not ashamed

Last Friday I had the privilege of speaking at our seminary’s commencement. We graduated an exceptional class of pastors and counselors, many of whom are already engaged in significant ministry. They will be missed. In light of recent events, I wanted to encourage them that this is perhaps the best time to embark on vocational ministry.

The title of my speech was “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” One of the grads, Carolyn Quinn-Allen, delivered a powerful song on that theme, which you can access here. Here is the text of my talk.

Honored graduates, I’ve got good news, bad news, and very bad news. Which do you want to hear first? Let’s start in the middle, with the bad news. You may be wondering, “Wait, why is the middle ‘bad news?’” Shouldn’t it be neutral? Not if you’re a Calvinist. This is how we see the world. Our glass isn’t half empty or half full. It’s filled to the brim with fresh, spring water, that’s been poisoned.

Calvinists are not curmudgeons, like Andy Rooney or a young Gary Meadors. We just know, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “how great our sins and misery are.” I miss Gary Meadors, don’t you? For our guests who don’t know, Dr. Meadors was our irrepressible professor of NT. He put his own spin on John Piper’s credo: “Don’t Waste Your Retirement: Move to Florida!” It would have worked too, except he took along his banjo. So yeah, his retirement is pretty much wasted.

I. Bad News

Here’s the bad news. Remember when you started seminary, some 3, 5, or 8 years ago? We told you then that we would help you become a pastor, educator, or Christian counselor. You anticipated becoming a minister of the gospel, a leader in your church and respected in your community. Well, that ship has sailed. The world has changed since you took your first class, at least one of you in the spring of 2006. I’m not saying you’ve been here a long time, Doug Crawford, but we’ve got a building with your name on it. Right about now chalk is being thrown at Paul Beals, Carl Hoch, and Jim Grier. “Gather around, knotheads, my grandson is graduating tonight!”

I may be showing my age by what I’m about to say next. You may disagree, especially if you’re a young whippersnapper, but wait until after I’m done, and do so in person. Not on Twitter. The world has always been sinful—because we’re here—but doesn’t it seem that lately it’s become a lot darker? For the first time in my lifetime, there are passages in the Bible that you dare not read out loud and in public, or people will say you’re wicked and hateful.

So, my new life verse is Romans 1:16. I’ve had several “life verses,” which of course, means none of them actually were. My life verses have a shelf life. When I was in high school my life verse was Phil. 4:13—“I can do all things” (there was more to the verse but I didn’t care). When I got married I changed to the Song of Solomon. Made it my life book. Then we had children, and I jumped to the end of the Bible, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Not because I didn’t enjoy my kids, but I was afraid that if God gave me too much time I might mess them up.

Now, for my next phase, I’m choosing Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” This is also my prayer for you. You’re going to need extra helpings of wisdom, courage, and kindness, because of the very bad news. Are you ready? The very bad news is that many of your fellow Christians, some of whom may be your colleagues in ministry, will be ashamed of the gospel. And their waffling may make life unusually difficult for you.

II. Very Bad News

Right after Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he explains why we need it.

Romans 1:18-32: left to ourselves we would rather serve idols than the living God, and this idolatry shows up in sins of the spirit and body, which include sexual immorality and homosexual practice. As you know, many Christians, even pastors in the church, say this passage doesn’t mean what it says. They believe they are being tolerant and open-minded, but Paul would say, “You’re ashamed of the gospel.”

Romans 5: a real Adam and a historical fall brought sin and death into the world. Some pastors are now denying original sin. They say this is a western idea that implies our babies stink (they actually use a different word, but since this speech is rated G, I’ll stick with “stink”). One pastor told me he can’t talk about sin with his church, because if he says they’re sinners they’ll just think they stink.

Good luck talking about salvation then. If there’s no sin, there’s no need for a Savior. It’s like selling sunscreen in Michigan. There’s no market for it. Sin is about rebellion, not self-esteem. But if you want to talk self-esteem, I’ll tell you that telling people they’re sinners is a backhanded compliment. You’ve never lectured a worm for wriggling off your hook. “Bad worm! You deeply disappoint me!” It’s a worm, and you don’t expect much. But God takes our sin so seriously that he was willing to die for it? We must have been very, very bad. We must also matter far more than we know.

Other Christian leaders believe in original sin but they say Paul was wrong about a real Adam and a historical fall. Genetic science proves there never was a first man who sinned and brought human death into the world. If you say otherwise you’re anti-science, anti-progress, a hick from the sticks. But Paul would say, “You know, Romans 5 wasn’t only my idea. I was writing the Word of God, which carries a bit more weight than the latest claims of an ever-changing science. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel.”

Romans 10:13-17: we must believe in Jesus to be saved. Our culture thinks this is dangerously absurd. God, if he does exist, is high above us, how can you possibly think you alone have the direct line to him? Do you know who else thinks this way? The Taliban! Stop being so divisive, stop insulting other religions. Tolerate the views of others and get along.

This pluralism has entered our churches. Some polls say that barely half of evangelical Christians believe Jesus is the only way to God. They assume what the culture tells them, that God will accept anyone as long as they are sincere.

Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Elijah test. You’ll never find anyone more sincere than the prophets of Baal. They cut themselves and shouted for hours to get their god to respond. Elijah didn’t give them credit for their sincerity. He called down fire from heaven and destroyed their idols.

Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Jesus test. You can’t accept the gods of other religions without pushing Jesus out to the margins. As Augustine taught us, if it’s possible to be saved any other way, then Jesus died in vain. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Don’t be ashamed of Paul’s gospel.

III. Good News

This all sounds very bad, so let’s cut to the good news. What an auspicious moment to be a minister of the gospel! Would you rather be graduating from seminary now, when the world desperately needs leaders who are not ashamed of the gospel, or back in the day, when President Stowell graduated from seminary? I couldn’t locate the exact day of President Stowell’s graduation. There is some dispute over whether it was a 24 hour period or symbolic of something longer. I gather it’s been awhile. Our culture may be increasingly dark, even dangerous for us Christians, but that presents an unparalleled opportunity.

1. Opportunity

Sin still doesn’t work. People can say what they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that sin destroys lives and families. Sin is foolish, and those who insist on doing life their way will scrape their shins and elbows. They are going to need help, and lots of it. Some will slowly realize their only hope is Jesus, and if you are not ashamed of the gospel, you’ll be ready to lend a hand.

There is no better time to be a pastor, counselor, or Christian leader! You are desperately needed now. You don’t need to be spectacular—normal will do. What previous generations took for granted now stands out. E.g., young couple with wedding bands pushing a baby stroller is a sure sign they are evangelical Christians (double stroller, probably Mormons). Teach the Word, love Jesus and love people, and your light will be very bright in this dark night.

2. Privilege

What a privilege! You are a minister of the Word of God. The Word of God!

1. God’s Word makes things happen. God speaks into the void and a new world springs to life. God speaks into the carnage of depraved hearts and the dead are raised to life. There is no greater power than the Word of God, and he has entrusted it to you.

2. God’s Word brings the meaning. Your church may be a handful of people, but they are the bride of Christ, the people who stole his heart. As their pastor, every time you meet you get to bring the Word and tell God’s people just how special they are.

When you bring the Word, you bring the meaning to weddings, funerals, and every counseling appointment. You tell them what God says about their marriage, their death, and their family crisis. Because you have the Word of God, you will be in the room for people’s most important moments. What a privilege!

But never forget, you are only the messenger. If you faithfully teach and apply the Word of God, you will see lives change under your ministry. You will see marriages heal, addictions end, and forgiven sinners overcome with gratitude for their great salvation. They may come to you in tears, thanking you for your inspiring sermon, wise counsel, or patient instruction. In that moment you will be tempted to take some of the credit. Not to their face, you’re too smart for that, but inside, in your very dark place, you’ll smile and think how lucky God is to have you on his team.

Don’t do it! Never forget that you are nothing more than the messenger of God. You didn’t die for anyone’s sin. You didn’t rescue that family or that sinner from hell, God did. You were just the messenger. So when you receive such heartfelt praise, follow David’s example when his men retrieved the water from the well in Bethlehem. Thank them for their kind words, but don’t drink it in. You turn and pour it out before the Lord.

3. Responsibility

a. This is so important, I want God himself to tell us what our responsibility is (Read 2 Tim. 4:1-5).

b. God has not commanded you to be successful. He does demand that you’re faithful. Karl Barth reminded us that God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions, but neither is he automatically on the side of the small regiments. Your ministry might be large because God is blessing, but you might also be large because you’ve sold out. You might be small because you’re the holy remnant, the last group that has not bowed to Baal, but you might also be small because you bite people.

Numbers tell you nothing. Jesus didn’t leave this earth to public acclaim. Peter and Paul were martyred. But all were faithful. Hebrews 11:32-40—some led armies and stopped the mouths of lions while others were cut in two and lived in holes in the ground. Yet all died as heroes of the faith.

IV. Best News

So that’s the bad news, the very bad news, and the good news. Now for the best news. Which is pretty good, even for a Calvinist. The best news is that you are not on our own, but as you leave here tonight, you go with Christ.

Our present culture may be dangerous, but it is not more dangerous than Jesus. Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24). We must die with Christ if we ever hope to rise with him. Losing your life is still the only way to find it.

Please, don’t measure your success by the size of your building, the number of blog hits or compliments you receive from grateful church members, or even how many people you’ve led to Christ. Measure your success by whether you are laying down your life for others (1 John 3:16).

When the bubonic plague, or black death, came to Wittenberg in 1527, many pastors wanted to flee the city, but Luther ordered them to stay and mind their posts. In his characteristically blunt manner, Luther said, “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody…would gladly become a servant or helper….nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me.’…If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word. If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there. Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person. Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well.”

These are dangerous, uncertain times, but they will never be as dangerous as the gospel already is. These last days cannot frighten the one who has already embraced the death and life promised in the gospel. Rather than shrink from danger, you will recognize there an opening for the gospel. Remember, sin does not work! It never has and it never will. Sinners who realize they are dying may be open to the idea of dying and rising with Christ. But they’ll only listen to someone who has already made the trip.

A dangerous gospel in dangerous times. What an explosive combination. Can there be a more exciting moment to be a minister of the Word of God? Can there be a more auspicious occasion to be a servant in God’s kingdom? Come and die. Die with your Lord for the people he has entrusted into your care, and you’ll see.

14 Comments

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  1. Spot on! Thanks for the encouragement of your challenge to the graduates of my Alma Mater. May it be a fresh reminder to those of us who were profoundly impacted by Jim, Carl, Paul and Joe as they taught us and modeled before us what it means to passionately pursue pleasing our Savior to the very end of their lives.

  2. Thanks for posting this. We had a debate after the ceremony, about whether you included something or not. It appears I was right.

  3. Thanks, Steve. I feel the privilege of shepherding their rich legacy. We have been blessed.

    Lisa, I also left something out. Do you know what it is?

  4. Thanks Mike. A good challenge for all believers. I will forward the link to my students.

  5. What I’ve appreciated about your books and being in your classroom is that you take the most wonderful topic of theology, make it fun and interesting…so that it’s easier to understand. This was a very insightful speech and included laugh out loud moments! Thanks for sharing, I enjoyed reading it!

  6. A vintage Wittmer presentation (complete with insider humor that only GRTS students and grads might fully appreciate). Well done, as always.

  7. Thanks for printing your speech. It was nice to revisit a little of the GRTS humor. I appreciated my time there and remain deeply thankful for the opportunity. I pray the graduates will experience much joy as they serve Jesus, and that they will know that it is always an honor and a privilege to point people towards the good news of Jesus.

    However, as a student of history, I find your take on the present moment a bit myopic. No doubt there are challenges to following Jesus and pastoring at this present time within the conservative stream of the church. However, I don’t know that this would rank as one of the darkest times in history for pastoring or being a follower of Jesus. I’d humbly submit that Bonhoeffer may have been facing a tougher pastoral situation. I would humbly suggest that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. faced tougher times pastorally. There may have been some challenges to being a pastor, counselor or follower of Jesus in Rwanda in the 1990’s. Some might argue that there were real challenges from about 1650 – say through a minimum of 1963 if you were a person of African descent living in North America (some of that time may have overlapped with when Joe Stowell was graduating). I would guess that there were some real challenges in being a pastor at those time when your congregations were enslaved and the master read on Sundays from the Bible(as devastatingly and accurately depicted in 12 years a slave).

    Some might argue that if you are a person of color in the US, it is still a challenging time to be a pastor. I know I was a bit humbled and convicted when I learned that when African American fathers talk about having “the talk” with their son, it is not about sex, but what to do when their sons get pulled over by the police – not “if” when. The African American Fathers tell their sons “make sure they can see your hands.” They are –not without historical precedent – afraid for their sons lives. I never once thought about my need to have this “talk” with my son or the sons of most of my congregants.

    I would guess it was challenging following Jesus and being a pastor under Stalin in Russia. I would guess it is challenging right now in North Korea. I don’t know if the world has gotten a whole much darker recently. Is it darker than the holocaust? The killing fields of Cambodia?

    It is perhaps accurate to say that the particular branch of conservative theology that GRTS represents feels a bit under siege at the moment, so it is far to acknowledge that. When we feel under siege our perspective can shrink. I suggest that if you took a broader look at history you would be hesitant to posit that it has recently gotten a whole bunch darker.

    So, while I admire your passion for theology and love of the Bible – I would humbly submit you left the graduates with a really false sense of this time in history.

    Grace and Peace,
    John West

  8. Thanks, John. I was thinking of your point as I prepared the speech and made sure to avoid saying that this was the darkest time in church history, for the reasons you give. I was giving a culturally specific speech to our grads, so I made the point that the world has become darker for people like us, and in a way that wasn’t true for the examples you gave. I’m sure some people will want to dispute this (as in “how do you know that you are reading the Bible correctly?”), but I am arguing that unlike the scenarios you mentioned, Christians today are explicitly disagreeing with the clear teaching of Scripture. It’s terrible to be a racist or murderer, but it’s a different animal for Christians to say the Bible is wrong when it speaks on homosexual practice, original sin, a historical Adam, and the need to believe in Jesus. So while your examples are horrific, I think we are encountering a new period, when people within evangelical churches are explicitly disagreeing with the Bible.

  9. Thanks Mike for the response. I’m working to make sure I understand. It make sense that you were, “giving a culturally specific speech.” Still this from the talk seems like a fairly global assessment: “The world has always been sinful—because we’re here—but doesn’t it seem that lately it’s become a lot darker?” Maybe it was clear in person that you were making just a limited cultural statement, but in print – at least from my perspective – it reads as saying that we (humanity) have entered a particularly dark time.

    Again I’m working to understand: “It’s terrible to be a racist or murderer, but it’s a different animal for Christians to say the Bible is wrong when it speaks on homosexual practice, original sin, a historical Adam, and the need to believe in Jesus. So while your examples are horrific, I think we are encountering a new period, when people within evangelical churches are explicitly disagreeing with the Bible,” … and this from the speech, “The very bad news is that many of your fellow Christians, some of whom may be your colleagues in ministry, will be ashamed of the gospel. And their waffling may make life unusually difficult for you.” It appears to me that the particular growing darkness you feel the GRTS grads will be facing is: people who say they are following Jesus disagreeing with the Seminary’s stances on the four areas you mention – am I reading you right?(I would guess you might say “No the Bible’s stances” -or “God’s stance”)

    If I am, first, I would suggest that this puts graduates in an unnecessarily polemical stance against potential brothers and sisters. I’m not sure much good would come from GRTS graduates telling James Brownson he is ashamed of the gospel. He appears to me to be passionately in love with Jesus, committed to the whole narrative of the Bible, and committed to shaping ministers of the gospel. I would not want graduates – should they do any work at Western, on the front end to proclaim that he is ashamed of the gospel. I would say the same of Pete Enns. I would like to honor the work Francis Collins did on the Human Genome project – and not have to tell him he is ashamed of the gospel.

    Second, I would suggest this stance closes the door to the graduate’s personal study and engagement with the texts, and with thoughtful engagement with the issues you bring up. To engage in these questions and to listen to thoughtful writers and teachers who disagree puts the graduates in danger of “being ashamed of the gospel.” This makes the mission of the seminary in some sense an electrification of predetermined fences, not a determination to love God with our whole mind. Students would have to turn off their minds once they approached the fence line or only engage their minds for the purpose of defensive polemics. This would make any continuing education not a pursuit of understanding the world God has made, and the text of the Bible, but merely to reiterate already stated positions.

    At the end of the day I’m fairly certain you and I will disagree on any number of things, but I won’t feel the need to say that you are “ashamed of the gospel.” My suspicion is that you and those graduates who tracked wholeheartedly with this speech would feel it necessary to say that about me. To put my cards on the table – I find Enns quite persuasive and Collins winsome. I do not think Brownson can be easily written off as being ashamed of the gospel. But I’m passionately sold out for Jesus. I think he is the gospel. I think he is good news. I think he came in the world to save sinners of whom I am the chief. I think he is perfect theology. I think if I see him, and know him, I see and know the Father. But at the end of the day, I wonder if for you and the graduates, I would pass “the Elijah test?”

    Let me close with this analogy that might help shed some light on my perspective. I’m convinced exegetically that the Spiritual gifts are for today. I’m not sure how else to read Paul’s admonition to eagerly desire to prophesy and not to forbid speaking in tongues. In my mind your position when you were my prof that the gifts have ceased has the explicit effect of doing the exact things Paul’s says not to do (at least this was your position as near as I could tell when I had you – perhaps you are not cessationist – but this was the position – again as near as I could tell of the Seminary – based on the Cornerstone Confession at that time). I would not think of saying that cessationists are “ashamed of the gospel” – that to me seems like a conversation stopper – and probably quite a strain on fellowship and unity. It might cut me off from valid critiques of Pentecostal excesses and from learning from another perspective. Does this analogy make sense?

    I pray that graduates will go out passionately in love with Jesus – open to learning – and not looking to take the preemptive polemical strike of “You are ashamed of the gospel,” because they feel the world has grown “increasingly dark.” and they need to defend the fences.

    Grace and Peace,
    John

  10. Thanks again for this dialogue, John. These are exactly the kinds of things I tried to avoid in my talk, while also explaining what is at stake in the present debate. Here was my reasoning:

    1. I intentionally said “The world has always been sinful, because we’re here”–in order to acknowledge all the evils you mentioned in the first post.

    2. I am uncomfortable assigning motives to people, so the whole “I am not ashamed” theme makes me nervous. This is why I often couched it in Paul’s voice, as in “Paul would say, ‘You’re ashamed of the gospel.'” I’m confident that Paul would say that those who disagree with him and his points in Romans are ashamed of the gospel. If that includes Brownson and Enns, so be it. And since Paul was writing God’s Word, then this is God’s view as well. Notice that I didn’t mention names. If you want to know my view, I would say that whether or not Enns is ashamed, he is losing the gospel (I haven’t read Brownson, so I won’t comment on him).

    3. I think you and I are going to disagree on the main point. I believe that we can’t deny the sin of homosexual practice, original sin, a historical Adam, and the need to believe in Jesus without losing key elements of the gospel. I believe much more is at stake here than you see.

    4. I don’t see why clear doctrinal boundaries would stifle theological conversation and discovery. You draw lines too, just as different places, but I’m guessing your commitments don’t prevent you from reading and learning from others. The same is true of me and I believe, for our grads as well.

    5. I am cautious but open on the gifts of tongues and such. I don’t have these gifts myself, don’t know many who claim they do, but I’m not willing to say what the Spirit will and won’t do. I would say that this issue is not central to the gospel, as the issues Paul raises in Romans. So while I see your point in raising it, I think it’s a red herring. It is a bit curious, that you don’t see any other way of reading Paul’s words concerning the spiritual gifts, yet you are open to wildly implausible, and sometimes plain contradictory, readings of what he says in Romans.

    6. I am as uncomfortable as you in using the language of shame, but this is precisely the language that Paul uses. I wonder what you think Paul would say to someone who contradicts many of his central points in Romans. What would Paul say to someone who claims to be a Christian, claims that Romans is God’s Word, and then says its main points are incorrect? Would he not say they are ashamed of the gospel? If I am wrong, what do you think Paul would say instead?

  11. Thanks again Mike for the response.

    First a quick aside: “It’s a bit curios that you don’t see any other way of reading Paul’s words concerning the spiritual gifts,” I felt like I tried to say I wanted to be in dialogue with cessationists and am open to correction. Sorry if I was not clear on that. To be clear now – I’m open to the possibility I’m wrong on the gifts.

    “Yet you are open to wildly implausible, and sometimes contradictory readings of what he says in Romans,” I’m not sure of your intention here, but it feels like a bit of a conversation stopper. Again not sure of your intent but it feels like an assertion I am being willfully unfaithful or at best intellectually dishonest. Revisiting the gifts question (even if it is a Red herring) – I doubt that it would be helpful for me to tell cessasionists (or the open but cautious) in a dialogue around the texts – that they are engaging in “wildly implausible and sometimes contradictory readings” of the texts regarding “eagerly desiring.” I would suggest that on the texts in question (Romans 1; 5 etc…) thoughtful people who love Jesus wrestle honestly with the texts in scholarly and nuanced ways and reach different conclusions than yours.

    That aside, I believe I have a better feel now for what you were trying to do and appreciate the tightrope you were attempting to walk. I would sum up your aims this way: This is an uncomfortable time to speak on certain issues: homosexuality, original sin, historical Adam and the need to believe in Jesus; but Paul would say that if we do not “We are ashamed of the gospel.” Is this a fair assessment of your aim?

    If so, it feels as though there is a certain implication that it is necessary to agree with Paul. It perhaps moves us one step away from the shame language – we can lay that at Paul’s feet. However, don’t we sort of have to land with Paul to be in step with Paul, and by implication the Bible, and ultimately God? Is that a fair reading of what you are driving at?

    If so that does make this the question: “What would Paul say?”

    Here’s my answer – that may feel slippery but is honest: I’m not sure. However, I feel like I’m gaining some clarity and I have some inklings based on: Paul; Jesus; the Holy Spirit; the sweep of the Biblical narrative; and history – that provide some direction.

    1. Paul – Don’t mean for this to be a red herring but rather historical precedent from the life of Paul. Acts 15 – Paul returns from the Jerusalem counsel with a letter to Gentile Jesus followers that says: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” Jesus in Revelation gives a pretty negative assessment of eating food sacrificed to idols. Yet Paul gives some fairly nuanced counsel on the permissibility of eating food sacrificed to idols. (In fact those who don’t are the weak!) So in this instance at least he seems open to an interpretation of Acts 15 and Jesus in Revelation that seems fairly contradictory to the plain reading of the Acts 15 letter and Jesus in Revelation. Further, it appears that he agreed at the time with the wording of the letter to the Gentiles, but his view shifted by the time he wrote Romans 14. So I’m open to the possibility that Paul would not be completely closed off to say… new DNA evidence … for example in shaping his view of origins.

    2. Jesus – my best guess is that this point and the next “are the thing behind the thing.” The thing(s) that makes these dialogues potentially anxious. It is probably where we part ways at a fundamental level, which makes it tougher to agree down the road. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the purpose of the Bible was to point to Jesus as the one who holds all authority and is with us through the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure the Bible was pointing to itself as the absolute final authority. I think the Bible was meant to point to Jesus.

    3. Holy Spirit – I think Jesus meant it when he said, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” Truly not looking to score a cheap rhetorical point here, but what Jesus did not say was, “I will send you a new law book.” I guess this would raise the question: “what will keep us then from falling into a moral abyss of subjective relativism?” My only answer would be: I guess the only thing – might be if Jesus has actually conquered death, and ascended to the Father and has poured out the Holy Spirit, and has all authority. This is a thought experiment that may or may not be helpful towards the question of moral subjectivity (I’m also open to the possibility of sloppy logic here – but this has been helpful to me) Is the Holy Spirit of the Living God with the community of Jesus less real – less concrete and more subjective than the Bible? It appears to me that Peter’s logic in Acts 10-11 and then again at the Jerusalem counsel in Acts 15 is working on the premise of actual leading from the Holy Spirit within the community of Jesus. This active leading helps reinterpret scripture. At some level all these questions are questions of discernment and wisdom for the present. I’m guessing this is where we part ways at a fundamental level. What do you think – is this where our fundamental disagreement is? If so what would be potential avenues of remaining in conversation? Personally, I’m becoming more and more convinced of the wisdom in the Wesleyan quadrilateral; and the Quaker and Ignation ways of discernment – and that I and the community of Jesus need this kind of wisdom.

    4. Bible – see above – I think the Bible points to Jesus. Further, the sweep of the Biblical narrative seems to be towards the welcome and inclusion of outsiders into the community of Jesus – those who were once called unclean. For Peter the primary interpretation of the rooftop vision is not: now we can eat shrimp; but that he (Peter) should no longer call anyone unclean that God has made clean. It appears this lesson was tough to live out (Galatians).

    5. History – (I hope this is not a Red Herring). I would say there is always a certain degree of ambiguity and cloudiness in the present. We see through a glass darkly if you will. But, we can see with a degree of clarity when we look at history. Paul clearly was not an abolitionist when he wrote his letters. In fact Paul (and Jesus! again see twelve years a slave) was a favorite of slave holders (See the Civil War as Theological crisis). Yet I would say with quite a bit of confidence that Paul would have been an abolitionist – he would have said “Stop” to slavery. If this is not what he would have said – based on the implications of your talk – really instead of working with International Justice Mission to free current slaves, we should instead tell IJM to work with slave holders to be more kind and with the slaves to obey as onto the Lord.

    Paul in other words would give counsel that would seem “contradictory” to what he wrote in his letters. Or to say it this way if Paul had lived to be 1850, he may have moved from what he wrote on slavery.

    These are some of my inklings that guide how I think about what Paul might say today. What do you think? Do you think Paul would have to conclude that I’m ashamed of the gospel? Then by implication would GRTS grads have to do the same?

    I appreciate your attempt to walk a delicate path. However, I would continue to humbly suggest that the implications of your talk would be to send graduates out into the increasingly “dark” world to take a battling polemical stance. Included in that stance would be polemical accusations of being ashamed of the gospel aimed at quite a few followers of Jesus. I doubt this was your intent or the legacy you would wish for GRTS grads, however, I do see this as the potential effect of your talk.

    Grace and Peace,
    John

  12. John, thank you for the time and energy you put into this response. You have always been a clear thinker, even when we disagreed. I appreciate you and your desire to serve the Lord. I will try to respond in the order of your presentation, so it will be easy to compare.

    There is a tension between our values of conviction and conversation. I have no desire to stop conversation, but neither do I want to sacrifice bedrock Christian convictions for the sake of not offending my conversation partner. I think we each value both, but I suspect I’m more concerned about conviction and you’re more concerned for the conversation.

    I will stand by my claim that the other side both contradicts the Bible (see Enns’ statement that Paul is wrong in Romans 5) or suggests wildly implausible ways to get around the straightforward meaning of the text (Paul wouldn’t have opposed consensual homosexual activity among adults, especially if he had been aware of sexual orientation). I believe my claim is pretty close to a fact, so I can’t deny it. I don’t mean for it to be a “conversation stopper”–I’ll happily talk to the other side–but neither can I pretend that their views honor God’s Word. I have more respect for people like Enns who honestly say Paul was wrong than for others who claim they are submitting to God’s Word even while they circumvent it with their novel readings. Their new interpretations might be hypothetically possible, but are we really supposed to believe they are plausible?

    This is a loaded statement: “thoughtful people who love Jesus wrestle honestly with the texts in scholarly nuanced ways and reach different conclusions than yours.” I don’t want to question someone’s ‘honesty,’ but I think even you would agree that many of these scholars are not very objective. I’m told that the Western prof you cite writes that his revised reading of Romans 1 arose from wrestling with his son’s sexual orientation. This is a red flag which should make us extremely cautious about his arguments. I’m a scholar who enjoys nuance–and emphasizes it to my students–but I won’t let scholarship, nuance, or conversation become ways to circumvent God’s Word.

    One question for you is where you would draw the line. If you are open to the ideas of any who claim (and seem) to be “followers of Jesus,” what doctrine won’t you potentially give up? What in Scripture can’t be explained away by thoughtful scholars practicing nuance? For example, it’s popular these days to separate physical from spiritual death (human death is natural, only spiritual death is a consequence of sin). What is to stop any of these scholars from saying that perhaps Jesus only arose spiritually rather than physically? This is a thoughtful, nuanced argument often made by good people who claim to follow Jesus. Would you say they are wrong, that they are ashamed of the gospel? Or would you fear that is a conversation stopper?

    Thank you for your careful interpretation of what I said. I think you understand my point exactly.

    Now for your enumerated points.

    1. I don’t see the contradiction you see between Jesus and Paul. In Rev. 2:14 Jesus refers to those who enticed Israel to eat food sacrificed to idols. Both Jesus and Paul see the meat issue as a Jewish issue, which is why it’s not a contradiction for Paul to say Gentiles may eat meat without asking where it came from. I don’t see the problem that you see here.

    One large difference between us is that I see Romans 14 not merely as Paul’s take but also the Word of God written with and through Paul. Since God knew about DNA when he inspired Romans, I can’t concede that new discoveries would lead him to change his mind. We probably disagree about how the Bible is God’s Word. As you suggest, this is probably the foundational difference between us. And if this is not bridged, we will continue to disagree on every one of these issues.

    2. I agree that Scripture points to Jesus–obviously–but I disagree that the issue of authority is an either/or choice. Either Jesus or the Bible is our authority. I believe it’s both/and. I think your argument is guilty of a false dichotomy. Eph. 2:20 says the Bible is the foundation of the church.

    3. I think your theological method here falsely separates Spirit from the Word. The Reformers emphasized Word and Spirit, Spirit and Word, but you decouple them in a way that is already leading you into subjective relativism. Which you sense. I don’t believe I am diminishing the role of the Spirit to say that the promise you refer was Jesus’ declaration that the Spirit would come upon the apostles for the writing of his authoritative Word, which the Spirit now uses to regenerate and minister to his people.

    4. I agree with this general statement about inclusion of outsiders, though I suspect we would dramatically disagree on the specifics. E.g., I would say the outsiders must be regenerated–which in Scripture always happens by the Spirit working through his inspired Word–in order to become insiders.

    5. As with your discussion of meat offered to idols, I don’t see the contradiction that you see in regard to slavery. Slavery in Paul’s day was dramatically different from our American experience of chattel slavery. It was more like indentured servitude, where people voluntarily become slaves for a time, in order to move up in society. We still practice this kind of slavery today. We call it the military.

    You continue to ask whether I think you are ashamed of the gospel. I can’t say for sure, as you haven’t said exactly what you believe on any of these points. I would say that you are willing to tolerate those who Paul would say are ashamed of the gospel. Note that the issues at stake are not tangential, side issues to the Christian faith. Denying original sin is the heresy of Pelagianism. Denying a historical Adam and the sin of sexual immorality is so new we don’t have names for them yet. So while Paul’s shame language is loaded, it seems appropriate given that the entire faith is at stake.

    I would also say I’m not sure if your method will long preserve the Bible. If you are simply going to agree with what the dominant culture says (on sexual practice, origins, sin, and Jesus), do you even need the Bible?

    I don’t think a “battling polemical stance” is the only stance I want my graduates to take, but it is one of them. If you’re in a battle–and Ephesians 6 says we are–then that is one stance we need to have. I believe in both common grace and antithesis, for the world and against the world (for the sake of the world). We need both stances and to know when to use each. I grant that my speech was long on antithesis. I’ve written and spoken elsewhere on common grace, and you can’t say everything in every sermon. I believe I gave a message that was faithful to what Paul and God would say if they had addressed the group. I wasn’t aiming at any followers of Jesus, which is why I mentioned no names. But if some feel like they were hit, I hope they use the opportunity to evaluate whether their openness has led them to needlessly sacrifice their convictions.

  13. Thanks again Mike. I have enjoyed the dialogue just as I enjoyed your classes.This, I promise, will be my last reply, and then this being your blog, I will leave the last word to you if you choose to reply, (I’m aware that you like I probably have other work). My response simply quotes a few things from your response in order and gives brief – I promise – replies.

    “I think we each value both, but I suspect I’m more concerned about conviction and you’re more concerned for the conversation.” Yes.

    “I’m told that the Western prof you cite writes that his revised reading of Romans 1 arose from wrestling with his son’s sexual orientation. This is a red flag which should make us extremely cautious about his arguments.” I’m not sanguine about the modernist project of objectivism. So, I don’t see this as discrediting Brownson. He begins the book by acknowledging this. I don’t find Gagnon any more objective. Jonathan Haidt and Richard Beck among others, have fairly conclusively demonstrated that to a certain extent Hume was right “reason is the slave of the passions” – our reasoning will to a degree follow the paths of our emotions. This is apparently part of what it means to be human. This is of course troubling and humbling. Nonetheless it seems pretty well backed up by research. I suspect Hume to a degree was right. So this applies to both Brownson as well as Gagnon, and well you and I.

    “One question for you is where you would draw the line. If you are open to the ideas of any who claim (and seem) to be “followers of Jesus,” what doctrine won’t you potentially give up?”

    In general I think the Holy Spirit will be the one who convicts of sin and leads people into truth. I’m less optimistic about my capacity as a line drawing to accomplish those things. Here is what I think is essential to orthodoxy: what is found in the Nicene and Apostles Creeds; that Jesus came in the flesh; that he died on a cross for our sins; and was bodily resurrected; has ascended to the Father; and is with us through His Holy Spirit; that the Bible is inspired and points to Jesus as the full revelation of the Father. Also I see orthopraxy as equally important as orthodoxy – and if one (orthodoxy or orthopraxy) needs to be given priority – I think Jesus indicates the scales tip in favor of how I treat my neighbor not what I believe about my neighbor (Matt. 25, Luke 10)

    “One large difference between us is that I see Romans 14 not merely as Paul’s take but also the Word of God written with and through Paul.”

    In retrospect I should have left out Jesus in Revelation. I think the Acts 15 letter is a little stickier.

    “Eph. 2:20 says the Bible is the foundation of the church.”

    You and I read this entirely differently. I read the foundation is “apostles and prophets.” These at least as I read it were people, many of whom wrote nothing that is recorded as scripture. Are you saying that Paul when he says apostles and prophets means the Bible? And, it feels to me like the whole point of the passage is Jesus is the cornerstone.

    “I agree that Scripture points to Jesus–obviously–but I disagree that the issue of authority is an either/or choice. Either Jesus or the Bible is our authority. I believe it’s both/and. I think your argument is guilty of a false dichotomy.”

    Thanks for this. I agree it is not either/or but both/and. I continue to look for ways to say what I am trying to say, so that it does not sound like a false dichotomy. What I am trying to emphasize is that even in both/and’s, there is, if you will, an order of priority. So it is not Jesus v. the Bible, but Jesus exercising His authority through the Bible. In terms of who/what perfectly reveals God, for me it has to be Jesus is the perfect revelation of who God is. (Heb 1; Col 1; John 14; John 5:39 etc…) One Biblical example of a both/and, where there is a priority: “you should have done the former without neglecting the latter.” Another would be when Jesus affirms John’s testimony but says his is weightier. His testimony has priority over John’s.

    “I think your theological method here falsely separates Spirit from the Word. The Reformers emphasized Word and Spirit, Spirit and Word, but you decouple them in a way that is already leading you into subjective relativism. Which you sense. I don’t believe I am diminishing the role of the Spirit to say that the promise you refer was Jesus’ declaration that the Spirit would come upon the apostles for the writing of his authoritative Word, which the Spirit now uses to regenerate and minister to his people.”

    See above. Not meaning to set-up an either/or, but again an order of priority. I’m convinced that the logical flow of Acts 10, 11 and 15 points in this direction. I respectfully have a hard time seeing how Jesus’ promise of the Spirit could be reduced to the role you describe.

    “Slavery in Paul’s day was dramatically different from our American experience of chattel slavery.”

    Here I will just note that this line of reasoning sounds quite similar to a line of reasoning you dismiss earlier: “(Paul wouldn’t have opposed consensual homosexual activity among adults, especially if he had been aware of sexual orientation).” This you obviously disagree with. And this is similar: “Since God knew about DNA when he inspired Romans, I can’t concede that new discoveries would lead him to change his mind.” Not trying to twist your words or take you out of context, but wouldn’t God have also known that Bible would be used in horrific ways to enslave people? It looks like you are arguing that Paul’s experience of slavery was different than what would happen in the West. This feels similar to the nuanced argument some people are trying to make regarding homosexuality.

    Thanks again for the dialogue Mike.

    Grace and Peace,
    John

  14. Thanks, John. I’ll let you have the last word, as you’ve been as gracious as always. I just want to say that I knew you would pick up on the term objective. I was trying to say that scholars may not be as “honest” as you said. But I didn’t want to say they are lying, so chose the word “objective,” knowing it had the pitfalls you said. I agree with you that all knowledge is perspectival, yet still able to be true. I’ll stop now before I take the last word away from you. Thanks for the stimulating discussion!

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