June 17, 2006
Dear Friends, it’s been great seeing you lately. Lig, it was an unexpected pleasure to see your brother Mel at the SBC last week. I had to remove a paedo-baptist crack or two I had in my church discipline seminar!! Al, you were absolutely heroic in turning up to do that debate twice only 36 hours after eye surgery. I was praying for you and was so thankful that you were able to winsomely represent the truth. CJ, wonderful having lunch with you yesterday, and yes, that is why I am now blogging. Because you told me to blog about this.
About this–having been in an unusual (even for me) number of meetings of pastors in the last few months, and reading everything from Rob Bell’s Velvet Jesus to John MacArthur’s Fool’s Gold (I think the latter volume is the better), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to colloquiums, cooperation, alliances, being together and denominations. What is it that we pastors are grouping around? Here’ my brief summary.
I think the most basic practical division among evangelical pastors today may be between those who pursue faithfulness and assume relevance and those who pursue relevance and assume faithfulness.
Imagine a spectrum running between those two alternatives; on its edges are positions most all of us would clearly recognize as wrong. So on the faithfulness side would be a Greek Orthodox like use of untranslated Greek language in the service. We might believe that the physical fact of proximity to God’s Word or hearing the inspired language (even if we don’t understand it) might have an almost magical force. By that I mean, a power unrelated to our comprehension of the words. No concern about irrelevance if the content is correct. On the other hand we might find those who want to relate to the world precisely, with no distinct life or message. Those for whom Paul’s example in I Cor. 9:19-23 is the explanation for what amounts to the vanishing of the church as any distinct society.
The middle of the spectrum is where each of us intends to be–the right balance, the perfect combination of utter faithfulness to the Gospel and piercing relevance in its presentation. And I suspect that most of us imagine we’re not too far from there, or else we would alter our location!
The observation that I’ve made being at this plethora of meetings in the last few months (and I don’t imagine this observation is unique) is that folks about half-way down either side may often have more in common with each other than they do with others with whom they might have more theology in common. So for example, if you take D (Arminian and seeker-sensitive), J (Arminian and more oriented to pursuing faithfulness), R (Calvinistic and seeker-sensitive), and M (Calvinistic and more oriented to pursuing faithfulness), it may actually be D & R who have more in common, and J & M than those who define theology more similarly on those points disputed between Calvinists and Arminians.
So, for example, consider these two. First, there is brother R who believes the Gospel, has Reformed soteriology, but assuming that everyone understands what he means when he says "Gospel", spends all his time and energy in being creatively relevant. On the other hand, there is brother J who believes the Gospel, is self-consciously anti-Calvinistic, but believes in inerrancy, God’s exhaustive knowledge of the future, salvation through Christ alone, penal substitutionary atonement, that the response to the Gospel must include repentance, and that the Gospel will be offensive to carnal man. My guess is that, while I would have some challenges working with either, I could more easily and naturally work with brother J, even though we would disagree about the relation of the death of Christ to the non-elect.
I remember taking a walk with Don Carson once, and Don remarking something to the effect that the first generation has the Gospel, the second generation assumes the Gospel, the third generation loses the Gospel. I am concerned that too many people who have the Gospel are lazy with it, compassionless, and not sufficiently motivated to spread it. I fear that this is me. Pray for me and Capitol Hill Baptist Church in this. On the other hand, there are those who in the name of evangelism, simply assume that everybody sufficiently understands the Gospel, and will alter everything to make the non-Christian feel more at home in their public services. (WHO EVER SAID THAT MOST OF THE CHURCH’S EVANGELISM SHOULD BE DONE THROUGH OUR PUBLIC SERVICES?!) They give themselves to pursue relevance thinking that THAT is their major challenge, assuming that holding on to the Gospel itself is comparatively easy.
Consider what you and I will do to the Gospel message in our churches if we continue to change the "presentation" of the Gospel until we begin to get a response.
Pursue faithfulness and relevance. Know that the Gospel is always relevant. NEVER assume the Gospel.