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October 01, 2006

D.A. Carson will lead tonight’s session, the second to last at this conference. He will speak about “The Supremacy of Christ and Love in a Postmodern World.”

Carson began by reading all of the seventeenth chapter of John (a passage commonly known as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer). My generation, he said, was taught to sing “what the world needs now is love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” This song is remarkably vague when it deals with love. Love for whom? Motivated by what? It fails to acknowledge holiness, joy in the Lord, obedient hearts, recognition of our creatureliness. The song has just enough truth that we can feel good about ourselves as we give advice to the Almighty but not enough to reflect on what God teaches about love. By contrast, in John 17 Jesus utters five specific petitions for His followers, including one that deals with love and two or three others related to love. These five specific petitions are interwoven and awesomely grounded in God and the gospel. They are grounded in God’s intratrinitarian love—the love of the members of the godhead for each other. There are give principles but they are so interwoven that pulling one will destroy the whole. They are bound up with the truth that God is love.

We will trace out these five petitions and in each case will note the petition itself and the reason or ground behind this petition and then the purpose for this petition. After we’ve surveyed these five we’ll thinking theologically and pastorally about them.

1. Jesus prays that God will keep His followers safe (verses 11, 12 and 15) while they live out their lives in this world, and in particular protect them from the devil. The reason for this petition is that Jesus is going away. He had protected them Himself to this point but He now is about to go to the cross. Who will protect them then? In the farewell discourse that task is assigned to the Holy Spirit who will be given to them. Despite knowing what is coming, His thoughts are not for Himself but for His followers. He wants them to be kept safe from the world to which they no longer belong. He wants them to be one as the godhead are one. The danger is that they will hate each other, that they will divide and devour each other. That is part of the onslaught of the evil one.

2. Jesus prays that His disciples may be one (verses 21-23). The purpose of the first petition becomes a petition of its own (proving that these petitions get intermingled), that the people of God may be one even as God is one. The purpose is that so the world may believe that Jesus was sent by God. This is clearly, at one level, missiological. If we reflect something of the glory of God by our oneness, then we are gradually teaching the world a bit of what God is like. But the way it is worded is fascinating. The way it is worded shows that Jesus is interested in the vindication of God; of Christ. It is not “that the world may believe and be saved,” but that the world may believe the truth about Jesus—so that His claims are vindicated.

3. That God would sanctify Jesus’ followers (verse 17). The reason or standard by which they are sanctified is by the truth. This is a common theme in Scripture. Jesus offers a pattern, using Himself as the example of one who sanctified Himself. What does Christ mean by this? Surely it does not mean that He has grown in sanctification! No, for He knew no sin. He was never sanctified in a progressive sense, but rather He so set Himself to do God’s will that by sanctifying Himself He goes to the cross and affects our sanctification. Now Jesus prays “sanctify them by the truth of the gospel.”

4. That Jesus’ disciples would experience the full measure of His joy (verse 13). It is remarkable that Jesus said this as He was going to the cross. He wanted this because He was going to the Father and His disciples would no longer see Him. He wanted them to know that His joy and delight and pleasure was doing the Father’s will. He wants them to find their pleasure in the same, in their enthusiastic conformity to the Father’s will. He is saying these things now so they will remember and know why He went to the cross.

5. Jesus prays that His followers will be with Him forever (verse 24). In the Old Testament God promises to dwell with His people. The ultimate goal now is for God to dwell with His people in an even more complete way. Jesus is going away to prepare a place and now we can go and dwell with Jesus. What is the reason for this? Because “You loved Me before the foundation of the world.” The purpose is not simply to go to heaven to be with friends, but to be with Jesus and to see His glory. It is profoundly Jesus-centered. When they are there they discover all the more that the reason Jesus’ glory is being displayed is because the Father has loved Him before the creation of the world and determined that His glory would be displayed. We go to heaven not to be saved, but to see Jesus’ glory! Today even heaven itself has become domesticated by assumptions that we are at the center of everything. But it is Jesus who is at the center of everything because God loved Him before the foundation of the world.

Now we must focus on what is said about love. It will be helpful to trace out how the themes of John’s gospel work into this prayer.

The supremacy of Jesus Christ in the mediation of God’s love. Begin with verses 25 and 26. All the purpose of this redemptive plan is bound up with the glorious prospect of knowing this love which Christ has already known. These verses at the end of the chapter harks back to the beginning of the chapter, repeating the same themes in different words. This cannot be unpacked without seeing the theme of glory in John’s gospel. John 1:14-18 have six references back to Exodus 32-34. One of these references is to glory. John picks up this theme again in the next chapter and in chapter 12 (verse 23 and following). The very revelation of Jesus Christ is out of the matrix of the Father’s love for the Son, including going to the cross and returning to the glory He had before the world began. All of God’s love for us is precisely mediated by all of His love for the Son on the cross. In very practical terms, how can you demonstrate God’s love? We can talk about the beauty and goodness of creation, but to see the clearest display of the goodness and glory of God we must look to the cross, for all of God’s love is mediated to us by His love for His Son.

The role of Jesus Christ in the Trinitarian experience of God’s love. We can turn here to John 5:15 and following where we see Jesus doing something that the pharisees considered a desecration of the Sabbath. Jesus could have come along and explained that the Pharisees’ interpretation was, to quote Carson, “screwball.” They could have had a nice spiritual conversation. Instead Jesus ups the ante by saying “God is working and I am working too.” Whatever justification works for God working on the Sabbath works also for Jesus. Jesus is not seeking to make Himself equal and alternate to God, but to be one with God. What follows, then, is a discussion of Jesus’ sonship. His sonship is bound up with love. For us, sonship is bound up with genes. But in the first century, sonship had another set of associations because it was bound up in another world where the overwhelming majority of sons did vocationally what their fathers did. You got your education and formation from your father. You learn the tricks of the trade from your father. Out of this is the fact that Jesus is not only the son of the carpenter, but is called the carpenter. He is identified with the family business. Jesus has been accused of making Himself equal with God, and now in verse 19 He says that the Son can only do what His Father is doing, for He can only do what the Father is doing for the Father loves the Son and shows Him all He is doing. This passage shows Jesus’ functional dependance on His Father. This concept is repeated in verse thirty. It comes again in chapter 8:29. There is a remarkable subordination of the Son to the Father in John’s gospel. But there is simultaneously a coordinated action in which they act together. The Son may petition the Father, but He does not command the Father.

The exclusiveness of Jesus Christ in our experience of God’s love. It follows that the ultimate purpose of Jesus going to the cross is to obey His Father. The reason why God has given everything for the Son to do is that He loves the Son and He is determined that everyone worship the Son. The first thing that drives the Son to the cross is His love for the Father. The doctrine of justification, when it is clearly defined, is that God is vindicated. God is glorified. God’s ways are acknowledged as right. All of this comes from the intra-trinitarian love of God. And then you are prepared to love John 3:16. God gave the Son whom He had loved in eternity past and whom He was determined that all should honor. He gave His Son. “This is past finding out. That is just…past finding out.”

The grounding of all that Jesus prays for in John 17 is this oneness of Jesus and the Father. When we respond to the love of God, we must respond as the eternal Son did in the perfection of obedience. We are to be perfectly one because we are modelling our oneness on the very triune God. The perfection of love for the Son to the Father is to be mirrored in the love of Christian to Christian, that the world may know the Father sent the Son.

There are many scholars who say that John’s gospel is unseemly and sectarian. What they say is that in Matthew’s gospel we are told to love our enemies, but in John’s gospel we are to love each other as fellow believers. There is a decline in the quality of love as the Scripture is written. That is utterly blaspemous, because this love from believer to believer is to be a reflection of the love of the members of the Trinity.

So what does this have to do with postmodernism? There have recently been quite a number of books that say the essence of the gospel is in the first and second great commandments. Some books now also want to say we need to study the teaching of Jesus and find out what the gospel is. “This is tragic beyond utterance.” We now speak of “the gospel of John” and “the gospel of Mark” but this is something new. In the first century they said “the gospel according to Mark or John.” They each bring their own perspective to the one gospel.; they do not each bring their own. There is no good news without the cross and the resurrection. If you start thinking the gospel is the two great commandments and don’t think it necessary to also speak of the cross and the resurrection, you have missed the gospel of the Bible.

Here are some photos from day two of the conference.

September 30, 2006

This afternoon Mark Driscoll, pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle will teach on “The Supremacy of Christ and the Church in a Postmodern World.” He was introduced by John Piper who said that never before had a speaker gotten him in this much trouble even before he had spoken! Mark took the stage and introduced his speech around the framework of two issues regarding Christology and two issues regarding missiology.


Driscoll began by telling the story of Jesus, despite its familiarity. He described Jesus much as he must to his largely unchurched congregation in Seattle. He described Jesus “mean and wild,” saying of the all-too-common feminized view of Jesus: “It’s hard to worship a guy who you can beat up.” The point of the story was that Jesus is as hot as ever, still appearing constantly in popular culture, from “The Simpsons” to “Rolling Stone” covers to Madonna concerts. Jesus is popular, but the majority of people do not know Him as He truly is.

Driscoll spoke of the recent issue of “Christianity Today” which discussed the two hot theologies of the day: Reformed and Emergent. So what should the church have for its view of Jesus and how should we articulate who He was and is? Christology is what separates Reformed from Emergent Christians. These two camps are debating, in large part, over Jesus. The incarnation of Jesus is a popular doctrine in the Emergent circles, for they think of him primarily as fully human. The also stress His imminence, being here with us now. They gravitate towards the gospels which teach about Jesus in his humanness but avoid the epistles which have a different focus. We must believe in the incarnation of Jesus, but we cannot only believe in this. What is fueling the missional effort is a rediscovery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus came into culture and entered into community with lost people. Jesus identified with people in their culture. The problem is that when we see Christ only in His incarnation, we are left with someone less than God. The result is that the picture of Jesus taught by some is little less than a humble, marginalized, feminized wuss. This cannot inspire life transformation because He is not big enough to be worshiped, feared, obeyed or respected. Men are told to be like this feminized version of Jesus and they have no interest in following such a man.

On the other side, Calvinists tend to focus on the exaltation of Jesus. It is not so much the imminence of God, but the sovereignty and transcendence of God. These people go to texts like Isaiah 6 or John 12. What is too often lacking in the church today is a rigorous combining of both Christologies. We need to combine the incarnation with the exaltation. We must avoid the theological error of reductionism which means we are not saying something that is unbiblical, but are saying something that is incomplete.

Reading Luke and Acts show that Jesus was empowered by the same Holy Spirit who leads and guides and empowers us today, meaning that we can identify with Jesus in this. The draw towards Jesus’ incarnation is having a model we can follow. If we hold the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus we have everything we need for a robust and biblical missional theology. The humility of the example of Jesus in His humanity and the authority of His divinity. In addition to the gospels we must add the book of Revelation. This is not a book primarily about the Antichrist and suffering, but about Jesus Christ. It is a book about Christology - about Jesus. The book breaks down into heavenly scenes and earthly scenes. The heavenly scenes are centered on the throne where He reigns as king.


Jude 3 tells us to contend for the faith. This is an absolute assault on postmodernism, for there are not multiple faiths or truths. Reformed folk are good at contending and here are some issues that most be contended for: 1) Scripture is truthful, authoritative, meta-narrative. Pastors then need to give their people the story of the Bible and need to begin where the Bible begins. Smaller stories always need to be plugged into the bigger story. It is easy to give systematic theology without also continually tell people the story of the Bible. 2) The sovereignty of God must be defended against open theism. 3) We must contend for a God who has authority and absolute sovereignty. 4) We must contend for the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. “Don’t mess with Jesus’ mother. I doubt he’d take it kindly.” 4) We must contend against pelagianism. 5) We must contend for penal substitutionary atonement. There is debate about this, but there shouldn’t be because this is the best part of the Book! This doctrine tells us that we are saved from God - from his anger and justice and wrath. “If we lose the exclusivity of Jesus, we lose Jesus.” 6) We must contend for gender distinctions. 7) We must contend for the exclusivity of Christ. 8) We must also defend the doctrine of hell. “People don’t like hell! They’re not supposed to!” That’s the whole point! But to deny hell is unconscionable. Everyone believes in hell and we see this in advertising where advertisers tell you who you are, what you will become, and how they can save you from this hell. Everyone is running around trying to get out of their personal hell. Everyone is talking about hell except the church! We must contend for the importance of kingdom over culture. It is more important than culture. “We are seeing an over-realized eschatology.” This is an old problem. Emergent, emerging, incarnational Christians are Corinthians and have fallen into the same problems. They are, in many ways, reacting to a dispensational theology that had no concept of the kingdom here and now. The focus is on the impending rapture. This is where we see the tension of the “already” and the “not yet.” “I’m sick of talking about the kingdom without the king!”

The second point is that we must also contextualize. This is where there may be a proverbial fork in the road where people often begin to disagree with Driscoll. We must communicate this message in ways appropriate to different cultures and people groups. Jesus incarnates into a culture and we look to His example to see how He interacted in that culture. We have no problem seeing that kind of missional movement overseas, but when it comes to our own culture it is more difficult. Missions is to happen not only around the world but across the street. The church must do more than evangelize, but be missionary in its orientation. So what does this look like to an indie-rock subculture or an urban hip-hop culture? 1 Corinthians 9 tells us that we must contextualize. “I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” Do you care about the gospel? Do you really care? Then you’ll contextualize, won’t you? You won’t just contend, but will contextualize as well. You’ll contextualize so as many cultures and subcultures as possible will meet Jesus.

In one hand we put timeless truth. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. In the other hand is what is timely and contextualized. Timeless truth and timeless ministry. So what does this mean? He is not arguing for relativism, but for “relevantism.” Is he arguing for seeker sensitive? Not that we be seeker sensitive, but seeker sensible. We don’t lose theological vocabulary, but take the time to explain to the people in terms they understand.

In every culture there will be things to reject, things to receive, things to redeem. Sadly, many in the Emergent stream do not reject anything. Reformed people may be guilty of not receiving or redeeming that which ought to be received and redeemed.

Is this a new wind of doctrine? Is it the newest, latest, newest fad. “Yes, we are on the cutting edge of the sixteenth century. We are riding the sixteenth century Genevan cutting edge.” John Calvin was not just a contender but a contextulaizer, so we must redeem what it means to be a true Calvinist. When persecution happened in Europe, people flocked to Geneva. Calvin trained them and then sent them out to share the gospel. If you are a true Calvinist you are not just a contender, but also a contextualizer.

Driscoll closed his speech with these words: “The gospel is the power of God. We must contend for it and then we must contextualize it, because we get to. It is Jesus’ gift to us.”

September 30, 2006

The morning’s second plenary session will feature Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. He will speak on “The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World.” He will talk about how we do evangelism, how we communicate the gospel, in a postmodern world. It will be, in some ways, more a lecture than a sermon.

The postmodern world presents a crisis to us. The Western world is now a mission field, but a post-Christian mission field. In some ways our culture is inoculated against Christianity just as the body becomes inoculated against disease so that we can say Western culture has a distorted memory of Christianity. What won’t work anymore, by and large, is a campaign, a program, or a gospel presentation. Before now, people knew about Jesus but needed to be told they needed a personal Savior. They were told that they needed to be told to do what they already knew. They had, in many ways, Christians minds but not Christian hearts. There are still pockets of people who are “Christ-haunted,” having a cultural memory that includes Christianity. They are conservative, traditional in their values. There are places where churches can still be built with the old-style evangelism. But these areas are rare. More commonly we find that many of the evangelistic magic bullets that used to work have now passed. Billy Graham, just fifty years ago, championed crusade evangelism and brought it to high efficiency, but now it is obvious that this is not the wave of the future. There were many programs (Evangelism Explosion, etc) that taught a percentage of people in a church how to share their faith, but these now produce little fruit. By the time we get to the nineties, the evangelism magic bullet was the seeker service and it now seems fair to say that twentysomethings are already turning away from this kind of service. The only magic bullet people continue to look to is the Alpha program. This format is a huge improvement and is right for our time because it is communal and involves a process rather than event. But too often people use Alpha like a program and it does not work as it was intended.

The gospel has to recapture us and we need to recapture the gospel or evangelism will not work anymore. In a postmodern culture you have three problems: the truth problem (all truth claims are constraining), the guilt problem (all old evangelism programs assume a consciousness of guilt) and the meaning problem (postmoderns don’t believe that text and words can accurately get ideas across).

Six points for doing evangelism in a postmodern world

These principles will be rooted in the narrative of Jonah.

Gospel theologizing - Jonah 1:1 - the word of the Lord came to Jonah saying “Go to Ninevah and preach.” For a long time, Keller understood the gospel as being the elementary basics of what people need to know to be Christians. Theology was the advanced stuff. But this is not accurate. In a postmodern society, all theology must be nothing less than an exposition of the gospel. Any theology has to be based on the gospel and be an exposition of it. In a postmodern society where everyone is against abstract speculation, we cannot get away without theology that is not an exposition of the gospel. We need to bring theology to bear on the gospel. “I haven’t seen a gospel presentation that really addresses postmodern people.” The older presentations were great on systematical theology (God, Man, Christ, Faith) but there was no story. It has systematic theology but no biblical theology. The basic narrative arch of creation, fall, redemption, restoration is absent. The older presentations were very individualistic and almost consumeristic. The lordship of Christ over all of life is not part of the gospel presentations. Go to the emerging church or post-liberal church and all of the emphasis is on the kingdom. All the emphasis, therefore, is on the fact that we had a world we wanted, we’ve lost it, and now Jesus has created a people and brought the kingdom and you need to be part of this kingdom. There is an emphasis on the corporate and on the kingdom. Sadly, with such an emphasis you can also lose substitutionary atonement and other important principles. In the end, it brings a kind of liberal legalism. It is going to take all our best theological thinking to develop user-friendly gospel presentations that merge systematic and biblical theology so people can grasp the gospel easily. There cannot be easy programs.

Gospel realizing - At the end of Jonah 2 when Jonah is in the belly of the fish he says, “Salvation is of the Lord.” Why is Jonah, the prophet, saying this as if it was a new idea? In some ways this was a new idea to him. If you think you really, really understand the gospel, you don’t. Gospel theologizing isn’t near enough if we are going to change the world. There has to be a lifelong process of realizing the wonder of the gospel. Religion gives you control which is why it’s so popular. Religion is “I obey, therefore I’m accepted.” The gospel is “I’m accepted, therefore I obey.”

Gospel urbanizing - Jonah is continually called (three times) to go to the “great city” of Ninevah. The whole book is God saying “should I not love this great city?” How can you not love such a mass of lost people? If the cities are secular and the countryside is Christian, where is the culture going? It’s going in the wrong direction, for culture moves from city to country. Protestants are not well represented in the cities. The city is a strategic place in many ways. It is so crucial that if we don’t urbanize the gospel and have vital gospel communities in the major cities, we won’t reach the world for Christ.

Gospel communication - There are four stages to bring people through who know nothing about the gospel: intelligibility, credibility, plausibility, intimacy. Intelligibility is what Carson refers to as worldview evangelism. People will misunderstand us if we do evangelism using the old programs. People need to clearly perceive what you are giving them for they read Christian language through their worldviews. What is true for people at one time, may not be true at another. Credibility is the area of “apologetics,” the area of defeaters which are areas that, if true, make belief impossible. In the old Westernized Christian culture, there were not a great number of defeaters. Now, however, there are a lot of them. There are common sense beliefs people believe which prove that Christianity cannot be true. Keller believes in presuppositional apologetics at this stage. Plausibility is where people get really nervous. You’ve shown what the non-negotiables are, but now you are getting into other people’s concepts, hopes and aspirations and true to connect with them. In plausibility you can show how the hopes of their own hearts, the struggles of their cultures, will only be resolved in Jesus Christ.

Gospel formation - The gospel needs to form us deep down, usually through experiences that bring us down. We need to be humbled as Jonah was humbled.

Gospel incarnation - Jonah is a setup for Jeremiah 29. The Jews have been living in their nation state in which everyone was a believer and God was getting them ready for another time. God commanded them to move into a pagan city to work for the peace and prosperity of the city. Early in the book of Jonah, Jonah is asleep in the boat and there is a storm. Jonah is roused by the sailors and they tell him to call on his God. They are saying (as the world to the believer) “You don’t love us, do you? Do something that helps us all!” Jonah went to the city but didn’t love the city. Likewise, we don’t love the postmodern world in the way we should. Faith is a gift and it is crucial for us to talk assuredly about faith and truth, but unbelievers must know that we know what it is like not to believe. Does the postmodern world know our love for them? Are we the kind of churches that the world does not rebuke? Do they know we love them or do they have the right to rebuke us? How do we get that kind of courage and love? There was another man who slept through a storm. Jesus was also asleep and the disciples, like the sailors are terrified. Jesus does a miracle and, like Jonah, is sacrificed. But Jesus is thrown into the real storm.

We don’t need evangelism programs, but a revival, and that only happens through prayer. Dr. Keller ended with a question: Are we insulting God by our low expectations for evangelism in our cities?

September 30, 2006

My second day in Minneapolis began early. We did not get back to our hotel until 11 PM last night and we were roused at 6 AM to get up and ready in time to get to an early breakfast with Justin Taylor and Roger and Amy of A-Team Blog. I had hoped to meet Roger last year when I was at the Shepherd’s Conference, but it did not work out, so it was nice to get in touch with him this time. We had a good time of fellowship, talking primarily about blogging (as you might expect). There is still no wireless in the convention center, so my posts today may be sporadic as it is possible that I will have to travel back to my hotel to find an Internet connection.

Last night David Wells taught about “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.” This morning Voddie Baucham will build on that foundation by discussing “The Supremacy of Christ and Truth in a Postmodern World.” He will be followed over the course of the day by Tim Keller, Mark Driscoll and D.A. Carson. Voddie is an author, teacher and apologist. He has written a book, The Ever-Loving Truth, which helps Christians apply God’s Word to contemporary life. He serves as adjunct professor at The College of Biblical Studies in Houston, Texas and Union University in Jackson, Mississippi.

He began by reflecting on the propriety of quoting a person who is sitting in the audience, referring to D.A. Carson who was sitting in the front row. Carson gave him permission to quote him as he saw fit. Voddie then said that his intention today is based on a prayer he offered to God: “Grant me grace to stand up, speak up, and shut up.”

The supremacy of Christ is the issue at hand. Postmodernism is not what is supreme in this world. If there is an issue between Christ and postmodernism, Christ must win. There are two main competing worldviews in our culture and they have been referred to by many different titles. There is Christian theism on the one hand, and secular humanism on the other. Secular humanism does not acknowledge God for it begins with human knowledge. This is ironic, though, because the majority of people in our culture are secular humanists who believe in some kind of God.

Christian theism and truth

Christian theism views ethics as absolute while secular humanism views them as cultural and negotiable. What is ethical in one culture is not necessarily what is ethical in another. Each culture and each period of history negotiates its own ethics.

There are four basic questions that every person asks, no matter the time or place a person lives: Who am I? Why am I here? What is wrong with the world? How can what is wrong be made right? We may not all ask them in that form, but it is in the soul of each person to wrestle with these issues. He will answer these first from the perspective of our culture and then turn to Colossians 1 to answer them from Scripture.

Secular Humanist Perspective

Who am I? You are nothing! You are an accident, a mistake. You are a glorified ape and that is all you are. You are the result of random evolutionary processes. There is no rhyme, no reason, no purpose.

Why am I here? To consume and enjoy. No amount is ever enough as we always want a little bit more. All that matters is power. The answers to the first two questions bring about the social Darwinism that has caused such harm to the world.

What is wrong with the world? People are either insufficiently educated or insufficiently governed. People either don’t know enough or they aren’t being watched enough.

How can what is wrong be made right? More education and more government. Teach people more stuff. The problem is that if you take a sinful human being and teach him more, you create a person with greater ability to destroy. Then we govern them more, but who governs the governors?

Biblical Perspective

How, then, do we respond as Christians? Colossians chapter 1 shows how the Bible responds to the same questions.

Who am I? Colossians 1:15-20 - the text doesn’t answer the question because it doesn’t start with me. The text starts with Christ because of the supremacy of Christ. The text begins with Christ as the creator of all things. Who am I begins with who Jesus is, for He is God. So who am I? I am the crowning glory of the creation of God. I am not accident! I have inherent dignity and worth and value. Christian theism cannot comprehend racism, classism and eugenics. “Christian theism looks at the black man and the not-so-black man (you categorize the world the way you want to, I’ll categorize it the way I want to). But it’s okay that you’re not black like me. God loves you just the way you are!” Here is the lingering and hovering question: within the confines of Christian theism there is no room for racism and other issues, yet we know of Christian cultures that embraced racism and slavery. Narrative is not normative. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it’s right. The more important question is what made it stop. What was the underlying worldview that rose up and showed the dissonance? We’ll learn that it was wrong by the standard of the supremacy of Christ.

Why am I here? Colossians 1:15-16 - Christian theism teaches that all things were created to bring Him glory and honor so He might have the supremacy in all things. This is why we all exist. He is to have supremacy and preeminence in all things. “God is not against us having things, but against things having us.” So much of what we do, what we study, what jobs we have, are based on our desire to consume and enjoy rather than to pursue the supremacy of Christ. We look for prestige rather than Christ.

What is wrong with the world? Colossians 1:21 - We are what is wrong with the world! We are God’s crowning creation and yet are hostile towards the one by whom and for whom we were created. The question is not “if God is good why do bad things happen?” but “how on earth can a holy and righteous God know what I did and thought and said yesterday and not kill me in my sleep last night?” Until we ask the question that way, we believe that the problem is “out there.” We believe that we are part of the solution rather than the problem. The problem with the world is me. The problem is the fact that I do not acknowledge the supremacy of Christ. I start with me as the measure of all things. The problem is that I judge God based by how well He carries out my agenda for the world, and I believe in the supremacy of me. As a result I want a God who is omnipotent but sovereign since then I can wield his power. If He is both omnipotent and sovereign, I am at His mercy.

How can what is wrong be made right? Colossians 1:22-23 - We see two things in this last set of statements. First, what is wrong can be made wrong by the penal substitutionary death of Christ and second that it cannot be made right any other way. We see the supremacy of Christ in His exclusivity. There is no other way in which men can be justified. Every other religion basically teaches that we need to ensure we do more good than bad and hope for the best. Three problems: I can’t be good because I am totally, radically depraved; What about all the things I did before my religious experience?; Where is my assurance? The answer to all of this is the supremacy of Christ. What is wrong can be made right by the blood of Jesus. “Christ paid a debt He did not owe on behalf of a people who could not pay Him back.”

We are the crowing creation of God, here to bring glory to Christ. We are what is wrong with the world, living as we do in pursuit of the supremacy of self, but all that is wrong can be made right through the atoning death of Christ and through repentance and faith on the part of sinners. When you juxtapose these worldviews, on the one hand you are left empty and hopeless. Man is left worthless, left to pursue his own satisfaction. On the other, you are precious, you have a purpose but you are powerless. This is okay, though, because you were purchased. This is the supremacy of Christ in truth in a postmodern world. As we walk through the highways and byways and look into the lifeless eyes of those who have bought this lie, let us rest assured that we possess the answer and are possessed by the answer. The answer is Christ and His supremacy in truth. Let us rest assured that those who walk aimlessly through life will never be satisfied by the answers of culture and the further we have run from Christ’s supremacy, the further we have run from the only thing that will ever satisfy and will ever suffice. Let us rest assured that the supremacy of Christ in truth also means the sufficiency of Christ in truth. Let us embrace this, and proclaim it passionately, confidently and relentlessly for after all, that is why we are here.

This was a powerful message—one of the most powerful I’ve heard in a long time. Be sure to get the audio recording of this one! It will be available for free from Desiring God’s web site within a few days.

September 30, 2006

And here I am, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, at my second Desiring God National Conference. This convention center is a great deal busier than it was last year. The room is nearly packed from front to back with the 3,130 people who are supposed to be in attendance. There is a real sense of eagerness and anticipation. Everyone I’ve spoken to has been excited, waiting eagerly for the sessions to begin. I have already met several old friends and several new friends. This promises to be a valuable weekend both in terms of teaching and in terms of fellowship.

Because this conference was inspired by David Wells’ book Above All Earthly Pow’rs, Wells will provide the first address. He will speak on “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.”

For the last decade he has been thinking about the world we live in and trying his best to understand it. As vital and important as it is to do that, to understand ourselves and our internal processes, coming here tonight to speak about the supremacy of Christ is such a joy and relief. It falls to him to open this conference and hence he may tread in the territory of the speakers who follow. What he wants to try to do is to try to speak clearly and simply about this difficult subject.

In 1793 when Carey went to India, 98% of Protestants lived in the West. There followed a century of missions, after which 90% of Protestants still lived in the West. Someone might have been forgiven for thinking Christianity was a European or Western thing or a white man’s thing. But no longer. Tonight we live at a time of great transformation in Christian faith - not a transformation in its nature, because Christianity does not change, but a transformation in where it is believed, in where Christian believers are found. We see a pattern emerging that Christianity is moving South to Latin America and Africa, and moving East into some of the most populous nations in Asia. There are probably more Christians in China than in the United States. It is also growing in India and elsewhere. In the West, Christianity is struggling to survive. The United States is a bit of an exception, but in Europe vast areas of its life have been stripped of all Christian presence, leaving behind nothing but empty churches and cathedrals. This is somewhat true of Canada; it is true of Australia and New Zealand. This Sunday only 2% of people in New Zealand will go to church. By contrast, in some African churches up to 80% of people go to church. Some meet under a tree or beside a building, but they still meet. There is more Christian believing outside the West than inside the West. Christianity is becoming de-Westernized.

So what is this faith about? It is the faith of almost every people group who know and acknowledge and worship Christ as supreme. It is very different from Islam which has a geographic center (Mecca), it has a language (Arabic). The Christian faith has no geographic center, there is not one race that dominates it, there is not a preferred language for its expression and there is no privileged culture for its home. No place, race, tongue or culture. It is a Person. It is not just the founder of a religion, but the incarnate, resurrected and reigning Christ whose resurrection inaugurated the reign that will cleanse the entire universe of evil.

The world has known some great people. We speak of many who are “great.” But Jesus Christ is not “great.” He is incomparable. He is in a category all of His own. He is unique. Of whom else can you say that He was God incarnate, that He bore our sin in our place, that He rose from death, that He now reigns supreme? That cannot be said of anyone else. The book of Scripture that argues this most insistently is Hebrews.

He will give only one instance of the kind of argument that we find in the first ten chapters, but will then focus some attention on the eleventh chapter. There is truth there we need to grasp as we attempt to grasp Christ’s supremacy. He will introduce and then put two texts side-by-side. The first text is Hebrews 2:8-9 which gives us a picture of Christ inaugurating His rule over life that is cosmic in its scope, putting Creation back to its purpose, and the second is from Hebrews 10 which presents us with Christ seated and all of His enemies conquered and under His feet. These texts serve as a framework to think about Christ’s supremacy.


Hebrews was written to Jewish believers tempted to fade back into the woodwork. They had grown up to treasure what God had done in their history. He had given them extraordinary leaders, miraculous deliverances. They treasured these things and they were part of their identity. Now they face persecution through looming Roman power. They were being hounded by religious authorities, there was danger all around and fear within. They were tempted to flee back into the safety of the Judaism from which they had come. But to do so, they had to pass by the uniqueness of who Christ is and what He has done. Again and again this contrast is made between what we have in the Old Testament and what we have in Christ.

Hebrews 1 - In the past, God spoke in pieces to many people. But now, in these last days, He has spoken fully through Christ. Christ is absolutely unique in this way, for in him is contained all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. These prophets, even in their greatness, were just messengers. Jesus is the end message. He is the one who brings in a final, full and complete synthesis of all that God has been saying. The author then gives a compact summary of the person and work of Christ. He is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being. All of the undiminished Godness of God was His, so that anyone who saw Him had seen the Father. The author speaks of what He has done, saying “He made the universe, He is appointed the heir of all things, He upholds the universe by the word of His power, He made purification for our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high. Creation, eschatoloty, providence, work on the cross, resurrection, and ascension are all present.

Why, then, the author asks at the beginning of chapter two, are the Jews drifting away from this unique person and His unique work? Why would they leave what is unique for what is not? What is completed for what is not? What is completely glorious for what is less so? The argument through the first ten verses shows that He is supreme over all that we have seen in the Old Testament.

The pastoral application begins in verse eleven. What was the problem with the Old Testament people of God? We see that they were unable to enter the promised land because of unbelief. They came to the very edge of what God had promised them and decided that it was too risky to enter. Whoever was there was bigger, nastier and more numerous than they were. So they shrank back and retreated. In their own minds they somehow could not see that God would be sufficient for them in this time of engagement with what was on the other side. In their imaginations they saw giants and cities that were impregnable - far greater than what they could count upon by way of God’s deliverance. This is the very problem that is happening again when confronted by this hostile world. They are shrinking back, pulling back, from Christ. What if they were put out of the temple? Wouldn’t they lose all that was precious to them? How could God sustain them if that happened? What if they were ejected from Judaism? Would they not be cut off from Moses and David and Isaiah? In the eleventh chapter, the author says, “If you walk by faith, you will be in continuity with all of the great leaders of the past. You will lose nothing.” What they all had in common, whether kings or prophets or simple people or martyrs, was the assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen. It was a fearless persuasion of what was there in the goodness of God, in His character, in His greatness. They saw it with their “inward eyes” and trusted it and acted upon it. They were people of faith.

This is what makes hearts strong in bearing suffering and it is what enabled them to bear sickening disappointments at times and terrible reverses and sometimes disheartening unfaithfulness (see Hebrews 11:35 for a more complete list of the sufferings). These words describe what is happening in many places in the world where people suffer and die for their faith. Yet in verse 33 we see that these people were also victorious in many ways. The reason the Jewish believers were drawing back from Christ came down to a matter of faith. It always comes down to a matter of faith. For these young believers, their understanding of Christ had been clouded out of concern for their personal safety. They didn’t know what abuse might come their way and so they thought it was better to be safe than sorry. We don’t worry about these things in the West, but our problem is slightly different. It is not so much fear for our safety as that we are so distracted by so many things that it is hard for us to sustain a focus upon the supremacy of Christ in our world and our lives. We think of our experience in the West in terms of its benefits: we know more, communicate more, communicate faster, travel more, travel more often, travel further, we buy more and more and buy higher quality, we have freedoms, we have opportunities that previous generations never had. But along with these undoubted benefits for which we are all grateful come costs. The costs are often hidden, they are like shadows that come right behind these benefits. It is not easy to live in this fast-paced, modernized, competitive world. In Africa, what is most pressing for people are physical needs: the need for food, for security, for simple medical care. Our challenge is more psychological: the psychological pressure of living in this pressurized, relativistic culture where worldviews and lifestyle and religions jostle together shoulder by shoulder and make Christian faith hard to sustain. It is the intrusiveness of this world into our innermost workings. There is so much that is urgent, so much that demands our attention. Our preoccupations are with surviving and with the intensity of the moment. This is why people come to church looking to have psychological needs met. But sermons only addressing these matters are exercises in futility if the supremacy and centrality of Christ has been lost. In an entirely different way, we in our churches seem to be shrinking back from Christ.

The Supremacy of Christ

He will put two passages side-by-side: chapter 2:8-9 and 10:11-13.

These two verses come from two Psalms. Behind chapter 2:8 is Psalm 8. It points to our mandate to fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion. This mandate has never been rescinded, despite the Fall. The problem is that Creation, even Creation, has been derailed as Paul tells us in Romans 8. We experience this futility and derailment so that instead of having dominion over Creation, we are often its victims. At this time we do not see everything in subjection to us. We do not even have ourselves under control! Neither the world inside of us nor the world outside of us are in our control. But, we see Christ who tasted death for us and this is the theme of the New Testament. And so begins this great work of re-railing Creation. It has been derailed and will now be rerailed. The reach of Christ’s conquest is not just our souls, but is cosmic, right through the whole universe.

The second text is Hebrews 10:11-13. We can see the contrast between Christ and the priests of the Old Testament and work that was incomplete versus work that was completed. We see also that Christ has His foot upon the defeated and disgraced enemy. This Psalm and this verse is cited about twenty times in the New Testament. The New Testament authors, took this text and saw it as the framework within which they could think of Christ in His sovereignty over the whole universe. The author of Hebrews, instead of speaking simply of Christ’s sovereignty, speaks of the sovereignty in terms of Christ’s enemies. Christ’s rule emerges from the defeat of the powers of darkness. It is Christ’s priestly work by which his sovereignty is secured over all evil. This is the triumphant, the glorious note, that we hear from one end of the New Testament to the other. Christ has been elevated far above all rule, authority, dominion and name. It was the holiness of God that called for His death and the grace of God that called for His Son. In Christ’s death and conquest over death, the very back of evil is broken. What we see now are the last, futile attempts of the enemy, not one of which will change the outcome of what happened at Calvary. We celebrate this marvelous truth of Christ’s supremacy in our lives and in our universe.


Christianity is only about this kind of Christ - Christ reigning supreme and unchallenged and unchallengeable over all of life’s enemies. We do not have any other message than this. Seekers and postmoderns don’t want to hear this, but the bottom line is that we don’t have anything else to give them. Our only message is of Christ as unique, central, indispensable and supreme. We need to talk together and think together about how we help people to come from where they are in our postmodern culture to this point where they see Christ as supreme. But at the end of the day we do not have a different Christ for the postmodern generation than for any other. Many have decided that this is very off-putting to postmoderns and have been offering a slimmed-down version of the gospel. Certain important truths may not have been denied, but were kept hidden out-of-view since these things would prove perilous to the church’s success. We are now living with the consequences of this. In America 45% say they are born again, but only 9% have even the slightest clue about the most minimal biblical understanding to what it means to live an ethical life as a disciple. In America today, being born again counts for nothing. The chickens have come home to roost. We are not far from the very difficulties that the author of Hebrews identifies in these early Christians. We have pulled back from the uniqueness and centrality of Christ. They did it out of fear for their safety, but we are doing it out of fear that we may not be successful. This is a serious miscalculation! The only Christ we have to preach is the one the Bible gives us.

We today live in a period between the already and the not yet. We have been redeemed in full, for there is nothing that needs to be added to Christ’s work and nothing that can be added or can be taken from what He did. But we know ourselves to be not yet fully redeemed. We live, in other words, between Hebrews 10:13 (He sat down, waiting from that time, until His enemies should be destroyed) and what Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15:24 (when Christ delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every power). We are living in this period between the time when the outcome to the chess game has been decided and the time when the last futile move is made. We live in a fallen world full of painful complexities and sometimes jarring brutalities. But there is another side. These painful experiences that sometimes consume us, none of these is the final word. The sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us. And not even death is the last and final word. We must remember the supremacy of Christ and that we are between the already and the not yet.

It is God’s pleasure that His Son should be acknowledged now for who He is. In worshiping Him for His supremacy, we simply anticipate that time when every knee will bow. God takes pleasure in what we are doing now. We have been returned to the purpose for which we were first created.

September 29, 2006

It was just about a year ago that I first liveblogged a conference. I posted the following:

By the time you read this I should be well on my way to Minneapolis. It is amazing how three hours worth of flying can consume an entire day. It will take about an hour to get to the airport and of course I have to be at the airport at least two hours in advance so I can clear security and customs. I then have a three-hour layover in Milwaukee before I finally board the plane for Minnesota. It seems that the total travel time, from my house to the hotel in downtown Minneapolis will be something like nine hours, only three of which will be in the air. Of course I fully intend to use this time to catch up on some reading and writing.

If you happen to live between Toronto and Minneapolis and see a MidWest Airlines jet fly over, feel free to wave. If I see you I’ll wave back.

Since the 2005 Desiring God National Conference I have been blessed with the privilege of blogging several other notable conferences. This weekend I will be completing a circle of sorts by returning to Minneapolis to blog the 2006 Desiring God National Conference. Strangely enough, my itinerary this time is exactly the same. However, this time I am travelling with two friends and will spent my three hour layover in Milwaukee meeting and having lunch with a long-time reader of this site who just happens to live there.

This weekend’s conference will confront the issue of “The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World.” David Wells, Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, will set the stage for us on the theme, The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World. Don Carson, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, will speak on “The Supremacy of Christ and Love in a Postmodern World.” Tim Keller, Senior Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, will address “The Supremacy of Christ and the Gospel in a Postmodern World.” Mark Driscoll, the Lead Pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, will aim at the topic “The Supremacy of Christ and the Church in a Postmodern World.” Voddie Baucham, the founder and leader of Voddie Baucham Ministries in Texas, will tackle the theme “The Supremacy of Christ and Truth in a Postmodern World.” John Piper’s address will focus on “The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World.”

John Piper writes, “We would like to worship this Christ with you. That is what we plan to do: speak, think, pray, and worship the supreme Christ.” I hope you’ll check in over the course of the weekend, which lasts from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, to read updates from the conference. I am travelling with a laptop and a camera and hope to bring updates both textual and visual, that will provide a sense of what is being said, what is being done, and who is here to enjoy the conference.

I also covet your prayers. I get occasional emails from others who have liveblogged conferences and they always write, “I can’t believe how hard it is!” And they are right! It is a difficult task and one that always makes me nervous (and even more so when having to attempt to encapsulate what is said by a guy as brilliant as David Wells). I’d be grateful if you would pray for wisdom and ability for me as I try to accurately relay what happens in the conference.

I should have my first update later this evening.

August 22, 2006

cd2.jpgContemporary praise and worship music has achieved a poor reputation. It is often regarded as being of poor quality both musically and lyrically. Sadly, this critique is often accurate. Yet there are some who swim against this current. It is only in the last year or so that I have been introduced to an organization that produces music to which these critiques cannot apply. Sovereign Grace Music has released a wide variety of albums which provide not only top-quality music, but excellent, God-glorifying song-writing. The latest project, released only a couple of weeks ago, Valley of Vision, is based on the classic book of Puritan prayers of the same name.

Why would Sovereign Grace create a project based on the prayers of a bunch of dead guys? “That’s an easy one. Puritans like John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, Richard Baxter, and Isaac Watts knew their hearts, their Bibles, and their God much better than we do. Many of them wrote down their prayers not to be published, but to assess their own spiritual growth and to encourage themselves in times of spiritual dryness. These prayers reveal a personal, humble, passionate relationship with an awesome God, a living Savior, and an active Spirit. Reading their meditations inspires us to pursue the same level of reality as we worship God.” The two-fold purpose of this CD is to encourage the listener deepen his relationship with God as he becomes more aware of his own sin and God’s holiness and that the listener will be inspired to read the book of prayers that inspired the album. “We pray that you won’t simply read them, but that they will become a springboard for your own prayers and meditation in your relationship with our great, merciful, and changeless God who is, ever and always, there to meet us in the Valley of Vision.”

The CD begins with “In the Valley,” sung by Shannon Harris. Shannon has a stunningly beautiful voice, though having heard it live at the WorshipGod06 conference, I have to admit that I love the purity of her voice in a live performance just a little bit better than the slightly more engineered sound on the CD. She sings a powerful song based on the prayer “The Valley of Vision” and asks God to let her find His grace, life and joy. For sake of comparison, here is the original prayer and the song based on it:

Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly, Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision, where I live in the depths but see Thee in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin I behold Thy glory. Let me learn by paradox that the way down is the way up, that to be low is to be high, that the broken heart is the healed heart, that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit, that the repenting soul is the victorious soul, that to have nothing is to possess all, that to bear the cross is to wear the crown, that to give is to receive, that the valley is the place of vision. Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells the brighter Thy stars shine; let me find Thy light in my darkness, Thy life in my death, Thy joy in my sorrow, Thy grace in my sin, Thy riches in my poverty, Thy glory in my valley.

And here is the song:

When You lead me to the valley of vision I can see You in the heights And though my humbling wouldn’t be my decision It’s here Your glory shines so bright So let me learn that the cross precedes the crown To be low is to be high That the valley’s where You make me more like Christ

Let me find Your grace in the valley
Let me find Your life in my death
Let me find Your joy in my sorrow
Your wealth in my need
That You’re near with every breath
In the valley

In the daytime there are stars in the heavens
But they only shine at night
And the deeper that I go into darkness
The more I see their radiant light
So let me learn that my losses are my gain
To be broken is to heal
That the valley’s where Your power is revealed

A couple of up-tempo songs follow. “All That I Need,” sung by Stephen Altrogge, declares that Jesus Christ is the believer’s only hope and the only one who can satisfy the heart’s deepest longings. “Heavenly Father, Beautiful Son” is a song of thanks to God for His work of election and for providing His Son as Savior. “How Deep” explores the love of Christ and the mid-tempo “I Come Running” is a song of praise to Jesus, written and performed by Mark Altrogge, acknowledging our need of the Savior. My favorite track on this album, and one we sang near the close of the WorshipGod Conference, is “Let Your Kingdom Come,” written by Bob Kauflin and based on the prayer “God’s Cause.” It is a perfect choice to end a service or conference and calls upon God to let His kingdom come. “Let Your Kingdom Come / Let Your will be done / So that everyone might know Your Name / Let Your song be heard everywhere on earth / Till Your sovereign work on earth is done / Let Your kingdom come.” Perhaps it could have been the final track on the album!

This is followed by “O Great God,” a hymn eminently suitable to corporate worship that celebrates the sovereignty of God and His work of redemption. “Help me now to live a life / That’s dependent on Your grace / Keep my heart and guard my soul / From the evils that I face / You are worthy to be praised / With my every thought and deed / O great God of highest heaven / Glorify Your name through me.”

The CD continues with “It Was Your Grace,” “Only Jesus,” “The Precious Blood,” “It Was Love,” and “Who Made Me To Know You.” Each song explores a different theme and each centers upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. These songs feature vocals by Kyle Davis, Shannon Harris and Megan Russell. Standout tracks, and ones that are most suitable to corporate worship, include “Only Jesus” and “The Precious Blood.”

Valley of Vision is a unique concept and one that could easily have fallen flat. Thankfully, Sovereign Grace did the project justice and have created an album that is beautiful, inspiring and full of the gospel. With many tracks suitable to corporate worship and all suitable for private worship (or for just singing with the car windows wide open), Valley of Vision is a worthy addition to any CD collection. Like previous Sovereign Grace music projects, it is well-written, well-produced and of the utmost quality. I heartily recommend it.

Valley of Vision is available for purchase from the Sovereign Grace Store. Be sure to take a look at the other CD projects available such as Songs For The Cross Centered Life and Awesome God. Sample audio clips, lead sheets and chord charts for this album are available for no cost from the Sovereign Grace Ministries.

August 15, 2006

It was a great thrill for me to spend several days of the last week among the men and women of Sovereign Grace Ministries and Covenant Life Church at the WorshipGod06 Conference. Being among these people was an opportunity for me to learn a great deal about worship and to learn how other believers express their worship to God. Sovereign Grace Ministries is often described as being “Reformed Charismatic” but it seems that this may be too simplistic a description. There is far more to this organization than Reformed soteriology and Charismatic expressions of worship.

I know quite a few people are waiting to hear some reflections on this event, so I thought I would offer those today. I offer them as an outsider, one who has worshipped in many different contexts, but never in one quite like this. I will focus on observations on the use of the spiritual gifts as I witnessed them at the conference. It is worth nothing that, with over half of the attendees belonging to churches other than Sovereign Grace churches, many people present were not charismatic in their understanding of the continuing gifts. I was grateful to see that Bob Kauflin and other conference “officials” were careful to be respectful towards the cessationists present and to be deliberate in proving their own credibility as believers and believers who dearly love the Lord and serve under His Lordship and under the authority of Scripture. While many charismatics have gained the reputation of being a group that allows spiritual gifts to supersede Scripture, Sovereign Grace clearly showed itself to be a ministry that places Scripture in its rightful place above and beyond all gifts. In speaking to others after the conference, I was not able to find any, even among the strictest cessationists, who was offended by seeing the continuing gifts being practiced. This speaks of the humility and grace of the organizers of this conference who were deliberately cautious and respectful towards others.

Before I begin, let me make one point clear. While this did not come from Bob Kauflin or from others who stood in front of the assembly, I heard a few statements such as “cessationists do not believe in the spiritual gifts.” This is not strictly true, for cessationists do believe in the spiritual gifts. They are, after all, explicitly and undeniably mentioned in the Bible. Cessationists believe that spiritual gifts are given to all believers and are operational even today. Most would affirm that these gifts should be eagerly identified and sought after. Most would also affirm that the various lists of gifts in Scripture is not exhaustive but points instead towards a great abundance of gifts. Where cessationists differ from continuationists is in their understanding of the miraculous gifts which are generally identified as prophecy, speaking in tongues and working of miracles. Cessationists believe that these gifts were given for a specific purpose at a specific time and that they ceased with the close of the Apostolic era. Thus, while cessationists affirm the spiritual gifts of speaking in tongues, speaking prophecies and working miracles, they do not believe these gifts to be operational today. My purpose here is not to argue the case, but merely to summarize the belief, so let’s not turn this into an argument on this matter!

So let’s look at how these miraculous gifts manifested themselves at the conference.

While charismatics may be best-known for using the gift of tongues, I did not witness any use of this gift at the conference. Craig Cabannis, one of the speakers at the conference, explained Sovereign Grace Ministries’ perspective on this gift. It can only be used in a public setting when it is deemed appropriate, when a person is available who has the gift of interpretation, and when this person feels that he has an interpretation for this particular utterance. From what I understand, it is quite rare that this happens, and so this gift is seen only sparingly within Sovereign Grace churches. And as I mentioned, I did not witness it last week.

While there may not have been any public uses of the gift of tongues, there were a great deal of prophetic utterances, both in the main sessions and in seminars. If a person felt that he had a prophetic utterance to share with the assembly, he would make his way to the front where a pastor or elder sat with a microphone. The person would share the prophecy with this person who would make a determination whether it seemed genuine and whether it was appropriate to share with the assembly. If he felt it should be heard, he would signal the worship leader who would find an opportunity to allow the person to speak. These utterances were often spoken in the first person. They were sometimes words from the Lord and at others times were images or encouragements. At one point Bob Kauflin mentioned that prophecies were not allowed to include words about dates, mates, correction or direction.

I do believe this was the first time I had witnessed this type of prophecy and made at least one observation. As has often been said by cessationists, this prophecy bore little resemblance to the prophecies of Scripture. There was a humility or even hesitancy in speaking these prophecies which were often preceded by phrases such as “I feel God is saying” or “What I think this means is.” The “thus saith the Lord” statements that typify biblical prophecy were noticeably absent. I suppose this shows what many continuationists insist: that prophecy in our day is different from biblical prophecy in that a person may err in his understanding of a prophecy or his delivery of it. The sinful nature of human beings manifests itself even in prophecy. And, of course, as cessationists will observe, this type of prophecy seems absent from Scripture unless we choose to so interpret (or misinterpret) the prophecies of Agabus. Similarly, the hesitancy to provide prophecies related to dates, mates, correction and direction seem to differ from Scripture as well since these are common themes among the prophets described in the Bible.

I heard much about healing at the conference, but was unable to understand how the spiritual gift of healing was in operation. Typically a person would prophecy that God wished to heal people of a particular condition (such as arthritis, migraine, pain in the lower extremities, and so on) and would ask such people to identify themselves. Those who wished to be healed were soon surrounded by men and women who were asked to lay their hands on them and pray for them. There would then be a time of prayer and prophecy. There were two things in particular that struck me about this. First, I could not see how the spiritual gift of healing was used. The gift of prophecy was clearly in operation in identifying illnesses that God wished to heal, but I did not see anyone acting like the Apostles who laid hands on those who were ill (or even just touched them with their shadow) and instantly healed them of a variety of lifelong, debilitating diseases. These were not slow, gradual healings of inner afflictions such as arthritis, but instantaneous, miraculous healings of people whose bodies were immediately and dramatically transformed so that whole towns immediately understood what had happened. So like the gift of prophecy, I had to understand that the gift of healing, as exercised in these circles, is dramatically different than it was in the times of Scripture unless those who laid hands on the sick were self-identified as having the gift of healing. But I don’t think this was the case.

Second, there is nothing distinctly charismatic about the laying on of hands or annointing with oil and thus with most of what was assumed to be a distinctly charismatic event. I have known people from the most conservative wings of Presbyterianism who practice this and who have seen God extend His healing through such means. My aunt was the recipient of such a blessing and was instantly and permanently cured of alcoholism by the means of the pastor and elders at her church laying their hands on her, annointing her with oil, and praying for her. The difference is that in non-charismatic circles, it will generally only be church officials, elders and pastors (in other words, those with spiritual oversight and authority over a person) who would lay hands on another.

Finally, and I apologize if this seems to be rude or sarcastic, but it was something I observed a couple of times, but I found it odd that an organization that so stresses modesty would encourage the laying on of hands. On a couple of occasions I saw women, and young women in particular, indicate that they sought healing. Both women and men would then come to these people and lay their hands on them. These were not men and women who knew them or were elders at their church, but just other people who decided to lay hands on them. I can’t help but think that this would make me uncomfortable if that were my teenage daughter or my wife. When reconciling teaching on modesty and the practice of laying on of hands there seems to be something of a contradiction: “Don’t let your bra strap show through your blouse, but let me put my hand on it!”

So here’s the rub. Charismatics identify and practice three spiritual gifts that are not practiced by cessationists. Of these gifts, one was not in evidence at the conference, one was spoken of but I did not observe it practiced within the context of a spiritual gift, leaving only one that was practiced, but even then with marked differences to biblical descriptions. But through all things I noted a humility and a subjection to the word of God. I saw the leaders demanding that things but done decently and in good order. I saw that, despite differences in our understanding of the continuing gifts, we hold most things in common.

While Sovereign Grace Ministries may always be known as being both a charismatic ministry, it was clear that this was only a small part of how the organization would identify itself. It is primarily an organization that wishes to worship and celebrate the sovereignty of God as shown in His grace towards sinners. It is an organization that seeks to maintain biblical humility and seeks to serve the body of Christ, not just in word but also in deed. I mentioned to a couple of people at the conference that somehow, while sitting in that church and hearing praises rise to God, I felt a sense of home. I don’t quite know how to describe this or what I even really mean by it, but somehow the environment felt so safe and so familiar, even though this was my first time worshipping at a Sovereign Grace event. I was moved, I was stirred and I was challenged. And best of all, I was led to grow in my understanding of God, my appreciation of God, my love for His people and my ability to bring worship to Him.