Courage in Christian Ministry, Part 3

Desiring God 2000 Conference for Pastors

Courage in Christian Ministry

Let me share with you some very, very good news. That (worship) is what we’re going to get to do through eternity. As a matter of fact, that is what we have been created to do and conformed to Christ’s image to do, and it will be joy for eternity to sing the praises of he who overcomes — the Lamb of God, the glorious God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He is the God who has summoned us here, the God who has called us to courage. I would invite you to turn to the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John. I will read John 6:48–69:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” Jesus said these things in the synagogue, as he taught at Capernaum.

When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” (For Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.) And he said, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.”

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”

The Bread of Heaven

By any measure, this is one of the most dramatic scenes in the entire New Testament. It’s an amazingly candid and intense confrontation. It comes in the midst of an extended discourse by Jesus as he was teaching there in the synagogue at Capernaum. The context is very important.

We are told in John 6 that the teaching and the incident we have just heard from Scripture came the day after that great miracle we know as the feeding of the 5,000, when Jesus multiplied five loaves and two fishes into a meal that could feed a multitude of 5,000 men, plus unnumbered women and children. Yesterday was about bread, the multiplication of bread, a miracle by which stomachs were filled and nourishment was given, a miracle of such astounding proportions that the news of it must have spread all throughout Galilee. And now on the next day, the crowd is coming to find Jesus once again.

They search him out, find that he has withdrawn, and go to where Jesus is there in Capernaum, and they present themselves to him. Look at what they say. Look back to John 6:25–26. It says:

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”

In other words, “Let’s be honest here, you are seeking me because you want more bread, you wanted another miracle.” He continues:

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal (John 6:27).

“Yesterday was about bread,” Jesus said, “and today is about the bread of life.” And with a parallel, we can remember in John 4:13–14 where Jesus offered the woman at the well, not just water, but water from which she would never thirst again, living water. Here also, Jesus says, “You’re coming to me looking for the wrong kind of bread. I am here, not that you might have bread for a day, but that you might have the bread that will give you eternal life.”

Doing the Works of God

Then they ask what they should do, which is an interesting question. Look at John 6:28. The first thing they say when they are told of this food which endures to eternal life is, “What shall we do?” That’s a natural human response. They think, “We want it. What do we have to do to get it?” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” (John 6:28).

Look at John 6:29. Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you may believe in him whom he has sent.” So, what is their next response? They said to him, in John 6:30, “What then do you do for a sign so that we may see and believe you? What work do you perform?” Just in case Jesus needs a little bit of suggestion, in John 6:31 they say, “Our fathers ate the manna in the wilderness (hint, hint); as it is written, ‘He gave them bread out of heaven to eat.’”

Then in John 6:32–33, he said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven (a bit of a theological correction), but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

In John 6:34, they said to him, “Lord always give us always this bread.” Yesterday was about bread, and today is about the bread of life. Look at Jesus in John 6:35. Jesus said to them:

Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.

That’s the phrase egō eimi (I Am), which is a formula that clearly claims deity by its very structure. It’s one of those great “I Am” statements around which the Gospel of John can be seen to be structured as Jesus discloses his deity, his mission, and his identity in the form of these statements. He speaks here of himself as the bread of life. He says, “He who comes to me will not hunger and he who believes in me will never thirst.”

Look at John 6:48–51. Again, Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.” You want to talk about manna? We’ll talk about manna. He says, “Your fathers ate the manna and the wilderness and they died.” It’s interesting they bring up manna. No one there ever ate any. The manna was about bread for a day, and Jesus is saying, “I did not come to bring you bread for a day but to give you the bread that endures to eternal life. This is the bread which comes down out of heaven so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever and the bread also, which I will give for the life of the world, is my flesh.”

A Universal Declaration

In between these two passages is embedded a great deal of the gospel, and just very quickly I would like to draw your attention to verses John 6:37–44. John 6:37 is the universal, positive declaration of the gospel:

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.

Notice that there is no codicil on that statement. There is no conditionality. He just says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out.” This is a wonderful testimony to particular redemption, and to the fact that the atonement is accomplished. He says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me.” This is a very important principle of the gospel to which we had better pay heed.

And John 6:44 is its opposite, but equally valid statement. If John 6:37 is the universal positive declaration of the gospel, then John 6:44 is the universal negative declaration of the gospel. He says:

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Again, there is no condition, no codicil. It’s a straightforward sentence.

No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day.

Just put those two verses together. He says, “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and the one who comes to me I will certainly not cast out,” and, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up on the last day.” If we fail to pay heed to these clear verses and this clear teaching, I promise you our evangelism will become corrupted, distorted, manipulative, and dangerous. This testifies of the sovereignty of God.

It is a picture of effectual calling, and it is a reminder that the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, his mission, is accomplished. It is his sovereign work.

Hearing Without Faith

In John 6:36, we are told that Jesus said to them, “But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe.” This is hard for us to take. How is it that persons can be confronted directly with the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ with the truth about who he is and what he has done, and the promise of everlasting life through him, and yet not believe?

It is obviously because the gospel is about more than intellectual understanding. For in hell, there are many who understood the gospel. Satan and the demons themselves could do a fairly good job of writing systematic theology. It’s not that they don’t get it. There’s a difference between misunderstanding and rejection. This is about rejection.

The central issue is belief. In John 6:47, the Lord says, “Truly, truly I say to you, he who believes has eternal life,” and it’s not just a matter of cognitive understanding; it’s a matter of the belief that it’s the picture of faith by which he is seen as who he is, and we accept his invitation to feed on him.

The Superiority of the New Covenant

Well, the response is very interesting in this passage. The response on the part of the crowd is amazement, puzzlement, argument, and grumbling. Look at John 6:41–42. You can see the patterns start to develop::

So the Jews grumbled about him, because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

Look at John 6:52. It says:

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

There is amazement, puzzlement, argument, and grumbling. This is the response of many. This passage is about the superiority of the New Covenant. It is about the realization of God’s atoning purpose in Jesus Christ who is the living bread, the bread of life, and who invites sinners to feed on him. They want to talk about manna and Moses. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life.”

This is not about Moses leading an exodus from slavery in Egypt. It’s about the Son of God, the Lamb of God, slain before the foundation of the world, leading an exodus from sin and death. This is about atonement, substitution, and grace. In this passage we see the definition of justification. It’s by faith alone, and it is all here. There is nothing we can do for ourselves.

There is no work we can do to work the works of God. It is all of grace, and being all of grace it is about what Christ has done. His flesh and blood is saving food, leading to eternal life. What a remarkable teaching. If it seems quite comfortable to us, it is because we are not hearing it clearly. He who eats this bread will live forever. And then in John 6:53, Jesus says the negative again as is the pattern in this passage:

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”

You may look alive, you may think yourself to be alive, you may feel full of life and living, but you are the walking, breathing dead if you refuse this bread. He says, “I am the bread of life.” This is graphic language. There is no room for theological negotiation in this passage. These are simple, breathtakingly declarative sentences. It’s unambiguous teaching. This, brothers and sisters, is the gospel. And this, my friends, is hard to take.

A Hard Saying

The response of the unbelievers was predictable. “Who does he think he is? Is this not Joseph’s son? How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” But if the response of the unbelievers is predictable, the response of the disciples is remarkable. They say, “This is a difficult statement. This is a hard saying. Who can stand it?” In John 6:60, it says, “When many of his disciples heard it, they said, ‘This is a difficult statement. Who can listen to it?’”

This was said by those who identified themselves as the disciples of Christ. John has already defined his terms, he has helped us to see that he speaks of the disciples as that larger group surrounding Jesus as he went from place to place, a larger group unnumbered, but far larger than the 12. John makes a distinction between the 12 whom Christ called unto himself, and the larger group of disciples, and it is within this larger group that in the face of the teaching, as Jesus speaks about himself as the bread of life, severe discomfort sets in.

Just imagine the scene. Jesus is here in the synagogue, of all places. He is in the synagogue speaking of himself as the bread of life, disparaging as it were the manna from Moses as for a day only with his bread, himself and his work, leading to everlasting life. You can almost see some of these disciples. They were thinking, “This is tough.” Can you imagine the sideways glances from one disciple to another as they kind of looked at each other’s sandals? They might have said, “Did I hear that right? Did he just say what I think he said? Well, we’re in for it now. This is tough stuff. This is a hard saying. Who can take this?”

The text tells us that Jesus knows what is in their hearts and in their minds. It isn’t that this statement is hard to understand, it is that it is hard to take once it has been understood.

Walking Away from Jesus

Now, if it seems remarkable that the disciples would grumble like this, is it not more remarkable to consider how Jesus responds in John 6:61? It says:

But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?

Jesus turns to those who claim to be his disciples and says, “Pardon me, but do you have a problem with this? Excuse me if this offends you, but this is the gospel.” And then, as if to turn the volume up a bit, in John 6:62 he says:

Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?

Which we could paraphrase to mean this: “If you have trouble with this, just wait.” In John 6:63, the Lord explains, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.” It’s a principle that is repeated in this passage. The Spirit gives life; the flesh profits nothing. And then he says, “But there are some of you who do not believe” (John 6:64). It is so candid. It says:

After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him (John 6:66).

They went out from us, but they were not of us (1 John 2:19). They walked with him no more. What must it have been like to have been in that synagogue? The Lord says, “I am the bread of life,” and the Jewish authorities grumble and argue, caustically and sarcastically they debate, and some of the Lord’s own disciples say, “This is tough stuff. This is extreme. This is over the line. I can’t take it.” And they walked with him no more.

Jesus asked first, “Does this cause you to stumble?” And then in John 6:66, we are told that some of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore. And then in John 6:67, the Lord turns to his own, to the 12. Can you imagine how it must have seemed, that the oxygen had evacuated from the room? Can you imagine the solemnity of the moment as the Lord turned to his own and asked this question, “You do not want to go away also, do you? Will you also go away?” (John 6:67).

The Stand for Truth

Then, as now, the issue is truth. Then, as now, the question is excruciating. Then, as now, the answer means everything. We face the temptation to repackage the gospel. It comes to all of us, because when we read a text like this or we have the opportunity to proclaim the gospel, when we do it in biblical clarity, a part of us is going, “What are you saying?” This is hard to take. The gospel that saves, the gospel revealed in Scripture, the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, does not fit a Madison-Avenue marketing plan. It is confrontational to our most basic instincts as sinners.

The whole idea of marketing and of public relations is to package a product that will sell, a product attractive to the instinctive wants and desires of a consumer society and of consumers as individuals. This is tough stuff. The temptation comes to us as we deal with the truth revealed in Scripture to bring in a little marketing advice, to translate, to explain, to qualify, to dilute. The temptation comes, and the issue is what we will do. I want to suggest to you a formula for disaster in the church.

It is very simple. This is the formula: that’s what it says, but let me tell you what it means. And by the way, that is almost a full-time occupation for some preachers, dealing with this formula. They read the text and they say, “Yes, I know that’s what it says,” but let me tell you what it means.

I also have to tell you what I think is one of the most dangerous places on the planet, and that is in an evangelical small group Bible study. I want you to picture this with me. People are gathered around the room sitting with a Bible on each lap. It looks good so far. The text is read, and then going either clockwise or counterclockwise, you go around the room and what is asked? “What does this text mean to you?” Have you ever just wanted to stand up in the room and say, “I’ve had it! Don’t misunderstand me; it’s not that I don’t love each one of you, but I don’t care what this text means to you. We should be concerned with what the text says, what the text means, and then we will seek to apply it”?

I mean, just look at what happens when that text makes its way around the circle. It’s kind of like the old game where you play telephone and something begins on one side of the room and by the time it ends up on the other side it’s something else entirely. Well, just watch it in the Bible study. That’s what it says, but let me tell you what it means.

The Rich Young Ruler

Think about the encounter between Jesus and the rich young ruler. This young hotshot with a type-A personality, a rising young executive, a man with a developing resume and all the right connections, comes unto Jesus. Jesus is teaching the people, and he says, “Lord, what must I do to inherit everlasting life?” Now, notice the audacity of the question. He is saying, “Now Lord, I’ve been listening to you teach the unwashed, the laborers, the hoi polloi, and I guess that will work for them. But what must I do to inherit everlasting life?”

Let me give you a hermeneutical key: Jesus did not like yuppies. He did not like those who think of themselves as self-sufficient and want to see what it is that they can do to inherit everlasting life. And so, Jesus speaks to him in such a way as to betray that he is not who he thinks he is, that he has not kept the commandments he claims to have perfectly kept. And Jesus says to him, “All right, hotshot. If you want to know what to do, then sell everything. And then come back and talk to me.” And we’re told that the young man went away.

Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt? “Lord, this guy could have been really useful. I mean, you look around, we’re fishermen. And we could use someone like this.” And if you think that’s an exaggeration, just imagine if you’re a pastor what your deacons would think if you spoke like that. Someone is a first-time visitor at the church, and they come up to you and say, “What’s this all about?” And you give him the whole load right there, and he goes away. Your deacons are saying, “Have you lost your mind?”

This is tough stuff. The temptation comes for us to accommodate ourselves to the grumbling, and to seek to smooth out the rough places in biblical truth, to kind of curve off the sharp corners of biblical truth.

Velvet-Mouthed Preachers

Novelist Peter De Vries tells a story about a minister by the name of Reverend Andrew Mackerel. He serves a church of great sophistication and culture. Every angle in the carefully constructed sanctuary is a curve. There are no sharp corners. The pulpit furniture is designed by Noguchi. It’s round. Everything in Reverend Andrew Mackerel’s life basically holds together until his wife dies. When his wife dies, he comes to his church and opens the window in his study, and he looks out and there is this awful, glaring billboard outside his office in fluorescent green, with a bright red cross and just two words: “Jesus saves.”

And then, in a little script at the bottom, it says, “In memory of Mrs. Andrew Mackerel.” Well, the reverend is outraged. He calls the zoning authorities. Something has to be done about this. He thinks, “This is horrible. It is crude, and it is unsophisticated. How is a decent minister to write a decent sermon with that staring him in the face?” The cross is offensive to human reason. We can hire an architect to curve everything and make it harmonious. We can hire Madison Avenue to try to make it pretty and attractive, but it remains, as Paul said, a stumbling block and foolishness.

A Question Confronting the Church

He says, “Do you also want to go away?” This is the question I believe the Lord is asking his church in this generation, just as he asked his disciples in the first century. They were asked in Capernaum, “Do you also want to go away?” We are being asked right now, do we, as the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, also want to go away? And I believe by our ministries we will answer that question.

James Davison Hunter is a sociologist at the University of Virginia, and several years ago he did a study of evangelical young people. It’s entitled Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. In it, he traced what he identified as a process of cognitive bargaining by which evangelical young persons in the academic environment start giving up more and more of the truth claims central to the Christian faith, in order to fit in well and assimilate in the academic culture.

He demonstrated, rather conclusively and hauntingly — and this is now almost 15 years old — that the longer an evangelical young person was in an academic environment, the longer he or she was in that academic culture, the more likely severe theological concessions were to be made, whether it was central doctrines of the Christian faith, commandments dealing with sex and lifestyle, and all the rest. Cognitive bargaining is when we simply bargain cognitive, propositional, theological elements of the gospel away in order that we will not cause offense. It happens in the evangelical academy, and it happens in the evangelical pulpit. We just bargain a little bit of the gospel away, and as we do so there is the erosion of the body of biblical truth.

The Temptation to Doctrinal Accommodation

Consider with me four major areas of contemporary challenges where theological courage is required, because that’s what this is about. It’s about the courage to resist the trend of theological compromise, the courage to resist the trend of doctrinal accommodation, and the courage to resist the temptation to abdicate a biblical understanding of the church and of the preacher’s role for something more bureaucratic and less threatening.

I want to suggest to you there are four major areas: the first is theological, the second is moral, the third is cultural, and the fourth is pastoral. And very quickly I would just ask you to consider these with me.

1. Theological Courage

The first is theological, and this gets at the very beginning to the very issue of truth, which is itself denied nearly universally within our culture today. The conception of truth held by most Americans is not a conception of truth compatible with biblical revelation.

Now, at the elite levels of the society the word we have invoked often in the course of these days, postmodernism, certainly applies, but beneath the level of the elite where there is the conception that all truth is socially-constructed, culturally-located, and ethnically and socioeconomically situated, at the less elite level of popular culture, it is just a warm fuzzy relativism which lacks any intellectual sophistication but has the same result.

The Barna research polls and the Harris polls tell us again and again that a majority of evangelicals, not just Americans at large — over 90% of whom consistently reject the idea of absolute truth or any objective truth — say they no longer believe in the existence of any absolute truth. Truth is defined as interior, truth is defined as purely subjective, truth is defined as transitory, and relative, and malleable.

Now brothers and sisters, if we are to bear testimony to the gospel, we have to deal with the issue of truth, for we are not speaking about what works for us, or what’s true for us, or just what we have come to believe on whatever evidence is sufficient to us regarding who Jesus is and what he has done. It’s about the bold proclamation of the truth which is revealed by a holy God, and that is a conception of truth that is completely foreign to most Americans.

So it is easy to speak about truth simply as a matter of perspective. People say, “Let me share with you my perspective.” Well, I guarantee you that there in Capernaum there were multiple perspectives, but there was only one revealed truth. The issue of truth leads immediately to the doctrine of revelation, where in our time the authority of Scripture is undercut by a conception of revelation which is entirely relational, and the very existence of propositional truth is denied. Now, we believe as evangelicals that revelation is more than propositional, but we must believe that it is never less than propositional.

When Jesus says, “I am the bread of life,” he meant to say something. In my denomination, the issue was the inerrancy of Scripture, which became the fuse on the stick of dynamite. Is Scripture true or not? When I teach theology, I remind my students that even more fundamental than that is verbal inspiration. Does God care about his word in such a way that he reveals the very words of Scripture? And the issue of scriptural authority necessarily follows. Is Scripture our soul authority? Do we really believe Sola Scriptura, or is that just the only little bit of Latin we know and so we speak it? Evangelicals say they believe it, but when I hear many evangelicals preach, I don’t believe that they believe it.

Our Conception of God

What about the doctrine of God? What is the conception of God that is before us? A.W. Tozer reminds us that the idea of God one holds is the most important fact about an individual. It eventually determines everything else. The constant erosion and compromise of biblical theism is an insidious assault upon the entire structure of Christian truth. The God of the Bible has revealed himself to be sovereign, to be omnipotent, to be omniscient. And yes, that means exhaustive foreknowledge. He has revealed himself to know all things past, present, and future, including the future choices and decisions made by his creatures. What happens when you start denying the biblical understanding of God?

Someone last night told me that his pastor said that God does not micromanage the universe. That sounds pretty well, and there are opportunities when that would be pastorally helpful, so long as we don’t care about what Scripture reveals. I mean, that certainly is a significant escape clause when it seems that the management isn’t going our way and it isn’t what we would like. We could simply say, “God doesn’t micromanage,” but it hardly seems consistent with a God who rules all things by the power of his Word. This is the God who knows the number of hairs on each of our heads, who numbers our days, who knits us together in our mother’s wombs, and who knows every sparrow when it falls. I don’t know about you, but that seems rather micro-managerial to me.

In our generation, it takes courage to speak the truth about how God has defined himself, and yet I would say if we fear God we will have the courage to speak the truth about the God revealed in Scripture. This isn’t some user-friendly deity, some “God-Light” that tastes great to the culture but is less saving. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This means our language as we speak about God is determinative language of whether we believe what Scripture reveals or not, and thus language matters, words matter, and definitions matter.

The Exclusivity of the Gospel

In our generation, the issue of the exclusivity of the gospel is the greatest point of compromise, I believe. But let us remind ourselves that from the earliest days, the Christians have understood that to say “Jesus is a savior” is a repudiation of the gospel. For he is not a savior, he is the Savior.

It was not evangelicals in our wisdom who came up in this generation with the understanding that “there is one name under heaven and earth whereby we must be saved” (Acts 4:12), or, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6). That’s another very simple, non-conditional, non-qualified statement.

The exclusivity of the gospel has been so eroded in our day that polls are indicating that a majority of evangelical young people reject the notion. And the amazing thing of how slippery this is comes to us when we realize that persons can speak what appears to be a clear word of Christian testimony, until you listen carefully and you notice the shift. And of course, this leads immediately to the problem of evangelism and missions, and of course it should not be a problem. But if you hold this understanding of the gospel, it becomes a problem.

Back in the 1940s, when mainline Protestantism started to withdraw from world missions and adopted what they called “the moratorium”, they did so because they said in their own words that it was a form of “theological imperialism” to suggest to sincere adherence of other faiths that they had no way of salvation but through Jesus Christ. You see, to the world it looks like theological imperialism, but to us it is the gospel. To the Greeks, it was foolishness; to the Jews, it was a stumbling block; to the secular world, it is religious imperialism; to the postmodern cultural elite, it is extremism, and evangelism is a hate crime.

Telling Them What They Do Not Know

The first dimension of the challenge is theological, and there is so much here to say. For in our generation there is not one particle of Christian truth that is not under attack. The great hermenuets, the prophets of suspicion — Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Darwin, etc. — have so shaped the mind of most modern westerners that the Christian gospel is as foreign to their ears as a foreign language. And of course, our challenge is like that of the apostles in the first century, to speak what they do not know.

Now, this means that our evangelism is not, after all, telling people what they already know, and it is not telling them what they expect to hear; it is telling them the truth. If we believe it is a matter of our technique, then we will accommodate the gospel in order to achieve what we consider to be an evangelistic result. But if we understand this to be an issue of truth under the sovereign, saving purposes of God, then we will speak the truth in love, and we will know that God will accomplish his good work.

2. Moral Courage

The second dimension is moral. Dr. Patterson spoke to this in terms of his own experience. Any pastor ministering in this generation, I can assure you, knows the temptations to compromise biblical moral standards. What was God’s idea in sex? Do you believe that sex was God’s good gift to his people for pleasure and procreation within the boundaries of covenant marriage, as a man and a woman, before God, pledge their troth to each other until death do them part? What kind of rock did you crawl out from under? That is not the understanding of sex held by most Americans.

Again, at the elite level, sociobiologists and the evolutionists have suggested that sex is an incredibly clever means of reproduction that happened by accidental processes over eons of time. If you believe that, you’ll believe almost anything. At the popular level, sex is just one of those things Americans take for granted to make up their rules as they go along. If you think I’m making this up, then just go to one of the elite private universities or major public universities. Don’t ask the professors what they believe about sex. Just look at the student manual, and look at the contorted sexual morality that is displayed in the student manual.

It doesn’t say, “Thou shall not have sex unless you’re married,” it says, “Here are the rules. This is who can ask whom, and this is how all of this can work.” This is a symptom of a very sick society. And by the way, there’s something more basic than sex to deal with here. What do you believe about gender? Do you think it’s fixed? Can you imagine asking your grandparents that? I mean, this male, female thing, is it not a continuum? And I realize there’s a basic biological issue here, but the gender feminists tell us that our ideas of gender are mostly just social construction. We have engendered our language in all the rest.

What you believe about gender relates immediately to what you believe about marriage, what you believe about homosexuality, and what you believe about the family. Consider the issue of homosexuality alone and how far in the last five years this culture has gone on that issue, just in five years. Go back and look at the major news magazines five years ago and today. Go back and look at the evangelical magazines. Go back and look last year at the issue of Christianity Today that dealt with the open question of homosexual unions. InterVarsity Press has just published a book on sexuality, which suggests that Christians should try to avoid extramarital sex, yet it nowhere condemns it.

What about procreation? Is that some kind of biological accident? Or is it some kind of process to be used for our purposes so that we can use cloning, or stem cell research, or whatever form of these new reproductive technologies and simply bend the rules? What about abortion and euthanasia? Now almost 40 million infants have been murdered in the wombs of America since 1973. What about euthanasia? How many pulpits are absolutely silent on these issues? How many preachers and pastors confronted with the real life presentation of such problems by church members try to find some kind of escape clause? What about justice? What about racial prejudice?

Do we have the courage to deal with these issues, or is that for someone else? The first dimension is theological, and the second is moral, in terms of challenges where courage is required in ministry.

3. Cultural Courage

The third is cultural. It is very easy for evangelicals to withdraw and fail to confront the culture. It is very easy for us to believe that we can protect our families and those we love from what is happening as the culture is becoming more and more poisonous and rancid. Honesty compels us to admit that we do not control the culture. By and large, we do not own the movie studios, nor the television networks, nor the major production institutions of popular mass culture. And how many of us even try to arm our people for the engagement with this culture? How many pastors consider it a matter of our personal responsibility to teach our people how to be discerning?

This cultural engagement is very important, because it models for our people how they should engage the world. Peter Berger, the sociologist, says, “The vast majority of American Christians understand something about the gospel so long as they are sitting in a pew, but the moment they go out into the world they have no idea how to connect what they honestly sing and profess in the pew.” And far too many are the preachers who do not help them to connect the dots. And it’s tough. It really is tough because you make enemies. The first dimension is theological, the second is moral, and the third is cultural.

4. Pastoral Courage

The fourth is pastoral. Just how important is expository preaching? Just how urgent is the preacher’s calling? Just how sacred is the sacred desk? William Willimon is the dean of the chapel at Duke University, and sometime back he wrote a very interesting article entitled, Been There, Done That. Some of you may have seen it. He wrote, not as an evangelical, but as a mainline Protestant who was chastened by the experience of his own denomination. And he wrote to evangelicals saying, “The more I listen to evangelicals, the more they sound like the liberals I used to know.” Is that not a haunting word?

So, much of what passes for preaching today in evangelical pulpits follows the formula suggested by Harry Emerson Fosdick rather than the model of the apostles. “Let’s find the need and let’s try to meet that need, and maybe then we’ll have the credibility to tell them a little more than what they’ve asked.” So much time at evangelical pulpits is spent on how to have pretty kids, greener grass, and happy pets, with the thought, “Maybe we can bring people into a confrontation with the gospel once we have some credibility to do so, because they will know we care about them.”

I dare you to find an example of that in the Book of Acts. The apostles just had a way of getting right to the point, as we saw even last night looking at Acts chapter 4.

The issue of preaching is all important, and this (speaking to preachers) is what is on my heart tonight. I want to urge you not to neglect the calling of preaching, not to allow preaching to be sidelined in your services of worship, not to allow in your ministry preaching to be something you do because it’s on the schedule, but let it be the passion of your heart, the stewardship of your ministry, knowing that you are the one who is to feed the flock of God. It is the written Word of God, proclaimed and alive, and sharper than any two-edged sword.

Church Discipline

Another pastoral situation, just to move quickly, is the abdication of congregations in our time of the task of church discipline. The Belgic Confession identified church discipline as one of the four essential marks of the church. Just looking through the epistles, look at how much of the material there deals with matters which would be defined as church discipline. Look at the Lord’s own clear instructions to the church concerning discipline, and then look in contrast and the absence of concern for church discipline, and for the purity of the church in our generation.

Americans are so committed to this ideal of autonomous individualism that we believe no one has a right to invade our personal space, no one has a right to speak to us a word of confrontation, and no one, even the shepherd of the flock, the under-shepherd, the pastor, has any right to tell us what to do, how to live, and what God expects of us.

And so, we should not be surprised that rates of divorce among evangelicals now, by some measures, exceed the rate of divorce in popular culture. I saw one person who wrote back and said that is simply because evangelicals marry more often. What does it say about the church, and about the failure of courage in this generation when open sin is tolerated among God’s people?

We must recover a biblical sense of church discipline by the authority of God’s Word, which understands that the purpose is to testify to the purity of the church and of the sovereign lordship of Jesus Christ over his church. This happens by calling each other to accountability under the authority of the Word, and covenanting with each other that we do not belong to ourselves, but that we belong to each other in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ and are accountable corporately to the Lord through his word.

How many pastors really speak in such a way that it is clear that if a couple divorces, it’s not just their business but it’s our business. It’s the church’s business. It’s the congregation’s problem. Where are sinners called to confrontation? Instead, we simply often let the sin remain, or we let people go quietly. What pastoral abdication is that when we do not have the courage to confront persons of their sin, and point to the restoration and forgiveness by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, which they are promised if they return if they will repent of their sins?


It would be very easy for me not to mention the next, but I feel I must. It has been so central to what happened in the life of our own institution and our own denomination, and it is a continuing issue. We need the courage to say that we believe that God has a pattern in the church and in the home, and this relates to whether or not women should serve as pastors. What kind of teaching authority is in the church, and what kind of order should be in the home?

This is so easily caricatured, making evangelicals sound like knuckle-dragging Neanderthals, that it is so incredibly tempting for us just to be quiet, to just retreat into silence. And I have to tell you it’s even tempting here tonight, but I cannot in good conscience fail to mention it, for if it is a matter of biblical concern it ought to be a matter of concern to each of us, and we ought to have the honesty to say what we believe God’s Word to declare on the issue, and come into submission to that Word.

In Germany, after World War II, as the German church tried to reconstitute, German evangelicals met together. They were humiliated by the compromise of the German Christians, and the entire civilization they had known seemed to be wiped clear. They did not know what to do. They gathered together, a group of evangelicals in Bremen, and they couldn’t come up with any organizational solution. They couldn’t come up with any strategy, but they just came up with a principle. And that principle was, “No other gospel.”

And they said, “Well, if we don’t know anything else, but we know that. There’s no other gospel.” There is no other gospel than the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ; there is no other gospel than the gospel revealed in God’s Word; there is no other gospel, no matter how seductive, no matter how well-packaged, no matter how alluring, and no matter how powerful — no other gospel.

Jesus spoke to his disciples and said, “Do you also want to go away?” Or more precisely in the Greek, “You do not want to go away also, do you?” Can imagine how excruciating must have been the ears of the 12 to hear the question. How blessed was the response of Peter:

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God (John 6:68–69).

Will you also go away?

serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.