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Archive for the ‘Articles by Timothy George of Beeson Divinity School’ Category

by Timothy George
Presented as a plenary address at the conference on
“Baptist Identity: Convention, Cooperation, and Controversy”

Union University, Jackson, Tennessee

February 20, 2007

Even though we are here at a premiere Christian university at a conference dealing with serious academic and historical matters, I want to begin doing something very Baptist today. I want to share my testimony. After this personal prelude, I will mention three strategies for renewal within the Baptist fellowship as we move forward into the future that God has prepared for us.

Personal Prelude

I was born on the other side of this state, in Chattanooga, in 1950. I never heard of Jackson, Tennessee. For us, the world stopped at Nashville. Memphis was the Far West, and anything beyond that was the Old Frontier. I came from what we would call today a dysfunctional family. My father was an alcoholic and died in the city jail when I was twelve years old. My mother suffered from polio and was not able to care for me or for my younger sister Lynda. Lynda was brought up in a Baptist Children’s Home in Cleveland, Tennessee, and I was left to be raised by two great-aunts, neither of whom could read or write. I am the first person in my family to have received a college education. But even though my folks could not read or write, they could certainly talk, think, and argue. I am sure I received my calling as a theologian from endless hours of arguing with my Uncle Willie over the truth claims of Mormonism. Once I straightened him out, I took on the Unitarians down the street and the Roman Catholics across town!

We lived in a section of Chattanooga called Hell’s Half Acre. It was an integrated neighborhood even back in the 1950’s, not because we were uppity liberals trying to make a social statement but simply because none of us, neither whites nor African Americans, could afford to live anywhere else. I would have said that we were dirt poor, but we couldn’t afford any dirt. I know what it is like to go to bed hungry, and how it feels to have kids make fun of your shabby clothes at school.

In that community there was a little Baptist church. I would call it a country church in the city, for although the church was located in the heart of the inner city, they worshipped like they were still way out in the sticks (which is where most of them came from). They would shout, and moan, and sometimes people got Holy Ghost fits. Brother Ollie Linkous preached with a holy whine and we sang old-fashioned Stamps-Baxter songs. One I remember to this day went like this:

“Here among the shadows, in a weary land.
We’re just a band of strangers passing through.
Burdened down with sorrows, fears on every hand.
But we’re looking for a city built above.”

If you had to place this church on the map of Baptist typology, it would be at the outer edge of the bubbling bilge of a rivulet washed up by the back-waters of Sandy Creek. And we were a band of strangers living in shadows, surrounded by fears. But when I later read about how the early Christians in Carthage were known to their neighbors by the love they had for one another, I knew what that meant for this church embraced me and my folks with a love that was palpable. They didn’t have much, but what they had they shared with us: picnic lunches in the summertime, and sacks of coal in the wintertime to keep us from freezing to death. There was an unfeignedness about their love that was unmistakable.

That little Baptist church taught me John 3:16, and “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” and “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine, let it shine till Jesus comes.” They also taught me that I was a sinner and needed to be saved and that I couldn’t save myself and that we were saved only by grace through faith, not of works lest anyone should boast (Ephesians 2:8-9), a verse that was emblazoned in my mind from earliest days. On August 6, 1961, after I had heard a sermon on Psalm 116, I asked Jesus Christ to come into my life, to forgive my sins, and to be my Lord. Soon thereafter, I felt called to preach, and I began to preach. No one ever told me you had to go to college or seminary or anything like that. I just began to preach. I would preach to the kids at recess, I held “Lawn for the Lord” services in the neighborhood, and I became a youth evangelist. The height of my youth evangelism career came a few years later at a little congregation in Lynchburg, Virginia, called Thomas Road Baptist Church.

I am a Baptist because Sam Peek, my sixth grade teacher, a Baptist deacon, took me to an RA camp. I am a Baptist because Al Davis, a director of missions, introduced me to a Southern Baptist missionary from Ghana and explained to me how the Cooperative Program enabled Baptists to work together to fulfill the Great Commission. I am a Baptist because Sam D. Sharp, a fiery evangelist who is still going strong at age ninety-two, took me under his wing and, and though he had had no opportunity to receive a formal education himself, he said to me: “Timothy, read all you can, learn all you can, don’t be afraid of ideas. You can believe the tomb is empty without your head having to be!”

I am a Baptist because a Baptist preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the racism deep in my Southern Baptist soul in name of the Christ I was taught to sing about in Sunday School: “Jesus loves the little children. All the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white. They are all precious in his sight.” I am a Baptist because, when I was a high school student, Hershel H. Hobbs came to First Baptist Church of Chattanooga and preached a marvelous expositional sermon on the deity of Jesus Christ based on the Greek text of John, chapter one. I am a Baptist because, during seven years of graduate study at Harvard, what we use to call the Home Mission Board allowed me to serve as a church planter in an innercity Baptist congregation in Boston. I am a Baptist because all during those seven years at Harvard, Dr. R. G. Lee wrote me letters on his famous green stationary from 508 Stonewall Avenue in Memphis Tennessee, encouraging me to be faithful to the Bible, faithful to the Gospel, and faithful to the call that God had placed on my life. I was a Baptist before I knew what being a Baptist was all about because I came to know Jesus Christ through the witness of the people of God called Baptists. And in all my years of study, I have never found a more persuasive or more compelling way of trying to be a faithful biblical Christian.

Given what I have said about my background, perhaps you will not be surprised that when I moved from Boston to Louisville in that historic year 1979, I found myself a bit dazed and bewildered at the goings on in Southern Baptist life. I did not like the raucous tone and polarizing rhetoric generated on both sides of the Controversy in about equal measure, it seemed to me. But I was close enough to the center of gravity to know that there were legitimate concerns raised by conservative critics who early on in the Controversy were only asking only for parity. I thought then, and I still think now, that had our denominational leaders at the time responded to this challenge with more discernment, constructively and proactively, the rupture in our Baptist fellowship which has strained our relationship to the point of breaking could have been avoided. Instead, a strategy of denial, and stonewalling, and then counter-insurgency was adopted. Perhaps I am wrong about that, but eventually when a more realistic direction was taken by the SBC seminary presidents in the Glorietta Statement of 1987, it was too little, too late. I have written perhaps more than I should have about the Controversy, and I do not retract anything I have said or written in this regard. I am glad this denomination no longer welcomes leaders who deny the miracles of the Bible including the virgin birth of Jesus, or who argue for abortion on demand as a tenet of religious liberty, or who tout a host of other issues that are tearing apart every mainline Protestant denomination in America today. But I have also come today to say something else. We will not meet tomorrow’s challenge by forgettingyesterday’s dilemma, but neither will we win tomorrow’s struggles by fighting yesterday’sbattles.

In 1990, David Dockery and I edited a volume, Baptist Theologians, which has been republished under the title Theologians of the Baptist Tradition. In the preface to that book, we said this: “We believe that how we act and relate to one another within the Body of Christ is no less important than the theology we profess and the beliefs we champion. Indeed, they are inextricably linked, for true revival and spiritual awakening will only come in a context of repentance, humility, and forgiveness. We hope for the miracle of dialogue, not a raucous shouting at one another, nor a snide whispering behind each other’s backs, but a genuine listening and learning in the context of humane inquiry and disciplined thought.” That was true in 1990 and it is true in 2007.

With that in mind, I want to recommend three strategies, admittedly rather broad, grand, sweeping strategies, as we stand on the cusp of this still new century and seek to fulfill with fidelity the charge we have been given in this world of 6,574,979,990 persons all made in the image of God, most of whom have never heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the first time.

Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal

When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, one of my professors, Harvey Cox, like me a former Baptist youth evangelist, published a book entitled Turning East. Harvey was then in his post-Secular City, pre-Pentecostal phase and was much enamored with Buddhism and spiritualities of the East. In that book he argued for what he called the “principle of genealogical selectivity.” In trying to work out a viable spirituality today, he said, “there are two principal historical sources to which we should look. They are the earliest period of our history and the most recent, the first Christian generations and the generation just before us….The ransacking of other periods for help in working out a contemporary spirituality is either antiquarian or downright misleading.” Did you get that dialectic? Primitivism on the one hand (the first Christian generation), and presentism on the other (the most recent generation, my generation). This is the heresy of contemporaneity and it undergirds much of the liberalism and individualism that marks not only left of center theologians like Harvey Cox, but wide swaths of Baptist and evangelical life as well.

Against this “imperialism of the present” (as I have called it) and the ideology of self-importance that undergirds it comes the call for a Baptist retrieval of the Christian heritage as a source of renewal for the life of the church today. Retrieval for the sake of renewal—that was exactly the program of the Reformation. Ad fontes—back to the sources—was their motto. This was not a call to leapfrog over the intervening centuries back to some mythical, non-existent pristine New Testament church as though Thomas Aquinas, Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine, Athanasius, and Irenaeus had never lived, as though the fathers of Nicea and Chalcedon had never struggled with the doctrine of the Holy Trinity or the person of Jesus Christ. No, what they were about, and what the English Baptists of the seventeenth century, both Generals and Particulars, were about was a critical appropriation of the Christian tradition ever subjecting itself, and themselves, to the normative authority of the written word of God. This is why the framers of the Second London Confession of 1689 identified themselves with what they called “that wholesome Protestant theology” of the Reformation, and why the framers of An Orthodox Creed, a General Baptist confession of 1679, included the full text of the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed in their statement of faith. They declared that all three of these historic documents “ought thoroughly to be received and believed…for they may be proved by most undoubted authority of Holy Scripture and are necessary to be understood of all Christians.” These were Baptists, mind you. This is retrieval for the sake of renewal.

Understanding our heritage will help us deal constructively with the issues and controversies we face today. This kind of retrieval will help us to place in perspective some of the questions that still generate more heat than light within our own Southern Baptist fellowship such as: 1) Are Baptists a creedal people?, and 2) Are Baptist Calvinists? Let’s look briefly at each one of these.

Are Baptists a creedal people? “No creed but the Bible” was a slogan of the Campbellite movement in the nineteenth century and it has become axiomatic in many circles as a marker of Baptist identity today. Yet prior to the twentieth century, most Baptist theologians from Andrew Fuller to E. Y. Mullins, spoke very affirmingly of “the Baptist creed.” They strongly rejected the idea that voluntary, conscientious adherence to an explicit doctrinal standard was somehow foreign to the Baptist tradition.

It is nonetheless true that Baptists have never advocated creedalism. In two very important senses Baptists are not, and never have been, a creedal people, that is, a creedalist people. First, Baptists of all theological persuasions have been ardent supporters of religious liberty, opposing sometimes to the point of persecution, imprisonment, and all kinds of degradations, state-imposed religious conformity, and the attendant civil sanctions associated therewith. Believing that God alone is the Lord of the conscience, Baptists deny that civil magistrates have any legitimate authority to regulate or coerce the internal religious life of voluntary associations, including churches.

Second, Baptists are not creedalist in that they have never agreed that any humanly constructed doctrinal statement should be elevated to a par with Holy Scripture, much less placed above it. As Baptist confessions themselves invariably declare, the Bible alone remains the norma normans for all teaching and instruction, “the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” Unlike Eastern Orthodoxy which elevates the conciliar decisions of the first seven ecumenical councils to an infallible status, and the Roman Catholic Church which does the same thing with all twenty-three ecumenical councils, as they count them, including Vatican II, Baptists have never “canonized” any of their confessions. Rather we have held them all to be revisable in the light of the Bible, God’s infallible, unchanging revelation.

It must also be admitted that within the Baptist family there is a minority report on confessions, a libertarian tradition represented in colonial America by John Leland who rejected the use of the Philadelphia Confession of Faith by saying, “We need no such Virgin Mary to come between us and God.” Yet when such a confession became a means of uniting the Regular and Separate Baptist of Virginia, even John Leland, perhaps the most anti-confessional Baptist in colonial America, could allow the usefulness of such a document so long as such a statement was not placed on the level of the Bible nor “sacredized” by those who adopted it.

Still, for all of their value, confessions must be used with great wisdom and care. Confessionalism, like creedalism and traditionalism, can stultify and choke as well as undergird and defend. When matters of secondary and tertiary importance are elevated to a level of primary significance, and placed right next to the doctrine of the Trinity or justification by faith alone, then we are veering away from orthodoxy to orthodoxism, from tradition, which Jaraslov Pelikan famously defined as the living faith of the dead, to traditionalism, which is the dead faith of the living. Retrieval can lead to reversal as well as to renewal. If the Baptist Faith and Message becomes a grab bag for every problem or issue that comes on to the horizon, then it will cease to be a consensual statement of Baptist conviction. S. M. Noel, a Kentucky Baptist of the nineteenth century, has words of wisdom for us here. Our confession, he said, “should be large enough to meet the exigencies of the church by preserving her while in the wilderness, exposed to trials, in peace, purity, and loyalty. And it should be small enough to find a lodgment in the heart of the weakest lamb, sound in the faith.”

And now, an even briefer word on “Are Baptists Calvinists?” Historically and empirically, the answer to this question is: some are and some are not, and it has been thus among Baptists for nearly 400 years. Now I am not neutral about this subject. I was born an Arminian, as everyone is. I came only slowly, through much study and reflection, to a Reformed understanding of the doctrines of grace as taught by such notable Baptists as John Bunyan, Benjamin Keach, Roger Williams, John Clarke, Isacc Backus, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, Richard Furman, Jesse Mercer, James P. Boyce, John A. Broadus, B. H. Carroll, Charles H. Spurgeon, John L. Dagg, R. B. C. Howell, Patrick Hues Mell, and Augustus Hopkins Strong, to go no further. I know of nothing that has happened in history of salvation since these great Baptist theologians wrote about God’s grace, that makes what they said outdated or irrelevant to our contemporary concerns. I commend their theology to my fellow Baptists today, not because it is theirs, or mine, but because it seems to me to reflect the underlying and overarching storyline of God’s redemptive love revealed in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation. But brothers and sisters, we need not kill one another over such issues today! I like what our SBC president, Dr. Frank Page, has said about this matter. Our differing opinions over the details of Calvinism is a family discussion and should not be a source of division and acrimony among us.

I don’t know who does more damage to our Baptist fellowship, the rabid anti-Calvinists who slander and stereotype all Reformed theology as hyper-Calvinism, or some of the Calvinists who want to tweak the leaves of the tulip so tightly that in their desire to defend the doctrines of grace, they have forgotten to be gracious. At Beeson Divinity School this year we have offered a course both on John Calvin, and one on John Wesley. Baptists have something to learn from both of these great leaders, but we are bound to neither.

I have a word of caution to my friends who lean in an Arminian direction. Beware lest your exalting of human capacity lead you past Arminianism into rank Pelagianism. Arminianism is an error; Pelagianism is a heresy. And it will surely lead us, as H. Richard Niebuhr pointed out some years ago, to a truncated view of “a God without wrath bringing men and women without sin into a kingdom without judgment through a Christ without a cross.” John Wesley would doubtless turn over in his grave to see what passes as Arminianism in some circles today!

And I also have a word of caution to my friends who lean in a Calvinistic direction. Beware lest your exalting of divine sovereignty lead you into the heresy of real, as opposed to merely alleged, hyper-Calvinism. The original founders of the Southern Baptist Convention were well aware of this danger for the anti-mission movement was red hot at the time the SBC was organized in 1845. They established this denomination to be a missionary and evangelistic enterprise, committed to sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with everybody everywhere in the world. What passes as Calvinism in some circles today would make Andrew Fuller turn over in grave and even John Gill take a spin or two!

So, I have a proposal: let us banish the word “Calvinist” from our midst. It has become the new n-word for some, and an unseemly badge of pride for others. It does us no good. A Calvinist in the strict sense is a person who follows the teachings of John Calvin and, while John Calvin was surely one of the greatest theologians who ever graced the Christian church, no true Baptist agrees with Calvin on infant baptism, or presbyterian polity, or the establishment of the church by the state, however much we may learn from him in other respects. Let us confess freely and humbly that none of us understands completely how divine sovereignty and human responsibility coalesce in the grace-wrought acts of repentance and faith. Let us talk about these matters and, yes, let us seek to persuade one another, but let this be done with gentleness and respect as we are admonished in 1 Peter 3:15. Let us speak the truth to one another in love for truth without love is not really truth. It is rather a perverted form of puffed up pride, just as love without truth is not really love, but mere mushy sentimentality. Above all, let this discussion not hinder our joining hands and hearts to work together as evangelists and as Baptists across our theological differences. Let us join together with Charles Haddon Spurgeon, perhaps the greatest Baptist preacher who ever lived, in his open, unfettered appeal to the lost, as seen in his wonderful sermon on John 6:37, “Him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out.”

“Him that cometh to me: that is the character. The man may have been guilty of an atrocious sin, too black for mention; but if he comes to Christ he shall not be cast out. I cannot tell what kind of person may have come into this hall tonight; but if burglars, murderers and dynamite men were here, I would still bid them come to Christ, for he will not cast them out. No limit is set to the extent of sin: any “him” in all the world—any blaspheming, devilish “him” that comes to Christ shall be welcomed. I use strong words that I may open wide the gates of mercy. Any “him” that comes to Christ though he comes from slum or taproom, boarding room, or gambling hall, prison or brothel—Jesus will in no wise cast out.”

Any him, and if Spurgeon were preaching that sermon today, he would also add, any her. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, anyway—any him, any her! Jesus will in no wise cast out. That is the tone we need, whether you lean in one way or another on the decrees of God and how they are ordered from all eternity. Let us get this right and then when we get to heaven we can spend a few thousand years in the theology seminar room up there sorting through the details, and we will understand it by and by.

Particularity in the Service of Unity

Several years ago I was going through my daily mail when (to my surprise) I found a personal letter from Rome, Italy. I looked a little more closely for I do not get letters from Rome everyday, and lo, and behold, it was marked from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which used to be called the Inquisition! I thought they were after me! But I opened it up and there I found a personal letter signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who now, of course, is Pope Benedict XVI. A few months before I received this letter, Ratzinger had issued a very controversial document called Dominus Iesus which created something of an uproar within the ecumenical world. In that document, Ratzinger not only asserted that Jesus Christ is the world’s only Redeemer against certain pluralizing trends within Roman Catholic theology, but he also reasserted the traditional claims of the Roman Catholic Church against other Christian groups referring to their view of the church as “seriously deficient.” Contrary to almost everyone else who commented on the document, I had written a little piece commending it, saying that it represented the kind of candid ecumenism we needed more of—an ecumenism that did not paper over serious differences but faced them honestly in a common quest for truth. Ratzinger wrote to say that he appreciated my comments, and that I had indeed understood what he was trying to say.

What I advocated was an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. This is what I mean by particularity in the service of unity. Yes, it is much easier to ignore theological differences and downplay doctrine, but that approach to Christian unity also results in a shallow, superficial togetherness that will not long endure. On this issue, I stand with Cardinal Ratzinger—I am a Benedictine. Theology matters because truth matters. Yes, we must speak the truth to one another in love, but speak the truth we must. I have always liked the statement from Simone Weil from her little book, Waiting for God. “Christ,” she wrote, “likes us to prefer truth to him because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

So, is Jesus a Baptist? Some people in our tradition have thought so, pointing out that Jesus was not baptized by John the Methodist, or John the Presbyterian, and certainly not by John the Episcopalian, but by John the Baptist. But surely, as they say in French, this is un question mal posée. The question is not: Is Jesus a Baptist?, but rather: Are Baptists Christian? Jesus did not found a denomination; he did establish a church. In the broadest New Testament sense, the church of Jesus Christ includes all of the redeemed of all of the ages, as Hebrews 12:22 makes clear: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to myriads of angels in festive gathering, to the assembly (ecclesia) of the firstborn whose names have been written in heaven.” This is the Church with a capital “C,” the Ecclesia with a capital “E,” the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church outside of which there is no salvation, as our historic Baptist confessions have all confessed. It is indubitably true that the vast majority of uses of ecclesia in the New Testament does refer to local, particular congregations, and this means something very important and very precious for Baptist Christians. But the New Testament also refers to church in a universal, general sense. Jesus did it when he said, “Upon this rock I will build—not my churches but—my church.” Throughout the book of Ephesians, Paul consistently presents the Church in a universal sense as the Building, the Body and the Bride of Christ.

Yet here on earth, as St. Augustine reminds us, the church is on pilgrimage living amidst the vicissitudes of history, flawed, fallen, ever attacked from without, and divided within. And yet this church, the visible church, and for Baptists that means local, particular congregations of covenanted, baptized believers, this church is called to pray for, work toward, and embody the unity for which Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father in John 17. Not some overarching, one world church organization that Carl McIntire and other ecumophobes have screeched against for decades but the new Testament confession of one faith, one Lord, and one baptism.

Why is this important? Why am I arguing for particularity in the service of unity? Not just so we can all get together, hold hands, and be nice, but so that our witness to the world will be credible. “May they all be one,” Jesus prayed to the Heavenly Father. “As you are in me and I am in you. May they also be one in us so the world may believe you sent me” (John 17:21). Jesus himself links Christian unity with world evangelization.

A year or so ago, my friend John Woodbridge and I published a book entitled The Mark of Jesus: Loving in a Way the World Can See. It is dedicated to the memory of Kenneth Kantzer and Francis Schaeffer, great evangelical leaders both of whom had a great influence on both of us. One of the last things Francis Schaeffer wrote before he died was a little book called, The Mark of the Christian. It was an exposition of Jesus’ words in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Dr. Schaeffer said that in that verse Jesus gave the world the right to decide whether or not we are true Christians based upon our observable love for one another. When I first read that, I thought “Surely this can’t be true?” But I read the text in John again, and I discovered that Dr. Schaeffer was exactly right. Jesus gives the world—unbelievers—the right to decide whether or not we belong to him based upon our observable love for one another. “By this shall all people know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” How else are they going to know? They cannot peer into our souls, or know what is in our hearts. But they can listen to our lips, and look at our walk, and see how we treat one another within the Body of Christ, including those brothers and sisters in the Lord with whom we do not see eye to eye.

But Baptist ecumenism? Isn’t that like talking about a pregnant rooster or a married bachelor? As the old country preacher said when confronted with a biblical teaching that he didn’t like, “Well, it may be Bible, but it sure ain’t Baptist!” But is that really true? Now, if you don’t like the word ecumenism, throw it out the window. I have no interest in defending it, although, unlike Calvinism, it is a New Testament word which we encounter every time we read the Christmas story in Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the entire world (oikumené) should be enrolled.” Ecumenical simply means universal, the whole inhabited world. But forget the word, what about the reality it represents?

The world Protestant missionary movement began when an English Baptist shoemaker turned small-town pastor, William Carey, encouraged his fellow Calvinistic Baptists to establish a society for “the propagation of the Gospel among the heathens.” By 1793 Carey had arrived in India to begin his remarkable career, which included the planting of churches, the building of schools, the organization of an agricultural society, the establishment of India’s first newspaper, a protest against the burning of widows and the translation of the Scriptures into some forty languages and dialects. Now Carey was a Baptist, indeed a rather strict one, but in his missionary labors he worked with the Anglican missionary Henry Martyn, with Methodists, and Presbyterians, and even, God bless them, Arminian Baptists, in the interest of extending the witness of the Gospel to the peoples of India and the East.

In 1810, Carey set forth what has been called the “most startling missionary proposal of all times” by calling for a coordinating strategy for world evangelization. “Would it not be possible, he asked, to have a general association of all denominations of Christians, from the four corners of the world, held once in about ten years? I earnestly recommend this plan. And I have no doubt but that it would be attended with many important effects.” Exactly one hundred years later, in 1910, the first great International Missionary Conference was indeed held in Edinburgh, Scotland. However much we may deplore the fact that the modern ecumenical movement has been hijacked by advocates of a liberal left-wing agenda, which it certainly has been in many respects, we should never forget that it was born on the mission field and that a Baptist missionary was the midwife.

Particularity in the service of unity. Yes, by all means, let us maintain, undergird, and strengthen our precious Baptist distinctives—our commitment to a regenerate church membership, believers’ baptism by immersion in the name of the Triune God, our stand for unfettered religious liberty, and all the rest—but let us do this not so that people will say how great the Baptists are, but rather what a great Savior the Baptists have, what a great God they serve! May they be able to say, “Just look at the those Baptist Christians, see how they love one another! See how they work together with other believers. See how they put others ahead of themselves. Ya’ know, I think I’ll give a listen to what they are saying about all this Jesus Christ stuff.”

Humility in the Presence of the Holy

Retrieval for the sake of renewal, particularity in the service of unity and humility in the presence of the Holy. These remarks will be brief. I want to begin with two caveats. The first is simply to acknowledge how difficult it is to speak or preach about humility because once you think you have got it, you have already lost it. I don’t know of any seminary in the Association of Theological Schools that teaches a course on Humility 101. Well, we couldn’t find any professors to teach it if we did. And, if we found a professor who was qualified to teach it, we couldn’t find any students who wanted to take it!

Humility is not a virtue to be cultivated. It is a by-product of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. In Galatians 5, we read that the fruit of the Spirit is love, meekness, gentleness, goodness, kindness, perseverance, patience, all of these many manifestations. One fruit, and if I may put it this way, the fragrance of the fruit of the Spirit is humility. Others are more likely to recognize it in us than we ourselves.

The second caveat I want to add is a somewhat contrarian word about the very theme of this conference. Is there not something a bit narcissistic about our focusing so intently on Baptist identity? Now, you could say, “Wait a minute, Dr. George. You’ve been talking for more minutes than you should have about that very thing.” Retrieval for the sake of renewal. And that is what our conference has focused on to a very great extent and much of it has been very wonderful and good. I don’t know anything really that has been spoken in this conference that I would disagree with. And yet I want to say to us that there is a fine line between retrieval for the sake of renewal and the projection of a Baptistocentricity, a denominational egocentricity, a perspective that is self-absorbing, self-justifying, and self-gratifying.

Now I am not preaching to anybody unless it is to myself, but I think this is something that needs to be said. Do you know what the corrective for this malady is? It is to get a vision of this world in which we live, the world for which Christ died. The most important book I have read in the last decade—if you haven’t read it, go out and buy it and read it—is Philip Jenkins’ The Next Christendom. Jenkins points out the balance, the shift in the balance of the world Christian population, from the Northern to the Southern hemisphere. This has become almost a cliché, and yet there is increasing evidence to back up what he says. China.…God is doing an amazing thing in China. Much of it is not denominationally focused. But who can say that God is not at work in an extraordinary way in those churches, underground and overground and in all kinds of places. And to think about China for just one minute more, and realize that in the smallest province of Western China, there are more Muslims today than there are Southern Baptists in the whole world. I am simply saying let us keep this in perspective. And when we talk about humility in the presence of the Holy, let us beware lest we all fall into this temptation to think of ourselves more highly than we should.

Several years ago, my wife Denise and I edited a series of twelve books for Broadman and Holman called The Library of Baptist Classics. Most of these volumes are still in print today. One of those books was called Treasures from the Baptist Heritage and we included in that volume a sermon preached on May 26, 1843, by Jacob R. Scott to the Portsmouth Baptist Association of Virginia which convened in 1843 in the Baptist church at Mill Swamp. In his address to that Association, Jacob R. Scott preached a sermon on “The Dangers of Denominational Prosperity.” I will quote a few lines of it. Two years before the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention, he said this:

“And when we, my brethren, show symptoms of elation, in consequence of the great prosperity with which the Lord has crowned us, when we, as a denomination, or as separate churches, begin to boast of the great numbers in our ranks, the wealth, the talents, the respectability, the influence, that have been added to our communion, when we begin to lose that spirit of simple, lowly, unsophisticated piety, which characterized us in the days of our fewness and contempt, it will be high time for us to begin to tremble also. We may expect the withering frown of Jehovah, and the tide of our prosperity will be turned backward. We may rejoice indeed, that the Lord has blessed us; and let us be glad; but let us exult only because in our success, we see the advancement of truth, which is the cause of God, and essential to the enfranchisement, the glory, and the felicity of our race. It cannot be doubted, brethren, that with the enlargement of our denomination, there has come a tendency to this vain-glorying. I say it with regret, I fear the indications of this tendency have already made their appearance. What means the boastful parade so often made in our publications, or our superiority in numbers over other denominations? And especially of any inroads we may chance to have made on their ranks? Let us beware of this spirit. Let us see to it that we be not puffed up with arrogance. The devil cannot be better gratified than to witness this. Let us take heed lest we make shipwreck here, and it be left for us merely to furnish a beacon to some remoter generation, who, thus warned of the rock on which they are most likely to split, shall safely bear the holy trust now in our hands, into the port to which we had had the honor of bearing it but for our folly.”

I commend that to your consideration. Humility in the presence of the Holy.

This last Fall at Beeson Divinity School we had a birthday party. We celebrated with many other guests and friends who came from around the world, the eightieth birthday of Dr. J. I. Packer, who is not a Baptist, but a great theologian to whom all faithful Baptists are deeply indebted. Well, some years ago, they had another eightieth birthday party for the theologian Karl Barth. And then they asked him to get up and make a speech and this is what he said.

“If I have done anything in this life of mine, I have done it as a relative of the donkey that went its way carrying an important burden. The disciples had to say to its owner: ‘The Lord has need of it.’ And so it seems to have pleased God to have used me at this time, just as I was, in spite of all the things, the disagreeable things, that quite rightly are and will be said about me. Thus I was used. I just happened to be on the spot. A theology somewhat different from the current theology was apparently needed in our time, and I was permitted to be the donkey that carried this better theology for part of the way, or tried to carry it as best I could.”

Dear brothers and sisters, that is all we are. Just a bunch of donkeys, a guild of donkeys that happened to be on the spot at the right time and who are called in the providence of God to carry a burden for a while. But what a precious, invaluable, infinitely glorious burden it is. This is our job, we donkeys, to carry this burden, to carry Him who took upon himself the burden of our sins on the cross. To carry Him faithfully, steadily, humbly, proudly, unashamedly, joyfully, along that treacherous path which leads finally to Calvary.

Humility is not a virtue we can cultivate, it is a gift which comes to us as we focus on the object of our vision, on the precious cargo we are permitted to carry for a little while. I quoted H. Richard Niebuhr earlier. Let me close with another quotation from his brother Reinhold Niebuhr.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love.”

These are the three theological virtues: faith, hope, and love. When we get to heaven, we will not need faith anymore, we will have sight. We will not need hope anymore, we will have the thing hoped for. But even in heaven, we will still need love. Love is the one thing we can experience in this life that will last forever and ever and ever, in the eternity of God. This, I submit, is a summons to humility. It is also the implicit covenant of all our dialogues and, in its fullest sense, it is the vocation to which you and I, we Christ-bearing donkeys, have been called.


Timothy George, an ordained minister in the Southern Baptist Convention, is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and an executive editor of Christianity Today. You may contact him at tfgeorge@samford.edu .

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Galatians 2:11-16; 3: 26-29

This sermon first appeared in Preaching Magazine (Vol. 22, No. 4, Jan/Feb 07, pp. 40-46).

St. Jerome once said that whenev­er he read the letters of the apos­tle Paul he could hear thunder. Thunder! It is a short book of only six chapters and 149 verses, but there is a thunderstorm on every page. If Gala­tians was a weather report, it would say “tornado warning!”

Galatians – probably his first let­ter – is different from any other book Paul wrote. In most all of his other let­ters, he begins with a long and usually ebullient thanksgiving to God for the congregation to whom he is writing. To the Philippians, he wrote, “I thank my God on every remembrance of you.” But there is no thanksgiving to God for the Galatians. As soon as he introduces himself, he begins very bluntly, in 1:1-2.

He begins by that amazing state­ment in 1:6, “I am astonished” ­strong word, bowled out of my mind – “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are returning to another gospel, a different gospel, a strange and false gospe1. He goes on to say, “If anyone preaches to you any gospel other than the gospel I preach to you, let him be eternally condemned!”

I am reading from the NIV tonight, and I like the NIV, but you know in all of our efforts to take these old translations and dust them off and make them nice and palatable, we lose something. I am not a King James Ver­sion only preacher, but I am a King James Version often preacher. Because often the KJV gets it right. Let him be anathema, let him be condemned, let him go straight to hell! That is the unvarnished Greek.

Look at 3:20, “You foolish Gala­tians! Who has bewitched you?” Again we have kind of cleaned it up a little bit. It actually says, “You idiots! Who has cast a spell on you?” They are under a spell, he says. He calls them idiots. There is thunder in this book, all the way through.

Come over to chapter 5:2 “Mark my words!” Unvarnished translation, “Shut-up and listen to what I am say­ing … pay attention, you idiots.” Then, come down to 5:12. Paul writes about those who are preaching the false gospel, and he calls them agitators. He

says, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” Now if it says that in the NIV, if you really want to know what Paul says, you can read my commentary on Galatians. Some things cannot be said at a pulpit – even some things that are in the Bible. This is one of them. Thunder! There is thunder in his voice. There is a torna­do warning sounding off.

Now what has upset Paul so much that he writes like this? He does not write like this anywhere else in the New Testament. The Corinthian letters are filled with pas­sion and emotion, but not like this! Romans has a lot of deep theology, as does Galatians, but not like this! There is thunder here.

Jerome was right. Paul is upset because a major controversy has exploded within the church. This controversy began in Jerusalem. It spread to Antioch, and now it has found its way into the newly-estab­lished churches of Asia Minor includ­ing those of Galatia, to whom Paul is writing this letter. So, what is this quarrel about? If I were to tell you that it is about the question of the place of the Jewish law in the life of the Christian, then you might just say, “Well, that is not too interesting or relevant to my life.” But, if I say to you that this controversy is really about racial reconciliation within the church; and that it is also about the way you and I must go to heaven (if we get there at all), then it would bring it a little closer to home.

I want us to look at this contro­versy. It is a controversy about racial reconciliation. This was indeed one of the presenting issues at stake in this dispute. But behind that, there is a deeper foundational cause. We must get to the root of that. A lot of our problem in dealing with racial recon­ciliation in our country today, and in our churches today, stems from our dealing only with the symptom and not with the cause. Galatians con­fronts us with the cause.

There are five parts to this story.

You can think of this as a drama, if you wish, a play in five separate acts. So follow this drama as it unfolds.

Act I: The Background

The background has to do with the fact that Christianity was cradled within Judaism. Judaism was a religion beset by a double hatred: the world hated the Jews, and the Jews hated the world. If you do not believe that, just read any of the pagan authors that we think about when we think of the intelligentsia of the Roman Empire. Cicero, for example, spoke of Judaism as a barbarous superstition. Or Cas­siodorus, the great historian, who said that the Jews are the “vilest of people.” There was anti-Semitism in the ancient world. There was prejudice against the Jews on the part of the Greeks and the Romans. This attitude was deep and it was lasting, and it showed itself in all kinds of ways.

But there was also a prejudice, or at least a simmering hostility, on the part of the Jewish people against the Gentile world. Many of the rabbis interpreted the covenant with Abra­ham as a social contract according to which any kind of contact with a Gen­tile was automatically a sin. You could not walk down the road with a Gen­tile without committing a sin. You cer­tainly could not eat with a Gentile without committing a sin. If you were an observant Jew of the strictest kind, you were even forbidden to help a Gentile mother in childbirth for, said these rabbis, “You are only bringing another Gentile into the world.” The Gentiles, they said, had been created by God for only one purpose, and that was to be fuel for the flames of hell.

You know what a prejudice is? A prejudice is a judgment you make about somebody before you really know that person. We do this all the time in our culture. We form judg­ments about people without any real, deep, lasting knowledge of them. We stereotype them. This kind of stereo­typing happened on both sides of the divide between Jews and Gentiles. There was mutual loathing and ridicule between Jews and Gentiles in the first century. That is part of the background of this conflict that we read about in Galatians 2.

To summarize this very briefly: it came to focus on three issues. One was days (when you worship), anoth­er was diet (what you eat), and the third was a distinctive form of body piercing (circumcision). Days ­which days you should set aside for religious observance: how you observe the Sabbath; what you can do and cannot do on certain days. Diet ­what kind of food you can or cannot eat; kosher/non-kosher; or even more important, and more to the point of Galatians 2 – with whom can you eat such food? Days, diet, and a distinctive form of body piercing, which was required as an essential rite of entrance into the covenant people of God. These were the three issues that separated Jews and Gentiles in this early Christian community.

Jesus had already broken through some of these barriers. We all know Luke 15, right? It is a wonderful chap­ter that contains within it some of the most beautiful stories Jesus ever told: the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. But how does it begin? Luke 15:1, “Now the tax-collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear Jesus but the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered saying, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.'”

With whom you eat with says a lot about who you are. Isn’t it funny that the civil rights movement began at a lunch counter? “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Imagine that! Jesus had already broken through some of these barriers, but they were long, deep, and hard to overcome even among those who followed Him and believed in Him and saw Him resur­rected from the dead in their midst. Even then they did not get it com­pletely. This brings us to

Act II: The Breakthrough.

The breakthrough is Acts 10. Do you remember Cornelius? Cornelius was a Gentile – a God-fearing Gen­tile. He was not an atheist. He believed that there was a supreme being. He knew something about the Old Testa­ment law. He was familiar with the scriptures of the Torah. He went to a synagogue perhaps from time to time. All of this is true. But there was still this fact that he was not a member of the covenant people of God. He was a Gentile. And Peter, even though he had walked and talked with Jesus for three years all around Galilee and Nazareth and Jerusalem; and had heard Him speak and had seen Him eat with sin­ners – even after all of that, Peter still harbored prejudice against Gentiles.

You remember what happened. He had a vision when he was at Joppa, at the house of Simon the tan­ner. This vision took place about din­nertime. Peter got hungry. He saw in his vision this cafeteria, this whole spread of food. It was soul food. It was pig’s feet, and collard greens, and pork chops. And Peter thought, “I cannot eat that! I would like to eat that – I am so hungry and that sure looks good ­but I am a Jew. We do not eat that kind of stuff. This is not kosher.” And you remember the message he was given by Christ in the vision. “Take and eat, Peter. Enjoy yourself! What I have called ‘clean’ you should not call ‘unclean'” (Acts 10:15).

Here was a message from God which had a direct application to the missionary strategy of the early church. Immediately Peter goes to the house of Cornelius and he realizes that the vision was about more than what he should eat for lunch. It was about with whom he should eat at the Table of the Lord. So Peter goes there and he preaches the Gospel and the Holy Spirit falls on that group.

Cor­nelius gets saved and the congregation that meets in his house encounters the living Christ. There is a baptism service and a whole new gospel breakthrough.

Now the Gospel can go to Gen­tiles as well as Jews. And Peter was the instrument of that breakthrough. Do not forget that. That point is important to Galatians. Peter was the one, not Paul.

Paul, of course, had his own break­through on the road to Damascus when the Lord revealed Himself to Paul in a powerful way. Paul was as deeply steeped in prejudice against Gentiles as Peter ever was – maybe more so. He was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, circumcised on the eighth day, all of that. He, too, had a break­through when Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and said: “Saul, Saul, why persecuteth thou me?” “I am not persecuting you, Lord,” he might have said. “I am persecuting these miserable Christians down here.” Jesus said, “Why persecuteth thou me? Because when you do it unto one of the least of these, you do it unto me” (Acts 9:3-5).

There is a correlation between Christology and ecclesiology. Paul learned that truth on the road to Damascus. He had a breakthrough. But this great breakthrough and new missionary strategy did not come through Paul initially, it came through Peter. And now we come to this pivotal passage in Galatians 2:11­-16.We are now at

Act III: The Drawback.

The Background. The Breakthrough. The Drawback. When Peter came to Antioch, Paul says, “I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” Before certain men came from James, Peter used to eat with the Gentile believers in Antioch. Why would he do that? Because he had had that vision in Acts 10. He knew that what God had called clean, he should not call unclean. And those who had been baptized in the one Christ could share the same supper at the same table. So he would eat with Gentiles. Why, of course he would.

But then the drawback. When men came from James ― who was James? James was the pastor of the church of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was the center of the most rigid kind of Christianity which declared, “Okay, maybe it is alright for Gentiles to become Christians but first of all they have to become Jews. They have to be circumcised. We have the days. We have the diet. We have a distinct form of body piercing. All of these are a gateway into the family of God.” That is what they taught.

When certain men came from James, Peter – who used to eat with the Gentiles ― drew back. He would not do it anymore, and he separated himself from the Gentiles. The church that had been united was split down the middle into the kosher crowd and the non-kosher crowd, the Jew crowd and the Gentile crowd, this crowd and that crowd. And Peter was the cause of this division because he drew back.

This event happened in Antioch. Where was Antioch? Antioch was in Syria and it was the third largest city in the Roman Empire. It was to Anti­och that those early Christians who were persecuted in Jerusalem came and began to preach the Gospel. Antioch was a city with a large Jewish population. Sixty-five thousand Jews lived in Antioch at the time that Peter and Paul had this confrontation there. There was a large Jewish population, but there were also many, many Gen­tiles. When the Gospel of Jesus Christ came to Antioch from Jerusalem, both Jews and Gentiles heard the message of Christ. They were saved. They were baptized. They were brought into the same fellowship and, of course, they ate at the same table. They were one body in Christ until … until some preju­dice came in, and they drew back.

There is something else about Antioch you need to know. Why do we remember Antioch? It was at Anti­och ― not Jerusalem, not Damascus, not Rome ― but at Antioch that they were first called Christianoi. It was in Antioch that Jesus’ followers were called Christians. Why? What had they been called back in Jerusalem? Well, we do not know for sure everything they had been called, probably some bad names, but along with that they were known as followers of the Way. Luke tells us this in Acts 22:4.Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.” That is how the earliest Christians were known: followers of the Way.

Yet at Antioch the followers of the Way became known as Christianoi ― the Christians. Those who look and act and walk and talk and dress and smell and eat and live in the way that Jesus did all those things. A Christian is one who is living in the light of Jesus Christ, one in whom Jesus’ lifestyle is reflected to those around in the surrounding world. Someone in whom Jesus can be seen. That is what a Christian is.

What would have made the citi­zens of Antioch call the Way-people after the name of Christ? Well, I think one of the main things was the fact that Jesus used to eat with sinners. He told about that great eschatological banquet that was going to be at the end of the age when people were coming from the east, and the west, and the north, and the south, and that Father Abraham would be there. Every­body would be there and they would all sit together at that great banquet table. Jesus’ meals prefigured the mar­riage supper of the Lamb.

There is a lot about eating in the New Testament. Did you ever realize that? We do not think much about it anymore; breaking bread, buying bread. We go to the store, we buy a loaf of bread. It is no big deal. There is a lot of bread around to be bought. That was not true in the ancient world. Bread was a scarce commodity. People had to work hard with their hands, the sweat of their face to bring forth bread from the earth. To share a meal, to break bread together, was to share your very life with somebody else. It was not a casual thing.

The Christians of Antioch would come together and break bread together at a common table, at a love feast called the agape meal. And they broke bread again together in a most special way at the Holy Supper of the Lord Jesus when they remembered what Jesus had said, “This is my body broken for you. This is my blood shed for you.” But now there is the draw­back. It is not that Peter had changed his mind about this. Rather, he had buckled under pressure. That was the problem. There was nothing wrong with Peter’s conviction. What was wrong was his lack of courage. The drawback. This leads us to

Act IV: The Standoff.

Paul says, “I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong for doing this and because the truth of the Gospel was at stake.” There are some things on which you cannot compromise. There are some things that are matters of deep, abid­ing, biblical Gospel principles. You cannot compromise on them and be faithful to Jesus Christ, and this is one of them. The truth of the Gospel, Paul says – he uses this expression twice in Galatians 2 – the truth of the Gospel led him to oppose Peter to his face.

There was a standoff! There was a shootout, if you will, between these two great apostles of the early church. The one thing this tells us is: great people, famous people, God called people, even Christ-appointed apostles, can be dead wrong. Peter was wrong! Clearly, Paul says, he was in the wrong. And this was not the sort of thing that he could call Peter back in the backroom and say, “Listen here, brother Peter. Now don’t you remember Cornelius?” This situation required a face-to-face confrontation, not a backroom conversation, because Peter had led so many others astray with his disobedient behavior; the church had to be given a signal that could not be misunderstood. Thus, there was a standoff between the great two apostles.

Now is this just a matter of Jews and Gentiles, what you eat and with whom you eat and this, that and the other? Is it just days and diet and body piercing? No. The truth of the Gospel is at stake here. Look at Galatians 2:16 ― this is where this entire passage is moving. This is the culmination of it all: “We know that a man is not justified by observing the law because by observing the law, no one will be justified.”

This is why this question of racial reconciliation is a matter of the Gospel. It is not just a matter of: are you socially enlightened? Have you had the right sociological training? Which side of the political divide do you come down on? This is not about that. This is about the Gospel. We are not justified by anything or anyone except by Jesus Christ. And when we divide from one another because of ethnicity or racial distinction or any of these other artificial categories Paul talks about, then we are putting that in the place of the Gospel. We are making that a substitute for grace. We are saying, “That counts before God,” as a way of our being justified in his sight. We are saying that by our actions, whether we say it with our lips or not, and that is a blatant denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is why racism is not just an error; it is a heresy. It will send a person to hell. Now where do you get that preacher?

A few years ago, I was invited to preach on Easter Sunday. I seldom get invited to preach on Easter Sunday because, of course, every pastor wants to be in his own pulpit on Easter Sunday, so us “itinerant preachers” seldom get a chance to preach at a church on Easter Sunday. But that year I did. It was because the pastor had taken a group of people from his church to the Holy Land, so he called me up a few months before and said, “I’m going to be gone on Easter and I wondered if you would come preach?” I said that I would.

You know what text I took? You may think it is a strange text for Easter Sunday, but I think it is a relevant text. It was from Luke 16, the story of the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus said there was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen, and he lived in luxury every day. But outside of his gate there was an old beggar full of sores, named Lazarus. When people would come out from the rich man’s house with their stomachs bloated from all the food they had eaten, maybe casting a chicken bone his way every now and then, Lazarus would look up to them and say, “Why don’t y’all pass the bread?” But there were some dogs around and they saw him and they said: well, we can have a good supper off him and so they came and licked his sores, the Bible says.

Now, it came to pass, that the beggar died. Lazarus died. And the angels came and carried him into the bosom of Father Abraham. It so happened that there was a double coronary in that neighborhood because the rich man died at the same time. And he also had a new location: not in the comfort of Abraham’s bosom, but in the torments of hell. And when he looked up and saw Abraham and Lazarus by his side, he said, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus. Ask Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in agony.”

But Abraham replied, “Son, remember in your lifetime, you had many good things. Old Lazarus had only the dogs to lick his sores. You never gave him a crumb. You never passed him any bread. And now, you have a change of locations. If I were to send Lazarus back, it would not do any good because you have evangelists all around you and they are preaching the Gospel.” And he goes on to say, “You know what? Even if somebody rose from the dead…” — that’s why it was an Easter sermon — “and came back and said, ‘You ought not treat people like you treated Lazarus; you ought to pass them some bread;’ you would not listen to him. You would still end up in the same place that you are.”

The reason why he went to hell was not because he did not give Lazarus some bread; his refusal to give Lazarus some bread was an outward indication of an inner deviation that had never been made right with God. And that is the way it is. That which is on the inside will manifest itself on the outside. Because he was not right with God, he was not right with his brother at the gate.

Why don’t y’all pass the bread? It has something to do with the Gospel of justification by faith alone. It has something to do with the fact that we are saved by grace through faith not of works lest anyone should boast. When we put race or class or any of these distinctions that we use to divide our selves one from another in the place of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and use it as a filter for judging other people we are doing exactly what the Galatians did, exactly what Peter did in that relapse. We are denying the truth of the Gospel.

Act V: The Aftermath.

Now before this drama ends, I must take you to Galatians 3:26, to this famous text. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female…. “This passage that is often used, and I would say misused, for lots of reasons other than what it is really all about. This passage is grounded in one supreme fact. And that fact is in the preceding verse. “All of you who are baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. Therefore, because this is true, then, consequent­ly there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus:” The unity that we have in Jesus is grounded in that to which our baptism testifies.

Paul is here picking out the three “biggies” in human life: race, money, and sex. They dominate our culture, our entertainment business, our news­papers. This is what people talk about, it is what they think about, it is what they work every day of their life for: race, money, and sex. Now, there is nothing inherently sinfully about any one of these three things. There is nothing wrong with racial identity, with the fact that I am a Caucasian and my colleague Robert Smith is an African-American. God created us dif­ferent. He did not make us all the same. God did not use a Xerox machine in the book of Genesis!

To think that racial reconciliation means homogenization is to misunder­stand racial reconciliation. That is not what it is about. There is nothing wrong with racial identity. The prob­lem comes when racial identity, whether it is white, black, brown, red, yellow or purple, gets demonized. Then it becomes racism. We use race as a pretext to separate and segregate ourselves one from another. Then it becomes a denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

There is nothing wrong with money. God wants us to use money and use it wisely. He gives us the ability to make money and save money and provide for our family. There is nothing in the Bible against that. The lust of money is the root of all evil. But money is not evil ― the Bible does not say that. Yet when money is corrupted by greed ― when we begin to act like that fool who had many barns but wanted still more barns ― then we are liable to hear what God said to him:

“You fool! Tonight, it’s all up. Money is not going to help you now.” His wealth has been demonized into greed.

God made us male and female.

There is nothing wrong with sex in its proper context. The Bible makes that clear. “The marriage bed is undefiled,” the Bible says (Heb. 13:4). But when sex becomes demonized by lust then it becomes a barrier to the Gospel.

These are the biggies. None of these distinctions ― race, money and sex ― are eliminated once we become Christians, but they are rela­tivized. Did you hear what I said? They have been relativized; they have been put in a new category; a new value system; a new priority list. They have been relativized by our baptism. Because when we are baptized, three things happen.

First, we are dipped. Now I am a Baptist, I know we have Presbyterians, and dear Methodist sisters and broth­ers, and I am not here to argue about the modality of baptism. But even Mar­tin Luther ― and there was no stronger defender of infant baptism than Martin Luther in the history of the church ― said the word baptizo really means to dip. We are dipped in baptism. That means that we are buried with Christ in baptism so that when we are raised to walk, it is in a newness of life. Those old categories that have been demonized are now relativized by virtue of the fact that we have been dipped.

Not only dipped, but we are also dyed. I mean by that that baptism is a fountain filled with blood and it changes our color. It gives us a new status and a new standing and a new way of relating because we have not only been dipped, we have been dyed. In the beautiful painting of the cloud of witnesses mural that graces our chapel dome at Beeson Divinity School, one of the great saints is William J. Seymour. He is the only African-American in that panoply of the great saints of the church. William J. Seymour was the leader of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles in the early twentieth century. Under his painting there is a banner that says, “The color line has been washed away in the blood of Jesus.” We have been dyed.

We have been dipped, we have been dyed, and we have been delivered. That is why in the early church after believers were baptized, when they came up out of the water, they then faced in the direction in which the sun went down. That is the west, in the direction of darkness. And the newly baptized Christian would spit in the direction in which the sun went down. He or she was spitting in the face of the devil.

Then, turning to the east, the direction which the sun comes up, the new Christian would say, “1 embrace you, a Lord Jesus Christ.” Renouncing the devil and embracing Jesus Christ, that is what baptism means. We have been dipped, we have been dyed, we have been delivered from all of these demons that hang like vampires on our soul, sucking out our very life’s blood.

The aftermath is the one that we are still living today. The story is not over. Our charge is to live out the meaning of the reconciliation that we have in Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. It is Jesus Christ who offers us a new way of liv­ing because we know him as the one who has come to relativize those dis­tinctions so we can say: There is now in Jesus Christ, neither Jew nor Gen­tile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We are all one! One! One in Jesus!

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by Timothy George

If someone were to ask you to summarize the basic message of the Christian faith in just one verse from the Bible, which one would you choose? John 3:16 perhaps? Romans 5:8? Ephesians 2:8? Admittedly, it is an unfair question, for no single verse of Scripture tells us everything that God wants us to know about His plan to redeem and save us from sin and death. But if I were forced to answer that question, the verse I would choose is John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (NIV).

This verse describes the incarnation, the central fact of the entire Bible. It is the key to understanding everything else the Scriptures teach about God, human beings, the meaning of history, time, and life itself. And what does the Incarnation mean? Simply this: That the one, eternal, triune God of holiness and love; the very God who created the world and everything in it; this very God has Himself entered into the world that He made, and He did so in the most personal and intimate of ways—as a Baby in a manger, as a Man on a tree.

Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, was thus a real human being and yet, at the same time, truly divine, “very God of very God,” as the early Christians confessed. The doctrine of the incarnation is a one-of-a-kind teaching among the religions of the world, and it sets Christianity apart from every other professed way of salvation.

The doctrine of the incarnation teaches that Jesus Christ is the unique Son of the heavenly Father. Through His life, death and resurrection, God has acted decisively to rescue lost men and women from their sin and selfishness. Jesus is not only a great figure from the past, a man of renown like Julius Caesar or Napoleon. He is alive today! Through the message of the Bible and the power of the Holy Spirit, He still calls on all persons everywhere to forsake their sin, believe in Him, follow Him in their daily lives, share His love with others, and be ready to meet Him when He comes again to bring peace and justice to the earth. To be a Christian is to receive the forgiveness that Jesus offers and to claim Him as one’s own personal Savior and Lord.

Though Christians have proclaimed the message of the incarnation for 2,000 years, it is still an amazing fact, shocking to some, scandalous to others. The incarnation means that Christianity cannot be reduced to the following:

A philosophy of life. Jesus is not Socrates with a beard, nor Plato with a Jewish accent. He did not give learned lectures on the nature of reality, the science of knowledge or the structure of the universe.

A code of behavior. No one receives eternal life by keeping a certain set of rules, following the works of the law or by doing the best he or she can.

A political movement. Jesus did not join the political revolutionaries of His own day, and He remains sovereign over all politics today.

The incarnation has often been misunderstood and distorted in two opposite, but equally dangerous, directions. On the one hand, some have so emphasized the humanity of Jesus that they have denied or downplayed His divinity. In the Early Church, there were those who said that Jesus was merely a great teacher or prophet who had been “adopted” by God to a higher, more exalted status. Similarly, some today deny the miraculous element in the Gospels and portray Jesus as a teacher of wise sayings who never claimed to be anything more than a sage rabbi.

But, when the early Christians reflected on Jesus’ life, they realized that they had been in touch with a reality and power that could only be accounted for as the presence of God Himself in their midst. This is what the Early Church confessed at their baptism when they declared, “Kyrios Iesus Christos,” Jesus Christ is the Lord.

On the other hand some people have gone to the opposite extreme. They have lifted up Jesus’ deity to such an extent that they have minimized His humanness. In the second century, some of the Gnostics held to a view of Christ known as docetism (from the Greek dokeō: to seem or to appear). They taught that Jesus did not have a real human body, that He only appeared to be really human. However, the Jesus we meet in the Gospels is entirely human, as well as completely divine. He knows what it is to experience hunger (Matthew 4:2), thirst (John 19:28), weariness (John 4:6), grief (John 11:35, 38) and agony (Mark 14:32-42). On one occasion, Jesus even acknowledged that He did not know the precise date of His coming again (Mark 13:32).

Some well-meaning Christians today seem almost embarrassed by these marks of Jesus’ humanity. Yet the doctrine of the incarnation teaches us that there is no depth of suffering or limitation that the Son of God was not willing to embrace for us. Far from making us think less of Jesus, this great biblical truth should inspire us to lift Him higher.

Hebrews 4:14 tells us that Jesus, now ascended to heaven, is our great High Priest. There are two tremendous benefits all believers receive from having such a faithful mediator at the Father’s right hand.

First, we have a Friend, an Advocate with the Father who understands our weaknesses and temptations for He, too, was put to the test in every conceivable way that we can be put to the test. Unlike us, He never yielded to temptation. But He knew what it was like to have the devil whisper in His ear, to be betrayed by one disciple and denied by another, to tremble and groan within His spirit, and to confront the hosts of hell in a moment of crisis. Thus “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet was without sin” (Hebrews 4:15, NIV).

Second, because the incarnate Christ is truly human as well as fully divine, we have an open door through prayer into the very heart of God. We can come with confidence before the throne of grace. We will not be rebuffed turned away or made to feel unwelcome. In our greatest moments of need we will find mercy and grace, for the Christ whose arms were stretched out wide on the cross, as if to embrace the whole world, stands now in heaven with His arms still extended. His nail-pierced hands still beckon, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden” (Matthew 11:28-30, NKJV).

In the Middle Ages, Anselm, a great theologian, asked, “Why did God become a man?” In a hymn, “There is a Green Hill Far Away,” Cecil Frances Alexander gives this answer:

“There was no other good enough
to pay the price of sin,
He only could unlock the gate
Of heav’n, and let us in.”

Now in heaven, Jesus our Redeemer, one Person in two natures, having paid the penalty for our sins by His substitutionary death on the cross, through His Spirit gives us His presence and power. Before such a wonderful Savior, theology becomes doxology―we sing in the words of the well-known Christmas carol:

“Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the Incarnate Deity!
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel!” d: ©2006 BGEA

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