World Evangelism Q&A

Westminster Theological Seminary | Philadelphia

I have no agenda, so go ahead. Shoot and ask whatever you want to. You can talk about what we’ve been talking about, or you can talk about something totally different. If I don’t know what to say, I’ll just say, “I don’t know.”

In your spiritual life, if you can categorize what would be five or ten most influential books in the cultivation of your spiritual life and growth? Then, could you give a little background as to the development of your book, Desiring God, and sort of some of the factors that emerged?

The Bible is the most important book in the world and in my life, which is obvious. After the Bible, I would say the most influential book is The Unity of the Bible by Daniel Fuller. Next to that, I would put a whole array of Jonathan Edwards’s works. I would probably start with The Freedom of the Will, and next, A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World, and next, The Religious Affections, and then Original Sin, and then they just sort of all fade together after that.

I think everybody should do what I did in response to Lewin’s Mead counsel 20 years ago. He said, “Every young aspiring pastor theologian should find a hero and read enough of him so that you become his peer” — peer in the sense that you know his thought well enough that, if you sat down with him for lunch, you could carry on a good conversation about most of what he thinks. You have to read a good bit of a man to do that, and you can pick Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Edwards, Owen, etc. I mean, you can pick Wesley too, if you want. It wouldn’t be a bad choice, necessarily, because the Arminians of 200 years ago were a lot better folks than the Arminians today, I think. They were radically given to God. They were serious about theology. They were passionate.

Where today the people that seem most serious about theology, to me, seem to be Reformed people, and the others, it’s not so much that they come out with wrong conclusions, it’s that they just don’t seem to care very much about theology. They don’t seem to be theologically driven.

Then I would recommend the Puritans. Owen’s book on the Death of Death settled for me, at least at this stage in my life, limited atonement. I read it about 12 years ago when I was trying to decide, am I a four pointer? And then his practical books — On the Mortification of Sin, On Temptation, and Communion with God have deeply enriched my life. Martin Lloyd Jones has been a contemporary feeder for me. I don’t get much help spiritually from contemporary books.

I have to go back a ways, because they seem to be so blood earnest, as Thomas Chalmers says. Whereas contemporary writers seem to be so flippant and glib about almost everything. Even when you open a book that has a big, fancy embossed gold “God” on the front of it, the first thing you read is, “Once Mary said,” and they tell you a little anecdote or something. You breathe another world when you go back 300 years, and that’s where I get fed as a pastor, by going back. I’m sure there’s lots more that would come to my mind if I gave more thought to it.

Desiring God is now eight years old. It was published in 1986. I revised the mission chapter about halfway along the way, so the statistics there would be a little more up to date. Someone asked me, “Does this book still represent what makes your juices flow, and do you still stand by what you wrote here?” I say, “Anybody that comes to my church and wants to know who I am, where my ministry is going, and what the heart of my theology is, I say, ‘Read Desiring God.’” It is still who I am and where I’m going. Everything grows out of Desiring God.

Desiring God, and The Pleasures of God are like the same question asked from the top down and the bottom up. Desiring God is asked from the bottom up: “Where can I find fullness of joy and pleasures forevermore?” And the answer is given in Psalm 16:11, “At the right hand of God,” and The Pleasures of God asks from the top down, “Where does God find pleasures forevermore?” And it’s the same answer, “In God.” It is just asking the same question, one from God’s perspective and one from my empty perspective down here. I say in the preface of The Pleasures of God that could have come and perhaps should have come theologically first. Because God’s delight in being God is the foundation of my finding fulfillment in God. If he didn’t delight in being God, I would have no treasure at all, but that’s just not the way my life worked.

I perceived my own emptiness before I discovered God’s fullness. So that’s the way the books emerged. The key influences that went into the making of Desiring God were C.S. Lewis, especially his little book, The Weight of Glory. I recommend that little book. There are four sermons in it. The first page of the first sermon was an epoch-making afternoon at Vrooman’s bookstore on Colorado Avenue in Pasadena. I just was standing there, a Lewis fan all through college, never having seen this little book, I picked it up and read the first page, and I’ve never been the same since. Basically, the page said, “We are far too easily pleased, and the problem with humanity is not that they pursue their own happiness, but they don’t pursue it nearly hard enough. They settle for mud pies in the slums when they’re offered a holiday at the sea.”

That’s the sentence I remember most clearly, and everything in me cried, “Yes,” and I’ve been trying to work out that system ever since. It’s called Christian Hedonism.

Then it was Jonathan Edwards. I did a paper at the Yale Student Fellowship a few years ago, “Was Jonathan Edwards a Christian Hedonist?” And I tried to get it published in Evangelical Theological Society Journal, and it was the last thing I’ve ever submitted to a scholarly journal, my friend Ron Youngblood. The editor said, “This is jejune in places.” How many of you know what jejune means? It is not complimentary. I think it means silly, childlike, foolish, or something like that. He said, “You need to make it sound more scholarly.” I never even touched it again. It’s in a file cabinet at home. If somebody asks me to lecture on Jonathan Edwards someday, I’ll pull it out again, because he is a Christian Hedonist. He is. There are quotes I have. You read Jonathan Edwards miscellanies on happiness and joy. Jonathan Edwards is a second influence.

Dan Fuller, who is a contemporary embodiment of Edwards for me, was another great influence, and then missionary biographies. It is a great irony, though not an irony if you know your Pauline theology, that the people who have suffered most for Christ speak in most lavishly hedonistic terms about following him. It’s the missionaries who’ve suffered most, who talk most profoundly about their delights in God, and who say, “I never made a sacrifice.”

The first book you recommended is called Unity of the Bible by Dan Fuller?

Yes, Dan Fuller’s The Unity of the Bible ought to be in every one of your libraries. It’ll give you an alternative to covenant theology from a seven point Calvinist perspective, the sixth point being double predestination, and the seventh point being the best of all possible worlds. So don’t think that when you’re reading the book, and you see places in it that look not the way an ordinary covenant theologian Calvinist would talk, that you’re dealing with an Arminian. You are not dealing with an Arminian. We’re talking mega Calvinism with Dan Fuller, but you will not find the covenant of works. It doesn’t exist in his or my theology. You can ask about that if you want to.

Given the strength of Reformed theology, where is the weak link in terms of the fact of the practice of mission and the value?

I don’t think there is a weak link, except in the heart of the theologians, the pastors, and the people. I don’t think the problem is in the theology, not if it is a biblically-balanced Reformed theology. What seems to happen is not that the theology has structures to it that would inhibit evangelism or missions in fact, to me, they enable confidence in evangelism and missions — what happens is that the kind of soul that gets attracted to Calvinistic thinking tends to be a certain kind of personality who loves doctrinal thoroughness and some precision, and therefore tends to spend a lot of time developing that precision and making sure his people grasp that precision, and suddenly you realize, after some years, he hasn’t done much practical.

He hasn’t done much besides try to make sure his people get the refined system down, and when he says this he doesn’t mean that. He’s so concerned on Sunday morning to make sure they hear what he’s not saying, because the Bible is very careless in its Calvinism. I mean, there are many, many Arminian sounding sentences, many sentences that look like God is depending on man. I mean, the Bible is not nearly so worried, as most of us are, that people are going to misunderstand. Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler. When he says, “How do you get into heaven?” he says, “Keep the commandments.” He’s not worried about writing a quick dissertation about, “Oh, I don’t mean legalism,” and just write down the line the Bible is not so worried about those things, whereas Reformed people are the kind of personalities who do worry about that sort of thing, including me.

I write books about it to clarify what I think and keep others from misunderstanding. The danger is I know loads of little Reformed churches, especially Baptists, and they don’t grow, and they don’t have any passion for the lost. They’ve got their eyes out for every doctrinal mistake so much that their whole energy is consumed with making sure that anybody who darkens the door of this church, “By the way, we’re Calvinists. You want to stay?” That attitude will not grow a church if there’s not this explosion of exultation in what we’ve got. I think it has more to do with the kind of people we are, our fearfulness, our sin, and our preoccupation with certain things than it is the system. The system of Jonathan Edwards type theology is not a missions-killing, evangelism-stopping system. It’s just that we are that kind of people. We are fearful. We are self-centered. We are cold-hearted.

For some reason, I guess it’s not too hard to understand, if you devote long hours and much energy to careful intellectual descriptions of biblical truth, it tends not to result in heel clicking, dancing, hand-lifting, voice-lifting joy on Sunday morning. It tends to result in lecture-type expositions that are well guarded against misunderstanding, and I don’t think that’s the way Jesus preached. I don’t think that’s the way Paul preached. I don’t think that’s the way Peter preached. I think they just lifted up their voices.

I have a new phrase. I have to give the preaching lectures at Trinity this fall, and they gave me the title, “Preaching in worship.” I’m really excited to work on this, because recently my self understanding has changed. I’m always asking for clarity from the Lord, “Who am I? What am I doing? What am I supposed to be doing on Sunday morning? Is that all? What am I supposed to be doing?” The new way I describe what I do on Sunday morning is expository exaltation, which is worship. I don’t follow the worship and I don’t bring about the worship. I do worship in my preaching. It’s expository exultation, and that’s what I think we need. We need Reformed thinkers who are so moved that they don’t just write “Oh” in their commentaries, but they write “Oh” in their preaching. They say, “Oh, what a salvation. Oh, what a Savior.”

The people become what they see. Spurgeon used to say, “My people come to watch me burn.” That’s what happens at my church. They tell me, “I limp in here on Sunday morning, and I just hold up my little torch into your flame. Then, I walk away, and it goes out by the end of the week, and I come back and I stick it in again,” and that’s okay. That’s fine. I try to teach them how to light their own torch with biblical meditation and prayer, but I know that for hundreds of ordinary people, without an explosion of passion for God, they’re going to just watch TV and go down.

My question relates to discipling children. Can you speak of your own childhood? I’m wondering if there were some secrets that you could pass on from your parents and also help parents to disciple their children to be world Christians.

I wish my wife were here. She gives seminars on world Christian families, and she’s going to do one in Indianapolis this summer at the ACMC conference. How many of you have ever heard of ACMC? Okay, half of you haven’t. It used to stand for Association of Church Mission Committees. I think it now stands for Advancing Churches in Mission Commitment or something like that. They’re devoted to helping local churches become mission-minded, and they have these annual meetings, and I’ll do something on worship, and she’s going to do a seminar on that, so she should be here, but I’ll do the best I can.

I don’t remember much of my childhood. I ask questions. My wife asks questions about my childhood, because she likes to understand why I am the way I am sometimes. You’re being positive. She’s usually not being positive. I could give some examples, but I won’t bother. I don’t remember much, except that my dad was an evangelist and he was gone most of the time, two thirds of the time. My mother was mainly the one who reared me, and we read the Bible every day and we prayed every night as a family. When daddy was home, he led, and when mama was there by herself, she led. That was probably the most important thing that could happen. There was a rigorous discipline, an expectation that we would do that, and we prayed for missionaries. I can remember the phrase, “God bless the missionaries on the home farm field.” I thought that was one word when I was a kid. Home farm field. I didn’t know what that was, but mommy and daddy said it every night That, no doubt, lodged itself in my mind and made a great difference in the rigor of reading the Bible.

I was given a Bible when I was little, and I still have the Bible I was given when I was 15. I love to go back and see the things I underlined. I remember lying in bed, late at night, after all the lights were out, and I’d read my Bible and underline it and write things in the margin. It’s fun to see what you were thinking when you were 15 years old. We were very heavily involved in our church, and they saw to it that I was there. One Sunday night, I skipped training union. This was a Southern Baptist church, and I got whipped with a belt by my mother at age 13. I was as tall as she was. My mother is 5 feet two inches. That was how serious they took obedience and being where you belong to be on the Lord’s day.

They were the happiest people I’ve ever known. That is significant. My mother and my father sang in the car when we went on vacation. How many of you grew up in a home where your mother and your father sang duets in the car? See, that’s rare. I was in a home where my parents sang spiritual songs to the Lord in the car together. I was in the backseat, and I thought they were boring songs. They were not cool at all. I don’t even remember them, but I know I loved it because they were happy. They were happy people, and they laughed. Daddy would always bring home jokes from his trip. We’d have the sit down supper on Monday nights when he got home from his crusades, and he would tell us his new jokes, and my mother would laugh so hard that tears would run down her face. So I grew up in a home where to be a Christian was to be the happiest people in the world, even if they whip you with a belt, okay? So that combination was great.

As far as world Christians goes today, the resources are so many. The kids’ version of Operation World is out there. We, for probably six years, used the “Global Prayer Digest” every morning, because the little story was so good for kids. Operation World is not really helpful for kids. We’re going to use it this year, and my boys are old enough now, but I usually go to the praise and prayer points at the end of the country on Operation World and read a few of them at the table, but for years we’ve done something at the breakfast table.

The breakfast table is our devotion time as a family. I’ll read a text, and we’ll read the mission thing, and then a boy will pray for the mission thing. We take turns, and then I’ll pray for the text and the family. So that discipline is there. In the evening we have devotions, and we read another portion of Scripture, and maybe a conversation will happen. Maybe it’ll be brief, and we all pray around the circle. We have what we call Bible time for the children to teach them to have their own private devotions, so that every morning the boys have Bible time. We get up and as we get up at 6:30 a.m., and you go to school around 8:00 a.m. There’s 15 minutes where they get up, wash, clean, and make their bed. And this 15 minutes is Bible time, and this 15 minutes is to get their schoolwork together. Then, we eat breakfast and they’re off. So their own personal devotions are built in there.

We did that before they could read, and we used tapes. I mean, the kids’ tapes that they have available today are absolutely phenomenal and the Scripture that you can build into a child. Then, of course, church is a key part of their lives and just talking. We have missionaries come into the home whenever we can. Noël has a whole raft of literature that she talks about and strategies that she uses with the boys. She homeschools two of our boys.

Any advice for how to carry on that deepening here at Westminster?

Well, if you don’t have representatives in powerful places, who are as fired up as you are, then I think pockets of prayer of those who really carry the burden are going to make a whale of a difference. I don’t know how seminaries work, who really holds power, who makes things happen, and who establishes the atmosphere, whether it’s presidents, administration, faculty, forceful students, or whatever. I don’t think it makes any sense to politicize missions. What you want is God to move, but there should be pockets of people who gather for prayer.

At our church, there are several, but there’s one small group in particular that’s got to be one of the most powerful groups of people at Bethlehem, who have no political power at all. Nobody knows they exist, hardly, but they gather every Thursday night to pray for unreached peoples, and they know how to pray. They really do battle for the unreached peoples in the 1040 window and so on, and if that’s happening here, the ripple effect has to be felt. It’s one group, two or three or four, and then what you’ve done seems to me to be great to have this conference, but you would know better than I how things work around here and what influences will carry the day and what won’t. But prayer is of the essence.

You wrote an article about how you feel God’s love most in confession and recognition of your sin than in keeping the law. Can you explain that?

Well, let me tell the story that I start with in that article, which illustrates how it works in my life. I said I feel most sorry for my sins when the sun comes out. I can remember very clearly the morning where that hit me, years ago. I was still teaching at Bethel, and Noël and I were at odds with each other. I said something crabby and she said something crabby. To get the anger out, I just picked up the garbage can and walked out to the edge of the road with it where it was supposed to be that morning to be picked up. As I put it down, the sun came out from behind a cloud, beautiful sun, and I could feel the warmth on my skin and the little breeze blew. I started to cry, because I felt so loved, that God, in my disobedience and my meanness, was reaching down and just giving his breeze and his sun instead of consuming me, which he had every right to do with a bolt of lightning or fire. He just breathed upon me, gently, and made me really sad for my crabbiness, and I went in and apologized.

Now, if I go to the Bible, in Acts 13 it says what you could not be freed from under the law of Moses, he has freed you from. Or consider the woman who is a prostitute there and she’s weeping and washing Jesus’s feet with her tears and her hair, because evidently she has felt love and forgiveness, because he says, “You have loved much because you’ve been forgiven much.” She has felt forgiven, and the tears flowed because of the awesome sense of forgiveness that she had. It’s the old Grimms fairytale of the sun and the wind. The thought is, “Who can get the coat off of this guy?” The wind and the sun wager with each other. And the wind says, “I bet you I can get it off.” He just blows hard, and the harder he blows, the more the guy grabs his coat. Then the sun says, “My turn.” And he just shines on him, and he goes, “Hm,” and he takes his coat off.

The one with power and push made him look like this, and the one who shined upon him made him take his coat off. So I think there’s a place, therefore, for lavishing the goodness of God on people in the hopes that they will repent and be broken.

Now, if you would ask me, where’s the place for severity and warning, I would say it’s there. Romans 11:20 says, “Take heed to the kindness and the severity of God.” You sometimes say the one and you sometimes say the other. You sometimes warn people that, unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. And other times you hold out a very forgiving, gentle, and tender hand to them and say, “The Lord, the Lord. A God, merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” That’s Sinai. That’s the most lavish statement of the patience and kindness and forgiveness of God, square at the center of the so-called “=covenant of law. So the law itself is impregnated with visions of a God of extraordinary patience, mercy, and forgiveness.

How do you go about organizing your annual missions conference?

What about our annual missions conference? I have almost nothing to do with it anymore, except I speak on Sundays. It, generally, lasts about 10 days, from a Wednesday through a Sunday. We bring in a special guest preacher for one of the Sundays who also hangs around usually and does a seminar, and our own missionaries that we support, those who are at home get exposure and get to speak. There’s a thing called “missions in the manse” that we started 10 years ago now. March 9, this year, will be the 10th anniversary in which I have people come to my house who are remotely considering missions.

I move all the furniture out of the living room and dining room, haul it upstairs, and they sit on the floor. There are anywhere from 60 to 140 in our house, and we sing and we hear where each person is on their pilgrimage. Either I speak or a guest speaks. It’s from 7:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. Those have been very powerful movers. God used that in 1984 to ignite the movement, I think, and he has blessed that ever since. We usually have a theme that we gather under and I try to preach to support the theme biblically. There’s usually a special offering that we take that goes over and above budget to some special missions project. We usually promote some book or books, and try to highlight them and get people reading in a particular area of missions or some biography.

How do you view missions support? Is going from church to church to raise support a good way to do it?

Yeah, I think that’s a good way to do it, because our denomination has done it both ways. We’ve had a united fund where you give everything to the mission board, and then they’re on salary, and they don’t have to stump for their support. I think there’s not enough accountability that way, and I think the churches don’t get the kind of exposure that they would with individual personal accountability.

The downside, I suppose, is that it’s hard, and some missionaries who want to be missionaries may not be good fundraisers. They might be very good missionaries on the field and crummy fundraisers, but I have a feeling that the body of Christ can sniff out whether a person is a good missionary on the field or not. I mean, we can make mistakes. The big body can make mistakes, and the board up here in the upper echelons of the institution can make a mistake, but in general, I think if a person has the Holy Spirit on them, and God is moving in their work, they can come back and tell enough stories that the people will figure that out.

To get there in the first place, you just shut up to the sovereignty of God to open people. We’ve had stories from missionaries who are in their third term now in Guinea, who said, “The last thing we wanted to do was raise money. We thought that was awful, boring, and terrible. We’re not fundraisers. We just want to become ministers.” And when they were done two years later, they said it was the best thing that ever happened to them. It cast them on God more than anything. It drew, out of them, things in ministry to churches that they never thought they had within them. It caused them to think through their goals and their strategies better than they ever had. So they’re sold that it’s a healthy thing for a missionary to have to do.

What do you say to churches or pastors who say the centrality of missions is good for some churches but not necessarily for all?

Well, I don’t ask anybody to make missions central. Make worship central and obedience, whatever the call is; however, what you’re really asking is significant, really significant. It’s part of the motor of the church. I think I would tolerate diversity in the priority that’s given to missions from church to church, and from season to season in one church. In my family, we’ve gone through seasons where all of our boys did mission things in the summer. Right now, the 10-year old is going to do a missions thing this summer. He’s going to go to Teen Missions in Florida this summer, and then off to Tennessee to build a barn or something for some youth group. I say, “Great,” but with my other three sons, they’re not doing anything right now. We went through a season of very high-crest missions engagement a few years ago, and now it’s more lean. It isn’t that my heart has changed. It’s that circumstances in the family have changed, where those boys are. I hope they’ll all kind of come back to that. I think you go through things like that in a church.

If you go through some crises in a church, missions takes a back burner for a while, or if somebody gets a great vision for a pro-life effort or a great vision for neighborhood evangelism or for discipleship, then it’s very hard to blow four or five trumpets every Sunday. You just can’t. You have to ask when this trumpet of, “Let’s all be in small groups. Let’s make this fall the small group fall and get everybody in small groups,” it’s really hard to drive a missions motor all through that too. So you have to look at a church, I think, over the larger picture, take a five-year view, and say, “Now, where is missions in that five-year picture?”

If it’s small and insignificant, and you ask those people, “How many have heard the 1040 window?” and no hands go up, “How many have heard of unreached peoples?” and no hands go up, “How many have ever heard of Operation World?” no hands go up, “How many have ever heard of the US Center for World Missions?” and no hands go up, it’s a failure. These people are out of touch with the world. Or if you’re in a denomination, you could give another little quiz about who the director is of your mission or whatever and see. That all has to flow out of a pastoral dream.

Somebody asked me the other day, “How does a lay person help beget a mission vision in the church.” I said, “You have to get the pastor on board first, and if you can’t, you can’t make it happen. You just have to pray, because if you don’t get the pastor on board, there will be tension, and he will feel threatened by these people who think this is so important.” You can do that, depending on your relationship to him, by talking to him, praying with him, giving him books that have made an impact on you, paying his way to ACMC conference, etc. Send him overseas. Send him overseas. But if the pastor does not carry a burden, now ask him to preach on it. That was what did it for me in 1983. Preach on missions, because if you got to preach on missions, then you got to read something, and you got to think about biblical texts that relate to missions, and it’ll make a difference.

Would you share with us pastoral care of missionaries overseas or at home?

Tom Steller, at my church, is the associate for missions and leadership development, and sees himself as the pastor of our missionaries. We have, in our budget, a travel budget to send him overseas every year to pastor Missionaries. At home, he leads a nurture program that’s a two-year program, that leads missionary candidates who are heading for vocational missions through certain readings, ministry experiences, small group things, psychological assessment, and so on to try to help them get ready for the stresses that they’ll find.

Because as you know, most missionary failures don’t come because the culture is hard, but because other missionaries are hard. It’s about getting along with each other, family breakdowns, disputes among missionaries, and all that stuff. That’s really crucial. We had a missionary who got involved in immorality in Bangkok last fall, and he wouldn’t get out of it. He was involved with prostitutes, and his wife and children came back to the church and they’re at our church now. He’s still there. It was about two or three days after the news. We were praying what to do, as the elders, and we said, “Well, let’s just send Tom over to talk to him.” So he was on a plane within two days. The people in our church had free tickets that you get for flying 20,000 miles. They just said, “Here. Go,” so he made a pastoral call to Bangkok, and turned it around in about 36 hours. He spent 12 hours pleading with this guy to give it up and to come home. That’s how committed Tom is and how committed we are. We sent him to Guinea the year before that to visit with a family that was in great distress.

He spent six months teaching in Cameroon, so he’s tasted it firsthand. I’ve been once, and I probably should go more often, but Tom is the pastor of our missionaries. Here’s another example. We just had a terrible crisis of moral failure on our staff, and a man just had to leave the ministry last Sunday. Tom told me on the phone last night that he has felt burdened that the missionary should hear this voice to voice and not just in the letter, so he’s calling all of our missionaries to explain the situation. He and Connie, his assistant. Connie just about runs the mission program at the church now.

Tom is kind of a figurehead, but once a woman has been there long enough, putting together conferences, putting together committee meetings, putting together manuals, she just knows so much that Tom just says, “How about missions for the glory of God this year?” and poof, we have a conference from Connie. So it is very important. We’ve seen a lot of hardship, and we are learning, through the failures and collapses of our missionaries, what they need before they go. They come back and tell us, and then we try to put that in place. We’re just in the process of growing.

If you don’t believe in the covenant of works, then what is your view on that?

I’ve had conversations with Meredith Klein about this, whose life seems to hang on the covenant of works. The reason it does is because he thinks if you jettison the covenant of works, you destroy the atonement, because Christ came as the second Adam to fulfill the covenant broken by the first Adam, and thus to merit what he failed to merit, namely eternal life for all who are in him. So the structure of the covenant of works is that God made a covenant of works with Adam. Adam failed to fulfill it. The second Adam comes and derives the very meaning of his atoning work from the fulfillment of the covenant of works for me, so that I can now enjoy the covenant of grace. I think that the whole structure is wrong.

The reason I think it’s wrong is because I don’t think God related to Adam as an employer. I don’t think God taught Adam to earn his salvation. That would’ve been teaching heresy. God did not commend the Galatian heresy to Adam. God was a father to Adam in the garden. He presented him with a glorious garden, filled with possibilities with one little tree, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. All you Old Testament scholars judge this, that little phrase, “knowledge of good and evil,” simply is the Old Testament way of talking about autonomy and independence. It’s what you get when you grow up. The eating of that tree represented, “I can do it myself. Thank you. I don’t need a father to tell me any longer what’s good for me and bad for me. I can decide for myself.”

What Adam did was fail to trust his father. He didn’t fail to pay his employer and earn anything. I feel really strongly about this. Can you tell? I don’t like the portrait of the relationship between God, the Father, and his perfect creature before there was any sin, relating to earning. That’s not the way it was. That’s not Old Testament theology. That’s a systematic reconstruction that doesn’t fit the text. He was a gracious, loving, lavish Father, saying, “I’ll give you everything you need. I’ll walk with you in the garden. I will be God to you, and you will be my son. Trust me and obey out of faith.” This is not about works. This is the obedience of faith, and the fall was the failure to trust the Father, and it brought great dishonor upon God, it merited hell, the fall came in, and futility filled the earth.

Jesus comes, not to earn from the employer, God, what employee Adam didn’t earn through works. He came to be the perfect Son who trusted his Father fully, so that when he dies on the cross, he’s not paying the debt of an employer. He’s making up the glory that we robbed from God through all of our distrust, disobedience, and sin. And he’s saying, in the garden, “Now glorify yourself in the Son, and I will glorify you.” So what he does is repair the injury done to the glory of God by showing how much he loves the glory of God, that he will suffer the loss of so much glory in order to show how much God loves his glory. Romans 3:25–26 says:

God put [Christ] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

The dynamic of what the Son achieved on the cross is that in former times God had just passed over sins, like David and his adultery and murder. Nathan comes and says, “You are the man,” and David says, “I am the man,” and he says, “Your sins are taken away.” Poof. I mean, if you talk about injustice, any judge that did that to a murder and an adulterer, today, we’d say, “You’re off the bench.” So God looks unjust in all this mercy that he has in the Old Testament. So how is he to be seen righteous? How is his righteousness to be vindicated, all the glory that’s been trampled on the ground by all these people he’s forgiven to be vindicated?

And the answer is that the Son says, “I have come to glorify my Father, and I will move from infinite divinity and glory, down to the role of a horrible, crucified criminal, and in losing all that glory, I will show how valuable it is to restore and repair the injury done to the glory of God by all these sinners down here.” So I don’t think it wrecks the atonement at all. In fact, it shows that what was happening in the atonement was not an employee earning something from an employer by works, which is the Galatian heresy. It is, rather, a Son perfectly obeying his Father out of trust in his Father, and that’s what we are called to do now. Ultimately, the covenant of works results in a kind of sanctification that is legalistic, I think, because the way God wants us to obey him is exactly the way Jesus did, namely by trusting him.

Jesus had perfect trust in his heavenly Father that he would bring him through this. For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross (Hebrews 12:1–2). He had such confidence that God would bring him through this, that he could lay his life down and take it up again. So my whole structure of theology is from The Unity of the Bible. The obedience of faith is what was required of Adam, obedience flowing from faith. It’s what Paul refers to in 1 Thessalonians 1:3, when he says, “the works of faith,” or in 2 Thessalonians 2:11, where he says again, “the works of faith.” That’s what he required from Adam, the Works of Faith, and that’s what he required from his son Jesus. He got them perfectly from Jesus, and he didn’t get them from Adam. And therefore, all the glory that needed to be restored to the Father, and everything that needed to be made up in my life and my failures to do the obedience of faith, Jesus did.

So Romans 5 is honored that, through the obedience of one man, many were constituted righteous. That’s not works. That’s the obedience of faith. I mean, that’s dumping a lot on you, because it calls into question the whole seminary here and the Westminster Confession and 500 years of federal theology. Frankly, I just don’t know where it comes from. I’m reading and I’m reading. I read Owen, I read this thick book on Reformed theology, trying to figure out where’d this thing come from, this covenant of works with Adam? It isn’t there.

Could you tell me how many missionaries your church supports?

I don’t know, maybe 50 or 60? They’re in so many different categories. There’s a tent maker category, and then there’s a short-term and a medium-term category, and then there’s a vocational category. I divide them up into seven days to pray for them. Let’s see. I wonder how many are in each group? Maybe it’s closer to 50 rather than 60, about 7 each day of the week. Well, you’ve been nice to take my ramblings here.