In his first seventeen years of pastoring, John Piper never preached a sermon series on the meaning of baptism. He would come to call it a “gaping hole” that needed to be filled. It was. In 1997, during the month of May, he led his church in a four-part sermon series on the biblical importance and the practice of water baptism.
Part three of the series was titled “What Is Baptism and Does It Save?” It delves into baptism controversies. Knowing that, he began the message with a helpful word about controversies in general. I want to share that word today on the podcast.
Last Wednesday, in episode 1658, we talked about controversy and how to argue like a Calvinist. And there we looked at the gentleness of John Newton in the midst of dispute, a model he took directly from the apostle Paul’s warning that pastors “must not be quarrelsome but kind . . . able to teach,” and know the art of correcting opponents “with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:24–25).
What is clear — clear in Paul’s day, clear in Newton’s era, and clear in our own day — is that doctrinal controversies cannot be avoided. They are essential to upholding the truth. But controversies can also become deadly. And Pastor John explains why. In this sermon he reads an excerpt from Puritan John Owen, talking about the deadly dangers of theological debate. I want to begin by reading what John Owen wrote over three hundred years ago. Listen to this, as he explains the importance of the heart. Owen writes this:
When the heart is cast indeed into the mold of the doctrine that the mind embraces; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not only the sense of words is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men [that is, in controversies]. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value. What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense or sweetness in my heart from this, that he is a God in covenant with my soul? What will it avail me to demonstrate, by testimonies and arguments, that he has made satisfaction for sin, if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abides on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him — if I find not, in my standing before God, the excellency of having my sins imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to me? Will it be of any advantage to me to profess and dispute that God works the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of his Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, without the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me? Let us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel, for which we contend with men, unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and in our communion with him. (Works of John Owen, 12:52)
That is a powerful warning. And with this warning in mind, Pastor John opened his controversial sermon on baptism, explaining why doctrinal dispute is essential, and why it’s also potentially deadly. Unfortunately, this sermon is one of the rare messages for which the audio recording has been lost. So I’m going to now read what Pastor John wrote in his manuscript.
Essential and Deadly
Let me begin today with a brief introductory word about controversy. The main thing I want to say is that doctrinal controversy is essential and deadly. And the attitude toward controversy in various groups of Christians depends largely on which of these two they feel most strongly. Is it essential or is it deadly? My plea is that at Bethlehem we believe and feel both of these. Controversy is essential where precious truth is rejected or distorted. And controversy is deadly where disputation about truth dominates exultation in truth.
“Controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world. We must do it, and we must tremble to do it.”
The reason controversy is essential in the face of rejection and distortion is that God has ordained that the truth be maintained in the world partly by human defense. For example, Paul says in Philippians 1:7 that he is in prison for “the defense and confirmation of the gospel.” And Jude 3 says that we should “contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (NKJV). And Acts 17:2–3 says that Paul’s custom in the synagogue was to reason from the Scriptures and explain and give evidence that Jesus was the Christ (NASB). So, the preservation and transmission of precious truth from person to person and generation to generation may require controversy where truth is rejected or distorted.
But controversy is also deadly because it feels threatening, and so it tends to stir up defensiveness and anger. It’s deadly also because it focuses on the reasons for truth rather than the reality behind truth, and so tends to replace exultation in the truth with disputation about the truth. This is deadly because thinking rightly about truth is not an end in itself; it’s a means toward the goal of love and worship. Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:5 that “the goal of our instruction is love” (NASB). And he prayed in Philippians 1:9–11 that our “love . . . abound . . . in knowledge . . . unto the glory and praise of God” (KJV). Controversy tends to threaten both love and praise. It’s hard to revel in a love poem while arguing with someone about whether or not your sweetheart wrote it.
So, controversy is essential in this fallen world, and controversy is deadly in a fallen world. We must do it, and we must tremble to do it.
Communion with God
A wise counselor for us in this is John Owen, the Puritan pastor from 340 years ago. He was involved in many controversies in his day — theological and denominational and political. But he never ceased to be a deep lover of God and a faithful pastor of a flock. He counsels us like this concerning doctrinal controversy:
When the heart is cast indeed into the mold of the doctrine that the mind embraces; when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not only the sense of words is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men.
“We must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.”
I think that was the key to Owen’s life and ministry: he didn’t just contend for doctrine; he loved and fellowshipped with the God behind the doctrine. The key phrase is this one: “When we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for — then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men.” In other words, we must not let disputation replace contemplation and exultation.
I am keenly aware that this series of messages on baptism is more controversial than usual. I am also eager that this pulpit avoid two great errors: losing truth in the quest for exultation; and losing worship in the noise of disputation. So, let us all pray that in our lives and in our church we walk the tightrope balanced by the necessity of controversy on the one side and the dangers of it on the other.