Robert Smith Jr.: Rooted in the Gospel

Robert Smith Jr. is a retired professor of Christian preaching at Beeson Divinity School who served for more than 25 years and held the Charles T. Carter Baptist Chair of Divinity. Previously he served as the Carl E. Bates Associate Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is a popular and respected preacher and was a main stage speaker at the 2023 Amplify Conference.

In the following interview, we discuss his long career in Christian ministry and mentoring and teaching future church leaders, intercultural ministry, and his thoughts on how to keep our vigor for evangelism fresh.

When you think about evangelism today, what comes to your mind?

I’m thinking about Ray Stedman, who said years ago that the New Testament is not 20 centuries old, the New Testament is one century old, repeated for 20 centuries.

Wow.

So the same challenges in the first century exist in the 21st century. And the only remedy that will convert and holistically minister to the problems of the 21st century is what was used in the first century: the gospel. These men have come to turn the world upside down. And that really is a compliment for the preaching in the day of Peter and the apostles and Paul, etc. We don’t need to adjust the gospel. We need to trust the gospel. The gospel does not need adjusting at all. It needs trusting.

We can have innovative ideas, but their foundations must be rooted in the gospel. Always [adjusting] techniques, approaches, but the foundation is in the gospel. Otherwise, we continue to try to stay relevant without the revelation of the gospel. That means we’re powerless.

Relevance without revelation is meaningless. It’s just another program. But relevance based upon the revelation of Scripture, of Christ, the incarnate Word that is being pointed to by the written Word, the Bible, and pointed to by the spoken word, the gospel. That’s it. The gospel testifies that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. That’s the only message that we have. And that’s the only message that’s going to be effective.

Yeah. I love that. That’s just beautiful. And it’s a good reminder, especially for all of us in a younger generation. In your tenure as a pastor, how have you had to adapt the way that you deliver the message? Or has it stayed pretty consistent and people across generations respond to it in the same way?

Well, I’m an old man. I am rooted in the gospel, but not restricted in the presentation of it.

So I’m into a non-restriction in terms of different forms and approaches as long as the approach again is rooted in the gospel.

For instance, I had the privilege years ago of being the pastor of the Native American camp at Falls Creek camp in Oklahoma—a very large group. I went there. And for that week, my wife and I ministered to them. She met with the women, taught, etc. I made the mistake—this was years ago—of using illustrations out of my tradition, out of my experience. I did not refer to their leaders, their heroes, their theologians, their churchmen, etc. I just talked about my Baptist tradition, Black and white experience, since my ministry has been a ministry that has been cross-cultural. And the Lord blessed [the message], but some of the leaders who love me told me that the messages would have been received more convincingly had I known their heroes and their heroines and their theologians.

They invited me back the next year and I told it different. I knew their heroes. I knew where they were. I gave illustrations out of their traditions. So even though technology didn’t enter into it, my approach was that of Paul, who when he went to Athens he quoted from their poets. He says, “Some of your poets have said …” referring to in him we live, move and have our being.

So, I think it’s that we need to be able to help people to identify with the scriptural character. We need to be able to find a place of residence in their own community and context so that, in essence, we hold up a mirror and they see themselves in Scripture or they see themselves in different traditions, because we grapple with the same thing and the only answer permanently is Christ. Christ is the only Savior for sinners.

Throughout my ministry I’ve had to make those kinds of adjustments, and they have been made because I recognized that I was insufficient in some things as far as approach—not the theology, not the depth of Scripture, none of that—but how can I get the gift horse, the Trojan horse, inside of the city and then open up the hatch and let out the soldiers and be victorious there.

How does Nathan differ from John the Baptist? Both of them have kings who have committed adultery. John the Baptist is deductive and tells Herod Antipas deductively, “It’s not right for you to have your brother’s wife—Philip’s wife.” Nathan tells David a story, and David doesn’t even know Nathan is referring to him until he finally says, “You are the man.” His proposition is at the end. John the Baptist’s proposition is at the beginning. Same message: breaking of the commandment of God, thou shalt not commit adultery. I think we need to be able to be versatile in our approaches of sharing the same message.

So you have mentored a lot of preachers in your years. What are some of the ways that you encourage them and help them to understand what preaching the gospel looks like in their context?

Well, I want them to know that the gospel is for both sides of town. Both sides. Not just the side that I live in and people who look like me … no. Any gospel that is so isolated that it can only be preached on one side of town cannot be the gospel. The gospel is for the whole world, is the whole council of God for the wholeness of people.

So, I say to them that this whole council of God is that broad and overarching concept that unites and ties together every passage of Scripture so that it relates to the overall plan and comprehensive purpose of God revealed in the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit in order to—and this is the key—in order to magnify Jesus Christ. Ultimately, that’s it. So I drive that.

One of our deficits in preaching is that we are too binary in the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit may get an honorable mention, or maybe a footnote, but the role of the Spirit in the godhead is often neglected.

So, there is intertrinitarian presence, it’s grace-driven, it’s Christocentric. Those are the basic elements of the gospel that I am presenting and encouraging them to become a part of their presentation, even to the point that they’re doing it without thinking about it. Like riding a bike or driving a car, it’s in their DNA.

Dechurching is a trend that a lot of church leaders have been looking into. Some of them wringing their hands over it, trying to figure out what’s at the core of it. What do you feel like is going on? Is this just a cycle with periods of darkness and then periods of renewal? Or is there something about the way that we’re presenting the gospel that is just not ringing true to our generation?

Well, we should not be surprised about dechurching. Not that we’re encouraged, but in the last days there will be a great falling away. And that’s happening. But why? I don’t think that people are mad at Jesus or disappointed in Jesus. I think they’re disappointed in his body, in the church, religion, traditionalism. I think that’s what it is. And they’re searching for something that is vivacious, not so much aesthetic, looking beautiful, well-organized and all of that, but something that has life in it.

I think we, in too many instances, resemble a dead and yet living Lazarus. Lazarus is called from the grave: “Lazarus come forth,” Jesus says in John 11. And Lazarus comes forth and he’s alive, but yet he is wrapped up in dead men’s clothes. He has no mobility. He has no vivacity. There is nothing there. He has a form, but he is denied the power because he’s wrapped up like a mummy. And until Jesus gives the command to loose him and let him go—and Lazarus comes skipping across the Bethany cemetery like a schoolboy on the college campus—until that happens, all you have is a form. There’s life there, but there is not freedom. There needs to be more freedom. When I say freedom, I’m talking about freedom in Christ to not allow traditionalism to form us.

The church doesn’t need to be uniform. The church needs to be unified. You and I, Jonathan, are different. You don’t need to be like me, and I don’t need to be like you so that we are uniform. We need to be unified in Christ so that there can be unity in the midst of our diversity, because that’s the way it’s gonna be eschatologically. People from every nation, tribe, kingdom, tongue—that’s unity in the midst of diversity.

The church is to be a city that’s set on a hill that cannot be hid. So when people see us, My, how they love one another, I mean, real love, they’re drawn by that.

How do you keep evangelism a priority in your life?

I have the privilege of being with students, not only in a group gathering, but one-on-one. And we talk and we pray and we cry and we reflect on what God has, in Christ, done for us. That keeps my soul burning. And it’s the intimate times that drive me when it comes to evangelism to others. I just think we need to be around people. I know every day will not be a day where you feel like saying when you get up in the morning, “Let’s go. Let’s do it today.” You don’t feel that way. But eventually, this is not driven by feeling. It’s driven by fact. The fact that Jesus has has died to save sinners, of which I am the chief. That’s what drives me.

Any person who lives in isolation like a monk out in the desert, [and] has no one to refuel him or her, will dry up very, very soon. But when you’re always around people who remind you that this is why God has created you, this is why God has called you, this is your purpose, then when you have those moments, God has someone come by to remind you of where he has brought you from and where you could have been.

Register now for the 2024 Amplify Conference on October 22 and 23 hosted at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois, and take advantage of discounted early-bird registration pricing to hear from leaders who are championing the gospel in their unique spheres of influence.