Monday, April 23, 2007

Grace Baptist considers Tom Nettles for Associate Pastor

Dr. Tom Nettles, Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky will visit Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral on May 4-6 in view of a call to become the Associate Pastor. While this news may come as a shock to many people, those who know Tom well will not be surprised. He represents what is best in our seminaries and has consistently carried out his classroom responsibilities with a sense that he is a servant of the local church.

The best seminary professors are those who teach with a pastor's heart. That is the way that Dr. Nettles teaches. It was a great blessing from God when I first stepped on the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary 28 years ago to have Dr. Nettles for my first professor. He taught me that all of history takes its significance in relationship to the person and work of Jesus Christ. He taught me that loving the brethren includes caring about those servants whom God gave to the Church in generations past. He convinced me that my theological understanding of the Gospel and how it works was too superficial to sustain authentic ministry in a local church. And he patiently helped me to come to a more accurate understanding of the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

What many of his friends and students may not know is that Tom never intended to be a classroom professor. He believed that God called him to be a pastor and fully intended to pursue that calling in a local church. God providentially directed him along a different path. For the last 32 years he has fulfilled his calling by training pastors, missionaries and church leaders whose ministries span the globe. And he has done so as a churchman with a pastor's heart. Only a few days ago I spoke to a recent former student of Tom's. His testimony echoed what I have from countless others and personally experienced during the years that I studied under him. This new pastor described how Dr. Nettles sought to shepherd him during his days as a student, caring not only for his knowledge of history, but more particularly for the health of his soul.

The journey by which the Lord has led both Tom and Grace Baptist Church to this path is a testimony to divine wisdom and grace. Though there are still some very important, final steps in the process of his being called to serve as a pastor at Grace, the elders of our church are recommending him to the congregation and he and his wife, Margaret, sense the Lord leading them thus far to entertain that possibility.

I know that many of the readers of this blog love Dr. Nettles and praise the Lord for his life and ministry. Please pray for him and Margaret, and for the Grace family over the next three weeks. We all want the Lord's will to be done and are very consciously depending on Him to speak through His church in guiding us and the Nettles in this important matter. By God's grace, we hope to have a confident understanding of the Lord's will by the middle of May.

For the formal announcement by our church, go here.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Maybe we are baptizing fewer false converts

The recent Baptist Press report that "baptisms are down" for the previous year in the SBC is provoking much reflection and analysis. The responses that I have seen thus far are concerned that these statistics indicate that Southern Baptists are failing in evangelism.

Bobby Welch sees this decline as an ominous "handwriting on the wall" that is warning Southern Baptists that unless we become even more zealous in doing what we have been doing, we will quickly pass a point of no return. He suggests that without his all-out campaign to lead Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people last year, the numbers would have been much lower.

I share the concerns with those who are calling for us to become more evangelistic. It is easy to get lulled into a way of living and ministering that loses sight of the great task of making disciples. This can happen to individuals as well as churches. It is healthy for us to be regularly challenged to do the work of evangelism. As Thom Rainer is quoted as saying in the BP article, we should be passionate about it.

I would like to offer another angle on all this. First, I do not think we have reason to equate number of baptisms with the number of disciples that have been made. About half (and probably more) of the people that we have been baptizing as a convention over the last several decades turn out rather poorly, when evaluated by the standards of New Testament Christianity. They don't even attend worship services any more. I am being generous in my estimate. My fear is that the number is much greater than half.

This sad reality keeps me from being as alarmed as Bobby Welch and others are at the decrease in the number of baptisms last year. Maybe the statistics indicate that we are baptizing fewer false converts. Or to state it positively, maybe they indicate that a greater care is being exercised in who gets baptized in our churches.

As I suggested in the resolution I submitted to the SBC last year (and will submit again this year), if our churches start to take church discipline and the commitment to a regenerate church membership seriously, then some of our statistics will inevitably drop. This always happens when inflation is corrected. Corrective discipline will mean removing members who are not genuinely participating in the life of the church or fulfilling their covenant commitments. Formative discipline will involve becoming more careful in who is admitted into the membership of the church in the first place, including, who is baptized.

We say that we believe in the baptism of disciples alone. Yet, in practice, too many Baptist churches have been far too indiscriminate in who they baptize (as I have argued for years). By God's grace, there seems to be some winds of change in the air at just this point. More and more pastors are talking about church discipline. More and more of our denominational leaders are joining that conversation. From what I can tell, there is a growing movement of churches who are trying to rediscover and reinstituted discipline in their bodies. This is a wonderful development, but it will inevitably result in the short term in a drop in our baptism statistics.

If Southern Baptists are baptizing fewer false converts, that is a good thing and we should rejoice over it. Do not misconstrue my meaning. I am not saying that we should ever be content to see few people converted and being baptized. Though the Lord may take us through seasons of when that is the case, we should never be satisfied that it should be so. Such seasons should cause us to weep and pray and witness more diligently out of a burden to see Christ honored as Lord in the lives of more people. May that kind of passion take root and grow in all of us who love Jesus Christ.

And may that same passion for the glory and honor of our Lord prevent us from baptizing anyone simply because he or she has given intellectual assent to a few facts and has agreed to be dunked in front of a bunch of people. If this kind of commitment causes our baptism statistics to decline because our theology and practice of baptism has improved, then rejoice. It will not mean that fewer people are being converted, but that fewer false converts are getting wet.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Jerry Falwell's Friday the 13th declaration: Limited atonement is heresy

Last Friday at the "College for a Weekend" emphasis at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry Falwell preached a chapel message to 1828 prospective new students along with current students, faculty and staff. Under the title of "Our Message, Mission and Vision," Dr. Falwell delcared his purpose to be to communicate who Liberty University is in order to persuade prospective students to matriculate there.

Much of what he said regarding the "message" of Liberty is praiseworthy and ought to be applauded by all Bible believing Christians. When he came to articulating their belief in the "substitutionary atonemement of Jesus Christ for all men," however, he added a statement that I find tragic. Here it is (about 10 minutes or so into the video):
"We are not into partcular love or limited atonement. As a matter of fact we consider it heresy."
Don't misunderstand me, I do not regard it as unfortunate that he articulated his and Liberty University's honest beliefs, no matter how offensive they may be to me or to others. In fact, I applaud his willingness to state clearly not only what they believe but also what they do not believe. We need more such plain speaking in our day.

What I regret is that he finds particular atonement to be "heresy." This must mean that he and Liberty believe that those who hold to particular atonement to be heretics. Among the countless numbers of people whom he would brand with the H-word are many who would make any evangelical Who's who list (including Bunyan, Owen, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Carey, Boyce, Mell, Dagg and Lloyd-Jones, to name but a few of the dead ones). I find this sad.

Does Jerry Falwell and Liberty University really judge John Piper to be a heretic? If we take his words seriously, as surely we ought if we are to honor him, then he believes that Al Mohler, R.C. Sproul, John MacArthur, D. James Kennedy, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Tom Nettles, Wayne Grudem, Sinclair Ferguson, James White and Fred Malone teach heresy.

That certainly is his and Liberty's right to believe. I simply regret that they believe it. I do not regard my universal redemptionist brothers to be heretics because of their views of general atonement. I think they are wrong and they think the same of me. But that does not mean that we have to accuse each other of being heretics.

Dr. Falwell's comments shed some light on the atrocious comment made last year by the president of his Liberty Seminary. Those of you who have read this blog in February of 2006 probably recall when Dr. Ergun Caner declared that "Calvinists are worse than Muslims." I am sorry that he believes that but certainly applaud his willingness to state it clearly, since he does indeed believe it. I am all for people and institutions nailing their colors to the mast for all to see. I just wish that the flag under which he and Liberty have chosen to fly did not condemn so many faithful servants of Christ as heretics.

Perhaps I am naive, but I have a hunch that these kinds of vitriolic, dismissive and historically invalid castigations are more and more being seen not only as inaccurate but offensive to Christian brothers on both sides of the extent of the atonement question. Such inflammatory rhertoric can still incite an audience, and perhaps it will continue to draw students and revenues to institutions, but it is not helpful to the cause of Christ in either fellowship or evangelism.

It is time for this generation of believers to learn how to disagree over substantive issues without falling into the sins of slander and bearing false witness. When the Word of God that we love gets trampled underfoot by those who profess to defend it in the very process of their defense, it is more than ironic. It is tragic.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

A Day in Maximum Security

I have the privilege of pastoring Gus and Anita Gonzalez and their three children in Grace Baptist Church. They have been part of the Grace family for twelve years. For eighteen years Gus and Anita have been faithfully involved in ministering to inmates serving in various state prisons throughout Florida. Under the name, Riverside Prison Ministry, Gus has travelled almost weekly to state correctional institutes to preach the Gospel of grace.

Last Saturday five of us from Grace joined Gus, Anita, and supporters from other churches on the inside of South Bay Correctional Institute, a privately operated maximum security prison in south Florida. Gus has had a ministry there for ten years. Members of our church prepared meals for the 150 men (out of 1861 who are incarcerated there) who attended the day-long celebration of Riverside's 18th anniversary.

This was not my first experience in a state prison, so I may have been a little better prepared for the intimidating process of being searched and then escorted through security gates and down corridors with bullet-proof guard stations and electronically locked doors. Still, the experience is sobering. When we got to the room designated as the "chapel" at around 8:30 AM, we were greeted by 15o men who were enthusiastically singing Christian songs in Spanish. We waded through the sea of smiling, singing men all dressd in prison blues.

The singing was led by 8-10 inmates and accompanied by a saxophone, keyboard, drums, bass guitar, electric guitar, bongos, accordian and various tambourines, all played with vigor. When Gus took the microphone he was warmly greeted by the men, with some coming up to hug him and shouting their greetings. He explained the plans for the day, which included singing, preaching, Bible studies, testimonies and a homemade meal.

I had the privilege of leading a Bible study for English speakers. We looked at the disciples' prayer in Acts 4:23-31. What does it reveal about their thoughts of God? It shows that they believed that He is absolutely sovereign: in creation (24), in providence (25-26), in redemption (27-28) and in our lives right now (29-30). Like everything else that happened that day, the men responded very graciously. It was obvious that many of them have spent hours reading and studying God's Word.

Later, after an official count and lunch, we heard testimonies from several who have been incarcerated the longest. Most told of coming to Christ after reaching prison. Charles described how Christ saved him six months after beginning his sentence. Now, 23 years later, with a smile on his face and tears in his eyes, he speaks of the Lord's faithfulness across all those years. One young man was my former next-door neighbor. Ivan's family moved away over 10 years ago when he was just a kid who daily would play with my children. He told me that he learned the books of the New Testament at one of our Vacation Bible Schools. He promised to come to contact Anita and come to church when he gets out, which he hopes is soon.

A few of the outside guests shared their testimonies, including Don from our church and then Gus. I had heard his story before, but inside the walls of that prison with bars and razor wire in view, it took on a new poignancy. He had been a wealthy man whose riches came by running drugs into Miami. On one of his last planned boat runs from the Bahamas, a storm knocked his vessel off course and into the waiting arms of agents of the DEA. He was arrested, introduced to Christians and while awaiting trial was gloriously converted to Jesus Christ. He said to those men, many of whom had never heard his story before, "I praise God for that storm and for being arrested because God used it give me the Gospel and save me." Over the next several years as he served his time, was transferred to various prisons and finally was released to a forgiving, longsuffering wife and small daughter, the Lord convinced him to spend the rest of his life preaching the Gospel to those in prison. He does so very effectively.

The day's activities closed with my message from Isaiah 53 on what the cross means to God. It was a simple sermon on the substitutionary atonement of Christ and was interpreted into Spanish. Some men were bored, others chatted and joked back and forth. But most listened. Some listened "enthusiastically:" clapping, shouting "Amen" and "Hallelujah" and various other forms of verbal affirmation. One brother on the front row helped out on occasion with comments like, "I like that" and "I like where this is going." I sensed the Lord's help.

At 4 PM the men had to report for another count. Before we dispersed 4 men said that the Lord had saved them that day. Many expressed their appreciation and asked for prayer as well as promised to pray for us. I left very tired but very grateful for the experience. The Gospel is spreading in prisons through the faithful labors of men and women like Gus and Anita Gonzalez. Men who are locked up are finding real liberty in Christ. Those who have been sentenced to spend the rest of their natural lives behind bars live with hope and joy in the Gospel.

A maximum security prison is a sad place--a testimony to our fallen world and reminder that things are not the way that they are supposed to be. But, through the faithful and Spirit-owned ministry of God's Word, it can also become a place that testifies to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Theology Driven Ministry mp3s available

Messages given at the "Theology Driven Ministry" Conference hosted by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary are now available on the seminary website. Baptist Press ran a story on the talks given by Paul Tripp and Sinclair Ferguson which included this sobering admonition by the Scotsman,
"Either become more like Christ or get out of the Gospel ministry because, if you don't do the former, you will do great damage to the latter."