John Piper thinks I am going to hell. No, he didn’t witness me murdering an enemy (at least I don’t think he did) or anything else that is out of the realm of normal sin. I don’t believe he saw me blaspheme the Holy Spirit or anything unforgivable like that. In fact, his problem doesn’t even seem to be with me. John Piper seems to have a problem with how I was saved, or at least how I think I was saved.
Let me explain. John Piper, one of the most influential leaders of the Neo-Reformed movement currently en vogue in conservative American Evangelicalism and the sponsors of my very own theological education, takes issue with dreams. Specifically, he says that he “suspicious… big time” of Muslims seeing Jesus in their dreams and converting to Christianity. While the angels in heaven rejoice at a single lost sheep being found, John’s not quite ready to break out the champagne quite yet, and not just because there are Baptists in the room. Piper’s problem, theologically speaking, is with the plan of salvation seemingly at work. He argues that people must hear the gospel to be saved, and this requires a human effort to preach to the person before he or she can be saved. He says in a recent talk to pastors,
“The Gospel needs to be heard. How shall they believe unless they hear and how shall they hear without a preacher and how shall they preach unless they be sent. That’s a pretty significant argument in Romans 10.”
His argument is simple, in order to be saved, you must first be preached to.
The problem for me is that long before I ever attended a Protestant church or heard their articulation of the gospel, a voice spoke to me from some unseen source and imprinted upon me some truths: There is a God, Jesus is God, I should be saved from my own hell but cannot do it myself, God offers needed salvation freely by his own grace. These are ideas that I accepted as fact long before I ever picked up a Bible or hung out with Christians. So radical were these ideas to my cultural background that I believed I was the only one who knew these things. Imagine my surprise some years later when a friend invited me to church only to find out that there was a whole religion based on the ideas I had carried with me. I am a disciple as a result of direct, supernatural revelation; I am not a convert because of a preacher’s words.
So what am I to do? Should I abandon my call to ministry because I can’t possibly be saved. Should I go to a Baptist church on revival Sunday and wait until the end to run down the aisle and tearfully throw myself at the preacher’s feet. I suppose I am going to have to get baptized again. Third time’s the charm you know. Perhaps I just need to critically examine Pastor Piper’s claim.
Having been educated in circles highly influenced Piper, I know that Romans is a pretty significant book for him. I know that many of his tradition view salvation through the lens of Romans as a universal truth. Evidence for this theology is granted when one simply asks, “what must I do to be saved?” Rarely will a Neo-Reformed take a person to any of the myriad occasions when someone asked Jesus the very same question, rather they will be taken down a Romans’ Road of disjointed verses that provide a simple set of propositions, that if a person agrees to, assures them of salvation. The problem with that view, is that the
book letter to the Romans is a particular communication regarding a particular situation in time. Of course it is inspired and there is a great deal we should learn from it, especially the nature of sin and salvation, but to make it the exclusive plan of salvation for the world is just wrong. Romans 10, as quoted by Piper as the basis for his thought being discussed, is a great admonition for the propagation of the gospel throughout the world. But it is unfair to the text, especially in the context of the whole Bible, to declare that it presents the exclusive path of salvation. I think the writer Paul would agree; but if Piper is right, Paul is not saved anyway so who cares what he thinks.
The main problem I see with Piper’s thinking is that he falls off a logical cliff that Neo-Reformed theology likes to walk perilously close to. By turning Romans into God’s tract of salvation, and pouring over each individual verse with an a priori understanding that each individual verse is a stand alone universal truth for all time, we are forced to turn salvation into an equation which must contain specific parts. When this hermeneutic is applied to Romans 10, one has no choice to declare that people can’t be saved unless they have heard, and that they cannot hear without a preacher. Therefore a preacher becomes neccessary for the salvation of another. The problem with this thinking of course is that human effort plays an essential role in a person’s salvation. Salvation is no longer a free gift from God gotten without our merit, but has now become dependent on someone else’s merit, namely the preacher! Put another way, the fate of my soul depends not only on God’s grace or my response, but a third person who must be faithful to preach to me. This is the “Theology of Glory” that Martin Luther fought so hard against to establish “Reformed Theology.” I feel the need to say that while John Piper has said and continues to say many theologically insightful things, in this case his suspicions are wrong, proving that even good preachers can sometimes produce bad theology.
Under the direction and lordship of Jesus Christ, there are many paths to salvation. Each one of us has our story, and God hasn’t even finished writing most of them. When we equate our experience with the exclusive truth of God, we run the danger of wandering into the territory of Job, who believed that he could grasp the mind of God, not realizing the meagerness of his own understanding. We do well to take Job’s lesson to heart and not bite off more than we can theologically chew.
I have a lot of awkward memories from early in my entry to the Christian world. When I was about 18, my Christian friends invited me to the Harvest Crusade. If you are not familiar with the event, it is basically a three day concert of top Christian bands interspersed with short sermons, all leading up to a big evangelistic sermon and invitation to come on down and become a Christian, all this in the grandeur that is Angels Stadium. Pastor Greg Laurie has been doing this for years and I hear that it is growing to different venues across the country.
I went because a bunch of girls I thought were cute invited me, and it was a free concert (I’m sure these were the two pillars that brought many a young man to the event). All I really remember from the event was being bored out of my skull. Band after band came to the stage, but all their music sounded the same to me. There were different genres of music represented, but top 40-style pop and contemporary country dominated the set. All of it seemed bland.
Now I’ve never been a fan of Christian music. I wasn’t raised amongst Christians, hence I was never pressured to disavow secular (Satan’s) music. I do have pretty diverse tastes, ranging from classic rock to indie pop to gangsta rap. Christian music never crossed my radar, except when a friend would inform me that the CD I was listening to was actually a former Christian band gone mainstream, such as Lifehouse and P.O.D.
Generally speaking, and I know people will be offended by my opinion, Christian music tends to be shallower lyrically and less masterful instrumentally than the rock I grew up on. When I began going to church around that period in my life, I was told that I should listen to Christian music because it was more pleasing to God. I don’t know if Christian music is more pleasing to him, but it’s definitely not to me. I really did try to like it, but by the end of the evening, I just wanted to get out of their as fast as I could. Even during the evangelistic sermon at the end, I could not concentrate because of how bored I had become. All the friends I was with were swooning.
After a few years of reflection, I have become more convinced that inviting me to that event for evangelistic purposes was a bad idea. One question keeps ringing in my mind:
Why take secular kids to a Christian concert?
Iron Maiden is coming to town soon, and I’d like to go, but I will probably not take along any of my church friends. I just know they will hate it, and that’s fine. Cultural Christians don’t have to like the same music I do; I will not force my secular tastes upon them. So why do we as Christians expect secular people to conform to “Christian” tastes? Forget about the “should” of the issue, and just answer me this? Do Christians really think it is effective evangelism to take secular people to a Christian concert? I’ve heard plenty of stories from southern preachers about good church kids becoming Satanists because they heard an Alice Cooper record, but do you really think it works in reverse?
In retrospect, I really do believe that taking non-Christians to overtly Christian entertainment events is just dumb. The non-Christian just won’t get it. They probably won’t like the music and the message will just seem strange.
I wonder if such events like stadium crusades are good investments of Christian resources, or just an excuse for Christian kids to get a “free” concert. Why bring people into Christian culture instead of following Jesus’ model and going into their culture?
Am I totally off base here?