Gerrit Scott Dawson, Challenges for the Church Today
Gerrit Scott Dawson is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He received his D.Min. degree in 2002 from Reformed Theological Seminary.
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JMF: What are the biggest challenges facing Western Christianity today?
GSD: I think the challenges are huge, because the church in the West has been on the decline for some time. Theologically speaking, one of the challenges that we face is a kind of prevailing pluralism – that [although] most people in America still believe in God, they figure that there are many paths to get to that one God. One of the biggest negatives about Christianity [in their view] is our insistence that salvation is in Christ alone, and that Jesus uniquely shows us who God is. People almost instinctively see that as mean-spirited, exclusive, harsh and forbidding.
JMF: How do we balance that with the fact of the wideness of the grace of God and his desire to include and bring to himself every human being?
GSD: That’s the challenge – because we have the most all-inclusive love story of any religion that’s ever been on the face of the earth – the news of this wonderful world-reaching embrace of our God coming to us in Jesus Christ, and yet we are saying that because God has shown himself to be this way – this is who he is – so we have an exclusive revelation that has an all-inclusive embrace. As we face those challenges, we’ve got to be sure that we communicate the love, even as we are insisting on the truth.
JMF: God loves everyone – he sent Christ because he loves the world, and Christ says, if I’m lifted up, I’ll draw all men to myself, and God does not let anybody slip through the cracks, and he’s fully interested in every human being – and yet we have a role to play. How do we balance the fact of our call to evangelism, to call people to faith in Christ, and the fact that God’s better at that than we are, and isn’t going to abandon someone because we don’t get to them in our evangelistic efforts… How do we balance that?
GSD: That’s a wonderful question, and it has far-reaching implications for the mission of the church as a whole – because the ministry is not my ministry or your ministry, it’s Christ’s ministry. The world is going not where I make it go, but where the Lord Jesus makes it go. So on one hand, we relax, in that we realize that God is working his purposes out – that even if I can’t figure out a perfect answer to the question of “what about the person in the farthest reaches of the earth who’s never heard of Jesus – does he, or does he not make a profession of faith?” – the impossible theological questions like that, we trust that God has a plan for it. God who loved us enough to join us to himself forever to die for us, as you said, is not going to let anyone slip through the cracks accidentally. No one’s going to be left out by some kind of divine amnesia.
At the same time, we know that Christ sent the church into the world. He said, “all authority has been given to me, now therefore go and make disciples of the world.” We know that not everyone accepts this message, tragically. The mystery of iniquity is that, faced with the most wonderful news in the universe, we sometimes turn from it.
I guess that because of Christ’s sovereignty and the reach of his grace, the burden is not on me to try to convince you to believe. My task is to bear witness, to say, “This is who I’ve seen Jesus to be, and this is what he has done in me. This is who Christ is according to the Scriptures; this is who he’s been in our lives. Now I hope the Holy Spirit is creating faith in you. I hope that you want to embrace that.” Then I leave it, with all prayer and sincerity, in the hands of the Holy Spirit to create that faith in the listener – because that’s his work.
JMF: Sometimes our presentation of the gospel, of who Christ is and what he’s done for us, is poor. Sometimes it’s very good, other times it’s pretty poor. Some of our presentations are downright nasty and leave a bad impression. Is it fair for us to think that a person who doesn’t respond to the gospel, even though they’ve heard it, and perhaps sometimes very badly and they’re put off by it because of the behavior, the approach of us evangelicals sometimes… (For example, surveys have shown that people would rather live next door to a used-car salesman, or a drug dealer, let’s say, than an evangelical Christian, simply because they’ll get less pain from the others. That doesn’t speak well of the way evangelicals are perceived, in terms of judgmentalism, pushiness, and so on. That isn’t a correct, right picture of Christ, it isn’t a proper presentation of the gospel.) But are we saying that God has a way, because his goal is to draw everyone to himself, of overcoming our short-comings and weaknesses in evangelistic presentation?
GSD: There’s a lot in that, and it ties back to this difficulty that we have with an all-inclusive love of Christ who’s revealed himself exclusively in Christ Jesus. Much of that depends on our realizing that our job is not salesmanship to religious consumers. Our job is to love in Christ’s name, and to bear witness to what he has done. That changes the whole dynamic. There were times in my early life as a Christian when I felt like it was my burden to share a tract with every person I met, and if I didn’t do that, they might be going to hell and it would be my fault. That was a very young faith that didn’t have much trust in the sovereignty of God.
Maybe the sharing of those tracts played some role in someone’s salvation. Maybe it became a roadblock for some that the Lord had to overcome in different ways. The point is, I don’t have to try to convince perfectly content pagans that they should buy my religious product. The reality is, is that hurting and broken people – all of whom are facing mortality and frailty, broken relationships, a sense of guilt, a sense of not being able to measure up even by their own standards – to them I’m sent with marvelous healing news that calls people out of darkness and into light. It’s much different than trying to sell a religious product.
JMF: Henri Nouwen wrote a fascinating book called The Wounded Healer in which he helps pastors see past the need to feel that they’re perfect, in presenting some kind of perfection to the people they’re trying to help, but identifying with them on a level of realizing that they are as broken as the people they’re trying to help – isn’t that true of the church as well, in terms of evangelism?
GSD: It certainly is. I worked for a pastor who used to pray to the one who took his thorns and wore them as a crown – the idea that Jesus who ascended gloriously, as we’ve been talking about, yet, as the hymn says, “has rich wounds, yet visible above.” Christ understood our humanity and he was pierced for our iniquities and he is constant unto our suffering. He is a ready friend to us as we recognize that we’re not perfect.
If you look at the ministry of Jesus, you know that towards the Pharisees and the scribes, he was often very hard – that was toward those who felt like they were sufficiently righteous, who would not reveal their weaknesses or admit their sins. But to the broken, to the outcast, to the disgraced who were penitent and longing for his forgiveness, he came with all grace and acceptance. The Lord is ever enfolding our woundedness into his healing. What that means for ministry is that we minister, as Dan Allender has said, as “those who lead with a limp.” We don’t have to hide our faults because we’ve been taken up by the one who has taken our humanity, embraced it and healed it. So we trust in that compassion of Jesus Christ.
My friend Andrew Purvis, who was a student of Tom Torrance in Edinburgh, likes to talk with his ministerial students about this subject. He’ll often get a student to stand in front of him with his arms out as if he were preaching the gospel and he were conducting ministry. Andrew comes up behind him, he usually takes a rather robust student, grabs him by the shoulders and shoves him out of the way, and says, “Look, buddy, it’s not your ministry, it’s Christ’s ministry. If I’m representing Christ, come here and I’ll put my arm around you and you can join me in what I’m already doing.” That’s a graphic, but apt illustration for how ministry is done. As the church, we want to find out what Jesus is up to. How is he working, and do we participate in that? Not, “What great things can I design for the Lord to tell him how to reach the world better than he can?”
JMF: On one side we have an enthusiasm for doing the work of ministry and for getting involved in what we perceive Christ is doing, and on the other side, isn’t there a sort of a rest, or a peace – in other words, not a sense of frantic busy-ness in order to get the job done, but more of a peaceful entering into the work of Christ?
GSD: That’s a good way to say it. It’s a peaceful engagement. The church is often been prone to a couple of errors. One error is to withdraw from the world, to say, “We have been saved and called apart and we don’t want to be stained by the world and we’re waiting for Jesus to return, so we’ll just separate ourselves.” That takes us out of being any good to anyone else, takes us out of sharing the love of Christ with others and basically sidelines the church.
But another error the church has made is to say, “We will make the kingdom happen on God’s behalf. If the church can triumph, then God triumphs.” Instead of serving, we start dominating. Instead of giving, we start lording it over, and that has only created resentment for us. Sadly, there’s a third error that the church has made, which is a capitulation with the world. We have our religion and we like it on Sundays but generally, we’re not very distinguished from the world.
Where the gospel sends us in this kind of peaceful engagement that you brought up, is to a place where we are for the world by being different from the world because we belong to the Lord Jesus and different values. We’re against the world, by being for the world, because we’re bringing the all-inclusive love of Christ to them, even in their sin and rebellion.
Douglas Farrow is a wonderful professor at McGill University. He talks about how the church is in a wrestling match with the world. Because Jesus hasn’t given up on the world, he hasn’t given up on humanity, because he took our humanity in his ascension and bears it, we as the church, never give up on the world. We can’t simply be dissolved into it, nor can we withdraw. We have to engage the world with this servant, wounded love of Christ.
JMF: You’re the editor of a book called An Introduction to Torrance’s Theology. How did you come to be associated with that project?
GSD: It was lots of fun. I’ve been a follower of both Tom and James Torrance for years, and it was their work that really changed my life and re-ignited my ministry. When I moved to the church in Baton Rouge, I came to a church that has a wonderful devotion to the incarnate Savior, that loves the Scriptures and always wants to go deeper into Christ. Since I was new, they were willing to hear some new ideas, and I suggested that we have a conference, and that we call it Discovering the Incarnate Savior of the World – a chance to bring in some scholars to talk about this kind of theology – about the Father who loves the Son, after he sends his Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem us and to save us.
They went for it, and so we were able to contact a number of scholars in the Torrance tradition from around the country and even around the world, to come to Baton Rouge and talk about this theology. It was so much fun because I think it was the largest assembling of scholars in the Torrance tradition that had ever occurred all in one place. We spent a couple of days with about 200 participants studying and discussing and rejoicing in the incarnate Savior of the world.
JMF: How did that lead to the book?
GSD: After the conference, we realized that we had heard some really wonderful presentations, and the participants agreed to let us publish those, if we could find a publisher. I was able to ask a couple of others who weren’t at the symposium – including Baxter Kruger, whom you had on this show as well – if they would contribute essays to the project. We submitted that to T. & T. Clark, who’d published most of Tom Torrance’s major work, and I’m delighted to say they were eager to publish it. We ended up with a pretty good book that takes a look at Torrance’s Christology.
JMF: What are some of the major themes in the book that you felt best about when you saw it finally published?
GSD: The focus was on Christology, which is the study of Jesus Christ and who he is. Each of the participants from different angles was looking at the bigness, the hugeness of what it means that God came to us in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. I took a look at the atonement and the wonderful Torrance emphasis on the fact that the atonement is not just an external transaction where God pays the tab for our sins – and he certainly does that. He does legally take away the burden of our sins. But it’s deeper than that – the atonement is the way in which God reconciles us to himself by healing our humanity from the inside out. We all emphasized that and rejoiced in it.
JMF: Speaking of the idea of payment for sins – isn’t that where most people tend to stop?
GSD: We do stop there. We figure that my sins are like a financial debt. I’ve accumulated this amount of obligation to God, and I discover that my creditors are calling my hand, and I don’t have enough spiritual capital to pay my debt. I’m in over my head, and so Jesus on the cross has paid the bill, he’s picked up the tab, so to speak.
That’s wonderful in the sense that he brings us back to neutral – the penalty is paid. But what that doesn’t deal with is the fact that I’m a profligate spender. Pay my bills today and if I don’t change from the inside out, I’ll be in debt again in a week. In the spiritual sense, it means that Jesus takes away the legal problem of my sins, but it doesn’t change my heart or my humanity that’s sinful, then I haven’t really been touched. Then the curved-in self, the darkened heart, the clouded mind – all of that are still there untouched. I’m not really redeemed from the inside out.
JMF: So we keep working on the effects rather than the cause when that’s your primary focus?
GSD: I keep trying to work harder so I don’t get into more debt, but I find that I’m inevitably behind. If I have to be the one that ultimately proves my worth to God and even if the external part of my sins has been paid for, I still am lost.
JMF: I’ve worked with many people, as I’m sure you have as a pastor who find themselves in that spiral – it’s a constant focus on remembering what all your sins are in order to get them all repented for, because there is this fear that if I don’t repent for every single sin, if I leave one out, God won’t forgive me for that particular one and therefore I’ve got to continually be rehearsing my tracks, looking over my shoulders, figuring out what to repent of and make sure I… It becomes a legal exchange as the focus of my whole relationship with God – just find a way to get this debt off my back …
GSD: It’s terribly burdensome. It’s full of guilt and it also tends to make a constant self-focus, “How am I doing? How am I doing?” What we need is the news that all of your sins – past, present, and future – have all been paid for in Jesus Christ. But even more, your humanity has been re-made in him. In Christ you and I can become a new creation. In Christ, he sets his own Spirit within me that causes me to want to live in communion with him. He puts his life in me so that I begin to think and act and live in wonderful communion with the Lord Jesus Christ – not by looking more and more at myself and try to make myself better, but by looking to Jesus, trusting in him to be a new creation, to participate in his new humanity, and thereby, in one sense, to live free from the burden of sin.
Not that I stop doing good things. No, he sends me on a mission to love and care for the world even to the point of laying down my life. But not to justify myself. I’m already justified in Christ. Not to try to fix my rotten heart, which in itself is always rotten, but simply to receive the new heart, the new life that he’s given me.
JMF: I’m often asked, if what you’re saying is true that God has made me a new creation in Christ and that my sins are forgiven (past, present, and future) and there’s a new heart, then if that’s true already, then what’s my motivation for wanting to go out of my way to live like a Christian, because after all, isn’t it easier not to live like Christian than it is to live like a Christian?
GSD: It is difficult to live as a Christian and difficult to live in that knowledge. But the motivation is love. It’s the fact that you know different kinds of people that you meet in your life – some who are critical and judgmental and quick to point out your faults and others – you don’t tend to want to visit with them as much as when you know there’s someone who wants to embrace you and welcome you, to host you and to bless you – you tend to want to be with them.
When we truly understand that the Lord Jesus is blessing us with his forgiveness and his new humanity, that’s where I want to be – I don’t want to live stuck in myself. My sins are really my attempts to try to find a better life than the one God has for me. Sin isn’t really fun in the long run. It’s destructive. Living apart from the graciousness of my Father doesn’t really get me where I want to go.
JMF: So it’s actually easier to live in Christ, than it is not to live in Christ.
GSD: It’s certainly more peaceful – there’s always a struggle between my old self and the new self in Christ to try to get my mind to look away from my inner self and look to Jesus. It’s not simple, but it’s much more joyful.
JMF: Walking with Christ is, after all, walking with Christ. If we’re a new creation and we belong to him, then the issue is a relationship with him – a relationship of love. It isn’t even a question, is it – of what is my motivation – because when you are in a relationship of love with someone, you’re in relationship of love with someone – that is the motivation in itself.
GSD: Exactly, and love and communion is what I’m seeking – it’s what all of us are seeking in our deepest hearts – this relationship of total acceptance and forgiveness, purpose, delight and everlasting life.
JMF: So to ask the question is to misunderstand the point.
GSD: Exactly. You don’t ask that question if you’re experiencing the communion.