Preaching Today: The (Almost) Forgotten Task, Part 1

Desiring God 1999 Conference for Pastors

Preaching Today: The (Almost) Forgotten Task

Let me begin by saying that it really is a great privilege to be here, and I’ve been looking forward to this for some time. I’ve heard of the church and the ministry to pastors and it’s a great delight actually to be here at last. I can’t think when I’ve ever been in a gathering of so many pastors. And it’s even more unusual to be in a gathering of that many Calvinistic pastors, or at least those who are on the way. If you’re not Calvinistic yet, I assume you will be by the time we finish our conference. I should point this out, because I’m sure I don’t look like I’ve been in the ministry in one place for 30 years, I began preaching there when I was 10 years old.

There are great advantages to being in one place for a long time because you can certainly take your time in the exposition. I’ve spent a lot of years going through books of the Bible, a lot of years in John, Romans, and Genesis. I remember years ago when I started in on Genesis, I probably overdid it just a bit because I preached four sermons on the first verse and then I thought before I went on to the second verse, I really should take some time to talk about the various theories of creation, and I spent five more Sundays on that. So I was into my third month by the time I actually got onto verse two.

There was a man in the church who found that just a bit discouraging. He came up afterward and he was demanding why I was going to spend so much time studying a book like Genesis. He said, “After all, there’s no great theology in Genesis. It’s not like Romans.” And I tried to answer that, but I think I knew where he was coming from. The difficulty was he had been in Philadelphia when I was preaching from John, and I had spent eight years on John. He was a bit of a mathematician

It didn’t take him very long to figure that eight years for 21 chapters of John was the equivalent of X years for the 50 chapters of Genesis. If you worked that out mathematically, it comes out to 19 years. He was already middle-aged. I think what was going through his mind was that he was going to die before Joseph did. So he did the only sensible thing under the circumstances, he left Philadelphia entirely. He moved to Florida where he got into a very good evangelical church with a good Bible-teaching pastor for whom I prayed for many years. I prayed that he would begin a verse-by-verse exposition of Jeremiah.

Preaching Doctrine, Scripture, and Christ

Well, as I say, I’m very glad to be here. I’m especially glad to have some time with John. I got to know of him and his work some years ago when I was working through Romans. I had come to the ninth chapter. I was doing the same thing all of us do. I was looking for good material and I came across his study. I think it came out of his doctoral work initially in that crucial ninth chapter. I must say it was formative for me. I’ve approached that chapter in that way many times since.

As a matter of fact, Sunday morning as we go through our worship service one of the things we do is what Spurgeon did. We not only read the Scripture, we comment on it. It wasn’t my sermon, but we were in Romans and I was commenting on the ninth chapter and I did it along those lines. What matters there, the explanation of why God does things the way he does — in election and passing over others — is that his concern is for his own glory. So he is glorified in his grace, mercy, and the salvation of those whom he calls to salvation, and he’s glorified in his justice and his wrath and those that he passes by. That’s hard for many people to accept, but that’s what that says in the ninth chapter. If you don’t like that theology, blame it on John. That’s where I got it.

Now I’m going to be talking about the things that I think are most critical for pastors. If you’ve looked at the outline for these three talks that I’m responsible for bringing, you see that I’m planning to talk about preaching doctrine, preaching the Bible, and preaching Christ. I do want to say a couple of things about that.

First of all, I did that some time ago when I was asked to provide titles. I think maybe I wouldn’t phrase the first quite that way. Instead of talking about preaching doctrine, I’d probably say “preaching the gospel.” But of course that’s not two different things. It’s just a different way of approaching that. Sometimes we think of doctrine as being abstract and dry, and of course, it all has to do with the gospel. It’s the good news. I’d probably put it that way.

The second thing I probably ought to say about that is that those are not really three separate topics, although we’re going to handle them in three separate addresses. There are really aspects of the same thing. If you are preaching the gospel, you’re preaching Christ. If you’re not preaching the gospel, you’re not preaching Christ, whether you mention his name or not. And if you’re preaching the Bible, you’re certainly preaching Christ because Jesus said the Bible is about him. And furthermore, doctrine will flow from that. So those all go together. Although we’re going to approach them in a series here, I don’t want you to think that those are three separate things. So that’s what we’re going to talk about.

The Need to Preach the Gospel

I’m going to begin tonight by talking about the gospel — the need to preach the gospel and to preach doctrine — because we have a lot going on in our churches that is not that. Let me refer to a couple of books that I came across a number of years ago that made a striking impression on me. They all came at the same time.

One was by David Wells, and many of you have seen that. It’s called No Place For Truth. David Wells is a professor at Gordon Conwell Seminary north of Boston. He preaches sort of out of an Ivory Tower theological outlook on life. The second book I came across at about the same time was by my colleague in the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, Michael Horton. His book was entitled Power Religion. Michael Horton at that time was the founder and director of a para-church ministry.

Then the third book I came across was by John MacArthur and it was called Ashamed of the Gospel. He’s the pastor, as you know, of a large church out there in Southern California. As a matter of fact, that’s where I’m headed when I leave here because John MacArthur is celebrating 30 years in the ministry out there and they’re having a big weekend and he’s invited me to come and preach.

Now, those are three men writing out of three entirely different backgrounds, and yet as I began to look into their books, I discovered they were saying much the same thing about the Evangelical church in America as they perceived it. Perhaps the biggest insight before you got into the books came from the subtitles of those three volumes. David Wells’s book, No Place For Truth, had the subtitle, Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology? And Michael Horton’s book, Power Religion, had as its subtitle, The Selling out of the Evangelical Church. And John MacArthur’s book, Ashamed of the Gospel, had as his subtitle, When the Church Becomes Like The World. Well, you don’t have to get into those books very deeply to realize that they’re saying much the same thing. They’re saying, the problem with the Evangelical church in America today is that it has become worldly. It’s forgotten its heritage. It’s no longer really focused on the doctrines of Scripture as it was in times past.

David Wells has a prediction in his book, or at least an observation. He says that the evangelical church in America is either dead or dying because it’s forgotten its theology. Well, he doesn’t mean that it’s vanishing as a sociological presence. Of course, it isn’t. We have many big evangelical churches. He’s not even saying that it’s disappearing in terms of big business because being an evangelical is big business today. What he is saying is as a significant religious force in American life, it is dying because it no longer has that which alone distinguishes it from the world.

I’m sure you know of John Armstrong. He directs a ministry called Reformation and Revival Ministries. He wrote a book a number of years ago called The Coming Evangelical Crisis. And I was with him sometime after that. I said to him, “John, tell me, do you think the crisis is coming or do you think it’s actually here?” He said, “Well, I have to confess. I think it’s actually here. We’re living in the midst of it now.”

A Perspective on Present Issues in Evangelicalism

Let me give you a little bit of perspective just drawn from the 30 years of ministry that I have had among evangelicals. I have a good reason for this. It’ll become evident as I go along. I was studying in Europe for three years in the mid-sixties and came back from Switzerland with my wife in 1966 and took up a position as one of the associate editors of “Christianity Today.” When you’re abroad, you can’t get a church. Nobody knows who you are. I intended to pastor a church. This was an interim thing, but it was a significant thing for me because being out of the country for three years, I’d lost touch with a lot of what was going on. A news-gathering organization was a good place to learn.

Those were good days for the evangelicals. We came in the midst of what I would regard as an evangelical resurgence. “Christianity Today” itself was part of that. It was founded by Carl F.H. Henry with support from Billy Graham and other evangelical leaders to challenge the “Christian Century.” That was the dominant theological journal of the time, and it did very well at that. Billy Graham’s crusades were another indication of this evangelical resurgence. So with the seminaries, they were growing. A decade later in 1976, “Newsweek Magazine: would even call that “the year of the evangelical.”

Now during those years, there was also a time of decline from the mainline denominations. I left the magazine in Washington in 1968. It was when I went to Philadelphia to Pastor 10th Church. At that time, we were part of one of the mainline denominations, and because we were part of it and struggling with it, I spent a great deal of time trying to figure out what it was that was actually wrong with the liberal churches.

It wasn’t that on the surface they denied everything, but something was missing. I came to the conclusion in those years that the problem with the mainline churches was that they were trying to do God’s work in the world’s way. In other words, if I put it in different language, they were becoming secular. They were becoming worldly. And when I began to break that down, I found it helpful to refer to it like this. I said they really were trusting the world’s wisdom. They had adopted the world’s theology, they were pursuing the world’s agenda, and they were utilizing the world’s methods. And when we talk about the world’s wisdom, we contrast that with the great wisdom of the church. Christian people down through the ages, as they stand before the word of God, confess that they have no wisdom of their own at all. We don’t understand spiritual things.

God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. He is high and exalted above us. If we’re going to have any wisdom at all, it’s going to be through the study of the Scriptures where God makes himself and is well known. But in the mainline churches there had been an abandonment of the word of God. It wasn’t generally regarded as the word of God anymore. It was considered man’s word about God rather than God’s word to man. And of course, if that was the case, it didn’t have the authority that it had possessed in earlier years. What always happens in a situation like that is some other authority comes in to take the rightful authorities’ place, and what took its place was human wisdom.

The World’s Wisdom, Theology, and Methods

I remember Francis Schaffer talking about it in those days. He talked about it as the wisdom of the 51 percent vote. Do you know what that’s like in church gatherings? You get together and you’re discussing some big issue. Everybody stands up to argue something. I found it was very seldom that they argued from the Bible. As a matter of fact, if you wanted to lose the debate, what you did was quote the Bible because they just dismissed that. At any rate, it would be debated. Then there would be a vote and 51 percent would carry it. Then the moderator would say something like this, “The Holy Spirit has spoken, praise God.” And I always felt it had very little to do with the Holy Spirit. It had an awful lot to do with human folly.

The result of course is that the churches cease to know what they believe. People are not attracted to churches like that. They begin to vote. They vote with their feet and they go elsewhere. The story of the last 20 or 30 years has been the decline of these mainline denominations, which were once so powerful. All of that is from trusting the world’s wisdom.

How about the world’s theology? Well, you know what the world’s theology is. It’s that people are basically good. They’re glad to have God. He’ll help you a little bit when you need it, but we can do very well by ourselves, thank you. What happens of course in church circles is that the vocabulary is retained, but with that kind of an underlying theology, the words take on different meanings. So people will still talk about sin and Jesus and salvation and faith and evangelism and all of those things, but it doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Back in the sixties when they were talking about sin, it didn’t mean a transgression of the law of God for which we’re accountable and fall under his wrath and need a Savior.

Sin was something that was wrong with the social structures. Do you remember how that was done? And if that’s the case, well then evangelism isn’t preaching the gospel of the cross; evangelism is somehow overthrowing the social structures. It becomes a movement for revolution, and Jesus becomes an example of that. There were books written with that kind of title — Jesus the Revolutionary. Faith no longer is trusting what God has done in Christ to save us from our sin. Faith becomes perceiving the situation as it is and beginning to do something about it.

That’s what was happening. You talk about the world’s agenda. Well, they had a slogan in those days that came out of one of the National Council of Churches’ meetings. It said, “The world sets the agenda.” What that meant was whatever the main concern of the world may be, that’s what the church should be concerned with. Let’s see: ecology, racism, the plight of the poor, or whatever that may be. That’s where the church should focus its issues because we are there to support the world rather than do anything different.

If you talk about the world’s methods, the world’s methods are money and power, politics, and so on, and that was very much a concern of the churches in those days. I remember seeing a cartoon in the “New Yorker” magazine about that time, not exactly an evangelical magazine, but sometimes the world sees it pretty clearly. There were two pilgrims coming over on the Mayflower and it was a calm moment. They were standing at the railing and they were sharing their dreams for the future. One of them was saying to the other, “My short-range goal is religious freedom, but my long-range goal is to go into real estate.” That’s something I understand because that’s the kind of church in which I live and I’m functioning.

A Spreading Worldliness

Now, the reason I go into all of that is not to comment on the liberal churches, but to say this: It has struck me almost like a bolt of lightning in recent years that all of the things I was saying about the liberal churches back in the late sixties and the early seventies, I now find I have to say about the evangelical churches by and large. And of course, that’s what David Wells is saying, along with John MacArthur, Michael Horton, and John Armstrong. The evangelicals, drunk on their success, have become worldly in exactly the same way the liberal churches became worldly before us. Just think it through. How about the wisdom of the church? You won’t find in the evangelical churches today any outright denial of the authority of the Bible, at least not for the most part.

If you ask the right questions, you get the right answers. Is the Bible the word of God? Yes, of course it is. Is it inherent? Yes, that too. When we push it aside, we don’t trust it because basically what we think is that the word of God is not sufficient for the work of the gospel and the work of the church today. So we have to use other methodologies — worldly methodologies — to get the job done. I’m not going to talk about that a lot because I’m going to talk about it tomorrow morning, but what we do is distrust the power of the word of God and the Holy Spirit working in our evangelism, in knowing the will of God, in growing in grace, and in impacting our society. We think we have to use other methods instead — worldly methods. And as far as the world’s theology is concerned, I find that that is also true among the evangelicals.

Oh, it’s the same in the sense that we retain the vocabulary. Of course, we talk about sin and faith and salvation and Christ and evangelism and all those things, but if you were judged by many sermons that are preached Sunday by Sunday and by many alleged evangelical churches, you would not get the idea that sin is a transgression of the law of God. We live in a therapeutic society and you would have the impression that sin is basically a dysfunction. People aren’t managing very well. They haven’t got it all together.

So what we try to do is help them get it all together and Jesus Christ becomes an example of how to do that. We are not preaching the Christ of the cross. We’re preaching Christ as an example of morality and successful living. Faith really isn’t repenting of our sin in order to trust him as our Savior. It’s sort of positive thinking that we might kind of get on with our lives. It’s the world’s agenda. When he was talking about the evangelical movement some years ago, Francis Schaffer said the basic evangelical goal is affluence and peace to enjoy it.

I hear a lot of preaching that sounds like that. I see a lot of behavior, which certainly is a great deal like that. A man in a church out in Kansas doing a lot of pastoral counseling said a couple of weeks ago, “Our biggest problem is the materialism of our time, getting people to actually think about God and spiritual things rather than the second home and the second car and the paid vacation and all of that.” Isn’t that worldliness? As you talk about the world’s methodologies, haven’t we fallen into exactly the same pattern as the old liberals? We’re trying to bring in the kingdom of God by money and political means. Why else do we have an NAE lobby group in Washington trying to get the laws of the country changed to Christian standards so we can force everybody else to act like Christians? It doesn’t happen that way.

A King Like the Rest of the Nations

We can’t do it anyway, but somehow we think, “Oh, we can just get some Christians in there and get a Christian president. We have one, don’t we? He carries his Bible to church and belongs to a good old Southern Baptist church. John Armstrong wrote an article for his journal some years ago, tongue-in-cheek, saying, “Aren’t we glad that America is run by evangelicals? Newt Gingrich and all of those leaders in Washington.” Now I’m not speaking against true believers in politics. That’s a good calling. I’m glad God didn’t call me to do it, but I’m glad other people are doing it.

But you see, that’s not the problem. That’s not the problem. The problem is that we think somehow we’re going to bring in the kingdom of God that way. Remember that Chuck Colson was on the platform once when Ronald Reagan was introduced and everybody was applauding wildly. It was an NAE meeting and Colson had to speak afterwards. The president came on, he went off again, and Colson had to speak and he stood up and said, “Let’s remember that the kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”

Now that’s the problem as I see it. And if the analysis is right that the worldliness or secular nature of the Evangelical church is due to an abandonment of our theology, then one of the great tasks of our day and certainly a great challenge for preachers is to preach theology or to preach the gospel in order we might get back on track.

Evangelical Heritage

What is an evangelical? That’s not such an easy question to answer. I’ve heard whole addresses on that. Somebody has said — and I think it’s not entirely off base — “Evangelicals are people who approve of Billy Graham.” Of course, there’s more to it than that. Evangelical heritage is twofold. We have parts of what we believe that go back to the early years of the church and can be traced to the great church councils of the early days. They hammered out the doctrines of the Trinity and the two natures of Christ and all of that. We hold that in common with those of various Christian persuasions.

What is unique about evangelicals is the heritage that we have from the Reformation because at the time of the Reformation, through the work of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin and Zwingli and others, the great doctrines that had to do with salvation were rediscovered and rediscovered in their purity. Then they were passed on to people like us whose challenge it is to maintain those and proclaim them for our age.

You see, at the time of the Reformation, the medieval church wasn’t on the surface denying any of those doctrines. When the Reformers began to talk about what was unique about their theology, they talked about Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone), Solus Christus (Christ alone), Sola Gratia (grace alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone), and they wrapped it all up with Soli Deo Gloria (to the glory of God alone). All of those things were affirmed by the church, which believed in the Scripture and Christ and grace and faith and certainly the glory of God, but not Scripture alone, Christ alone, grace alone, faith alone, and the glory of God alone.

What they were doing in the Middle Ages was to add all sorts of things to it, which in the final result destroyed the doctrine itself. They had added traditions to Scripture. They had added the merit of the saints to the work of Christ. They had added an idea that God owes everybody a chance to the concept of grace. They had added works to faith. And as far as the glory of God was concerned, they were taking an awful lot of that to themselves. The Reformers weighed into that and wanted to rediscover these things.

Now, the Reformers divided it up in two ways. They talked on the one hand about what they called “the formal principle” of their affirmation, and that had to do with Scripture — Scripture alone. That’s what I’m going to talk about tomorrow morning. Then they took the next three and they put them all together and said, “This is the material principle of the Reformation” — that is, it’s the substance of it. It all had to do with justification by faith because, of course, when you say Christ alone and grace alone and faith alone, that’s what you’re talking about.

Martin Luther, as you well know, said that’s the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. The church can be right or wrong and a lot of other areas and it’s not all that critical. If it misses the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone, it has missed it all.

Made Righteous or Declared Righteous?

Luther went back to Romans, and this is the point at which I want to refer to that great statement of the gospel as it appears for the first time in Romans in the third chapter. Let me read it beginning with verse 21 because all of these elements are there. Paul has been writing about human sin and the fact that the wrath of God has been manifest and is being shown against all the wickedness and ungodliness of men. They’ve suppressed the truth, and we see the wrath of God displayed and what has happened to human culture. People fall away from God and they become enslaved to sin. He talked about the various excuses that we make saying, “Well, that applies to somebody else but not to me.” He summed it all up in the first part of the third chapter and now in Romans 3:21 he talks about the gospel:

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Romans 3:21–26; all Scripture references are taken from the NIV).

It was a passage like that Luther studied — that and other passages that had to do with the righteousness of God and justification. And as Luther studied, he realized that what he had been taught in the church was off base.

What had happened of course was this — and it shows the limitations of etymological understandings of words — the Greek words for “righteousness” and “justification” were translated into the Latin Vulgate by the word justificare. If you take that word and try to figure out its meaning from its parts, you get something like this. The first part is justice, which has to do with being just or righteous before God and all of that. The second part is the verb facere, which means “to make or do.” We have it in English words like “factory.” It’s where things are made and manufactured, and “manufacture” means to make something by hand. Mano means “hand.” So if you study the Latin Bible, justificare seems to mean “make righteous.” And what could be more reasonable than that? God is in the big business of making people righteous. Luther understood that. That was a necessity.

People had to be right and righteous in order to stand before the holy God. Luther was not righteous, so he entered the monastery to save his soul. But the harder he worked at it, the more impossible it became. He confessed his sins so much that they sent him home saying, “Luther, for heaven’s sake, go back until you have something worth confessing.” He said, “I was a model monk and if I had kept it up, I would’ve killed myself by my monkly devotions.” He had a reputation for being the most pious of all the monks. But the harder he tried, the more impossible it became. He said he didn’t love God in those days. He hated God, not only for his law, but also hated him for the gospel because the gospel meant that you had to be made righteous, and that was impossible. He would never be made righteous. How could God do a thing like that?

Departures from Reformation Doctrine

Fortunately, he had a great spiritual father. His name was Johann Staupitz. He wasn’t the intellect that Luther was, but he had the right idea. He said to him, “Luther, you’re never going to get anywhere that way. What you need to do is study the Bible.” And so he sent him to work, studying the Bible. Luther studied Romans and the Psalms. He preached on them. He was teaching on them in those days and as he did, and especially as he began to look into the Greek text, he realized that when the Bible talks about “justification” it’s not talking about our being made righteous; it’s talking about our being declared righteous. It’s a legal term. It’s the opposite of condemnation.

When a judge pronounces condemnation on a criminal, he doesn’t make him guilty of the offense for which he’s condemned; he simply recognizes that he is guilty and pronounces the judgment. In the same way, when the judge declares somebody just, he doesn’t make him just (justificare), rather he declares him to be just before the bar of the law. If you say, “Well, but how can that be? We are not just before the bar of God’s justice,” the answer is that God justifies us on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ. And that’s the gospel.

You see, to preach Christ as an example is not the gospel. To preach Christ as one who makes you feel good or overcomes temptation is not the gospel. Those things may be important in their place, and they need to be preached in their place. But the gospel isn’t what happened in you now; it’s what happened on the cross 2,000 years ago when Jesus Christ paid the price for your sin. It’s on this basis that God declares you just, imputing his righteousness to you just as he imputes your sin to Christ who died in your place.

When Luther saw that, he said it was like the gates of paradise opened and he passed through into heaven. He was never the same and he went on to become the father of the Reformation. I suggest we need a rediscovery of exactly that gospel today if we’re going to make an impact on our culture, which we all want to see happen. We have to rediscover it personally and in our churches and preach it with power.

###Christ Alone

Now the problem of course is that in each of those areas we have lost something essential. Let me suggest what has happened. First of all, in this matter of Christ alone, have we lost that in the evangelical churches? Yes, we have. Somebody will say, “How can that be? If anybody talks about Jesus all the time, it’s the evangelicals.” And that’s true, we do. But Jesus the Savior who accomplished our salvation on the cross is strangely neglected or pushed aside. Several years ago, the council that’s dealing with some of these matters — called “The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals” — met in Cambridge and produced the document called “The Cambridge Declaration.”. In it was a paragraph that describes what actually has happened. It says this:

As evangelical faith becomes secularized, its interests have been blurred with those of the culture. The result is a loss of absolute values, permissive individualism, and a substitution of wholeness for holiness, recovery for repentance, intuition for truth, feeling for belief, chance for providence, and immediate gratification for enduring hope. Christ and his cross have moved from the center of our vision.

What’s happened? Well, what has happened is that we have bought into the world’s theology which has inordinate confidence in man. We don’t really need Christ because we’re doing fine by ourselves, thank you, and we’re going to do better as time goes on because we don’t think a whole lot about God anymore. That’s the thing that troubled Luther because the more he thought about God, the more aware he was of God’s holiness. We’re not thinking about God, so we think we’re doing pretty well. We think we’re holy and we’re just doing fine. And in that sense, Christ gets shoved aside.

Grace Alone

How about grace? Well, again, we talk about grace a lot. We sing about it. And yet a number of years ago, J.I. Packer wrote a book called Knowing God. In it he talked about grace and he said, isn’t it interesting that this doctrine, which was so wonderful to Christian people in past ages, is not so wonderful anymore? He said, actually, what has happened is this amazing grace has become a boring grace for many people.

If you’re in a typical evangelical church and you get into conversations with somebody, you can talk to them about the church budget. They have lots of opinions about that. You can talk to them about what’s happening in the world, the baseball scores, the Super Bowl, or anything like that. They have plenty to contribute if you’re talking along those lines but start talking about the grace of God. They don’t contradict you. They just don’t have anything to contribute, because grace doesn’t mean anything to them anymore. They’re just not thinking in those categories.

I guess that’s the chief reason why people have so much trouble with the doctrine of election. If you want to get into an argument, start talking about election. I mean that’s the one thing that turns everybody off. People hate that doctrine. It doesn’t seem fair to them. Why is that? It’s because they don’t have a proper sense of their own sin and they don’t have a proper sense of grace. They think they are owed something by God, do you see? Election doesn’t fit into that theological way of thinking that’s so characteristic of our time. When I study what the Bible has to say about election, I find that there is no problem in the Bible at all. It’s the most obvious thing in the world.

Paul starts by writing about the gospel in the first chapter of Ephesians and it is just the most natural thing in the world for him to point out that all of this has its origins in God. He’s the electing God, he’s the redeeming God, and he’s a sanctifying God. He deals with the Trinity in that first chapter.

Again, when you get to the book of Romans in the ninth chapter, it’s one of the great chapters in the Bible about election, probably the greatest of all. But it’s not introduced into the book of Romans in order to argue the case for election. It just comes in as a natural sequence to what Paul has said in Romans 8. He talks there about our security in Christ. He says nothing is ever going to separate us from the love of God in Christ. But it would be natural for anybody who knows anything about biblical history to say, “Yeah, but what about the Jews?”

Now here you are talking about the security of the believer because God has made promises to them, but not all the Jews are being saved though God made promises to them. He’s not keeping his promises to the Jews. Why should we think that he’s going to keep his promises with us? Paul’s answer is election. As he gets into it, he says it’s never been a question of all Jews being saved. It’s only the elect who are saved. That’s the answer. He goes on to say other things as well. He’s going to show that God is faithful to the Jewish people, He’s going to work with them. I think the 10th and 11th chapter does that very clearly. But the point I’m making is that election just comes in that way. He says in effect, “Just look at the history of Israel. That’s how God acted. I don’t know whether you like it or understand it or anything, but that’s the way it is.”

That’s the way we have to approach it too. Whether we understand it or not, that’s the way God operates. And you see, it’s not so hard to accept that if you understand the depravity of the human soul, your own depravity, and the necessity not just for grace but for grace alone because God doesn’t owe us anything at all.

Faith Alone

Let me talk for a moment about the third of those three solas. They all have to do with the material of the Reformation: Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, and finally Sola Fide (by faith alone). Now we do an awful lot of talking about faith, but the problem here is that we have made faith a great deal less than what it actually means in the Bible. In some circles, it’s become nothing more than the bare intellectual ascent to certain truths.

The way we see that in its worst form is this, we get somebody to come down the aisle and make a profession of faith when they’re young. As long as they kind of agree to the propositions that have been laid out there by the pastor that morning, we not only assure them that they’re saved, but we assure them they’re saved forever — once saved, always saved. And they can go out and spend the rest of their lives living utterly like the world around them, and that’s okay brother. I mean they ought to live like a Christian, but if they don’t live like a Christian, it’s all right because they’re saved. The point is that they’re not saved in the first place.

That’s why John MacArthur wrote that book, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ. I commend him for that. Here he has this big church, 8,000 people, and he looks out on them Sunday by Sunday. The more he gets to know them, the more he realizes an awful lot of them aren’t living like Christians. So he asked himself the question, what’s wrong? And the pastor ought to ask that question — “Why aren’t these people living like Christians?” He had the courage to say, the reason they’re not living like Christians is that they’re not Christians. Christians live like Christians, you see? Whatever kind of profession they made in order to join the church is not really what the Bible is talking about when it talks about saving faith.


The classical theologians, when they talk about faith, always talk about three elements. And they had Latin words for it. When they talked about faith, they said, first of all, faith involves notitia. Now that’s a Latin word meaning “information” or “content.” We preserve it in words like “notice” or “notification” and things like that. They said there’s content. You have to have that. That’s why in order to have Christians, you have to preach the gospel. You have to teach about these things. You don’t become Christians by osmosis. You first of all have to understand it. John Calvin was very strong on that because, in the Middle Ages, nobody had Bibles, the priests certainly didn’t know the doctrines, and the people didn’t understand the gospel

The question is, how can people who don’t even understand the gospel be saved? The answer of the Roman church in those days was the doctrine of “implicit faith.” What that meant was you don’t have to understand it because the church understands it. All you have to do is trust the church implicitly. Calvin said, “That’s just pious nonsense. You actually have to understand it.” It reminds me of a man who was being interviewed for membership by a board of deacons in the local church. They were trying to find out what he believed and they said, “What do you believe about the gospel?” He said, “I believe what the church believes.” They weren’t satisfied with that, so they pressed it a bit. They said, “Well, yes, but tell us, what does the church believe?” He said, “The church believes what I believe.”

They said, “But what do you and the church believe?” He said, “We believe the same thing.” Well, that’s what Calvin was fighting, and the Reformers were fighting it as well. It’s one thing that gave impetus to the kind of preaching they did, the exposition of the Scriptures, but that’s only the first thing. The devils understand that. Satan knows very well who Jesus Christ is and what he did on the cross.


The classical theologians said, in addition to notitia, you also have to have assensus — an agreement with it. You don’t just say, “Well, I understand what Christianity’s all about.” When I went to college, there were people like that. I studied English literature and they knew it well enough to know the roots. I had a tutor who could talk about blood atonement and all of that more brilliantly than most pastors because it’s the only way he could explain English literature. But he didn’t agree with it. He understood it, but he didn’t agree with it. So Calvin said that the next thing that has to happen is that that has to sink down actually into your heart. Calvin said:

It now remains to pour into the heart itself what the mind has absorbed. The word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart it may be an invincible defense to withstand and drive off all the stratagems of temptation.


But even that’s not the whole thing. You need the content and you need the agreement, but all of that is to lead us to the point where we actually trust Christ. So the word they used for that was fiducia, actually trusting Christ, actually committing oneself to him. It’s what we see in Thomas there when he begins by saying, “I’m not going to believe in the resurrection unless I can see the wound in his side and stick my hand in the wounds and put my finger in the holes,” and Jesus appeared. He didn’t have to conduct the empirical test. He was convinced. He fell at his feet and said, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). Now that’s faith. That’s saving faith.

I’ve always felt that these three elements of faith are very well illustrated by what happens in the relationship between a man and a woman as they fall in love and get married. When they’re first getting to know one another, that corresponds to that stage of knowledge (notitia), if they have any sense at all, they take time to find out whether that man is the kind of man that might make a good husband, and this woman is the kind of woman that might make a good wife. Take time to do that. But then the time comes in the relationship when they fall in love. That’s like the agreement (assensus) part where they say, not merely, “I think they would make a good wife,” but they say, “I want her to be my wife.” They don’t just say, “He’d be a good husband for some girl.” They say, “I’d like him to be my husband.” That’s an important second stage.

But even that isn’t marriage. The marriage takes place when the couple stands before the minister and they exchange their vows. He says, “I John, take thee Mary to be my wedded wife, and I do promise and covenant before God, the heavenly Father, to be thy loving and faithful husband in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” And she looks into his eyes and says the same thing in reverse: “I Mary, take thee John to be my wedded husband, and I do promise and covenant before God, the heavenly Father, to be thy loving and faithful wife in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” And that’s what happens in a spiritual marriage. Jesus Christ, our great bridegroom takes those vows first of all because he sought us. We didn’t seek him.

He says, “I Jesus, take thee sinner to be my wife and follower, and I do promise and covenant before God, the heavenly Father, to be thy faithful Savior and bridegroom and Lord, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health for this life and for all eternity.” And the time comes in our lives when we look into his face and say something like this, “I sinner, take thee Jesus to be my Savior and Lord, and I do promise and covenant before God, the heavenly Father, to be thy faithful disciple in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, for this life and for all eternity.” And God, in the position of the minister, pronounces the marriage. He says, “Joined in Jesus Christ.”

If you want to carry it further, we come into that service as Miss Sinner and we go out as Mrs. Christian. Now we’ve got his name, you see, and we have to live for him in the world. Now what happens is that commitment. Now that’s what the Bible is talking about when it talks about saving faith. What that means in terms of our evangelism today when people don’t even understand the gospel is that it’s not going to be easy anymore. You see, a generation ago we had people that kind of understood these things, so you got to the point where it actually clicked with them and they could make a decision.

Today we have to spend time teaching them. They don’t even know what the gospel is. And we have to unfold the words until the point comes when they actually find their heart strangely warmed by it and they’re drawn by these teachings and agree with them. And then comes the point where they actually make a commitment to Christ as Savior. We can’t rush that anymore. The one problem with that illustration, of course, is that in a human relationship, both parties bring something. But in the spiritual marriage that we’re talking about, we don’t bring anything at all. It all comes from Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Theological Testimony

Let me take you to Paul’s testimony in Philippians 3. I call this a theological testimony. Sometimes he gives a historical one. That’s what he does in Acts. It’s the kind of testimony we hear most today. People say, “I was off in college and I found myself in bad company and forgot all the things that I was taught when I was young, and then somebody witnessed to me.” That’s sort of historical. Paul does that. He says, “I was on the way to Damascus,” and so forth. But here in this third chapter of Philippians, he gives what I call a theological testimony because he is describing what actually happened in his heart and mind and thinking when he met Jesus Christ on that road to Damascus. It goes like this:

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless. But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:4–7).

That’s an illustration, of course, and it’s one we ought to understand because it’s commercial. It has to do with profits and loss. We would say “assets and liabilities.” Paul is saying, “In those early days, before I met Jesus Christ, I had something like a balance sheet in my life. It was a line down the middle — over here I had assets and over here I had liabilities. I thought like everybody else that the way you get to heaven was by having more in the column of assets than you do in the column of liabilities. And when I looked at my assets, I had a lot of them. There they are, some of them I inherited. I was circumcised on the eighth day of the people of Israel, the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews.”

Those were real benefits. Paul talks about it in Romans. He says, “What advantages are there in being a Jew? Much every way” (Romans 3:1), and he lists these things and others. Well, he said, “I had all those. And then in addition to that, there were all the things that I earned for myself. In regard to the law, I was a Pharisee.” Nobody had to be a Pharisee. It was the strictest section of the Jews. But that’s what he chose to do. He says, “As far as zeal was concerned, I didn’t just sit on the back bench. I was upfront. I was very active. If you don’t believe I was zealous, ask the church. I was persecuting them. And as far as legalistic righteousness goes ∏ — that is, obeying the law — I understood it and I was faultless. I did it all.” In those days he looked at that column of assets and said, “If anybody has it made, I, Paul, have it made.”

Then he met Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. And when he met Jesus Christ, he discovered two things. First of all, he discovered that all of those things that he considered assets didn’t add up to righteousness. As he saw righteousness in the face of Jesus, he said, “If that’s what righteousness is, I’m never going to make it.” He got to that point where Luther was when Luther was in the monastery. He thought, “No matter how hard I tried, no matter what I had, no matter how long I lived, I will never add up to the righteousness of Jesus Christ.” That’s the first thing he discovered.

The second thing he discovered was even better. He discovered that those things that he considered assets weren’t even assets. They were actually liabilities because what he had been doing was trusting them instead of trusting Christ. So he said, “What happened to me there on the road from Damascus is that I took everything that I had poured my life into and of which I was so proud — it was a hard moment but I did it — from the column of assets and I moved it over to the column of liabilities because that’s what it really was. It was keeping me from Christ. And under assets, I wrote, ‘Jesus Christ alone.’”

Only A Gospel Minister

This is Solus Christus, Sola Gratia, and Sola Fide. And that’s the doctrine by which the church stands or falls. If our churches are not preaching that, they are not true churches. If you are not preaching that, you’re not preaching the gospel and you’re not a faithful minister. If we’re not preaching that, it doesn’t make any difference at all how big our churches become or how successful we appear in the eyes of the world, we are not doing God’s work. People are perishing and we’re responsible so far as our preaching is concerned.

We have to capture again what Toplady wrote in his hymn. Nothing in my hands I bring, Simply to Thy cross I cling. Naked, look to Thee for dress, Helpless, look to Thee for grace, Foul, I to the fountain, fly, Wash me, Savior, or I die. Rock of Ages clef for me. Let me hide myself in the. And when the church recaptures that, then perhaps God will be gracious and send the reformation and revival that we need. 
##Questions and Answers

In relation to the things you’ve been sharing, what do you do with children? How can we teach them in such a way that they remain solid Christians when they get older?

I have some strong feelings about that. I think what we have done in our churches is just the opposite of what ought to be done. We greatly underestimate what children can learn and the age at which they can respond to the gospel, so we bring everything down to the level of the children. I think in some of our churches we do that even in the main service. We have the idea that what we ought to do is bring the adults down to the level of the children instead of the children up to the level of the adults, and we work away at that. I don’t know if we have any simple answers or anything, but I’ll tell you a few of the things that we do.

We’ve had a pattern. It’s very common that children go out halfway through the service and so forth — the very young ones. We still do that. But what we have done is bring that age at which they’re allowed to go out lower and lower because we think they can absorb more in the service. They ought to be with their parents anyway. It’s a good thing. Sunday schools are a relatively modern idea. I’m not saying we should do away with them, but in the past, families all sat there together. Children sat through it. But then we ran into the thing. People say children can’t concentrate today. And partially that’s true. It’s a television generation. They can’t even think, let alone concentrate. So we say yes, we need to help them with that. And we do a number of things.

One thing we do is prepare a children’s bulletin that has printed out the kind of things that the adults don’t have printed out, like reciting the creed or something like that. Then we have little lines over to the margin and it sort of tells what the words mean. I have a little summary of what the sermon is and a few questions for them to think about. We give that out to all the children as they come in so they have their own bulletin. And then, because we have a Sunday school hour prior to the 11 a.m. service when I preach, I go through the Sunday school and I spend maybe 10 minutes telling them what I’m going to preach later at 11 a.m. service and I explain it.

My impression is that in that group, you develop it over time, but I suppose they absorb more on average than the adults. At any rate, when I go back the next week, if I make a mistake, they tell me about it. They say, “That isn’t what it said there,” and it shows they were actually paying attention. Now I know that you have to couch it in their terms. And I think as we do that, we are conscious of those things. But I am convinced that children can understand the gospel from the earliest stages, even difficult words they will understand if you take the time to explain them. We do that. We teach them catechism. We have them learn hymns rather than choruses because the hymns have theology in them and they get it into their minds early at a young age. We have them memorize an awful lot of the Bible.

As you preach, could you help us understand how you bring enough of Christ into every sermon and speak to this whole question of the historical-redemptive approach to preaching, especially during these long sections that deal with law or history or other things of that nature?

When I get questions like that, I don’t have easy answers. The easy answer is that Christ is there. I mean, he’s the subject of the Bible. Jesus said to the Pharisees:

You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life (John 5:39–40).

They had the Old Testament, not the New Testament. So they didn’t have the full unfolding of redemption as we have it in the epistles, but it was all there, he said. So that is one of our tasks as we do it. Now, that doesn’t always mean, I think, that in every single text, you have to read between the lines and find that Christ is there when he is not. It may be talking about something else, but for anything, it talks about Christ as the answer.

I mean, if you deal with the 10 Commandments, like “Thou shall not . . .” how can you do that? You don’t preach the law to say people ought to be better as if they can do that without Christ. You preach the law to say you’re not better and what you need is a Savior and Christ is the Savior. At that point, you can’t avoid it.

Now, I’m going to talk about it a little bit in the third of our talks tomorrow night on preaching Christ. I don’t pretend that’s always easy, but it’s there. The wonderful thing about it that I find is that because the Bible itself is so diverse in terms of its content, material, presentation, style, and all of that, if you’re actually trying to do that and you’re trying to go through it with any kind of systematic treatment, not only will you end up preaching Christ but you’ll be interesting because Christ is presented in such a variety of ways.

Could there possibly be a dumbing down of evangelicalism as reflected in the degradation of our hymnody in terms of all the cotton candy of choruses and moving away from a solid need for old hymns?

The only thing in the evangelical church that gets you in more trouble than talking about the doctrine of election is talking about the music. The answer to your question is yes. There’s a great dumbing down of everything. The problem with the chorus isn’t the style, it’s the content. In some cases, it’s mindless content. To say something over and over again works up a kind of mood. But I mean that’s not worshiping God. Worshiping God isn’t an emotion. It may have emotional overtones, but it isn’t that. Here’s where I really got in trouble. Saying something over and over again, like, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah,” is not worship. That’s a mantra. That’s the way it functions.

Could you give us a summary of the five most influential theologians or people generally in your life? Or perhaps the five books that have been the most helpful to you in the process?

I’m not good at naming what books are most helpful because I find it’s always what speaks to me or I’m getting excited about at the moment. I’m always reading something. But if you talk about influential theologians, I don’t think that’s all that hard. Everybody would have slight variations. I mean, how could you not mention Luther or Calvin or Jonathan Edwards or Augustine? Beyond that, you get into others that you may or not have read, but those are the men that impacted history that we are what we are today because of their theology and what God did through them.

What about those who are alive?

That’s a hard one because we don’t have a lot of great theologians today. We really don’t. I mean, just think of great theological names. Who do you think of? You might think of Carl Barth. I don’t agree with his theology in all respects, but he was a great theologian. We have some good exegetes and that’s not bad. I think Don Carson is one of the best exegetes I know today. I think of exegetical preachers, maybe someone like Dick Lucas from London. I think he stands out head and shoulders above other people that I know. John MacArthur of course has modeled a lot for us, but I don’t call any of them theologians really. We don’t have great theologians.

Could you touch more on the issue of why the evangelical church has gone in the direction it has gone? You’re comparing evangelicals to the liberal churches in the sixties. How has it happened?

Those are historical questions and like most historical questions there are probably a lot of factors. The theological answer is that we’ve forgotten God. We just are not thinking about God and we’re not relating to God. But you might say then, “Well, why is that?” We live in a very secular climate. We are very materialistic. We are awash in a sea of skepticism, including philosophical skepticism about epistemology. People don’t think you actually can know anything, so why should you even try? And if I may say so, we live in a television culture and television is destroying the ability of people to think. It’s not just that it’s shortening attention spans, it actually functions in a contrary manner to rational thought. It doesn’t operate that way. If we have time, I’d love to talk about that because that’s a big thing.

What are our Christians doing? They’re spending all their time watching television. And they get all the values of the secular culture. They’re not thinking about God. They may go to church, but they’re not really thinking about God and we don’t help them a whole lot because when they come to church, we think we have to talk about felt needs. Maybe they’re lonely or discouraged or failing in business and we think that’s what we ought to tell them. But that’s not the gospel, and that’s not causing them actually to know and trust God.

So what do you do to counter the television culture?

Well, countering the television culture is a tough one because it’s there. Some people wake up to that reality and they get rid of it, turn it off, limit it, or that sort of thing. It’s hard to do. I guess like any vice, you need the grace of God in everything. But I think the best answer is that you counter it with something better. Here’s just a simple example. We have three girls. We gave them ballet lessons when they were young. One was a real ballerina. She could dance, but the others didn’t have all that necessary talent for it. We did it to them and almost without knowing it, what happened was that when they were doing the ballet, they were dancing to classical music. That classical music was getting to their head, and you can start that young.

Now when they get older in their teenage years, they are attracted to all the music of the generation, but it doesn’t have the same hold on them because they know something better and they kind of get tired of it and they go back to something better later. The tragedy is if they never had anything better all they know is the bad stuff of the culture. I think the same thing would probably apply in terms of Bible teaching and spiritual things. If you’re providing something of real worth and substance, we all go astray. We fall in love with the wrong things, but that tends to draw you back and that’s the best way I know to counter it.

Do you have any thoughts on certain translations of Scripture?

We have more translations than we need and it’s probably a sin that we go on making them when the world needs the gospel for the first time. We ought to pour the money into getting out there doing translation work. But I don’t regard it as a problem. I’m glad the Scriptures are out there. I was just asked to be part of a committee working on a reissue of the RSV and I declined to do it because I said that we don’t need to do that. We have got plenty of translations.

What advice would you give to a young preacher who serves in a church where there is not Christ alone, grace alone, and faith alone?

I would make progress slowly. There are different ways of being faithful. You can be faithful with a club. You can be a Calvinist with a scowl on your face. Or you can have a gentler, kinder Calvinism that we were hearing about earlier. Now take it and teach the Bible, and when you come to doctrines that you know they’re having trouble with, don’t pound them with them. Recognize the difficulties. When I teach election from Romans 9, I try to do it the way Paul does. He begins by teaching it as a fact and I explain how it’s a fact. You can’t avoid it. If you think God directs you at all and he directs you to witness to so-and-so, you’re witnessing to so-and-so rather than so-and-so. That’s election. You can’t avoid it. When Paul started out on his missionary journeys, he went to Asia Minor, not to China. That’s election.

That’s disarming. Then I say, is that just? Well, that’s a valid question because Paul himself asked the question. Is that just? Then you can deal with that. You can win people that way and you don’t have to hammer election every time. It’s better to teach Christ all the time. I mean, you do that in a variety of ways. But make the case slowly. It’s the same thing with any changes in the church. You might have an awfully shallow or even ungodly kind of service where all kinds of bizarre things are done. Don’t change them all at once. Just do it a little bit at a time. It takes 30 years.