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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Michael Lawrence

Blog posts by Michael Lawrence:

Biblical Theology, Identity, and Discipling

Identity matters. It matters in our culture, which is awash in identity politics and the unimpeachable claims that identity provides. And it matters among Christians. We call people to live up to and live out the reality of who they are in Christ: an alien and stranger, salt and light, a member of the body of Christ or bride of Christ, a temple of the Spirit, a new creation, and so on.  We encourage one another to put on the new self.

Words, Words, Words


It's a good question you ask, and an interesting observation you make. The tendency to decouple propositional truth statements from the personality of God in order to emphasize the latter is almost too ironic to bear.

By it's very nature, speech is propositional. When we speak, we say things that can be believed, doubted, denied. I suppose it's possible to engage in non-propositional speech, but hardly any of us ever do while we're in our right minds.

On the other hand, only persons engage in speech. Animals don't speak (though some engage in some forms of communication). Inanimate objects don't speak (though they may make strong impressions upon us). In the entire universe, only persons speak.

Which means that one of the most uniquely personal things any of us can ever do is open our mouths and start talking.

Now let's apply that insight to our thinking about God.

How do we know that God is a person, rather than a force or power? And how do we know that we can actually have a relationship with that personal God? We know it because that same God has spoken to us. So far from being distancing and abstract, God's propositional speech in the Bible, and through His Son, is intrinsically intimate and personal.

As a preacher, I have to understand and believe that, and then preach His Word in light of that truth. I have an obligation to deliver the truth of God from his Word, but I also have an obligation to deliver it as the kind of speech it is. It's not a systematic theology, though it contains truth that can and should be systematized. It's not a history lesson, though it contains that. It's not a story, though it has plenty of those. Rather, it's a personal message, indeed a revelation of a Person, who desires to be known by other persons. As a preacher, I need to convey that I'm delivering something other than a lecture or 3-step plan of action. No. I'm an ambassador, speaking for a King to his subjects; I'm a best-man, speaking on behalf of a groom to his bride; I'm a brother, speaking on behalf of a Father to his children.

I remember talking to a Hindu friend of mine in college freshman year. I was explaining the gospel, and I kept using the phrase, "the Bible says..." After a while, he stopped me and asked, "Don't you think that God wrote the Bible?" I replied that though he used people as means, that yes, I thought that ultimately, what the Bible said, God said. He then said to me, "Then why don't you say, 'God says... instead of 'the Bible says...?'"

I don't think we should stop using the phrase, "the Bible says...". But I took his point, and it's stuck with me over the years. I think JI Packer has summed it up well in God Has Spoken (3rd ed, Baker, 1994):Why has God spoken?...The truly staggering answer which the Bible gives to this question is that God's purpose in revelation is to make friends with us. It was to this end that He created us rational beings, bearing His image, able to think and hear and speak and love; He wanted there to be genuine personal affection and friendship, two-sided, between Himself and us - a relation, not like that between a man and his dog, but like that of a father to his child, or a husband to his wife.As pastors, we can get quite concerned with the fine points of our exegesis and the details of our theology. And we should be concerned about those things. But we also need to remember that those skills and tools are given to us to use in order to help people hear the Divine Lover speak to their souls and then respond to him with their lives.

Re: The Problem with Evangelicalism & One Reason it Matters

I couldn't agree with Mike McKinley more. We've lost our faith in the power (and even necessity) of God's Word, and we've put our faith in method.

And here's one reason it matters. In abandoning God's Word for method and experience, we're playing into the hands of a growing segment of our culture that is perfectly willing to make room for transcendent experience but is utterly opposed to the notion of a personal God who reveals Himself with truth claims on our lives.

This week I was listening to the Kojo Nnamdi show on my local NPR station. Kojo was interviewing Stuart Kauffman, a bio-physicist who on the one hand argues against the reductionism of modern physics, but on the other hand rejects the traditional notion of the God of the Bible.

Then there's the article by NYT columnist David Brooks that a church member just sent me, The Neural Buddhists. Brooks, with people like Kauffman in mind though he mentions a different list, describes a new atheism that, like Buddhism, is quite comfortable with a spiritual transcendent reality, but is completely at odds with a notion of Deity that is personal and able to reveal specific doctrines that have universal application.

What does all this mean? It means that in a post-modern world, in which science itself is increasingly comfortable with the notion that it cannot explain everything we experience, people are going to be at ease with our talk of spiritual reality and attracted to our services designed to produce an experience of the transcendent. What they are not going to be comfortable with is the exclusive claims of Christ (when have they ever been?).

As Brooks notes, that means the debate is likely to shift. It will shift from a discussion of the existence of God to a debate over "faith in the Bible." If he's right, and I think he is (we've been in one form or another of this debate ever since the hermeneutical turn of the mid-20th century), then ironically, our attempts to redefine and recommend the truth of Christianity through spiritual experience, or social engagement, or aesthetic innovation will simply give comfort to the new Buddhists, who "feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits." Where do we learn that behind our experience of the transcendent stands a personal God who has revealed himself concretely in the person of Jesus Christ? Where do we learn what the will of this personal God is? Where do we discover the objective means to experiencing a subjective relationship with this God? We don't learn it from our experience, our aesthetics, or our social engagement. We learn it from Scripture, which alone is "able to make us wise unto salvation." (2 Tim 3:14-16) If in the midst of the cultural shift which this new scientific revolution is precipitating we abandon the Bible, then we will discover that we have lost the battle before it's even been engaged.

How has my understanding of the Gospel changed?

Upon my return from T4G 08, that's the question I was asked to answer in a random national poll of pastors for a leading Christian magazine. They wanted to know how I would rate myself and my church on seven different questions, both now and ten years ago. Here are the questions:

  1. I (my church) focus more on the Epistles or the Gospels.
  2. I (my church) believe the mission of the Gospel is advanced by proclamation or demonstration.
  3. I (my church) believe the goal of local evangelism is to grow my church of to grow the church.
  4. I (my church) see the Kingdom of God as a future heavenly reality or a present reality on earth.
  5. I (my church) believe conversion is a singular decision or a journey over time.
  6. I (my church) believe the Gospel is more exclusive or more inclusive.
  7. I (my church) believe partnering with other local churches is essential to our mission or not important to our mission.

So what are your answers?

Are you saying I'm "Chubb-y"?

I really should be working on my sermon for Sunday, but here's a quick response, since based on your dead horse post we're not so far apart. My numbers correspond with yours.

1. Of course. The church in its public teaching should explore what justice looks like, and how we as individuals can promote it. Like I said in my first post on this topic, the church should disciple its members to obey Jesus, which includes love of neighbor, which includes acts of mercy and justice. To say the church shouldn't be in the soup kitchen or art gallery business isn't to say that the church shouldn't encourage its members to be in those businesses either.

2. Again, yes of course. But that's not the issue. Its really the other way around The issue is, "If an individual is doing it, does that mean the church is doing it (or should do it)." I contend, "It all depends." If I'm preaching on Sunday morning, then even though an individual is doing it, the church is actually fulfilling her duty. I'm representing the church and the church as a whole has set me aside for that purpose. But if I bake a cake for my neighbor for his birthday in fulfillment of the command to love my neighbor, that doesn't mean the church really baked the cake, or should have. So if no one is "baking cakes" in my church, we have a problem. But the problem isn't that the church hasn't organized a bakery. The problem is that the church hasn't taught its members to love their neighbors. And that is a problem of health, I agree.

3. I don't disagree. But again I think this comes back to the responsibility of discipling our members.

So yes, we need to ask the question you and others are asking: Are we being merciful? How can we be more merciful? How can we be strategic and creative and gospel-driven in our acts of mercy? And the fact that we're not asking these questions and acting on them is a sign that we're not as healthy as we would like to think. But the "we" in these sentences isn't the collective "we" of the church, but the distributive "we" of our church members.

Honestly, I think we're having this discussion as evangelicals because we aren't very merciful, its pricking our conscience, and as creatures of our culture, we tend to think the solution for individual failure is corporate (bureaucratic) organization. Practically I think we'll see more impact with a more entrepreneurial approach. Theologically, I think that's the way God designed it.

Now back to Galatians 3.

Parsing the church


Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks!

As for parsing the church and the individual Christian, I agree that we can push this distinction too far. But a distinction exists nonetheless.

So for example, as a Christian, I am commanded to love my wife as Christ loves the Church. This is a universal mandate for all Christian husbands and an entailment of the gospel. But that in no way means that the members of CHBC are equally commanded to love my wife as Christ loves the church.

No doubt, as all the husbands in our church love their wives in the pattern of Ephesians 5, the worldly  communities of which we are a part will take notice. There will be a collective, social impact. But the responsibility remains several, not joint. The church can't do this for me, or without me, and I'm responsible to fulfill this command whether or not the rest of the church backs me up in it.

I think this is particularly useful in helping us relate "mercy ministry" to the church. It seems to me that mercy ministry is simply an application of the command to "love your neighbor as yourself." That command hits each one of us individually. We can't say we've obeyed the command to love simply by pointing to other people in our church that are loving others on behalf of the church. In fact, isn't the command to love by its very nature inescapably several, rather than joint? Of course, individuals can band together, pool their resources and talents, become highly efficient and skilled in the delivery of physical mercy on a large scale. But it's still in fulfillment of the command to love, which rests upon me.

I think this is fundamentally different from commands like Hebrews 10:25, "Don't forsake the assembling together", or Mat 28:19-20, "Go and make disciples of all nations, etc." These are examples of commands given to the church, as the church. As a member of a local church, I should support the fulfillment of these commands. But the church can and should go on without me should I refuse to help. They are fundamentally joint responsibilities.

So I don't mean to separate the identity of the church from the believer, as McKanna writes, but I don't think they are identical either, or that they exhaust each other. I am a member of a local church. I am also a citizen of a heavenly kingdom. I have responsibilities and privileges as a result of both memberships. They are related and overlap, and inextricably related at this point of redemptive history, but they aren't the same. I'm concerned that we don't help either the church or the individual Christian by blurring this distinction. Frankly, I'd like to see more ministries of mercy and social impact amongst the members of our church, not less. But so long as people think its the responsibility of the church, I fear the opposite will occur.

I don't know if this answers your question about parsing, and I know it raises a host of other questions, but that's the best I can do between dinner and Bible Study!

Who's responsible?

I wasn't really invited to this post, and I haven't even read all the entries, but I was struck by Mike's question, "So, what's the responsibility of the church?"

As far as I can tell, the church, as church, is never given the responsibility to engage in direct social action. Rather, the church is responsible to preach the gospel and disciple it's members, teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded.

But of course, part of the "everything" is to "love your neighbor as yourself." So our preaching and discpling should make clear the real implications of the gospel on the lives of individual Christians, including implications for how we should engage the society in which we live, as an expression of Christian love. But that's a far cry from saying the church is responsible to reform culture.

It seems to me that two theological concepts are crucial here. One is "sphere sovereignty" and the other is the "kingdom of God."

I was reminded of "sphere sovereignty" recently by the pastor of a large paedobaptist church in a city roughly four hours north of here. I'd first run across it reading Kuyper, and this pastor used it to explain his church's approach to issues of social action/ social justice. He understood that it was not the church's responsibilty to run schools or orphanages or art galleries. Indeed, he went so far as to say it would be wrong of the church to do so, an encroachment on the responsibility given to others and an abandonment of her own responsibility. Rather the church should be discipling her members so that they would go out and do such things to the glory of God and the good of their communities.

On the other hand, as George Eldon Ladd reminded us all some time ago, the "kingdom of God" is not a "realm" but a "reign." The church, as church, gives witness to the kingdom by proclaiming the King and teaching the citizens of that kingdom to obey the words of the King. As a community, the church displays the eschatological reality that the New Age has dawned and heaven has broken in on earthly reality. She is literally so many colonies of heaven. But the church isn't the kingdom! And this side of glory, society at large will never be a colony of heaven. The kingdom of God is bigger than the church, but never co-extensive with society. Rather, it is seen wherever God's saving reign is displayed in and through the lives of believers.

It seems to me, anyway, that Reformed evangelicals' talk about social engagment is largely motivated by the correct sense that the Kingdom of God should be felt and seen wherever Christians are: in the workplace, at school, in the neighborhood, etc. But being creatures of modernity, we immediately think in terms of programs and strucutres, which leads us to the church, and wondering why the "organization" we're a part of isn't more engaged. The initial impulse is correct, but where it leads us is confused. It's not the church's responsibility to address the problem of homelessness in society at large (though it better make sure that it's own members aren't homeless!) It's Christians' responsibility, as servants of the King, individually and together, to address that issue, as we seek to display the saving reign of God in every sphere of life.

A related theological concept that I just realized I was assuming, but should make explicit: Responsibility isn't (necessarily) transitive. This is really just an extension of sphere sovereignty. We all understand this when it comes to our families. I'm a member of my family. I'm also a member of the CHBC pastoral staff. Most days I come home from work not having accomplished everything I should have. My wife is grateful that the church doesn't think the family is somehow repsonsible for making up my incomplete work. It's the same with the church. My discipleship as a Christian is given shape by the church, but it's not exhausted by it. I bear responsbilities as a Christian that the local church does not. And equally important, just because I'm resonsible for something doesn't make the church responsible too.

To eat or not to eat

First, let me say it's good to be here...finally. (I'm talking about the new house.)

Second, I want to suggest, from Scripture, that Paul's instructions in 1 Cor. 5:11 are not necessarily intended to rupture relations within the biological family, though that is precisely what they are intended to do within the spiritual family. Two scriptural lines of thought are relevant.

First, throughout the New Testament, Jesus' call to a family-transcending loyalty notwithstanding, the overarching concern is to preserve the integrity and peace of the natural family for the sake of the gospel. To take just one example: the believing spouse is urged to remain with the unbelieving spouse if possible, for the sake of the unbeliever's salvation. (1 Cor 7:12-14; 1 Pet 3:1-2). The context of 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that this "living with" includes sexual intimacy, which by anyone's standards surpasses the intimacy of a shared meal. Typically we read these verses assuming the unbeliever has never professed faith, but there's nothing in the text that demands that assumption. Paul's instruction is equally applicable to the believer who's spouse has apostasized. It just doesn't make sense to read Paul to teach in that situation that they can have sex, but not a meal.

We could look at other examples, like Paul's condemnation of those who don't provide for their families, regardless of their status as believers, or the enduring obligation of children to honor their parents, regardless of their status as believers. The point remains the same. In the context of the biological family, such actions of love commend the gospel.

The second line of thought concerns the distinction the New Testament makes between the biological family and the spiritual family. Here, Jesus' question about who is my mother and brother and sister is supremely relevant (Mk 3:33-35). In the Old Covenant, the biological and spiritual families were one and the same, at least to external observation. In the New Covenant, as Jeremiah prophesied (Jer 31:29-34), the automatic, generational link between the biological and spiritual families is severed. Now, as Jesus points out, inclusion in the spiritual family of God is based on spiritual regeneration that produces repentance and faith. This produced all sorts of changes within the administration of the covenant that I don't need to explain to my fellow Baptist Church Matters bloggers.

But one area that perhaps we have not considered fully is the biological family and discipline. In the Old Covenant, if a spouse or child sought to entice you to idolatry, not only were they to be stoned, but you were to cast the first one (Deut. 13:6-12). Originally, it was the father who circumcised his sons (Gen. 17). But in the New Covenant, it is not the biological family that baptizes or exercises church discipline, it's the spiritual family, because spiritual relations are in view.

What does this mean for the wife who's husband has been excommunicated? Unlike most everyone else in their church, sharing a meal with him is not primarily an expression of Christian fellowship, but of familial love and duty. She should certainly not treat him as if he were a Christian. But neither of them ever thought toast and coffee in the morning was about that anyway. On the other hand, she should now pray for him, not with him, and she should focus her concern and conversation on his repentance. But surely even that looks different when you're with someone every day than it would for the pastor who bumps into him on the street. Isn't this precisely what Paul and Peter were both getting at? Far from invalidating your marriage or requiring you to engage in 24/7 evangelistic conversation, unbelief in the home and marriage is a unique opportunity for the patient display of love and grace up close and personal.

If I were a particular kind of Presbyterian, who held to a highly objective structure for the covenant family, I could see arguing against table fellowship with an excommunicate inside the family. But as a Baptist and congregationalist, that sort of overlay is precisely what I want to avoid. Not so that I can keep the church out of my living room. But rather to make clear that my living room is not the church. I have obligations to both my biological family and my spiritual family. Sometimes, the same person will be a member of both families, sometimes not. But the obligations endure, and in both cases, they do so for the sake of the gospel.