I delivered this address on August 26, 2008 to the 2008 Convocation of Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, North Carolina. As I was preparing it, an article was appearing in First Things: “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline” by Joseph Bottum. In it, Mr. Bottum, the Editor of First Things, outlined what he saw as the death of (mainline) Protestantism in our country. Moreover he accurately, in my opinion, showed how the Protestant Church stood on three legs: religion, democracy, and capitalism. With the collapse of the Protestant Church as we have known it those three American ideas are now in jeopardy. I cannot argue with him. And as much as some evangelicals might be tempted to disregard the article and say, “Well, good. The old liberal horse is finally dead,” I think that would be a foolish response. Why? Because just as the Church of England, in the Seventeenth Century, held together the extremes by creating a stable middle, so American Protestantism, at its height in the 1930s and perhaps 40s, held together the polarized parts of our religious landscape. As Diggers and Levellers and Ranters emerged from the disintegration of the Seventeenth Century Church of England, so we can expect similar things to happen again. But in the midst of this I would say that we as evangelicals, the new Presbyterians and Methodists and Anglicans and Bapists and Congregationalists and other re-formed Protestants have a glorious opportunity to bring the Gospel to this nation, even in the apparant ruin and ruble of an old mainline now dead. For just as the early Church brought Christ to the pluralistic landscape of its day and prevailed, so can we, by God’s grace. And just as the Irish monks held together the old culture of literature and democracy in the fall of Rome, and became a human bridge over the competing, less powers seeking to fill the vacuum of a Rome-that-was-no-more, to create a new Christendom, so we must lay down our lives and our years and our gifts to do the same. But how?
In the Convocation message yesterday, I sought to warn, from God’s Word and from a historical-theological case study, how we could miss this unique, sovereignly-given opportunity by becoming like the roaming false prophets of exiled Israel (and indeed I would say that this is exactly how the mainline “Protestantism died” in America) who preached out of their own spirits, rather than out of God’s Word. Finally, from 1 Timothy, I seek to show how we can focus on the main things, avoid the wrong things, and bring about the supernatural goals of the Kingdom of Christ through, only, the supernatural means of Christ and His Word.
I humbly offer this Convocation address as another voice in the wilderness, if not a voice amidst the dirges sung over “The Death of Protestant America.”
Introduction to the Reading
In the days following 9/11, you will remember that the nation, already shocked by the acts of terror committed against our people in New York and Washington and in a field in Pennsylvania, were unmercifully gripped yet again by a sinister, quiet killer: traces of deadly poison began to show up in the most conspicuous places in the nation: in newsrooms, at the office of a television anchor man, and even in the Capital of our nation. A quiet killer was on the loose.
An even more sinister quite killer lurks today in the most conspicuous places in our nation: in the pulpits of our land. In our day, many ministers of the Gospel, and many Christians in general, have fallen. Mostly they fall from sexual sin. Some fall from love of money. But a tragically innumerable sum of them, along with those who hear them, and a nation impacted by their teaching, will fall from the quiet killer of ministry. This killer is revealed for us by the One who would rid us of it and heal us of its effects.
And so turn to the inerrant and infallible Word of the living God for the diagnosis of this urgent situation and the divine treatment offered.
The word of the LORD came to me: Ezekiel 13.1 “Son of man, prophesy against the prophets of Israel, who are prophesying, and say to those who prophesy from their own hearts: ‘Hear the word of the LORD!’ 2 Thus says the Lord GOD, Woe to the foolish prophets who follow their own spirit, and have seen nothing! 3 Your prophets have been like jackals among ruins, O Israel. 4
1 Timothy 4.6-16
If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 1Timothy 4.6 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; 7 for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. 8 The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance. 9 For to this end we toil and strive because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. 10 Command and teach these things. 1Timothy 4.11 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 12 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 13 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 14 Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress. 15 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. 16
The grass withers, and the flower falls, but the word of the Lord remains forever” (From 1Peter 1.24, 25 ESV).
On this Convocation 2008, I want to bring a message of warning and a message of hope for our seminary community, which I am entitling, “Jackals Among Ruins.” First, let us pray:
Spirit of the Living God, illumine Thy Word and the dim eyes of our souls, that seeing You by faith, we may believe, and believing, we may follow. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
A Quiet Killer Lurking
The quiet killer of the prophets of old who were judged by God was, according to Ezekiel, their choice of curriculum. They taught what was in their own spirit. Thus the people were being fed ideas and being given images that were formed not from the mind of God but from that place that Calvin called the factory of idols, the mind of man without God. Thus they were, according to Ezekiel, jackals among ruins. These were the figures of dog-like creatures, alone, separated from the blessing of God and His Word, and laughing and barking and foaming at the mouth over the carcass of a kingdom which was no more. Like savage beasts, they ripped the last vestiges of men’s souls from them through teaching that came not from heaven but from earth. This is a devastating image of the false prophets. Thus Calvin would write of this episode in Israel’s history, referring to the jackals as also foxes:
“But when the Israelites were wandering exiles, and attention to the law no longer flourished among them, it came to pass that foxes, meaning their false prophets, easily entered.”
One can only imagine Ezekiel, who began his book by declaring that it was “the thirtieth year,” no doubt referring to the year that would have begun service as a priest, feeling the pain of all of this. How much better it would be if the people were being fed the Word of God, worshipping in the familiar courts of the Temple of God. But it was also the “fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin” who was taken by Nebuchadnezzar’s unstoppable forces in 597 B.C. (2 Kings 24.8-12). Thus, Ezekiel, instead of serving God in the temple at the time of his ordination, instead of serving God’s proposes in the place where God’s presence was solemnly commemorated, sat with the other prisoners in exile, along an irrigation canal southeast of Babylon called the Chebar, far from the city called holy. But as he would learn he was not far from God. For God came to Him in a whirlwind. And God ordained him to be a prophet to the rebellious people of Israel. But this holy man of God had a “Word from Another World” as Robert L. Reymond has termed a phrase. And he spoke that Word, not his Word but God’s, not only to the rebellious people-at-large, but specifically, here, to the beastly preachers of Israel. They had forfeited their ministries by preaching what they wanted, what arose from their own spirits, their hobby horses, their causes, not God’s.
And so too St. Paul, in his epistle to Pastor Timothy, who was to carry on the church planting and church revitalization work at Ephesus, warned against the preachers who would “depart from the faith.” And in doing so the Great Apostle warned Timothy to having nothing to do with “irreverent, silly myths.” What were these? They were surely the Judaizing myths of a rabbinic religion that had nothing to do with the faith of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but were man-made impositions on the consciences of human beings, which brought Babylonian-like bondage, not freedom and new life. The killer of truth in Ephesus would not be as much the public scandals involving the deacon running off with the Director of Music’s wife, but irreverent rabbis running off with their mouths! The quiet killer of Ephesus would be preachers who were, if we were to take just the opposite of Paul’s warnings, untrained in godliness (verse 8), lazy in the ministry (verse 9), and whose hope was set on things other than the “living God,” the Savior Jesus Christ (verse 10).
The quiet killer of ministry is preaching and teaching the things that are not of God and His Word. The quiet killer of ministry is putting our efforts into causes and movements which do not promote that which will save ourselves as well as our people. And when we have neglected the ordinary means of grace¾Word, Sacrament, and Prayer¾then our people will languish, our churches be weakened, the unconverted neglected, the Great Commission ignored. In short, our people will fall into ruin. And the leaders of such churches will become like Jackals among those ruins.
Few would deny that Western secularized Europe, Britain, and sadly we must say, the United States, looks like the spiritual ruins of a faith that once was. And today we know of scandals and scandalous spiritual leaders who are jackals among the ruins. Some of us might call the jackals antinomianism or legalism, or perhaps Mormonism or the new Mysticism, or, following Paul who named Hymenaeus and Philetus as famous heretics, we might call the jackals by more personal names like Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Charles Taze Russell, or Jim Jones. And you would be right, I think. But could such religious beasts arise from our kind? Could these roaming hounds of Hell begin to sniff out human souls in evangelical seminaries? And if so could they then reproduce their pups and let them lose in our day to bay senseless words in the pulpits of our land, and wander upon the already Babylonian-like spiritual landscape of our nation?
It happened in the Golden age. When was that? Many of us in the Reformed and Presbyterian faith think of Seventeenth Century English Puritanism as the golden age of Christianity. And in many ways it most certainly was! It was the day of the Westminster Assembly of Divines who produced in their 1163 numbered sessions what are surely the crowning confessional statements of the Word of God since the days of the Apostles: The Westminster Confession of Faith, a Larger Catechism, and a Shorter Catechism, a Directory for Public Worship, as well as the lesser studied Form of Government. And it was not only their doctrine but their lives which would cause us to agree with the saintly Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843):
“Oh for the grace of the Westminster divines to be poured out upon this generation of lesser men.”
This was the time of Richard Baxter (1615-1691) at Kidderminster and John Owen (1616-1683) at Oxford. This was the productive time when Emmanuel College at Cambridge was a veritable factory of Puritan divines whose hearts and minds were aflame with the glories of Christ and His Word. The doctrines of grace flowed like the oil over Aaron’s beard and could be heard in the preaching of Scots like Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), Welshmen like Christopher Love (1618-1651), and Englishmen like John Bunyan (1628-1688), the famous Baptist of Bedford, as well as long-serving, faithful English pastor in the fins, William Gurnall (1617-1679) the Anglican rector of Lavenham. Great books were written in those days. Great men and women of prayer emerged in those days. But as the barnacles of Hell would attach themselves beneath the great Gospel ship that sailed through Northampton in the Great Awakening in New England during Jonathan Edward’s day, so they attached themselves to the edges of the golden 1640s of Puritan ascendancy in Westminster. We remember the glaring examples of false teachers like the infamous Laud. And so, Archbishop William Laud, in the opinion of Patrick Collinson was “the greatest calamity ever visited upon the Church of England.” We remember that the Church of England was removed, and while the Presbyterian government that replaced it might be preferable to many of us, the Church of England formed an institution which held together the ‘center” of Christianity, and even Reformed Christianity, in that day. Thus, as the center collapsed, the fringes were set free. And Seventeenth Century Puritanism came into ascendancy even as sectarian groups such as the Quakers, the Levelers, the Ranters, the Diggers and other mystical, heretical groups began to emerge. These groups were usually either neo Montanists, advocating extra Biblical, continuing revelation, which led them into heretical claims about the Trinity or of Christ or about prophecies concerning the end times, or they were anarchists, who used the Kingship of Jesus to advocate the overthrow of all governments. It is not an overstatement to say these groups came upon the land like locusts. So in the very era when the unsurpassed Westminster theology was being taught, heresy and anarchy seemed unstoppable. Out of this mixed-up mess of false teaching and pristine Biblical theology came a man named Vavasor Powell. This Welshman was possessed of natural gifts as a teacher and especially as a teacher. An Oxford man, this former schoolmaster was also gifted in leadership and vision. When he was converted under the preaching of the godly Walter Craddock (1610?-1659) and the writings of Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) and William Perkins (1558 – 1602) , he began an itinerant ministry that led him ultimately to becoming rector at Holy Trinity in Dartford. There he also became a chaplain to Parliament during the English Civil War. When the Westminster divines set up a committee to study how to get the Gospel to Wales and to do what we would call “church planting” the Committee looked to this extraordinarily gifted man, Vavasor Powell. The Committee met on the 11th of September, Session 704 of the Westminster Assembly, and 18 divines signed Powell’s certificate to preach in Wales. The number included no less than Jeremiah Burroughs (1600-1646), whose devotional works on contentment and worship rank as first class contributions to the Church from this era (and I hope you get to read them) as well as Powell’s fellow Welshman, the famous Presbyterian pastor of St. Lawrence Jewry in London, Christopher Love (1618-1651). So Powell was sent out by the Assembly to do both church planting and revitalization in Wales. But alas, as he was separated from the orthodox Presbytery of London and set free to earn the title of “the metropolitan of Wales,” Mr. Powell became influenced by the sectarian movements of his day. And the one association which most scholars have linked him to was the Fifth Monarchy Movement. This movement believed that they were fulfilling the cause of Christ by supporting anarchy, removing all human governments, and thus ushering in Daniel’s fifth and final kingdom, or monarchy, that of Jesus Christ Himself. They were a millenarian group whose theology became mixed up in politics, always a dangerous and combustible mixture. And if Powell wasn’t one of them, Powell was friendly to them; of that there can be no doubt. Indeed, on one of his return trips to London, when he was filling the pulpit at Blackfriars Church, the pulpit of late, venerable William Gouge (1575-1653), the oldest member of the Westminster Assembly when they convened, Powell gave a sermon. It was December 16th, 1653, the day that Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was named Lord Protector of all of the British Isles. And Vavasor Powell preached to old Mr. Gouge’s congregation and asked them to go home and ask themselves if they wanted Jesus Chris to rule over them or Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell did not take that comment very well and Powell was locked up immediately. So here was a man who would debate the heretics of the day, who championed high Calvinism against Arminians of the day, who was so popular that Parliament requested his services as a preacher on several occasions, who was so gifted that he caught the attention of men like John Owen, who wrote the preface to one of Powell’s books, and yet would become involved with the fringe political movements of his day, and began to focus on anarchist, radical millenarian ideas, that pitted him against his own heretofore allies. And Vavasor Powell forfeited his ministry. He was locked up by the Puritans. When Charles the Second returned he released a number of prisoners, but considered Powell so dangerous to the populace that he left him there. And Powell grew sick in prison. And there in the horrible conditions of the Fleet Street Prison, Vavasor Powell the fiery evangelist and radical millenarian, returned, through the sanctifying powers of a cell and time alone with God and God’s Word, to become a pastor. It was said of him that he transformed his cell into an academy and his guards into parishioners who were catechized by Powell and sit under his preaching each Lord’s Day. Indeed, he became so pastoral in his outlook and behavior, that the officials let this once dangerous lion of Wales out each Sunday to preach in the streets of London. He wrote beautiful letters to the little churches in Wales, some of which he had founded. He wrote some marvelous hymns and devotional books, one of which, “Bird in a Cage Chirping” contains remarkably tender and pastoral passages on Christian suffering. In short, this man forfeited the years of his ministry in fringe groups only to recover his ministry in the last years of his life. He died in his cell in 1670 and was buried in Bunhill Fields Cemetery in London in what is now an unmarked grave. I went there and remember re constructing the day of his funeral service, and with the help of the cemetery worker that day, located the place where his remains lay. I will never forget the words of that worker that day, as the sun sank low and the shadows fell upon the ancient burial grounds in old London. This fellow said, in unmistakable Cockney, “I ‘ave no idea why ye would want to look fer this ‘ere bloat; this ground is filled with nothing but rebels and the dregs of society who couldn’t get a proper burial.” As he said that to me, I looked over his should to see the tomb, on one side, of John Bunyan. Over his other shoulder, I saw the tomb of Susannah Wesley. “Yes, I said, but I suspect this whole cemetery will erupt with glorified saints on the day when Christ comes again.” He shook his head over what I am certain he thought was a very confused Yank, and we parted.
And thus Powell’s legacy is mixed. Puritan prophet of Wales, and anarchist preacher and prisoner. He was in a sense a Jackal Among Ruins, who forfeited his ministry on the altar of his own bad ideas. But by God’s grace he became a pastor again.
And how many in our generation have been equally tricked into laying aside the divinely ordained means of grace for human concocted means that can never save a soul, much less build a church. There are jackals among ruins who need to repent. But how many times have I felt in recent days that my work was so urgent that I skipped prayer in order to think through some problem or challenge. Sometimes seminary presidents can also look not to God’s Word but to their own resources for help. And this too will save neither ourselves nor our hearers.
I think about these passages today, and the illustration of the life of a preacher who believed and preached the theology and faith of Westminster, and I come away with two word to charge us with today:
1. Focus: Focus your ministry on the Word of God, not this movement or that movement, or political involvement or speculative theological ideas or academic or professional peer groups. As we would learn from reading about the false prophets in Ezekiel, we must not “follow our own spirit” or our own vision, but God’s. Moreover, we must be prepared to announce the truth of Christ and His Gospel to the whole world, and this was the indictment of the Lord for Israel:
“But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand” (Ezekiel 33.6 ESV).
This is a most solemn warning to seminarians and ministers and all of God’s people. To be given the Word of God is a great responsibility that involves not only our own souls but the souls of those who would hear us.
For our seminary, let us focus on the central vision of the coming Kingdom of God and the need to pray for laborers for God’s harvest. And thus let us focus on preparing men for the pastorate and men and women to become missionaries and other Christian leaders. And in all things let us focus on doing it with a sound methodology given to us in the Word of God, of faithful men teaching faithful men who will be able to teach other also. But we must see ourselves as a mission of Christ, the repository of two thousand years of study and preaching invested in our godly faculty and being entrusted to a rising generation of pastors and missionaries who will join in the single minded work of declaring the Word of the Lord to the entire earth, from across the sea to across the city and even across the living room. Focus. And secondly:
2. Avoid: St. Paul is teaching that we must avoid the irreverent, silly myths, which sometimes attach themselves to the true, good old ship of the Gospel. And as we make our way through a world where truth and error are often being mixed, where those who would seek to minister to people in Post modernity may be prone to become one with the bad ideas they intended at first to confront, or those who would seek to recover the good traditions of the past become entangled in ritualism which ruined them, we must be all the more prayerful. There are some who have preached the Gospel of Christ faithfully through dependence upon the Word, Sacrament, and Prayer, who turned to preach out of the poison well of their ideas or the ideas of others. They not only forfeit their ministries. They become “jackals among ruins.”
Remember the words of Paul:
“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4.16).
As I begin my time with you as your president and as the newest faculty member, and as we welcome our new students, our returning students, as well as each of our fine staff, I pray that we will remember that, as Charles Hodge would tell his new students at old Princeton, “you will learn nothing new here.” He meant that his students would come upon no novel ideas there, but only the faith of the Reformers. You will, we pray, learn nothing new here, unless you come to taste the newness of the truth of the Gospel fresh upon your soul. And I do pray that you will receive from our teaching of the Word God concerning the Gospel ministry, the essential teachings that will help you to stand and preach or teach or minister faithfully. And I pray that we will all recommit our lives today to the inerrant and infallible Word of the Living God, to dependence upon the Holy Spirit, and to focusing on the life and Person and sacrificial death on the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ as well as His glorious resurrection from the dead and ascension into heaven, where he reigns now, and from hence He shall return to judge the living and dead, and usher in a new heaven and a new earth. And in all of this, I pray this for you, a prayer that was prayed over me when I began seminary and a prayer I felt was answered in that season of ministry where you are: that you who are beginning your studies here at RTS Charlotte will love Jesus Christ more at the conclusion of your studies than at the beginning. And then shall our seminary be used of God to train up shepherds of Christ who shall scatter the jackals among ruins, and raise the Cross of the Savior that all who will look upon the One on that Cross and repent of their sins, trusting in the finished work of Christ alone, will be saved.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us pray.
O blessed Savior, sent of the Father, and impressed upon our hearts today, from Your Word by Your Spirit, we are prone to wander. We are prone to speak out of our own imagination, our own vision, and when we do we become like these jackals among ruins, seeking our own way, leaving the people destitute of Your Word and its mighty blessings. Today we ask, in this new semester, in the new time for our seminary, and in each of our lives, that You would show us our where we have neglected Your Way for the world’s way, reveal how we have relied on our strength and not Your strength, and unveil the awful sins of pride and presumption and minimized the glorious Gospel of grace, so that, stripped of the things that separate us from You and each other, and limit our usefulness in the Kingdom of God, we may, with renewed spirits, follow Thee, Lord Jesus, all the way home. Bless our seminary, anoint our ministers as they teach, bless our students as they learn, and help our staff to be so united in our love for You and our heart for this mission, that Your glory would be exalted in this place and your mission in the world would be fulfilled, at least in part, by what You do here with us.
And so surrendering our hearts to You O Christ we pray now that we may know nothing but the Cross, preach nothing other than the Gospel of God’s grace, and follow no other One but the One who lived the life we could never live and died the death on the cross that should have been ours, and relief on no other means of grace¾no other way to You and Your Kingdom¾but what has been revealed in Your Word.
I commend this seminary, this new semester, all of our faculty and staff and each of our precious students to You and to the Word of Your grace. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
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And as a Preface Hereto, an Epistle to the Welsh Churches, and a Brief Narrative of the Former Propagation, and Late Restriction of the Gospel, (and the True Preachers and Professors Thereof) in Wales. And a Short Vindication of the Author and Others, from the Calumniation of Their Adversaries Concerning the Same. London: Printed, for L.C. at the next shop to Popes-head Alley, on the West-side in Cornhil, 1661.
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