This past Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I used it as a day of learning. Throughout the day I listened to a number of podcast interviews related to the different aspects of the issue of race. I encourage you to listen and learn as well.

What White Christians Need to Know About Black Churches (about 35 minutes, January 15, 2017): Leith Anderson interviews Claude Alexander and they discuss the history of the black church, leaders in the movement, and distinctions between white and black theology.

Leith Anderson serves as president of the National Association of Evangelicals since 2006, and was the senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for 35 years before retiring in 2011.

Claude Alexander is the senior pastor of The Park Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he has been for over 25 years, the immediate past president of the Hampton University Ministers Conference, and currently serves on the boards of Christianity Today, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Wycliffe Bible Translators. He has degrees from Morehouse College, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

In this podcast, you’ll hear Bishop Alexander, a leader in the African American church, share:

  • How African American Christians think about racism;
  • What prevents black Christians from attending predominately white churches;
  • How the black church can teach the white church; and
  • What excites him about the future of the black church.

Theology of Race (about 30 minutes, March 15, 2016): Leith Anderson interviews Walter Kim about race and the Bible.

Leith Anderson serves as president of the National Association of Evangelicals since 2006, and was the senior pastor of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, for 35 years before retiring in 2011.

Walter Kim is associate minister of Park Street Church in Boston, Massachusetts, and serves on the board of the National Association of Evangelicals. Prior to Park Street Church, he served in extensive ministry in Asian American and Asian Canadian contexts and in a chaplaincy at Yale University. Kim has taught at Boston College and Harvard University and has been published in the area of biblical studies and Hebrew language. He received a B.A. from Northwestern University, an M.Div. from Regent College, and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations from Harvard University.

We talk about race a lot in the United States. Whether it’s the growing population of Asian Americans, trends in Latino immigration, or racial unrest in metropolitan cities, race plays a major role in the American experience. As evangelicals, we want to start with the Bible. In this podcast, you’ll hear from a respected pastor and theologian on:

  • What — if anything — the Bible says about race;
  • How the Tower of Babel and Pentecost relate to diversity;
  • The racial situation among first century Christians; and
  • How Christians today ought to respond to racism and racialization.

Martin Luther King Jr. and the Power of Unearned Pain (about 30 minutes, January 13, 2017): Collin Hansen interviews Mika Edmondson on King’s Theology of Redemptive Suffering.

Collin Hansen serves as editorial director for The Gospel Coalition.

Mika Edmondson serves as pastor of New City Fellowship OPC, a church plant in southeast Grand Rapids, Michigan. He recently earned a PhD in systematic theology from Calvin Seminary, where he wrote a dissertation on King’s theology of suffering, recently published as The Power of Unearned Suffering: The Roots and Implications of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Theodicy, the first volume in the Religion and Race series from Lexington Books.

Probably no religious leader in American history is so closely identified with suffering as Martin Luther King Jr. Even before his assassination nearly 49 years ago, he pushed for civil rights through demonstrative suffering on the streets of Montgomery, in the jails of Birmingham, and the bridges of Selma. As a pastor and theologian, then, how did King account for this suffering that he pursued but did not deserve?

Finally, I reread King’s powerful, profound and prophetic Letter from Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963), and the two letters that preceded and prompted this response, The White Ministers’ Law and Order Statement (January 16, 1963) and The White Ministers’ Good Friday Statement (April 12, 1963).

I thank the Lord it was a fruitful day of learning!

One of my commitments is to read and study the biblical and theological truths associated with the celebrations of the Christian year. Having just celebrated and worshiped as we focused on the arrival of Jesus Christ, the birth of the God-man, the incarnation, I read a few excellent books about this wonderful truth. One of them, as I noted, was Tim Keller’s, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ.

I share a couple of pertinent and challenging quotes.

The God of Christmas

In an interview about this book, Keller was asked the following question: “Neither the god of moralism nor the god of relativism would have bothered with Christmas, you observe. Why not?” He replied,

Moralism is essentially the idea that you can save yourself through your good works. And this makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God need to become human in order to live and die in our place if we can fulfill the requirements of righteousness ourselves? Relativism is essentially the idea that no one is really “lost,” that everyone should live by their own lights and determine right and wrong for themselves. The “all-accepting god of love” many modern people believe in would never have bothered with the incarnation. Such a god would have found it completely unnecessary.

Neither moralism nor relativism are the answer, and both leave us completely helpless and hopeless.

Keller addresses this further in the book. If “God who was only holy,” he would not have done anything for us and expected us to do it ourselves. We would have died in our sins, and justly so. If he was a “deity that was an “all-accepting God of love,” he would not have had to do anything either, since he would have simply overlooked sin. God, the God of the Scriptures, the one and only true God, is both “infinitely holy” and “infinitely loving,” so he did for us what we could not do, sending his Son to address our sin and to secure our salvation. Keller writes (46-47),

The claim that Jesus is God also gives us the greatest possible hope. This means that our world is not all there is, that there is life and love after death, and that evil and suffering will one day end. And it means not just hope for the world, despite all its unending problems, but hope for you and me, despite all our ending failings. A God who was only holy would not have come down to us in Jesus Christ. He would have simply demanded that we pull ourselves together, that we be moral and holy enough to merit a relationship with him. A deity that was an ‘all‐accepting God of love’ would not have needed to come to Earth either. This God of the modern imagination would have just overlooked sin and evil and embraced us. Neither the God of moralism nor the God of relativism would have bothered with Christmas. The biblical God, however, is infinitely holy, so our sin could not be shrugged off. It had to be dealt with. He is also infinitely loving. He knows we could never climb up to him, so he has come down to us. God had to come himself and do what we couldn’t do. He doesn’t send someone; he doesn’t send a committee report or a preacher to tell you how to save yourself. He comes to fetch us. Christmas means, then, that for you and me there is all the hope in the world.

The Doctrine of the Incarnation

Often we get caught up in the sentimentalism of Christmas. We like the feelings, emotions and memories it elicits and creates. We do not want to be weighed down with the doctrine or dogma of Christmas. For those who conclude feelings are more important than beliefs, experience trumps truth, Jesus unites and doctrine divides, that doctrine just does not matter, they often do not realize all of those statements reveal a great deal about a person’s beliefs, their doctrine. For most of them, it is doctrine without substance. More specifically, it is a doctrine of salvation by works. In contrast, Christmas is about the doctrine of salvation by grace. According to Keller (131),

When you say, ‘Doctrine doesn’t matter; what matters is that you live a good life,’ that is a doctrine. It is called the doctrine of salvation by your works rather than by grace. It assumes that you are not so bad that you need a Savior, that you are not so weak that you can’t pull yourself together and live as you should. You are actually espousing a whole set of doctrines about the nature of God, humanity, and sin. And the message of Christmas is that they are all wrong.

We give thanks to the God of Christmas for the God-man sent at Christmas! We are also thankful that the doctrine of salvation by grace, the message of Christmas, has been experienced, which is reflected in worship and a life lived joyfully hoping and trusting in God.

On this date in 1538, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and Johannes Agricola (1494-1566) met, in a second disputation, to discuss/debate antinomianism (against the law). Agricola, and the other antinomians, “taught that the best inducement to repentance is not the law but preaching the gospel of God’s immeasurable grace in Christ. The ‘apostolic admonitions,’ following from the gospel and not the law, establish Christian ethics.” While Luther affirms the law is not necessary for justification, it does play an important role for the Christian in revealing sin, maintaining discipline and discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. Luther “insisted on the importance of the law as both a guide for the ethical life and the means by which God drives sinners to repent (that is, ‘convicts’ them of their sin).”

Part of the problem was that Agricola picked up some of Luther’s teaching, but he did not seriously or sufficiently consider the whole of Luther’s teaching. What was missing was the realism of the Christian life lived simul justus et peccator, i.e., in our justification we are simultaneous, one and the same time, righteous or just and sinners. As one writes, “In and of ourselves, under the analysis of God’s scrutiny, we still have sin; we’re still sinners. But, by imputation and by faith in Jesus Christ, whose righteousness is now transferred to our account, then we are considered just or righteous. This is the very heart of the gospel.”

Since we are celebrating Reformation 500 at our upcoming Theology Conference, this is one of topics addressed. However, we are addressing it in a broader manner, focusing on justification and sanctification. But the heart of this discussion and debate rests in the disputation between Luther and Agricola during the Reformation.

Dr. Al Mohler will address the topic, Faith Alone Justifies, Yet the Faith Which Justifies Is Not Alone: Justification and Sanctification. I have explained this lecture in the following way:

Justification by grace alone, by faith alone through Christ alone was the clarion call of the Reformation. It remains the foundation of the Evangelical church today. And yet, this teaching of justification by faith alone concerned the Roman Catholic dissenters because they feared it would foster licentiousness. It would remove all moral motivations to do good works. One of the greatest threats to the Christian faith was the doctrine of assurance, according to some Roman Catholic theologians. Not only did this debate mark the divide between the Reformers and the RCC, there were differences among those promoting Reformation theology. For example, Martin Luther first used the expression Antinomian against Johannes Agricola. Calvin wrote, “It is therefore faith alone which justifies, and yet the faith which justifies is not alone.” Another historical example of this debate occurred in the Church of Scotland in the early 18th century, referred to as the Marrow Controversy. A continuing and contemporary reflection of this debate is that between those who espouse free grace and those who espouse Lordship. On this side of the fall, this challenge and debate are perpetual and universal. How do the doctrines of justification and sanctification relate? How are they different? Can one have one without the other? To what degree? When does one become antinomian? When does one become legalist? In this lecture we will trace the history of this discussion/debate and address the contemporary manifestation of this age-old dispute, with a focus on the practical application to our pastoral ministry with people, recognizing these doctrines are at the heart of most of our pastoral care and counseling with God’s people.

As I worked on a brief annotated bibliography, I included two works that focused on this issue. The first work focuses on the debate between Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560) and Agricola in the 1520s, while Luther refereed. The second one highlights the debate between Luther and Agricola in the 1530s, when Luther addresses antinomianism personally and directly.

Timothy J. Wengert, Law and Gospel: Philip Melanchthon’s Debate with John Agricola of Eisleben over Poenitentia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1997). The debate between the law and the gospel occurred in the midst of the Reformation, the mid 1520s. The key characters were Philip Melanchthon and John Agricola. The key question was over the meaning and significance of poenitentia, defined alternatively as penance, penitence and repentance: what is the relation between the law and repentance? It was through this debate Melanchthon developed the notion of the third use of the law for the believer. All of this is foundational for understanding much of Protestantism, and how to understand the law and the gospel in the Christian life.

Holger Sonntag, trans. and ed., Solus Decalogus Est Aeternus: Martin Luther’s Complete Antinomian Theses and Disputations (Minneapolis: Lutheran Press, 2008). In the earlier debate between Melanchthon and Agricola, Luther played an editorial role. However, in the 1530s he got intimately involved through the first antinomian controversy. Luther heard through others Agricola preached a sermon in which he taught God’s wrath against sin is revealed through the crucified Christ, the gospel, not the law. The heart of Agricola’s view is that “the law’s demands belong to the past; a believer is converted, justified, and instructed through the proclamation of the gospel of Christ. The continuing divine demand of the law – or even of ecclesiastical regulations – was no longer of interest in this context.” To this Luther responded with theses and disputations against the view of antinomianism.

How do justification and sanctification relate to one another theologically, and what are the implications in the Christian life? The way we answer this question has profound consequences for how we live our personal Christian lives, how we live the Christian life with others and with what expectations, and how we provide pastoral counsel to others. This is one of those doctrines in which it is vital we understand and live out both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, all undergirded by the work of God among the people of God.

Personally, the church in which I grew up and the college I attended both espoused Agricola’s view, not Luther’s. This is why Bonhoeffer’s notion of “cheap grace,” espoused in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), rang so true in my ears: “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate” (pp. 44-45).

Evangelicals still struggle with this issue. In many ways, on this issue we live with a consistent disputation!

Plan to register for our Theology Conference to learn further about this and other important issues pertaining to life and doctrine.

Our 2017 Theology Conference will be held February 1-3 on the campus of Trinity International University. The theme of the conference is Reformation 500: Theology and Legacy – The Gospel and the EFCA. In the introduction to the conference, we will focus on the EFCA’s roots in the Reformation and the Reformation’s legacy in the EFCA. You learn more about the Conference, the speakers and the schedule here, with registration here.

We are excited for this Theology Conference. Not only are we addressing the Reformation, a timely and important theme in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of Luther posting the 95 Theses, but we have some of the foremost scholars addressing the various themes/topics of the Conference.

Our preconference will also be excellent, as we address, in a debate format, the important theme of “Genesis and the Age of the Earth: Does the Bible Speak Definitively on the Age of the Universe?” This will be followed by a time of focusing on the application of these matters in the context of a local church, providing guidance to pastors and leaders as they think about, navigate and lead through these discussions.

During the Conference we have also planned a gathering of young pastor-theologians, or those who have been engaged in vocational ministry for five years or less. During the lunch hour on Thursday, February 2, we will meet in the conference room in the Waybright Center.  If you fit this description, or if this would apply to someone with whom you serve in ministry, or someone you know, please either plan to attend or encourage that other person to attend.

My desire is to come alongside those engaged in the first years of pastoral ministry. Although there are many larger churches in America, most are smaller, which means many/most will begin pastoral ministry in a solo setting, or with possibly one or two other staff persons. This is also true in the EFCA in that almost 80% of our churches consist of 250 attendees or less. And in most of these instances, it is expected the person serving in the pastoral role has already figured out most biblical, theological and pastoral issues. However, this is inaccurate. They are, rather, engaged in working out the final step in their theological formation, that of pastoral theology, which consists of applying the truth of God’s Word to specific situations and the lives of people. Too often the assumption, inaccurate I may add, is that this step is either already done, or because other learning of the Bible has taken place, this happens naturally.

Recently I read the following from Mentoring Others, which was a statement made about a PCA church:

The members of the presbyteries know their theology fairly well, but when it comes to applying their theology in daily life, they desperately need help. It is one thing for us to teach systematic theology in intensive courses; it is another thing to help those who haven’t seen it modeled learn how to raise children, or how to live together in harmony, or how to resolve interpersonal conflicts.

This gets to the heart of pastoral theology. I consider this to be the final step in the process of moving from the Bible to theology. As one has written, Pastoral Theology

answers the question, How should humans respond to God’s revelation. Sometimes that is spelled out by Scripture itself; other times it builds on inferences of what Scripture says. PT practically applies the other four disciplines [exegesis, biblical theology, historical theology and systematic theology] – so much so that the other disciplines are in danger of being sterile and even dishonoring to God unless tied in some sense to the responses God rightly demands of us.

Too often, we demarcate between the more academic and the more churchly approach to the discipline of theology. The more academic and theological is for the academy and the more pragmatic and practical is for the church. This is profoundly wrong and hurtful to the church.

I also listened to an interview with Leith Anderson, NAE President, and Daniel Aleshire, Executive Director of The Association of Theological Schools: Trends in Theological Education. Something Aleshire said resonated with what I noted above and resonated with my sense of how many approach pastoral ministry, particularly those who have received formal theological training, either a Bible degree from a college or a MDiv degree from a seminary. They receive all the academic training focusing on the Bible, theology, Christian education, missiology, history, etc., with little pastoral theology. This is a bit overstated, but more often than not, accurate. And then when these students enter pastoral ministry, they encounter many pastoral matters regarding marriage, finances, counseling, addictions, infertility, gender dysphoria, etc. Because these are pastoral issues, too often these new pastors set aside or forget what they learned in seminary and they pursue a pragmatic, practical direction, as if the foundation they received in seminary has nothing to say to any of these matters. This increases the bifurcation, and it means pastors become more practically or pragmatically driven, rather than biblically and theologically driven. They ought to move from the foundation established in the Bible and theology to discern how that forms and shapes their pastoral response to these issues.

This is not to suggest students in Bible college or seminary are not involved or engaged in a local church ministry. The expected assumption is that they are. But there are vastly different expectations and requirements leading in that context in a pastoral, vocational capacity than it is to do so in a non-pastoral, not vocational capacity. It is important to note that I do not believe this is the seminary’s primary responsibility. It is the church’s responsibility. The church has all-too-often given over all of the pastoral training to the seminary, and the seminary has taken it, some by default and some by design. This leaves a huge gap in the learning and training provided by the Bible college or seminary, one which they are not designed to give. Therefore, we expect too much from the seminary, while the church abdicates our primary responsibility.

Here is my point. Because there are few helping young pastors to apply the biblical and theological foundation they have received to the pastoral issues of the day, i.e., to engage in the discipline of pastoral theology, the final discipline in moving from the Bible to theology, it is important for us in the EFCA to help those in the first five years of ministry do this very thing. These first five years are the years in which these questions and answers are given, one’s pastoral theology is forged and formed, which become the habits and disciplines of one’s pastoral practice, which, in turn, become formative for the duration of a person’s pastoral ministry over a lifetime.

If you are a young pastor-theologian or you have been in pastoral ministry for five years or less, please plan to attend this gathering.

As we begin a new year, we read and pray the words of Moses, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12, ESV). The key to what Moses writes is that we ask God to “teach us to number our days.” This addresses not only the brevity of life, that we are but a breath (cf. Ps. 39:5), but also the importance of using our days wisely (cf. Eph. 5:16). This requires that we “consider our ways,” to examine and reflect on our ways and days, so that we ensure we live life faithfully coram Deo, before the face of and in the presence of God.

The purpose we are to live with an awareness of our ways and days, is “that we may get a heart of wisdom” (ESV). Other translations state the same thing in the first half of the sentence, but they differ in the second half, seeking to capture the essence of God’s intent through Moses. Here, for example, are a few of the other translations, which shed further light on the purpose of this request, this prayer (emphasis mine): “that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (NASB); “that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (NIV); “so that we may grow in wisdom” (NLT).

Thus we pray we may “get,” “present,” “gain,” and “grow” in wisdom. What is this wisdom? It is reflective of God (Job 12:13), is given by God (Prov. 2:6), and consists of a right understanding of God, which results in a life lived accordingly under God. It is wisdom that only comes from above (Jms. 3:17). Ultimately, wisdom is identified with Jesus Christ, who is the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24), and who is the source of all the Christian’s wisdom (1 Cor. 1:30). Wisdom is Christological.

Asking God to give insight, wisdom and discernment about life godliness and vocation is not dependent on the turn of the calendar to a new year, or the celebration of a birthday or anniversary, or some specific or particular day. That posture before God can and should happen on a regular basis, and God’s commands and leading ought to be begun when the Lord prompts. As has been stated, delayed obedience is disobedience. As believers who “live by the Spirit” and thus enabled to “keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25), we discipline ourselves for the purpose of godliness (1 Tim. 4:7b-8).

Paul David Tripp takes issue with making resolutions during the new year, but he does recommend making commitments, “rooted in the gospel” and which believers “have been empowered, and should be excited, to make”: Don’t Make Resolutions. Make Commitments

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. While I understand the desire for fresh starts and new beginnings, none of us has the power to reinvent ourselves simply because the calendar has flipped over to a new year. But since the gospel of Jesus Christ carries with it a message of fresh starts and new beginnings – because of the forgiving and transforming power of God’s grace – looking forward at the year to come does give us an opportunity to give ourselves anew to practical, daily-life commitments that are rooted in the gospel. Let me suggest seven commitments that all of us have been empowered, and should be excited, to make. . . . So, as the new year unfolds, don’t fool yourself with grandiose resolutions that none of us has the power to keep. Rather, celebrate the gospel of Jesus Christ and it’s huge catalog of graces. Re-commit yourself to living every day in light of what you have been given in and through your Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, in spite of these concerns, with which I concur, and grounded in and empowered by the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a time/opportunity to ponder these sorts of spiritual matters in our lives. And as we do so, it is not something done on a whim, and neither is it something done in one’s own strength or power. That is why so many resolutions fail: they are not God-directed and not God-empowered.

Donald Whitney is one who has been very helpful in the areas of spiritual disciplines and the basics of the Christian faith. Here is one of his lists in which he asks some questions for us to ponder, which I have previously referenced: Consider Your Ways: 10 Questions to Ask in the New Year In another essay, Why You Probably Don’t Need a Quiet Time, Whitney addresses reasons (read excuses) why one does not have time to spend in the Word and in prayer. In response, he writes, “before you completely forsake your daily devotional time, you might consider a few things.” He then lists a number reasons for engaging in the spiritual disciplines, In conclusion, Whitney acknowledges some of the challenges we face as we engage in the spiritual disciplines, and that “significant changes in your life may indeed be needed. But think: How can less time with God be the answer?”

Karen, my wife, and I spent time discussing the questions listed by Whitney earlier this week. It was a fruitful time together. I pray it will bear fruit the rest of the year. I share them with you with a prayer you will press on faithfully in and with the Lord this year.

Here are a few questions as you seek before the face of God to number your days: More generally, what are the spiritual disciplines in which you need to continue? What are those in which you need to grow? What are those you need to begin? Regarding some of the basic spiritual disciplines, what is your Bible reading plan? What is your plan to commune with God in prayer, individually and corporately? What sin of the flesh needs to be put to death, and what fruit of the Spirit needs to be nourished?

We will all experience joys and sorrows in the year to come. We know some of them, but most we do not. However, we do know God who is immutable (unchangeable) in his “being, perfections, purposes and promises” and we can and will trust him.

Whitney concludes, “So let’s evaluate our lives, make plans and goals, and live this new year with biblical diligence, remembering that, ‘The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage’ (Proverbs 21:5). But in all things let’s also remember our dependence on our King who said, ‘Apart from Me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5).”