Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The testimony of Jeff Noblit

For at least the last year, there has been a firestorm around the preaching of Paul Washer. Many of his sermons can be found on Youtube. They are convicting and powerful. You have to listen to understand.

Below is the personal testimony of Washer's pastor. We thought it would be informative and insightful to look into one of the lives that has undoubtedly influenced Paul Washer's preaching. It's a bit long, but well worth the time.

By Jeff Noblit

My conversion to Christ occurred at the age of nineteen. The moment faith rose in my heart was actually while driving my car back to college from my home on a Sunday night in February 1979. A radical transformation occurred in my life. The love of God was instantly and overwhelmingly real, and a passionate desire to share God’s love with others was present from that moment. I didn’t really pray any specific prayer, and I certainly did not walk down a church aisle – I was behind the wheel! That night I wept greatly as God’s love, joy, and peace flooded my soul. Over the next several weeks I experienced a deep sense of my sinful unworthiness, wonderfully accompanied by a restful peace of forgiveness through Christ.

I began to read my Bible; I literally fell asleep every night clutching the Scriptures. I began to attend church regularly, something I almost never did before. But which one? I had no spiritual training to speak of and no membership in any church. I visited Baptist churches, Methodist churches, even a Church of Christ. I had many more Baptist friends, so that’s where I attended the most. The thing that seemed to strike me the most in the churches I attended was the obvious lack of passion, sincerity, and obedience to Scripture. On Sunday mornings in my small town, I could look around the packed auditorium and count many who were living in obvious and open sin. There was never any effort at any level of accountability or discipline. Adding to this, I was regularly questioned by well-meaning church members as to whether I had “prayed a certain prayer” to be saved. In my remembrance, no one opened the Scriptures and taught me from the Bible the evidences of the new birth. In ignorance I began to pray a “sinner’s prayer” many times each day hoping one of them would be the real thing, and I would be eternally fixed for heaven and not hell. I began going “soulwinning” and urging, if not forcing, others to pray a “sinner’s prayer.” Something seemed artificial about this, but I continued on because that’s what I was taught to do. I had no idea of how to look for biblical repentance and faith and how they involve much more than “praying a prayer.” From the beginning I was troubled in my heart and was uncomfortable with the state of the church and the understanding of conversion. I was quickly becoming disillusioned with the shallowness and hypocrisy of the churches I attended. I kept wondering as I observed coldness and indifference to spiritual things if these church members had experienced what I had experienced. My heart was burning with love for Christ and with a passion for biblical obedience in His church. I was, however, unbalanced in my spiritual immaturity. A lot of heat and too little light burned within. Looking back now I see that I was too prideful concerning my walk and service to Christ. God is still growing me in these areas. Understanding that I needed baptism to profess my faith, I was baptized at the First Baptist Church of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, on Sunday, May 13, 1979. To this day I remain deeply grateful to precious saints in that congregation who patiently loved and guided me in those critical early days of my new life in Christ.

It was probably by the end of the first year of my Christian pilgrimage that I became so disappointed in the local church that I decided I would commit my life to parachurch ministry.

One day God spoke to my heart. I do not remember exactly when or where, but I distinctly remember a strong impression within my soul. It was as if God etched in my heart with a hot iron stylist these words, “I will do My work through My church. You can get on the inside and be used as part of the solution or arrogantly stay on the outside and continue your useless criticizing.” Again, I do not remember the specifics, but God impressed this upon my heart as surely as I’m breathing today! I had known within months of my conversion that I was to be in full-time ministry. It was all I thought about. Now I knew I was to be a pastor in one of God’s local churches. From that time onward I was totally committed to the pastorate and leading a church to be truly biblical and to be a model of a true church. There was no turning back; there could be no Plan B. It was as Amos said in Amos 3:8, “A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” Deep within my heart the lion had roared; my destiny was set. I was terribly ignorant of all that this would mean. I just knew I was called to preach and pastor, and that I must fully trust in the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. One thing I did know was that my pastoral leadership would most likely be in contradiction to much, if not most, of the typical functions of the average church. I felt that if I took a pastorate and followed in the flow of a typical Southern Baptist Church, I would be as disobedient as Jonah sailing for Joppa. Today I understand as never before that God does not need me, but I am equally convinced that by His grace and certainly for His glory, I was born to reform.

A Good Foundation from which to work

In Luke chapter 12, our Lord was explaining a parable and gave this admonition: “ . . . everyone who has been given much, much will be required . . ..” Well, I’m convinced, comparatively speaking, I was given much in my formative years as a believer and as a young pastor. Though I was grieved over much I witnessed in the church and in the lives and ministries of some pastors, I was also deeply blessed to have some solid men who steered me into straight paths.

Charles Owens Dinkins, Robert C. (Bob) Pitman, Gray Allison, Jimmy Millikin, Charlie Culpepper, Tom Nettles, and John MacArthur. Though there were others, these men were major influences in my early pilgrimage.

Charles Dinkins was my first pastor. His expository preaching and genuine passion for God and His glory were very instrumental in my life. Bob Pitman was my pastor for over eight years at First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals, Alabama. He was also an expositor and taught me the Doctrines of Grace. He also told me to use the commentaries of James Montgomery Boice and to take all my electives in seminary under Dr. Jimmy Millikin. I heeded his advice, and I am still reaping great benefits. Dr. Gray Allison’s love for God, commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture, and his love for souls left an indelible imprint on my soul. He always emphasized repentance in evangelism. Dr. Jimmy Millikin’s seminary classes and his fellowship through the years greatly expanded my understanding of the historic doctrines of the faith, especially, the Doctrines of Grace. He always taught with a heart aflame for God. I’ll always remember how my heart warmed with love for God as Dr. Millikin taught and preached to us in seminary class. Dr. Charlie Culpepper was my mission’s professor at Mid-America Seminary. Dr. Culpepper was greatly used to teach me to love God. I remember him standing in the Chapel at Seminary with tears streaming down his face and saying, “I just want you young men to know God.” Dr. Tom Nettles’ church history classes actually did more to convince me of the inerrancy of Scripture than any other single factor I can remember. He loved the truth and loved to expose us to some of the great men of God who stood for truth in church history. Dr. John MacArthur was kind enough to sit down with me on two occasions and give me counsel and advice. But mostly his tapes and books powerfully influenced me. I saw that it was possible to actually design a church to function biblically.

Though there are many others, these men stand out as key influences in the earliest years of my Christian life and ministry. My heart goes out to so many who were mentored under shallow, topical preaching and unbiblical theology. I was given much in my early days as a believer - a good foundation to build on.

Glory of God Focused

Over sixteen years ago, I sat down and began to prayerfully consider putting together a scriptural purpose statement for First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals. I had been a part of the pastoral staff for over eight years when the church extended the call to become the senior pastor. I was convinced we needed a clear purpose statement to help guide our journey together as pastor and people.I was strongly convinced of two things. First, the primary truth of the purpose statement must be the glory of God. The church is His bride, born and sustained by His power and all is to His glory (Ephesians 3:21). Second, the purpose statement must be thoroughly biblical, not just biblically supported or biblically based (which has come to mean about any worldly idea or philosophy with a Scripture added here or there), but totally and fully God’s will for His church as revealed in Scripture. The purpose statement we composed follows: The purpose of First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals is to glorify God by obediently making and equipping disciples of Christ in the Shoals and throughout the world by the power of the Spirit.

The focus on God’s glory and on being Bible-saturated has sustained me “through many dangers, toils, and snares.” I’m convinced that if any lesser purpose, I would have either left the ministry or run away in fear. The warfare of reforming a church is severe and seemingly at times unrelenting. A strong passion for His glory in the church is the only sufficient anchor to weather the storms of reformation. This is the reason the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace so appeal to me. They give God all of the glory! It is the design of Scripture to glorify God by revealing the greatness of His wisdom, beauty, and might. The Doctrines of Sovereign Grace are undeniably scriptural, giving Him all the glory and humbling man.

A deepening and unswerving commitment to the glory of God was, for my life, the anchor that held the ship of reformation steady through the storms of opposition.

C. H. Spurgeon: I have endeavored, in my ministry, to preach to you, not a part of the truth, but the whole counsel of God; but I cannot harmonize it, nor am I anxious to do so. I am sure all truth is harmonious, and to my ear the harmony is clear enough; but I cannot give you a complete score of the music, or mark the harmonies on the gamut. I must leave the Chief Musician to do that.

Informed and Reformed

Several years ago I received a call from a dear brother I had never met. Most Founder’s Journal readers will probably know his name, Mark Dever. Mark said he had heard about the ministry of FBC Muscle Shoals and would like to meet and discuss our mutual convictions. One afternoon we met at Beeson Divinity School where he was doing some adjunct teaching, and during that conversation some lights turned on in my mind!

The first occurred when Mark asked me what led or inspired me to begin the reforms within my church. Before I could answer, he continued by saying, “Was it a study of church history?” That struck me as very interesting. I admit at that time I was a very poor student of Baptist history or church history in general. I actually had no idea that the reforms I had initiated made my church very much like most Baptist churches of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. But it was something I needed to hear.

My response to Mark’s question as to what led me to reform First Baptist Church was a simple and honest reply, “It’s scriptural.” From there he proceeded to share some of the reforms he was initiating at the church he pastors, Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Furthermore, he strongly encouraged me to dig deep into church history and study the old Baptist theologies and policy manuals. As far as older theologies and policy manuals, I was already familiar with J. L. Dagg’s Manual of Theology and Manual of Church Order and James Pendleton’s Christian Doctrines and Church Manual. Mark’s encouragement stirred me on to read and study more. Today I am a student of church history. This practice has edified my life and pastorate immeasurably.

The second light that flickered but did not come on until some time after my conversation with Mark was the concept of being “reformed.” I only had a shallow understanding of what the word meant as far as specific church movement historically or theologically. As I deepened my study of church history, I realized that for the most part (depending on who is defining the term) I am “reformed.” Up until this time when someone would ask, “Are you reformed?” I would answer (partly out of ignorance), “No, I’m striving to be biblical.” Today I suppose I would be accurately described as a reformed Baptist. But more than reformed, I’d rather be viewed as biblical. Actually, they should be the same thing. But woe to the brother who strives after reformation as a system as his first passion and not for God and His glory! The order of these things is essential. Calvinism can be as deadly an idol as Arminianism. We must love God and use systems of theology and not love systems and use God! Systems are all imperfect, being assembled by imperfect men. I love and deeply appreciate the works of Calvin, and the Puritan fathers, and the biographies of Whitefield and Edwards. But I am even more drawn to the sovereign grace Baptists of church history, like Spurgeon, Dagg, Boice, and Pendleton. I also respect the lives and ministry of many of the Anabaptists.

I was well into the pilgrimage of reformation at First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals when I was informed that I was historically and theologically speaking reformed! I was simply trying to establish a true, biblical church. Actually I think it was a gift from God that I was mostly ignorant of “labels” and “systems” until the majority of reforms were well underway in my church. I did not start out looking to a system of theology as helpful as that may have been. I started with a desire to serve and glorify God by leading my church to be fully scriptural. If this is what is meant by reformed then I gladly wear the label. Yet, in my case, I had to be informed that I was “reformed.”

Theology and Methodology

As I mentioned previously, my passion for the local church began soon after my conversion. Early on I began to learn of those who were esteemed as role models within the Southern Baptist Convention. Yet as I examined their churches, I found glaring unbiblical practices and seemingly no efforts to reform these areas. This is one of the reasons John MacArthur’s ministry was so appealing. His church genuinely seemed to strive after obedience in the totality of local church life. As a young preacher, I was growing disillusioned with hugely popular men-pastored churches, which had no active policy of discipline for unrepentant sin. Their membership rolls contained thousands who never attended. I was growing weary of hearing that a mega church had baptized thousands in a year’s span, yet their attendance over the same year remained about the same. Added to that, I learned that more often than not the measure of a successful evangelist was based on three things: Is he humorous, can he get people to walk down the aisle at the end of the service, and can he convince those who do walk down to be baptized. There seemed to be a shallow understanding or a total lack of understanding of essential experience of repentance and faith before one is received into the church by baptism.

These are some of the more glaring examples that God was convicting me of in my earlier years as a minister of the Gospel. To say the least, from receiving members to the removing of members for sin and most points in between, the methodology of the more prominent churches did not match the theology we all claimed to embrace! Increasingly in my heart I began to view this willful neglect not as a weakness but as wickedness. When I would ask church leaders about these unbiblical and unhealthy practices, I would usually be ignored or told, “That won’t work.” Unfortunately, and to my shame, there were far too many areas where either in my pride or in ignorance I too was functioning in a man-centered and pragmatic spirit instead of humbly yielding to, “Thus saith the Scripture.” Yet, God was growing me and still is to this day.

Discipline

I have been on the pastoral staff of my present church, First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals, for over 25 years, and I became the pastor over 17 years ago. I planned to immediately begin reforming many policies and procedures after I was voted in as senior pastor, but God had an accelerated course in mind. On the fifth day in my role as senior pastor, a prominent church leader who had strongly and openly opposed my becoming pastor was found to be in open and scandalous sin. There was much pressure to “sweep the issue under the carpet.” I knew because of the person’s prominence and the scandalous nature of the sin that public correction was necessary. This was best for the guilty person himself, for the good of the local body, and, of course, for the glory of God. The first few months of my pastorate were very difficult and painful to say the least. We lost close to one-third of our active membership. Many who left went about spreading lies throughout the community concerning the dismissal of the member found in scandalous sin. One thing did happen. The commitment to deal with sin in the body in a biblical manner was well established. Over the next couple of years we developed policies and procedures for compassionate discipline. Since then, hundreds have been removed for neglecting church attendance and many others for adultery, drunkenness, and other sins. God has chosen to glorify Himself by letting us see several who were dismissed come back into church membership with humble, repentant hearts! I remember the first time a publicly disciplined member stood before the congregation in tears thanking the church for dismissing him from membership. He stated that God used the dismissal to bring him to repentance and give him victory over the sin in his life. He and all others who have been restored after discipline are received with total forgiveness and are smothered with love and acceptance from the membership. An increased spirit of love and humility within the body always marks the weeks following a dismissal for sin. And usually an increased number of new believers are added to the church.

Elders

After the initial case of discipline, the church went through sixteen months of decline and struggle. After that, things really began to take off. The respect and admiration for myself from the body began to grow so much that I knew this was not healthy. I simply had almost no accountability. The deacons were only servants to the body and had no authority to oversee. The pastor was viewed as a benevolent dictator. I knew I needed help to lead and oversee the church. I was convinced that a plurality of elders was the most biblically healthy model of church leadership. I devised a plan. I would preach a series of messages on biblical elders and then ask the congregation to nominate men for the office. I would then examine the top nominees and exclude any one who was not biblically qualified. The remaining twelve would be presented to the congregation for a two-week examination period. If anyone had any concerns, they had two weeks to bring them to my attention. After two weeks, the men, with their wives at their side, were unanimously affirmed as elders in the church. Originally we called them “the Pastor’s Council” for fear the title “elder” might unsettle some. Since then, we have matured greatly in our understanding of elder ministry and in our policy for selecting and installing them. Today we require a 50-page questionnaire on theology and church polity. For over sixteen years now the love, encouragement, and accountability among the elders has been priceless to me. They have been the key, humanly speaking, to holding the church together in some very difficult times. Their leadership in doctrine and discipline issues greatly enhances my role of the preaching pastor.

Membership Process

Over the first eight years of my pastorate, we experienced incredible growth. As it turns out, more of it was a curse than a blessing. Though our overall “numbers” kept increasing, we also kept increasingly having discipline problems. It took some time, but I finally figured out part of the problem. Many who joined by letter were either unregenerate or terribly shallow in their understanding of the biblical duties of church membership. Many joined not because they loved God and our doctrine but because they were enamored with our size, the excitement, the music, etc. When the new wore off, they returned to their sinful habits and then became a discipline problem. We had already opened up the back door exercising biblical discipline, but now we realized we must close the front door! This realization led to a radically new procedure for receiving members. Today most people attend for months before requesting membership. This gives many opportunities for them to fellowship with members, learning both the blessings and duties of church membership. Then they attend a three-hour class that covers doctrine and church polity. The class places a strong emphasis on the biblical evidences of true conversion. If they desire to continue toward membership, they must meet with a church elder to be examined as to their conversion experience and their understanding of the duties of membership. After this meeting, if all is acceptable, they are asked to sign a covenant statement that emphasizes our policy on discipline. Then they are presented to the congregation where they make five affirmations of faithfulness and service. The congregation responds with an affirmation of love and support to them. This practice, though it is continually being revised and updated, has proven to be a great blessing to the spiritual health of the church.

Salvation by Works in Baptist Life!

First Baptist Church Muscle Shoals has always had an aggressive and passionate commitment to evangelism. We have averaged over 25% of our Sunday School attendance at weekly outreach Visitation for over sixteen years. During the early years of my pastorate, we averaged about 180 baptisms per year! I remember so many, including prominent leaders in the Convention, praising these results! Yet none I can remember ever questioned the genuineness of these “conversions.” If most of these baptized converts were genuine and bore lasting fruit, we would be having close to 3,000 in attendance on a good Sunday instead of close to 1,000 we have today!

Initially we tried to correct this problem concerning those who fell away or had to be disciplined by developing a thorough follow-up and discipling program through our Small Groups. I don’t know of a church whose laity could do any better job of personally, lovingly, and faithfully following up new converts than ours did. Still the percentages of those outside the church who made professions and then fell away didn’t improve. And far too many had to be disciplined.

Then a light went on that was startling and shocking. We had actually been functioning with a shallow if not outright unbiblical understanding of conversion. The reason so many of those we baptized fell away was because they were not truly saved! Urging people to simply pray a prayer or walk down an aisle at the end of a service was vastly different from becoming a new creation in Christ Jesus. Without saying it outwardly, our evangelism emphasized the simple work of walking forward or saying a prayer.

I spent two years intensely studying the doctrine of conversion. I studied all the Baptist Statements of Faith I could find. I read many Puritan fathers along with Spurgeon, Dagg, Boice, Gill, Pendleton, and others. I read the biographies of Edwards, Spurgeon, Whitefield, Wesley, and many more! I could not find one example in Baptist church history or in any Baptist Statement of Faith that taught that one is assured of salvation by praying a “sinner’s prayer.

”We went through a serious reformation concerning our understanding of Gospel preaching and personal soulwinning and especially what constitutes true conversion. Today we never tell a person, “If you prayed that prayer, you are saved.” We certainly do not discourage lost sinners from calling on the Lord in repentance and faith to save them. However, assurance of salvation must be based only on solid biblical criterion. From the Scriptures we should teach them of repentance and faith and the witness of the Spirit within the heart. If salvation is assured only by the parroting of a short prayer, then there would be no need for II Peter 1:10, Hebrews 6:11, and the whole book of I John. Salvation is absolutely by simple faith in Christ, but it is also a substantial faith that transforms the whole person. I’m convinced millions have prayed a prayer in the power of the flesh and have not been born again by the Spirit of God, yet have been assured by well-meaning pastors and laity alike that the prayer “saved them.” God help us!

Today we probably have over eighty seekers who regularly attend church with us. I appeal to them, urge them, even command them and sometimes with tears, to repent of loving self, sin, and this world and turn to receive Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King. And God has been gracious to let us see a steady stream of new believers who give good biblical evidence of repentance and faith.

It’s powerful and gives glory to God when new believers testify before the congregation of how God brought them to see their sinfulness and felt His wrath and the awful pain of being separated from God. Then they share the full assurance that Christ has cleansed them, and they know they are His and now desire to love and serve Him above all others!

One piece of advice to give to pastors. . .

God is most glorified through His church. God is most glorified through His church when His church is biblically healthy. For our churches to become biblically healthy, we desperately need revival and reformation. This revival and reformation will require suffering on the part of God’s shepherd. But His glory is worth it!


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