A Cloud on the Horizon

A Cloud on the Horizon

Thomas Ascol

In the midst of a severe drought throughout Israel, the prophet Elijah received God’s promise that rain would once again fall on the parched land. After displaying the power of God on Mt. Carmel and routing the prophets of Baal, Elijah encouraged the king to take heart because he heard “the sound of the abundance of rain.”

The thunder sounded long before the clouds appeared. Seven times the prophet’s servant scanned the skies in vain for a sign that the rumblings were a precursor to refreshing showers. Finally, a small cloud appeared over the Mediterranean Sea. It was barely visible–only as “small as a man’s hand”–yet that small cloud signaled the coming deluge of rain which brought the drought to an end. In a similar way, hopeful signs of renewal are beginning to appear on the spiritual horizon of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Reports of Revival

One such sign, the reported outbreak of divine visitations on various college and seminary campuses, is most encouraging. Though some of the reports document emotional excesses and doctrinal imprecisions, the evidence of changed lives, strengthened churches, and growth in holiness among God’s people all indicate that God’s Spirit has done His usual work in an unusual way. Is this not what constitutes genuine revival? The salvation and sanctification that result from the reviving work of God are not different in kind from that which God is always doing through His Word and His Spirit. Rather, in revival, God does His usual work in an intensive, fast way. What otherwise may take years (in terms of numerous conversions and spiritual growth) is accomplished in days or weeks or months.

While it is still too early to tell what will be the outcome of these early, largely local stirrings, all who have been praying for a widespread revival should be encouraged to cry out to God with even greater fervor for a great outpouring of His Spirit on our churches.

Experiencing God

In addition to these revival flickers other developments also suggest that our Lord may be doing something unusual among us. The overwhelming response to Henry Blackaby’s Experiencing God studies has astounded all observers. Several months ago the Sunday School Board recorded the one millionth copy of this material being sold. This “program” (if it can be called that) has greatly challenged countless numbers of God’s people to take their faith seriously by refocusing on the greatness of God. Granted, the teaching seems oriented in a Keswick direction and the emphasis on personal experience pushes doctrinal clarity far into the background. Nevertheless, the experience that is being emphasized is that which comes through a fresh awareness of the greatness and grandeur of the living God. For this reason, I would argue that the widespread excitement about Experiencing God is reason to be encouraged. It is far better to have people talking and thinking about God than about the latest sure-fire method which has been borrowed from some marketing guru or sociological study.

Renaissance of Doctrine

By far the most hopeful sign is the renaissance of doctrine which is beginning to take place throughout our convention. The decline in doctrinal understanding over the last two generations has left many Southern Baptists lost in a desert of moral relativism and spiritual apathy. The effects have become increasingly noticeable as more and more worldliness infiltrates our churches. Unfortunately, the cause seems to have escaped the attention of many. The Bible is clear, however, that neither virtue nor holiness can live where doctrinal truth has been eviscerated. If we hope to see a deep and lasting revival of lively Christian living, we must pray and work for reformation in our doctrinal understanding. Hope that such a reformation is beginning to take place seems warranted in light of several recent events.

The Inerrancy Controversy

Recognition of theology’s importance is one of the positive side-effects of the inerrancy controversy. Since 1979 Southern Baptists have been forced to consider the doctrinal issues surrounding the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Conservative leaders constantly reminded us (and rightly so) that the heart of the controversy was doctrinal because our understanding of the nature of the Bible itself was at stake. Consequently, along with the recovery of our belief in Scripture’s inerrancy, Southern Baptists have been resensitized to the critical importance of doctrine itself. Furthermore, doctrinal discourse is once again beginning to find a place in our churches.

Changes at Southern Seminary

The difficulties which Southern Seminary has endured the last two years should be viewed in this light. When the trustees went on record with their determination to call a new president who believed the Abstract of Principles like James Boyce and John Broadus believed it, a new day dawned on the seminary and, in many ways, on the whole Southern Baptist Convention. Al Mohler was elected to that office with just such a commitment. The course which he has followed is nothing less than a faithful discharge of his fiduciary obligations as president of the seminary.

The recent events that have taken place at Southern Seminary are forcing Southern Baptists to come to terms with two realities. First, there has been a serious doctrinal downgrade in our ranks over the last generation. This has been clearly demonstrated by the bitter complaints of current and former professors at the renewed emphasis on the seminary’s confessional statement, the Abstract of Principles, as the doctrinal standard for all faculty members. Charges of “creedalism,” “discrimination,” and “authoritarianism” have been leveled at President Mohler simply because he now expects every professor to adhere to the Abstract.

This is even more amazing when one realizes that the “Fundamental Laws of the Seminary” which were written into its charter on April 30, 1858 unequivocally state that “all persons accepting Professorships in this Seminary, shall be considered by such acceptance, as engaging to teach in accordance with, and not contrary to, the Abstract of Principles hereinafter laid down.” What this means is that every professor–past and present–has accepted this requirement as a condition of employment at the seminary. President Mohler is only insisting that the “Fundamental Laws of the Seminary” be followed and that the professors keep their word.

One would think that such insistence would hardly be necessary, much less that it would provoke the ire of so many people. The recent revelation of a former Southern professor, however, sheds much light on why these things are so. Frank Stagg, in an article which appeared in the January 5 issue of the Baptist Record, admits that, even when they signed it, he and many of his colleagues never really believed the Abstract in the way in which Boyce intended! He states, “Through most of Southern Seminary’s years, professors were permitted to sign the Abstract of Principles as they interpreted it, contrary to Boyce’s demand.” Stagg’s new-found candor not only indicts previous administrations and trustees who allowed (or perhaps even encouraged) such actions, it also betrays the depths to which we have sunk spiritually and theologically over the previous generation.

What kind of day is it when professors can sign a statement which they do not believe and then teach contrary to views which they have agreed to support, all the while thinking themselves to have done nothing wrong? What kind of day is it when contemporary theologians and scholars react so strongly against the summary statement of faith on which the founders of our mother seminary insisted? If Boyce, Broadus, Manly and others were correct in their understanding of God’s truth in 1858, and if God’s truth does not change, then who can deny that these recent events at Southern Seminary have exposed a serious doctrinal downgrade in our convention?

The second issue which Southern Baptists are being forced to consider is the cost of theological renewal. It is one thing to talk about the importance of truth. It is another to act on the basis of truth and to take positive steps to see it recovered. Truth has been marginalized in modern evangelicalism. It must be restored to its rightful place at the center of ecclesiastical life if we would see a return of vital Christianity. The cost of such restoration is high. The reason for this stems from the fact that many activities, programs, and institutions emerge during a season of doctrinal downgrade which are incompatible with the primacy and centrality of truth. Confessional fidelity (which in President Mohler and the trustees’ case means fidelity to the Abstract of Principles) inevitably leads to a clash with those entities, relationships and structures which have usurped truth’s priority of place.

Thus, unity may appear to suffer for awhile where truth is being recovered. Peace may disappear for a season. Fellowship may seem to be forgotten, when relationships are severed for the sake of truth. Those who insist on the priority of truth may superficially appear to be lacking in love as they deal decisively with those who are bent on maintaining the anemic status quo. A careful analysis, however, reveals that such appearances do not accord with reality.

When Josiah worked to recover the truth of God’s Word in Judah, the cost was incredibly high. For a season his reign was characterized by demolition work. High places, Asherah poles, idols, and various instruments which had been dedicated to the service of pagan worship all had to be destroyed. False priests were removed. Why? Because Josiah was unwilling merely to pay lip service to God’s truth which had been rediscovered. He was determined to discharge his duties as king by faithfully ordering the kingdom on the basis of that truth–even though the cost was great.

What was the outcome of Josiah’s efforts? They resulted in the reformation and restoration of proper worship in Judah. God’s commentary on his life and ministry is one to which every true minister ought to aspire: “Now before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart, with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses; nor after him did any arise like him” (2 Kings 23:25).

None of this is to suggest that unity, peace, fellowship and love are unimportant or that they can be set aside by zeal for God’s truth. Rather, we must recognize the true nature of such blessings as well as the basis on which they exist. Christian unity is one of the choicest fruits that grow on the vine of grace, yet, unity at the expense of truth is nothing more than conspiracy. What Christian does not esteem peace? Yet, peace without truth is a charade. Likewise with fellowship; Christians are designed to share life with one another, yet, to deny truth in the name of fellowship is hypocrisy. As for love, it rejoices in the truth. Where truth is dismissed love degenerates into sentimentalism.

Before such graces can flourish, their counterfeits must be exposed. Nothing reveals them more quickly than the truth of God’s Word. The process can be painful. Often we would prefer simply to let sleeping dogs lie. But those who are valiant for the truth cannot afford to take the easy path when our Lord’s honor and Word are at stake.

These are the lessons we are learning from the president and trustees at Southern Seminary. They are to be commended for providing such a faithful testimony. The course which they have charted and are following is a hopeful sign of future spiritual blessing.

Mission 150

Three years ago we began to anticipate the sesquicentennial year of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a desire to capitalize on this historic occasion, plans were made to send a special issue of the Founders Journal to every pastor, professor, and denominational leader in the convention. To date over 56,000 copies of that issue have been distributed. The response has been tremendous. Several hundred new subscribers have signed up for the journal. Numerous encouraging letters and phone calls have confirmed what was long suspected; namely, that there are scores of Southern Baptist pastors and church leaders who are deeply aware of the need of spiritual and doctrinal renewal within our SBC borders. The great majority of the pastors are under the age of 45.

In many respects Mission 150 is the culmination of more than a decade of various reformation efforts beginning with the Boyce Project. In the late 1970s Ernest Reisinger began giving away copies of James Boyce’s Abstract of Systematic Theology to graduating Southern Baptist seminary students. After several years this project was curtailed. Since its inception, however, nearly 20,000 copies of Boyce’s book have been distributed.

Another ambitious effort is that which Pastor Bob Selph and the Miller Valley Baptist Church undertook in the mid 1980s. They began to distribute, free of charge, Selph’s book, Southern Baptists and the Doctrine of Election to every pastor in the convention. Slowly but surely, this book has been mailed to over 35,000 churches with plans to reach the remaining churches in the next 2 years.

Thirteen years ago the Southern Baptist Founders Conference began meeting for the purpose of encouraging pastors and church leaders in the study and application of the doctrines of grace. Well over one thousand people have attended at least one of these conferences.

Regional conferences have emerged during this time, with the Founders Conference Southwest (which meets in Lubbock each October) continuing in its fifth year. Inquiries have been made into starting as many as four other regional meetings in the next few years.

Nine years ago the first Southern Baptist Founders YOUTH Conference was held. Since that time over fifteen hundred young people have been challenged to follow Jesus Christ through God-centered preaching and teaching.

In 1989 the Founders Journal was launched with some uncertainty of the kind of reception it would receive. Now, twenty-one issues later, nearly 90,000 copies of the journal have been circulated. It is presently being mailed to 46 states and 21 foreign countries.

Interest in our Southern Baptist doctrinal heritage continues to grow at a rapid rate. More and more pastors and churches are coming to see that those doctrines of grace which our denominational forefathers believed are nothing less than biblical truth. Southern Baptists have been and continue to be a people of the Book. When they become convinced that the Book teaches something, they are willing to reform their thinking accordingly. Such reformation in the area of God’s sovereignty in salvation continues to spread.

What does all of this mean? Perhaps it is too early to tell with any degree of certainty. But, with repeated looks, the discerning eye surely can detect a small cloud on the horizon. It may go unnoticed by those who have no interest in looking for it. But for those whose hearts and lives are bent on genuine spiritual and theological renewal, this small cloud holds the hope and promise of refreshing showers from heaven.

With fresh encouragements all around us, and the prospect of even greater encouragements before us, may God grant us strength and resolve to persevere in the glorious work of reformation.