This is part of an article originally published January 1922 in the Southwestern Journal of Theology by Dr. L. R. Scarborough entitled, “Poisoning the Fountains of Truth.” It was republished in the most recent Southwestern Journal of Theology, “Baptists and Unity.” May a voice of our past speak to us today. Below is part one of a four part series reprinting Dr. Scarborough’s essay:
Poisoning the Fountains of Truth
Christ’s churches are the most important institutions in the world. He gave them a definite form of government, a specific character of membership, set up in them the two ordinances, gave to them the great body of the truth found in the New testament, set for them their officers, and committed to them the great task of winning the world to Him and building His great Kingdom. He says through His inspired apostles in 1 Timothy 3:15 that this organization which He set up and called His church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” He says this church was purchased by His blood; and in His spiritual economy He calls this institution His Bride. All this and many other things in the New testament indicate that these spiritual organizations set up by Christ and established in many places by the apostles and which have for their successors these New testament churches of today are the most important institutions in all the world. These churches are to keep, guard, and promote the ordinances. They are to propagate the gospel. They are to win souls. They are both the preservers and the heralds of the gospel truth. They are to establish Christ’s Kingdom and to make Christ King in all the world. From any angle you look at these churches their importance is magnified.
But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and manifests through us the sweet aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. 15 For we are a fragrance of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; 16 to the one an aroma from death to death, to the other an aroma from life to life. And who is adequate for these things? 17 For we are not like many, peddling the word of God, but as from sincerity, but as from God, we speak in Christ in the sight of God. 2nd Corinthians 2:14-17 NASB.
The buzzword of division among under 40 pastors is ‘relevance.’ Here, as with so much of ministerial lingo, is much room for debate primarily because the word has come to assume definition without having been defined for the larger audience. With no definition comes no consensus, thus the majority can affirm its use without knowing precisely what is being affirmed; further, when a minority cautions its use, they become the subject of derision by its proponents, though the proponents themselves hold varying, or even contradictory definitions of what is meant by the term.
Relevance was once championed for the use of chairs and projection in worship. Now the battle over relevance has to do with street talk and profanity. It has been argued by some (though I think largely the minority) that shock jock language is acceptable because of the audience that is being targeted. “If a preacher wants to reach a sailor then he must sound less like a preacher and more like a sailor,” as the argument goes. In other words, to continue to talk like a preacher is to make one irrelevant at engaging the world of a sailor. This concept seems flawed for at least two reasons.
First, it assumes the irrelevance of the message as it is. The nature of the Gospel is that all men are lost and in need of salvation through Christ, without which there will be eternal separation from God in a place called Hell. That message is relevant no matter the audience.
Second, it assumes the sufficiency of the preacher. It implies that the message itself is of limited power, and is in need of someone to give it life. Therefore, the message becomes in need of the preacher, not to make it known, but to make it worth knowing.
Rather, we should begin with two presuppositions. First, those who respond to the offer of salvation do so because of the power of the word and Spirit. Second, the person who responds to the message of the Gospel does so precisely because they recognize it is different from the message of the world. The Bible calls the minister to be an example, not an accomplice.
Does relevance mean that the preacher is able to communicate something to the world, or does it mean that preacher has something the world needs to hear? In other words, does the preacher have a world to which he needs to make a message relevant, or does he have a message that is relevant that needs to be given to the world? One says the message is irrelevant and needs relevance added to it, in this case by the preacher. The other says the message is relevant and simply needs someone to deliver it to the world.
I cannot help but find the irony that much of what is considered relevant is often derived from polls. These polls are taken from the same people who no longer believe in Satan, Hell, or the exclusivity of Christ. Yet we make our authority for relevance to be the responses received from polls. In turning to the theologically erroneous to develop our practice of proclamation we can hope to establish a blissful ignorance at best.
In 2 Corinthians Paul has spent much of chapter 1 lamenting the difficulties that he has faced. He has been rejected by those that should follow him, persecuted by those to whom he has sought to minister, and criticized by those who did not understand his message. Yet, he counters all of that by reminding us of some truths that will greatly aid in ministry in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17.
First, Christ will lead his people in victory. Wherever the gospel is preached, Christ will be victorious. We must ask ourselves if we really believe the message is able to accomplish what we say it can accomplish. We must determine whether our approach to preaching begins with the assumption of an inherent relevance contained within the message or if relevance is intentional on the part of the preacher. I fear that our over-fascination with intentional relevance may be revealing a lack of trust in the inherent relevance of the message.
Second, the preaching of the gospel will be satisfying to some, and putrefying to others. We should not seem surprised when it is rejected. We must escape the developing mentality that a successful ministry will be embraced by everyone. To remove the offense from the Gospel requires removing the Cross from the Gospel. To remove the Cross from the Gospel is to remove the good news from the Gospel, leaving us with no Gospel at all.
Third, we are inadequate to bring the Gospel to a higher level of accomplishment than what is already inherent within it. Any pursuit of relevance that seeks to make the Gospel more successful is to place the adequacy upon the preacher and remove it from the message. In the words of Paul, “Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5). In other words, we don’t make the Gospel relevant, it makes us relevant. Should we lose the Gospel of salvation in favor of a gospel of coping, we shall have discovered ultimate irrelevance. Then we will no longer speak for God and we will no longer have anything unique to say to people.
Fourth, we are not free to peddle the word of God. That is, we dare not seek to make the Gospel more palatable to social desires or cultural norms. We are not to be manipulative with the word of God. Some attempts at relevance hold little of the Gospel message, as if we can stealthily slip in the message of salvation and make the hearer a Christian without their knowing it.
Fifth, what we preach, we preach in Christ and before God. Perhaps a question every preacher should ask is if their message was written in manuscript form, would the Lord be willing to claim that message as His own? Would He hesitate to read every word? If the message is indeed in Christ and before God, then we should expect that God would be willing to own every word of the message.
To seek relevance at the expense of Biblical fidelity is ultimately to be irrelevant. We will say nothing they have not already heard. We are to expose the message in all of its fullness, which by design, is radically different from any other message the world has heard. It should sound different because it is different. The message that we are to communicate finds its locus in the inerrant and sufficient word of God.
It is a message that by nature is offensive to those who are perishing and satisfying to those who are being saved. Is it possible that the perceived losses we have suffered are due more to a lack of trusting in the power of God’s word and Spirit than in a culturally mandated relevance? There is no more relevant message than the simple message of the God who came to save sinners using the Cross as an instrument of reconciliation for those who respond in faith. Anything less is irrelevant.
Interaction with this post is at www.johnbmann.blogspot.com
Without question William Paul Young’s novel, The Shack, has generated much discussion. Today’s podcast is audio from this past Wednesday night service at my church, Claycomo Baptist Church, in Kansas City, Missouri.
As you will hear about some of them in this podcast, I am indebted to many people who have posted great resources online regarding this issue, among whom are David Miller, Mark Driscoll, Todd Friel, Kendall Adams, Stephen Boster, Dr. Albert Mohler, and Dr. Norman Geisler.
In this message, I deal with seven of the major theological problems found in the book as well as in statements made directly by the book’s author in an interview.
Please listen with discernment ( :-) ) as you open this podcast.
When I was in college at John Brown University in the early 1990′s, I loved playing foosball. I played every day, at all hours. It’s possible that, had I not loved it so much, I might not now be working my way through Liberty University’s distance learning program, but I digress.
I was never a great player, mainly because I was never able to generate enough power without spinning the handle, and spinning, in real competitive foosball, is strictly verboten. There was even a catchy saying in the foosball community at this private Christian college: “Hate the spin, but love the spinner.” It is much easier to slam the ball into the back of the goal when you spin, but the truly talented players can fire unbelievably powerful shots just by the action of their wrists. They don’t need to spin in order to be effective.
On April 20, USA Today published an essay by Jonathan Merritt. Merritt, 26, is a recent graduate of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, and according to the footnote of his essay, he works as a faith and culture writer. The article is titled “An Evangelical’s Plea: ‘Love the Sinner’,” and it is a call for Christians to reach out in love to the gays and lesbians around us, and to do so in tangible ways. This is a worthy point to make, and a call that all of us who name the name of Christ ought to heed. But in making the point, Merritt makes use of quite a lot of rhetorical “spin,” enough to make me want to dust off that old catch phrase I learned around the foosball tables at JBU.
Some are saying that questions are being asked that are not being answered. The only questions that I have heard asked relate, not to change, but to control. It seems that these questions began back in 2005-06 at the call for change coming from a disgruntled International Mission Board (IMB) trustee. This call and the reaction of some who disagreed with the Conservative Resurgence, but were still in SBC churches, created a perfect storm as the 2006 SBC Convention approached in Greensboro, NC. It was at this convention that many found their voices and some found them so well they began heckling Dr. Vines as he spoke to an issue. Also, it was in this convention that the SBC debated alcohol and some that spoke of their outrage in various gatherings now seem to overlook the consternation they once had. It is within this context that questions of change first began.