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.
If the Harold Camping rapture bust taught us anything, it is that there are a lot of “Christian leaders” out there saying some very crazy things. I actually shudder to read my own writings or listen to my old sermons from the the months before I started formal study of theology. A lot of what I said was, to be honest, just plain wrong. I had heard an idea or read a book and thought something sounded good, or made sense to my own worldview, and I just repeated it. Worse yet, I would read the Bible and then preach about some insight I thought I had, with no real knowledge or insight into what the Bible was actually trying to communicate. I don’t think I should have been allowed to preach and teach before I was educated.
In my native Southern California, there seems to be a sizable number of Christians who dismiss the need for a “professional” clergy, especially in the role of teacher. But this is odd, isn’t it? You would never go to a doctor for treatment who was “self-taught” or proclaimed that they had read a bunch of medical books on their own. Would you? Likewise, even a public high school teacher cannot teach until they have an advanced degree in their field. Lawyers must pass an exam to prove competency in the law before they can legally practice. So why do we believe that an untrained, undereducated Bible teacher can do better? Of course most Christians believe that the Holy Spirit “illuminates” the meaning of Scripture for the reader, and this is something that can never be taught, but that is not an excuse to dedicate yourself to study, as you would in any other field. God gifts some people’s hands to be talented surgeons, but medical school does not then become optional. Are not matters of eternity more vital than matters of the flesh? In many churches that are lax in their interest in the preacher’s training, they have rigorous standards for those who run the “business end” of the church. MBA’s are expected for those who handle the administration, but many of those same churches will argue that formal education is not needed for the person who teaches God’s Word every week.
I recently heard a sermon from a preacher. I do not know him personally; I do not know what his spiritual life is like. I do know that his explanation of the biblical text was flat out wrong. He did not know the historical background of the text (which in this case gave great insight to the reason for the writing). He repeated an old conjecture about the author of the text which is well-known and universally understood by scholars to be a complete fabrication. He then spent the majority of his time painting a picture of something that did not happen, embellishing details and out-rightly making things up to elicit an emotional response. I thought about all the people who would hear the message, and not only would they not hear the message of the text as Christians for 2000 years have understood it, but actually believe things that are not true. What would happen if one of them finds out it was all made up? Will they lose faith in the Bible? Will they believe that God is just as made up? It is thoughts such as these that I never take the pulpit lightly. As a preacher called by God, I am never more terrified of Him than when I am at the pulpit. I know that each word I speak will be judged, not by the crowd, but by God. Church was once a place where people came to hear the very words of God spoken into their lives, but so many jokes, personal anecdotes, and bad interpretations of the Bible have made people skeptical that there is any value in preaching. The bar has been lowered so much that if the preacher makes the crowd laugh, the crowd thinks he or she did well. They believe this because they have never experienced any better. Forgive me if I seek out my laughs from the professionals, comedians and actors. If I am in church I want to hear God!
I know there are many great teachers who cannot attend training, but for the vast majority of American preachers, they have chosen not to. Theological education does not make someone a great preacher. What it does is give a person time to think through ideas, learn from people far smarter than they, and gain from the insights that the Church has accumulated over the last 2000 years. Unless a person believes that God is speaking directly to them with words to say (then there is no need of a Bible at all), a theological education is invaluable, and I just cannot bring myself to listen to the endless controversies and vain speculation more common with the uneducated mind. John Wesley, one of the greatest Christian leaders and thinkers of the last 500 years complained that most preachers of his day were “dullards,” less knowledgeable and skillful in their trade than the local carpenter was in his. He persuaded many young people to become trained in the ministerial arts and science and created a class of professional ministers that greatly affected Christianity on both sides of the Atlantic. Hopefully the 21st century church will follow his path and not the path of complacency and ruin.