On Piper, Pearls, and Screaming Preachers
I just returned to school from Together for the Gospel (T4G) 2010 in Louisville, Kentucky. Four years ago, Mark Dever, Al Mohler, C.J. Mahaney, and Ligon Duncan got together with a few thousand (mostly reformed) pastors for mutual encouragement across denominational boundaries. John Piper, John MacArthur, and R.C. Sproul also take part every time the conference gets together.
John Piper gave a fantastic sermon on the doctrine of justification, the importance of imputed righteousness, and the unity of Jesus’ and Paul’s gospels. If you’re reading that sentence and thinking “huh?” don’t worry, I’m right there with you. Rather than attempting to summarize or explain it and end up doing terrible injustice to the message, just read it here.
Piper has a way of explaining deep theological concepts in a way that doesn’t diminish their depth but brings the truth to the surface for us to see, consider, and walk away with. Personally I’ve never spent much time on the doctrine of imputation, and only recently have been digging into the controversies over Pauline theology, but I walked away form the sermon at least understanding of the importance of the uniqueness of Christ, his sole possession of righteousness, and our complete lack of any goodness whatsoever, God-given or not. To even claim goodness resulting from the work of God in my life is to dimish the supremacy and work of Christ.
No doubt everyone in the conference walked out with a renewed sense of the supremacy of Christ and the unity of the Scriptural account of the Gospel. Still early, my dad and I decided to find a place to sit, talk, and eat. Headed toward the Fourth Street district in Louisville, one young reformed pastor stood on the corner, shouting his theological truths and faith in the Gospel as passed down from the reformers to anyone who might be passing by. Unfortunately for him, however, everyone passing by was doing so because they were walking out of the same conference.
We found ourselves front and center in the Hard Rock Cafe in downtown Louisville. A band no one had heard of was playing their covers of 90’s grunge rock to the screams and wolf-whistles of individuals who had been there a bit too long (if you know what I mean). Sitting there surrounded by music at unhealthy decibel levels with the sacred relics from music-gods past, I was struck with the juxtaposition of the past ten minutes of my experience. Ten minutes ago I had been listening to and singing of the imputed righteousness of Christ upon sinners, and now I found myself sitting in a swirl of angry vocals and the smell of alcohol off the breaths of individuals long gone. That’s when this thought hit me:
This is exactly the question the emerging movement and postmodern culture has been asking of Christianity. “You understand imputation and substitutional atonement, but what relevance does that have for the people sitting in the bars of the world, far outside your conferences and theological discussions?”
Having to shout in order to be heard while the first band stepped down and a band from Ohio stepped up drew my thoughts back to the screaming preacher on the street corner. I wondered what he would do in this context. Would he just shout louder to be heard?
Looking around at the crowd, my mind drifted from these questions to the people there. What relevance do the deep theologies of the Christian faith have in their lives? I wondered whether the screaming preacher would use Jesus’ words in Matthew 7 that I’ve heard used to justify holding back on presenting the Gospel to those who are beligerent or under the influence of substances. “Don’t throw your pearls before swine.”
I had this thought about that verse right then and there. Maybe Jesus here isn’t calling for us to avoid the “swine” of the world. Apart from this verse, I’m pretty sure Jesus never referred to anyone as “swine” except for the overly religious. I seriously doubt he would have called the broken people he came to save “swine.” Maybe what Jesus is saying here is not that we should hold the gospel back from those who need it most – the broken, sick, abused, confused – but rather that we need to seriously consider the contexts in which we present the precious gospel. Maybe what he’s saying is not “don’t preach to the lowly swine of humanity” or “don’t get the dirt of the pigs on your riches” but rather “what are you doing pulling out your good pearls in the muck of the pigsty?”
The screaming preacher certainly did not consider his immediate context when he began his shouting. If he had, he probably would have realized he was yelling about the very same thing John Piper had just explained a thousand times better.
Interestingly enough, Jesus bookends his thoughts on pearls and pigs with judgment and destruction. “Do not judge” and “take the speck out of your own eye” before, “tear you into pieces” after. Perhaps evangelicalism has been torn to pieces by the world, perhaps the Christian message is so ridiculed because we are terrible at understanding context, subtlety, and the importance of seeing ourselves in an equal position as those around us. How many evangelicals would have distanced themselves from the Hard Rock Cafe last night because of the noise, the booze, the “rock-n-roll.” Perhaps we have been so focused on keeping our pearls clean that we have ignored the world all together. We don’t want the dirt that comes with dirty, broken people.
So we keep our pearls safe. Meanwhile, the world drinks the night into oblivion, unaware that imputation, sacrificial atonement, redemption, grace – the words we love to repeat and discuss and write books about – are realities stronger than any drink they could consume.