Speaker Panel with Piper, Anyabwile, Chan, and Mohler
Desiring God 2010 National Conference
Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God
The greatest object to which we can turn our thinking is the fullest, richest, deepest revelation of God in the person and work of his Son Jesus. Thabiti, we thought it might be fitting to turn our minds there at the outset of this panel. Would you lead us in rehearsing the great message of the gospel?
Thabiti Anyabwile: The gospel is literally “good news.” It’s an announcement — a joyful, happy message sent from the courts of heaven to us subjects below. One way of summarizing it is in these four categories: God, sin, Jesus, faith. The gospel is news that demands a response, unlike evening news on television. What’s announced to us in the gospel is that:
There is a God. He’s the only God. There is none like him. He is holy and righteous, infinite, all-powerful, all-wise. He is the creator of everything. We are created; therefore, we are owned. As creatures, we owe this creator worship and love and adoration and honor and praise. And this holy God, who has made us in his image for fellowship with him, is actually angry with us in his righteousness and holiness because . . .
We all are sinners. We all have disobeyed God. We all have dishonored God. We all have turned away from God. Al Mohler writes so helpfully in his chapter about Romans 1 that we all have been darkened in our own minds, and we are hostile toward God as sinners. But God is not only holy and righteous, and justly wrathful toward sinners, but he also is a God of love.
So God sent his Son, Jesus, who took on our flesh, our likeness, and lived a fully human and perfectly righteous life before God to satisfy the holy requirements of God and died an agonizing death, suffering the wrath of God to pay the penalty for our sins on Calvary’s cross, so that the wrath of God would be satisfied in him and turned away from us. Jesus was buried and three days later resurrected. He ascended into heaven, sits now at the Father’s right hand, and is coming again. Jesus in his perfect righteousness supplies all the righteousness that sinners will ever need, and his death satisfies the demands of God against sinners for their rebellion against him.
Lastly, this message demands a response: all who repent of their sin and trust by faith in Jesus have his righteousness counted to them in him and have their sin nailed to the cross with him so that they bear it no more. They are eternally forgiven. They are eternally cleansed. A miracle happens: they are made new creatures in Jesus, and in him through faith connected to all of the benefits of Christ, including the promises of everlasting life and everlasting fellowship with God and the joy of basking in his love and in his glory for all eternity.
That’s the happy news. The good news — the gospel.
And so the appeal I make to you, the appeal that God is making through me to you, is that, having heard this message, you would put your faith in Jesus and trust yourself fully to him, call upon his name — everyone who calls on his name will be saved. That’s my hope for you. And I pray that you would not let this day pass without discovering more of what it means to trust in Jesus, to repent of your sins, and to follow him in the obedience of faith, and so be saved.
Francis, how has God been working on you through the messages that we’ve heard from Rick Warren, R. C. Sproul, Al Mohler, and Thabiti Anyabwile?
Francis Chan: I am almost sick to my stomach after Al’s message. A lot of it is my own sin. After hearing Al speak, I was hoping to find someone else here on my level. I thank God for what Al explained and all the research he has done. On the one hand, I feel more courageous than ever, because I have my brothers here striving side by side with me for the sake of the gospel. On the other hand, I have been sitting here praying, *God, what else is there to say? They’ve said everything!
They’ve said things I didn’t know, that I would never know to say. I could never do that. I could never do that*. John Piper said it so well after Rick Warren’s message: “Wow, I couldn’t do that.” With each speaker we get to see how God uniquely created him. I am very encouraged and am so thrilled that I am on a team with these guys, because it makes me feel stronger. Isn’t it the same for you? I am so glad that they can think at that level. I’m so glad that they can help us defend the gospel. It is a comfort that guys like this are on our side.
So there is that encouragement there, but there is this other side where I’m sure some others are struggling. I say, Lord, what do I have to offer? And yet I trust your Word. I know your Word tells me that you created me. So I’m not a screw-up. It’s like Moses when he says, “Oh, I don’t speak good.”
And God says, “Wait now. Who made your mouth?” And so humility is not saying, “Oh, I can’t offer anything to these contributors.” Humility is saying, “No, God, you’ve gifted me and filled me with your Spirit. So there’s something I have to offer.” And that has me wrestling, and it’s a fight to believe the truth of God’s Word when you are battling your own flesh or your own insecurities.
There was a period in my life when I was almost anti-scholarship, because after seminary and after studying for years (and being around a lot of brilliant people), I was almost made to feel worthless, like I had nothing to offer. And there have been times I have even thought about quitting ministry and going back to school to study some more, because I’m not at that level. And what I have loved is the gracious way that these other contributors have helped the rest of us who don’t think as well or haven’t thought as deeply in that area.
We all have a part in the body of Christ, and we all need each other, and we shouldn’t try to be each other but be who God has made us. I haven’t always gotten that from people who are more intelligent than I. And a lot of the writings of these other contributors in the last few years have really renewed my attitude toward scholarship, because I have been able to see that there is a way to study that can help other people and build them up and lift them up. There is a way to think that will actually make you more passionate about Jesus rather than just cold and arrogant. To make you have affections for him, for people, and for the body of Christ.
Thabiti, you are a formidable thinker and local church pastor, and it’s a fairly recent pastorate. How would you counsel a congregant who feels too intellectually stretched by your sermons to stay with you and grow in the life of the mind?
Thabiti Anyabwile: That’s a good question. Answering it might get me in trouble back home. At the end of the day, I don’t know how to do anything but be me. And as a preacher, I’m mainly trying to remember to preach for an audience of one — to glorify Jesus — but I’m also trying to serve his people. So one of the things I pray for in my own preaching is clarity. I don’t feel like I am a particularly good illustrator, for example, which can help clarity, if done appropriately. There is power in clarity and simplicity and forceful thought.
So I invite my people to give me feedback as to that. When I hear such a complaint from one of my hearers, I ask whether I’m really hearing “You weren’t clear,” or if I am hearing, “Bring that particular idea, that doctrinal point, home in terms of application,” or if I am hearing, “Yeah, actually you’re stretching me right now.” I encourage folks that it is good to be stretched. Sometimes I think we are quite complacent in our thinking. We have a proxy for what it means to be mature spiritually, which I think is a bad proxy.
Many Christians think if they’ve been in the church a long time and they haven’t heard something before, then the new thing that they’re hearing is a novelty and maybe needs to be discarded, because, after all, they’ve been in church a long time and have certain habits down, and so therefore are mature in their thinking as a Christian or living as a Christian. I want to push back against that. Yes, I want to be gracious and loving, but I don’t want my people to settle. I want them to love the Lord their God with all their mind, heart, and strength. So I want to be approachable and receive feedback and critique that helps the preaching. I want to make sure that my preaching isn’t about being seen to be clever but is being helpful and useful in the right ways as I expound the Scripture.
Al, in your message you talked about the shifting ways of thinking from the pre-modern era, to the modern, and now to the postmodern, and you mentioned the honest confession of intellectual prejudice as one of the goods that comes with postmodern thinking. You also highlighted for us many of the dangers in postmodern thinking. Would there be other goods in postmodern thinking that you would point to that are of use for gospel advance?
Al Mohler: Indeed. And as a matter of fact, a lot of what we think about in terms of cross-cultural conversation and communication is very indebted to postmodern insights about the social location of meaning. The fact is that meaning is culturally situated. It’s very linguistic. That’s why translating language to language is never a one-to-one thing, and it’s a whole conceptual world endeavor.
There’s another one, quite frankly, that’s a key insight. The hard antirealist, postmodernist guys that are supposed to have their profiles in the evangelical post office — those were the ones who said all truth is socially constructed in order to serve the interests of people in power. We know that’s not true. We also know it’s largely true. Which is to say we understand that, in a sinful world, we actually have a theological reason for understanding why that happens.
We don’t just look at it and say, “Oh, isn’t it awful that that’s the way it happens, and let’s deconstruct it.” We look at it and say, “No, that’s true.” What the apostle Paul does is deconstruct alternative worldviews. And that’s exactly what Israel is called to do in the Old Testament. We can’t accept the antirealism. We can’t accept the hostility to truth. But we can say to someone, “If you’ve been burned by all of the false claims to truth and all of the racism and ethnocentrism and all the rest that’s been a part of Western civilization or some other, then it’s going to come very, very naturally to you to believe that all truth emerges from that same kind of sinful claim; all truth claims emerge from that same kind of power grab.” And this is where we come back and say that the gospel is the great truth, the infinitely true truth claim that is God’s message of grace.
The unregenerate mind, as the Reformers said, can know many things accurately, and where it gets it right, we need to recognize that’s judgment if we’ve been thinking wrongly in order that we can get to the truth of the gospel and actually be truer truth tellers, more accurate truth tellers. One of the great challenges for evangelicals, and I mean true evangelicals — those who love the gospel — is going to be how to understand the cross-cultural communication challenges that we’re going to live with till Jesus comes and how to be faithful in the midst of that. It’s going to take a lot of us thinking, all of us thinking, as faithfully as the Lord would lead us to think together.
John, as we’ve seen, there is a relationship between thinking, feeling, and doing. You were significantly honored here today. [John was presented with a book titled For the Fame of God’s Name: Essays in Honor of John Piper, edited by Sam Storms and Justin Taylor, with chapters written by twenty-seven of his ministry friends.] Walk us through, if you would, how we should think through being honored. There appear to be dangers on either side. How have you learned over the years to walk through such moments of honor?
John Piper: Oh, my. Probably the first thing to say is that God is in charge of keeping his people humble, not us. The Bible does say that we should humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God, but as in almost all other things, “command what you will and give what you command.” So, we can expect that God will deal roughly with us, if he has to, in order to remind us that we are not God and that we are desperately in need of him.
Perhaps it is no accident that I received this book of essays in the middle of a leave of absence taken because of pain. Is that an accident that it worked out that way? The editors and contributors have been working on the book for three years, they said. There are issues in my family and my wider family and my soul that are such that I asked for this leave so I could step back and look at all of them and work on all of them. I felt, as I sat there watching the surprise presentation of the book, that these folks don’t know me well enough. They don’t know what goes on in our living room and bedroom and kitchen. I know. My wife knows and my children know. And so I feel the sense of disjunction between public praise and private imperfections. And this seems to be God’s doing. He forms that.
Then there are these natural limitations that the people closest around me know that I have. And I don’t know why God has been pleased to release influence through me the way that he has when I look at the limitations. I can’t read faster than I can talk. Everybody thinks I’m a scholar — I’m not a scholar! The contributors are going to wake up and think, What did we just do? I have learned to navigate my limitations and just do the few things I can do as well as I can. And I’m always thinking about what I can’t do. I wake up in the morning and think of what I can’t do.
So God fits us with weaknesses. He leads us through the valley of the shadow of death. He leads us in his providence, yes, even in and out of sin, and does what he has to do to break us. So that’s the first principle. God is in charge of keeping us humble, and he loves us so much, as Hebrews 12 says, that if we think we are his child but we have not yet been disciplined, we may be bastards. Those are strong words in Hebrews 12. If you haven’t been spanked hard enough to come to blood, then maybe you’re not even a child. That’s the way he works.
The second thing I would say — I’ll say it first from a wider angle and then from a more focused angle — is that we leaders here believe in a certain vision of God’s sovereign grace. There is not a thing in you or me that inclined God to choose us for himself. Nothing. There is not a thing in you or me that inclined God to cause us to be born again. Nothing. There is not a thing in you or me that secures our eternal destiny. Nothing. It is totally free. This is our theology — unconditional election, unconditional regeneration, unconditional propitiation, conditional justification, by faith alone — and that faith is a gift. Our theology is meant to flatten us. First Corinthians 1:27–31 says:
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”
Salvation is designed in a way as to cut the legs out from under all human boasting. It’s about smashing human pride and getting glory for God. That’s the big picture, the wider angle.
The more focused angle is Christ crucified. The most important event in human history is the death of the Son of God. What’s the meaning of the death of the Son of God? It means I am unspeakably lost. It took that much — the death of God’s own Son! — to save me. Anybody that lives near the cross isn’t going to put his thumbs in his armpits, swing his elbows, and strut. Such a person is not going to brag about his stuff. He is not going to talk a lot about his achievements. He looks at that incredible horror — the Son of God on the cross — and sees it as a picture of how corrupt we are.
And the cross has another message — and it’s good news. That’s how much I’m loved. And it’s free. The biggest challenge theologically and experientially for us is to feel loved unworthily, to get up in the morning and be thrilled to be alive and to be thrilled to know God totally undeservingly. That’s the challenge, because we’re wired to want to feel thrilled because we got a book or had a conference or gave a message. There is the constant clawing at my ego to find my meaning and my significance in other people’s reckoning of what I’ve done.
So these contributors to this book in my honor are setting me up terribly. Right? But, like David said, we have to learn to deal with it. So you’re watching me process this thing.
In sum, here are the three things. God is going to humble you whether you want him to or not. He’s lovingly going to flatten you. Your marriage may go into pieces. Or your kids might go whacko on you. Or you may get cancer, or lose your job — God will do whatever he has to do, even flatten you, so that you are desperate before him. And then, secondly, he works through books like this and movements and other people to get us a theology with him so massively at the center that it no longer occurs to us to put ourselves there. And then, third, God takes us to the cross over and over and over again to remind us how un-save-able we are apart from that horrific crucifixion and how much we are amazingly loved.
There is just no escape from this battle, and so we must press on and pray hard for each other.
Thabiti Anyabwile: John, it is so freeing to hear you talk about being unworthy and loved, because when there is a sense of love attached to our worthiness, that is slavery — because then we find ourselves on this treadmill of trying to keep our worthiness up and at a level where we can fabricate the feeling of love. But to maintain that sense of being unworthy and loved, to be rightly abased, to have the idol of self smashed, that frees us to rejoice in our unworthiness, knowing that God loves us. That is so liberating. That is so wonderful.
At this conference, there has been a lot of talk, and rightfully so, about the life of the mind as it relates to the written Word of God — and at this conference we have seen several short video clips. How would you describe the role of audio and video, perhaps especially over the last ten-plus years, as it relates to the life of the mind and the development and sharpening of our minds?
Al Mohler: I’m thankful for it. I think there are many things that can be extremely well (even beautifully) communicated by means of video — and audio with the video — but there is a certain power to the image, and that is biblically understood — and it can be a dangerous power. There is a recent book entitled The Rise of the Image and the Fall of the Word. That is devastating. “The fall of the word” is not what we Christians are about. This is partly because the image is far more susceptible to manipulation and to lying than the word, actually, because the image can be so easily attached to the emotions in ways that make it invisible to us. We are moved visually by things we don’t want to be moved by, and we detect it in ourselves. We see something on television or especially a Hollywood movie that moves us, and we feel our emotions being pulled away from the truth. And that is a big danger.
But this is a visual age, and it seems we are actually kind of reverting to a pre-verbal, pre-linguistic age in many parts of the society. If you want to reach an awful lot of the people whom we know and love, then video is a powerful way to do it. But for Christians, let me make this plea: the image cannot replace the printed word, because the discipline of the printed word is a discipline of reading that requires a certain concentration, certain habits of the mind and habits of the heart that are not required by video.
Just last week I had to take two days away. Those days are very rare and precious. I had some writing that had to be done, and I had an opportunity between two trips to take two days just to write. I took a complete digital vacation, and I want to say to you, the digital natives, we need to wean ourselves at times off of video and audio and act like we are in a monastic cell, cut off from all culture and meaning, according to our peers, living as if we are our own parent and have grounded ourselves, because it is going to take that kind of discipline to be able to read certain things, much less to write certain things. And our souls need it. The apostle Paul told Timothy to bring the books and the parchments. I know, I know — he might say DVDs and iPod in some modern translations, but it is not the same thing.
I think we are living in a time in which it is very safe and important for us in the stewardship of media and communication opportunities to say we need to be good at media. The stuff that is produced for video, even for advertising new books, can be outstanding. I saw the video advertisement Desiring God did for John’s book Think and thought, People need to see that, because there are people who are going to see the video and be drawn into the book. That’s what I want. I want to see video draw people into deeper engagement with the written word.
John Piper: The main reason why we must always be a people devoting thought to the written word is that the Bible exists. Just let it sink in on you that the Bible exists. God did not do it any other way, and we are “stuck” with it till he comes back. That’s the way it is. It’s not a choice. Christians don’t have a choice. God inspired the Bible. The Bible is in Greek and Hebrew, translated into other languages. Reading is an act of thinking. I have a whole chapter in the Think book just to show what I mean by thinking — and what I mean is reading. Reading happens either poorly or well, and when you read well, you are thinking. So the Bible mandates a focus on the written word, and it mandates thinking.
Here’s the catch: the Bible commands preaching, which isn’t written. It’s seen and heard. Why? Why does it say in 2 Timothy 4:2, “Preach the word”? Because there is something more, something more in the Bible that people need. God has wired sheep to be fed not only by the distribution of books. Sheep are to be fed by shepherds who talk to them, because shepherds are alive, have wives and children and pain, feelings and passions and sorrows. And the people live there, and they need to see truth coming through that everyday life. That’s why [we are to engage in] both the written word and the seen-and-heard preaching.
So we have the Bible that will never go away, this side of heaven. That was God’s choice, and I think he didn’t choose it because they didn’t have videos back then, but he chose it because he created our minds, which learn how to do what they are supposed to do not mainly by listening but mainly by reading.
Now that has huge implications for pre-literate cultures. I would love to really go into this, because I have talked to Ajith Fernando, for example, about how he does expository preaching among pre-literate, nonreading peoples. And he says the Bible is crucial in doing it there. But enough. The Bible is a book. The book must be read either by the teachers or the students, and to be read, it must be thought about. And the Bible commands more than reading. It commands speaking.
Al Mohler: Can I just add a word to that? The Scripture principle is so central to us. God gave us a word, first of all, the incarnate Word — we would say supremely an incarnate Word and then the written Word. And our dependence on the written Word just as John said, will not pass away in this life. Now, there are some interesting studies that have been done lately about multiplicities of meaning. It is hard enough to nail meaning down. Let’s admit that. But if you compare what it means to try to get people to agree on what a text means and agreeing on what, say, a movie means, there is tremendous documentation that we are not talking about a slight difference.
Just think of you and four or five friends going to see a movie and trying to agree what it was about, as if your life depended on it, versus a text. In our fallen state, the text is hard enough; the video is impossible. And it is important for us to understand that, in a fallen world, images have tremendous potential, but the potential might be more to make things interesting than to make things clear, and that is where we Christians want to be really careful.
Thabiti, I sensed a point of tension in your message, and perhaps you recognize this, between Islam not being able to be established in this country and yet there being “freedom of religion” in this country. So you encouraged us to fight for that freedom of religion, and advocate for the freedom of religion, yet also to advocate for “nonestablishment.” However, Islam is not a religion that will take the freedom of religion without the establishment. Is there more that can be said there? Is Islam in this country “stuck”?
Thabiti Anyabwile: That’s a great question. Thank you. Well, I do think there is a certain sense in which, yes, Islam is “stuck,” but it is not a sense in which that stuck-ness is different from the Christian who is stuck, or the Jew who is stuck. We don’t live in a theocracy, and I think the experiment historically of the wedding of church and state, or religion and state, has been disastrous for the state and the church. I think any reading of history teaches us that. And so what I am led to believe is actually, again, that there was a kindness of the Lord in the framing of our own sort of legal framework that prohibits, on the one hand, the establishment of religion and guarantees, on the other hand, the free exercise.
So what does that mean? I think it sets a context where we have to work it out, and I think it sets a context where we have to be intelligent about not advantaging or privileging particular perspectives (and I am speaking here primarily in religious terms), while at the same time not hindering or squashing others insofar as we protect basic liberties that are also spoken of in that document.
So, yes, we would be saying to Islam, and to Christianity, and to Hinduism, and Buddhism, and Judaism, and every other religious system, that we will not enshrine their point of view, religious practices, and religious precepts as the law of the land, which would violate what I think is one of the most basic human liberties, which is, again, the freedom of religion to worship God according to conscience. But at the same time, we will work to protect that liberty, that freedom, that ability to worship God according to the dictates of conscience.
So there is a dance there, and I think it is a good dance. I think it is the right dance, and I think we say to our Muslim neighbors and friends, “Welcome to the country, enjoy the freedoms here, let us love you as neighbors, let us show you hospitality. We would love to learn more and to engage and to talk more. We would not support the country becoming something other than what it is framed to be.” And I think it is incumbent upon us perhaps, and certainly me, to be a better student of the Constitution, history, and law that we might be better stewards of that tension, of that balance, which I think is at this point, at least, a good and right tension.
Francis, you referenced earlier a previous anti-intellectual or anti-scholarship strain in your past, and yet at your previous church, Cornerstone, you founded a Bible College. Can you tell us how you went from some anti-scholarship sentiments to the founding of an institution for scholarship at the church?
Francis Chan: Yes. It happened when I began to encounter men who loved the Word of God — and it’s still bothering me that John said he’s not a scholar. Does that drive anyone else here crazy? Because, John, if you are not a scholar, then what in the world am I? John, I don’t know if you remember when I first met you. You were speaking at Azusa Pacific University. I had spoken the day before and asked the faculty, “Can I drive him to the airport?” I just wanted to spend time with you.
And I remember in the car almost apologizing for not being a writer. I had tried to write at that time, and I just could not write. And I felt that anyone who knew as much about the Scriptures as he would want me to know just as much, or I was failing or not as good. And I remember saying to you, “I have tried to write, and I just can’t do it.” And I remember you just looked at me and said, “Well, maybe you’re not supposed to.” I thought, Really? I don’t have to? You won’t even remember that you said that; it just came out of your mouth. You were saying, I hear you have great gifts speaking to the youth, and you really communicate to them, and so keep doing that.
It was like you were saying you were okay with me and that I had something to offer even though I was not at your level. You used what knowledge you had to build me up, to lift me up, to edify me. And there were other men that came into my life who did the same thing and helped me in some of my shortcomings, and I actually began to feel like I had something to offer. They said to me, “Why don’t you help me in communicating, because every time I talk, people sleep.” I was amazed that I could help them.
It happened again today at lunch when we were praying over John and someone was thanking God for him, saying, I love you more, God, because of John and his writings and teachings. That is true for me too: I love Jesus more because of John.
Not to embarrass you, John, but it was your writings that I would read — and they were deep and they were rich — and I walked away more in love with Jesus. And it just gave me this confidence about using the mind to stir the affections. I want to do that with other young people. And we are seeing how there are so many younger people now that are getting it and understanding things and understanding some of these concepts, and it is causing them to love Jesus more. Not puff them up but really cause them to fall more in love with Jesus.
And I want to thank you, John, because I do feel like I love Jesus more because of your writings and your thinking. I love people more because of your writing. The main thing — I think my wife can attest to this — is that I enjoy God more. I do. I love knowing him. And some of that was gone for a while for me. There was still that underlying fear, still that respect for God, still a lot of these things that showed reverence toward the Lord, but it was through John’s writings that I began enjoying God again. I began really desiring him again.
So it was thinking that made me love God. And so when I saw that could happen, it made me more and more excited to read more, to study more, and to encourage other people to do the same.
John, there is the possibility that with our thinking, we produce more distinctions from and differences with others. And yet the apostle Paul charges literally “to think the same thing,” several times in Philippians and in a few other places. He encourages us toward thinking and toward unity at the same time. How does the life of the mind relate to greater unity rather than only to greater diversity in the church?
John Piper: You are absolutely right that a devotion to doctrine, and especially thinking hard about doctrine, causes one to define it, and as soon as you define that it is this and not this, this and not this, the not-this believers are now not believing what you believe, and there are tensions. And the more important the issue is, the greater the tensions, and none of us likes that kind of tension.
The first thing I would say exegetically is that the word group Paul uses there is not the neø word group but the phroneø word group. . . .
Al Mohler: He was not a scholar there, by the way.
John Piper: . . . The command to “be minded,” to think a certain way — in general those commands are a word group in Greek that’s very difficult to bring over into English. “Attitude” would be as good a translation as “think.” Have the same attitude, Paul is saying. “Let this mind be in you which is also in Christ Jesus” doesn’t mean in that case, even though it should be, that we are thinking his thoughts about biology or thoughts about the cross. It means he emptied himself, took the form of a servant, so have a servant mind. And so usually the call to “have one mind” is the call to have one orientation on humbling yourself to be a servant. But that does not answer the problem. There is more to say.
The apostle Paul really does want us to think the same thoughts doctrinally. He is not into, “Hey, have a couple of views about the cross, the more the better” — that is not the way Paul would think at all. He would like there to be one pervasive understanding of the atonement in this room and around the world, and so the command, I think, means “work at it.” And the way to work at that is not to say it doesn’t matter.
When the command comes, “Have the same mind,” or “Think the same thing,” then what do you do? Well, you preach and you write as persuasively as you can and as kindly and as winsomely and as lovingly as you can. And when there is a pocket in your church that is swarming in a little clique, getting a little different view about something, you don’t take angular potshots at them from the pulpit. You call them up and say, “Can I come meet with your group?” You say, “Tell me what you’re thinking. Where did this come from? Can I give you some reasons why this doesn’t look right to me?” And so an effort is made.
So the whole constellation of reconciliation commands — “love your enemy” and “be slow to anger” and “be quick to listen” — all those things that we usually think of only in terms of relational dynamics — they are all intellectual dynamics as well. And we would do better, probably, in the evangelical world if there were more phone calls. Wouldn’t we? Fewer blogs, more phone calls.
Now I am not one of those who says you cannot criticize somebody publicly until you have called him on the phone. I don’t think you have to necessarily call first if he has been public in espousing an error. But there are a lot of cases when you can call. And that might go a long way toward rectifying things. I write more letters to the editor with a note at the top, This is not for publication, than I do for publication. I gave up on writing letters to editors years ago — but I still write to an editor when I am steaming about something and say, “Look, I am upset with what you did. I don’t want the world to know that; I just want you to know that. Why in the world would you publish such an article?” Or something like that.
So I think the two responses I have are, one, those verbs are generally attitudinal. But, two, we should work toward thinking the same about doctrinal issues, and the best way is to teach and preach and speak in winsome, loving, and compelling ways.
Al Mohler: What John just did for us, what he just modeled there, is actually thinking about thinking. What he just did was say, “Look, in order to understand the question just asked of me, we need to go back to the text and understand it is not quite so simple as you just presented it” (which was great the way that you set that up and laid it out).
And I think John is exactly right. We Christians are the truth people. We cannot act like truth does not matter. And the more we talk about truth, the greater the risk is that we are going to disagree, or we are going to find that there is a miscommunication, or we are going to have to work things out. That is the price we are going to pay till Jesus comes, because the price of not doing that is turning ourselves into a nonthinking, nontheological, nondoctrinal people who will lose the gospel.
So we must be unapologetic about it, but it is going to humble us for a number of reasons. Because in the give-and-take of this conversation in the believing church (I don’t mean with unbelievers and with liberal theologians and skeptics and all the rest), we are going to find ourselves in error. We are going to need a lot of Priscillas and Aquilas to take a lot of Apolloses aside and say, “That wasn’t right.”
I recently preached a message in chapel where I told about a time when I was in error and desperately needed Priscilla and Aquila to show up and correct me. It turned out his name was Carl Henry — so it was not Priscilla. But it was Aquila who showed up in this case to fulfill that function, and I needed the correction. It has happened more times than I am even aware of, where I have been corrected by the preaching of God’s Word.
We have to risk disagreement. Disagreement is not the worst thing. Disagreement is the price you pay to make sure you actually know what you are talking about and clarify what you are saying. And you can be in relationships where you love each other all the more for it. I have Christian brothers who will challenge me and whom I challenge, and at the end of it, we worship God more faithfully together because of this.
Also, disagreement gives us the chance to think out loud. One of the gifts we need to give each other is to expose our thinking to each other. We tend in our intellectual narcissism, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone else, to want to show up with a finished product. “Here’s my position. I have arrived here.” But we need to be vulnerable, because we will be far more faithful if we will line out our thinking so that we can watch each other think, hear each other think, and say, “If that’s not tightened back here, you’re going to end up over here,” or, “I don’t think you heard what you said when you were there.”
We need to have the maturity and the discernment to say there are some things we have to be united on or we cannot recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Someone asked me a question one time: “What do you say to someone,” a believer, I was told, “who doesn’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Christ?” Here’s what you are: not a believer. We have a category problem there. There are certain things that have to be believed. And this is a New Testament issue — the apostles had to say here is what the gospel is. You have to know this much. Romans 10, for example. They have a very clear example. If you’re not there, you’re not a believer. You’re not a Christian. You are not inside. You’re still outside. But why don’t you get inside?
There is a second level, I suggest, in which we have some serious disagreements. And it’s not because we don’t love the Lord and we don’t love the Bible and we don’t want to serve Jesus. But there are issues that divide us denominationally that aren’t accidents. They go back to serious disagreements about things that matter, and we love the Lord and we love the truth enough to know they really matter. We might both be wrong, but we can’t both be right.
But we do recognize each other as sincere believers in Christ, and we can witness together. Whitfield and Wesley could share the gospel together and preach together and be involved in ministry together. We can be in this room together. We can exalt in Christ together. And we know that the commonalities that bring us here are why we’re here, but we’re still who we are. We walk in the door; we didn’t become Desiring-God robots. We are who we are, and until Jesus comes back, we will have to work with some things. And in humility there are going to be some things we disagree about until our Lord Teacher corrects his church and purifies and sanctifies his church in common.
But then there’s a third category, and this is important for us, too. There are things we disagree about that don’t matter to the preaching and teaching of the gospel or the right ordering of the church. There may be as many positions on some questions of eschatology as there are people in this room, and I can live with that so long as we’re absolutely certain of the coming visible, triumphant return of the Lord Jesus Christ to cleanse and claim his church and the consummation of all things according to everything that Scripture proclaims.
There could be all kinds of different positions on how the human soul originates and this or that and different interpretations of things that don’t matter, and we recognize that. In humility we need to recognize that’s just another sense of our fallenness. That’s another sign of our incomplete sanctification. We can still worship together and work together, and we can agree on the ordering of the church on these things together.
So that requires some maturity. If you make a third-order issue a first-order issue, you’re going to blow the place up. If you make a first-order issue a third-order issue, you’re going to flush the gospel. It requires some maturity and growing up. And we need to do it together. So think out loud.
John, would you close us in prayer?
John Piper: Father in heaven, we ask that you would become more and more our teacher. We love that phrase of Paul’s to the Thessalonians, that they are “God-taught to love one another.” We believe that you have ordained to do it through your inspired Word and often through anointed pastors and teachers and small-group leaders. Whatever avenues, Lord, we want to be God taught. We want to know things, feel things, and do things according to reality — yourself, your Son, your ways. So let this conference, oh God, have that effect increasingly on our souls. Make us a God-taught people for the sake of this world that needs the light of the church and the salt of the church everywhere. I pray this in Jesus’s name, amen.