Courage in Christian Ministry, Panel Discussion

Desiring God 2000 Conference for Pastors

Courage in Christian Ministry

Tom Steller: I want to welcome you back to what for many is another highlight of the conference, and that’s just a chance to ask questions. We’ve had lots of input, lots of Scripture, lots of testimony, and it just creates a lot of questions. So we welcome your questions.

Questioner: My question is for Dr. Tson, but I’m also most afraid to hear your answer. The presence of children in a family does affect the risks that the parents are willing to engage in for ministry and how intensely they engage in certain battles in missions and what fields they may go to. My question is, should it?

Josef Tson: The biggest pain in persecution is when threats are addressed to your children, and the interrogators and the persecutors make a lot of that, that they will take your children away from you, and they put other threats on them. I would just like to quote Solzhenitsyn. Solzhenitsyn, in his book, The Gulag Archipelago, after he gives about 50 systems of breaking a prisoner says, “Is it possible still to stand when they are so wicked and so able?” He says, “Yes, with one condition: when you go in, you say to yourself, ‘My life is over. They will now kill this body, and the sooner, the better. I don’t have anything to preserve. I don’t have a body to preserve. I don’t have a wife. I don’t have children. They are in God’s hands. For me, there is only one thing to preserve, my soul.’”

If you go like that, when you have put everything on the order — and now I added my words to Solzhenitsyn’s — then you can stand any form of prosecution. Yes, there were threats on our daughter. We praise the Lord. It was one of the greatest miracles in our life that she grew up with no shocks and with no such things. The Lord gave us a very peaceful environment in our own home. She was able to grow in that environment in spite of everything that was around the house. It’s difficult, but again, put everything on the order, and the Lord will honor that.

Questioner: Last time I was in Russia I was nearly mugged in a domestic airport in Moscow, and my wife has said, “You’re not going back.” What would you say to my wife?

Tson: Well, the best advice would be to come to be a student with my wife. See, my advantage was that Elizabeth was the daughter of the pioneer of the gospel in our area. He was the pioneer preacher in the 1920s, 1930s, and the 1940s, in and out of arrests and beating and the court-martial. Elizabeth grew up with that kind of father who never, never gave in. He just continued till the end. What a privilege to have a wife like that. When my turn came, she just said, “You have to be at least at the level of our parents.” Whenever she sensed that I would vacillate, she would come like a lioness. She said, “You said you wanted to die for Jesus. Now, do it.”

I told her one time, “You know, you are like the British.” There’s a saying that the British will fight till the last French soldier. You’ll fight till the last bit of Josef. I said, “No, I will be with you there, and I will die with you.” But don’t you have a song that says, “Give your children to missions. Give them to be sacrifices there?” Look back to that song, the missionary song, and just say, “Don’t we have to give family members to God’s use in missions? Why don’t you give me that way to God?” It’s difficult. You imagine the first time that I was told, “If you go tomorrow to preach, we will arrest you.” Elizabeth was with child after 14 years of marriage. It was a most wanted child, the only one we have. She was very sick in bed. I went that evening, Saturday night, to tell her what I got as a message. I said, “If I go to preach in that city, they will arrest me. Shall I go?” She said, “Oh yes, you go, and I stay here to pray.”

Well, that was one test. They wanted to see if I was really afraid of them. They didn’t arrest me, but I passed the test. And I did it because Elizabeth said, “You go and I stay here and pray.” That’s the kind of education you have to give her. But in my case, the grace of God was that he trained her by being the daughter of her father. The Lord always gives you what you need.

Questioner: Is self-defense ever legitimate? If, for example, someone is persecuting my family because of the gospel and they’re going to beat up my wife, would it be legitimate to use physical force to protect her? And if not, does that situation change if the attack is not motivated by the gospel but it’s just a random act of violence?

Tson: It’s very difficult to judge every particular case. What I can assure you is that at that moment, the Holy Spirit will tell you what to do. We have this promise, “You don’t speak when you are arrested and you’re taken there. The Holy Spirit will speak” (Mark 13:11). I illustrated that, and it’s in all these situations that if you trust the Lord, he will be faithful. When I had that house searched, it was God who spoke to me in that special way with that title of the book. Just trust God. Put your life on the altar and the life of your wife and children, and he will guide you, and he will tell you what to do in that particular situation. You will be amazed what sort of things that he will have you say to those people who want to harm your family.

If even in that situation you somehow break through with love, look at them as people who have to be evangelized even in that situation. Somehow break through with love. Love conquers always, not by force. You will be surprised in all those situations if you just remember, “Even in this situation. I have to show the presence of Christ in me.” If that is your basic attitude, again, you will be surprised what sort of miracles God will give you.

Questioner: I’m interested, Dr. Tson, in whether or not all the things you said about persecution — glory and joy and beauty — if you think those are also true with regard to physical sickness and having to endure physical sicknesses?

Tson: That’s a totally different territory, and I was never an expert in that, because God gave me good health until a year and a half ago when I had prostate cancer, and I had to go through all that and through surgery and through it coming back. I had to fight that. In all this process, I started to write letters in email to my friends. It appears that there is almost a new book in the making, Christ and My Illness. So I will just say it’s a different territory, but Philippians 1:20–21 comes in play there. I want to glorify God in my body, be that in martyrdom or in living a long life. My goal is to glorify God in this body. So make that goal, and then everything follows from there.

Questioner: In the case of your wife, Elizabeth, she said, “Go and just follow through to death,” but what if the Elizabeths out there say no? What if Elizabeth would’ve said no to you? I guess that’s my question.

Tson: That throws you into one of the most critical situations you could ever have, and it is similar to that situation where the authorities tell you, “Don’t preach the gospel here.” You have to say, “Now, I have a conflict of commands. God told me to preach and you tell me not to preach. I have to obey God.” I think you have to tell that candidly and in love to your wife. You can say, “In this situation, I have a command from God. I have to obey him. One day, you will see that it’s God’s will, both for me and for you,” and go and be obedient to God even in that.

Remember Job’s wife. Remember the whole issue was, will Job curse God? And Satan said, “He will curse you if you make him sick.” Then when his wife comes and says, “Why don’t you curse God and die?” She didn’t realize that she was advising Job to do exactly what Satan was expecting him to do. Job just said, “I received from God all those good things. Now, shouldn’t I receive the sickness from the hands of God too?” So, he refused to obey his wife, and he remained faithful to God. I think that’s the closest I can come with a biblical example in this.

Questioner: In the denomination I serve, mission strategy is such where companies are created by the mission board and a person goes to a closed country, if we could say it that way, under that guise and performs some tasks, receives a paycheck from this company, and it’s a twist on tent making that gets very ticklish when you try to find some theological footing for it to stand on. Maybe Dr. Mohler, you could speak to this as well. I’m just trying to find a place to land on that.

Tson: Let me explain to everybody what the situation is. We worked a lot with that in the 1980s. We had professors in Vienna, Austria. We introduced geological education by extension in Romania and I was making the books in Wheaton, they were printed in Holland, smuggled to the students in Romania, and these professors were traveling every month to Romania, two at the time, visiting all those groups of students as facilitators guiding their study.

Now if you go once as a tourist, it’s fine, but if you go a second and a third time, they would immediately say, “Oh, there is something hidden here,” and they will follow you and you will be caught. So what they did was each one of them went, say, to Caterpillar and one of them got to be their business representative for Romania. They would sometimes take papers for the company to their representative in Bucharest. And at the border, he always showed the paper that he’s the business representative of Caterpillar there. Now we can speak publicly because it’s gone there, but it was a real thing. He was doing things for that company. There was no lie in that. But when he finished that job, he was going to do another job. And that’s where the theological question comes because as you put it, Paul didn’t do such a thing. He didn’t say he was representative of a tractor-making company in Jerusalem.

Well, my emphasis is just that we should not tell lies, but we use whatever other means to break through there in that society and have us make contact with those people. Now, if you just go as a tourist, but your aim is to visit the Christians there, you have already had a hidden agenda and you can say, “Well, theologically, it’s not just I should tell them at the border that I go just as a tourist. I also want to visit my Christian friends.” So I don’t see any theological hindrance in doing this kind of thing. But if you have difficulty with that, then I remind you what Paul said, that each one has to have a very strong conviction that what you do is right, and if you are not convinced, don’t get into it.

Questioner: Dr. Piper had made the comment that real Calvinism is a missionary Calvinism. My question though is to you as a historian. Were the reformers missionary minded in this way? Were they real Calvinists?

Albert Mohler: Well, I think it’s safe to say that the last man who would’ve wanted to have been called a Calvinist was John Calvin. He would be appalled, I think, that his name is used in this way out of humility, if not anything else. The question you raise also reminds me that there are Calvinists who say that those of us who are Baptists cannot be Calvinists. There’s an interesting article Richard Muller wrote on how many points of Calvinism people should have. The Baptist wants to talk about five, but others want to talk about 15. But that’s another story.

When you get to the issue of missions and Reformation theology. There are two things I’d ask you to keep in mind. First of all, the modern missionary movement is now in its third century basically of active missionary expansion, and it came in God’s providence at a particular time when travel and the rise of the nation state and other developments in world history made possible a movement of people and penetration of foreign countries in such a way that had not been true before. Luther basically understood the church first in a territorial sense in terms of his own reformation. It’s interesting that Calvin much more aggressively sent people out to other areas to see the Reformation take hold. But I think if you talk about the word “missions” and our contemporary parlance, you would have to say that the reformers did not yet have a vision for what we are talking about here.

But they did hope and pray to see the heathen come to the Lord. Of course, this is a period after the crusades and all the rest, but it was a Great Commission theology in the reformers own theology and it took some time. The Reformation itself took years to develop and it took generations for all of this to sink in in such a way that the missionary awakening which came, with persons like William Carey and others, was a consistent application of the theology of the Reformation. And let us remind ourselves that those early missionary pioneers, Carey in particular, were clearly Calvinists in their theological doctrine and passionate to take that authentic gospel to all the peoples of the earth.

Questioner: One area of fear I know that probably confronts all of us as pastors, but I’ll speak for myself, is in the area of personal evangelism. It’s very easy to preach a gospel from the pulpit. It’s more anxiety-causing on the bus. I just want your thoughts on the importance of pastors having courage and setting an example in this area.

John Piper: David Livingston should be here because he’s the one who is most visibly courageous in that regard, and I feel less competent and less authentic in saying yes to that. But I think what my conscience says is that my church will be more fruitful and effective in evangelism if they can hear me tell stories of my efforts to one-on-one, speak to people about their faith, whether on the plane when I travel or whether in my neighborhood or whether I join the team on Tuesday night or whatever. If they never hear me allude to that, I think it will produce a kind of sense that this is a specialized thing that maybe David Livingston and a few of his sidekicks do on Tuesday night, but the rest of us can be absolved of it. So that’s not a testimony of my success, that’s a testimony of my sense of my sense of ought-ness and a judgment about what would be healthy for the church.

Every pastor is gifted in different ways and so some will be really good at it and be always telling stories with successes. Others who are not as gifted at it and fruitful in it should still tell stories of effort and say, “I met this Mormon on the plane and we had this long conversation.” That’s one off my front burner, but there aren’t as many stories as I’d like. But I think we should set an example. It’s a scary thing when Paul says, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works” (Titus 2:7). Sam read that the other morning and underlined the word in everything, and I said, “Oh no, everything? The pastor has to set an example in everything?” You have to balance that with diversity of gifts. You just have to, otherwise you’ll go under. If you have to be good at everything, what’s the point of having toes and hands and eyes and ears in the body of Christ? I’m not good at everything.

One of the things that I love about a conference like this and about thinking of my life as being multiplied (and you should think the same way) is, should Bethlehem be cloned or should my life be cloned? My answer is absolutely not. And really as I look out among the young guys who’ve been here for a while and have gone out now 10 or 15 years later. They’re not clones. They have the same God and they’ve got similar theology, which is what I really care about imparting. But as far as giftedness and diversity and church structures and worship styles and those things, please don’t ever think that you have to clone that. So I feel relief that while I’m not as strong in that areas as I’d like, oh, I hope and pray that about 800 or 900 of you are better at it and will leave having gotten what you can get here and saying, “Well, I’m not going to copy this or this or this because we can do this better.” That would make me very happy.

Questioner: Many of us here, including Dr. Piper, are part of a denomination where we are feeling the presence of open theism, specifically the belief that God does not know what you and I are going to freely choose to do tomorrow. That troubles some of us. The question that I have for the panel is, “Is this a major issue?” What we are hearing from some within the denomination is that this is a secondary thing and should just get on with the business of evangelism. They say, “Let’s get on with what’s most important. This is not something that we should be spending our time wrangling about and debating.” One of our denominational officials basically said, “Let’s discuss this for the next decade,” with no promise of ever resolving it or coming to any conclusions there. Is this an important enough issue to suffer and die for, or should we just pass on it?

Ben Patterson: I want the other guys to talk first. Well, a big part of it is that this is a specific situation and you can make general comments. Is it important? Yes. Should it be decided on? I think absolutely. I’m very frustrated with the ability of institutions to talk about things forever and ever and ever and what that does to the soul of the institution. But I better stop because I have opinions on everything and I’d rather not jump into this situation until I’ve heard the folks, especially John, who are directly involved in it.

Mohler: About two years ago I wrote an article for a theological journal entitled “Evangelical’s Tri-Theology Without Theism.” And that’s pretty much where a large movement that calls itself “evangelical” is going. I think it’s important for us to track out where this came from and where it is headed. The interesting thing is that it really has two dimensions, a hard and a soft dimension, so to speak. The hard ideological dimension comes from persons like Clark Pinnock pushing what he calls a “new openness theology,” a second or third Reformation depending on who is keeping count, a reformation of doctrine of God which is more relational. What he’s basically doing is what Harnack did at the turn of the century, saying that our doctrine of God is acutely hellenized and borrowed from Greek philosophy and we basically imported Greek ideas of immutability and the “omnis” and all of this and put it on God, when actually God is far warmer and fuzzier than that.

Pinnock says such things as, “God is always ready with plan B if plan A doesn’t work out.” And his understanding of providence is that God is doing the best he can under the circumstances and that God is trying to work towards a general end. I think one of the phrases he uses is “endlessly resourceful,” which is a good thing to know. Just imagine putting that in the Apostle’s Creed, our “endlessly resourceful” deity. This relational deity, you see, has to be redefined because rather than the sovereignty of God being the first axiom of theology, it is the autonomy of the individual that is the first axiom. And if you begin with that as your starting point, then God’s sovereignty has to be redefined so that my sovereignty is the prior, and my sovereignty means God can’t know what I think or I’m going to do before I have the thought or choose the deed because these do not actually exist yet.

The line used by the philosophers pushing this evangelical line is that God knows all that which can properly be known. Now again, to lay people that sounds just fine. What else could God know than all that can properly be known? But you have to know what is meant by that is God can’t know what he can’t know. Well, then what can’t he know? He can’t know the future, which does not yet exist. Now again, there is a hard and a soft version. The hard part is he can’t know the future period in terms of anything conclusive. And that there you have basic process theology worked out in one form or another, even though these new evangelical theists claim they’re not process theologians. The soft side of this, as well as in the bigger picture, is that God is our cosmic buddy — our endlessly resourceful and creative companion in the midst of all of this.

And you see, you have to go back and redefine biblical history too because God is relational by their understanding in that he continually changes his mind, moves from plan A to plan B. Here is the covenant with Abraham. Well, that didn’t work. Here’s the 10 commandments. Well, that didn’t work. Well, let’s try this. The problem is the entire structure of theology unravels. You cannot speak of the doctrine of God as one doctrine among others. And frankly as a systematician, I have to say there is no such thing as one doctrine standing alone, whatever the doctrine, but the doctrine of God stands at the head of the body of divinity, of necessity.

If you define God in such a way that he is not omniscient or else you define “omniscient” in something less than omni, then he is not all-knowing. If he’s not omnipotent and is not all powerful, if you define human freedom in terms of a sovereign human will, then God cannot be omnipotent because he cannot by definition violate my own sovereignty. So omniscience and omnipotence are all tied together. We use language that is necessarily borrowed, the word “trinity.” I believe the doctrine of the trinity is absolutely non-negotiable, even though the word does not appear in an explicit verbal form in Scripture. We must not apologize for using language and requiring definition, understanding that the God of the Bible has described himself in these ways. If you just trace how God reveals himself in Scripture, the words “omniscience” and “foreknowledge” and all of these fit, and his foreknowledge is exhaustive, including the future decisions of his own human creatures.

Now let me point out something else just in conclusion. In almost any age since the Reformation, this was an issue on which Calvinists and Arminians stood together, the understanding of God. Even the hard line Arminians understood that God had exhaustive foreknowledge. It is only of late that this is written off as a Calvinist issue. Someone came up to me and said, “Some people call you a fundamentalist, what do you call yourself?” I spoke about how I understand the difference between a fundamentalist and an evangelical, but I also had to say, “Listen, it doesn’t take much to be called a fundamentalist these days.” Basically you believe one fundamental and you are a fundamentalist. If you believe them all, you’re a hard line fundamentalist. But the same thing’s true with Calvinist.

If Arminius showed up here today, he would be considered by most evangelicals to be a Calvinist. I’m not kidding you, simply because it is the later outworking of Arminianism that is different. In this past year, I had the opportunity to write a resolution which was overwhelmingly adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention affirming the absolutely exhaustive foreknowledge of God. The heartbreak in it for me was having several persons come up and say, “There you are again pressing a Calvinist agenda.” Well, if so, let it be called Calvinism. It’s nothing but Scripture.

Questioner: In your message, Brother Patterson, you said that there was one who gave you two points of advice, the first being don’t take it personally. I was curious as to the second point of advice and if you could elaborate on that for us.

Petterson: At the very beginning I was talking about how suffering just goes with the territory. And my mentor told me that when he said, “Don’t take it personally, you’re in a war.” And that was one of two pieces of advice he gave as I was asking him jokingly about, well, what are you going to tell us who are still at work? He told a story. He was a pastor of the National Presbyterian Church in Washington DC for 18 years, a church that is near to a cathedral kind of church as the PCUSA has. He really wanted to bring renewal and revival to the church. Louis, had he not been a minister, he would’ve been a mechanic. He loves machinery and he takes an engineering kind of mindset to stuff. He was trying to change the church with programs and all kinds of structural reforms, all of which if not rejected by the elders were never followed through on anybody if they were okayed. He was failing.

He was sitting in his study one evening, really morose and depressed by the whole thing and the window was cracked open and he heard someone out in the lawn of the church just turning the air blue with profanity. This guy was cursing and cussing and he looked out and it was the groundskeeper of the church. He went outside and asked him what was wrong and what had happened. The groundskeeper had had open heart surgery and during his convalescence, they had hired another outfit to come in and take care of the grounds of this large church in Washington DC. And the groundskeeper had shaped all the trees into globes and this outside outfit came in and had made them into pyramids, and he was just irate.

He said to Louis, “Louis, it will take years to undo what they’ve done because” — and this was a key line — “you can only shape the trees to the degree that they have grown.” And Louis said, “I realized then that I needed to get out of my engineering model of ministry and move to a horticultural model of ministry. I could only see the church grow and change as people were grown.” And all this programming and all this structural stuff was imposing something that the church could not receive. He needed to make disciples of Jesus Christ. And I want you to know that conversation has changed my whole approach to ministry.

When I came to Hope College, I said, “I’ll do three things. I’ll preach, I’ll pray, and I’ll spend time with people helping them to be disciples of Jesus Christ. And if I have any time left over, I’ll do a program.”

Questioner: Those of us who have taken churches that have been previously doctrinally weak or theologically shallow have obviously come to the conclusion that it’s going to take years of sound doctrine and expository preaching to correct some of the behaviors and thinkings that are going on in the church. Could you please comment on the relationship of patience to courage?

Piper: That’s a good question. I had not posed a question to myself that way. The relationship between patience and courage. I suppose if courage is making choices according to what is good and right against impulses from within for a life of ease, at that point, the two are almost the same — that is patience to endure and courage to do the hard thing. So they’re very closely related, just as I’m thinking out loud to myself right now. That courage really is being willing to do a hard risky thing against impulses of self-preservation or relief or something. And patience is staying and pressing on in a hard thing is the same thing. They’re just coming at it from different ways.

I would say seek to be so satisfied in God that you are free to do the risky hard thing called courage and the long-term hard thing, which is patience. And then look for the strategies in the context that you’re raising of how to shepherd a people from doctrinal indifference towards doctrinal engagement. That’s probably the biggest battle we face, not from Arminianism to Calvinism or whatever, but most people just don’t think doctrine matters. Ken’s question, “Does “open theism” matter?” is a subset of the question, “Does truth matter? Does theology matter? Did doctrines matter?”

It looks to us as we look around our conference and just the world, they’re just two kinds of people in the world. There seem to be people who live their life deeply affected by doctrinal conviction so that they just by nature feel practical, and there are others who can’t see the connection. I don’t get those people. I have a hard time relating to people who say, “We’re not about doctrine, we’re about mission.” There’s a glitch there. It’s like another language emerges and I start groping around for what was meant by this word “mission.” What I’m saying is as you minister in a church, the hardest task you have is to get structures of reality into heads that are so fundamentally different than what seemed to be the case with most people, namely structures of thought and life and child-rearing and relating to wife and job that flow from conviction.

This is really fresh for me right now because there are people that act and you take them and say, “Why did you do that?” And that word doesn’t connect with them. They don’t even know what you’re asking because they didn’t act out of a principle. They didn’t draw down from a theology, put through circumstance, weighed in prayer and counsel, and then act. They just act. It’s devastating to life, it’s devastating to marriages, and it’s devastating to child-rearing. It is just devastating.

I think that the patience is not just a patience to get people to be Calvinists, but to get people to be wired so that Paul clicks when he says, “Do you not know? Do you not know that those who are united to a prostitute are one body with her?” (1 Corinthians 6:15). That phrase, “Do you not know?” implies a worldview that knowing changes your groin. So this is not a prescription, it’s a plea to all of you. I don’t have the prescription. I’m groping for it. I’m not into making Calvinists first. I’m into making truth-lovers first, Bible lovers, God lovers. Calvinism will take care of itself if you can get people to love the Bible, love truth, and live out of truth and out of God.

Questioner: Ben Patterson, I’m sorry to say that I never heard of Hope College until last year when an article in Missions Frontiers came out about how there was a worship and a mission explosion there. I wish you’d just share a little bit about what happened there and how is that all related to courage?

Patterson: I know I said this yesterday, but I don’t think I gave it due emphasis. This is not a story about a man standing up under hardship. This is a story about the power and glory of God being shown on a college campus. And yeah, it has required courage, but the danger of the kind of address I gave yesterday is that one could walk away and miss the fact that God is doing amazing things with students at Hope College, and to him alone be the glory. I’m faced with situations that require courage. That’s what I hope everyone who thinks of me or us walks away with. God is doing a great work at Hope College and there is a price tag on it, at least for me and my staff. And that’s what I talked about.

When the Lord called me to Hope College, the only thing he told me about the work was that it was for the sake of the nations. I get so emotional when I get around John Piper and talk about these things. I want to cry so quickly. But I knew that was what it was for. And I really believe that the work at Hope College is not about the college really. It’ll affect the college, but God is doing what he’s doing sovereignly in spite of, because of, and through all the opposition, because he wants the nations to know that he’s the Lord. So no one was more surprised than I was when a thousand plus students started showing up. I just didn’t know. That gets the focus, but through it all from day one, we saw students begin to change their majors.

I have to tell you this one little anecdote here. This is so cool. There was this young woman, she was a Phi Beta Kappa and was a three years all-American softball player. She was beautiful and talented, and she was so depressed her sophomore year that she seriously considered suicide. She was pre-med. The Lord touched her life, turned her around, and she met this big Dutch kid named Matt. They met and they fell in love and they heard God’s call to the mission field. They actually spent a summer in Indonesia three years ago. They’re now at Trinity Seminary preparing for missions. Well, her folks who are mainline liberal Protestants wrote me a letter saying, “Did you know that there are religious fanatics in your chapel ministry? My daughter is one of them.” Seriously, there was nothing disingenuous about the question. They thought I didn’t realize that these kids were going nuts on religion.

They made an appointment with me and seriously they sat in my office and talked nonstop for two hours about their concerns. Maybe you’ve had these conversations. You look at your watch about 20 minutes into it and you realize this is going to go on for a while. They got done and I said, “Well, would you like me to respond in any way?” And they thought, “Oh yeah, what do you think?” And I said, “Well, I guess I’m one of those fanatics.” I remember asking her later, “I bet you if you were still pre-med and had just moved in with your boyfriend, they’d be a little nervous about it, but they’d be happy. But the fact that you’re chaste and you’re engaged to a young man with whom you’re going to serve the Lord in missions, that just drives them crazy.”

So these kinds of things happen, but that’s what it’s about. I would’ve never thought of this years ago, John’s book Let the Nations Be Glad has been a landmark book for me and just gave me some structure to think about this. But the two things that exploded at Hope College were worship and missions.

Questioner: In the early church we had apostles and then later on we had councils that we were used to reign in compromising churches or compromising people within churches. At a time when churches are compromising across denominational lines, what should our response be to churches who are compromising in our denominations or in our communities?

Mohler: Wow, what a great question. This gets to the issue of denominationalism, polity, and all the rest. I felt like yesterday morning in the message that dealt with historical examples that I was walking through a minefield of sorts because what I was not seeking at that time was to lay out principles for knowing where staying and leaving really is called for. I can speak to that in a different context.

Sometimes there is the courage where one is called to stay and other times one is called to leave. But I think what combines the two is the courage to confront. That is so lacking today because not only do we have this ideal of autonomous personal individualism, but we have this idea of the fact that there is no accountability for any of us. Now I have to speak as a Baptist, and I really am not qualified to speak as a mainline Protestant because I can’t imagine being one in that sense. Now as a Baptist — and just say that word “Baptist” and that’s enough to send chills down many American spines right there — we have huge problems. For one thing, we have that autonomous individualism I was talking about. It has become written and woven into the warp and woof of our fabric, but nonetheless our polity at least has a means of addressing these things.

Baptist associationalism included the confessional element from the very beginning. The Philadelphia Confession of Faith was adopted by an association that said, “This is what we believe. The churches who join this association willfully believe these things. If they do not believe these things, then we’ll remove them from the association.” And that was the principle in Baptist life of associationalism, or denominationalism, until the thing became a bureaucracy and built institutions and you started raising money and then you had a donor base and a mailing list. Before you know it, we start looking like General Motors rather than anything that ought to be a servant organization to the church and the congregations. What happens is, if you do have that kind of institutionalism, then all the defense mechanisms start going up. It’s like when a virus or a bacterium enters the bloodstream, all the white blood cells start heading in that direction to shut it down. What your body does not want is a controversy. What it wants is stability. So you have an immune system to try to shut it down.

Denominations have those immune systems generally called “committees,” and their business is to go to the invader, the bacterium or the virus, and try to shut this thing down before it spreads, which would be the big threat. Now the problem when you get beyond denominations and every denomination in its polity is that there is no way to call things to account. I got called by one of the major networks just about two weeks ago when 850 self-described religious leaders including 17 bishops and all kinds of assorted and sordid persons, signed this declaration for a new paradigm of human sexuality. Some of you may have seen the full page ad in “New York Times” and all the rest. What I’m continually asked by the press in this is, “These people are Christians and they’re speaking on behalf of the church.” It called for free expression of sex and sexuality regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation, or marital status. If they could come up with anything else, they would’ve gone with it. But I think their imaginations left them there.

So you have really this awful situation where anyone can speak on behalf of the church and you have vast segments of what was historic Christianity that now has the steeple and they have the buildings, they don’t have very many people, but they’ve got beautiful stationary and they’ve got strong institutional reputations and they are apostate. They are preaching another gospel. All we can do right now is be honest enough to say that and to stand before our own people and before the world and say, “I don’t care what the marquee says out front, I don’t care if you call him ‘bishop’ or ‘reverend’ or whatever. That is not the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That is incompatible with biblical teaching.” We just simply have to identify it and confront it. We must not just hide behind an unwillingness to define the issues.

The liberals are quite certain that history is going their way. And as I read the New Testament, it pretty much looks that way for a while, but in the end, we’re not going to be judged I think on whether we were successful, but with whether or not we were courageous by God’s grace to say, “Thus saith the Lord.” And what we have to do is make sure we live what we say, for hypocrisy will be readily evident.

Questioner: In light of everything that we’ve discussed here and what was just said regarding the compromise of the gospel in our institutions and denominations, would it be beneficial to pursue some sort of national or global council that would seek to reaffirm and reestablish Protestant evangelical orthodoxy, that transcends denominational in institutions? It could be much like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But instead of just being on a particular issue, it would be reaffirming what is orthodoxy and where are we going to stand. Would there be benefit in trying to pursue that on a larger scale?

Mohler: I don’t think so. It’s a good question and it’s an honestly stated question. It has been tried. This is pretty much what the church has tried to do, but in the third and fourth centuries, especially in the fourth century, for the church to call an ecumenical council, it could pretty much pull that off. It doesn’t work much anymore. Let me tell you the ICBI example used is very apt (International Council on Biblical and Inerrancy) But in 1988, Dr. Carl Henry and Dr. Kenneth Kantzer tried to pull together a group to do exactly what you suggested. They didn’t even have the ambition to go worldwide to all Christians everywhere, but American evangelicalism. They put together a conference called “Evangelical Essentials.” It was held at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1988.

The goal was to do exactly what you suggested. The problem was it broke down. They came out with a book and they even came out with a statement. But issues such as annihilationism came up and there were some evangelicals who were denying a literal, physical, eternal hell of punishment. And many in the group were simply unwilling to say, “That’s incompatible with evangelical theology.” Let me go ahead and put myself on the line. I think evangelicalism is dead. It needs to be buried and we need to just let it go. I think evangelicalism as an ism is as dangerous as any other ism right now. Listen, if you want to see how bad evangelicalism can be, just go to the Christian Booksellers Association annual convention and then you can see the gospel Easter eggs and all the other stuff. I know most Christian bookstores you can’t walk into anymore without sneezing because you have to get past the incense and potpourri before you can actually get to anything. There’s just very little there.

All that holds evangelicalism together anymore is a marketplace made up of people who generally think Jesus is a great idea. I don’t mean to sound too cynical, but I’m beyond frustrated on this. I think what we need to do is be less concerned about the isms and the wasms and whatever and be concerned about godly congregations founded on the word, functioning to the glory of God — Great Commission congregations. We should be passionate about the gospel and passionate about seeing God glorify himself and the salvation of peoples. I think anytime we go beyond the congregation to a denomination, I think we can solve the problem there and we’ll have a trickle-down theory of reformation, it doesn’t work. We have to start in the local church and that means you pastors are more important than anyone else on the planet. You hold the office whereby, I believe, God will bring reformation to his church. God bless you. Stay at it. Let the isms go.

Questioner: Regarding promises like Psalm 25:3, which says, “Those who wait on him will never be put to shame, but those who deal treacherously will be put to shame,” are those types of promises only eschatological? If so, how do we ourselves and our people endure that kind of trial without becoming hardened and just joylessly, passively waiting? If they are not only eschatological, then how do we ourselves and how do we help our people not become hardened when circumstantially they appear to have failed?

Piper: You’ve said it well. As I’ve thought about it, I would say they are finally and ultimately eschatological, but they’re not merely eschatological. You quoted one where I could simply use an escape hatch and say, “You don’t ever have to be put to shame.” But there are others that are much harder than that. Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33), referring to food and drink and clothing. Well, there are Christians starving and Christians without clothing. There are many such promises in the Psalms and some in the New Testament. So the question that Patton raised for me, and it’s been raised all my life, is, “Can you claim those promises with any degree of assurance in the midst of Sudan?”

I think Patton got his answer from Paul, and it’s the right answer. Here’s the way I would try to articulate it. I would go to Philippians 4:11–19. What you have there is, “I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and want, being filled and being hungry. I can do all things . . .” I would always tell my students, “Define ‘all’ contextually.” Because I grew up romanticizing the word all. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” in that context means be hungry and be without. I can do all things. And when you get to Philippians 4:19, it says, “My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in Christ Jesus.” And the “all” there should also be defined by the “all” in Philippians 4:13 and be the ability to die, the ability to hunger, and the ability to not have clothes. My God will supply all your needs.

Now theologically, I think you can do this contextually from the Psalms. You can start with Psalm 44:22, which Paul quotes to say, “We are being killed all day long.” That’s a psalm. Now the psalter was put together not by knuckleheads who didn’t know what came in the psalm just before or the psalm just after. They knew they were putting together a book here that had a coherency. Some of the psalms talk about suffering and say, “We are being killed all day long.” And Paul, knowing that he’s being beaten over and over again, says, “Where are the promises of protection? The Lord is my strength and my shield. The Lord is my light. When the arrow flies, it will not come near me.” He read that and he knew it was coming near him.

As he wrestled with this and he looked at that psalm and he said, “We are being killed all day long,” I think his answer was ultimately eschatological. He thought, “Ultimately, these promises are absolutely perfectly fulfilled in the resurrection body and when all healing happens and when every arrow will be pulled out of my body, and I will be a new person forever. That suffering will be a little momentary blip on the screen that has prepared me for a weight of glory.” But in the meantime, the way he talks, I think is the way Patton talked, namely that “Seek first the kingdom and all these things will be added to you” which God deems good for you and for his glory.

And if you say, “Yeah, but isn’t that kind of a hermeneutic that just runs over here to find a text that rescues you from another text over here?” I would say not quite because you can arrive at this conclusion just in Matthew. Matthean theology will force you to this because Matthew promises in the words of Jesus that you’re going to suffer, you’re going to be killed, and you’re going to die. There are things that aren’t going to go well for you. In the hour of your last breathe when you say, “I thirst,” God doesn’t say, “You didn’t claim the promise that all things would be added to you. Whatever you eat or drink will be added to you if you seek my kingdom.” The Father didn’t say that to the Son on the cross when he said, “I thirst.” He said, “I know you’re thirsty. And what I meant by the promise ‘all these things will be added to you’ was that you’ll have exactly enough drink to get you through this suffering the way I want you to get through it. If you need something to drink right now to keep from apostatizing, you’ll get it. But if you don’t, then I may not give it to you.”

That’s my effort to handle the whole sweep of Psalm promises and New Testament promises that look so absolute that you say, “Well, you can’t say this in public, you can’t say this in Sudan, you can’t.” But if you think it through and then you learn how to pray it and work contextually from the Psalter, or contextually from Philippians, or contextually from Matthew, I don’t think you’re doing hermeneutical gymnastics to arrive at a conclusion that those absolute promises are ultimately eschatological, and right now they mean, “As much as will glorify God and as much as will be good for you, you will get no arrow will come near you.”

Questioner: For those of us who are outside the Baptist General Conference but are travailing with her in regard to these foreknowledge matters, as far as your liberty, could you give us an update on where things are and help us to know how to pray?

Piper: We appreciate your prayers and just realized that the BGC right now is kind of the litmus test. And the paper in Baker Book House says as much, I think, if you read between the lines of the president’s letter to me trying to explain why I shouldn’t be upset about his publishing Greg Boyd’s book, God of the Possible. I think what the letter basically intimated was that publishers are not theologians. We are representatives of evangelicalism and we take our cue from our spokesmen and our institutions, meaning you guys just voted in St. Petersburg that this is evangelical. That’s what you said, whether you knew it or not.

We will now take our cue that if the BGC will vote that this is legitimate for a tenured faculty member and should just stay on the table as a legitimate evangelical alternative in discussion, then surely evangelical publishers should contribute to the discussion by publishing the books. So we’ve done it. We’ve done it. Now, whether we have to stay there or not, I really hope not. There’s a fellowship of pastors. We were called “the concerned pastors” a year ago as we went to St. Petersburg saying, “Please, this is not orthodoxy, let alone evangelicalism, to believe that God doesn’t foreknow the free acts of his creatures in the future.”

Now that group was defeated in its amendment. At 1:45 p.m. this afternoon, we’ll assemble over here and constitute ourselves, Lord willing, as the Edgren Fellowship — Edgren is the founder of Bethel College and Seminary — with a view to lifting up the banner of historic orthodoxy and saying that one of the pieces of that is the view that God foreknows all that shall come to pass.

Maybe the piece that you aren’t aware of since St. Petersburg in the vote is that Greg Boyd, who wrote the key books here and is the most, I think, winsome and articulate and fair-minded and biblical spokesman for the whole openness movement, wrote a letter and posted it on the Open Theism website. He said, “The vote in St. Petersburg has now created a safe haven for open theists at Bethel College and Seminary. Praise God.” And this made the administration upset and they made him take it off the webpage and chastised him for it and said in a panel, “We don’t consider it a safe haven.” And they sent a letter to all of us pastors saying, “We will not hire another open theist.”

Now, some of us detect some ambiguity here between the vote, which all the administration of Bethel College and Seminary had labored for most of a year to secure that vote and were in favor of it, to say, “We don’t want this in our affirmation of faith, but Greg Boyd has a legitimate place as a spokesman for open theism on the faculty at Bethel College in seminary,” and, “Now we won’t hire another one.”

There’s a problem there. So what we’ll try to do is figure out what does that mean? We haven’t quite figured it out yet. What does that mean for the leaders of our conference? Because there is some real ambiguity going on here. So my desire will be that we go back to them and say, “All right, if it did not do what Greg Boyd and most of us thought it did, and you say it’s not a safe haven and you don’t hire another one, I think we need to revisit this.” And we’ll put it before the conference again, explain the relationship between those two statements, and let the conference figure out what it means and then act again. If it didn’t mean what we thought it meant, let’s make it mean what we thought it meant. That’s where we are.

Questioner:For the benefit of those who may be challenged by you reinstituting subscription to the Abstract of Faith, could first talk briefly about the benefits of adopting a historic Calvinistic confession of faith. Secondly, could answer the common objection uttered by some that we should have no creed but the Bible?

Mohler: Let me move as quickly as I can. I appreciate the question. Let me say that what happened at Southern Seminary was God’s work because no human instrumentality can explain this. It reversed the tide of history, at least in one institution within one denomination, and we pray for an enduring period of time.

But the means that were used by which this reclamation could take place were essentially the polity of the denomination, the trustee board of the institution, and the historic confession of faith. Now, just for clarification, we did not adopt the abstract of principles. I did not. This generation did not. It was written into the 1859 charter of the institution. It’s a wonderfully full-orbed Baptist, evangelical and Reformed statement of faith. It is eloquent, beautiful, and it was intended to be adopted by each faculty member by strict subscription.

I mentioned just a little bit of this so I won’t repeat it. The professor asked to sign ex-animo — without hesitation or mental reservation that this is what he believes. And then it becomes not just a matter of a piece of paper signed in a faculty member’s file, but it becomes the instrument by which faculty members are evaluated on teaching and the instrument by which a faculty member could be removed, the instrument by which tenure is awarded, etc.

The statement that we should have no creed but the Bible did not come from a Baptist, it came from Alexander Campbell and when you consider it, it sounds so quintessentially American. As a matter of fact, American historians say, “That may be one of the most typical American comments in the Americanization of Christianity — no creed but the Bible.” In the bookstore was a marvelous book. In fact, the title’s even better than the book, which is Creed or Chaos by Dorothy Sayers. Her point is the same point made by leaders in the church all the way from at least Athanasius to the President, and that is without a creed what we have is an invertebrate, and what you have in an invertebrate is dissipation into a jellyfish.

What you must have as a matter of accountability is a statement of what we believe. If you say “no creed but the Bible” that doesn’t say anything. The Jesus seminar might agree to no creed but the Bible, and by the time they’re finished with it, the red letters are very few. The issue is, how do we state for mutual accountability under the authority of the word, what we believe to be revealed in the word concerning the faith, concerning the church, concerning true worship, and concerning the gospel? Now, creedalism is a problem when the creed becomes the authority rather than Scripture, and even the strictest confessionalism must always say this confession of faith is to articulate what we believe from our heart is the truth revealed in the authoritative Scripture. It must always be open to correction by Scripture, but that does not allow for private interpretation.

I’ve had several conversations here where men have come up to me and have said, “I’m in a difficult situation. I’m in a church where I don’t agree with the creed because of X or Y. What can I do?” Well, again, in our institution — which follows the old Princeton and follows the rather traditional understanding of confessionalism, at least in the 19th century — if you have a problem, you bring it to us. If there is no consensus that your problem is a problem grounded in Scripture whereby the confession ought to be corrected, then you must go. As a matter of fact, in our situation if you bring your reservation and your resignation, we’ll deal with both. That’s the honest way to deal with it because we shouldn’t say we believe what we no longer believe. But confessionalism is just absolutely essential and we shouldn’t apologize for it because again, there has to be some way of saying what it is we genuinely believe.

We live in an age that resists definition. Every one of us wants to have our own dictionary, our own lexicon, and a matter of accountability before God is to say, “This is what we believe, this is where we stand.” And this is not a new problem. It goes all the way back to the Apostles’ Creed. Whenever it came in earliest Christianity, the idea behind it was if you can’t say this and believe it, you’re not a disciple. That’s tough, but that’s the age-old issue for the church — defining the parameters.

Questioner: Today it seems that some in evangelicalism are denying the imputation of Christ’s righteousness and justification. For example, Scott Hafemann and John Armstrong seemed to be landing in this camp. I would just like you to speak to this issue.

Piper: I hope that’s not where they’re going to wind up. It is a really, really complex issue. The more I read on it, the more I think I don’t understand anybody’s words anymore because prepositions have to be so finely tuned. I haven’t talked with John Armstrong more than an hour or so about this, and Scott was at that same meeting. I didn’t read John’s most recent defense of himself. Here’s my understanding of the nature of the argument. For the newer view that they may represent, imputation seems to mean that some day in the eschaton at the judgment, Christ will exert his whole righteousness, his active efforts at making the world right on behalf of his elect, and he will not only credit them as acceptable and right, but make them right. He’s going to do that on the last day. And they will be viewed as right, not only because Christ’s righteousness acted out was regarded as theirs, but because he made them right.

What happens now, therefore, when a person believes by grace through faith apart from any Arminian notion is that that eschatological reckoning and making is imputed. It’s a new understanding of the word “imputation.” It’s not what the reformers meant by it. It is imputed to them, regarded as theirs now, so that the real change that’s going to come about someday in their lives is regarded as theirs now and looked upon as theirs and is the ground of their standing with God as much as the act of righteousness of Christ is. That’s the controversial point it seems to me, whether that’s the case. I don’t think that’s the case.

I think when it says in Romans 4:5 that “he justifies the ungodly,” that’s Paul’s effort to try to get at the fact that imputation, the reckoning of righteousness, is coming to a person apart from godliness that he’ll have later or godliness that he has now. Therefore if you look for a ground of it, you have a forgiving ground for it in the atonement and you have a positive ground for it in the obedience of Christ. That’s through Romans 5, 2 Corinthians 5:21, or 1 Corinthians 1:30.

But it is so refined and so nuanced and so different from anything I’ve run into before or thought about before that I’m still trying to figure out how serious that is. They want to distance themselves from Arminianism. They want to distance themselves clearly from Catholicism, which it sounds like to me. So I’m trying to figure out how they are distancing themselves and what does “by” and “for” mean in the sentences? So it seems to me like this is a very serious issue among evangelicals right now, and I’m just trying to figure it out. I find myself at home in what I read about historic imputation, so I am worried about it.

Mohler: I need to state first that I have not discussed this matter with either John Armstrong nor directly with Dr. Hafemann, although I’m aware of conversations with both and have been drawn in at least in some correspondence into the issue. What that has prompted in me is the realization that I believe this is a very critical issue that demands more of my time than I have as of yet given it. But I have read the arguments basically, and my concern is this: When you go back to the Reformation, their lives were on the line and with the smell of fires that burned martyrs, definitions were pretty deadly. When you go back to the Reformation formula and you go back to the confessions of faith, this was not just some committee at work at leisure putting together what they believe in trying to define the terms. They were really careful with the language, and they had to be. And on the same side, when you go to the Council of Trent, these were not amateurs. They knew what they were doing and the anathemas and condemnations of the Council of Trent are not easily misunderstood.

The Reformation, I believe, is not understandable in terms of recovery of the gospel without the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ and without forensic justification. Therefore, I see them as evangelical essentials. I think this is the gospel. It concerns me greatly. When I hear evangelicals who use language that sounds far more at home in Trent than in Augsburg or in Westminster, I have a problem. I’m not speaking of two individuals here with whom I have not spoken. It would be irresponsible for me to do that, but this is a larger issue and a conversation that is larger even than your question.

Again, it needs to be corrected by Scripture, so prove the case in Scripture. I see the case otherwise proved in Scripture and this is a live concern. I think it’s going to become a larger issue among evangelicals and if the gospel isn’t worth spending the blood, sweat, and tears for definition and struggle then brothers, what is? So if we have to face this issue and with brothers contend and seek to come to understanding and to come to definition, let us pray to come to unity and the oneness of the faith, but let us be willing to be honest with each other about where we differ and the gospel is itself at stake if we come to a mind and a conclusion that indeed it is.