The Danger of an Unconverted Church?

pharisee and tax collector 
In 1740 New Sider Gilbert Tennent preached the notorious sermon entitled “The Danger of an Unconverted Ministry.” The gist was that any who had the audacity to question the New Side were not just misguided, under-tutored or even wrong. They were, in fact, unconverted. He eventually repented of the low-ball of desperation. Doubtless, though, he likely scaled back his indictment to match what the Old Lights had said of his side: wrong.

At Reformation21 Phil Ryken relays the take John Piper has on the phrase “born again” and why someone needs to, evidently, step up to the plate and get everything cleared up. Thus, per Ryken, Piper writes:

“When the Barna Group uses the term ‘born again’ to describe American church-goers whose lives are indistinguishable from the world, and who sin as much as the world, and sacrifice for others as little as the world, and embrace injustice as readily as the world, and covet things as greedily as the world, and enjoy God-ignoring entertainment as enthusiastically as the world — when the term ‘born again’ is used to describe these professing Christians, the Barna Group is making a profound mistake.

What the research shows instead, according to Piper, “is not that born-again people are permeated with worldliness,” but “that the church is permeated by people who are not born again.” 

Does the spirit of Tennent live on, now with an eye toward the sheep instead of the shepherds?

What is curiously absent Piper’s analysis is the notion that “born-again-ism” has a lot less to do with the alleged antinomianism (which proves degeneracy) of certain folk and instead more to do with an accent placed heavily upon inward experience. But he seems to want to go with the former.

This kind of thing seems ubiquitous and quite popular.  One sees it all the time, the idea that ours is an age that would “make Babylon blush.” And to some extent I get it. I watch TV, too. But why does it always seem that when the trigger is pulled on social/cultural/religious critique the chosen target is always how “seedy” we all are with the implication to “do better”? Given that the Pauline antithesis is this age/next age it would seem that we might have just as much chance at misguided virtue as natural vice. This tendency to call into question the alleged antinomianism of certain folks, after a while, begins to look a lot like the stuff of urban legend because it’s actually much easier to find legalists than antinomians. After all, human beings were originally made for law. It’s not only in our nurture but quite in our nature. We come by it honestly enough. Recall that Eve was our first legalist. She could have done lots of things with the fruit, up to and including bringing it home and placing it on her mantle as a conversation starter. But in responding to the serpent’s bidding she added to God’s law by saying something about not being able to touch it. God never said that. Could it be that to make “born-again-ism” turn on behaviorism instead of experientialism is a signal that what is roaming the earth seeking whom it may devour is actually what prompted Eve to initiate the “don’t handle, don’t touch” rule?

If what is supposed to distinguish believers from non- is that the former are somehow appreciably less given to greed, lust, injustice, coveting and all the rest along come our confessions:

• Belgic Confession

Art. 24: “…we can do no work but what is polluted by our flesh, and also punishable; and although we could perform such works, still the remembrance of one sin is sufficient to make God reject them.”
• Westminster Confession of Faith

13,2 “This sanctification is throughout, in the whole man; yet imperfect in this life, there abiding still some remnants of corruption in every part….”

16,2 “These good works, done in obedience to God’s commandments, are the fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith….”

16,5 “…and as they [good works] are wrought by us, they are defiled, and mixed with so much weakness and imperfection, that they cannot endure the severity of God’s judgment.”
• Westminster Larger Catechism

Q and A 78: “…their [believers’] best works are imperfect and defiled in the sight of God.”

• Heidelberg Catechism

Q and A 62: “…the righteousness which can stand before the tribunal of God must be absolutely perfect and wholly conformable to the divine law, while even our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin.”

Q and A 114: “…even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience….”

It would seem to me that, if our confessions are right, there isn’t a whole lot to brag about, and the proposed template for distinction begins to diminish hand over fist. It appears that we should expect to be more sinful than not, even those we might think are the holiest of us and those works we would dare call our “best.” Why do I get the feeling with Piper that classes of believers are about to be arranged, those who are carnal and those who are top-flight?

As tempting as Piper’s implication is, it may actually be that what distinguishes believer from non- is that the former heed word and take sacrament which affirm time and again that we are finally no different from the pagan but that only there by the grace of God go we.

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34 Responses to The Danger of an Unconverted Church?

  1. mboss says:


    When I read Piper’s Desiring God a couple years ago, it caused me more angst than comfort, which might have been Piper’s goal, I don’t know. I agreed with the premise, but quickly realized that most of the time I don’t desire God the way the Bible commands me to. I look at my life and see as much sin as “victory” or “desire.” I think many others had the same reaction, which prompted Piper to write a follow-up book titled something like – When I Don’t Desire God.

    I had a similar feeling when I read Don’t Waste Your Life. I understood the premise – don’t spend your time doing trivial stuff that won’t count for Christ, but I sensed an unacknowledged moralism – it’s wrong to retire, to vacation in Florida, to play golf, to collect shells. Piper wrote something like “What would we say when we stand before Jesus and all we have is our shell collection.” How does that question mesh with Luther’s answer to the question “What would you do if you knew Jesus was returning tomorrow?” – “I’d plant a tree.”

    I don’t want to mischaracterize Piper, but at times when I listen to his sermons or read his books, he can move into the legalism you describe or intense personal experience.

    The more I’ve thought things through and read the confessions, I think the answer is thankfully much simpler – confess, believe, trust in Christ, attend to the means of grace.


  2. Zrim, you can’t say these things about John Piper. I’m not sure if you’re saved….

    Seriously, excellent and thought provoking stuff.

  3. Zrim says:


    I don’t think there is anything wrong with being found with some shells in your hand, as long as the other has bread in it. In fact, if I understand Luther, that may be exactly what is expected.



  4. Joy says:


    Have you listened to the latest White Horse Inn? The talk was on how Paul addressed the antinomianism of the Corinthian church. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that Piper’s statement is contradicting Paul and what the WHI guys were saying.

  5. Zrim says:


    I finally got a minute today to listen (and decided to check in here as I was).

    I was going to try and protect Piper somewhat. But I think you’re onto something: where Paul takes the indicative/imperative posture, Piper seems to take the reverse–imperative…hmmm, is there any indicative?

    But I still take some exception to the assumption that licentiousness abounds the way Piper suggests and the way many seem to affirm. I realize it certainly exists both within and without the church; but the problem to my mind isn’t so much that believers are sinful (or, worse, unconverted!) so much as they are just plain ignorant of or wrong about the gospel. Paul can take a lot things (Corinth), but don’t get the gospel wrong (Galatians).

  6. Joy says:

    Yeah, I agree with you about the way some Christian leaders have blown things out of proportion. So the pagan culture abuses sex and substance … what else is new?

    I want to read Piper’s new book now, though. I really hope it’s just a quote taken out of context and I’m misunderstanding him.
    (I’m not sure what indicative/ imperative means… law/gospel? )

    Thanks for the distinction… it helps clarify alot.

  7. Whiskeyjack says:

    It always seemed to me that Piper’s “Christian Hedonism” caused him to inflate the extent of decadence within the church. The passion that Piper lays down for the believer to strive after in order to live up to the moniker of Christian or born-again-believer I think is more related to his own strengths and weakness as both a man and a Christian than any biblical mandate. And though I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he is a crypto-keswickian, I would hazard to say that he has a vision of the church which is filled with people who are less than their more zealous neighbors and consequently not worthy of the label of “born-again-believers.” And in doing so he also makes the “witness” of a persons christian experience of more efficacy than the verbal testimony of the Gospel. In short, how we fail becomes more important than how he did not.

    And I agree with the sentiment that within the general church community the mood always seems a apocalyptic, that the world has never seen such wickedness before, the world is doomed and we are about to be rounded up by the men in the black helicopters.

  8. Zrim says:


    I’m not sure what indicative/ imperative means… law/gospel?

    You’re on the right track, yes. Indicative is “You belong to Christ,” imperative is, “Therefore, live like it.”


    I think you basically have Piper’s number. I agree, crypto-Keswickian isn’t charitable. He’s more a “the 1GA was mainly a good thing” kind of guy. I’m more a “Harry Stout has Whitefield’s number” sort.

  9. D G Hart says:

    The problem goes deeper. Celebrity pastors are not really pastors, that is shepherds who herd the flock. The scale of the church necessary to sustain a pastoral uber-star requires that the pastor cannot visit, catechize, or disciple the families in his charge (not to mention the singles, who may not be divorced but are really licentiious – harrumph). I’m not saying that God’s people want pastoral oversight. Chances are, we all want to be left alone so we can all get along. But I wonder if instead of complaining about born-again Christians’ performance, pastors would be better off working in and with those sheep God has given to them.

  10. sean says:

    Yeesh, Leave it to Hart to steal my thunder.

    If intense experientialism and enormous congregations isn’t a root cause of carnal corruption within the body, I’ll eat my hat. Bury me in the midst of a few thousand people and watch the anonymity of such a setup let me get away with a few things if I’m so inclined. Not to mention, the elevation of sincerity and intention as gateways to entrance.

  11. Zrim says:


    Get out of my head.

  12. RubeRad says:

    I hate to befoul the Outhouse with my “legalism” (relatively speaking), but I can’t get away from the notion that sanctification, while never perfect or complete in this life, has to be somehow real. Maybe the point is not to quantify the sanctity of believers vs. unbelievers, but to consider what any given believer (i.e. not him, but YOU) would be like if he did not benefit from the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as mediated through word and sacrament? Which of course is not as easy to “measure”, and offers less potential for smug self-satisfaction.

    But perhaps one reason any snapshot of God’s saints-in-progress looks about as sinful as the rest of the world, is that God’s elect are a “more sinful” bunch to begin with? After all, it is the sick who need a doctor; those with relatively tranquil and law-abiding outer lives are (like rich men pushing their camels through needle-eyes) less likely to see their need for a saviour.

  13. sean says:

    Rube, you did answer your own dilemma, no?

    To further complicate the answer, it’s not just a question of “progress” but the “how” of the progress, lest as has been pointed to by my betters, we’ve simply exchanged one sin (animal) for another (diabolical). In other words if you exchange lust for pride, it’s very likely your later state is worse than your former.

  14. Zrim says:


    …I can’t get away from the notion that sanctification, while never perfect or complete in this life, has to be somehow real.

    I can’t away from that either, that is, that sanctifcation is real, because it is.

    But you bring up word and sacrament, which is helpful. If Christ’s presence is both spiritual and real, why might not we be able to say the same about our sanctification if our sanctification is indeed sealed in said sacraments?

    It seems to me that our sanctification, like Christ’s presence, is more mysterious and unseen and therefore not immediately grasped. And the idea that our sanctification has to have some immediately known and seen effect (otherwise it is an under-realized notion of sanctification) seems similar to saying that the claim that Jesus is at once fully and spiritually present in the sacrament and fully and bodily present at the right hand of the Father is to tear asunder his person (therefore, he is fully and bodily present).

    I can’t get away from the idea that to make Christ fully and bodily present is to go into heaven and bring him down. In the same way, I can’t get away from the idea that to make our sanctification more readily and immediately known is to (i.e. give it cash value) trifle with the doctrine of total depravity and original sin. And in both instances, I also can’t get away from the implication that living by faith is not enough and that some sight is still being demanded.

  15. mboss says:


    My wife and I have discussed which letter in “TULIP” is the “most important.” I gravitated to the “L”, but my wife has insisted on the “T.” And this type of discussion helps prove why I think she’s right. We don’t take our sin seriously enough and we don’t realize its devastating effects on the person and the creation. It leads directly to our view of Christ. When we don’t rely on Christ completely for our right standing before God (or treat him more like a help rather than a savior), we get things all fouled up, which includes trivializing sanctification. As you note, Paul’s treatment of the Corinthians versus the Galatians is quite telling.


  16. Zrim says:


    I’m not much for playing “she loves me” with TULIP, but, I agree, your wife is onto something, namely that we don’t seem to have nearly a high enough doctrine of sin.

  17. mboss says:

    TULIP is good shorthand sometimes, though.

  18. Zrim says:


    Agreed. And women God puts here with us (AKA “wives”) have ways of giving perspective.

  19. Bryan Peters says:

    Isn’t there a danger of forgetting the following?

    “As for those who can belong to the church, we can recognize them by the distinguishing marks of Christians: namely by faith, and by their fleeing from sin and pursuing righteousness, once they have received the one and only Savior, Jesus Christ. They love the true God and their neighbors, without turning to the right or left, and they crucify the flesh and its works. Though great weakness remains in them, they fight against it by the Spirit all the days of their lives, appealing constantly to the blood, suffering, death, and obedience of the Lord Jesus, in whom they have forgiveness of their sins, through faith in him.”
    Belgic Confession Article 29

    It would seem that a Christian may indeed be distinguished on days other than the Lord’s Day. I feel as though this conversation may be emphasizing that “great weakness remains in them” to the point that a valid distinction is swallowed up. If there is no distinction in holy living whatsoever, then what is the point of church discipline? I don’t want to lose the fullness of the “double benefit” that Christ bought.

  20. Zrim says:


    Fair points.

    1. Something tells me that Piper does not have in mind, though, Belgic 29 which is really not so much a description of how we shall be able to recognize the individual but how we discern the true church.

    2. While it might seem that way, it isn’t so much my intention to swallow up the distinctions as it is to gain a better perspective on them. The believer may indeed be distinguished in his six days, but the accent on the Lord’s Day is still a much superior template. Whether or not believers out pace pagans in apparent goodness they still show up as sinners to receive word and sacrament, something pagans do not do. And, it seems to me, likely only those who bear the marks Belgic 29 is describing pursue the Sabbath. What would you make of those who claim those traits but wane to lesser or greater degrees on Sabbath observance?

  21. GAS says:


    Good post. Having wondered the earth through baptistic Churches I will agree that behaviorism is the element that is most emphasized. Even in the YRR Church I attend the YRR pastor still has a tendency toward behaviorism.

    Of course I can’t follow you all the way. As some others have pointed out your proof-texting of confessional statements misses the spirit of the confessions.

    Now I must chide you:

    “the Pauline antithesis is this age/next age”

    You’ve been reading way too many Presbyterians. Repent and read some more Van Til.

  22. Bryan Peters says:


    1. I do agree that Piper (and other baptistic/pietistic pastors) demonstrates a dangerous neglect of the centrality of Word and Sacrament ministry and tendency towards “behaviorism.”

    2. I also agree that the Lord’s Day service is the ultimate distinction since we are rotten, messed up sinners. In good Reformed fashion, we are marked above all by what we receive, not do.

    And, yes, rotten sinners are marked by their thankful rest and reception of Word and Sacrament on the Lord’s Sabbath. Piper adds to God’s 7th Commandment, but neglects the 4th. Those who claim to be God’s people must also claim His holy day.

  23. Zrim says:

    Now I must chide you…“the Pauline antithesis is this age/next age”…You’ve been reading way too many Presbyterians. Repent and read some more Van Til.

    Duly noted and anticipated. But I see no reason why the Creator/creature antithesis cannot abide a “this age/next age” antithesis. That plus a thesis of antithesis which leads to certain illiberal views on cultural projects like day schooling is too suspect to my mind.

  24. GAS says:


    It was not the Creator/creature distinction I was referring to. Instead it was the revolutionary/anti-revolutionary antithesis which leads to certain anti-revolutionary views on cultural projects like day schooling.

  25. Zrim says:


    Ah. Then count me skeptical of the revolutionary/anti-revolutionary antithesis.

  26. GAS says:

    Can I get you to buy into the autonomous/derivative antithesis? 😉

    BTW, the Feeding on Christ blog latest post on Bavinck deals directly with these different perspectives within the Reformed Churches.

  27. mboss says:

    Yes, I appreciate the wifely perspectives, and she appreciates giving them.

  28. Caroline says:

    The teaching of Calvin from Chapter 17 of his 1539 Institutes beautifully anthologized by Ford Lewis Battles:

    Here I must address my words to those
    Who of Christ have naught but title,
    Yet wish to be considered Christians.
    How shameless indeed are they to boast
    About His sacred name
    When no one has anything to do with Him
    Save one who by the gospel word
    Knows Him in truth!
    But St. Paul denies any man has received
    True knowledge of Him
    Save him who has set out
    “To put off the old man corrupt
    In disordered desires,” to be clad
    With Christ.
    Under false banners, then, it seems,
    Such people pretend to know the Christ.
    Great injury to Him they do in this,
    Whatever they may babble on their tongues.
    No doctrine of tongue the gospel is,
    But of life itself;
    Not to be grasped in understanding and memory only
    As other disciplines are, it must
    Entirely grip the soul;
    Must have its seat and dwelling
    Deep in the heart –
    Else it has not been in truth received.
    Well, then, let them stop boasting
    Of what they’re not,
    Or sow themselves disciples
    Of the Christ.

    To this doctrine wherein our religion is contained
    We have given first place,
    Because here our salvation begins.
    But to make itself useful and fruitful
    It must reach the inmost recess of our heart
    And show its power in our life –
    Even transform us into its nature.

    Rightly the philosophers rage against those
    Who profess their art, which should be
    The mistress of life, yet turn it
    Into sophistical chatter.
    With even better reason we detest those chatterers
    Who are content to roll the gospel
    On tip of tongue, yet misprize it
    In their whole life!
    For its workings ought to penetrate
    The deepest heart, be rooted in the soul –
    A hundred thousand times more
    Than all philosophic exhortings
    With their puny power!

    I do not require that the morals of the Christian man
    Be pure and perfect gospel (although
    Such consummation is to be desired
    And striven for).
    No, I do not require so strictly,
    So rigorously, a Christian perfection
    That I would recognize as Christian
    Only him who has attained it.
    For thus measured, all human beings
    Would be excluded from the church,
    Since one will not find any of them
    Not still far removed.
    Although he has profited greatly,
    The majority has still scarcely advanced at all.

    What then? We must surely have this end
    Before our eyes to which our every act
    Is aimed: to strive toward the perfection
    The Lord requires of us. Necessary it is,
    I say, to strive and to aspire to reach it.
    Not lawful for us is it to divide
    Things with God so as to receive
    A part of what He has required of us
    In His Word, leaving the rest behind
    According to our fancy. For always
    Chiefly He requires of us
    Uprightness. This means a pure simplicity
    Of heart: devoid, free, of all feigning,
    The opposite of double-mindedness,
    But while we dwell
    In this earthly prison, none of us
    Is strong and determined enough to hasten
    On this path with the eagerness he ought;
    In fact the greater part of us is so weak and feeble
    As to waver and limp and be unable
    Much to advance.

    So let us each one go at his feeble pace,
    Not ceasing to pursue the journey once begun.
    None will so feebly journey as not to advance
    Some little daily, to reach his homeland.
    Let us then not cease to strive thither
    That we progress unceasingly
    In the Lord’s way.
    Let us not lose courage even though
    Our progress is but slight.
    For even though the actuality may not correspond
    To our desire, when today outstrips
    Yesterday, all is not lost.
    Only let us look with pure and true simplicity
    Toward our goal; let us strive
    To reach our end, not fondly puffing up ourselves
    With vain adulation, not excusing our vices.
    Let us strive unceasingly to make
    Ourselves become from day to day
    Better than we are, until we reach
    The Sovran goodness, which throughout our lives
    We’ve sought and followed, to grasp it
    When, freed of the weakness of our flesh,
    We shall become full participants in it,
    When God receives us into His fellowship.

    — From The Piety of John Calvin an Anthology Illustrative of the Spirituality of the Reformer Translated and edited by Ford Lewis Battles, Baker Book House Company, 1978, pp. 54-55.

  29. Zrim says:


    I’m not one given to outbursts, but, Amen!, pastor Calvin, and Hallelujah!

    Calvin is the Reformed Shakespeare. Thanks for that.

  30. Daniel says:

    Did I miss it? Am I the first person to point out the irony of Piper’s book being advertised on D G Hart’s blog?

  31. John R. says:

    I too love the Calvin quote. But regarding the “amen,” Calvin sounds much more to my ear to be saying what Piper is saying than what you are saying.

  32. Zrim says:


    I suppose it depends on what sort of ear one has. But since Calvin was no New School celebrity pastor who appealed to the felt needs of the “masses,” I think the Old School ear is likely more attuned.

    To a larger point in the post-proper that distinctions between believers and non- are more diminished wrt outward things and actually more pronounced wrt to inward realities, it ocurrs to me that Jacob and Esau were twins. Hmmmm.

  33. Timothy M says:

    It seems the New Light infiltration of Presbyterianism continues as Mark Dever’s less than Reformed understanding of the marks of a healthy church enters the PCA:

    I guess we need to add a whole host of things beside Word, Sacrament, and discipline to have a good, converted church.

  34. Zrim says:


    Only six more things (to get to nine). I know that some people would call that triplicate but they’re such grumpies.

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