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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Owen Strachan

Blog posts by Owen Strachan:

Why the Church, Bro? An Excerpt from "Risky Gospel"

We need the church. It’s the ultimate community, created by almighty God so that people like you and me can flourish, laugh, learn, grow, weep, and love Christ together.

We’re not meant by God to be lone rangers. We’re made to plug into the fabric of a living body, one aimed not simply at life change or communal uplift but at the glory of God.

Pastoring the Idle

It’s a standard trope: The young seminarian takes his first pastorate. He’s loaded for bear, brimming with theological conviction, eager to love the people. He’s ready to meet the devil on the battlefield. His first year’s sermons are planned. He’s dreaming big, praying hard, and ready to go.

And then he meets it: Torpor. Indifference. Spiritual laziness.

Read it to Believe it: Revival Is Happening in Maine

Several hundred years ago, revival broke out in New England under the watchcare of America's greatest pastor, Jonathan Edwards.  275 years later, it may be happening again.
From Downeast magazine, a secular publication covering life in Maine, comes this hugely unexpected news: Maine, one of the spiritually "darkest" states in New England (America's least Christian region), is apparently experiencing a revival.  Evangelical churches emphasizing biblical literacy and doctrinal solidarity are seeing up to 20% increased attendance in recent days.  This, to say the least, is a shocker.
Here's what Cynthia Anderson writes in "Sanctuary", the article covering this seeming phenomenon (read the whole thing--it's that encouraging): 

The three Sunday services at Calvary Chapel regularly draw more than two thousand people. Turnout is similar ten miles away at Bangor Baptist Church, which has on its grounds two radio stations and the largest Christian school in the state. A few exits down Route 95 in Waterville, Faith Evangelical Free Church — originator of a popular YouTube series of skits based on the TV show The Office — also draws large crowds. Indeed, attendance at the state’s evangelical churches has swelled in recent years as mainline denominations have continued to struggle. According to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 37 percent of those Mainers who identify as Protestant now consider themselves evangelical.
The numbers, say religious experts and church leaders, suggest a surge of interest in Bible-based Christianity, particularly north of Portland. “It appears that there’s some sort of revival going on in central Maine,” says Ves Sheely, district superintendent of the Evangelical Free Church in New England. Sheely, who travels the state as he makes the rounds of the association’s sixty member churches, has observed new churches opening and attendance at existing ones rising. “I see an increased openness to spiritual life, here more than in other parts of New England. I see evidence of a new interest in Jesus.”
Others concur. “There is a trend of people going back to church here, especially to the more literally Bible-based churches,” says Jerry Mick, pastor of Bangor Baptist, where the nine hundred-person average weekly attendance reflects a 20 percent increase in two years. In the Bangor area alone there are more than forty churches, close to half of which are evangelical — including Nazarene, Baptist, Assembly of God, and non-denominational. Such religiosity is all the more notable given that the Pew study showed only 59 percent of Mainers are “absolutely certain” God exists, compared with 65 percent of those in the Northeast and 71 percent nationally.
The article, as one can see, doesn't given a ton of hard data.  There's a good amount of anecdotal evidence referenced here.  Furthermore, we all know that Christians have historically had a tendency to claim revival--and church growth--where it may or may not actually have happened.  If the testimony recorded here does reflect reality, however, this is a most unexpected and welcome development.
Can I give you a little context here?  I'm from Maine.  Real Maine--the deep country.  I am from a church that averaged between 30 and 70 people in attendance each week during my childhood.  Precious few people were saved during my time at First Baptist Church of East Machias.  This despite the faithful preaching of the gospel, the sacrificial evangelistic efforts of church members, and devoted members committed to imaging the gospel.  I knew of no revivals; my high school had perhaps 3-5 Christian students total.
When I went to college, I went to a vibrant church in Brunswick, Maine of between 200-300 members.  I thought it was a megachurch (seriously).  The congregation sponsored a radio ministry, had an education wing and pastor's offices, and more.  I could barely believe my eyes.
Why do I share this?  Because, in my limited experience, revival in Maine--no, revival in New England--is almost unheard of.  Though far from Maine now, I keep tabs on my beloved home state, and I know that now, just as always, many churches fight for their very existence.  Many pastors work bivocationally.  Asbury's circuit-riding has not died out; I know preachers who serve several tiny congregations that are the only gospel witnesses within miles.  If this revival (and other renewal efforts discussed by folks like Soong-Chang Rah) is indeed happening, and it seems it is, this is some of the most encouraging spiritual news I have ever heard regarding my home state and home region.  Ever.
I'm sure that many readers will lack a direct connection to Maine; whatever the case, would you join me in prayer for this development (and for other regions of our country and world)?  It may well be another confirmation that even in the darkest of times (a recent cover story by Newsweek showed that North American Christianity is indeed struggling in many cases), God has not forgotten His people.  As He has so often shown His church throughout the ages, He is faithful, He is strong to save, and His gospel of the kingdom is pushing back the thickest darkness through a mixed group of churches and faithful believers. 
In the land of Edwards, it seems, revival has come again.
To begin learning more about New England Christians:
New England Center for Expository Preaching (note the May 2010 pastor's conf featuring Mark Dever)
NETS Institute for Church Planting
Bangor Baptist Church
Calvary Chapel of Bangor
Faith Evangelical Free Church
2008 Pew Survey

A. T. Robertson, the Book of James, and Dudes with Ambition

If you have not picked up Greg Wills's recent The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford, 2009), you owe it to yourself to do so.  It's a huge book, it is an institutional history, and it may seem esoteric, but in reality, it reads crisply, it tells an engrossing story, and it offers wisdom on a great number of topics related to Christian life and ministry. 
In the course of reading the text, this section stood out to me.  Wills describes how the seminary's fourth president, E. Y. Mullins, handed down a policy in 1911 that pushed faculty away from leadership positions in the Southern Baptist Convention.  This may have happened 100 years ago, but I assure you that it is relevant for us today:
"Mullins apparently felt that the seminary president alone should exercise significant denominational leadership.  Mullins may have feared that his faculty would become more popular and influential in the denomination than he was.  Robertson, Sampey, McGlothlin, and Carver were indeed becoming very popular.  Robertson especially was growing in the esteem of the denomination for both his preaching and his scholarship." (280)
Wills comments on how two of the professors handled this seeming slight:
"Robertson became Mullins's warm supporter and promoter, and Mullins came to rely heavily on Robertson's counsel.  He gave up aspirations to equality with the president and became instead his promoter and chief counselor.  McGlothlin, however, apparently transgressed Mullins's restrictions inadvertently around 1914 or 1915, as McGlothlin attained the kind of leadership that had thus far eluded Mullins." (282)
In situations like this, there is always more than meets the eye.  Whether in a seminary, on a church staff, or among friends, jealousy and ambition have a way of finding an entryway.  In this particular case, Mullins seems to have acted out of naked jealousy and thus put his faculty in a difficult and unfair position.  He was the principal wrongdoer here.  In response, A. T. Robertson chose the high road and sacrificed his interests for the sake of peace at Southern.  McGlothlin took a different tack and ended up leaving the school and becoming the president of both Furman University in 1919 and the Southern Baptist Convention from 1930-32.  His route to leadership involved the loss of friendship with Mullins.
It surprised me in reading this sad story how much it mirrors the trajectory mapped out for jealousy and ambition in James 3:13-18:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth.  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic.  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. 
We note that James predicts perfectly what will happen when we allow the "bitter jealousy and selfish ambition" that reside in our hearts to creep into our friendships and working partnerships.  Peace will evade us.  "Disorder" will overtake us.  This is what happened at Southern nearly a century ago; this is what happens today, in countless places and situations, including in churches, seminaries, homes, and the contexts of everyday friendship.
It is a difficult thing to find the balance between righteous agency, of the kind commended, for example, in Proverbs and the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), and "selfish ambition".  Mullins and McGlothlin were both gifted for leadership; neither was sinful in principle for pursuing the application of their gifts in ministry.  But the way in which we fallen people work out the application of our gifts amongst brothers and sisters takes careful discernment. 
It can be very difficult to know whether in seeking more work, or a role that better suits our abilities, or the improvement of a certain sphere of our church, we are being selfishly ambitious and acting in part out of a jealous desire to displace others and exalt ourselves.  Or take another example.  In the age of the Internet, is it "selfishly ambitious" for authors to in some way advocate for their texts?  Or is it wise stewardship?  Is it better to have one's book languish on Amazon, unnoticed and thus of little benefit to the church, or to push a little harder and get the material into the hands of readers who may benefit from it?  These are tricky questions that necessitate prayer, brotherly counsel, and keen discernment.
What we can say for sure, though, and what we might forget as we tackle such thorny issues is that James commends "the meekness of wisdom" to those who are tempted to be sinfully ambitious and jealous.  What exactly does meekness look like?  Does it mean talking in a soft voice?  Limply shaking hands?  Wearing sweater-vests on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays? 
Speaking as a young man, I wonder whether those of us who want to kill our sin and embody "the meekness of wisdom" might locate this quality in an inward demeanor, a posture before the Lord that is "pure, peaceable, gentle...open to reason" and so on.  Those of us who want to avoid a limp-wristed Christianity need to remember that these traits are commended to us by God.  This does not put them in opposition to other biblical traits like agency, dominion-taking, kingdom shrewdness, boldness, courage, strength, and much more.  But it does mean that these qualities need to figure prominently in our character, and especially in areas where we are tempted to be jealous and ambitious.
That balanced way of life reminds us ultimately of another man and His own self-sacrifice for something much greater than a seminary or an institution.  In Jesus Christ, we have both the perfect example of self-sacrifice and the blood-bought means by which to live in "the meekness of wisdom".  We need when tempted to promote ourselves (a sin expedited by certain features of the web) and to hate others out of jealousy to remember with A. T. Robertson that the work the Lord has given us to do is rooted in Christ and the promotion of His fame and glory.  He is infinitely worthy of celebration; we are not. 
As we learn this--and it will take some of us young dudes a while to do so--we recall the biblical irony that characterized Christ's life and that should characterize our own.  In seeking a position of lowliness, He became great (Philippians 2:1-11).  In adopting a course of existence that sometimes appeared so weak, He in fact destroyed the powers of darkness that rule this world.  So may it be for us if we will allow God to humble us and further conform us to the role of servant in order that we might rule with Him.

Is It Good or Bad to Be a "Gospel Reductionist"?

Now that Thabiti and Juan are locked in a virtual hug, I thought that I might throw in a question that touches on some past discussions on this blog and others involving issues Greg has raised with a few books, namely, the idea that some recent evangelical texts, possessing many strengths, ultimately suffer from a deficient understanding of the cross and its centrality in biblical-theological discussion.In these discussions, some folks here and elsewhere responded to Greg's reviews of a couple of books by noting cautions about "reductionism".  They argued that they saw his kind of cross-focused analysis of a couple of different books simplistic.  The idea went that he had missed the forest for the trees, if I understood these responders rightly; he had so focused on the cross that he was missing other major ideas of the biblical text and Christian doctrine.  This, at least, was my understanding of the sometimes heated discussion.I've been chewing on this for a while, and I would say that there is certainly a danger of one kind of easy reductionism with a cross-focused perspective.  One can, if one is not careful, reduce everything to a kind of heat check: "Does it mention the cross?  Yeah?  How many times?  25?  That's not enough.  FAIL." This kind of approach is not helpful, I think we can all admit.  However, I wonder if Paul himself was what we might call in some sense a "gospel reductionist", that is, one who relentlessly brought things back to the cross of Christ and who anchored all of his theologizing in this central event of the biblical text.  Consider a statement like this from 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 (ESV): "And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." Embedded in a discussion of the wisdom of God and the foolishness of man, this statement seems to suggest that Paul was himself what we might call a "gospel reductionist" (one might also look at texts like 2 Timothy 1:8-14 and consult resources like Ligon Duncan's 2008 T4G talk).  That is, the entirety of his life and ministry centered in the cross.  The crucifixion of the Christ formed the cornerstone of his worldview, the grid by which he interpreted, well, everything.  Paul's categories of thought boiled down to this: the cross of Christ.  Moving from Paul's day to our own, it seems that we would do well to imitate Paul in our life and thought.  It would be no bad thing, therefore, to be a "gospel reductionist".  By this we mean not one who requires some kind of theological sniff test related to vocabulary or the like, but one whose thought revolves around and proceeds from the cross.We return to the matter mentioned in the beginning of this little blog, then.  When it comes to the writing of theological books (of which there is no end), it seems that we are wise, not foolish, to be "gospel reductionists".  We seek to create literature that, in a form or fashion fitting the dictates of the genre and the purpose of the book, relentlessly renders the cross as the core principle of our theology.  From this center, we work out the implications of life and theology, understanding the history of redemption, the salvific story of Scripture, and the core principle of biblical doctrine to hold the center.  Depending on our subject (whether economics or Oprah Winfrey or source criticism), we may have many or few citations of Passion narratives.  But in some sense, as Paul-imitating Christians, we will have the cross always in view.  Beyond this, we will never suggest that Scripture, or the theology and doctrine it births, has any other center than the cross.  There are surely counter-narratives and textual connections, as the Biblical Studies literature often reveals (see the New Studies in Biblical Theology series, for example).  Many of these themes relate to the cross, fill it out, and tie into it.  In addition, the cross illumines other themes--for example, one struggles to understand the doctrine of creation, and the new creation, without reference to the cross and the new order it births. It is one thing, therefore, to say that Scripture, a richly layered book if there ever was one, has multiple typologies, patterns and connections throughout.  It is another to displace the central narrative of Scripture (the salvific story which culminates in the cross of Christ) with any other.You can be a bad "gospel reductionist", it seems, with some kind of undeveloped sniff test.  But you can also be a faithful one, one who comprehends that the massive depth and breathtaking richness of Scripture proceeds from, ties to, and is illumined by the cross of Christ.  If this is true, and this argument is correct, may it be said of all of us that we are "gospel reductionists".

God, Evangelicals, and Advertising

Let me quickly say that it is an honor to post on this blog.  As a 9Marks blog rookie, I'm glad to be called off the bench (where I belong) to join the game.  For the record, I'm just here to pass into the post and keep the starters happy. Thanksgiving break afforded me the opportunity to do something I always enjoy: perusing evangelical magazines.  I only subscribe to World, so I don't stay current with many titles.  It's always interesting to peruse certain periodicals to see what content they feature, what the cover story is, and so on.  I noticed recently how many advertisers, many of them seminaries and colleges, in said magazines (unnamed on purpose) promote themselves in formats similar to secular marketers.  The lingo used in many of these color-splashed ads might include something like this:

  • "Distance learning you will benefit from"
  • "That's the essence of [College X]"
  • "Take your knowledge to a higher level"
  • "Discover how to use your God-given gifts"
  • "The flexibility you need; the depth you crave"

And the list goes on.Let me say that there is not necessarily anything heinous about these taglines.  Marketing is tough, and it helps to craft a catchy slogan that stands out from other products.  Furthermore, I don't approach marketing assuming that Christian advertisers need to quote Scripture or have certain words in the pitch.  There's room for all kinds of wording in our advertisements.However, I did wonder in my reading whether there was not an element missing from many of the ads I saw: God.  Many ads made reference to me, or a theoretical me, but few of them made reference to God.  Fewer still put God front and center in the advertisement.  I was left with the suspicion that one could change the names and titles in many of the ads I saw--secularize them, so to speak--leaving many of them fit for any old magazine, Christian or not.So what's the big deal?  They're just ads, right?  Well, I wondered whether these institutions weren't missing out on a great opportunity to reach the Christian audience with a message that far exceeds "Tailor your learning to your needs."  What if Christian organizations and schools advertised themselves like this:

  • God looms large over everything we do
  • Come learn about the transcendent majesty of almighty God
  • Begin a distance learning program that engages your love for Christ the King
  • God. Is. Awesome.
  • Experience the Exhilaration of the Gospel

Some schools do run these kind of ads.  But many don't.  Is there something missing here?  I think so.  Reading those kind of ads would, for me personally, grab my attention.  It's no secret that today's younger generation is captivated by God and "large-God" theology.  "Small-God" theology is out.  The grandeur of a holy King is in.  Would it behoove our marketers--and more importantly, our leaders--to see this?  Could we not better honor our God by such promotion and, at the same time, reach our audience more effectively?  Furthermore, I wonder here if the way we market our schools and organizations shows how we think about them, and about God more broadly.  We know from James 3:1-12 that the tongue plays a major role in leading us into error.  We might think that, if we wish to grow and change for God's glory, we need to first tackle the heart and then bridle the tongue.  But the Bible seems to suggest that to grow in grace we need to tackle the heart, yes, but we also need to know that bridling the tongue will help us greatly in our fight against sin.  If we allow ourselves to speak unwisely, then we will live unwisely.  If we change the way we speak, however, holding our tongues captive for Christ (to use a mildly strange metaphor), then we will be surprised at how the way we think changes in the process.So what's the bigger point?  Only this: perhaps if our schools--and, to broaden this, our churches!--thought of marketing more as an opportunity to showcase God and less of an opportunity to cater to so-called felt needs, we might see interest increase in our products.  Perhaps if we allowed God and the glorification of Him to shape all our promotion, publicity and thinking about our schools, organizations, and churches, we might see renewal of vision, "success" in our efforts, and most importantly, increased glory for the Lord of our lives.