristic of pagans with their gods and which is spiritually suicidal (see the contexts of the verses listed above).

Forgetfulness is a common, yet deadly spiritual disease. That is why God's Word gives so much emphasis to calling us to remember. Much of the burden of Moses' message to the Israelites in Deuteronomy is warning them not to forget the Lord and exhorting them to remember Him and His salvation. David penned two psalms "to bring to remembrance" (38 and 70).

This same emphasis is found in the New Testament as well. In the midst of their sufferings the Hebrew Christians had to be reminded that those whom the Lord loves, He disciplines (Hebrews 12:5). Peter exhorts his readers to "add to your faith virtue, to virtue knowledge, to knowledge self-control, to self-control perseverance, to perseverance godliness, to godliness brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness love." Then he explains that "he who lacks these things is shortsighted, even to blindness, and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins" (2 Peter 1:5-7, 9).

The apostles saw it as part of their responsibility to remind the disciples of Christ of things that they already know. Paul explained to the Roman church, "I have written more boldly to you on some points, as reminding you, ...." (Romans 15:15). He sent Timothy to Corinth in order to "remind" them of his ways in Christ (1 Corinthians 4:17). Peter plainly declared his purpose in writing to his fellow believers: "For this reason I will not be negligent to remind you always of these things, though you know and are established in the present truth. Yes, I think it is right, as long as I am in this tent, to stir you up by reminding you,... (2 Peter 1:12-13). In fact, he self-consciously wrote his letters in order to encourage his readers to remember truth long after he had died: "Moreover I will be careful to ensure that you always have a reminder of these things after my decease" (2 Peter 1:15, see also 2 Peter 3:1).

Part of pastoral ministry is to be given over to reminding God's people of the Lord and His ways. Paul admonishes both Timothy and Titus to do just that (2 Timothy 2:14, Titus 3:1). He also encourages his young pastor friend to "remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel" (2 Timothy 2:8). Forget this and Gospel ministry becomes impossible.

All of these reminders are indictments on our tendency to forget. Which bring me back to the Lord's Supper. Jesus said, "Do this in remembrance of Me." Isn't it amazing that we need to be reminded of the sacrificial death of our Savior? What a commentary on the power of remaining sin that resides within believers! What a testimony to the subtle strategies of the devil and the alluring deceptions of the world! It seems inconceivable, doesn't it, that people who have been rescued for the wrath of God and granted eternal salvation would ever forget the One who, at such great cost, brought it about. Yet, that is sadly our tendency. We forget.

That's why we sin. We forget the wickedness of our sin and what it cost our Savior to redeem us from it. That's why we complain and grumble. We forget the greatness of incomparable worth of all that is ours in Jesus Christ. That's why we hesitate to forgive. We forget that God in Christ has forgiven us. That's why we get depressed, lose hope, become joyless and settle into spiritual mediocrity. We forget Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, has conquered every one of our enemies and given us a sure future in heaven.

How gracious and kind and condescending of Christ to give us the ordinance of the Lord's Supper so that by it we will be dramatically called to remember Him on a regular basis! An obedient Christian (who submits to the command to "Do this") cannot long remain a forgetful Christian (because it is done in remembrance of Christ). Forgetfulness is a great enemy to a joyful, faithful Christian life. We must not underestimate our need for encouragement to remember Christ. And we must not neglect the very means that He Himself has given to us to do so.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Keeping Christ in Xians

Every year we get assaulted with complaints about how the world is "taking Christ out of Christmas." The AFA letter I posted last week is a case in point. We should be far more concerned to see Christ kept in the Church and in professing Christians than we are to see what unbelieving institutions do with a holiday.

Two years ago I wrote this letter to the church I serve in Cape Coral. It still expresses my concerns.


Dear Church Family:

It is easy to complain about how bad things are "in the world" as we are bombarded with evidence of our culture's rapid descent into moral anarchy. Every year during the Advent season this temptation to "curse the darkness" wells up inside me. For most Americans there is very little Christ in Christmas. That is so self-evident that it does not bear repeating any more. But there is a perverse, self-righteous kind of pleasure that seems to keep drawing this observation out of us--or at least out of me.

If I can point out how Christ-denying the world is then I can take some comfort in the thought that I am not that way. But isn't that the same tendency that our Lord condemned in the Pharisee in Luke 18? "The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector.'"

A far greater problem than the Christ-denying world is a Christ-forgetting Christian. Worse still is when this problem so permeates our churches that it becomes the norm in evangelical Christianity. Before we allow ourselves to get angry or depressed or disgusted with Christless celebrations of Christmas, we should ruthlessly evaluate our own lives. How Christ-centered am I? How Christ-focused are my thoughts? How Christ-saturated are my conversations? How Christ-honoring is my use of time? How Christ-exalting are my desires?

A friend recently sent me the following editorial that was written by William Peterson, former editor of Eternity magazine. It was written in 1979 but is perhaps more applicable today than even when it first appeared. He expresses the concerns of my own heart as I look beyond Christmas to the year ahead.

Keeping Christ in Xians

Annually about this time, people begin thinking about keeping Christ in Christmas. Each year Santa and Co. encroach more and more on the true meaning of the Incarnation. But I have a deeper concern. I feel like launching a crusade to keep Christ in evangelical Christianity.

The other day a friend was talking about a veteran Christian leader. "You know," he said, "he's been a leader in evangelical Christianity for nearly fifty years, but he still hasn't lost his devotion to Jesus Christ." It bothered me that he had to say "but." Yet, it's true. Evangelical Christians are allowing all sorts of things to dim their vision of the Lord.

There's the "bigger barns" syndrome. We call it "a giant step of faith" or "vision." But too often we get so wrapped up in our big barns (that we are building for God's glory, of course), and in properly equipping them and adorning them, that we neglect Jesus Christ. Oh, we still sign our letters "sincerely in Christ," and say "in Jesus' name" before we affix an Amen in our prayers, but our warm commitment to Jesus Christ has evaporated.

There's the "anti-biggest-sin-there-is" crusade. In your mind, the biggest sin may be Communism, homosexuality, abortion, social injustice, or militarism. And I'm not knocking anti-sin crusades. But sin-fighters can get so wrapped up in the evil-out-there, that they may overlook a growing void inside that can be filled only by an expanding devotion to Jesus Christ.

Even church renewal concerns can get in the way of our vision. Evangelistic and mission-minded churches are not necessarily Christ-focused. It's interesting to note how little space Paul gives in his epistles to exhortation to evangelism and missions. It's certainly not that he didn't believe in them, but rather it was more important for his readers to grasp the truth of being "in Christ." People [do] need fellowship, churches need creative ideas, Bible study groups need solid exegesis based on historical-grammatical-textual considerations. But, "Sir, we would see Jesus."

Can you imagine what it would have been like if our modern evangelical world were transplanted into the Bethlehem of 2000 years ago?
We would have groups debating whether the angelic chorus sang or spoke in dramatic unison. We would have planned a convention bringing in the top rabbis from all over the Diaspora. We would have a company manufacturing "Babe of Bethlehem T-shirts," made, of course, from wool provided by local sheep.

We would have sent out appeal letters to collect enough money to build a Christian Inn in Bethlehem so that this might never happen again. The activists among us would have picketed King Herod for his baby slaughter. And we would not have noticed that Mary, Joseph, and the Babe had skipped town and gone to Egypt. After all, our evangelical business in Bethlehem could be carried on without him.

What a tragedy to do a thousand Christian things at the expense of knowing, loving, communing with or hoping and glorying in Jesus Christ!

Will you pray with me that the Lord will grant us the grace and honesty to examine our own lives in the light of all that Jesus Christ has done for us? If the world uses the birth of Jesus as an excuse for indulging in decadence, it is only acting according its own principles. If believers, however, live as if the eternal Son of God has not come into the world to rescue us by His life, death and resurrection, or if we order our lives as if we do not believe in His return or in heaven, then we are denying the very Gospel we profess to believe.

"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 2:1-3).

May the Lord empower us to remember and believe the truth so that we will live Christ-saturated lives. May our fellowship and conversations and worship and acts of love and kindness and ministry all work to encourage each other to revel in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Pray that God will make it so!

Praising the Lord for the privilege of serving as your pastor,

Tom

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Boycotting Companies who ban "Christmas"?

I got an email from the American Family Association asking me to sign a petition threatening companies that do not use "Christmas" in their advertizing at this time of the year. Here is the complete text of the email:

Companies Ban 'Christmas,' Not Worried About Backlash

Dear Thomas,

Several retailers have joined in the push to ban the use of "Christmas" in their in-store promotions and retail advertising. The new push to eliminate "Christmas" and replace it with "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," etc. is gaining ground with several retailers participating.

Not wanting to offend a handful of complainers, these companies are willing to offend the vast majority who hold Christmas as a time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Their attitude is that those who identify themselves as Christians don't care if they eliminate "Christmas."

While it is too late to make changes this year, we have already sent letters to several major retailers we have identified as participating in banning "Christmas," asking them to put Christmas back into their in-store promotions and retail advertising next year. We have sent letters to the chairmen of Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Kmart/Sears, Costco, Kohl's and Lowe's about their practice. (Lowe's even refuses to promote their trees as Christmas trees, but calls them "Holiday Trees." Their toll-free number is 1-800-445-6937.)

Please sign our petition letting these companies know that banning "Christmas" in their promotions and advertising next year will result in a loss of business. As we identify other companies participating in this practice, we will contact them.

We need your support to be effective. That is why we need your petition. Please help us get the word out by forwarding this to your friends and family. Many of them will want to participate. We will keep you informed on which companies make changes and which ones refuse.

Click Here To Sign The Petition Now!

Thanks for caring enough to get involved.

Sincerely,

Don

Donald E. Wildmon, Founder and Chairman
American Family Association

P.S. "There is an anti-Christian bias in this country, and it is more on display at Christmas season than any other time." – Bill O'Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News Channel (Speaking about the decision of Target and other stores to ban the use of "Merry Christmas" in their stores and advertising.) Please forward this e-mail message to your family and friends!


Isn't it interesting where we evangelicals often choose to draw battle lines with the world? We take personal offense when retailers make marketing decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with biblical standards of morality and yet heartily support them when they blatantly violate biblical standards. The Bible says nothing about Christmas--either as a special day to be observed or a term to be included in marketing (for the record, I do celebrate Christmas, but not because I think I am biblically obliged to do so). So, why should Christians be exercised when retailers don't advertize "Christmas" specials?

On the other hand, the Bible does teach that one day in seven should be set aside for special observance in recognition that God is the Creator and we are His creatures. Yet, many (most?) Christians have no qualms about going to the mall on Sunday or treating it as no different from any other day of the week. Even conservative Southern Baptists reduced the Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 on the observance of the Lord's Day. I have always been confounded by those (like AFA) who argue loudly for the public display of the 10 Commandments and yet who do not seem to care that those commandments are virtually unknown and largely unregarded in our evangelical churches.

So count me out of the boycott. I will save my bullets for the real war.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Adrian Rogers--A Tribute

I was out of the country when I learned about the death of Adrian Rogers, longtime pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. I was saddened by the news and those I was with on the Founders Cruise prayed more than once for his family. We prayed with thanksgiving for his life and ministry. Pastor David Wooten, who serves Riverbend Community Church, was one of the speakers on the cruise. He and his wife were members of Bellevue under Rogers' ministry. He spoke with genuine love for his former pastor who taught him to honor and believe the Word of God.

Rogers was no friend of Calvinism. In fact, more than once he was quite outspoken in his criticism of the doctrines of grace and especially some within Southern Baptist life who hold those doctrines to be the truth of God's Word. He referred to them (us) as "wine and cheese theologians." I was always saddened by his public denunciations of reformed theology because he seemed always to be attacking a straw man. Some of his comments provided fuel for the flames that were directed against faithful pastors by disgruntled church members and denominational servants.

Despite all this, it has not been difficult for me to maintain a sincere appreciation for Dr. Rogers. He led the charge in calling the SBC back to a firm commitment to the authority of Scripture. And he did it, from what I could tell, with grace and kindness.

My deep respect for him was sealed when I saw him in a private gathering of conservative leaders late one night during the 1990 Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans (Nevermind how I wound up at that meeting--that is a story in and of itself!). Conservatives had finally gained a majority of trustees on the Sunday School Board and everyone knew that the executive of that agency would not last long as a result. Conservatives again won other key votes on the floor of the convention, including the election of another president, Morris Chapman, who was loyal to the cause. The attitude of many conservative leaders who had been working long and hard for the inerrancy movement were almost giddy with excitement. This giddiness gave rise to a type of gloating in this private meeting of a few dozen men. In the midst of the laughter and self-congratulations Dr. Rogers stood up and gently but firmly issued a rebuke to his colleagues. "Brothers, God's Word says that we should not rejoice when our enemy falls. And those we have defeated are not our enemies. They are our brothers. We should not be rejoicing." His words had their intended effect and the tone of the meeting changed immediately.

That kind of statesmenship is in short supply today. He was not only a great defender of the authority of the Scripture he was also committed to living it out, even when doing so required that he stand against the private celebrating of his friends. Everyone who loves God's Word should aspire to live so faithfully.

I join many others in grieving his loss, thanking God for his leadership, and rejoicing at the thought of this faithful man of God entering into the full joy of His Lord.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Guess who said it--50 years ago

The following excerpt comes from a well-known Southern Baptist pastor:

"In the forty-sixth chapter of Isaiah and beginning at the ninth verse, listen to the Word of the Lord:
For I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me,
Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure. Calling unto the ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken it, I will bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it.

That's our God. Now that's what you call foreordination. That's what you call predestination. That's Calvinism. And I am a Calvinist. That's good old Bible doctrine. And I believe the Bible. These things are in God's hands. And ultimately, and finally, He purposed it and executeth all of it."


Dr. W. A. Criswell, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, made this comment in a sermon he preached 50 years ago on November 20, 1955. The sermon is called
"The Doctrine of Predestination."

Monday, November 14, 2005

Ready for Reformation? Pt. 6



My comments on this important book continues.

Chapter 7 calls for the "Recovery of a Grace-Centered Theology" in order for significant reform to come to Southern Baptist churches. Nettles acknowledges that all Christians, of whatever stripe, believe that sinners are saved by grace. However, Roman Catholicism, as well as some Protestants, understand that grace to be a "cooperative venture" between God and man. This understanding is properly called "synergism" because it sees God and man working together to effect a gracious salvation (78). Nettles' rightly notes that "many leaders among Southern Baptists have developed an approach to salvation that accommodates this synergistic arrangement of grace" (79). Such a statement should send shivers down the spine of any Southern Baptist who cares for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Could it really be true that there are SOUTHERN BAPTIST LEADERS whose understanding of God's grace has more in common with Roman Catholic dogma than with the historic Baptist confessions of faith and especially with the New Testament? Nettles says it is so. And he documents his charge.

The various quotes that he cites from various writings, sermons and addresses of recognized leaders among Southern Baptists leave no doubt that what he says is true. Though he quotes specifically, Nettles does not give the names of the guilty parties in an attempt to avoid having the issues at hand clouded by personalities or hijacked with charges of "personal foul." That is a noble and commendable motivation. What readers must not allow, however, is for the lack of names attached to the quotes to blunt their force. As each egregious misunderstanding of the grace of God is read, the reader must constantly remind himself or herself that "this is the view of a leader among the Southern Baptist Convention."

Here are some of the quotes from Southern Baptist leaders:

"'Scriptures plainly teach that predestination, which means to destine beforehand, is based on foreknowledge. God chose those whom he knew beforehand would chose him!' For Scriptural foundation he cites Romans 8:29-30 and 1 Peter 1:2, and reiterates, [']God elects, God predestines on the basis of knowing beforehand. That's what the word foreknowledge means. I've checked it out in the Greek. It just means God knows what's going to happen. On the basis that God knows, according to this, he elects[']" (79).

Nettles comments: "Election, thus defined...emasculates a very strong word that denotes a deliberate and rationally conceived choice ("elect") and makes it into a mere divine capitulation to an infinite number of free choices of humans" (79-80). In other words, this Southern Baptist has perverted the grace of God in election by making God's choice dependent on man's choice. I, for one, am left wondering where in the world he learned he learned his Greek! Nettles takes this unnamed Southern Baptist leader to the lexical woodshed with a very concise refutation of the idea that in Greek foreknowledge simply means prescience (80).

Another example of why Southern Baptists are in need of a deepening, ongoing reformation:

"A highly influential conservative pastor preaching from Ephesians 1:4-6 described 'election' as 'God in his sovereignty making a choice related to salvation to be made available to human kind.' Election, therefore, is 'not coercive,' but honors human autonomy. The sinner hearing the gospel may 'freely respond'; but if 'God had not chosen us,' that is, made a sovereign decision to make salvation 'available' to sinners, we 'could not have chosen Him.' Rejecting personal unconditional election as fatalism, he asserted that such a choice in eternity would mean that people are lost 'because they are not elected.' The same idea is present in the words of another influential pastor when he pictures election as meaning that a 'child is going to hell because a child is not elect'" (80).

Nettles plainly charges that "many Baptists, though professedly grace centered, have retreated from their historical and confessional view of the power of regeneration. They have adopted what is essentially Roman Catholic synergism" (81). One example is an energetic preacher-theologian who said, "'I reject...with all the unction, function, emotion of my soul that a man is regenerated before he believes.' All sinners have received a general call from Christ, who enlightens every man in the world, and the power of a call does not need to exceed that general call. Man's will normally governs the historical process. 'God's will is not always done. Did you get the idea that because God is sovereign that God's will is always done?'" (82).

After giving a biblical refutation that is buttressed by the teaching of historic Baptist leaders John Gano and James Boyce, Nettles traces this capitulation to Roman Catholic theology by current SBC leaders to the remaining influence of E. Y. Mullins, who "smuggled in Schleiermacher's liberal subjectivism into the convention in the early 20th century. Though "this lilberal slant has been arrested by the reaffirmation of inerrancy,"..."it continues in the arena of spiritual experience" (84).

Southern Baptist leaders have also drained the work of Jesus Christ from its saving and gracious efficacy through their theological alignment with Rome. "As one preacher told a congregation of Baptist ministers and laymen, 'In love God extended himself on the cross on behalf of every person. God in love has exhausted His every effort to make salvation available to every person.... The determining issue is what do people think'" (85). Nettles cites other examples of visceral denunciations of particular redemption by Southern Baptist leaders who "detest" the teaching and say they would not want to worship a God who particularly and effectually atones for the sins of His people through the death of Jesus Christ. Some believe that if a person cannot look anyone and everyone specifically in the eye and declare that "Jesus Christ died for you," then there is no basis for evangelism. Once again, Nettles exposes the unbiblical nature of such charges and objections with simple, clear exegesis of Scripture.

He closes this chapter by showing the inconsistency of inerrantists who are willing to live with the sovereignty of God and responsibility of man in the doctrine of Scritpure's inspiration but then emotionally reject it in the doctrine of salvation. "Reformation of Baptist identity will be unretrieved to the degree that a grace-centered theology remains unrecovered. If effectual calling cannot be reconciled with human freedom and responsibility without making a person a robot, by the same token inspiration cannot operate to produce an infallible text apart from a mindless kind of robotic dictation. If the work of salvation hangs on human will, then so must the work of revelation and inspiration. The vital organ of inerrancy cannot survive in the absence of the nutrition of grace" (89).

Practical Implications of Calvinism Cruise

The First Founders Cruise is underway and the Holland of America ship, Veendam, is sailing through the Gulf of Mexico as I write. Together with the pre-cruise conference held in Tampa, the sessions have combined to provide wonderful instruction on the Gospel of God's grace and its implications for all of life. The Tampa Conference addressed the theme, "What is the Gospel?" and Fred Malone spoke specifically on that question. His message and the one delivered by Roy Hargrave ("What is Evangelism?") should be required listening for all pastors and serious Christians. Fred simply outlined the Gospel as a message about God, about man, about Christ and the call for response. Without these elements, whatever is preached or taught, it is not the Gospel. Roy showed how the passionate proclamation and declaration of that Gospel is what constitutes evangelism. God saves sinners by grace but He uses means to do so. By reasoning with people to believe the Gospel we are joining the Spirit, as the Bride, in saying to sinners, "Come!"

Steve Kreloff gave a wonderful case for expository preaching in answering the question, "What is Preaching?" David Wooten ably preached from Ephesians 2 on "What is Salvation?" Steve Camp warned against the many ecclesiastical models that are prevalent today in answering the question, "What is a Church?" And I, perhaps too ambitiously, tacked, "What is Christianity?"

On the cruise we are looking at the "Practical Implications of Calvinism." Participants from as far away as Nova Scotia and Ireland have joined us for this nautical conference. The late night "Theological Dialogues on the High Seas" have already proven to be highlights of our times together.

CD's of all these messages will be available next month from Founders Ministries.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Report on the Evangelical Forum in VA

Brian Hamrick is pastor of Fairfields Baptist Church in Burgess, Virginia, where he has served since 2002. He and his wife Katherine have a 15-month old son, Nathan. He is a guest blogger for me today, reporting on a conference held yesterday in Alexandria, VA.


Good News Baptist Church of Alexandria hosted the Evangelical Forum on Wednesday, November 9th. The Evangelical Forum is a network of pastors and laymen affiliated with the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV) who affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.

Dr. Tom Nettles spoke regarding soul competency (as it relates to church purity and divine sovereignty), and Dr. Mark Dever gave two historical profiles on John Bunyan and John L. Dagg.

It was fitting for Dr. Nettles to make this presentation at this time- almost 99 years ago to the date, E.Y. Mullins presented the doctrine of soul competency before the Virginia Baptist Historical Society. Dr. Nettles defined soul competency as simply, "the ability to make moral judgments," as we are created in God's image. In doing so, he stands with Mullins' view of the doctrine, strongly opposing the modern caricature used to justify absolute individual autonomy. As Nettles explained,

"It is not true that this was an effort on his [Mullins] part to move away from historic Baptist doctrine."

Dr. Nettles taught from Ephesians 4:17-24, Colossians 3:5-11, and 2 Thessalonians 2:5-15 to demonstrate that Scripture treats all sinners as deceived, yet fully responsible; justly judged by God. We are responsible for our condition. God does not treat us as people without capacity to be accountable, but as people who are competent to answer before Him ourselves. Nettles argues, if we're not competent, how could we be blamed or condemned for sin?
In the end, soul competency has much more to say about the justness of God's judgment than it does about the rightness of man's choices. In fact, Nettles tightly linked total depravity to soul competency, which "does not destroy moral competence," but rather points to the necessity of the Holy Spirit's regenerating work in us so that we would love the truth. It is this lack of emphasis on (or complete distortion of) total depravity that has contributed greatly to the misunderstanding and application of soul competency in our time by so many.

Nettles used Luke 4:14-30 to show the workings of total depravity in response to God's truth. His explanation of regeneration was particularly sharp: "the Holy Spirit has no helper."

Finally, Nettles gave 3 areas of application regarding soul competency:

1) Soul competency frees the church from the impurity of an improper nationalism.
2) Soul competency frees the church from the superficiality of ritualism. He cited the soul-of-the-month club as an example of violating the way God works with sinners.
3) Soul competency frees the church from the deceit of authoritarianism.

Dr. Dever's sketches on Bunyan and Dagg were insightful and stimulating. Of note was Bunyan's views on baptism, which desired to extend membership for the "visible saints by calling" in order to foster more unity in the local church. This, of course, would include paedobaptists in church membership. Dever graciously expressed the many contributions Bunyan has made for the faith, saying his works are the most appreciated writings in the history of the Chrisitan church outside of Scripture. Yet Dever passionately challenged Bunyan's baptism position:

"Doesn't this create the idea that baptism is in the eye of the beholder?... obedience to God is not in the eye of the beholder, unless the beholder is God Himself."

Dever listed D. Martyn-Lloyd Jones as advocating an open baptism view in 1978 similar to Bunyan. Dr. Dever ended his treatment of Bunyan's position on baptism saying, "My conclusion of Bunyan's position on baptism is that he was editing Jesus."

His treatment of John L. Dagg was also helpful. Dever recounted Dagg's influence in several states in forming or leading in state conventions- he was instrumental in forming the BGAV. His pastorate in Philadelphia ended in 1834 when he lost his voice. This event opened the door to his writings, which included extensive arguments against infant baptism and Landmarkism. Dever concluded of Dagg, he is "almost unsurpassed as a doctor of the purpose of theology."

A brief time of Q & A was afforded at the conclusion of the meeting. Both men shared how encouraged they are of how God is working in the SBC, and they were hopeful a Patterson/Mohler discussion would do much to expand theological understanding. Nettles expressed more confidence now than ever that we could return to our rich theological heritage.

Thanks be to God for the leadership of the Evangelical Forum who organized this event. Much encouragement and blessing was received by us all.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Ready for Reformation? Pt. 5



In chapter 6 Nettles argues for the recovery of a proper understanding of law and gospel. He underscores the importance of this issue by stating that, "Misperceptions and misapplications of this issue within the pale of the conservative movement of Southern Baptists could eventually be more crippling to the recovery of biblical Christianity than the active opposition of the moderate movement" (75). That observation is a alarming as it is accurate.

Had Nettles been focused more broadly than the SBC in his book he could have easily quoted John Newton who said that, "Ignorance of the nature and design of the law is at the bottom of most religious mistakes." Or he could have cited John Bunyan who said, "The man who does not know the nature of the law cannot know the nature of sin. And he who does not know the nature of sin cannot know the nature of the Saviour."

The Baptists Nettles does quote show that a proper understanding of law and gospel has been a part of our rich Southern Baptist heritage--a part which has largely been forgotten in our day. The sad consequences of that loss are apparent in the antinomianism, legalism and moralism that mark much of contemporary Baptist life.

After demonstrating the abject failure of liberal Baptists to maintain the connection between law and gospel, Nettles show how a similiar failure lives on in conservative SBC circles.
More definitive inconsitencies on law and gospel still unsettle conservative Southern Baptists. Pastoral concerns over issues of justification, sanctification, assurance, and church discipline have direct connections with a healthy grasp of the conceptual relations between law and gospel. Some strategies of outreach and paradigms of church growth have pushed aside law-gospel relationship for one that appears more immediately relevant. The minister's task, so it is assumed, is to present biblical principles as giving a sound foundation for day-to-day happiness and healthy relationships. Pressures of contemporary life, issues of personal insecurity and self-esteem, financial insolvency, perplexity in rearing children, marital unity, pleasing personal relationships and unresolved emotional conflict often dominate the sermonic menu of many evangelical and Baptist churches.

Though cloaked within an evangelical ethos and an ostensible commitment to biblical inerrancy and an undergirding motive of evangelism, the basic substance of biblical content, in such cases, goes little beyond the man-centered optimistic liberal message of the early twentieth century (73, emphasis added).

The quote from Harry Emerson Fosdick that follows in the book illustrates the point with frightening clarity.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Happy Birthday Sandy Creek

Several have pointed out the Baptist Press story on the celebration of the famous Sandy Creek Baptist Church. The so-called "Sandy Creek tradition" has been less than accurately represented by some who would like to suggest that the Separate Baptists who came from that church and association were opposed to Calvinism. Often this is done by speaking of the Sandy Creek tradition as being committed to evangelism and the Charleston tradition as being committed to Calvinism, and these two (or more) traditions combining to form the Southern Baptist Convention. Such historiography misrepresents the Sandy Creek tradition and is suspect at best. It actually follows a thesis developed and popularized by Walter Shurden and Fisher Humphreys--men that no SBC "inerrancy leader" would ever confuse with being conservative. I find it strange, then, that someone like Paige Patterson would uncritically espouse this theory in explaining Southern Baptist origins.

I have written on this in different places--once in a brief overview of the reformation heritage of the SBC and once as a response to comments and challenges that Dr. Patterson made to students and faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. In the latter, I wrote this:
"The evangelistic fervor of the Charleston tradition is only one side of the evidence which refutes the skewed historical interpretation that Charleston and Sandy Creek were separated by Calvinism and missionary zeal. The implication that the Separate Baptists of Sandy Creek were somehow anti-Calvinistic is, at best, a thesis which is difficult to defend. Indeed, there is ample evidence to suggest that Separate Baptists were just as convinced of the Reformed understanding of salvation as were their Regular Baptist brethren." (read the article)

In addition to these two sources, Josh Powell has written an excellent article entitled, "Shubal Stearns and the Separate Baptist Tradition." It was published in the Founders Journal (Spring 2001). An excerpt and link follow below.
"The year was 1758 and God had richly blessed the gospel strategy of the Separate Baptists in North Carolina. Just three years before, a group led by Shubal[1] Stearns had settled at Sandy Creek and constituted a church. Within those short three years with "a few churches having been constituted, and these having a number of branches which were fast maturing for churches,..." (read the article).

Each of these articles is well-documented. Read them and check the footnotes for yourself. Then decide if the old Shurden-Humphreys-Patterson thesis about Sandy Creek is historically sustainable.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Mohler and Patterson: A Debate or Discussion?

Quite a buzz has been generated about the prospect of Drs. Patterson and Mohler debating Calvinism at the 2006 Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference in Greensboro, NC. Anytime you find a topic being discussed on both the Puritan Board and the Fightin' Fundamentalist Forum, you can be pretty sure that there is widespread interest.

Some are already upset because of what they are certain will or will not happen at this event. Others have speculated on whether or not there will even be such an "event." And, of course, the question of exactly what to call it has come up. According to a comment left on this blog a few days ago, Dr. Patterson has adamantly denied that there will be a debate about Calvinism, though he did go on to confirm plans for a "forthright discussion" between Dr. Mohler and him on the subject.

Debate or "forthright discussion?" I don't think it matters that much. The great hope that I have for this planned event is that it will provide a context for Southern Baptists pastors and others actually to think about and talk about theology. Some have taken the announcement as an opportunity to start rallying support for "our side" in hopes that, by a means of a debate, we might defeat "their side." This strikes me as theological pugilism and I think it is wrongheaded and misses the real point--SOUTHERN BAPTISTS ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO HAVE A THEOLOGICAL CONVERSATION ON A NATIONAL PLATFORM!

I, for one, greatly appreciate Drs. Patterson and Mohler for their willingness to participate in this. As the blogosphere has already demonstrated, they are both going to be subjected to much scorn, ridicule and mischaracterization for doing so before either one of them utters the first "forthright" word in the "discussion."

Let's take this for what it i--a tremendous opportunity for Southern Baptists (and others) to see the legitimacy and importance of engaing in theological discussions beyond inerrancy. And let's not be disillusioned by what it is not and never could be--a theological showdown that will end all doctrinal disagreements and/or "prove" once and for all time that one view is right and the other is wrong.

Reformation will come through a recovery of not only the authority of God's Word but also of its teachings. Anytime a forum is provided to consider publicly those important but neglected and often-caricatured teachings of God's sovereignty in salvation, truth-lovers should rejoice.


Rather than setting odds, predicting victory or castigating the men involved, what we should be doing is expressing our gratitude to those who have been willing to put historic Southern Baptist theology on the agenda of the SBC Pastors' Conference. As I mentioned previously, twenty years ago this kind of event could not even have been imagined.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Ready for Reformation? Pt. 4



Chapters 4 & 5 of Nettles' book deal with evangelism. Because of the importance of the subject and "the congenital sense of identity Baptists have with it" two chapters are warranted (p. 39). Nettles' sets the stage for his biblical and historical treatment of the work of evangelism by showing "the danger of a corrupted evangelism" (p. 40). Here are a couple of his astute observations:

"Biblical evangelism cannot be severed from the proclamation of truth. The connection is vital. Sever and die. [This observation in and of itself is an accurate postmortem analysis of what has gone wrong with much modern evangelism.-ta] Ironically, a major factor in the decline of Baptist identity has been the zealous practice of a redefined evangelism. Clearly, zeal may be good or bad depending on the cause to which it is devoted. When devoted to evangelism, it is good; but when the evangelism to which it is devoted takes shortcuts around the gospel, zeal may be a catalyst for theological dissolution" (p. 40).

"A substantial shift in both the theology and methodology of evangelism has occurred, however, and threatens the concept of a regenerate church just as surely as the doctrine of infant baptism. A method of evangelism built on a redefinition of regeneration may produce exactly the kind of carnal membership in churches to which Baptist ecclesiology is hostile. In this approach the 'work' of evangelism declines under the pressure of an 'act' of evangelism" (p. 40).


In other words, shallow evangelism that sacrifices the truth of the gospel message for the sake of efficiency results in something less than regeneration. Yet, when those who have been so evangelized are pronounced "saved" and baptized into the membership of a local church the result is a "carnal membership." Isn't this exactly what has been happening for the last couple of generations in Southern Baptist life? This explains the low level of spirituality that exists in so many churches. This also explains why the majority of the SBC's 16 million members are "absentee members."

Nettles appeals to both General and Particular Baptists to illustrate his concerns that evangelism must be wedded to truth. He takes particular note of Samuel Pearce and Andrew Fuller and uses their insights as helpful correctives to the defective evangelism that has affected so much of modern Southern Baptist life.

In the 19th century Baptists were not immune to the new measures controversies that introduced acts of "human contrivance" (as Virginia Baptist pastor, William Fristoe, referred to them) into the work of evangelism and gospel preaching. It was during latter half of this century that many Baptists witnessed a departure from the Fuller-Pearce paradigm of evangelism and the incorporation of the invitation system into evangelistic preaching.

In the 20th century, this unbiblical system became so ingrained into the way most Southern Baptists conceive evangelism that failure to give a post-sermonic "altar call" is now often castigated as anti-evangelistic. Nettles shows how the meaning of "invitation" has completely changed in the Baptist mind from the 18th century to the present. Despite overwhelming evidence that modern evangelistic efforts that employ the invitation system have overrun our churches with a majority of members who are not active in any sense of the word, modern Southern Baptist leaders continue to tout the more zealous employment of such methods as our greatest need.

"This type of evangelism is set forth confidently as the answer to church stagnation among Southern Baptists. Zeal to get more baptisms will heal us, so we have taught and exhorted for decades" (p. 61).


Dr. Nettles assessment explains why many of us are at best tepid about SBC President Bobby Welch's "Everyone Can and I'm It!" campaign. When declaring his candidacy for president, Welch said, "Here's the headline on me: This convention does not have one problem that soul-winning will not solve. You put that in big capital letters, quotes, three exclamation points and underline it in red." No sincere Baptist would ever be against soul winning. But when the KIND of "soul winning" being advocated is that which has filled our churches with a majority of unregenerate members, zeal for it becomes detrimental to the cause of Christ.

Nettles writes,

"Zeal without knowledge, however, kills. Proficiency in provoking decisions has replaced pastoral care and wisdom. Sometimes telling a person how to make a decision may not be evangelism at all. On occasions, encouraging a sinner to continue in pursuit of the grace of God would be more biblical and apostolic (Acts 13:42-43, 48). ... Perhaps less baptisms with greater pastoral and church discernment would be better than more baptisms under the same programmatic conditions that have governed the last fifty to seventy-five years" (p. 61).


At this point Nettles sounds very much like the courageous voice of Henry Tucker, editor of the Christian Index and Southwestern Baptist, when he wrote in 1880: "We have been so careless in the reception of members--so anxious to increase in numbers without regard to quality, that the moral tone of many of our churches is utterly debased, and there is not religious power enough to throw off the unworthy load.... When the 'success' of a pastor is estimated by the number excluded during his administration, rather than by the number baptized, a new and better era will have dawned. What we need is to unload" (pp. 62-3).

If modern Southern Baptist churches were to heed Tucker's counsel and "unload," we would drop from more than 16 million to less than half that number.

Drs. Mohler and Patterson to debate Calvinism



This is something you would never have dreamed about 20 years ago. Recently it was announced that Drs. Al Mohler and Paige Patterson will take a session at the 2006 Pastors' Conference prior to the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Greensboro, NC to debate Calvinism. While some will no doubt be very nervous to hear about these plans, such a debate holds promise of accomplishing much good in SBC life.

Why do I say that? It is not because I am persuaded that "our side" will "win" such a debate. Nor is it because I think this event will expose errors in the anti-Calvinism schemes. Rather, I think this holds great hope for being beneficial for two reasons. First, it will be helpful simply because it will be a theological debate. Southern Baptists will actually be sponsoring an event that intentionally and formally is examining theological issues. Many Southern Baptists--especially younger Southern Baptists--are weary of the constant pep rallies for denominational programs that take up so much of the agenda at the annual SBC meeting. There is a great desire for something more substantive, something that examines foundational issues which have long been neglected by denominational leadership. A debate about Calvinism could well provide an opportunity for that to happen.


Secondly, I am hopeful about this announced event because Drs. Mohler and Patterson are friends. I fully expect that their exchange--regardless of how formal or informal the format--will provide a model for theological dialogue. Our day has all but lost the art (and Christian responsibility) of disagreeing strongly about important matters without writing your opponent out of the kingdom. This is especially true when the subject is Calvinism and it is equally true of those on both sides of the issue. An example of Christian leaders talking pointedly, pressing biblical arguments determinedly and disagreeing strongly (assuming that this will be the case) can only be a helpful thing for modern Southern Baptists. It will be great to see 2 Southern Baptist seminary presidents leading the way in this kind of effort.

I will make a couple of predictions: 1. This debate will draw larger crowds than any other session at the Pastors' Conference or the SBC meeting. 2. Some denominational leader will lament that fact. In addition, I would suspect that the average age of those attending the debate will be much younger than the average age that attends the 2 days of SBC meetings.

I have no details about this event. Watch for the announcements of pre-convention meetings.