Not by a long shot.
On the Wednesday night of ETS, I was invited to attend a gathering with friends of The Bethlehem Institute. “TBI” is essentially Bethlehem Baptist Church‘s elder and leadership training program, mainly designed for seminary-bound post-grads, and is mainly taught by John Piper.
I was excited about the guest list, which included Bruce Ware, Doug Moo, Al Mohler, Russell Moore, Ligon Duncan, Sam Storms and a few other heavy hitters, and I thought it would be a great chance to make some connections. But more than that, I was just looking forward to having a cup of punch and catching up with my friends David Mathis (Piper’s assistant), Tom Steller (Dean of TBI), David Livingston (Pastor at Bethlehem who married Leslie and me) and Pipes himself.
To my surprise, it wasn’t a social gathering at all. It was a colloquium. And to my utter terror, I was on the speaker panel. Here’s how it went down:
When I came into the room, I saw that there were three concentric circles of chairs. As people began taking seats, Tom Steller, who served as moderator for the evening, requested that everyone who had completed their formal education please take a seat in the center circle. All students (there were about 40 of them from 6-7 different seminaries) were asked to sit in the outer rings.
Naturally, since I’m (technically) still in school, I made my way to a seat in the outer ring. Before I could be seated, however, Steller asked me to come up and sit in the middle circle along with Ware, Piper, Storms, Preston Sprinkle and Denny Burk (a couple up-and-coming heavy hitters), and a few other guys who almost always know what they’re talking about.
I protested: “No, I’m still in school, Tom!”
Tom rebutted: “Yeah, but you’re in ministry. Come sit up here.”
Thus I found myself on a panel of speakers, the lone Ph.D.-less representative, armed with my meager 11 months of pastoral experience, awaiting a barrage of questions from three dozen seminary students, some of which Tom was sure to direct my way, being absolutely terrified that I was about to perform the biggest face plant of my life, say something utterly and thoroughly stupid, and as a result be officially shunned and declared to be anathema by some of my theological and ministerial heroes.
But, to my utterly dumbstruck surprise, I did not end up getting voted off the island, and actually made some (I’d like to think) useful contributions to the conversation.
Afterwards, I promptly had myself a pint, fittingly enough called “Idiot Pale Ale,” and changed into a fresh pair of underwear.
Two of the more interesting and substantial conversation topics of the evening centered, first, on Piper and Ware’s views on Limited Atonement/Definite Redemption. The conversation focused on the very difficult question: How is it that God’s wrath can genuinely be said to rest on his elect, before they have been granted repentance and faith, if his wrath has already been propitiated through the sacrifice of his Son on their behalf?
The other centered on Piper’s remarks on the I-35W bridge collapse disaster. In his remarks, he seems to imply that he deserved to be on the bridge; that he deserves to receive God’s wrath for his sin, and that what is astounding is not that some people were on the bridge and were victims of such a tragedy, but that he wasn’t on the bridge, suffering the penalty for his own sin.
Sam Storms asked Piper whether he would have put things a bit differently in his reflections on the tragedy, in retrospect. After all, did the cross not remove God’s wrath from us? I pressed the question by asking John, “If you were on the bridge moments before it collapsed and God spoke to you and said, ‘John, I am about to destroy this bridge with you on it, and you deserve it because of your sin,’ would you say to God, ‘You’re right. I deserve it,’ or would you not ask, ‘Didn’t Christ already bear your wrath for my sin and remove my guilt forever?'”
It was fascinating to hear how some of these great minds (I do not include myself in that category, of course) approach perplexing issues, break them down, analyze the parts, and then try to put them back together. I feel both smarter and (much) dumber having been part of a lengthy theological discussion with them.