The last time I attended the Shepherds’ Conference (ShepCon) hosted by Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, CA, I was about to graduate with my M.Div. from The Master’s Seminary in 2002. The conference always has been of great significance to me because of how it impacted my understanding of the call to ministry and, more particularly, my own call to ministry in Christ’s church. When I had the opportunity to attend ShepCon this year, I eagerly anticipated a wonderful time of hearing God’s Word and spending time in fellowship with like-minded leaders of churches throughout the world. This year’s conference did not disappoint.
The 3-day conference featured eight plenary sessions, two breakout sessions, and three lunch sessions. The conference opened with John MacArthur beginning a two-part series on John 17 with the goal of encouraging the men in attendance so they might leave uplifted and strengthened for the ministry ahead of them when they returned home. MacArthur’s message focused on the intercessory ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ on behalf of His people. Certainly it would be difficult to find a scriptural theme of greater encouragement than the High Priestly ministry of our Lord! MacArthur’s message was a great encouragement, but it also featured a few provocative statements as well.
First, he contended that the priestly ministry of Christ is greater than His ministry to His people in His death and resurrection. I’ve been considering this statement since the conference, and I am not sure if I agree with it. I’m also not sure it is helpful to pit one aspect of our Lord’s ministry to us against others. Such a comparison seems to be similar to trying to figure out whether the brain or the heart is a more vital organ. While I understand MacArthur’s concern to elevate in our minds the sometimes neglected reality of Jesus’ present intercession for us, I’m not sure it was necessary to do so at the expense of the greatness of the cross. One reason I have pause in agreeing with MacArthur about this comparison is the weight and space the New Testament dedicates to each theme. I have not had time to do a statistical analysis, but it seems that the NT writers spend more time talking about the cross and resurrection than the intercessory ministry. By saying this I am not asserting the cross is a greater ministry than Jesus’ prayers for His people; I am simply noting the difficulty of comparing the two ministries. To use another analogy, borrowed from John Murray, is the accomplishment of redemption the most important, or is the application of it to the elect the most important? I don’t think you can choose one over the other; both are vital. Both are necessary. If you lose either aspect, you lose all of redemption.
The second point MacArthur made that I found questionable was his statement that God’s love is so infinite and so great that not even the Trinity itself can contain it, so God needed to create a people to love. The contention that God has any needs is erroneous at best. God’s aseity is clearly taught throughout the Bible, and He did not create anyone or anything out of a Trinitarian deficiency. I was wondering if MacArthur would address this statement, perhaps correcting or clarifying it on Friday evening when he spoke again, but he did not return to it. As the first message went on, however, he seemed to back away from using the term need in relation to God showing creatures His love and opt for the term want. Here we are on stable, biblical ground: God did desire to make His glory known through the work of redemption, including lavishing His grace on vessels of mercy and pouring out His wrath on vessels of destruction. I would like to hear more from MacArthur on these comments, but it was heartening to hear him change his terminology as the message progressed.
The rest of the speakers were thoroughly engaging, encouraging, and edifying. I particularly appreciated Mohler’s sermon on Malachi 2, a text not often preached at pastors’ conferences or anywhere else, at least in my experience. Paul Washer and Tom Pennington both gave convicting messages on the glory of Christ and the dangers of hypocrisy respectively. Phil Johnson somehow preached against being cool all the while being pretty cool himself, but perhaps people who are cooler than me wouldn’t think so. Nathan Busenitz dealt with 2 Timothy 4 and the role of the faithful preacher. I have heard Ligon Duncan preach on numerous occasions, both in person and by recording, but nothing I’ve heard in the past came close to his message at ShepCon on Romans 8:32. I left that message overwhelmed by the love and sovereignty of God for me and for all of His people. The Spirit was at work in the preaching of His Word throughout the conference, and I am grateful I was there to experience it.
In addition to the preaching, the worship music at the conference was superb. Philip Webb sang on two occasions, and hearing him glorify the Lord in song is always a treat. The Master’s College chorale was nothing short of outstanding. Clayton Erb put together a range of worship music that varied in style enough to feel fresh each session, but it was consistent enough that you never wondered what happened and how you ended up at a different conference. My only minor critique involves how frequently the new hymnal Hymns of Grace was advertised throughout the conference. Everyone in attendance received a free copy of the hymnal, which is excellent in its own right, but sometimes it felt like someone should have made a voiceover saying, “This session is brought to you by Hymns of Grace.” But that’s really just a minor criticism. The music encouraged and built up all the men in attendance, and many churches would do well to scrap whatever their current songlist is and use the songs found in Hymns of Grace instead. 1
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the food at the conference. The lunches were of the highest quality, and the constant array of beverages and snacks available at all times ruined anyone’s plans to stay on a strict diet while attending. My personal favorite was the blend of sweet and unsweetened iced tea, but whatever anyone could have wanted seemed to be in constant supply and included in the price of admission. Also, free books. If you’ve been to ShepCon, you know what I mean.
Above all of these aspects of the conference, what strengthened me the most was the fellowship with the men of the church with whom I attended. I attended with three of our elders and one seminary student who is a member at our church. Getting to know everyone better, discussing the various sermons, praying together, and talking theology and ministry late into the evenings provided refreshment from the regular demands of pastoral ministry. Hearing over 3,500 like-minded men singing songs of praise to our God was like a fountain of fresh water to my soul. Seeing the passion of so many church leaders for Christ and His Word renewed hope that perhaps God might be pleased to pour out His Spirit again not only in this land but in the over 60 other countries represented at the conference.
Next year will be another Shepherds’ Conference summit, this time on Christology in celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation. Unquestionably, the 2017 conference will sell out. That’s why I already have my ticket booked.
- This paragraph was not brought to you by Hymns of Grace despite that last plug. ↩