Don’t Just Stand There: Say Something

The Sin of Silence in a Time of Trouble

Alumni Memorial Chapel

August 20, 2013


The history and purpose of the academic convocation is explicitly Christian. There will be many institutions across this land and beyond that will hold a convocation ceremony such as this, but what will be absent will be the main reason for the very occasion itself in terms of its origin. The convocation — or gathering of the scholars — back in the medieval university was the gathering of the fellowship of fellow learners in the presence of God to pray for the Lord’s consecration upon the task of learning and upon the learners themselves.

There is a sense of continuing formality to much of higher education. But the formality in many cases is simply missing that which was most central. The unification of knowledge was represented by the unity of truth by the very name of the university as an institution. But we continue in that same line. We gather together because we know that education is one of the most precious gifts given to us; one of the most sacred responsibilities we see even revealed in Scripture; and yet one of the most dangerous enterprises that human beings can undertake. And we need divine guidance. We need the continual assurance of the Lord’s presence, and the always constant reminder of accountability to the one, true and living God.

This is my 21st fall convocation address at Southern Seminary, marking twenty years and beginning a third decade. And it is impossible to come to this sacred desk without the recognition at this moment that it is by the grace of God that we have come safely thus far; and that at one point I could hardly imagine being 20, not to mention being in one place for 20 years. And it is with unspeakable gratitude that I stand in this place where I officially received this charge, where I, along with so many of you, came and crossed this platform to receive a degree from this very same institution where I’ve stood since as thousands have crossed this platform to be sent out into the ministry and mission fields of the world.

There’s so much that is familiar here. The room looks very much the same. This is where you can come to the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Georgia. The actual building of the First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Ga., is no longer there, where it was on Peachtree Street. The pastor of that church, Dr. Ellis Fuller, was elected president of this institution. And he came, and having built that sanctuary in Atlanta, he liked it so much he decided to build it again here, right down to the details, including the baptistery. The only problem was they put the electrical fuse box in the baptistery, evidently not understanding the nature of a baptistery.

When I came here as a student, and when I graduated, this room — having been built at the end of World War II, when steel was still scarce — did not have air conditioning. One of the great achievements of the modern era at Southern Seminary is that we have air conditioning in this room, for which right now you should be exceedingly thankful. And if you are thankful in the congregation, imagine the faculty wearing bathrobes of tremendous warmth and insulating power, as we are here in our academic regalia.

I stand here and so much is the same. My dear wife and partner in this task, Mary, is where she sat 20 years ago — and has been there ever since. As for the rest of you, most of you are new. And you have no idea what a blessing that is to me and to Mary and to this faculty. And what a sign of hope you are for the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, and for the nations.

I stood here 20 years ago newly minted in office, and I understood then at least in part what the moment meant and what the moment required. It required a manifesto, a declaration of principles, a declaration, it seemed, of war. That was clear in my mind if in none other. The background was the crisis within the Southern Baptist Convention and the crisis within this institution. Much of the focus and the great controversy over the truth of God’s Word in our denomination was focused right here. This very place, indeed this very room, was in one sense ground zero. The issue was whether or not Southern Seminary would be accountable to the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and, in doing so, would be an explicitly confessional institution, as it had explicitly been established to be in 1859.

The seminary was at that point in the very position its founders had worked so hard to avoid and to prevent. I recognize that today I look out on a very different faculty and at a very different student body and at a very different time. Back in 1993, standing here with that responsibility, I delivered an address entitled, “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There.” As I acknowledged to them, I got the title from William F. Buckley Jr., whom I had heard say just a few weeks prior that he had heard the statement we all know, “Don’t just stand there: do something.” And he recognized that perhaps the bigger problem was we need to stop doing something and stand some place. And he chuckled and let it go; but it didn’t let me go. And I thought that’s exactly what this moment requires. Don’t just do something: stand there.

I spoke of Southern Seminary as a confessional institution. I told the story of James P. Boyce, and Basil Manly Jr., and William Williams, and John A. Broadus, and Basil Manly Sr. I held in my hands then the Abstract of Principles, which I signed at that moment publicly. And I reminded them of Dr. Boyce’s address and of the founding principles of this institution that every professor within the institution must sign to teach in accordance with and not contrary to all that is contained within our confession, the Abstract of Principles — and to do so without hesitation or mental reservation, and to do so without any private arrangement with the one who invests him in office — a faculty, not merely willing to teach these truths, but a faculty that would teach these truths even without the requirement of the confession. But the utility, indeed the necessity of the confession was made all too clear all too soon in the life of the institution — the requirement that every faculty member sign the Abstract of Principles, now also the Baptist Faith and Message. Remember the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 did not exist in 1993, for those of you who are following chronology. But to sign the Abstract of Principles then and to sign both documents now is a sacred moment and a sacred trust. And every professor in the institution had to sign that document. So what went awry?

What went wrong was the belief that had taken hold of the institution — not in 1993, but many years previously — that the confession was a historical document, a historical marker of what some Southern Baptists at some point had believed. And a right of private interpretation now allowed for not only very different interpretations of the document, but variant and conflicting interpretations of Scripture and theological pluralism that included theological aberrations that would not be tolerable to those who established this institution, and should not be tolerable to the churches who so generously fund it.

I set out those issues, explained the contents of the confession, reminded the congregation of the pledge that had been made, and then made clear that all who were plainly within the confession were free and welcome to stay. But no one whose beliefs and teachings fell outside of those boundaries could remain. I said then back in that address in 1993:


For faculty the Abstract is the charter to teach and the standard of confessional judgment. Southern Seminary is a confessional institution, a pre-committed institution. Teachers here should expose students to the full array of modern variance of thought related to their courses of study. But these options are not value-neutral. The standard of judgment is found within the parameters of the Abstract. In this charter is found the platform for true academic excellence where all fields of study are submitted to the most rigorous and analytical study. But also found here is the standard for confessional fidelity to the churches and to the denomination. For those fields and research are conducted by those who have established their own confessional commitment and who make these plain and evident to those who will come to study and to learn.

I went on to say:

But the importance and the impact of the Abstract of Principles and of Southern Seminary reaches much farther. We’ve arrived at a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches: a denomination once marked by intense theological commitment and a demonstrable theological consensus has seen that doctrinal unity pass into programmatic consciousness. We are in danger of losing our theological grammar and, more seriously by far, forfeiting our theological inheritance.

I said then:

This crisis far outweighs the controversy which has marked the Southern Baptist Convention for the last fourteen years. The controversy is a symptom rather than the root cause. As Southern Baptists, we are in danger of becoming God’s most unembarrassed pragmatists much more enamored with statistics than invested in theological substance. The Abstract is a reminder that we bear a responsibility to this great denomination whose name we so proudly bear as our own. We bear the collective responsibility to call this denomination back to itself and its doctrinal inheritance. This is a true reformation and revival only the sovereign God can accomplish, but we must strive to be acceptable and usable instruments of that renewal.

And then I said these words:

The Abstract represents a clarion call to start with conviction rather than mere action. It cries out, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” This reverses the conventional wisdom of the world, but it puts the emphasis rightly. Southern Baptists are much more feverishly concerned with doing than with believing. And thus our denominational soul is in jeopardy. This people of God must reclaim a theological tradition which understands all of our denominational activity to be founded on prior doctrinal commitments. This is true for the denomination at every level, and of the local churches as well.

That was 1993. Within less than a decade, the Southern Baptist Convention would revise its confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, and do what virtually no other denomination in the history of Christendom in the Western civilization has done. And that is to revise its confession in order to make it more conservative, more biblical and more orthodox rather than less so; to make it more comprehensive in the scope of its biblical expression and accountability than less so. In other words, Southern Baptists rose to the occasion and it did what other denominations had not done, and said, “We need to say more not less. We need to believe more not less. And we have learned by our own experience that what we need, in terms of truth, is always more and not less.”

And look what the Lord has done in raising up a generation. Just look around this room and realize how unprecedented this is. Realize that theological seminaries across this country are shutting their doors. Just last week one Baptist institution outside the Southern Baptist Convention sent an open letter to its own constituency, most importantly its own students, saying this would be the final year of its operation.

By God’s grace, look at this. How can we not be filled with joy and with a sense of incredible stewardship and responsibility to see what is happening here? A room that is more filled now than it was then. How that confounds the wisdom of the world, and scares not a few. I’m proud to be among people who are still vital and vigorous enough to scare somebody.

In 2003, 10 years later, through many dangerous toils and snares, I stood in this same place and began a second decade in office with an address delivered to a very different institution than I’d faced ten years earlier. We had survived a complete institutional transformation, one bought with great cost and undergone with great stress and travail. But on the other side, Southern Seminary was ready to grow and already growing, and ready to enter a decade of unparalleled expansion, growth, maturation, and energy. In my address that year, I reverted to the form of the expression that is more familiar and was then fitting: “Don’t Just Stand There: Do Something.” I spoke from John 9. And I said these words then:

Over the last 10 years, the Lord has shown his grace and mercy to this institution, never more powerfully than in the men and women who are seated here in the front rows of the chapel — the faculty of this institution. They understood what it means to join a confessional institution and to teach within the glad and joyful boundaries of an institution held to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want to communicate to you who are students [I said in 2003] that the privilege of studying with a faculty like this is simply priceless. I envy your opportunities. I encourage you to be a good steward of the learning you received from those whose determination is to be a good steward of the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

I said 10 years ago that our task was the recovery of truth and the happy science of theology; the recovery of the intellectual and spiritual and moral disciplines of the faith in a post-modern age; and the recovery of the Bible as the true and trustworthy word of God. That was 10 years ago, and the task continues now.

Everything I said then I now believe, not only as strongly as I did then, but far stronger, as tested by experience and by reflection through the caldron of the last decade. But then I ended with this question, “But what now?” That’s why I return to this place ten years later to ask, “But what now?”

So we arrive together in August of 2013 to another moment, another convocation of this seminary’s faculty and family and students and fellow learners — the students and faculty and leadership and larger family of Southern Seminary and Boyce College. And the question returns, “But what now?”

On my heart in 1993 was “Don’t Just Do Something: Stand There.” In 2003, “Don’t Just Stand There: Do Something.” But as I pondered the responsibility to come together in this occasion, I want to speak today on “Don’t Just Stand There: Say Something: The Sin of Silence in a Time of Trouble.” We know what we believe, that’s what we confess. We know what we must do, as the Lord himself has commissioned us. But may we be ever faithful to speak what we are commanded to speak.

My text comes from Ezekiel, chapter 3, verses 16-27. As we read in this familiar passage from this great prophet:

And at the end of seven days, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ and you give him no warning, nor speak to warn the wicked from his wicked way, in order to save his life, that wicked person shall die for his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. Again, if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and commits injustice, and I lay a stumbling block before him, he shall die. Because you have not warned him, he shall die for his sin, and his righteous deeds that he has done shall not be remembered, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the righteous person not to sin, and he does not sin, he shall surely live, because he took warning, and you will have delivered your soul.”

And the hand of the Lord was upon me there. And he said to me, “Arise, go out into the valley, and there I will speak with you.” So I arose and went out into the valley, and behold, the glory of the Lord stood there, like the glory that I had seen by the Chebar canal, and I fell on my face. But the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and he spoke with me and said to me, “Go, shut yourself within your house. And you, O son of man, behold, cords will be placed upon you, and you shall be bound with them, so that you cannot go out among the people. And I will make your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be mute and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house.

Ezekiel is easily the most colorful of the great prophets of Israel — quite frankly, the nightmare of any Southern Baptist pastor search committee. We would not know what to do with him were he to arrive among us. And if he did arrive among us he just might be to our eyes least likely to be invited to preach behind this pulpit. But how the Lord used him — he and the word pictures the Lord gave him — and the promise and need of a new covenant the Lord assured to him. And the fact that he himself became a living parable of all that God was speaking through him. The Lord shut this prophet up in his house and muted his voice until God sent him out to speak what the Lord would speak through his prophet.

The Lord himself made very clear as he called Ezekiel and gave him this commission, the stakes are high and the instruction is very clear. The portrait given to Ezekiel is a portrait we must hear and we must heed and we must own for our own time. It is the picture of the watchman on the wall. It’s easily understood. As the Lord said to Ezekiel, “I am setting you for Israel as a watchman on the wall. If I warn the wicked and you warn them and they hear you, if they do not heed you and they continue in their sin, they shall surely die but you will be innocent of their blood. On the other hand, if I tell you to warn them, and I declare to you to speak a message and you fail to give that message, like the watchman on the wall that fails to sound when the enemy approaches, they shall die but their blood shall be on your head.”

The Lord repeats the picture to him in a parallel structure. “If the righteous man who has done righteous deeds begins to sin and you warn him and he does not turn from his sin, he shall surely die. But if you do warn him, his blood will not be upon you, even as his righteous deeds are no longer remembered. But if he does not turn, he shall die. If he does turn, he shall live.”

We understand. Ezekiel’s task was to be innocent of the blood of all men by never failing to speak when the Lord would have him to speak — by not remaining silent as that watchman on the wall, but, rather, crying out the danger. A significant shift of responsibility is very clear in this picture, the shift of responsibility from the preacher — from the prophet — to those who hear. And the responsibility is massive. As God speaks to Ezekiel, he says, “Ezekiel, if you say what I tell you to say, then you will not bear responsibility for the disobedience of those who refuse to heed the message. But if you fail to say all that I say, exactly what I tell you to say, every time I tell you to speak, then blood will be on your heard and your hands.”

When the apostle Paul defended himself to the Ephesian elders, he reached all the way back to Ezekiel and he declared himself to be innocent of the blood of all men. Why? Because he had never failed at all times by all means to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to all within his hearing. As Paul made very clear in Romans, chapter 10, that requires words; the words require the delivery by a preacher; and the preacher requires having been called and having been sent. But it comes down to the responsibility to speak.

In Ecclesiastes, chapter 3, verse 7, we read of a time to keep silent and a time to speak. What then are the conditions for silence? The Scripture makes very clear two conditions in which silence is required. The first is when in the presence of the one true and living God. As Habakkuk writes in Habakkuk 2:20, “The Lord is in his holy temple, let all the earth keep silence before him.” Or in Zephaniah 1:7, “Be silent before the Lord God! For the day of the Lord is near.” We are silent when God is present; and when God is speaking our mandate then is to not speak, but silently to listen.

But there is a second biblical condition in which silence is mandatory, and that is when we do not know what to say because the knowledge is too far from us. As God spoke to Job, “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” We must never speak word without knowledge. Our task is not theological speculation. We are not called to doctrinal creativity. We are not summoned to invent a message. We neither invent nor market nor test this message, nor modify it. We receive it; and as we receive it, so we preach.

The conditions for silence are two: when God speaks, we listen; and when we don’t know what to say because the knowledge is too far from us, we don’t speak. But that means that the conditions for silence are few. Far more prevalent in Scripture is the display of the conditions for speech. The conditions that mandate that God’s messenger open his mouth and speak. God has not created us merely to listen, giving us ears, but has commissioned us to speak, giving us voice. He has revealed what we are to say, the words we are to speak. There’s a comprehensive deposit of truth that’s revealed to us in God’s inerrant, infallible word. And, thus, everything that is revealed in that word is what we know, and knowing it we are to speak it, we are to preach it, we are to teach it — neither minimize it by understatement, nor exceed it by overstatement.

God’s revealed what we are to say. His words are what we are to speak. The warning we are to deliver, the message we are to convey, we are called to be as Scripture describes us, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” We are called to speak that which has been revealed, to preach the word in season and out of season, and, as was true of Ezekiel, and was foreseen by Paul, we are living in a time that may well be described as increasingly out of season. Thus, we speak of the sin of silence in a time of trouble.

We’re living in one of the great transitional moments in human history, in Christian experience. We are witnessing a fundamental transformation of how the culture around us thinks, believes, feels and even experiences reality. Three decades ago, Allan Bloom described what he called “the closing of the American mind.” We are now experiencing the closing of ears and the hardening of hearts to the message we are called to preach and the truth we are commissioned to tell. As has always been the case, gospel ministers get in trouble with the world for speaking when the world would prefer or even demand that we be silent. But this passage from Ezekiel reminds us that gospel ministers get in trouble with God for remaining silent, when he has commanded us to speak.

As the passage we read together from Ezekiel 3 makes very clear, we will be in trouble with someone. So let us choose this day those with whom we shall have trouble. The world says, “Remain silent,” and God says, “Speak.” We’ll be in trouble with the world for speaking, but we will be in eternal trouble, indeed, judgment of God, if we fail to speak. So choose ye this day which trouble you shall seek, for that trouble shall surely seek you.

You who represent this generation of God-called ministers, the generation now arriving on the scene, you must know that the scene is quickly changing. I look back 20 years; it’s changed in so many ways. Twenty years ago we did not have a webpage and we did not know we would one day have one. We had no idea what a Web page was. We were one of the first institutions of higher learning that had a web page, and it is a glorious embarrassment to us now. It’s archived. And someone recently put up that web page and it looks like a four-year-old did it. How the world has been transformed. We worked with archaic materials back then called cassette tapes and video cassettes and thought we were up to date. No one had a phone that wasn’t dumb. It was a very different age.

But the change in technology is far exceeded by the change in the way that culture thinks and intuits and believes. The worldview shift around us is far more significant. And even though invisible to so many, it is far more determinative of the future as well as of the present than the technological change that everyone notes around us. Threats of hate speech and open threats to religious liberty are now part of our cultural conversation. Ministers in Europe have been arrested for preaching the gospel and specifying sin, while believers in other nations, including Canada, have been cited merely for a public reference to a biblical text. This is not an untroubled time, and trouble’s coming fast. My call today is not to a new belligerence or to a posture of defensiveness. My concern today is not the culture, nor even how we would respond to the culture, nor how the culture will respond to us. My concern is the mandate given to us by God, and my concern is the church.

Will we speak? The increasingly secular culture of the West, and specifically of the United States, is poised to present the seriously Christian minister with serious challenges. And challenges bring temptations. One of the greatest of these temptations will be to remain silent. This temptation can come in many forms: intimidation, outright demand, the requirement of payment of social capital and the recognition that to speak can be very expensive and often divisive. And the temptation comes to us to avoid risk. Preachers and other Christian truth-tellers are tempted to avoid any risk by being caught with our mouths open; safer to keep our mouths shut, even when we know we should speak.

We are tempted to come very close to saying something when we actually know what to say. We are tempted to speak in terms that will be better received, we believe, than the terms of the gospel that Scripture require. We are tempted to lower our voice when we should raise it, and to raise our voice when it should be lowered. The truth dies a thousand deaths of equivocation and is buried in a grave of evasion. But as God said to Ezekiel, then the people perish.

We have some concern with the future of the culture, the future of our civilization, most importantly because it is the cradle of the people who populate this culture and who populate this civilization. But at the end of the day, we’re the people who must look each other in the eye and say, “We remember how this story ends.” Not one civilization shall survive. Not one civilization shall deliver on eternal promises. All civilizations, like all empires and all kingdoms, will one day be residue in the dust. We do not hope that’s soon for this culture. We do not hope that’s soon for this civilization. Because we believe that even in this troubled age there are values and truths that continue even if sublimated and submerged and even if outright rejected. The continuation of those values is not without benefit. The continuation of that witness to that truth is not without blessing. And yet, we can invest no long-term hope in a short-term civilization.

Our message is eternal, and we recognize that the stakes, the realities we face, are eternal. The decisions in terms of the response to God’s truth are always with eternal consequence. The hope we preach and the hope we pray and the hope we convey is not a temporary hope for this time only — for that the Apostle Paul said we should be most pitied — but for all eternity.

To fail to say something or to be silent in the time of trouble is sin. And yet, the temptation to sin is ever so present amongst us, and increasingly so in this sense because it costs more to speak the truth. It will cost more every year to bear witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ — to the exclusivity of that gospel — as a radical cause of outrage in this culture, to the moral teachings of God’s Word.

And as we are together this day, let us look each other in the eye and remind one another that the moral mandates of God’s Word, the statutes and the commandments and the principles, they are there for two reasons at least as we recognize in this sense. The first is that we would know what is right and what will lead to human flourishing. The second is so that we will know that we are sinners desperately in need of a savior. If we fail to call sin, “sin” — if we fail rightly and accurately and openly, even if expensively, even if boldly, even if now required to be courageous, to declare what God declares to be sin — then people will not know that they are sinners, and they will not know of their need for a Savior, and they will die in their sins. This is not merely about some cultural conflict over moral questions; it is about an eternal conflict over the souls of men and women. Nothing less is at stake.

The law, for us, continues as the law instructs the church in terms of how we glorify God as God’s redeemed people. But we need to recognize that when we talk about the language which we cannot avoid, the language of sin, the language of commandment, the language of righteousness and justice, of right and wrong,and when we speak of the unity of those things in God himself — where the good, the beautiful, the true are united eternally in the only one who is good, the only one who is beautiful, and the only one who is true — to fail to bear witness as we are called to bear witness will mean death rather than life. And as God said to Ezekiel, “the blood will be on your head.”

The church was born in trouble, and, come to think of it, the apostles faced the command to say something in their own time of trouble. In Acts, chapter 4, verses 16-20, we read of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin, when the Sanhedrin asked:

“What shall we do with these men? For that a notable sign has been performed through them is evident to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name.” So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.

And how did Peter and John answer? “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”

It was trouble from the beginning. And, you know, if the gospel is really understood as the gospel, it’s been trouble all along because it upsets kingdoms and undermines civilizations, calling us to that which is greater and more enduring. So we cannot but speak. We cannot but do. We cannot but stand. Don’t just do something: stand there. Don’t just stand there: do something. But don’t just stand there and do something: say something.

I speak these words to myself as I speak them to you. Together may we be determined never to remain silent when we are called and commissioned and given opportunity to speak. May we end our days free and innocent of the blood of all men. May Southern Seminary and the Southern Baptist Convention and all of God’s people learn new skills of truth-telling — and draw courage to speak the truth in love and the resolve to speak as best we know in the time we are given to the people whose eternal destiny may well hang, even as we face them, in the balance.

There is, as Ecclesiastes reminds us, a time to keep silent and a time to speak. May we know the difference, and not sin. May others hear and live. May all of us gather here together as fellow learners, together in this task of consecrated Christian scholarship. May we learn together — every moment, every test, every paper, every class, every course, every academic year — how more accurately and truthfully to speak what we know we must speak.

And now my prayer for us all as we inaugurate this new year of study and learning and scholarship and mission and evangelism and life and fellowship and ministry together — as I look out at you with incalculable joy: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”