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The Mortification of the Pastor

“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”  – Acts 20:28

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”  – 1 Timothy 4:16

“It is a fearful thing to be an unsanctified professor, but much more to be an unsanctified preacher.” – Richard Baxter

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At the recent Expositors Summit at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I had the daunting task of lecturing on “The Mortification of the Pastor.” I chose this topic given the theme of the conference, namely, the pastor and purity. And I can think of no better way to promote purity than by killing sin.

There is a temptation in ministry to think you’ve arrived. After all, gospel ministers are constantly exhorting people to holy living while trying to live a life worthy of emulation. People look to us for sound doctrine and a life consistent with this teaching. And if we’re not careful, we might actually start to believe we have this whole sin thing under control.

But that would be very dangerous thinking.

Over every pastor’s desk should be the apostolic warning from 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” Over the last decade, the landscape of evangelicalism has become littered with fallen pastors—men who failed to “take heed.” And the damage to Christ’s church is incalculable. I offer this essay as an exercise in taking heed so that pastors can make progress in holiness. As Charles Spurgeon warned, “For the herald of the gospel to be spiritually out of order in his own proper person is, both to himself and to his work, a most serious calamity; and yet, my brethren, how easily is such an evil produced, and with what watchfulness must it be guarded against!” 1Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.

To help us be still more watchful I will consider, first, the sanctification of the pastor; second, sanctification’s great enemy; third, the mortification of the pastor with some practical helps to see this work accomplished in our lives.

THE SANCTIFICATION OF THE PASTOR

Christians are being sanctified. This ongoing work can be understood more clearly against the backdrop of what Michael Horton and others have called “definitive sanctification.” Horton writes: “Before we can speak of our being put to holy use and growing in grace . . . we must see that sanctification is first of all God’s act of setting us apart from the world for himself.” 2The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650. This definitive work of setting apart can be seen in biblical texts like John 15:16 where Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” The apostle Paul has definitive sanctification in mind when he declares, “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.” The predestination and calling of a person are a definitive setting apart for salvation—a glorious truth also seen in 1 Corinthians 1:9, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” The Christian is one who has been set apart for salvation in Christ.

But the Bible also speaks of sanctification in another way, a way that considers what is actually happening to a person who has been definitively set apart for God. Again, Horton is helpful when he writes about the inward transformation going on in the believer: “However, the New Testament . . . also speaks of this setting apart as an ongoing work within believers that renews them inwardly and conforms them gradually to the image of God in Christ. We are holy (definitive sanctification); therefore, we are to be holy (progressive sanctification).” 3The Christian Faith, 653.

More help in our understanding comes from J.I. Packer. He explains progressive sanctification in relation to regeneration or the new birth:

Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth. In regeneration, God implants desires that were not there before: desire for God, for holiness, and for the hallowing and glorifying of God’s name in this world; desire to pray, worship, love, serve, honor, and please God; desire to show love and bring benefit to others. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit “works in you to will and to act” according to God’s purpose; what he does is prompt you to “work out your salvation” (i.e., express it in action) by fulfilling these new desires (Philippians 2:12-13). Christians become increasingly Christlike as the moral profile of Jesus (the “fruit of the Spirit”) is progressively formed in them (2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; 5:22-25). 4Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.

More concisely, we have the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q&A 35):

Q. What is sanctification?
A. Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Every Christian pastor is being sanctified. By the Spirit of God, we are being enabled to “more and more” (progressively) die to sin and live a life worthy of the gospel. Now, wouldn’t it be nice if this happened every day with no struggle, toil, or pain; no hiccups or setbacks? But surely the pastor, of all people, knows this is not the case. Our sanctification is not uninterrupted. Indeed, it has a great enemy that must be accounted for.

SANCTIFICATION’S GREAT ENEMY

The apostle Paul introduces us to sanctification’s great enemy in Romans 7:21–25:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. [22] For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, [23] but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. [24] Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? [25] Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

In v. 21 Paul says that he finds it “to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” He uses this ‘law’ language again in v. 23 when he says, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind.” By ‘law’ Paul means a ‘principle’ or ‘operational principle’. Indwelling sin is a contrary ‘law’ to the inclination to do good (an inclination Paul acknowledges that he has in vv. 21-22). And notice how this ‘law’ or ‘principle’ is always with us—it “dwells in my members,” Paul says. In other words, everywhere we go this law is with us waging war against our God-given desire to walk in righteousness. Unlike a jacket, I can’t leave this law at home or at the office. Where I go, it goes. I cannot get away from this enemy.

THE MORTIFICATION OF THE PASTOR

The pastor needs help against this great enemy. And great help comes from the seventeenth century in the name of John Owen.

An English Puritan, Owen was a scholar, pastor, and preacher. Among the magisterial sixteen volumes that comprise his works are titles such as The Glory of Christ (volume 1), Communion With God (volume 2), The Holy Spirit (volumes 3 and, appropriately, where we find his essay entitled, “Mortification of Sin”—27 pages of tough sledding and in the context of 285 pages on the doctrine of sanctification), and Temptation and Sin (volume 6 with its 648 pages dedicated to understanding the biblical teaching on temptation and sin).

J.I. Packer, recognizing that Owen dealt with topics at a depth out-of-step with our relatively shallow evangelicalism, explains that Owen “wrote for readers who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting but refreshing.” 5James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.

Taking our cues from John Owen, what is mortification? What does it mean to mortify sin?

To mortify means ‘to kill’. Owen calls mortification “the second part of sanctification.” 6The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538. If sanctification is progressive holiness in the life of the believer, mortification is the progressive eradication of sin in the believer. Owen explains, “Indwelling sin in the believer is the old man that must be killed, with all his faculties, properties, wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength.” 7Sin and Temptation, 154. He continues, “[mortification] is the weakening of sin’s indwelling disposition . . . it is the alacrity, vigor, and cheerfulness of the Spirit or new man contending against lust.” 8Sin and Temptation, 158. And to help us see that this “killing work” is ongoing, Owen reminds us that mortification “consists in a constant taking part with grace . . . against the principle, acts, and fruits of sin.” 9The Holy Spirit, 543. This is not a matter of on again, off again effort, but a constant cooperation with grace in seeking to destroy indwelling sin.

This is radical language—all this talk of mortifying, killing, and destroying sin. In our increasingly biblically illiterate churches, we may be tempted to think this is language exclusive to those “dour” Puritans and not the language of the Bible. But the Bible talks this way; the Bible is ruthless in its discussion of sin. When it comes to sin, the Bible doesn’t say to manage it, control it, befriend it, appease it, or merely avoid it. The Bible commands us to kill it.

Consider Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” The apostle says that the path of life is one where the deeds of the body are “put to death.” Paul repeats this teaching in Colossians 3:5-6, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.” Sin, the apostle warns, is idolatry and brings wrath. Therefore, put it to death. And this isn’t only the language of Paul, but of Jesus as well. In his earthly ministry, Jesus taught clearly on the reality of heaven and hell; eternal life and eternal death. The one who mortifies the flesh is the one who will inherit eternal life. The person who does not, will be condemned in hell forever. This is the startling teaching of our Lord in Mark 9:42-48:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea. And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

It’s texts like the above that led Owen to famously state, “Be killing sin or it will kill you.” 10Sin and Temptation, 160.

To more clearly understand what mortification is, it is helpful to understand what it is not. There are at least two misconceptions about mortification that need to be highlighted.

First, mortification is not sinless perfection. In other words, it is not the final elimination of sin in this life. No one less than the apostle Paul himself, no strange to the powerful sanctifying work of God in his life, acknowledged in Philippians 3:12–14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” And in 1 John 1:8 we read, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (cf., James 3:2). The Bible nowhere holds out the hope of perfection in this life.

Second, mortification is more than mere behavior modification. Mortification is not pretending sin is removed or simply suppressing our sinful behavior through the “improvement of a quiet, controlled temperament.” 11Sin and Temptation, 155. Mortification is getting beyond the symptoms of sin (i.e., behavior) and taking aim at the root of sin—a root that lies in the heart. Believing as Jesus taught that “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45), the Christian prays like David in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!”

Having defined mortification and clearing up two major misconceptions about what it is, we now want to ask, “How do we do it? How does a pastor (and any Christian for that matter) mortify the flesh?”

Inspired by John Owen, let me suggest eleven ways to make progress in mortification.

  1. Practice Self-Denial

The world says, “You just need a little me time.” If you said that to John Owen my guess is that he would have looked at you baffled and confused. He would have been perplexed because at the heart of the gospel is exactly the opposite message. Take, for example, Mark 8:34 where Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” At the heart of discipleship is a denial of self. To not practice self-denial is, according to the apostle Paul, one of the marks of an enemy of the cross of Christ: “For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:18-19). When your god is your belly you are living to satisfy your sinful passions and lusts, which is utterly contrary to the Christian life—and makes your heart a breeding ground for sin.

  1. Be Resolved That the Battle Never Ends in This Life

Back to Romans 8:12-13, “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” All the verbs in this passage emphasize an active, ongoing effort. There is no cease-fire in this war—mortification is a habitual weakening of sin through constant contention against sin. Owen warns:

Sin never wavers, yields, or gives up in spite of all the powerful opposition it encounters from the law of the gospel. If we only believed this, we would be less careless in carrying around that implacable enmity with us. It is well that those who are vigilant should weaken its force within them. But how sad is the deception of those who deceive themselves into thinking they have no sin (1 John 1:8). 12Sin and Temptation, 19.

And because sin will always, to some degree, be active in us, Owen exhorts us to never “let sin alone”: “Sin not only still abides in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone.” 13Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.

  1. Know There Can be Great Victories

Given the power of the gospel, some sins in this life can be eradicated. This is great motivation to engage in warfare against indwelling sin. Owen writes, “Mortification succeeds in varying degrees and may completely triumph if the sin in question is not lodged too deeply within the natural temperament.” 14Sin and Temptation, 158. We believe this to be true because Christians are nothing less than a new creation in Christ, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” As new creations in Christ we now, by the Spirit, “walk in newness of life.” 152 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4

  1. Beware Surprise Attacks

Sin loves to “come out of nowhere”—to spring up when we least expect it. This is what Owen called “involuntary surprisals.” He warns, “Sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep, when they are still.” 16Temptation and Sin, 11. Sin is quiet like an enemy is quiet before an ambush. One of sin’s strategies, according to Owen, is to induce a false sense of security as a prelude to a surprise attack. Therefore, the pastor must be vigilant and always at the ready to battle this merciless enemy. Recall how Jesus warned his sleepy disciples in the garden, “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” 17Matthew 26:41

  1. Understand the Deceitfulness of Sin

First, Owen would have us understand how deceit hides the consequences or full truth of sin: “We also see the danger of sin’s deception of the mind by examining the general nature of deceit. It consists in falsely presenting things to the mind in such a way that their true nature, causes, effects, or present conditions to the soul remain hidden. Thus, deceit conceals what should be exposed, whether it be circumstances or consequences.” 18Sin and Temptation, 37. Sin, in other words, presents only the desirable.

Second, Owen would have us understand the creeping nature of deceit: “Deceit also operates slowly, little by little, so that its manipulation is not exposed all at once. In the story of the Fall, Satan acts in a sequence of steps. First, he removes the objection of death. Next, he offers them great knowledge. Then he suggests that they become gods. Each step hides aspects of reality and only presents half-truths.” 19Sin and Temptation, 37.

Third, Owen would have us understand how deceit twists the truth. This is seen alarmingly in how sin deceives us into thinking grace is for licentiousness: “Here then is where the deceit of sin intervenes. It separates the doctrine of grace from its purpose.” 20Sin and Temptation, 41. The purpose of grace is holiness. But sin would have us believe it is for more sin. The apostle Paul addressed this heresy in Romans 6:1–2, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”

Perhaps no other man in church history outside the Bible studied temptation and sin more than John Owen. We would do well to follow his lead for surely the spiritual shallowness in the evangelical church today is due in large part to our woefully shallow view of sin.

  1. Make No Provision for the Flesh

Romans 13:14 states it plainly, “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is exactly what Jesus was teaching in Mark 9:43-48 when he called for spiritual amputation when it comes to sin.

The pastor must know himself and take pains to not put himself in a position of weakness. For the love of holiness, the pastor must ask himself questions like, “Should I watch that movie or show? Is this music good for my heart? Is social media edifying—is it promoting godliness in my life?” In every question of Christian liberty what guides the pastor is a longing to see Philippians 4:8–9 realized in his life:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

  1. Wield Your Spiritual Sword

In Ephesians 6:17 we’re told that part of God’s armor for us in the battle against the world the flesh and the devil is “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This, of course, is how Jesus battled the temptations of the devil in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). If the Son of God used the Word of God to battle against temptation how much more should we? The pastor says with the psalmist, “How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” 21Psalm 119:9-11

  1. Replace Sin with Grace

By replacing sin with grace, we are killing sin by nurturing the virtue that counters it. It’s what we see the apostle describing in Colossians 3:5-17 with his commands to “put to death” and “put on.” The idea is to crowd out sin in our life by filling our hearts with the graces that are sin’s opposite. For example, we kill lust by practicing purity; we wage war on pride by practicing humility; we counter greed with generosity and contentment; we crucify self-centeredness by serving others; we destroy anger by pursuing peace.

  1. Stay in Community

Christians were saved to be in community—to be a vital member of Christ’s church. The commands of Hebrews 3:12-13 and 10:24-25 are equally true for pastors. After all, would you rather go to war on your own or with an army at your side? There is strength in (godly) numbers.

  1. Look to the Cross

We put sin to death only in the context of Christ’s ultimate victory over sin at the cross. Provision for our victory has been made in his victory. The banner over our war against indwelling sin is Galatians 6:14, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” Indeed, we fight in the triumph of Christ (2 Corinthians 2:14; Colossians 2:13-15). Therefore, we battle with the confidence that when we fail, we are not abandoned by our God. This is motivation to get up and get back to the frontlines knowing that the ultimate victory is assured.

  1. Depend on the Holy Spirit

This war is not fought in the flesh. Our only hope in mortification is to battle in the strength that God supplies. And that strength is himself. As we’ve seen, it is “by the Spirit” that we put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13). Only as we “walk by the Spirit” will we “not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16). Owen cautions, “All other ways of discipline are in vain. All other helps leave us helpless. Mortification is only accomplished ‘through the Spirit.’” 22Sin and Temptation, 153.

CONCLUSION

In one sense the reasons for a pastor falling are many. But in another sense the reason is single: a pastor falls when he fails to take heed. Another Puritan pastor, Richard Baxter, knew this and, therefore, warned pastors in his day to take heed to themselves. What was needed in seventeenth century England is utterly relevant for our day:

Take heed to yourselves, for you have a depraved nature, and sinful inclinations, as well as others. If innocent Adam had need of heed, and lost himself and us for want of it, how much more need have we! Sin dwells in us, when we have preached ever so much against it; and one degree prepares the heart for another, and one sin inclines the mind to more. If one thief be in the house, he will let in the rest; because they have the same disposition and design. A spark is the beginning of a flame; and a small disease may cause a greater . . . . In us there are, at the best, the remnants of pride, unbelief, self-seeking, hypocrisy, and all the most hateful, deadly sins. And does it not then concern us to take heed to ourselves? 23The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.

The discipline of mortification is one way a pastor takes heed to himself. May our efforts to kill our indwelling sin in the power of the Holy Spirit bear much fruit in our day for the glory of God and the good of the churches we serve.

References   [ + ]

1. Lectures to My Students (Zondervan, 1954), 8.
2. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims On the Way (Zondervan, 2011), 650.
3. The Christian Faith, 653.
4. Concise Theology (Tyndale, 2001), 170.
5. James Houston, editor, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (Bethany House, 1996), 18. Packer adds, “A Puritan model of godliness will most quickly expose the reason why our current spirituality is so shallow, namely the shallowness of our views of sin,” 24.
6. The Holy Spirit, vol. 3 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 538.
7. Sin and Temptation, 154.
8, 14. Sin and Temptation, 158.
9. The Holy Spirit, 543.
10. Sin and Temptation, 160.
11. Sin and Temptation, 155.
12. Sin and Temptation, 19.
13. Temptation and Sin vol. 6 (Banner of Truth, 1966), 11.
15. 2 Cor. 5:16-17; Romans 6:4
16. Temptation and Sin, 11.
17. Matthew 26:41
18, 19. Sin and Temptation, 37.
20. Sin and Temptation, 41.
21. Psalm 119:9-11
22. Sin and Temptation, 153.
23. The Reformed Pastor (Banner of Truth, 1974), 73.

Why Don’t Preachers Have “Walk-Up” Music?

If I were in the Major Leagues (playing second base for the Dodgers, of course), the music I’d have playing as I stepped to the plate would be a sample from “Start a Riot” by DUCKWRTH and Shaboozey. The thought of 56,000 “rioting” fans at Chavez Ravine as I walked up to the plate, music blaring, is certainly exhilarating. And it wouldn’t seem at all inappropriate. After all, this is a sports event and the athletes on each team are the attraction. Walk-up music is not out-of-place at a professional baseball game because fans are there to cheer on the players.

But this is not the case for the preacher.

Preachers in the pulpit are not the attraction. Christ is, his word and worth. Therefore, we make every effort to deflect attention from ourselves while putting it on the Lord. This is a conclusion born out of two biblical realities: the nature of revelation and the preacher’s vocation.

THE NATURE OF REVELATION

When I talk about Christian preaching, I’m talking about expository preaching. What exactly is expository preaching? Contrary to what many evangelicals may believe, Haddon Robinson was certainly right when he stated that expository preaching is more a philosophy than a method.

Expository preaching at its core is more a philosophy than a method. Whether we can be called expositors starts with our purpose and with our honest answer to the question: “Do you, as a preacher, endeavor to bend your thought to the Scriptures, or do you use the Scriptures to support your thought?” 1Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker Academic, 2013), 5.

The Christian preacher does not bend the Scriptures to make them say what we want them to say. The expositor submits all of his thoughts under the Scriptures. Any other approach to preaching puts our human minds in authority over the word of God. This the Christian preacher will not do.

As John Stott observed, expository preaching isn’t about style but substance. An expository preacher works to ensure that the content of every sermon is the Bible.

[Exposition] refers to the content of the sermon (biblical truth) rather than its style (a running commentary). To expound Scripture is to bring out of the text what is there and expose it to view. The expositor prizes open what appears to be closed, makes plain what is obscure, unravels what is knotted and unfolds what is tightly packed. The opposite of exposition is ‘imposition,’ which is to impose on the text what is not there. 2John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 2017), 125-126.

Biblical exposition, says Bryan Chapell, “binds the preacher and the people to the only source of true spiritual change . . . . expository preachers are committed to saying what God says.” 3Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker Academic, 2005), 30. The expository preacher’s ultimate goal is to communicate not his own opinions or philosophies or speculations, but rather to “expose” to his listeners the will of God as revealed in the Word of God. Therefore, the expositor makes the Bible central in preaching.

We are committed to the centrality of the Bible in preaching because of what it is, namely, revelation from and about God. This is, in part, what the apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). The Bible is more about God than it is about us. In the Bible God is revealing who he is, how he acts, what he demands of us, and where he is moving all of human history. The very nature of Scripture demands that we don’t see preachers like we do professional athletes. God is the attraction, not us.

THE PREACHER’S VOCATION

How should a preacher view himself? What is the essence of his vocation? To answer this question, consider 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”

When we see a Christian preacher, we should be seeing a servant and steward. Both of these descriptions undermine the centrality of self. A servant by definition is focused not on self but someone else. Likewise, a steward is a caretaker of something not his own. A Christian preacher is a servant of Christ and a steward of the Scriptures. And this must look like something in the pulpit.

Servants and stewards don’t create a preaching event where we are the main attraction. That is, our eloquence, our attire, our props cannot be what people come to see. The Christian comes to see Jesus, but oftentimes he is pushed aside as many a preacher says in one form or another, “Look at me!” In contrast, servants and stewards say, “Look at Christ! Behold your God!” Indeed, servants and stewards don’t design the pulpit around themselves, but in a way that points his listeners to God because “what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Corinthians 4:5).

The sports world is full of attention-grabbing athletes. Whether it’s Alex Morgan sipping tea or Steph Curry shimmying or Bryce Harper with an epic bat flip, professional athletes scream “look at me!” And in some ways, we get it; that’s the nature of entertainment. But the nature of preaching is far different. The preacher has no walk-up music and no walk-off celebration because the preaching event is not about us, but God. To him be the glory.

References   [ + ]

1. Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages (Baker Academic, 2013), 5.
2. John Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (Eerdmans, 2017), 125-126.
3. Bryan Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon (Baker Academic, 2005), 30.

Tribute to an Extraordinary Pastor

[Editor’s Note: Pastor Aaron Menikoff wrote the following tribute to one of his co-pastors at Mount Vernon Baptist Church to recognize his over three decades of faithful service. There is much in this tribute to inspire current and future pastors to faithful ministry in the local church. We at Some Pastors and Teachers want to join in highlighting Pastor Bryan Pillsbury’s “job well done” — for the glory of God and the good of the church.]

***

One of the reasons I am at Mount Vernon Baptist Church is because of Bryan Pillsbury. This week, a lot of the Christian world is abuzz because of a well-known pastor who left the faith. But I want to give thanks for a pastor who persevered, serving thirty-two years at Mount Vernon.

Bryan served alongside a total of four senior pastors, including me. He and his wife Paige raised five kids in the same church. Over the years, he did everything that was asked of him including holding down the fort during long interims without a preaching pastor. He proved to be a rock of stability during moments when the future of the church seemed uncertain. This kind of faithfulness is all-too-rare today.

When I came to MVBC in 2008, I didn’t know what lay ahead. But I knew I wasn’t alone. From day one, Bryan encouraged me. He overlooked my weaknesses (and sometimes my sin), and he fought hard to help me be well-received by a church he knew like the back of his hand.

Today is Bryan’s last day on staff. Hard to believe. I find it hugely ironic and appropriate that he’s spending the day talking about Jesus in the villages of La Florida on the outskirts of the city of San Juan on the island of the Dominican Republic. This evening he’ll be working through the Gospel of Mark, Christianity Explained, with Central Mennonite Church. That’s what Bryan loves more than anything—sharing the gospel that changed his life and equipping churches with God’s Word.

I know it sounds funny, I’m not a young man anymore, but today I feel like I’m losing my training wheels. Bryan would disagree, and he’s quick to remind me he’s not going anywhere (he and his family are staying in the ATL and at MVBC). But it’s not the same. Every young pastor should have a Bryan on staff when they begin their journey. I’ve been hugely blessed.

Bryan taught me to slow down and spend more time with people, to laugh harder, to tell more stories, to smile, to take risks on people with great potential, and to love people who leave.

The evangelical world probably won’t know Bryan isn’t going to be on staff at MVBC tomorrow. I get that. I also know most churches simply don’t have multiple members on staff. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember that the backbone of many churches isn’t always the guy standing behind the pulpit week in and week out, it’s those serving behind the scenes, opening the Word one-on-one, grieving at the hospital bed, helping a widow figure out how to get onto her computer, leading a small group through Systematic Theology, helping a daughter navigate a funeral home as she prepares to bury her mother, and making an international student feel at home.

Bryan and I have been on more than one missions trip together. I’ll never forget being in the home of a new missions partner in Central Asia. As we reflected on our time together, our partner said how much he appreciated our visit. He appreciated my questions and my counsel. But having Bryan, he said, was like having your favorite grandfather visit. That’s pretty much how everyone feels around Bryan—loved, wanted, appreciated, and cared for.

Bryan, when you get back from the jungle of La Florida today, after you wipe off the sweat from the dusty truck ride, clean up, and read this post, know you are loved, my friend. Thanks for serving side-by-side for so many years, and please keep serving in the days to come. I know you will.

Pastors, the Graham Rule, and Wisdom

Another pastor was recently removed from ministry. It has happened before and, sadly, it will happen again. As I write, a series of cases are running through my mind, but one of the themes that unites them is that ministers put themselves in jeopardy by making foolish choices. Before I make my case let us consider some of the criticisms of the Graham Rule, which says that men should not be alone with women who are not their wives. One argument says that the rule is unfair to women since it segregates them from the same pastoral care that men receive. It also is criticized as impractical since, in late-modern life, men and women frequently work together as colleagues including private meetings, dinners, etc. A third criticism is that it tends to cast females as seductresses. Fourth, and finally for our purposes, it is criticized for misidentifying the problem, which is said not to be men being alone with women but in the heart. If men’s hearts are pure, then there is no reason why men and women should not be able to meet privately.

Before responding to the criticisms let us consider one of the situations that has led to the end of otherwise productive pastoral ministries. A pastor, who is happily married, is contacted for counseling by a woman who complains that her husband is abusive. They meet first by telephone, then by video chat, then personally. After a couple of months, however, they begin having an affair. It is discovered and the consequences to the woman’s family are as destructive as they are for the pastor. Consider the young pastor who, in his first real counseling session, meets with a young wife, whose husband was neglectful, and, as it turns out, having an affair with his secretary. It is an emotional meeting. The pastor feels empathy for the woman. She is crying. He is crying. It might lead to something untoward—it does not—not for sexual but for emotional reasons. Almost as soon as the meeting is over the pastor realizes how foolish he had been, how easily things might have spun out of control. Thereafter, he resolves never to meet alone with another female, never to place himself and a woman in such jeopardy.

Similar cases could be multiplied. Pastors know that what I am saying is true. It is a matter of wisdom. A now-deceased pastor friend confessed to me in his 60s, “I used to be more selective about the women I find attractive. Now they all seem attractive to me.” Men who pastor are still men. They become pastors because they become convinced that they have an internal call to ministry and that sense of calling is confirmed by an external call from the church. Most of the time, pastors are moved with compassion for those with whom they come into contact. Pastoral ministry is a helping vocation. Listening to people confess their sins, fears, and struggles necessarily creates a kind of intimacy. We hear people’s darkest experiences and fears. If hearing those things does not move one to compassion, sympathy, and empathy, one probably should not be in ministry.

Here is the problem: the line between empathy and inappropriate feelings can become blurry very quickly for a variety of reasons. God only calls sinners to pastoral ministry, which is often a demanding, high-stress vocation. The pastor’s marriage can too often become one of the casualties of ministry. What happens when the pastor’s marriage is not perfect, when he and his wife just had an argument because he had an emergency hospital call last night and now a counseling meeting this morning? When is he going to have time for her and for the children? After the counseling session, the female counselee reaches out to touch the pastor’s hand softly to say thanks for meeting with her and for listening to her so attentively—something her “slob of husband” never seems to do—and there’s a little electricity, a spark. There is an understanding look, a glance, a connection. Nothing happens right away, but as he goes back to his home office he thinks about that moment and so does she. We know how this story ends.

This is why there is a Graham rule. Certainly it has to be applied with grace, charity, and wisdom. One can imagine ways the rule could be used to justify cruelty. Of course, such abuses are not what I have in mind. Further, the world has changed since Billy Graham began ministry, thus making the application of the rule more complicated, but as far as I know, there were never any allegations of immorality against Graham. The scenarios surveyed here have centered on counseling because this is where and how ministerial indiscretions often happen. In just about every case of which I have heard counseling was involved. There are other kinds of cases, e.g., pastors and their secretaries, pastors and a member of their staff (e.g., a musician or children’s ministry director) but even these cases share commonalities with the counseling scenarios: too much time alone, the development of emotional intimacy, empathy, misdirected affection.

Does the Graham rule adversely affect female counselees? It may. There are some ways to mitigate the problem. One counselor I know only meets with counselees when his wife is present (not in the room but about the house). Another way is to make use of modern video technology. Just as police interviews are recorded on video, some pastors have a video camera in the counseling room where the video is stored remotely for his and her protection. Other pastors only meet in some public place, e.g., a coffee-house or a restaurant. We have guidance in holy Scripture, which says, “Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (Titus 2:3–5). Having an older woman with some advanced theological education, who is equipped as a counselor, might resolve many of these issues. Perhaps the pastor and an older female counselor might meet together with a female counselee. None of these solutions is ideal but they are preferable to private meetings which sow the seeds of sin and destruction.

Perhaps the Graham rule does create awkwardness in our late-modern culture but divorce and being defrocked is also, to say the least, awkward. Does the rule presume that all females are Potiphar’s wife (Gen 39:7–18)? Not at all. Rather, the intent of the rule is to recognize history and reality. Male-female relationships are different than same-sex (not homosexual) relationships. Relationships between men and women are not the same as relationships between men or relationships between women.

The fourth objection is the most powerful but also ultimately insufficient. To say the obvious: we live in a fallen world. Male-female relations have been complicated since the fall and they will not become simple again until the new heavens and the new earth. It is true that all human relationships are complex but male-female relations are especially so. As suggested above, adulterous relationships (especially among pastors and counselees) do not always begin as a sexual relationships. Often they begin as emotional relationships, which, left unchecked, can become sexual relationships. Objection #4 has some weight. The problem is the heart, but the pastor’s heart is corrupt and so is the counselee’s. Yes, the pastor needs to check his heart but the objection (at least as I understand it) seems to underestimate the chemistry can develop between a man and woman that would not ordinarily develop between two heterosexual men or between two heterosexual women. It is hard to quantify this chemistry, but one would think that anyone over 30 would have enough experience to recognize it.

One solution is accountability. In the nature of things, pastors are practically self-supervised. They function as if they were self-employed. Many work partly out of their home but meet with parishioners and others away from home. They see their supervisors (the ruling elders) weekly but in the nature of things it is almost impossible for ruling elders to supervise the day-to-day work of the pastors under their care and supervision. Yet they can help by keeping a regular (even weekly) record of counseling appointments and contacts with whom is the pastor meeting, for what purpose, and under what circumstances. Expanding the counseling staff (as suggested above) might also alleviate some of the challenges. Of course, if the minister is determined to get around guardrails, there is little that can be done but then we are looking at the sort of fundamental heart-problem envisioned in objection #4.

We need to reconsider the biblical qualifications for pastoral ministry. In 1 Timothy 3:2 Paul says that the Episkopos (ἐπίσκοπος) must be “above reproach” (ἀνεπίλημπτον). He says the same in Titus 1:6–7. Paul tells us what this means: “the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable” and “his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination . . . he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain.” Some of these qualifications are easier than others. Monogamy would not seem to be too much to expect but “sober-minded” and “self-controlled” are more difficult. Debauchery can be hard to detect but typically someone in the congregation (e.g., the church secretary) knows about it but does not say anything out of fear or a misplaced loyalty. A quick temper and drunkenness are also symptoms that a man is not qualified or if he is already ordained and serving, is stumbling badly and about to go off the rails altogether. This is not a call for a Spanish inquisition, but it is a call for godly wisdom, for realism, and in some cases, for re-engagement with the daily life of the minister.

When a minister falls it is an occasion for reflection, for self-examination, and for reconsidering whether the way we are conducting our ministry is wise and godly.

In Praise of the Ordinary Pastor: A Review

[D.A. Carson. Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastor: The Life and Reflections of Tom Carson. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.]

Since 1978, Don Carson (PhD, University of Cambridge) has been research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Previously, he served as academic dean at Northwest Baptist Theological College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In addition to writing or editing nearly sixty books, Dr. Carson serves as co-founder and president of The Gospel Coalition.

Dr. Carson’s unique credibility in writing this book is that he is the son of the ‘ordinary’ pastor of which he writes. Throughout the book, Dr. Carson provides snippets of vital commentary on his father’s life and ministry to teach ‘ordinary pastors’ how to shepherd the flock of God and to deal with one’s insufficiency for such a grand task. Throughout, he points readers back to faithfulness to the Lord, faithfulness his biological father consistently displayed.

SUMMARY

Tom Carson, a missionary pastor in the French province of Quebec with his wife Margie, spent the majority of their ministry between two cities, Drummondville and Hull. Tom’s heart for the people of Quebec caused him to spend the majority of his career reaching them with the gospel, a major difficulty since most of the Francophone were Roman Catholics.

Tom’s years before Vatican II were spent in Drummondville. He remained faithful to his Master and worked tirelessly to reach difficult people. His church in Drummondville never grew past 50 members despite his labors of going door-to-door with the gospel, faithful expository preaching, and fervent prayer. While many pastors at that time in that area gave up, Tom stayed faithful. However, he often blamed himself for the ‘appearance’ of fruitlessness in his ministry. He consistently critiqued his shortcomings as a pastor, husband, and father having very little grace for himself. In the difficult years at Drummondville, he prayerfully made a vow to his wife that if things didn’t change, they would seek to leave this work.

After little improvement, he resigned as pastor and moved to Hull, a metropolitan suburb of Montreal where Tom was hired to a secular position as an English to French translator; however, his work as a minister continued. He flourished in his new role as an associate pastor under Jacques Alexanian at Montclair Baptist Church. For the next 20 years, he filled pulpits, provided wise council to elders, made home visits, and helped disciple the next generation of Canadian pastors. He began seeing the fruit of more converts as God stirred up uncertainty in the Catholic Church. Journal entries at this time consisted of more joy than sorrow—until his wife Margie was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

Tom’s role as pastor phased out as his wife’s condition worsened and she needed more of his attention. Tom’s caring for his ailing wife was a true example of Christ ministering to his church. After his wife went home to the Lord, Tom resumed his role as pastor in Hull until he died in 1992.

Etched on his tombstone are Jesus’s words from John 12:24: “I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (147). Tom Carson sowed many seeds in his life, but the fruit revealed itself at his death as many people began to testify of the grace of God displayed by this faithful servant. His legacy lives on in the lives of converts and his children who love the Lord and serve His Church.

EVALUATION

In Christendom the most revered people are often the most extraordinary. This is unfortunate since the majority of people called into ministry will not experience ‘success’ as defined by our modern church culture. D.A. Carson wrote Memoirs of an Ordinary Pastorso that his father’s life and ministry might take our minds off our shallow views of success and elevate them to the greater goal: faithfulness to the end (13).

D.A. Carson stayed true to the task by presenting his dad’s ordinary life vividly through his father’s journals and contextual commentary. Tom Carson didn’t embody what people think about when they think of a “successful” pastor. He was simply ‘ordinary.’ Outside his sphere of influence, no one would have known that he was a Baptist pastor to the people of Canada. But the Lord knew, which is what matters most.

One potential pitfall in writing biography is to paint a positive picture of the subject while neglecting their shortcomings. This happens out of authorial bias for the subject being written about. Dr. Carson could have fallen into this pitfall by writing about his father, but he did not. He presented his father’s story in a way that elevated his strengths but also gave honest (and respectful) insight into his father’s weaknesses. One of the more profitable parts of the book occurs in the chapter about Tom’s discouragement and despair as Don extracts nine encouragements that pastors should take from his father’s ministry (92-96). He praises his dad’s faithfulness to Christ and family, self- knowledge, and work-ethic while also critiquing his lack of grace for himself when it came to his view of his shortcomings. His commentary on his father’s vices did not try to defend his father or make excuses for him, but rather counsels the reader how his father should have acted or thought in accordance with the gospel of grace. This added value to the book and gave pastors, who struggle with the same problems, instruction and encouragement for the future.

CONCLUSION

The example of Tom Carson’s life is worthy of every pastor’s imitation. Many pastors need the encouragement and instruction this book provides as we continually ask with the apostle, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Corinthians 2:16). Tom’s story shifts our eyes from earthly ideas of ministerial success to what Paul desires in Acts 20:24: “But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God.” This was Tom Carson: an ordinary pastor who remained faithful to the end. May God give us the grace to do likewise.

Christian Liberty is Not License

Abounding grace to sinners (Romans 5:20), i.e., God’s free favor to the undeserving, leads to Christian freedom but not to licentiousness (living without norms). Liberty is not libertinism. This doctrine is at the heart of the Reformed doctrine of the Christian life. This is part of our inheritance from the Reformation. The Medieval church had placed God’s people under countless man-made rules. Luther announced the Protestant rejection of these rules in favor of God’s Word as the final authority for the Christian faith and Christian life (sola scriptura) in The Freedom of the Christian Man in the fall of 1520.

Following Luther, the Reformed were great advocates of the doctrine of Christian liberty. When we think about the Reformed faith and about some of its leading lights, e.g., John Calvin (1509–64), however, we might not think of Christian liberty. This is especially so since Calvin’s opponents have delighted for most of the last 500 years in portraying him as a grim, joyless tyrant. Calvin scholar Jeanine Olson contradicts that narrative: “These reformers were not teetotalers. Genevan pastors received part of their pay in wine.” 1Jeanine E. Olson, “Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink ed., Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 204. The Reformed were serious about their faith and the Christian life but they were not joyless machines. The enjoyed family, friends, fellowship, and the good things God has provided in this life.

ON CHRISTIAN LIBERTY . . . AGAIN

Many modern Christians, especially who have been deeply influenced by Pietism (i.e., the desire to experience God directly, without the use of means such as the preaching of the Gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper) and those who have been influenced by varieties Fundamentalism (i.e., the reduction of Christian orthodoxy to a few marks such as abstinence from alcohol, premillennialism, the length of the creation days, King James Only-ism, and strict dress codes), should understand the Reformation break with Medieval legalism in the doctrine of the Christian life. Those Pietists and Fundamentalists have lived under something very much like the thing that the Protestant Reformers rejected. This is because there lives in the heart of every person a little tyrant longing to stand in the place of God.

Those who are emerging from Pietism (the Quest for Experience) and Fundamentalism (the Quest for Certainty), who are just discovering the Reformation doctrines of grace (salvation by God’s free favor alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and the Christian faith and life normed finally by Scripture alone) can sometimes react ungraciously against their Pietist or Fundamentalist past. This phase has been dubbed “the cage stage”—because those who are going though it need to be placed in a cage until they get over it—which can lead to excesses in the other direction. Sometimes this can mean the abuse of alcohol or turning liberty into license. One might see newly Reformed folk doing more than enjoying a beer or a glass of wine with some friends but drinking to excess or even doing what the Apostle Paul says not to do: “And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5:18; NASB).

Against the Pietists and Fundamentalists, who impose man-made rules, whether well-intentioned or ill, we must assert the reality of Christian freedom and the uniqueness of Holy Scripture as the final norm for the Christian faith and the Christian life. The Pharisees sought to put a “fence around the law” as they said. They counted 613 laws in the Torah and they established rules to keep Israelites from violating those laws, or so they thought. They accused Jesus of teaching his disciples to break their traditions. Our Lord replied, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:2; ESV). He placed the Word of God over their good intentions, over their fence around the law. He accused them of making the Word of God “void” by their traditions and rules (Matthew 15:6).

WINE MEANS WINE

So, we should judge the Pietist and Fundamentalist rules against any use of alcohol. They are convinced that Scripture forbids the use of any intoxicating drink and have developed elaborate theories about why “wine” in the Scriptures cannot refer to a potentially intoxicating drink. The evidence against this supposition is overwhelming. Almost from the beginning of the history of salvation we see that wine is potentially intoxicating. One of the first things Noah did after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard. He knew that what Psalm 104:15 says is true, that God has given us wine to gladden our hearts. Apparently, however, as soon as the vineyard gave him grapes, he made wine and with it he got drunk: “He drank of the wine and became drunk and lay uncovered in his tent” (Genesis 9:21; ESV). The Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), which was influential on New Testament vocabulary and usage uses the word οἶνος (oinos), which is the same word used in the NT. It means “a beverage made from fermented juice of the grape, wine.” 2Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.

The wine Noah drank was intoxicating. When Paul says “be not drunk with wine” he uses the very same noun that the LXX used in Genesis 9:20. At Pentecost, after the Holy Spirit fell upon the Apostles, they were accused of being drunk with wine. Peter denied the charge (Acts 2:13–14). The wine about which they were talking was potentially intoxicating because it was fermented. It was alcoholic. The wine that our Lord Jesus made by a miracle for the wedding at Cana was not grape juice. The wonder was that the host had saved the good wine for the end of the feast, after people had been drinking and eating for days (John 2:10). John uses the same noun there as is used regularly for a fermented, potentially intoxicating drink. Grape juice is good but it is not intoxicating.

Scripture does not condemn Noah for drinking but implicitly for getting drunk. Paul does not forbid the drinking of wine but the abuse of wine. Indeed, Paul commended to Timothy the drinking of wine (same noun): “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (1 Timothy 5:23; ESV). Deacons are not required to be teetotalers (completely abstaining from wine) but “dignified, not double-tongued, not addicted to much wine, not greedy for dishonest gain” (1 Timothy 3:8; ESV). Paul distinguished between drinking wine and addiction to wine, or what we today call alcoholism.

We could make analogous points about the use of tobacco. The Pietists and the Fundamentalists may not approve but their disapproval is not the Word of God. Whether one smokes or drinks is a matter of Christian liberty and wisdom. There may be wisdom in abstaining from these, but their use is a matter of wisdom and liberty. There are times when it is edifying to others to abstain. There may be those in the body who, because of their background, cannot or should not partake. Perhaps it may lead them to stumble back into unbelief. Paul instructs us here:

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (Romans 14:20-22; ESV).

When the Pharisee (e.g., the Fundamentalist or Pietist) seeks to impose his rules upon us, we might well resist by taking a drink or a puff, if only to assert our freedom and to rebuke his legalism but when the weaker brother’s spiritual welfare is at stake, we must love him as we ourselves would want to be loved were we in his shoes. For the recovering alcoholic, especially in the early days of sobriety, even the smell of alcohol can be an almost unbearable temptation.

ON LIBERTY AND DISCRETION

Christian liberty and discretion applies to a range of issues. For example, marijuana, in states where it has been legalized, its use is a matter of liberty and wisdom. Believers may be free to use it, but it may be wiser to investigate it first and possibly to abstain. Why? Prospective marijuana users should know, among other things, that the THC content (the active ingredient) of marijuana is considerably higher today than it once was and carries with it associated risks, including addiction.

Business practices, where they do not violate God’s moral law, are a matter of liberty. For example, where the medieval church forbade the charging of interest on loans, the Reformed have always engaged in commerce and even lending at interest (usury, in the broad sense). In Geneva, however, interest rates were sharply limited, but the charging of interest was permitted. The older Reformed piety was strictly opposed to games of chance (gambling, cards, dice, slot machines, etc.), but not to calculated risks (e.g., investing). Arguably, were one to study horses the way one studies the performance of a company, one might justify betting on horses. It is more difficult to see a justification for games of chance. 3I am using the word chance here to describe our experience of relative randomness not to minimize divine sovereignty.

There may be some ambiguity about what constitutes “cussing.” For example, in Philippians 3:8 Paul uses strong language about his former life. It has been translated politely as “dung.” Scripture is not prudish. It records a lot of gross sins quite colorfully. Yet, Scripture also uses euphemisms, polite expressions, e.g., Peter’s words to Simon the Magician in Acts 8:20. “To destruction with you and your money” almost certainly a euphemism for hell, as J. B. Philips indicated in his paraphrase: “To hell with you and your money.”

Still, Scripture gives no place for license: Paul says, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29; ESV) and “Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4; ESV). We should note that Paul remonstrated twice with the Ephesians about this in the plainest possible terms.

There is liberty of speech. Context matters. In some cultures, plain talk about ordinary life is considered acceptable, even expected. On the farm there are certain ways of referring to ordinary processes that are not offensive to farmers and ranchers but that are not appropriate for church or a ladies tea. Paul gives us a test: is what I am about to say edifying? Is it appropriate? Wisdom and discretion are essential here. The cage-stager is enthused about his newfound freedom, but he typically lacks discretion and wisdom.

So, against the Pietist and Fundamentalists we must continually reassert Christian liberty. Against the libertine, however, who will be governed by no law, not even love, we must assert limits. Love limits us. Grace frees us from the arbitrary rules of the Scribes and Pharisees, but divinely revealed laws and wisdom and discretion and love limit us.

[This article originally appeared at Abounding Grace Radio under the title, “What Hath Beer to Do With Calvin? Christian Liberty is Not License.”]

References   [ + ]

1. Jeanine E. Olson, “Church and Society: Calvin’s Theology and Its Early Reception,” in J. Todd Billings and I. John Hesselink ed., Calvin’s Theology and Its Reception (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 204.
2. Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, and Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. S.v., οἶνος.
3. I am using the word chance here to describe our experience of relative randomness not to minimize divine sovereignty.

More Than Mere Happiness

Americans want to be happy and yet we’re more unhappy each year. And we have various surveys to prove it.

I recently learned about one survey conducted by the United Nations in a news story entitled, “New Survey Shows Americans Are Unhappier Than They’ve Been in Years.” The article explains the methodology of the survey and notes America’s declining happiness:

Americans are as unhappy as they’ve been in years—and it seems to be a trend. That’s one of the main takeaways from the recently released annual ‘World Happiness Report,’ put out to coincide with the United Nations’ International Day of Happiness. The report, which has been released every year since 2012, surveyed 156 countries using six metrics: GDP per capita, healthy life expectancy, the freedom to make life choices, social support, generosity, and perceptions of corruption. And despite having a strong economy and low crime rates, the U.S. dropped in the ranking for the third straight year and is now the 19th happiest nation on Earth. (The happiest? Finland, apparently.) That’s America’s worst showing ever. 1Alex Ward, Vox.com, March 21, 2019.

Perhaps sensing this unhappy state of the Union, the Jonas Brothers are now back together hoping to spread happiness one trite pop song at a time. Have you seen their new documentary Chasing Happiness? Is their new album Happiness Begins on your playlist? Do you have tickets to their world Happiness Begins Tour? It will be interesting to see if the Jonas Brothers can help us in the rankings next year.

Well, pastors don’t have a pop song or documentary or world tour to offer their churches, but something infinitely better: the gospel.

In a recent sermon from Acts 13:13-43, I recounted how Paul and Barnabas were asked to “give a word of encouragement” (v. 15) in the synagogue in Antioch. What Paul says is instructive for us in our pursuit of happiness. Of all the encouraging things he could say, he focuses on the person and work of Christ. For there is no more encouraging word than the word of the cross.

The heart of Paul’s sermon is found in v. 23 as he moves from king David to Jesus: “Of this man’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as he promised.” Paul announces that Jesus is the fulfillment of a promised heir to David’s throne, a promise long expected by God’s people because of biblical texts like 2 Samuel 7:12-13, Isaiah 9:7, and Isaiah 11:1-11.

What’s so encouraging about the person and work of Christ?

Paul begins by reminding his listeners of John the Baptist’s ministry: “Before his coming, John had proclaimed a baptism of repentance to all the people of Israel. And as John was finishing his course, he said, ‘What do you suppose that I am? I am not he. No, but behold, after me one is coming, the sandals of whose feet I am not worthy to untie’” (vv. 24-25).

John announced the arrival of someone “the sandals of whose feet [he] was not worthy to untie.” The person of Christ is so majestic, regal, and awe-inspiring that John considers himself unworthy to perform the most menial task of untying Jesus’ sandals. What kind of a person is this? Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, described him thus:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. 2Colossians 1:15-20, ESV

In a word, Jesus is God. And in the gospel God is for us, forever. This is enough to make the heart glad.

Paul goes on to declare the work of Christ:

And though they found in him no guilt worthy of death, they asked Pilate to have him executed. And when they had carried out all that was written of him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead, and for many days he appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, who are now his witnesses to the people. 3Acts 13:28-31, ESV

Jesus died a substitutionary death for sinners and rose triumphantly from the grave to secure the believer’s eternal life. Is there any happier news?

More than mere worldly happiness, pastors long for their churches to be encouraged in Christ. For that is better by far. Indeed, as Psalm 63:3 declares, “the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life.” And the love of God is seen most clearly in the gospel. Therefore, week in and week out, to the gospel we must go.

Unless, of course, your church doesn’t need any more encouragement.

References   [ + ]

1. Alex Ward, Vox.com, March 21, 2019.
2. Colossians 1:15-20, ESV
3. Acts 13:28-31, ESV

Does Your Faith Offend Enough People?

I propose a new church-growth model: Preach in such a way where you try to offend as many peoples’ sensibilities as possible. Throw as many stumbling blocks in front of religious people as you can. Unashamedly hold out the apparent foolishness of Christian dogma to the skeptical.

For the uninitiated, adherents of church-growth seek to apply the scientific method to make disciples. At its best, church-growth is dedicated to removing as many barriers to the gospel as possible in order that a church can “just connect someone to Jesus.” So, a practitioner might study a particular cultural context of any given neighborhood or region, determine what aspects of Christianity might resonate best among the people there, and champion that aspect. Or a practitioner might attempt to scale evangelism as one does in factory production. X number of gospel conversations should net Y conversions. Or, disenfranchised by both as being decidedly inauthentic, a practitioner might advocate lifestyle evangelism as the means for church growth, stating they’ll preach the gospel with words if necessary. The evangelical industrial complex has birthed entire enterprises dedicated to so-called church growth.

This is a noble, but perilous pursuit. In reality, all of these models neuter the gospel of its power. Scrubbing the gospel to make it marketable actually empties Christianity of its distinctiveness. I can anticipate an objection: “It is good that we ‘should not trouble those who turn to God’ with all the trappings which accompany Christianity today because at #compass.church we want people to find the right way.” I’m suggesting that one can repackage Christianity to such an extent that the way one finds is not the way that leads to life.

Often, the so-called “trappings” causing the stumbling of an American unbeliever are not Acts 15 obstacles. Some in the early church initially struggled to integrate Gentiles into predominantly ethnic and culturally Jewish congregations. They believed the Gentiles should undergo circumcision and submit to the ceremonial law, in effect becoming religious Jews. James reported that Simeon reminded the council that Abraham had been called out from the Gentiles and that God had prophesied He would redeem Gentiles. The council resolved to not make Gentiles take upon themselves the particular markers of Jewish identity and that rejecting Gentile idol worship would be sufficient. The council resolved to remove the stumbling blocks of circumcision and law-keeping, which were their own cultural markers, in order that the Church would not find itself opposing both the work and word of God.

The Apostle Paul seems not only content to keep stumbling blocks in his message but scandalize through his bullhorn: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:1–2).

I’m guessing everyone in evangelicalism would agree that they want their people to know Jesus Christ and him crucified. What evangelicalism needs is to rediscover how scandalous a crucified Christ really is. I want to shine a spotlight on the word “scandalous.” 1It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.

Americans are obsessed with scandals. We say we hate them, but in reality, we love watching talking heads discuss the latest Washington or Hollywood scandal. But the cross is not scandalous in the same way that a president’s forays with mistresses might be. No, the cross is scandalous because it offends our sensibilities: God took on flesh in order to die on a cross.

When we state the sentence as a whole, it makes total sense because we are two millennia downstream from the first sermon about the cross. To remind ourselves of how otherworldly this confession is, I’m going to break these pieces up into phrases and force us to look at them.

“God took on flesh” has offended the sensibilities of human beings long before Mary asked, “How can this be?” Since the garden, human beings have sought to become like God. Adam wanted to be like God. Given that he was already made in the image of God, his desire certainly stemmed from a desire to dethrone his Creator and take the seat. Similarly, the ancient Greeks and Romans dedicated themselves to divining the human physic and form. Men would become like the gods through heroic acts. For all, the bonds and limitations of humanity were something to be escaped. For the earliest Christians to preach that a god—God Himself—reversed that order to take on flesh baffled sense.

“To die on a cross” was the delusion of delusions to the ones who first heard the audacious claims of the strange sect from the backwater, distant district called Palestine. There are a number of Roman documents which deride the claims of the earliest Christians as “sick delusions,” “senseless and crazy superstitions.” 2Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3. Martin Hengel wrote, “The heart of the Christian message, which Paul described as the ‘word of the cross’, ran counter not only to Roman political thinking, but to the whole ethos of religion in ancient times and in particular to the idea of God held by educated people.” 3Hengel, 5.  In other words, it was radically uncontextualized and counter-intuitive.

I think the cross is a subject worthy of fresh reflection within the American church. I believe it has received plenty of reflection to be sure, but I’m not sure our reflections on the cross have been most productive. In my experience, reflections on the cross tend to project our worst fears onto it. So, many people reflect primarily on the medical sufferings of the cross with books such as The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Medical Doctor Examines the Death and Resurrection of Christ, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, or The Execution of Jesus the Christ: The Medical Cause of Our Lord’s Death During His Illegal Crucifixion. These sorts of books reveal the fact that we project our fears onto the cross—physical torment and pain—instead of allowing the passion narratives to preach to us what we are to see at the cross.

Go back and read the passion narratives. They are remarkably void of any detail related to the crucifixion itself. Matthew and John have the moment of crucifixion of Christ as a temporal clause: “When they crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots” (Matt 27:35; see also John 19:23). Mark and Luke are equally matter of fact: “And they crucified him” (Mark 15:24) and “they crucified him” (Luke 23:33). The only detail recorded by the evangelists is that our Lord was parched upon the cross. Conspicuously absent are the details we have become to associate with crucifixion: the crucified’s tendons being pierced by nails, slow asphyxiation from suspension, and agonizing exposure to the elements. To be sure, crucifixion was a horrific ordeal, and there is no doubt our Lord suffered those things. But they do not appear to be what the Holy Spirit inspired for our edification.

What we do know about the cross is that the ordeal was not primarily about execution but dehumanization. This is critical, I think, to understand why the Corinthians were eager to drop Paul and his crucicentric preaching for the super-apostles who spoke with elegance respectability. Many preachers will attempt to get at the ordeal by comparing the cross to modern forms of execution: imagine wearing a necklace with an electric chair pendant. The point stands, but the electric chair can still be a respectable death of sorts. Death penalty opinions aside, the electric chair itself is not designed to dehumanize a person. It is not done in a public square. A person is afforded last words. A person’s face is covered.

Crucifixion was less an electric chair and more like a lynching. In fact, lynching is probably the closest act comparable to crucifixion. Lynching was designed to inflict supreme shame on an individual and dissuade black Americans from exercising their constitutional rights. 4Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014). The Romans employed crucifixion—much like the Persians and Carthaginians who bequeathed the practice to them—to wage war and break rebellious spirits among a conquered people. 5See Hengel, 46. The point was not to simply end the criminal’s life but to humiliate anyone associated with a given insurrection or rabble-rousing.

Thus, as Hengel wrote, “No wonder that the young community in Corinth sought to escape from the crucified Christ.” 6Hengel, 18. Emphasis original. He continued:

When in the face of this Paul points out to the community which he founded that his preaching of the crucified messiah is a religious ‘stumbling block’ for the Jews and ‘madness’ for his Greek hearers, we are hearing in his confession not least the twenty-year experience of the greatest Christian missionary, who had often reaped no more than mockery and bitter rejection with his message of the Lord Jesus, who had died a criminal’s death on the tree of shame. 7Hengel, 19.

This shame is what the author of Hebrews was getting after when he wrote that Christ “endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb 12:2). The Corinthians would find nothing respectable in the preaching of their crucified Lord. I hope by now the paradoxical nature of that phrase “crucified Lord” is coming into focus. The “stumbling” of the Jews and confusions at “folly” among the Greeks is not because Paul’s preaching was unclear. In fact, quite the opposite was true. No one in their right mind would pledge allegiance to a crucified κύριος.

This fact is precisely why Paul sought to establish their faith through the preaching of such a radically uncontextualized, stumbling-block laden, foolish message. He explained: “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God” (1 Cor 2:2–5). Paul was utterly unconcerned with the respectability of his message. In fact, he thought that it would be best for the Corinthians if he amplified the very stumbling block and folly with which they struggled. It that sort of preaching, the power of God is manifest: People come to faith in God and are not attracted to the Christian-ish teaching of any particular flavor of the week.

Think of how counter-intuitive this sort of preaching is in our current context. Causing people to stumble would seem to be the worst church-growth strategy on the market today, and yet that might be the problem with the average Christian today.

To make it still more plain: no one is going to object to a cost of discipleship which calls for a laying down of self on account of another. Many nominal Christians are happy to save up for or give to a short-term mission trip to build a room onto an orphanage. That is good, but the Gentiles do that, too. ASPCA is funded by plenty of people forgoing one day’s soy chai latte.

Christ calls his disciples to do something that is hard for us Americans. History has demonstrated that Americans will die for any honorable cause. However, we will hardly pick up and willingly endure shame and humiliation.

A recovery of the shame and humiliation of the cross in our preaching will do more than grow churches. It will disciple Christians for the life our Lord promised us: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15: 18–20).

References   [ + ]

1. It is prudent at this point to note that Fleming Rutledge’s work Crucifixion has been formative on my thinking regarding the scandal of the cross, even though I do not interact or quote from this work directly.
2. Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), 3.
3. Hengel, 5.
4. Ida B. Wells was a journalist who chronicled lynching in America. Her 1900 speech “Lynch Law in America” is a helpful description of how white supremacists employed lynching throughout America but especially in the South. See Ida B. Wells, The Light of Truth: Writings of an Anti-Lynching Crusader, ed. Mia Bay (New York: Penguin, 2014).
5. See Hengel, 46.
6. Hengel, 18. Emphasis original.
7. Hengel, 19.

Racial Reconciliation and the Glory of Humanity

One of the great privileges I have as a pastor is to be a part of ordination councils. An ordination council is a group of other ordained ministers who are responsible for interviewing a candidate for gospel ministry with respect to his character and competencies consistent with biblical texts like 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:1-9.

At the church where I serve we recently conducted an ordination council. With great joy over the candidate for ordination, we engaged in an approximately 90 minute oral examination. Here’s one of the questions I prepared:

What, according to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, determines that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love?” 1Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.

Our current cultural moment makes this a particularly important question for any potential pastor. The issue of racial reconciliation is threatening to divide much of evangelicalism as well-meaning Christians are finding themselves at odds with each other when the gospel gives us ample reason to be united. To overcome the threat of division, pastors must have biblical and theological reasons for the value of human beings that transcend mere worldly arguments. Thankfully, the church has both in God’s Word. In fact, the Bible presents a picture of mankind that is nothing less than glorious—and a picture that puts certain requirements on God’s people. And pastors need to lead their churches into these great realities.

While there is certainly more to say on this issue, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BF&M) is a helpful guide to pastors when it states,

The sacredness of human personality is evident in that God created man in His own image, and in that Christ died for man; therefore, every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love. 2Article III.

The BF&M grounds the dignity and worth of every human being in two great theological truths: 1) the creation of people in the image of God; 2) the fact that Christ died for people.

THE IMAGE OF GOD

We are introduced to the idea of the image of God in Genesis 1:26-27,

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

What does it mean to be created “in the image of God”? It means that we are like God and represent God. Of all that God created, only human beings were endowed with God’s image. This sets human beings apart as the pinnacle of God’s creative work. This is why the psalmist sings,

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. 3Psalm 8:3-5.

Human beings have the astounding privilege of serving as God’s kingly representatives in the world. Endowed with the image of God, we are called to represent him as we act like him.

Of course, the fall of mankind into sin has corrupted his image in us almost beyond the point of recognition. But the faint hint of the image is still seen in sinners. Every human being retains the image of God. As theologians over the course of church history have observed in one way or another, we are “glorious ruins.” Glorious, because we are made in the image of God; ruins, because of our fall into sin through our association with Adam (cf., Genesis 3 and Romans 5). That the image of God in human beings is not totally lost is why James grounds his exhortation to speak well of other people in the still resident image of God,

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. 4James 3:5-10.

Christians cannot praise God on Sunday and curse people on Monday (or as early as Sunday afternoon). And pastors know this because of this great theological truth the BF&M affirms: human beings are created in the image of God.

CHRIST DIED FOR PEOPLE

A second reason the confession gives for the sacredness of human beings is the fact that Christ died for people. Consider what John saw in Revelation 5:8–10,

And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

We see that Jesus died for people from every conceivable ethnic background. Jesus’ blood was shed for Jew and Gentile alike. The church in glory will be as diverse as the world. And the confession affirms that this reality is further confirmation that “every person of every race possesses full dignity and is worthy of respect and Christian love.”

The BF&M is not a perfect document. But it is beautifully right, if not exhaustive, on this point. And we need pastors who not only see humanity like this but seek to embed this kind of theological thinking in the hearts of their church members. When this happens, our churches will have great value to add to the cultural conversation taking place today regarding racial reconciliation and what true neighbor love should look like.

References   [ + ]

1. Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article III.
2. Article III.
3. Psalm 8:3-5.
4. James 3:5-10.

What Hath Zuckerberg to Do with Preaching?

In his 2009 Why Johnny Can’t Preach, T. David Gordon wrote: “Preaching today is ordinarily poor.” 1 T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17. Ouch. He explained that your average preacher can neither read nor write. The former causes him to miss the significance of any given text. So, sermons have become a collection of pithy life-truths which “tend to be moralistic, sentimentalistic, or slavishly drafted into the so-called culture wars.” 2Gordon, 59. The latter means “sermons rarely have unity, order, or movement.” 3Gordon, 66. This was due to the vapid content of television and electronic mail. These mediums were reflections of things—not like their corporeal counterparts plays, books, or letters. And they conditioned us all to be satisfied with their reflection. Gordon bemoaned its effect on preaching.

I could say more about this book in summary and commentary, but that’s not the subject of my essay. Instead, I would highly recommend you read Tray Mangan’s excellent review of Why Johnny Can’t Preach.

But 2009 was a decade ago. Facebook was five years old but finally profitable. Twitter was only three years old with a fraction of the users it has today. Both of their IPOs were years away. Instagram would not launch for another year, and the concept for Snapchat had not even yet been conceived. Things, I believe, have gotten worse.

Before anyone accuses me of being a Luddite, I will admit that I have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I lead the social media presence of three different organizations. As recent as last Friday, I was agitating for migrating sermon streaming from Facebook to YouTube along with an upgrade in our website’s hosting capabilities. I live in this world, but I’m wondering if we should be of this world.

Now, I was reading The Empire and the Five Kings when a few lines unrelated to the author’s thesis reminded me of Gordon. Bernard-Henri Lévy, who no doubt writes with some grandiosity, observed that social media functions in a way that strips the substance from the world. Social networks “in fact de-socialize, offering the illusion of supposed friends who friend us with a click and unfriend us with another, their accumulation ultimately signifying that we no longer have any friends at all.” 4Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73. Instagram and Snapchat function similarly. Lévy observed that in the past travelers would bring back curiosities or things from their trips. Today travelers “collect ourselves, getting high on narcissism repeated ad infinitum.” 5Lévy, 74. We are content to allow the Internet to store our memories, holding in our hand or pocket “the task of restoring to consciousness the information, encounters, and scraps of memory that they can indeed summon a million times faster than we can. And so we forget.” 6Lévy, 74.

I was in Paris last July. With friends, my wife and I toured Notre-Dame. Would you believe what I thought as I watched the spire and roof burn and collapse just a few weeks ago? I wish I remember what the roof looked like. But I have a dozen pictures of it. So what? Everyone else does. I went to Notre-Dame and yet unloaded the substance of my memory on to a device, which in the end was unable to conjure up the actual memories of being there. I forgot.

Perhaps a third reason needs to be added to Why Johnny Can’t Preach. Johnny can’t preach because neither he nor his congregation can remember. We live in a world where we (and the people whom we serve) have outsourced our collective memories to Zuckerberg’s servers. This is not a moral evaluation, but a statement of fact.

If television had, as Gordon wrote, flattened all events into equal significance, then endless stories and shared posts on social media have rendered human events inane.

One of a preacher’s main tasks is to call all people to remember what God has done in real human history. The Apostles went to great lengths to press for the substance of their memories of Jesus: “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it” (1 John 1:1-2).

Our congregations are going to increasingly struggle to see the significance and substance of our message. But the preacher can never collapse into the world of inanity. We are holding out precious and eternal truths for the life of the world.

That probably starts with us personally. I learned from my mistake in Paris. Our little family went out on Saturday, and I left my phone at home. Now, rather than having a dozen pictures my wife and I share memories of our toddler. Every sweet memory is in our head, not outsourced to a server. Lord willing, I won’t forget.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

References   [ + ]

1. T. David Gordon, Why Johnny Can’t Preach: The Media Have Shaped the Messengers. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2009, 17.
2. Gordon, 59.
3. Gordon, 66.
4. Bernard-Henri Lévy, The Empire and The Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World. New York: Henry Holt, 2019, 73.
5, 6. Lévy, 74.