My Charge to the 2019 Graduating Class of Asbury Theological Seminary

Every year I give a brief charge to our graduates as a part of the graduation ceremony. Here is the charge I gave this year.

The core mission of Asbury Theological Seminary is to “spread scriptural holiness throughout the world” and we do that primarily through training men and women such as yourself. You are the priceless seed we sow into the world. All of you are moving into some form of Christian leadership. It is, therefore, vital for you to remember the larger mission of which you are part; namely, the full recovery of biblical Christianity. You are the vanguard of those who are committed to the restoration of the Christian message which has, in its long sojourn within Christendom, become domesticated and powerless. That is the founding mission of Asbury Theological Seminary summarized by that phrase, “the whole Bible for the whole world.” Therefore, I charge you, class of 2019, to resist all the enormous pressures which will be exerted upon you to minimalize the full demands of the gospel and the cost of discipleship by the contemporary church which seems to have an endless appetite for cultural accommodation to an increasingly non-Christian culture. We have been pushed to the point that we find ourselves at every turn effectively asking the question, “What is the least one has to do to become a Christian.” That impulse must be opposed at every turn. We must resist Christian minimalism. We must resist those who want to boil the entire glorious gospel down to a single phrase, a simple emotive transaction, or some silly slogan. It is time for, you, a new generation of Christians, to envision a more robust apostolic faith, and to declare this minimalistic, reductionistic Christianity a failed project! It is wrong to try to get as many people as possible, to acknowledge as superficially as allowable, a gospel which is theologically unsustainable. We need to be reminded of the words of Søren Kierkegaard, in his Attack Upon Christendom, where he declared, “Christianity is the profoundest wound that can be inflicted upon us, calculated on the most dreadful scale to collide with everything.”

Class of 2019, my dear brothers and sisters, I charge you to insert God’s rule and reign into the whole of life. The gospel must be embodied in a redeemed community and touch the whole of life. That is why the Wesley brothers set up class meetings, fed the poor, wrote books on physics, gave preachers a series of canonical sermons, catechized the young, preached at the brick yards, promoted prison reform, rode 250,000 miles on horseback, preached 40,000 sermons, superintended orphanages, were avid abolitionists, and wrote theologically laden hymns for the church, etc. You see, they were capturing every sphere with the gospel. If Wesley teaches us anything, it is that salvation is not something which is merely announced to us, it is something which God works in us. As Patrick Reardon has put it, “the forceful intrusion of his holiness into our history” – with implications profoundly personal, as well as societal.

Brothers and sisters, my charge for you is to capture a fresh vision for this more biblical, robust faith. The gospel is not about allowing God to play a small role in our drama. No, the gospel is becoming swept up into His great drama. It is about our dying to self, taking up the cross, and being swept up into this great unfolding story. We are all moving towards and being summed by Christ himself to that great day when the strong man is finally disarmed for good, the lepers are cleansed, all lost sons have come home, the great debt is wiped out, the door of the Father’s house is flung open wide, the lost sheep are all found, the poor and the beggars are seated at the great Banquet, the disenfranchised workers have been paid their full wages, the lost coin has been found, the pearl of grace price has been unearthed, the church, the bride of Christ has been made spotless. The acceptable year of God’s favor has finally come! This is the restorative vision to which Christ summons us – nothing less than the full recovery of biblical Christianity. Amen.

When Was the Last Time You Heard a Worship Song Like Psalm 94?

Andrew Peterson is one of the most gifted contemporary Christian artists of our day, and you should thank God for him. What I like about Peterson’s work is that his worship lyrics are theologically strong, and he is willing to bring to the church neglected doctrines, which is one of the great gifts of rightfully designed worship. One of his songs titled, Rise Up, actually highlights God as Judge, who pays back evil and sets things right. A portion of the lyrics goes:

If a thief had come to plunder when the children were alone;
If he ravaged every daughter and murdered every son;
Would not their father see this? Would not his anger burn?
Would he not repay the tyrant in the day of His return?
Await, await, the day of His return.

                        Chorus

‘cause He will rise up in the end, He will rise up in the end;
I know you need a Savior, He is patient in his anger, and He will rise up in the end.

Peterson’s song Rise Up sounds a bit like the opening words of Psalm 94:

“O LORD, the God who avenges, O God who avenges, shine forth. Rise up, O Judge of the world pay back to the proud what they deserve.” When was the last time you heard a worship song like that? You see, for us, the word “vengeance” is a disquieting word. We are explicitly told in the Old Testament to not take vengeance. Jesus himself repeats this admonition in the Gospels. So, we don’t know what to do with actions which are the prerogative of God but which we are called to avoid. We have lost that whole category in our theology: Things that God does, that we are commanded not to do.

You see, we have been shaped by what I call the WWJD theology: What Would Jesus Do? In the 1990’s this became the most popular bracelet worn by Christians. The phrase is rooted, I think, in Roman Catholic piety of the imitatio Christi – imitation of Christ and Thomas a Kempis’ classic book, The Imitation of Christ. This later became popularized by Charles Spurgeon who was the first to pose it as an actual question, “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). Later, it became a popular bracelet, screen saver, and bumper sticker. I wouldn’t spend five minutes criticizing the bracelet, but I will spend one minute criticizing it. The danger of the bracelet is that it assumes that whatever Jesus is doing, we should be doing. That, of course, is mostly good advice, but it does neglect the notion that there are some things Jesus does which we are not to do. There are certain divine prerogatives which He reserves only for himself. One of these is vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord”, is a famous text from Deuteronomy 32:35. It is quoted in Hebrews 10:30 which calls us show restraint in the face of a world of unbelief. People trample the Son of God and disdain his redemptive work, but we are to patiently wait for divine retribution. It is quoted by Paul in Romans 12:19 where Paul says, “do not repay evil for evil” (v. 17), “do not take revenge, but leave room for God’s wrath” for it is written, “vengeance is mine, I will repay” says the Lord. Therefore, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.”

These texts resonate with Jesus’ own words, “judge not, lest you be judged” or “pray for those persecute you” or “turn the other cheek” and so forth. But, the reason that we can live like that is not because there is no place for vengeance, but that it is a divine prerogative. Our “turning the other check” is not a doctrine of Christian niceness, it is a doctrine of Christian patience. God will, in fact, judge the world and he will set things right. It is actually our hope in that divine action which enables us to turn cheeks and to wait patiently and to leave room for the wrath of God.

Psalm 94 is a song which highlights the brokenness of the world and, like so many Psalms, boldly describes the presence of the wicked in the world. Did you know of the 150 Psalms only 26 make no reference to the wicked or enemies. 124 Psalms mention them.

Psalm 94 is representative of this theme: They are full of boasting words and arrogance (vs. 4). They crush or oppress your people (vs. 5). They slay the foreigner and the widow (vs. 6). They murder the fatherless (vs. 6). Then the Psalm asks the big question “who will rise up for me against the wicked?” “Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?” In other words, who will set things right? Who will vindicate us in the face of these atrocities? The Psalm gives the answer in the closing verse of the Psalm (vs. 23): “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the Lord our God will destroy them.”

Brothers and sisters, I commend you to not neglect this part of your theology. Jesus Christ is coming again. He will come with fire and fury. Make room in your theology for 2 Thessalonians 1 when Paul writes, “God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen with the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord . . .

It goes on, but I think you get the point. This is why the Apostles’ Creed states with boldness: “He is coming again to judge the living and the dead.” There are some things which God does which we cannot do, and should not do, and don’t know enough to do. There is nothing wrong with wearing a WWJD bracelet on your wrist, as long as you have, at least, symbolically, another bracelet WWWND—What Would We Not Do. We are not to take vengeance. It is not our prerogative to set things right in the final sense. It is not our prerogative to judge the unbelieving world. These are divine prerogatives. But, make no mistake about it, it will happen. God will judge the world. He will vindicate the faith of his saints. He will set things right. And it is precisely that hope which enables us to walk through this world with love and mercy, even to our enemies.