Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A Singular Anonymous Letter

John R. de Witt, former pastor of several large churches, is my friend and mentor in the ministry. Recently, he spoke at RTS Charlotte on the accrued wisdom of 50 years in the pastorate. He related an anonymous letter which caused him to reflect upon how he preached. I found it very helpful, and thought it would be helpful both to preachers and laypeople in understanding the challenge and task of the church:

I came to your church sun and brought a young couple with me who are struggling with living a Christian life and are being pulled by the world with drugs, sex and alcohol. Many of the young people you preach to on Sunday morning are sleeping together on Friday and Saturday nights in a drugged, drunken stupor. They don’t really want to live like that but are pressured from all directions and are seeking some alternatives. What an awesome responsibility the church has to reach and develop these intelligent well educated young people. If you and your wife had been this young couple, what would you have taken home with you that would help you to face the world they have to live in this week?

You live in a sheltered world. They’re coming in there Sunday morning crying out for help –if the church doesn’t help them who will? What you said was doctrinally correct: repetitious, but cold. They need to know that God is real and that he is alive and wants to live in them that he is far greater and more caring than any earthly father could ever be, that he hears them and will comfort when their little world is falling apart –that they don’t have to turn to the crutches this world offers them but that Jesus is always there with his big loving arms open ready to love them and listen to their problems –that they can cast their cares on him for he really cares.

There are some young people who listen to you every Sunday who have considered suicide: they’re not getting answers. I’ve worked with them for thirty years. When they learn who they are as God’s child, and as a joint heir with Jesus entitled to all he is and has, that he can supply their every need then he becomes real and they depend on him instead of some psychiatrist that is in worse shape than they are. Second Presbyterian Church draws the young people who will be leaders in this city. Most of them are not getting any help at home. Their homes are broken by the same problems they have. I believe you are the man God has put there. Don’t let them go away with some cold doctrinal truths each Sunday –you will gradually lose them. I agree they need this. But first they need his love guidance and acceptance –they need some answers.


  1. "Doctrinally correct, repetitious, and cold..." That sounds like too many sermons I've heard of late. (Not at Trinity and certainly not from Ken). Someone has rightly said that "nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care."

    It's not just the troubled young couples in the pews who need to hear the love and grace of Christ instead of just cold and doctrinally correct sermons. Those of us who are older and have been serving Christ's church for years desperately need it too.

    Could this be what Jesus meant when He said to the church at Ephesus: "But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:4). Have we abandoned our first love to pursue in vain only correct doctrine? If so, there is great hope if we repent, for Jesus goes on to say: "Repent and do the works you did at first...To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God." (Revelation 2:5 and 7)

  2. I guess I'm just a hard-hearted woman, but this letter on first reading and then again in church this morning, strikes me as more of the same wallowing in self absorption that got our culture and these young people in the mess they're in than in a corrective measure for the church.

    I've definitely been stuck in cold dead churches with cold dead teaching, but I suspect that is not the case here. What the letter-writer seems to be asking is for the pastor to meet the felt needs of people who apparently know that they shouldn't be having sex outside of marriage, or doing drugs, or getting drunk on the weekends, but do so anyway and then show up to church on Sunday hoping the pastor will somehow absolve them of their sins.

    Christ himself though spent only a few sentences on such matters, "Go and sin no more" kind of statements and then got down to the deeper issues about what real lust and real murder and real excess is all about in our lives. Paul's greatest works of doctrine were written to people stuck in an even more perverse culture than ours--he spared no punches about immoral behavior that needed to be disciplined, not coddled.

    It strikes me that it would be easier to preach the word to these people referred to in the letter, if their parents (and often their church) had not long ago succumbed to the world--its greed and consumerism, its vile imagery, its obsession with celebrity, its rebellion against authority, etc. The behavior of the young is simply the logical next step down that road, and catering to their sense of self importance won't solve the problem. The Father didn't chase down the Prodigal Son while he was working in the pigpen. He waited for him to repent and come home.

  3. On the other hand, I'm glad to see the letter used by Pator DeWitt and others to examine themselves and their preaching, but I hope that examination is against the Word's requirements for a shepherd, not against the expectations of the author of this letter.

  4. On third reading, I think it's significant that he refers to these "intelligent, well-educated young people." Would we even be having this conversation if these were high school dropouts who partied it up on Friday and Saturday and then showed up to church on Sunday? Does the fact that these young people have bowed at the altar of Higher Education give them a pass on immoral behavior that we aren't willing to give to garbage men, McDonalds workers, and the like?

  5. Knowing the man who cited the letter quite well, I am very certain that wasn't the point. The point I take from it is that we need to be willing to be involved with people's messes and seek their deliverance from them, whether they be garbage workers or blue bloods, who, ideally, ought to be side by side in the church.

    The point is never coddling sin --the point is to be about delivering people from sin, which happens, incidentally, only by the Holy Spirit, who uses the law to convict of sin, and grace to deliver people from sin. How often we get that wrong. We treat the Law as the deliverer --why don't you straighten up already?-- and we see grace as somehow soft.

    Well, Jesus' grace wasn't soft --come see a man who told me everything I ever did! IT was the grace that worked people over, and delivered them from the snare.

    No passes on immoral behavior, but rather addressing the reality of imprisoned hearts that Christ comes to set free.

  6. Thank you, Ken, for pointing out the difference in the function of the law and the function of grace. The law does convict, but it has no power to change. It is grace--specifically the work of the Holy Spirit which draws us to the cross of Christ--that saves us and keeps us.

    Since we cannot truly know the spiritual condition of this young couple or anyone else who visits our churches, nor the condition of their hearts, we can only look at outward behavior. My starting point would always be the love and grace of Christ. When I look out at a group of people in worship or in Bible study, I see pain and I assume it is deeper than I will ever know. So my starting point is grace. Interestingly, the starting point for grace should reveal the true condition of the soul: total depravity. Only when we see our true state, can we begin to comprehend the amazing grace God demonstrated to us in our spiritually dead condition. "For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly," (Ro 5:6). That is the core message of the church. It is good for believers to think often about how we were ever put into a right relationship with Christ and how we remain in a right relationship to Christ. It is by grace.

    As a young adult convert to Christ, I was blessed with gospel-centered Christian friends and a gospel-centered church. If I had been beaten by the law, I would have fled. But I was embraced by the love and grace of the Lord and marveled at how He, and His people, gently and gradually showed me more and more of my sin. There was plenty to clean up, and there remains plenty of work to do today as well. But how graciously God has revealed that sin to me. Even during the times when He has figuratively hit me over the head with a 2x4, His love always tempers His discipline. It is never cold or merely doctrinally correct.

    Unless we are clearly shown a heart already hardened to the gospel, I believe we need to start with the gospel. I will always err on the side of grace.

  7. Excellent point anon.

    We can learn so much about how Jesus used law and grace in various situations.

    Against whom did he use the Law in all its terrors? Against "those who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and treated others with contempt" --namely, the Pharisees.

    With whom did he use grace? The bruised reed and the smoldering flax. Think of the woman at the well. THis shows us how grace works. He asked her questions about her situation. She is clearly uncomfortable. Then, he reveals to her that he knows all about her, and yet he is still speaking with her. This is grace. Never once does he use the Seventh Commandment on her. She knows it already; she knows well where she stands. The fact that Christ still reaches out to her turns her inside out, and it is grace that delivers her from her sin --so that she can go forth rejoicing "Come meet a man who told me everything I ever did."

    We misunderstand grace if we think somehow it is giving sin a pass --like when we mistakenly tell our children we are giving them "grace" if we decline to deal with their sinful behavior. I preached on Peter's denial and was struck to the heart by the fact it was God's grace that turned Peter inside out. That's what grace does --that God could and does love somebody like me?? Really?? How can that be??

    And then it is grace that brings about the victory through forgiveness of sins, and the breaking (ultimately) of sin's hostile slavery over our hearts.

    If we miss this, we have totally missed the power of the gospel.

  8. Such an interesting discussion. First scripture that popped into my mind when reading the responses was 1 Thes. 5:14, "...admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient to all." God gave us law and grace and as Ken says law convicts, but does not change. Christians are so good at beating their wounded. And simply knowing right from wrong never enables us to stop sinning. Sanctification is a tedious process that lasts a lifetime. Paul speaks of this struggle in Romans 7, and later in his life speaks of himself as being the chief of all sinners, so his knowledge of the law did not enable him to put aside all sin.
    From the limited content of the letter, we can not know for certain the state of these young people's hearts. I believe it is always the duty of the church, and that does not mean just the pastor, to speak truth into people's lives, and oftentimes that can mean law where their is no sign of repentance, but for a person who sees their sin and is still struggling to let it go, the scripture makes it clear that it is by God's grace that we are saved, not the law. And while we can only know in part what this couple was thinking/feeling, there is no indication from the way they were described that they were feeling a sense of self-importance or were desiring to be validated. It simply says they came looking for help.
    And all cultures since the beginning of time have been characterized to varying degrees by greed, consumerism, obsession with celebrity, and rebellion against authority. As the scripture says there is no temptation overtakes us that is not common to man. 1 Cor. 10:13.

  9. As someone who came to the church all beat up from growing up with mixed theology and from living hard, AND having never been awakened by the Holy Spirit, I wanted to add my 2 cents. Well, I'm really adding R.C. Sproul's 2 cents. This is from a great book called Choosing My Religion. I went through it with a struggling young person a while back. For anyone mid-twenties and under who is confused about salvation, this is a great resource. This book deals with the prodigal son. About the prodigal son coming home, and referencing the point where the son has this awakening in the pigsty and realizes that there is something better, Sproul says:

    "This story has an ending. To that ending Jesus is pushing, because he loves the guy in the pigsty. What drove Jesus toward his fellow contrymen was to seek and to save the lost. He wasn't willing to let them stay lost, even when they didn't know they were lost... That is what being spiritually dead is all about. No one ever really comes to himself or herself without help... [Sproul talks about Jesus' real life example of raising Lazarus] Nobody can suggest that a dead body that has moldered in the grave for four days just woke himself up. I was just as stinking dead before I came to myself. The only way you or I can be awakened from spiritual death is by the power of God. I have thought of that when hearing preachers say, 'Step up here, come on forward and be born again. You only have to make the decision.' That's like going to the cemetery and exhorting the corpses to decide to live again. The only way to come awake is for God to wake you up. The alarm clock God uses is his Word, the Bible [and I would insert, loving preaching]. The Spirit of God moves in the hearts of people to awaken them and give them new life through the hearing of the Word. And so the prodigal son comes to. He awakens."

    I wept when I read this two years ago, because that was me. It was all of us -- and it is those who are not redeemed -- educated or not, black or white, democrat or republican. We cannot wake ourselves up. God graciously awakened the prodigal son the way Jesus graciously called Lazarus forth...

    And sorry this is long. I was just so stricken with the memory of this quote and it seemed too pertinent to not share.

  10. An apology to those whose comments have disappeared. This is a problem with the blog server --I did not delete your posts, dear gentle readers.

    Blogger says they are rectifying the problem

  11. I am posting again as anonymous, not out of choice so much as out of necessity. Being computer-challenged, I don't know how else to post a comment and blogging is a new art form for me. But my name is Carolyn and I am a wife and a mother of four homeschooled daughters.

    It has been with great interest that I have followed this discussion because the need for God's grace through the gospel is a subject near and dear to me. In the formative years of my Christian walk, we were members of a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church rich in grace and the love of Christ. I was especially blessed by the emphasis on the gospel--with its ultimate expression in the cross--during the Lenten season. While I love our reformed theology, I have never stopped missing this special focus on the suffering and death of our Lord that was the purpose of Lent. How joyfully we were able to celebrate Easter! To some that may sound too Roman Catholic, but it seems a shame to throw out the baby with the bath water.

    Charles Spurgeon wrote: "Abide hard by the cross and search the mystery of His wounds."

    Sinclair Ferguson said: "The garden of Gethsemane is one of the most sacred and solemn scenes in the entire Bible."

    J.I. Packer states: "The traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary."

    D.A. Carson wrote: "I fear that the cross, without ever being disowned, is constantly in danger of being dismissed from the central place it must enjoy, by relatively peripheral insights that take on far too much weight."

    C.J. Mahaney writes to pastors: "Regardless of the text or topic at hand, there must be some view of Calvary in every sermon. Your congregation should experience the amazing and comforting sight of the crucified Savior each and every time you preach. We should exalt Christ's finished work in our sermons so as to comfort the converted and convict the unbeliever."

    And my favorite quotation of all is from J. Knox Chamblin: "The Spirit does not take his pupils beyond the cross, but ever more deeply into it."

    In a message entitled "The Gospel of Thy Grace," Alistair Begg makes some very insightful points which I have attempted to briefly summarize:

    We often think that the Gospel is only for unbelievers--only the ABC's of faith. This is not biblical thinking. The Gospel is the Alpha and the Omega; the hub on the wheel of all Christian living. It is not simply the way of entry, but the path of progress.

    To believe that we are justified by the Gospel, but sanctified by obedience, is wrong thinking. By the Gospel we come to faith, live by faith, and by the Gospel we grow in faith. So Christians need the Gospel preached to them routinely.

    The Gospel is the comprehensive story of God's redeeming love provided for us in Jesus Christ. We can spend our whole life under the sound of the Gospel. Indeed, to the extent that we do not, we are impoverished.

    There is a need for the continual rediscovery of the Gospel on the part of Christians. The Gospel needs to be preached consistently. We are to be Gospel people in Gospel churches. The answer to our needs is not being constantly prompted to be more obedient, zealous, or loving, but to find the impetus for it all in the Gospel itself.

    So ends my summary. I apologize for this long post, but brevity is not my gift! But I do wonder how cold we would sound, as the original anonymous writer accused, if what God has done for us in the cross of Christ was the true treasure of our hearts. Would churches that joyfully proclaim the good news of the cross, as their constant and central message, be criticized for caring only about doctrine? God's grace, embodied in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, is the greatest gift we have to offer a hurting and watching world.

  12. Wow, Carolyn, what a great collection of quotes! Thank you! The only thing I will tweak from a Reformed perspective, is that we don't need Lent to remember this focus -- the Cross and Resurrection ought to be a main focus every Lord's Day, as some of your quotes affirm.

    Ken, I knew you were a closet Concordian Lutheran on Law and Gospel! :-) (As are all of us who understand both Concord and the WCF!)

    Seriously, to reinforce your point about Jesus' use, I just preached on Mark 7, where it struck me about how blunt Jesus is about the evil that comes out of our hearts, but when dealing with the SyroPhonecian woman, effectively calls her a "dog" in order to test her -- but the purpose of blessing her and showing her mercy and kindness. Jesus tells us like it is -- then gives us grace. That is what preaching needs to do as well, each week.

  13. "The Cross and the Resurrection ought to be a main focus every Lord's Day"--a truer statement I never heard. But, please be honest, is it? Do you think that most churches, pastors, and Christians experience this reality of grace each Sunday? I don't mean to belabor a point. But if it is so vital, it's like the air we breathe. How many of us might be slowly suffocating and not even realize it?

  14. A small group of Christian people that allow a person (non-Christian) to say and be themselves, so they won't have to pretend, and patience with their lack of belief is huge ...Sometimes the acceptance and love a Christian person can give really seems like it might just be what will draw them to knowing God and what He is like and want what those people have...Sometimes it just takes a lot of questions and acceptance of where a person is to feel like you can even be in a group. There are people that non-Christians would probably be really fearful of telling them where they are, because they might fear rejection for not being a Christian....Just a thought to share.

  15. Let us in addition to our preceding perceptive dialogue regarding Grace and Law, belatedly consider Jesus the weary evangelist, who gets a second wind outside Sychar. He sees fields "white already to harvest" (John 4:35). Soon Christ's two days of teaching and preaching inspired "many" possibly a majority of this Samaritan village to believe in Him.