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reFocus Conference (III)
May 20, 2009
It’s a question I’m asked fairly often. “Have you ever blogged a conference and heard a speaker you really disagreed with?” I’ve always been able to say “no.” Until today. Now I want to be careful here. Flip Flippen, a life coach and psychotherapist, did not ever claim to be preaching. He did not bring his Bible to the front of the room and did not seek to preach from Scripture. Yet speak he did, and this in front of a room full of pastors seeking encouragement in their calling. He spoke of something called “constraint theory.” A constraint, as he defines it, is anything that hinders a person’s performance. Flippen often works with athletes or businessmen, helping them seek and find the constraints that are hindering them in their vocations. His underlying theory seems to be this: Those with the least personal constraints win. Hence people who want to be winners in whatever job, those who want to do the best work, will have to seek out and remove personal constraints.
In some ways this is obvious and harmless since we all have character flaws and these often hold us back. But what of the Holy Spirit’s role in seeking and mortifying indwelling sin? When Flippen claimed that King David committed adultery with Bathsheba because he had a personal constraint by which he was unable to see his self-control problems, well, that’s awfully close to replacing sin with personal constraints. I might not go so far as to say that what Flippen shared today was unbiblical because I don’t think his ideas were sufficiently developed. But I’d say at the very least it was sub-biblical. It was a talk more suited for a corporate board room, I think, than a pastors’ conference; and even then, I would want to hear from him how personal constraint and sin are the same and/or different. And if personal constraints point to sin, what is our role and what is God’s role in putting such sin to death? This talk seemed strangely out of place compared to Voddie Baucham who preceded him and John Piper, who followed.
Speaking of John Piper, he delivered a great message on the new birth. I just happened to have heard roughly this same message the week before at The Basics Conference in Ohio. I’ll share my notes for it again, but first with this observation. I think preaching this message here at Moody was a little bit different than preaching it at Parkside Church in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. I would not say the group listening last night was in any way hostile, but, well, preaching a distinctly Calvinistic doctrine of the new birth in Alistair Begg’s church is quite a bit easier than preaching it at Moody. Having said that, the audience seemed very engaged and Piper preached over many shouts of “Amen!” He delivered it with his trademark passion and I enjoyed it as much the second time as I had the first.
He answered four questions related to the doctrine of the new birth:
What happens? Why is it so necessary? How does it happen? How do we participate in the happening as preachers?
What Happens in the New Birth?
Life happens! God does not give new religion, but new life. Jesus knows that there are religious dead people and that Nicodemus is one of them; he knows that Nicodemus needs to be born, to be given life. When you are born of the flesh, all you are is flesh; you are humanity minus God. That which is born of the Spirit is spirit—which means you do not have a living spirit now (because you are dead). The Holy Spirit needs to come upon you and breathe this new life into you. We are now spiritually alive.
Why Is the New Birth So Necessary?
Piper offered ten biblical descriptions of man apart from the new birth, ten reasons we need to be born again. As bad as the news is, it’s glorious to get it right because there is a glorious remedy. When we properly understand our own badness, we see Christ more gloriously.
Apart from the new birth we are dead
Apart from the new birth we are by nature children of wrath
Apart from the new birth we love darkness and hate light
Apart from the new birth we have hearts that are hard like stone
Apart from the new birth we are unable to submit to God
Apart from the new birth we are unable to except the gospel
Apart from the new birth we are unable to come to Christ or embrace him as Lord
Apart from the new birth we are slaves to sin
Apart from the new birth we are slaves of Satan
Apart from the new birth no good thing dwells in me
How Does it Happen?
He offered four steps (though steps was really not quite the right word):
First, the Holy Spirit freely gives life. There is no how-to here at all; he must sovereignly do this.
Second, this happens through the living and abiding Word of God. We see here the human agency of the divine sovereign awakening of dead souls.
Third, the gospel brings about faith. Believing is the result, not the cause of the new birth.
Fourth, Christ is received and believed upon.
These four steps cannot be carved apart—they must happen simultaneously.
How Do Pastors Participate?
Jesus said to Paul in Acts 26 “I send you to open their eyes.” How can this be (after all that has just been said)? Is this an act of God or an act of the pastor? Piper answered this with an analogy. You can’t make God do anything, but neither can you make electricity but this doesn’t stop you from flipping a light switch. Don’t let the fact that you can’t cause the new birth keep you from preaching the gospel! The pastors’ task is an impossible one and thus one that must be empowered by God.
A couple of brief notes. First, I think Piper coined a word tonight: Crushedness. I don’t think I could successfully use it in a sentence. Second, he spoke of growing older and his increasing knowledge of his own sin. “The longer I live the less optimistic I am that I will end without sin and the more grateful I become for the blood of Christ imputed to me. As I grow older I do not feel myself becoming gloriously holy but I find myself feeling great love for the gospel.” I thought that was rather thought-provoking.
And that wrapped up the day here at reFocus. Today we hear from a selection of speakers, most of which are unknown to me. I am also going to be leading a breakout session this morning. I’ll check in again sometime later in the day!