Tom Steller: Pastor John said there are many here that might be eager to teach. What kind of preparation would a pastor need in order to teach well in Cameroon?
Philemon Yong: A point of advice would be seek out people from the culture you’re trying to go to here and have them over for dinner. And I was surprised when I came here that people were going to Cameroon and they would never talk to me in the foyer at church. And I’m thinking, “Well, what magic is going to happen as soon as you get there so you can talk to these people?” So you have people here who will give you advice, they will tell you of the family members who will take you under their wings when you get there. And by the time you get there, you’ll be quite prepared. So, seek them out.
Tom Steller: One last follow-up question then we’ll spread out more. But here’s a question that came, how can we as pastors called to minister in the US assist the theological education of pastors overseas? So in other words, how can churches here partner with you and your passion to bring theological education to Cameroon in a way that’s led by Cameroonians but with partners from the West?
Philemon Yong: Well, the easy answer is give money. But you cannot give money if you don’t have trusted people who will be faithful stewards of that money. I would say go to the area first and see what is going on and talk to the people and see what they need. And then you will see how your church fits in with what they are doing. And secondly, as I said, be theologically sound in your own church so that when the opportunity comes, you are ready to go. But go to the field first. Spend the money, go to the field, see what the need is and then you’ll come back better informed. I cannot give you an adequate answer right now until you get there. So send me emails and I will see them all.
Tom Steller: Good. Another missions-related question, this one is for John Piper, but also like Sinclair’s response as well, but here’s the question. It says: “I’m such a wimp. Missions is our calling and I’m terrified to go, and even more afraid that the terror may be part of the indication that there is a calling to go. Help me with some clues to aid discerning God’s call from a glorious pastoral position now to what may be an even more Christ-exalting call to die for the sake of the cause.” And he says: “I feel like I might be on the edge of being on the edge of something.”
John Piper: So the question was, “Help,” right?
Tom Steller: Discerning God’s will.
John Piper: It didn’t sound like discerning God’s will. It sounded like, “I’m a chicken and I would like not to be.” And so that’s who we are, right? Which is why the Bible is so full of statements like, “Fear not, for I’m with you,” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Don’t be anxious about your life, what you should eat or what you should drink,” (Matthew 6:25–26) or “Don’t be anxious about anything, let your request be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6–7). Or, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” (Psalm 27:1). The Bible knows where all your chickens are. And me, which is why it’s just so replete with helpful arguments for why we shouldn’t be that way.
And so I would say there are two things. One is to immerse yourself in those counter-fear passages of Scripture. Learn the nine arguments, nine arguments from Matthew 6:24–34 for why you shouldn’t be anxious. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Don’t be that way.” He gives nine irrefutable arguments why you can’t be that way in those verses. And then there are dozens, yay hundreds, of other God-centered, Christ-exalting Bible-rooted arguments for why we should get it out of our mind. So that’s the reality therapy.
And then you get on your face and plead with God to believe it. “Help me believe these promises so that I can act against these upsurges of fear that come along that I might vanish and become a nobody or I might be killed, or worse, my wife might be killed, or worse, we both might have some terrible disease and not die.” And there are counterarguments all over the Bible. So, I really do believe that issue is way more important than trying to divine the will of God. If you’re ready and you’re fearlessly walking with him now, I think he’ll make plain whether you go or not.
Tom Steller: Sinclair, maybe you could address just the angle where it says “Help me with some clues to aid discerning God’s call from a glorious pastoral position to actually leave that to do something else.” How would you say?
Sinclair Ferguson: Yes, I think there are probably several things here that come pretty immediately to mind, such as Paul and Barnabas in a most glorious pastoral position called to leave that pastoral position. And where would we be? The gospel came to Europe. And I think you cannot doubt that with their understanding of the Great Commission. They left the blessedness of the church at Antioch. After all, this was a fasting and praying prophecy and Bible-teaching church. They probably even baptized and had the Lord’s Supper regularly.
Tom Steller: We’ll get to those questions.
Sinclair Ferguson: And then our brother stands in a long train of “I’m a chicken, you’re a chicken, chicken Moses: ‘Here am I, can’t you send my brother?’” I mean, I am in a glorious position. Isaiah, who my guess is that if you can speculate about Isaiah staggering out of the temple and going to see his best friend, Benjamin, shaking and trembling. And Benjamin says, “What is wrong with you?” And Isaiah says, “I have just discovered that I’m a man of unclean lips and I’m utterly unsuited for the Lord’s service. I’m just terrified.” Benjamin would say, “Listen, Isaiah, you’re the best man in town. You’re also the best preacher in town.”
But this dissolution of self, this discovery that I really am a chicken, is ordinarily part of God’s way of bringing you to the place where you say, “I have no other choice.” And it is actually part of the process of the Lord making his will clear.
And then I think of one of my own heroes of the faith of the 19th century, William Chalmers Burns. Most of you here know the name of Robert Murray M’Cheyne and the extraordinary awakening there was in Dundee and really throughout Scotland under his ministry. But Murray M’Cheyne was actually trying to find out what the condition of the Jewish people in Europe was when the real awakening came in his own hometown under the ministry of W.C. Burns. And most of you, if you have heard the name of W.C. Burns, will know it only because of a few sentences you’ve read in the biographies of Hudson Taylor, that W.C. Burns was the man who was most influential in Hudson Taylor’s life and ministry in China.
Now, there was a man who everywhere he went, he was like Philip in Samaria, and God lifted him up and said, “No, we’re going to plant you down in the desert. You’re going to China.” And from a glorious position with glorious fruitfulness. And W.C. Burns was certainly of that theological conviction that he believed one day the fruit of that would be seen in China. And that God hedges you around in every conceivable way with the promises of the gospel to say, “Trust me, trust me.” And at the end of the day, this particular situation is just a magnified version of the challenge that comes to us every day, whatever our situation is: “Trust me. I can be trusted.”
Tom Steller: One more question directed to John Piper. You said that every year at Bethlehem’s Missions Conference you evaluate and consider whether you’re to go into frontier missions or not. Could you flesh out a bit more how you do that evaluation and how you know when it really might be your time?
John Piper: Somebody asked me that yesterday, so I had a dry run at this already. I’ll give an answer and then I’ll show you why the answer is totally inadequate. The answer that we always talk about with regard to our discovery of the will of God is an assessment of our gifts and assessment of our prospective maximum fruitfulness for whatever cause we passionately believe in.
And so as I contemplate the possibility of leaving Bethlehem and leaving the pastor’s conference, and leaving DGM, and leaving TBI, and leaving writing, and leaving preaching, and trying to plan a church in Pakistan or Indonesia or Uzbekistan or Yemen, I weigh the glory of God and the bringing of people to praise him and the intensifying of worship and the mobilizing of missions. And my leaving always seems to come up on the short end of the stick in terms of fruitfulness and multiplying ripple effect.
So it just looks to me like if I can year by year get through the bringing together of this kind of assembly and bringing in of these kinds of speakers, have fifty guys on their faces here ready to do anything and half of them maybe would wind up being where I would if I left here, that seems like a good decision not to go yet.
Now, I just think that’s a totally inadequate way to think for this reason. Who do I think I am to decide what might prove to be the most fruitful thing? Like any one of you little pastors who think, “Look, John Piper gets this big pastor’s group together and he has a big church and blah blah blah.” And you’re in a little fifty-person church in some out-of-the-way rural place and one person, one person comes under your influence and that person comes to be the person who in thirty years does exploits nobody ever dreamed in terms of faith and obedience. And he’ll put a little note about you in his biography someday and you will have exerted on the world by divine agency or you’ll be the agent of divine power way more than I will have.
So who knows whether my investment of, say, five years before I’m cut down by sniper in Yemen would be the most fruitful five years then fifty more here or twenty more here. I don’t know. I can’t possibly know. I default to reason and human estimation of how to glorify God until I have some other kind of very strong subjective sense that God can bring to us in various ways that against all human reason it’s over at Bethlehem, which I want to be willing to discern and perceive.
So that’s my present way to go about it. If you know a better way, then please, I am wide open to discerning God’s leading. Because I’m sure, as Sinclair just pointed out, that if Paul and Barnabas got together with their church in Antioch and said, “Now, which are the two best ones to let go?” The whole church would’ve risen up and said, “Not Paul, or Saul, and not Barnabas. We like Saul’s preaching, we like Barnabas’s heart. And so Niger and whatever these other guys’ names were, you go.” So it’s against all reason, it’s against all estimation of fruitfulness in Antioch. So I’m not sure. Lord show me, please show me.
Tom Steller: I’m going to shift in a moment to a question for Anthony, but one final question for Philemon, and I think this is relevant for us as pastors because more and more are really catching the vision to invest your church and missions and sending short-termers and so forth. And here’s a real relevant question, Philemon. From your perspective as a Cameroonian, what kind of training do you wish short-term missionaries had before they left America, knowledge or attitudes? And what’s the most profitable use of short-term missionaries?
Philemon Yong: Well, I really don’t think that you can give adequate training while they are still here before they get out to the field. The most you could do is give some warnings and some insights into how the culture works, at least what are the first things you’re going to encounter. But to fix that, I think the short-terms should be longer. A two-week short-term just doesn’t do much. You’re still trying to get over your stomach problem because of the food. And so if you make it longer, you can have the first two weeks in the country just getting a feel for the place and seeing where people are at.
So the best preparation will be first two weeks in the country and talking to people there. In terms of effectiveness, there is a trend on a mission field where short-termers come in thinking that they will convert the heathen and have the church established before they come home. That just doesn’t happen. I think that we should go more with a servant attitude and maybe go more to help the missionaries who are already there to do their work better, and if you want to do the work yourself, to have a vision as to what is going to happen after you leave.
What I’m seeing in Cameroon is with a Jesus film, it’ll be shown to a thousand people, four hundred come forward. And then the team leaves the next day, and leaving all those people to a pastor with seventy people who all live 5–10 miles from each other, and he has to visit them each week. And there just is no way to follow-up on those that have come to Christ. So I think to have a better exit plan in terms of what are we going to do after we leave.
There is a place for short-term missions. They can do so much in a very short time. The concern is what happens. What happens after that? So in terms of training, make the term longer to take two weeks and study the culture. In terms of effectiveness, think ahead and talk to the people that are there already as to how to do it.
Tom Steller: I want to ask some questions relating to Calvinism and the gospel, and the first one is directed to you, Anthony. Thank you for being here. Tony, you warned us not to put Calvinism above the gospel, yet your threefold definition of the gospel sounds to me like a basic summary of Calvinism. What distinctions do you make between Calvinism and the gospel? What exactly about Calvinism are we not to put above the gospel?
Anthony Carter: I anticipated that question because I’m in a fellowship with a bunch of Calvinists and they think along those lines. They want to know the logic — how that works out logically. And so what I would say is this, is that you don’t put your understanding, your logical understanding of how things fit together above the cross, Jesus Christ and him crucified. But the more you exalt Jesus Christ and him crucified, the more the doctrines of grace will be exalted.
So is Jesus Christ and him crucified and is Jesus Christ at the top, the person in work and the sufficiency of Christ? And as you begin to unpack that, then you realize that I’m securing him because I’m elect from the foundation of the world. Because his blood sovereignly atoned for my sin because I am so sinful I couldn’t do it myself but as Jesus at the top, the cross of Christ.
I think it was what Sinclair Ferguson said about John Murray. What was at the center? What was at the center? And then you work your way out from there. I’m not putting Calvinism at the center. Christ is at the center. But as I unpack Christ, then the glorious doctrines of the gospel begin to be unpacked. And it’s like Spurgeon said, you realize that Calvinism is just a nickname for biblical theology.
Tom Steller: Thank you. This follows up from that. This one is directed to both John and Sinclair, and it says, “Spurgeon wrote that Calvinism is the gospel, as did Packer following him. It can be argued that Arminianism undermines the righteousness of God, his sovereign freedom, undermines his sovereignty, undermines his glory, exalts man, leads to other heresies. Are we too complacent toward Arminianism?”
Sinclair Ferguson: Well, I guess my starting place is maybe this, that there are people who call themselves Calvinists and aren’t. And there are people who call themselves Arminians who aren’t. And we need to get below the level of the nicknames that we use or the catchall phrases that we use. They are all semi-historical, semi-technical quick ways of saying a great deal. They are no different from that glossary of terms I find at the back of my computer manual that take nine paragraphs to explain to me what one short expression is supposed to mean. Now, if you’re really into that kind of thing, you know that. My oldest son’s a computer consultant and he keeps saying to my wife, “If my dad would just read the manual, he would understand these things.”
So these are simply in-house technical terms that say a great deal. And we will lose nothing whatsoever by never ever calling ourselves Calvinists. We will have enough people calling ourselves, calling us Calvinists without having to use that expression. So these are simply shorthand terms.
But we need to remember I think beneath those shorthand terms that people are longing for position, security, and system that will give them a sense of where they are. And like Anthony Warfield, if I can shift over to another side of the Reformed world, Warfield says that Calvinism is simply the most consistent form of biblical Christianity. My friend James Montgomery Boice years ago preached a sermon that I think drew more correspondence than any sermon that was ever on the Bible Study Hour on, I think it was on John 6 entitled Jesus the Calvinist.
Now, if my Lord’s theology was not that theology, I have no business being a Calvinist. No business whatsoever. But understanding as I do believe that this is biblical Christianity, redemptive-historical Christianity come to its full flowering, an understanding that the term Calvinism covers a multitude of different things. It doesn’t mean that we all cross each other’s Ts and dot each other’s Is. If I understand that this is consistent biblical Christianity, then I recognize that I hold that consistent biblical Christianity pretty inconsistently. I understand that while I have purchased the basic ground on which the building of the gospel has been established, and I understand the framework, I spend the rest of my life readjusting the furniture to be thoroughly consistent with what the Scripture teaches me. And I’m still on the way. I’m still on the way.
Now, I understand that people who call themselves Arminians are similar to that. And I need to understand that there are all kinds of Arminianisms and all kinds of Arminians who are really crypto-Calvinists. And I understand that I actually have never met an Arminian who prays the way an Arminian ought to pray. And I understand, if I can just tell one last Rabbi Duncan story, when he was asked what he thought about Wesley, he just repeated the lines, “Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, my chains fell off, my heart was free. I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.” And he said, “Where’s your Arminianism now, friend?”
And we need, particularly Calvinists need to understand as part of our theology that all of us, even as Christian believers, are engaged in a process of undoing our self-deceit. And all of those things I think we’ve got to bring into the mix of the way in which we approach those who describe themselves as Arminians. And in our situation where I’m in church, I never ever described myself as a Calvinist ever. I never ever described myself as a Calvinist. Why? Because I think that term is going to do more damage than it’s going to do good.
Whenever somebody comes and says to me, “If I believed what these Calvinists believed, I would never be able to say to people Christ died for you.” I sit them down and I say, “Now, let’s just go try and go through the Bible here and this New Testament bit of it, and let’s see if we can find a place where any of the apostles in preaching the gospel or Jesus in preaching the gospel use that expression.” And I frequently will take people back specifically to Jesus on the conviction that the Lord’s people recognize the Lord’s voice. And there is so much erroneous baggage in the conflicts and controversies in which we engage, but I still do believe that if I can show how it was for Jesus, then somebody who really is one of the Lord’s sheep is going to have the lights turned on.
So my approach to this whole issue for what it’s worth, and you need to understand I come from a certain kind of culture that is different from this kind of culture. And for all I’ve been in the United States, I’m still inside here, of that alien culture. What am I doing here? I’m really saying, okay, you trust in the Lord Jesus. You’re having great struggles with election. It’s never been my tendency to say, “Here’s Loraine Boettner’s Reformed Doctrine of Predestination.” It’s always been my tendency to say, “Let’s turn up Matthew 11. Let’s listen to the Lord Jesus preaching the gospel: ‘Come to me, you who labor in our heavy laden and I will give you rest’ (Matthew 11:28). And then let’s look at his prayer immediately before he preached: ‘Father, I thank you that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes because this was your will’ (Matthew 11:25).”
And I say we may not be able to put it together, but we know Jesus put it together. And we’re safest when we’re following Jesus. It seems to me in terms of Christian wisdom, of pastoral wisdom, that if we know our Scriptures in this way, and this in a way was what I was trying to say last night, if we know our Scriptures, we need all the help we can get. But if we get our reformed theology and our deep persuasion from the Holy Spirit’s witness to the truth of Scripture in Scripture, then it will release us from doing a great deal of damage that we are capable of doing by alienating those who are the Lord’s true people.
Now, this isn’t to say that we don’t demarcate our lines, that we don’t recognize that there are fences, but that we don’t construct those fences out of material that isn’t really appropriate to the way in which we construct the gospel. And I think if we do that, then we will be of great service to people who are confused in their heads and yet, as often enough been pointed out, can never actually pray that way if they’re the Lord sheep. I have never had an Arminian pray, “Lord, could you kind of 98 percent work so that my lost brother can use his free will and choose Christ?” I’ve never heard anyone pray that way. You can’t pray that way. This is presuppositionalist apologetics. This is saying you can’t consistently hold to this and I’m just going to show you how. I can move you across into the truth of the gospel, and that’s long enough.
John Piper: I think there’s another, even more urgent concern beneath that question. Not “can an Arminian who says he’s an Arminian truly be a Calvinist and therefore saved,” but rather, what if John Wesley responded to Rabbi Duncan, “You’re reading too much into my hymn when it says, ‘Thine, I diffused a quickening ray.’” I’m not a Pelagian; I’m a semi-Pelagian. I believe there must be a quickening ray, or I’ll perish. But once I’m quickened, I can either die or not die by whether I use my free will now to yield to what has been wrought as a possibility in my heart. And that question asks, is that the gospel? Is that a saving act? Or the question might be, is it acceptable to teach in the Orthodox church that that is so?
Now, you could take every one of the five points because these guys said Calvinism is the gospel. Well, the ambiguity in that statement is we haven’t said what we mean by calling it the gospel. By gospel, do you mean that which must be minimally believed in order to be saved? I doubt that’s what Spurgeon meant when he said that. He meant it was all good news and it was all implicit in the most rudimentary statements of the gospel.
It’s like the word heresy and the word gospel, those are the two words on the other side. What’s the gospel? If you mean what must you minimally believe to be saved, that’d be one question. What’s heresy? What believing excludes you from being saved? Now, my guess is we sling those two words around not meaning either of those, the minimal. We don’t want to just think minimally of what you must believe.
So my answer to the question is yes, we do make too little of the dangers of Arminianism. That’s my answer to the question. It doesn’t follow from that. You go around Arminian bashing. It might mean that in a Sunday school class, with tears in your eyes, you talk about how important it is and you love the person instead of saying, “Oh, these things don’t matter. We’re all in the same boat.” I didn’t mean to say that’s negative. That just came out of my mouth, boat.
So when I hear that question, should we be more concerned? Should there be a greater urgency? Should we talk about this more? My answer is yes because there are churches, staffs in churches that are being built these days precisely by keeping all these things under the table. The main question I’ve been asked right there while I’ve been here is young guys who have senior pastors who are Arminians, they’re Calvinists, they wonder what to do. And the issue is not he’s a strong Wesleyan Calvinist, Arminian, and he’s preaching away and I’m in tension, but rather the guy doesn’t care. I think we ought to care a lot about whether TULIP is good news.
I don’t know the answer to the question for sure. Does preserving for my absolute sovereign self-determination, the final call on whether I go to heaven sends me to hell? Do you know the answer to that question? Does anybody know for sure whether consistent Arminianism or open theism or Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism, pick your name, whether the preservation for myself of the final decision, act, resource of whether I am saved or not saved is an issue that will send me to hell or to heaven?
I’ll tell you how I function. I would rule out Pelagianism. If you say there is no need for the Holy Spirit to assist me and to work in me for me to produce a will to be saved, I’d say you’re not a Christian. If you say I must have the Holy Spirit, I would die without the Holy Spirit, Christ died that I might be helped by the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit is what enables me to come to the point of believing and really mean by that, I’m the final arbiter, I’m not going to rule you out of the kingdom. That’s just classic Arminianism, Wesleyanism.
And that’s a judgment call as to where to draw a line. I feel terribly wrought up about almost every point of the preciousness of Calvinism because to deny it to me is to deny the children part of their inheritance. And yet I don’t want to say the denial of it, a consistent, and here I’m just going beyond what Sinclair said, I don’t disagree with anything he said, I’m just saying there are a lot of people who in fact are very thoughtful and stand against what I believe. They do pray wrongly. I can send you to a book, The Hour That Changes The World, and go to the last appendix, how to pray for the Lost. It is the most articulate Arminian way to pray without ever praying that God change anybody decisively.
There are people who’ve thought these things through to the root and disagree with biblical theology called Calvinism. And we have to then decide not just are they muddle-headed and really believe this, but really believing what is wrong. Can they teach in our schools? Can they be members in our churches? Can they serve on our councils of elders and so on? That’s the rub that brought this conference into being.
Tom Steller: There’s one other question having to do with Calvinism that I think is relevant for many who are pastors of new churches now or our theological churches. How should a Calvinistic pastor lead an Arminian or our theological church into a fuller understanding of the gospel? What steps should be taken?
John Piper: Exposition, as opposed to systematizing. A pastor who once came up to me at a conference — you might even be here for all I know, I don’t remember his name — and he said, “I’m trying my best to steer my church in the right direction. I want to take them towards the doctrines of grace. I got a tape here, would you listen to it?” I said, “I really don’t. I don’t have time to listen to it.” “Well, just take it in case you do.” And so I took it and I listened to it. I don’t know why I listened to it, but I did.
And I just was appalled at what he did. The first twenty minutes of his message were on the history of the controversy. Wrong. Mistake. Big mistake. He never touched the Bible for twenty minutes. He operated on the assumption that it would be plain that one of these sides was right. And he told the history, back and forth between Calvinism and Arminianism, and way toward the end, he tacked on a text. And I just thought if that’s not the most ridiculous way to try to help a church sensitively forward in this.
So take the first five or ten years to just do careful exposition of texts, avoiding all inflammatory theological jargon that you can. If it’s in the text, preach it. And probably don’t start with Ephesians. Start with Philippians for goodness’ sake. It’s thick and heavy in Philippians, but it’s going to sound good in Philippians 1:6 before you get to the hard part in Philippians 2:13. And even when you get to Philippians 2:12–13, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling because I’m at working you to will and to do.” Even when you get there, they’re going to like work out your salvation, and you’re going to be able to do exactly what Sinclair has said twice now. We should do is come to me. Come to me, all you who labor in heavy laden. And let them know you feel that for them. And then read the preceding verses. “I thank you, Father, that you’ve hidden things.” So the two things are exposition rather than systematization and love those people’s socks off.
Be there at their funerals. What helped me at Bethlehem in my first three years was that I went to a church of three hundred gray hairs, basically. Brought a lot of college students with me, but those were the people. They died at the rate of one every three weeks for eighteen months, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. Not because I got rid of them. They were sweet, wonderful saints. Well, because I got to do their funerals, and they loved me for it. These women, they’d come hug me, hug me after these funerals say, “I hope you’re here when I have mine.”
You do that once every three weeks for the church, and then you just preach the Bible. And you keep telling them how great God is, how God wants them to be happy. I’ll tell you, Christian Hedonism is a great means of getting people to believe in the sovereignty of God, that God is on your side, that he wants you to be happy as a means of his glory. That just knocks a thousand barriers down right there. They can’t believe a Calvinist talks like that, the average person. So exposition, loving the people, and Christian Hedonism would be my three strategies.
Anthony Carter: I would be wary, and I’ve seen it, that pastors come to places that are dry soil as far as these marvelous doctrines are concerned. And before they put their Bible down, they want to put Berkhof down and pick up the Gospel of John. Just take your people lovingly through the Gospel of John. Put away the theological jargon because the Bible will speak for itself concerning these things. And it won’t be long before you get into John and you read this. You read what it says: “He came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). But as many received him, and spend weeks on what it means to receive Christ because that’s what they know. They know that we receive Christ because they’ve heard that in broad evangelical evangelism. You must receive Christ, you must receive Christ.
So then you preach lovingly on what it means to receive Christ. And then after two or three weeks on that, you move on, and you say, “Who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man but of God.” And then you say, “How does receiving Christ work into the fact that it was of the will of God that I should receive Christ?” And you cause your people to reflect on those things.
And then you get to John 3 when you say, “Well, what must I do to be born again?” And all throughout the Gospel of John, you see the sovereignty of God working out there. And you don’t have the theological jargon. It’s Bible, and your people will love you for that, and they will be enriched for that.
John Piper: One thirty-second comment. It really, I think, helped at our church to use the word “the supremacy of God,” even over against sovereignty. We had no problem with sovereignty at Bethlehem. But what I found was that people who don’t know what they believe at the difficult levels between Arminianism and Calvinism, they want to affirm, “We have a great God. Great, majestic, holy, awesome” — just get your church churning for a few years with those language, that everybody wants to affirm. And when they get that instinct and they become small, and he becomes big, they’re going to walk up to those texts in John, and they’re going to see the truth. So get a big God, and you don’t even need to use the words that they reject to get a big God because they know he’s big. He just flung out into existence, this thing. And if they become small, and he becomes big, they’re going to smell that the Scripture’s different.
Sinclair Ferguson: For me, just by way of personal testimony, funerals have been my salvation as a minister of the gospel. The opportunity to demonstrate to people, some of whom are alienated by what you preach, that you love their socks off for Christ’s sake. And to have people saying, as people have said to John, “I’m so glad that you took the funeral.” It’s extraordinary. Weddings, for me, pale into insignificance by comparison. And one is reminded of Scripture saying it is better to go to the house of mourning than the house of rejoicing.
Second thing is I think our conversation here really underlines who is sufficient for these things because we are simultaneously as shepherds feeding the flock and guarding the flock. And it’s in our discussion so important, I think, to feed the flock with what we should feed the flock with and to guard the flock with what we should guard the flock with. And I’m reminded, in what John said earlier on, of a great comment of Charles Hodge that he was far more afraid of the ghost of semi-Pelagius than he was of the ghost of Pelagius. I think there’s a tremendous amount in that.
And then just this fourth random act of kindness. I’m kind of struck in our Calvinism by the way we pronounce the five points: total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints. And we flip-flop what we are really trying to say, which is if depravity is real, its nature is to be total. If election is real, its nature is that it’s unconditional. If the atonement is effectual, then it is limited to the elect in its intense power. If grace is really grace, it is irresistible.
At the end of the day, that was one of the real collision places and also I think the reason there’s been so much confusion in the evangelical world recently about Roman Catholic theology. Evangelicals hear Roman Catholics saying today we believe in salvation by grace. The Roman Catholic Church has always said it believed in salvation by grace. The problem of the Reformation was not these guys overlay are saying we believe in salvation by works, which is why Hodge says he’s not afraid of the ghost of Pelagius, he’s afraid of the ghost of semi-Pelagius. Because semi-Pelagius speaks about grace but so distorts grace, that grace is disgraced so that when we speak about grace, we mean grace that is irresistible. And when we speak about the saints, what it means to be a saint is to be one who perseveres.
And it’s very important, I think, that we understand that the nature of the adjective arises out of the nature of the noun and not the other way around. And that’s why we think that Calvinism is biblical Christianity come into its most consistent form.
So we need to learn how to pronounce our language in a way that is faithful to Scripture and the way in which that language was originally pronounced by the reformed fathers. And I think that that is such a glorious thing then that we see that what we are preaching really is the gospel of the saving grace of God that enables us to say, as John has already said, to people who are hurting, “God is sovereign in this.” To people who are full of doubts, Christ is able to save to the uttermost those who come to God by him. It’s this consistent form of the gospel that really gives us a gospel that is consistent and really saving. Otherwise, we’re left with a gospel that at the end of the day is a gospel denuded of its saving power. It seems to me that the way we pronounce our Calvinism is an important thing.
John Piper: Can I ask a clarifying question? It just sounds like your first talk and your second talk don’t fit. So here’s the question: Do you think a consistent Arminian — which I take is a semi-Pelagian, maybe I’m wrong — is saved consistent? Not muddle-headed. Consistent.
Sinclair Ferguson: My answer to that question, John, is that I do not know where to draw the line between the confused head and the washed heart. And I’m content to leave the “is he or she saved” questions in the hands of God. But what I would say is that when we operate in churches that are consistent Bible churches, what we have got to say is that that teaching, and this is what I was trying to say the other day, that that teaching is as teaching beyond the margins of the gospel that saves. So that if somebody professes that teaching over against what we understand to be the teaching of the gospel, we are in a position of saying we covenantally, whatever the mysteries of divine election may be and whatever the relationship between unwashed hearts and unwashed heads and washed hearts and unwashed heads may be, that we are bound to say this is not Christian teaching and this teaching does not save.
John Piper: So you think evangelicalism, which is a smaller part of Christianity, must exclude Wesleyans, Arminians, Methodists, Lutherans who are consistent in their semi-Pelagian orientation?
Sinclair Ferguson: That’s a bigger question to me than the question I actually face. And I’m not sure, to tell you the truth, that I never met a Lutheran or knew what a Lutheran believed until I came to the United States. So those are questions that are not on my front burner. All I’m saying is that I don’t think that the question of who is saved is a question that can easily be answered in terms of consistent theology in the sense that we are all inconsistent with our theology. But given the fact that evangelicalism, even more than denominationalism, is a construct of human proportions. What I want to say as the first plank of the answer is that as a church, we act as a church. And as a church, we say this teaching is beyond the borders of that teaching, which saves. So in that sense, I want to stand with the fathers and say if anybody wants to be saved, here are the things, here are the saving truths.
John Piper: In the evangelical awakening — Whitfield, Wesley — Wesley was teaching things beyond the border of that which saves.
Sinclair Ferguson: Wesley was teaching things, I think, beyond the border of that which saves. What I think is a different question was whether inconsistently enshrined in that was that which does save. And this is the point that Jim Packer makes, and you all know this in Sovereignty of God, where he says there comes a point. Otherwise, I think the relationship between Wesley and Whitfield, which was very testing for Whitfield, would genuinely have broken down on Whitfield’s side, that they both were able to say, “I was offering a Christ who saves.” That underneath that, there were what I would regard as radical inconsistencies. But nevertheless, I would be tougher on Wesley than I would be on Irenaeus as a matter of fact. Although I don’t think Irenaeus would pass an ordination test in a properly constituted 21st-century Reformed church.
But I think there are two different questions here, the question of evangelicalism and the question of the consistently constituted church. And I’m instinctively more concerned with the latter than with the former. And that’s a limitation of my context, I know.
Tom Steller: Okay, thank you. I think we want to move in the direction of the practical out-workings of the whole issue of fences. And maybe a way to get into that area is a real pointed question was given to Sinclair Ferguson, and a pointed question to John Piper. And the pointed question to Sinclair Ferguson is, would you bless the marriage of your daughter to a Baptist? And to John Piper, is would you allow Sinclair Ferguson to join your church?
Sinclair Ferguson: I think the way for this to be resolved on both sides is for my daughter to marry a Baptist, me to bless the wedding, and become so senile that when I move to Bethlehem Baptist Church, I’m baptized and become a member of the congregation, not knowing that God has sovereignly operated beyond means.
Would I bless my daughter? For me, that’s an easy question to answer because I’m first of all a Christian, next to Catholic, and so on. And the quality of godliness of my daughter’s spouse far transcends issues that, as Anthony pointed out, belong not to the substance of the gospel but the symbolism of the gospel.
Having said that, as I’m sure John would probably say on the other side, although he is of age and can speak for himself, is that part of what goes on in our divide is far, far deeper than simply the question of who the proper subjects of baptism are. And my own view of the church, my own view of the covenant, my own view of the promises of God, these are huge things. These really are huge things for me, fabulously important to me. I couldn’t tell you how much they actually mean to me as an individual Christian, as a pastor, especially as a parent.
And so I would be bound to feel, by God’s grace, whatever I may regard as the theological inconsistency here. I pray that all that is precious to me, that in a way comes to expression in infant baptism, may still be present as I have seen it present in the family that my daughter has, by God’s grace.
Does that sound speaking with forked tongue? I hope not. I think that’s exactly where I would be. The longing, that the change in sacramental theology, would not mean that all that I think is glorious about the gospel, as that’s expressed in the symbolism of infant baptism, would not be lost. And I guess I would then have to say, to me the glorious thing is to be able to rejoice in how many inconsistent credobaptists I know, just as they would, I trust, say, “Hey, I’m glad Ferguson is an inconsistent paedobaptist and actually believes that we are not saved by the water of baptism but saved by faith in Jesus, which I do.”
John Piper: It wouldn’t be my choice whether Sinclair could join because he can’t, because the constitution says not only that you have to be baptized as a believer but believe that one should be, and only should be. So, no, he couldn’t, which is one of the reasons I brought this conference together. Because our church right now is wrestling with that issue, and it’s huge. And I don’t know whether other questions will relate to it or not, or how much I should talk about it now, but let me just take two or three minutes to tell you what’s going on and just get your wisdom over the years to come or months.
My burden is that an open theist could join a Baptist General Conference church, and Sinclair Ferguson can’t. That just seems weird to me because I think open theism is teaching that is contrary to saving knowledge of Jesus. It’s not orthodox Christianity, let alone evangelical. And yet a person who embraces it can join Bethlehem Baptist Church until we altered the denominational statement of faith a couple of years ago to make explicit what everybody we thought believed in the Baptist General Conference but don’t. So it’s a structural issue.
So we’re as an eldership right now asking what are the implications of that. We are deeply moved by Martin Lloyd Jones and John Bunyan. Here’s a quote from Bunyan. Bunyan says, “What greater indignity or insult can you pay to a saint than to say he may not be a part of the communion of saints called the church of Jesus Christ in this local expression?” In other words, we elevate the doctrine of baptism here, and we take the reality of communion in the local church. I don’t mean the Lord’s Table, I just mean the being grafted into the body of a local church down here.
And I think one of the reasons we feel that that’s okay is because we’re not in a missionary context. We’re the only church around. There’s 1200 evangelical churches in the Twin Cities. And so if they don’t like our doctrine, they’ll just go down the street and join another, and therefore we excuse our own priorities by being glad others disagree with them. Because if they didn’t disagree with us, we’d be saying to this person you may belong to no Christian church because you are not baptized as a believer. You are cut loose in the world with no participation in any church. And the only reason we don’t say that is because we’re thankful that there’s a Presbyterian church down the street.
That seems strange to me. Let me pose a question to Sinclair on this because you said something, the criterion of a person coming to faith or being judged as a Christian is the lordship of Jesus, and then there are higher doctrinal standards for membership, higher for eldership, and so on. And I was puzzled by those first two distinctions. I didn’t think there was any. So you have in your mind a believer, and we can know he’s a believer, and he can be excluded from membership in a local church. Did I misunderstand that?
Sinclair Ferguson: Well, I was thinking of including, and you’re thinking of excluding, John. I read Acts 2 as presenting to us a certain kind of model. Here are these people who are converted and baptized. That’s looking at them from one point of view. And here are these people as they belong to the community of the church, and they’re devoted to the apostles’ doctrine, to the prayers, to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread.
I was actually watching you when I was saying these things. I don’t know if you noticed. It wasn’t that I was watching you, dear brother, but I just happened to be casting my eye across the front row, and I thought if you’d seen the bubble. Boys, if our congregations could see the bubbles above our heads and what we are thinking while we’re preaching, I thought, “I think that’s just puzzled John.” And it was gone like Nebuchadnezzar’s dream before I could say, “Now just hold that thought because I want to explain what I mean.” I don’t regard these things as disjunctives from each other, but as at least ideally two dimensions of the same reality.
But in terms of how I understand Acts 2:42 following, I think Luke is saying that there are two sides to being converted to faith in Jesus Christ. One is the vertical side of what it means to be brought into union with Christ. But there is another way of looking at that. It’s not disjoint from it, but there is another way of looking at that, and that is that that reality has to come to expression. In the context of understanding, this means a certain kind of horizontal bond. And I think these are two things that are distinguishable from one another, although they do not ordinarily exist apart from each other. My church confession makes room for the fact there are some idiosyncrasies in the universe. The Ethiopian eunuch floats down a genuine Christian, but that genuine Christianity has got to come to a horizontal expression as well.
John Piper: Practically, does that mean that the criteria for horizontal participation are such that not to be able to meet them means we treat the other person as a tax collector and a sinner?
Sinclair Ferguson: My gut reaction to that is to say, no, I don’t. But the reason I don’t is because we are in such a state of ecclesiastical confusion that I just understand that I think people’s brains are all messed up, and they think it’s possible to be a Christian without belonging to the Christian community. And maybe the way I put it the other day gave a false impression that I was making a fairly radical distinction: you can be a kind of running-around Christian believer. That kind of isolated, uncovenanted individual, to use that kind of language, I think consistently is one who is not recognized as belonging to the community of faith, and at best has to be regarded as an individual who needs radical rewiring to understand what has actually happened to them in the conversion of grace.
John Piper: I’m more concerned with the way the church defines the front door, rather than the way the people out there might be defining how to get in. And I’ll just say, I’m moving. I don’t know where I’m going to draw the line. I’m moving towards defining the front door of the church at your first level: a person who says Jesus is Lord. And then I’m going to insist that Lord be defined, and I’m going to insist that his work be somewhat defined. But where I’ll draw that circle, you talk about fences, what is necessary to just belong to the local church, not serve as an elder. I think it’s much smaller than we have made it, much smaller. And to belong to the eldership is much larger than we have made it.
So at Bethlehem, we are now defining the doctrinal rigor and integrity of our eldership much higher, which is what I think will preserve the integrity of the church long-term. Insist that the eldership be high-level reflective, biblically faithful men, and then lower the bar of membership just as low as you can biblically lower it. That’s my gut feeling right now.
Sinclair Ferguson: Spell out for us, John, what that means; what that would mean in practice. If I can say from our point of view, our bar is really low. All who receive Christ and who are received by Christ, we receive in that act of reception. Now, I personally also go two ways here. I am very conscious of what we may impose by a mechanism of reception.
John Piper: I think church discipline becomes very essential once you say a person who professes that Jesus is Lord and understands the rudiments of his deity, the substitutionary atonement, and the nature of casting yourself on his mercy. And you see a baby born, and you don’t want to leave this baby out there until he becomes a theologian, and you just fold that baby in. Then you start teaching him and training him over the years. And if he starts saying, “I don’t need the Lord’s Supper,” or “I don’t need to stay out of bed with my girlfriend,” then you do church discipline. But you start; you can’t do church discipline on a non-member. You’ve got to have babies before you can grow them up. And so I want to be able to do evangelism like on Pentecost Sunday, and you’ve got three thousand people who just profess faith in Jesus as Lord. They don’t have a clue about most of the things the church stands for. How long, how long?
Sinclair Ferguson: I know. That troubles me as well.
Tom Steller: We have about time for one more question, which means that many questions have not been answered. And I want to leave it on a very practical note in light of the strong call yesterday to laying down our lives and the number of men that came forward and just the stirrings in all of our hearts and just our passion to give everything to the kingdom. And this is a question directed to John, but anyone can answer it as well. It says, “We are called to count the cost, walk on the road of Calvary, sacrifice, be a servant, be willing to give of our lives. How do you balance this with family responsibilities? I feel such guilt when it comes to my own family as it is. Where do I draw the line?” John, you could start, and if anybody else wants to say anything.
John Piper: Well, just to acknowledge the difficulty of the question, not because of experience but because of texts. Unless you hate mother, father, children, lands, including your own life, you can’t even be my disciple. And I don’t think you can get around that by saying, “Oh, hate means love less, and so of course you’re supposed to love God more than your family.” That’s a lot of baloney, I think. Hate means hate in some sense. And my interpretation of it is that you will often make decisions that to the ordinary onlooker will look like hate. That’s my interpretation of that verse. I don’t think you can just turn the word hate into love less, but you can let it mean hate in the eye of the beholder. So that’s one kind of text.
Unless you, he who leaves mother and father, for my sake in the Gospels, we’ll receive back. So this is leaving going on. “Let the dead bury their dead.” Can I go bury my dead? “Let the dead bury their dead.” Those are hard words. Jesus didn’t mince words about. I came to bring a sword. I didn’t come to bring peace. A father against his son and daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, I create all kinds of pain in this world by calling people to absolute allegiance to myself.
So I could just preach a long time on get over it. Who do you think your wife is? God? Your kids? I could preach that direction. But we all know that’s not the only direction in the Bible. Namely, Ephesians 5, love her the way Christ loved the church. Cherish her. Lay down your life for her. And then first Timothy, you don’t take care of your children, you’re worse than an unbeliever. So I acknowledge the tension.
And I didn’t read one of the paragraphs that Judson wrote in his candidate letter to missionary candidates. He said make sure you marry the right kind of woman, namely a woman who is ready to lay her life down with you. That was his criterion right up front. I remember sitting in an apartment in Wheaton College, summer of ‘66, looking Noël in the eye. She’s sitting in here somewhere and said, “Would you go to Africa? Would you leave everything?” And I needed to detect a strength, which I did detect. She’d go to Africa before I’d go to Africa or any place else.
But that doesn’t help you right now, does it? Because you’re already married. And so I think I would do everything I can to keep my wife and my children on a cutting-edge allegiance to Jesus. I would love them, I would teach them, I would pray with them, I would model for them what it would be like to be with you so that you as a family could say we’re together anywhere. We’ll go anywhere with Daddy’s leadership.
And then I would just plead with God to help you discern. Like when we did Bunyan here a few years ago, Bunyan has this great essay. Maybe this would be the most helpful thing I could do, get Bunyan’s works. We may have a few copies back there. In volume two, I think, of the three volumes, there’s a book called Advice to Sufferers. And he has this section, when to flee and when to stand. Meaning when you save your life like Paul, get in a basket, go over the wall in Damascus, and when you not save your life, walk into the arena. Don’t do like this. And Paton, he would walk right in front of a musket between two warring factions that could blow him away. Four years later, he’s hiding in a tree and running for his life because he felt it was God’s will.
When do you stand, and when do you flee? And I don’t know how you ultimately make decisions about a career and things like that apart from deep subjective confidence that is not quantifiably identical to weighed evidences. I cannot make my life work that way. I sat in a worship service in 1963 and there fell on me the most massive confidence that I should go to Wheaton College. I could have made a case for Johns Hopkins or Emory or Furman. But it was over. The decision was over. And on October 14, 1979, at 1:00 a.m. in the morning, I knew I would leave Bethel College. I had reason till I was blue in the face. But there came a moment. It is done. The decision is made. And I would just say don’t shelve your brains. Stay in your Bible and use circumstances, but ask God to bring you across those critical lines.
Now, this man wrote the book on discovering the will of God. I don’t know how to write a book like that, but tell me if what I just said there is awful.
Sinclair Ferguson: Well, I wrote that book about twenty-five years ago, John, so I’ve learned my lesson. One of the quotes, dangers of being Reformed is the danger of forgetting that God is actually still supernatural and that we don’t fall into the trap of equating consistent systems with knowing the supernatural God. And I guess because he was the third John in my life, there is a little essay by John Murray on guidance, it may be in volume one or volume two of his collected works. Murray was the epitome of Reformed theology in the 20th century.
He did also have the advantage of being Scottish. And Calvinism in Scotland has never lost in its formulations the element of the truly mystical. You find it in the reformers, you find it in the Scottish Puritans. And he has this beautiful little section that I guess when as a young man, I saw this in somebody whose consistent reform theology I steamed. He says, “There is no real way of telling just how it is that all the pressure of God’s word on your life given different circumstances is going to bear fruit in those instincts.”
And I think he may even use the word hunches. Having a hunch is not a very reformed way of putting it, but that God is supernatural and you are a human spirit. And his word is brought to bear upon you as your life coalesces with circumstances so that you do come to convictions and you’re able to follow the direction of God’s providence. And one of the whole processes of quotes discovering God’s will is that it takes time for God to do this. And you have to learn not just to wait on the Lord, but to wait for the Lord.
Now, one moment just to say something about this, the kind of immediate question, because it concerned me at one point in my life because our own family circumstances meant that if I was to continue doing what seemed to be God’s will, I was going to be away from my family for a good deal of time. And in our family idolatries, I say that very carefully and sensitively, there is a huge danger in contemporary evangelicalism of the idolatry of the perfect family. It’s a huge danger. And part of its danger is it catches hold of things that are actually biblical, but it catches only some things that are biblical.
And there is this other thing that’s biblical that God may call a man or a woman actually to leave. And I still remember vividly going through those texts and thinking is it just my memory that this includes the most intimate parts of one’s nuclear family, and how releasing it was to me that Jesus said it may even be part of your calling to leave wife and children.
But the essential thing there seems to me to be that the promise he attaches to that is a promise that is to be taken hold of in faith. And if it’s not taken hold of in faith, that such a one will receive even a hundredfold, yes, with persecutions, but a hundredfold in this life, nevermind the eternal life in the world to come, if we take hold of that promise and really do that in such a way that we learn daily to trust the Lord even in the face of difficult circumstances, then that is going to be the key to the spiritual blessing that our families experience. Because it is possible to do that kind of big sacrificial thing and not do it in faith.
And I’ve been haunted ever since. In the course of studies as a young man, I read in Kierkegaard’s journal, of all people, Kierkegaard. I am not a Kierkegaardian, as I hope you have now managed to work out. He says, “The worst thing in the world is not that a child should be brought up in the home of a father who is a free thinker.” Thoroughly humanistic secularist.
And most of the Kierkegaard scholars think he’s just talking about his dad. But to be brought up in a home where a father confesses all the orthodoxies, but the whole rhythm of his life underlines that he doesn’t actually trust in God as his heavenly Father. And I just have this suspicion that as I’ve watched some of our own missionary folks, that that is always the difference. Are we trusting the promises of the Lord? Do we know that God is sufficient to take care of our children? If he’s asking us to do this, he is not going to leave us in the lurch.