Interview by Matthew Barrett–
In the May issue of Credo Magazine, “Chosen by Grace,” I had the joy of interviewing Greg Gilbert. Greg is pastor of Third Avenue Baptist Church and is the author of What is the Gospel? (Crossway), Preach (co-authored with Mark Dever; Crossway), and What is the Mission of the Church? (co-authored with Kevin DeYoung; Crossway). Here is what Greg had to say about expository preaching, pastoral ministry, the doctrines of grace, and much more.
Have you always wanted to be a pastor? Was there anything else you considered doing?
No, growing up I wanted to do lots of things—professional baseball, airline pilot, fireman. By the time I left for college, I had settled on law and politics, and intended to be governor of Texas by the time I turned 35. That dream finally failed completely this past March! It was actually at a week-long summer camp between my freshman and sophomore years that the Lord called me to ministry. The call, I think, happened very quickly—over the span of just a couple of days—but it took me about a year to sift through the fallout of it, figure out what those new desires meant, and finally decide I would pursue ministry.
You recently preached through Ezekiel. Many pastors find it difficult to preach through the Old Testament. Do you have any advice?
Yea, there are a couple of things. First of all, get a good handle on the structure of the book. Most Christians tend to think about Old Testament books—especially the prophets—as just a mash-up of various images and poems that aren’t really going anywhere or doing anything as a whole. It’s like a bowl of judgment spaghetti with a few Messianic meatballs thrown in here and there! But that’s a wholly inaccurate view of them. The prophetic books are more like swords than spaghetti. They have a weight, a shape, a point, and a thrust. They’re doing something, and they all have a tight—and sometimes brilliant!—structure to them. Spend the time necessary to drill that structure into your mind, and you’ll have a much better time studying and teaching them because you’ll know where you are in the “argument” or “story” of the book. Second, look for the Messiah! He’s there in every book and in every passage, sometimes even in places you don’t expect him. If you keep in mind the whole story of the Bible and how it all moves like a river toward Jesus, you won’t be so prone to get lost in moralism.
How have the doctrines of grace informed not only your theology but pastoral ministry?
The fact of God’s sovereignty in salvation is huge in my ministry. It keeps me from panicking in the short run, and it focuses me on the long game. I trust God deeply to use the message of the gospel to break through human blindness and sin, and regenerate hearts. That’s how he has said he will save people, and so my job is to preach that message. My job is not to do other things that I imagine may be more effective in persuading people to accept Jesus. And not only that, but I think the doctrines of grace, once understood, tend massively toward gratitude in a Christian’s heart and therefore a desire to live for the honor of Christ. As Paul says all over his New Testament letters, there’s just no room for boasting or self-regard when you’ve been brought from death to life.
Who have been your biggest heroes, dead and alive and why?
There are a few. My dad is probably my biggest hero. I’ve never known a more faithful and sincere Christian man, and I want to be like him when I grow up. My mentor in the ministry is Mark Dever. 90% of everything I know about the church and preaching, I learned from him. Really more than anyone else, Mark taught me to be a pastor, and I’m still learning from him to this day. As far as dead heroes, I think Jonathan Edwards has had the most personal impact on my life. Right after I decided to pursue the ministry, a professor introduced me to Edwards, and I was struck immediately by the power of his intellect being applied to spiritual things. It really taught me a lot about the necessity of education. Edwards was also big in my struggle to embrace the doctrines of grace.
In a nutshell, what is the mission of the church?
In a nutshell, it’s to proclaim the gospel and make disciples. If I can take a slightly larger nutshell (a walnut, maybe), here’s how Kevin DeYoung and I put it in our book: “The mission of the church is to go into the world and make disciples by declaring the gospel of Jesus Christ in the power of the Spirit and gathering these disciples into churches, that they might worship the Lord and obey his commands now and in eternity to the glory of God the Father.”
In light of the presidential election around the corner, how do you think the church should be involved or not be involved in the political sphere?
I’d say a pastor should preach the Word, and if the Word says things about certain issues that have become “political,” so be it. The pastor has to say what Scripture says. Long before abortion became “political,” Psalm 139 was saying that God lovingly and painstakingly knits every human being together in his/her mother’s womb. Just because a political party or two decides to put something about that issue in their platforms, doesn’t mean we have to shy away from it. So we preach what the Bible speaks about. Beyond that, part of being a faithful Christian is being a faithful citizen of the nation God has placed you in. Here in the United States, the most basic job of a citizen is to think hard about and vote carefully for those who will make and execute our laws. Do things get complicated there sometimes? Are candidates or parties usually right about some things and wrong about others? Absolutely. Yet still, each of us has an obligation as a Christian to wield the societal authority God has granted to each of us (our vote) faithfully and carefully.
Is the church’s involvement different from that of the individual Christian’s?
Yes. The local church is an organization that was instituted by its Lord for a particular purpose. The local church was not instituted to do everything, nor even to do everything that is good. Like any organization, it has a specific mission—a thing or set of things that it exists to pursue or accomplish. Individuals are different from organizations. As individual Christians, we have many different obligations and responsibilities that press on us and demand our time and attention, one of which is to vote carefully and faithfully. That’s a very different kind of involvement than what the local church should or can have.
Besides the gospel itself, what other doctrines do you see as “murky” in evangelicalism today?
I think the Bible’s teaching about sin is very unclear to a lot of Christians. Many people talk about the effects of sin as if they are the main problem we humans face. Our broken relationships, our sense of meaninglessness or purposelessness, our thwarted need for belonging, our sense of alienation—all these are often presented as The Problem Jesus came to solve. But of course they’re not. All those things are just symptoms of a much deeper problem—our willful and sinful rebellion against God. That rebellion is what causes all the other problems, and if you don’t face up to that, you won’t even begin to understand the Bible or the Gospel or even Jesus himself.
What do you think is keeping most Christians from having a clear grasp of the gospel?
I don’t know if I’d say that most Christians lack a clear grasp of the gospel. I would just say that a good number of us do, and perhaps that most of us would have a hard time articulating it or certainly defending it. Why is that? I imagine a number of things play into it. One of the main ones has to be a loss of confidence in the Word of God among the preachers of our age. Pastors just don’t, in the main, preach expositionally to their congregations anymore. They don’t open up books of the Bible and explain their point, whatever comes. Instead, pastors tend to preach from those parts of the Bible that are most famous or most easily applied. And they go there over and over and over again. I think there’s something to be gained, though, from opening up Ezekiel at chapter 1 and preaching straight through it to chapter 48. Yea, you’re going to have to go through 13 chapters in the middle about God judging the nations around Israel, and that may not be as easy to apply as some other passages in the Bible. But on the other hand, knowing that God is determined to judge sin and redeem his people is right at the center of the good news of Jesus. At the end of the day (and no matter what they tell you), what your people need most is not advice on how to live well. It’s a proclamation about what God has done for them in Christ in light of the fact that they haven’t lived well, or even anywhere near it.
What is the Gospel? . . . What is the Mission of the Church? . . . what is next?
Mark Dever and I just co-authored a book with Broadman and Holman called Preach: Theology Meets Practice. It’s the best case we can make for the priority of expositional preaching, and then a very practical look at how we think about, prepare, and deliver sermons. The last section of the book contains two sermon transcripts—one from me, and one from Mark—interspersed with the transcript of a conversation we had together as we listened to those sermons. We critique one another, encourage one another, make fun of one another, and just generally have a good time sharpening each other. Hopefully that will be a useful look at the kind of “review” and feedback we both find so helpful in our own preaching ministries. After that, who knows? Who is Jesus, maybe? We’ll see.
Read other interviews like this one in the latest issue of Credo Magazine!