I became schizophrenic in my preaching. One Sunday, I’d preach on the sovereign holiness of God, because that’s what the text said. The next I would try to entertain with a skit or other ‘clever’ innovation. But the Word of God would not let go. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was working on me. He was doing a work of reformation in my heart and mind; luring me out of my man-centered, programmatic little universe into the wider world of His Amazing Grace. I found that the commitment to preach the Word was beginning to shape the preacher even more than the church.
All reformation begins with the Word, because it is the Word that is empowered by God for the work that needs to be done. I was asked to share what God has done in one small church in Arnold, MO. And while we are not a model for anything, we have been the recipients of God’s grace that is mediated to His Church through His Word.
Paul tells Timothy that it is the God-breathed Scriptures that equip the man of God for every good work. The work of reformation, then, must begin by equipping the preacher with a solid conviction that the Bible is God’s Word of truth, that it is powerful, and that it will, indeed, do the work. As Luther said toward the end of his Reformation, “I did nothing. The Word did everything.”
I am grateful that my earliest experience of Christianity was forged at the time of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. I was converted right out of High School in 1981 and discipled by men who loved the Bible. They instilled in me the beginnings of that same love. I entered Southwestern Seminary in 1985 at the height of the controversy over inerrancy at the Dallas Convention where I worked in the book store. I heard the arguments in the hallways and saw how it rocked our school. Yet watching the whole thing unfold drove deep within me a conviction that the Bible is God’s Word without mixture of error and convinced me that at the heart of the pastor’s task is a commitment to faithful biblical exposition.
It was during those years in seminary that I fell in love with the faithful resilience of Martin Luther, the passionate intellect of men like Jonathan Edwards, and the deep commitment to Scripture found in so many of our Baptist forefathers as reflected in Tom Nettles and Rush Bush’s book, Baptists and the Bible. I was drawn to the teaching of men like RC Sproul and John MacArthur, though I didn’t know why at the time except that what they taught stirred my heart to love the truth. I’m grateful for that, because other things I received in seminary weren’t so helpful. It was the beginning of the church growth movement which emphasized a pragmatic approach to ‘building’ the church on principles of business management and techniques of psychological manipulation. It was all about getting decisions and increasing the number of attendees by the use of these methods.
As a result, when I graduated seminary and entered the pastorate in 1991, I carried many of these practices with me. The first thing I did was take our deacons through a study called “Equipping Deacons in Church Growth Skills.” I showed video clips from movies like Sister Act with Whoopie Goldberg to show our people how to contemporize the church and repackage our message to get people interested. We had lots of games and activities, and I guess people liked it, because we began to fill the building. But it was all so shallow. There was little depth. We would run from one new program to another so that I found myself constantly pushing to keep people interested. It was exhausting. My wife said to me one day, “You are angry all the time!” “No I’m not!” I shouted. But I was, because when it’s all about you having to manufacture something, it’s exhausting! After a couple of years, I was near burnout.
One thing kept that from happening – that deep commitment God had given me to preach His word verse by verse through books of the Bible (though certainly I didn’t do it very well). I remember struggling through places like Ephesians 1 thinking, “I know what that seems to be saying, but it can’t possibly mean that!” And yet, the Word kept pulling me forward, prompting me to question the things we were doing. I became schizophrenic in my preaching. One Sunday, I’d preach on the sovereign holiness of God, because that’s what the text said. The next I would try to entertain with a skit or other ‘clever’ innovation. But the Word of God would not let go. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was working on me. He was doing a work of reformation in my heart and mind; luring me out of my man-centered, programmatic little universe into the wider world of His Amazing Grace. I found that the commitment to preach the Word was beginning to shape the preacher even more than the church.
In 2 Timothy 4:1-2, Paul charges young Timothy “in the presence of God and of Jesus Christ who is to judge the living and the dead . . . preach the word; be ready in season and out of season.” As men who dare stand behind the pulpit, we bear a solemn responsibility for what we preach. It is not our pulpit. It is not our church. We don’t get to set the agenda. When Paul says, “I charge you in the presence of God,” he means the God who is present in every church service, every counseling session, every deacon’s meeting, every Bible study and every conversation. He is the Judge before whom we must answer for the way we treat His people and what we teach them. That’s why James 3:1 warns that not many should be teachers, knowing we will incur a stricter judgment! Since we must face this Judge, we must be careful to preach His Word, not our own.
The realization that I was accountable to God for every word I spoke in His pulpit began to have a marked effect on my preaching. He had, after all, given me a Bible rich with truth, treasure and power, and a command to preach it. I was not at liberty to squander even a second on anything less than His unvarnished truth. As Paul told Timothy, I must “be ready in season and out of season.” “Be ready” means “Take your stand!” Stand there and preach whether it’s popular or not, whether it’s received or rejected, whether they applaud you or fire you, but preach the Word. Open the God-breathed Scriptures and trust Him to work through them!
For years I have kept a journal where I record my inmost thoughts and struggles. In November of 1997, as I was working through these things, I wrote the following,
“God speaks when His word is clearly and simply expounded in faithfulness to its Author and Guide. The servant of God has no warrant to seek fame or notoriety, or reputation. His task is to know God, to know God’s word and to speak the truth in love. Let God be God!”
Elsewhere that same month I wrote,
“The theological education of all God’s people is an imperative! It is my imperative today: to study to show myself approved; to teach the true knowledge of God; to train Christians to walk worthy of His calling; to proclaim the sure and ancient Gospel of Christ”
That solemn realization had a big impact on me personally long before it did anything for our church. I now see that the first question we need to ask in the work of reformation is not, “How can I reform my church?,” but “Am I willing for God’s Word to reform me?” Only when it changes me, can it change my church.
As I said, my preaching had become somewhat schizophrenic – an uncertain trumpet sound! But as I kept moving verse by verse through Scripture, trying to let it speak for itself, I began to see things more clearly. Chief among them was God’s sovereignty and how it extended even to salvation. That pesky passage from Ephesians 1:4-5 continued to haunt me, “…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ according to the purpose of his will.” I began to scare myself. This wasn’t what I was taught in seminary! I started to wonder if I was slipping into heresy. The Bible seemed to be saying one thing – it’s all about God and His glory – but I had been taught something else – that it depended on me working the right programs. I felt caught between two worlds.
About that time I was asked to teach for Missouri Baptist University and had an interview with Dr Curtis McClain. During the interview he asked if I held to the “Doctrines of Grace?” I told him I believed that doctrine was important and grace was central, but I didn’t know what he meant by “Doctrines of Grace.” He gave me a copy of Dr Nettles’ book, “By His Grace and For His Glory” and as I began to read, I saw how these precious truths of God’s sovereign grace were indeed the teaching of Scripture and the foundation of historic Baptist faith. The more I read, the more I realized I was not slipping into heresy. I was slipping into historic, biblical Christianity where God reigns supreme and saves for His glory through Christ’s finished work! It was like a blast of fresh air. I felt like I’d been born again again! I wrote in my journal for October 21, 1997,
Somehow in Christ, God has chosen to begin a quiet revolution in this sinner’s life. Truth – Gospel Truth – has become clearer as I sit at the feet of the great Reformation Masters these past months and imbibe from the same source as they the waters of the free grace of a Sovereign God in salvation. Penetrate my soul, O God. Renew my mind by your Word. Grant me the same fire and zeal evidenced by Luther, the same clarity of thought seen in Calvin and Augustine, the same faithfulness and spiritual fervor evidenced in Edwards. Let this awakening not be a passing fad, but a deepening and motivating conviction. If it is from you, let it lead where it may. I am your willing servant by grace alone. I am ready to declare myself on the side of truth in the Doctrines of Grace. I am a Calvinist in the line of the reformation and the Gospel preached by the Apostle Paul. Let God be God. Sola Fide; Sola Gratia; Soli Dei Gloria
Suddenly I could see the God-centeredness of God on every page of Scripture! It was liberating! It wasn’t about me! It wasn’t up to me. It was all about God. And I couldn’t wait to tell my people because I knew they were going to love it too. Many, however, did not. As I was soon to discover, reshaping a church from it’s man-centered assumptions to a God-centered Gospel is rarely done without opposition and pain.
At the end of 2 Timothy 4:2, Paul tells Timothy that his pastoral work must be done with “complete patience.” That proved true in our case. The process that began with me in 1995 wouldn’t bear fruit for several more years. I tried to read everything I could find about the centrality of Christ in preaching, the purity of the gospel, etc. We took it slow at first. I avoided the “C” word, knowing people wouldn’t understand it. We didn’t start with classes on systematic theology (though they would come later) or frontal attacks against the invitation system (though I did remove the manipulative aspects). More than anything, I wanted our people to know God. So, I kept the focus on God’s Sovereignty and man’s depravity. Spurgeon said, “Preach up Christ, and preach down man.” That’s what I tried to do, along with a focus on a biblical understanding of conversion and the new birth. I taught about regenerate church membership and church discipline (which the Reformers said is a mark of the true church). Things seemed to go well at first. I believed our congregation would see the truth of God’s sovereign grace from Scripture and embrace it with the same joy I had. I think I under-estimated how deep depravity runs within the human heart.
Immediately after urging Timothy to preach with all patience, Paul warns him in that “the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” Principle among those myths is that of human autonomy. “They will not endure sound teaching,” he says. They won’t put up with it because it grates against their autonomy and dethrones their sinful pride.
The words translated “sound teaching” mean “health-giving doctrine.” It’s where our word “hygiene” comes from, indicating that which brings health. It is the God-centered Gospel of grace focused on the finished work of Christ that brings spiritual health to a church. But that Gospel doesn’t leave any room for human pride of accomplishment. So, wherever a man-centered Gospel exists – and that is the gospel of this age – there will be conflict. In my youthful arrogance I didn’t understand that. I thought I could bring them along through force of will. I was sure that if I just kept teaching the Bible, they would lovingly embrace these truths.