It’s all about the Cross

IMG_2578A long time ago I heard CJ Mahaney refer to a book that, he said, “defines Christian ministry for me”. Whatever problems Mahaney has faced in recent years, I’ve always admired his relentless focus on the Gospel. I heard him speak at a major leadership conference with thousands of church leaders present, and rather than offer up your typical conference message guaranteed to get the crowd going, he instead chose to preach on Golgotha. His little book, The Cross Centered Life, changed the way I understood my faith. It radically refocussed my life (along with The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges and a series of messages on grace by Terry Virgo). So, when Mahaney said that a particular book defined Christian ministry in his mind, somehow that lodged in my mind.

But for whatever reason I never got around to picking up that book until a few days ago. It’s The Cross and Christian Ministry by DA Carson. In this book he’s explaining a few sections of First Corinthians. It’s absolutely brilliant. There are echoes of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (but with a little more balance). Here are a few selections well worth thinking about.

On the temptation to pursue ministry strategies v. preaching the cross:

“At the moment, books are pouring off the presses telling us how to plan for success, how ‘vision’ consists in clearly articulated ‘ministry goals,’ how the knowledge of detailed profiles of our communities constitutes the key to successful outreach. I am not for a moment suggesting that there is nothing to be learned from such studies. But after a while one may perhaps be excused for marveling how many churches were planted by Paul and Whitefield and Wesley and Stanway and Judson without enjoying these advantages. Of course all of us need to understand the people to whom we minister, and all of us can benefit from small doses of such literature. But massive doses sooner or later dilute the gospel. Ever so subtly, we start to think that success more critically depends on thoughtful sociological analysis than on the gospel; Barna becomes more important than the Bible. We depend on plans, programs, vision statements—but somewhere along the way we have succumbed to the temptation to displace the foolishness of the cross with the wisdom of strategic planning.”

On the tendency to platform celebrities to make our churches seem more credible:

“Why is it that we constantly parade Christian athletes, media personalities, and pop singers? Why should we think that their opinions or their experiences of grace are of any more significance than those of any other believer? When we tell outsiders about people in our church, do we instantly think of the despised and the lowly who have become Christians, or do we love to impress people with the importance of the men and women who have become Christians? Modern Western evangelicalism is deeply infected with the virus of triumphalism, and the resulting illness destroys humility, minimizes grace, and offers far too much homage to the money and influence and ‘wisdom’ of our day.”

These first two quotes come from his comments on 1 Corinthians 1.18–2.5. This final one, from later in the book, rounds the ideas off well. He’s making the point that a church must be built on the foundation of the Gospel or it isn’t a church.

“If we see this clearly, then many other things will fall into place. We will perceive that it is God’s revelation to us of his Son that is of paramount importance. Recognizing the need for the Spirit of God to illumine the minds of men and women who otherwise will not grasp the gospel, we will emphasize prayer. We will live and serve in the light of the final judgment, for we must give an account of our ministry. It is not that we shall refuse any practical help from those who have something to say about technique or sociological profiles; rather, we will remain utterly committed to the centrality of the cross, not just at vague, theoretical levels, but in all our strategy and practical decisions. We will be fearful of adopting approaches that might empty the cross of Christ of its power… and the only approval we shall seek is his who tests the quality of each builder’s work on the last day.”

A warm half-caf triple venti breve caramel capuccino

“I believe if you can learn to order a coffee at Starbucks, you can learn theological language at church.” Ed Stetzer said this when he preached at the Chapel a couple of years ago, and he has a point.

Of course, on the one hand, we need to work hard to make ourselves understood so that even newcomers walking into church for the first time won’t get totally bewildered by the new language they’re hearing. Preachers, especially, have to think about ways to fill words with meaningful descriptions, metaphors, and analogies. They have to place themselves in the pew and listen to themselves speaking, so as to make sure they are understood.

On the other hand, there are riches of truth in the Bible that simply cannot be expressed if we jettison the language of theology. The particular word Stetzer was about to unpack when he made this comment was “imputation”. What a beautiful word, if you know what it means.

Spurgeon credits a household servant for teaching him much of his theology. Now, she was either an exceptional woman, a stand-out Christian, or he lived in an age when ordinary Christians took the doctrines of Scripture seriously and were able to explain them to one another. I don’t know which is true, but I know which I’d prefer for Christians today.

Unless we work hard to understand our faith, how can we “teach one another” (Col 3:16), or raise our children in the faith (Deut 11:19), or disciple young Christians (Matt 28:18-20), or explain what makes our faith so beautiful to those who don’t yet know Jesus (1 Pet 3:15)?

If you can learn to order coffee, you can learn your theology.

Baptism in the Spirit

Reformed guys tend to argue that the baptism in the Spirit is equivalent to the work of the Spirit in us called ‘regeneration’, or the ‘new birth’. From this they deduce that all believers in Jesus (those who are genuinely born again) have already been baptised in the Spirit.

Depending on their particular degree of conservatism, they may argue for fresh fillings of the Holy Spirit as something experiential and known to you, the recipient, (check out some ‘Third Wave’ Reformed Charismatics like Wayne Grudem and Sam Storms). Or, they may simply not expect any felt experience of the Spirit whatsoever in the Christian life. You get it all at conversion. No doubt there are many nuanced positions somewhere in between.

The view that the baptism in the Spirit is something separate from conversion is not so popular among the Reformed. Lloyd-Jones held this view, and was a bit of lone voice in his day. More recently Terry Virgo and the Newfrontiers movement of churches have taken the same line as Lloyd-Jones, expecting and experiencing the baptism of the Spirit for individuals, and many fresh waves of his power as a movement of churches.

Now, the more conservative Reformed tend to be nervous that we might create two classes of Christians if we follow Lloyd-Jones – those who have not been baptised in the Spirit, and those who have. They will go to 1 Cor 12:13 (“For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit…”) and the basic argument is that, since all the Corinthians had drunk of one Spirit, they had all been baptised in the Spirit at conversion.

I don’t see the logic. Paul is obviously writing to a church he planted (see Acts 18:1ff) and we know it was his practice to pray for all his converts to receive the Spirit (see Acts 19:1-7). So it simply doesn’t make sense to argue that baptism is regeneration based on the fact that all the Corinthians had received the Spirit. The alternative (that some had not received the Spirit) was unthinkable to Paul, since he went out of his way to make sure all believers had received the Spirit (Acts 19:2).

But not only is the case for baptism-in-the-Spirit = regeneration pretty flimsy if built on this verse, the whole drift of the book of Acts points to the doctrine that baptism in the Spirit is something separate to and distinct from conversion.

Take Acts 8 as an example. Philip preaches the gospel in Samaria, and they believe. Later, Peter and John come down and find that they haven’t received the Spirit, so they pray for them and they do. Two things are hugely important and striking from this passage:

1. The Samaritans are called believers in 8:12, and they’ve been baptised in water, but they receive the Spirit later when Peter and John pray for them (8:15, 17). Therefore, being born again does not equate to receiving the Spirit, though the new birth / regeneration is, of course, the work of the Spirit.

2. When they receive the Spirit it is such a remarkable event (details not provided) that Simon Magus, an ex-magician, wants to pay good money to have the gift that Peter and John seem to have of touching people, and those people receiving the Spirit (8:17). If it were an invisible work of God, he would hardly want to part with his cash (8:19-20); that would be a pretty rubbish magic trick.

Simon was clearly wrong in his motive, and Peter tells him so. But we shouldn’t miss the underlying point – receiving the Spirit in the book of Acts was a felt experience, so remarkable and obvious that people knew if they had or had not received the Spirit, and observers could even see it happen.

I’m getting a bit off track with the second point, and so want to get back to underlining the first; receiving the Spirit is not the same thing as being born again. Now, I’ve heard the argument that says that since this was the first time the gospel had gone to Samaria their experience was unique. Like the experience of the disciples in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost, this was a turning point in history. As the gospel went out in successive phases from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, then the ends of the earth, so did the promise of the Spirit. Therefore, it is concluded that the experience of these early believers should not be expected today. No, today it happens differently. Today, regeneration is baptism in the Spirit.

Huh? I’m sorry, but that simply isn’t a Biblical argument. You’ll never find a verse or passage to support the idea that “It was different then”, and it doesn’t make sense anyway. Of course, it fits nicely with church history and the weight of teaching through the centuries, where most of the dead guys we respect did not think there was an experience of the Spirit after conversion. But even so, it’s not Biblical. Dead guys are wrong sometimes.

Conclusion; Every new believer should be prayed for to receive the Spirit as part of the normal Christian birthing process (usually just before or just after baptism) and they should know when it has happened to them.