By Grace Through Faith, Panel Discussion

Desiring God 1988 Conference for Pastors

By Grace Through Faith

Questioner: In Acts 16:14, it says the Lord opened Lydia’s heart. What is the significance of the aorist tense there?

J.I. Packer: Does the aorist tense mean that the Lord opened it as an event and then it stayed open? Yes, it does.

Questioner: In John 3, what is the relationship between Nicademus’s inability and his accountability?

Packer: The questioner is perfectly right to say that accountability is part of the story. Jesus rebukes Nicodemus for not understanding these things. I think that the proper comment on that is that the truth of God is always, to a degree, self-evidencing as divine truth, wherever it goes, and to whomever it comes. So that unbelief of God’s truth is always regarded as a guilty thing, right the way through Scripture from Genesis 3 onwards. John Owen, the Puritan, used to express this by saying, “There is light that shines out from the word, light which betokens it divine, and light which carries a sense of divine authority.” It is a fundamental un-analyzable reality. I mean, it is the reality in terms of which everything else is to be analyzed. God makes his reality felt. He makes his reality felt in the word, that is, his word.

And there’s always an element of resistance to this light and power from God when the Word is not understood, or if understood, not obeyed. Just in any shape or form, it may be not responded to as it should be, that’s actual resistance. You remember Stephen to the Jews. He said, “You always resist the word of God.” And that in measure is what Nicodemus has been doing. I suppose you would have to analyze Nicodemus’s condition like this. He’s a Jewish theologian. He knows the Jewish theological heritage. He’s conceited as other Pharisees were conceited. They are all sure that they’ve got knowledge, whereas in fact they haven’t really got knowledge. They’re all sure that they understand the Old Testament Scriptures, which in fact they don’t understand at all. Am I saying enough, I wonder, to give you satisfaction? Okay, then I won’t take it any further.

Questioner: I get the sense there is a kind of utilitarianism in mission strategies, do you think there is a lack of a biblical evaluation of it?

Ralph Winter: I’m not absolutely sure what you may be referring to. There is a rising tide of interest in the churches in the cheapest missionaries possible, and there’s a rising feeling that American missionaries cost too much. Is that the sort of thing you would talk about as pragmatic?

Questioner: It’s more of the idea of “if it works, let’s do it.”

Winter: Well, being all things to all people is a biblical principle. I think that we ought not to be so stubborn as to be unable to use a telephone if it seems to enable us to get to people more effectively. I do think, obviously, every move we make should be evaluated, but I wouldn’t be afraid of success as such, because then we would have to be afraid of God himself. He is the one greatest success story of all history, and the Christian movement today has got to be the most powerful phenomenon on earth.

Questioner: Dr. Packer, how at home do you feel with Ralph Winter’s message that he gave? Secondly, do you have any comments about the previous question regarding pragmatic utilitarianism? Third, could you respond to the modern church growth movement?

Packer: Let me do those three things in reverse, may I? I thought that the questioner who last put the question to Dr. Winter had the Church Growth Movement in mind when he put it. I certainly thought of the Church Growth Movement when I heard him put the question, because the Church Growth Movement — as it’s been theorized, strategized, and publicized from the Fuller School of World Mission — has often been criticized for exemplifying on principled pragmatism. I think that that’s not a proper criticism. I think that Dr. Winter was perfectly entitled to say as he did, that, “becoming all things to all men that by all means I may save some” is a biblical principle. It was in fact the very basic principle of Paul’s own mission. It says that in 1 Corinthians 9:22. The Church Growth Movement has put its money, if I may talk secularly, has put its money on what they call “the homogeneous unit principle,” which in ordinary speech means birds of a feather flock together.

You try therefore to form your initial group at least by the principle of getting like to attract like. It seems to me that that is a perfectly proper application of Paul’s principle, and it ought not to be criticized as pragmatism. It’s rather Christian good sense. What can be said about the Church Growth Movement, I think, is that in some quarters — and I’m not accusing in particular here, I’m only saying that it has happened — people have got so gung-ho about the idea of numerical growth, that they’ve altogether lost sight of the prayer and teaching that Paul gives about church growth in quite a different sense, namely a qualitative growth. That growth has to do with the bonding together of unlike with unlike — Jew and Gentile becoming a new sort of human community in Christ.

The criticism is, “Well, if you follow out the homogeneous unit principle, and have no other concern in your mind, you will never get into the Jew and Gentile together in Christ situation, as well as rich and poor together in Christ, WASP and Hispanic together in Christ that Ephesians 2 would lead us to.” Well, the answer to that is to say that alongside the gathering of initial, the gathering of the first communities on the birds-of-a-feather principle, those communities must be taught that this further integration is part of what they’re called to. At some stage along the line, Church Growth strategy ought to take ways and means into its overall plan in order to produce this not-so-homogeneous pattern of growth, which is the climax of the triumph of the gospel, creating the new sort of human community.

But that’s a matter I think of supplementing the homogeneous church principle, rather than of negating it as being improperly pragmatic. Now, how that would work out in particular missionary situations is something I think that could only be decided on the spot, whether it’s going to mean that particular congregations of one sort of person and another sort of person will regularly come together for united meetings in which the congregations mingle, or whether the congregations will restructure their membership so that you have some of one and some of the other in the congregation. That’s something that you’d have to decide on the spot. I’m only saying that adding this further dimension of understanding of church growth, which Ephesians obliges us to add, doesn’t negate the homogeneous unit principle, as has sometimes been supposed.

Then the second question was what did I think of what Dr. Winter said in direct answer to the question. My reply to that is that I thought it was very good, and I agreed with all of it, and there’s nothing about which I want to interact with him there, except simply to say one thing. In saying this, I’m also beginning to get to question number one regarding how I would react to his presentation this morning. One of the things that peeped through very obviously in his presentation this morning was that missionary initiative is passing out of the Anglo-Saxon world into the Third World. It is. We should note it, we should pray in terms which recognize it, we should ask God to bless that movement, and we should thank God for the fact that already the torch, which we white Anglo-Saxon Protestants have been in danger of dropping, is being picked up so effectively by so many mission agencies from the Third World, which are keen as mustard. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s a work of God and we ought to recognize that this is part of his strategy at the present time.

However, I would like to balance that statement by now saying this, which is very clear to me, be it said as an Englishman by extraction, and now a Canadian by choice. I look at the US from the touchlines. Every now and then I’m invited onto the field of play, but then I go back to Canada again. I’m really a touch-liner in relation to The States. This is what I want to say. In the providence of God, it is also very obvious to me that the United States for the next X decades will continue to have a key role in world mission. In the providence of God, the US has great resources, both of personnel and of money. The Third World mission agencies are very zealous, but few of them have much money. Many of them actually are strapped for want of money, and they need financial support from people like us.

What I’m saying about the Asia missionaries and the Latin American missionaries would apply also in a sharper way to Africa. There are lots of people in Africa who want to be missionaries, but they have absolutely no money. They’re as poor as church mice, so this is something to bear in mind when we think of what we are to do with all the dollars that God gives us. The US is in a much better position than any other of the older Christian countries to finance the world missionary enterprise for quite a number of decades to come. And as I said, the US also has a constant supply of first class personnel. I say that, meaning it. I meet them.

I think that we need to realize that the US has this major role of significance in the world missionary enterprise for the next X decades. And again, thought and prayer ought to be focused in terms of that perception. I’m trying to hold together these two things. On the one hand, if the Lord tarries for any length of time, I am sure that the real initiatives in Christian world mission will go on passing increasingly to the younger churches of the Third World. But shall I say that’s a strategic perception. Tactically, the U.S. still has a significant role, and Canada is coming along behind. The rest of the English-speaking world is almost nowhere. North America still has a very significant and important role to play. And we need, I think, to have these thoughts in our minds. That at least is my vision of things. I guess that Dr. Winter ought now to come back and tell me straight whether he sees things that way, but he didn’t quite say it that way this morning and I wanted to take this opportunity of saying it that way to you now, because that’s what I think I see.

Winter: Well, I absolutely fully agree. I think in that paper that John waved in front of you, “Form in Three Eras,” it makes very clear that, in my perspective, the third era will ultimately be dominated by Third World missionaries. There are already about 25,000 such missionaries with over 300 sending organizations, and the meeting I mentioned in Portland coming up, which by the way is hosted by the Western Conservative Baptist Seminary, is a cloud the size of a man’s hand that is going to become a major and impressive thing.

We have a great and drastic myopia in this country. They’re talking about this huge meeting in Washington — Washington For Jesus. They’re hoping to get a million people this time out of a mere 260 million inhabitants in this country, who are able to get there if they wanted to. Korea, unnoticed, unmentioned in the press, had a meeting of 3 million people out of a country one-sixth the size. It was three times the meeting and it didn’t get into a single newspaper in this country. We just have no easy appreciation for the power of the Christian movement. We hear about Nicaragua, but what about the evangelicals? They are 10 times as numerous as they were when the Sandanistas came in. Last year, the Assemblies of God alone planted 400 new churches in that country, whose population is no bigger than Minneapolis. I mean, things like this are going on constantly, and we just can’t get a hold of them somehow.

Questioner:In 1 Corinthians 2:14, where does the inability of the natural man exist? Is it in his inability to understand spiritual truth, or to receive spiritual truth?

John Piper: Well, I have my Greek New Testament open in front of me here. I’ll give you a literal translation and make my comment and then defer to others: “The natural man does not welcome the things of God for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to know them, because they are spiritually assessed.” That’s how I would translate it. I would say that the fundamental problem is a moral, not an intellectual one, in that they put a wrong assessment on things that they hear, and thus are incapable of knowing in the sense that you always distort what you don’t want to receive once you’ve put a low assessment on it.

Packer: I think I need only supplement that by saying one further thing, that in pastoral practice there proves to be a spectrum along which different people who reject or simply don’t accept the gospel fan out. The two ends of the spectrum can be characterized this way. At the one end of the spectrum is total uncertainty, at least conscious uncertainty. I agree with John Piper that it has a moral base in unwillingness, but in consciousness it comes as a total uncertainty as to whether the gospel message is true. At the other end of the spectrum is total distaste for the gospel message because of what it requires of those who receive it — repentance, the abandonment of sin, the abandonment of egocentric living, self-denial, and committing oneself to Christ without any restraints. And real people, I find, appear at different points on that spectrum with more or less of these two attitudes, mixing in different proportions inside their minds, and finding expression in the things that they say. That I think is simply application of the exegesis that Dr. Piper gave.

John Armstrong: I just would give a brief historical reflection on his application and his exegesis, that it was in a question just like this that the hyper-Calvinists drew some of the conclusions they seemed to draw, that the sinner had no moral duty to repent because he had no moral ability to repent. He had no responsibility to repent in the sense that he was incapable of doing it, so how could he be held accountable for it? They reasoned that way. They reasoned themselves right into the hyperism that we spoke of this morning

Packer: Yes, that’s right and it’s important we should know that and it’s important that we should know how to nail that particular mistake. It’s a mistake which you find in Pelagius and in Kant, the supposition, I mean, that obligation is limited by ability. True theology says no, God’s right to command is not affected by man’s loss of the power to obey. That’s a very basic principle in theology, I think.

Winter: Especially if you add in the very strong possibility that the inability to obey is the result of disobedience itself. It’s like saying, “Here’s a man who’s dead drunk on the floor. Well, poor fellow, he can’t do anything about it.” The point is that how he got there has to be taken into account also. These people in 1 Corinthians 2 had gotten to that point over a rocky road of choices and so forth. They then got to the place where they couldn’t hear a word anymore than a dead-drunk man could hear a word. Total inability is a result of moral depravity.

Questioner: Where are the Third World missions agencies going and how can we in North America best assist them?

Winter: Generalizations are always unfair to some, but generally speaking, the Third World agencies are absolute amateurs. They have the worst of all missiologies in history. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re floundering, they’re failing. They’re desperately ineffective. It’s like we were when we started. It was probably a fluke by comparison to the other 500 missionaries who first went out in that era, but how to help them? I would say that’s the name of the game. A few days ago I was standing in this huge auditorium in São Paulo, looking at these people from all over the world. If there’d been no Spanish or Portuguese people present at all, which accounted for 3,000 of the 3,500, it would’ve still been the largest gathering in human history of Third World mission leadership in any one place on the face of the earth.

I thought to myself, “This is a magnificent enterprise.” But notice this is primarily Latin America. This entire movement, this wasn’t just a meeting. It was the culmination of a three or four year long sweep of flame across the churches of Latin America, generating a mission interest, not just an evangelistic interest. There was hardly a missionary present at the meeting. Most of the missionaries in Latin America probably haven’t even heard that it occurred. Now, this has to be a first class indictment of the inability of the Western missionary apparatus to wake up to either the need for, or the presence of these valiant, struggling, stumbling, Third World agencies. Now to help them is simply to wake up. Here we come back to faith again. It’s not an intellectual problem.

This was not done in a corner. It’s one of the most fantastic things. If you’d asked me four years ago, “Could there ever be such a meeting?” it would’ve been the most hilarious, unrealistic conjecture that could have been proposed, because I know Latin America pretty well. But in fact you couldn’t have derived this as a prediction by looking at the missionary apparatus from North America.

Now, that’s where we are potentially able to help, as Dr. Packer said, but in actual fact we are just almost completely out of it. Those who study Third World missions are almost a minority tribe within the world of missiology. Take Fuller Seminary. I’m not here to make criticisms, but there’s not a course out of 160 that they offer in the School of World Mission itself on the unfinished task. There’s not one course on the Third World Mission Movement. When I was there, there was one course that McGavrin offered, on the founding and the fostering and the development of the Third World Mission Movement, but there were no takers.

You see, schools are driven by dollars, and there’s no income from that source if the people who come to study are not interested. And the people who come to study are the Western missionary apparatus people. This is one reason that I just felt I couldn’t stick around, and there’s been now, for 11 years, almost a complete hiatus. Thereo ill will, but just no connection. Fuller is concerned that the church should grow where it is; we’re concerned that the church should go where it isn’t, and there’s just no connection. That’s why I don’t identify myself with the Church Growth Movement, by the way. I didn’t answer that question.

Questioner: If young people came to you and said, “We want to serve God, we want to make ourselves available for missionary service,” would you encourage them to work in cooperation with the North American sending agency? Would you encourage them to be aligned with a Third World mission agency? How would you direct them?

Winter: Well, 10 or 15 years ago, it would’ve been much bleaker. There is an express train transition going in the right direction on the part of the mission agencies in particular with their leadership, I would say, not necessarily the people in the field. Then not quite so far along, are the churches of America, which would be the last to respond to the reality, who are still chasing after all kinds of panacea ideas of native missionaries, tent-maker missionaries, mass media missionaries, or whatever. They are looking for easier, cheaper ways to go. But I think things are going along very well under the circumstances. I encourage young people not to ignore the traditional apparatus. We’re constantly trying to stress the recovery and the renewal of the existing structures. You cannot rebuild a $2 billion industry overnight, and that’s where the American missions is.

But notice, I’m a Presbyterian in the mainline denomination. My church and the other 40 denominations in the National Council of Churches are now sending out 2 percent of the American missionaries. While I’m related and faithful within that tradition, like Dr. Packer within the Anglican tradition, I know where the action is, and what’s going on. The work that I do has very little to do with it, although it does on occasion relate to that particular denomination. So even in that case, I shoot people, pastors, and everybody back into the apparatus. These bones can live.

A good example would be what happened in the student volunteer movement. The movement of the faith missions and the Hudson Taylor missions and so forth grew up outside of the mainline, first-era mission tradition. The old denominations were all lumbering along in their well-established fields, and they didn’t pay much attention. But then after a suitable, brief period of 25 years, when Hudson Taylor was no longer 30, all of a sudden he was 55 and the people began to take notice. In the London meeting of 1888, he was one of his principal speakers. And in the 1890s the older groups which had been paying no attention, were bogged down in their own fields with the success that they had. It was very similar to the present situation. Within 10 years, the church missionary society went from 130 missionaries to 1,100 missionaries, and it was partly Moody’s influence and everything else. But it was partly, I would say, simply catching on.

You can’t imagine how fast the old agencies can shift gears — this is my faith — once they catch on and once they realize that this is where the people in the churches are. The young people writing in are asking questions and so forth. I see the whole thing just about to break through. So I’m optimistic. I’d say, “Hang in, don’t jump out. Don’t go with the latest fad that blows through the church. Just hang in there with your denominational agency, whatever it is, expect great things, and attempt great things.”

Armstrong: I’m reflecting, listening to Dr. Winter’s vision, which is I have to confess is extremely contagious to me as a pastor, and I know that John Piper has felt this burden for some time. I think it might be profitable for you fellows who are pastors, if you comment, John, on what your church is doing to capture, as a local American church, some of the vision that Ralph Winter has shared here? For me it’s a little bit newer, but we’re starting to catch that same wave in our congregation. We’re a smaller church. I could reflect on maybe the smaller church, you’re in a larger church, but can you help us a little bit with some of the things that have happened? I’m not asking you to list statistics or boast about Bethlehem.

Winter: Yes, tell us how willing to listen the denominational headquarters has been.

Armstrong: No, let’s not do that, please.

*Piper: Well, they’ve been really willing. We called them up on the telephone and said, “We will take you out to dinner if you’ll let us fly down and give us four hours of your time?” And they said, “Anytime. No problem.” So we got on the airplane and flew to Chicago and took four denominational executives out to dinner, and we asked them what they were doing about hidden peoples and a few other things like that. It’s been cordial ever since. I’m on the board of world missions subsequent to that, and good things are happening. The chief executive is very suspicious of the whole Hidden People’s movement, but we’re still working.

I’m really hesitant to say anything about Bethlehem with Ralph Winter sitting here because he’s never impressed by anything I say. Every time I open my mouth he asks me how I am going to get 10 other people to do it. So I think it’d be better for you to just talk to Tom Stellar about it. He said he took people out to the US Center. Get the Perspectives on the World Christian Movement to your church. Get the books, begin to read biographies yourself, start praying through Operation World. Have your people let you preach at your own missions conferences, which my church didn’t let me do for three years, but once they did my life was changed. I preached at our own missions conference. If you have to preach on missions, and you preach with the kind of God that I preach, you all of a sudden discover connections that were lying latent there.

Questioner: There are three questions addressed to Dr. Packer. First, what is the high point of the glory of God? Second,what is your understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit and conversion as understood in the 16th and 17th centuries as compared to today? Third, how is seeing the beauty of all the moral attributes of God just another way of seeing the beauty and the rightness and the goodness of his heart and will in different ways?

Packer: These are three questions about the knowledge of God, aren’t they? First, I believe that the revelation of God in his inter-Trinitarian relations that we’ve got in the New Testament really is a revelation. When I read the Gospel of John, specifically, Jesus telling us and showing us actually by his conduct that the Father loves the Son and Son loves the Father, I take that perfectly seriously. I take it then that love in its pure form to be having the purpose of making the other person great. I think you’ll find that that definition covers all the real love. When you see that sort of love between the persons of the Godhead, it is beautiful, it is glorious, and it is praiseworthy. You adore the Father for loving the Son and you adore the Son for loving the Father. You adore the whole Trinity bound together in this fellowship of love, and you seek to realize that same ideal of love within the church.

I mean Christians realize that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit love each believer as the Father loves the Son, and that the fellowship of the congregation ought to exhibit that same love in imitation of the love of God. When you realize further that the gospel is really a summons to share in the circle of divine love (that’s what it comes to though it’s never put quite that way in the Bible), you can’t analyze the perception, I think, beyond simply saying immediately that you see it is glorious, wonderful, and praiseworthy. You praise and adore. I don’t know what more I can say about it than that. It is part of the revealed reality of God. It is part of the revealed glory of the gospel. Love commends itself, love understood as I’ve just defined it. I have to say that rather pedantically because the word “love” in English covers so many things that are less than a purpose of making the other person great. But love, defined as a purpose of making the other person great, is just the greatest thing and the most wonderful thing, not only in the world but in God himself. That answer I would offer to your first question, I hope it rings bells.

To your second question, the key to understanding the work of the Holy Spirit throughout the New Testament seems to me to be this. Jesus says he comes to glorify the Son (John 16:14). That’s his specific New Covenant ministry. It doesn’t mean that those ministries which the Spirit of God fulfilled in the Old Testament have now ceased to be. He is still the one through whom revelation comes. He is still the one through whom ministry is given. He is still the one through whom the processes of nature go on. That’s there in the Old Testament, and that’s part of the Spirit’s ministry still. But his distinctive New Covenant ministry has to do with what Jesus pinpointed in John 16:14:

He shall glorify me, for he will take what is mine and show it to you.

Again, one has to say that as in the Old Testament so in the New, all spiritual life, which I define in terms of responsiveness to stimuli — I think that definition borrowed from the biologists will do for the time being — is a response to spiritual stimulus, that is, the stimulus of the word and invitation and call of God, and the sight of the work of God. The Holy Spirit imparts spiritual life, understood as responsiveness. It is responsiveness to Jesus Christ as he is set forth on the stage of history and then in the gospel message and to all the grace that is in Jesus Christ. Spiritual life shows itself by response to Christ and to the Father through Christ. Christ is the mediator, we come to Christ, and Christ brings us to the Father. This is conversion. This always was conversion. As I tried to say in one of my talks, in the 16th and 17th centuries, this was worked out in terms of knowledge first — that is, perception, cognition, or the Latin word sensus, which means a direct awareness of something. The Holy Spirit gives a sense of the reality and the saving invitation of the Lord Jesus.

Conversion is first and foremost an awareness of that, a delight in it, an approval of it, an assent to it, and thirdly, a trust in it, which means a trust in the Christ of whom these things are said. This is conversion. It doesn’t have to be sudden. It may come slowly. It doesn’t have to be emotional. It may come calmly, but if you check the person who has been converted, you will find that threefold response to the revelation of saving grace in Christ is there. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit, you see. The Holy Spirit in a sense keeps out of sight. He doesn’t call attention to himself. I sometimes picture it this way. The Holy Spirit fulfills a floodlight ministry in relation to the Lord Jesus. You’re not supposed to see the floodlights, they’re hidden away in corners of the wall. You are supposed to see that on which the floodlight is trained.

Then out of that comes the Holy Spirit’s matchmaker ministry, I say. I illustrate that from the beginning of The Fiddler On The Roof. The matchmaker comes in and is sung to by the heroine. Well, the Holy Spirit is a matchmaker. It’s as if the Spirit whispers in our ear, “Do you see him? Do you hear him? He says, ‘Come to me and you’ll find rest for your souls.’ You go to him.” It’s all a ministry of calling attention to Jesus, like the ministry of John the Baptist: “He must increase, I must decrease.” The Spirit keeps out of sight and calls no attention to himself. All the attention is focused on the Lord Jesus and his greatness and glory.

Well, now the 20th century counterpart of that is an approach to conversion which regards emotion, intense feeling (a feeling of crisis) as a very integral part of the process. So when we are counseling for conversion, and even more directly when we are preaching for conversion, we try to point everything up to a personal crisis. We have it firmly fixed in our minds as one of our unquestioned assumptions that all conversions should be conscious crisis conversions, modeled to a greater or less extent, as closely as we can model them, to what happened to Paul on the Damascus Road.

The institutionalizing of crisis seems to me to be an unbiblical thing to do, frankly, but we do it. And then we rethink what we expect the Holy Spirit to do in conversion, in terms of making the sense of crisis acute, and bringing out of that acute sense, “Here is a decision I must make, and make right now.” We think of the Holy Spirit as prompting, by what the Arminians of the 17th century would’ve called “moral persuasion” — prompting the decision. We represent to the person we’re trying to lead to Christ, as something he must do, and something which God is waiting for him to do. You would’ve hoped that we would’ve brought in the Holy Spirit as the one through whom alone the decision can be made, but we don’t do it. What we tend to say, rather, is that when you have made your decision, the Spirit will come to indwell your heart. The Spirit also is waiting for you.

Well, theologically it’s all skewed. It’s all distorted. It is by absolute standards or wrong. God is very merciful and he doesn’t withhold his grace because we misrepresent in our talk. A lot of people, thank God, still do get converted despite the way that we’ve presented the issue to them, rather than because of it. Put that down to the goodness of God, rather than treating it as any indication that he approves of the way that we have expressed the matter in our preaching and in our conversion counseling. The bottom line is that we’re looking to the Holy Spirit to create a strong sense of crisis, which is a crisis for me, you see. It’s ego-focused. And then we are looking to the Holy Spirit to bear down on people’s minds with the thought, “You must make a decision for Christ,” however we express that. We don’t, at that point, stress the Holy Spirit as the changer of our heart. And we don’t, at that point, stress the ministry of the Holy Spirit as the one who shows you the Christ who loves you.

If we do, it’s a half-stress. It isn’t the major thing. I believe it ought to be the major thing all the time. So I would say that we are skewing our thoughts and our presentation too of the ministry of the Holy Spirit in relation to conversion. By skewing it, we are greatly increasing the danger of false conversions where people make decisions that don’t involve any real heart turning from the self-centered life to the Christ-centered life. If they come into the Kingdom at all, they will come as rather weak, feeble births, because there’s something distorted you see about the basic perspective. And then they’ll take up with all kinds of immature, skewed Christianities that have to do with turning Christianity into a fulfilling ego trip — “This is the way for you to get health and wealth,” and things like that. You know I’m a Calvinist, and I hope you are a Calvinist. I’m sure your heart is. I hope your head is. I would say that to all of you. And as one Calvinist to his brother Calvinist, I would say that we know that shifting from the egocentric focus to the God-centered focus really is the heart of the matter in true conversion.

A conversion is no healthier than the degree to which that transition is consciously made. Here again, we should be looking to the Holy Spirit and talking about what the Holy Spirit does in changing our hearts, and we just don’t say it as we should. So that’s my answer to that one. I believe there was another question, but I’ve forgotten it.

Quesioner: What does that mean for us practically as pastors in evangelism to not take people off the hook but, in Pastor John’s terms, to put them on the hook? What should we do and what should we expect by way of response?

Piper: Since the question was addressed to me, and I’m glad to be assured that it is a question, I thought it was actually an answer. I’ll speak the first word, but I’m quite sure that the bulk of the answer ought to be given by my colleagues who are pastors, actually having to do this in the same congregation week after week, and year after year. In other words, I’m going to turn it over as quickly as I can to the two Johns. I hope you won’t feel that I’m chickening out in doing that, but I want to hear what they have to say in answer to this one as much as I hope you do.

My simple response is to say, well, yes, I think that we have got into the habit of preaching the gospel in a way that actually obstructs the work of the Spirit, and so risks doing damage to people’s souls. And we need to be perfectly serious in facing that fact, just as your question suggests that you too think we need to be. I’m not sure that we shall gain very much by extensive criticism of those who were in Christ before us. I think what’s more important is that in a pacific way, as far as the life of the larger church is concerned, we should devise ways of saying it right without necessarily sounding a trumpet before us to lead into a condemnation of those who we think haven’t done it right, but simply doing it right ourselves.

Otherwise, we do invite the very hostile reactions that you were envisaging in your question, and in a way we shall deserve them. I think it’s a rule in the Christian Church that anything that you can do in the way of changing for the better without actually evoking confrontational controversy by condemning what other people have been doing, should be done in that peaceful way — “As far as possible, live at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18). And having said that, I’m not going to say anymore. I hope you’ll allow me to pass the question onto the pastors for whom this is a more existential business than it is for an occasional preacher like me, who comes in as a visiting fireman with a professor’s hat on. Whatever they think of me, they don’t usually tell me, because they know that I’m only a bird of passage. I shall soon be gone. And then if they want to forget all about me, they can and continue as they were doing. But in John’s congregation in Wheaton, and the other John’s congregation here in Minneapolis, they can’t do that. So I want to hear what these two brethren have to say about how to preach the gospel right.

Armstrong: I’m not a bird passing through. I’ve been in the same place for 12 years, but some of the flock has passed through. From a pastor’s perspective, what Dr. Packer has just said in the last two or three minutes is something that I wish I had heard when I was asking the kind of question that we’re discussing seven or eight years ago. Because my first reaction to the kind of question that we’re discussing, was, like I fear so many who are friends of mine, to take up almost the cudgel of truth and go after the historic problems. What we have done, some of us, I confess, is that we can see the specs in D.L. Moody without seeing the large planks in our own eyes. That’s what it boils down to. There’s something terribly egotistical that I found in myself about the ability to be able to see historical flaws and say, “Well, here’s the guy that got us off the track.” And in fact, I believe that Finney helped get us off the track, and I think Dr. Packer agrees with that. I know he does.

But the issue is not for us to become anti-Finney in our ministry or how we approach the issue. I had someone come to me several years ago and say, after having said under what I hope and trust and pray with some sense of the matter, is a ministry that has attempted at least to be consistent with what Dr. Packer has said and how he’s presented the gospel and so forth in the last several days, they said something along this line, and I’ve heard this question many times actually: “Well, now that you have told us all that is wrong with the current approach to evangelism and assurance and these kinds of issues, could you please tell us what we can do that’s right? We’re almost petrified of trying anything. I mean, you’ve blown away all the opposition. Now tell us what we can do?” I think that is inherent in human nature again and inherent in a theological concern that we bring as those who feel renewed in theological concerns that are historical and biblical.

To answer the question from my perspective, I would simply say that we must present the gospel through our human personalities in such a way that we are, as Baxter said, “as dying men preaching to dying men.” We must have more passion. If you’re not someone who’s given to tears, at least outwardly, at least inwardly in your soul, you must have the attending emotions to what produces tears. There must be that kind of brokenness that is not just academic and doesn’t come just from reading theology in itself in an academic sense, or else all of your pleading is lacking, I think, in the kind of passion and sincerity that God has proven historically and biblically to use. If anything I see in those men that we would count as our forefathers in these truths, they were men of passion. They were men like Whitfield and Spurgeon who knew how to plead with their hearers to be reconciled to God. So we must not, whatever we do practically, we cannot kill that divine pleading.

I would say practically that we must encourage, plead, exhort, and urge our listeners as pastors to do business with God there and then, as they hear us, while they’re listening, when they leave. In a sense someone says, “Well, I give my invitation at the end of the sermon.” If you’re a pleader and you’ve understood this biblically, then you plead from start to finish. The invitation never stops, and it really doesn’t have an identifiable starting point. I’m inviting people constantly throughout the entirety of the preached, and counseled privately, message.

I’ll give one illustration and then I want to pass it to my brother, John, of how this may work itself out in private, pastorally. I had the opportunity recently to share the gospel on two occasions with a man. One of my men in the congregation brought a man whom he works with to me to share with him. His background was in the Roman Catholic Church. He had just gone through a traumatic experience in his own personal life, and he was open to seeking some kind of help. We sat and we visited for three hours one evening. He had a Bible. We went through the Scripture. He asked questions. I tried to address the questions from Scripture. We went from place to place with the Bible open. Then I asked him, after three hours, “Can I pray for you that God will quicken your heart to continue to seek after Christ, to read the word of God, and to come to faith in Christ, so that you may have an assurance that you know him?” And he looked at me and he said, “Well, I don’t know. I suppose you could pray that.” And I said, “Well, okay, if it’s alright with you, I’d like to pray that for you.”

I prayed and I prayed for his conversion. I prayed for his salvation. What I could have done, using techniques, as you well know, is I could have read him at that point through a five-minute presentation of the gospel, and said, “Would you pray this prayer right now after me, repeat these words sentence after sentence?” And then told him after we said an Amen, “You are now a Christian because you prayed these words.” I want to hasten to say that with integrity, I cannot do that, based on what you’ve heard here. Theologically, I cannot do that, and pastorally I cannot do that. But what I did do was plead with him to be reconciled to God even there and then that night.

Well, I then called him on several occasions, invited him to lunch, and went to lunch with him again. There at the table, I took a napkin and I drew an illustration and I talked about the Philippian jailer. I walked through the story and acts of the conversion of the Philippian jailer. I asked him if he had reached the place where he was from his heart, asking the question, “What must I do to be saved?” And he wasn’t sure, but he said, “What’s the point?” I showed him on a continuum in the diagram. I showed him where there are several places he could be in terms of his sense of his sin, and God, and God’s demands in the gospel. I urged him. I left him with some material to read. I prayed again for him, and I urged him that day to get alone with God, and that I would call him in several days and ask him where he was. I called him and I asked him several days later, “Have you committed your life to Christ? Do you believe the Spirit of God has come to you and has given you life? Do you sense that? Do you have any sense of that at all?”

His response was this, and this is the point that I’m trying to make. He said, “Well, I’m not sure. I think I have, but I’m not sure. I tried to pray.” What I was tempted to do, and what I would’ve done years ago, would’ve been to say, “Well, if you prayed the prayer, just remember fact comes before faith, and feelings come at the end, and it really doesn’t matter how you feel at all. Don’t worry about that. If you prayed the words that I told you to pray, you’re a Christian.” But again, you see, I couldn’t do that with integrity. I had to say to him, “I want to urge you to continue to seek God. When God meets you, however he meets you in your own individual personality and experience, you will know it. There will be an impression of the Spirit upon you in which you know that you’re a child of God.”

Now, that assurance, that psychological stamp of assurance from the inner person has to be tested and will be tested biblically, I hope if he’s taught well in the future, if the Lord saves him. And there are other aspects to the doctrine of Assurance than just that, but that initial sense of God doing something in his life, he’ll know that. What I would’ve been tempted to do is to say, “Well, that’s all right. You just don’t worry about feelings as long. As long as you prayed the prayer, you’re okay.” And what I’m saying is that I simply could not with integrity counsel that way.

I think, John, that we have to be sensitive to the fact that, yes, there will be a potential misunderstanding when we counsel and lead and preach this way, as opposed to the more decisionistic environment that many of us have come from in our culture. But I agree with Dr. Packer, I do not believe that means that we have to create all kinds of controversy and just blow people into six directions in the process. If we do it with the kind of passion that should attend the kind of truth that we’ve been hearing, I think it will pastorally have that effect. I’m not saying you’ll never have any opposition. Staying a pastor for a long time you’ll have opposition.

Questioner: There is a man who is being put forward for ordination that insists faith precedes regeneration and is inflexible on that. What would you do at that ordination council practically, knowing the Baptist General Conference as you do, from our position of soteriology.

Armstrong: Our denomination does not state anything about that. The doctrinal statement is slanted in the opposite direction, from regeneration preceding faith. John and I’ve had a discussion about this, in fact, what it says, or what they meant by what they wrote. Be that as it may, it certainly does not take a clear position. Certainly it doesn’t take a clear position in favor of the view that Dr. Packer has outlined, and that I think John and I both would concur with. If I was sitting on that ordination council, my answer to your question is I would probe the candidate, I would ask the question, I would seek, I hope, in a gentle and loving way to encourage him to study, to think, to ponder the situation more deeply.

But in our context, I don’t feel that I would vote to oppose his ordination if he could defend his position in a gentle way, in a credible way, and so forth. Because we have to allow that latitude in a fellowship that is not as confessionally tight on that point as our own group. That would be true in many of the evangelical groups that probably some of you men come from. And I think it would be wrong of me to be divisive in that context, knowing that’s the fellowship we’re in. If I was in the Presbyterian Church of America, which has adopted the Westminster Confession of Faith, I might handle the question and the ordination candidate a little bit differently, but that’s not where I’m at.

Piper: That’s exactly what I would do. I don’t have anything to add on that point. I have just a comment with regard to John’s question and preaching the gospel with the terms, “Putting people on the hook and expecting persecution.” Isn’t it remarkable last night that when Dr. Packer outlined for us the five criteria he uses to make sure that he keeps his preaching and teaching in sync, he called them “gospel.” Only two of them were gospel in the way most people think, or maybe three, I suppose. The first two were a holy God who is cut off from sinners and then sin. I think that’s profoundly right to call those parts of the gospel. It’s the same way that a doctor who looks you in the eye and says, “You have an appendix that’s about to rupture.”

Now you can say that’s putting him on the hook and that’s bad news. But if you’re a good doctor, you can make that sound good, because appendices are a piece of cake. He says, “Let’s get you over to MMC in time and we’ll have that thing out this afternoon, and you’ll be up and around in 10 days.” I think we have to preach wrath as good news. We have to preach God in his glory and holiness as good news. If we can’t, we will create unnecessary opposition. I wrote my book because I believe with all my heart that all five of those points he mentioned are gloriously good news and if you take any one of them out, you won’t have anything good to say. That would be my main contribution. We ought to have hope in God written over all of our walls and doors, and show people that when we preach wrath and lift our voices in warning, talk about the exceeding sinfulness of sin, use words like, “perversity,” describe them as hanging over the pit of hell by a little thin thread like a spider, and being under the wrath of God, we ought to be able to show how that’s good news if they believe it and then move out of it. We should not lead them as though we really don’t like them and we really just want to make them miserable. That will result in trouble.

When Jesus preached, the multitudes heard him gladly. When those editorial comments are made in the Gospels, I don’t think the point of the Gospel writers is, “And what superficial gladness this was?” though we know as a matter of fact, much of it was, like on Palm Sunday. I think the point was, “This man had a way about him that was remarkably winsome and appealing to the masses.” And it was the powerful group that eventually brainwashed the masses so that they cried, “Crucify him.” If you want to live a godly life, you’ll experience persecution, but you can make wrath and a glorious God look beautiful to the masses if your heart really believes it, and you’re on pins and needles that you know this God and are in his favor.

Questioner: What practical evangelical tools should we use from a sovereign grace perspective? What is available? And if nothing is, could you write some?

Armstrong: First of all, I don’t think the point is that — and please forgive the stereotype, it’s not my point, but for sake of brevity — we need to write another bridge track, or Four Spiritual Laws Book that happens to be more reformed. There’s a sense in which we think, “Well, we Reformed types need our own tracts.” The issue is not writing a better tract, or writing a better book. The issue is a kind of use of truth that I think John Piper has just underscored in his statement, and Dr. Packer and his teaching. I think that if you are asking about what resources grapple with this, there are some things that do grapple with it. Will Metzger’s book, Tell The Truth , really does grapple with this question. I would encourage you to look at that book if you want to see somebody who both in the text and in the appendix says, “Grapple with your question.” I think he has. He’s a staff member I think with InterVarsity, if I’m not mistaken.

He has a very capable interaction with the question you ask in terms of practical training. I think that practically, for me as a pastor, what it’s coming down to is to teach our people to be filled with the word of God, to use the word of God — to be human, to love people, to be with people, to spend time with people, and to use the word of God in every way they can. Use Scripture, pray specifically for unconverted friends, and witness to them. If you’re saying, “Should we develop a technique whereby it is consistent with Reformed theology that we can lead people down a path so they’ll pray a prayer?” I’m going to resist the technique on the basis of what I’ve already said. I don’t think we need a technique. I think we need a touch of the Spirit, a visitation of God in his word in our lives. Incarnational truth that has captured us is that we’re living it and teaching it consistently. That’s my method. God’s method is people.

Packer: I’d like to say a word because after all it was I who brought Evangelism Explosion up in response to a question last night. What has just been said, about not treating any kind of training program as a magic technique is something that I was trying to say last night. John, I think, has said it better probably than I did. It’s certainly something that needs to be said over and over again, because in our fallenness we are inclined to treat just about every suggested procedure in Christianity as magic. This is sin kicking back at us. Our trust and confidence is diverted from the Lord to the technique, and it can happen amongst Reformed people just as it can elsewhere. Of the EE program specifically, the thing that I want to commend is that everything is thought out and spelled out in terms of what I recognize as authentic biblical doctrine.

There’s no doctrinal misstatements or cutting of corners that I find in the EE material. I can’t always say that for the other programs that I know. But it was pointed out in informal conversation last night, in a group that I was in, that program fails, just as our regular 20th century practice fails, to bear down on the thought of our inability to change our own hearts at the point where the mind of the person at the receiving end is, one hopes, clear, and the need to come to Christ for salvation is acknowledged. It would be incumbent on the person who is using the EE material for training folk in a congregation, or in a class, or whatever, in evangelistic procedure, to supplement what the EE material says at that point. One would need to augment the directions as to how a person who is now convinced, should receive Jesus Christ. What I’ve tried to say in half a dozen different ways is that receiving Jesus Christ is not the easy, straightforward act of a moment, that in our modern way of talking about it, we represent it as being. And then with what we’ve said, it boomerangs on us, and we come back really to the point of believing that it is. But it isn’t.

Most of us testify to our own conversion and encourage others to testify to their conversion in a way that is wrong, because it isolates the final moment of commitment from all that went before, whereby God prepared us, in a real sense, to shut us up to this commitment. He convinced us that it would be a nightmare to go on in sin, because we now hate it, and we must come to Christ, however much we’re frightened at the prospect, because this is the only way of life. That’s how the Spirit of God really does bring people to real conversion. We don’t say it, and we often forget it. Then we write our evangelistic programs like EE in a way which shows that we’ve forgotten it, and that’s bad news. But now having said that, I shall continue with this qualification to commend EE, because the doctrinal substance is expressed so well. And if it seemed to you that there was nothing special about it, I guess that indicates that you’d already been very well taught in your own church as to what the gospel really is.

I’d like to say one more thing, and this is a word for preachers. A volume which, if you are thoughtful, will I think give you a lot of help in structuring the kind of evangelistic preaching from your own pulpit that John here was talking about, is a volume which I don’t think is circulated very widely, despite the author’s well-known name. It’s a book simply called Evangelistic Sermons by Martin Lloyd-Jones. Banner Of Truth publishes the book. The sermons in fact are written sermons, which he preached in his pastorate in Wales in the 1920s and 1930s, which is a long time ago now. But I don’t think you’ll feel that the sermons have dated in the least, and they are all of them sermons of a type which Lloyd Jones, as a matter of fact, went on preaching until the end of his ministry.

The first few minutes, perhaps 10 minutes of the sermon, will zero in on some life problem or some assumption about life which is there in the minds of the people to whom you are talking. And they will begin straight away to challenge the assumption, or pinpoint the problem in its spiritual dimensions, and thus right at the very start get the congregation involved in a sense. They think “Hm, it looks as if we are missing something. It looks as if we’re lacking something. Maybe we have a need here?” And he would do this for the first five to 10 minutes before ever he went into expounding his text. Now if our style of presentation is to announce the text and dive straight into it, we may or may not be able to carry all our people with us in terms of interest, because they may or may not suspect that this has anything to say to them.

Lloyd Jones was quite upfront about it. He said, “My way of preaching is intended to begin the application right at the outset.” And I think that those sermons are excellent examples of doing just that. I don’t know any preacher who has published sermons which do that in the same way. But Lloyd Jones regularly did, and a thoughtful man who gets the idea from Lloyd Jones will find that he’s got a tool, call it a technique if you like, a style, a way of approach, a way of communicating. He’s got that in his hand, and indeed under his skin, and no one thereafter will be able to say, “Well, you jumped into the Bible and all this Bible-stuff that you were churning out seemed a 100 miles away from where I live.” I would urge those of you who haven’t seen the book to get hold of it, and see what it does for you.

Armstrong: If you read the biography, you’ll find large numbers of people, proportionate to the size of the church, were being converted under those very sermons, and there was never an altar call. The doctor would’ve never thought of giving an altar call as we give them in America. He wrote against it, and yet he had a passion joined with the use of Scripture, where people were being regularly converted under his preaching.

Packer: That’s right. If I may add to that, the membership of his church increased by hundreds, so that it about tripled under his ministry. The converts were almost all, wait for it, men. In those days, women didn’t like his preaching very much, because they wanted something non-stimulating for the mind but soothing to the heart, and he would never give it to them. He insisted that one must think if one is ever going to be a real Christian, and that meant that not so many women were converted. But the men, they heard the Word, and they came in. And that’s a word I think which is very much a word in season for us today, would you not agree?

Questioner: I think there are many questions still outstanding, but we had promised you that we would end at 3:30 p.m. and we need to call this to a close. If you have other questions, there may be opportunities for informal discussion.

Winter: Could I add a footnote? I realize I failed when I was talking earlier. I was talking about a meeting in 1885, where Dale Moody was present. I failed to mention that this one sheet called, “An Appeal To Disciples Everywhere,” is the actual statement that they arrived at over a three-day period with a committee of six, including that young man from London who became the mayor later, Pearson, AJ Gordon. This is back on the table. I also forgot to say when someone asked me the kind of question that Dr. Packer fielded a minute ago, “What shall we actually do?” we do have back there a pamphlet called “A Year of Vision,” which is a little bit of a kit for a pastor to use to try to work in five or six different dimensions of the local church.