Go Set a Watchman: Carl Lentz and the Demands of Christian Ethics

Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz is back in the news. In an exchange on The View, he said the following about abortion:

“Some people would say” abortion is a sin, the Hillsong pastor said in response to host Joy Behar’s question about his church’s beliefs, according to Life News. “That’s the kind of conversation we would have finding out your story, where you’re from, what you believe. … I mean, God’s the judge. People have to live to their own convictions. That’s such a broad question, to me, I’m going higher.”

“To me, I’m trying to teach people who Jesus is first, and find out their story,” Lentz added.

In engaging newcomers to churches, it’s no bad thing to “find out their story.” That’s good to do. Further, it’s terrific to “teach people who Jesus is.” That is what pastors must do, to be sure. (Update: Lentz just published this tweet. His statement is better than his comments on The View, though my concerns about his lack of forthrightness and biblical conviction remain. Calling abortion sinful is not a stretch for a man after God’s own heart. It’s non-negotiable. I continue to be quite concerned about Hillsong and Lentz’s pastorate.)

But pastors also teach “sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Like the apostles, pastors have to declare the “whole counsel” of God from their pulpit (Acts 20:27). As Kevin Vanhoozer and I have argued, the Old Testament prophet informs their ministry, the ministry of proclamation. The pastor is a public theologian. He declares the truth of God not as a privatized act, but as a statement of ultimate reality that bears on all of life. He is declaring divine truth. In a world of un-reality, he is telling things as they are, and as they must be.

Pastors can’t dodge hard questions. Pastors are appointed by God to answer hard questions. They are the figures in the cosmos who must speak the truth.

I am stunned by how little attention John the Baptist’s example receives on ethical matters. John the Baptist had the God-given responsibility to announce the Messiah’s coming. John did not hold back, however, from speaking openly about Herod’s sexual sin (Matthew 14:1-12). John publicly and repeatedly–it appears–warned Herod of the wages of sin, which are death. For his convictional boldness, John was imprisoned, defamed, and beheaded. Before Jesus laid down his life, John was called of God to die as a witness for righteousness and truth.

John’s example matters for modern pastors. Are the hosts of The View trying to catch out an evangelical, and make him say something culturally embarrassing? Yes they are. Do people wish to pigeonhole Christians, and marginalize them for their biblical views? They surely do. Do we yet have a responsibility to speak the truth, even if it costs us everything? We can do no other. Eleven of the twelve apostles were martyred, according to Scripture and tradition. To walk with Christ is to invite persecution and suffering. John the Baptist was not an outlier; John the Baptist was a forerunner, a man whose ministry operated according to the theology of the cross, not a theology of worldly glory.

Think of the consequences that many have faced for their truth-telling: Augustine embattled. Hus executed. Tyndale burnt at the stake for translating the Bible. Luther contra mundum. The Anabaptists persecuted. Edwards ejected from his church. Spurgeon abandoned in the Downgrade. Machen attacked and opposed. On and on the list goes. Why did these and many others face such fierce opposition? Because they dared to proclaim the Word of God in public. They would not be muzzled. They would not be quieted. They would not go soft, or silent.

Young pastors, and pastors in training: if the microphone comes to you, and you’re on live television or anywhere else, and are asked what the truth is, do not punt. Do not dodge. Do not duck. Tell the truth. Declare what is right. Hold fast, even in public, even on the spot, even when ambushed, to what is good. Show people that the Word of God is so precious that you will risk everything to defend it and declare it. Open up a doorway to heaven for your listeners by rebuking falsehood and boldly proclaiming Christ and all sound doctrine, all biblical teaching, all Christian ethics.

In truth, I am not worried about the next generation of confessional pastors. They are sound and solid. Many of them–the type who are flocking to Kansas City and other seminary environs–know what the world offers, and how dissatisfying it is. They do not crave fleshly things; they already sampled them, and found them poisonous, not pleasurable. They aren’t undergoing rock-ribbed doctrinal training, costly and lengthy training, to become culturally popular. They haven’t moved across the country for self-help instruction and therapeutic spirituality. They don’t want that. They are here to do real ministry. They are here to walk people through the valley of the shadow of death. They do not care to instruct people in the dappled rudiments of their best life; they want to shepherd precious souls to Jesus.

These future leaders are young, and untested, and trying to figure things out. The world is bewildering; we all are needy sinners; ministry presents many challenges. But I am confident about the next generation of pastors, and the one that now serves the churches of Christ. Faithful men abound. They may not have big book deals and major television opportunities, but they are doing–and preparing for–the quiet, humble, largely anonymous work of Christian ministry. They are not scared of the devil. They are not muddled in their thinking. They know that abortion is horrifically evil, and that they must speak on behalf of tiny babies in the womb, who cannot speak for themselves.

Let us have done with “evangelical” pastors who say no hard words, who stand for only soft things, who yearn for fame and money and secular back-pats, who fail to tell the truth. Let us continue raising up an army of pastor-theologians who do not shirk their call, but who count it joy to preach sound doctrine and declare the whole counsel of God.

Go, set a watchman. Put him high on the wall. Tell him not to come down, no matter the storm, no matter the persecution, no matter the price.

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