Last Friday I had the privilege of speaking at our seminary’s commencement. We graduated an exceptional class of pastors and counselors, many of whom are already engaged in significant ministry. They will be missed. In light of recent events, I wanted to encourage them that this is perhaps the best time to embark on vocational ministry.
The title of my speech was “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” One of the grads, Carolyn Quinn-Allen, delivered a powerful song on that theme, which you can access here. Here is the text of my talk.
Honored graduates, I’ve got good news, bad news, and very bad news. Which do you want to hear first? Let’s start in the middle, with the bad news. You may be wondering, “Wait, why is the middle ‘bad news?’” Shouldn’t it be neutral? Not if you’re a Calvinist. This is how we see the world. Our glass isn’t half empty or half full. It’s filled to the brim with fresh, spring water, that’s been poisoned.
Calvinists are not curmudgeons, like Andy Rooney or a young Gary Meadors. We just know, as the Heidelberg Catechism states, “how great our sins and misery are.” I miss Gary Meadors, don’t you? For our guests who don’t know, Dr. Meadors was our irrepressible professor of NT. He put his own spin on John Piper’s credo: “Don’t Waste Your Retirement: Move to Florida!” It would have worked too, except he took along his banjo. So yeah, his retirement is pretty much wasted.
I. Bad News
Here’s the bad news. Remember when you started seminary, some 3, 5, or 8 years ago? We told you then that we would help you become a pastor, educator, or Christian counselor. You anticipated becoming a minister of the gospel, a leader in your church and respected in your community. Well, that ship has sailed. The world has changed since you took your first class, at least one of you in the spring of 2006. I’m not saying you’ve been here a long time, Doug Crawford, but we’ve got a building with your name on it. Right about now chalk is being thrown at Paul Beals, Carl Hoch, and Jim Grier. “Gather around, knotheads, my grandson is graduating tonight!”
I may be showing my age by what I’m about to say next. You may disagree, especially if you’re a young whippersnapper, but wait until after I’m done, and do so in person. Not on Twitter. The world has always been sinful—because we’re here—but doesn’t it seem that lately it’s become a lot darker? For the first time in my lifetime, there are passages in the Bible that you dare not read out loud and in public, or people will say you’re wicked and hateful.
So, my new life verse is Romans 1:16. I’ve had several “life verses,” which of course, means none of them actually were. My life verses have a shelf life. When I was in high school my life verse was Phil. 4:13—“I can do all things” (there was more to the verse but I didn’t care). When I got married I changed to the Song of Solomon. Made it my life book. Then we had children, and I jumped to the end of the Bible, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.” Not because I didn’t enjoy my kids, but I was afraid that if God gave me too much time I might mess them up.
Now, for my next phase, I’m choosing Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the gospel.” This is also my prayer for you. You’re going to need extra helpings of wisdom, courage, and kindness, because of the very bad news. Are you ready? The very bad news is that many of your fellow Christians, some of whom may be your colleagues in ministry, will be ashamed of the gospel. And their waffling may make life unusually difficult for you.
II. Very Bad News
Right after Paul says he is not ashamed of the gospel, he explains why we need it.
Romans 1:18-32: left to ourselves we would rather serve idols than the living God, and this idolatry shows up in sins of the spirit and body, which include sexual immorality and homosexual practice. As you know, many Christians, even pastors in the church, say this passage doesn’t mean what it says. They believe they are being tolerant and open-minded, but Paul would say, “You’re ashamed of the gospel.”
Romans 5: a real Adam and a historical fall brought sin and death into the world. Some pastors are now denying original sin. They say this is a western idea that implies our babies stink (they actually use a different word, but since this speech is rated G, I’ll stick with “stink”). One pastor told me he can’t talk about sin with his church, because if he says they’re sinners they’ll just think they stink.
Good luck talking about salvation then. If there’s no sin, there’s no need for a Savior. It’s like selling sunscreen in Michigan. There’s no market for it. Sin is about rebellion, not self-esteem. But if you want to talk self-esteem, I’ll tell you that telling people they’re sinners is a backhanded compliment. You’ve never lectured a worm for wriggling off your hook. “Bad worm! You deeply disappoint me!” It’s a worm, and you don’t expect much. But God takes our sin so seriously that he was willing to die for it? We must have been very, very bad. We must also matter far more than we know.
Other Christian leaders believe in original sin but they say Paul was wrong about a real Adam and a historical fall. Genetic science proves there never was a first man who sinned and brought human death into the world. If you say otherwise you’re anti-science, anti-progress, a hick from the sticks. But Paul would say, “You know, Romans 5 wasn’t only my idea. I was writing the Word of God, which carries a bit more weight than the latest claims of an ever-changing science. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel.”
Romans 10:13-17: we must believe in Jesus to be saved. Our culture thinks this is dangerously absurd. God, if he does exist, is high above us, how can you possibly think you alone have the direct line to him? Do you know who else thinks this way? The Taliban! Stop being so divisive, stop insulting other religions. Tolerate the views of others and get along.
This pluralism has entered our churches. Some polls say that barely half of evangelical Christians believe Jesus is the only way to God. They assume what the culture tells them, that God will accept anyone as long as they are sincere.
Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Elijah test. You’ll never find anyone more sincere than the prophets of Baal. They cut themselves and shouted for hours to get their god to respond. Elijah didn’t give them credit for their sincerity. He called down fire from heaven and destroyed their idols.
Paul would say this doesn’t pass the Jesus test. You can’t accept the gods of other religions without pushing Jesus out to the margins. As Augustine taught us, if it’s possible to be saved any other way, then Jesus died in vain. Don’t be ashamed of Jesus. Don’t be ashamed of Paul’s gospel.
III. Good News
This all sounds very bad, so let’s cut to the good news. What an auspicious moment to be a minister of the gospel! Would you rather be graduating from seminary now, when the world desperately needs leaders who are not ashamed of the gospel, or back in the day, when President Stowell graduated from seminary? I couldn’t locate the exact day of President Stowell’s graduation. There is some dispute over whether it was a 24 hour period or symbolic of something longer. I gather it’s been awhile. Our culture may be increasingly dark, even dangerous for us Christians, but that presents an unparalleled opportunity.
Sin still doesn’t work. People can say what they want, but it doesn’t change the fact that sin destroys lives and families. Sin is foolish, and those who insist on doing life their way will scrape their shins and elbows. They are going to need help, and lots of it. Some will slowly realize their only hope is Jesus, and if you are not ashamed of the gospel, you’ll be ready to lend a hand.
There is no better time to be a pastor, counselor, or Christian leader! You are desperately needed now. You don’t need to be spectacular—normal will do. What previous generations took for granted now stands out. E.g., young couple with wedding bands pushing a baby stroller is a sure sign they are evangelical Christians (double stroller, probably Mormons). Teach the Word, love Jesus and love people, and your light will be very bright in this dark night.
What a privilege! You are a minister of the Word of God. The Word of God!
1. God’s Word makes things happen. God speaks into the void and a new world springs to life. God speaks into the carnage of depraved hearts and the dead are raised to life. There is no greater power than the Word of God, and he has entrusted it to you.
2. God’s Word brings the meaning. Your church may be a handful of people, but they are the bride of Christ, the people who stole his heart. As their pastor, every time you meet you get to bring the Word and tell God’s people just how special they are.
When you bring the Word, you bring the meaning to weddings, funerals, and every counseling appointment. You tell them what God says about their marriage, their death, and their family crisis. Because you have the Word of God, you will be in the room for people’s most important moments. What a privilege!
But never forget, you are only the messenger. If you faithfully teach and apply the Word of God, you will see lives change under your ministry. You will see marriages heal, addictions end, and forgiven sinners overcome with gratitude for their great salvation. They may come to you in tears, thanking you for your inspiring sermon, wise counsel, or patient instruction. In that moment you will be tempted to take some of the credit. Not to their face, you’re too smart for that, but inside, in your very dark place, you’ll smile and think how lucky God is to have you on his team.
Don’t do it! Never forget that you are nothing more than the messenger of God. You didn’t die for anyone’s sin. You didn’t rescue that family or that sinner from hell, God did. You were just the messenger. So when you receive such heartfelt praise, follow David’s example when his men retrieved the water from the well in Bethlehem. Thank them for their kind words, but don’t drink it in. You turn and pour it out before the Lord.
a. This is so important, I want God himself to tell us what our responsibility is (Read 2 Tim. 4:1-5).
b. God has not commanded you to be successful. He does demand that you’re faithful. Karl Barth reminded us that God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions, but neither is he automatically on the side of the small regiments. Your ministry might be large because God is blessing, but you might also be large because you’ve sold out. You might be small because you’re the holy remnant, the last group that has not bowed to Baal, but you might also be small because you bite people.
Numbers tell you nothing. Jesus didn’t leave this earth to public acclaim. Peter and Paul were martyred. But all were faithful. Hebrews 11:32-40—some led armies and stopped the mouths of lions while others were cut in two and lived in holes in the ground. Yet all died as heroes of the faith.
IV. Best News
So that’s the bad news, the very bad news, and the good news. Now for the best news. Which is pretty good, even for a Calvinist. The best news is that you are not on our own, but as you leave here tonight, you go with Christ.
Our present culture may be dangerous, but it is not more dangerous than Jesus. Jesus commands us to take up our cross and follow him (Mt. 16:24). We must die with Christ if we ever hope to rise with him. Losing your life is still the only way to find it.
Please, don’t measure your success by the size of your building, the number of blog hits or compliments you receive from grateful church members, or even how many people you’ve led to Christ. Measure your success by whether you are laying down your life for others (1 John 3:16).
When the bubonic plague, or black death, came to Wittenberg in 1527, many pastors wanted to flee the city, but Luther ordered them to stay and mind their posts. In his characteristically blunt manner, Luther said, “This I well know, that if it were Christ or his mother who were laid low by illness, everybody…would gladly become a servant or helper….nobody would flee but everyone would come running. And yet they don’t hear what Christ himself says, ‘As you did to one of the least, you did it to me.’…If you wish to serve Christ and to wait on him, very well, you have your sick neighbor close at hand. Go to him and serve him, and you will surely find Christ in him, not outwardly but in his word. If you do not wish or care to serve your neighbor you can be sure that if Christ lay there instead you would not do so either and would let him lie there. Those are nothing but illusions on your part which puff you up with vain pride, namely, that you would really serve Christ if he were there in person. Those are nothing but lies; whoever wants to serve Christ in person would surely serve his neighbor as well.”
These are dangerous, uncertain times, but they will never be as dangerous as the gospel already is. These last days cannot frighten the one who has already embraced the death and life promised in the gospel. Rather than shrink from danger, you will recognize there an opening for the gospel. Remember, sin does not work! It never has and it never will. Sinners who realize they are dying may be open to the idea of dying and rising with Christ. But they’ll only listen to someone who has already made the trip.
A dangerous gospel in dangerous times. What an explosive combination. Can there be a more exciting moment to be a minister of the Word of God? Can there be a more auspicious occasion to be a servant in God’s kingdom? Come and die. Die with your Lord for the people he has entrusted into your care, and you’ll see.