Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats, Part 1

Note: The following sermon was preached in the weekly chapel service of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina on September 8, 2008. I want to thank the executive leadership of the BSCNC for the invitation to preach and their blessing in publishing the sermon manuscript here at Between the Times. The sermon will be published in two parts.

Assisting Gospel-Driven Churches: A Reminder to Baptist Bureaucrats
1 Corinthians 1:18-31

At the turn of the 20th century, the major railroad companies had the opportunity to invest in automobile technology. But the companies balked at that opportunity, arguing that they were in the railroad business, not the automobile business. What the railroad companies failed to understand is that they were actually in neither the railroad business nor the automobile business, but they were in the transportation business. Their myopia in this matter ultimately resulted in a loss of influence for the entire industry as automobiles gradually replaced trains as the primary means of transportation in America.

This morning, my question for you is this: What business are you in as the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina?

In 1830 missionary Baptists in North Carolina formed a state convention, and according to the BSCNC Articles of Incorporation, that convention exists for two purposes:

  1. To assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission; to promote missions, evangelism, education, social services, the distribution of the Bible and sound religious literature; and to cooperate with the work of the Southern Baptist Convention; and
  2. To do any and all acts and things which may be deemed desirable or expedient for the benefit of the programs of the Convention

I think you will agree with me that the key phrase is “to assist the churches in their divinely appointed mission.” The convention is a servant to the churches, which means every program, every conference, every curricula, and every service must ultimately be about assisting churches in their divinely appointed mission. With this in mind, I think it would be helpful this morning to remind ourselves about the type of ministry the Bible teaches ought to be embodied in our churches.

In 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5 Paul describes for us the type of priorities he pursued and encouraged the Corinthian church to embrace. In a shameless knock-off of Rick Warren, I am going to call Paul’s vision the “gospel-driven church.” As we look at this passage together, I think we will see two different characteristics of a gospel-driven church.

Before proceeding, I think it would be helpful to note why the characteristics of gospel-driven churches matter for denominational servants. As you know, I am a seminary professor, which means that like you I too am a denominational servant. Furthermore, because my seminary is located just about 29 miles north of here, our constituencies overlap; we are assisting many of the same churches. My conviction is that the more denominational servants like you and me understand what gospel-driven churches ought to look like, the better we can assist those churches in their divinely appointed mission.

I. Gospel-Driven Churches Proclaim the Right Message (1:18-25)

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

Paul calls the right message “the word of the cross,” which I believe is another way of saying that the right message is the gospel itself. I think this is a reasonable assumption for me to make because Paul himself argues that the gospel is about the cross later on in 1 Cor. 15:1-4:

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you- unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures . . .

So Paul claims that the gospel he believed and preached is that Christ died for sinners and was raised from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures.

I think it is worth noting that in Paul’s mind, the crucifixion and resurrection are foundational doctrines, but they are also more than mere doctrines; they are part of a bigger story. Paul says Jesus’s death and resurrection are in accordance with the Scriptures–in this context the Old Testament–meaning that they were both meant to happen and that they were consistent with all that led up to them in redemptive history. Furthermore, when we think about the crucifixion and resurrection as part of the grand storyline of Scripture, we are reminded of why these things are necessary, what they accomplished, and how these events have changed the course of history.

The gospel is the story of creation, fall, promise, redemption, and restoration, with the person and work of Jesus Christ at the center of the plot. It is only in this great “Story of Stories” that all of our individual stories find their true meaning. So when we think of the salvation of individual sinners (which is the way we most often think of the gospel), we might say that the gospel is the good news of all that God has done on the behalf of sinners through the perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ. This gospel is the “word of the cross,” and this is the right message that our churches are called to proclaim.

Now when we look back to 1 Cor. 1:18-25 we see that different people respond to the message of the cross in different ways. The gospel is folly–silliness!–to those who reject it. This remains true today. Our own world also has its Jews demanding signs and Greeks demanding worldly wisdom. And Paul tells us this will be so because the gospel is a stumbling block to many.

But God’s foolishness is wiser than the accumulation of all the wisdom of the world, and his weakness is stronger than the multiplied might of all the armies of the earth. Though it may seem like silliness in the eyes of fallen men, the gospel is the very power of God for all those who are being saved. It is the proclamation of this gospel and the living out of this gospel in local communities of the redeemed that is the divinely appointed mission of our churches. Gospel-driven churches are churches that keep the gospel at the center of all that they do.

So how can you as denominational servants at the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina assist our churches in proclaiming the right message?

First of all, every one of your programs and initiatives must be tethered to the good news of what God has done in Christ. You must provide resources that assist churches in evangelizing the lost with the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches as they disciple new believers through the gospel. You must provide resources that assist churches in teasing out the implications of the gospel for all of life. If you want to assist our churches in proclaiming the right message, that message must be at the heart of who you are as denominational servants.

Second, the gospel should be clearly articulated in every piece of ministry literature you produce, every conference you sponsor, every annual meeting you host, every new ministry you launch, and every existing ministry to which you give your blessing. If you want to assist our churches in making the gospel clear, you must do the same in all that you do.

Gospel-driven ministry proclaims the right message, and if those of us in this room–and those of us at my seminary–are to be anything more than a mere Baptist bureaucrats, we must assist our churches in proclaiming this message in both word and deed. This is the only reason we exist.

(To be Continued)

God’s Guidelines for the “Gray Areas” of Life: Wise Decision-Making in a Wicked World, Part 8

THE USE OF BEVERAGE ALCOHOL AS A TEST CASE: PART B

Ethical and moral decision-making presents a great challenge for devoted followers of Jesus in the 21st century context. In 1 Corinthians Paul provides helpful guidelines for navigating what could be called “the gray areas” of the Christian life.

These biblical principles are true anywhere, anytime and under any circumstances. They are extremely helpful in leading us to be wise decision-makers as we live out a gospel-centered ethic.

3). Will this action encourage my brother or sister in Christ? (1 Corinthians 8:13; 10:24, 32)
A prospective student once told me that he went to the bars and drank with his friends to prove you could be a Christian and be cool. I responded by saying if you have to go to the bars and drink to prove you are cool, then you are not cool. Further, I shared with him that the example he was setting for others could some day come back to haunt him. I was speaking of his children.

We are all an example to someone. To our children we are probably heroes. Perhaps you believe you are capable of drinking in moderation a glass of wine to the glory of God. Your children: can you be confident that they will be able to do the same? Is it worth the risk? One thing is certain. If you share the wisdom of avoiding the appearance and place of temptation, you will never have to worry about them walking the tragic road of alcoholism because they saw you do it, thought it must be ok, but unfortunately lacked self-control.

I have tried hard to see how supporting the alcohol industry and socially drinking helps anyone. To be completely honest, I just don’t see it.

4). Will this help or hinder my gospel witness? (1 Corinthians 9:12, 19-13; 10:32-33)
I can conceive of a scenario where sharing the gospel over a beer or glass of wine might not be a problem, at least in certain context. On the other hand I do not see how it helps or enhances one’s witness, and it may actually be a stumblingblock. Wisdom again says why run the risk? You have no reason to think it will hinder your witness if you abstain. There is a risk, however, if you don’t.

5). Is this action consistent with my life in Christ? (1 Corinthians 6:9-11, 19)
This principle settles the issue of drunkenness, intoxication and impairment. My joy and fulfillment in now totally and completely in Christ through the Spirit (Eph. 5:18). I do not need an intoxicating, mind altering substance of any sort as a new creation in Christ. If I need a high I will find it in Jesus.

6). Will this action violate my conscience? (I Corinthians 10:25-29)
For some the answer is yes. For others the answer is no. This principle will assist us in addressing this issue, but in and of itself it is not decisive.

7). Will this action follow the pattern of the life of Jesus? (1 Corinthians 11:1)
This is the place where those advocating moderation seek to make their strongest case. Jesus drank wine and so we can drink wine. Jesus drank wine and if you advocate abstinence you are saying Jesus was wrong. This is a compelling argument, at least on the surface. However, if one digs a little deeper I believe you will discover a flaw in the argument. You see there is no one-to-one correspondence between the time of Jesus and our own.

As I noted in the previous article it is true Jesus drank wine, and I am sure I would have had I lived in the first century. However, there is no evidence at all that he ever partook of “strong drink.” In other words Jesus, like others deeply devoted to God, would have drank wine with a very low alcohol content. It would more than likely have required an extremely large amount to become intoxicated. As Bob Stein has carefully documented, and I have yet to read a refutation of his argument, “The term “wine” or oinos in the ancient world, then, did not mean wine as we understand it today but wine mixed with water…. To consume the amount of alcohol that is in two martinis by drinking wine containing three parts water to one part wine [a fairly common ancient ratio], one would have to drink over twenty-two glasses. In other words, it is possible to become intoxicated from wine mixed with three parts water, but one’s drinking would probably affect the bladder long before it affected the mind” (Bob Stein, “Wine Drinking in New Testament Times,” Christianity Today 19, June 20, 1975, 10-11.). It should also be noted that children would have drank this diluted mixture of water and wine, and it is impossible to imagine godly parents giving their children a drink that could get them drunk. And, given their smaller body size, they would have become intoxicated on less wine than their adult parents. It again seems clear that there is no one-to-one correspondence with first century wine and twenty first century distilled intoxication liquor. Concerning the latter I believe the Lord Jesus would have no part.

8). Will this action show love to others? (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)
The loving thing is always to esteem others better than yourself, it is to look out for their interest, not just your own. “Liberty in Christ regulated by love” for Him and others is the ethic that guides the man or woman in Christ. Is it more loving to insist on my freedom or to sacrifice for another? Because I love you and would never want to lead you astray by my example, I will chose to say no to that which can enslave, intoxicate and addict. It’s just the loving thing to do.

9). Will this action honor my body which belongs to God? (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
This is actually a debatable principle with wine or a beer. There is no debate with respect to hard liquor. However, I know of no benefit allegedly gained from a beer or glass of wine that cannot be obtained by some other non-intoxicating means. Why not just drink a glass of grape juice and avoid any risk of addiction?

10). Will this action glorify God? (1 Corinthians 10:31)
This principle is the most important in my judgment, but it is not conclusive. I have met some Christians who with sincerity and conviction say I can drink a glass of wine, a good gift from God, for His glory. I, on the other hand, cannot. However, keep in mind that glorifying also entails our previous nine guidelines. That truth will certainly influence our grasp and understanding of all that is involved in glorifying God.

I should note that some who advocate moderation draw an analogy to eating and sex. They correctly point out that gluttony and sexual immorality are sin, but not the act of eating or sexual intercourse. I would want to make several observations in this context. First, gluttony and overeating is sinful and dishonors the temple of the Holy Spirit. This is something I was guilty of, God convicted me, and I lost 30 pounds. I stay in constant battle in this area. Second, many who would line up with me on alcohol run (but not very fast due to their weight!) from addressing gluttony. Third, some have alleged that Southern Baptist are hypocritical in passing resolutions on alcohol but not gluttony. I agree. So next year in Louisville someone needs to submit such a resolution. It will have my full support. Fourth, we have to eat to live and we have to engage in sex to propagate the race. Drinking alcohol is not necessary for either life or good living. The fact is it may hamper or end both. Fifth, I know of no one who’s been arrested for DWF (Driving While Fat). The supposed analogy breaks down at a significant point: the point of potential intoxication.

In conclusion, I agree with John MacArthur. Can I say it is always a sin to take a drink? No. Can I say it is almost always unwise? Yes. One of America’s leading pastors is Andy Stanley. He wrote a book entitled The Best Question Ever. That question is this, “What is the wise thing for me to do?” In my judgment, abstaining from beverage alcohol is the wise thing to do. This is not legalism but love. This is not being anti-biblical but pro-brother and sister. This is not working for evil but for good. Given the world in which we live, I believe such a lifestyle honors the Lord Jesus. I believe it pleases Him. It is simply the wise thing to do.

Two New Articles

Yesterday afternoon Baptist Press published a “First Person” (editorial) I authored titled “Gender and the Vice Presidency.” I argue that, biblically speaking, gender should not disqualify a political candidate. Christianity Today’s online edition published my review of David Dockery’s Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal (B&H, 2008). It is a fantastic book and I highly recommend it.