Yes, Doctrine Matters

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Doctrine. Anymore, it’s the kind of word that we tend to spit out of our mouths. It implies stodgy rules and religious systems that we would rather avoid. Why care about doctrine when I can just have Jesus?

Jesus answered the questions best (as He tends to): “These things I have spoken to you, that you should not be made to stumble.” (John 16:1, NKJV) He says this right before he warns his disciples that other religious folks are going to hate them. Sure, they could have all just agreed that God was most important, then they could get along, but Jesus told them they needed to know what He had to say.

The consequence of not knowing these things is series: we stumble. It is serious enough to demand our focus. In Acts 17, Luke described the people of Berea this way: “These were more fair-minded than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness and searched the scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (vs 11, NKJV). There’s a model to follow!

Book Review: Proclaiming a Cross-Centered Theology

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Proclaiming a Cross-centered Theology (Together for the Gospel)is essentially the written form of the Together For The Gospel 2008 conference. Reading it is the same as being there, so long as you also do the following:

1) Imagine the voice and preaching style of the individual authors as you read. (Caution: don’t mix them. If you read Sproul and think Mahaney, it will get very confusing)
2) Invite several thousand friends over to sing various worship songs before reading each chapter.
3) Imagine the witty banter and thoughtful insight from the authors after each chapter.
4) Ask a friend or relative to surprise you with new books in your chair every time you leave the room.
5) Have a horse near you. A doll, a picture, a real live pony, any horse will do. You are, after all, suppose to be in Louisville.

Ok, so its not the same as being there, but for those of us that weren’t at T4G08, its nice to have the teaching all in once book.

Since this book is a compilation of the T4G sermons, each chapter, like T4G itself is only loosely connected to any other. The one thing each has in common is a strong desire to proclaim the Gospel of the cross.

First up, is Ligon Duncon. His chapter, Sound Doctrine, is an argument for systematic theology and clear doctrine. He exposes the idea that we could be “doctrine-less” as being a doctrine in and of itself and stresses that the question is not should we or should we not have doctrine, but what doctrine should we have? He carefully reveals the ideas which question doctrine and thoroughly explains that doctrine is necessary and useful and that systematic theology is every bit as biblical as biblical theology.

Next up is Thabiti Anyabwile. Thabiti presents one of the freshest and profound arguments against racism I have ever read. As someone who once made “Jeremiah Wright look like a poster child for the Boy Scouts,” he argues that “the trajectory of race is always toward racism and an unbridgeable otherness.” He rejects the very idea of race, reminding us that we are descendents of Adam. We are of one race. Any acknowledgment of other sources or other races may very well suggest another savior. To Thabiti, the idea of race is contrary to the gospel. He acknowledges that we may have ethnic differences among us, and he certainly agrees that we have biological differences, but he urgest that we realize four grounds for unity: 1) Unity in Adam, 2) Unity in Christ, 3) Unity in the Church, and 4) Unity in glory.

John MacArthur is next. He addresses the doctrine of total depravity. Claiming that “soft preaching makes hard people,” MacArthur calls for a renewed zeal of this once common doctrine. As someone that is often outside of the reformed camp, I appreciate the careful way in which MacArthur explains this subject. This is a valuable chapter for the Calvinist and non-Calvinist alike.

Mark Dever presents a defense against five “improvements” to the Gospel. He urges pastors to “preach the Gospel we have been given” and be aware of various trends in theology that attempt to make the gospel social, larger, relevant, personal, or kinder. He argues that all the good points of these ideas are found within the Gospel, but to focus on any of them alone is to step away from the Gospel.

[For clarity, Dever has included and addendum written by Greg Gilbert entitled What is the Gospel? In it, Gilbert claims that the Gospel is the “declaration of the Kingdom together with the means of entering it.” Gilbert’s article has been expanded and published as a book now. What Is the Gospel? (9marks) is on my reading list and will be reviewed here soon.]

Sproul’s contribution is a look at the Curse Motif of atonement. This is a hard hitting message which reminds us of the depth of what was accomplished at the cross. He charges his readers with this, “That is the reality we must make clear to our people – either they will bear the curse of God themselves or they will flee to the One who took it for them.” This is an excellent explanation and argument for the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, which sets us up for what is next.

Al Mohler provides eye-opening evidence for the fact that a most basic doctrine, that Jesus Christ bore the punishment for our sins, is under attack. As I read this chapter, I realized how much of hatred of substitutionary atonement I have heard in popular Christians books lately. Mohler gives an excellent argument for why questioning this doctrine is “an assault on the integrity of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” This was one of the most valuable chapters in the book.

The last two chapters are meant to encourage, and they do it well. John Piper provides a walk through Hebrews and what it says about the Supremacy of Christ. He concludes, “Let us go to him outside the camp. For here we have no lasting city. But we seek a city which is to come, whose builder is God and whose light is the Lamb.”

Finally, C.J. Mahaney contributes a message for pastors. He understands well, the conflict between a great conference, message, or book, and the day to day struggle of pastoring a “regular” church. He urges pastors to be grateful rather than complaining, to minister in faith (how often we neglect that!), and to love the people we serve. It is a simple and profound charge.

I was introduced to T4G by attending the 2010 conference. It was wonderful. It was truly the best conference I have attended and I wish I had known about it for 2006 and 2008. It is good that the messages are available in this format. This is an excellent book for any pastor or layperson. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, and well worth the time to read.

Book Review: The Trellis and the Vine

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Two different traditions may define the role of the pastor. The older, more traditional view is that the pastor is a clergyman. He carries out religious services and ministers personally to the congregation. A newer approach suggests that the pastor is a CEO of sorts. He manages and leads an organization to accomplish its goals.

I personally feel the tension between these two approaches all the time. The expectation of many church members is for the former, but every exciting book and speaker suggests the latter.

In The Trellis and the Vine, Colin Marshal and Tony Payne suggest a new approach: The pastor as “trainer.” In actuality, all disciples are called to be disciple-makers. In this approach, the role of the pastor is to train disciples, who will in turn make disciples and train disciples. The pastor serves as more of a player-captain to the team rather than clergy to the parishioner or managing director to the organization.

This approach means a lot to me. After a very negative experience in ministry, I came to the realization that ministry must be about people rather than programs. For me, the traditional approach had a sort of emptiness to it. The pastor-clergyman would visit, teach, counsel, and pray, but all that he did seemed to only carry as much weight as his title. His words didn’t matter, nor his advice, and for that matter, his theology, only his title. I didn’t find the answer in the contemporary model. The pastor-CEO has so much invested in programs that they must be carried out, often at the expense of people. This was contrary to ministry and seemed to drive further and further from the Gospel all the while seeking to draw people to it. The concept of the pastor as a member of the team, training people for ministry is simple, biblical, and exciting.

However, it isn’t that simple. Marshal and Payne cast a big vision. They suggest a church that is made up of people following Christ and leading others to follow Christ. They desire to see disciples making disciples, with the pastor and elders training more and more “vineworkers.” Their vision expands all the way to practical advice on how to encourage more church members into the gospel ministry.

I recommend this book as it does propose a necessary shift in thinking. I would love to see what a church with so much invested in people would look like. I want to see the church where everyone works to further the purposes of God; where disciples are made and taught to make more disciples; where leaders emerge and plant entirely new works. That’s the vision cast in this book, and its one I long to see.

Naked Preaching

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A couple of nights ago I was speaking with a new man in our church. He and his family recently moved to town and he happens to live just up the hill from me, so I have been trying to get to know him. “You aren’t like most Baptist pastors.” he said.

“I’m not? How so?” I didn’t tell him that this struck me as a compliment. When I was in seminary, I sold computers on commission. There were certain types of customers you never wanted and you learned to spot them as soon as they came in the store. Pastors were in that group and I could spot one from 100 yards away, even without the pastel suits and comb-overs.

“You are much more open about yourself than most pastors I’ve met,” he said.

Bulls-eye! That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. I’ve always tried to be real, open, and honest as a pastor. I listened not long ago to a pastor on a podcast talk about the dangers of this. That pastor is well known for a lot of things, the least of them is an occasional foul mouth. Being honest has its drawbacks, he warned. It gives your critics a lot of ammunition. On the plus side, his church is thriving. It practically bursts at the seams with non-religious curious young adults clamoring to know more about this thing called The Gospel. Practical warnings aside, I want to be open, honest and real.

This desire of mine has freed me up a little. I have learned to laugh at myself in the pulpit. I have learned to say “I don’t know” and occasionally, “I’m sorry. I was wrong.” Its been fairly easy and very freeing, but recently its been trying as well.

I have recently been preaching a sermon series on biblical stewardship and financial freedom. We’ve got some great programs lined up to help people in this area and we’re kicking it off with a sermon series. Here’s the problem: I’m not financial expert. I’m a financial failure. I’ve made all the dumb mistakes, and I’ll pay for them (literally) for many years to come. Everything I have to preach, I’ve had to preach to myself. My family and I have had to come to terms with this and make some big changes in order to really get on good footing. We’re excited about this. Its working for us, but preaching it is something different.

Granted, I don’t preach my advice. I preach God’s Word. In that regard, it doesn’t matter if I’ve got two nickels to rub together or not. I do preach towards application. I don’t preach empty lectures on Bible history, I preach God’s Word and how it applies to lives today, here and now. That’s where things can get sticky. I had a decision to make. Do I preach it out to the people and let them assume I am above them, clear of their problems, barking directions like a spiritual traffic cop? Or, do I come clean and tell them how it is?

I chose the latter. I have been brutally honest with the congregation regarding my situation and how we’re getting out of it. I’ve even made promises to reveal any information about our balance sheet, budget, and goals if it can help someone else. That has been really strange. It leaves me completely open for judgment. Anyone in the church can easily say that I don’t know what I’m talking about or they can make the easy jump to assume I must be a mess everywhere else too. What can I say? I am a mess.

In a way, its like coming down from the pulpit to sit with the people. I’m not the one standing in the Promised Land hollering directions to the lost masses. Instead, I’m wandering the wilderness with the rest, gathering us up to move toward the right path. I’m convinced there is something to it. Its humbling, and when we’re humble, we just might notice what God is doing.