The church must remain holy, urge evangelical leaders at T4G
Anyone who has grown up in the church has heard the command to be holy. It is one of the distinctive marks of Christianity, even in the derogatory intent behind the common secular claim that Christians act “holier than thou.” This is not by accident — the Bible’s call for holiness spans both the Old and New Testaments, from Leviticus to 1 Peter. Moses, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul all talked about it. Numerous books have been written on the topic by evangelical giants such as the late R.C. Sproul.
Yet the church has a problem. The world still seems so alluring, and the church consistently struggles to balance Jesus’ desire in John 17 that his people be “in the world” but not “of the world.” Western culture only grows more resistant to Christianity.
What’s more, Christians still sin. This has always been true to some degree, but sin has affected the leaders of the evangelical church in a public manner — damaging the church’s reputation and disqualifying men for pastoral ministry. It seems that each year, another celebrity pastor has had to leave the ministry for one reason or another. According to a 2016 Barna study commissioned by Covenant Eyes, an accountability software, 57 percent of pastors have struggled with pornography at some point during their lives.
The 2018 Together for the Gospel conference addressed the need for holiness in nine plenary sessions over three days, April 11-13. More than 12,500 evangelical Christians gathered in the KFC YUM! Center in Louisville, Kentucky, to hear teaching on the theme “Distinct from the world.” The conference also featured several panel discussions following main sessions, along with numerous breakout sessions and other gatherings.
Holiness is the distinctive mark of the church — and of the godly pastor
Take your identity from the holiness that is coming, Mark Dever said at the opening session of the Together for the Gospel conference. Dever’s message centered on holiness, and encouraging a life of holiness in the church.
Christians can often live lives in ways indistinguishable from the rest of the world. What we say we believe can often be far from the way that we live, he said. But, “Holiness is freedom,” he said, “freedom from the bitter taskmaster that is sin.”
Dever, who is senior pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., continued with nine words of counsel to pastors to live holy lives. Commit yourself to preach through the Bible was the first. In addition to preaching the Word of God, he encouraged pastors to emphasize what the Bible teaches about God. “If we would like our congregation to be encouraged in holiness, then we should especially be preaching about the holy one,” he said. “God wants himself to be known” (Rom 3:25-26).
Lastly, he reminded pastors to explain to their congregation that holiness doesn’t compete with missions but is essential to it: “Holiness is the project of Christ himself. This is the work he has committed to.”
Between the wisdom of the world and the ‘folly’ of the cross, everyone must ‘pick a side’
The message of the cross should define all Christian life and ministry, said H.B. Charles during his session at T4G. Charles, who is pastor-teacher at Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida, argued that the church’s central picture of “Christ crucified” is distinct from the wisdom of the world. A murder savior might seem like folly to the world, but to Christians it is their whole identity, Charles said.
“The message of the cross is what distinguishes the church from the world,” he said. “True wisdom is only found in the saving power of God at the cross.”
Preaching from 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Charles noted that the Corinthian church was impressed with the world’s concept of wisdom, which conveyed honor, power, and status. This temptation, he noted, is common to churches in all cultures. But the Apostle Paul drew a line between divine wisdom and worldly wisdom, saying to the first-century Corinthians and the 21st century Americans: “Pick a side.”
Christian preaching must confidently proclaim the wisdom of God found only in the Word of God, Charles said. While there is no shortage of preaching and preachers in a saturated American religious context, few of them boldly affirm the message of Christ crucified. There is no other saving message, according to Charles.
“If the world could know God through wisdom, man could take the credit,” he said. “So God chose a way that would ensure he would receive all the glory. God saves those who believe the folly of what we preach.”
The church must care about racial equality
The most noteworthy sermon of the conference came from David Platt. In the third plenary session, the (outgoing) president of the International Mission Board preached from Amos 5 a sermon he called, “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and Our Need for Repentance.”
Platt began his talk acknowledging “landmines” associated with addressing such a sensitive topic, particularly in a room of 12,000 people who surely represented, Platt suggested, 12,000 opinions and perspectives.
From the text of Amos 5, in which the prophet Amos indicts the people of Israel for participating in religious ceremonies while ignoring injustice around them, Platt pointed to three “indictments” from Amos to the Israelites: (1) “They were eagerly anticipating future salvation while they were conveniently denying present sin”; (2) “They were indulging in worship while they were ignoring injustice”; and (3) “They were carrying on their religion while they were refusing to repent.”
The point of that passage, as it related to justice and injustice, he said, is this: “God is not honored by mouths that are quick to sing and hands quick to raise in worship when those same mounds are slow to speak and those same hands are slow to act against injustice.”
Platt, who is also a pastor at McLean Bible Church in Washington, D.C., then rhetorically asked the T4G attenders, “Have we been, or are we now, slow to speak and slow to work against racial injustice around us?”
He acknowledged what he called “caveats” of other forms of injustice in the United States and around the world, and he pointed out how multiple forms of racism exist, all of which deserve to be addressed. However, the purpose of this talk was to address white-black tensions in the United States, particularly among Christians.
The answer to his rhetorical question, he said, is a “resounding yes.” Yes, he suggested, evangelical churches and church leaders in the United States have been “slow to speak and slow to work against racial injustice” around them.
From there, Platt made a broad assertion that “pastors in America have historically widened, and are currently widening, the racial divide in [the] country.”
Holiness: ‘White-knuckled discipline’ or ‘grace-driven effort’?
In his sermon, Matt Chandler preached from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. He suggested that preachers cannot use the doctrine of grace as an excuse not to address the necessity of moral living.
Chandler, who is senior pastor of The Village Church in Flower Mound, Texas, and president of Acts 29, said he often meets younger pastors who grew up in legalistic churches where the teaching began and ended at “life principles” and rule-based Christianity. As these believers grew and came to a healthy understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ and doctrines of grace, they felt scandalized by the deficiencies of their own Christian experiences. The result, Chandler fears, is that now a generation of Christians are so afraid to be labeled “legalists” that they avoid all discussion of Jesus’ moral teaching or how Christians should live.
He said this propensity doesn’t fit with Matthew 5: “We see in the Sermon on Mount a proclamation of Christian living.”
But, Chandler said, the Sermon will not allow Christians to be legalists because the teaching of Jesus can only be lived by the “inner transformation” brought about in salvation. He said: “Because it’s been done, we do.”
An unchanging God inspires unshakeable confidence
“The immutability of God is an attribute of perfection and a doctrine of comfort,” Kevin DeYoung said at T4G’s Thursday morning session. DeYoung spoke on the doctrine of immutability, or God’s unchanging nature, aligning with T4G’s theme, “Distinct from the world.”
In his message, DeYoung emphasized that God himself is distinct from the world. He presented and countered a number of objections and challenges to the doctrine, and offered pieces of application of the doctrine to life and ministry. DeYoung is senior pastor of Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina.
Referencing Malachi 3:6, which reads “For I the Lord do not change,” DeYoung explained that God is immutable, unchangeable. “Immutability is what it means for God to be God,” he said.
This immutability has everything to do with life and ministry, he said. God is constant, unchangeable in his essence, his attributes, his plans, and his purposes.
“God’s plan will not change on the final day,” DeYoung said. “If God’s immutability is sad news for the wicked, it is unimaginably good news for God’s people.”
Sexual sin is a deadly blow to the church’s holiness
Mohler, who is president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, preached on 1 Corinthians 5:1-6:11, which is one of the strongest texts in the New Testament about how the church should discipline its members who persist in unrepentant sin. Paul calls the church in Corinth to practice church discipline upon its members while lovingly calling unbelievers outside the church to repentance.
“The purpose of church discipline is not just to make certain that the church does not have a bad reputation because of an unrepentant sinful member,” he said. “It is so that person who has betrayed the gospel by his or her behavior and unrepentant sin and obstinate arrogance — that such a one being handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh may nonetheless or even thereby be so desperate to once again cling to Christ.”
The contemporary church faces the same distinct danger of sexual immorality that first-century Corinth did, according to Mohler. As a result, the church has no credibility to speak about the cultural implications of human sexuality without wrestling with the God’s demands of holiness upon it, Mohler said. If the church’s holy witness is damaged, the gospel is damaged.
“Sin tolerated in the church is a disaster to the church and the gospel,” he said.
Holiness is compassion for others
Ligon Duncan’s T4G message was one of the most memorable of conference’s three days. In his message, “The Whole in our Holiness,” he called for the pursuit of holiness by obedience of the commandments, in particular the commandment to love your neighbor.
Obedience as way to condition God’s goodness, love, and blessing is legalism, Duncan explained, and does not leave room for grace. But grace came first.
“Grace always precedes law. Law is not how you get grace. Grace is what enables you to be who you are supposed to be, what God created you to be.”
Duncan, who is chancellor/CEO of the Reformed Theological Seminary system and John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, pointed to Exodus 20. Preceding the commandments, God said “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Duncan explained that grace was given before the commandments — the Israelites were already delivered. These commandments were not given as conditions for God’s love but as a way to supremely enjoy God.
If being holy is being like God, then Christians must be compassionate. “Compassion is expressed tangibly in obedience to the second commandment,” he said.
Duncan also addressed where Christians in America in particular have historically failed in compassion, especially when it comes to racial issues. He spoke passionately, saying when churches chose to not talk about slavery in the 19th and 20th centuries because it caused disunity, they were disobeying the command to love their neighbor. When churches choose to not talk about racism even more recently, they are not loving their neighbor.
“I believe if the reformed community in the 19th and 20th century had simply applied the second commandment, we would be in a very different place than we are today in terms of racial tensions,” he said.
Because this compassion was expressed by Christ, Christians are called to the same. Holiness is how Christians image God, he said.
“You were saved not only to be declared not guilty but to be set free from the bondage of sin so you could finally be who he created and redeemed you to be. And what does that look like? Loving God and loving your neighbor. Let no one say that anyone can outdo you in love.”
Holiness defends the church against its enemy’s accusations
The church is often affected by worldliness, by scoffers within and without. But how do you effectively pastor a church that’s already been affected by worldliness? Thabiti Anyabwile, who is pastor of Anacostia River Church in Washington, D.C., addressed this question in Friday morning’s second T4G session.
In the book of Jude, Anyabwile said, the church deals with scoffers, worldly people who cause divisions (Jude 1:19). He explained that the scoffer can often appear religious but rejects religion. “At the heart of scoffing is unbelief and rebellion towards God,” he said.
The church must be conscious of this, and pastors must be prepared to lead their congregation in a way that strives for holiness, even when scoffers appear. To do this, Anyabwile encouraged, the church must look out to the scoffers and continue to speak the gospel, look into the church for edifying love, and look up to God for confident assurance.
He reminded pastors to cultivate hope in their church and to be assured of God’s work in the project of holiness: “The most wonderful thing about is holiness and the project of holiness is it is not over when we stumble."
The pastor should have one main concern: the sanctification of his people
A pastor has many things to worry about. Sermon preparation, church budget, and the physical health of his congregation all occupy his thoughts. But according to John MacArthur, one thing should be the central passion of the pastor’s heart: the sanctification of his people.
“Sanctification is the single task of pastoral ministry,” he said. “Between the divine work of justification and the divine work of glorification is the the work of sanctification, in which [pastors] have become the God-ordained instruments.”
Preaching from a single verse, Galatians 4:19, MacArthur noted the severe agony Paul said he felt about his people’s growth in holiness — pains like that of childbirth. This was not a temporary low or ministry burnout for Paul, MacArthur observed, but the intense passion for the Christlikeness of his church. The pastor’s mandate is to see Christ formed in his congregation, and that is what most burdened the Apostle Paul and what should most burden the pastor.
“You will not be judged on the size of your membership,” MacArthur said. “You will be judged on the Christlikeness of your people. Agonize over that.”
The ‘new God’ and ‘new gospel’ of holiness
Retired pastor and author John Piper preached last, but he addressed that his sermon establishes the foundation for Christian holiness.
He began by asking a question: What is the “most basic and most essential difference” between Christians and non-Christians? His answer, which he repeated several times, represented the thesis of his sermon.
“The most basic and most essential difference between Christians and non Christians is not new decisions of the mind, not new deeds of the hands, not new doctrines of the mind, but a new gladness in a new God through a new gospel,” Piper argued.
He used the word “new” because he claimed that everyone already has a god and a gospel, but for unbelievers that god and the message about it is anything but the God of the Bible and the gospel message about how to get to him.
Piper spent the next hour supporting this differentiation. Drawing from the idea in the Book of James that even the demons know theology, Piper suggested that affections for God define true Christians more than knowledge about him.
“The devil himself knows more right doctrine to be true than anyone in this room,” he said.
Piper said he thinks a scandal of American Christianity is the emphasis on “decisions for God” rather than “delight in God.” Because, unlike decisions, delight can only come from genuine new birth.
Videos of the main sessions are available at t4g.org/resources.