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9Marks Explained : A Letter From Mark Dever

Gospel

Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel?

Greg's book should be here really soon and it looks well worth grabbing a copy.  Pastors: This would be really useful to put in the hands of your church members.   

   A couple of questions for Greg: 
1.  Why did you write the book?  
2.  Can you summarize (briefly) what are the major challenges to the gospel today? 
3.  Who should read the book?  
4.  You wrote a chapter on the Cross being at the center....why?  Isn't that obvious to most Christians?  

Avatar, Suicide, and the Gospel

According to this article on CNN.com, James Cameron's mega-hit Avatar is sending some people into a spiral of suicidal despair.  One man posted on an Avatar fansite:Ever since I went to see 'Avatar' I have been depressed. Watching the
wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na'vi made me want to be one of
them. I can't stop thinking about all the things that happened in the
film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it... I
even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed
in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in
'Avatar.'
I haven't seen the movie and I don't plan to (a movie set on the planet Pandora, which is rich in the mineral unobtainium -- wow, that's subtle!).  But I think the reaction that people are having is completely reasonable;  in fact I am amazed that it takes a movie to make them depressed.  The world is a broken place.  We instinctively know that it shouldn't be this way.  Something has gone wrong. This is why I really like The World We All Want, a small book by Tim Chester and Steve Timmis.   It uses Biblical Theology to communicate the gospel message.  I find it particularly helpful because most unbelievers nowadays don't begin with the assumption that they are sinners.  There's no "point of contact" there.  But people do know that the world's a broken place, and we all feel a desire for a better world to live in.  Hence all the Avatar-inspired depression.  TWWAW begins at that point of agreement and works back (or forward) to the idea of sin, redemption, and restoration.  We've used it in evangelistic Bible studies and I've used it one on one with people.  It's a great resource.

Contextualization: Let's Call the Whole Thing Love!

My brother Juan sent me this wonderful response to my recent contextualization post.  With his permission, I'm posting it here.  As you can see, Juan is a very gracious and thoughtful brother in the Lord!-------------------------------------------------------------

Dear Thabiti,

Thank you so much for your gracious spirit, brother.  Your post on effective communication versus
contextualization is a model of how we should speak the truth to one another in
love and work at sharpening one another.

I know for a fact that we share the same concerns about
preserving the gospel from adulteration. 
I confess that I am pretty new in this conversation myself, so I may not
have chosen the best definition as a starting point.  However, as I have been preaching through 1
Corinthians, I have come to realize more clearly the centrality of love for
Paul’s argument.  Throughout the entire
letter Paul urges the Corinthians to embrace the gospel in every area of
life.  This very gospel leads us to love
one another, putting others before ourselves.

I believe this exhortation to love is at the heart of the
conversations about contextualization or as you say, effective
communication.  Paul is concerned that
the strong are not expressing love by potentially leading the weak brothers to
go against their consciences by eating meat offered to idols.  Love, Paul agues, should motivate them to
forsake their rights for the purpose of building up the body.  As it was, they were tearing it apart (1 Cor.
8). 

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul uses himself as an example of what
forsaking rights looks like.  Paul exposes
his willingness to forsake his rights when they might become an obstacle to the
gospel because he wants to win people to Christ.  So Paul forsakes his freedom from the Mosaic
Law and functions as one who is under the law in order to win Jews and Jewish
proselytes.  Paul also is willing to
identify with Gentiles who are not under Mosaic Law, though he himself is under
the law of Christ; thus, he is not lawless-identifying with the people he is trying
to reach has its limits.  I agree with
you wholeheartedly that this identification with the differing groups’
particular cultural practices and traditions is for the purpose of calling them
out of their present state (both Jewish traditionalism and Gentile paganism)
and into the new way of Christianity-something completely different.  Thus, we are no longer Jews or Gentiles, but
Christians.

Paul’s
main concern is the priority of the gospel, and as you say, effectively
communicating that gospel.  Such
effective communication requires the difficult effort of removing whatever
personal obstacles might prohibit such gospel communication from being
effective – such as when Paul circumcised Timothy in order to effectively
communicate the gospel to Jews (Acts 16:1-3). 
Love demands that we forsake our rights, freedoms if they become
obstacles to the gospel.  This is what
Paul did, and this is what he calls us to do – “Give no offense to Jews or to
Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything
I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be
saved.  Be imitators of me, as I am of
Christ (1 Cor. 10:32-11:1, ESV).

So, you say effective communication; some say
contextualization.  Let’s call the whole
thing love!

Grace
and peace,

Juan

Acts
20:24

Is It Contextualization or Effective Communication?

Right up front, let me admit my great uneasiness about "contextualization" conversations.  In truth, I've not read a lot of the literature; so I'm probably overlooking the very best definitions and arguments for it.But what I see and hear makes me quite hesitant.  Here's why: I think a lot of what's done in the name of "contextualization" is a prostituting of the gospel and the church.  It gives away the message of Christ's redemption and the people of Christ's love in the name of "being like others to win others."  I know that's an oversimplification, but you get my point.  Intentionally or unintentionally, I think more is lost than gained under this banner.Let me give you an example from a post from our very good friend and brother, Juan Sanchez, writing on contextualization over at the Gospel Coalition Blog.  Now, this is friendly fire, an intramural discussion between folks wearing the same jerseys.  But I thought I'd comment here because Juan borrows from a quote in a recent 9Marks 9Marks Journal on missions.  Here's the quote:Contextualization is the word we use for the process of making the
gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural
context. . . .The question is not whether we’re going to
contextualize.  The question facing every believer and every church is
whether we will contextualize well.  (See, Putting Contextualization in Its Place, 9 Marks, 9Marks Journal, July/August 2009).What's wrong with that Thabiti?  It's written by a friend and published in a 9Marks publication.  Gee whiz!I know there is the oft-cited text from 1 Cor. 9 about becoming all things to all men so that some might be won.  But what is Paul winning them to?  Are we really called anywhere in the Bible to make it our aim to "make the gospel and the church as much at home as possible in a given cultural context"?  I thought our aim was to remain as strange, other-worldly, "pilgrimy" as possible in every cultural context.  I just can't see warrant for that definition of contextualization.  That would seem to be anathema to every "come out from among them" command in Scripture.  The gospel and the church simply are not at home in the world.And yet, we must communicate in the world,  But we do that to "win some," which means to bring them into something new and wonderful.  We must bring people into the church through the gospel and the call to make disciples.  And that movement into the church is away from the world, distinguishing itself from the world, drawing a neon line around the church to mark it off from the world.  it identifies as something alien, not something "at home in the world."I know my friend Juan knows this and even says so in the post.  He's not arguing for worldliness.  But as I look at Juan's concluding thoughts about how contextualization might look, I wonder if it might not be better to drop "contextualization" altogether, and stick with "communication."  Here is Juan's description of what good contextualization might look like:First, we must identify, as much as Scripture allows, with the people we are trying to reach. 
Second, we must realize that such identification requires that we forsake our Christian rights/freedoms in order to become a servant to all. To these two points I say a hearty, "Amen!"  But I think, at bottom, these are the kinds of things we should always do if we want to understand and be understood, in other words, if we want to communicate effectively.Is it oversimplifying to say that when we're talking about "contextualization" we're simply talking about communicating well?  And if that's so, does that help us escape the worldward pull of so much "contextualize" conversation and strategy?  Does it help us to embrace a more biblical pragmatism rather than what may become at points an unprincipled pragmatism that mixes the church and the world?

The Gospel and the Truth About You, Pt. 2 -- Prayer

In my last post, I hashed over the way the gospel gives us freedom to admit the truth about ourselves.  One way that this freedom manifests itself is in our prayer lives.  Oftentimes we don't come before God in prayer as if He knew all our faults and loved us anyway in Christ.  Instead, we try to clean our act up first or (more likely) we don't come at all.  But the gospel gives lousy sinners the freedom to pray with boldness.  I've been greatly enjoying Paul Miller's A Praying Life.  I highly commend it to you.  Here's a quote from pages 30-32:Jesus wants us to be without pretense when we come to him in prayer.  Instead, we often try to be something we aren't... What's the problem?  We're trying to be spiritual, to get it right.  We know we don't need to clean up our act in order to become a Christian, but when it comes to praying, we forget that.  We, like adults, try to fix ourselves up.  In contrast, Jesus wants us to come to him like little children, just as we are.  The difficulty of coming just as we are is that we are messy.  And prayer makes it worse.... (but) Jesus does not say, "Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest."  No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, "Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28, NASB).  The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness.  Come overwhelmed with life.  Come with your wandering mind.  Come messy. Thank God that Hebrews 4:15-16 is in the Bible!

The Gospel and the Truth About You, Pt. 1

We should all be growing in our understanding of the gospel.  Over the past five years in pastoral ministry, the Lord has been teaching me about the liberating power of the gospel: it frees us to admit that truth about us.  I am blown away by how many Christians (myself included) want to live in denial, desperately hiding the sins and struggles that would make us look bad.  Even if we're not aware of it, we often think something like, "If people knew the truth about me, then they would reject me and judge me.  If I admitted the truth about myself to myself, I would have to feel guilt and shame."  Now think about how much damage is done in marriages, in churches, between parents and children, when people won't own their guilt and ask for forgiveness.But the gospel, of course, blows up that dynamic.  The cross comes and affirms every bad thing about you (you're so sinful that the only way you could be redeemed was for the Son of God to die for you) and affirms everything you've ever wanted (in Christ you stand completely righteous before God).  As a result, we are set free to admit our sins and failures and mistakes.Two resources have been VERY helpful to me.  First, an article I've mentioned before: The Cross and Criticism by Alfred Poirier.  Here's a sample quote:In response to my sin, the cross has criticized me more intensely, deeply, pervasively, and truly than anyone else ever could.  This knowledge permits us to say to all other criticism of us: "This is just a fraction of it."... If the cross says anything, it speaks about my sin.And second, an article from Winter 2007 edition of The Journal of Biblical Counseling by Tim Keller called.  Here's a sample quote:The gospel gives you psychological freedom to handle the wrong things that you will do. You won’t have to deny, spin, or repress the truth about yourself. These things don’t make it impossible to know who you are. Only with the support of hearing Jesus say, “You are capable of terrible things, but I am absolutely, unconditionally committed to you,” will you be able to be honest with yourself.  

FIEL Conference in Portugal

John Folmar and I are enjoying the enormous privilege of leading some 9Marks workshops with a group of Portugese pastors, wives and other church leaders on the West Coast of Portugal.It has been such a pleasure to spend the last couple of days with brothers and sisters in a country where it is hard to be a minister, and yet there is such joy, hopefulness and perseverance despite many discouragements and much opposition. But they worship exactly the same almighty, gracious and compassionate God as the most visibly successful pastor ploughing the easiest of soil (to mix my metaphors). He is being just as kind to them, and they seem to know it.The conference is organised by FIEL, a publishing house based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It is a tremendous ministry that seeks to encourage pastors by translating good books into Portuguese, and organising conferences for pastors.Jonathan Leeman and Matt Schmucker visited the Brazilian Conference last yearMark Dever and Don Carson were at the Brazilian conference this year.One of the new developments in FIEL's ministry is that talks from conferences going back some time are now available on ustream. You can find them here.Here's John's First talk. Once he gets past his excuses for lacking a tie (worth listening to!) John gives a great talk on the importance of having a biblical understanding of the gospel at the centre of the life of the church.Getting to hang out with John has been another highlight of the last couple of days.

Why Preach the Gospel in Ignorance?

Greg, helpful and provocative follow-up on RE: the Gospel.  I'm thankful for the piercing clarity you conclude with.  So good I'll copy them here just to be more closely associated with them:

You can see, therefore, why it's so jaw-droppingly ironic when people point to passages like that and say, "I'm going to preach the gospel like that!"  What they're so boldly and courageously declaring is, really, "I’m proudly going to preach the gospel as if I've never fully understood it!  I’m going to preach Jesus' Messiahship as an empty category, void of the content that Jesus himself poured into it through the course of his ministry!  I’m going to preach the gospel in ignorance!”
The four Gospels tell a story, and a significant theme in that story is how the disciples gradually came to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “The kingdom of God is at hand; therefore repent and believe.”  Every phrase of that tightly packed sentence was filled up with meaning as Jesus taught.  And through the course of the story, the disciples moved from ignorance to understanding.  Now, understanding that, I have to ask:  Why would anyone want to go to the part of the story where the disciples are still plainly ignorant and say, “Right there.  That’s my model for my preaching”? 
This is just entirely helpful, along with your exposition of how the developing understanding of the gospels and gospel should help us read briefer statements more fully.
A couple of reasons why someone would look at the disciples in their ignorance and say, "Right there, that's my model for preaching."
1.  Ignorance of our own.  How many have thought about the development of the gospels and the disciples' understanding as clearly as you state it here?  Statements about the disciples' ignorance and unbelief are clear enough in the gospels (John 2:22; 12:16; 14:26; Luke 24:5-8), but I don't knoww that we keep the original disciples' ignorance in mind as we read of their lives with the Lord.  So, an ignorance--benign in intent if not in effect--afflicts our reading of the Scripture, and subsequently our teaching of the Scripture.  And this basic ignorance gets compounded with a more serious ignorance of the Scriptures, of biblical, systematic and historical theology, and of the real needs of our people.  So we tend toward the adoption of messages consistent with our not knowing, our ignorance.
2.  Red letter Bibles and the authority of words.  This is a variation on the ignorance theme, but perhaps some people look to the words of Jesus and the words of the apostles in the gospels as somehow more authentic and paradigmatic.  We see this all the time in "scholarly" circles where critical analysis is king, and effort to get behind the text to the "real" words and meanings.  Red letter Bibles have become the layman's version of this same striving to get "behind" the words to the real or true words with authority.  I remember the first time I heard a Christian co-worker say to me when discussing something in Romans, "Yeah, but we're really just supposed to pay attention to the words in red.  Those are Jesus' words.  The rest don't count as much" or something like that.  That's one way you end up with "jaw-droppingly ironic" preaching methods and messages that leave a lot to be desired.  And among certain pastors, there is an attraction to "authenticity" and ancient forms.  In unsophisticated terms, that attraction tends toward  the simplistic (not simple).
3.  Laziness.  It doesn't require much to preach a gospel empty of the meaning that's placed into it by the whole of scripture.  It's easier to reduce it to an outline.  But to meditate on and preach the riches of the gospel in all their diamond-like light-refracting glory takes work.  How do you get to the gospel from 2 Samuel 18 without tacking on a little outline or plea at the end?  Work.  Application of the whole counsel of God.  Biblical theology.  Systematic theology.  Careful exegesis.  Work.
4.  Trendiness.  Not everyone who takes the approach we lament is lazy or ignorant.  Some are trendy.  It's trendy right now to speak as though this or that camp i ssomehow the theological and methodological descendants of the original apostles and practicing just as they did.  Church buildings are out.  Candles are in.  Done with any liturgy or structure; let's get on with community ambiguously construed.  Reading our NTs or church history for "what the early church did" is fashionable.  Now, that examination has its place and is necessary to our understanding.  But, there exists a kind of "really old is kool" trendiness and shallowness about some of this.  A disdain or indifference toward the contemporary church prompts an odd anti-church reading of the Scripture, and all of that is labeled en vogue, cool, trendy, and a host of other phrases.
5.  Social concern.  A lot of social justice concern is poured into the broader definitions of the gospel and the way it's preached.  The formulation you insist on at bottom, seems to disallow such concerns.  Some think insistence on personal repentance and faith, sin and wrath, and forgiveness and eternal life creates an other-worldly perspective that weakens this-worldly mission.  And to be fair, for too many preachers and Christians this biblical definition and essential message has at least limited social concern to this or that favorite issue, if not removed it altogether.  So the broader kingdom emphasis, with simplicity and ambiguity as handmaidens, opens for some a door for ensuring these important things are included. 
6.  Fear of man.  One can't help but think that some of this attempt to redefine the gospel in terms that downplay substitution, sin, wrath, and the call to repentance and faith finds its impetus in the fear of man.  Let's face it: preaching the gospel has always been and will always be wildly unpopular with sinners and with many professing Christians who love the Lord but who've never thought long about such issues.  If the preacher's soul tires of staring into unhappy and indifferent faces, cowers at offending, or finds resistance to the gospel discouraging, he'll not be long in preaching the gospel with application to individuals.  He'll find "the kingdom" or something called "the gospel" with no personal demands safer ground for his feet.  And he'll stand there rather than outside the camp, at the flaming hot gates of hell, where there is opposition, persecution, slander, reviling, and suffering.

Transferring the Gospel to the Next Generation

An encouraging interview with our friends Josh and C.J. about the changing and growing work of Sovereign Grace Ministries for the Kingdom of our Lord.

Carson on the Gospel and Social Transformation

From my devotional reading this morning:We must always remember that: The Gospel is not admired in Scripture primarily because of the social transformation it effects, but because it reconciles men and women to a holy God.  Its purpose is not that we might feel fulfilled, but that we might be reconciled to the living and holy God.  The consummation is delightful to the transformed people of God, not simply because the environment of the new heaven and the new earth is pleasing, but because we forever live and work and worship in the unshielded radiance of the presence of our holy Maker and Redeemer.  That prospect must shape how the church lives and serves, and determine the pulse of its ministry.  The only alternative is high-sounding but self-serving idolatry.Come Lord Jesus!