Reformed Baptist Fellowship

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy – Part 2

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on September 17, 2009 at 11:05 am

Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies

Address – September 1, 2009 – Westminster Seminary, Escondido

Pastor Jeff Oliver

Grace Reformed Baptist Church, Placerville, CA

The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift

Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy – Part 2

What is behind this?

What is the big motivation to be relevant?  One of the great idols for pastors and churches is numbers.  This almost invariably comes up in conversation when we meet other Christians. “So, how are things at your church?” we ask, by which they and we both know that we are really asking, “How big is your church?”  If the attendance is high then everything must be well irrespective of the faithful ministry of the Word and Sacraments, the sanctification of the people and the biblical ordering and functioning of the church.

In our Evening Service, I have been preaching recently through the early chapters of 1 Corinthians.  In preparing for these sermons and in the following comments, I am deeply indebted to the work of David Jackman in his commentary on 1 Corinthians.[1]

The Corinthians were concerned to be relevant and appealing to their culture and generation. Looking around their congregation seems to have been a pretty disappointing and depressing experience for many of the Christians at Corinth.

How would they ever be able to influence such a contemporary, sophis­ticated city as theirs with such an unimpressive group of believers? Where were the movers and the shakers, the people with flair and gravitas? Not, apparently, in their church.  This was not pessimism, but realism, according to Paul: “not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (1 Cor 1:26).  Admittedly he did not say ‘none’, but the inference is clear. The large majority of the Christian community would not be admired, or even known, in Corinthian society, and this was regarded as a great defect.

The inference seems to have been that this was due to the message Paul preached and to his own performance as the messenger (1 Cor 2:1-5). His message was ‘weak’ since it centered on that shameful death of Christ on the cross, and his technique was unimpressive compared to the travelling philosophers and public orators to which Corinth was used. Compared with them, Paul was nothing; a nobody. What kind of minister was he? How was he and his message relevant to cosmopolitan Corinth?   So, all in all, it was this wrong man with the wrong message, which had produced such a disappointing and unimpress­ive congregation. Change was therefore urgently needed.

Paul’s response was that he was Christ’s minister; a preacher of the word of the cross.
In answering the erroneous reasoning of the Corinthians, he takes his readers back to the call of God. At the start of the letter he introduced himself in these terms 1 Corinthians 1:1 Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus and he stressed that it was this factor which turned the foolish, weak message of the cross into divine wisdom and power (1 Cor 1:24). The glory of the gospel is that God does not need human wisdom, strength or status to establish his kingdom.  In this new community, the systems and values of the rebellious world are an irrelevance.

Paul came announcing the testimony of God.  His message depended on God, both for its origin and content.  He came as an ambassador with an authorized and authenticated message.

To those Corinthians who had been criticizing his unimpressive style and presence and who were looking for new leaders to give them more intellectual fireworks or exciting power displays, Paul says, in effect, ‘Can’t you see why it had to be this way?’

The commissioned messengers of a crucified Savior are not impressive people seeking to draw attention to themselves.  Indeed, to try to clothe the message of the cross in human eloquence or intellectual brilliance would be to undermine its very essence and nature.  This is why Paul decided “to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 3:2).

In the first-century world, the people who were thought to have real influence were the rhetoricians who went from town to town with their impressive array of technical skills and speaking abilities.   All sorts of new ideas were disseminating from these powerful, impressive teachers.  The source of Paul’s confidence, however, was entirely different. He knew he had a message that, in spite of its apparent weakness, was far more powerful than any form of human rhetoric ever could be. He knew that in the message of the gospel, the very power of God was demon­strated.  Paul says:  “I … did not come … with lofty speech or wisdom (1 Cor 2:1). The Corinthians knew that this was the case, and so did Paul.  He was totally unlike the travelling teachers of his day.

They relied precisely upon the skills of rhetoric and philosophical argument in order to produce an impressive performance and develop popularity.  He came as a weak messenger.  What the specific details were which led to his description in 1 Cor 3:3 we cannot be sure, but it produced in him the responses – ‘in weakness and in fear and much trembling.’  He certainly did not cut an impressive figure.  They were not lining up to interview him on the prime time news shows that evening on Corinthian television!  His powers of speech were unimpressive compared to the standards of the day, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom” (1 Cor 2:4).  He deliberately refused to adopt the media methodology of his day. Instead, he preached the cross of Christ, and God worked though his message, so that there was now a church in Corinth.

It is also striking how Paul brings together in this passage the Word and the Spirit, “My speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and in power” (1 Cor 2:4).  The Spirit’s power, then, is seen in the preaching of the cross because that is the only God ordained message and method that saves and transform people’s lives. The apostolic gospel is not about Jesus bringing me that little bit extra in life, to make me always feel good.  It is about what God has done in Christ to save sinners from hell. It is in this message that the Spirit’s power is seen. These two factors, Word and Spirit, can never be divorced in biblical Christianity.  Hence: “The grace of faith, whereby the elect are enabled to believe to the saving of their souls, is the work of the Spirit of Christ in their hearts, and is ordinarily wrought by the ministry of the Word”( 2nd LBCF 14.1).  This should make us stop and think.  The great danger of our present day is that the Christian church is often tempted to follow the same pattern as the world but the only real power within the Christian faith is the power of God at work in the message of the crucified Christ’ by His Spirit. Why do we try to mimic ‘glitzy’ Corinth if we are disciples of Jesus Christ?   How can we go the way of Corinth and try to re-create in the church a Christianized version of a pagan culture?

This is where the challenge of the early chapters of 1 Corinthians really impact us.  Do we really still believe that the gospel, the message of the cross, is the power of God and that power alone, which will transform people’s lives?  Or are we into some sort of cultured version of Christianity, which actually builds on human power, human wisdom, and human personality?  Many of our problems in the contemporary church stem from our failure to believe this. This is why Christians look for other authorities and other methodologies, and why the church in the West for over a century has been involved in an increasingly desperate search, trying to find what it is that will really impact our culture.  But all the time, the answer is staring us in the face.  It is the proclamation of Jesus Christ and him crucified, God’s power in human weakness.

Martin Luther described the theology of the Corinthians and their false teachers the “theology of glory.” A theology measured by what one can see and by what seems reasonable and sensible to use. Christian theology, by contrast, Luther argued, is a “theology of the cross.” It relies on God’s Word. It is a theology of faith and trust in the free promises of God in Jesus Christ.[2]

The biblical, historical, and confessional truth is that numbers and church programs are very poor performance metrics of God’s blessing. When it comes to describing what it is that makes a church a “true church” the Reformed have always agreed that it is the preaching of the Word, the right administration of the sacraments and the exercise of church discipline.  Never has confessional reformed Christianity acknowledged numerical success to be a mark of a true church. If God blesses a congregation with numerical increase as she is faithful to His Word, then we give thanks.  Far too often the reformed community has been caricatured as not having any concern for those, who are perishing in their sins. We do desire the salvation of the lost and if we are not consumed with this desire, which drives us to God in prayer that he would be pleased to grant it through the “foolishness of the message preached” (1 Cor 1:21 , then shame on us but let us remember “… only  God gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7).  It is his sovereign prerogative.


[1] David Jackman, Let’s Study 1 Corinthians (Edinburgh, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004)

[2] WA, 1:354; LW, 31:225.

  1. I’m in general agreement with Pastor Oliver’s concern that we not compromise doctrine or practice out of a desire for church growth. There are some forms of church growth today that involve men adding to the church those whom God has not added. Often this is done through unbiblical and unprincipled forms of manipulation or marketing techniques. Such church growth and the associated methods we should deplore. I do think, however, we RB pastors should also beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    First, numbers by themselves are certainly not the only metric of God’s blessing. But the inspired historian Luke doesn’t hesitant to draw the reader’s attention to numerical growth at various points in the book of Acts (e.g.s., 2:41, 47; 5:14; 16:5). Luke’s highlighting of numerical growth in these passages is not intended as a warning or polemic but as an encouragement. Indeed, in these passages numerical growth does function as one of the metrics of God’s blessing.

    Second, the apostle Paul not only had a passion to win souls but he wanted to win as many as possible (1 Cor. 9:19). Furthermore, he was concerned with more than the bare proclamation of the gospel. He believed that the manner in which that gospel is preached and the deportment of the messenger had a bearing on the effectiveness of his evangelism (1 Cor. 9:19-23; 10:32-33). So Paul accommodated himself to his target audience in order to improve the effectiveness of his witness and increase the likelihood of conversions. It’s also important to note that this Pauline approach to numerical church growth is very God-centered (1 Cor. 10:31).

    Third, Paul’s passion for winning as many souls as possible and his willingness to accommodate himself to do so is something he learned from Christ and expects all God’s people to do so as well (1 Cor. 11:1). Jesus wasn’t indifferent to numbers because each individual person is a fractured image of God and, as such, is the object of God’s redemptive concern (John 3:16). While Jesus has a special love for the elect, he has a general love for all sinners and is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (Luke 13:34; John 5:34).

    Fourth, a love for Reformed theology need not preclude a passionate desire for numerical growth. As Jeremy Walker recently noted on his blog, John Calvin was not indifferent to numerical church growth. In a sermon on Acts 6:7-9, Calvin remarks,

    Therefore, in keeping with the teaching Luke gives here, let us learn that we constitute a true church of God when we try our best to increase the number of believers. And then each one of us, where we are, will apply all our effort to instructing our neighbors and leading them to the knowledge of God, as much by our words as by our showing them good examples and good behavior…. That is not said only to preachers and those who expound the word of God. It is the charge of all Christians in general (emphasis added).

    Thus, to be a follower of John Calvin, we must (1) believe that evangelism is the responsibility of every believer, not just the preacher, and (2) we must affirm that an earnest effort to increase our numbers (using biblical methods and prompted by right motives) is an essential mark of “a true church of God.”

    It appears, then, that John Calvin was into “church growth”! So was the famous Reformer John Knox. It was Knox who prayed, “Give me Scotland or I die.” The guy was a Calvinist, and yet he wasn’t content with a little remnant. He wanted God to save as many Scots as possible. And it was C. H. Spurgeon who once prayed before a sermon, “Lord, call out your elect, and then elect some more.”

    In sum, just as largeness in-and-of-itself is not an infallible sign of God’s blessing, so smallness in-and-of-itself is not necessarily a sign of faithfulness or God’s blessing. I think this is the main point of this part of Pastor Oliver’s address. Nevertheless, a concern to see lots of sinners saved and added to the church is a legitimate and healthy passion. Of course, we want to be sure God is actually adding them to the church. Moreover, as God-appointed agents of evangelism, we want to be sure our methodology is consistent with biblical principle. But in the end, a commitment to the absolute sovereignty of God and a passion to see as many sinners saved as possible are perfectly compatible. To paraphrase Spurgeon, they are biblical friends that need no reconciliation.

    Bob Gonzales, Dean
    Reformed Baptist Seminary

  2. This whole matter of quoting what marks a true church is something that we need to look at surely? Is the definition adequate or does Scripture not say more? This is not merely intellectual for me, it is what we state on our website too, but it needs looking at I believe.

    If we do adhere only to this definition remember it was Calvin who first coined it I believe. He did not have Baptists in mind. If it is biblical it throws up a challenge for us does it not? What is a proper administration of the sacraments? If it is as baptists argue, Presbyterians are not true churches. If it is as Presbyterians argue baptists are not true churches.

    Are we so committed to our traditionalism that we are not willing to address this anomaly? Four hundred and fifty years of historical theology since the Reformation must have taught us more? I believe that honesty demands we look at this definition and see it in its historical context and recognise it is inadequate and needs clarification. A blind loyalty to it without question is a blind traditionalism that in my opinion is an unhealthy thing.

  3. Pastor Jeff thank you for a very clear and helpful blog! I am in complete agreement with all that you have written here and on the other two entries. Christ is still building His church and will do so until He returns. May that day find our churches faithful in that day!

  4. Robby,

    I too think there are inherent problems with the so-called 2nd mark of a true church. I recently expressed my concerns on R. Scott Clark’s blog. The tension it introduces looks something like this:

    (1) The mark of a true church is the “pure administration of the sacraments” (Belgic Confession, Art. 29).
    (2) Anabaptists and Baptists withhold baptism from the offspring of believers and, therefore, do not administer the sacrament purely.
    (3) Consequently, Baptist assemblies are not true churches.

    This is Dr. Clark’s own position. Nevertheless, Dr. Clark is quick to assert that his refusal to accord our assemblies the status of “true [visible] church” has no necessary bearing on our eternal state. In other words, he’s willing to view us as brothers in Christ though he, because of his adherence to the Belgic Confession, must conscientiously de-church us.

    However, Dr. Clark also professes adherence to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which states, “Outside the visible church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” (25.2). It would seem that Dr. Clark is on something like the horns of a dilemma. Either he assesses the language of the WCF as too strong and, therefore, takes exception to it. Or he affirms the WCF and refrains from saying “peace” to those for whom there may very well be no peace.

    Thankfully, not all who affirm the Belgic Confession on the marks of a true church interpret its language as restrictively as Clark.

    Bob G.

  5. […] September 23, 2009 by Reformed Joe The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Confessionalism Adrift Amid the Siren Cries for Relevancy – Pa… […]

  6. Why is is fashionable among us to always bash the boogeyman of “relevancy?”

    Why is it that we so often define ourselves by what we are not? Many of our writings scream, “We are not THOSE people…” Instead of defining who we are NOT, we should focus more on who Jesus IS, and who we should be/become due to Jesus.

    Among us, we often deal so often in either/or solutions when both/and solutions are called for.

    We think we must be either biblical OR relevant. We must be both.

    We must also be vigorous in our efforts and not use the sovereignty of God to excuse our own laziness. If a thing is, indeed, a divine prerogative, then He will move His People to act vigorously towards its ends. Methods are important and must be drawn from Scripture and strenously applied. Let’s have a healthy doctrine of secondary causes.

    I have heard men who were both extremely biblical AND relevant; it is not as if one must choose one or the other. I have seen much good, solid practical methodology, and its vigor does, in no way, detract from the sovereignty of God. Doctrine should be practical.

    The NT writers connected with their audiences. Jesus spoke of water near a well, Paul quoted pagan poets among the Greeks, John uses the word Logos and steals it from the proto-gnostics. Paul uses the term pleroma, a Stoic term in wide use. The NT preachers tailored their messages to fit their audiences (GASP).

    Let’s pray that we will be biblical, relevant, strenous in our works, wise in our methodology, and that large crowds will come to hear us as we preach faithfully.

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