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I recently interviewed Dr. Tom Ascol. I’ve known Tom for several years and have learned much from his ministry. I’ve always found him to be kind, gracious, wise, and unashamed of Christ and His Word. I appreciate his ministry and encourage you to benefit as well. I’m currently using Ascol’s Truth and Grace Memory Books in family worship to teach my children the Scriptures, hymns, and Baptist catechism provided therein. I highly recommend them.
Tom Ascol has served as Pastor of Grace Baptist Church since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. His major field of study was Baptist Theology. He has been an adjunct professor for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in their SW Florida extension and has also taught systematic theology and pastoral theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and the Midwest Center for Theological Studies, respectively. Tom serves as the Executive Director of Founders Ministries, an organization committed to reformation and revival in local churches. He edits the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written numerous articles for journals and magazines. He is a regular contributor to TableTalk. He has also edited and contributed to several books. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries in addition to authoring the Founders Blog and writing for Examiner.com.
1. What do you think is the greatest threat facing the SBC today? Why?
I’m sure some would expect me to say that the Calvinist—anti-Calvinist divide is our greatest threat, but as much as some in both of those camps would like to make it our greatest concern, I see something far more significant staring us in the face. I think the SBC is facing an identity crisis that, if not resolved with a humble, biblical understanding of and clarified commitment to the gospel and the church (and the relationship between the two), will cause it’s relevance to diminish with an increasing number of churches.
We can no longer assume that just because a church is Southern Baptist it therefore genuinely understands the gospel and knows how it works to save sinners. Commensurate with this is the preaching of Christ. There is a difference between preaching about Christ and preaching Christ, just as there is a difference in preaching from the Word and preaching the Word. In some respects preaching about Christ from the Word is a more serious error than preaching rank heresy in the same way that being almost right can be worse than being completely wrong. A slight miscalculation is harder to detect but can prevent a space shuttle from reaching the moon just as surely as a blatant mathematical mistake.
Before anyone is accepted into the membership of our church he or she is asked to give a simple explanation of the gospel. Some of the responses that we have received through the years–even from people who have been deacons and Sunday School teachers–are frightening. This simple exercise has brought to light many cases of people who thought they were saved but who, in fact, were trusting in something other than Jesus Christ. It has also revealed that many who are trusting Christ are not very gospel literate, despite years of faithful involvement in Baptist churches. I fear that in many ways we are losing the gospel by assuming that everyone in our ranks rightly understands and appreciates it. Such an assumption is deadly.
Even more blatant is the crisis we face in the SBC over the nature and work of a local church. While it is encouraging that regenerate church membership has been reaffirmed in recent years through the passing of a resolution and that there is renewed discussion of this historic Baptist principle, in reality the majority of our churches do not practice it. Quite simply, we have far too many “theoretical Baptists” who nod in agreement at the historic Baptist understanding of a church while sitting in churches whose membership roles are highly inflated and whose loose methods of receiving members perpetuate the problem. When denominational servants who belong to such churches issue dire warnings that Southern Baptists are in danger of losing our Baptist identity due to theological renewal and fellowship beyond denominational boundaries, it rings superficial. A mere theoretical commitment to biblical, ecclesiological practices that Baptists have long held dear evokes disdain from a generation of Southern Baptists that are searching for authentic submission to the authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
It is doubtful that even a small percentage of our churches actually practice corrective, biblical church discipline or actively seek to maintain a regenerate membership. To do so is costly and requires courageous leadership. It is easy to talk about and even affirm such markers of Baptist identity. It is much harder to recover and maintain them. If, as John Dagg noted in the 19th century, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it,” then the SBC has thousands of Christless churches in our ranks. If that is true, then no danger could possibly be greater than continuing on this deadly path.
2. What is the answer to this threat?
To work for a recovery of the biblical gospel and a renewed commitment to healthy church life. In other words, we need a thorough, biblical reformation in which every area of life–individual, ecclesoilogical and denominational–is evaluated in the light of an unashamed commitment to the authority of God’s Word. If that happens, repentance will inevitably result which will in itself be the harbinger of genuine revival.
This kind of recovery and renewal will not happen without a cost. To become ruthlessly biblical in our evaluations of who we are, what we believe and how we are living will require a humility that has not often characterized our convention of churches. It will require pastors who are willing to go against the grain when necessary in order to lead churches to do the hard work of reevaluating and re-forming their life and practice in the light of God’s Word. It will also require churches to demand that our cooperatively supported institutions and agencies adopt the same agenda even if that means doing away with certain programs and changing familiar ways of doing things. It will most certainly require Spirit-empowered prayer that is born out of a sense of how far we have drifted from biblical norms in our beliefs and practices.
In other words, the antidote to what currently threatens us is biblical and spiritual, not programmatic or pragmatic. We need a genuine renewal in our faith and life.
3. What are some resources you would recommend to help equip Christians and local churches to answer this threat?
The revival writings of Jonathan Edwards, especially A Treatise on Religious Affection, The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God and Thoughts on the Revival of Religion in New England in 1740. These works, from the greatest theologian of revival in history, not only show us what is possible in post-Pentecost times but they also help provide practical standards by which to evaluate practical church life today.
When God Comes to Church: A Biblical Model for Revival Today by Ray Ortlund, Jr. With the same biblical understanding of revival as Edwards, Ortlund shows how Scripture holds the hope of revival before us and calls us to seek and long for it.
Ready for Reformation by Tom Nettles. This small book demonstrates that while the recovery of inerrancy is essential to vital, biblical Christianity, it is not enough. We must also recover justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone and learn to live on that glorious revelation.
What is the Gospel by Greg Gilbert. This is another small book that simply sets forth the biblical definition of the gospel.
Nine Marks of a Healthy Church by Mark Dever. This book, which Crossway is developing into a small group Bible study curriculum, describes characteristics that are essential for a church as well as some that are extremely beneficial.
The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline by Jonathan Leeman. Leeman explains the Bible’s teachings about the nature of the church and what constitutes being included in a church (membership) as well as the expectations and requirements that the Lord of the church has placed on every local body that bears His Name.
On Earth as it Is in Heaven: Reclaiming Regenerate Church Membership by Wyman Richardson. This book shows how the Bible teaches that local churches are to be comprised exclusively of those who demonstrate the marks of spiritual birth. It includes helpful insights and examples from our Baptist heritage.
John Hammett’s Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches: A Contemporary Ecclesiology is a helpful introduction to Baptist church practice and polity.
God is the Gospel by John Piper. The goal of the gospel is to get us to God. Before and beyond everything else that the gospel provides for us is that it brings God to us and us to God. The good news is not simply forgiveness or new life or heaven, but God Himself being reconciled to us in Christ.
Him We Proclaim: Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures by Dennis Johnson. The point of the whole Bible is Christ. Therefore, to rightly preach any part of the Bible is to preach Christ. Failure to preach Christ from any passage of Scripture is failure to be faithful to the text. Johnson shows how this works.
4. Tell us about Founders Ministries.
Founders is a ministry that began 30 years ago with a desire to encourage the recovery of the gospel and the reformation of local churches. It was formed in the early years of the conservative resurgence by men who were very committed to recovery of inerrancy within the SBC. Those who have given leadership to the ministry recognized quite early in that battle that though inerrancy is essential to healthy Christianity, by itself it is insufficient to provide the kind of biblical reformation and revival that we desperately need. Founders began as an annual leadership conference that was called, “The Southern Baptist Conference on the Faith of the Founders” before being mercifully shortened to the “Founders Conference.” After other initiatives were added to our efforts we became known as “Founders Ministries.”
We take our name from the fact that the early leaders of the SBC understood the Bible to teach the same doctrines of grace in salvation that we affirm and were committed to the kind of healthy church life to which we aspire. Over the years we have helped reprint many of the most formative of the founders’ writings and have tried to call attention to the theological consensus that existed in the early decades of the convention–not because we are interested in winning historical arguments, but for the simple reason that if what our forefathers believed about God’s grace and the nature and purpose of the church was true in their day, it is still true today because truth does not change.
Over the years Founders has become involved in hosting conferences, producing a quarterly theological journal (the Founders Journal), publishing books (through Founders Press), providing online theological training (via the Founders Study Center), encouraging fellowship among pastors (through Founders Fraternals), and, most recently, through encouraging church planting in our newly launched church planting network called PLNTD. All of these ministries are accessible from our website (www.founders.org), which also contains a wealth of information including books, articles, blog posts, a ministers’ search section and weekly study notes for the adult Sunday School curricula that is produced by LifeWay.
5. Tell us about current and future resources provided by Founders Ministries.
We are working to provide resources for church planting through PLNTD with a view to encouraging churches, pastors and church planters of various degrees of experience. We are also continuing to add to the courses we offer through our Study Center, building on those that we have already developed that are taught by Tom Nettles, Mark Dever, J.I.Packer, Timothy George, Roger Nicole, A. N. Martin, Don Whitney and others. We are reprinting Curtis Vaughan’s Study Guides on various New Testament books in our Founders Study Guide series and have most recently published a festschrift in honor of Tom Nettles: Ministry By His Grace and for His Glory, edited by Nathan Finn and me. One of the most popular sets we have ever produced is our Truth and Grace Memory Books (1, 2, and 3), which incorporate age-appropriate catechisms with Scripture memory and the memorization of hymns for use in children’s classes and homes. We are currently working on a book that will respond to some of the recent attacks against Calvinism within the SBC and hope to have it off the press in the Spring of 2012.
Free Resources from Tom Ascol:
Books from Tom Ascol:
1. Ministry by His Grace and For His Glory: Essays in Honor of Thomas J. Nettles Edited by Tom Acsol and Nathan Finn
2. At the Pure Fountain of Thy Word: Andrew Fuller as an Apologist (Studies in Baptist History and Thought) by Michael A. G. Haykin and Tom Ascol
3. Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry Edited by Tom Ascol
4. Reclaiming the Gospel and Reforming Churches Edited by Tom Ascol
5. Truth and Grace Memory Books (1-3) by Tom Ascol
Dr. Ascol, thank you for taking the time to participate in this interview.