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Mohler says seminaries should be ‘ground zero’ for the gospel

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–Theological education is fruitless unless it is Christ-centered and evangelism-driven, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told new and returning students at the seminary’s convocation Aug. 29.

“These days there is some confusion about what theological education is all about or should be all about,” Mohler said. “… It is clear that some theological seminaries see themselves as training schools for religious professionals. And others see themselves as academic research centers for theology and religious studies.”

But Mohler said the role of Southern Seminary — as well as that of other evangelical institutions — must be different.

“We ought to define who we are as an institution by thinking of ourselves as ground zero for the cause of the gospel,” he said. “There is always the danger of missing the obvious. A true test of a theological seminary is its faithfulness to the gospel. Is the gospel truly central?”

During the convocation ceremony, three professors signed the seminary’s statement of belief, the Abstract of Principles: William F. Cook III, associate professor of New Testament interpretation; Thomas J. Nettles, professor of historical theology; and Gregory A. Wills, associate professor of church history. Every tenured faculty member has signed the document since the seminary’s founding in 1859.

Preaching from John 3, Mohler used the story of Jesus and Nicodemus as an example of how knowledge can sometimes blind a person to the true meaning of the gospel. Nicodemus was a teacher of Israel, but he initially failed to understand what Jesus meant by “born again.”

“Why do the simple understand it [the gospel], and why do those who consider themselves wise have such a hard time coming to terms with it?” Mohler asked.

Knowledge cannot take the place of a heart for evangelism, Mohler said.

“In Luke 15, Jesus tells us that joy in heaven comes when one sinner repents,” he said. “This becomes a diagnostic test for a gospel people. Is this our great joy? Does true and automatic celebration occur when we see saving grace claim a sinner? Academic detachment from personal and congregational evangelism is the kiss of death for a gospel seminary.

“… The danger is that we will know more about evangelism and let that substitute for being an evangelist. This is a deadly danger. It does not take long to tell whether a congregation is evangelistic. The same is true for a seminary.”

Mohler gave three ways to determine if the gospel is central at a theological institution. First, the school must be theologically sound. Second, the entire curriculum must be designed for maximum service to the gospel. Third, there must exist a passion for the gospel.

The Christological emphasis of John 3 can be seen as one test of an institution’s priorities, Mohler suggested.

“The academic vandals of the Jesus Seminar do not like this passage,” he said. “Their verdict [is], and I quote, ‘Nicodemus is a fictive dialogue partner.’ Further [they conclude,] ‘This scene belongs entirely to the imagination of the storyteller.’ Those who reject the gospel must reject this passage.”

Christianity’s claims aren’t popular in a pluralistic and postmodern society, Mohler said, but they are biblical. To make his case, Mohler referenced Marvin Anderson’s book, “The Battle for the Gospel.” Anderson, a Southern Seminary professor who died in June, believed that the Reformation was about what the Scripture taught concerning the gospel.

“And yet the heirs of the Reformation have been quick to compromise all of this away,” Mohler said. “Among Protestant liberals, there is no problem of sin and no need for a savior.”

As evidence, Mohler quoted a recent speech from pastor Dirk Ficca of the Presbyterian Church (USA). “God’s ability to work in our lives is not determined by becoming a Christian. … So what’s the big deal about Jesus?” Mohler quoted Ficca as saying.

“The Rev. Ficca used a stained-glass metaphor to say that all the religions of the world are like different stained-glass windows, offering different pictures, but the same light comes through each,” Mohler said. “He said to impose Christianity — to make exclusive claims [and] to seek to convert non-Christians to Christianity — is a form of what he called ethnic cleansing. He also suggested that Jesus came to reveal salvation — not to accomplish it.”

Such theology must be rejected, Mohler said.

“We must stand by the gospel as revealed by Christ and as preached by the apostles,” he said. “Sinners are saved by the redeeming grace of God, who sent the Son, Jesus Christ, to be crucified for our sins. His substitutionary atonement accomplished our salvation. We are saved by grace through faith to the glory of God.”

This Christ-centeredness should be reflected in each facet of the institution, Mohler said.

“Every course, degree program and syllabus should be infused with gospel priority,” Mohler said. “Our eagerness to be a gospel seminary should be evident throughout the curriculum. It must drive our teaching and our research. Our biblical studies should train us to see the gospel of Jesus Christ in every text of Scripture.”

Mohler said the initial ignorance of Nicodemus should serve as a warning to professors and pastors alike.

“Any theologian, any biblical scholar, any seminary professor, any preacher who does not understand the gospel is a false teacher,” Mohler said. “He is a false prophet. It is not just how much you know. It comes down to what you know, what you believe and what you hold most precious. It comes down to this, ‘Is it the gospel?'”

A parallel can be seen between Nicodemus and the churches of today. They both ask, “How can these things be?”

“How do we explain the fact that so many churches and denominations have abandoned the gospel?” Mohler asked. “It must be because they have asked this question, ‘How can these things be?'”

Mohler said the churches conclude that the gospel “doesn’t make any rational sense. This doesn’t meet the demands of modern thinking. This doesn’t line up with contemporary culture. So we need something new.”

The passage, Mohler said, testifies to God’s sovereignty.

“What does it mean when Jesus says, ‘The wind blows where it wishes’? It must be a testimony to the sovereign, saving will of God,” Mohler said. “We cannot see into the human heart. This passage must mean at least that we have no diagnostic test — humanly speaking — of response to the gospel.

“We can’t look at an individual, we can’t look at a people group and measure the likelihood of response to the gospel. It is the sovereign work of God. It is the wind of God. We see the result of it, and we feel the passing of it. But we cannot predict it. We can’t explain it.”

The story of Jesus and Nicodemus has great significance, Mohler said.

“Why go back in this convocation message to something so simple?” he asked.

“Because we need continual reminding of the gospel and its priority.”

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust