The Global Priority of Our Glorious God:
A Report from the 1999 Southern Baptist Founders Conference
A record crowd listened intently as speaker after speaker recruited them for the most enviable place of ministry in the Convention: an unmarked foreign grave. Focusing on missions as “the global priority of our glorious God,” pastors and church leaders were urged during the 17th annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference to make Christ known to the nations, even if that means being torched alive by an angry mob or imprisoned by a hostile government.
The Founders Conference is a national meeting of Southern Baptists who embrace the doctrinal heritage historically known as “Calvinism” or “the doctrines of grace” which was held by those who founded the Southern Baptist Convention in the mid-19th century. Conference organizers were said to be “shocked” by a record registration of nearly 600 for the July 20-23 sessions at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.
John Piper, author and pastor of Minneapolis’ Bethlehem Baptist Church, told the conference that he was on “a recruitment mission for martyrs” in light of the teaching in Revelation 6:9 that the triumphant Christ will return only after the full number of martyrs for the faith have been killed for His name. A passion for missions is inherently a part of Reformed self-identity, Piper contended, because Calvinists believe that God’s glory as displayed in His sovereign mercy is the chief value in the universe. Piper promised unspeakable persecution for those whose passion for the supremacy of God’s name propels them to lands where Christ is not named.
“In my call to missions and to completing the Great Commission, I have no rosy picture whatsoever to paint,” Piper said. “Not because the devil is on a rampage, but because God designs that we deliver the sufferings of Jesus in and through our own sufferings.”
Piper said that the Great Commission task is sidelined by pampered, persecution-free American Christians whose affections are indistinguishable from those of their unregenerate neighbors.
“One of the reasons we aren’t given the time of day in America is because people look at us and they see that we have exactly the same fears, anxieties, and values they have and it isn’t the embrace of danger and risk and AIDS and mockery and shame,” he said.
Recalling Jesus’ promise that His followers would be persecuted for godliness, Piper charged that American evangelicals have “domesticated” the word godliness. Christians will not be persecuted for not committing adultery or refraining from stealing while living out comfortable middle-class American lives, he noted, but they will face peril if they carry the gospel of grace overseas. Believers must cultivate an openness to martyrdom on the mission field by finding their heart’s satisfaction in God.
“If you do not find satisfaction in God and God alone, you will count Him as an enemy when He hands you over to the sword,” Piper said. “Get ready now not to get mad at God, but rather to say ‘I’m being counted worthy to share in the sufferings of Jesus!’”
“May it happen soon that there are going to be tens of thousands who think totally differently about dying,” Piper thundered. “Because they say ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain. Let’s go. Why should we live to age thirty when Jesus is on the other side of the sword!’”
A strategy coordinator for the SBC International Mission Board pleaded for pastors to consider whether the reason they may be unable to fan missions fervor in their churches is because they personally “haven’t dealt with why they fulfill the Great Commission by not going.” He argued that those questioning whether God is leading them to missions should realize that God’s will for the lives of individual believers is not disconnected from His will for human history. That should spur Southern Baptists to set out for sectors of the world where the gospel is unknown, he said, with the confidence that God has published in Scripture His purpose for a worldwide harvest.
“Literally from Genesis to Revelation, God’s intention is nothing less than to entirely reclaim this planet for His glory,” he said.
Phil Roberts, vice-president for strategic cities at the SBC North American Mission Board, described the missions situation at home in terms of American infatuation with religious pluralism and trendy paganism. The “American pantheon” now includes skyrocketing numbers of Mormons, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Wiccans, Roberts said. The antidote to this increased American spirituality is not timidity, he counseled, but the establishment of “Baptist churches, New Testament churches, built on biblical principles, genuine spiritual discipline, and church discipline and encouragement and to trust God to lead us in doing all that we can in sharing the gospel with as many as we can.”
Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, pointed to Baptist missionary heroes such as William Carey and Adoniram Judson as models for a Baptist vision for world evangelization for the 21st century. Baptist missionary zeal at its best has been committed to a sense of the absolute sovereignty of God, the exclusivity of the gospel of Christ, the complete authority of Scripture, the contextualization of the gospel message, and holistic missions which refuses to jettison the evangel for social ministries.
Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, contended that missions-minded evangelicals should recognize that what is known about spiritual reality, including the fate of the unevangelized, is derived not from intuition or cultural spin-doctoring, but from God’s revelation in Scripture. Therefore evangelicals cannot embrace the ideas of inclusivists such as Clark Pinnock and John Sanders who assert that those who have never heard the gospel may be saved apart from it. Dever took issue most specifically with Pinnock’s 1992 book, A Wideness in God’s Mercy, in which Pinnock denies the historic Christian belief that salvation is impossible apart from explicit faith in Jesus.
Evangelicals must respond to those who ask whether there might be another way of salvation besides explicit faith in Christ, Dever said. He asserted that general revelation is revealed in Scripture never to be sufficient for salvation. He argued that those who have never heard the gospel are without hope apart from the gospel.
“There does not seem to be for normally matured people in the Bible any saving excuse of ignorance,” he said. “Indeed, God’s general revelation of Himself as talked about in the beginning chapters of Romans would seem to have eliminated exactly that category.”
Those who object to the necessity of self-conscious faith in Christ as “unfair” must reconsider the seriousness of the sinner’s cosmic rebellion against his Creator, Dever said, citing numerous biblical texts which paint a dire picture of the guilt of every human being.
“We can perhaps understand this a bit better if we stop thinking of sin as discreet transgressions against some list of ‘dos and don’ts’ at school,” he asserted. “And think of our sins in more biblical terms as a rejection of God’s authority, indeed of God Himself.”
“Friend, do not reason with God to show how He must save you because He’s made you,” Dever counseled. “The only fairness we sinners can demand is hell.”
Speakers warned that a church which caps off a year of biblically-anemic preaching and scandalous internal sin by mailing an envelope to the Lottie Moon Christmas offering can hardly consider itself a truly missions-oriented church Instead, speakers pointed to a “vital connection” between the gospel vitality churches at home and the effectiveness of the Great Commission endeavor overseas.
“Passion for missions demands a commitment to reformation,” said Tom Ascol, executive director of Founders Ministries and pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida. “What we must do is increase our passion to see the gospel carried to all peoples of the earth and out of that passion we must fully embrace the call of reformation at home.”
Preaching from Romans 2:17-24, Ascol contended that the morally scandalous lives of so many American churchgoers has caused the name of God to be blasphemed among the nations as the world population equates Christianity with American moral chaos. Because the United States is so visible to the rest of the world, he concluded, those who love the unconverted abroad will seek to cultivate a biblical understanding of evangelism and church discipline in the congregations at home.
“How can we explain that our trinitarian God is Himself love when we can’t even get along with one another?” Ascol asked. “Why believe that our Lord spiritually and morally transforms people if we who make that claim are no different from the world?”
Noting that millions of people languish on church rolls despite not having “enough spiritual impulse even to show up among the people of God” once a year, Ascol argued that the chief need for reformation is the recovery of the doctrine of the new birth. Such a recovery will necessitate bold preaching on the necessity of genuine repentance and faith for salvation both in the United States and around the globe.
“If we are wrong regarding what it means to be right with God and on what is required to get right with God, then we are poised not only to propagate spiritual confusion and disease at home, but abroad as we send people from our confused churches,” he said.
Greg Wills, assistant professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued that the practice of church discipline, though largely non-existent in contemporary church life, is a crucial part of the Southern Baptist evangelistic heritage. Recounting historical data from Southern Baptist churches in the nineteenth century, Wills contended that early Southern Baptists saw the purity of a regenerate church as necessary to the Great Commission task. Contemporary Southern Baptists who accept the doctrine of biblical inerrancy have no choice but to submit to its authority as they seek to evangelize the world, Wills said.
“Some will object that discipline will harm missions and evangelism, but since when was obedience to God an obstacle to conversion?” Wills said. “How can we expect God’s blessing on churches in deliberate and indifferent disobedience to his plain command?”
Bill Ascol, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, argued for the biblical necessity of church discipline in an exposition of Matthew 18. Recalling his early struggles with the issue in his first pastorate, Ascol warned church leaders of pitfalls while exhorting them to be obedient in pursuing the purity of the church. Noting that discipline is always exercised in grave concern for the spiritual well-being of the erring member, Ascol warned against those who would enact church discipline with a “gleam in their eye” of vengeance against another. Instead, Ascol asserted, church discipline should be lovingly administered by the congregation as a means of bringing the offender to restoration and recovering harmony within the fellowship of the church.
Ascol cited an article by theologian James Leo Garrett on the loss of discipline in Southern Baptist churches which appeared in the Kentucky Western Recorder forty years ago. Ascol noted that the article appeared just as a13 year old William Jefferson Blythe IV was entering the sphere of influence of an Arkansas Baptist church. Blythe, who later took his stepfather’s name Clinton, is now as President of the United States arguably the most famous Southern Baptist in the world. Ascol pointed to Clinton’s public policies and scandalous personal behavior as one fruit of the loss of church discipline in the SBC.
“President Clinton is not the problem. He’s a product of the problem,” Ascol said. “Who is growing up in the congregation you pastor? What will you unleash on the world if Jesus tarries?”
Founders Conference organizers were said to be “shocked” by the record-breaking attendance at a conference which first met in a Texas hotel room nearly twenty years ago. Tom Ascol said that the conference leadership had heard from two or three dozen attendees who sense God may be calling them to evangelize unreached people groups in what missiologists call “World A,” those places where the gospel has not yet taken root. Individuals and churches were urged to keep in contact with the SBC International Mission Board and North American Mission Board to explore possible avenues of missions service and to support missionaries with prayer and increased financial giving.
God whispers to us in health and prosperity, but, being hard of hearing, we fail to hear God’s voice in both. Whereupon God turns up the amplifier by means of suffering. Then his voice booms.
C. S. Lewis