Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Seen on an SBC Church Bookstall

I love irony.

Why Pastors Promote Tithing: "Pragmatism, Tradition and Ignorance, Quite Frankly"

That's the argument made by one of the most widely respected NT scholars in the United States, Andreas Kostenberger. He's cited in this piece in the Wall Street Journal.

My presumption is that tithing is another issue on which we're going to see something of a generation gap among fundamentalists and evangelicals. To some degree, it's no doubt a reflection of the increasing across-the-board rejection of religious authority. But to another degree, I suspect the differences arise from a theological realignment that reexamines both what Scripture actually requires and what really motivates and accomplishes spiritual transformation in the human heart.

Monday, November 26, 2007

I have no opinion. Help me form one.

I was intrigued by last Thurday's opinion piece from Peggy Noonan in the Journal on whether we make too much of politicians' religious faith. I'm not sure what I think off it yet, and I'd like to hear some feedback from anyone willing to take the time to read it and share some thoughts.

As a teaser, here's her conclusion:
We should lighten up on demanding access to their hearts. It is impossible for us to know their hearts. It's barely possible to know your own. Faith is important but it's also personal. When we force political figures to tell us their deepest thoughts on it, they'll be tempted to act, to pretend. Do politicians tend to give in to temptation? Most people do. Are politicians better than most people? Quick, a show of hands. I don't think so either.
Any takers? I'd especially like to hear from you quiet lurkers. C'mon, there's nothing to lose on a benign piece like this one!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Best Little Book You've Probably Never Heard Of

Thanksgiving provided a little extra time for reading, and I finished A Vision for Missions, a Banner of Truth paperback by Tom Wells.

What's so great about it? Well, a friend of mine, who's spent some time doing missions work in Central Asia, described it as a combination of Packer's Knowing God and Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad, both of which are just stellar books.

So here's Wells' thesis: "God is worthy to be known and proclaimed for who He is, and that fact is an important part of the missionary motive and message" (9). And here's why that thesis needs to be advanced: "Our danger, it seems to me, lies in . . . forgetting God in our zeal for men" (110).

But the kicker about Wells' book is that you can get it here for under $5, and it's only 157 pages long. If I recall correctly, that's about 25% of the price and 30% of the size of Packer and Piper's books. By all means, buy a few extra and give them away if you can afford it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007


Sure, it's a rivalry, kinda like the rivalry between the hammer and the nail.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

"Would you vote for a candidate who agrees with you on every issue, except that he's a white supremacist?"

Guest host Russell Moore asks this question and others related to Pat Robertson's endorsement of Rudy Giuliani on Monday's Albert Mohler radio program. Moore argues that denying the humanity of and basic human rights to a whole category of human beings ought to be enough to make such an endorsement unthinkable for a Christian.

Moore also said, "I don't even have a candidate yet. And if I did I wouldn't tell you. It just wouldn't be appropriate." Doesn't it seem ironic that the author of The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective and director of the Carl F.H. Henry Institute for Evangelical Engagement would take a stronger stand against political endorsements than some fundamentalists?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Reformation Continues

Several years ago, when I started to pay attention to the specifics of independent fundamentalist assessments of the Southern Baptist Convention, one of the major points of critique was that the SBC still funded the liberal, ecumenical, Baptist World Alliance. At that point, the SBC had already begun to reduce its annual contribution to the BWA, and not long after it fully de-funded the BWA.

Since then, I've sensed the discussion shifting to other points of weakness, such as the funding by the various state Baptist conventions of numerous "Baptist" colleges ranging from theologically marginal to downright apostate. Another is the toleration of non-evangelical congregations within local associations, state conventions, and the national convention.

Now, I can't imagine much of anyone with a serious, theological understanding of the gospel and the local church attempting to argue that the SBC's long road to reform is complete. But neither can I understand why today's action by the North Carolina Baptist State Convention to expel a liberal congregation and to begin the process of severing ties with the state's remaining Baptist colleges should not be interpreted as evidence to the continuation of the process of reform.

The SBC didn't lose its theology overnight, or even in a century. Neither will it be regained fully in less than three decades since the watershed year of 1979. But the long march continues. I pray this march will not have to continue much longer before more independent Baptists begin to develop relationships with the leaders of reform for the purpose of mutual edification and encouragement.

Saturday, November 10, 2007


As I mentioned earlier, I’m spending a few days in Jackson, the capital city of Mississippi. We arrived on Monday, just in time to see some campaign ads for the second most interesting electoral race in the nation this past Tuesday. (Of course, the most interesting was my dad’s mayoral race in the burgeoning metropolis of Columbus Grove, Ohio.) The odd thing about Mississippi’s gubernatorial race was that the incumbent Republican, Haley Barbour, was challenged by a divorced, ambulance-chasing lawyer Democrat who was running to the right of Barbour. The Democrat even held his Bible and trumpeted his faith in his TV commercials. (And then he got trounced.)

I couldn’t help but think of some parallels to some of my own experiences over the past five years or so. My sense is that independent Baptists who think of themselves as fundamentalists assume that they are more conservative, more discerning, and certainly more biblically faithful than their Southern Baptist brethren. I think this is true on some points. I think the two groups are strikingly indistinguishable on many others. But on several points, it seems clear to me that some (many?) SBC folk are staking out ground that is clearly to the right of some (many?) IFBs.

Several examples come to mind. At Southeastern Seminary I was taught a much more restrictive position on remarriage after “exception clause” related divorce than the IFB church of which I was a member at the time. Seminary professors raised serious questions about the abortifacient nature of prescription contraceptives, which was quite the opposite of my experience in IFB circles. Most significantly, church discipline at Southeastern was not merely a biblical truth, but a biblical priority. Professors were not only teaching, but emphasizing—even indoctrinating—the application of biblical imperatives that I did not experience first-hand in the IFB world until two or three years later. My presumption is that men who had experienced the battles for the Bible in the SBC in the 80s and 90s knew experientially how essential is regenerate church membership to the health and faithfulness of local churches and broader partnerships between churches. I could go on. (And of course we all know that means the other illustrations I had in mind have slipped out of my brain at this moment.)

Let me be quite clear. I don’t mean to suggest in any way that because one position is perceived to be more conservative that it must be the correct position. Surely that is often false. Of the above examples, my personal convictions are neither monolithically with the more or the less conservative positions.

Now, I left out one other example, because it’s the one I really want to talk about. Anybody heard who SBC President Frank Page is endorsing for the 2008 presidential race? How about Al Mohler, the guy with the daily radio program that discusses the political scene all the time? Or surely there’s something definitive out there from SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission President Richard Land, right? After all, he's the SBC voice in Washington.

Are those crickets that I hear chirping?

Of course, that could all change in a moment. I wouldn’t be the slightest bit surprised if Land in particular wound up offering some sort of thinly-veiled endorsement. And of course, I wouldn't suggest that IFBs and SBCs are monolithic. I'd be as stunned to hear Dave Doran or Mark Minnick endorse a candidate as I was disgusted to watch an SBC pastors employ all his rhetorical tricks on behalf of Ron Paul at a straw poll. But isn’t the silence of key SBC leaders even to this point downright striking given the fact that a former SBC pastor has an outside (but not unrealistic) shot at winning the Republican nomination? Huckabee may be no classical conservative, but he’s a fair bit more interested in traditional values than Al Gore and Bill Clinton, the past two nominees of a major party with SBC ties.

Now, I don’t know how to get around what I’m about to say any more than I know how to explain it. I suspect we all know by now that Bob Jones University has once again been thrust into the news, not because of a theological conviction or some offense caused by the gospel, but because of politics. And this time, certainly much more so than in 2000, the thrust has been deliberate. I don't think it would be at all unfair to call it strategic and calculated. So while the most prominent SBC leaders have been withdrawn even when the interests of one of their own are at stake, BJU officials have not only supported but encouraged others to support a rich Mormon with a mixed record on social issues.

The latest news is that BJU officials organized and* hosted an invitation-only event in which Romney spoke to a crowd largely comprised of BJU personnel and alumni, one of whom recorded the event and passed that on to CNN. Read the story and hear the audio. This seems to have been the same event Rick Phillips recently blogged about at Reformation 21. And just for clarity's sake, I'm neither endorsing Romney nor in any way personally opposed to his nomination.

Just color me puzzled.

I recognize that there is a rich history of relationships between religious leaders and government. But when I think of people who represent that marriage, I’m thinking about Constantine, various popes and Holy Roman Emperors, Henry VIII, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Kuyper. Now, a couple of those guys are surely spoken of positively on the campus of BJU (at least on occasion in some classrooms and no doubt frequently in some dorm rooms), but when I think of the Methodist-turned-mostly-baptistic background of the BJU presidents, I’m not associating them too much with the Roman Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, or Reformed traditions. Certainly not with their view of the relationship between church and state. (Granted, BJU probably doesn’t think of itself as a “church.” The thing students, faculty, and staff are required to attend on Sunday mornings goes by a different name.)

That doesn’t mean I think that a Christian leader endorsing a presidential candidate—even a Mormon candidate—is clearly incompatible with biblical Christianity. I am unaware of a biblical mandate or even an irrefutable principle that would prohibit such actions. I wouldn’t suggest that Bob Jones III or Bob Taylor (or Wayne Grudem or Justin Taylor) are in sin.

I would suggest that using credibility gained through one's preaching ministry to advance a political candidate is an unwise choice—a choice that’s particularly unhelpful to the gospel message.

A friend e-mailed me recently to ask about the "interesting ideas” about Christians and politics I was rumored to hold. Here’s how I responded:
I like Christians working in government. I don't much like churches working in government. I think there are two problems with churches getting involved in politics: First, it makes the world think that Christian churches are more interested in political power than the gospel. Second, it makes Christians think that we can transform culture through politics rather than the message of the gospel.

So politics is a good and noble profession for a Christian to pursue, and we need Christians in government and politics to be salt and light in those places. Their presence reflects God's character and common grace to all society when they make good laws and advance the cause of justice, and it gives them opportunities to speak and live the gospel in front of non-Christians, just like in any other professions. But many Christians have concluded that we can transform society and culture by making good laws. I believe the Bible teaches that the only way to transform culture is by changing people's hearts through the power of the gospel. Any efforts by churches to accomplish that transformation through an ineffective means can only distract us from our central mission of the gospel.

That doesn't mean I think churches and pastors should have no voice on particular social and moral issues. I do think churches should speak out on abortion and marriage and other issues. But I'm not sure the way to do that is to lobby government officials, organize political rallies, or support candidates.
At the end of the day, the question I'm left asking myself is, "What is it that is so compelling about a political campaign that would lead Christian leaders to attract attention to their presumably gospel-oriented institution over matters of politics?" An uncharitable response would be to imply that such decisions are driven by a lust for power. I simply don't think that's true at all.

Perhaps I'm not thinking of possible explanations, but what I fear is most likely is a foundational misunderstanding of the relationship between cultural transformation, the power of the gospel, and the divine initiation of the regeneration of the human heart. I think we're seeing the application of a presupposition that using spiritual influence in political endeavors will bear desirable fruit in our culture. I fear that this presupposition betrays a distorted understanding of the gospel, in which moral laws and national leaders create an atmosphere that is conducive to the advance of the gospel message and the kingdom of God.

Put simply, the clear implication of this presupposition is that moral, unregenerate people can increase the likelihood that individuals in our culture will receive the message of the gospel.

The trouble is, this belief is antithetical to the biblical gospel. The biblical message of the gospel is that God makes the deaf hear, the blind see, and the dead breathe life. No President, whether Mormon or Fundamental Baptist, can advance God's kingdom in the hearts of men through political means. No President, whether nominal Christian or atheist, can hinder the advance of God's kingdom.

I'll close with a revealing anecdote from this article on SBC President Frank Page's conversations with the 2008 candidates:
"When I spent two solid hours in a private meeting with Rudy Giuliani, I shared Christ with him so much that at the end of that two hours I said, 'Rudy, I'm not going to leave this place unless I give you an opportunity to pray with me to receive Jesus as your savior. Would you do that with me Rudy?'" Page recounted.

"He said, 'No, Frank, I'm not ready to do that. My daddy knows Jesus like that, but I'm not ready for that.'"
That is precisely the kind of clarity preachers of the gospel ought to introduce to men's hearts. Is there a compelling reason why Christian leaders can't stick to that simple message of new life in Christ through faith in Him, and stop creating gospel-killing confusion about whether our interests are grounded in this world or the next?

*[edit: This particular point has been contested in the comments and backed up with enough detail that I am not able to say confidently that my original interpretation of the published news reports is correct.]

Friday, November 09, 2007


A friend pointed out to me today that this sounds like repentance.

This, not so much.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

My Road Trip to Presbyterianism

I’ve been in Jackson, Mississippi all week tagging along with the CHBC intern trip. Mark Dever has been delivering lectures on preaching at RTS Jackson. Tomorrow, First Pres Church of Jackson, where Ligon Duncan is the senior minister, will host a 9Marks Workshop. I may have a short post on a couple parts of the trip later, but I’ll leave the blow-by-blow accounts to interns Noah (who’ll be far more thorough) and Graham (who’ll be far funnier).

For right now, I just want to share a really cool piece of info for anyone who desires more biblical/theological training but doesn’t see a seminary program as a viable option.

Last night after the service at First Pres, the CHBC crew had the opportunity to spend some time with the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary. Ric Cannada oversees and coordinates the presidents of all five RTS campuses. RTS has pioneered the multiple campus approach to seminary that others are now wading into. But now they’ve found a new way to serve even more people by uploading hundreds of classroom lectures to iTunes, where’re they’re available for free.

Now, I’m a Baptist, and I’m certainly far from being a classical Covenant Theologian, and the content of RTS teaching is intended to be in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, I suspect there are very few seminaries in the world where you’ll find more consistently biblical teaching than at RTS. And I could be wrong, but I’m not aware of any comparable institutions that have put hundreds of lectures online for free. (I think Covenant Seminary in St. Louis may have done a good deal of this, but I’m simply not as familiar with Covenant.)

One more thing quickly. Seldom have I been a party to more fascinating conversations than those that take place between Mark Dever, Ligon Duncan, and the groups of younger guys preparing for ministry that often surround both of them. Whether they’re discussing the level of their agreement with a book like this one, the grounds for their staunch disagreement over matters of polity, or their common theology and application of the message of the gospel, I hope it’s impossible not to give thanks for the providence that brought them together.

For my part, it’s simply obvious to me that serious, theological, thoughtful Baptists who recognize the essential nature of contemporary threats to the biblical gospel ought to find far more in common with Presbyterians like Duncan and other friends at First Pres of Jackson than with the vast majority of Baptists, whether they be of the SBC or the IFB variety.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Fundamentals for the 21st Century

I'm not one of the true scholars who manage to keep up with actually reading all the new book releases on contemporary theological issues. But lately they've either been proliferating in unusual quantities, or for some reason I've simply been more tuned in.

John Piper's new book (here's a summary) is the latest installment in the responses to contemporary theological issues that strike me in some ways as being similar to The Fundamentals series from the early 20th century. Just as those authors saw the immediate threats to orthodox faith in the form of modernism, so many contemporary authors—few if any more attuned, astute, and prolific than Piper—perceive and piercingly refute today's departures from historic biblical orthodoxy with the force of the full weight of Scripture. As I remember, attacks on the doctrine of justification were nowhere on the radar screen 100 years ago, so the need for this volume surely tells us a bit about the direction of broad evangelicalism.

And again not unlike The Fundamentals which were distributed to thousands of pastors for free, you can get Piper's book for free here as a PDF.