D A Carson at Liberty University Q + A February 2012

You can watch the 66 minute lecture preceding the Q & A here- Biblical Studies Symposium at Liberty University – One Focus of the Gospel: John 3.

The Biblical Studies Symposium hosted Dr. D.A. Carson on February 20th, 2012. Dr. D.A. Carson addressed students and faculty in the Towns Alumni Lecture Hall at 7:30pm with „One Focus of the Gospel: John 3.

Topics addresses: Repentance, being Born Again, Sin, consumerism, built in hedonism is bound up in pleasant places, tolerance, exclusive truth claims, modern day invitational methods, abundant life (i.e. prosperity gospel), the role of law and Gospel, cheap grace, Wesley view of law & grace, Tim Keller & idolatry, regeneration, works based salvation, Scott McKnight,


1) Please address the use of repentance when presenting the Gospel. What does the unbeliever understand by that word?

Carson: Nowadays, not much, but it depends a bit on who the unbeliever is. If you are preaching the Gospel in sort of churchified settings, south of the Mason-Dixon line, then people have some sort of notion of what repentance is. But if you use that word in secularized New England or the Pacific Northwest it’s just not a word in every day use.

What you have to see is that very often its not the use of a particular word that is crucial, but by whatever words you choose getting across certain non negotiables that are bound up with what is involved  in conversion and one of the things that’s involved  in conversion is turning away from the direction in which I have been going and turning to Christ and that will have many, many different shapes. If you are a Buddhist in Thailand it will mean turning away from conceptuality of what the spiritual world consists in; it might not even involve belief in a personal God and turning to an entirely different worldview in which trysting Christ is part of the Bible storyline. It means turning away, not only from a lifestyle but from a frame of reference; a looking at something that is just plain wrong to something that puts Christ and His work right at the center of everything. So, it is not so much the word that is critical, but the reality of it.

In some context of the New Testament belief includes repentance. If it is genuine belief it is not just „belief that„; it is belief that is somehow so bound up with how Christ is that it necessarily means turning away from all that He isn’t, which is where you have been in the past.

 2) Specifically about the text in John 3, could you speak as to why the phrase „born again” is not rendered „born from above”?

Carson: The Greek word of course is αναγεγεννημενοι (anothen) and in terms of etymology (that is the parts of the word that go into making the word up) ano-above and then-from there, then anothen looks as if it means from there, from above and so some people want this to be born from above, and if I had time to do a decent exposition before a Greek class I would point that out. But word meanings are not always constrained by the parts that make them up. For example: In the English, in the spring we look for butterflies. Believe it or not, butterflies are not made up of butter and flies and so you have to start asking yourself: How is the word used? Not just the ingredients that have gone into the words, etymology; and you can show that in the broader Greek literature, sometimes anothen really does mean again. So, in this instance you are torn in choosing between born again or born from above. I suspect,  but I can’t prove, is that John meant both. What I tend to do is stick with the translation that I’m using, in which case is born again, but stress the from aboveness thing by pointing out that Christ came from above, and this is by revelation and He was sent from the Father and thus in fact you’ve got this dimension built into the explanation, whether you get the word anothen, to unpack it for you or the entire storyline.

 3) What is, in your opinion, the greatest threat within Christianity to a proper understanding of the Gospel and how do we respond?

Carson: I could give a general answer. SIN. The trouble is that sin has many faces and when you say the greatest threat it depends on what part of the world you are in. In some parts of the world there is spectacularly disastrous poverty and in that context it’s not consumerism that is the biggest threat. But, in this country consumerism is one of them. Not the only one, but it’s one of them. I have a daughter who lives in California and a son who lives in Hawaii, suffering for Jesus in those two places and one of the things I observe when I go to visit either of them is, in both cases, how much built in hedonism is bound up with life in pleasant places. As a friend of mine puts it in Hawaii, „What do you need heaven for? We’re already there!”  A pastor friend of mine in Santa Barbara says the most spectacularly difficult problem he’s got is finding young men who will submit to the training to become elders. They’re too busy wanting to surf. You start living in a culture, where the only reason you work is in order to play, and you will undercut the Gospel without a single doctrinal deviation. Now having said that, for other people it’s not that at all.

It’s various kinds of doctrinal deviations; one of them is the widespread view today that tolerance means you can’t say anybody is wrong. That is in fact a new definition of tolerance. An older definition of tolerance said, „I might detest everything that you’re saying and tell you that you’re wrong, but I still insist that you have the right to say it. That was the older view of tolerance. Nowadays to say that somebody is wrong is already intolerant. But that means that you are not allowed to say that anybody is wrong, which means you cannot have discussions, which means you can’t reflect what the Bible says: There is no salvation given to man, by which we can be saved, except in the Name of Jesus and no one comes to the Father except my Me. Those are very intolerant statements by the new definition of intolerance, but they’re not intolerant by the old definition.  You can preach Islam, you can preach radical secular humanism, Hinduism, in this country you can preach a lot of things and tell me I’m wrong as long as I can tell you you’re wrong. That’s still a very tolerant view and the older tolerance. But in the new tolerance, you see, then the new tolerance itself is a terrible threat towards the claims in Scripture of the exclusive  sufficiency of Jesus Christ and I guarantee in this crowd (Carson is speaking at Liberty University) there are many, many, many of you who have bought into the new tolerance without even knowing it and as a result you are made uncomfortable when you hear exclusive truth claims, or that people who don’t trust Jesus as their Savior and Lord are doomed to eternal destruction; you’re just made uncomfortable by that because it sounds intolerant and in our culture that’s one of the biggest things you can do: Be intolerant. We don’t realize how much we’ve absorbed the cultural milieu.

When people say, „What is the biggest threat?” it really depends on where you are in the culture, what age you are, where in the country and then it looks a little different in China, and in China it depends on where you are in China, whether you are in one of the free economic zones where there’s a surprising amount of liberty these days, where one of the biggest dangers is consumerism vs. when you are up country somewhere, where there is still a lot of persecution. What the danger is to us, looks very different than what the danger is in the Middle East. Here, it is widely accepted, in the western world, that if you’re tolerant, you don’t say anybody’s wrong. In Muslim countries, which after all take up about a billion people, nobody thinks that’s the case. Everybody thinks there’s only one way. The argument is which one? That’s a very different frame of reference, a different context in which to do evangelism, than in our context.

At the end of the day (the biggest threat) it’s sin, spiritual blindness. But if you come to specifics, you’ve got to recognize the shape of such unbelief and sin is really quite different form culture to culture.

 4) Do you find modern day invitational methods and decision seeking to be a major hindrance to the Gospel?

Carson: That is another one of those generalized questions that depends so much on what a person means. D.L.Moody when he was criticized for his methods turned to his questioner and said, „What methods do you advocate yourself?” The questioner said, „I don’t really do evangelism, I don’t have methods.”  Moody replied, „I prefer to use the methods I do use and you don’t like, than the methods you do like that yo don’t have.”  So you still want to say, when people start criticizing methods of one sort or another, „I’d rather have people making lots of mistakes in their presentation of the Gospel, pushing people to repent, than not doing it.Moreover, it’s often not just methods per se; it’s the context in which a method occurs. For example: If you have a really shoddy presentation of the Gospel- it doesn’t explain much of what the cross is about, doesn’t explain much about the nature of sin, doesn’t explain what substitution is about, doesn’t explain the wrath of God, it doesn’t explain any of those things; it just uses a whole lot of religious cliches, but it doesn’t explain any of those things and then you start pressing people to come forward and have eternal life, come forward and have the abundant life and maybe you’re dealing with a congregation that is semi literate in any case, biblically speaking, well in that context it really is dangerous to push people that way because, to use the language of the prophets, „They’re in danger of healing My people slightly”; that is, they make some sort of profession of faith, of turning in some way to God without understanding what the real issues are.

For example: Many,many of the evangelistic approaches that are used today, turn on having the abundant life. Would you like to have an abundant life;  step 1. Well, what idiot is going to say no? On the other hand, where does the abundant life language come from in the Bible? It comes from one verse, in John 10: „I have come that they might have life and they might have it more abundantly,”  and this in a context of an extended metaphor on sheep. So, the sheep are supposed to have a more abundant life. What does that mean? It probably means a whole lot more grass. When I first started doing university evangelism 35 years ago, when I was dealing with an atheist on a campus, he or she was a Christian atheist. That is to say that the God they disbelieved in was the Christian God, which is another way of saying that the arguments were still on my turf, my categories. I can’t even assume that today. The people I evangelize in university missions today don’t know the Bible as two Testaments. They’ve never heard of Abraham. If they’ve heard of Moses they confuse him either with Charlton Heston or the more recent cartoon character. They have no idea how the Bible’s put together and all of their religious vocabulary, as slight as it is- faith, God, Jesus, in every case they mean something different than what I mean. So, I come to these people and say, „Would you like to have abundant life?” What do they hear?  „Oh yeah, you bet I’d like. More sex, umm. Better job. Sense of fulfillment. Can you give me that?” So, they’re not hearing at all what the first century hearers heard, when Jesus spoke those words in John 10. So, we’re at a time of life when, if we’re evangelizing to people outside of the churchified, outside of the category of the people who already have a religious vocabulary, if you’re evangelizing in that sort of context, you’ve got a rebuilding job to do: to explain what the categories are, what the Bible stories are, how the Gospel works. That’s part of explaining the Gospel faithfully. If you don’t do that and instead apply immediately to ask people for a decision or to come forward or pray a prayer, where they don’t understand any of the categories, then you’re asking them to leap into an experience without any of the context of the constructs of the Gospel that make believing in the Gospel coherent. In that sense, it is very foolish to push those things. It’s not just whether you are pushing someone to bow to Christ, it’s the context in which you are doing it; how well the Gospel has been genuinely explained. It’s not method in some cheap, narrow sense that is at issue. The much bigger issue is how faithful a presentation is there, of the Gospel itself.

 5) Discuss the role of law and Gospel in your preaching.

Carson: In one sense, the role of law should be pretty substantial. In my view it shouldn’t take top priority and I need to explain both of those. You cannot get agreement on what the Good News is until you get agreement on what the problem is. The reverse is also true. The solution to the problem stand together. So if you think that the biggest human problem is economic injustice, what you need is a new social order. What you need is new economics. That is what you need to fix things.  If you think that the biggest human need is loneliness or social misidentity, not finding yourself; then you need a decent psychologist. So you need to have some awareness as to what the Bible presents as the fundamental need, the need behind every other need, and biblically speaking that is alienation from God. It is in a word, sin. It is transgression. It is degod-ing God.  It is idolatry. It is dishonoring God. Until people can see that that is what the problem is and to present Christ as the One who comes along and delivers us from the death that ensues from our sin, then the Gospel doesn’t make any sense. It’s not coherent. You need to present law – the demand of God, so that people can see what the effect of the law is. We don’t live up to God’s standards. He says we’re supposed to love God with heart, soul and mind and strength. And we don’t. He says we’re supposed to love our neighbors as ourselves. And we don’t. He says we’re not supposed to lust. And we do. He says we’re not supposed to hate and we manage that too, and on and on and on and on… All of these things in the Bible are presented as fundamental offenses against God HImself, against the living God and He stands over us not only as our Creator and our gracious providential provider but He also stands over us as judge, and He has very right to be angry with us. Six hundred times the Bible portrays God, in the Old Testament alone, as a wrathful God against us. Not that He has lost His temper, but His wrath is a determined, holy response to human sin. 

Anything that we do in preaching the law of God, so as to set up the stage for showing how wonderful the grace of God is, is surely got to be a good thing. If you talk about the grace of God before people recognize there’s any sort of problem, it’s almost inevitably going to turn out a bit of cheap grace. Wesley, in one of his letters, 137 or something like that, was asked, „How do you preach the Gospel in any place?” That is: He gets on his horse, goes to the next town, starts preaching; what does he do first? He says, „I begin with a general declaration of the love of God and the Gospel, and then I preach law. I preach law that men may know that they are lost. Then I preach more law and when I see a few people come under conviction of sin, knowing they are lost, maybe a few tears, I preach more law. When substantial numbers are clearly under conviction of  sin, then I admix a little grace. ” Wesley says that when the entire congregation is under the deep conviction of God, and crying out like those in Acts- „What shall we do?” Then, he says, ” I preach grace freely, and fully and richly, so that they see how glorious is the Gospel of God and then quickly do I admix law, lest men shall presume.” That was actually the Puritan view of things. Much of Wesley’s theology was actually puritan.

There is something right about all of that. I think there is also something wrong about it too, but there is something deeply right about it.  It really reflects the fact that you can’t get the Gospel right until you see what the problem is. One way or the other, they have to get that across. But, Tim Keller, a Presbyterian Minister in New York City who has about 6,000 members , average age of 31, mostly converts and biblically illiterate; he has learned not to begin with law, but with idolatry; because today, with a post modern world, in  a world with new ideas about tolerance when you preach law, what people hear you to be saying is that there’s some arbitrary being up there that just wants to step off and tell me what to do all the time. None of his business. Says who? But when you begin with idolatry, then you’re portraying something of the same thing, but in a relational dimension. The heart of idolatry is, you rebel against your maker. That’s a form of betrayal. This generation understands betrayal better than it understands trespasses. And, as Keller likes to point out, Paul himself in Romans 5 said: Before the law came that is with Moses and the giving of the law covenant, there was still idolatry and because of  it death reigned from Adam to Moses. Before the giving of the law there was still massive idolatry. So there is a sense that all of idolatry is a sense of transgressing against God. All of acting against the law is also idolatrous.

Now at what point do you start introducing the grace of God in the Gospel? That still has to be out there. It has to be the goal towards which we press. I don’t care how you mix it in. But somewhere along the line that if you run to grace and the Gospel before people have any idea of what the offense is then we ultimately end up with a diminished Gospel.

6) You’ve talked about the transforming power of the Gospel. If you are saying that after you are saved, there’s a certain way you have to live, how is that not works based salvation?

Carson: In works based salvation it is the works that finally commend you to God, not Christ. But, in the New Testament we are finally acceptable before God exclusively on the grounds of Christ’s substitutionary death on our behalf. Yet, the inevitable result  of genuine salvation in the New Testament and regeneration is change in their life. That’s why Jesus can say things like: „By their fruits ye shall know them”, and, „many shall say to Me in those days: Lord, Lord haven’t we done this and haven’t we done that, then I shall say to them, Depart from me you workers of iniquity, I never knew you”. This does not say that Christians are sinlessly perfect, it does not say they all grow at the same rate, it does not say there is no possibility of slipping and siding on occasion, having to be restored to God. The experience of most Christians is that as you become closer to God you become more aware of the sin in your life. But having said all of those things and putting all of those caveats in place, when you are converted you want to do what you didn’t want to do before and you don’t want to do what you wanted to do before. There’s a change in the heart. A cleaning, an orientation and holiness becomes attractive instead of something that you have to put up with instead of trying to see what you can get away with. As long as young people are asking, „Can I get away with this, or can I get away with that. I wonder if they’re regenerate. If they’re asking instead, „How can I grow in holiness, then I suspect they’ve begun to understand.

7) What do you make of Scott McKnight’s call for a Gospel that is first Christology, and second soteriology in his recent booklThe King Jesus Gospel?

Carson: Scott’s an old friend. He’s a creative writer and thinker. He couldn’t write a boring sentence if he tried. He’s an excellent communicator. He is also temperamentally a guy who likes to take on almost anything that’s going and push it in a whole other direction. He is the universal corrector. One of the things that bothers me about some of Scott’s writings is that often he is right in what he affirms but wrong in what he denies. How can you have a genuinely biblical Christology without the soteriology entailed? Hw can you have genuine soteriology without knowing something about Christology?  Why do you want to pit them against each other? So, I know the error he is trying to correct, but I think it is rarely the path of wisdom to correct an error by advocating a pendulum swing. The path of wisdom when there’s an error is try to find the center of biblical faithfulness again rather than a pendulum swing. It’s not as if biblical truth is several pearls on a string and which pearl you put in what order makes a difference. It’s more like a symphony and all the instruments need to be playing together.

8) Are the issues of dispensationalism and covenant theology worth breaking fellowship over and should this affect the Gospel movement? 

Carson: In the context of a local church which has a strong statement of faith on either one side or the other, then transparently to be faithful to that heritage you do break fellowship. But there might be some context where a church that is a moderate dispensational church and a church that is a moderate covenant church in the same town might share platforms together, might do some  evangelism together without consigning each other to Dante’s inferno. Behind the question, I see another question. It is bound up with this new view of tolerance. There are many, many people saying today: Anything that doesn’t directly affect your Salvation is not an important doctrine. They are saying in effect: Provided someone believes that it doesn’t matter a twig. I think that’s hugely mistaken. What that’s looking for is the lowest common denominator theology. It’s constantly asking the question: What is the least I can believe in Bible and get away with it?  Whereas there’s so many biblical texts that say that the righteous person loves the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. To this man I will look, he who is of a humble spirit, who is contrite and who trembles at my word. So it seems to me that the right approach to scripture is how I can understand and believe more accurately  so I can think God’s thoughts, after Him. Not asking purely pragmatic questions: What’s the least I can believe in and get away with it? If God didn’t think it was important, why did He give it?

9) How do we preach the full magnitude of the Gospel in a culture of such busyness and non commitment?

Carson:  If it wasn’t a culture of such busyness and non commitment then sin would manifest itself in some other way. Every Gospel apart of the grace of God and the Gospel is already alienated from God. In the first century they had polytheism to contend with and paganism and blood sacrifices. Every society has things that stand over and against the Gospel and what you do in a culture like that is still to preach the whole counsel of God. You learn to do it winsomely. You learn where the tender spots are so you can negotiate them tenderly and not cause unnecessary offense. But, if there’s an offense in the Gospel itself, then you bear the offense. That’s just the way it is. If people think that you’re intolerant because you say there is no other name under heaven by which you must be saved; then you try hard to think through how you might defend yourself in that regard and thus defend Christ, but you don’t duck it because it’s still the truth. And without that truth there’s gonna be all kinds of people who think that they’re saved when they’re not.

People make their own busyness. They’re not busy in the same sense that people during the industrial revolution were busy, who worked 5 1/2 or 6 days a week, 12 + hours a day. Many of them died at the age of 40 or 45, all worn out. There were no holidays, there were no unions. The beginning of unions, was in fact under John Wesley.The first 3 trade union leaders were exported to Australia as prisoners because of the rapaciousness of all the power being on one side. So, in every culture there are problems to face and in our culture there are these problems. So when people get converted in our culture, I wanna start saying things like this: When you get up in the morning, is the first thing you do turn on the iPhone? Check your email list from the night before or read your Bible? That’s a choice. That’s not the imposition of a culture, that’s a choice. You never, ever pray in any culture unless you make plans to pray. You never drift into self discipline. It’s a choice. Choose your priorities. Stop making excuses about how busy you are. You think you’re busy here? It’s nothing compared to what will come later. So you start challenging anyone who uses that as an excuse. God has given you all the time there is: 24 hours a day. Question is not how busy you are. It’s what you do with it. Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.

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