Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The SBC and our Ongoing Need for the Gospel

One of the most encouraging outcomes of the recent gathering of Southern Baptists in Orlando is the adoption of a resolution on the centrality of the gospel. While some Southern Baptists--including academics and pastors--have scoffed at the idea that we need to recover the gospel in our day, this resolution, together with language in the GCR Task Force report, recognizes that we do have a need to recover the gospel and to see it restored to its proper priority in the church. What God has done for sinners in His Son, Jesus Christ, is not only good news for unbelievers, it is good news for Christians, as well. Believers need the gospel just as much as unbelievers.

The gospel is not only how we get into a right relationship with God. It is how we live in that relationship. It not only brings us to God, it keeps us in God. It is not only the threshold to the house of salvation, it is the whole house. The Christian life does not begin with faith in Christ and then progress on techniques and principles. It begins with faith, continues in faith and will end in faith when, upon our seeing Him, our faith will become sight.

That is why I am so encouraged by the SBC resolution. It recognizes this explicitly in the third "resolved" that
we encourage churches in preaching, teaching, and discipleship to proclaim the gospel to unbelievers, showing them how to find peace with God, and to proclaim the gospel to believers, that through the renewing of our minds we might continually be transformed by the gospel; (emphasis added)
It is the assurance of a crucified, risen Savior that sets a believer free to keep repenting and believing--to keep growing--the rest of his life. I do not need to hide my sin or try to justify it or whitewash it in any sense, because Jesus has died for it! He forgives and in Him, I am forgiven. This fact also sets me free from the self-defeating effort of trying to avoid or refute any criticism that comes my way.

What can possibly be said about me that is worse than what God Himself has already said? The Scripture is quite clear about the condition of every man, woman and child outside of Christ. Read Romans 3:10-18 to see how God has written everyone's resume.

Even more, have you ever stopped to consider what Jesus' death on the cross says about you? Everyone who is trusting in Christ needs to understand and remember this. The cross is God's public (very public!) declaration that I am such a wicked, evil person that it took the very death of His only begotten Son to save me! My sins are so great that nothing less than the blood of the God-man could rescue me. No matter how harshly or unjustly I may be criticized the truth is always far worse than the charge.

This truth is incredibly practical for spiritual growth and health. When someone is feeling so overwhelmed by his sin and failures that he is tempted to despair, what should we tell him? That he is not so bad? That he has done a lot of good things as well as bad? No. We need to tell him the truth. The way that I have often put it is like this, "The truth is, you are far worse than you know and your sin is greater than you can ever conceive....But the good news is that this is exactly why Jesus died on the cross. Your sin and failures do not disqualify you from salvation. They are precisely the reason you need to be saved. This is why Jesus came. As you trust Him, you can be sure that every last one of your sins has been paid for. You are free."

No matter what accusations come against me, and no matter their source (the devil, enemies, my own conscience) they can never charge me with more than I have already been charged with by God in the death of Jesus on the cross. So my sin, rather than being an excuse to keep me from seeking God's grace and mercy should spur me to run to Him. He already knows and He gave up Jesus to rescue me from it.

But not only does the cross criticize me, it also justifies me through the complete payment for every last one of my sins! By His stripes we are healed. "Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us" (Romans 8:33-34). God has judged me, condemned me and justified me all in Jesus Christ. That means that I am free. I do not have to pretend to be something I am not. I do not have repudiate every criticism brought against me, nor do I have to be crushed by it. God has already criticized and justified me through the person and work of His Son (for an excellent article on this read Alfred Poirier's "The Cross and Criticism" here).

This truth is both liberating and empowering to believers. It frees us from the accusations that the devil constantly makes against us. John Bunyan illustrates how this work in my favorite scene from Pilgrim's Progress. When Apollyon first meets Christian he entices him to turn back and return to his old life. When Christian refuses, the devil then begins to make accusations against him, reminding him of his real sins and failures. Christian's response is brilliant and is exactly what every Christian ought to remember when faced with his failures and sins. He does not try to argue with Satan. He does not try to justify or make excuses for his sin. Rather, he simply responds with this gospel-motivated truth: "All this is true and much more, which you have left out. But the Prince whom I serve and honor is merciful and ready to forgive."

Mark Altrogge poetically expresses this in his song, "I Look Up," when he writes,

When I'm standing accused and I'm guilty as charged and I've nothing that I can defend,
I will trust in the righteousness given to me, by Jesus my Savior and Friend.

When a Christian stumbles, or even when he falls profoundly, what he needs is what he has always needed--the grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ who shed His blood for real sinners. Any attempt to mitigate our sin, to doll it up with euphemisms or to downplay it in any way, cuts us off from the only remedy that we have. No one needs a Savior for "misstatements" or "mistakes" or "unfortunate choices." But we all need a Savior for dishonesty, blasphemy, thievery, adultery and every other sin.

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus is a real Savior for real sinners who commit real sins. If we to reduce our sin to some lower-grade personality disorder or mistake, then we inevitably remove ourselves from the foundation of the gospel by trusting in our own ability to patch things up.

When politicians do this we call it spin. When Christians do it, we must call it what it is, sin--the sin of unbelief. To sin and then downplay it in hopes of making it appear less than it really is is to compound the initial sin with the sin of unbelief, and that is a failure to live by the grace of God in the gospel.

The gospel sets believers free to do more than merely apologize. It sets us free to repent and make restitution. Consider the way that Paul spells this out as he commends the repentance of Corinthian Christians in 2 Corinthians 7:10-11,
For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For observe this very thing, that you sorrowed in a godly manner: What diligence it produced in you, what clearing of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what vehement desire, what zeal, what vindication! In all things you proved yourselves to be clear in this matter.
Paul could tell that the Corinthians' sorrow was godly and their repentance was real because of the fruit that it produced. Such fruit only grows on a tree that is firmly grounded in the grace of a crucified, risen Savior. I am hopeful that the SBC is reorienting to such ground. As we do, we can look forward to a fresh wind of gospel-inspired-humility and gospel-inspired-boldness blowing across our denominational life. This in turn will lead to the gospel message that we preach being authenticated by the gospel lives that we lead, providing a powerful testimony to a gospel-needy world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

GCRTF Report passes, good spirit predominates at the SBC

The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report (GCRTFR) passed with relatively little change. The expected fireworks never materialized despite ominous predictions by those on all sides of the issue. Component 3, on Great Commission Giving, had some language amended to reiterate that the Cooperative Program is still a valued means of supporting the work of the convention and is the most significant method that Southern Baptists have to work together for the advance of the gospel.

Johnny Hunt's convention sermon was an impassioned apologetic for the GCRTFR and Morris Chapman's final report as President and CEO of the Executive Committee was equally impassioned against it. Some people were a bit unnerved by the strong language that both men employed and more than one messenger referred to the "tensions" or "divisions" that marked the debate about the report.

As one who lived through the Conservative Resurgence battles in the 1980s and 90s, I found the alarm a bit amusing. Strong words were used, but there were no personal attacks and the debate was kept on a high level. That was greatly aided by the fact that some folks (who have repeatedly demonstrated a tendency to make unfounded and personal attacks on those with whom they disagree) were left standing at microphones, unable to speak before the final vote was taken.

At one point, at the request of a messenger, Dr. Hunt led the convention in prayer and expressed that he did not see any improper emotions being vented, but merely strong passion for competing visions about the future of the SBC. He mentioned Morris Chapman by name, thanking the Lord for him and acknowledging his love for the SBC and desire to see the gospel advanced. It was a gracious expression of the kind of attitude that disagreeing Southern Baptists ought to have.

A few parliamentary knots had to be untangled by Barry McCarty, the convention's parliamentarian. He navigated the chairman carefully through some muddy waters with grace and charity. I am convinced that the kindness and goodwill of Dr. Hunt and others on the platform ultimately won the day for the report. When the final vote was taken, it was an overwhelming majority that voted to adopt the report. I would estimate at least a 70%-30% margin.

What is perhaps even more surprising than the majority by which that report was adopted is the fact that in a 4 man race, Bryant Wright of Georgia garnered more votes that the assumed favorite of the GCR crowd, Ted Traylor. My take on that is that the vote was a clear indication of the numbers of younger Southern Baptists who participated. The runoff vote has not been tabulated as I am writing this. But I noted that many of the younger crowd had left the room when the second ballot was taken.

As I wrote last week, I support the Task Force report, though I listened to some compelling arguments against it over the last two days. I believe it is a step in the right direction. If it is not regarded as a type of panacea to all that ails us as a convention, it may provide a helpful road map forward for the next several years. At least it provides some talking points that involve things more important than programs and policies. The report is loaded with the language of the gospel.

Nearly everyone said that today would be a historic one in the life of the SBC. And it was without a doubt. Not necessarily for the GCRTF vote, though--at least not only for that. For the first time ever, a motion was made in rhyme (or hip hop, or rap, or lyrically--forgive me for not knowing the exact designation). Josh Shank, a church planter from Ohio, made a motion that we express appreciation to Acts 29 for the help that they have given to many of our Southern Baptist church planter. It was funny, and received in good spirit. Once it received a second I almost went to a microphone and to ask the chairman to repeat the motion for the messengers. Now that would have made history.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why I am voting for the GCRTF report

Loads of bandwidth has been occupied with debate over the upcoming vote on the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report that will be recommended to the Southern Baptist Convention next week in Orlando. Arguments both pro and con have at times bordered on the apocalyptic. Trevin Wax has done all Southern Baptists a favor by distilling the issues involved in the debate into easily-digestible portions. As he wisely notes
GCR supporters have sometimes spoken as if this resolution will be the spark of a worldwide revival which will send renewal through the SBC. GCR detractors have sometimes spoken as if these resolutions would end the SBC as we know it and destroy all our cooperative efforts.
I recommend reading his concise analysis for balanced perspective of what is at stake and what elements in the report are proving to be the most controversial.

I intend to vote for the report because there is nothing in the recommendations that alarm me and several things that encourage me. If my enthusiasm is curbed at points it is because of what the report does not recommend. While I have read the warnings of many who fear that the proposals are too radical, to me they are not radical enough.

For example, the recommendation to increase allocations to the International Mission Board from 50% to 51% is a step in the right direction, but too tentative in my estimation. I know that some believe any greater increase would be irresponsible by virtue of the funding crises that could result for other agencies and institutions, but I think that in some cases such challenges could be extremely healthy. I am encouraged at the prospect of the Executive Committee's budget being cut and believe that other agencies (most notably, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) could do with less money for the sake of increasing our international missionary forces.

Furthermore, I am not in the least alarmed by the "Great Commission Giving" component of the report. The arguments set forth by those who fear that this will diminish Cooperative Program (CP) giving are not compelling. In fact, I find it amusing that some of the staunchest supporters of all things related to the Conservative Resurgence (CR) are employing arguments that were used against leaders of the CR. Several of those men pastored churches that gave very small percentages to the CP.

Jerry Vines recently recalled that kind of criticism and explained how he responded to it. He writes,
During the years of the Conservative Resurgence I was criticized for my church’s low percentage of giving to the SBC’s cooperative program. I just took the criticism and didn’t get mad about it (emphasis added).
That's pretty good advice and I would encourage the current leaders of the GCR to follow it.

What encourages me most about the GCRTF report is language that it employs in it section on "Challenges." The calls to repentance should be highlighted and given a place of preeminence in my estimation. Also, it is extremely refreshing to find language like this in that section:
  • Make sure every sermon, devotion, or other type of teaching is gospel centered and driven by the inerrant and infallible text of Scripture with emphasis on how to apply the text to the lives of different kinds of people.
  • Make sure every sermon, devotion, or other type of teaching clearly articulates and applies the gospel message and is centered in the grand narrative of Scripture.
The last 3 of those challenges for local churches and pastors are, in my estimation, the most significant of all.
  • Reclaim the Baptist vision of regenerate church membership, recognizing that this vision is central to our Baptist identity and understanding of the church.
  • Reclaim corrective church discipline as the biblical means of restoring believers to healthy discipleship and faithfulness.
  • Emphasize meaningful church membership through such practices as decision counseling, believer’s baptism, new convert mentoring, membership covenants, prospective member classes, and redemptive church discipline.
The opportunity to affirm such challenges (reclaiming regenerate church membership and church discipline!) from an official task force is something that is unprecedented in modern SBC life. I will not let this opportunity be missed.

The GCRTF has received a lot of criticism, most of which is unjustified. I have appreciated the openness and humility that Chairman Ronnie Floyd and his committee have demonstrated in undertaking this herculean task. The report they are recommending is encouraging in the trajectory that is sets for the future of the SBC even more so than its specific recommendations.

I support it and encourage others to do so.