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Reflections from The Gospel Coalition National Conference 2017

[An assignment for CH 6000: Pastoral Ministry in the Protestant Reformation, a class at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, in which I wrote a distilled reflection on each plenary session and workshop at the conference. These focus not on summarizing the argument of each session, but on applications for theology of ministry and pastoral practice.]


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John Piper, Galatians 1

This chapter began with a strong warning – there is no other gospel than that which Christ delivered to the apostles, and anyone teaching otherwise is accursed, anathema, damned. Piper noted that this should cause an unparalleled seriousness about life and worship. Pastors should thus take the pulpit for what it is worth: the means by which God can and regularly does bring sinners into salvation. Jokes are tolerable, but only sparingly, not in the middle of the serious content, and never in a way to trivializes either the weight of the content or the longstanding significance of the pulpit (i.e., do not condition congregants to expect a weekly comedy show). Piper said, “Woe to the Pastor and Worship Leader who create an atmosphere where these truths [the gospel] are impossible to feel.”

To unscramble this passage’s zig-zagged logical path, Piper introduced a homiletical device that I have never seen before. Suppose someone said “I can’t talk now, I’m late, I have to hurry, or I’ll miss my train.” This is not stated in a logically sequential order, but because there are only four steps, our brains sort them out automatically. Not so with Paul’s writing! Piper broke down the chapter into eight distinct claims, and preached through them in logical order rather than through the text in written order. This simple tool can clarify the text when I lead a devotional, Bible study, or preach a sermon.

Paul was able to say hard things because he was not, in Piper’s words, “a man-pleaser.” This is one of the marks of having authority that comes from beyond mankind. As long as I lead with one eye on man’s opinions, on their approval, I “will not be a faithful minister. I will be a coward.” Thus, the pastor who depends on God’s authority (through the Word) does not feel the need to seek man’s authorization.

A serious ministry, a logically-traced message, an authority not from man.


Sandy Wilson, Galatians 2

Peter had not defended the apostolic understanding of justification when certain people arrived. Intimidated, he shirked back and fell into the path of least resistance. If justification by faith alone is true, then those Judaizers are wrong, and Peter should stand up to their imposing presence. From this Wilson asserts that justification (or any important bit of theology) must be demonstrated and defended. JBFA is not “just an intellectual idea; it is something we commit to body and soul and live by in our entire being.” Thus, the minister should defend the legitimacy of the concept and then demonstrate practically that he believes it.

A bold witness.


Stephen Nichols, Martin Luther

Martin Luther has been cast in this presentation as a profoundly honest man: keeping his promise to St. Anne from the storm; trembling before the Eucharist at his first mass as priest; spending hours in the confessional lamenting his sin. Here we find a man concerned with his own standing with God before concerning himself with the particulars of life or the sins of his congregants. The pastor, like Luther, should himself be internally and wholly devoted to Christ before anything else. The Christian Leader must be led by Christ before they can lead others in the Kingdom.

Nichols described Luther as “a one-note theologian,” whose one note was justification by faith alone. He didn’t feel a need to emphasize other doctrines. I am sure that Luther had particular opinions on all the debates of his day, and that if he were living in the 21st century he would as well. But it seems that he chose to sit on one refrain. It can be tempting to make a single issue a “pet issue” on which I specialize, to which I quickly turn in a vacuum of other content. What other issue could be more important? The pastor should hold the gospel message as the most important talking-point of their theology and personal identity.

Near the end of his address Nichols gave an anecdotal story from the National Religious Broadcasters Association conference that year. Having a thirty-minute presentation slot, R.C. Sproul gave a seminary lecture on sola scriptura, focusing on the biblical and traditional support for the doctrine and the effect is has on systematic theology. Immediately thereafter a pastor – who led the largest congregation in the country ­– spoke about “the four pillars of his ministry” which each came from direct revelation from God. He also made sure to throw in the claim that “Jesus did his work for salvation, so no you also have to do yours!”. The clear takeaway here is the comparison between Sproul and Luther, both as men dedicated to the authority of scripture before anything else.

An honest contrition, a one-note theologian, a dedication to scripture.


Kevin DeYoung, John Calvin

The main interpretation of Calvin given in this presentation is this: his lasting significance comes not because he himself did any particularly relevant thing to his day, but because he rooted the ministry activity of Geneva in the scriptures. The scriptures last, not the particular relevancies of the ages, and so his legacy lasts. A ministry’s foundation is not particular relevancies. We can still use them ad hoc, but the real substance, the real foundation should be the scriptures.

For example, consider Calvin’s return to Geneva three years after banishment. He said nothing, walked into the church, stepped into the pulpit, and preached on the very next text after where he left. The pure dedication to the Word in his preaching ministry is obvious.

Another reflection: Calvin worked himself to death. He preached 10 sermons every two weeks, wrote large volumes on theology, had dozens of pastoral consultations per week (or weeks), and worked probably 16 or 17 hour days, for 25 years. DeYoung noted that Calvin did not eat well or sleep enough. These are both an encouragement and a cautionary tale: the pastor should work hard, spending himself and pouring himself out for the mission; yet he also should follow the sabbath principle of rest-taking, being careful to avoid burnout that threatens the mission.

DeYoung also pointed out that Calvin requested to be buried in an unmarked grave so that future generations could not idolize him in death. This, in addition to his original desire to live a quiet and retired life in the countryside, implies that he did not desire a platform or stage. So too should all pastors be content with little, though God occasionally gives much to some.

A scriptural foundation, a hard worker, an over-worker, a man content without power.


Peter Adam, Galatians 3

The Galatians, like so many others, have bought the narrative that they have “moved on to maturity,” in Adam’s words, by leaving behind what they once had. Pragmatism, Legalism, “Civic Religion,” Agnosticism, and such are almost always cast in terms of having progressed from Christianity to the newfound, superior ideology. Yet Paul would disagree; they have moved from Christ to foolishness. The narrative ought to be cast not like Christians are just holding down the fort, (because this empowers these other narratives), but that Christians are the ones who have left what is behind to press forward.

Many have “just enough religion to make them hate,” Adam says, because they fail to understand the law-grace dynamic in Galatians 3. This passage, and the concept of justification by faith alone, ought to be a great equalizer, because salvation does not hinge on anything contained within the person himself. So then, whether a pastor or not, the Christian must treat equally all other believers in Christ, not showing favoritism. We also ought not divide the body along ethnic lines like the Judaizers in this chapter.

A wise narrative, a leveled body.


D.A. Carson, Galatians 4

In this sermon, Dr. Carson asserts that slavery should be a framing metaphor in theology. Now, in the 21st century, freedom is a self-chosen and constructed identity for authentic living. Carson is not talking about this. Instead, freedom in Christ is slavery to Christ. It follows that pastors should use this in their preaching rhetoric, and that they should not discuss freedom in Christ in a way that implies licentiousness or antinomianism.

An enslaved freeman.


Andy Davis, John Yates, Steven Um, Ligon Duncan, The Pastor-Scholar in the Reformation

A heightened need for specialization in the Church has created a rift between theologian and pastor. While at one point the two were conjoined: think of Luther, himself a university professor, or Calvin, a prolific writer, or Cranmer, a seminary professor; they each served the dual roles of pastor-scholar. So, the main takeaway of this panel is that pastors can and should engage in lifelong learning, even scholarship.

Andy Davis mentioned that Calvin followed a teaching principle called “Lucid Brevity,” which implies that his audience has little time and no specialist vocabulary. Other panelists concurred, saying that the Reformers were all involved with the local church very actively. Um commented that pastors need to write without footnotes, so to speak, meaning that they avoid scholarly distractions and minutia when giving the main point to congregants.

Near the end of the panel, Um and Duncan volleyed on Scott Manetsch’s book “Calvin’s Company of Pastors” and mentioned some particular ways to meet today’s need for ongoing in-service training and continuing education for pastors. Duncan mentioned that early Presbyterians has a sermon exchange with 5 or 6 young pastors, organized by the Presbyter within his jurisdiction. (This would only necessarily apply to PCA pastors who were in attendance, but conceivably could also be organized similarly by congregationalist bodies).

A lifelong learner, a quick and clear exposition, a sermon exchange.


D.A. Carson, Evangelicalism and the Evangel

[This talk, while rich in sociological and theoretical implications, gave little in terms of pastoral ministry. I selected it before the title had changed. It originally read “Evangelism and the Evangel,” and the -ism was added latter. I had thought Carson would be speaking on methods of outreach to nonbelievers. Instead, it focused on the definition of Evangelical and how to construct that definition objectively.]


[But, Erwin Lutzer did sit next to me. So there’s that.]


Tim Keller, Calvin’s Company of Pastors Today

One of the reigning themes of the conference, along with the need for modern catechesis and pastoring in a post-Christian context, was Scott Manetsch’s book “Calvin’s Company of Pastors.” Keller presented the main concept of that book in this talk: Calvin convened a group of pastors to preach, scrutinize each other’s preaching, advise each other personally, correct, rebuke, etc., every week, for well over a decade. There is no analogue in modern pastoral ministry. We need to develop a modern analogue.

While Keller was light on specifics (intentionally cutting short to allow for a 30 minute Question and Answer), he did emphasize that a recent trend has been an increase in burnout among pastors, and that the Company of Pastors idea could potentially deter or reverse that trend.

Keller also mentioned that we currently elevate the pulpit among all other ministries, while the Reformers conceived of Ministries of the Word. Other scripturally based ministries are important too. He listed extensive Bible exposition, catechesis, immersion in the Psalms, the Lord’s Supper, Daily Office, and accountability as ministries of the Word used by Calvin that we currently minimize but should not.

A sharpening group, an exhaustion preventative, a variety of Ministries of the Word.


Ligon Duncan, The Reformation After Calvin

Cultural Engagement divided the Reformers just as it divides Evangelicals today. It is important, Duncan asserts in his portrait of Zwingli, to be careful on issues of church-state-society theory, and to treat them like adiaphora, as they deserve. Pastors should seek to persuade, have cordial disagreements, and present a compelling argument, without becoming divisive on the topic.

Similarly, Henry Bullinger had a deep concern for unity in the church. Duncan observes that we think that doctrine must be protected, but we don’t think unity must be – though both are commanded in scripture countless times. The solution is to triage debates into levels of significance, prioritizing doctrine on higher debates and unity on lower debates.

A prioritized unity.


Thabiti Anyabwile, Galatians 5

A pastor should always point people to grace, not to legalism. Congregants will see legalism and think they are climbing their way to God, instead of realizing that they are falling from grace. The apostasy in congregations will not be an outright denial of justification by faith alone. Instead, it will be a subtle change in actions that subtly undermines this doctrine. Pointing them not to law-keeping by grace will blunt this effect.

An emphasis on grace.


Tim Keller, Galatians 6

The “boasting in the Cross” in this chapter does come at the mutual exclusivity of anything else. Keller instructs “not to boast in your endnotes and footnotes, or how much you know.” The example given of Billy Graham preaching at Cambridge is a fantastic contrast between the preacher whose words stir hearts and the preacher whose thoughts numb ears. Pastors should not hold a mindset to impress their audience into buying their book (though nobody is so honest as to admit this) but to preach the Cross until they repent.

This Cross is offensive because it undermines a person’s achieved good works. Keller quotes a hypothetical person asking the preacher, “you mean after all the work I did to stay out of the gutter, I’m still in the gutter?” The pastor should nonetheless preach the doctrine of the Cross and hope that eventually the listeners who would adopt this same hypothetical mindset would repent and trust in Christ.

A boast only in the Cross, a Cross that offends.

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