What is the connection between biblical theology and counseling in the local church? Perhaps at first glance you might say, not much!
Why? When you hear “biblical theology,” you tend to think of overarching categories such as creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. You think in terms of major biblical themes such as sin, suffering, exodus, sacrifice, law, kingdom, and exile, and how they develop in Scripture over the course of redemptive history. When you hear “counseling,” what comes to mind are topics such as interpersonal ministry, conversation, discipleship, personal struggles, and crisis. You see specific names and faces.
Biblical theology, as edifying and important as it is, can seem a bit abstract compared to the concrete, flesh-and-blood realities of life on the street this side of glory. But I would argue the two are intimately related. Their interrelationship provides the foundation to carry out a truthful, wise, and contextually relevant counseling ministry in the church.
The great biblical theologian Geerhardus Vos said, “All that God disclosed of Himself has come in response to the practical religious needs of His people as these emerged in the course of history.” This means the Scriptures come to us jam-packed with relevance for problems in living. The Bible not only gives us biblical theology, but is in fact, practical theology. Scripture and life are intertwined!
What is the best way to highlight their interconnection in one-on-one ministry situations?
I find the concept of narrative or story particularly useful. This is true whether we are reading Scripture or “reading” (listening to and seeking to understand) people. We must read the Bible as one true story centering on the coming of Jesus Christ and his renewing rule. All bits and pieces of Scripture fit into that larger narrative. But to apply Scripture to our contemporary lives we must also discern how the bits and pieces of the stories of people’s lives cohere, or don’t cohere, with the biblical drama.
A way to speak of the storied quality of human life is to affirm that all people ask and answer four foundational questions about the nature of life, whether consciously or not:
- Where are we? What is the nature of the world in which we live?
- Who are we? What is the essential nature of human beings?
- What’s wrong? Why is the world—and my life—in such a mess?
- What’s the remedy? How can these problems be solved?
These questions—and how we answer them—form the narrative backbone of our lives. They shape the way we interpret life events, from the mundane to the horrific. They shape our view of ourselves and others. They shape our vision of what constitutes a meaningful life, even a meaningful moment. They shape our beliefs, emotions, and decisions every day. Everybody has an overarching story he or she lives moment by moment. Everybody is a meaning maker with categories for making sense of life. The question is this: what story, what narrative, will we use to see our world and interpret our lives?
And this is where biblical theology hits the street! The unfolding biblical narrative given to us in Genesis to Revelation answers the preceding questions and orients us toward true reality if we have ears to hear.
Where are we? In God’s good world. (Gen. 1-2).
Who are we? God’s image-bearers, created to bear his likeness, bringing his good and wise rule to the ends of the earth (Gen. 1:26-27).
What’s wrong? We have chosen to live autonomously, by story lines of our own creation. We have exchanged the worship of the Creator for worship of created things (Gen. 3; Rom. 1:25).
What’s the remedy? Redemption, initiated in Israel’s history and completed by Jesus Christ, who “comes to make his blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”
Every time you yell at your kids, or assume the worst about someone, or cut someone off in traffic in your rush to the office, or escape to internet pornography you show what you’re living for in that moment. You show the self-absorbed story lines that have captured you.
Counseling ministry helps others recognize the aberrant plot lines by which they are living and seeks to reconnect them, by the Spirit’s enablement, to the life-giving story of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus helped the discouraged disciples on the road to Emmaus understand how the details of the Old Testament pointed to him, we help others understand where the details of their lives point. We celebrate when they are in line with the gospel story. We gently correct and restore when they are out of line with the gospel story.
The Bible is not meant to be studied apart from its application to life, and counseling is not meant to be practiced apart from its foundation in the story of Scripture. In this way biblical theology and counseling are inexorably linked.
Michael Emlet is a faculty member and counselor at CCEF and a member of City Church (PCA) in Philadelphia. This article is adapted from CrossTalk: Where Life and Scripture Meet (New Growth Press, 2009) with the kind permission of the publisher.
 Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948; reprint, Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975), 9.
 David Powlison, “Counsel Ephesians,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling 17:2 (1999).
 See how Jesus sums up the focus of the Hebrew Scriptures in Luke 24:44-47.
 Brian Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1984), 35.
Western society is currently experiencing what can only be described as a moral revolution. Our society’s moral code and collective ethical evaluation on a particular issue has undergone not small adjustments but a complete reversal. That which was once condemned is now celebrated, and the refusal to celebrate is now condemned.
What makes the current moral and sexual revolution so different from previous moral revolutions is that it is taking place at an utterly unprecedented velocity. Previous generations experienced moral revolutions over decades, even centuries. This current revolution is happening at warp speed.
As the church responds to this revolution, we must remember that current debates on sexuality present to the church a crisis that is irreducibly and inescapably theological. This crisis is tantamount to the type of theological crisis that Gnosticism presented to the early church or that Pelagianism presented to the church in the time of Augustine. In other words, the crisis of sexuality challenges the church’s understanding of the gospel, sin, salvation, and sanctification. Advocates of the new sexuality demand a complete rewriting of Scripture’s metanarrative, a complete reordering of theology, and a fundamental change to how we think about the church’s ministry.
IS “TRANSGENDER” IN THE CONCORDANCE?
Proof-texting is the first reflex of conservative Protestants seeking a strategy of theological retrieval and restatement. This hermeneutical reflex comes naturally to evangelical Christians because we believe the Bible to be the inerrant and infallible word of God. We understand that, as B.B. Warfield said, “When Scripture speaks, God speaks.” I should make clear that this reflex is not entirely wrong, but it’s not entirely right either. It’s not entirely wrong because certain Scriptures (that is, “proof texts”) speak to specific issues in a direct and identifiable way.
There are, however, obvious limitations to this type of theological method—what I like to call the “concordance reflex.” What happens when you are wrestling with a theological issue for which no corresponding word appears in the concordance? Many of the most important theological issues cannot be reduced to merely finding relevant words and their corresponding verses in a concordance. Try looking up “transgender” in your concordance. How about “lesbian”? Or “in vitro fertilization”? They’re certainly not in the back of my Bible.
It’s not that Scripture is insufficient. The problem is not a failure of Scripture but a failure of our approach to Scripture. The concordance approach to theology produces a flat Bible without context, covenant, or master-narrative—three hermeneutical foundations that are essential to understand Scripture rightly.
A BIBLICAL THEOLOGY OF THE BODY
Biblical theology is absolutely indispensable for the church to craft an appropriate response to the current sexual crisis. The church must learn to read Scripture according to its context, embedded in its master-narrative, and progressively revealed along covenantal lines. We must learn to interpret each theological issue through Scripture’s metanarrative of creation, fall, redemption, and new creation. Specifically, evangelicals need a theology of the body that is anchored in the Bible’s own unfolding drama of redemption.
Genesis 1:26–28 indicates that God made man—unlike the rest of creation—in his own image. This passage also demonstrates that God’s purpose for humanity was an embodied existence. Genesis 2:7 highlights this point as well. God makes man out of the dust and then breathes into him the breath of life. This indicates that we were a body before we were a person. The body, as it turns out, is not incidental to our personhood. Adam and Eve are given the commission to multiply and subdue the earth. Their bodies allow them, by God’s creation and his sovereign plan, to fulfill that task of image-bearing.
The Genesis narrative also suggests that the body comes with needs. Adam would be hungry, so God gave him the fruit of the garden. These needs are an expression embedded within the created order that Adam is finite, dependent, and derived.
Further, Adam would have a need for companionship, so God gave him a wife, Eve. Both Adam and Eve were to fulfill the mandate to multiply and fill the earth with God’s image-bearers by a proper use of the bodily reproductive ability with which they were created. Coupled with this is the bodily pleasure each would experience as the two became one flesh—that is, one body.
The Genesis narrative also demonstrates that gender is part of the goodness of God’s creation. Gender is not merely a sociological construct forced upon human beings who otherwise could negotiate any number of permutations.
But Genesis teaches us that gender is created by God for our good and his glory. Gender is intended for human flourishing and is assigned by the Creator’s determination—just as he determined when, where, and that we should exist.
In sum, God created his image as an embodied person. As embodied, we are given the gift and stewardship of sexuality from God himself. We are constructed in a way that testifies to God’s purposes in this.
Genesis also frames this entire discussion in a covenantal perspective. Human reproduction is not merely in order to propagate the race. Instead, reproduction highlights the fact that Adam and Eve were to multiply in order to fill the earth with the glory of God as reflected by his image bearers.
The fall, the second movement in redemptive history, corrupts God’s good gift of the body. The entrance of sin brings mortality to the body. In terms of sexuality, the Fall subverts God’s good plans for sexual complementarity. Eve’s desire is to rule over her husband (Gen. 3:16). Adam’s leadership will be harsh (3:17-19). Eve will experience pain in childbearing (3:16).
The narratives that follow demonstrate the development of aberrant sexual practices, from polygamy to rape, which Scripture addresses with remarkable candor. These Genesis accounts are followed by the giving of the Law which is intended to curb aberrant sexual behavior. It regulates sexuality and expressions of gender and makes clear pronouncements on sexual morals, cross-dressing, marriage, divorce, and host of other bodily and sexual matters.
The Old Testament also connects sexual sin to idolatry. Orgiastic worship, temple prostitution, and other horrible distortions of God’s good gift of the body are all seen as part and parcel of idolatrous worship. The same connection is made by Paul in Romans 1. Having “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Rom 1:22), and having “exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom 1:25), men and women exchange their natural relations with one another (Rom 1:26-27).
With regard to redemption, we must note that one of the most important aspects of our redemption is that it came by way of a Savior with a body. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14; cf. Phil. 2:5-11). Human redemption is accomplished by the Son of God incarnate—who remains incarnate eternally.
Paul indicates that this salvation includes not merely our souls but also our bodies. Romans 6:12 speaks of sin that reigns in our “mortal bodies”—which implies the hope of future bodily redemption. Romans 8:23 indicates part of our eschatological hope is the “redemption of our bodies.” Even now, in our life of sanctification we are commanded to present our bodies as a living sacrifice to God in worship (Rom. 12:2). Further, Paul describes the redeemed body as a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19) and clearly we must understand sanctification as having effects upon the body.
Sexual ethics in the New Testament, as in the Old Testament, regulate our expressions of gender and sexuality. Porneia, sexual immorality of any kind, is categorically condemned by Jesus and the apostles. Likewise, Paul clearly indicates to the church at Corinth that sexual sin—sins committed in the body (1 Cor. 6:18)—are what bring the church and the gospel into disrepute because they proclaim to a watching world that the gospel has been to no effect (1 Cor. 5-6).
Finally, we reach the fourth and final act of the drama of redemption—new creation. In 1 Corinthians 15:42-57, Paul directs us not only to the resurrection of our own bodies in the new creation but to the fact that Christ’s bodily resurrection is the promise and power for that future hope. Our resurrection will be the experience of eternal glory in the body. This body will be a transformed, consummated continuation of our present embodied existence in the same way that Jesus’ body is the same body he had on earth, yet utterly glorified.
The new creation will not simply be a reset of the garden. It will be better than Eden. As Calvin noted, in the new creation we will know God not only as Creator but as Redeemer—and that redemption includes our bodies. We will reign with Christ in bodily form, as he also is the embodied and reigning cosmic Lord.
In terms of our sexuality, while gender will remain in the new creation, sexual activity will not. It is not that sex is nullified in the resurrection; rather, it is fulfilled. The eschatological marriage supper of the Lamb, to which marriage and sexuality point, will finally arrive. No longer will there be any need to fill the earth with image-bearers as was the case in Genesis 1. Instead, the earth will be filled with knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.
THE INDISPENSABILITY OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
The sexuality crisis has demonstrated the failure of theological method on the part of many pastors. The “concordance reflex” simply cannot accomplish the type of rigorous theological thinking needed in pulpits today. Pastors and churches must learn the indispensability of biblical theology and must practice reading Scripture according to its own internal logic—the logic of a story that moves from creation to new creation. The hermeneutical task before us is great, but it is also indispensable for faithful evangelical engagement with the culture.
R. Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Can expository preaching be consistently evangelistic?
Preachers sometimes shy away from expositing books of the Bible because they suspect that approach is good for teaching theology to mature Christians, but bad for helping unbelievers understand the gospel.
This concern grows when pastors contemplate preaching an Old Testament book. How could a study of the life of Abraham or a series in Haggai make the gospel clear, Sunday after Sunday? Do we simply slap an evangelistic trailer onto the end of the sermon? “For our non-Christian friends here today, I’d like to end this message about Abraham’s circumcision by telling you about how you can receive the free gift of eternal life.” Cue the altar call.
There is another, more organic way to proclaim the gospel faithfully Sunday after Sunday, even from the Old Testament. It’s by employing biblical theology.
THE BIG STORY
What is biblical theology? We might define it as the study of the Bible’s overall storyline. Together, the 66 books of the Bible tell a single narrative of God’s mission to save a people and establish a kingdom for his glory through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament sets the stage for and leads us to Jesus. The Gospels reveal him and his work. The rest of the New Testament unfolds the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, all the way until God fully accomplishes his mission. The more we grasp this overarching plot, the more we can see how our preaching text relates to the gospel.
Preaching a passage of Scripture with an awareness of biblical theology is like having “court sense” in basketball. Good basketball players don’t just focus on dribbling the ball to the hoop. They are aware of the location of their teammates and defenders on the court as well as the flow of play. Similarly, good exposition doesn’t merely provide a running commentary on the verses at hand. It also has a court sense of what else is going on before and after the text, and how it all relates to overall progression of God’s big story.
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY IN ACTION
Let’s look at a few biblical theology strategies we might use to relate our particular passage to the main story of the Bible, the gospel story. You might think of these strategies as possible paths that take us from our text to the gospel, like optional routes on a smart phone map app that guide you from your current location to the desired destination.
1. Promise and Fulfillment
We start with the most simple and direct route to the gospel. In promise and fulfillment, the text you’re studying contains a prophecy or promise that is explicitly fulfilled in some aspect of the gospel. Promise and fulfillment is the low-hanging fruit of biblical theology: easy to see and grasp.
So if you’re preaching Micah’s prophecy about a ruler coming out of Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2), you can easily invite the congregation to turn to Matthew 2:6 to see how it is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. Or if you do decide to exposit the life of Abraham, you should at some point connect God’s promises to bless Abraham’s offspring or “seed” (Gen. 12:7; 13:15; 17:8; 24:7) to their fulfillment in Jesus (Gal. 3:16).
In addition to giving us obvious ways to get to the gospel, promise and fulfillment also shows us how the New Testament authors interpreted the Old Testament in light of the gospel. The more we learn to read the Bible through apostles’ interpretive lenses, the better we will get to the gospel from other texts, even those without an explicit fulfillment in Jesus.
Typology is like promise and fulfillment, except rather than a verbal prophecy being fulfilled in Jesus, we see events, institutions, or persons that foreshadow Jesus and the gospel. You might think of typology as a non-verbal prophecy.
Take the temple in Jerusalem for example. It played a central role in the Old Testament as the place of God’s saving and ruling presence among his people. But it ultimately pointed forward to Jesus. Jesus shocked the crowds when he stood in the temple and said, “Destroy this sanctuary, and I will raise it up in three days” (John 2:19). They thought he meant the literal building, but “he was speaking about the sanctuary of his body” (v. 21). Like the temple, Jesus was, and is, the physical presence of God among his people to save and reign. That’s also why the apostles repeatedly identified the church, those who are in Christ, as the temple of the Spirit (e.g., 1 Cor. 3:16-17; Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5).
In light of this, let’s say you’re expositing Psalm 122, which communicates the joy of going up into God’s temple in Jerusalem: “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord’” (v. 1). You can employ the temple typology to help people, even unchurched people, see the greater joy of going to Jesus by faith.
The New Testament is full of such types of Jesus and his work. The apostles saw Jesus as the last Adam, the true Passover lamb, the new Moses, the once-for-all sacrifice of atonement, the great high priest, the anointed king (Messiah) from David’s lineage, true Israel, and more. These well-traveled routes can faithfully take you from many places in Scripture to Jesus and his saving work.
I’m using the word “themes” to describe recurring motifs or images in the biblical
storyline that don’t point directly to Jesus the way typology does. And yet these themes or motifs are integrally connected to the gospel and can help us locate our text in the unfolding biblical story.
A classic biblical theme is creation. The Bible begins with “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God brought order out of chaos, made Adam and Eve in his image, and commanded them to rule over creation and fill it with their offspring, all for God’s glory. Tragically, Adam and Eve failed their calling and rebelled against God.
But God had a plan to redeem his creation. Throughout the Old Testament we see repeated creation “reboots,” events where God graciously begins again with his people, and the new beginning is described with creation imagery and language. These creation reboots include Noah and his family after the flood, Israel’s exodus from Egypt and entrance into the promised land, Solomon’s establishment of an Edenic kingdom, and even the Israelites returning from Babylonian captivity. Yet in each of these instances the reboot failed. Humanity rebelled. Adam choked again and again. Would any of these Adamic recasts ever get it right?
Yes. The last Adam, Jesus Christ, did the will of the Father perfectly. Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation of his people launched the true new creation. And it continues to grow today. Jesus sent his saved people out to subdue the earth and fill it with sons and daughters of God through the gospel message. And someday this work will culminate in a new heavens and earth, far greater and more glorious than the original.
Can you see how being able to trace the creation motif provides a framework for organically moving from many texts to the key turning point of the new creation, the death and resurrection of Jesus?
There are many other thematic threads that weave together in the biblical storyline, like the covenants, the Exodus, the day of the Lord, and the kingdom of God.
4. Ethical Teaching
But what if you’re trying to preach through Proverbs or the Ten Commandments? What if you were really crazy and tried do expository evangelism from Leviticus? It seems those kinds of passages are better for teaching the “do’s” and “don’ts” of mature Christian living rather than showing unsaved people what Jesus has done so that they could become Christians.
Again, biblical theology maps a way from law to gospel. We can read specific moral commandments within the flow of the Bible's storyline in at least three ways. First, the Bible’s laws and ethics lead us to Jesus by showing us our sin and need of a savior. As has often been said, God’s commandments act like a mirror to confront us with our moral deformity. As we read Israel’s history of chronic moral collapse, we see humanity’s story, and our own. “For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law” (Rom. 3:20).
Second, the Bible’s moral commands point us to Jesus as the one who perfectly kept them. He didn’t come to destroy the law of God but to fulfill it in every way (Matt. 5:17). All of God’s other sons (Adam, Israel, Israel’s kings) were prodigals; Jesus alone pleased the Father. And so the ethical commandments of the Bible ultimately reveal the character of Jesus himself.
Third, through reliance on the power of Jesus’ resurrection and his Spirit in us, we can now keep God’s laws as obedient sons and daughters. Jesus rescued us from the power of sin “in order that the law’s requirement would be accomplished in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom. 8:4).
So imagine you’re preaching Proverbs 11:17: “A kind man benefits himself, but a cruel man brings disaster on himself.” By following the contours of biblical theology you won’t merely give a 30 minute message on how to be more kind. You might also show how we fail at kindness and excel at cruelty in subtle ways. You will point people to Jesus’ embodiment of kindness, especially in giving his life for sinners. And finally, you will connect that kind grace of Jesus to ourselves as the fuel for our own transformation through the Holy Spirit.
When we begin to sense the flow of biblical theology, we will also see how the gospel often solves Old Testament puzzles. How would God fulfill his promises to David once Judah had gone into exile and there was no king in Jerusalem? If the temple sacrifices took away sin, then why did God judge Israel? The Old Testament often speaks of God's blessings on the righteous and judgment on the wicked. So why do we see the opposite?
We could say more here, but for now suffice to say that when you encounter a biblical conundrum, consider how the gospel of Jesus might resolve the mystery. Like a great novel, the Old Testaments sets up plot tensions that the hero, Jesus, resolves.
“YOU ARE HERE”
When we use biblical theology to practice this kind of gospel-conscious exposition, something exciting happens for unbelievers. Not only are they confronted by their sin, introduced to Jesus, and called to repentance and faith week after week. They also begin to locate themselves within the historical flow of God’s work. The gospel isn’t merely a metaphor or idea that they are free to use or discard if it “works for them.” Rather, the story of Jesus is a historical force rooted in the past, continuing in the present, and dominating eternity. The God who acted in the biblical world is acting in their world too, because it is the same world, the same history, the same story.
Jeramie Rinne is the senior pastor of South Shore Baptist Church in Hingham, Massachusetts, and the author of Church Elders: How to Shepherd God’s People Like Jesus (Crossway, 2014).
I tend to see much of the Christian walk as “just Jesus and me.” I often need a reality check to remind me I’m not the Lone Ranger and Jesus is not my Tonto.
I need others. I need brothers and sisters to encourage me. I need good examples of love and fellowship to follow. I need others to teach me and point out my blind spots. Just as I need others to remind me of the good news of God’s reconciliation, I need others to link arms with and share that good news together.
When it comes to evangelism, we don’t have to go it alone. We can and should evangelize together.
Evangelism is a team sport. This is why I love the little reddish book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus by Mack Stiles. Mack reminds us that as much as evangelism is a part of personal obedience to Christ, it is also a responsibility of the church to evangelize together.
With warm encouragement and a contagious passion for the lost, Mack expresses his longing to see churches where evangelism is celebrated and practiced as a community. Chapter 2 is structured around a series of these longings for our churches’ cultures of evangelism. Here’s a sampling:
I long to share my faith in the context of a church that understands what I’m doing and is pulling with me.
I long to be with Christians who remember that people are image-bearers. I long to be with Christians who remember people’s separation from God. Most of all, I long for a culture that remembers what people can become through the gospel.
I long for a culture of evangelism that is risky in the sense that we’re confronting culture. Mostly that means disregarding what people think of us.
I long for a church where neighboring atheists and non-Christians see fellow atheists and non-Christians coming to faith—an indication that we’re part of a risk-taking culture of evangelism.
I long for a church where the Christians are so in love with Jesus that when they go about the regular time of worship, they become an image of the gospel.
I long for a church that disarms with love, not entertainment, and lives out countercultural confidence in the power of the gospel.
I long for a church where the greatest celebrations happen over those who share their faith, and the heroes are those who risk their reputations to evangelize.
I long for a church that understands the dangers of entertainment and sees it for what it is: a lion crouching at the evangelical door, ready to devour us. We need a culture of evangelism that never sacrifices to the idolatry of entertainment, but serves up the rich fare found in the gospel of Christ.
Do you long to see such a culture of evangelism in your church? Have you ever considered how evangelism is a team sport? Or are you like me and find yourself playing with toy pistols pretending to be the Lone Ranger?
You don’t have to be a pastor or church leader to long for these things; you just need to be amazed by the beauty of Christ and love him, the lost, and his church. Maybe you can join me and use this list as a prayer guide for our churches and our hearts.
Get your copy of Evangelism by J. Mack Stiles here.
The Gospel Coalition serves the Christian community by allowing saints who have different views on matters of polity to come together to discuss those matters. Polity is a difficult topic but an important one, so it’s good that we have a chance to think through those differences.
On Friday TGC posted Pastor Bill Kynes’ defense of what he calls a “small b” Baptist position, meaning, his church practices believer’s baptism, but they “also receive as members believers who have been baptized as infants.” He does this for the sake of “humility,” “charity,” and the “theology” of what baptism is. Theologically, he argues that baptism is an objective, subjective, and social sign (an excellent description, I think). And the believer who was baptized as an infant already had the objective and social components in place; and their adult subjective belief, somehow, applies retroactively to what happened to them as infants. In other words, the individual did not mean that act of sprinkling as a subjective declaration of faith then, but they mean it that way now. So that counts. Ultimately, then, whether or not we regard the infant baptism as a baptism for the believer is “a matter of personal conscience.”
I have not personally met Bill, but he is a faithful pastor of a church in the same metropolitan area as my own. He is friends with our congregation, and we pray for him and his church regularly. Praise God for his gospel ministry!
But here are two points of push back, aimed at anyone who claims to be a Baptist yet who maintains an “open membership” view.
1) You’re not actually a Baptist, but a Paedobaptist. There’s a lesson here from a U. S. Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln. In 1858, the other candidate, Stephen Douglass, tried to adopt a position of neutrality toward slavery by leaving the matter of slavery to the consciences of each state. Lincoln responded that only a man “who does not see anything wrong in slavery” can claim to leave it to state’s consciences. After all, “no man can logically [leave it to the states] who does see a wrong in it.”
Others have pointed to this debate to characterize the double-mindedness of the pro-choice position: you cannot claim to be opposed to abortion and yet be pro-choice. You can only be pro-choice if you’re convinced abortion is okay.
The same problem besets any baptist—big or small “b”—who practices open membership: you cannot really claim to be pro-believer’s baptism and yet accept both kinds of baptisms. Either Jesus is Lord or he’s not, and either he commanded baptism for believers or he didn’t. You can only practice or accept both kinds if you’ve told yourself that paedobaptism is essentially okay. And that, I dare say, makes someone a paedobaptist, just like a pro-choicer is actually pro-abortion (even if they don’t practice abortion), and someone who claims to be neutral on slavery is actually pro-slavery (even if they don’t have slaves).
Now, please, please, please don’t say I’m saying paedobaptism is like abortion or slavery!!! I’m not. It’s just that the high stakes involved with abortion and slavery provide us with a clarity of vision concerning the poor logic of these “open” positions. But pick an issue with lower stakes and the logic is not so obvious to us. Yet I’m arguing that the logic is the same.
2) There is no objective or social without the subjective. Bill’s argument, however, is a bit more unique than the typical open membership view among Baptists. He allows for a time delay in which the subjective catches up with the objective and social.
The trouble, of course, is that the church’s social work of affirming the person’s profession of faith doesn’t mean anything if the infant wasn’t actually professing anything. The church cannot affirm what wasn’t there. (I'm aware the covenantal argument for paedobaptism are more complex than this paragraph implies. Again, I'm speaking here to "baptist" brothers and sisters who claim to share "baptist" assumptions about the nature and meaning of the sacrament.)
By the same token, the infant baptism wasn’t really an objective sign of being united with Christ either, because the infant wasn’t actually united with Christ. One could have written the words “I am a Christian!” with a magic marker on the belly of the infant, too. That would have been an “objective” sign. But it would have been a false and meaningless sign. Should the infant than grow up and profess faith at age 20, would we look at a photo of the infant with the magic marker on his belly and say, “Those words are true”? That would be strange, indeed.
Bottom line, the objective, subjective, and social are distinct elements in baptism, to be sure, but they are inseparable elements. What do we call objective symbols without the subjective realities behind them? Falsehoods.
So here's my sincere encouragement to my fellow baptist brothers and sisters: consider whether your church's practice is, at bottom, actually baptistic in nature. After all, it's possible for any of us to be confessionally one thing yet functionally something else.
And, finally, aren’t “humility,” “charity,” and “theology” finally best shown simply through obedience to Jesus?
For more on this topic, stay tuned for Bobby Jamieson’s excellent forthcoming book, Going Public: Why Baptism Is Required for Church Membership (B&H, 2015).
In a recent piece I made a case that imagination is an important and perhaps neglected tool in the church reform toolkit. On one level, imagination is simply applying faith to thinking. You may not see how your church could ever embody anything like biblical health, but God is the God of the impossible.
Which means that pastoral ministry is the art of the impossible. Which means that many pastors could afford to stretch and strengthen their imaginations. But how?
IMAGINATION TRAINING FOR PASTORS
In this piece I’ll offer a few suggestions for stretching and strengthening pastors’ imaginations. They won’t apply to all pastors equally, but I hope these will be broadly useful.
There’s more to say about pastoring and the imagination than I’ll say here. For instance, Cornelius Plantinga’s book Reading for Preaching makes a good case for how literature can enrich a pastor’s view of life and language. I’m more focused here on expanding a pastor’s ecclesial imagination—his intuitive sense of what is and isn’t possible in the church. Without further delay:
1. Read the Bible.
Yes, pastor, I know you’re the one saying this to your people all the time, but you need to hear it too. And remember that the God you meet in Scripture is the God who rules your life and your church.
What kinds of things does this God do? He speaks the universe into existence with a word. He causes an ancient, barren woman to conceive. He squeezes his people between the sea and slaughter and then splits open the deep. He sends thirty thousand soldiers home so he can win a battle with three hundred.
Over and over again God backs his people up against the impossible to show that he alone can save, and he will. He alone can win our battles, and he will. He alone can raise the dead, and he will. As Paul learned by painful experience, God does this by design, to teach us to rely not on ourselves but on God’s death-defeating power (2 Cor. 1:8–10).
Let the Bible draw for you the massive, mighty shape of what God can accomplish by his Word and Spirit. Let Scripture train in you the reflex, “I can’t, but he can.” Let Scripture condition your imagination to respond to human impossibility with, “Let’s see what God can do.”
Pray whenever you come up against something you want to make happen but can’t. Pray for the hard-hearted husband to repent of denigrating his wife. Pray for the stubborn seeker who has no reason left not to believe but still won’t. Pray that loyalty to God’s Word would uproot and displace loyalty to unbiblical traditions.
When you can’t do anything, the one thing you can do is pray. And the more you pray, the more you’ll remember that God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or think.
3. Make friends with other pastors.
My prayer is that more and more pastors would open themselves up to the possibility that God’s Word dictates a way of doing church that bursts the bounds set by our current culture of consumerist authenticity. So if you can, make friends with pastors from other cultures. Christians in other cultures operate under their own social givens, but those givens will differ enough from yours to show you that another way of life than the American dream is possible. More importantly, they show you that another way of doing church is possible.
Second, make friends with pastors whose strengths complement yours. If you’re a red-blooded ecclesiology hound who’s deeply committed to getting church right, be sure to befriend the missional pastor across town who’s equipping his people to share the gospel and serve the community in bold, daring ways. If you’re deeply burdened that Christians recapture a radical passion for Christ, befriend the sixty-year-old pastor who’s kept the flame burning thirty years longer than you.
C. S. Lewis once wrote, “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion….In each knot of Friends there is a sectional ‘public opinion’ which fortifies its members against the public opinion of the community in general. Each therefore is a pocket of potential resistance.”
So forge friendships that will resist the foolish constraints of unbelief. Make friends who will help your thinking take full account of the immeasurable greatness of God’s power. Make friends who will push you and prod you into obeying God’s Word wherever it leads.
4. Hop into history.
I can think of few better ways to fuel pastoral imagination than reading church history. Read biographies of extraordinary ministers like Lloyd-Jones and Whitefield. Read forensic accounts of how evangelicalism got to be the way it is, like Iain Murray’s Revival and Revivalism and Evangelicalism Divided.
Read historical ecclesiology, too, to discover how Christians in other times and places did church. Superb primary sources include Polity and Iain Murray’s The Reformation of the Church. These two are a steep hike but worth the sweat. Or let a skilled historian take you inside the lives of churches in another era, like Greg Wills in Democratic Religion or Geoffrey Nuttall in Visible Saints.
Ask what Christians used to know that we’ve forgotten. Ask not just what they did but why, and how they argued their views from Scripture. Let dead pastors and churches disciple you, just like living ones have.
I’ve often heard Mark Dever respond to the charge “But who actually agrees with you!?” by saying something like, “I know I’m in the majority—if you count everyone who’s come before.” Just as with living friendships, making friends with dead Christians can show you that you’re not crazy for breaking off from the pack. So let the history of God’s dealings with his church remind you that the present moment does not have a monopoly on the possible.
And that’s just the point: no one has a monopoly on the possible except God, the one for whom nothing is impossible.
This might sound strange coming from a 9Marks guy, but I suspect one of the least-diagnosed pastoral blind spots is a lack of imagination.
I don’t mean that pastors need to cram their sermons full of creative stories or coax a bold vision for their church out of the murky depths of their subconscious. Instead, I mean that it’s all too easy to limit what we think is right to what we think is possible. Often, if a pastor can’t see how he can lead his people somewhere right now, he may not be inclined to consider whether God in fact points him there in his Word.
Say you’re pastoring a church that has had a 9:00am “traditional” service and an 11:00am “contemporary” service ever since worship wars rocked the church back in the mid-80s, twenty-five years before you became the pastor. The demographic division this perpetuated has bothered you, but not enough to prompt you to whack at that particular hornet’s nest. You’ve had plenty of other hives to upset.
Now, though, you’re eating breakfast with a church-planter friend named Tim who’s all hyped up about congregationalism. He’s going on and on about how the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means assembly, and you can’t have an assembly that doesn’t actually assemble. So if you have multiple assemblies, you actually have multiple churches. And according to Matthew 18 and 1 Corinthians 5, Jesus has given authority over the church to the church as a whole—the entire assembly. So those who exercise discipline over one another should be those, and only those, who regularly assemble as one body.
That’s why, unlike many church planters who build multiple services and sites into the ground floor of their planting strategy, Tim is committed to keeping his church assembling as one. To do anything else, on his understanding, would be to depart from Scripture’s normative pattern.
“Hey,” Tim pivots, “have you ever thought about combining your church’s two services into one?”
What’s your initial, inward reaction to Tim’s question? I suspect for many pastors it would be, “Yeah, I have, but it’s just not possible.” We’ll probe that response in a moment.
What I’m even more interested in is this: what do you do with the set of biblical arguments Tim’s just given you?
I don’t know what you personally would do, of course, and I’m not presuming to tell you. But I suspect that many pastors—faithful, gospel-loving, Bible-treasuring pastors—would simply ignore them.
It’s not that you open the door, enter the room, spend a few days there, and conclude that the arguments don’t add up to a biblical imperative. Instead, you simply leave the door shut. What’s the point of opening the door if it’s just going to open a whole can of worms with it?
Let’s stick with the multiple services issue for a second, though my point here isn’t the particular issue but the principle, the posture. When you think about trying to combine the 9:00am service with the 11:00am service, all you see is a train wreck. There’s no way your people will go for it.
And who knows—you may be right. But here’s where you may not be right: the fact that such a change would cause a train wreck now does not mean it would always only ever cause a train wreck.
I suspect that some pastors shrink back from even considering arguments that would lead them to alter their church’s basic structures and practices because they can’t see their way through to a happy ending. They may think—or even feel in their gut—that if they embrace the premise, the only conclusion is splitting the church or getting fired.
But of course, “no change” and “instant train wreck” are not your only options. Pastors know better than most that in the Christian life and in the church all growth is imperfect and incremental. If you become convinced that your church should meet as one gathered body, who knows whether the Lord will enable you to lead your church there? Perhaps your role will be to preach on unity, teach on biblical ecclesiology, exhort your members to consider others’ musical preferences more important than their own, and so on, for twenty or thirty years without making a single structural change. Perhaps the entire fruit of your ministry in this particular area will be that the next pastor can lead the church to make a biblical decision once you’re gone.
So take the long view. Don’t ask how much healthier things might get in the next three years; ask how much healthier things might get before your funeral.
And who’s to say change is impossible? Unlike those early disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:2), I trust you’ve heard of the Holy Spirit. You can’t change hearts and minds, but he can.
Pastoring, like politics, is the art of the possible. You can only lead people where they’ll follow you. But pastoring is also, and more fundamentally, the art of the impossible. Raising the spiritually dead. Rescuing people from the dominion of sin. Forging unity out of division and love out of enmity. You can’t do any of this, and yet it’s what you rightly preach and pray for every week.
So apply the same imaginative confidence to church reform that you do to evangelism. Don’t effectively tell God that it’s impossible for his people to keep his Word in this or that area. That’s what the new covenant is for—enabling God’s people keep his Word from the heart.
There are other spiritual issues wrapped up with the pastoral pitfall I’m trying to put my finger on here: trust in the power of God’s Word and the effectual working of his Spirit vs. confidence in the flesh; courage vs. fear of man; sensitive concern for what the sheep can handle shading into self-preserving don’t-rock-the-boat-ism. But I think imagination and its absence deserve a place on this list too.
Imagination draws the line between what one can and can’t conceive of. So we could say that an increasingly biblical imagination involves faith expanding your view of the possible. Biblical imagination means making space for God to surprise you. It means letting God’s Word name problems you didn’t know you had and provide solutions you didn’t know you needed.
God isn’t asking you to teleport to the end-goal of a healthy church. Health is his to give, not yours to achieve. Instead, he’s asking you to put one foot in front of the other.
So will you let God’s Word lead you in a new direction even when you can’t see through to the destination? Will you step into the Jordan before you see the waters start piling up? Will you set out, maybe knowing where you’re going, but having no idea how or when you’ll get there?
Will you pastor by faith, not by sight?
Bobby Jamieson is assistant editor for 9Marks, a member of Third Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Sound Doctrine: How a Church Grows in the Love and Holiness of God (Crossway, 2013). You can follow him on Twitter.
How do we know when evangelism is happening? Well, the answer depends on how we define evangelism. Defining evangelism in a biblical way helps us align our evangelistic practice with the Scriptures. If we don’t have biblical evangelism nailed down, we may not be doing evangelism.
For example, a housewife meeting with a friend over coffee may be evangelizing, while a brilliant Christian apologist speaking to thousands in a church sanctuary may not be. Few see it that way, but that’s because we have false understandings of what evangelism is. Defending the faith is a fine thing to do, but it is easy to give apologetics for Christianity without explaining the gospel—and we cannot evangelize without the gospel.
Here’s a definition that has served me well for many years:
Evangelism is teaching the gospel with the aim to persuade.
Sort of dinky, huh? I bet most people would expect much more from such an important theological word. But this definition, small as it is, offers a far better balance in which to weigh our evangelistic practice than looking at how many people have responded to an appeal.
Here is how amplify my definition: Evangelism is teaching (heralding, proclaiming, preaching) the gospel (the message from God that leads us to salvation) with the aim (hope, desire, goal) to persuade (convince, convert).
Notice that the definition does not require an immediate outward response. Walking an aisle, raising a hand, or even praying a prayer may tell us that evangelism has happened, but such actions are not what evangelism is. Notice, too, that if any of the four components are missing, we are probably doing something other than evangelism.
There is much sickness in the church worldwide because of churches calling something evangelism when it is not. So, teach clearly what the gospel is and what is required of a person to turn to Christ.”
Have as an aim to persuade, but to persuade without manipulation. Don’t exclude what is hard about the Christian life, however tempting that may be; don’t confuse human response for a move of the Spirit; and especially don’t lie about results. Be wary of calling people Christians without some evidence that they are truly converted followers.
Recognize the temptation to sacrifice biblical principles for results and “success.” As I look around, I see much practice of unbiblical evangelism. The gospel often remains untaught, and unbiblical words water down the poignant true meaning of sin, death, and hell, or confuse those who are genuinely seeking truth.
Promises of health and wealth deceive the most vulnerable: the poor, disadvantaged, and sick. And many churches offer a costless, comfortable, and benefit-giving “gospel” that is found nowhere in the Scriptures. In fact, the gospel is subverted with what Paul calls “different gospels,” which are not gospels at all (Gal. 1:6–7). By catering to the desires of people, churches communicate that their focus is on non-Christians, not on the glory of God displayed by his people worshiping him.
So often the church service becomes an avenue for entertainment rather than worship. Jesus was engaging, but he never entertained; there is a huge difference, one that just might be lost on the modern church. The high-pressure sales job of yesteryear has been replaced by the soft sell of self-help.
These kinds of things are the result of worldly temptations that undermine biblical evangelism.
But there is an answer to such temptations. It’s no different today than it was in Paul’s day. The solution is to fix biblically principled, gospel-centered evangelism in our minds and hearts. It is to learn how to teach the gospel with integrity and to keep the big-picture aim of true conversion in view.
So in the next post, let’s carefully “amplify” the four parts of my definition: “teaching,” “gospel,” “aim,” and “persuade.”
Note: This post is an excerpt from Mack Stiles' book Evangelism: How the Whole Church Speaks of Jesus.
“What does your church do for middle and high school students?” A pastor friend recently asked this question.
I have no special expertise with youth, and I tend to think there is some measure of programmatic flexibility. Do you host a weekly event? Who is it for? What do you do? Special projects or trips? I will leave that for you to sort out.
But here are a few biblical principles that we should heed no matter what, and my sense is the many youth groups don’t heed them.
1) Whatever you do, maintain a clear line between church and world.
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest are adamant that we draw clear lines between the church and the world, whether a person is 14 or 84 (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 2:9-12). Very un-modern! But as God was deeply concerned with who was identified with his name in the Old Testament, so Jesus is concerned about who is publicly identified with his name in the New (e.g. Ezek. 36:20-27, 36; Matt. 18:20; 28:19; cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).
The temptation of youth ministry, if I might coin a word, is to sloppify this line. You know, you got a mix of church kids and unchurched kids. Some claim to be Christians; some don’t. But who can say, really, right?
Well, that’s just the point, which is why some churches prefer not to baptize adolescents, a course of action you might consider. Whether or not you agree with this stance, make sure that your words, programs, and methods help youth to understand that "There is the church and there is the world. Period." You love your teenagers best by helping them to understand that the most important decision they will ever make is deciding which side of the line to stand on. Who are you with?
As such, don’t treat the youth ministry as a separate wing of the church where the normal rules, expectations, and identities of church membership don’t apply. Instead…
2) If you do baptize adolescents, treat them like adults.
Again, I’m not recommending that you baptize adolescents. I’m not sure you should. But if you do—and I know many of you do—you must treat them like adult Christians. They have been baptized into the family name (Matt. 28:19). Therefore they are responsible, together with the whole church, for the family name (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5). They are a part of the body, and therefore must be drawn into caring for the body (1 Cor. 12:21-26; cf. 2 Cor. 2:6).
They should have a vote in members’ meetings. They should be subject to the church’s discipline if they get caught up in the party scene at high school and begin living in unrepentant sin. They should be required to attend the main meeting of the church, and asked to pray for the church. They should be asked to reconcile any broken relationships before taking the Lord’s Supper. They need to come under elder oversight. And so forth.
After all, to insist on the full adult responsibility of membership is to insist on the basic responsibilities of being a Christian. Jesus means for all his sheep to care for the family name, to watch over one another, to build one another up in love, to be peacemakers. You don’t want to teach the youth otherwise by practicing otherwise.
Baptizing an adolescent into church membership means giving the church a kind of authority over the youth’s profession of faith that the parent does not possess. Church leaders, no doubt, should always involve the parents in ministering to him or her. But in the final analysis the parent must defer to the church when it comes to their baptized child’s inclusion or exclusion from the church. The church possesses the authority of the keys, not the parent (Matt. 16:18-19).
Should all this make you slow down before baptizing? Yes!
3) Baptized or not, integrate them into the chronologically rich life of the church.
Western business and media spends gazillions of dollars each year marketing to youth and training them to be consumers: “Hey kids, you can get what you want on your terms right away.” As such, today’s youth don’t show up at church expecting to live in an adult world, like they would have done 100 years ago. They expect to hang out with a bunch of people who are just like them--their peers.
I’d encourage you to be very cautious about playing to these instincts in your youth programming since consumerism works against the maturity of selflessness. But whatever you do, realize that making genuine disciples works best by drawing youth into the chronologically rich life of the church. Again, they need to see the whole body at work to know what Christianity really represents. They need to see the older discipling the younger, and the younger learning from the older (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 5:5).
The way of Christianity is the way of unity between old and young saints in the body, and if you want our youth to take this way, show them the road.
4) Equip parents to minister to their youth.
The Bible commands parents, not youth pastors, to train up their children in the way they should go (eg. Eph. 4:11; 6:4). I’m not saying we should get rid of youth pastors. I’m saying, youth pastors, make sure your work and programming doesn’t give Christian parents an excuse to disobey the Bible, but instead facilitates the work of parents in obeying the Bible.
5) Take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity of this season.
As a church elder, I read every single membership application and therefore every testimony of people joining our church. (How joy-giving that is for my soul!) What’s striking is how many people came to faith in junior high or high school, both from Christian and non-Christian homes. This is an opportune season to share the gospel with people.
What does this look like programmatically? I don’t know. But do something!
6) Whatever you do programmatically on points 1 to 5, don’t let your manmade plans interfere with these biblical objectives. Facilitate them.
Make sure the structures or groups you have in place don't work against your young people’s involvement in the life of the congregation, or blur the line between church and world. You want them being discipled by older members, not just peers.
I’m not sure how all this works out programmatically (have I said that yet?), but my sense is that there might be some room for clean whiteboard brainstorming here. Why do you think so many parents watch their “Christian” youth go off to college and then abandon the faith? My guess is that, in many circumstances, there were two failures: a failure of discipleship, and a failure to exercise wisdom in the structural matters of baptism, membership, and discipline.
So how do you both carefully draw the line between church and world with your churched youth and help them to be evangelistic? Let’s hear some proposals!