The Perils of Theological Retrieval in Pastoral Ministry

Normally I am years behind on reading new books, but I purchased Gavin Ortlund’s book, Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals the moment Amazon would allow. I did so because of my own personal theological journey. A few years ago I came to realize that even as a Bible College and Seminary graduate I lacked an adequate appreciation for my own Christian tradition. In school I read a lot about church history, but not a lot of the Christian writings that are a part of that history.

So I made it a goal to read many of the theologians I only read about in school. My ignorance is not the fault of my alma maters. I went to wonderful schools and had wonderful teachers. I didn’t deserve their time and kindness. I am simply noting that curriculum restraints and my own shortsighted priorities kept me from first hand knowledge of my own Christian Tradition.

This survey of church history made me aware there was a rich treasure of theological reflection in my family, but that I was largely ignorant of it. This combined with my own experience in non-liturgical congregations left me yearning for “rootedness.” Ortlund describes this feeling well when he writes,

“Particularly among the younger generation of evangelicals today, there seems to be a profound sense of emptiness and dislocatedness and consequent malaise. We are aching for the ancient and the august, for transcendence and tradition, for that which has stability and solidarity and substance. And many of us simply aren’t finding that in our evangelical churches and institutions.” (52)

My interest in theological retrieval grew as I began collecting and reading some of the popular patristic volumes and following the content from sites like Center of Baptist Renewal and the Center for Ancient Christian Studies. But it is one thing to be interested in retrieval. It is another to know how to rightly pursue it. This is why I am so grateful for Ortlund’s book.

Pastors who grow in their understanding of biblical, historical, and systematic theology often want to share that knowledge with others. There is nothing wrong with this. It is ok to be excited about theological retrieval. It is ok to be passionate about giving your flock a firmer grasp on their own Christian history. It is natural to want to share what we are excited about with the ones we love.

The problem is that most pastors are not specialists. I understand that there some who’ve specialized and have earned a PhD, but generally speaking most pastors are not trained historians or biblical scholars. Most pastors are generalists who are striving to be faithful shepherds. Pastors interested in retrieval can become passionate and zealous to teach the church that, “one of the greatest resources for navigating her present challenges is her very past–indeed, her entire past.” (20) Yet zeal and passion not checked with diligent attention to detail can lead to misrepresentation.

This is why I am so thankful that Dr. Ortlund provided the “perils of retrieval” section in his new book. Although these perils are addressed to all who will read his book, I am especially grateful for how this section offers warnings to me as a non-specialist.

The Perils of Retrieval

Here are direct quotes from Ortlund:

1.) “…we must be weary of the danger of distortion, in which we move too quickly to the present issue without sufficiently “doing our homework,” such that the historical resource being retrieved is somewhat caricatured or misconstrued . To the extent that our retrieval of the past is motivated to confirm present opinion or advance a polemical purpose, we may be especially in the way of this danger.” (73)

2.) “A second danger is artificiality, in which past resources are pressed into the service of present needs in a way that is forced or inauthentic.” (73)

3.) “…repristination, in which retrieval becomes merely a way of exercise in restating the past, under the impression that classical sources represent some kind of grand, immovable, final verdict on all matters they address.” Ortlund also says, “If in our efforts at retrieval we never or rarely find ourselves in disagreement with the resources we engage, we must be especially on the alert to whether we have fallen into this danger.” (74)

4.) “A final danger is minimalism, in which all the difficult or cacophonous elements of the past resources are flattened out in the search for a common denominator of unity.” (75)

There are many reasons why you should buy and read Theological Retrieval for Evangelicals, but this brief section speaks to the care and thoughtfulness with which Ortlund wrote. More than encouraging his readers to engage with patristic and medieval theology, Ortlund shows us how to do so. You may not need those warnings, but I do and I’m grateful for them.

Although I think he misses his audience here and there (some chapters were previously published in peer review theological journals) I enjoyed it from beginning to end. It is especially helpful that Ortlund teaches us both theory and practice. Chapters 4-7 are test cases where he models theological retrieval. The chapter interacting with Irenaeus, Anselm, and Athanasius on the atonement is worth the price of the book.

In his preface Ortlund writes, “I have written this with pastors, theology students, and interested lay Christians in mind. This is a sort of lay level book that engages the scholarly machinery but ultimately hope to influence a broader readership.” (14)

I can only hope it does.

The Pursuit of Preaching with Precision: The Difficulty of the Dereliction.

Preaching is hard. Preaching with theological precision is harder. We all desire to be biblically faithful and theologically orthodox in our proclamation, but with some texts and doctrines, the possibility of confusion and misrepresentation is high. Take the cry of dereliction for example.

How does preacher faithfully communicate Christ forsaken in our place without unintentionally communicating heresy? The helpful pieces by Donald Macleod and Matthew Emerson speak to the difficulty of preaching Jesus’ famous words, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

Macleod tells us that the cry cannot mean:

  1. That the eternal communion between the Father, the Son, and The Holy Spirit was broken.
  2. That the Father ceases to love the Son.
  3. That the Holy Spirit ceased to minister to the Son.
  4. That the words are a cry of despair. According to Macleod, “Despair would be sin.”

Matthew Emerson helpfully provides parameters for speaking about the cry of dereliction when he says, “In my view, any statement about it needs to be thoroughly Trinitarian, non-Nestorian, and Messianic.”

The existence of these two posts (and perhaps many others) tells us two things. Preaching the cry of dereliction is difficult and some preaching of the cry of dereliction has failed in its biblical fidelity and theological precision. Preaching doctrinally complex passages can be intimidating.

The Pursuit of Precision in Preaching

Given these warnings, it is important that pastors like myself prioritize the pursuit of theological precision. As I am preparing to preach Mark 15:21-16:8 I need to choose my words carefully as I pray and depend on the Spirit’s guidance. Preaching the cry of dereliction in a faithful and nuanced way is difficult. Even when we pursue precision there is room for misunderstanding.

I want to humbly suggest that precision should be prioritized before passion, popularity, or polemics. I use the word “before” because we are talking about priority not categories that are necessarily mutually exclusive. Furthermore, I’ve identified this as a pursuit because we should be always learning and growing as preachers.

Prioritize Precision Before Passion: I love preaching with passion. When I am proclaiming Christ I want my flock to hear me speak of him as a treasure, the object of my affections, the one who is worthy of honor, glory, and blessing. I want my tone of voice to match the majesty of the text when speaking of God’s glory and the justice of the text when speaking of God’s judgement.

Precision must still take priority over passion. If biblical fidelity and theological orthodoxy does not describe my content then my passionate presentation is in vain. As a pastor, I do not merely want the appearance of faithfulness. I want to be faithful. I want my private labor to result in public a proclamation that is faithful to God’s Word and the Christian tradition.

Therefore, when preaching on the cry of dereliction I am right to emphasize the gravity and seriousness of sin. A parallel to the cry is Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” The self-substitution of God in our place needs to be proclaimed with a level of gravitas. In my passion I must be careful not to communicate that because the Son became sin he was separated as we were separated from the Father. As Macleod and Emerson reminded us: the communion of the trinity cannot be broken.

Prioritize Precision of Language Before Popular Language: My words need to prioritize precise language over popular language. By popular language I just mean the general way people talk about the cross. I am not advocating pretentious sermons that give no thought to the audience. That isn’t love. I simply mean choosing the words of the sermon with a degree of care. Ideas may need to be fleshed out and terms may need to be properly defined.

For example, in an otherwise good song we hear, “The Father’s wrath completely satisfied.” It is easy to regurgitate this language in preaching and imply that the Son isn’t wrathful toward sin. If this is communicated while preaching the cry of dereliction, hearers may misunderstood and think the Son is in disunity with the Father: enduring a wrath on the cross he doesn’t share.

To assist with this pastors should avail themselves of the best resources. We should be careful not to assume the popular language we know from sermons, songs, or books is the most faithful way to communicate the atonement simply because it is familiar. God has gifted the church with some wonderful biblical scholars and theologians whose writings are accessible. Why not take advantage of their labors? While at ETS last week I was sure to buy a copy of The Deep Things of God for this very reason. I need to grow in my theological precision.

Once we’ve prioritized precision of thought we can labor to communicate those truths in an accessible way that isn’t pretentious or arrogant. This is about priority not pretension. For example, when speaking of the cry of dereliction we might say something like: “It is important to remember that even in this moment the cross is a united work of the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” I don’t have to use technical language.

Prioritize Precision Before Polemics: In our divided culture it is all too easy to think about everything as an argument. If precision is not prioritized our polemical posture may lead to being careless with words. Unfortunately, in my short Christian life i’ve heard a number of sermons that were almost exclusively polemical. A sermon should aim at the heart of the hearer so that the Spirit may use the Word of God to conform the hearer into greater Christ-likeness.

As a pastor who treasure the doctrine of penal substitution, I should be careful not to allow any defenses I would offer for the doctrine communicate an unbalanced or distorted version of it.

There is a lot more that could be said, but it is important to note that I am talking about primarily about a desired goal. As a pastor I want to pursue theological precision (when it is possible) in order to avoid perpetuating theological misunderstandings. Whether I will achieve this goal Sunday after Sunday is a different question. I simply want to strive to be careful with my language that I might be biblically faithful and theologically orthodox.

There are many times when we must appeal to mystery or allow ambiguities and tensions in the biblical text to remain. There are other times when even in our best effort we may miscommunicate or be out of balance. In these moments we remember the sufficiency of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit. We remember that God’s work is not ultimately dependent upon us, that our errors can be corrected, and if we cultivate a teachable spirit there is always grace to grow.

What a privilege it is to preach God’s word. May we be in a persistent pursuit to preach with precision for the edification of God’s people and for the glory of God.

You are the Coin of God

In Mark 12:13-17, the Pharisees and Herodians believe they can trap Jesus in his words. Their attack begins with flattering compliments, “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.” There are no lies here, only sinister motivations.

The question that intends to trap Jesus involves the Roman imperial tax. In Jesus’ day no topic was more divisive than Rome’s occupation. Some thought it best to be in cahoots with the Romans, while others longed for a day when Rome would be overturned by force. Therefore the question, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not” seems to be a no-win situation for Jesus. If he answers yes, the zealots will hate him. If he answers no, then Roman can arrest him.

Jesus is not fooled by flattery. He knows their hypocrisy and asks whose image is on a denarius. It is Caesars. Then comes the answer his opponents did not expect, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

It is common for commentators to write at lengths about the implications this passage has for a Christian’s relationship to government, but this seems to be a secondary concern for Jesus. Jesus redirects the conversation to focus on giving to God what is God’s, the very thing the Pharisees have neglected to do.

Jesus’ question about the coin naturally leads us to conclude that what we are to give to God is ourselves in whole-hearted worship. Like the coin, humanity bears the image of another.

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  Genesis 1:27

Augustine notes that we are image bearers, but have a benefit that the inanimate coin does not,

“The coin has no knowledge of its bearing the image of the prince. But you are the coin of God, and so far highly superior, as possessing mind and even life, so as to know the One whose image you bear.”[1] Augustine

Humanity was created to know the one whose image they bear, but sin has disrupted that knowledge and distorted the image. Every person, without distinction lacks the glory of God. (Romans 3:23)

Jesus, who speaks for both God and Caesar, is the only one who can restore the tainted and faded image in us. Jesus Christ is the, “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) whose death, burial, and resurrection defeats sin and death. When sinners put their faith in Jesus Christ, who is the very image of God, they “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3:10)

You are the coin of God, created to know the One whose image you bear through Jesus Christ, our Lord.

[1] Study Note on Mark 12:16 in the CSB Ancient Faith Study Bible.

Mother’s Day Reflection

Mother’s Day is a special time to reflect on the women in our lives who have loved, cared for, and raised us. For many of us, today is a joyous day that leads us to celebrate.

Today some will celebrate their aging mothers whom they love dearly, knowing there is little time left to do so.

Today some will celebrate their bride as husband’s watch their wives love and care for their children.

Today young ones will be filled with joy as they look up to the women they are dependent on, but whom also are a source of fun, strength, and encouragement.

All of this is right and good. If you’re a mother this morning you are deeply loved here at Hermon. We celebrate with you and rejoice at the blessing that you are not only to your children, but also to our church.

Mother’s Day can also be a very hard day.

Today mothers will grieve the loss of children gone too soon.

Today mothers will be torn as their children celebrate them, because they wish they could celebrate like a child once again with their mothers who are not here.

Today women who have longed for motherhood will feel the weight of this day as grief, perhaps asking why?

Today some will be saddened because their mother was never a mom and the memories are far from memorable.

Today women who have walked the call to singleness with faithfulness will be reminded that they are not a wife or a mother, although perhaps they once wished to be.

The daily Christian life, brothers and sisters, requires that we share the joy of our family when they rejoice and that we share the grief of our family when they grieve.

So with a unified voice we rejoice and praise God for the mothers in the room and we grieve with those who will grieve today.

Here at Hermon Baptist Church, if you’re a woman this morning—you are deeply, deeply loved.

Wednesdays with Robertson: Diligence in the Study and Diligence in the Streets

The life and ministry of A.T. Robertson reminds us that we do not have to choose between serious Bible study and a life on mission in obedience to Christ. As an esteemed New Testament scholar, Robertson was known for his diligence in the study. However, if one were to read Robertson’s sermons they would be struck by his passion for personal evangelism. In our inaugural Wednesday with Robertson I reflected on his sermon, Jesus as a Soul-Winner. In that sermon Robertson preached on John 4 stating that the Gospel of John “…shows the Master in actual contact with an individual soul, precisely the point where so many ministers fail, who may preach eloquent sermons to the crowd. And yet most people won to Christ are brought one at a time, as the result of a personal word.”[1]

Similar convictions are found in Robertson’s sermon Passing the Torch based on 2 Timothy 1:6; 2:2, “For which reason I am reminding thee to keep blazing the gift of God…Deposit these with reliable men who will be able to teach others also.”

What follows is an excerpt from the final point of Passing the Torch. Here Robertson is commenting on the end of 2 Timothy 2:2, “…reliable men who will be able to teach others also.” Notice again his passion for personal evangelism.

These reliable men “will be able to teach others also” Paul says. So it has always been in the spread of the gospel. One live coal sets fire to another. Andrew brings his brother Simon to Jesus. John brings James. Phillip brings Nathanael. Dr. John R. Mott proved a generation ago that by one winning one the whole world could be brought to Christ in one generation. But often a whole life passes by without bringing another soul to the Master. Personal evangelism is the only way by which the gospel can successfully be brought to the hearts of men. We need preaching; more of it, and better, but the personal touch of heart to heart, of life on life is what counts most.[2] I heard D.L. Moody say once in a sermon that he knew more souls won to Christ by his conversation than by his preaching. And Moody was an effective evangelist. Isaiah’s lips were touched by live coal from the alter of God and so he had a tongue of flame. Nature is prodigal in her efforts at the reproduction of life. Seeds fall everywhere, carried by the wind and finding congenial soil…We should be drummers for Christ. Some men can live in a Christian community and never have a personal word spoken to them about their soul’s welfare. Friends will talk about business, pleasures, politics, the weather, anything, everything except the most important thing of all, which is taboo in many social circles and contacts. But if we pass the torch of eternal life, we must keep our torch blazing. Even if we do not always light that our neighbors and friends, we can keep it burning as a witness for Christ.”[3]

In his essay Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher, Robertson encouraged pastors not to neglect the tedious work of the study. In his sermon Passing the Torch he encouraged preachers not to neglect sharing the gospel in the streets. Robertson did not choose between diligence in the study and diligence in the streets.

Neither should we.

[1] Jesus As a Soul-Winner in Archibald Thomas Robertson, Jesus As a Soul-Winner And Other Sermons (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company).

[2] Emphasis mine.

[3] Passing the Torch in Archibald Thomas Robertson, Passing the Torch and Other Sermons (New York: Fleming Revell Company).

Wednesdays With Robertson: Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher

It was in the classroom under the instruction of John A. Broadus that A.T. Robertson began to have an interest in textual criticism.[1] With great appreciation for his teacher and father-in-law, Robertson referred to Broadus as a “master of the theme” who taught the class with “zest and great skill.”[2]

            Textual criticism according to Stanley Porter “is the concern to recover the original form of the text by means of rigorous text-critical methodology to the available manuscript evidence.”[3] As Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Robertson taught New Testament textual criticism throughout his teaching career. The great theologian B.B. Warfield even requested that Robertson revise Warfield’s own introductory textbook on the subject, but Robertson was exhausted from researching grammar. Later in his career he ultimately would publish his own book, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament in 1925.

            A year later Robertson published a collection of essays entitled Studies in the Text of the New Testament and in that volume Robertson dedicates an entire chapter to answering the question, why textual criticism for the preacher? It seems that Robertson felt the need to come to the discipline’s defense as theological institutions began to remove it from their curriculum. “To the average preacher there is no more uninteresting or uninviting field of study than the textual criticism of the New Testament. Many do not even know the meaning of the phrase. It is not taught in all our theological seminaries.”[4]  Worried that ignorance of the field would result in poor preaching, Robertson with perhaps a little too much drama writes,

“The intelligent minister today cannot afford to remain in complete ignorance of this subject. If he does, he may find himself preaching from a text that some of the Sunday School teachers know is not genuine. Or he may be unable to form an intelligent opinion on the point at issue and have to rely wholly upon the opinion of others. Few things are more dreary than pulpit quotations of scholars on any given point, whether pro or con.”

This past week I was faced with two scenarios that support Robertson’s concern. The first was the textual variant in Mark 1:41. Most manuscripts read, “and being moved with pity/compassion he reached out his hand and touched him”(καὶ ⸁σπλαγχνισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα* ⸂αὐτοῦ ἥψατο⸃). However, an important Greek manuscript has a different reading and it is even favored by the NIV, “Jesus was indignant. He reached out his hand and touched the man” (καὶ ὀργισθεὶς ἐκτείνας τὴν χεῖρα αὐτοῦ ἥψατο). Although I preach from the ESV, many members at Hermon use the NIV and ignoring it from the pulpit didn’t seem helpful.

            The other scenario came from a loved one who sent me a text just this Monday morning. “Question, Matthew 18:11 in the NLT doesn’t exist. It skips from verse 10 to 12. I got a message from someone I gifted the Bible to. I looked it up and found it was added later. Does that information sound accurate?” These examples reminded me that I have the opportunity to protect believers from the false notion that there is “something wrong with their Bible.” In order to maximize that opportunity I need to continue to grow in my knowledge of textual criticism. These questions will not be left in the classroom. They will come from the lips of parishioners, family members, or friends.

With Robertson, I want to be able to encourage Christians to marvel that “through the centuries of repeated copying by so many men in so many languages the text of the New Testament has suffered so little real damage.We may be sure that nothing essential has been lost.”[5]

            Unfortunately, I was unable to take New Testament Textual Criticism as an elective during my MDiv. Every student has to make choices and I chose a class on the Septuagint. It was a great class and I don’t regret it for a second, but I wish I would have had one more elective available! This brings us to an important question. Given that textual criticism is such a technical field and the pastor will likely never achieve expertise in it, should he simply ignore it? Robertson says absolutely not.[6]

“Even if one does not become an expert in it, he will gain a sense of independence in reaching probable conclusions that will be satisfying…There is also a splendid training in clear thinking in this study. One balances the various forms of evidence before he reaches his final conclusion. This mental process calls for insight, weighing evidence, delicate balancing of probabilities, clear grasp of the data, honesty in deciding. These qualities are not confined, to be sure, to this study, but they are so demanded by it that one gains a fine intellectual drill in the exercise of them.”[7]

I will never be an expert in any field, but for the pastor expertise is not the point. Robertson reminds us of the joy of doing difficult things! The task of textual criticism challenges and stretches the preacher in positive ways. As the nonspecialist pastor labors over the text and the evidence, “he will gain a sense of independence…that will be satisfying.”

            Theological retrieval is emphasized today and rightly so! However, we can’t move from text to theology if we don’t have a text. In Why Textual Criticism for the Preacher, Robertson reminds us that students and pastors can’t afford to abandon the seemingly dry work of textual criticism.

            “It is plain that no intelligent minister can afford to be indifferent to the textual criticism of the New Testament, the subject fascinates those who study it long enough to feel at home in it, and it repays amply all the work that one may devote to it.”

[1] A.T. Robertson, An Introduction to Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 1925) vii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Stanley Porter and Andrew Pitts, Fundamentals of New Testament Textual Criticism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015) 1.

[4] A.T. Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1926) 54.

[5] Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament, 64.

[6] A very important distinction needs to be made in regards to those who have theological education available to them and those who do not. Pastors and preachers who fill pulpits, work bi-vocationally, and/or have little access to theological education are a blessing. Ultimately 1 Timothy 3:1-7 provides the qualifications for an elder.

[7]  Robertson, Studies in the Text of the New Testament 58.

Wednesdays With Robertson

Jesus as a Soul-Winner

            If people know the name A.T. Robertson, they likely know it because of his Grammar of the Greek New Testament in Light of Historical Research, which has often been called “The Big Grammar.”[1] Other aspects of Robertson’s life and ministry are not ignored, but not as often discussed. In this inaugural Wednesday with Robertson we will look not at the grammarian or the professor, but the preacher. Late in Robertson’s life he collected and published two volumes of his sermons. The first volume Passing the Torch and Other Sermons was well received, encouraging Robertson to publish a second volume, Jesus as a Soul-Winner and Other Sermons. The feature sermon of volume two with all its eleven points will have our attention today.

            Preaching from John 4:1-42, Robertson wants his hearers to follow the example of Jesus in evangelistic zeal and method. The account that John gives is very personal and counter-cultural. It not only teaches us who Jesus is, but who we should be. Reflecting on the passage Robertson says that John  “…shows the Master in actual contact with an individual soul, precisely the point where so many ministers fail, who may preach eloquent sermons to the crowd. And yet most people won to Christ are brought one at a time, as the result of a personal word.”[2] Robertson presents Jesus as the model of personal evangelism, the exemplar of a soul-winner.

            Jesus pursues the evangelistic opportunity despite his tired and weary body. John tells us that Jesus had been travelling and was sitting, “wearied as he was from his journey” (John 4:6). Today it is easy for Christians to read past the narrator’s remarks, but Robertson takes note of them and reminds us that even though John’s Gospel was written to defend Jesus’ divinity, “no Gospel brings out more sharply the human side of the Master’s emotions.” Christians might find a number of reasons to not share the gospel. We are often too preoccupied with our lives, our social comfort, and personal time that we hesitate to evangelize.  Like many people we encounter in life the Samaritan woman “…was a stranger to Jesus, and His weariness was excuse enough for him not to try to win her soul. But Jesus was never too tired to do good, and so He took the initiative Himself.”

            Personalism is fundamental for personal evangelism and Jesus models what it means to be personal with the woman at the well. His interaction with her begins by asking for a drink of water—a completely natural thing to do by a tired traveller. With humor Robertson contrasts Jesus’ approach with the social awkwardness that manifests with zealous, but unempathetic evangelists,

Soul-winners make a stupendous blunder by a direct attack on the citadel of the soul, like the overwrought preacher who met a man on the road and blurted out, “Sir, are you prepared to die?” The poor man thought a bandit was holding him up.”

Evangelism by presentation is certainly better than not doing evangelism at all, but Robertson pulls no punches when he says, “The poorest way in the world is to apply a rule of thumb out of some handbook, and put the victim through a catechism.” For Robertson, evangelism is Christians turning everyday personal conversations into gospel opportunities.

            Jesus’ conversation is counter-cultural and controversial. Jesus was not just talking to a woman, but to a Samaritan woman. Jesus, Robertson tells us “overcame the race and national prejudice of His day and brushed it off as nothing.” During the conclusion of his sermon Robertson urges his hearers to abandon racial prejudice in order to fulfill the great commission, “There is no room, with such a harvest before one, for race prejudice, class prejudice, or any other kind.” This is a rather clear statement from a man who roughly 20-30 years prior to this sermon’s publication wrote a glowing review of a book that espoused racist ideology. [3]The book reviewed was Thomas Dixon’s, The Leopard’s Spots and was Southern propaganda to spread the Lost Cause mythology.[4] I can only hope that Robertson’s views were sanctified to repentance and that Jesus as a Soul-Winner represents such a change, but I do not know that and believe it would be irresponsible not to make readers aware of Robertson’s earlier errors.[5] The sins of our heroes are often difficult to talk about. Robertson the grammarian, the professor, and the preacher did so much worth appreciating and emulating, but I believe the healthiest way to appreciate our human heroes is to be intentionally mindful of their flaws, especially when they are egregious.

Although Jesus began with everyday conversation, he used the water to turn the conversation to spiritual things. Robertson notes that Jesus “made a parable of the water and told her of the water of life.” The Samaritan woman didn’t understand what Jesus meant by “living water,” and wondered how Jesus could give living water with nothing to draw with. Even after Jesus tells her that his water, “will become like a spring of water welling up to eternal life,” she still believes Jesus is referring to literal water. Robertson wants his hearers to follow Jesus’ perseverance, “…Jesus saw her failure, but did not lose patience, he did not give her up as a hopeless case, as we often do.”

It is one thing to hear about living water and quite another to know you need it. Jesus asking about the woman’s husband reveals her need, but when Jesus pushes back on her claim that she has no husband she quickly changes the subject. “Our fathers worship on this mountain but you say Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship” (John 4:20).  Robertson uses the woman’s statement to relate to his audience.

In personal interviews[6], I have many a time had those under conviction of sin try to turn the talk from their own sins to theological problems which must be settled before surrender to Christ. Jesus does not incline to answer her inquiry, whatever her motive, but He gives her one of the profoundest truths of his teaching, that God is Spirit, and is independent of place and nation, and is worshipped in spirit and truth anywhere by any one, whether Jew, Samaritan, or Gentile.”

The Samaritan woman shows she is receptive when she says, “I know that Messiah is coming” and so Jesus finally reveals himself to her, “I who speak to you am he.” With joy Robertson speaks of the woman’s conversion,

“There was, beyond doubt, a mental shock to the woman, not fear but a flash of light upon her soul, that revealed Him as the Living Water of which He had spoken, that ‘bubbled up into eternal life.’ The Light and the Life entered into her soul, and now she understood His knowledge of her life. She took Him at His word and was saved. Let us thank God that the way of life is so simple as this, like the trust of a little child, of an untutored woman.”

 Robertson appeals to Jesus’ satisfaction with doing the will of God (John 4:34) to inspire his hearers to desire such a feeling, “This is heaven on earth to the soul-winner, to see the light break into the heart and face of a lost sinner. This was Christ’s real work.” Many Christians cannot remember the last time they had this type of experience, but Robertson makes us hope for it and confident we will still.

            Bringing it all together as good preachers often do Robertson picks up on the Samaritans reception to the woman and to Jesus, especially that he is the “Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Concluding, Robertson leaves us with the universal scope of God’s good news in Jesus.

“And they call Jesus not the Messiah of the Jews or the Samaritans, though He was both, but “the Saviour of the World.” These Samaritans caught the world mission of Jesus and boldly proclaimed it, apart from national prejudice. This is missions, this is evangelism, this is the gospel for the world today.”

In eleven points the grammarian proves to be a man of the great commission. In Jesus as a Soul-Winner Robertson provides the example of personal evangelism in Jesus. When we fail and begin to feel discouraged, perhaps we’ll remember Jesus standing at the well as an evangelist, always doing perfectly what we struggle to do and with a new resolve be mindful of turning every day conversations into gospel conversations, so that we might experience a glimpse of heaven, “the light breaking into the heart and face of a lost sinner.”

[1] There is a smaller grammar written with his student and then colleague W. Hersey Davis. Given the difference in size it might as well be called “The micro grammar.” The volume I own of Jesus of a Soul Winner seems to have been gifted to a man named Sam Harvey from Davis’ wife. Written in blue ink-pen inside of the cover is  “Sam Harvey, From- Mrs. William Hersey Davis.

[2] All quotations come from Jesus As a Soul-Winner in Archibald Thomas Robertson, Jesus As a Soul-Winner And Other Sermons (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company)

[3] Accessed January 20, 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[6] By “personal interview” Robertson is referring to what we would call a gospel conversation.

Wednesdays With Robertson

As a young seminary student I became fascinated with the life and scholarship of A.T. Robertson. This fascination was soon met with frustration. To my knowledge there are no scholarly biographies on his life, ministry, and scholarship. There is the biography by Everett Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography that was published in 1943, but it is not exhaustive or critical.

Given the lack of secondary sources on Robertson, I began to collect works written by Robertson himself. Although he is well known as a grammarian, he was also a sound expositor who loved to preach. The following is from a biographical sketch of Robertson I wrote in seminary,

His place as an academic was sealed when after attempting to be a seminary professor and pastor of New Castle Baptist Church, Robertson realized he didn’t possess the stamina to be faithful to both.[1] He would go on to resign from the pastorate. It was this decision that permanently cements Robertson’s fate. Although he would not pastor a church, he would train those who would.

 It would be a mistake to conclude that because Robertson stepped down from the pulpit he was not a gifted preacher. Robertson was a mighty expositor and well sought after. Gill wrote of Robertson, “…his scholarship only increased his ability as a preacher. It gave body and lasting worth to his preaching.”[2] Although it is perhaps a great overstatement when Gill says, “there was no preacher like him among all his contemporaries” it is true that Robertson was anything but a dry academic.

Because I have a desire to learn more about the life and ministry of A.T. Robertson, I have decided to write brief reflections on his sermons, books, and scholarly contributions. My primary motivation is to learn about Robertson while also growing as a writer. If readers do engage with these posts it is important to note that I am simply a pastor who is very interested in Robertson’s life. Any critical remarks about his life and ministry need to be considered in that light.

See you Wednesday!

The love of Christ “is deep as human sin, and can touch the lost and loveless. It is as high as heaven itself, and comes out of the very heart of God who is love, and Christ is God’s love incarnate.”- A.T. Robertson

[1] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1859-2009 (Oxford University Press, 2009) 270

[2] Gill, A.T. Robertson: A Biography

[3] Gregory Wills, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 270

Motivation and Spiritual Formation

In his biography of Michael Jordan, Roland Lazenby recalls an important moment in Jordan’s childhood. While young Michael was assisting his Dad with fixing a car, James Jordan requested a particular wrench from his son. After watching his son fumble, unable to locate the correct size, James Jordan barked, “You don’t know what the h— you’re doing. Go in there with the women!”

This encounter replayed in Jordan’s mind. It became the fuel to his competitive fire. He didn’t belong with the women and he would do whatever it took to prove it. Reflecting on this incident, Michael’s sister Deloris recalled:

During the early days of his NBA career, [Jordan] confessed that it was my father’s early treatment of him and Daddy’s declaration of his worthlessness that became the driving force that motivated him…Each accomplishment that he achieved was his battle cry for defeating my father’s negative opinions of him.

One might conclude that Jordan’s motivation proved successful. He is, after all, considered to be the greatest professional basketball player of all-time. If all that matters are trophies that will ultimately turn to dust, then Jordan’s motivation certainly proved successful.

What struck me; however, were not the trophies and accomplishments, but the way in which Jordan’s motivation formed him into a particular type of person. Throughout Jordan’s career he made people feel the worthlessness that he once felt, berating them, mocking them, in what seemed to be an effort to bring out their best. To Jordan, everyone needed to prove his or her worth. What motivated Jordan formed him over time into the worst parts of his own father.

Motivations matter. And it’s a lesson I recently needed to hear.

While I was in seminary, I counted on going on to earn a PhD after completing my master’s. For three years I planned, prepared, and desired to do this. This goal dictated my class schedule, how I spent my winter and summer breaks, and the networks I chose for myself. All the while, I never paused and reflected honestly on what motivated this desire.

One spring break, I opened Lazenby’s biography of Michael Jordan, and suddenly the sinful layers of own heart lay open front of me. I realized that while growing up, I had often battled the feeling of worthlessness. For the majority of my childhood I modeled mediocrity. My grades were hardly excellent; I lacked athletic talent, and progressed in nothing to call my own. Making this worse was being surrounded in Western KY/ Southern, IL by men who were almost all tough, hard-working, and void of strong emotion. I was none of those things. For these reasons, a crisis of identity seemed to follow me year after year.

I would eventually become the first person in my immediate family to attend college, but the crisis followed. I spent the majority of my college career attempting to dispel these beliefs about myself without even realizing it.

I had to finally confront myself with the “why” of doing doctoral work. I broke down and admitted that I didn’t possess a burning passion to teach or a genuine desire to contribute to scholarly knowledge. I didn’t even have a strong desire to write, or publish—all fine reasons to pursue a PhD!

What motivated me was the desire to prove my own worth; to prove to myself that I wasn’t stupid, mediocre, or worthless.

Unfortunately, I came to realize that, like Michael Jordan, my motivation had formed me into a type of person. Rather than viewing my professors as helpful teachers, they became monsters I feared. I was paralyzed by the dread that they wouldn’t like me. I sat in class nervously hoping I wouldn’t hear something to the effect of, ‘You don’t know what you’re doing!” I also dreaded my friends as they became comparative measuring sticks for my own success, rather than comrades. This gnawing fear and drive left me with good grades, but I robbed myself of experiencing them in purity. My motivations formed me into something less than God intended me to be.

With this new knowledge about myself, I did the only thing I could do—I repented. I made a conscious decision to no longer pursue a PhD, the very thing I had coveted for the past three years. For me (and me alone) the achievement was not worth the price of what I would have had to become. The pursuit of a good thing with deviant motivations was wrong.

Like the old hymn says, “My worth is not in what I own,” but in the God who created me in His image and set his love on me before the foundation of the world. This love appeared in real time in Christ crucified and risen. It was then applied to me by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit. I am made by Christ and for Christ. My acceptance by my heavenly Father gives me the grounds on which to fight my fears and insecurities, and the gospel of grace purifies my motivations.

Why we do something is just as important as what we do. Our motivations reveal what we believe about ourselves and about those with whom we interact. In the Christian life this means that our motivations reveal what we really believe about God and what we really believe about our standing before God. The only proper motivation is the grace of God in Christ Jesus. If this can be what motivates us in all of life then we can trust it will also overflow into our being and slowly form us into the type of person God intends us to be.

*This post was improved because of suggestions by Samuel James.


No Shame in Needing a Tutor: Confession and Encouragement to fellow Seminary Students.

Nathaniel R. Martin

When I first took Greek and Hebrew in undergrad I didn’t do very well. There I said it. No, my grades weren’t horrendous, but I didn’t learn the language. I sat through the class miserable, because I failed to do simple things that would have helped me. I failed to understand myself. I wasn’t honest about what it took for me to learn something that difficult. Furthermore, I also lacked the work ethic to seek help.


Unfortunately, this was symptomatic of a lifelong struggle. For the majority of my life, I have struggled with the reality that things just don’t come as easy to me as they do for other people. I have always just been “average” so to speak. I often don’t do well with open response questions, as if I experience some sort of random aphasia when asked a question in class. I always need reinforcement from different…

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