The fifth Scottish Ministers' Assembly was held in June in Glasgow. Run by Rutherford House, the SMA has proved to be a useful tool for the development of ministers and offers good in-house training. This year proved to be no exception, and St George's Tron church in Glasgow was a good venue for the conference. The speakers were good, and one was outstanding. To have one outstanding speaker at a conference makes the whole thing worthwhile.
That speaker was John Piper, whose exposition of ministry from 2 Corinthians 3 and 4 made a deep impression on me. By his own admission, these are the passages that drive Piper's own ministry; he delivered a lecture on the same topic at a large pastors' conference in the States, and has written on the same theme in his book 'God is the Gospel'.
John Piper is often accused of playing one tune: the tune of Christian hedonism. I like the idea, but not the phrase, although Piper himself uses it often. 'God is most glorified by us when we are most satisfied in him'. That is Piper's way of expressing the central truth of evangelical Christian faith: that the 'good' of the 'good news' is to see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and to delight in it. He never tires of quoting it as the Shorter Catechism has it - our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God. Or, as Piper might put it, to glorify God by enjoying him for ever.
That note Piper would freely admit comes out of Jonathan Edwards. Not everyone likes Edwards, but Piper has done much to recover renewed interest in him, popularising Edwards' view that the end for which God created the world was for a display of his own glory. We sin when we find in anything else the pleasure we ought to find in God. That, Piper would argue, is why Paul insists that sin means 'coming short' of the glory of God.
Piper has been driven by that philosophy of God's essential glory and supremacy as our highest good. He has written that this ought to inform all mission work and outreach: 'Let the nations be GLAD' the Old Testament thundered; let them rejoice in the glory of God! It is the idea of God's glory revealed in the gospel that must be the motivating factor of all world evangelism.
He has also written on the Christian ministry in these terms. One of Piper's most sobering books is entitled, Brothers, We are Not Professionals, in which he wants to rescue Christian ministry from being modelled on the executive position within American corporate business.
While I believe Piper is essentially correct - the ministry, by definition, is service (ministering to others) rather than executive leadership, we could sometimes do with a great deal more professionalism in our ministry than we often have.
As senior pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Piper has not been unafraid to raise issues of public morality. He has written and campaigned earnestly against advertising through sex and he has been maligned for arguing publicly that Christians should pray for the conversion of the Jewish people to Christ. At our conference he also spoke very honestly about problems in his own church and in his family.
There is something deeply reassuring about being reminded that the great men of today, like those of Bible times, were men of similar problems and pressures to ourselves. Not the least benefit of a ministers' conference is to hear someone with a different accent being honest about facing the same issues as ourselves.
His main theme at the conference, however, was simply on the power of the Word to reveal the glory of God in Jesus Christ. Piper is convinced that the Word of God - identified with Holy Scripture - is to be proclaimed, that it will authenticate itself, that the finished work of Jesus Christ is its central message, and that savouring the supreme glory of Jesus Christ is its intended purpose, design and goal.
That Word-based emphasis is central to my own particular religious tradition and my own convictions of ministry. It is the Word of God that has the power to transform - as the word is preached, the glory of God is seen. Piper would say that Christians actually see with their ears. We cannot have enough of the Bible. It must be central. That theme was pretty much what the other speakers also underlined and emphasised.
So absolutely everything in the lives of our churches comes back to this: will our activities and all the elements of our worship demonstrate the absolute centrality of the Scriptures in all their parts? For at last the only way in which we have access to the living God of the Bible is through the living words of the Bible. And our churches will know blessing only in the proportion to which the naked, inscripturated revelation of Truth presses its claims on the minds and hearts of men, women and children.
That, I enjoyed at the Ministers' Assembly. What I didn't enjoy at the Assembly was the singing. I try not to let my psalm-singing principles get in the way of fellowship and of worship with other brethren, but, honestly - the songs we were asked to sing were so banal, so devoid of depth and - in some cases - of Scriptural content that I gave up singing altogether. The sooner we apply sola scriptura to our praising as well as to our preaching the better; a minor point, but not an unimportant one. The most important point was simply the encouragement to go on proclaiming the Word of God in all its beauty.