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April 16, 2008

We enjoyed a break of almost an hour and then gathered together again to sing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand” and to hear Mark Dever’s session. He discussed the temptation to improve upon the gospel. His talk was built upon five “calls” that are dangerous to the gospel—five ways churches may be tempted to adapt or shrink or expand the gospel message in order to make it more palatable.

The First Call - Make the gospel public. The question here is: what is the gospel about? This call is all about our mission. These people believe the gospel is to save not individuals but the structure of our society (and here Dever suggested N.T. Wright as an example of a person who does this). They ask How much of the kingdom will we see before Christ returns? But we will never by our actions bring in the culmination of the kingdom of God because this waits for the return of Christ. To get the church to focus on repairing passing structures in a world under the curse of God, is to cause churches discouragement and to distract us from the work of bringing God glory by preaching the gospel and seeing people converted and reconciled to God. As Christians we need to preach the gospel and preach it as we’ve received it.

The Second Call - Make the gospel larger. The question here is: did Jesus come only to save our souls? What is at stake here is the core of the gospel. People here think through a Christian worldview, which is great. But implications of the gospel are sometimes referred to as part of the gospel. This is not so great! These are people who would affirm what we mean by the gospel but they would want to say more. Dever mentioned Chuck Colson as a person who is an example of this. We must always be clear to distinguish between the core of the gospel and its results.

The Third Call - Make the gospel relevant. The question here is: how will people be saved? This affects our outreach and what it will be like. It’s an issue of contextualization. Many people begin with the idea that the gospel appears irrelevant to people. But the gospel already is relevant to every person on earth. We do not need to make it any more relevant than it is! Our call is to give the message faithfully trusting that it is relevant.

The Fourth Call - Make the gospel personal. This is an individualism that ignores the role of the local church. This is true of people from Harold Camping to George Barna. Our participation in a local congregation normally validates or falsifies our claim to trust in the gospel of Jesus Christ. What message allows you to think you’ve accepted it if you don’t in a committed and Christ-like way love your brother? Many people today ignore the fundamental congregational centeredness that is so critical to the biblical understanding of church. A wrongly personalized gospel leads to a wrongly personalized church. Being vague about the church can hurt our understanding of the gospel. There is a personal component to the gospel, of course, but it is not a call to radical individualism.

The Fifth Call - Make the gospel kinder. Here the question is Why does God save us? It has long been assumed that the purpose of the gospel is to save the greatest number of people from hell. The follow-on to this is that we should do whatever we can do to save whoever we can, but where we go wrong is not just in ensuring people hear the gospel but trying to make sure that they make a visible response to it. But our responsibility is for faithfulness in preaching the message, not in ensuring that others accept it.

The long and the short is simple. We need to preach the gospel as it has been given to us. We do not change it, modify it, grow it, shrink it or do anything to make it better. Our task is simply to take it the way it has been given to us and to believe in its power to affect lives.

April 16, 2008

Day two of Together for the Gospel began early. I assume my experience is typical in that I went too bed too late last night and arose blurry-eyed so I could get some breakfast and make my way to the convention center for 8 AM. Today we will be hearing from John MacArthur, Mark Dever, R.C. Sproul and Al Mohler.

We arrived this morning to find on each of our seats copies of The Courage to the Protestant by David F. Wells, The Gospel & Personal Evangelism by Mark Dever, Why We’re Not Emergent by Ted Kluck and Devin DeYoung and The Gospel According to Jesus (the Revised & Expanded Anniversary Edition) by John MacArthur. This brings the total book haul thus far up to 6 volumes. The morning began with two hymns: “Come Thou Fount” and “How Deep the Father’s Love” and after an introduction by Al Mohler, John MacArthur took to the pulpit to preach a sermon on total depravity. But before he did so, Mohler presented to him a medallion struck by Moody to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first publication of the John MacArthur New Testament Commentary. This seemed to take MacArthur quite by surprise!

MacArthur began by suggesting that this doctrine, the doctrine of total depravity or total inability, may be the most attacked doctrine in the Christian faith. It is the most despised doctrine and consequently it is the most distinctly Christian doctrine. Contrary to all non-Christian views of man, all religions in the world offer some kind of a works righteousness system. People believe they can be good and good enough to contribute to their salvation—to merit favor with deity and a happy afterlife. It is a contrary doctrine because humans are deceived by the gravity of their own condition. Sinners are unwilling to see themselves as they really are. People do not see the evil in their good and the evil in their religion.

So many evangelical spokesmen hate the truth of total depravity as they seem to hate the God of Scripture. They continue to deceive the sinner about his sinfulness and hide the true God behind a domesticated God of their own making. False belief systems all affirm human goodness. But total depravity is the most God-honoring doctrine because it ascribes all of the goodness, all of the work to God. This is not a new doctrine or one that has been invented in recent times or even during the Reformation. It dates back to the church’s earliest days. And here MacArthur provided a brief historic overview of the doctrine.

Churches used to group together over common theology, but today it is over common methodology. So much of current evangelicalism is to find what people desire and to insist that God will give it to them if they have Him as Savior.

MacArthur took us on a survey of several biblical texts which together prove this doctrine. They show that we have inherited a corrupt nature from Adam—we have inherited death. We are sinners by nature, by birth. We are wholly entirely corrupt in every aspect of our being and we rely entirely on God to draw us to Himself. The sinner is unwilling to acknowledge God on His own and unable to accept the gospel on His own.

He then turned to a bit of a definition of “depraved.” It simply means that you can only sin, you can do nothing that pleases God savingly, and that it affects you totally—mind, heart, will, actual, thought, everything. The sinner is utterly unable to raise himself out of his state of death or to do anything to see out of his blindness. The contemporary idea is that there is some residual good left in the sinner. Many believe that sinners have a right to make a free move towards God and this sinner must make the first move to which God responds. But the Bible teaches that the sinner can’t and won’t make this move. He is both unwilling and unable. He has no capacity to make the first move and has no interest in making this move. He may make a false move toward God based upon his own fallen desires.

In regeneration we neither resist nor cooperate. We are acted upon by the Spirit who illuminates our minds so that we can hear and heed the gospel. The gospel call assumes that the sinner can do nothing—it pleads the mercy of God but acknowledges that God must first do His work.

What are the implications of this doctrine?

There are some historical implications to rejecting this view.

Denial of total depravity has been a staple of our religious culture for a while now. It is at the heart of old liberalism which rejected theology in favor of “living like Jesus in the world.” In so doing they destroyed the church. The emerging church is just the same thing and once again denies this doctrine. Inherent in church growth is the idea that the sinner will respond better if the methods change. We can never offer Jesus as if He is the one who will fulfill the sinner’s natural fallen desires. The fallen sinner hates God and loves Himself fatally. He wants a God who gives him what he wants but a biblical approach assaults the sinner’s self-confidence and attacks his confidence in his own religion and spirituality. You have to call the sinner to hate himself and to love God. Never appeal to that which enslaves the sinner to try to get the sinner to respond to God. You are appealing to the very thing that the sinner needs to be freed from. You need to call the sinner to flee from all that enslaves him and have him run to the cross to be saved from all of this. Soft preaching makes hard people. Preach the hard truth and it will break the hard hearts, leaving a soft people.

Another implication of this is that a pastor must be meek; he must be humble. No one should be as meek as those who preach the gospel. This is the only profession where a person can take absolutely no credit for what he does. He can only take credit for the failures.

The bottom line is this: be faithful to understand that the condition of the isnner is not one you can remedy with any kind of human manipulation. All hearts are the same and all hearts need the same message. The message cannot change and the message is what God uses to change sinners.

April 16, 2008

Here is a little video featuring some of the people attending Together for the Gospel and asking what they are looking forward to at this conference.

April 15, 2008

This is a brief and final reminder to Canadians (or people with an interest in ministry in Canada) who happen to be attending Together for the Gospel. Please remember that we will be meeting together tomorrow evening as soon as the day’s final session wraps up. We’ll meet in room 112 right there in the convention center. We’ll meet for just a few minutes and will focus on networking and building relationships. See you there!

April 15, 2008

After dinner we gathered for the second session and the second panel. Prior to the session we sang “O For a Thousand Tongues” and a new adaptation of “Oh the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus” drawn from “Come Weary Saints,” the most recent project from Sovereign Grace Music. Bob Kauflin has added a chorus which says, “Oh the deep, deep love / All I need and trust / Is the deep, deep love of Jesus.” The session was followed with “All the Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.”

This session was led by Thabiti Anyabwile, the only speaker added to this year’s roster. He began by saying that “Thabiti” is a Swahili name that, loosely translated, means “Sure, invite the black guy to talk about race.” That invoked a few laughs, needless to say. From there he began with something that he was sure would prove quite offensive. Our entire outlook on life, he said, is so misplaced, so wrong-headed, so inadequate that we either need to change it now or commit ourselves to the closest mental health institution. Most of us operate with some working idea of race and racism that is foundational to our worldview. But believing in race is a bit like believing in unicorns, because race does not exist. His task this evening was to convince us that we’ve all been looking at the world with an unbiblical set of assumptions. We’ve ordered our lives on these assumptions and we’re in urgent need of acquiring a biblical set of assumptions that will change how we do pastoral ministry.

His talk was structured, like baseball, around “three bases and home plate.” First base is our unity in Adam. Like in baseball this is the most difficult base to reach. Second base is our unity in Christ, third base is our unity in the church and home plate is our unity in glory.

The primary purpose of the talk was to say this: what we call race does not in reality exist.

He began by showing how Genesis does not support race. Solidarity in Adam is usually meant to refer to our sin. But there is more to it. We are all genealogical descendants of Adam. We are also all equally made in the image and likeness of God. The Christian adoption of race as a category was at least in part a response to a crisis in biblical authority. This category was adopted as a response to Europeans encountering Native Americans and eventually attempting to justify slavery. Genesis 10, the ordering of the nations, became a way of explaining race. The table of nations came to be understood as a table of discontinuity—of differences and otherness. But the emphasis of Genesis 10 is sameness—our oneness in Adam. “From one man came every nation of men.”

Genesis 10 actually speaks to the rise of ethnicities, not the rise of races. Race, commonly speaking, posits that there is an essential biological difference between people groups. The difference is rooted in biology. But ethnicity is a fluid construct that includes language, nationality, citizenship, cultural patterns and perhaps religion. Race and ethnicity are different in that ethnicity is not rooted in biology. We can artificially impose categorization on people based on their color. The most fundamental recognition in Scripture is not our difference, labeled as race, but rather our similarity in Adam. Race in the way we use it, as a proxy for explaining differences in appearance, as biology, does not exist. We have accepted the idea of race and are now trying to make it work. But we need to dislodge from this false idea.

Thabiti outlined six problems that may not be immediately apparent that prove that we need to abandon race as a category:

  1. The abuse of people and Scripture that have come from the whole idea of race.
  2. It is a short walk from admitting the category of race to actual racism. The trajectory of the category is not toward unity but disunity. Distinction becomes a matter of degree, not kind, so that the difference between Thabiti Anyabwile and Louis Farrakhan is not a difference of kind but of degree.
  3. It hinders meaningful engagement with others. If we believe in race we’ll never be able to get to the more fluid and useful foundation of ethnicity. The idea of race is inherently ad hominem.
  4. It undermines the authority and sufficiency of Scripture. If we agree that the Bible teaches there is only one race—the race of Adam—but continue to hold on to the idea that race is biology, we undermine Scripture’s authority and sufficiency to define and shape us.
  5. We resist the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is at work to work within us and to teach us the truths of Scripture. If we cast off His work when it comes to race, we resist His work in our hearts.
  6. It undermines the gospel itself. If we deny our common ancestry in Adam we may be pulling apart the fabric of the gospel itself. And in so doing we may negatively affect missions.

As Christians we need to emphasize common ancestry in Adam and deny anything that sounds like race as biology. This has been an automatic assessment for most of us, but one we need to remove. We need to jettison the idea of biological otherness, the idea of race.

With time running out, Thabiti turned to the second base, third base and home plate of his talk.

Second base represents our union with Christ. It is this union that gives us the basis for a great commonality with other Christians. How does your union with Christ shape you and shape how you see others? Christ’s blood creates a deeper lineage than our genes. Our doctrine of man must be informed by our union in Christ.

Third base represents unity in the church. Where is this newness of unity and of thinking to be displayed and observed? The unity in Christ is to be displayed penultimately in the church. This is the display before the ultimate display. Jesus is not impressed by our unwillingness to love others unlike ourselves. In the church we are to display the unity in the new humanity created in Jesus Christ. Christ calls us to a breadth of love that is to be displayed in the church.

Home plate represents our unity in glory. We are headed to perfect unity in Christ in glory. This is the promise and the dream. Why not live like this now?

In the panel discussion, Thabiti recommended a couple of books that deal with issues similar to this:

Colin Kidd - The Forging of Races David Rhoades - From Every Tribe and Nation

April 15, 2008

Together for the Gospel is a conference that offers many panel sessions. In fact, this year there will be five of them. The first one is the only one that featured only the four leaders of Together for the Gospel. And it began with C.J. explaining why he will be leading the panel discussions this year. The reason is classic C.J.. He is the one, he says, who doesn’t really know anything and who will ask the questions out of a sincere desire to learn from these other men. Unlike Mark Dever, he does not actually know the answers. Unlike Mark, he will not ask questions and then answer himself if the answers aren’t quite right.

C.J. began by asking for a health update from Al Mohler (who has suffered some illness). He asked for an update from Ligon Duncan on his hometown of Jackson, Mississippi. A week ago they had five tornadoes which did quite a bit of damage to the area. Duncan also provided an update on his father-in-law who has gone to hospital with respiratory failure and who is in very serious condition in hospital. And then C.J. asked Mark Dever to explain how Together for the Gospel came together (and especially the relationships between the four men who lead it).

With the preliminary matters out of the way, they spent some time discussing Duncan’s session and added some further thoughts on systematic theology and its importance to the faith and to pastors. They spoke about this at length and we saw quickly why C.J. really is an ideal moderator for these discussions as he is adept at honing in on areas that are hugely practical and practical for the “average” pastor. Panel discussions are usually only as good as the moderator and I think in this case the pastors in attendance will learn a lot from them.

April 15, 2008

Together for the Gospel ‘08 kicked off at the rather unusual hour of 2:30 PM. Attendance seems to be somewhere in the area of 5500. While registration is open to both men and women, it seems that there is hardly equity. I’d estimate that there are 20 or 30 men here for every woman.

As he did at the last conference, Mark Dever opened by giving some prizes to some of the notable guests—the man who came the furthest (turns out he is from India, though there were also people here from Thailand, Australia, Serbia, and other far-off places), the man who had been in ministry the longest (55+ years), and the man who had ministered the longest at the same church (and it so happens that it was the same man who had been in ministry the longest).

Like the last T4G, Bob Kauflin is serving as worship leader. There is no band—it is just Bob and a piano. He will be leading us in a variety of hymns and before the first session we sang a couple of classics: “A Mighty Fortress” and “It Is Well with My Soul.” After it we sang, “How Firm a Foundation.”

Each of the people attending here will receive a lot of free books (fifteen, I hear). I’ll be sure to let you know the titles we receive. Before the first session, each chair had on it a copy of If You Could Ask God One Question by Paul Williams and Barry Cooper and The Faithful Preacher by Thabiti Anyabwile. Al Mohler took a few moments to introduce these titles.

Ligon Duncan had the privilege of leading the conference’s first session. The title was “Sound Doctrine: Essential to Faithful Pastoral Ministry.” In an anti-doctrinal age or an age which thinks it is anti-doctrinal we need to look to the Scriptures to learn how doctrine informs and is essential for faithful pastoral ministry if we will effectively respond to the spirit of the age. And this was what Duncan sought to do.

He showed first that the very concepts of doctrine, theology and systematic theology are under duress in our times. From there he showed from Scripture that systematic theology is necessary, important and unavoidable. And then he showed what doctrine is important for. The first of these points received the bulk of the attention and, with time running short, the final point received the least.

Initially he looked to six biblical passages in which we see Paul and Jesus assert the importance of theology. He looked to John 17:13-17, I Timothy 1:3-5 and 8-11, I Timothy 6:2-4 and Titus 1. He showed that doctrine matters; that theology is for life. “Theology is the science of living blessedly ever after.” Yet our age is profoundly anti-doctrinal. Some say we need to embrace this postmodern aversion to truth and doctrine by rejecting doctrine in favor of narrative and story. But this is the exact opposite of what we need to do. We need to meet this postmodern aversion to doctrine by celebrating truth and doctrine and by unashamedly declaring doctrine. We need to outlive, outrejoice and outdie the critics of theology and doctrine.

The idea of doctrine and theology, and especially systematic theology, are head in great suspicion in the church today. “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine,” say the critics. They may think this is something that is greatly original, but in reality this was a phrase coined by nineteenth century liberals. If we are to remain faithful to the message of Scripture we need to remain Christians who love the systematic theology of Scripture.

For his second point he had time only to rifle through several examples of systematic theology in the Bible. He looked at Jesus on the road to Emmaeus, at Apollos in Acts 18:27-28, and at Paul in Acts 17. And then, in only a few moments he answered “What is doctrine important for?” And here he showed that doctrine is for God’s glory, for our assurance, for marriage and for joy.

April 14, 2008

I am on my way to Together for the Gospel. Two vans loaded down with guys from my church (and from a couple of other local churches) are currently heading down the 401 (and then I-75), hoping to arrive on time for dinner in Louisville. As I did at the last conference, I’ll be bringing blog updates your way throughout. I don’t think there is actually a Internet connection in the conference center so I may have to get a bit inventive, but I will try to update as often as possible. This year I am hoping to bring you some audio and/or video updates as well, so keep an eye out for those.

Before the conference actually begins, I am slated to be a member of the panel at the second Band of Bloggers event. I’ll serve there along with Thabiti Anyabwile, Justin Taylor, Phil Johnson and Abraham Piper. We’ll be focusing on “the gospel trust” and then enjoying a time of fellowship together.

And then, of course, the real conference will begin. Over two half days and one full day we’ll hear from Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, Thabiti Anyabwile, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul and John Piper. It is going to be a packed schedule but I’m anticipating a great time of sitting under the teaching of the Word. So stay tuned here throughout the conference and I’ll try to bring updates as often as I can (and I’ll be sure to tell you all about the books and other free stuff we hope to collect there!).

If you are looking for more, here are 19 reasons Thabiti is looking forward to T4G. And, of course, you can check in with the official site to keep an eye on the schedule.

I have one prayer request. Make that two. First pray for traveling mercies for all of the 5000+ people who will be traveling to Louisville for this conference. And more personally, please pray for my family. There is still some sickness in my home. It’s not enough that I needed to stay home, but still enough that Aileen would sure appreciate having the kids just get over the bugs that are plaguing them. Your prayers would be appreciated!