The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Fri, 05 Jul 2024 02:00:09 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Does God Promise to Bless America? Thu, 04 Jul 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Does the promise of 2 Chronicles 7:14 apply to America? No. It’s even better.]]> In 1976, as America celebrated its 200th birthday, the number one song in many of the nation’s churches was Neil Enloe’s “Statue of Liberty.” The Dove Award Song of the Year likened the cross to the statue as a powerful symbol of freedom. In the same year, Jimmy and Carol Owens popularized a song that helped a generation of Christians memorize 2 Chronicles 7:14 (KJV): “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.”

During America’s bicentennial year, nostalgic yearning for better days created a unique historical context. In “God and Country” worship services, “If My People” was performed and accompanied by patriotic symbols like the American flag. Sight and sound fixed in many minds that 2 Chronicles 7:14 was about America. “My people” were Americans, and “their land” was the United States. And in 1976, the United States needed healing.

In the three years prior, Americans had endured the energy crisis, Roe v. Wade, the Watergate hearings, Richard Nixon’s resignation, the fall of Saigon, the worst tornado outbreak on record, unprecedented divorce rates, and a recession that ended the post–World War II economic expansion. America had lost her way, and the reason was obvious to the nation’s evangelicals: America left God, so God was leaving America. But if they returned, God would heal the nation and restore American greatness.

In 1977, Peter Marshall coauthored The Light and the Glory. Marshall’s Ivy League credentials bolstered his claims that the American people were meant to be “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32, KJV) and that America was “God’s new Promised Land.” Marshall’s work provided the cement that joined 2 Chronicles 7:14 to the U.S.

In 1980, with a view to bringing America “back to God,” evangelicals helped elect Ronald Reagan. America now had a wise Solomon, and hope was growing that God would heal the land’s spiritual, economic, and military sickness through political means. On January 20, 1981, Reagan was sworn in on the Capitol steps, with his left hand on his mother’s Bible open to 2 Chronicles 7:14. The cement had cured.

There are two common mistakes regarding 2 Chronicles 7:14. The first is to abuse it, using it to justify a flag-wrapped form of prosperity theology. The second is to excuse it, as if it weren’t “written for our instruction” (Rom. 15:4). Because it’s God’s Word, it’s wise to ask, How should we apply 2 Chronicles 7:14? Here are four guidelines.

1. Clarify the context.

The famous verse addresses a specific people, place, and time. The “people” is Israel. The place is the promised “land.” The time is Solomon’s reign while the Mosaic covenant is active. If Israel obeys, God will bless them in the land by securing their borders and strengthening their economy. But if they turn from him, he’ll raise up adversaries and ruin their crops. By wounding their land, he’ll provoke them to repentance. In love, he’ll sacrifice their comfort to secure their commitment.

There are two common mistakes regarding 2 Chronicles 7:14. The first is to abuse it. The second is to excuse it.

The promise is to God’s redeemed people in the promised land during the only legitimate theocracy in history. Israel’s kings were duty-bound to execute idolaters, blasphemers, and false prophets. By walking in God’s ways and purging the land of rebels, the kings forestalled God’s judgment. When the kings failed, God sent his people into exile as a landless “holy nation” (Ex. 19:6).

Under the new covenant, God’s redeemed people are likewise a landless “holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). Scattered over the earth, we build houses, raise families, go to work, and “seek the welfare” (Jer. 29:7) of our nation by cooperating with non-Christians in economic and political pursuits for the common good. Like synagogues in the exile, churches represent the true God among idolaters. We cross national borders with Bibles, not bombs, and multiply peacemaking embassies among the nations.

Because our time and place drastically differ from Solomon’s, we proceed with caution.

2. Consider the church’s ‘wicked ways.’

While the verse doesn’t directly apply to America, it certainly applies to the  American church. The four conditions of humbling, praying, seeking, and turning are elements of biblical repentance.

Does the church in America need to repent of wicked ways? Are we guilty of pride, idolatry, greed, ingratitude, corrupt leadership, financial and sexual scandal, factions, false teaching, counterfeit gospels, partiality, and injustice?

While the verse doesn’t directly apply to America, it certainly applies to the  American church.

Are whole denominations in moral rebellion against God? Is there more reliance on clever strategies, branding, and rhetorical skill than on the Holy Spirit? Has political activism supplanted desperate pleas for God to open hearts to “pay attention” to the gospel (Acts 16:14)? Is there more passion for telling non-Christians how to vote than how to know Christ? Do we pursue church growth while neglecting church discipline? Are third-order controversies diverting energy from disciple-making? Are church members theologically inept, biblically illiterate, and digitally gullible? Are Very Online pastors wasting precious time on social media? Are evangelical leaders slandering one another to impress their theological tribe?

Second Chronicles 7:14 isn’t given to us to judge Americans outside the church. It’s given to us to judge our own hearts. It’s not a rebuke to “them.” It’s a rebuke to “us.” It’s not a window through which we criticize the world’s wickedness. It’s a mirror by which we call out our own.

3. Confirm what God promised.

Under the Mosaic covenant, God promised to bless obedient Israel with both spiritual and material prosperity. But God made no such promise to the U.S. or its churches. Some of the world’s most faithful churches and obedient Christians endure poverty, not prosperity; persecution, not peace. For now, God only promises to bless the faithful church with spiritual blessings such as salvation, forgiveness, unity, fruitfulness, endurance in suffering, and his faithful presence (Eph. 1:3).

Material blessings do await the church. God does promise health and wealth to his people. As the adopted children and legal heirs of the Father, all that is his belongs to all who are his. In the new earth, “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain” (Rev. 21:4). We already have the spiritual blessings of the new covenant, but unending health and wealth come after we finish the race, not before (Heb. 12:1–3).

Second Chronicles 7:14 isn’t a window through which we criticize the world’s wickedness. It’s a mirror by which we call out our own.

Even if the church in America experiences historic revival, there’s no covenantal guarantee that God will pour out physical, material, military, and economic blessings on America. For his own secret purposes, God “makes nations great, and he destroys them; he enlarges nations, and leads them away” (Job. 12:23).

4. Concentrate on passages directed to all nations.

At least since 1976, evangelicals have asked too much of 2 Chronicles 7:14. Other passages can carry the load because they address nations that, like America, are not theocratic Israel.

Rome received God’s wrath because of its moral rebellion (Rom. 1:18). Nineveh postponed God’s wrath because it repented (Jonah 3:10). Sodom incurred God’s wrath because it didn’t repent (Jude 7). God holds the U.S. government responsible for enforcing the second table of the Ten Commandments (Rom. 13:1–10), so we pray for officials to wisely maintain public order and to guard our freedom to publicly obey the first table (1 Tim. 2:1–4).

True Patriotism

And this is where we can agree with those patriotic, neighbor-loving impulses of 1976. If we love America, we’ll intercede for her. We’ll plead for justice, peace, and prosperity in our communities. We’ll pray with a willingness to be God’s answer to our prayers through faithful witness, mercy ministries, peaceful protest, and principled political engagement. We’ll petition God with the confidence that a hundred thousand years from now, the U.S. will have gone the way of all nations, but his church will be flourishing on the earth. We’ll pray knowing that God is the Potter, the nations are clay, and he has declared his sovereign prerogative to bless any nation that “turns from its evil” and to withhold good from any nation that doesn’t (Jer. 18:7–10).

How will America hear God’s voice? Through the humble, praying, God-seeking, sin-hating, spiritually healed churches of America. For judgment begins “at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17).

Maintain Gospel Centrality: 1 John 1:1–2:2 Wed, 03 Jul 2024 04:04:00 +0000 Don Carson explores the profound theology of the book of 1 John, emphasizing our need for salvation through Christ.]]> In this lecture on 1 John, Don Carson calls Christians to maintain gospel centrality, cautioning against an excessive focus on peripheral issues. He explores the details of John’s letter, emphasizing our need for salvation through Christ, walking in the light of his righteousness, and demonstrating genuine love for others as evidence of true faith. Carson also teaches on confession, repentance, and how we’re forgiven and reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice.

Why One Presbyterian Appreciates a Baptist Systematic Theology Wed, 03 Jul 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Wellum helps us to see what careful biblical and theological thinking can look like. This is an edifying volume for any Christian reader.]]> It’s an exciting time to do theology. Technology allows unprecedented access to vast deposits of historical resources. Scholars across disciplines are talking to one another in new ways. Conversations across traditional divides enable both interdisciplinary and ecumenical sharpening of iron by iron.

For those faithfully listening to God speaking in Scripture, these are encouraging developments that have yielded fruit in recent theological publications.

In Systematic Theology: From Canon to Concept, Stephen J. Wellum leverages these trends to make a strong case for the importance of careful and cohesive theological reflection on Scripture. Like his earlier work on biblical theology, this text is thoughtful and clearly written. Wellum sets out in this text—the first of two planned volumes—to introduce the task of systematic theology and explore the doctrines of revelation, Scripture, God, creation, and providence.

Coherence of Biblical and Systematic Theology

The church’s health depends on careful systematic theology. As Wellum notes, “Systematic theology is not optional for the church; it is fundamental to our thinking rightly about God, the self, and the world.” Everyone does systematic theology. The real question is “whether our theology is true to Scripture or not” (4). Therefore, wisdom calls us to conform our systematic theology to Scripture’s teaching.

Healthy theology involves both reading Scripture and thinking about how to follow it. Therefore, Wellum refuses the false choice sometimes posed between biblical theology and systematic theology. Referring to the Great Commission, he observes, “To obey our Lord’s command requires careful biblical and theological thinking; knowing the Scripture, thinking rightly about who the Father, Son, and Spirit are; and faithfully applying all of Scripture to people’s lives. This is what theology is” (5).

Healthy theology involves both reading Scripture and thinking about how to follow it.

The task of systematic theology is essential for Christians as we read and apply the biblical text. It does not supersede or replace biblical theology. Instead, when systematic theology builds on the task of scriptural exegesis and biblical theology, it helps us to read Scripture more profitably.

In other words, like biblical theology, systematic theology is essential to healthy theology. It is indispensable because “theology does not merely repeat Scripture; it seeks ‘to understand’ Scripture in terms of application, logical implications, and metaphysical entailments as a ‘constructive’ exercise in ‘faith seeking understanding.’” Theology must move beyond interpreting passages, chapters, or even books to fit all of Scripture together into one coherent picture. In doing so, “theology constructs and defends sound doctrine so that the church is not ‘blown around by every wind of teaching’ (Eph 4:14), but is instead ‘rooted and built up in Christ’ (Col 2:7)” (108). 

Historical Theology’s Contribution

Wisdom requires admitting we are not the first to ask questions about what Scripture teaches. Such wisdom acknowledges at least two potential problems. On the one hand, raising the authority of theological tradition to that of Scripture confuses the Church’s voice with God’s voice. On the other hand, refusing to listen carefully to the wisdom accrued through centuries of the church’s reading and reflecting on God’s Word confuses the individual’s interpretation with God’s voice.

Wellum seeks to navigate a narrow channel between these twin errors. He does so by listening to a range of theological voices from the church’s past and constructively evaluating them in dialogue with sound biblical exegesis.

The dual emphasis on eclectic theological retrieval and meticulous attention to the detail of biblical theology makes for some especially strong chapters on the doctrines of revelation, Scripture, and God. Wellum’s emphasis on the inseparability and interdependence of these topics is a strength of the book. He observes that “from Genesis to Revelation, Scripture claims to be the product of triune communicative agency in and through human authors. And given who the triune God is, Scripture speaks with absolute authority. Even though Scripture is written by human authors, its message, truth, and reliability are not lessened” (287).

In a cultural climate characterized by skepticism about the existence and knowability of truth, the chapters on these subjects repay careful reading. Furthermore, Wellum’s treatment of natural theology, his retrieval of the patristic and medieval categories for understanding the doctrine of the Trinity, and his discussion of the classical categories of God’s attributes reflect a close interaction with biblical theology and constructive engagement with other theological traditions. Thus, this is an edifying volume for any Christian reader.

Precision and Consistency

This first installment of Wellum’s Systematic Theology leaves me anticipating how he will handle even more controversial subjects in the second volume. This unashamedly Presbyterian reviewer hopes his “unashamedly Baptist” brother will continue to place the precision of biblical theology in conversation with the retrieval efforts of historical theology to build even more bridges for constructive rapprochement between our respective “rooms” in God’s household. Unsurprisingly, given our different backgrounds, I have some points of friendly critique.

In a cultural climate characterized by skepticism about the existence and knowability of truth, the chapters on these subjects repay careful reading.

First, despite Wellum’s emphasis on categorical precision and retrieval through historical theology, he seems to adopt a grand narrative of decline regarding the Enlightenment, overlooking important historical discussions about how Christians both contributed to the development of modern thought and received critique during the transition to modernity. There is room for refinement here. For example, Wellum acknowledges that skepticism toward the “the truth of the gospel has existed in every age of the church” but then asserts that a “full-blown assault begins in the Enlightenment and continues today unabated” (41). The tactics for attacking the gospel may have changed, but the world, the flesh, and the devil have always strenuously opposed the truth according to the spirit of every age. Grand narratives of cultural progress and decline typically falsify as much as they clarify, and they lead to abuse by both cultural conservatives and progressives.

Second, it would help to set forth a more explicit account of how the retrieval efforts of historical theology work and to ask why it is more operative in some chapters of Wellum’s work than in others. Recent discussions of such retrieval lead us to ask, Why should we listen to some authors from the past more than others? Why should we follow an author in one area but not in others? What principles do we utilize when our historical sources and traditions disagree? Thickening the engagement with such questions might help enrich the work’s ecumenical potential.

Covenantal Debate

Finally, this book would have benefited from greater nuance about the diversity within covenant theologies to better account for continuity and discontinuity between patristic, medieval, Reformation, and modern approaches to the subject. There are points within Wellum’s account of progressive covenantalism that sound more like historic Reformation accounts of covenant theology than he acknowledges.

For example, as someone who fully subscribes to the doctrine of the covenants in the Westminster Confession of Faith, I am pleased to endorse the summary of the biblical narrative in Wellum’s definition of progressive covenantalism:

It is better to think of God’s one redemptive plan, grounded in the “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis, revealed through a plurality of covenants (e.g., Gal 4:24; Eph 2:12; Heb 8:7–13), all of which reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Post-fall and due to God’s promise (Gen 3:15), God’s one redemptive plan is revealed through the covenants as the new covenant is progressively unveiled. This allows us to think of the continuity of God’s plan across time, now fulfilled in Christ, and it also helps us avoid “flattening” the differences between the covenants, which directly impacts a number of theological issues, specifically ecclesiology and eschatology. Each covenant, then, directs the life of those under it, but each covenant is also revelatory and prophetic of who and what is to come, namely Christ and the new covenant. (436)

Wellum’s affirmation of the intra-Trinitarian pactum salutis, or covenant of redemption, makes his presentation more like historic Reformation accounts of covenant theology than many recent “Reformed” populizers, including several of the conversation partners that appear in his footnotes. He also affirms that the “creation covenant” with Adam was “temporary,” a “probation,” and required “covenantal obedience” to obtain “eternal life,” which, in spite of his claims to the contrary, sounds exactly like the doctrine of the “covenant of works” in the Westminster Confession (442). Wellum expresses his substantive affirmation of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace with thoughtfulness and concern for careful biblical exegesis.

The primary caveat to my substantive agreement on the biblical narrative relates to the status of the new covenant and whether there is unresolved tension between his claims that “the fullness of new covenant blessings is still future” and that “all new covenant realities are now here and applied to the church in principle” (528). As Wellum explores the doctrines of the church, sacraments, and eschatology in the second volume, it will be interesting to see how he negotiates this tension. If the fullness of new covenant blessings is still in the future, this should inform theological reflection on these topics.

In the meantime, Wellum helps us to see what careful biblical and theological thinking can look like. In this first volume of his Systematic Theology, Wellum displays the Bible’s primary message, the revelation of God, the story of redemption, and the meaning of all things in relation to God. I look forward to the expansion of the project in the next volume.

Does the Bible Blame Women for Rape? Wed, 03 Jul 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Deuteronomy 22′s laws on sexual faithfulness are hard, but they reflect a good God who’s faithful to his vows.]]> Many women, including me, endure the tragic experience of Scripture being misused against them, often by men. It can be difficult to untangle Scripture’s truth from man’s manipulation. But even when the Word is handled rightly, some passages are difficult to engage as a woman. They seem unfair or even cruel.

Could any passage be as troubling for women as Deuteronomy 22?

A decade ago, Rachel Held Evans raised this passage in A Year of Biblical Womanhood. To be biblical, Held argued, women had to marry their rapists. To be biblical, Christians should stone anyone caught in an adulterous affair. To be biblical, Christians should kill a woman who didn’t cry out as she was being raped. To fully engage Evans’s argument would require dealing with her definition of “biblical,” which is outside the scope of this article. Nevertheless, she raised legitimate questions: How should we understand Deuteronomy 22? And does its inclusion in the Scriptures mean the Bible cannot be trusted to guide and direct women today?

These questions can’t be completely answered in a single article. But we can begin to make sense of them by considering both history and hermeneutics. We’ll start by looking at the specific situations described in light of their historical context. Then we’ll zoom out to consider this passage in Scripture’s larger story. As we do, please keep in mind that this article is addressing a specific textual question rather than offering counsel for victims of sexual assault.

Questions about Deuteronomy 22—as much as questions around eschatology, soteriology, or ecclesiology—require a hermeneutic. We need a holistic way of reading Scripture’s long story to understand this chapter. Jesus is that hermeneutic, the lens through which we must read the Bible. Let’s consider what Deuteronomy 22 says and then seek to understand what it means for women today.

Laws on Sexual Ethics

Deuteronomy 22:13 begins a section of the law on sexual ethics. It first deals with a husband’s false accusation that his wife had sex before marriage. Verses 15–19 outline a process for the wife to prove her innocence and, if this is found true, for the husband to be punished. The law protected women in this situation from false accusations.

Verse 22 then deals with a man and woman caught in adultery. They must have been found in the act, so they’re protected from false accusations based only on hearsay. The penalty was stark—the couple would be stoned to death—but it was the same for both the man and the woman.

Verses 23–27 then deal with the rape of a woman engaged to another man. The man who raped her was to be stoned to death. The Scriptures say violating a woman in this way is akin to a man murdering his neighbor. If the sexual act occurred outside of town, it was assumed the woman didn’t consent and she was protected from punishment. But here’s where the tricky part comes in—if the act occurred within the city, it was labeled as rape only if the woman cried out. This is worth a brief excursion.

Remember the Law’s Purpose

A 2023 New York Times article highlighted the number of women who, as a response to the trauma of rape, shut down rather than cried out during the act. Though I’ve never experienced rape, I’ve had this response to other trauma in my life. I sink into myself and have been accused of not caring in times of crisis. But sometimes I can’t process what’s happening. Mentally, I descend into a bunker and close the door, slowly opening it inch by inch over time to take in the circumstances that forced me into my mental fortress.

Not everyone reacts this way to trauma, but many naturally do, and it can be a helpful coping mechanism in some situations.

At first reading, Deuteronomy 22 seems unfair for requiring a woman to cry out. But it’s important to remember the law wasn’t only given to prescribe punishments for violations; it was given to teach God’s people how to live before the violation ever happens. Deuteronomy 6 explains that these commandments, rules, and statutes were given to God’s people so that “it may go well with [them]” and “that [their] days may be long” (vv. 1–3). Parents were instructed, “Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up” (v. 7, CSB).

When my sons were 2 and 4 years old, we attended a cooperative preschool. The teachers taught a safety curriculum, and one lesson was on abduction. We taught the kids to yell and scream nonstop until someone came to help. We practiced, and we repeated the instructions. Similarly, in Moses’s time, if Jewish moms and dads were teaching their children God’s law, their daughters were taught through Deuteronomy 22 to cry out if they were taken against their will. They were taught they didn’t have to submit to rape, that someone would come to help.

The law wasn’t only given to prescribe punishments for violations; it was given to teach God’s people how to live before the violation ever happens.

Don’t read this explanation as blaming rape survivors or their parents. I’m not saying that if a woman doesn’t cry out during rape, she must not have been trained by trusted adults ahead of time. And I’m not saying that being trained would guarantee a woman would cry out. Individual responses to trauma are complicated.

The point is much bigger—in an unjust world where women seemed to experience harsher consequences if they resisted rape than if they gave in, God’s law taught daughters to resist and call for help. This law was an aid to a broader world that had no protections for women at all, where rape, apart from such laws, was an acceptable norm. It taught fathers and society to protect women, it taught women they had agency when attacked, and it punished those who violated them.

Understand the Law in Its Own Culture

This leads to verses 28–29. If a man raped a woman who wasn’t engaged, the rapist was commanded to marry his victim. Note this law wasn’t directed to a woman to marry her rapist, because, in ancient cultures, a woman had few rights about such things. Apart from the law, she was powerless to affect the outcome either way.

This passage doesn’t reflect a Western cultural understanding of choice in marriage. The individualistic mindset predominant throughout Western culture has a hard time grasping the value of marriage decisions made for the good of the community as a whole rather than the individual alone. When the community flourished, particularly in rugged settings without modern conveniences, the individual flourished, and vice versa. Many Eastern and African cultures today still reflect such a communal understanding of marriage.

The common practice outside of God’s law for a rape survivor was that her family killed her because of the resulting shame (a practice still occurring in some cultures today). Mankind was bent far away from basic human dignity at this point in history, some 1,400 years before Jesus’s birth. If a rape survivor’s family didn’t kill her, she was left to live in shame with no options for a future life with a family. Often, the only way she could support herself was through prostitution.

When Deuteronomy 22 was written, there were few sexual protections for women. This law therefore moved culture forward by giving women some protection, creating a counterculture in its wake. It held the man responsible for the consequences he created in his sin against the woman. He had to pay her father a price worthy of the woman he violated, and he could never divorce her. The law required him to remove the victim’s public shame and restore her to a position of dignity in her community through marriage. The abuser was made to value what he took by force.

I’m thankful to live in a culture that doesn’t cast on a woman the same shame and condemnation that was the norm in ancient times (and is still the norm in parts of the world). But in that culture, God pressed on his people a way forward that didn’t just make the victim marry; it also required a sizable payment for the privilege of marrying her. God’s plan didn’t just remove the woman’s public shame; it also provided for her security by requiring a monetary commitment to her and her family.

See the Law in Light of Jesus

Considering the historical context of Deuteronomy 22 helps us begin to make sense of its challenges. Let’s now consider it within the context of the whole Bible and how Jesus taught us to understand the Old Testament law.

After Jesus’s resurrection, he met his disciples on the Emmaus road and began to explain to them everything from the Old Testament that pointed to his life, death, and resurrection. He included the law of Moses in his explanation (Luke 24). Did he specifically include Deuteronomy 22 in that discussion? We don’t know, but it’s possible. Regardless, he made clear that the law as a whole pointed to him.

Jesus gave additional information in Matthew 5:17. He said he didn’t come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. John 8 gives us a real-time illustration of what he meant. The religious elite threw at Jesus’s feet a woman who had been caught in adultery—she’d violated the laws in Deuteronomy 22. Though the pair was caught in the act, the man wasn’t thrown at Jesus’s feet as the law instructed. It’s not surprising that sinful hearts had perverted the law at this point to favor the man over the woman.

God’s law taught daughters to resist and call for help.

Jesus then wrote something in the dirt. Was it the name of the man caught with her? Was it the names of women the male scribes and Pharisees had sinned with? Whatever Jesus wrote, the woman’s accusers fell away one by one. Jesus then told her, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).

Jesus didn’t tell her that her sin of adultery didn’t matter, that it was no longer a problem to break the law in that way. He didn’t abolish the law. Instead, he fulfilled it in a way no one else could: by obeying the law perfectly himself. And he didn’t condemn the woman because, in a short time, he’d hang on a cross paying for the very violation of the law of Deuteronomy 22 for which she’d been thrown at his feet.

Even Hard Laws Reflect a Good God

Paul later taught in Galatians, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Gal. 3:24–25).

The law was good, but it wasn’t everything. The law was good, but it wasn’t final. The law was good, but Jesus is better. This is the general context, the hermeneutic, through which we must approach Deuteronomy 22.

This chapter’s laws on sexual faithfulness are hard, but they reflect a good God who is faithful to his vows. He told his people through the prophet Hosea,

I will take you to be my wife forever.
I will take you to be my wife in righteousness,
justice, love, and compassion.
I will take you to be my wife in faithfulness,
and you will know the LORD. (Hos. 2:19–20, CSB)

Some modern scholars don’t believe John 8’s story of the woman caught in adultery was part of the original text (see the notes in modern Bible translations like the ESV and NIV), but we see the same theology here in the book of Hosea. Hosea’s bride committed adultery, yet God told the prophet not to stone her as the law instructed but to pursue her. God told Hosea to redeem her, to buy her back from her sexual slavery, and to restore her to an honored position in his home—because God also does this for us. God’s faithfulness is good for us, and because we’re created in his image, our faithfulness to our vows is good as well.

God is good, and his Scriptures are good. Stay engaged with the hard parts. Wrestle with them. Pray through them. They tell a long but good story, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. O daughter of God and member of the Bride of Christ, don’t let anyone convince you God’s Word isn’t good for you.

Now Available: 50+ Hours of TGCW24 Conference Sessions Tue, 02 Jul 2024 04:04:00 +0000 All audio and video sessions from TGCW24 are available for you to stream at your convenience.]]> Last month, The Gospel Coalition hosted its largest ever gathering. Nearly 9,000 women assembled in Indianapolis for TGC’s 2024 Women’s Conference, themed Behold and Believe: Encountering Jesus as the Great I AM.

Attendees came from 49 states and 27 countries, with over 65 percent being first-time attendees at a TGC Women’s Conference.

These attendees heard keynote messages unpacking the seven I AM statements in John’s Gospel, from speakers including Jen Wilkin, Ruth Chou Simons, and David Platt. Through more than 40 topical breakout sessions and workshops, the conference also provided attendees with practical, biblical help for various aspects of life and ministry.

Now, we’re excited to announce the release of all the audio and video sessions from TGCW24, available for you to stream at your convenience and share with others. To access the seven keynote talks and more than 40 breakout sessions, simply head to our TGCW24 On-Demand page and dive into the enriching content.

Join Us in 2025

As you can see by watching the free sessions from TGCW24, or by browsing our Facebook photo album, TGCW24 was a blast—a time of inspiring teaching, joyful worship, enriching training, and encouraging community.

If you missed the conference, be sure to join us at our upcoming events. Save the date for our next national conference, TGC25, which will take place from April 22 to 24, 2025, in Indianapolis.

Evangelize Like You’re a Sinner Tue, 02 Jul 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Christians in exile aren’t meant simply to survive or retreat but to proclaim the gospel.]]> “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29)

When was the last time you heard the Samaritan woman at the well presented as a model for anything, let alone apologetics? I’m guessing the answer is not lately, if ever. Yet there may be no better model of witness in the Gospels than her.

Most teaching about the Samaritan woman centers on her past rather than her preaching. Interpretations of her encounter with Jesus easily focus on speculation or label her simply as a prostitute or adulteress. But speculation can be blinding. It can obscure what’s explicit in John’s narrative: her witness led to a city-wide harvest (John 4:30–42). The Samaritan woman led more people to Christ in a day than most of us will in a lifetime. This shouldn’t shame us but instead encourage us to learn from her as a powerful example of apologetics in exile.

Exile is both a theological and a lived reality, one the world has known since Adam plunged humanity into sin and ruin, separating us from fellowship with our Creator. But we can also experience a lesser form of exile, cultural exile, when we’re ostracized or opposed by others. Just as Daniel lived in a Babylonian society opposed to the ways of God, so too the church today faces cultural exile. In such a context, Christians and the gospel message are viewed with deep skepticism or outright hostility.

In one sense, these conditions don’t matter; the task of Christian witness remains the same. Christians in exile aren’t meant simply to survive or retreat but to proclaim the gospel. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the deep cultural shifts in the West that have left Christianity distasteful and implausible to many. Recognizing these challenges, Joshua Chatraw writes, “People have so many misunderstandings, critiques, and fears about Christianity, it’s hard to even know where to begin.”

What if we began with a woman who was herself misunderstood and on the fringes of society, living as a cultural exile? As we’ll see, her transforming encounter with Jesus at the well became a powerful apologetic of hope and joy in her community.

Apologetics Begins with Jesus

When Jesus meets the Samaritan woman, she’s alone at the well in the middle of the day. Why did she show up at the hottest time of day? We can’t be sure, but she was probably avoiding the townsfolk who treated her with disdain. As Jesus gently reveals, she had five previous husbands and was likely viewed as a person of ill repute.

Whether her succession of marriages was the result of divorce, death, adultery, or a mix of these, we can’t know for certain. We do know the Samaritan woman had weathered the hard winds of pain, sin, and suffering. She knew exile’s effects. But when Jesus greets her, by his presence he shifts the trajectory of her whole life toward God’s astounding love.

Christians in exile aren’t meant simply to survive or retreat but to proclaim the gospel.

John’s narrative demonstrates the power of this encounter first through the deep significance of its setting—it all happens at a well. Multiple biblical patriarchs (or their messengers) met their future brides at a well in a foreign land. Those women often returned home to their families and towns with the good news of their encounters (Gen. 24:28; 29:12; Ex. 2:18–19). John boldly presents Jesus as the true Bridegroom who comes to an unfaithful, scandalized woman at a well in a foreign place and meets her with saving grace, bringing her into fellowship with God “in spirit and truth” (John 4:24). This is a picture of our salvation.

John shows Jesus crossing boundaries to meet this woman. While they’re alone at the well, Jesus speaks to her, which crosses two cultural fault lines: her gender as a woman and his as a man, and her ethnicity as Samaritan and his as a Jew.

Samaritans believed themselves to be true worshipers of the God of Abraham, but Jews saw them as heretical half-breeds. To call the groups divided would earn you a doctoral degree in understatement. The hostility ran deep. And the hate flowed in both directions (Luke 9:51–54). But Jesus was different. To this Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks, and he even enters her state: he too is thirsty.

As Jesus moved toward her in mercy, the Samaritan woman received him as the long-awaited Messiah. It’s easy for Christians to become familiar with this movement of grace. In our brokenness, Jesus knows us and seeks us. With the cultural winds blowing fiercely against us, we must not lose this Christian instinct of mercy. Jesus dignified the Samaritan woman in deep conversation, showing her his love.

This encounter with Jesus then leads to her daring apologetic: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” (John 4:29). Such bold, public proclamation would be unorthodox for a first-century woman, let alone a woman likely maligned by her neighbors. The Samaritan woman’s bold witness teaches us a truth sometimes deemed too simplistic: the key to apologetics isn’t pithy answers or irrefutable arguments but a sense of awe in Jesus that can’t be silenced.

Apologetics and Exposure

Encounters with Jesus bring not only dignity and mercy but also exposure. Painful as it may be, we know such exposure is a subset of divine mercy. Like a doctor who doesn’t downplay our diagnosis, Jesus reveals our brokenness and sin for the express purpose of forgiving and healing us. How exposed did the Samaritan woman feel when Jesus revealed his knowledge of her deep secrets? John 4:16–18 captures the moment:

Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.” The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.”

Whatever the reasons for her serial marriages, the point of exposure stands, as does the fact that Jesus declares the man she’s with now is not her husband (v. 18). Jesus gazes deep into her heart and history. Then he brings her wounds and transgressions into his merciful light.

Will we let Jesus gaze on us in this way? You can’t be a witness apart from such mercy, and you can’t experience grace apart from such vulnerability. The result of Christ’s merciful exposure isn’t condemnation but conversation on the nature of salvation (vv. 19–24).

Jesus leads this woman to the growing comprehension that he’s the Messiah whom both Jews and Samaritans await (vv. 25–26), culminating in conversion for the woman and for the many who hear her apologetic appeal (v. 39). It’s Christ’s mercy through his exposure of her sin that leads her to grasp his identity as Savior. The result isn’t fear but joyful excitement. She leaves her water jar and rushes to invite the town to come see Jesus.

In a brokenhearted world, G. K. Chesterton reminded God’s people that “joy . . . is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” Considering the Samaritan woman as a practitioner of faithful apologetics, I might suggest a remix to Chesterton’s maxim: joy is the gigantic secret of the Christian apologetic. The early church father John Chrysostom described the source of the Samaritan woman’s powerful witness this way: “Excited by joy, she performed the work of the evangelists.” Her encounter with Jesus, in which his truth and grace became real to her, empowered her to become his witness, a joyful laborer in the harvest. Where shame once silenced her voice, gospel joy unleashed it.

Authenticity in a Skeptical Age

In our age, there’s little room for the truth but ample space for my truth. This shift hasn’t resulted in the removal of absolutes but their relocation. Truth is now a matter of authenticity. Truth isn’t found outside us; it comes from within when we express what seems good to us. Such a view is troubling and ultimately damaging. But Christians, especially those ready to learn from the Samaritan woman, need not panic. For when societies begin to abandon objective truth and enshrine subjective authenticity, Christians still have something to say. Because Jesus is both objectively true and personally real.

To do apologetics faithfully and fruitfully in this cultural moment requires Christians to remember both the objective and personal aspects of our faith. When cultures and societies or friends and family enshrine authenticity, we can speak from our authentic experience of the One who is Truth and Grace for us each day (John 1:14). Peter calls exiles to evangelize through the exaltation of the One who called them from darkness to light (1 Pet. 2:9). This is the sort of apologetic needed in exile: a witness who speaks the objective and subjective reality of God’s saving power.

The Samaritan woman is a stellar model of this exilic exaltation. Her witness is potent and simple: “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” (John 4:29). This is her personal experience. It’s authentic and rooted in awe. Hers is a testimony that cannot be refuted: a man told me all I ever did. Not only is it the truth, but it’s also her truth. Christians must speak both. In hostile situations or skeptical relationships, we should start with the angle of authenticity: “Let me tell you what Jesus has done, and is doing, in, to, and for me.”

In our age, there’s little room for the truth but ample space for my truth.

In an age where non-Christians are deeply skeptical of Christianity’s goodness and trueness, our apologetics should have this Me-You shape. We can connect people to Christ by telling them what he’s done in our lives, calling them to consider what he can do in theirs. Like the Samaritan woman, we’d be wise to major in the language of personal experience birthed from fresh encounters with Jesus, the type of encounters that leave our voices quaking with tremors of hope, surprise, humility, and awe.

This Me-You shape of the Samaritan woman’s apologetics is a bit like the floors of a home. Unless you have some sort of superhuman leaping ability, you enter a house on the first floor then take the stairs to the second floor. Speaking the truth of our encounters with Jesus is like inviting people into the first floor of a home. “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did” is incarnational testimony; it’s the truth of Jesus manifested in the life of a human. It’s the proclamation of why Jesus matters and how the gospel is good, true, and meaningful.

Sometimes we get the miracle of starting on the second floor—a friend asks, “Tell me again why you think Christianity is so good?” Or as in Paul’s case, someone asks, “What must I do to be saved?” But the first floor is first for a reason; things usually start at step one.

There are several challenges to this type of apologetics. This “first-floor testimony” or a Me-You-shaped apologetic requires vital and ongoing dependence on Jesus. Pride is the great barrier here. This type of apologetics is inescapably personal, which means it’s inescapably vulnerable. The Samaritan woman’s testimony about Jesus is simultaneously self-incrimination and Christ-exaltation: “Come, see this Jesus! You know all the problems, sins, and rumors of my life? He knew it all, embraced me still, and made himself known to me!” To say, “He told me all I ever did” is to put your moral business out there for all to see.

To learn from the model of the Samaritan woman, our apologetics must be tinged with the flavor of humiliation, with the willingness to say, “Here’s the difference Jesus makes in my life. Because apart from his healing grace, I have flaws, needs, and sins that might make your face turn red.” This way of apologetics means the crucifixion of our performative personas so we can exalt the crucified Savior who redeems and transforms our lives.

Several years ago, while in graduate school, a close friend agreed to read with me Tim Keller’s apologetic classic The Reason for God. I was thrilled and hopeful. As we discussed the book, we had some good conversations. Then the topic turned to grace, and my friend mentioned he and I didn’t need forgiveness as much as some people.

I felt the air in the room thicken. In my heart, I knew I needed in that moment to move from vague Christian generalities—“I’m a sinner”—to real-world particulars. I needed to tell him exactly how I’ve messed things up, exactly how I’ve hurt people, exactly how I’ve thought unthinkable thoughts. The moment called for the specifics of my sinfulness in a way that would leave me embarrassed and God’s grace exalted.

Instead, pride tightened my throat, and no words came out—except for a few generic platitudes. Unlike the Samaritan woman, I couldn’t point to the “all I ever did” nature of my brokenness. I spoke the truth generically rather than flavoring it with my truth specifically, and my witness suffered.

Embrace an Apologetic Spirituality

When we follow the pattern of witness presented by the Samaritan woman, we embrace an apologetic spirituality imbued with the joy, humility, and authenticity of encountering Jesus. These personal experiences with the living Christ fuel us to point others to him. In directing our friends and family to Christ, we’re implicitly calling them to consider him, inviting them up the stairs to the second floor. We’re joining the Samaritan woman in her broadcasted command to “Come, and see.”

Her invitation is an echo of Jesus’s call to the first disciples (John 1:39), which they imitate in calling others to follow Christ (v. 46). By issuing a joyful, first-floor invitation to consider Jesus, we stand in the apologetic tradition of the first disciples and of our Lord himself.

When we follow the pattern of witness presented by the Samaritan woman, we embrace an apologetic spirituality imbued with the joy, humility, and authenticity of encountering Jesus.

The second step of the Samaritan woman’s witness ventures from a personal testimony to its all-encompassing implication: “Can this be the Christ?” (4:29). We too can make the turn from “my truth” and its Me-You shape to helping others consider “the Truth,” a Me-You-Christ movement. This movement to the second floor happens through open questions that follow on the heels of our spoken experience of Jesus.

When I share with a friend how through prayer Christ is helping me endure a brutal stretch of work, I can add a question that not only leaves my friend interested in my experience but invites him to consider his relationship to the truth that has shaped me: “Have you ever thought if God might help you with your problem?” or “Would you ever be open to learning to pray as Jesus taught?” Such questions present the reality of Christ to our friends, offering them a simple way to “take a step” toward the truth of the gospel. This allows them to “come and see” on the journey to trusting and believing.

There are two levels to the Samaritan woman’s apologetic witness, and the order matters. In a skeptical age, many will close themselves off from Christ, humanly speaking, apart from an authentic gospel witness from a trusted friend. Thus we must often start at the first floor. This doesn’t mean we always slow-play the call for others to consider Christ, only that we recognize the importance of a personal apologetic as a starting place.

But just as there are two levels to our witness, there are also two levels to people’s responses. Those we witness to must not only believe our experience but venture on to embrace Christ themselves. Initially, the Samaritans believe because of the woman’s authentic, joyful, and vulnerable testimony (v. 39). Then they ultimately believe for themselves from their own encounters with Jesus (v. 42). What begins at the first floor ends at the second; what starts with a joyful testimony ends in the joy of salvation.

When we speak of what Jesus is doing in us, it opens the door for people to consider Jesus for themselves. This isn’t argumentative apologetics; it’s an apologetic spirituality rooted in encountering Christ. Our witness, our apologetics, will have no pulse and no power apart from a life-giving experience with Christ that shapes us day after day. This is what we learn from the woman who came to the well an exile, encountered Life, and with great joy spoke of being known and loved.

Is the Bible Pro-Slavery? Tue, 02 Jul 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Gavin Ortlund responds to the objection that Christianity is pro-slavery by showing how the Bible provides a basis for human dignity and abolition.]]> As I seek to explain the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Christian faith to skeptics and atheists, one of the most pressing objections to Christianity I receive is: “Is the Bible pro-slavery?” The question is difficult enough in itself. But it’s further complicated by how Christians have responded to it. In some cases, the answers given are unsatisfactory and may even aggravate concerns. For example, sometimes Christians glamorize both the Bible and church history, failing to take seriously how biblical passages have been used to support sinful practices.

There’s a danger in the other direction, however: some critics impose modern, Western assumptions on the Bible, failing to read it first in its historical context. This can obscure the extent to which the reason we find some passages troubling results from the Bible’s shaping of Western civilization.

I want to make the case that the Bible has been a powerful force for human dignity, human equality, and ultimately the undermining of slavery in all its forms. To this end, I offer four theses.

1. Genesis 1 made a unique contribution to human equality through its doctrine of creation in God’s image.

Modern readers of the Bible are often scandalized to find passages about slavery. But at the outset, it’s important to keep two things in mind. First, slavery existed everywhere in the ancient world. As Gleason Archer has noted, “Slavery . . . was practiced by every ancient people of which we have any historical record. . . . [It] was as integral a part of ancient culture as commerce, taxation, or temple service.”

Second, not only did slavery exist everywhere, but it was assumed everywhere. Aristotle and Plato, for example, thought it was obvious that people aren’t equal: some people are fit to be slaves. There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, this is how premodern people thought. Slavery was often regarded like poverty—a sad but inevitable (even natural) part of life.

Slavery was often regarded like poverty—a sad but inevitable (even natural) part of life.

These two historical facts alter the conversation from the start. Concerns about slavery in the Bible come about because of certain values we hold about human dignity and equality. But these values haven’t been obvious to most human cultures. They certainly weren’t obvious in the ancient Near East.

For example, in its own historical context, the Bible’s creation account in Genesis attached far greater dignity to human beings than was common at the time. In other creation accounts in the ancient Near East, being made in the image of a deity was generally reserved only for those in royal authority. Genesis 1, by contrast, proclaimed that everyone, no matter how poor or powerless, is made in God’s image.

While we take the idea of universal human dignity for granted today, it was radical in the unfolding of ancient history. Celsus, a pagan critic of the early church, faulted Christianity for its elevated view of humanity:

The radical error in Jewish and Christian thinking is that it is anthropocentric. They said that God made all things for man, but that is not at all evident. . . . In no way is man better in God’s sight than ants and bees.

Celsus’s view isn’t so different from that of materialism today: human beings are like bugs. We possess no special value.

We might not like this notion, but it’s not easy to see why it’s wrong. Unless, of course, you believe in something like the worldview of Genesis 1.

Historian Tom Holland argues that this worldview has shaped Western civilization such that modern people intuitively find slavery unacceptable. He notes, “That all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths. . . . The truest and ultimate seedbed of the American republic . . . was the book of Genesis.”

2. The Old Testament law made significant improvements to slavery in the ancient Near East.

When we fast-forward from the biblical creation account to the post-fall world after Genesis 3, we find many of the “heroes” of the Bible had servants or slaves, and the Mosaic law provided instructions for how slavery was to be conducted in Israel. Before addressing specific laws, it’s important to note these regulations were intended for ancient Israel, not for all people in all places at all times. The Mosaic law had a built-in obsolescence. By its own testimony, it was inferior to and anticipatory of a greater law that was to come (see Jer. 31:31–34).

Thus, it’s a mistake to think of Old Testament laws as a set of timeless ideals. Some laws concerning slavery are casuistic (i.e., case laws addressing specific situations that arise). In such cases, the law doesn’t necessarily reflect approval of the behavior being regulated—any more than, say, regulations concerning gambling today necessarily entail an approval of gambling. For example, Exodus 22:1 is obviously not approving of theft: “If a man steals an ox or a sheep, and kills it or sells it, he shall repay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep.”

Even noncasuistic laws often reflect a specific historical context. For example, Jesus taught that Moses’s regulations for divorce in Deuteronomy 24:1 were allowed “because of [people’s] hardness of heart” (Matt. 19:8). By recognizing this, Jesus isn’t downplaying the authority of Scripture. He’s simply interpreting it in light of its historical milieu. The Bible contains laws that provide instruction about how to function in a particular context. Such permissive laws may reflect people’s sinfulness at that time, rather than God’s heart for all people at all times.

While we take the idea of universal human dignity for granted today, it was radical in the unfolding of ancient history.

So Old Testament regulations concerning slavery were never intended as perennial ideals—for that, we look at the pre-fall world of Genesis 1–2.

These caveats aside, however, the Old Testament laws concerning slavery were far more humane than those of the surrounding cultures. Slavery in ancient Israel wasn’t founded on racism or human theft (see Ex. 21:6) but on economic considerations. In a subsistence economy, if you couldn’t repay your debts, becoming a servant was one way to survive.

Israelites couldn’t treat slaves however they wanted (see Job 31:13–15), and they typically would’ve worked alongside their servants (rather than having servants do their work for them). While slaves were often referred to as “property,” this language didn’t reflect their absence of rights or value. In fact, Old Testament law contained provisions to protect slaves from mistreatment—more so than existed in other nations of the ancient world. For example, other ancient law codes had prohibitions against harming someone else’s slaves, but the Old Testament contained penalties for harming your own servant (Ex. 21:26–27).

As the Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna notes, “This law—the protection of slaves from maltreatment by their masters—is found nowhere else in the entire existing corpus of ancient Near Eastern legislation.” Similarly, Christopher Wright observes,

No other ancient Near Eastern law has been found that holds a master to account for the treatment of his own slaves (as distinct from injury done to the slave of another master), and the otherwise universal law regarding runaway slaves was that they must be sent back, with severe penalties for those who failed to comply.

In the latter part of that quote, Wright is referencing Israel’s unusual laws protecting runaway foreign slaves (Deut. 23:15–16). If God’s people implemented this law, they’d have become the only safe haven for runaway slaves in the world at that time.

Here’s another example: in cases where a slave is killed by his master, he is to be “avenged” (Ex. 21:20–21). The Hebrew word for “avenged” here probably refers to the death penalty. This passage isn’t saying there’s no penalty if the slave survives (we’ve already seen this isn’t the case from verses 26–27). Rather, it’s stipulating this more severe penalty is off the table since the crime in this case would likely be less. Once again, this law is more tilted to the slave’s protection than was customary at that time. Mark Meynell notes, “If found guilty, a master was to be punished, which might result in death. That was unheard of at a time when the closest legal equivalents only dealt with assault on other people’s slaves.”

Leviticus 25:44–46 allowed the Israelites to acquire foreign slaves. However, the language of “acquiring” in this passage doesn’t refer to human theft, and the basis for acquiring foreign slaves wasn’t a perception of racial or cultural superiority. Again, it was economic. If you just read a bit further, you discover the Israelites could themselves become slaves to foreigners living among them (vv. 47–48).

It’s true there were differences in how Israelite servants and foreign slaves were treated. For example, Hebrew servants were freed every seven years during the year of jubilee (Deut. 15:12–15). Foreign slaves weren’t given this protection, though they were occasionally freed. However, foreign slaves would’ve benefited from other protections, such as Sabbath rest, gleaning laws, and protection from physical harm (see Ex. 21:26–27).

While the laws given to ancient Israel aren’t a timeless ideal, they reflect God’s care for the vulnerable. Over and over, the Lord commands his people to have regard for the outsider since they themselves were sojourners in Egypt (Ex. 22:21; Lev. 19:33–34).

3. The New Testament’s proclamation of the gospel laid the foundation for the eventual undermining of slavery.

When we move to the New Testament, we encounter a different kind of slavery than the Old Testament’s economically regulated servanthood. The Roman Empire was the most extensive slave system in premodern history. A huge percentage of the Roman population were slaves. Kyle Harper notes that “the Romans created one of the few ‘genuine slave societies’ in the western experience.” Roman slavery was harsh, and the power of a master over his slave was generally absolute.

Contrary to what’s sometimes asserted, the New Testament nowhere commends slavery. When the apostle Paul lists sins, he includes “enslavers” as an example of sin condemned by the law (1 Tim. 1:10). Further, Paul never counsels that people should become or remain slaves. Rather, he encourages bondservants to avail themselves of freedom when given the opportunity (1 Cor. 7:21).

What’s present in the New Testament is instruction given to particular people who are slaves to obey their masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22; 1 Tim. 6:1–2; 1 Pet. 2:18). But we must remember what’s already been said about contextualized laws: instruction for people living under fallen structures doesn’t necessarily entail approval of those structures. Telling someone what to do in certain circumstances isn’t the same as affirming the goodness of that circumstance.

Furthermore, the New Testament shows that the gospel undermines slavery by obliterating the prejudices and assumptions that make it possible. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good example: Paul is sending Onesimus—a runaway slave and recent convert—back to his owner, Philemon. But Paul commands Philemon to welcome him “no longer as a bondservant but more than a bondservant, as a beloved brother” and to “receive him as [he] would receive [Paul]” (Philem. 1:16–17).

The runaway slave now has all the dignity of an apostle. Paul is, in effect, dissolving one kind of relationship and establishing another in its place. As F. F. Bruce puts it, “What this letter does is to bring us into an atmosphere in which the institution (of slavery) could only wilt and die. . . . Formal emancipation would be but a matter of expediency, the technical confirmation of the new relationship that had already come into being.” In his instruction to Philemon, Paul provides a concrete portrait of the principle that in Christ, there’s neither slave nor free (Gal. 3:28; Col. 3:11).

When we embrace the gospel, our core identity changes. What’s most true of us is that we’re now in Christ. The division between a slave and the master is eclipsed in light of this greater thing they now have in common. In a fiercely hierarchical society, this was scandalous teaching. But it’s what the gospel requires.

4. The abolition of slavery in the modern world is largely indebted to Christian influence.

During the modern debates over slavery, Christians were found on both sides. And throughout church history, Christians have often accommodated themselves to the surrounding cultural position on slavery. We should be honest enough to avoid giving the impression that answering concerns about this topic is easy. The truth is that Christians have many reasons for repentance.

Still, the fact remains that when opposition to slavery first emerged in human history, it was largely a Christian impulse. In the early church, Gregory of Nyssa preached a sermon that has been called “the most scathing critique of slave-holding in all of antiquity.” What made Gregory’s condemnation of slavery unique is that he didn’t condemn just the abuses of slavery but the institution as such. The basis for his critique was that human beings are made in the image of God:

Tell me what sort of price you paid. What did you find in creation with a value corresponding to the nature of your purchase? What price did you put on rationality? For how many obols did you value the image of God? For how many coins did you sell this nature formed by God? God said: “Let us make human beings in our own image and likeness” (Gen 1.26). When we are talking about one who is in the image of God, who has dominion over the whole earth and who has been granted by God authority over everything on the earth, tell me, who is the seller and who the buyer? . . . God would not make a slave of humankind. It was God who, through his own will, called us back to freedom when we were slaves of sin. If God does not enslave a free person, then who would consider their own authority higher than God’s?

Toward the end of the 18th century, something happened that had never occurred before in human history: public opinion swung decidedly against slavery as inherently immoral. Evangelical Christians like William Wilberforce played a leading role in this reversal. Scholar Alec Ryrie concludes,

Abolitionism was a religious movement first and last. The Protestant argument against the slave trade was simple. Even if the Bible had not specifically condemned “man-stealing,” Christ’s so-called Golden Rule—“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—could hardly justify kidnapping people, shipping them across the world in hellish conditions, and selling them into perpetual slavery. Even if you accepted slavery itself, it was almost impossible to construct a Christian defence of the slave trade, and hardly anyone tried.

Savior Who Became a Slave

While slavery in the Bible is a legitimate concern for critics of Christianity to raise, it’s also fair to ask those critics where they locate their own opposition to slavery. Why is slavery wrong? Shorn of ideas like the golden rule and creation in God’s image, what remains to ground human equality?

When opposition to slavery first emerged in human history, it was largely a Christian impulse.

In an atheistic worldview, it’s unclear what this would be. Thus, we shouldn’t be too quick to reject the Bible on the grounds that it has allowed for slavery in certain contexts. We owe much to its incremental approach. Without it, it’s hard to see how slavery would ever have come to be unthinkable—or even particularly noticeable.

Ultimately, Christianity proclaims something even more radical than the golden rule or creation in God’s image. It offers us a Savior who became a slave: Jesus (Mark 10:45).

Christianity’s message is that in the person of Jesus, God, the highest One, became the lowest servant to give his life for us (Phil. 2:7–8). If this is true, we have every reason to trust God, even if we cannot understand all his ways of working in human history. And it’s such a beautiful idea that if it has even a chance of being true, it’s worth spending our lives exploring and considering.

I’m convinced—wonder of wonders—it is true. God became our servant in Christ. Who can reject a God like that?

Introducing Season 4 and the Center for Gospel Culture Mon, 01 Jul 2024 04:04:07 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry introduce the theme for season 4 and announce an exciting new project you won’t want to miss.]]> Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the upcoming season of You’re Not Crazy, where they’ll delve into Romans 12–15 and focus on how to foster gospel culture in churches. They introduce their forthcoming small group curriculum based on principles also taught in the book You’re Not Crazy, and they announce the launch of the Center for Gospel Culture by leaders from Immanuel Nashville. The center will offer resources and events for pastors and churches, including a decade’s worth of sermons, manuals, and other materials.

In Your Distress, Talk with God About God Mon, 01 Jul 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Once these saints recall God’s glory, they present their requests confidently, knowing God hears and cares.]]> When troubles come, what do we most need? Our instinctive answer is help. When the doctor delivers a difficult diagnosis, we want a treatment plan. When drowning in debt, we crave provision. When our marriage crumbles, we seek counseling.

As Christians, we also think about our spiritual needs in times of trouble: we need prayer; we need God to show up in a mighty way. Certainly we do, but that raises questions: What sort of prayer? For that matter, what sort of God?

Isaiah 63 gives us an unexpected answer to these questions. God’s people face annihilation. They need a divine warrior “marching in the greatness of his strength” (v. 1). The enemy is at the gates. Smoke rises from ruined cities. Enemies have “trampled down [God’s] sanctuary” (v. 18) so that “Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation.” The “holy and beautiful” temple where God’s people had long worshiped “has been burned by fire” (64:10–11). If ever a moment called for bold intercession, this was it.

Isaiah will make bold requests of God: “Look down from heaven and see” (63:15), “Return” (v. 17), “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” (64:1). But not yet. Before he asks, Isaiah speaks about God. He tells of God’s kindnesses, mighty deeds, and compassion (63:7). He speaks of God’s fatherly affection for his people (v. 8), his sympathy when they’re in distress (v. 9). The Lord redeemed his people, forbearing even in their rebellion (v. 10), and he has proven himself faithful to them throughout generations (vv. 11–14).

To whom does Isaiah give this reminder of God’s glory? Remember, this is a prayer. That means Isaiah is talking to God about God. He’s appealing to God’s character as the basis of his petition.

Ordinary Pattern

This is an ordinary pattern. Consider David. In Psalm 139, David seeks help because wicked adversaries are bringing trouble against him. Before asking God to intervene, he spends 18 verses talking to God about God. God is the sovereign, ever-present, all-knowing, all-wise Creator who forms us in the womb. David reminds himself and God of these glorious realities before making his requests, because he needs first to remember who God is.

Isaiah is talking to God about God. He’s appealing to God’s character as the basis of his petition.

In Psalm 27, David rehearses God’s power in a single verse before petitioning God (v. 1). In Nehemiah 9, the Levites lead the people in several long paragraphs of prayerful praise, telling God about his mighty deeds, before asking for help. In Psalm 23, David never makes it to petition, having brought his heart to peace in the Shepherd’s presence. The proportions vary, but the pattern is the same.

Once these saints recall God’s glory, they present their requests confidently, knowing God hears and cares. They first reflect on his character and discern his will (so they ask aright), and then they can take solace in his precious promises.

Needed Reminder

Talking with God about God is a needed lesson today. We often leap directly to our requests. When we do that, we lack confidence. We pray timid, half-hearted prayers because we’re not sure if God is listening. Even if he is, we’re not sure he’ll grant what we ask.

But when we begin with a true account of God’s character and the explicit promises he’s given us, our petitions have a sure foundation. We can besiege heaven, calling on God to be who he is. The bigger God is in our sight, the bolder the petition.

Isaiah counsels Israel’s intercessors, “You who call on the LORD, give yourselves no rest, and give him no rest till he establishes Jerusalem and makes her the praise of the earth” (62:6, NIV). What could sustain intercession like that apart from the knowledge of God’s character and faithfulness?

Talking to God about God may change the nature of our requests. We often want what God hasn’t promised. But that, too, is a help. You may want to pray for a change in your circumstances, but God hasn’t promised such a change. However, he does promise to give you peace amid your circumstances, to use even the most trying days to conform you to Christ’s image. In reminding yourself of that truth—in talking to God about God before you make your plea—you can experience the comfort of confidence that you’re asking in accordance with God’s will.

What It Looks like Practically

Christian, turn your meditation on God’s Word into prayer. Ask what this passage says about God. Pray that truth back to him in adoration. What promises do you see in the passage, and how are those promises “Yes” and “Amen” in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20)? Ask with confidence for God to deliver on those promises—in his way and time—for he’s unfailingly faithful to his Word.

Maybe you’re facing sexual temptation. Even now you’re considering opening a private tab on your browser. You’re reading this article to distract yourself and to fix your thoughts on Jesus. With each racing heartbeat, you’re muttering, “God, help me,” but you’re not sure he will, because he didn’t seem to the last time you fell. What if you talked to God about God? Remind yourself he gives the living water after which we never thirst again (John 4:13–14)—love that slakes our thirst so we don’t need to seek the false intimacy of pornographic pixels.

When we begin with a true account of God’s character and the explicit promises he’s given us, our petitions have a sure foundation.

Perhaps you have a difficult colleague slandering you. Talk to God not about the conflict but about God: “You, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head” (Ps. 3:3). He protects the vulnerable, covers scorn with glory, and lifts the head sunk in discouragement.

Or maybe you’re suffering angst over all the trouble in today’s world. How sorely we all need to remember that he’s the King of kings! As Jesus himself reminded churches facing worse than we experience, he holds us in his hand (Rev. 2:1), conquered death (v. 8), will speak decisive words of judgment (v. 12), and rules over the nations (v. 27). He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Greatest Need

What we most need, no matter our current circumstances, is a deeper knowledge of and intimacy with God our Savior.

The simple act of beginning our prayers with “God, you . . .” instead of “God, I . . .”—of talking to God about God before talking to him about ourselves—will recalibrate, refresh, and reinvigorate our prayers.

Like David in Psalm 23, we may find we needn’t offer any petition once we’ve talked with God about God. In rehearsing his beauty and majesty, we soon remember he’s the deepest longing hidden beneath every other desire. As Jonathan Edwards said,

The redeemed have all their objective good in God. God himself is the great good which they are brought to the possession and enjoyment of by redemption. He is the highest good, and the sum of all that good which Christ purchased.

Talk with God about God, and you’ll quickly discover how true that is.

Amid Turmoil, Haiti Finds Hope Mon, 01 Jul 2024 04:00:00 +0000 A Haitian pastor shares why Haiti is struggling, how its churches are doing, and how he prays for his country these days.]]> Last week, 400 police officers from Kenya landed in Haiti, the first move in a United Nations–backed operation to try to stabilize the country. Over the last 18 months, Haitian gangs have kidnapped hundreds, killed thousands, and forced hundreds of thousands from their homes.

In February, while then prime minister Ariel Henry was out of the country asking the Kenyans for international help, gangs stormed Haiti’s two largest prisons and released more than 4,000 inmates. They attacked the international airport in Port-au-Prince, grounding flights for nearly three months. And they looted the port, effectively blocking the capital from its last source of international aid.

The U.S. began airlifting Americans out of the country.

“Most missionaries left then,” said Mission to the World missionary Esaïe Etienne. A Haitian himself, he moved to the U.S. with his family in 1991. Two years later, he met a Haitian pastor planting a Presbyterian Church in America congregation.

“That’s how I learned my Westminster Confession of Faith,” he said. After graduating from Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, he began ministering to Haitians in Florida, then moved back to Haiti. He and his wife now live in the Dominican Republic and make regular visits back to their homeland.

“I’m not sure how many missionaries are left now,” he said. Two who opted to stay were shot by gangs last month.

“Especially since February, things have escalated to a different level,” Etienne said.

The Gospel Coalition asked him why Haiti is struggling, how its churches are doing, and how he prays for his country these days.

Haiti has had trouble with gangs since the 1950s, when a dictator named François Duvalier used them to scare and silence dissidents. But the country also struggles with political corruption and persistently high poverty. Why is Haiti always in trouble?

Over the years, we’ve had a lot of different corrupt politicians and economic elite that come to power, one after another. It’s just selfishness. They come stealing money and go somewhere else to spend it. After they finish up a few years in power, they go into exile, in a sense with the money they have stolen.

Of course, there are exceptions. We’ve had administrations that have shown patriotism and love for the country. But the evil forces always get them out. So they never have time to make a long-lasting positive effect on the country.

The corrupt leaders sometimes arm young people and tell them to cause problems so the leaders can get elected. In the past three or four years, those young people are becoming autonomous. They have become directly connected with places to get guns and drugs. The gangs have also made a lot of money in kidnappings over the past four to five years and now they don’t need the politicians or economic elite anymore. It’s really chaos.

How can regular people live in conditions like those?

Many have left—and have done so for years. At one point in the 1990s, there were more Haitian doctors in Chicago than in Haiti.

Lately, people who have a home or business in a gang-controlled area have had to leave. For example, my wife is from Port-au-Prince, and her family had to leave their house to go elsewhere. If you don’t have money, you have to stay, but conditions are very dire. There are a lot of rapes. Businesses are closed. At one car dealership, the gangs burned hundreds of vehicles.

If you don’t have money, you have to stay, but conditions are very dire.

At this point, the gangs control 80 percent of the capital. Because the geography is mountainous, there are only a few roads out. Those are also controlled by gangs—if you want to leave, you have to pay a fee. Even if you do, you may be stopped or killed. There are many stories of gangs opening fire on buses full of people.

The United Nations estimates that more than 575,000 people are displaced in the country. They are living in makeshift tents or in schools. About 5 million people—more than half of Haiti’s population—are in extreme need of food.

Are churches still functioning?

Yes. In Port-au-Prince it’s more difficult, and some have had to close because they’re in gang territory. But there are churches around the country that are open. In Gonaïves, about 95 miles north of Port-au-Prince, we have three churches, a leadership training center, and a school for 500 children. We used to invite medical missions teams there, but we haven’t been able to have any since 2019 because it’s been so unsafe.

Although the port in Port-au-Prince has been closed, there are still ports open in the north of the country. So we have been able to get some food in, though it is almost double in price. Last month we were able to distribute food to about eight churches and reach about 2,200 people with things like rice, beans, and sardines.

You mentioned a school. Is that still open?

Yes. In Gonaïves, our Christian school is a more permanent way to help, to provide hope to the kids and education for a better future.

This is really important. Since many people who left their homes are now living together in schools—thousands of them in a little space—those schools can’t operate. There is a whole generation of kids who are missing out on education.

How are the church leaders doing?

Compared to Port-au-Prince, Gonaïves is relatively safe, so the pastors are doing OK. There is a lot of desperation—there is not much food—but at the same time people can see that things could be worse.

When we distributed the food, we heard testimonies from people who said, “This is [from] God.” One pastor we provided with food is in Port-au-Prince, and he can’t stop talking about it. The amount we provided was small, but it will feed those people for about a month.

I’m trying to raise money for more food.

What’s next for Haiti?

It’s hard to know. The gangs have a lot of guns and are ready to fight. In Port-au-Prince, the gangs have destroyed most of the big hospitals. I don’t know why. Nobody understands their philosophy.

I’ve never seen the country at a lower level than this.

We grieve for what we see, because we know Haiti’s potential. The country is beautiful, with many beaches, and could be a great spot for tourism. I’m sure many in the gangs are redeemable. But the stability isn’t there, and there is a lot of despair.

El Salvador had a situation like this recently. President Nayib Bukele faced it by putting thousands of gang members in jail. He brought some peace. So we know with the right leadership you can turn things around. But many times people in leadership are connected to the gangs—that’s why you want the right leadership, who are not in relationship with the gangs.

Loving Haiti has been tough on you. What keeps you going?

A psalm that is our family’s favorite is Psalm 23. It’s really something we hold on to. My hope is in the Lord. I am praying he would intervene with the right leaders.

My hope is in the Lord. I am praying he would intervene with the right leaders.

Even the ones that are there now—including the interim presidential council and the prime minister Garry Conille—I pray for them every day to have wisdom and love for the people, that they would make the right decisions to help the country instead of hurting it. I pray for stability and peace. I pray for the many thousands who are suffering.

I don’t trust any politicians. But I believe God can do something.

We’ll just continue to do whatever little we can do, one person at a time. We will preach the gospel and show love with some food or with the school we have for the kids. And we will continue to pray that God would bring the right leadership to change the course of the country.

How to Be an Elder on Sunday Morning Sun, 30 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Elder, your demeanor on Sunday mornings will set the tone for the entire church.]]> The elders of God’s church are called to shepherd his flock (Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1–3). We should know, feed, lead, and protect Christ’s sheep (John 10:11–18). Because elders greatly influence a church’s health, God will hold us accountable (Heb. 13:17; Titus 1:5).

Yet a healthy Christian community is also a joy to lead (Heb. 13:17). We’re stretched toward Christlikeness as we imitate our good Shepherd (John 10:11–18; 1 Tim. 4:15). Indeed, faithful elders will receive a crown of glory from the chief Shepherd himself (1 Pet. 5:4).

Two Ways to Think on Sunday Morning

Elders are always responsible for the church. But we function in focused ways when the church gathers. Here are two ways an elder should think on Sundays.

1. Think like a father (1 Thess. 2:11–12; 1 Tim. 3:4–5).

Imagine you’re attending an event with a friend, coworker, or client. How do you approach it? Now imagine you’re going with your children, as a father. How is your approach different?

Seeing things like a father changes everything. Elders provide fatherly leadership, care, and protection for God’s family. Thinking like a father on Sundays should warm your heart, clarify your focus, and make you more alert as you care for God’s family.

2. Think like a host (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:7–8).

Each Sunday, newcomers are among us. They aren’t customers to impress or strangers to ignore but guests to welcome. As honored guests, they should receive the same lavish hospitality we’ve received from God.

Engage visitors in conversation, anticipate their needs, show them around, sit with them, introduce them to others, and invite them to lunch. “An overseer must be . . . hospitable” (1 Tim. 3:2). If biblical hospitality opens our homes, how much more our hearts on Sunday? When the elders show warmth at our gatherings, our entire church family warms over time.

Ten Things to Do on Sunday Morning

When an elder thinks like a father and a host, a wonderful constellation of opportunities lights up. Much good is done when elders love in small ways.

1. Pray for the church (Phil. 1:9–11).

Every Sunday is a fresh celebration of Jesus’s victory over sin and death. Every Sunday is a needed pit stop for weary pilgrims. Every Sunday brings a fresh meal from God’s Word. Every Sunday is an opportunity to gather at one table. Every Sunday can bring fellowship for the lonely, healing for the hurting, and strength for the battle. And every Sunday is a fresh declaration to the principalities and powers that Christ is wiser and Christ is winning (Eph. 3:10).

When the elders show warmth at our gatherings, our entire church family warms over time.

So every Sunday, we should pray that God’s Spirit would move mightily among us as he acts out Christ’s promise to build his church (Matt. 16:18).

2. Come early and stay late (Ps. 84:10).

A Sunday gathering is the central time when our whole church family worships together, an opportunity to welcome guests, a chance to encourage our volunteers, and a window for elders to model loving leadership. Come early and stay late to take full advantage of this sacred time in God’s presence.

3. Initiate personal conversations (Eph. 4:15–16; 1 Thess. 5:11).

Knowing the sheep starts with interaction, and interaction starts with conversation. You don’t need to be an extrovert or a master small-talker. Just ask personal questions, listen well, and be your in-Christ self.

4. Move around the church (Heb. 10:24–25).

We all have our traffic patterns. So break it up. Wander down to the kids’ area to talk with parents and children. Move across the sanctuary to greet those you rarely see. Spend time in the parking lot welcoming people coming in. Make your way to the youth area and connect with the students. Come review the service plan and pray with the musicians. What you see depends on where you stand—so move around and see all God is doing.

5. Encourage staff and volunteers (Rom. 16:1–2).

Ultimately, the church’s ministry is sustained by those who actively serve. Every member plays a part, but there’s always a group that consistently gives themselves away. Look out for them and be generous with your praise, encouragement, and support.

6. Be an alert observer (Acts 20:28).

Who’s connecting? Who looks new, alone, or lost? Anyone look suspicious? Whose gifts and personality might fit a specific ministry? Whose gifts might fit better elsewhere? What was encouraging in the service, and what fell flat? Be an alert observer, and the Sunday gathering will come alive with opportunity.

7. Connect people with each other (Eccl. 4:9–10).

Over time, elders grow familiar with the church. We learn about needs, resources, personalities, opportunities, ministries, and all the oral traditions of a community. With this knowledge, we can be helpful networkers.

See a young family visiting for the first time? Connect them with another family. Hear a member saying great things about the music? Send her over to the worship leader to share. See a guest walking in alone? Invite him to sit with you, or find him someone to sit with. Sheep need fellowship as much as they need shepherds. So connect them with each other.

8. Be a lead worshiper (1 Pet. 5:3).

Our leadership doesn’t end when the worship service begins. The sanctuary is a place to model relational pursuit, prayerful preparation, joyful worship, engaged listening, and sacred attention to the things of God. Our people aren’t just paying attention to the people up front. They’re also following their elders.

9. Follow up faithfully (Prov. 10:4).

Consider setting aside a brief time each Sunday to follow up with people you talked with and pray for things you observed. Capturing your follow-up tasks and taking care of them quickly will ensure God’s people are well cared for—and leave you with a clear conscience.

10. Go home and rest well (Ps. 127:1–2).

Ultimately, the church is the Lord’s. So we show up, exercise gentle oversight, pursue people, follow up faithfully, and then rest well. God’s Word stands eternal in the heavens; Christ will build his church; his kingdom is forever. We just have a front-row seat as his instruments. Every Sunday, go home and rest well.

Sacred Opportunity

Sunday mornings are a special time in a church’s life. Yet they can also become routine. As elders, we must remember our Sunday gatherings are teeming with sacred opportunities. We can rejoice with those who rejoice, strengthen those who falter, welcome in the lost, improve our many ministries, spark new ideas, and partner as a team during the special season God’s given us as fellow elders.

May you find joy in this honorable task, looking forward to the day when Christ honors you for your faithful service.

A Theology of Reproductive Technology Sat, 29 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Much of the technology around artificial reproduction was devised to circumvent nature rather than to restore it.]]> For the last few decades, Oliver O’Donovan’s Begotten or Made? has been difficult to find and expensive to buy. Thanks to the foresight of the Davenant Institute, an organization aimed at renewing the intellectual life of contemporary Protestantism, that’s no longer the case.

This “New Edition for the 21st Century,” published some 38 years after the original, is now both readily available and affordable—at least on Kindle, and also in paperback for those in the U.S. and Canada. What’s more, it comes with a new introduction by Matthew Lee Anderson, which helpfully highlights the significance of the work, and a fresh afterword from O’Donovan himself.

Lectures on Reproduction

Begotten or Made? is the published version of the London Lectures in Contemporary Christianity delivered by O’Donovan in 1983. As he explains in the 1984 preface, he’d been invited to tackle a bioethical theme and, as IVF was still a novel technology, “it was not difficult to settle on the area of artificial human fertilization” (xiii). Importantly, however, he was less concerned about dealing with the technique of artificial reproduction than he was with the theology behind it.

Reproductive technology has developed considerably since that time. But by penetrating through the mechanisms of IVF to the ideas that enable it, O’Donovan produced a theoethical treatise that remains highly relevant today.

As Matthew Lee Anderson writes in his introduction, “O’Donovan’s work is both timeless and timely because he digs beneath the concrete practical questions into the manner of thinking embedded within the new technologies of ‘making’ human life” (iii).

Ethics, Theology, and Technology

In chapter 1, O’Donovan both explains and contrasts his use of the terms “begetting” (by which he means the natural generation of a being like ourselves) and “making” (the artificial creation of a being unlike ourselves) to prepare for later discussions of “particular technical undertakings which promise to transform our human begetting into making” (6). This leads to a consideration of the purpose of medicine and medical technique, which traditionally wasn’t thought to be that of “interfering in a healthy body” but of “curing a sick one” (8).

For Christians, the recognition of “limits to the appropriateness of our ‘making’” is a necessary entailment of our “faith in the natural order as the good creation of God” (15). This is important because it helps us differentiate the process of repairing that which God has created from attempts to alter or overcome his design. Much of the technology around artificial reproduction was devised to circumvent nature rather than to restore it.

Much of the technology around artificial reproduction was devised to circumvent nature rather than to restore it.

In chapter 2, “Sex by Artifice,” O’Donovan deals with what he calls “transsexual surgery” (now termed “sex reassignment surgery” or “gender confirmation surgery”). This, as he sees it, is another form of technology primarily oriented toward thwarting or changing nature rather than healing or restoring it. As such, it cannot be regarded as a form of medicine in any meaningful sense.

His discussion of this subject was primarily intended to show where divorcing reproduction from intercourse between a male and a female would lead and how, conversely, “the general program of artificializing procreation is furthered by the artificializing of sex” (22). However, O’Donovan’s analysis of the “philosophical decision” to collapse “the distinction between the physical sex and the psychological sex” of a person can now be seen as prophetic (27). Forty years on, his treatment of the subject remains one of the clearest and most penetrating yet written. Anderson agrees, describing it as “the single most incisive theological treatment of the subject to date” (iii). The book is worth reading for this chapter alone.

Chapter 3 explains why donor involvement in the procreative process is inherently unethical. O’Donovan outlines the moral deficiencies of replacing one of the parents within the family with (potentially) a stranger.

In making his case, he deals carefully with possible objections raised by the Old Testament practice of levirate marriage, which he argues is significantly different from the contemporary practice of AID—i.e., “artificial insemination by donor” (37). An analogy with adoption likewise fails. He writes, “To take another’s child into one’s family is a totally different kind of act from taking another’s gamete into one’s act of procreation” (45).

One aspect of this chapter that needs further development (due to the practice’s increasing popularity today, rather than any lack in O’Donovan’s reasoning) is the renting of wombs through surrogacy. But even here, he has provided the necessary groundwork for an ethical evaluation (and rejection) of this practice.

Chapter 4 wrestles with the meaning of personhood (in general) and the personhood of the embryo (in particular). Contemporary medical ethics requires the subject’s consent for experimentation, which an embryo obviously cannot give. And yet so much reproductive technology—from freezing embryos to genetically modifying them—is experimental and has at least some risk of damage or death.

Therefore, even if (contrary to the scientific evidence) one concludes the personhood of an embryo is ambiguous, the logic of Roman Catholic thought should prevail: “Declare ignorance about the beginnings of personal existence and then protect the child from conception on” (69). But instead, our generation has committed “the new and subtle crime of making babies to be ambiguously human, of presenting to us members of our own species who are doubtfully proper objects of compassion and love.”

In O’Donovan’s mind, this is “the clearest possible demonstration of the principle that when we start making human beings we necessarily stop loving them.” Why so? Because “that which is made rather than begotten becomes something that we have at our disposal, not someone with whom we can engage in brotherly fellowship” (79).

Contemporary medical ethics requires the subject’s consent for experimentation, which an embryo obviously cannot give.

The final chapter wraps up the book’s larger argument, making the case for nature and against artifice by means of an imaginative but highly instructive fairy tale. One of the most significant aspects of moral reasoning about artificial reproductive technologies arising from O’Donovan’s discussion is that many who participate in such techniques likely don’t consider the moral implications of their actions.

The clinical nature of IVF, for example, eliminates the mutual relationship and cooperation normally required for natural conception. It also seeks to overcome the element of “randomness,” which is “one of the factors which most distinguish the act of begetting from the act of technique” (87). While this may not invalidate all uses of IVF technology, it is, on the whole, something significantly different from natural procreation.

Compact and Cogent

Begotten or Made? is slender, with its five main chapters coming to a little over a hundred pages. But while compact, it is carefully and cogently argued, even if those not familiar with O’Donovan’s style of moral reasoning may find it dense and difficult at points. It’s a book that should be read slowly and pondered deeply. But it’s well worth the time it takes to read it and, as we’d recommend, reread it.

In producing a second edition of this increasingly important work, the Davenant Institute has performed a valuable service for the body of Christ. This is indeed, as Carl Trueman writes in his commendation, a book that “deserves to be widely read by a new generation of theologians, philosophers, and pastors.”

1776: The Origin Story of the Post-Christian West Fri, 28 Jun 2024 04:04:23 +0000 Cultural shifts in 1776 transformed the world into a WEIRDER society. What can we learn from the church of the time?]]> The year 1776 remade the world. In one extraordinary year, a combination of books, ships, machines, inventions, paintings, and declarations created a new cultural landscape that we could characterize as WEIRDER: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic, Ex-Christian, and Romantic.

In this breakout session from TGC23, Andrew Wilson teaches how these different transformations came together to shape our world—how the church of 1776 responded and what we can learn from them.

Let Death Teach You How to Live Fri, 28 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Walking with our loved ones through death is a rehearsal for our own step into eternity.]]> My grandmother died last year on her 96th birthday. When I got the call that the end was near, I quickly drove to my parents’ home in Tennessee. In those final hours before she died, we held her hands and sang hymns. We recited Scriptures she loved and talked about heaven. Late in the evening, my grandmother died with family, friends, and a hospice nurse holding vigil by her side. “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints,” I whispered, the room now quiet in the absence of her labored breathing.

A wave of conflicting thoughts swirled in my mind. Death is natural. Death is a part of life. But death is also unnatural. It’s an enemy. This isn’t right. My grandmother was a faithful believer. Though I knew she was with the Lord, I wasn’t sure how to feel about her death. There’s an ache of grief, even if it’s grief with hope. But how do we grieve? What do we do with death—the thing that everyone faces but none of us wants to endure? If death is a natural part of life, why are we so afraid of it?

In We Shall All Be Changed: How Facing Death with Loved Ones Transforms Us, journalist Whitney Pipkin answers common questions about grieving the death of a loved one and facing our mortality. Death is a doorway that leads us to eternity, but it’s also an enemy that will chase humanity until Christ returns to put it in its grave.

Theology of Death

It’s tempting to cloak our feelings about death with cheery Bible verses and “buck-up” clichés. However, if death is truly the enemy Jesus came to destroy, then it’s right to grieve its reach in this life. It’s right to lament because death is lamentable, even if it’s anticipated. Pipkin writes, “There is no tidy theology that will keep those tears from falling. But our suffering in death need not be deepened by surprise” (33).

We all must face our mortality. Walking with our loved ones through death is a rehearsal for our own step into eternity. Unless Christ returns in our lifetime, we will die. Developing a theology of death teaches us to sit with grief and understand the hope of Christ’s return.

Walking with our loved ones through death is a rehearsal for our own step into eternity.

Death is a result of sin. “For the wages of sin is death,” Paul argued (Rom. 6:23). But Jesus came to die to pay for our sin and give us the free gift of eternal life. We still bear the curse of sin, yet Christians no longer bear its condemnation for Jesus has swallowed it in victory for us (1 Cor. 15:54). Pipkin writes,

As Christians, we know that if Christ tarries, death will be the mode of our deliverance from this sin-soaked world and into His very presence. We do not welcome it because of this. But, because of this, we can look it in the eye. We can grab death by the horns and say, “How then shall I live?” (78)

By braiding together the inevitability of death and our victory in Christ from it—through it—we shed our fear by numbering our days as we look forward to the imperishable.

Grief and Hope

Walking through her mother’s illness and death forced Pipkin to grapple with what Scripture teaches us about death—both as a curse and as deliverance from suffering. Pipkin’s mother was diagnosed with cancer at age 43. Over the two decades of her battle with cancer, she pursued every possible treatment, clinical trial, and new medication. She fought to give her children as much time with their mother as possible.

Even so, the time was achingly short. “None of us is ever ready to witness the slow demise of a loved one or a sudden shocking departure,” Pipkin writes. “No—losing my mother’s presence on this earth has blown a chasm in me that will never be closed. I was not at all done being mothered at age thirty-three. I see now that I never will be” (26).

As a loved one is dying, Pipkin observes, it offers an opportunity to “extend improbable grace” as we serve them in their final days (27). We can draw close to them to offer the hope of the gospel, whether they’re believers or unbelievers.

Once they’re gone, though, we grapple with their absence. Grieving with hope means testing God’s promises, putting weight on all the things we’ve said we believed but have only now in the death of our loved one dared to prove. In the hope of resurrection, all God’s promises hold true.

Death Is Not the End

As Pipkin takes us through her experiences in caregiving, she paints a hopeful picture of what’s next for the believer. Resurrection day is coming. These bodies crushed beneath the weight of cancer, chronic pain, and old age will one day be raised imperishable just as Jesus was. The comfort in death is the hope of resurrection. Because of Jesus, death is not the end, nor is it a path we’ll travel alone. Pipkin writes, “Perhaps the greatest comfort Christians have in the face of death, then, is that their God went first” (73).

Grieving with hope means testing God’s promises, putting weight on all the things we’ve said we believed but have only now in the death of our loved one dared to prove.

We Shall All Be Changed is an honest book. Pipkin’s personal stories will resonate with anyone who has lost a family member. But it’s also a gospel-infused, hopeful book written with beauty and truth. Having read it, I fear death less but hate it more as an enemy. And I believe down to my bones that what Jesus accomplished at the cross and the empty tomb means everything for our present comfort and our future hope.

One day Christ will return, “and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Cor. 15:52). My grandmother, Pipkin’s mother, the faithful father you lost, the church friend you miss, me, you. Yes, we’ll face death, but we shall also all be changed.

Avoid Being Wrong When You’re Right Fri, 28 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 In communication, there’s a wrong way to be right. Here are five ways to combat this temptation. ]]> When King Pyrrhus defeated the Romans at Heraclea in 280 BC, he achieved a great victory—and a great defeat. His army’s casualties were so excessive they undermined the value of his conquest. In war, sometimes a win turns out to be a loss on closer inspection. These “Pyrrhic victories” can turn a battlefield success into an unintended catastrophe. The conflict may be won but at a high cost.

Pyrrhic victories can also take place off the battlefield. Too often they’re found in our families, friendships, and churches. In a conflict, a stand is taken in a manner detrimental to those involved. Maybe, like us, you’ve unwittingly made this wrong assumption: I’ve faithfully defended a biblical position on a contested issue, and so I’ve honored Christ. But this sentiment is incomplete. If we’ve expressed a biblical truth without biblical love, we’ve missed the mark. Upholding Christ-honoring truth requires Christ-honoring communication. How we say what we say always matters.

If we’ve expressed a biblical truth without biblical love, we’ve missed the mark.

This is true in every area of disagreement we may encounter: Family members make lifestyle choices we know are sinful. Friends adhere to doctrinal positions we believe to be in error. We reach an impasse with fellow church members over personal offenses or conscience issues.

Whatever the points of contention, even if we believe ourselves to be right, we must avoid being wrong in our manner of communication if we want to honor Christ.

Twin Virtues Needed in Every Conflict

We’re the parents of college-aged twins. When one comes home from university for the weekend and the other doesn’t, we miss the one who remained on campus. The weekend doesn’t feel right or complete.

Similarly, attempts at communicating in conflict can only be considered biblical or Christ-honoring with the presence of two virtues: humility and love. These twins are part of the Lord’s plan for godly communication, and they’re necessary to avoid being wrong in our manner—even when we’re right in our message.

These virtues guard us from being rude, harsh, angry, argumentative, manipulative, or condescending. In love—as we’ve been loved by Christ—we’ll communicate not only with conviction but also with gracious affection. In humility—as we’ve been served by Christ—we’ll communicate not only with courage but also with deference to others, considering them more important than ourselves.

Let’s Get Practical

How can we practically display Christlike humility and love in our communication? In at least five ways.

1. Recognize the other viewpoint.

Listen to gain an understanding of the other person’s circumstances and heart. Ask questions for clarification, and give space for a thorough response. Proverbs 20:5 reminds us that “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” Seek to thoroughly comprehend the other point of view so your response is relevant and focused.

2. Respond with gracious wisdom.

Let James 3:17 guide your response: “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” Imagine communicating like that. Purpose and pray in advance—even in the moment—to communicate with the wisdom James describes. This quality of speech is supernatural but possible as you walk in the Spirit.

3. Reason from the Scriptures.

The Scriptures are the Christian’s authority for all of life: “The rules of the LORD are true, and righteous altogether” (Ps. 19:9). Since our goal in disagreement must be for all involved to glorify Christ by submitting to his Word, resist the temptation to argue from personal experience or preference. While the commands and principles of Scripture are our standard, sometimes we may disagree on how they’re applied. Explain your position biblically, but be careful not to elevate your applications to the level of the Bible’s authority.

4. Reaffirm your love.

We live in a culture that equates disagreement with hate. That’s not the genuine Christian way, for “love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God” (1 John 4:7). In light of such prevailing assumptions and accusations, it’s helpful to overtly communicate that you genuinely care, and that you’re seeking to love as Christ has loved you. Provide reassurance of your affection and concern—with both actions and words.

5. Realize your limitations.

Remember it’s the Lord, not you, who transforms hearts and lives. You can say and do the right things, but that doesn’t guarantee that others will agree or mend their ways. Your hope must be firmly fixed on your sovereign God, who does all things well in his good time.

Trust the Lord that his Word will accomplish his purposes in both you and others as you continue to pursue being right—in the right way.

What to Do While You Wait Thu, 27 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Life is full of waiting. Often there’s pain in the waiting, but for the Christian, there’s always hope.]]> “For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” (1 Pet. 3:5–6)

I’m an expat. Our family has lived in Dubai for almost 20 years. My husband is the pastor of an evangelical, English-speaking church, and it’s been a joy to watch as people from all different backgrounds grow in the faith and come to know Christ in this majority-Muslim country. It took time, but a country that wasn’t my own now feels like home.

Still, I’m often waiting. My children are grown and live in other countries, so I’m tied to my calendar, scheduling when I’ll see them again. This type of waiting is exciting, but others are excruciating: Waiting to see what will happen to a family member diagnosed with dementia. Waiting for loneliness or depression to end. Waiting for difficult circumstances to change. Life is full of waiting. Often there’s pain in the waiting, but for the Christian, there’s always hope.

Sarah, the wife of Abraham the patriarch, lived a life of waiting. She was the ultimate expat. She waited for her travels to come to an end, for a place she could call home, and for a child to call her own. She didn’t have an easy life.

When God called her husband, Abraham, to leave his country, family, and religion behind, Sarah obediently went with him. She, too, left everything. She left the way of life she knew. Together, they were sojourners, living in tents, in lands not their own.

Regular travel brought constant change and danger, including famine and potential enemies on every side. And Sarah no longer had little pagan gods to manipulate into providing her food and safety. Her husband worshiped the Lord, the God Most High, the One who made heaven and earth. This big God was now the only One to whom she could turn. She couldn’t control him. He did things his way. Was he a God she could put her hope in?

Waiting for the Promised Son

God called Abraham out of his country into a land he would show him. God said he would bless Abraham, making him into a great nation. He promised that in Abraham’s offspring all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 22:18). But there was one problem: Sarah was barren. They had no son to produce grandchildren. How would Abraham become a great nation with no heir? Sarah would have to wait on the Lord to fulfill his promise.

The Lord promised that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the land. But Canaan’s environment was as hostile as its people and as barren as Sarah’s womb. When famine hit, Abraham took Sarah to Egypt. Fearing for his life, Abraham led Sarah to deceive Pharaoh, telling his men they were mere siblings. So Pharaoh took the beautiful Sarah into his house. Imagine Sarah’s fear. What could she do? How would God fulfill his promise with her in the hands of another man?

Life is full of waiting. Often there’s pain in the waiting, but for the Christian, there’s always hope.

Abraham jeopardized Sarah and the promise, but the Lord rescued her by afflicting Pharaoh and his house with plagues (12:17). Abraham received riches and Sarah was given back to her husband. The Lord had done it. So back to Canaan they went with more sheep and donkeys and camels. And more waiting on the Lord to give them the promised son.

After 10 years in Canaan, Sarah took matters into her own hands. She decided on surrogacy. Turning her husband’s leadership on its head (“Abram listened to the voice of Sarai,” 16:2), she convinced him to take her servant Hagar to produce an heir. In language eerily like the fall of Adam and Eve, Moses tells us Sarah “took Hagar the Egyptian, her servant, and gave her to Abram her husband as a wife” (v. 3, emphasis added).

Hagar’s pride swelled along with her belly, and “when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt” on Sarah (v. 4). Sarah responded by blaming her husband and abusing Hagar, chasing her away. But God came to Hagar’s rescue in the desert. Sarah had tried to do things her own way. She selfishly reasoned, “It may be that I shall obtain children by her” (v. 2). Now Hagar had a son, and still Sarah waited for the promised one.

Another decade of waiting went by. Sarah had gone through menopause. Her 90-year-old womb wasn’t only barren—it was dead: “The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah” (18:11). But the Lord came again to Abraham and within earshot of Sarah told him their waiting was soon to be over. “The Lord said, ‘I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son’” (v. 10). Could it be true? Was the hoped-for son soon to come?

Surely not. Sarah laughed to herself at the thought of a worn-out woman, married to an old man, bearing a son. It’s impossible! She had waited, but the Lord hadn’t opened her womb. There was now no chance of conceiving. She should have rejoiced at God’s promise, but Sarah’s hope seems to have died along with her womb. Yet her lack of hope didn’t thwart God’s plans. The Lord confronted Sarah through Abraham, saying, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old? Is anything too hard for the Lord?’” (vv. 13–14). Sarah denied her laughter even with the Lord’s question ringing in her ears.

With only a year to wait, Abraham and Sarah once again took matters into their own hands. This time, Abraham gave his “sister” to Abimelech. To save his skin, he endangered the wife for whom he should lay down his life, and Sarah went along with the scheme. But God came to the rescue again. He intervened to save his people and protect his promise, vindicating Sarah’s honor in the process.

Finally, the time came when Sarah’s waiting was over: “The Lord visited Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him” (21:1–2, emphasis added). Abraham was 100. Sarah was 90. God had made them wait. He’d put them in circumstances that made the birth of a son impossible. But here was Isaac, the promised son, life from Sarah’s dead womb. Sarah’s empty arms were finally full. God had said. God had promised. God had spoken. And now Sarah’s laughter of doubt turned to laughter of joy for the baby nursing at her breast. Truly nothing is too hard for the Lord.

Hope in God

I wonder what you’re waiting for. The degree or dream job? Meeting the right man? Double lines on a pregnancy test? The diagnosis or the cure? The pain to go away? Your loved one to come to know Jesus? The dreary cloud over life to vanish? Waiting is difficult. Like Sarah, we’re tempted to do things our own way. Instead of going to Scripture to remind ourselves of God’s promises, we doubt his goodness. Rather than go to the Lord in prayer, we’re pulled down into despair.

Sarah waited for decades. She faced difficulty and danger—and she dealt with her own sin. But God is faithful to fulfill his word to his people. He is the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). This is the God whom Abraham and Sarah left kindred and country to worship. He’s the God who sustained them through famine and danger and dysfunction. The One who creates out of nothing is the One who promised them a son. And God keeps his promises. He is a God on whom we can wait.

Sarah is named a hero of the faith in Hebrews. Is this surprising to you? It doesn’t mean she was a superhero. Her faith wobbled here and there. It even teetered on the brink. Like when she took Hagar and gave her to Abraham to produce the promised offspring. Or her reaction when the Lord said she would bear the promised son: “Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’” (Gen. 18:12).

But Hebrews says, “By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised” (11:11). God put Sarah in a place where it was clear that, apart from him, there was no way for her to conceive. She tried but couldn’t make it happen. It was God who brought life to her womb. There were highs and lows in Sarah’s life, like in each of ours, but Hebrews confirms the basic direction of her life was Godward. For all her stumbles, she was ultimately, through a journey of many years, characterized by faith.

Instead of going to Scripture to remind ourselves of God’s promises, we doubt his goodness. Rather than go to the Lord in prayer, we’re pulled down into despair.

So take heart. God is utterly reliable as we wait, even when in the waiting he calls us to do things that don’t make sense. Imagine Sarah, 90 years old and pregnant. She belonged in the geriatric ward, not the maternity ward! But in the end, Sarah didn’t look at her age, her physical condition, or her husband. She looked to God’s promise and was given a son.

Peter uses Sarah as an example of a godly woman adorned not with external enhancements but with “the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Pet. 3:4). She’s the mother of all women who hope in God, all who “do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.” She showed her hope in God by living a faithful life day to day with a disposition of submission toward her husband: “Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord” (v. 6).

Sarah waited, doing good and fighting fear. And the God in whom she hoped was true to his word. Not even her sin could thwart his promises. The promised son was born.

Nothing Is Impossible with God

Thousands of years later, another promised son of Abraham was born. He’s the One through whom the blessing of Abraham extends to all families of the earth. Just like Sarah’s son, he was born in impossible circumstances, not from a barren womb but from the womb of a virgin. (Nothing is impossible with God [Luke 1:37]!) Conceived by the Holy Spirit, he’s not only the son of Abraham but the Son of the Most High. Jesus, Immanuel, God with us, who came to “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

Out of his great love, God sent his only Son. Jesus lived a perfect life and died for the sins of anyone who would repent and believe. God, who gives life to the dead, raised Jesus, showing he’d conquered sin and death. We put our hope in this preeminent, promised Son.

Our hope is even more certain than Sarah’s. She knew God was good. He had repeatedly rescued her. But we know God’s ultimate rescue: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). Because Jesus is alive, we who believe in the promised Son hope with certainty that we’ll join him in the resurrection of the dead when he comes back to claim his kingdom.

Hope is for those who are waiting. As you wait, in what are you hoping? If your hope is in good test results, you can be seriously disappointed. If it’s in a person or a family, it could bring you to despair. If it’s in a career or your reputation, such hope can leave you exhausted. And even if these hopes come to fruition, will they finally satisfy?

Sarah didn’t hope ultimately in her husband or in making Canaan her home; she “hoped in God” (1 Pet. 3:5). Sarah knew she was a stranger and exile on the earth (Heb. 11:13). She was “seeking a homeland” (v. 14), but that homeland was above. Sarah “desire[d] a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called [her] God,” the God of a weak, flawed exile, for whom he has prepared a heavenly city (v. 16). With the eyes of faith, Sarah had hope for a secure future.

The hope that comes in the Son will sustain you until all waiting is over.

Like Sarah, we mustn’t set our hopes on the things of this world. God has “provided something better for us” (v. 40). The hope that comes in the Son will sustain you until all waiting is over. It’s “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,” where Christ is seated at the right hand of God, interceding for his people (6:19). We look forward to the city God has prepared, and one day Jesus will come and take us home.

This hope changes everything. When we’re tempted by the pleasures of this world, we can instead do good because we know God “rewards those who seek him” (11:6), and his reward is greater than all the treasures of this earth. Even when we give in to sin, we can repent, knowing Christ has paid for all our sin and one day we’ll “be made perfect” in him (v. 40).

When we’re threatened as exiles, we don’t have to fear what is frightening, because we know we’ll “rise again to a better life” (v. 35). God has prepared an eternity for us, face to face with him. When we encounter difficulties of all kinds, we can persevere, knowing God is faithfully preparing us for the heavenly city “whose designer and builder is God” (v. 10).

The Christian life is a daily battle to put God at the center. We get so bogged down with details, we forget that every day brings us closer to eternity. Every battle with sin gets us nearer to perfection. These bodies that struggle and are wasting away will one day open their eyes to glory. Even now, Christ is our life.

Hope That Doesn’t Disappoint

So, like Sarah, set your hope on God. Set your hope on the future the promised Son has secured for you. Look to Jesus in the Scriptures and cast your burdens on the One who will comfort you. Read about women like Sarah and take heart. Consider God’s “precious and very great promises” (2 Pet. 1:4). And dwell on Christ’s death and resurrection, growing your longing for him. Meditating on the things of heaven will bolster your hope on earth.

I love that 1 Peter is written to “elect exiles” (1:1). As an expat, I can relate to living in a place that isn’t my home. But whether I’m in the U.A.E. or the U.S.A., I’m an exile in this world. If you’re a Christian, you’re an exile too, traveling through a hostile world. In a letter written to a man named Diognetus from the second or third century, we read this description of early Christians: “Every foreign country is a homeland to them, and every homeland is foreign. . . . Their existence is on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.”

Christians are those who look forward to a future home. Christ has secured its borders. Our only hope is in him, the Promised Son. Like Sarah’s, our hope is in the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). That’s a great hope indeed! “May [this] God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (15:13).

The Kind of Missionaries the Global Church Wants Thu, 27 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Many pastors around the world desire to work with American missionaries, but they’re looking for those with the skills to add value and the grit to stay long-term.]]> Recently, a colleague and I made a two-week trip across the Middle East and North Africa to visit national pastors and mission teams. Since we lead a missions organization based in the U.S., we were asking this question: “What would it look like to send new missionaries to join you in your work?”

In one church, we met with some national pastors were hesitant to answer such a question. But a few hours into our conversation, after a level of trust was built, they began to share painful stories of missionaries who made great promises but failed to follow through. They told us of Western missionaries being in their city for years who never learned the language. These missionaries refused to play a meaningful role in the local church because it’d distract from their personal ministry. And they kept national believers at a distance so they could remain comfortable within their own expat culture.

I could see in their faces and body language the wounds left by missionaries who failed to see the national church and national Christians as genuine friends and colaborers. Eventually I asked, “You’ve been burned so many times; why work with missionaries at all?” And then they told me about Andrew.

Right Kind of Missionary

Andrew was a missionary from America who made many of the same promises others had. He wanted to bring his family, learn the language and culture, and make Jesus known. But there was a difference. Andrew and his family rooted their life alongside other national Christians. They played a meaningful role in the church’s life. They stayed through the hard times and treated locals as equal partners in the work.

These national pastors said they still desire to work with missionaries—but they’re looking for the right kind of missionary. They’re tired of babysitting warm bodies who lack the skills to add value or the grit to stay for the long haul.

I felt a knot in my stomach. I knew they were right. In an effort to reach the unreached—and with the best intentions—the American church has often sent unqualified and ill-equipped missionaries. These seasoned national pastors were telling me to stop sending people we’d never invite to lead ministries in our own churches. Instead, we should send people proven and well-equipped for ministry in hard places.

In an effort to reach the unreached—and with the best of intentions—the American church has often sent unqualified and ill-equipped missionaries.

Vital Missionary Traits

In our conversations traveling around the region, I asked national church leaders for specific characteristics they thought were important for those we send. Here’s a short list of what they told us.

1. Proven and Well-Equipped

We heard repeatedly from pastors and missions leaders how essential it is for people to be faithful followers of Jesus, well trained in theology and missiology, and proven in their local churches. Why in the world would we send people to do ministry in a different language and culture that they weren’t doing in their home contexts?

These pastors weren’t saying everyone needed a seminary degree. They were simply urging us to send people who knew God’s Word, were actively sharing their faith and making disciples, were proven to be mature, and were leading and serving in their local church.

2. Socially and Relationally Adept

I was amazed how many times this point came up. National pastors and missions leaders told us they wanted to receive missionaries who enjoyed people and possessed relational maturity. We heard several stories of missionaries who moved overseas, learned the language, and then struggled to develop meaningful relationships—or even to leave their apartment. They’d loved the idea of missions, but being with people was difficult.

These pastors are looking for missionaries who pursue others, can navigate relational dynamics, and have a genuine love for their teammates, national Christians, and their unbelieving neighbors. Whether they’re extroverts or introverts, missionaries need to have the capacity for healthy and meaningful relationships.

3. Gritty and Persevering

Missionaries need more than a willingness to go; they need the maturity and determination to stay. Why? Because it’ll be hard. This can be especially challenging for many young Americans who’ve lived in relative comfort and ease. But these pastors urged us to send people who’ve already done hard things and who have a history of enduring suffering.

4. Moderate and Frugal

The lead pastor made a point to tell us how important it is to send people willing to lower their economic status. He recounted stories of missionaries who moved to his city and, because of the lower cost of living, were able to live in nicer homes and make financial choices that created a level of relational separation from those in the church. Though not sinful, those financial choices put up a barrier that made ministry among the local population harder.

This pastor wasn’t urging missionaries toward poverty but toward lifestyle moderation so they could be more accessible to people. If they’d chosen to live at a lower level, their ministry could’ve flourished even more.

5. Humble and Teachable

On this trip and through a decade of mentoring missionaries, I’ve come to recognize that cultivating humility and remaining teachable are essential for flourishing in cross-cultural ministry. In several of our conversations, national pastors and ministry leaders celebrated the missionaries who came, took on the posture of a learner, were team players, and served alongside the national church over the long haul. Those we visited highly valued the humility it takes to be a learner—and stay a learner.

Missionaries need more than a willingness to go; they need the maturity and determination to stay.

As my colleague and I wrapped up our trip, it was clear to us that Western missionaries have made significant mistakes over the years, leaving real wounds. But the national church in North Africa and the Middle East can still benefit from Western missionaries, and they still desire to receive them.

We should do the hard work of investing in, raising up, sending out, and supporting these kind of missionaries. We should send the missionaries the global church wants and needs.

God’s Goodness in Suffering: Making Sense of Suffering, Part 4 Wed, 26 Jun 2024 04:04:53 +0000 Don Carson urges believers to persevere amid suffering by remembering God’s goodness.]]> Don Carson teaches on James 1:12–25, reminding believers to persevere amid suffering and temptation, looking to God’s promises, goodness, and sovereignty to anchor them. Though trials can become temptations to sin, God doesn’t tempt his people; he tests them to strengthen their faith and obedience. Carson highlights the importance of abiding in God’s Word for spiritual growth and freedom, and he encourages Christians to count trials as joy because they lead to deeper spiritual maturity and faith in Christ.

Don’t Waste Your Wait Wed, 26 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 ‘Waiting Isn’t A Waste’ is an excellent resource for those currently waiting or those who simply know they need to learn to wait well.]]> Recently, I was searching for a job after an unexpected layoff. The cycle of applications, calls, networking, and interviews was ponderous. I wasn’t sure how things were going to work out. Prolonged uncertainty and lack of control pushed me into self-doubt and a sense of purposelessness. I felt I was wasting time.

Mark Vroegop has advice for those in waiting periods—for a job offer, test results, or just that perfect parking spot. In Waiting Isn’t a Waste: The Surprising Comfort of Trusting God in the Uncertainties of Life, he gives a roadmap for embracing waiting as an opportunity for spiritual growth.

Reframe Waiting

Waiting for something visible is difficult for most of us. Waiting for what we can’t see is often worse. Vroegop, lead pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis and a TGC Board member, explains how to redeem our inevitable waiting periods. Covering some of the same territory as Kelly Kapic’s book You’re Only Human, he reminds us we’re finite creatures designed with limitations. We can’t speed up time or see the future. We have to depend on a good God in our “gap moments.”

Vroegop writes, “Waiting on God is living on what I know to be true about God, when I don’t know what’s true about my life” (xix). This requires a perspective shift. Waiting isn’t a burden; it’s a spiritual practice ordained by God for our good and his glory. It teaches us to depend on God every moment because we “can’t buy manna in bulk” (15). Ultimately, waiting deepens our trust in God’s sovereign plan.

Waiting helps us better understand the eschatological phrase “already but not yet.” Believers currently participate in God’s kingdom, though we know the kingdom’s full realization is still to come. Waiting is the basic condition of the church, since “uncertainty, tension, and waiting are how the church began” (84). Waiting, therefore, is an inescapable part of following Christ as we long for his return and for the restoration of all things.

Embrace Waiting

In deft pastoral fashion, Vroegop offers a four-step strategy from Psalm 25 for redeeming waiting. He argues we should FAST (focus, adore, seek, and trust) in our waiting times. This practical framework is grounded in biblical principles and fosters a deeper connection with God. We’re being formed as we wait.

Waiting is an inescapable part of following Christ as we long for his return and for the restoration of all things.

Resigned passivity and hopeful anticipation are radically different. Vroegop argues, “Patient waiting is not fatalistic or pessimistic. It’s the hopeful commitment to seek God’s help creatively and faithfully while staying put” (56). His approach requires believers to engage in the waiting process rather than merely enduring it. Those periods of expectation are filled with meditation on God’s attributes as we pray, read Scripture, and ultimately trust in God’s goodness.

According to Vroegop, the root of our impatience is our desire for control. Our culture is filled with advertising slogans like “Your way, right away.” As a result, waiting often feels like a punishment. But Vroegop flips the script on our culture of instant gratification by showing that waiting is woven throughout the Bible.

Abraham and Sarah waited for the promised child in their old age (Gen. 21:1–7). The Israelites waited to be delivered from Egypt (Ex. 2:23–25). David waited patiently for his coronation as king (2 Sam. 2:1–4). The prophet Habakkuk cried out in anguish, “O LORD, how long?” as he yearned for justice to come (Hab. 1:2). These experiences of waiting aren’t peripheral to the stories; they’re evidence within the biblical narrative of ordinary people being shaped through periods of waiting on God.

The prevalence of waiting in the biblical narrative upends the perception that waiting is an aberration. We shouldn’t see it as divine neglect. Instead, it’s one way God shapes our character, teaches us to rely on him, and brings glory to himself. We should embrace our times of waiting as gifts from God.

Experience Waiting

Waiting Isn’t a Waste is concise. It’s also practical, with appendixes to structure the reader’s meditation on God’s character, in addition to a list of passages from the Psalms that emphasize waiting. Vroegop also provides a worksheet to help readers remember ways God has previously been faithful. That’s an exercise we could all benefit from.

If I’d read Vroegop’s book during my unemployment, it would’ve improved my waiting experience. Anxiety and doubt troubled me. Had I been more deliberate about focusing on God’s character, adoring him through worship and prayer, seeking his guidance through Scripture, and trusting in his sovereign plan, I could’ve spent my time better.

Resigned passivity and hopeful anticipation are radically different.

Even before reading the book, there were moments when I sporadically lived out some of what Vroegop recommends. For instance, when I felt particularly discouraged, I often turned to the Psalms and found comfort in the honest expressions of anguish and trust in God’s faithfulness. But Waiting Isn’t a Waste would’ve taught me to systematically invest that time to become more Christlike. I survived, but I could’ve thrived in that waiting season.

Vroegop doesn’t offer an easy solution to anxiety and impatience amid waiting. But he does provide a pastoral book to help believers redeem the time. It’s an excellent resource for those currently waiting or those who simply know they need to learn to wait well.

AI Doesn’t Mimic God’s Intelligence Wed, 26 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 No matter how far AI technology advances, artificial ‘intelligence’ will never be in the same class as God. ]]> Artificial intelligence has become impressive. Large language models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT can now mimic human experts. It’s intimidating to think about a new world where computers sound as smart as a practiced hospital nurse or legal assistant.

ChatGPT works by absorbing a vast amount of literature—more than any person could ever read. As these models improve their ability to parrot human writing, the LLMs will keep sounding smarter. AI agents could potentially learn something humans don’t yet know by running new scientific experiments. But even that would mean they’re only uncovering another corner of the universe God created and already knows intimately.

While some have compared LLM breakthroughs to “building god,” or used descriptors like “god-like” to describe what AI can do, the distance between even the most advanced LLMs and God remains infinitely vast. AI can mimic human intelligence, subject to constraints (like electricity usage). However, even if AI tools became leading poets or groundbreaking scientists—mimicking the brilliance of human creativity—this wouldn’t put AI in the same class as God.

Difference Between Human and Divine Intelligence

The Bible’s ancient writers went out of their way to differentiate human intelligence from God’s knowledge.

Scripture repeatedly emphasizes God’s omniscience, portraying him as the possessor of infinite knowledge and wisdom. Psalm 147:5 declares, “Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure.” This limitless understanding is beyond human comprehension, as Isaiah 55:9 illustrates: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” God’s intelligence transcends time and space, as Romans 11:33 exclaims: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!”

While humans possess finite intelligence—prone to error and limited by the confines of the physical world—God’s intelligence is characterized by perfection, infallibility, and an eternal perspective.

Uses and Limits of AI

Mark Zuckerberg recently said about AI, “There’s all this science fiction about creating intelligence where it starts to take on all these human-like behaviors. . . . The current incarnation of all this stuff feels like it’s going in a direction where intelligence can be pretty separated from consciousness, agency, and things like that, which I think just makes it a super valuable tool.”

While humans possess finite intelligence, God’s intelligence is characterized by perfection, infallibility, and an eternal perspective.

The type of work performed by AI can be useful to a human organization (even a church). I’m optimistic LLMs can be tools that help humanity solve challenges. The Bible says discovering new ideas is “the glory of kings” (Prov. 25:2). Nothing indicates that having more intelligence is bad if it guides people to truth.

With several researchers from Samford University, I’ve demonstrated that AI can perform well; however, it sometimes produces falsehoods. Our research shows that if you ask ChatGPT to create academic reference citations, the program may invent names of books that don’t exist. Additionally, our findings suggest the reliability of the ChatGPT model decreases as the prompts become more specific.

Christians shouldn’t fear AI. But we should be prudent in how we use it. Having a machine that can answer any question puts us in an interesting position. Do we know how to craft the right questions to pose to AI (“prompt engineering”)? Will we build talking machines that flatter us and help us commit crimes, or will we progress in understanding through AI’s ability to quickly synthesize vast amounts of information? Is “intelligence” that’s more informed than us valuable if it isn’t accompanied by discernment and moral evaluation? Without spiritual discernment and wisdom to guide this process, humans could end up more confused than ever.

King Solomon tried wisdom, along with everything else a human could pursue in this world. He reported, “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (Eccl. 1:18, NIV). Having access to vast amounts of rapidly synthesized information doesn’t insulate us against suffering. Christians should neither fear LLMs nor count on them to solve all our problems.

Comfort of God’s Superior Wisdom

God’s higher intelligence comforts us in a changing world. His omniscience assures believers he comprehends the complexities of every situation, even amid our uncertainty. It’s reassuring to know God sees beyond the present moment and understands the broader implications of events. He also cares about individuals. Psalm 139:1–2 affirms this: “O LORD, you have searched me and known me! You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from afar.”

God’s higher intelligence comforts us in a changing world.

God’s wisdom surpasses human understanding, providing guidance in times of upheaval. Proverbs 3:5–6 encourages trust in the Lord’s wisdom: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” Believers find solace in relying on God’s superior wisdom, knowing his plans are ultimately for their good (Jer. 29:11; Rom. 8:28).

It may be hard to fathom how far technological and scientific understanding will eventually progress in the age of AI and in whatever age comes after. God’s unchanging nature offers stability and security in a changing world. Hebrews 13:8 declares, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” His character and steadfast love are consistent, regardless of whether the world is rocked by the printing press or social media. Technology has advanced, but God is the same.

Train Your Body in Light of Eternity Tue, 25 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 We often approach fitness and health from two extremes: apathy or obsession with our bodies. ]]> It was a rough night of sleep. I tossed and turned, watching the glaring red minutes turn into hours. I had planned to go to an 8:00 a.m. class at the gym, but all I really wanted to do after I got the kids out the door was crawl back into bed. The warmth of the sun flooded into the room and invited me to cozy up with my cup of tea. Yet I knew that even though the rest felt good at the moment, eventually I would become more tired and sluggish if I didn’t get up and move my body.

It’s a struggle that happens nearly every day of my life. Navigating fitness and health feels like a great pendulum swing that can take me from counting the calories in every bite to enjoying a few too many chocolate chip cookies. From caring too much about what the numbers say on the scale to finding it all too easy to throw the workout routine out the window.

Maybe you can relate—the demands of this fast-paced world often prod us to try to do more and more, all while looking good and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Even when we remember that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19–20) and start out with a good desire to steward our bodies well, the push of our western culture to look our best for the sake of vanity can send us spiraling into obsessive workouts, diets, and expensive beauty rituals. Or on the other side, we might lose sight of the fact that we are fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God (Ps. 139:14) and think our bodies are not worth caring for diligently.

We often approach fitness and health from two extremes: apathy or obsession with our bodies. But the gospel of Christ frees us from either extreme and helps us focus our eyes on eternity instead of our waistlines.

Understand the Extremes

If we struggle with apathy we might find ourselves feeling defeated when it comes to health and fitness. We can’t keep up with all the latest nutritional trends, workout routines, and beauty products, so why even try? Maybe behind these feelings is a sneaky voice whispering that you don’t really matter, that nothing ever will change in your life so it’s not worth the effort. The feeling of defeat causes us to quit before we even start.

The gospel helps us focus our eyes on eternity instead of our waistlines.

Another cause of bodily apathy could be pouring yourself out to meet the needs of others while forgetting to take care of yourself. Consider a pastor who is burning the candle at both ends—meeting church members who are in crises, working on his sermon late into the night, and leading church meetings, all while getting insufficient sleep and little to no exercise.

The Bible does exhort us to put others’ needs ahead of our own (Phil. 2:3–4). But when we do that to the detriment of our health, we’ve lost sight of the fact that our body is a gift from God that we’re responsible to steward well. We need to care for our bodies both for our own well-being and to enable us to serve with strength and stamina.

On the other end of the pendulum are those of us who struggle with obsession over our bodies. Maybe we have a good end goal, to glorify God with our physical health. But the pathway to get there has become consumed with self-preoccupation. We can’t enjoy the church potluck because we’re worrying about the fat or sugar content of the dishes. We allow ourselves to indulge in a dessert, but we’re immediately planning how to burn off the calories. It’s hard to walk by a mirror without evaluating our shape and size, wondering what others think of us. And an interruption to our workout leaves us feeling angry and frustrated. The body has become too important, with a view to serving self instead of others.

Assign Proper Value

So what’s the solution? How do we aim to live a life that’s neither apathetic nor obsessive with our bodies? 1 Timothy 4:7–8 sheds some light on this. “Train yourself for godliness,” Paul writes, “for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

Paul helps us re-evaluate our priorities. It’s not that physical exercise is unimportant. After all, bodily training is of some value. He sees that our physical bodies matter. In an earlier chapter Paul tells us that he disciplines his body for godliness (1 Cor. 9:27). He doesn’t want to be ruled by the desires of the flesh that can so easily lead us into laziness or apathy. There’s value to having a strong and able body—a body that can carry groceries for an elderly neighbor, balance a baby on a hip, and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation while hiking with family members or friends.

But our physical training is not paramount. There are wonderful blessings that can come from physical training, for ourselves and others. But fitness and nutrition are not ends in themselves. If they rise to the place of master in our lives, we’ve lost sight of what’s most important. Instead, we’re to focus the majority of our efforts on training ourselves for godliness. Meditating on and memorizing the truths of Scripture as we prepare our souls for eternity. Loving our neighbor as ourselves as we look to meet both physical and spiritual needs around us.

Train for Eternity

Our spiritual training should not take second place to our physical training. After all, our bodies on this earth will not last. No matter how much training we’ve done, no matter how many youth-enhancing procedures we’ve had, our bodies will weaken and fail. But our spiritual life impacts both the present day and the age to come. As Isaiah reminds us: The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8).

Our spiritual training should not take second place to our physical training.

So lace up those shoes and head outside for a brisk walk. Train your body, but not to flaunt your good looks. Rather, train your body in order to showcase the love of Christ while you serve others. Train your body in order to enjoy God’s gifts of health and recreation. Caring for your physical self is worth so much more than a smaller waistline. It’s a means to delight yourself in the only One who truly satisfies. When Christ is our treasure, we’re free to value our bodies as gifts to both enjoy and steward for his glory.

Seeing Reality Is Better than ‘Being Seen’ Tue, 25 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 When seeing reality tangibly becomes less compelling to us than being seen virtually, we lose perspective and purpose. ]]> Earlier this summer, we took our kids to the beautiful, rocky bluffs and tide pools of Laguna Beach—one of our favorite local beach spots. While we helped our kids look for crabs, sea anemones, and other critters, I noticed something about the majority of people around us. Almost everyone was doing a photo shoot with either a professional photographer or an “Instagram boyfriend”: Maternity and engagement shoots. High school graduation shoots. First baby shoots. Casual poses (with outfit changes) on sand, surf, and rock, all bathed in that golden-hour glow. Perhaps with an Instagram caption already in mind.

I’m not knocking the practice of memorializing life’s milestones in beautiful settings. Nor am I saying it’s bad to desire to publicly share your appreciation for some segment of God’s beautiful world. I often do both. At the Laguna Beach tide pools, I took out my phone as well, snapping photos and posting a few.

Still, the scene struck me as sad. Here we were, in a truly breathtaking place, and most of us spent less time observing the beauty around us than posing for photographs within it, or pulling out our phones to visually document it. The promise of “being seen” in this place prevailed over the desire to be present there.

The promise of ‘being seen’ in this place prevailed over the desire to be present there.

But when we’re not present in life, our ability to see atrophies. The full force of reality dulls and the brightness of beauty dims, demoted as they are to background players in the central drama of our own small, performative lives. When seeing reality tangibly becomes less compelling to us than being seen virtually, we lose perspective and, ultimately, purpose.

“Being seen” is a nice experience but supremely unsatisfying as a primary goal in life. We aren’t the most interesting, beautiful, or inspiring part of this world. More satisfying than being seen is seeing rightly: encountering the goodness, truth, and beauty of God’s world and knowing him more as a result.

Faux Transcendence of ‘Being Seen’

Internet connectivity and social media have accelerated the temptation toward “being seen.” On YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, and the rest, options are limitless for how we can draw attention to ourselves: political ranting, product reviewing, posing, opining, dancing, and lip-synching.

But our contemporary cultural obsession with being seen wasn’t birthed in the social media age. Its current technological expression is an outgrowth of a spiritual transformation with a centuries-long genealogy, one in which man gradually replaced God as the measure of all things and the “self” asserting its godlike qualities gradually replaced communal worship of a transcendent God. For more on this, I recommend Tara Isabella Burton’s Self-Made or Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.

However we got here, the reality is that this “inward turn,” this ascendant individualism, this “look at me!” world has provided a deeply unsatisfying faux transcendence. Mounting evidence suggests the more we orient life around being seen, the more miserable we are (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Anxious Generation or Jean Twenge’s iGen).

Among other things, the “look at me” world of posturing, performance, and promotion isolates us from one another and exacerbates loneliness. “Being connected is not the same thing as being united,” Byung-Chul Han observes in The Crisis of Narration. He continues,

“Stories” on social media, which are in fact mere self-promotion, separate people from each other. Unlike narratives, they produce neither closeness nor empathy. . . . The stories do not narrate; they advertise. Vying for attention does not create community.

But relational poverty is just one of the poverties we experience in a “being seen” world. There are others:

  • We’re spiritually impoverished: the self is a always a disappointing object of worship.
  • We’re epistemologically impoverished: man isn’t a reliable “measure of all things”—not even most things.
  • We’re aesthetically impoverished: the self, however lovely, is but one meager droplet in the ocean of beauty that exists in the universe.

So while the dopamine spikes that stem from being seen (likes, views, validation, affirmation, representation, and so on) offer temporary pings of pleasure that briefly fill our spiritual vacuum, they leave us empty in the long term.

See Beyond the Self

Christianity calls us to look beyond the self and focus our gaze instead on the source of true happiness and purpose: Christ and his kingdom. In doing this, we see reality as it is, not as what partisan narratives or personal agendas want it to be. This is the only type of seeing that truly satisfies, but we’re losing our capacity to see in this way.

Mounting evidence suggests the more we orient life around being seen, the more miserable we are.

“Man’s ability to see is in decline,” observed German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper in 1990. And by seeing, he meant “the spiritual capacity to perceive the visible reality as it truly is.” Our degraded capacity to see is caused, Pieper argued, by the fact that “there is too much to see.” Visual noise impairs our vision, but so does an excessive amount of mirrors. We’re not only blinded by a too-expansive field of vision; we’re blinded by the tunnel vision of looking too intently at ourselves. Overstimulation and narcissism both keep us from seeing rightly.

How can we regain true, life-giving sight? How can we develop a stronger hunger to see the beauty of God’s creation more than to have others see us seeing the beauty? How can we rediscover a curious, enchanted, awestruck, and worshipful way of looking at the world—a beholding of God’s glory that not only arrests us but transforms us (2 Cor. 3:18)?

It starts by creating space in the glut to actually look, and listen, carefully. Stop scrolling, stop posting, and be still long enough to truly take in reality. This requires seeking out unmediated space and silence, which is the last thing Silicon Valley wants us to prioritize. Resist the urge to grab your phone at every moment to mediate your experience of life. Just experience life. Instead of posting a commentary about something you heard, saw, or encountered. Just think about what you heard, saw, or encountered. Silence, more often than frantic expression, is the pathway to illumination. Gilles Deleuze says it well:

It’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves. What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

We need to discover the gift of silence (rather than constant expression) and the gift of hiddenness and obscurity (rather than publicizing all aspects of life). When we start to live in unseen ways, without constant effort to act, perform, and compete for eyeballs and attention, our appetite to see rather than be seen naturally grows. Further, our intimacy with Christ tends to grow as our need to be seen by others diminishes (see John Starke’s The Secret Place of Thunder).

Resist Social Media Technopoly

Am I arguing we should never share vacation photos or pose for selfies in beautiful locations? No. I’m simply suggesting a more fulfilling and God-honoring way to live is to prioritize seeing above being seen, knowing the holy God above being known by the fickle masses.

Prioritize knowing the holy God above being known by the fickle masses.

Practically—and I’m preaching to myself here—this looks like resisting most urges to post instant stories about every beautiful nature scene I encounter; it means refraining from sounding off on social media every time a hot-take opinion enters my head. It means going more places, reading more books, and having more “off the record” conversations: unpublished, unperformed, simply experienced in the sacred community of those with me in person or those (e.g., close family who live far away) with whom I decide to share the experience though a texted photo, FaceTime, or—dare I say it—snail mail.

As Christians, we should model a resistance to a social media technopoly that directly benefits from our addiction to being seen by “audiences” of scrolling masses. Instead, we should model reverence before God that looks like authentic attention and eager interest in his world, which reveals his glory (Ps. 19:1). We should be the people so engrossed in the beauty of a sunset, a waterfall, or a coastal tide pool that we forget to take a picture of it, or at least take a picture as a way to remember the experience of seeing this beauty in a real time and place.

This will not only point our neighbors to a better way to live but will increase our own wisdom and worship as creatures captivated by the Creator’s glory.

Principles for Leading an Effective Meeting Mon, 24 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 When you follow these principles, you’re forming habits that will promote both effective meetings and a healthy team.]]> Here’s a pleasing statement: “That was a great meeting, and we ended early.” Church board meetings often have a reputation of going long and bearing little fruit. But meetings, including difficult meetings, are inevitable and important.

To manage meetings well, church leaders must tend to their organizational life together. We must heed some basic principles that can help us make sound decisions with a good spirit and in a timely way.

Here are a few ideas for the effective leadership of regular ministry meetings. They’re written for ordinary meetings of modest groups and may not apply to retreats or crises.

Know the Biblical Principles

Several biblical principles help to guide effective meetings.

We love our neighbors as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). We speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15). We treat others as we’d want to be treated (Matt. 7:12). Also, we must remember the church is both an organism and an organization, so it has leaders, goals, meeting places, and more. Leaders both manage and tenderly care for God’s church. This requires a team of leaders working together (1 Tim. 3).

Remember Who You Are

A church board meets as part of God’s family. You’re there to serve the Lord under his direction, so it’s wise to start with Scripture and prayer. Don’t rush this time or use it to press your view on a decision. When The Gospel Coalition’s Board meetings start, our chairman begins with a substantive devotional. Yes, we have a full agenda, but he doesn’t rush to get to it; he begins by directing us to the Lord and his ways. That keeps us grounded in our mission.

Leaders both manage and tenderly care for God’s church.

We can also start meetings by caring for each other. One music leader I know begins team meetings by asking each person to use three words to describe his or her mood that day. He even supplies a list of words to choose from. All team members then have a minute to explain their choices. In this way, he ensures the team cares for one another by celebrating joys and naming sorrows. They’re more than a task force; they’re disciples who care for each other.

Another leader I know expresses care by inviting each person in his small team to give a three-minute report on his or her heart status and work status. This helps the team know one another and know how to care for one another.

Manage the Logistics

Beyond biblical principles and pastoral care, the following practices will also help your meetings to be more effective.

1. Communicate well in advance.

Let everyone know the basics: when, where, how long, and—above all—for what reason you’ll meet. Prepare an agenda stating the topics that demand attention and which matters might require a vote. Give the team an estimate of the time needed for each topic, and arrange your timing so the main issue gets the best attention, perhaps as the second item on the agenda, when everyone is fresh.

Don’t read proposals and agendas aloud. Send out reports in advance, and expect people to read all necessary materials before the meeting begins.

2. Keep meetings short.

Long, heavy meetings are hard for everyone. The typical person can focus for 65–70 minutes. Few can concentrate on demanding mental work for more than 90 minutes. Most of us do well when we go hard for 25–30 minutes, take a 5-minute break, then start up again. The break can be a happy report, a touch of humor, or a story. It’s OK to break up a tough discussion with a funny story; let it ride at times instead of keeping everyone on task every moment.

Some fear that short meetings will deprive groups of bonding time. That’s possible, and friendship, respect, and trust are essential. But a well-led meeting allows for more time for Scripture, prayer, and sharing. And when a meeting is brief enough, people will decide they have time to visit afterward.

Let’s not fight human nature by planning meetings that start after a full workday and run for four hours. Pastors rightly see such meetings as a significant element of church leadership, but they should remember that lay elders—usually most of the participants—have just worked 8 to 10 hours, missed supper, and lost their family time. We respect people when we plan for sessions and board meetings that finish in two hours or less. That’s possible if we take several steps. That’s possible if you follow the remaining principles.

3. Prepare well for big topics.

Suppose a board member wants to discuss a significant topic. He or she should tell the appropriate leader so the leader can help to prepare the best proposal and plan for a healthy discussion and, if appropriate, a vote.

This will usually mean assigning trusted groups to study major matters in advance, preparing necessary background information and two or three options for what next steps to take. Options should include a summary of the pros and cons of each course of action. Never say, “So what do you think we should do?” Instead, proposals should make a clear recommendation that highlights both its strengths and weaknesses. By clarifying the options, you make it easier for everyone to speak meaningfully if they wish. And when everyone has a clear opportunity to speak, it’s easier for each participant to support the group’s decision.

I’m assuming your group is the right size for a proper discussion. Most experts agree the ideal size for a board is 7 to 12 people. This aligns with the early church, which had 7 deacons and 12 apostles. Of course, there are exceptions. Teams with a narrow focus may be smaller, and a task force assigned a complicated project can be larger.

4. Be willing to table difficult decisions when necessary.

Expect people to evaluate, hone, and improve your proposals. Don’t expect you’ll always begin with the strongest possible option.

Also, don’t be afraid to return to decisions later when the team is better prepared for a good discussion or a vote. It’s often wise to delay if it’s clear the team is far from united. Don’t rush to a decision unless there’s a genuine deadline. Returning to issues later leaves time for the sort of healthy reflection that’s sometimes necessary for healthy conclusions.

5. Don’t insist on unanimous votes.

When decisions need to be unanimous, a lone dissenter can hold up the church’s mission. So don’t insist on this as a policy. It’s fine for a vote to be 8–2 if a group trusts each other and knows how to support team decisions publicly. It helps when everyone who loses a vote can say, “I certainly think I’m right, but if I lose a vote 8–2, I’m probably wrong since the rest of you are also seeking God’s will.”

6. When the team decides to act, take time to plan the implementation steps.

Implementation requires many steps. You list the human and financial resources you need, consult experts and stakeholders while noting allies and adversaries, and then you must formulate and execute an action plan with clear communication.

Expect people to evaluate, hone, and improve your proposals. Don’t expect you’ll always begin with the strongest possible option.

A good leader may say, “Who has the ball and what are you going to do with it? How long and how far will you run?” The point is for everyone on the team to know his responsibility and what he’s expected to do before the next meeting.

7. Ensure everyone knows the life cycle of a decision.

A full discussion takes time and has several steps. A group will clarify the issue, list and explore possible solutions, then choose one. After that, the team will decide on a timeline for putting their plan into place, implement it, and then review the outcomes after enough time has passed to appraise it carefully.

I’ve pointed you to several principles for leading meetings. But my primary goal isn’t to give you a list of rules. Practices like using  agendas and encouraging the team to read proposals in advance are habits like brushing and flossing that should be regularly practiced. When you make these principles into habits, you don’t just promote effective meetings but also a healthy team.

The Key to Companionship for Singles Sun, 23 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Jesus doesn’t view singles in reference to what we lack but what we have.]]> Most of the advice I’ve received as a single man has been about finding a spouse. Whether it’s exhortations to grow or encouragements to persevere, conversations are anchored to the anticipation of future marriage.

Marriage is a beautiful, God-glorifying gift that should be encouraged and pursued by anyone who desires it. But future hopes of marriage don’t encapsulate the Christian single life.

For one, marriage isn’t promised to everyone, and more than half of those who marry will be single again. But more importantly, marriage-centered singleness focuses on the single as an individual. When we concentrate on the spouse a single Christian lacks, loneliness is inevitable. Hyperfixating on marriage may distract us from the real key to Christian companionship.

A single Christian life doesn’t have to be a lonely life. Jesus promises in Mark 10:29–31,

There is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.

Jesus doesn’t view singles in reference to what we lack in marriage but what we have in Christ. And this isn’t a future hope; this gift of a hundredfold family is given in this life.

A Family, Not a Mere Hobby

Where can this family be found? In the local church. Joining a church is more than signing up for a hobby; it’s being adopted into a spiritual family. Church membership is a clear commitment of mutual responsibility that provides real spiritual connections to God’s family.

Jesus doesn’t view singles in reference to what we lack in marriage but what we have in Christ.

While the benefits of church membership exist for every Christian, they can especially apply to Christian singles. Specifically, meaningful membership provides at least three blessings.

1. A Place to Be Seen

A friend once described losing his spouse as feeling invisible. More than losing someone to live with, he lamented the loss of someone who knew him intimately, who recognized his value independent of his usefulness. His wife saw him.

Sometimes we fall short of this standard when talking about singleness. We may overemphasize a single Christian’s usefulness over her value as a fellow member of Christ’s body. The reason why a single should be valued isn’t because of her effectiveness but because of her inherent worth as a member of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:12–27).

Church membership validates singles for who they are, not just for what they do. Membership sees. Each member is part of the family of God’s family, worthy of love and respect. When we baptize a person into the church, we publicly see and celebrate what the Spirit has done through Christ. When we take the Lord’s Supper together, we recognize the body for whom Christ died (11:27–29). Every time we admit people into membership, we acknowledge their value and equal personhood in Christ’s body.

There should never be an overlooked church member. Membership publicly sees each Christian as one for whom the Lord Jesus died.

2. A Place to Be Loved

I hate being a burden. But recently, I woke up sick and every normal task became more difficult. It’s especially hard when you don’t have people in your household who can care for you. One common fear I’ve heard from older single brothers and sisters is how they’ll continue to do menial tasks as their bodies weaken. Who takes care of the single Christian when she’s in need?

Here’s an excerpt from my church’s covenant: “We further engage to watch over one another in brotherly love; to remember one another in prayer; to aid one another in sickness and distress.” Thankfully, I have church members who don’t just recite these words but also live them. I’ve had enough food brought to last through a zombie apocalypse, and people have checked in on me in ways that didn’t make me feel like a burden.

Being a church member means I don’t need to keep up the charade of having it all together. I can be honest about my deficiencies, my frustrations, and my sins. My church family, in turn, lovingly administers grace and love. They’re a web of divine grace that envelops me when I’m in need.

3. A Place to Love

That love and care works both ways. Church membership doesn’t only provide people who care for me—it provides opportunities for me to care for others.

There’s no such thing as selfish singleness in the mature Christian life. Every Christian is called to sacrifice his or her preferences for the good of others, especially for those within the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). Membership makes clear the commitment I’ve made to my spiritual family.

There’s no such thing as selfish singleness in the mature Christian life.

Singleness provides unique opportunities that married members don’t have. A few months ago, someone in our church was hospitalized due to cancer. She needed someone to stay home with her husband, who had his own health complications. I was able to pack my bags and move in for several weeks. The hospital staff and patients were shocked when they found out the one providing care for her husband back home was her pastor.

Acts of service from single church members are the norm, not the exception. I could tell you example after example of faithful single members who joyfully leverage their freedom, focus, and flexibility to serve their brothers and sisters in Christ. Our church would be worse off if it weren’t for their loving care. Church membership provides familial lines where singles can focus their sacrificial love.

Imperfect Place

While Jesus promises a family, in this fallen world our spiritual family is also a sinful one. Just like any other family, the living room can be full of joy—but also difficulty. Tactless comments, sincere but overbearing advice, and awkward glances can make God’s community feel isolating.

But healthy families don’t pull away in the sight of difficulty; they press in. Sometimes that may mean working through conflict and applying Christ’s grace to our sin. Other times it may mean patiently bearing with others’ shortcomings. But our commitment to one another, through both the good and the bad, reflects the tenacious commitment of our Savior.

I’m grateful for the pastors and members who’ve taken the time to consider how to love singles in the church. I’m even more grateful for the single brothers and sisters who’ve pressed into their communities despite the heartache and difficulty. And yet, the real challenges are coupled with real joy. Church membership may not be perfect or easy, but it’s real.

Jesus doesn’t promise an earthly spouse, but he does promise an eternal family. And you don’t need a wedding ring to obtain it. You just need a local church. Joining this family strengthens our bond as we know one another, love one another, and point one another to our loving Savior who will “never leave [us] nor forsake [us]” (Heb. 13:5).

Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, and God’s Beautiful Providence Sat, 22 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Willie Mays and Henry Aaron were inextricably connected, their baseball accomplishments eerily similar. But in many ways they could not be more different.]]> I love my home state of Alabama, which is known for many things, some good and some bad. It is the home state of two Major League Baseball (MLB) all-time greats: Henry Aaron and Willie Mays. The two baseball heroes, inextricably connected, were not fond of one another. And, sadly, as of this week, neither is with us any longer.

Henry Aaron was born on February 5, 1934, in Mobile, Alabama, and died at age 86 on January 22, 2021. Willie Mays was born on May 6, 1931, in Westfield, Alabama (a few minutes outside Birmingham), and died at age 93 on June 18, 2024. Both men came of age amid the Depression-era poverty of racially segregated Alabama. Both started their professional baseball careers in the Negro Leagues.

Their MLB statistical accomplishments are staggering and eerily similar. Mays played in 3,005 MLB games, and Aaron in 3,298 games. Mays had a career .301 batting average, Aaron .305. Mays hit 660 home runs; Aaron hit 755. Mays ended his career with a slugging percentage of .557, and Aaron .555. Both were on one World Championship team. Mays was an All-Star 24 times, and Aaron 25 times.

Long-awaited 600-page biographies of the two baseball legends even came out in the same year (2010): James S. Hirsch’s Willie Mays: The Life, The Legend, and Howard Bryant’s The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron. According to Aaron, he and Mays almost became teammates. Aaron had a Giants contract in hand, which would have put him in the same outfield as Mays, who was already a big leaguer. But the Braves offered him a contract worth $50 a month more.

But beyond hailing from the same home state and their nearly parallel statistical accomplishments, the two men could not have been much more different. They spent their adult lives being compared and contrasted, contributing to an uneasy relationship.

Differing Personalities

Willie Mays was a magical baseball player who loved the spotlight and possessed a mile-wide smile. He was one of those players who so obviously loved playing the game. When you watched Mays, you didn’t forget that it was, in fact, a game. Mays was known as the “Say Hey Kid,” his iconic over-the-shoulder basket catch in the World Series is known as “the Catch.” Some people have suggested Mays purposely broke late on some balls to make catches more spectacular. Mays was an entertainer who sought to maximize his star power.

Henry Aaron was quiet and played baseball unassumingly—remarkable for someone with his abilities on the diamond. In Bryant’s biography, he takes great pains to explain that for Henry, “Hank” was an invented persona foisted on him when he broke Babe Ruth’s longstanding iconic home-run record. No one who really knew him called him Hank. Aaron wasn’t flashy; he was relentlessly consistent. Legendary announcer Vin Scully described Aaron as a man who played baseball with a “poker face.” When Aaron finally broke Ruth’s home run record, he stated, “I just thank God that it’s all over with.”

The truth is that Mays and Aaron’s personal differences led to a lack of appreciation for each other. Mays, ever the marketer, often spoke of his longtime friendship with Aaron, while Henry was almost always polite when Mays’s name was mentioned. Still, Aaron never suggested they were personally close, because they weren’t. Mays was bothered by the fact that Aaron, not he, broke Ruth’s home run record. He was consistent with backhanded compliments like “Hank might just catch Ruth. . . . He’s playing in the right park.”

One of the few times Aaron said something negative about Mays, it was this: “If any part of me was not satisfied with Willie, it’s that he didn’t speak out enough [on the issue of civil rights]. I couldn’t understand that part of it. I never spoke to him about it. I just let it be.” Any of the on-the-field animosity Aaron and Mays had for one another was less than the off-the-field, where their differences were profound.

Contrasting Approaches to Civil Rights

For Mays, Aaron and other critics failed to recognize he was leading by example. Hirsch wrote, “Mays countered discrimination on his own terms in ways that he understood—as a role model who never drank or smoked, who avoided scandal, and who gave his time and money to children’s causes.” Mays contended he could change the minds of racists with his character, play, and passion for the game. He said, “I changed the hatred to laughter.”

Aaron and others felt Mays was living at odds with Jackie Robinson’s assertion “I never had it made” (the title of his autobiography). They considered Mays unconcerned about the plight of other black Americans who didn’t have the privileges his baseball stardom afforded him. Robinson said,

People have asked me, “Jack, what’s your beef? You’ve got it made.” I’m grateful for all the breaks and honors and opportunities I’ve had, but I always believe I won’t have it made until the humblest black kid in the most remote backwoods of America has it made.

He also said, “There’s not an American in this country free until every one of us is free.” Mays believed that his making it (having it made) would make it easier for others to make it after him.

Mays believed that his making it would make it easier for others to make it after him.

Aaron revered Jackie Robinson and felt responsible for building on his legacy in the fight for civil rights, but he didn’t possess Robinson’s brashness or eloquence. Aaron didn’t want to be labeled a troublemaker; he didn’t trust the media to cover him fairly. But he did want to make a genuine difference in the political and cultural world beyond baseball.

In 1960, Aaron campaigned for presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy. In September 1968, Jet magazine published a feature on Aaron, “Hank Aaron Blasts Racism in Baseball.” Aaron addressed the lack of black managers, the absence of minorities in the front office of MLB clubs, and salary discrepancies between black and white players. Being an outspoken activist about political and justice issues didn’t come naturally to Aaron. Still, he felt a responsibility to overcome his reticence in a way that Mays didn’t.

Valuing Both Approaches

So, who was right? Mays or Aaron? As a lifelong Braves fan, I’m partial to Aaron as a player and a person.

However, perhaps we should appreciate both Mays’s and Aaron’s approaches. Both men shone on the baseball field like few others. But they also made a positive difference beyond baseball in the face of insidious hatred. Today’s world isn’t fond of nuance or appreciation of differences, but we should be. The biblical testimony of God’s beautiful providence should convince us he uses all kinds of people and approaches to accomplish his ends.

The biblical testimony of God’s beautiful providence should convince us he uses all kinds of people and approaches to accomplish his ends.

Aaron ought to be honored for his sense of responsibility to speak up for others who never had the opportunities or platform he possessed. But I’ll also never forget hearing theology professor Tom Nettles tell how the controversy over Mays moving into a white neighborhood awakened his gospel-informed conscience about racism as a young man. Nettles thought to himself, Who would not want Willie Mays, the greatest baseball player in the world, to be their neighbor? Nettles’s testimony reflects what Mays believed his influence could accomplish.

Every true baseball fan cannot help but appreciate the exploits of Hall of Famers Henry Aaron and Willie Mays on the baseball field. Aaron received 97.8 percent and Mays 94.7 percent for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. But maybe in their deaths, we can appreciate their influence on the cause of racial justice beyond the baseball field.

May they rest in peace, and may we be thankful to God’s providence for the measure of temporal peace their lives helped bring to a world in great need of it.

Bible-Teaching Strategies from Women Leaders Fri, 21 Jun 2024 04:04:57 +0000 Rebecca McLaughlin teaches how to give a memorable talk, followed by a panel discussion. ]]> Rebecca McLaughlin expands on five key points for how to give a memorable address, including using metaphors and sharing stories to engage your audience. She joins Melissa Kruger, Jen Wilkin, Courtney Doctor, and Elizabeth Woodson to discuss their journeys into Bible teaching. The women highlight the importance of preparation and how to use gifts in the church. They encourage humility and integrating apologetics in women’s ministry to address contemporary issues.

‘Live My Truth’: The Gospel in an Age of Privatized Faith Fri, 21 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 When we settle for the pluralistic confines of a personalized and privatized faith, we lose the adventure of evangelism and the heart of Christianity.]]> When you overhear conversations that touch on something spiritual, you’ll often hear two words come up: “For me.” They rush in as soon as the discussion turns toward claims about truth and falsehood: “For me, there is a God, and believing in God just feels right.” Or, “In my experience, for me, Jesus is the best path to God.” The introduction of those two words personalizes and relativizes what’s being said.

It’s not necessarily wrong to personalize and relativize an issue. When asked about what outfit someone should wear or what direction to take in the boardroom, saying “for me” signals I’m sharing a subjective opinion. In some situations, that’s acceptable—there are minimal consequences to my opinion being received or rejected.

But when the conversation shifts to God’s existence, Christ’s claims, or the gospel’s truth, adding “for me” can be problematic. When we’re in the realm of truth and falsehood, orthodoxy and heresy, sin and righteousness, we’re not merely making a claim that’s true for us; we’re saying something real about the world. Those two words spoken in the wrong way at the wrong time soften a truth claim and make it only a matter of personal belief.

Unsurprisingly, people today celebrate the importance of “speaking” or “living” their truth. When someone says, “I need to speak my truth,” he means this: “I need to speak honestly about what I’ve experienced.” And that’s a good thing. But in matters pertaining to religion and spirituality, when we surround the word “truth” with adjectives like “my” and “your” and never get around to making a truth claim, we shrink from the biblical imperative to preach the gospel as an objective, publicly accessible truth. We imply our perspective is only one of many viable options.

I want to look closer at this development and its challenge to the Christian mission in the West. When we talk about Jesus or share the gospel, most people today will assume we’re talking about a private, personalized faith, as if we’re asking them to adopt the same hobby. I’m just speaking “my” truth or sharing about the religious identity that works “for me.”

However, true evangelism goes further, announcing the good news that cannot be reduced to personal preference or private spirituality; it confronts the listener with a choice, and that confrontation presents a challenge in sharing the gospel.

How We Got Here: Influence of the Enlightenment

To see how we arrived at this moment, we must do some historical work, tracing our way back to the Enlightenment. This philosophical tradition saw human reason as history’s pinnacle and the implementation of science and technology as hastening toward a better future. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) defined the Enlightenment project in one oft-cited paragraph:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity . . . the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance. . . . Dare to know! (Sapere aude.) “Have the courage to use your own understanding” is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

Humanity’s problem, according to Kant, is dependent ignorance—the inability to use your understanding without someone else guiding you. Notice, then, his solution is independent thought: “Have the courage to use your own understanding.” The way of dependent ignorance is cowardly; the way of independent thought is courageous.

True evangelism announces the good news that cannot be reduced to personal preference or private spirituality.

It’s impossible in one essay to fully reckon with the Enlightenment’s influence on our society. And we shouldn’t overlook the many benefits this pursuit of knowledge has brought us. But it’s a mixed bag. Consider how these three aspects of Enlightenment thinking have profoundly influenced our society and, by extension, affected the way we carry out our mission.

1. Human reason replaced revelation as the foundation for universal morality.

Enlightenment thinkers looked for a way to adopt and promote a moral life which didn’t rely on some transcendent reality beyond this present world. Is there a way to establish a moral society based on reason apart from divine revelation? Can that way be the basis of universal civilization?

We see the fruit of Enlightenment thinking in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights from the United Nations in 1948. Read the preamble and then the articles—a declaration of humanity’s intrinsic dignity as the basis for human rights—and you’re seeing a moral vision set forth as normative for every civilization yet without any appeal to God or a higher power. It’s a terrific example of Enlightenment thought: the passionate pursuit of a universal moral standard based on autonomous human reason (reason independent of God), not in divine revelation. Who needs God? We can be successful, moral, happy, fulfilled, virtuous, and (fill in the blank) without him.

2. Religion was viewed as an obstacle to growth in knowledge.

If you try to establish morality and knowledge apart from divine revelation, you’re going to give the side-eye to traditional religious belief. You may still appreciate Christianity for some of its moral teachings, but you must challenge society’s reliance on religion, which gets recast as insidious superstition and myth. Enlightenment scholar Peter Gay writes,

Myth could be sympathetically understood only after it had been fully conquered, but in the course of its conquest it had to be faced as the enemy. . . . The Enlightenment had to treat religion as superstition and error in order to recognize itself.

In secular environments today, a common assumption is that we’re on the road toward greater heights of human knowledge, and walking this road requires us to turn away from the religions of the past and any reliance on supernatural revelation.

This doesn’t mean the Enlightenment progresses as religion declines, or vice versa. Charles Taylor argues secularity hasn’t arrived as a result of the steady erosion of religious faith; instead, we might define secularity as a society in which faith is no longer axiomatic. What has changed isn’t that people don’t believe anymore but that a wide swath of people view unbelief as a legitimate option.

Once faith is no longer axiomatic, reason and science often rush in as the (allegedly) objective referees in all sorts of disputes, resulting in a split between facts and values. Values are subjective and morality is an invention. Meanwhile, science is objective and the facts are indisputable.

Christianity gets reduced to private beliefs and values where it can flourish as a subculture for people who wish to be into that sort of thing, but it has no basis for speaking to what’s happening in the other spheres of human life. Religion is reduced to a private and personal matter, intimate and important but not something that can be out in the public square. It may be “true” in the sense that it gives me meaning and purpose—“true for me”—but it isn’t “true” in the objective sense: the truth about our world.

3. Usefulness and mastery became humanity’s new telos.

A third characteristic of Enlightenment thought involves a shift in the foundation of moral theory that leaves humanity without a telos—a shared end or goal.

In the past, people believed nature was purposeful and that further study could help us discover not only scientific but also moral laws. But once it became clear that morality couldn’t be “proven” in the same sense as scientific experiments, society lost a sense of its purposefulness. Everyone must figure out meaning for herself. We’re free—from the past, from superstitions, from religion, from outdated moral teachings, from community formation, from anything that would inhibit us. But what are we free for? What are we to become? There’s no clear answer.

What happens to religion when society loses a sense of what humanity is for? People begin to see their faith not in terms of its overall truthfulness but in terms of its workability or its effects on their lives. If the purpose of religion is to better your life, not to tell you the truth about our world, then you can judge a religion based on its usefulness.

If the purpose of religion is to better your life, then you can judge a religion based on its usefulness.

This idea of usefulness goes hand in hand with modern society’s attempts to master the world and make it “controllable.” That’s the word employed by the German philosopher Hartmut Rosa, who believes this hope and desire to make the world controllable is “the driving cultural force” of modern life. We follow a particular path to bring the world under our control:

1. Making the world visible, that is, making it knowable, expanding our knowledge of what is there

2. Making it physically reachable or accessible

3. Making it manageable

4. Making it useful, pressing it into service . . . to make it into an instrument for our own purposes

The problem, as Rosa sees it, is that once we try to make the world controllable at every level (accessible, manageable, and useful), we begin to see the world as a series of objects that we’re to know, attain, conquer, master, or exploit, and this control kills wonder in the world. It leads us to experience what Max Weber called “disenchantment.” The experience of feeling alive, of truly encountering the world (what Rosa calls resonance), eludes us. The world becomes a dead thing we act on, not something that can call out to us or lead us to that feeling of wonder and awe.

This tendency toward mastery and controllability affects not only how we see the world but also how we see religious faith. We begin to judge religion based on its usefulness, on our ability to press it into service for our purposes.

Navigating the Challenge of Privatized Religion

What does all this mean for the church today? A survey of the landscape will lead us to recognize several factors that must influence our mission and evangelism.

1. We hold out a real encounter with a real God.

The answer to our disenchanted world isn’t a disenchanted church. Unfortunately, this was the approach of theological liberalism in the 19th and 20th centuries. By reducing the Scriptures to something less than God’s divine revelation and flattening the Bible into a mere record of human experience of the divine, liberalism stripped the church of its power.

H. Richard Niebuhr famously summed up the result: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

But lest we pick on theological liberals, we should note the pragmatic turn among many conservative evangelicals in the last century, where the supernatural was downplayed in favor of whatever seemed most practical, giving the impression of a manageable, predictable God who affirms us in our deep desires, offers a sprinkle of transcendence, and blesses all our endeavors. In some cases, the gospel was instrumentalized for political purposes. Churches that still held to orthodox teaching about God and his revelation resembled little more than voluntary associations for social activism, either culture warriors for the right or errand runners for the left.

In contrast to these approaches, the church must remember that what we hold out to the world, more than anything else, isn’t a program for better living, good advice for financial gain, a healthy approach to raising children, a moral anchor for the world, or a socially active plan to make the world a better place or eradicate injustice. Christians may be involved in all these efforts and more, but the one nonnegotiable element is this: the church holds out a real encounter with a real God. Our purpose isn’t to share something that works for us but to summon the world to worship the only true and living God.

At the center of the Christian faith is not personal experience but divine revelation. God has made himself known in the world. And yet, because this revelation is real, it issues forth in powerful personal experiences, whereby we find ourselves by losing ourselves in the worship of God.

Our purpose isn’t to share something that works for us but to summon the world to worship the only true and living God.

We cannot truly worship a god who always affirms our desires and approves of our actions; a god like that is the equivalent of a smarmy acquaintance who does nothing but flatter and ingratiate and thus has no real value. But the real God, the God we see in Scripture, has broken into our world and extended himself in real relationship. This is the God we must present to the world.

Christopher Watkin has said that the myth of modernity is the myth that there are no myths. The idea of disenchantment is itself an enchantment. And so the disenchanted world needs a church that can be a prophet, not just a chaplain to a declining culture: A church filled with confidence that God is real and has revealed himself. A church that unmasks the attempt to find fullness only in immanent sources instead of transcendent ones. A church that cares about Scripture and doctrine because we’ve encountered the true and living God and want to worship him rightly. The church’s main goal isn’t workability but worship.

2. ‘What works’ will often be our starting point but cannot be our ending point.

How do we proceed when most people in our society aren’t asking whether a given religion is “true” but instead are asking if it “works,” or feels “right” or “good” to them?

First, we shouldn’t be surprised. Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis noted this shift toward pragmatism:

In lecturing to popular audiences I have repeatedly found it almost impossible to make them understand that I recommended Christianity because I thought its affirmations to be objectively true. They are simply not interested in the question of truth or falsehood. They only want to know if it will be comforting, or “inspiring,” or socially useful.

What was true in Lewis’s day is even more broadly the case now. The question of “what works” will likely be our starting point, simply because that’s the nature of the soil in this mission field. Most of our initial conversations with non-Christians will not be about proving God’s existence but more about how life is going for them, discussing whether the Christian vision of life is workable, or helping them see that Christianity’s overall influence on society is positive, not negative.

And yet this starting point mustn’t become our end goal. We must press deeper. As Lewis argued, if we only speak of Christianity on the plane of “what works” and never get to the “truth” question, we leave Christianity without distinctiveness, relegating it to the realm of “good advice” for moral living. He wrote,

One of the great difficulties is to keep before the audiences’ mind the question of Truth. They always think you are recommending Christianity not because it is true but because it is good. And in the discussion, they will at every moment try to escape from the issue. . . . You have to keep forcing them back, and again back, to the real point . . . that Christianity is a statement which, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The one thing it cannot be is moderately important.

Of course, Lewis would affirm that Christianity isn’t only true; it’s also good, it’s beautiful, and it “works.” He would’ve been happy to meet people wherever they were in their spiritual understanding. If, at first, a discussion of Christianity’s beauty or goodness makes the most sense, then by all means, let’s have that conversation. Start with what works. But don’t stop there.

We can discuss how Christianity works as a way of life or its effect on society and culture and assess its legacy. But to perpetually delay the “truth” question tells a lie about reality. Just because something works doesn’t mean it’s true or good. When the time is right, press in on the one clear and burning question: Who is Jesus Christ?

3. We must recapture evangelism as a daring act of subversion.

Here’s where the adventure begins. Even if we start with the question of what works, we’ll at some point need to call someone to cross from death to life, to pledge allegiance to God, to repent of sin and trust in Christ, to renounce the Evil One and all his deeds. And that’s nearly unconscionable in a pluralistic society that relegates religion to the realm of values and preferences.

Real evangelism is daring for two reasons. First: real, full-throated gospel proclamation dares to say what mustn’t be said: in discussing Christ’s claims, we aren’t talking about my truth and your truth. No, we’re talking about a public announcement that’s true for the whole world.

Real, full-throated gospel proclamation dares to say what mustn’t be said.

This announcement is powerfully subversive because it takes an axe to the great idol of our day—a pluralistic conception that permits us to think of Jesus as our personal Lord and Savior, or as the King of our own hearts, or as someone who helps us through life, while forbidding us to claim his lordship is objectively true for all people, in all places, in all times. No wonder it feels scary. No wonder we’re tempted to qualify our statements with the palatable preface “for me.”

Second, robust forms of evangelism are daring because they put forward another offensive claim: that you and I are implicated in the murder of God’s Son, our sins are on the docket, and only he holds the key to free us from our prison of guilt and shame. We’re all sinners, having fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23). Coming face to face with that reality is subversive in a world where everyone likes to think of himself as the hero.

Courage will be required if we’re to recapture the God-intended subversiveness of evangelism. There’s something adventurous about proclaiming God’s kingdom because we aren’t in the realm of my truth and your truth. Jesus is the rightful King of kings and the Bible tells the true story of the world.

The church’s task is to push through the fear and tell the truth with love, embodying the scandalous nature of our proclamation with a striking expression of genuine attentiveness. God gave early Christians the fortitude to preach the full gospel in the face of persecution.

He gave Soviet-era Christians, like my father-in-law, the grit to speak the truth even under threat of physical force or social ostracism. Even now, he gives Arab-world Christians the resilience to bear witness, though suffering will be their lot. Chinese house church pastor Wang Yi, arrested in December 2018 and still in prison today, told his church,

Test yourself to see if you are crazy for the gospel. When you are threatened with death for the gospel, you find out for whom you really live. When faced with the risk of job loss, you know for whom you really work. When you may lose fortune and position for the sake of the gospel, you find out whether you are crazy for money or crazy for the gospel.

While we don’t face the threat of imminent persecution in the West, bearing witness will always involve a cost. The story of Jesus centers on the cross, which means our faithfulness will take on a cruciform shape. When we say we want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, we must remember what happened to the hands and feet of Jesus. We’ll experience sparks, friction, and dissonance, but we also trust he’ll give us the courage to lift up his name, no matter who stands against us.

If we give up the public truth of the gospel, settling for the pluralistic confines of a personalized and privatized faith, we’ll lose the adventure of evangelism and the heart of Christianity. Live my truth? No. With Jesus, we declare, “The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news.”

When Christian Groups Subvert Religious Liberty of Christians Thu, 20 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The Italian Supreme Court’s harassment of an evangelical church serves as a stark reminder that the ongoing threats to religious liberty often come from those who identify as Christians.]]> The Story: The Italian Supreme Court’s harassment of an evangelical church serves as a stark reminder that the ongoing threats to religious liberty often come from those who identify as Christians.

The Background: For nearly a decade, Breccia di Roma, an evangelical congregation in Rome, has been embroiled in a legal battle with Italian tax authorities over recognizing their meeting place as a legitimate place of worship. The dispute revolves around the authorities’ refusal to grant tax-exempt status to the church, arguing its premises lack the “intrinsic characteristics” of a religious building, such as the altars, statues, and ornate decor typically found in Catholic churches.

In 2016, the church purchased an old storefront in Rome’s historic district to convert into their meeting place. After obtaining the necessary approvals and paying the required fees, the church expected the building’s redesignation as a tax-exempt religious institution to be finalized. However, the national tax agency intervened, claiming the simple, unadorned space doesn’t resemble their conception of a church building.

Despite the church winning two court cases in 2016 and 2023, the tax authority remained adamant and appealed the decisions, escalating the matter to Italy’s highest court. In a ruling in June 2024, the Italian Supreme Court sided with the tax authorities, denying the church tax-exempt status. The court upheld the argument that the church’s premises lack the markers of a religious building, effectively denying its recognition as a legitimate place of worship for tax purposes.

Why It Matters: This ruling has raised significant concerns about religious freedom and equal treatment of minority faiths in Italy. The case also highlights the challenges faced by evangelical and other Protestant communities in Italy, where the Catholic Church’s influence remains deeply ingrained in the cultural and bureaucratic fabric. It underscores the need for greater recognition and accommodation of diverse religious practices, ensuring all faiths are treated equitably under the law.

But it also provides a lesson for Christians in the United States about the importance of vigilance in safeguarding religious liberty. The challenges faced by Breccia di Roma serve as a stark reminder that even in countries with constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, the practical application of those rights can be hindered by cultural biases, bureaucratic obstacles, and unequal treatment of minority faiths. And that such threats can come from other Christians.

Consider, for example, an issue generally of concern only for pastors—tax benefits related to a housing allowance.

For more than a thousand years, housing has been a form of noncash payment or compensation for church ministers. This type of housing is often referred to as a parsonage (also known as a rectory, manse, or vicarage). The history of parsonages can be traced back to the early Christian church, but they became more prevalent in the Middle Ages.

In medieval Europe, parsonages were often built near the church and were considered part of its property. The parson or priest would live in the parsonage and be responsible for the parish’s spiritual well-being. In the United States, parsonages have been a part of church life since the colonial era. Many early American churches provided housing for their ministers, often in the form of a simple farmhouse or cottage.

In the early 20th century, taxation changed in America as income began to be taxed. In 1921, Congress provided a parsonage exemption that applied only to ministers who lived on property owned by their churches. This exemption tends to favor certain types of church structures over others. Churches where ecclesiastical properties are owned centrally, such as in the Catholic Church, may find it easier to provide parsonages compared to independent local churches with more limited financial resources.

This rule disadvantaged ministers—usually of low-church denominations—whose churches provided a housing allowance rather than a church-owned parsonage. So in 1954, Congress amended the tax code to allow ministers to exempt a portion of their income to the extent used for housing.

In 2013, a federal judge challenged this exemption, ruling that the clergy tax-free housing allowances were unconstitutional. That case was overturned the following year in the appeals court. Yet that same judge ruled again in 2017 that an income tax exemption for clergy housing is unconstitutional. That decision was also overturned on appeal.

Because the cases were overturned, they’re easy to dismiss as irrelevant. But they reveal how institutional bias and complacency could lead to harm for certain Christian groups in the future.

For instance, the judge’s decision harmed only specific groups of Christians, such as small Baptist congregations and underfunded nondenominational church plants. By targeting the housing allowance and not church-owned parsonages, the judge unintentionally attempted to incorporate into the tax code a bias toward wealthy churches and mainline denominations. Those churches often bought their property decades earlier and are thus more likely to own parsonages. This is because established denominations, with accumulated resources, are often better positioned to navigate complex tax laws and maintain traditional church structures, such as parsonages.

In an attempt to prevent an imaginary violation of the Establishment Clause, the judge allowed institutional bias to create a real infringement of the Constitution.

This judge’s assault on liberty also highlights our complacency. The judge’s most recent ruling came a mere seven years ago. Fortunately, the U.S. Constitution proved, once again, to be a sufficient bulwark against such threats to religious liberty. But the casual way we shrug about the judge’s rulings shows how American Christians have become overly reliant on legal precedent alone to preserve our first freedom. This has led us to dismiss, downplay, or outright ignore dangerous threats and attacks, both from without and from within.

Over the past decade, for example, there has been a rise in ideological movements composed of Christians who actively oppose religious liberty—even for Christians. Catholic Integralists and (mostly Protestant) Christian Nationalists are the most prominent examples of this type of right-wing wokeism.

For example, in his book The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe argues for a Christian prince to “punish (with civil power) false teachers, heretics, blasphemers, and idolaters for their external expressions of such things in order to prevent (1) any injury to the souls of the people of God, (2) the subversion of Christian government, Christian culture, or spiritual discipline, or (3) civil disruption or unrest.” He then adds, “Modern religious liberty advocates deny this and I affirm it.”

We modern religious liberty advocates deny this because we’ve seen throughout history—with the Breccia di Roma case being just the latest example—how “Christian magistrates” persecute us low-church types for an “external expression” of faith that differs from what’s authorized by the national church.

The power to persecute is always more appealing when you think you’ll wield the power. In theory, Wolfe should be cheering the Italian Supreme Court decision since they’re imposing the “theocratic Caesarism” he champions. But Wolfe presumably prefers a “Christian prince” that looks more like himself than like Pope Francis. The problem with religious dictators, though, is that you often don’t get a choice in what religious tradition they’ll choose to make the only acceptable standard.

Wolfe-style theocracy and Italian-style subversion of religious freedom aren’t imminent in the United States. The anti-liberty woke sound loud on X, but their views aren’t yet influential. For instance, Southern Baptists recently voted on a resolution opposing “any effort to establish a state religion of any nation, including the United States of America.”

Yet efforts to undermine religious liberty need to be opposed forcefully, consistently, and constantly. The historian J. H. Burns once noted that “the Church thinks in centuries while politicians are content to get through the coming week.” The same long-term perspective is needed for defenders of religious liberty. We cannot become complacent or take our freedoms for granted, thinking legal precedents alone will preserve them indefinitely. Nor can we ignore internal threats from misguided Christians who fail to grasp the biblical and historical necessity of safeguarding liberty for all.

Just as Breccia di Roma faces an ongoing battle in Italy, the fight for religious freedom requires constant vigilance and proactive engagement here in America. We must continue making the case for why our First Amendment rights are essential not only for Christians but for people of all faiths and of no faith. As Christ’s followers, we have an opportunity and responsibility to lead the way—not by mandating belief in Christ as a requirement for all citizens but by exemplifying the love, grace, and truth of the gospel in all we say and do.

God’s Providence in Suffering: Making Sense of Suffering, Part 3 Wed, 19 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Don Carson encourages Christians to follow Jesus amid suffering and persecution.]]> Focusing on God’s providence in our suffering, Don Carson explains that suffering can be divine discipline but is not always directly related to personal sin, as shown in John 9:1–7 and 1 Corinthians 11:29. God’s strength is perfected in human weakness, illustrated by Paul’s experience with the thorn in his flesh. Carson delves into the theological concepts of propitiation and expiation, explaining how Christ’s sacrifice on the cross embodies God’s justice and love, ultimately calling Christians to take up their crosses and follow him, even in the face of suffering and persecution.

‘Been So Long Praying’: 4 Reasons Why I Observe Juneteenth Wed, 19 Jun 2024 04:00:19 +0000 We celebrate America’s independence on July 4, but our country has another Independence Day that’s just as important for us to celebrate.]]> In 1863, a man on a horse could travel the 253 miles from Washington, DC, to Hale’s Ford, Virginia, in two weeks. It took the Emancipation Proclamation two years to make that journey.

Booker T. Washington distinctly remembered the moment in May 1865 when he heard the good news of his freedom. His mother, the enslaved cook on a Virginia plantation, was standing next to the 9-year-old Washington while a Union officer read Lincoln’s Proclamation, which had been issued on January 1, 1863.

“My mother,” Washington wrote, “who was standing by my side, leaned over and kissed her children, while tears of joy ran down her cheeks. She explained to us what it all meant, that this was the day for which she had been so long praying but fearing that she would never live to see.”

Lincoln’s executive order declared slaves in the Confederate States only were free. However, where Confederate troops held the ground, no one acknowledged Lincoln’s authority so the order wasn’t enforced. The Confederacy kept the news from slaves, in fear it would do what Lincoln had hoped: embolden slaves to rebel against the rebels by joining the Union Army.

Washington and his mother finally heard the good news in May 1865 because Richmond fell on April 2, and a week later, Robert E. Lee met Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox under a white flag. With the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia, the war was effectively over. Every advance of Union troops spread the good news that slaves in Confederate states “henceforward shall be free.”

The last slaves to hear of their blood-bought freedom were in Texas. On June 19, 1865, on the island town of Galveston, Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3, informing the people of Texas that a quarter of a million slaves in the state were now free and had “absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property.” That remarkable day has come to be known as Juneteenth.

I observe Juneteenth for four reasons.

1. Dedicated days are history’s teaching aids.

My wife and I have fond memories of our decade in Texas, where both our children were born. Texans love their history, and friends delighted in leading me on tours of the Alamo, where Santa Anna thought he won a victory. Then came San Jacinto, where Sam Houston caught up with Santa Anna. Trips to Galveston, the infamous site of our nation’s worst natural disaster, included dinner at Gaido’s with Glen Campbell somehow always in the background as we heard the “seawaves crashing,” reminding us of a different war.

But no one told me about Juneteenth.

In 2014, a marker was placed in Galveston; if there was one before that, I missed it. As much as I’ve studied American history, I’m sad to say I remained ignorant of this historic event until a movement to make it a federal holiday began.

Those concerned that Juneteenth increases racial division rarely oppose remembering the Alamo, Pearl Harbor, and 9/11, even if there’s a risk of fostering animosity toward Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and Muslim Americans. These outrages are far in the past, after all. Can’t we forget them and move on? No. The value of studying history is that remembering past failures increases the chances of present success.

2. Past sins have present consequences.

The Emancipation Proclamation ended slavery in the Confederate States. But it didn’t end racism in the United States. A hundred years of legalized segregation followed the Civil War. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 changed American law, it didn’t change all American hearts.

Consequently, many African Americans have been deprived of the generational wealth that comes with descending from a long line of property owners with stable families and access to the best education, jobs, and healthcare (or access to people with access).

We should continue to debate the wisest ways to address the inequities, but it helps good faith discussions when everyone concedes this important lesson of history: past sins have present consequences.

If we don’t hesitate to say we put a man on the moon, we won WWII, and we made Europe safe for democracy, then we shouldn’t hesitate to say we enslaved an entire class of image-bearers based on their skin color. Therefore, as a nation, we can celebrate that they were finally and righteously freed.

3. Good news delayed is good news denied.

In our earliest years as a nation, both black and white believers loved the Bible, but each had a different perspective on biblical themes. For many white believers, America was the promised land. For most black believers, America was Egypt. African American slaves closely identified with God’s people in bondage, making bricks without straw. White landowners closely identified with God’s people in blessing, abounding in milk and honey.

If we don’t hesitate to say we put a man on the moon and we won WWII, then we shouldn’t hesitate to say we enslaved an entire class of image-bearers based on their skin color.

Because there have been two American experiences, two Independence Days makes sense to me.

I speak as a white, Southern evangelical when I observe that many Memorial Day and Fourth of July sermons have found gospel analogies in our national narrative. Our founders, informed by Scripture, were willing to make great sacrifices to purchase our freedom from tyranny. Those early Americans spilled their blood on the soil of Lexington, Concord, Trenton, Yorktown, Bunker Hill, and Kings Mountain. Likewise, we’ve often heard, Jesus spilled his blood on the soil of Calvary to purchase our freedom from sin’s tyranny.

Some will complain that Juneteenth is too close to Independence Day, distracting from celebrating our nation’s birthday. But maybe we need this reminder that on July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s claim that “all men are created equal” didn’t include his slaves at Monticello. And no one can say that Jefferson, or any of the slaveholding founders, hadn’t been warned. Other Christians had been calling out the hypocrisy for years.

Considering both Independence Days together is a truer analogy of how the good news spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The initial impediment to the gospel’s advance was ethnocentric pride. The gospel isn’t just for the Jews but also for the Gentiles, and there’s no partiality with God.

Pressing the analogy further, today more than 2 billion people have never heard the gospel. Like slaves in Galveston, they’ve yet to hear about the emancipation decreed by our sovereign King. The elect from every nation have yet to hear the good news that they’ve been freed. Between us, there are geographical, linguistic, cultural, and racial barriers. But in the end,

How . . . will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? (Rom. 10:14–15)

In the many “Galvestons” of unreached peoples, God’s elect still wait in bondage to hear the royal proclamation of emancipation. Good news delayed is good news denied.

4. God hears the prayers of his suffering people.

With the psalmist, God’s people in every generation have lifted these words to the heavens: “How long, O LORD?” (Ps. 13:1). Countless slaves besides Booker T. Washington’s mother must have asked their heavenly Master the same question.

For many white believers, America was the promised land. For most black believers, America was Egypt.

Washington never knew his biological father, a white man who had his way with a neighbor’s slave. But his praying mother gave the world a biracial son who would turn to Scripture as a reliable guide. He founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to educate the children of former slaves, equipping them to contribute to the American economy according to biblical principles. Today his legacy has suffered compared to some of his critics, especially W. E. B. Du Bois, who faulted the gradualist approach that compromised with segregation. Yet it’s still remarkable what Washington accomplished against all odds. He recruited and hired teachers like George Washington Carver, another former slave and follower of Christ and the most prominent black scientist of the early 20th century.

Carver wrote to Washington confirming the agreement in 1896, saying, “I am looking forward to a very busy, pleasant and profitable time at your college and shall be glad to cooperate with you in doing all I can through Christ who strengthened me to better the condition of our people.” And that’s what they did together until Washington died on November 14, 1915, a free man.

Many Jobs, One Calling: Women at Work Tue, 18 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Women need a vision of following God faithfully as our assignment changes. Whether we change jobs, leave the workforce for a time, or enter back into it, our call is to love God and neighbor in whatever assignment he gives.]]> At 36 years old, as a mom of four, I accepted my first full-time job.

I’ve had plenty of part-time jobs in different settings, including several positions where I worked from home. I was primarily a stay-at-home mom for 12 years, yet even during some of those years I worked a few hours a week for a paycheck. But when I took a job that consumed much of my time each week, I had to start asking new questions about what it means to work and to be a woman in the workplace.

Chelsea Patterson Sobolik’s Called to Cultivate: A Gospel Vision for Women and Work explores what it means to be a female employee in our modern age. Many books are available about work in general, but few address women’s specific questions. And fewer address the questions of women broadly, not just moms of little children. While it’s important to ask questions about maternity leave and toddler childcare, that’s not what I’ve needed. This book helped me to think through my changing vocations.

Variable Vocations

Some people describe calling as if it’s a one-time event, a lifelong mission given directly by God. This seems inaccurate in a world where most of us won’t work at one company for an entire career.

We need a different approach. Sobolik, director of government affairs for World Relief, writes, “Instead of asking, ‘What is my calling?’ a better question to ask yourself is, ‘What is my current assignment?’” (59). Throughout our lives, we’ll have different vocations; each one is a distinct assignment. In some years, that may be as a student; in others, it may be as a stay-at-home mom or a professional with career aspirations. And it might not happen in this order. These jumps to different assignments don’t detract from our greatest calling: to love God and make him known.

This approach gives so much freedom to women. Many women move in and out of the workforce multiple times, which can lead to a sense of confusion about our vocation.

For example, the strongest sense of calling I’ve ever felt was to the unreached peoples of India. I was certain my family would live in India. Then we had a child with significant food allergies that made overseas living unmanageable. I was disappointed my circumstances challenged the calling I’d been sure of. If my calling was one job I should do for the rest of my life, then twists and turns in my career could leave a sense of failure. But if I see my life as a series of vocational assignments that God can and will change, then that vision offers freedom.

If I see my life as a series of vocational assignments that God can and will change, then that vision offers freedom.

Sobolik calls readers to focus on faithfulness rather than on how we can’t fulfill our calling when we change roles. She argues, “Success, in God’s eyes, is faithfully following Him wherever He calls. This frees us up from feeling like the weight of the world is on our shoulders” (60). Women need a vision of following God faithfully as our assignment changes. Whether we change jobs, leave the workforce for a time, or enter back into it, our call is to love God and neighbor in whatever assignment he gives.

Dealing with Discrimination

Sometimes loving our neighbor means responding to injustice. Sobolik tackles hard questions about misogyny, which seem unavoidable in a book about work for women. When she was a Capitol Hill staffer, Sobolik lost her job because her boss resigned due to sexual misconduct allegations. She writes, “I had to pay the price of someone else misusing their power and authority in the workforce” (103–4).

Many women, however, face direct discrimination based on their sex or race. Sobolik shares the stories of real women who’ve faced discrimination at work. Their experiences of pain and loss are tragic; they aren’t just statistics.

Unjust discrimination based on sex is antithetical to our essential equality in God’s eyes. Discriminatory or abusive behavior has no place with people who profess the gospel. Sobolik observes, “Throughout Jesus’ ministry, He interacts with women, not based on their gender, but based on their common humanity” (106). Jesus values the humanity of the people he interacts with, and so should we.

Sobolik argues, “Our faith should compel us to speak up on behalf of persecuted and vulnerable people” (111). She provides practical guidance for approaching these hard conversations with human resources departments and other groups designed to help organizations do what’s right.

Balanced Approach

Sobolik offers a balanced introduction to the doctrine of vocation suitable for every believer. Yet it zooms in on gender-specific workplace issues. For example, she explores topics like salary negotiation—an area in which, statistically speaking, women struggle. Within her narrowed audience, Sobolik gives additional guidance for women in diverse seasons of life, which she doesn’t limit to motherhood seasons.

Unjust discrimination based on sex is antithetical to our essential equality in God’s eyes.

Most significantly, she holds out gracious hope for working women who feel there isn’t enough time for everything. She reminds us that Christians “don’t have to cram as much possible into our lives on earth, because our stories will continue” (140). This is exactly the message many women with multiple vocations need to hear.

Called to Cultivate encouraged me to think about my vocations as assignments from the Lord. Whatever season of life I’m in currently, this is where the Lord has me. He may change my assignment, but my calling is to be faithful where I am. This book reminded me of important questions to ask myself and my employer. It’s a great resource for women as we navigate the complexities of jobs, families, and the whole Christian life.

‘Inside Out 2’ and the Need for Outside-In Wisdom Tue, 18 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 A healthy sense of self is formed not only from the inside out, but also—and arguably more powerfully—from the outside in.]]> When Inside Out released in 2015, it represented the best of Pixar: gorgeous animation, brilliant original storytelling, and layers of meaning for kids and adults alike. It was the last truly groundbreaking movie in the “peak Pixar” era. Though there are a few exceptions, much of Pixar’s output since 2015 has been underwhelming at best or annoyingly agenda-driven at worst. Recent box-office flops like Elemental launched much discussion about how Pixar lost its way.

Inside Out 2 may be a herald of Pixar’s creative recovery. It nearly matches the magic of its predecessor. For Gen Z and Alpha audiences (and their parents)—those navigating today’s “anxious generation” world with a hyperattuned (maybe overattuned) emotional vocabulary—Inside Out 2 is unsurprisingly resonant.

Yet the zeitgeist-capturing appeal of the film is also my biggest caution about it. It’s a movie of our emotionally fluent moment. But this is the same moment in which record numbers of people are mentally unwell. Our emotional fluency isn’t making us happier.

In a therapeutic culture plagued by the problems of “too in your head” anxiety and emotional overprocessing, I worry a franchise like Inside Out—for all its artistic merits—may end up drawing kids deeper into themselves when what they need is precisely the opposite.

Teen Drama Inside the Brain

Most of Inside Out 2’s action takes place inside the developing brain of Riley (voiced by Kensington Tallman), who’s now a 13-year-old hockey player about to enter high school. Puberty has brought new complexity to her inner world. The sequel introduces an array of new emotion characters, chiefly Anxiety (Maya Hawke) but also Envy, Embarrassment, and Ennui, with some brief appearances from Nostalgia.

The new “teen emotions” fight with Riley’s original, simpler emotions (Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Disgust), and the plot of the film essentially explores the changing balance (or imbalance) of adolescent emotional life.

I worry a franchise like Inside Out may end up drawing kids deeper into themselves when what they need is precisely the opposite.

The antics of the emotion characters inside Riley’s head are wild and whimsical, and the film’s screenwriters have a field day rendering emotional concepts as fantasy-world geography. You can only smile when the emotion characters take a trip down a rapidly flowing “stream of consciousness,” encounter a gaping “sar-chasm,” and dodge hail-like lightbulbs during a “brain storm.” I especially enjoyed a scene in which the emotions visit the “vault” where Riley’s “dark secrets” are locked up. The creative animation styles and jokes in this sequence alone are worth the price of admission.

Reprising the voice of protagonist emotion “Joy,” Amy Poehler shines and—for me—delivers the film’s most heart-tugging moments. When Joy laments her reduced role in Riley’s adolescent life (“Maybe this is what happens when you grow up—you feel less joy”) and then reunites with her in a climactic, cathartic moment, I got emotional. It’s a truism of life that the pure joy of childhood dissipates as we age and encounter more worries, stress, and pain. But we never fully grow out of our need for joy. Inside Out 2 captures this well.

Are We Too Enchanted with Our Inner World?

As I watched (and largely enjoyed) the film, it struck me that the Inside Out franchise makes vivid what’s assumed in our modern age of authenticity. We’re enchanted less by the world outside our heads and more by the “self” we conjure from the authentically messy menagerie within.

In the Inside Out movies, “real life” outside the characters’ heads is less interesting than what’s going on inside. Riley’s inner world is a kaleidoscope of color and a carnival of amusements. Her outer world is mundane by comparison. I get that the movie is trying to specifically explore human interiority, and it does a great job of enchanting us to the wonders within.

This is something Christians can celebrate, believing as we do that we’re fearfully and wonderfully made by an intentional designer who “created [our] inmost being” (Ps. 139:13–14, NIV). Every new brain-science discovery—and there are still so many mysteries to uncover—is an opportunity to praise our magnificent Creator. Humans are wonderfully made physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Inside Out 2 may not give credit to a transcendent Creator, yet it can’t help but bear witness to the miraculous wonders of human consciousness.

Still, there’s a point when wonder about our inner life goes beyond grateful awe and approaches unhealthy obsession. Is it possible we’re living in an era that’s too aware of the emotional drama inside, too prone to jump to therapeutic “processing,” and generally too preoccupied with the self?

Abigail Shrier thinks so. Her recently released Bad Therapy presents a compelling case that a major cause of the deteriorating mental health among rising generations is that they talk so much about their mental health. Orienting our thoughts inordinately on our emotions makes us, unsurprisingly, more emotionally burdened.

Get Outside Your Head

Watching Inside Out 2, I felt compassion for Riley as a proxy for real people I know whose volatile emotional worlds loom dangerously large in their sense of identity and overarching purpose. Yet this is the fruit of contemporary expressive individualism, which has beckoned us to define ourselves on our own terms, favoring internal whims and deeply felt desires over external influences, norms, and expectations.

Inside Out 2 may not give credit to a transcendent Creator, yet it can’t help but bear witness to the miraculous wonders of human consciousness.

Perhaps the most troubling motif in Inside Out 2 is how it conceives the “sense of self” as an amalgamation of entirely self-referential beliefs. Riley’s beliefs about herself (“I’m a winner,” “I’m kind,” “I’m scared sometimes,” “I need help,” “I’m a good person,” and so on) gradually coalesce as threads wound together into her sense of self. But in the movie, it’s only “I” statements that form these belief threads.

Is this adequate? Shouldn’t our sense of self also be formed by what those closest to us (namely our parents, spouses, or close friends) can see that we can’t? Shouldn’t it include beliefs about realities and truths that are independent of us? Isn’t the concrete, bigger world outside our head a more reliable matrix of meaning for our identity than the iffy emotional meanderings within?

To have a fuller, richer, more satisfying sense of who we are, we need to get out of our heads. Matthew B. Crawford makes this argument in his excellent book The World Beyond Your Head, which makes the case that we know ourselves not primarily through self-conception but through communal situatedness, not primarily by internal reflection but by external reality. He writes,

We live in a world that has already been named by our predecessors, and was saturated with meaning before we arrived. . . . Our private experiences are founded on—would not be intelligible without—the prior disclosure of a shared world. This is the world we encounter first, as babies locked in joint attention with a caregiver. It follows that our experiences are not simply “our own.”

What’s inside us is certainly interesting, sometimes inspiring, and often helpful. But so much of what makes us who we are—and almost everything that makes us better versions of ourselves—comes from outside us.

Outside In

In Psalm 139, David is in awe not that he knows himself but that God knows him. He says “How precious to me are your thoughts, O God!” (v. 17), not “How precious to me are my thoughts.” David is deeply honest about his emotions throughout the Psalms, yet his sense of self is found not in those emotive ups and downs but in the steadiness and sovereignty of the God who formed us and knows our frame.

In an age of amorphous self-made identity, “God made me and knows me” is a far firmer foundation on which to build the self.

To be sure, emotional awareness and self-knowledge are part of a healthy identity. But so are convictions, beliefs, and worship oriented away from the self and accountable to truths far bigger than us. In the end, a healthy sense of self is formed not only from the inside out but also—and arguably more powerfully—from the outside in.

Gospel Hope for a Culture Fixated on Getting Even Mon, 17 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Contemporary culture is wrestling with how to right a wrong. Revenge is popular, but the gospel is better. ]]> A particular theme percolates through pop culture these days, so commonplace we’ve almost called it normal: the desire for revenge.

It’s the underlying plotline of popular shows like Yellowstone or The Terminal List. It’s the fact that after Taylor Swift suffered a bad breakup, fans claimed she wore a revenge dress that paid homage to Princess Diana’s. The Iowa women’s basketball team’s recent win against LSU was widely described as “revenge.”

Cancel culture is built on the notion that if someone’s convictions don’t line up with the prevailing narrative, his livelihood and reputation can be ruined as retribution. This form of “revenge” is widely accepted and practiced—especially on social media.

The media argues daily about just proportion in the deaths accrued in the Israel-Hamas war—as though “an eye for an eye” represents a sustainable path forward. And political power increasingly seems dominated less by collaboration to solve problems as by wrenching power from “the other side” and punishing dissenters or the disloyal.

It’s clear our contemporary culture is wrestling, individually and corporately, with how to right a wrong. Yet when we normalize or even make light of revenge, we sink to our basest human level and then celebrate it.

Snapshot of the Human Heart

The cultural theme of revenge abounds because the desire to exact an eye for an eye gives a snapshot of the human heart. Who is unfamiliar with the sick, sweet longing to even the score? If I hurt the person who hurt me, maybe that’ll serve as protection against being wounded again. A potentially endless cycle is set in motion, one slight followed by another until there’s no way back. I can’t shake the mental image of Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner falling from the chandelier to their deaths at the end of the classic love-hate movie War of the Roses.

As ubiquitous as it is as a cultural motif, few would claim getting revenge is ideal behavior, though. Even in a post-Christian culture, the firm command of Scripture rings in many ears: Don’t pay back evil for evil (Rom. 12:17). Let God right the scales (Rom. 12:19). Sometimes God partially rights the scales by using his instruments of justice in this world—civil and other authorities with the power to exact repayment—but he always finally rights the scales on the Day of Judgment.

As a therapist, I see the admonitions about revenge in Romans 12 as God’s merciful way of saving us from ruining ourselves—and possibly every relationship in our lives. A person bent on revenge will follow this path to ruin. A person who can cry out to God, appeal to authorities where appropriate, incline his heart to forgiveness, and leave the ultimate resolution to God, will do good for himself and point the offender to his need for Christ’s cleansing blood.

The ubiquitous presence of revenge in contemporary culture makes the hope of forgiveness a startling wonder and a crying need. If you’ve ever worked through a hurt that seemed impossible to forgive, you know how miraculous it feels to come to a place where you’re finally free of animus. You can pray for your enemy. You can rise above, or put behind you, what felt like a crippling betrayal or humiliation or loss you can’t replace (the three hardest things for human beings to forgive). It’s like being born again a second time.

The ubiquitous presence of revenge in contemporary culture makes the hope of forgiveness a startling wonder and a crying need.

Being able to forgive a deep wrong is both a choice and a gift. We can’t conjure forgiveness on our own. It’s just too hard. Getting even is our default. In the realm of revenge and forgiveness, psychology is of little help. Trying harder won’t get you there.

The gospel uniquely provides the basis—and the power—to overcome our human inclination to return evil for evil.

Power of the Cross

When Jesus met with his disciples after he’d been raised from the dead, some of his first words, strangely enough, were about forgiveness, as though the power that brought him back to life was now let loose and capable of breaking previously unbreakable bonds. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus said. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them” (John 20:22–23). Jesus let his disciples know his resurrection busted through the wall of hurt and endless paybacks, so common in human experience, to a new realm marked by forgiveness.

Perhaps the reason modern culture is fixated on revenge is that in a godless world, what else are you going to do but get even? Where do you go with the need for justice?

In the face of human impotence, the Christian faith makes audacious claims. There is a living God who doesn’t gloss over the wrongs we’ve done—or the wounds we’ve suffered—but rather bears the weight of both in his own suffering on the cross. This love transcends the damage done and, over time, uses the curse as fertilizer for some new display of mercy and life. Where can this be found apart from the power of Christ’s cross?

Perhaps the reason modern culture is fixated on revenge is that in a godless world, what else are you going to do but get even?

Edmund Burke, the 18th-century political thinker, famously noted that a culture couldn’t progress to a civil society until it had some means to rise above the human need to return evil for evil. Without an ethos that posits a rationale for forgiveness, we know only tribal wars of endless retaliation. We remain stuck in our own morass. Only the gospel offers us a way out.

As Christians, we can love our neighbors by helping them see that their inclination to get even, while understandable, is a destructive dead end. Jesus shows us a better, more effective, more satisfying way. Perhaps the recurrent theme of revenge is a just that: a black backdrop against which we see, for the actual wonder it is, the light of a gospel that makes it possible to forgive.

Beware Social Myths Mon, 17 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Through social myths, we feel as if we’re doing something profoundly important—even though all we’re doing is shouting into the void.]]> When the Kansas City Chiefs advanced to the Super Bowl in 2024, media attention was not focused on the team or their potential to win another championship but on Taylor Swift, the girlfriend of Chiefs player Travis Kelce.

Some of the chatter was from adoring “Swifties,” some from people annoyed with Swifties, and some from those convinced the entire situation was a Biden campaign operation for Swift to announce her endorsement of the President’s campaign. The result of this conspiracy theory was that supporting Swift’s appearance at the Super Bowl was culturally coded as support for Biden, whereas opposition to her appearance was a tacit support of Trump.

In reality, the most famous musical artist in the world was going to the biggest sports event in America to support her boyfriend. But for a short time, her appearance took on massive cultural significance. It represented something much larger than the sum of its parts.

This phenomenon is common to the digital age. A cultural event (or nonevent) deals with some real issue but through a process of memeification comes to represent something larger. Technology, particularly social media, encourages us to submerge serious cultural issues under a symbolic discourse that I call “social myth.”

Social myths are a disordered way of engaging with legitimate cultural issues relevant to our public witness as Christians. The problem isn’t that we’re engaging in what some call the “culture war.” Certain causes are worth fighting for, like the right to life. The culture war usually deals with causes that are serious and require bold, faithful advocates to fight for them.

But social myths don’t require deep thinking, evidence, or rhetorical skill. They only require us to act according to mythology—and the emotional benefits are significant. We feel as if we’re doing something profoundly important, even though all we’re doing is shouting into the void.

The problem with social myths is they distract us from the core issues, seducing us into meaningless identity signaling that doesn’t advance our causes or the gospel.

Nature of Social Myths

Social myths are the lifeblood of the culture war, and they have four main qualities.

1. Social myths are grounded in legitimate cultural issues.

Social myths begin with a real cultural issue that deserves vigorous public debate. Common topics include abortion, LGBT+ controversies, race, social justice, gun control, voting rights, and immigration. These are matters of great importance, and Christians should be speaking prophetically about them in the public square in a manner that glorifies God and edifies our neighbors. But social myths don’t help us do that.

We feel as if we’re doing something profoundly important, even though all we’re doing is shouting into the void.

An example of this is the Bud Light boycott of 2023, where conservatives began a boycott after transsexual TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a sponsored video to social media promoting Bud Light. Conservatives, among them many Christians, objected to the promotion of transgender identities by a beloved beer brand. At root is the normalization and even romanticization of transgender narratives in secular culture, a trend that has influenced young people to question their gender identity and in some cases to medically transition. Cultural efforts to normalize and promote the mutilation of our bodies are serious to Christians.

This point is important because we can go wrong in arguing all culture war topics are trivial and a distraction. Social myths deal with real issues. People are motivated to engage with these myths because they’re directly invested in them. My concern is that once these serious issues get transformed into myths, spectacle overwhelms substance. In this case, an Instagram Bud Light ad by a transexual came to mythically symbolize a broader culture war conflict over sex and gender.

2. Social myths grow primarily on social media.

Social myths are born and grown online because the form of social media is highly conducive to abstraction and identity signaling. That isn’t to say they don’t enter the “real world,” but they only do so after they’ve been cultivated online.

For example, in 2022, representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado “joked” at a Christian conference that Christ didn’t have enough AR-15s to keep his government from crucifying him. To a large extent, the online discourse on gun control, as on many topics, has lost sight of the reality of gun violence and individual liberties and has been transformed into a social myth, which is precisely what Boebert took into the “real world” when she made the joke. People make memes for and against gun control and speak in mythic terms, abstracting the issue from its real-world implications and turning it into a culture war symbol.

She wasn’t making a serious argument for Second Amendment rights. And once the video of the joke made it to Twitter, her critics weren’t seriously arguing for gun control. Boebert was making a claim about her position in the broader culture war, which is why she could make a ridiculous and offensive joke about our Savior using a gun to avoid the sacrifice he was sent to make for our sins. It wasn’t about the content of the joke but about what the joke symbolized. Boebert was participating in a social myth. But as I noted earlier, this statement began as a response to an online debate.

Social myths take off online because of social media’s highly visual nature. Culture war memes aren’t designed to persuade but to get shares and likes. Social media incentivizes us to reduce complex, nuanced issues into tweets and TikToks. When there’s no space for meaningful discussion about a controversial issue, you’re reduced to transforming it into symbolic form, abstracting it from all substance.

3. In social myths, symbolism usurps substance.

The defining feature of social myths is that they take a real issue and abstract it until the issue itself is all but lost. The symbol of the issue, not the issue itself, becomes the main topic. When Boebert’s “joke” went viral, the discourse wasn’t about gun control; it was about her joke. When Taylor Swift came to the Super Bowl, the discourse wasn’t about the desirability of another Trump or Biden presidency; it was about Swift as a symbol. At that point, the myth takes on a life of its own.

Culture war memes aren’t designed to persuade but to get shares and likes.

Memes are perhaps the best example of the “symbol over substance” nature of social myths. They tend to pursue maximum virality over persuasive power. The substance of a debated topic is submerged under the image of the topic portrayed in a meme. The goal is to reproduce the meme through shares, rather than to persuade anyone or honestly engage with an issue.

Importantly, social myths can be engaged in without touching the real and serious cultural issues they’re rooted in. People can operate entirely on the level of social myth without even understanding the basic ethical, legal, and religious variables figuring into a controversial topic. It isn’t hard to imagine someone who fiercely advocates for freeing Palestine or for ending abortion yet doesn’t understand the essential issues involved. They can do this with passion and conviction not because they believe in the substance of the cause but because they’re operating on the level of social myth.

4. Social myths take on cosmic significance for those participating in them.

It’s not just that social myths shift our attention from the substance of an issue to something different. They come to symbolize something cosmically bigger. They symbolize grand narratives in the broader culture war, which is at root a war for civilization itself. Once an issue gets transposed into this higher register, the stakes are raised, justifying an otherwise inordinate amount of time arguing and posting about the issue.

An example of this can be seen in the vitriol some progressives have for Chick-fil-A. As with all social myths, this one is grounded in a real issue. The owner of Chick-fil-A has donated money to what the left views as anti-LGBT+ causes. For a progressive buyer of chicken sandwiches, LGBT+ issues are a significant concern. Even though Chick-fil-A and its charitable arm no longer donate to “anti-LGBT+” causes, the brand has become symbolically coded according to culture war terms. To eat a chicken sandwich isn’t to eat a chicken sandwich but to make a political statement that LGBT+ people don’t deserve civil rights.

If that sounds dramatic, consider the story of Adam Rubenstein, a former New York Times staffer. In an article for the Atlantic, Rubenstein describes a corporate icebreaker session in which he was asked to name his favorite sandwich. When he said it was Chick-fil-A’s spicy chicken sandwich, he was immediately reprimanded by a Times human resources representative who said, “We don’t do that here. They hate gay people.”

The key is that a simple act takes on mythic significance far beyond material reality. Is it true that some money from your chicken sandwich purchase goes to the owner, who then donates to causes that progressives oppose? Yes. But it’s such an infinitesimal contribution that it’s meaningless—unless it becomes part of a larger mythic stance for LGBT+ rights. In that case, boycotting Chick-fil-A and publicly shaming people for enjoying their sandwiches is an important and cosmic blow to the anti-LGBT+ agenda.

A pro-choice social media user posting a meme on abortion might think, I’m not just advocating for a woman’s right to choose. I’m participating in the defense of human rights against fascist theocrats. When participating in a social myth, you engage in a global quest for justice. You participate in a grand effort to reclaim civilization for your side. But in reality, shaming Rubenstein for liking a particular sandwich did nothing for the LGBT+ cause.

What Can We Do?

If social myths are unhealthy ways of engaging with legitimate issues, what’s the alternative? Can we participate in the culture wars constructively, or should we retreat to our enclaves and quietism?

The first thing we need to recognize is that social media isn’t a good space for meaningful dialogue. It’s designed to create an addiction to superficial images and ideas. To the extent we use social media for making statements about cultural issues, it should be to point people away from social media to spaces where longer, more nuanced arguments can be made.

Social media isn’t a good space for meaningful dialogue.

Second, we must be judicious about our engagements on cultural issues. You don’t need to speak about every issue that goes viral. This doesn’t make you a coward; it makes you prudent. Ask yourself whether your voice will effectively witness to your audience on this particular issue. Being selective about what you engage with is also important because often an event will go viral without all the relevant information coming out, and when the facts emerge, people feel compelled to double down even if they were wrong.

Third, ask yourself whether you’re engaging with the substance of an issue or merely with symbols. To use a progressive example, are you talking about LGBT+ rights or chicken sandwiches?

Fourth, be cautious about using memes to engage in cultural issues. Most memes don’t effectively communicate much; they signal the virtue (or vice) of the person creating them. I won’t go so far as to say all memes participate in social myth, but I do think the vast majority obscure substance and rely on abstraction.

Fifth, work on engaging with cultural issues in local communities, with your neighbors and those in your church. Embodied efforts won’t always involve the substance of an issue, but unlike social media, a conversation over coffee isn’t designed according to the whims of an algorithm.

However we engage with the many legitimate cultural issues that face us, we must do so with courage and love, as wise as serpents and gentle as doves. People are confused about sex, gender, the sanctity of life, and a host of other issues. Christians have always made the gospel known through advocating for just governmental policies and social norms. The challenge is to do this in a way that doesn’t get absorbed into the internet’s trivializing gaze.

How My Dad Shows Me Jesus Sun, 16 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Leland Herring hasn’t let cystic fibrosis stop him from ministering to youth in Palm Beach County public schools.]]> I’ve been going to the same church in South Florida since my forever family started the adoption process when I was 2 years old. I grew up around incredibly godly people. But the person who’s had the greatest influence on my spiritual life is my dad, Leland Herring. He’s the best embodiment of faith I’ve ever encountered.

When I was little, I frequently had nightmares. It was my dad who came to comfort me—he’d tuck me in and read the Psalms until I fell back asleep. Usually by the time Dad got to Psalm 3:5, I’d feel comforted enough to nod off: “I lie down and sleep; I wake again because the LORD sustains me” (CSB).

I didn’t truly understand what that verse meant to my dad until I was much older.

Cystic Fibrosis

Dad was born with cystic fibrosis, a terminal genetic disease that affects the respiratory, digestive, and endocrine systems. He wasn’t expected to live past the age of 13, but in April of this year, he celebrated 54 years of life and the 26th anniversary of a miraculous double-lung transplant. He’s now one of the longest-living survivors of that procedure for cystic fibrosis. He goes to sleep every night and wakes up again because God is sustaining him.

The 50-plus medications my dad has taken since the transplant have diminished his immune system, leaving him exceptionally vulnerable to illnesses that a healthy person would find mildly inconvenient. They’ve caused serious side effects and so far brought on 17 other diseases. But he has never let all this keep him from serving the Lord.

Youth for Christ

My dad regularly risks his health (and life) to ensure the lost youth in the Palm Beach County school district have a chance to hear the gospel. He has worked for the local Youth for Christ for 23 years.

The medications that sustain him have also caused serious side effects. He has never let all this keep him from serving the Lord.

Several days each week during the school year, he goes into public middle and high schools to run clubs during lunch periods, play card games, and talk with the students. You’ll often find him supporting students as they participate in school plays and sports events. He mentors students and often volunteers for the teachers.

Dad interacts with more than a thousand students and staff each week, and as a result, he’s a well-known and well-loved member of our community. We can’t go anywhere as a family without hearing a “Hey, Leland!” and listening in on conversations with parents, teachers, staff, and students.

He isn’t always happily received into the public schools, though. At times, permission to serve the school isn’t given even though my dad offers repeatedly. They know he follows Jesus. It’s discouraging, but he lets it roll off his shoulders and works on finding a teacher-sponsor at another school. My dad always says the Bible doesn’t mince words and that biblical truth is offensive to many people.

Living with Loss

The COVID-19 pandemic was tough for my dad. Since the virus was even taking the lives of healthy people, it was perilous for him. Then, in June 2020, my grandpa (my dad’s dad and his best friend) tested positive. He was hospitalized on a Sunday and taken home to be with his heavenly Father five days later.

Although my dad was devastated to lose his father here on earth, he understood that Grandpa knew the Lord. God had called him home. My dad turned to Scripture for comfort.  The truth of Philippians 1:21 carried my dad through that loss, and it brings hope amid multiple health struggles and disease diagnoses: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”

We Are Not Our Own

Unlike my dad, I struggle to live as if my life isn’t truly my own. Sometimes I avoid places where I might get sick, because I don’t want the inconvenience of a cold. But Dad doesn’t shrink from going into a school where he could become deathly ill from catching a virus. He knows that the students, teachers, and staff need to encounter Jesus’s love.

I’m often critical of others’ life choices (even though I know mine aren’t always the best). But my dad doesn’t expect people who don’t follow Jesus to live like they do. Following Christ’s example, he invests time in people, asks open-ended questions, and points them to the truth. I tend to overlook my sins and instead judge others for theirs. But my dad shares his story; his struggle with sin, doubt, and anxiety; and his need for a Savior. To the lost world, this authenticity shines a beautiful light on reality. It points to the living hope found in Christ alone.

To the lost world, my dad’s authenticity shines a beautiful light on reality. It points to the living hope found in Christ alone.

I ask the Lord for a strong faith and eagerness to serve him in all circumstances, as my dad does. I pray I’ll look for ways to invest in others’ lives. I pray I’ll give up my lame, self-centered excuses and instead be more interested in others. I ask to be grateful for every morning that I wake up breathing and for every opportunity to share the gospel.

Growing up with my dad as a modern-day Job of sorts has brought lessons both beautiful and hard. I’m grateful to my heavenly Father for blessing me with a wonderful earthly father to look up to and emulate.

The Problem with Our Productivity Obsession Sat, 15 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Despite the benefits of growing in personal productivity, efficiency as an end in itself is dangerous and unfulfilling. ]]> “Do work that matters!” That’s the call of many productivity books written in the past two decades. To aid our pursuit of efficiency, books like Deep Work (still my favorite) and How to Have a Good Day suggest writing a life mission statement, single-tasking, blocking space on your calendar for focused work, task-batching, and much more. I admit, I was hooked. And I benefited from many of their methods.

Due to the influence of productivity literature, I’ve been able to take on increased responsibilities at work, finish my master of divinity, earn a black belt in Brazilian jujitsu, join a nonprofit board, complete a pastoral internship, and serve as a bivocational pastor in two different churches.

Without making progress in my personal efficiency, I likely wouldn’t have been able to do all that. And I still practice daily the disciplines I’ve learned. Yet, despite all the benefits, I’ve begun to see the dangers of productivity obsession in my life and in some Christian circles.

Warning Signs

I’ll never forget confidently declaring to a pastor friend, “Time is the most precious resource I have. I need to make the most of it.” He looked at me like I had two heads. “No it’s not,” he replied. “What about your health? Your family? Your faith and knowledge of the Scriptures?” Oh, right. That stuff.

After our brief exchange, I realized I’d taken the good goal of productivity and made it my highest value. Such an obsession is a warning sign you’re taking efficiency too seriously.

Another sign is spending more time optimizing life than appreciating it. I was frequently more excited about planning projects for the year than considering how to lead my family spiritually. That’s a problem. The amount of mental energy we spend on efficiency shouldn’t be greater than what we give toward loving the Lord, our families, and our churches.

Then I noticed my inability to be still. When I had free time, I thought, Now I can sit down and read that book or work on that sermon. Or maybe I’ll simply rest. Then, five minutes later, my mind would race to a new task. My desire for efficiency limited my ability to do deep, focused work—or even to enjoy life. Learning to be still is surprisingly hard in our hurried age, but resting from our labors and trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross is essential to the Christian life.

Learning to be still is surprisingly hard in our hurried age.

Controlling Time

The well-known poem about time from Ecclesiastes 3:2–8 (thanks, Byrds) showcases life’s various seasons One of the thrusts of that passage is that human beings are at the mercy of time. We can’t control birth or death, planting or reaping, wars or peace. But God isn’t at the mercy of time. He made it and controls it.

This can be frustrating for us as humans. We want to know the meaning and purpose of our days. We desperately desire to conquer and control time. We strive to be captains of our own ships. But when you realize you can’t control life—much less your time—it can lead to questions like the one in Ecclesiastes 3:9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?”

In our quest to find meaning in life, productivity can become a go-to source for purpose. A cottage industry promises satisfaction if we maximize efficiency and work. We must beware of this cultural solution. Efficiency and excellence are good aims, but they can’t provide ultimate meaning. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can.

More practically, human beings can’t be perfectly efficient. No matter how much we optimize. No matter how early we go to bed and how early we rise. No matter how many cups of coffee we drink. Ultimately, we have no control over the times we live in. No control over traffic jams, job changes, or illnesses. You and I will never be ultraefficient machines. We weren’t meant to be.

Efficiency Redeemed

Once I acknowledge the potential dangers of pursuing efficiency as an ultimate end, the sluggard in me can say, Nice, let’s just do nothing. This isn’t the solution. Scripture repeatedly warns against our lazy instincts (e.g., Prov. 6:6–9). In a world filled with distractions, laziness is a real temptation. Screens and social media give us countless opportunities to waste time. But there’s nothing Christ-honoring in mindless scrolling. The answer to productivity obsession isn’t inefficiency or inactivity; it’s efficiency redeemed.

In our quest to find meaning in life, productivity can become a go-to source for purpose.

In Ephesians 5:15–17, Paul writes, “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.” In context, Paul’s instruction to make the best use of our time isn’t about productivity but about living wisely. We’re to live according to the Lord’s will: pursuing holiness, building up the church, worshiping God, and loving one another.

Redeeming efficiency requires us to understand our human limitations. We can’t optimize our lives to do it all. We should do what’s of highest value and work our way down God’s priority list. As a result, tasks on our lists will occasionally be left undone. Yes, we can plan days and prioritize tasks. But our greater goal should be to live wisely within our limitations.

My worry for Christians like me who love efficiency and productivity is that we’ll labor under the delusion that if we maximize a bit more, we can control our lives and complete all our work. But this is a rejection of our status as creatures. We aren’t meant to be perfectly efficient. Sleep isn’t efficient, but God made us in such a way that we require it.

I’ll still try to steward my time and talents as best I can and I’ll still read productivity articles and books to help me do that. I want my work to glorify the Lord. But I hope to do that with humility. We’re not the planners of the universe, and that’s a good thing. So let’s rest in the One who holds time in his hands and submit our plans—even our efficiency—to his good will.

Women, Cultivate Your Leading and Teaching Gifts Fri, 14 Jun 2024 04:04:05 +0000 Jen Wilkin encourages women to develop skills in leading, teaching the Bible, and creating spaces for others to thrive. Her talk is followed by a panel discussion.]]> Jen Wilkin explores God’s gifts in women to lead, teach the Bible, and create spaces for others to thrive.

After her talk, Wilkin joins Melissa Kruger, Rebecca McLaughlin, Courtney Doctor, and Elizabeth Woodson to discuss women’s contributions to the church, the importance of sibling relationships within God’s family, and overcoming opposition in ministry. The panelists encourage and equip women with tools to prepare for these callings and persevere through challenges.

Packing for TGCW24? Leave Room for Discounted Books. Fri, 14 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Booklovers at TGC’s 2024 Women’s Conference should check out our bookstore for a wide range of books, many at deep discounts.]]> The Gospel Coalition’s 2024 Women’s Conference is just around the corner. Thousands of women of all ages will gather from around the globe to think more deeply about the person and work of Jesus Christ.

My whole family will be there either volunteering or attending. There’ll be a sense of excitement as thousands of Christian women gather to fellowship and learn. The lineup of speakers is excellent and the breakout sessions look edifying. Additionally, we’ll be worshiping together with Shane & Shane.

But for many of us, the bookstore is also an exciting attraction. This year’s conference bookstore will feature more than 3,200 books and resources from 40 publishers. There’ll be featured areas for TGC speakers’ books, best-selling Bibles, Spanish titles, and gospel-centered resources for children and parents. Many of these will be at deep discounts.

Save room in your luggage to carry some of these books home. Or, if you prefer, 10ofthose is offering shipping so you can have your new resources sent directly to your home.

Courtney Doctor and Joanna Kimbrel, Behold and Believe: A Bible Study on the “I Am” Statements of Jesus (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

$9.99 (38 percent off)

Seeing is believing. If we want to know who Jesus is and why he is important to our lives, we need to take a closer look at what he said about himself. Jesus describes himself as the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, and more. His bold words invite us to behold him―and then to trust him. This seven-week Bible study that ties directly to the conference theme will help you explore Jesus’s identity using the “I Am” statements in the Gospel of John.

Melissa Kruger and Megan Hill, eds., Fruitful: Cultivating a Spiritual Harvest That Won’t Leave You Empty Doubt (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

$7.50 (50 percent off)

As Christians, we long for spiritually fruitful lives. However, our attempts to work more and hustle harder only leave us feeling weary and worn. Thankfully, God’s Word supplies the nourishment we so desperately need. As we abide in Jesus, he fills our emptiness with an abundant crop of spiritual fruit. This 40-day devotional explores each of the nine fruits of the Spirit found in Galatians 5.

Kathryn Butler, What Does Depression Mean for My Faith? (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

$4.00 (50 percent off)

What should Christians think about clinical depression? How can church leaders respond lovingly to those who face this dark, unsettling, and sometimes baffling dilemma? Author and physician Kathryn Butler addresses common misconceptions about mental illness in the church. She offers grace, relief, and practical help to Christians who feel shame, and she equips church leaders with the tools they need to extend Christ’s love to the vulnerable.

This is the latest offering in the TGC Hard Questions series, which also includes volumes like these:

Sharon James, Is Christianity Good for the World? (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

Jeremy Linneman, Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church? (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

Samuel D. Ferguson, Does God Care About Gender Identity? (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

Randy Newman, Questioning Faith: Indirect Journeys of Belief Through Terrains of Doubt (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

$10.04 (33 percent off)

After 40 years of listening to hundreds of people’s stories of faith, Randy Newman (who recently went to be with Christ) came to see that answering spiritual questions usually involves a series of twists and turns, not a direct ascent from one belief to another. Our political view, family background, understanding of sexuality, and religious background all play a part in our faith journeys. If you or a friend are navigating terrains of doubt, you’ll find Newman’s book a faithful guide. This title will help you sort through your many questions and find solid answers.

Ginger Blomberg, Charlie and the Preschool Prodigal (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

$7.50 (50 percent off)

Eddie decides to run away from home, taking his brother Charlie’s candy and his father’s new tie with him on his journey. When Eddie returns home feeling scared and guilty about his choice, his father is waiting for him with open arms. But Charlie, who is confused by his father’s immediately welcoming reaction, is hesitant to join in the celebration. This book, like the parable, doesn’t resolve Charlie’s story but instead invites young readers to imagine themselves in Charlie’s position―spurring thoughtful discussion between parents and children as they learn about sin, grace, and the unconditional love of the Father through his Son’s death on the cross.

This is the latest offering in the TGC Kids series, which also includes titles like these:

Betsy Childs Howard, Arlo and the Great Big Cover-Up (TGC/Crossway, 2020)

Megan Hill, Meg Is Not Alone (TGC/Crossway, 2022)

Melissa Kruger, Lucy and the Saturday Surprise (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

Ana Ávila, Make the Most of Your Productivity (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

$8.50 (50 percent off)

This user-friendly guide teaches six principles to help you honor God with all you have and reflect his character through your creativity. Along with a gospel-centered perspective on life, you’ll learn skills to increase efficiency, such as forming healthy habits, using productivity tools, creating tasks and projects, and more. Whether you are achievement-oriented or struggle with discipline, Ávila will show you how to reorient your time, boundaries, decisions, focus, habits, and tools around God’s main design for productivity: serving him and helping others.

Other Deals Worth Noting:

Danny Akin, 10 Women Who Changed the World (B&H, 2024), $12.59

Rebecca McLaughlin, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women (TGC, 2022), $8.00

Cameron Cole, Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024), $11.38

Courtney Doctor, From Garden to Glory: How Understanding God’s Story Changes Yours (Harvest, 2024), $9.00

Megan Hill, Sighing on Sunday: 40 Meditations for When Church Hurts (P&R, 2024), $10.00

Chelsea Sobolik, Called to Cultivate: A Gospel Vision for Women and Work (Moody, 2023), $10.23

Adriel Sanchez, Praying with Jesus: Getting to the Heart of the Lord’s Prayer (New Growth Press, 2024), $11.38

Rebecca McLaughlin, Does the Bible Affirm Same-Sex Relationships? (The Good Book Company, 2024), $5.99

Kenneth Padgett and Shay Gregorie, The Story of God Our Savior (Wolfbane, 2024), $15.00

Nora Allison, A Short Guide to Women’s Ministry (B&H, 2024), $10.49

Ivan Mesa and Elliot Clark, eds., Faithful Exiles (TGC, 2023), $3.00

Rebecca McLaughlin, The Secular Creed (TGC, 2021), $8.00

Music Shows the Power of a Father’s Lament Fri, 14 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 There are many reasons why it’s hard to be a dad. Learning to lament the lamentable, even through music, takes courage but provides healing.]]> My first child was born after midnight on a Thursday in August. As a daily newspaper reporter at the time, I had a camera handy and was taking close mental notes. We have images of the boy’s blood-smeared body in the doctor’s gloved hands. He came in a rush: eyes closed, his face a tiny pink grimace. I remember that slap on his little buttocks, then that sharp, piercing cry—an explosive wail. The doctor let me cut the cord.

Later, I walked by the windows alongside the nursery. I saw a nurse putting my swaddled son into a clear plastic bassinet. That’s when it hit me. I was a dad.

Deep joy and exhilaration. But underneath was a somber pathos. This boy, I knew, would one day be there when my eyes closed for the last time. And as I looked out into the years ahead for him, I sensed my utter inability. How was I to be who he needed me to be as a father? No book, no tutorial, no sage advice seemed enough.

Biblical Lament

There are many reasons why it’s hard to be a dad. Chief is the unique helplessness it brings. Even the most successful and well-intentioned fathers live in some measure of lament—a soul cry that’s entirely biblical and sometimes devastating.

Fathers grieve the lack of control we have over that little (yet so enormous) life—in the cradle, in the playpen, in the classroom, in the dorm room, in the apartment, at the wedding ceremony, at the graveside. Some of the most poignant fatherly laments come from those who see suffering in their children, who experience pain in their marriage as a result of children’s travails, or who have lost children.

Scripture is full of fathers whose laments are part of God’s teaching about men in families.

Scripture is full of fathers whose laments are part of God’s teaching about men in families.

Abraham’s lament was silent as he climbed the mountain with the son God had told him to kill. “God will provide for himself the lamb,” he told Isaac quietly (Gen. 22:8).

Jacob lamented the fury of his two sons who had butchered so many in Shechem after the rape of their sister (34:30). David’s loud mourning for the rebellious Absalom was so powerful it rocked the nation, and one of his generals rebuked him for it (2 Sam. 18:33; 19:1–6). Job’s lament—one that involves lost children—takes up most of the 42 chapters in the book named for him (Job 1:18–19).

Lament is part of the human experience. For some who reject God or don’t know him, it can arise from anger—at the Creator, at the world as they’ve experienced it, at themselves. But in the Bible, arising from believers, it can be proof of our relationship with God, like a child asking “Why?” or “How long?” to a dad she trusts.

Music as a Means of Lament

Fatherly lament shows up in popular music.

Father songwriters lament many things. It might be their often clunky quest to be effective mentors to their children (e.g., “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, about a too-busy dad) or a lament over a child’s long illness (e.g., “Possibilities” by Darius Rucker, written by a father watching his son battle leukemia). Or it might be lament over how a pursuit of extramarital romance destroyed the trust of a father’s family (e.g. in “4:44,” Jay-Z admits his infidelity to wife Beyoncé, saying, “If my children knew, I don’t know what I would do”).

Other laments are tied to grief over lost children. Most of TobyMac’s album Life After Death is a cry to God about his son Truett McKeehan (“TruDog”), who entered eternity after an accidental fentanyl overdose. In the song “21 Years,” the sorrowful father laments his all-too-brief time with his son: “21 years makes a man full grown; 21 years what a beautiful loan.” TobyMac told a broadcast interviewer that his last text from his son contained the words “You always made me feel like a superhero.” We weep with him.

Steven Curtis Chapman, another Christian music artist, lost a child to a terrible accident in 2008. In his 2009 album, Beauty Will Rise, Chapman puts his fatherly grieving process to song. Eric Clapton’s life as a dad forever changed when, in 1991, his 4-year-old fell out of an accidentally open window in a 53rd-story apartment. We feel Clapton’s fatherly soul pain in “Tears in Heaven.”

Music can also provide catharsis for fathers seeking to learn from the mistakes of previous generations in their own fatherhood journeys. In his “Happy Father’s Day,” Christian rapper Shai Linne poignantly works through “emotions trapped in silence locked deep in [his] heart” related to his estranged father.

The pain of fathers and children goes both ways. Plenty of pop music’s laments come from offspring crying out over fathers who left or neglected them. We hear it in the Temptations’s “Papa Was a Rollin’ Stone,” Neil Young’s “Old Man,” Everclear’s “Father of Mine,” and Frank Turner’s “Father’s Day,” to name a few. Some fathers’ laments are tied up with the fact that they caused pain and lament in their children.

Some fathers’ laments are tied up with the fact that they caused pain and lament in their children.

But not all fatherly lament arises out of sin, parental failure, or death. Sometimes it comes from the reality of children’s natural progression in life. Kids leave home to return rarely or never. Cory Asbury’s “These Are the Days” is a recent example of this universal lament over parenthood’s brevity: “Tell ‘em bed time stories / Give ‘em a kiss good night / Darlin’ before we know it / This old house will be quiet.”

The prevalence of fatherly lament in music—across so many genres and eras—shows how universal this feeling is for dads. And the popularity of these songs shows how cathartic it is for others to see these emotions publicly expressed. We can feel alone in our emotions until we see others give voice to their emotions in beautiful, relatable ways. This is and always has been one of the profound purposes of the arts and humanities. They facilitate connection between humans by sparking universal resonance from the particular experiences of life’s joys and struggles.

Laments Take Courage but Bring Healing

There’s a scene in the 1983 film Tender Mercies where a father, an acclaimed singer-songwriter who’d never been able to talk deeply with his daughter, comes to her casket after she’d been killed in a drunk driving accident. Just before her death, she’d asked him to play “Wings of a Dove,” a gospel song about Jesus’s love. He couldn’t do it. And she left sad, feeling alone. Now, facing the girl’s closed casket, and in a hushed tone, he begins, slightly off-key, “On the wings of a snow-white dove / He sends his pure sweet love—a sign from above, on the wings of a dove.”

The powerful scene speaks to how—for dads willing to shed pretense and express lament—there can be healing. There can be healing in solitude as a dad cries out to God in honest pain, leaning on him for strength and hope. But there can also be healing in finding a community of other dads whose suffering might lie hidden until they express it in lament.

Strong fathers are willing to lament in a world that might see it as weakness. They’re real about the fact that fatherhood is often joyful but occasionally sorrowful: it’s strength and vulnerability, laughter and weeping, the delight and the pain of watching your kids grow up.

Decades after that August day when I first entered the vulnerable but glorious vocation of fatherhood, I can vouch for the reality that lament will come for every dad, as surely as joy. And lamenting what’s lamentable has made me a better father.

Are Images of Christ OK? No. Thu, 13 Jun 2024 04:03:00 +0000 The second commandment prohibits any visual depiction of God—including of Jesus Christ.]]> Writing against visual images of Christ is hindered without explaining some history.

Many prominent Christians rejected such images for about eight centuries until the Second Council of Nicaea (AD 787) ruled in favor of images, including their “veneration.” Though Eastern and Western Christians argued against worshiping images (for obvious reasons), the fact that Eastern Christians bowed on their faces before paraded icons, and Western Christians wove images of the Father and Spirit into artwork, should give us pause: Maybe making images—even if we’re not worshiping them—hasn’t worked out too well.

While the ultimate question is what Scripture says about the matter, the tendency to fall into errors like these has always been why the triune God prohibited making images of himself.

Here are three key arguments against images of Christ.

1. The Second Commandment

The second commandment (Ex. 20:4; Deut. 5:8–10) prohibits images of Christ. A simple syllogism illustrates the point:

1. God forbade making images of himself.
2. Christ is God.
3. Therefore, God forbade making images of Christ.

Deuteronomy 4:15–24 is a commentary on the second commandment. Moses explains to Israel that even though God appeared to them, they must not make any kind of image of him (vv. 15–18) because their hearts were bent toward idolatry (v. 19) and because making such images violated his covenant with them (vv. 23–24).

Unfortunately, Israel broke the command to the letter by making a golden calf representing Yahweh (Ex. 32:1–6). As the NKJV reads, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (v. 4), resulting in “a feast to the LORD” (v. 5) before it. Jeroboam later one-upped Aaron by making two calves to represent Yahweh (1 Kings 12:28–29), which “became a sin” (v. 30).

In both cases, Israel broke covenant with God by imaging him. Since Jesus is God the Son, should we not hesitate before repeating the pattern?

2. Old Testament Theophanies

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, God often appeared to his people in human form. Again, the argument is simple:

1. God appeared to his people in human form.
2. God prohibited his people from making human images of him.
3. Therefore, God appearing in human form doesn’t permit us to make images of him.

Deuteronomy 4 helps us again. Moses says Israel’s “eyes have seen” (v. 9) though they “saw no form” (vv. 12, 15). Israel “saw” God appear on Sinai, Isaiah “saw the Lord seated on his throne” (Isa. 6:1), Ezekiel “saw visions of God” (Ezek. 1:1), and Daniel “looked” on the “Ancient of Days” (Dan. 7:9). And yet Isaiah declares, “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him?” (Isa. 40:18).

God’s prohibition against images of himself stood alongside repeated divine appearances in human form. While Aaron rationalized making a divine image, Moses, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel didn’t see the inference. Christ’s incarnation was new, but God appearing in human form wasn’t. Nobody saw God as he is, and no image can capture his glory without diminishing its brightness.

Nobody saw God as he is, and no image can capture his glory without diminishing its brightness.

3. The Incarnation

Here’s one final syllogism:

1. Jesus is God the Son who took on a human nature.
2. The second commandment forbids making images of anyone in the category of God.
3. Therefore, we cannot make images of God the Son.

Making images of Christ creates thorny dilemmas. Either we depict the person of the Son and violate the second commandment, or we depict his humanity by divorcing it from his divine person.

In the first case we violate God’s law, and in the second we (unintentionally) commit heresy. Why we want images of Christ comes into play here too. Do images of Christ stir up devotion to him? If so, then we’re worshiping God by means of images. And don’t we use such images devotionally? If not, then why have them? Would we want to say we’re training ourselves to think about Jesus without worshiping him? Thus images of Christ are either idolatrous or in vain.

Images of Christ are either idolatrous or in vain.

Ultimately, we should reject images of Christ because we shouldn’t seek to be wiser than God. Respecting Scripture’s authority and sufficiency, we could have no warrant to make images of God the Son unless Scripture required it. We can psychologize about the fact that the disciples saw Jesus and remembered what he looked like, but we didn’t.

One day we’ll see the God-man as he is, and we’ll be like him (1 John 3:1–4). In heaven, we’ll walk by sight and not by faith, but now we walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). Our rule is this: “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Pet. 1:8). We do see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6)—but this light shines “in our hearts.” Seeing isn’t believing, but believing is seeing.

Are we pushing our eschatology forward too much by trying to “see” Christ through means other than Word and sacrament? Images have always led to idolatry—both in Old Testament history with golden calves and in church history by making images of Christ (and the Father and the Spirit). They become either focal points or funnels for our devotion.

But as Agur wisely wrote, “Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar” (Prov. 30:5–6). Though advocates of images of Christ may love Christ and mean well, we love him best by living according to his Word and looking to his return in glory.

Are Images of Christ OK? Yes. Thu, 13 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Since they serve a different purpose than icons, visual depictions of Jesus in narrative don’t violate the second commandment.]]> For years, Christian leaders have sounded the alarm over declining biblical literacy. In past eras, knowledge of biblical history, characters, and concepts was far more common, even among non-Christians. To make matters worse, the decline in biblical literacy is accompanied by a parallel decline in book literacy. The percentage of Americans who regularly read books of any kind (much less Scripture) is astoundingly small.

But people today aren’t dumb. Many nonreaders can talk for hours about the history, characters, and metaphysics of fictional universes like the MCU. This is a form of literacy; it just isn’t grounded in books. It’s grounded in visual media.

It’s not surprising, then, that visual adaptations of biblical stories like The Chosen have been so influential in recent years. Such works help nonreaders access biblical stories, characters, and ideas. They also prompt regular Bible readers to engage with well-known stories in fresh ways.

Throughout history (especially in premodern times), visual representations of biblical stories have fostered biblical literacy. But there’s also a long history of opposition to biblical images. This opposition is largely rooted in the belief that the second commandment prohibits visual depictions of Jesus.

Yet not all depictions of Jesus serve the same purpose. An icon, designed for veneration, doesn’t work the same way as an illustrated Bible storybook or a biblical show (like The Chosen).

As we’ll see, images of Jesus can be used to retell biblical narratives or illuminate biblical ideas without violating the second commandment, as long as they don’t divert glory away from God, distort the new-covenant story, diminish God’s nature, or deform those who use them.

Purpose of Second Commandment

When applying a biblical command to a new context, we should understand its original rationale. We mustn’t be like the Pharisees who, forgetting the purpose of Sabbath regulations, applied them in an overly broad and restrictive manner (Matt. 12:1–14). Before we can discern how to apply the second commandment to depictions of the incarnate Son of God, we need to consider its purpose.

Not all depictions of Jesus serve the same purpose.

Fortunately, the second commandment explains itself. When God prohibits graven images, he says it’s because he’s “a jealous God” (Ex. 20:5). An idol diverts glory away from the One to whom it belongs—and toward a false object. God forbids idols because he refuses to share his glory with anyone or anything—even an image that ostensibly represents him (Isa. 42:8).

Another reason God prohibits the use of graven images is because they distort the story of his relationship to Israel. When the Israelites entered into a covenant with Yahweh, they “heard the sound of words, but saw no form” (Deut. 4:12). Assigning God a form misrepresents the unique manner in which he revealed himself as King (vv. 15–18).

God also prohibits graven images because they diminish his nature and consequently deform his image-bearers. The God of the Bible is living and active. He speaks, sees, and hears for himself. He’s not a product of human hands or a mouthpiece for human agendas. It’s demeaning to identify such a God with dead wood that’s mute, blind, and deaf (Jer. 10:1–10). Moreover, because humans naturally become like what they worship, those who worship such idols eventually become spiritually disabled (Ps. 135:16–19). Instead of guiding worshipers in the ways of the living God, idols lead us into impotence and death.

But What About Images of Christ?

To understand whether the creation or use of a visual representation of Jesus violates the second commandment, we must ask whether the work

  • diverts glory away from God and toward a false object,
  • distorts the story of God’s relationship with his people, or
  • diminishes God’s nature and deforms those who use it.

While icon veneration may divert glory away from God, narrative and exegetical depictions of Jesus perform a different function. Nobody watches Oppenheimer and praises (or blames) the film for the creation of the atomic bomb. Viewers distinguish Oppenheimer the film from Oppenheimer the man. Even if they were to picture Cillian Murphy’s face when thinking of Robert Oppenheimer, they could still easily distinguish the two individuals.

In the same way, a show like The Chosen doesn’t encourage viewers to praise the show (or Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus) for the gift of salvation. Some Catholic viewers have treated Roumie as a mediator for their prayers, but this kind of idolatry has more to do with the Catholic doctrine of intercession than with the nature of visual media. Apart from such teaching, narrative depictions like The Chosen will point viewers to the Scriptures—and to Jesus himself.

To evaluate whether depictions of Jesus distort the story of the divine-human relationship, we must distinguish how God revealed himself while establishing the old covenant from how he revealed himself while establishing the new. Whereas Moses emphasized how God took no visible form at Sinai, the apostles insist the Word “became flesh” (John 1:14; see 1 Tim. 3:16) that they saw and touched (1 John 1:1; 2 Pet. 1:16–18). An invisible voice spoke the law of Sinai; a visible rabbi spoke the Sermon on the Mount.

Depictions of Jesus highlight a key shift in how God relates to his people through Christ. Banning all images of Jesus minimizes this shift and may inadvertently convey a docetic Christology.

An invisible voice spoke the law of Sinai; a visible rabbi spoke the Sermon on the Mount.

While some depictions exalt Jesus and help conform viewers to his image, others diminish him and deform viewers. The former are faithful to the biblical worldview (even if they embellish narrative details); the latter turn Jesus into a mouthpiece for unbiblical teachings or behaviors. These latter works are indeed demeaning idols and may mislead unwary viewers. But depictions that faithfully convey Jesus’s countercultural voice and way of life can have the opposite effect. By upholding the biblical Jesus, they draw viewers away from death and toward true life.

Opportunity for Discipleship

Visual depictions of Jesus raise complex and challenging questions. Instead of imposing an absolute prohibition against all depictions of Jesus—or accepting all depictions without question—churches must teach members how to practice discernment.

Christians must be warned about the dangers of false or idolatrous images. But we can also be encouraged to use proper depictions of Jesus for personal enrichment, discipleship, and outreach.

Ministries of Hope in Beleaguered Ukraine Thu, 13 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 While many Ukrainians are feeling despair and hopelessness, one church’s ‘Ministries of Hope’ are exploding with growth.]]> My name is Taisiia Lukich, and I live seven miles from Kyiv.

It’s been more than two years since tanks began rolling through my neighborhood, more than 18 months since my boyfriend, Alex, was killed in combat, and more than a year since a missile struck my basement and left a hole in it.

TGC Ukraine and Russia editor Taisiia Lukich / Courtesy of Taisiia Lukich

What can I say about what’s happening now? Everything in the news is quite scary, and military friends share not-very-positive news. Contrary to propaganda and false positive information, Russia has strong troops and good weapons and is capable of decisive action.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s resources are depleted. After all, the battles aren’t happening in just one place—the line of contact stretches for hundreds of miles. Weapons and equipment are needed everywhere.

In May, a new mobilization wave started, which means those men previously not subject to mobilization requirements are now required by the army. As for women, for now only those with medical education are required, but the war isn’t over yet, so there may be changes.

Our church, Irpin Bible Church, continues to work in various spheres to lead people to the Lord and make their earthly lives easier. In times of war, we call our ministries “Ministries of Hope,” and they fall into several categories.

Pastoral Care

During Sunday services, meetings, conferences, and video messages, our pastors and other ministers try to emphasize who God is, what his attributes are, and how he’s present in different times and periods of people’s lives.

Our pastors also travel to military units to talk to personnel serving in various hot spots, finding out their spiritual and physical needs and helping them however possible.

The rest of us do this too. For example, I travel once a month with a team to provide dental services to military personnel in dire need.

Church Groups

As before the war, our church continues to lead and develop various social ministries for adults and children so the church can be a bastion of “normality” in these times of un-normality.

Kids camp / Courtesy of Taisiia Lukich

We run many groups, including clubs for children and teenagers. Statistics show the number of such places for children and teenagers run by the state has decreased due to loss of funding; but in the church, this figure has increased during the war. Our teen club has grown from 40 participants to 100. About 150 children attend our soccer club, and 250 attend the school at the church.

Among the adult ministries, the “School of Married Life” is growing stronger as we’re facing a crisis in families. Many women with children have gone abroad in search of safety, while the men stay in Ukraine. Some of these couples haven’t seen each other in person since the war began more than two years ago, which cannot have a positive effect on the family’s health.

Community Outreach

In our city, Irpin, there are about 25,000 resettled people from the east and south of the country, in addition to the local people who’ve suffered from Russia’s military aggression. For these people, we organize regular meetings and themed holidays and parties, giving them a sense of belonging in our church community. We also work with a team from the Netherlands to repair and build houses for people who’ve lost their homes. In addition, we hold spiritual evenings for the resettled people where they can pray, praise God, reflect on various topics, socialize, and be heard.

The first class to graduate from chaplaincy school / Courtesy of Taisiia Lukich

We’ve launched a chaplain school project to train willing church members to assist military personnel to transition when they return to their homes and communities. Logically, we anticipate a huge gap between military and civilians in the postwar period. We predict a lot of fear, misunderstanding, and aggression between these social groups, so it’s important for the church, as at all times, to act as a wise facilitator and mentor.

Our church has launched and is developing a ministry for women who’ve lost husbands or sons in the war. We help them financially, organize meetings, and host conversations with pastors. We also organize trips, camps, and retreats for them.

In the west of Ukraine in the Carpathians, where it’s much safer, we conduct camps for children. We have big plans for camps this summer.

During the full-scale war over the past two years, about 100 people have joined our church through baptism and about 100 displaced people have moved from their churches to ours. We also opened four new daughter churches—some formed from volunteer centers that opened at the beginning of the war.

Church Challenges

About 30 percent of our church members have moved abroad or are in the process of moving. Half of those who have left since the beginning of the war haven’t returned and don’t plan to.

Because so many young church members have left, there are fewer workers. But because of the war, there’s more work to do. This inevitably leads to burnout for those who remain.

We’re also facing financial challenges. Those who fled the country were mostly young, able-bodied people, while most of those who joined our church were pensioners. Their income is about $70 to $80 U.S. dollars a month, which means funding for the church has decreased even as the number of ministries has increased. One of our church’s most urgent prayers now is that the Lord will provide funding for the various projects and ministries that are already producing results.

Moreover, summer is here and we have many outdoor camps planned for children and teenagers. Our church is in great need and is looking for partners who could help implement these children’s ministry plans.

Occupied Territories

We don’t know much about the Ukrainian churches currently under Russian occupation—only what the brothers and sisters who managed to leave these terrible conditions tell us.

We know that Baptists in the occupied territories are under oppression and persecution. There are bans on meetings, and if the Russian authorities find out people are attending, these meetings are brutally dispersed. Some church buildings have been taken away and turned into detention facilities or Russian administrative institutions.

Easter event for refugees / Courtesy of Taisiia Lukich

The Russian government prohibits registering new churches if they refuse to join the Russian Baptist brotherhood. We know of several cases where Ukrainian Baptist pastors were imprisoned for having letters from American brothers or sisters or books by American authors because the authorities assumed they were foreign spies. We see that to be a Ukrainian Baptist is to be outlawed. In the self-proclaimed republics of the Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, the Ukrainian Baptist Union has been officially declared a terrorist organization.

Ukrainian Baptists aren’t allowed to carry out humanitarian service or otherwise help people in the occupied territories. We find it significant that in television propaganda videos, Baptists of the Russian Fellowship are filmed serving in cities that have suffered the most from Russian aggression and occupation, for example, Mariupol or Lisichansk.

Because of the war’s duration, the fact that it turned out to be so protracted, I know Western societies are tired of the constant news and problems of Ukraine. And this is understandable because these countries are also full of problems that need to be solved.

We, too, are tired of it. We’re tired of constant electricity blackouts. We’re tired of being killed every day. We fall asleep and wake up to the sounds of air raids, aircraft missiles, and unmanned kamikaze drones, even in a city where there’s no active fighting on the streets. That’s why in Irpin, a place with so much despair, hopelessness, and exhaustion, our church is offering ministries of hope.

Innocent Suffering: Making Sense of Suffering, Part 2 Wed, 12 Jun 2024 04:04:27 +0000 Don Carson reflects on Job’s righteousness and the mystery of suffering, encouraging his audience to trust in God’s sovereignty in the face of trials.]]> Don Carson reflects on Job’s righteousness and the mystery of suffering, encouraging his audience to trust in God’s sovereignty and justice in the face of trials. He discusses Job’s initial silent suffering, his eventual repentance, and the theological debates surrounding God’s goodness amid suffering. Carson concludes by highlighting the biblical tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility and how God purposes suffering for our good and his glory.

When Your College Grad Moves Home Wed, 12 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Having a graduate return home can be one of the most overlooked and difficult transitions a parent faces. Here are five ways to make the transition smoother. ]]> Hollywood created a stereotype of a graduate who moved back home and instead of lining up appointments with prospective employers, spends his days floating around in the pool. His parents look up from the tuition bills, tell him to “get a job,” and wonder why they bothered investing in his education and what’s next for their son.

Their son is wondering the same thing.

But I don’t think most graduates return home to avoid responsibility. Instead, they see their return as temporary, and an excellent opportunity for them “to get on a firm financial footing.” Yet, without a specific plan and some honest conversations with Mom and Dad, it can be easy for these young adults to lose their way.

Overlooked Transition

More college grads are heading home after finishing their studies. Recent Pew Research polls found that “the share of 18- to 29-year-olds living with their parents has become a majority since U.S. coronavirus cases began spreading early this year, surpassing the previous peak during the Great Depression era.”

Having a graduate return home can be one of the most overlooked and difficult transitions a parent faces. It shouldn’t surprise us when conflict rears its ugly head. Parents are in a quandary: they still have expectations of their kids, but their parental role has changed.

Their child has been living on his own, navigating roommate challenges, laundry, meals, and his schedule. He’s not the same kid who left for college. He’s not a kid at all. But he may not be viewed by his parents as an adult. Parents might think it wise for their kids to follow their instructions, but as far as adult children are concerned, it’s now an option as to whether or not they will.

Arrows Are to Be Sent Out

The Bible doesn’t specify what’s required of an adult child living at home. But Psalm 127 is a helpful reminder: “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (v. 1). Parents labor to raise godly children, watch over them, and protect them. It can be hard to know when to switch gears and let them go.

Having a graduate return home can be one of the most overlooked and difficult transitions a parent faces.

As parents enter a season where they must quell the instinct to rush in, rescue, and control, it’s good to remember the Lord reigns over our kids’ lives. Later in that psalm, children are described as “arrows in the hand of a warrior” (v. 4). It speaks to purpose: arrows aren’t meant to be kept close to one’s chest—they’re to be sent on their mission. We need to see this time as temporary and look toward the day they go out on their own.

Here are five things I learned to do when my kids came home.

1. Communicate early and often.

While an adult child may no longer need to obey her parents in the strictest sense, she’s required to honor them. This means respecting the rules that everyone living in the home must abide by. But to do that, rules need to be clarified, especially since circumstances have changed. Parents would be wise to take the initiative and plan a meeting with their adult child not to command her obedience but to collaborate with her on a healthy transition.

2. Communicate specifics.

Will you require your adult child to pay rent? Contribute to utilities? Pay for meals? What chores will he be doing and how often? Can he invite guests over, and when? By what date do you expect him to move out? It might be helpful to agree to meet periodically to review his progress.

3. Help with ‘adulting.’

In many homes, basic life skills such as maintaining a car or creating a budget are never discussed or demonstrated until a college student calls home with a flat tire on I-85 or asks for more money because her debit card was declined. Ideally, these conversations should happen in high school. But late is better than never.

Additionally, you might offer to pay for one visit with a financial counselor to help your child create a budget and a long-term financial goal. This will give her the opportunity to obtain sound financial advice apart from you. Remember, the goal is independence.

4. Get on your child’s game plan.

Too many parents feel like all they can do is stand beside the pool and deliver a “get moving” sermon to a disinterested adult child. Here’s a better option: make a date with your child to discuss her career goals. Ask her what she sees herself doing in five years. If she says, “Being a project manager at an engineering firm,” the next question is “What are some things you can do now to help you move toward that goal?” It’s important these goals be hers, not yours.

5. Talk about church.

Don’t assume your adult child will be going with you to church on Sunday. Ask. Extend the invitation, knowing he’s at a point in his life where he must own the faith you endeavored to teach him. Over his years at college, your child may have come to theological convictions that draw him to a different church than the one where he grew up. He may also struggle with how to reenter a church where he was previously known only as a kid.

Communicate your love for your child and your belief that church is the best thing for his soul, but don’t lord over him with commands like this: “As long as you live in this house, you will go to our church!”

Don’t assume your adult child will be going with you to church on Sunday. Ask.

Thankfully, most adult children are self-motivated enough not to just drift around in a pool. Parents who still feel their adult child “needs some work” would do well to remember they too are a work in progress. We need change as much as our adult children do.

Outward change is a good thing, but it’s the inward change of a never-dying soul that matters most. In all our efforts to successfully launch our adult children, we need to remember God alone changes hearts—including ours. When hearts change, behavior is sure to follow.

Why I Lead a Sinner’s Prayer Every Sunday (Though I Haven’t Yet Seen Conversions) Wed, 12 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Each week I pray that this Sunday will be the first when a lost person in attendance responds to God’s gospel invitation to repent, believe, and be saved.]]> Every Sunday, after I preach the gospel, I call people to put their faith in Christ for salvation. I publicly model the kind of prayer that flows from a heart God has touched and moved to turn from sin and trust in Jesus—a “sinner’s prayer.” I invite anyone who prayed along with me to find me in the foyer after the service so we can celebrate and discuss the next steps in his or her walk of faith.

Yet in five years of pastoring, I’ve yet to see any immediate fruit. I’ve yet to see any conversions.

At times, I grow frustrated. I wonder, Is my preaching off? Is my praying off? Is the ground here just hard? Should I seek a more fruitful ministry elsewhere?

Perhaps you wrestle with similar doubts. You’ve been faithful but haven’t seen fruit, so you ask, Should I continue calling people to repentance and faith if no one is responding? The answer is yes. There are at least four reasons why you should keep plowing and planting.

1. You never know who may be visiting.

Mark Dever tells the story of a friend who became convicted about her sin and then began visiting churches and asking, “What must I do to be saved?” (see Acts 16:30). He says,

She went to church after church and no one would tell her the gospel. They would assume the gospel, or they’d say false things . . . and she didn’t have any religious resources in her [upbringing] to figure it out. Brother preacher, . . . be the church where that kind of pain ends. Every Sunday, tell people the good news of Jesus Christ.”

I’d add, “. . . and call them to respond” (and I don’t think Dever would disagree).

Each week, my church is blessed with a dozen or so newcomers. For all I know, any of them could be Dever’s friend. If the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16), and folks can’t believe the gospel without hearing it, and can’t hear it without someone preaching (10:14), then nothing is more tragic than unbelievers sitting through a worship service where no one tells them how to be saved and calls them to respond in faith.

2. Lost souls may be regularly attending.

One reason I don’t often see conversions is that my church tends to attract and keep more mature believers. Still, there are certainly a few (perhaps more than I think) I’m preaching to every Sunday who don’t yet enjoy a saving relationship with the Lord: The child sitting listlessly beside a mother who faithfully prays for his salvation. The teen more interested in the boy beside her than in God’s Word open in her lap. The young parents who recently returned to church so they could “raise their children with religion.” The stereotypical “church lady” who misses not a Sunday nor an opportunity to critique the service. These are the real people in my pews and yours.

Nothing is more tragic than unbelievers sitting through a worship service where no one tells them how to be saved and calls them to respond in faith.

I attended (even led) church every Sunday for years before I finally realized my desperate need for Jesus. The friend who shared the gospel and personally led me in that sinner’s prayer could have thought, Will has already heard the gospel a thousand times. But praise God he shared it with me that 1,001st time. We never know when the next time we preach and pray will be the time for another lost soul.

3. Christians need reminders of the gospel’s glory and beauty.

The gospel isn’t just good news; it’s the best news there is. It’s the glorious and true announcement that the almighty, perfect God of the universe so loved broken, rebel sinners like us that he’d sacrifice his own Son to forgive, rescue, and adopt us as his children. That’s news worth sharing regardless of who’s listening.

Even when it may seem like no one is responding, the hearts of true believers cannot help but respond to the gospel’s beauty and power whenever we hear it. Just as married couples who attend weddings smile when reminded of their joyful nuptials, Christians ought to rejoice in hearing the weekly sinner’s prayer. Why? Because it reminds us once again of God’s love for us, of the “love [we] had at first” (Rev. 2:4), of the hour we first believed.

4. Disciples need reminders of the urgency of evangelism.

One of the most commonly cited reasons Christians give for not sharing their faith is the fear of not knowing what to say. By making the gospel and how to respond to it explicit every week, we equip our people with the language they need to share their faith; we catechize them for evangelism.

We never know when the next time we preach and pray will be the time for another lost soul.

Moreover, the tone with which I lead the sinner’s prayer each week—pleading with any unbelievers in attendance to repent and believe—stresses the matter’s urgency.

No unbeliever knows which opportunity will be his last to respond to the gospel, and no believer knows which opportunity will be her last to present it to a lost loved one and call him to respond. May we agree with the apostle Paul: “Necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Cor. 9:16).

Each week I pray that this Sunday will be the first when a lost person in attendance responds to God’s gospel invitation to repent, believe, and be saved. But until they do, I trust God is using those sinner’s prayers to sow gospel seeds, till the soil of people’s hearts, and encourage and disciple his flock. I take comfort in God’s promise through Paul: “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Parents, You Aren’t Wrong About the Dangers of Transitioning Tue, 11 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 It turns out that objecting to allowing young people to make irrevocable medical changes to their bodies was exactly the right decision. ]]> In April, Hilary Cass’s medical review of the care that transgender-identified adolescents receive via the U.K’s National Health Service revealed what many already suspected: children don’t have the capacity to make responsible long-term decisions, and no high-quality evidence supports the effectiveness of gender transition. The “research” that has propped up the gender industry’s claims seems to be nothing more than a precarious house of cards constructed out of faulty reasoning and deceptive data.

This is welcome news to many parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, siblings, and pastors who knew something was wrong with the transgender debate but were told their questions and objections were at best outdated and at worst deadly.

It turns out that objecting to allowing children or young people to make irrevocable medical changes to their bodies was exactly the right decision. In her report, Cass put research behind what many already knew to be true.

Adolescence Isn’t Forever

Her conclusion is plain: “[Gender dysphoria in childhood] is not reliably predictive of whether that young person will have longstanding gender incongruence in the future, or whether medical intervention will be the best option for them.”

Objecting to allowing children or young people to make irrevocable medical changes to their bodies was exactly the right decision.

Adolescence marks the period of life when identity formation becomes a primary concern. Teens try on different personas—Athlete? Bookworm? Fashionista? Artist?—to discover and settle into the combination of characteristics that feels most comfortable and authentic. Every generation of parents has observed their children pass through various phases of self-presentation.

Over the last decade, a transgender persona has been a new and increasingly popular option, and it’s one that often asks for permanent alterations—puberty blockers, hormone therapy, or surgery—to satisfy it.

Outside Influence Can Be Potent

This hasn’t been helped by our highly-online culture. “Gender-questioning young people and their parents [say] online information . . . describes normal adolescent discomfort as a possible sign of being trans and . . . particular influencers have had a substantial impact on their child’s beliefs and understanding of their gender,” says Cass.

As the internet’s reach has grown, so has our (and our children’s) exposure to all manner of influences, both good and bad. Some social media influencers have outright pressured children to adopt trans identities. Other forms of influence, from movies to television shows, have normalized a range of sexualities.

Outside the media, organizations from the American Academy of Pediatrics to the American School Counselor Association have rewritten policies to affirm and encourage children’s decisions to transition. Many public schools have hung gender and sexuality posters on doors and walls, providing constant suggestions of alternative sexualities to students.

Children Need Adults

In this environment, children need trustworthy adults to help them navigate which messages are true. The last part of a child’s brain to complete development, reaching maturation around 25 years of age, is responsible for planning, decision-making, and weighing consequences. An immature prefrontal cortex is why auto insurance rates are significantly higher for teens and young adults than for people in their 30s and beyond.

Children need parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, pastors, and friends to steady them, guide them, and remind them of the truth. God put children under parental care for their well-being and protection: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Eph. 6:1–3).


Sometimes, when adults don’t offer good guidance or children disobey, the consequences can be devastating. In this case, unnecessary medicalization given by the gender industry can destroy children’s fertility or even shorten their lives.

For years, some schools, doctors, and therapists told parents that if their suddenly gender-confused child doesn’t immediately start puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones in an attempt to impersonate the opposite sex, that child will commit suicide. This kind of widespread emotional blackmail prevailed de rigueur, despite the lack of evidence to support such claims. By refusing to send a child on the path to lifelong medicalization, parents put themselves at odds with their child as well as with his or her school, therapist, and pediatrician and an army of influencers who vilified those parents as bigots, haters, and transphobes.

Unnecessary medicalization given by the gender industry can destroy children’s fertility or even shorten their lives.

But Cass’s research confirms the cautious and skeptical were right. “The evidence base . . . [has] already been shown to be weak,” she wrote. “There was, and remains, a lot of misinformation.”

Many medical, psychological, and educational industries have failed children and also their families and society. The effects of these missteps are a clear reminder that only God’s Word is true, infallible, and timeless. His laws are perfect, and following them is always the right choice—even in the face of weeping, ridicule, or threats. To follow our own paths will always lead to heartache, for us and for our children.

Speaking to transgender-identified children and youth, Cass writes, “I have been disappointed by the lack of evidence on the long-term impact of taking hormones from an early age; research has let us all down, most importantly you.”

To, For, With: A Brief History of Children’s Sunday School Curriculum Tue, 11 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 What the next generation needs isn’t attractional gimmicks or programming excellence but orthodox doctrine (believing), faithful shepherding in spiritual-formation habits (becoming), and a loving church community (belonging).]]> Each week we sat in plastic chairs around a folding table. We’d open our Bibles, read the passage out loud, look at posters with Bible illustrations, and fill out colorful preprinted worksheets while Mr. Mixon taught the lesson. Some weeks we’d get candy if we could answer his questions. I can remember our grade school class reciting the books of the Bible in order. Then, back at home, my dad taught me to sing that list of books to the tune of two old hymns. At vacation Bible school, we learned to follow the “stand up” and “sit down” chords on the piano. And I remember practicing for Bible drill competitions with my mom and Mrs. Edwina.

That was children’s ministry in the 1980s and ’90s Southern Baptist churches where I was brought up. If you grew up in the same era and region I did, you may have similar memories. But if you’re from a different place or denominational tradition, or if you’re a decade or two older or younger than I am, your experiences may have been different.

Some have memories of flannelgraph; others watched teaching videos. Some attended catechism classes; others went to scouting-style midweek programs; still others served as acolytes. When you grow up in church, it’s easy to think what you experienced is the norm everywhere, but children’s ministry models and curricula differ from church to church. Due to the influence of shifting cultural and educational movements, they’ve also changed over time.

Scottie May, professor emerita of Christian formation and ministry at Wheaton, maps American children’s ministry through three major phases. Though her study doesn’t engage with curricula explicitly, it’s not hard to notice how each phase has influenced the prepackaged lessons children in evangelical Sunday school classes work through each weekend.

Let’s look at each of May’s phases and consider its influence on evangelical Sunday school broadly, then on Sunday school lessons taught in Reformed churches in particular. As we do, we’ll discover that the future of biblical children’s curricula is both global and rooted in the church’s past.

Three Stages

1. Ministry to Children (Industrial Revolution–1965)

The Sunday school movement began in the 18th century through the efforts of British philanthropists like Robert Raikes (1735–1811) who wanted to teach poor children to read Scripture and recite the catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.

After the Education Act of 1870 expanded access to elementary education in England (and legislation in subsequent decades made it compulsory and free), parachurch Sunday school programs as they originally operated gradually transformed into the church-based Sunday schools for adults and children we know today. But though Sunday school adapted, its focus in this early period on discipleship that gives instruction to learners remained.

Conservative Protestants have always emphasized the transcendent nature of absolute truth, God’s self-revelation in his Word, and the Bible as our authority for teaching (2 Tim. 3:16–17). In keeping with this heritage, American evangelicals have gravitated toward content-focused discipleship strategies like Awana Clubs’s Bible knowledge and Scripture memory programs, which began in North Chicago in 1950.

We’ve often viewed children as sponges or empty vessels to whom a teacher, as the authority in the classroom, imparts knowledge. When kids are young, we want to pump them full of truth so that, as J. D. Greear once said, “when you shake them, they just throw up Bible.”

Perhaps no American church leader has seen success with this instructional Sunday school model like Henrietta Mears (1890–1963). Mears moved to L.A. in 1928 to become education director at Hollywood Presbyterian. Under her leadership, the church’s Sunday school grew from 450 to more than 4,000 children and adults in weekly attendance. Mears later founded Gospel Light Publications and wrote the influential Bible handbook What the Bible Is All About.

In addition to being influenced by an instructional education model and revivalist Keswick theology, Mears was influenced by the “best practices” emphasis of the efficiency movement. As a result, she age-graded her Sunday school scope and sequence to maximize learning for each life stage from cradle to grave.

You can still see the influence of her age-graded Christian education model on evangelical Sunday school materials today. Though Mears never wavered from her conviction that Sunday school should mainly instruct in biblical content, in many ways, her stage-by-stage model foreshadowed modern developmental theory.

2. Ministry for Children (1965–90)

In 1933, German-born child psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–94) moved to Boston, where he was offered a position at the Harvard Medical School and had a private practice in child psychoanalysis. As his reputation grew, he joined teaching faculties at Yale, UC Berkeley, and later the University of Pittsburgh.

What does Erikson have to do with children’s Sunday school? More than you might think. He published influential books like Childhood and Society (1950) and Young Man Luther (1958), a psychoanalysis of the reformer. In these writings, he reframed Freud’s developmental theories in biblical language, using terms like “trust,” “guilt,” “shame,” and “wisdom” to describe developmental stages. Later, children’s television pioneer Fred Rogers and pop psychologist Benjamin Spockwith whom Erikson worked at the Arsenal Nursery School in Pittsburgh—brought Erikson’s ways of describing child development into the mainstream.

In the 1960s, after children’s television and developmental psychology were widespread, Christian publishers picked up on the larger culture’s child-centered focus. They first paid closer attention to developmental concerns in their curricula—teaching Bible truths and spiritual habits appropriate for each age and stage. Then, under the influence of the church growth movement of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, publishers made their materials more attractional, seeing kids as participants, explorers, and even consumers. In this era, to paraphrase Sam Luce, many children’s ministries became less like the formation-focused Fred Rogers and more like the showman Walt Disney.

I’d be overstating my case if I said Sunday school teachers in this era merely entertained kids. But the media-driven and attractional curricula developed by seeker-sensitive churches regularly encouraged teachers to ask child-targeted questions like “Are we doing the kinds of things children really enjoy?” or “Would a child describe this as fun?” The goal, as Sue Miller and David Staal explained, was for a boy or girl to experience weekend Bible classes and think, “This is for me!” At its best, this meant learning environments crafted for each stage of development; at its worst, it was merely entertainment for consumers.


Key Figure

Key Influences

Key Emphasis

Ministry to children
(late 1800s–1965)

instruction to learners

Henrietta Mears (1890–1963)

Christian educators

believing (orthodox doctrine)

Ministry for children

learning environments crafted for each stage of development

Erik Erikson (1902–94)

psychologists and church growth missiologists

becoming (through age-appropriate spiritual-formation habits)

Ministry with children

growing with children on their spiritual journeys

George Barna
(b. 1954)

sociologists and other Christian academics

belonging (to a loving church community)


3. Ministry with Children (1990–Present)

Christian educators developed early children’s Sunday school curricula. Psychologists and church growth missiologists ruled the next phase in its development. But more recently, sociologists have been the key influencers. George Barna (b. 1954) published his best-selling Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions in 2003. Appealing to his sociological research, Barna rightly argued it’s critical to help children develop a biblical worldview from their earliest years.

Christian educators developed early children’s Sunday school curricula. Psychologists and church growth missiologists ruled the next phase in its development. But more recently, sociologists have been the key influencers.

The best and most significant sociological research on children’s and family ministry makes a similar case today: what the next generation needs isn’t attractional gimmicks or programming excellence but orthodox doctrine (believing), faithful shepherding in spiritual-formation habits (becoming), and a loving church community (belonging).

The “believing” pillar seeks to keep the best from the ministry-to stage, and the “becoming” pillar seeks to keep the best of the ministry-for stage—while jettisoning the earlier eras’ focuses on efficiency and entertainment. The third pillar, “belonging,” is the new emphasis: the church community growing with children on their spiritual journeys. This pillar finds strong support from two streams of Christian academics.

First, family ministry movement researchers like Timothy Paul Jones (SBTS) and Kara E. Powell (Fuller) have appealed to the Bible and sociological studies when they’ve stressed the importance both church and home play in child discipleship. The D6 curriculum and Awana’s Brite weekend curriculum line are two examples of the good fruit that’s developed as publishing houses have built on the family ministry movement’s key principles.

Second, evangelical scholars in the children’s spirituality movement like Mimi L. Larson (TEDS) and Robert Keeley (Calvin) have rightly emphasized the important roles children can play in adult believers’ growth in Christ. The Godly Play and Catechesis of the Good Shepherd ministry models, produced by more mainline and ecumenical organizations, build on the children’s spirituality movement’s key principles.

Influence on Reformed Churches

How have these three stages influenced the children’s Sunday school lessons taught in America’s Reformed churches?

Ministry-to. In the 1980s, the conservative Presbyterian publishing house Great Commission Publications released their Show Me Jesus! Sunday school line. This curriculum (with contributions from Christian educators Allen Curry and Susan Hunt) is a paragon of the ministry-to/instructional approach that also incorporates key insights from developmental theory.

Ministry-for. Most Reformed churches never got on board with the attractional aspects of the ministry-for stage. In 1998, when church growth influence had reached its height, Baptists David and Sally Michael started Children Desiring God (now Truth78) with a curriculum that provided a God-centered alternative to the child-centered offerings in the broader evangelical marketplace. But the response to the ministry-for emphasis wasn’t all reactive. Today, even publishers like Lifeway and Crossway (see below) include video components in their curricula and shape their lessons in light of developmental categories.

Ministry-with. Since the 2010s, two themes have been evident in the curriculum offerings most broadly used by Word-centered Sunday schools. In sets like New Growth’s Gospel Story, Lifeway’s Gospel Project, and Crossway’s Biggest Story, you’ll first find a strong Reformational emphasis on teaching children the Bible’s grand narrative of redemptive history.

These three curricula are also deeply influenced by the family ministry movement. Each is organized so the different age groups within a church’s Sunday school all study the same Bible passage each week. The goal of this unified model is to promote family discipleship. When parents use the curriculum’s “at home” devotional resources, they review and reinforce lessons learned by both their preschooler and their fifth grader.

Lifeway’s Gospel Project line went a step further in unifying their youth and adult offerings with the children’s curriculum to promote church-wide intergenerational relationships. The goal was to encourage the senior saint who studied Joshua with her peers during the Sunday school hour to later ask the teenager down the pew what she thought of how God made the sun stand still.

Where Will Curricula Go from Here?

After looking back over the history of children’s Sunday school curricula, it’s hard not to also look toward the future. Are we heading in a healthy direction? Who will be the next Mears, Erikson, or Barna? How will children’s Sunday school curricula change in the future? I’m no prophet, but I want to suggest a few trends you can look for on the horizon.

1. We’ll keep recovering catechesis.

I’ve been largely positive about sociology’s influence on evangelical children’s discipleship, but U.K. scholars Robin Barfield (Union/Oak Hill) and Gareth Crispin (Cliff College) observe some dangers.

When mainline proponents of the children’s spirituality movement emphasize belonging/ministry-with exclusively, they can venture into strange territory unmoored from orthodoxy. Some have understood Sunday school teachers’ roles in terms of helping children “encounter God’s presence within themselves,” or further, they see “children as ‘thin places’ and holy sacraments . . . where adults can encounter God.”

What the next generation needs isn’t attractional gimmicks or programming excellence but orthodox doctrine (believing), faithful shepherding in spiritual-formation habits (becoming), and a loving church community (belonging).

By contrast, orthodox Protestants want to help children encounter God’s presence outside themselves in God’s Word. The most important tool the historic church has employed in this work is catechesis.

Recently, The Gospel Coalition’s New City Catechism resources surpassed a 500,000 sales milestone, and the more recently published FatCat book series from Lexham Press has also done well. With many evangelical seminaries now emphasizing a recovery of creedal orthodoxy and classical theism, I don’t see publishers’ focus on catechesis slowing down. I predict the scope and sequence covered in future evangelical Sunday schools will closely follow a catechetical outline, regularly covering the Ten Commandments (Christian ethic), the Apostles’ Creed (Christian theology), and the Lord’s Prayer (Christian devotion).

2. We’ll recover moral formation.

Recently, a family pastor reached out to me with this observation: “I can find great resources and curriculum for kids on theology, but fewer on spiritual disciplines/holy habits or Christian virtue.” He’s right. There are great children’s books on moral formation like those in the TGC Kids series or CCEF’s Good News for Little Hearts series from New Growth, but it’s harder to find a good curriculum on Christian virtue and character that goes beyond mere do-more-and-better moralism.

Since the publication of the successful Jesus Storybook Bible in the early 2000s, most children’s Sunday school curricula have emphasized Christological readings of Old Testament narratives. “Instead of seeing ourselves as the heroes of these narratives,” Joe Carter observes, “we began seeing Christ as the ultimate fulfillment of every figure.” This was a healthy development, but seeing Jesus as the hero of redemptive history shouldn’t keep us from learning moral wisdom from the Bible’s narratives. I suspect future children’s Sunday school will increasingly recapture this important emphasis.

3. We’ll be led by the global church.

Another healthy result of sociology’s belonging/ministry-with emphasis has been that updated illustrations in most children’s Sunday school curricula now accurately represent ancient Near Eastern ethnicities. Jago’s groundbreaking illustrations in the Jesus Storybook Bible aided this development, and with the American church growing more diverse, there’s thankfully no going back.

Today, with global Christianity’s center of gravity shifting away from the West, I anticipate that in the future, it won’t just be the illustration work in our children’s Sunday school curricula that’s “representative.” The next Henrietta Mears or George Barna likely lives in Africa, South Korea, or Brazil. The day is coming (and we should welcome it) when children’s discipleship materials from the global church will be translated into English and used here in the States.

Children’s Sunday school curricula have changed a lot over the decades. As you consider how we’ve been shaped by the past, be both sobered and grateful: Sober enough to evaluate each new trend in light of God’s standards for commending his truth to the next generation. Grateful enough to give God thanks for the men and women who taught you whenever or wherever you were trained up in the faith.

Why Moses Chose Exile Mon, 10 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Those who identify with God’s people must separate from the world and its desires for the sake of holiness. They must choose exile.]]> “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin.” (Heb. 11:24–25)

When most people think of the story of Moses and the exodus, they’re plagued by apocryphal details from one of several movie adaptations.

Older generations may recall Cecil DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (either the 1923 or 1956 versions) in which Moses has an Egyptian girlfriend. Younger audiences may think of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), in which Yahweh appears as a little boy instead of as a burning bush.

As a kid who grew up in the late ’90s, I think of DreamWorks Animation’s The Prince of Egypt. This cartoon epic supplies in artistic brilliance what it lacks in biblical accuracy (Moses is adopted by Pharaoh’s wife instead of his daughter). But I’ll always appreciate The Prince of Egypt for emphasizing one key theme of the biblical exodus story: how much Moses gave up by renouncing his status as Egyptian nobility to join his people in exile—and how he did it by choice.

We all know the basics of Moses’s story, even if they’re a little muddled by Hollywood’s artistic license: Raised in Pharaoh’s household, this foundling grows up beside the throne of the ancient world’s main superpower. He hobnobs with the royal family, enjoys boundless wealth, and at least plausibly knows Egypt’s crown prince (perhaps they really were like brothers!). Young Moses has the world at his command and a future blessed by the gods. This is all he could ever want. Yet an inconvenient fact makes it impossible for Moses to maintain this charmed life: he’s not Egyptian but Hebrew.

In the Bible, he knows this from an early age, having been nursed by his real mother, Jochebed (Ex. 2:7–10; cf. 6:20). To add drama, The Prince of Egypt has him discover this as an adult. Cartoon Moses is horrified to learn his mother saved him from Pharaoh’s genocidal rage by releasing him to the Nile and that his ancestors didn’t worship Ra or Horus but the invisible God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

In both Scripture and fiction, this knowledge eventually prompts Moses to identify with his enslaved people and intervene physically in their oppression—an act that drives him, for the first time in his life, into exile. Still today, those who identify with God’s people must make a similar decision to separate from the world and its desires for the sake of holiness. They must choose exile.

Those who identify with God’s people must separate from the world and its desires for the sake of holiness. They must choose exile.

Choosing Exile

The original story of Moses is told in the Old Testament. But speaking through the author of Hebrews, the Holy Spirit gives a fascinating summary. In the famous “Hall of Faith,” we read this of Moses:

When he was grown up, [he] refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward. By faith he left Egypt, not being afraid of the anger of the king, for he endured as seeing him who is invisible. By faith he kept the Passover and sprinkled the blood, so that the Destroyer of the firstborn might not touch them. (Heb. 11:24–28)

We typically think of “exile” as a thing imposed, not chosen. And we associate it with punishment or chastisement for sin, usually for worshiping false gods. Yet for Moses, exile was self-imposed. Far from a punishment for idolatry, it was his road to becoming one of God’s most faithful and treasured servants. This willingness to trade the luxuries of Egypt to become the spiritual leader of a nation of slaves resulted in painful personal exile. But it also led to a national exodus. We should dwell on the similarity between the two words.

In many ways, the entire story of the Bible is a series of exiles that end in exoduses. We might even call this the master narrative of Scripture. As I. M. Duguid writes in the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, “The theological concept of exile is present virtually from the beginning of biblical revelation.” In every story that follows humanity’s expulsion from Eden, “the state of God’s people is one of profound exile, of living in a world to which they do not belong and looking for a world that is yet to come.” And in exile, God’s people always cry out for a deliverer, who arrives again and again to free them from bondage and lead them to the promised land.

The entire story of the Bible is a series of exiles that end in exoduses.

Noah, Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph all undergo cycles of exile and exodus, often complete with salvation through water, plagues, a sacrifice establishing a covenant, and the spoiling of God’s enemies. By the time Yahweh delivers Israel in Exodus, they’re “walking in the footsteps of the Patriarchs,” treading a well-worn path and paving it for future generations. This story of slaves delivered from bondage is the clearest exile-and-exodus cycle yet, containing both reminders of Genesis and rumors of redemptive history’s far-off fulfillment. If we read carefully, we can hear themes in Moses’s biography that echo in a greater Deliverer.

In Exodus, God’s people are enslaved by a serpent figure who seeks to exterminate the seed of the woman, who nonetheless outwits him (Ex. 2:3). Her seed grows into a God-empowered deliverer who’s given miraculous mastery over the spiritual powers of Egypt, culminating in a judgment of Egypt’s sons (12:12), which the sons of Israel escape through the blood of a sacrificial lamb (vv. 13–28). The people plunder the kingdom of darkness (v. 36), undergo a baptism (14:22; 1 Cor. 10:2), and ultimately escape the forces of the serpent-king, which are put to open shame and defeated (Ex. 15:1–18; Col. 2:15). The deliverer then mediates a fresh covenant with God (Ex. 19:8), receives his law on a mountain (20:1–21), and prepares a dwelling in which God can at last descend to live among his people (40:34) and lead them into Canaan, a symbolic new Eden (Deut. 26:9).

In all this, Moses—who mediated the old covenant—bears a striking resemblance to the mediator of the new covenant. We must pay special attention, because in imitating Moses, we’re ultimately imitating Christ.

Moses the Merciful

We’re used to thinking of Moses as a lawgiver, not a Christ figure. In popular Christian imagination, the law is at odds with the gospel. Even The Pilgrim’s Progress paints Moses as an adversary to Christian in his journey to the Celestial City. Moses beats Christian within an inch of his life for his “secret inclining to Adam the First.” When Christian begs mercy, Bunyan’s Moses replies, “I know not how to show mercy.”

To be sure, the law of Moses is powerless to save because of our sinful natures (Rom. 8:3). Bunyan is right about that. But in trying to make a point about our helplessness before the law without Christ, he portrays a Moses who bears little resemblance to the Moses of Scripture. The biblical Moses is an unmistakable type of Christ, mediating a gracious covenant in which God’s people are spared from judgment by the blood of substitutes. Far from not knowing how to show mercy, Moses often pleads with God to have mercy on his people (Ex. 32:30–32; Num. 12:13).

Indeed, the exile-and-exodus pattern so clearly displayed in Moses’s life is the very pattern the New Testament takes up when it explains the story of Jesus and our redemption in him. Christ’s story is filled with echoes of Exodus (Matt. 2:15; 3:13–17; 4:1–11; 5:1–2; 17:1–8; John 1:17; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 3:5–6; 10:26–30). Christ became an exile to lead his people in a new exodus. In Moses’s account, we see the gospel prefigured. “Christ,” as Alastair Roberts puts it, “is the one in whom we see the true meaning of the Exodus.” This is why understanding Exodus in light of the Savior helps us better understand the role of the saved in a hostile world.

According to Hebrews, Moses embraced exile. He opted to seek Christ, forsaking the treasures of Egypt in favor of a heavenly reward. In seeking the Holy One and standing on holy ground, Moses accepted the loss of earthly riches and relationships. He not only relinquished his status as prince of Egypt but remained a kind of outsider from Israel for life. He was frequently at odds with the stiff-necked and grumbling people (Ex. 14:10–14; Num. 20:1–5; Deut. 1:26–36) and was even criticized and challenged by his own family (Num. 12:1–15).

In this, he personified the word often translated “holy” in the Greek Old Testament and the New Testament (hágios), which implies something “set apart,” “different,” or separate. Moses was willing to stand out and stand alone so frequently—to choose enmity with the world and even with the people he loved—because he preferred friendship with God above all else (Ex. 33:11; James 4:4).

In the new covenant, we’re all in Moses’s sandals, enjoying close communion with a God who has come to dwell in our midst and call us “friends” (John 15:15), just as he called Moses a friend. This friendship with God need not always strain our earthly relationships. Yet when it does, Jesus is clear about where our loyalties must lie. We must be prepared to forsake “houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands” when they conflict with our devotion to him (Matt. 19:29). We must do exactly what Moses did: embrace exile for the sake of holiness.

As the worldview and values of our society become less like Israel at its best and more like Egypt at its worst, this call to be set apart will become more frequent and urgent. Earthly riches, reputation, and relationships will often hang in the balance, tempting us to deny or keep quiet about our primary allegiance to Christ. Whether it’s a promotion that requires hiding our faith, a grade that requires students to treat the Bible as false, or an invitation from a friend to celebrate an unbiblical union, all of us will at some point face the choice between earthly and heavenly rewards—between “the fleeting pleasures of sin” and “the reproach of Christ” (Heb. 11:25, 26).

Costly Call

Not everyone is willing to pay such a high price. In the Gospels, Jesus encounters a rich young ruler not so different from a young Moses. When the man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, Jesus recites Moses’s commandments. “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth,” the ruler says. Jesus looks at him with love and pity and replies, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by Jesus’s call to costly exile, the young man goes away full of sorrow (Mark 10:17–31).

Christ became an exile to lead his people in a new exodus.

Others have followed Moses’s example of voluntary exile for the sake of Christ. William Wilberforce is another figure many will know from a Hollywood adaptation. (Thankfully, his movie is pretty accurate.) This 18th-century British politician and philanthropist wasn’t adopted by royalty, but he was born to a well-to-do merchant family. His parents provided the best education money could buy, and in his youth, he became extremely popular. As one biography puts it, young Wilberforce was “witty, charming, erudite, eloquent and hospitable.” Lacking Moses’s clumsy tongue, he displayed “the charisma of a natural leader who drew friends and followers into his world.”

But Wilberforce’s conscience, like Moses’s, was eventually pricked by the plight of slaves. Following an evangelical reconversion, he famously declared God had set before him “two objects: the suppression of the slave trade and the reformation of manners [i.e., morality].” Under the spiritual influence of John Newton, a former slave-ship captain who penned the hymn “Amazing Grace,” Wilberforce resolved the British trade in African bodies must end: “So enormous, so dreadful, so irremediable did the trade’s wickedness appear that my own mind was completely made up for abolition. Let the consequences be what they would: I from this time determined that I would never rest until I had effected its abolition.”

And he never did rest. From 1789 to 1805, Wilberforce introduced 20 resolutions and bills against the slave trade, all of which were defeated through legal maneuvering by pro-slavery forces in Parliament. He endured withering criticism and death threats. He was attacked on the street, accused of being a spy in league with French revolutionaries, and even rumored to have a secret black wife whom he beat. Powerful opponents swore to fight the “damnable doctrine of William Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.” Eighteenth-century pharaohs, like their ancient forebear, wouldn’t part with their slaves willingly.

Yet Wilberforce persisted, weathering slander and chronic illness to accomplish his “great objects.” In 1807, the prayed-for day finally arrived. After years of half-measures and strategic advances, Wilberforce and other abolitionists in Parliament won overwhelming support for a bill to abolish the British slave trade. It was greeted with cheers and admiring tributes from colleagues.

For the next quarter century, Wilberforce continued his fight to emancipate all remaining slaves, as well as keeping up a tireless effort to reform British society by promoting virtue, supporting charity, and improving conditions for chimney sweeps, single mothers, orphans, juvenile delinquents, and even animals. Convinced Christ had come to liberate spiritual as well as physical captives, he also supported missionary and Bible translation efforts. On his deathbed in 1833, William Wilberforce finally received news that the House of Commons had voted to emancipate all slaves in the British Empire.

Great Reward

Throughout Scripture, exile is usually imposed, not chosen. But rich and influential figures like Moses, Wilberforce, and the young ruler had a choice. All these men could lounge for a lifetime in their palaces and parliaments, rubbing shoulders with princes and prime ministers. They didn’t have to surrender riches or reputation or endure the scorn that comes with pursuing holiness. Only two of them did so. Through the faith of Moses and Wilberforce, God led millions in exodus from bondage. We’ll never know what he might have done through the young ruler who turned his back on Jesus.

Christians today face a similar choice. This foreign land is filled with strange gods and enticing treasures. Many of these treasures are good in an earthly sense, as are some things our neighbors wrongly worship (like sex and money). There’s nothing wrong with Christians having and enjoying such things or with wielding the influence and authority Moses, Wilberforce, and the young ruler had. Yet a time will come when everyone who follows Christ will have to choose between treasures on earth and treasures in heaven. When the two conflict, the result will be a painful, costly separation—either from earth or from heaven.

On seeing the young ruler choose separation from God rather than separation from his money, Jesus observed there are few things more difficult than for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 19:23). He spoke from experience. The true and better Deliverer was the richest of all voluntary exiles. He was in the form not of a prince of Egypt but of the God of the universe. This greater Moses “emptied himself,” took on “the form of a servant,” and became “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8).

Why did he do this? Because he loved us, of course, just as Moses loved his people (John 3:16). But he also did it because, like Moses, he was after a heavenly reward—a great joy that brought him through the agony and shame of the cross and into the triumph of Easter morning (Heb. 12:2). In rising from the dead and ascending to the right hand of God, this true Deliverer led (and is leading) a spiritual exodus greater than any in history (Luke 4:18) into a promised land filled with incorruptible treasure (Matt. 6:19–21).

If Christians with earthly wealth, influence, or reputation follow in the footsteps of Moses, we should expect to pay a high price. But like Israel’s deliverer, who regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as greater than the treasures of Egypt, we should also expect God to richly repay our choice. For all of time, he’s brought about mighty, history-changing events through those who chase holiness till it hurts. And beyond time and history, he promises all who volunteer for exile a reward that would make Pharaoh jealous (Matt. 19:29; Rom. 8:18).

The Pursuit of (Which) Happiness? Mon, 10 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 If you’re serious about pursuing happiness, you might want to take the time to work out what happiness really is.]]> One reason we struggle to find happiness is that we aren’t sure what it is.

Imagine two individuals on a summer’s evening. The first is sitting in the garden, trying to finish a crossword before the sun sets, deep in thought with the grandchildren playing on the patio behind her. The second has just jumped out of a plane and is plummeting toward the earth at terminal velocity, marveling at the views beneath him and shrieking with delight. Which person seems happier to you?

It depends on what you think happiness is. If you associate it with words like fun, laughter, euphoria, revelry, exuberance, exhilaration, and thrill, then the skydiver seems happier. On the other hand, if you think of happiness as involving contentment, serenity, satisfaction, peace, harmony, rest, and bliss, you’ll be drawn to the crossword-loving grandmother.

The point isn’t that crosswords make you happier than skydives, or vice versa. The point is we use the word happiness in a wide variety of ways, some strikingly different from (and even irreconcilable with) one another. For example, a life spent chasing euphoria and excitement will look different from a life spent pursuing flourishing and contentment. Put like that, it’s the difference between a 1980s Tom Cruise movie (Top Gun) and a 1990s Tom Hanks movie (Forrest Gump).

We use the word happiness in a wide variety of ways, some strikingly different from (and even irreconcilable with) one another.

The question of which kind of happiness we’re looking for comes to us all the time: in the daily trade-offs between time and money; in the soul-searching of a bored married man whose younger coworker is showing an interest in him; in the ordinary budgeting issues of spending and saving, buying now and paying later; in the choice between taking a more stimulating job or having more time with the children; in the amount of time we spend on a screen. We all have equivalents on a daily basis, however trivial they may seem: Should I stay or should I go? Is this a time to build or a time to tear down?

Happiness comes in many flavors. The Hebrew Bible, for example, has around 20 different happiness words. The Greek New Testament has 15 or so. English, a rich language, has around 50. Admittedly, many of them are so similar as to be almost indistinguishable. (Can you describe the difference between cheer and gladness? Me neither.) But they also all have striking nuances. We know there’s a marked difference between bliss and luck, for instance, or between merriment and flourishing, even if we find it hard to describe.

So it may be helpful to group these words together, to try to identify the main “flavors” or “shades” of happiness people talk about. (For obvious reasons, we’ll be doing this in English, but all the languages I know of have equivalents of each of them.) Identifying what we mean when we talk about happiness can be helpful, both in identifying what we are (and aren’t) called to pursue and in thinking about the practices, beliefs, and experiences that make that pursuit easier.

Seven Flavors of Happiness

1. Happiness Experienced

This is often depicted with words such as joy, delight, pleasure, gladness, or enjoyment. This is probably the basic sense of the word for most people reading this essay.

Admittedly, many Christians will insist joy (deep, serious, lasting) should be sharply distinguished from happiness (light, trivial, fleeting), but this is a relatively recent—and in my view unhelpful—distinction. It doesn’t survive contact with Scripture, or indeed with other European languages: the English say “happy birthday” while the French say “joyeux anniversaire,” the Spanish say “feliz cumpleaños,” and the Greeks use “charoúmena genéthlia” (chara is the word for joy in the Greek New Testament).

Happiness, joy, and delight can be used interchangeably; to be happy is to rejoice, and in the psalmist’s language, to have “fullness of joy” is to experience “pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). So there’s no need to believe happiness is flippant or real “joy” is so deep as to be invisible. As a friend of mine once put it, we want a joy that reaches the face.

2. Happiness Expressed

The second flavor is what happens when the first flavor is made manifest. When people put their joy, delight, pleasure, and felicity on display, we use more expressive language, like merriment, cheer, gaiety, mirth, exultation, celebration, jubilation, revelry, rejoicing, fun, or hilarity.

In that sense, the difference between the first and second flavors is between feeling an emotion and showing it: the difference between sadness and lament, appreciation and praise. The first is an experience, while the second is its audible, visible, and tangible expression. The second often follows naturally from the first, but not always. Sometimes we need encouragement to act on our emotions, which is why the Hebrew Scriptures so regularly urge people to celebrate, make merry, be jubilant, exult, and make a joyful noise (Pss. 64:10; 68:4; 95:1; 96:12; 98:4; 100:2; 149:5; Ecc. 9:7). Let me hear joy and gladness! Turn your fasts into feasts! God rest ye merry, ladies and gentlemen!

3. Happiness as Ecstasy

We’ve touched on the third flavor already—the intense, heady, overwhelming but short-term flood of endorphins that comes in response to physical stimuli and that we might describe using words like excitement, thrill, rush, high, euphoria, ecstasy, and exhilaration. Unlike the first two flavors, which are unequivocally positive, this one is morally ambiguous.

Euphoria might result from good things (physical exercise, triumphant achievements, sex within marriage) that produce good results (fitness, diligence, intimacy). It might result from bad things (substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, illegal drugs) with damaging consequences (addiction, broken relationships, loss of control, depression, financial ruin). Or it might result from things neither morally good nor morally bad (music festivals, roller coasters, bungee jumping) that can be received as gifts without becoming gods.

4. Happiness as Fortune

The best way to introduce the fourth and fifth flavors is through a pair of brothers we meet in Genesis. Their names, Gad and Asher, reflect two further understandings of happiness, which were probably the two dominant ones in the years before Christ:

When Leah saw that she had stopped having children, she took her servant Zilpah and gave her to Jacob as a wife. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a son. Then Leah said, “What good fortune!” So she named him Gad. Leah’s servant Zilpah bore Jacob a second son. Then Leah said, “How happy I am! The women will call me happy.” So she named him Asher. (Gen. 30:9–13, NIV)

The fourth flavor, embodied by Gad, means fortune, luck, or chance. A modern equivalent would be the name of the former Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan, or names like Felix and Felicity, which mean either happy or fortunate in Latin. Obviously, in the modern West, we tend to differentiate between being happy and being lucky. But for many people in history, especially in the ancient pagan world, these two experiences would be indistinguishable.

This perspective on happiness stands behind various biblical names—Gad (Hebrew), Felix (Latin), Tychicus and Eutychus (Greek)—and indeed behind the English word happiness itself. Hap originally meant luck, which is why hapless means unfortunate, perhaps means with luck, and happenstance means that which “happens” to have occurred.

5. Happiness as Flourishing

Asher, by contrast, means happy in the sense of flourishing, thriving, or well-being. Think of the first line in the Psalter: “Blessed [Asher] is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked” (Ps. 1:1). And what does being asher look like? “Like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3).

This isn’t a description of an emotional state or a mood. It’s a holistic description of flourishing in life as a whole: thriving, prospering, experiencing wellness and vitality, living life as it’s meant to be lived. Of the seven flavors, this is the closest to Aristotle’s famous discussion of eudaimonia in the Nicomachean Ethics.

6. Happiness as Contentment

The sixth flavor of happiness is the sense of contentment, satisfaction, serenity, bliss, peace, and rest you experience when you have all you need. Your desires have been met. You aren’t craving or seeking what you don’t have but resting calmly in what you do have.

Again, the Psalter provides us with a beautiful biblical picture: “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:1–2). When a little child is breastfeeding, he spends much of his time fussing, crying, and rooting, trying to find enough food. But when he is weaned and moves on to eating solids, his need for constant feeding reduces. He can sit quietly and contentedly in his mother’s arms.

That, David says, is what it feels like when you stop fussing about things above your pay grade and simply rest in the arms of God. The apostle Paul’s experience was similar: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12, NIV).

7. Happiness as Fullness

We can experience happiness as fullness, richness, wholeness, meaningfulness, fulfillment, and oneness. This is the hardest one to describe because in this life it’s something we glimpse rather than grasp—although those glimpses are often among the most meaningful encounters of our lives.

You may have experienced flashes of transcendence, situations where you feel you’re touching something higher or deeper than yourself, and where you forget yourself for a short while and are caught up in something beyond. The philosopher Charles Taylor describes it as a place where “life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be,” whether characterized by “integrity or generosity or abandonment or self-forgetfulness.”

It’s best explained using liquid metaphors: an experience of overflowing, bursting, gushing, whereby we’re so full of something (or Someone) else that there’s no space left for our smallness and selfishness. Perhaps this is what the apostle had in mind when he asked that his friends might be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph. 3:19, NIV).

Not All Happiness Is Created Equal

The seven flavors of happiness—let’s call them delight, merriment, ecstasy, luck, flourishing, contentment, and fullness—are obviously connected. There’s no point in overdrawing the distinctions between them, since many overlap and come to us simultaneously. But understanding what we mean by happiness will ultimately help us become better seekers of it.

When we make a decision, we implicitly ask which will make us happier: Self-expression or submission? Unconstrained individuality or thick community? More holidays or more children? The esteem of many strangers or the esteem of few friends? Short-term experiences or long-term relationships? Distraction or transcendence? (Biblical examples abound. A bowl of stew or a birthright? Independence or rescue? The knowledge of good and evil, or life?) The answer is that both may well make you happy, but they’ll do so in different ways, and over time you’ll always value the latter more than the former.

Not only that, but there’s a fascinating generational dimension to all this, as the psychologist Jean Twenge has recently shown. As teenagers, the individualistic and freedom-loving millennials (born 1980–94) were happier than their equivalents in Generation X (1965–79), who were more committed to family, religion, and community at the same age. Young American millennials had more disposable income, opportunity to travel, and freedom to pursue experiences than any generation before them, and they were pleased about it. But as they moved into adulthood, millennials became less happy than their forebears, as the benefits of individualism and freedom began to be eclipsed by its downsides, particularly isolation, loss of community, loneliness, and (often) depression.

The benefits of individualism and freedom began to be eclipsed by its downsides, particularly isolation, loss of community, loneliness, and (often) depression.

One fascinating implication of this research is that not all happinesses are created equal. In the long run, we value flavors five and six more than flavors three and four, and arguably—although I don’t have time to make the case now—flavor seven most of all. And that’s worth knowing in a world where we continually have to choose between them.

Before you search for happiness—let alone codify the quest for it as an inalienable right—it’s a good idea to work out what kind of happiness is worth pursuing.

Thank You, Parents, for Your Sunday Faithfulness Sun, 09 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Bringing young kids to church may be one of the hardest things you do. But here are three reasons I’m thankful you do it.]]> Gathering with the church on Sunday morning is one of the most important things a Christian does. But if you’re a fellow parent of young children, it may also be one of the hardest things you do.

Consider the array of militant forces conspiring against you even making it to church. Who plans for his 3-year-old to wash her hair in yogurt two minutes before they’re supposed to leave the house? I’d like to see a seasoned military general try to handle that situation.

Then, when you finally get to the church parking lot, you must embark on the treacherous journey to the worship service. You’re like a freshly hatched sea turtle trying to reach the ocean before a seagull snatches it from above. Disaster can strike from anywhere and at any time.

Even after you’ve changed a dirty diaper on the floor of your van in 90-degree heat—and the other kids are taking off their shoes—the path to the worship service is fraught with peril: toddlers darting away from you with Olympic speed, the welcome team eyeing you with curiosity, kids devouring cookies in the foyer at an alarming rate.

Perspiring, eye twitching, hair disheveled, you also need to answer the peppy, well-dressed college student asking, “So, how are you?”

And finally, whether your kids have joined you for the service or they’re in children’s ministry, the call to worship isn’t a call to relax. Babies need to be fed. Crying kids need their dads to hold them. All the while, you’re trying to engage in the singing, participate in the prayers, listen to the sermon—and, before you know it, retrace your steps back home. Except this time, your kids have missed a nap and are hungry.

If this is your Sunday morning routine, I want to say, thank you. Thank you for your Sunday morning faithfulness. I know prioritizing the gathering can feel overwhelming and pointless, but here are three reasons I’m thankful you do.

You Serve Others

After a week at school, work, and living in a society pushing its way to the top, your fellow church members are tired of being impressive. The facade is exhausting. In the words of the psalmist, many feel like their bones are wasting away through their groaning all day long (Ps. 32:3). They want to be honest about their mess. But since they also want to look good—and they have the time and energy to do so—they’re stuck in a pattern of presenting themselves as put-together, impressive church members.

Enter frazzled parents of young kids. You can serve these members, and here’s how. When Christians are honest about their mess, others are more likely to share their mess as well.

When Christians are honest about their mess, others are more likely to share their mess as well.

So when talking to the stylish university student, capitalize on your disheveled hair. Tell her, “I’m actually pretty stressed this morning. Would you pray for me? And thanks for asking. How are you?” While her hair may be perfect, I’m certain something in her life looks like your disarranged hair. It could be her relationship with her boyfriend, a secret fight with anxiety, or questions about assurance. If you’ll share openly with her about your morning, you’re making it easier for her to share honestly about her life, and together—“weak and wounded, sick and sore”—you can approach the throne of grace (Heb. 4:16).

You can also serve your kids. While Sunday morning can be challenging, it presents unique opportunities to love little ones made in God’s image. You’re helping them build the habit of gathering with Christ’s body. They get to see you love the Lord and his people. And you’re giving them yet another opportunity to hear about God’s love for them in the gospel. Yes, a Sunday without young kids may be easier, but when we consider the opportunities to serve them, Sundays with young kids are a blessing.

Others Serve You

Jesus has designed your local church—giving members specific gifts—to serve you in this parenting stage. Now, they may not always serve you the way you’d hope, and you may not make it easy for others to serve you. But if you desire optimal care, don’t miss the gathering (Heb. 10:25).

Jesus has supercharged the gathering to care for you in unparalleled ways. Whether it’s hearing a widower sing of God’s faithfulness, or accepting help to clean up the spilled Cheerios, or praying with someone after the service, members at the gathering serve you in ways others can’t (Eph. 4:7–16).

If your kids are with you in the service, don’t worry if they distract you a bit. Jesus planned that distraction to conform you to his image, and he’s not handicapped by an infant’s squawks or a diaper that needs changing (Rom. 8:28–29). Through his sovereign care, he can channel his love for you in the moments when you can pay attention. He’s infinitely skilled at using others to serve you.

Jesus Celebrates You

When Jesus sees your faithfulness on Sunday morning—which he does, every second of it—he’s pleased (Heb. 13:21). Don’t skip over that. Jesus celebrates your Sunday faithfulness, even though it’s imperfect.

Dads, while you’re struggling to sing because of the stressful morning, he sings over you (Zeph. 3:17). Moms, when you step out of the service to nurse your child, Jesus steps forward and rejoices over you “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride” (Isa. 62:5). He wants nations and every king to see the glory of his grace in you (v. 2). And they will.

Jesus celebrates your Sunday faithfulness, even though it’s imperfect.

One day, in the new heavens and new earth, Jesus will broadcast your little bit of faithfulness on Sunday mornings throughout the restored cosmos. “Because you have been faithful in a very little”—speaking with kindness on the way to church, picking up tired kids from the children’s ministry, coming to the gathering when it would’ve been easier to stay at home—“you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17).

You won’t always be faithful. You’ll need to repent of impatience, anxiety, and irritation. But Jesus has paid the penalty for your Sunday unfaithfulness. And he will not forget your Sunday faithfulness. He’ll remember. He’ll remember everything. And his celebration over your faithfulness will surprise you throughout eternity.

So if you’re a parent of young children, don’t grow weary in doing good (Gal. 6:9). Keep going. Thank you for your faithfulness on Sunday mornings.

Editor’s Pick: Summer Reading (2024) Sat, 08 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Summer is for reading. This list of books is meant for your enjoyment this summer.]]> Summer is for reading. Actually, for many of us, all of life is for reading. It’s more of a physical need than a duty. But the different cadence of life during the summer invites a different sort of reading.

I take great delight in having study as part of my vocation as a church elder. A lot of that reading tends to be high-content Christian books or deep cultural analysis. It’s necessary and good. And yet there are times when I want to read something beyond these genres. I need to find new illustrations and fill my imagination with new ideas. That sort of reading is perfect for summer.

Summer is for beach reading, and you can’t take your systematic theology to the beach. The books cost too much and the risk of lingering sand in the binding of the latest Bavinck volume is too great. For many people, the ideal beach read includes sharks, potentially a mystery, and maybe a little romance. It’s a book with a peppy plot and not many cerebral requirements.

But readers of The Gospel Coalition are discerning and want something between a paperback of Vampire Sharks Take Over the Mall and anything by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. This list of books I’ve read and enjoyed is meant for you.

1. Rebel to Your Will by Sean Demars (Christian Focus, 2024)

I’m a sucker for a good conversion story, and Demars tells his in this little book. He highlights the way he was shaped by abuse and neglect as a child but how the gospel’s power has transformed him. Demars hits the right balance by sharing who he was before Christ without glorifying the mess. Most significantly, he demonstrates God’s power to save even those who are running as fast as they can in the wrong direction.

2. Skies of Thunder by Caroline Alexander (Viking, 2024)

There are so many fascinating World War II stories we never hear about. Alexander digs into original sources to masterfully recount efforts by the United States to provide supplies to the Chinese to keep them in the war against Japan. The men who flew the large aircraft over the Himalayan mountains risked much. Many lives were lost for a mission whose value remains questionable to this day. But the interpersonal conflict, the danger, and the accounts of courage will draw readers in. Alexander’s narrative style keeps the story moving, making this an excellent poolside read.

3. Sailing Alone by Richard J. King (Viking, 2024)

Part personal narrative, part historical account, this book reminds the sand-weary beachgoer that maybe the grit from staying on shore isn’t all bad. Though seafaring is nothing new, the ocean remains a wild frontier that calls adventurers suffering from fits of wanderlust. As it turns out, there has been an explosion of interest in solo sailing adventures in recent history. This book is engaging enough to draw you in and varied enough to allow for casual reading.

4. The Penguin Book of Pirates edited by Katherine Howe (Penguin Classics, 2024)

I don’t have any vampire fiction on this list, but I certainly enjoyed The Penguin Book of Pirates. Howe collects original sources, updates some of the language, and provides short introductions for each offering. Most chapters are only a few pages long, which makes for easy reading. However, since I frequently dressed like a pirate for Halloween, these entertaining accounts about (mostly) real-life pirates satisfy my inner child.

5. Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber (Thomas Nelson, 2013)

This book isn’t new, but the screen adaptation is now widely available on streaming platforms after a limited theatrical release in 2023. (I was able to watch it free through my local library.) As Brett McCracken wrote in his film review, “It’s a faith-friendly film that’s actually good.” It’s an entertaining film, but as usual, the book is much richer as Weber details her movement from combative atheistic feminist to faithful Christian. The audiobook was well produced (note: it has a couple of curse words) and would be a pleasure to listen to on a summer road trip.

6. Knowing What We Know by Simon Winchester (Harper Perennial, 2024)

Winchester may be best known for The Professor and the Madman, which tells the story of the Oxford English Dictionary. Knowing What We Know, just out in paperback, is an engaging read that “seeks to tell the story of how knowledge has been passed from its vast passel of sources into the equally vast variety of human minds, and how the means of its passage have evolved over the thousands of years of human existence.” That’s a big project and Winchester doesn’t entirely succeed, but he does explore the idea of knowledge and its transmission through narratives and anecdotes both informative and entertaining. The book is subdivided well, which makes it easy to read a few pages at a time while keeping an eye on the kids playing outside.

7. Make the Most of Your Productivity by Ana Ávila (TGC/Crossway, 2024)

Sometimes vacation reading can be dual purpose. Ávila’s book isn’t groundbreaking, but she summarizes several popular streams of thinking on productivity while reminding readers of our work’s ultimate purpose: to glorify God. If you’re looking to jump-start your organizational efforts or find tips to encourage you to work hard for God’s glory, then Ávila offers a concise resource.

8. Get Better at Anything by Scott H. Young (Harper Business, 2024)

Young’s first book, Ultralearning, offers lessons for being a better autodidact. Get Better at Anything moves into more general learning theory. Young summarizes recent research in problem solving, practice habits, and application of new skills. This is dangerously close to not being true summer reading because it’s potentially helpful in various ministry and business applications. However, the prose is so readable that the experience won’t detract from the idyllic reverie of summer.

Who Was the ‘Black Spurgeon’? Sat, 08 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Charles T. Walker, the ‘Black Spurgeon,’ was a forerunner to John Stott’s vision of preaching with Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The world needs more men like him.]]> I was five years into my study of the African American theological tradition, nearly finished with my dissertation, when I first learned about the man affectionately known as the “Black Spurgeon.” Though he isn’t well known today, he was one of his generation’s greatest preachers and his story testifies to God’s faithfulness.

From slavery to his vocational calling, Charles T. Walker’s life was filled with hardship. In June 1873, at age 15, he professed hope in Christ. Shortly after, Walker surrendered himself to church ministry. He was at prayer meetings, Sunday school, and church gatherings whenever the doors were open. God worked in his heart through the church to call him into gospel ministry like those who’d gone before him.

According to his biographer, Silas Floyd, Walker “had not been long converted before he was deeply impressed with the thought that he was called of God to preach the Gospel.” In one sense, this wasn’t surprising—Walker was descended from a long line of preachers.

In 1874, Walker enrolled in the Augusta Institute, Georgia, convicted he needed an education before formally entering ministry. However, he struggled to pay for school. Walker was on the verge of withdrawing to work when his fellow students united to help fund his studies. The entire black community benefited from the community’s investment in Walker’s theological education.

Sadly, like many others from his class, Walker never graduated from the Augusta Institute, now known as Morehouse College. Nevertheless, he’s known as one of Morehouse’s most influential preachers.

Local and Regional Ministry

Walker was licensed to preach in September 1876 while still a student. Despite his youth, he was called to serve as pastor of his home church, Franklin Covenant Baptist Church, and was ordained into gospel ministry on the first Sunday of May in 1877. By 1879, when he reached his 21st birthday, Walker pastored four churches simultaneously. Walker also preached at revival meetings throughout Georgia, including one where more than 700 people professed faith in Christ.

In 1883, Walker was called to Central Baptist Church in Augusta, but the congregation experienced a painful church split, which bogged the church down with public court battles. Walker remained with a group that assumed a donated church building, starting Beulah Baptist Church (later renamed Tabernacle Baptist Church).

Walker pastored Tabernacle Baptist Church for 14 years. The church’s ministry was vibrant and Walker became known as “a pulpit orator, a sound theologian, a soul-winning evangelist, and a resourceful pastor.” During those years, God used Walker mightily. Church records highlight more than 2,000 souls saved, with more than 1,400 baptized and welcomed into fellowship at Tabernacle.

Walker sought to bring his theological convictions into every area of life. In addition to leading a thriving church ministry, he was the business manager for the Augusta Sentinel, a weekly community newspaper. It offered him a platform to publish accounts of his trip to Europe and the Holy Land, which would later be collected and republished as A Colored Man Abroad.

Walker sought to bring his theological convictions into every area of life.

While in London, Walker described Charles Spurgeon’s Metropolitan Tabernacle as “the greatest church on earth,” offering a detailed account of the generous welcome he met there. He was thoroughly impressed by the scope of Spurgeon’s ministry, which included “a Baptist college, perfect in its every appointment” in addition to “a missionary society, a tract society, a place for the poor, an orphan home,” and more.

National Ministry

Walker’s influence expanded beyond Augusta and into Baptist life in Georgia. He served as a board member of the Walker Baptist Institute and Atlanta Baptist College, and he spoke widely at Baptist association meetings, Baptist schools, and within the newly formed National Baptist Convention (NBC).

His leadership in the NBC left him with a reputation as “a strong man in a crisis.” Based on his persuasive call for racial reconciliation at the 1889 NBC in Indianapolis, Walker was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity from the State University of Kentucky.

With a growing reputation came more opportunities to preach throughout the country. Walker preached in New York on multiple occasions, until he was called in 1899 to the pastorate of Mount Olivet Baptist Church in New York City. Walker’s preaching drew the attention of the major New York papers, who publicly labeled him the “Black Spurgeon.”

He conducted revival services at Antioch Baptist Church and St. Mark’s M. E. Church in New York City. He preached at large-scale revival meetings in Houston, Kansas City, St. Louis, Boston, Philadelphia, Nashville, Louisville, and Atlanta. In some cities, like Atlanta, Walker preached to racially integrated crowds where thousands of people had to be turned away because so many wanted to hear his preaching. Walker was considered by many to be the most popular black preacher of his day.

Walker’s stay in New York City was short-lived; he returned to Augusta in 1901. However, in the two years of his ministry in New York, the church grew by 1,400 members and Walker baptized 700 people. Longing for home, he returned and finished his ministry and life in Augusta, expanding his earlier work in the community.

Walker’s Enduring Significance

His ministry reminds young pastors that God can use people from any background, but that preparation is important. Walker demonstrated commitment to theological education in preparation for ministry, despite his financial uncertainty. Although Walker’s ministry training didn’t follow a straight line, God used him significantly to influence Georgia and the United States because he’d studied well.

Walker preached to racially integrated crowds where thousands of people had to be turned away because so many wanted to hear his preaching.

Walker exemplifies faithful pastoral ministry through public gospel proclamation and action to meet his community’s social needs. The former slave, soldier, and chaplain fulfilled his ministry by integrating his theological convictions into all of life. He served beyond the church’s walls, reaching into the community to establish a YMCA, work at a newspaper, and invest in primary and secondary education institutions.

Walker’s ministry illustrates the value of investing in the preaching craft. His fidelity to the Bible still encourages pastors to rightly handle Scripture while eloquently applying it to our audiences. He was a forerunner to John Stott’s vision of preaching as done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. The world needs more men like the “Black Spurgeon,” whose legacy lives on to the present.

Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into a Deeper Faith Fri, 07 Jun 2024 04:04:25 +0000 Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson discuss how to navigate faith and doubt with pastoral care and personal devotion.]]> Even those who live by faith experience doubt, but it doesn’t have to end your faith. Drawing from years of guiding Christians through doubt and disillusionment, Joshua Chatraw combines pastoral care and intellectual rigor to address the emotional journey of doubt, offering a new perspective on living a life of faith alongside it. In this breakout session from TGC23, Chatraw and Jack Carson discuss these themes based on their book, Surprised by Doubt.

On My Shelf: Life and Books with Hans Madueme Fri, 07 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Hans Madueme talks about what’s on his bedside table, his favorite fiction, recommended books on creation, the last great book he read, and more.]]> On My Shelf helps you get to know various writers through a behind-the-scenes glimpse into their lives as readers.

I asked Hans Madueme—professor of theological studies at Covenant College and author of Defending Sin: A Response to the Challenges of Evolution and the Natural Sciences—about what’s on his bedside table, his favorite fiction, recommended books on creation, the last great book he read, and more.

What’s on your nightstand right now?

I’m rereading Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business in preparation for an essay I was asked to write on the post-truth turn in the U.S. I’m also working through Andrew Wilson’s Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West. In terms of fiction, I recently finished James McBride’s engrossing The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, and I’m currently reading Fredrik Backman’s whimsical Anxious People.

What are your favorite fiction books?

There are too many to answer in any meaningful way! Maybe I’ll mention a few spanning different genres that I’ve enjoyed in recent years.

Anything by David Mitchell or Lee Smith. Cixin Liu’s trilogy The Three-Body Problem was magisterial (and I’m avoiding the Netflix adaptation because it can’t possibly match the genius of the books). I have fond memories of reading Anthony Doerr’s brilliant Cloud Cuckoo Land. I would also mention William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, which isn’t a “religious” novel (despite its title) but just a fantastic story; his follow-up, This Tender Land, is also captivating and reminiscent of Leif Enger’s classic Peace like a River. Finally, I recently discovered Peter Heller’s novels, especially The River and The Guide—I’m not an outdoorsy guy, but Heller is unmatched in delivering rip-roaring thrillers with nature as the main setting.

What biographies or autobiographies have most influenced you and why?

It’s been years since I read a good biography. The ones that come to mind are of Jonathan Edwards. While several fine biographies of Edwards have come out over the past decade or so, as a younger Christian I was influenced by Iain Murray’s Jonathan Edwards: A New Biography and later by George Marsden’s Jonathan Edwards: A Life. It’s cliché to say this, but Edwards inspired me to pursue spiritual depth and seriousness in the Christian life.

I should also mention Murray’s two-volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones—everyone recommended those volumes back when I left medicine to pursue seminary training. It helped to know that someone of his stature didn’t think it was a crazy thing to do!

What are some books you regularly reread and why?

I often revisit Klaus Scholder’s The Birth of Modern Critical Theology: Origins and Problems of Biblical Criticism in the Seventeenth Century (translated from the original German). The story he tells uncovers much of what I find unsatisfying about modern theology. And when I want to read dogmatic theology written beautifully and pastorally, it’s hard to surpass Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics.

What books have most profoundly shaped how you serve and lead others for the sake of the gospel?

When I was first learning how to preach, John Piper’s 1990 book The Supremacy of God in Preaching was immensely helpful. His notion of “expository exultation” transformed my sense of what preachers are trying to do in the pulpit (I gather he published a book with that title in 2018).

And when it comes to the actual work of shepherding the people of God, I’m thankful for my friend Bill Massey who had me and other elders at our church read Timothy Witmer’s book The Shepherd Leader: Achieving Effective Shepherding in Your Church. While I will always fall short of what Witmer calls us to, his book woke me up to what it really looks like for elders to serve the church.

What’s one book you wish every pastor would read?

Rather than trot out one of the usual suspects, I nominate Bo Giertz’s little-known Hammer of God. It’s a Lutheran novel with an unusually perceptive understanding of the gospel. If you know it, you probably remember the first time reading this remarkable book.

What’s the last great book you read?

Abigail Favale’s The Genesis of Gender: A Christian Theory comes to mind. I read this book with my students in a course I recently taught at Covenant College. We devoured it; we discussed it; we debated it—in short, we loved it. Favale’s book is a well-written and insightful work, illuminating many baffling features of today’s upside-down world.

What books on creation and evolution have you found helpful or insightful?

For me, most of the books in this category are written by historians. For example, I’ve enjoyed David N. Livingstone’s scholarship on historical perspectives on evolution and human origins. Here I would mention his Darwin’s Forgotten Defenders: The Encounter Between Evangelical Theology and Evolutionary Thought and, more recently, his Adam’s Ancestors: Race, Religion, and the Politics of Human Origins. Similarly, I highly recommend the definitive monograph on the Old Princetonians and evolution: Bradley Gundlach’s Process and Providence: The Evolution Question at Princeton, 1845–1929.

I have also appreciated the work by the Australian historian Peter Harrison, especially The Fall of Man and the Foundations of Science. Speaking of Harrison, one of his students wrote an excellent book on the early chapters of Genesis: The Days of Creation: A History of Christian Interpretation of Genesis 1:1–2:3.

While I don’t always agree with these historians, I’m grateful to them for giving us a deeper and wider context to creation-evolution debates.

On the theological front, I should mention one monograph that significantly shaped my thinking. It came out decades ago from an obscure publisher: Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Biblical Higher Criticism and the Defense of Infallibilism in 19th Century Britain (1987). This essay was Cameron’s published dissertation. Don’t be put off by the book’s ugly font; its insights still apply to current debates about evolution and Scripture.

What are you learning about life and following Jesus?

As I get older, I keep coming back to the patience of our Heavenly Father, that he puts up with blockheads like us—like me! As it says in Lamentations 3:22–23 (NIV), “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (see also Ex. 34:6). The Lord’s patience with me is beyond reckoning.

I’m ashamed to say I don’t have enough of that patience with people in my own life, but I need it. And I pray that the Holy Spirit will keep producing more of that fruit in me.

How the Marshmallow Test Can Help You Flee Porn Fri, 07 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Sin trades away God’s goodness for what’s much less satisfying.]]> I was listening to an old NPR spot on the car radio when Celeste Kidd, professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, mentioned the well-known “marshmallow test.” The conversation reminded me of the way the Bible talks about fighting sin, and I realized she’d stumbled onto a truth that could help men and women in their fight against pornography.

We’re always at our strongest in our fight against sin when we see how it trades away God’s goodness for what’s much less satisfying.

Marshmallows and Trust

The marshmallow test was a 1960s psychological experiment that measured delayed gratification in children. One group of kids resisted the temptation to eat a marshmallow while the other group couldn’t. The study concluded the first group would have more success in life while the others would struggle to succeed.

The test isn’t without methodological problems, but its “findings” are influential enough that they probably shape the way you think about what you’re innately able to do or not do. For instance, have you ever said, “I just can’t seem to help myself”?

Sin trades away God’s goodness for what’s much less satisfying.

On NPR, Kidd talked about her hypothesis that children can make reasonable decisions when they trust their environment to be stable. With this premise, she changed the marshmallow study in key ways. Kidd’s researchers told two groups of children that if they waited to eat the marshmallow, they’d be given art supplies when the researchers returned to the test room. After a moderate wait, researchers returned to tell the children they could eat the marshmallow, but they gave only one group the art supplies. Group B never got them. Then they concluded that round.

In the next round, both groups sat in front of a marshmallow and were told that researchers were leaving to get a second marshmallow. The children were promised both marshmallows if they waited until the researcher returned. Predictably, Group B children didn’t trust the researchers would return, but Group A children did.

Kidd concluded children can delay immediate gratification for a future reward in the context of a trusting relationship.

Our Trust in God’s Goodness

It’s not that different with fighting sin. Just as with Satan’s lie in the garden, and comparable to Kidd’s version of the marshmallow test, doubt lies at the heart of every temptation. Doubt in God’s goodness. A temptation to believe transgression will deliver satisfaction God can’t supply.

Each of us is made with a desire to enjoy sexual pleasure. It’s part of God’s benevolent design to provide us comfort, satisfaction, and procreation in marriage. But trusting that design is difficult when the world puts constant marshmallows in your face and tempts you to think the art supplies will never come.

Never before in human history have pornographic images been so constantly available. Despite the grave physiological consequences, more and more people fall into porn habits every day.

But God can be trusted. All his ethical commands, including the commands to avoid pornea, are given in the context of a loving, trusting relationship. God doesn’t make arbitrary or unnecessary demands. As the psalmist says,

The laws of the LORD are true;
each one is fair.
They are more desirable than gold,
even the finest gold.
They are sweeter than honey,
even honey dripping from the comb.
They are a warning to your servant,
a great reward for those who obey them. (Ps. 19:9–11, NLT)

Fighting Porn Starts with Gain, Not Loss

God can be trusted because he loves us and wants our good. I’m convinced many Christians lose the fight against porn because we focus on the marshmallow in front of us instead of the promised glory that awaits us. We focus too much on the momentary sexual pleasure we’re losing when we resist temptation rather than on what we gain by obedience. But when we only focus on what we shouldn’t do, our eyes are closed to God’s goodness.

Thankfully, loss isn’t how the Bible frames the fight against sin. The way to win the war against porn—or any sin—is to focus on gain.
The author of Hebrews tells us that Moses chose “rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Heb. 11:25–26). Moses had come to know that the true and living God could be trusted to be good, and, as a result, he could walk away from the fleeting pleasures of Egypt and embrace temporary suffering for the sake of eternal reward with God.

Paul wrote something similar to the Colossians. He didn’t shrink back from telling them what they shouldn’t do. Yes, they were to “put off” the sinful behaviors, ambitions, and desires they’d learned from their pagan culture (Col. 3:9). But they were also to “put on” the life of Christ and count this as great gain (v. 10).

Paul assured them, “When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (v. 4). He reminded the Colossians they’d already been united with Christ. They’d already tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Ps. 34:8). They’d seen that God could be trusted, and Paul knew that should inspire them to turn down earthly things and enjoy Christ.

Gain Even Now

Fighting porn isn’t all about future gain. Jesus Christ’s completed work on the cross allows us to fight sin for gain now.

Part of Christ’s work was to disarm sin’s power—yes, even the allure of pornography—so we can resist sinful desires (Col. 2:15). Christ’s steadfastness in the face of suffering makes him able to “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15).

Friends, Jesus knows what the fight against sin takes. Because he’s familiar with the fight, he’s eager to give mercy and grace to those who approach his throne (v. 16). Those united with Christ receive in themselves the same Spirit who sustained Jesus in his earthly ministry. As we walk in the Spirit’s power, we begin to see the goodness of God’s commands and to long for things that bring him joy.

As we walk in the Spirit’s power, we begin to see the goodness of God’s commands and to long for things that bring him joy.

The cross of Christ kills our old self with its desires and gives us a new life with new desires and joys. We still fight those old desires but do so from a place of Christ’s victory in us, seeing all the more God’s mercy and kindness.

Kidd’s study sees this profound truth through a clouded window. We’re at our strongest in our fight against pornography when we see it for the unsatisfying, sad, and solitary marshmallow it is. We win the fight for holiness when we fix our eyes on Christ’s character and the promises we already know he’ll deliver on.

The Bible reminds us over and over that God is good so we don’t make the same trade our first parents did. Because God is good, we can resolve not to trade eternity for the temporal, good design for twisted use, or gain for loss.

What Does It Mean to Walk in the Spirit? Thu, 06 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 There’s nothing to be afraid of in pursuing the Spirit of God. The only thing I’m afraid of is settling for half of what God offers us.]]> I was preparing to begin a four-month series on the Holy Spirit and one of my older pastor friends said, “That’s great. How many people do you think you’ll lose?” He wasn’t entirely joking, and I knew we had important but challenging conversations ahead.

It’s an unfortunate reality that division, confusion, and disunity exist around our views on the Spirit. But one of the Spirit’s primary roles is to bring unity to believers and churches. Over and over in Scripture, there’s a direct connection between the Spirit and unity.

Learning to walk in the Spirit is essential for the individual Christian and for the local church. As J. I. Packer wrote in Keeping in Step with the Spirit, “Apart from [the Spirit], not only will there be no lively believers and no lively congregations, there will be no believers and no congregations at all. But in fact the church continues to live and grow, for the Spirit’s ministry has not failed, nor ever will, with the passage of time.”

We need to be willing to engage the Bible and see its vision for a truly supernatural lifestyle—a “walk by the Spirit” kind of life (see Gal. 5:25).

Introducing the Spirit of God

On the night of his arrest, Jesus said these words to prepare his followers for his death:

If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. (John 14:15–20)

Put yourself in the disciples’ sandals. Imagine you’ve been walking with Jesus for three years. What have you seen? Miracles. His teachings. Healings—so many incredible healings. This man, you’re sure of it now, is the true Son of God. But now, he looks around the table and essentially says, “I’m going away. I’m leaving. I’m going back to the Father.”

Imagine the confusion. Imagine the immensity of your grief. What do you mean you’re leaving us? Later, he says, “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7).

Trinitarian Identity

Who is the Holy Spirit? He is God. He is the third member of the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit. Gregg Allison in The Holy Spirit writes,

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, equal in terms of nature, power, and glory with the Father (the first person) and the Son (the second person). Thus, whatever we may affirm of the Father, we may equally affirm of the Son, and we may equally affirm of the Holy Spirit: he is all-powerful, everywhere present, all-knowing, eternal, independent, loving, just, unchanging, truthful, faithful, wise, holy, good, and more.

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, equal in terms of nature, power, and glory with the Father and the Son.

Consider how the Scriptures describe the Spirit of God:

  • He is God (Matt. 12:22–32; Acts 5:3–4; 2 Cor. 3:12–18).
  • He is eternal (Gen. 1:1–2).
  • He is our Advocate—our comforter or helper who strengthens and sustains and empowers us and advocates on our behalf before the Father (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7).
  • He rested on Jesus at his baptism (Matt. 3:16) and empowered him for his ministry (Luke 4:14).
  • He understands God’s thoughts and teaches us to understand (1 Cor. 2:10–13).
  • He gives us new life (John 3:3–8; Rom. 8:11).

Further, the Spirit is called “the breath of the Almighty” (Job 33:4), “the power of the Most High” (Luke 1:35), “the Spirit of life” (Rom. 8:2), “the Spirit of grace” (Heb. 10:29), “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), “the Spirit of wisdom” (Eph. 1:17), “the Spirit of holiness” (Rom. 1:4), and “the Spirit of glory” (1 Pet. 4:14).

Holy Spirit’s Work

Too often, we think of the Spirit as an impersonal force, not a person. We sometimes accidentally refer to the Spirit as an “it” instead of a “he.” But over and over, the Scriptures show us the Spirit’s personhood in referring to all he does. He speaks (in 16 places, mostly in Acts). He teaches or testifies (five instances, including three in John 14–16). He can be sinned against (John 15–16), lied to (Acts 5), and insulted (Heb. 10), and he encourages (Acts 9) and strengthens (Eph. 3).

Perhaps we might consider one final way to understand and appreciate the Spirit and his work. What would be missing without the Spirit? Here’s a summary of Allison’s list from God, Gift, and Guide:

  • The existence of the world and everything it contains
  • Awareness of our sin and need for Jesus to save us
  • New birth and conversion (i.e., becoming a Christian)
  • Being united with Christ, justified, and adopted by God
  • Sanctification (our progressive maturity in the Christian life)
  • Understanding and applying the Bible
  • Prayer to God for help, wisdom, and depth of relationship
  • Unity in the church
  • Effectiveness in evangelism, mission, and preaching
  • Spiritual gifts for building up the church
  • Our future resurrected bodies
  • The new heaven and new earth

The Spirit is involved in everything needed for creation, salvation, growth, and the renewal of all things. But in all these activities, one thing is at the center of his essence and activity. The Spirit is God’s empowering presence. He isn’t merely omnipresent in a general sense; he’s present with us. The Spirit’s presence means not simply that “God is there” but that “God is here.”

The difference between God’s omnipresence and the Spirit’s presence with us might be compared to the difference between being in the same room as my mother and sitting face-to-face with her as we share a meal and talk about life.

In summary, the Holy Spirit is God; he’s the third member of the Trinity. We need him for absolutely everything. And thankfully, God the Father is eager to give the Spirit to those who seek him (Luke 11:13). The Father pours out the Spirit on all who believe in Jesus, giving us new birth and welcoming us into a life of joy, peace, and strength as we walk by his Spirit.

Walk in the Spirit

Paul, the apostle of the Spirit, continually calls believers to engage deeply in life in the Spirit. In Galatians 5:16–25, he references the Spirit seven times in his appeal to Christian holiness and growth. His appeal culminates in this powerful call: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (v. 25).

Of course, we “live by the Spirit,” which means the Spirit is the One who brings us out of darkness and into light by illuminating Christ and applying salvation to us. But it then calls us to “keep in step with the Spirit.” The Spirit doesn’t transform us and leave us. He’s not a momentary presence. He’s our abiding, empowering presence.

What does it mean to walk with (or keep in step with) the Spirit? Paul’s word for “walk” is stoicheo, which means walking in a line and proceeding under another’s control. To walk by or with the Spirit is to do two things: to put off the flesh and to put on a new, Spirit-filled way of life. Follow the Spirit, live under his control, and don’t walk by the flesh.

To walk by or with the Spirit is to do two things: to put off the flesh and to put on a new, Spirit-filled way of life.

First, to walk by the Spirit, according to Paul, means putting off the old way of life, “the works of the flesh” (v. 19). It means rejecting sin in all its forms. Living by the Spirit is living in the way of obedience and holiness. Where the Spirit is present, holiness abounds too.

Second, to walk by the Spirit is to put on the new way of life, to be “led by the Spirit.” It’s to be under his control and direction. It’s not just the absence of sin; it’s the presence of goodness and love and power.

Spiritual Fruit

The result of this twofold walking in the Spirit is the development of spiritual fruit. It’s to develop the character of Christ—to develop Christlike “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, [and] self-control” (vv. 22–23).

None of this happens without our participation. The giving of the Spirit comes at God’s initiative, but we must seek to be increasingly filled with the Spirit.

The giving of the Spirit comes at God’s initiative, but we must seek to be increasingly filled with the Spirit.

In Ephesians 5:18, Paul writes, “Be filled with the Spirit.” Curiously, he’s writing to a group of believers whom he has just said already has the Spirit (1:13–14). So why would he tell those who have the Spirit to now be filled with the Spirit? Almost certainly, this means we’re to seek a continuous and abiding relationship with the Spirit. We can find ongoing spiritual renewal in the Spirit, and the development of Christlike character will come as we allow the Spirit to produce fruit in us.

In summary, Paul’s letters invite us to this life: put off the ways of the flesh and walk by the Spirit, being continually filled with the Spirit, and the result will be a life of Christlike spiritual fruit.

Come, Holy Spirit

“Understanding the Holy Spirit is a crucial task for Christian theology at all times,” writes Packer. “For where the Spirit’s ministry is studied, it will also be sought after, and where it is sought after, spiritual vitality will result.”

We don’t have to be afraid of the Spirit. As C. S. Lewis wrote of Aslan, “’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

There’s nothing to be afraid of in pursuing the Spirit of God. The only thing I’m afraid of is settling for half of what God offers us—to worship him in truth but not in the Spirit (John 4:23–24).

As a pastor, I don’t want to do ministry in my own strength and intellect. I don’t want to play church for the next 30 years. I don’t want to be in control. I don’t want my congregation to be a work of human nature. I don’t want to wonder how long it would take for us to even notice if the Spirit lifted from us.

The Spirit doesn’t have to be a difficult doctrine. More truly, the Spirit is our beautiful God, the third person of the Trinity. Everything he has for us is for our good.

Therefore we pray, with believers from two millennia of church history, “Come, Holy Spirit.”

God Is Dead. Long Live the Gods. Thu, 06 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 We live in a world where some say ‘Long live the gods.’ We need not despair; we’ve been here before. Just like last time, God will see us through.]]> “I call myself a cultural Christian, but I’m not a believer,” stated the famed atheist Richard Dawkins in a recent interview with Rachel Johnson of LBC News. “I love hymns and Christmas carols, and I sort of feel at home in the Christian ethos,” he continued. He wants the cathedrals and parish churches that speckle England’s landscape, just without the faith nonsense that informs them. This interview is yet another signal that culture is changing. Even atheists seem to long for something transcendent.

Nietzsche quipped that “God is dead.” And in many ways, he was right; in the West, “God” is dead in the sense that Christianity’s theological and moral claims have become unbelievable and no longer unify society. The age of Christendom in the West, beginning with Constantine, saw Christianity slowly suppress paganism and establish cultural hegemony, but the tide is turning. It seems we’re back where we started.

The age of the Caesars is, once again, upon us. Like in a Percy Jackson novel, the pagan gods have taken up residence in our world, becoming the spiritual thread uniting our society and informing its moral imagination. As Christians look for ways to live faithfully in the world, the ancient church provides a helpful model for living in a world that seems increasingly pagan.

Back to a Pagan World

In his book Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us, British political commentator Ferdinand Mount draws out the parallels between modern and ancient moral diversity in striking fashion:

By the time of the Antonine emperors in the second century AD—that period which Gibbon regarded as the summit of human felicity—Rome was a ferment of religious choice. You could believe in anything or nothing. You could put your trust in astrologers, snake-charmers, prophets and diviners and magicians; you could take your pick between half a dozen creation myths and several varieties of resurrection. Or if you belonged to the educated elite, you could read the poetry of Lucretius and subscribe to a strictly materialist description of the universe. In short, this is a time when anything goes and the weirdest, most frenzied creations of the human mind jostle with the most beautiful visions, the most inspiring spiritual challenges and the most challenging lines of scientific inquiry. It is hard to think of any period quite like it, before or since—until our own time.

Mount is not alone in identifying the second century as the closest parallel to our time. Historian Carl Trueman comes to a similar conclusion at the end of The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self. Similarly in Pagans and Christians in the City, legal scholar Steven D. Smith frames his recommendations for Christian cultural navigation with the second century church in mind.

The vacuum created by the supposed death of God is being filled by paganism. We are experiencing a new iteration of the ancient struggle between paganism and Christianity.

Immanent Frame

A key parallel between the ancient pagan world and our own is the exclusive attention on the immediate world. This narrow focus on a tiny slice of time is a form of “modern paganism,” as T. S. Eliot calls it, and is dominant in the West. Others, such as Smith, draw attention to this parallel and note pagans lack any serious vision of transcendence, which curtails their view of reality.

A key parallel between the ancient pagan world and our own is the exclusive attention on the immediate world.

Robert Bellah and others note the modern tendency toward an “expressive individualism,” which is another symptom of this denial of transcendence. For the ancient pagan and the modern secularist, their only concern is this world and its immediate problems. They have no conception of where things are headed and, more importantly, no real hope to lean on.

This attention to the immediate world closely relates to philosopher Charles Taylor’s description of an “immanent frame” whereby people today see the immediate world and the internal person as the focus of reality. This world, this age, these people are the only things that matter. There’s nothing transcendent, nothing timeless—no God above us nor heaven awaiting us. For the pagan world, the Roman empire was their immanent frame, and one’s existence only mattered if it fueled the empire’s glorification.

Christians work from a different perspective. This world isn’t all there is, and God’s kingdom will not be seen or realized in its fullness until Christ comes again in glory. We never forget we’re embedded in this world to do the work of the Lord, but we’re always pilgrims longing for home.

Pursue Cultural Sanctification

The church thrived in the age of the Caesars by pursuing holiness and conformity to the likeness of Christ in any and every cultural context. This is what I call “cultural sanctification.” The process of cultural sanctification requires defending the faith, sharing the good news of salvation in Christ, and visibly embodying the virtues of Christian spirituality. Working from the margins, they were able to slowly and steadily persuade their neighbors that the Christian life offers something so much better for the world.

Christians such as Polycarp, Justin Martyr, and Irenaeus of Lyons weren’t part of the cultural elite but, following the apostles’ footsteps, worked from below and slowly and steadily guided the church through a pagan world. They didn’t sit in the prominent seats of the senate nor hobnob among the intellectuals populating the philosophical schools. Instead, they worked “organically,” beginning with sincere and robust forms of catechesis and discipleship, slowly guiding people in Christian doctrine and morality, reshaping the way they viewed the world.

The church was a school for the broken, the downcast, and those longing to see a better world, and the Christian vision of life guided their way toward true human flourishing.

The church was a school for the broken, the downcast, and those longing to see a better world, and the Christian vision of life guided their way toward true human flourishing. We can learn from the example of the early church, who emphasized the need for the fruit of the Spirit in their public lives. Discipled in their vision of the good life, the early church reoriented their lives in the ways they approached both political and social spheres. Following the apostles, they cultivated an active citizenship—fearing God and honoring the king (1 Pet. 2:13–14)—and a culturally discerning spiritual life that navigated their pagan world’s virtues and vices. Through it all, they challenged each other to walk in hope, knowing the Lord had assured them he’d return to judge the living and the dead and establish a kingdom that has no end.

Continued Trust

There are many differences between our world and the ancient one. We’re watching the demise of a Christian culture instead of starting from scratch, and we must learn to grieve the loss of institutions and choose wisely between trying to revive them or creating new ones. I suspect our strategy needs to be a prudent combination, but we must let wisdom guide us and work toward cooperation among Christians.

We live in a world where some say “Long live the gods.” We need not despair; we’ve been here before. God is not dead. So, just like last time, God will see us through.

Why Suffering Is Inevitable: Making Sense of Suffering, Part 1 Wed, 05 Jun 2024 04:04:24 +0000 Don Carson outlines six theological pillars for a biblical understanding of suffering.]]> Don Carson outlines six theological pillars for a biblical understanding of suffering.

Looking into the philosophical problem of suffering, he references David Hume’s skepticism about God’s goodness in light of pervasive hardship, and he challenges his audience to consider how to reconcile the existence of a loving, omnipotent God with the reality of suffering.

A faith that remains steadfast despite life’s trials requires a deep trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness, which can sustain believers through the deepest valleys of suffering.

How to Serve Single-Parent Families Well Wed, 05 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 ‘God’s Grace for Every Family’ is a gift to the family of God that can inform church leaders and shape their interactions with single parents in their ministries for years to come.]]> According to 2023 census estimates, about 14.5 percent of U.S. households with minor children are led by single parents. Roughly 25.1 percent of U.S. children under 18 live with only their mother or their father. A significant number of our neighbors, coworkers, and church members are, for various reasons, navigating life’s challenges without two parents to share the load.

In our warranted efforts to strengthen marriages and support two-parent families, we may not always effectively serve single-parent families.

There are many reasons why such pastoral needs within the church go unmet. Our busy schedules, our sinful hearts, and our lack of knowledge can all prevent Christians from helping those we’re called to serve. We need God’s grace and wisdom to overcome these obstacles to effective ministry.

In God’s Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single-Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well, Anna Meade Harris tackles the obstacles churches and single-parent families face as they pursue holiness together. Most of us will never experience single parenting, but Harris offers “practical wisdom to guide [the church] in loving single parents and their children well, for the glory of God and the joy of his church” (14). Meanwhile, she offers encouragement to struggling single parents.

Understand the Challenge

I’ve been blind to the number of single-parent families in our society and the difficulties these parents and children experience even in the church. Harris, senior director of content at Rooted Ministry, recounts her church experience after the loss of her husband that left her the single mother of three children: “Sunday mornings were some of the hardest of the week. Church no longer felt like a refuge. . . . Everyone was warm and kind, but in the one place we most needed to belong, we no longer fit in” (8).

Our busy schedules, our sinful hearts, and our lack of knowledge can all prevent Christians from helping those we’re called to serve.

Her experience helps explain why many churches don’t seem to have a representative number of single-parent families when compared with the culture at large. As churches, we need to ask why our programming, our preaching, or our people have kept single parents and their children from feeling like they fit in.

After reading this book, I had to ask myself how I was serving the single parents in my life. I realized I had several friends, some of whom I’ve known for decades, who had become single parents. Yet I’ve never fully considered their unique needs and how I might meet them. To this end, Harris provides numerous stories of the challenges single parents face.

Harris also speaks to single parents directly, encouraging them to persevere despite these challenges. She points fearful parents to God’s unchanging grace and steadfast presence, just as Joshua did for the family of Israel (Josh. 1:9). She directs exhausted single parents to our Lord’s invitation to take up his yoke (Matt. 11:28–30) and to remember that “children are not burdens, they are gifts and blessings” (90). And she reminds lonely single parents to press into the promise of God’s presence in Hebrews 13:5. Harris balances biblical exhortation and encouragement well, calling readers to be faithful to the Lord in the circumstances he has given them.

Provide Practical Help

Harris gives specific guidance on how churches can support single parents. For example, she warns against general offers of help, which put pressure and weight on the parent to figure out how. She writes, “Ask what that parent’s biggest challenges are, listen for the practical support they need, and then (prayerfully) offer specific help” (93).

Additionally, though many single parents are discouraged and tired, don’t offer a pep talk. Instead, listen well and speak gospel truth to them. Ultimately, we must remember that single-parent families aren’t merely ministry opportunities. They have something to offer the church too.

Single-parent families aren’t merely ministry opportunities. They have something to offer the church too.

Her guidance isn’t groundbreaking. But hearing the advice from Harris, a single parent who interviewed other single parents for this book, supports the value of her suggestions for one-on-one interactions. However, that strength highlights the one aspect of the book I felt was missing. As a church leader, I wanted more suggestions for systemic ways to simultaneously serve both single-parent and two-parent families well in the design of church programs. Yet striking that balance may be too dependent on the demographics of a given congregation. Harris may have been right to focus on more personalized suggestions.

Abundant Grace

In addition to her experience, Harris provides a robust theological basis for serving single parents well. Church members and the parents themselves need abundant grace. God’s grace is apparent even in the difficulties of being a single parent. As Harris writes, “Every parent has to ‘go through it,’ but the single parent goes through it alone, knowing their family won’t make it without help.” And that knowledge is a gracious gift, as “God invites us to embrace our weakness, for in it, we find that he is more than enough” (172).

In the end, Harris achieves her goals. She points all her readers to God’s grace. This book is an encouragement for single parents, whether they became so through the death of a spouse, divorce, or adopting a child alone. She offers comfort and an exhortation to resist using their circumstances as an excuse for disengaging from the church. She also helps others within the church care well for single-parent families by avoiding mistakes or saying unhelpful things.

Most importantly, she reminds those caring for single parents that grace is never a one-way street. God will use single-parent families to bless and serve us as well. She writes, “Come close enough to know us, brothers and sisters, and what you see God doing in our families will astound you. He has given us a testimony of his strength in our weakness, and he will give you one in yours” (176).

This book is a gift to the family of God that can inform church leaders and shape their interactions with single parents in their ministries for years to come.

Can We Forgive When the Offender Doesn’t Repent? Wed, 05 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 In the case of unrepentant offenders, we must forgive and yet not pardon them.]]> Forgiveness is excruciating. Who wants to pardon the perpetrator who maliciously wounded us? Forgiveness can also be confusing. What should we do when the person who wronged us doesn’t repent? He doesn’t own what he did, say he’s sorry, and mean it. What then?

Some theologians argue it’s wrong to forgive an impenitent offender, while others say it’s wrong not to. Let’s review the arguments for both options and see if we can find a solution.

Forgiveness Requires Repentance

In Unpacking Forgiveness, Chris Brauns gives four compelling reasons why we mustn’t forgive unless the offender repents.

1. Forgiveness without repentance isn’t biblical.

Paul tells us to forgive others “just as in Christ God forgave [us]” (Eph. 4:32, NIV), and God demands repentance before he pardons. When convicted sinners asked Peter what they must do, he said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38). There are no finally forgiven people in hell.

2. Forgiveness without repentance creates a moral hazard.

If I pay the moral debt of an impenitent offender, I fail to hold him accountable. I increase the chances he’ll strike again. He’s learned he can get away with it and may aim for more.

3. Forgiveness without repentance isn’t morally serious.

It fails to account for the offense. Nicholas Wolterstorff writes,

I can be willing to forgive him—when he repents. I can have a forgiving disposition toward him. But it appears to me that no longer to hold against someone the wrong he did one while believing that he himself continues to stand behind the deed, requires not treating the deed or its doer with the moral seriousness required for forgiveness; it is to downplay rather than forgive.

Truth and reconciliation commissions in both Rwanda and South Africa emphasized there can be no forgiveness without confession. It’s dangerously naive to attempt to reconcile bitter parties if the offenders don’t own what they’ve done.

4. Forgiveness without repentance easily slides into therapeutic forgiveness.

A popular and mistaken view assumes the point of forgiveness is my mental health: “It doesn’t matter if she repents for what she did to me. I forgive for my sake, to break the chains of her offense and take back control of my life. I forgive her so I can forget her and move on.”

Forgiveness is excruciating. It can also be confusing.

While there can be therapeutic benefits to forgiveness, forgiving for the sake of these benefits isn’t genuine. It’s yet another defensive move dressed in its Sunday best, aimed at shoving the offender out of the way. But true forgiveness isn’t selfish. It aims at reconciliation, seeking what’s best for the offending party—her repentance and the restoration of the relationship to the degree possible (some consequences may remain).

Those arguing forgiveness requires repentance aren’t saying the offender’s impenitence permits us to hold a grudge. They insist we must do the difficult internal work that prepares our hearts to forgive. We must cultivate an attitude of forgiveness, unconditionally offering forgiveness to all guilty parties. We tell all offenders we stand ready to pay their moral debt if they own what they did. Yet we don’t pardon them; we don’t say the words “I forgive you” until and unless they repent.

(Internal) Forgiveness Does Not Require Repentance

Other theologians notice these two steps in forgiveness—the internal heart work and the external shaking of hands—and suggest the term “forgiveness” should be used for both parts. Tim Keller calls them “inward” and “outward” forgiveness, and David Powlison says they’re “attitudinal” and “transacted” forgiveness.

Both agree the “forgiveness” label is properly used for the first stage—the agonizing task of releasing the offender’s moral debt in the heart—and that this must occur whether or not the offender repents. Jesus prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), and Stephen prayed for his executioners, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60), so we must forgive everyone in our hearts. Don Carson agrees with Keller and Powlison in principle, but uses “forgiveness” for the first stage and “reconciliation” for the second.

Carson’s view of forgiveness coincides with his understanding of the atonement. As Jesus’s death is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect who thereby believe, so our forgiveness of all is only applied to those who receive it and are reconciled. This two-stage approach is similar to the Lutheran notion of “objective” and “subjective” justification. Objectively God declares the world to be not guilty because of Jesus’s death, yet subjectively this must be applied to each person by saving faith.

This approach guards against the extremes of bitterness on the one hand and cheap grace on the other. We aren’t allowed to nurse grudges; we must forgive every offense inwardly. Yet we won’t reconcile or transact that forgiveness until and unless the offender repents. The world isn’t too dark: we must always forgive. And the world isn’t too airy and light: we require responsibility before reconciliation.

However, saying we must forgive everyone in our hearts raises significant issues. How can we pardon impenitent offenders and avoid the dangers Brauns notes above? Isn’t pardon without repentance an unbiblical, therapeutic attempt that creates moral hazard and fails to treat the offense with the moral seriousness it deserves?

Escrow Forgiveness

I propose a modified two-stage approach that I believe solves these problems. In the case of unrepentant offenders, we must forgive and yet not pardon them. This seems strange because it is. Sin makes things weird. The same sinners who need forgiveness are liable to mess up their repentance, gumming up the path from confession to reconciliation. In such cases, we must separate the two normally united elements: payment and pardon.

Forgiveness means to pardon an offender by paying/absorbing his moral debt.

When an offender repents, it’s clear we should both pay and pardon. We absorb the moral cost of being sinned against and assure the offender of our forgiveness. When the offender doesn’t repent for whatever reason—perhaps he’s hard-hearted or has died—we must separate the payment from the pardon. We don’t pardon him (and gloss over his offenses), because he hasn’t repented, yet we still must absorb the moral cost.

During our church’s discussion of forgiveness, my friend Robert Wynalda III suggested we do this by writing a moral check in the offender’s name and placing it in a moral escrow account, accessible to him when he repents.

This solution should satisfy those who rightly insist forgiveness requires repentance because pardon is conditional on the person declaring moral bankruptcy. No repentance, no pardon.

I propose a modified two-stage approach that I believe solves these problems. In the case of unrepentant offenders, we must forgive and yet not pardon them.

And it should satisfy those who rightly insist the offender’s impenitence is no excuse to hold a grudge, because we do more than merely prepare our hearts to forgive. We do more than stand ready to pay, pen poised over our moral checkbook. We actually write the check. We pay the debt. It’s now out of our hands. It’s no longer our concern.

This solution gives counselors a practical way to help those struggling with bitterness. Forgiveness is rarely a one-off event, particularly for deep wounds. What if we gave people physical checkbooks so they could write checks to figurative escrow accounts, in the offenders’ names, for the amount they feel they were hurt? In this way, they’d pay but not yet pardon the offenses’ moral cost. They’d avoid both bitterness and cheap grace, and they’d treat both the offenses and God’s command to forgive with the moral seriousness each deserves.

An Illustration

To illustrate, consider a wife whose husband left her for another woman. The abandoned wife understandably falls into rage, jealousy, and bitterness. But she doesn’t succumb. By the grace of Christ she slogs through thickets of resentment, absorbing the cost of being sinned against by writing check after check in her husband’s name until finally she’s free. She no longer holds her husband’s offense against him. She stops running him down in front of their kids. She doesn’t need her pound of flesh. She has paid, but not yet pardoned. She is released, but not yet he.

His release only comes with his repentance. Years later he tearfully confesses his sin to her. He owns how he’s wronged her and their children and he makes restitution where he can. She tells him she forgives him. Many consequences remain, including lost years, broken trust, and a shattered family. But his staggering moral debt is erased.

One last point, and it’s important. When writing the moral check, remember it’s not our money. We don’t have the resources to forgive, especially for cold-blooded, personal attacks. Our Father doesn’t expect us to manufacture the grace that pays the moral debt. He does demand we draw from the endowment he has lavished on us.

We’re not generators of forgiveness. We’re mere distributors, forwarding our Savior’s hard-earned blood money to those who need it most.

7 Powerful Lessons Paul Teaches the Church About Weakness Tue, 04 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Consider these seven ways Paul encourages us as the church to embrace weakness in the Christian life through 1 and 2 Corinthians.]]> Apart from Jesus, no one confronted and dismantled the church’s lust for earthly glory more thoroughly and capably than the apostle Paul in his letters to the church in Corinth.

In both letters, Paul demonstrates God’s design for weakness in the Christian life, relentlessly returning to God’s power present in the weakness of the cross. For Paul, Christian living requires following Jesus in faith, rejecting the values of the world, and embracing the Christ crucified out of weakness.

Consider these seven ways Paul encourages us to embrace weakness.

1. Believe that the weakness of Christ crucified is God’s power to save.

The message of Christ crucified is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:23–24). So, for Paul, the whole of the Christian life is lived “by faith in the Son of God, who loved [us] and gave himself for [us]” (Gal. 2:20).

Since the gospel is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes,” all God’s saving righteousness is revealed and received entirely through faith in Jesus (Rom. 1:16–17). To put our hope in anything else is to forfeit God’s saving power.

Will the church preach this today?

2. Imitate the weakness of Christ.

To be an apostle was to be conformed to the image of Christ crucified: “God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death” (1 Cor. 4:9). But the way of weakness isn’t limited to Jesus’s apostles.

Paul’s gospel ministry birthed the church in Corinth. As their “father in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” he expects his “beloved children” to grow up to look like him: “I urge you, then, be imitators of me” (vv. 14–16). Paul sent Timothy to the Corinthians for that purpose: “[He will] remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (v. 17).

What example does the church set and call people to imitate today?

3. Consider your weakness when God called you.

Understanding that “the weakness of God is stronger than men” requires remembering your own weakness when God saved you (1:24). Paul writes, “Consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth” (v. 26).

To put our hope in anything but the gospel is to forfeit God’s saving power.

Where is our wisdom? Christ. Where is our righteousness? Christ. Where is our holiness? Christ. Where is our redemption? Christ. Christ Jesus—and he alone—is the entirety of our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption.

Does today’s church remember where she came from?

4. Reject any methodology that empties God’s weakness of its power.

Paul reminds the Corinthians of how he came to them with the gospel: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). Paul is describing the “how” of his ministry.

The “how” is as crucial as the “what” of the message, because when the world’s means and manners are employed, Christ’s cross is emptied of its power.

Is today’s church willing to follow suit?

5. Live in a way that demonstrates the Spirit’s power.

Paul chose to live in such a way that God’s power was present and active (2:4). Elsewhere, Paul tells the Corinthians that Christ “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Cor. 13:4).

Throughout both 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul battles thought systems that value earthly wisdom and strength. How does he go about demolishing such things? Every time, he preaches and applies the gospel. The powerful weapon of our warfare is the message of the cross proclaimed in the Spirit’s power through a gospel-shaped messenger.

What weapon is the church using today?

6. Don’t be afraid to appear weak.

At the center of the super-apostles’ criticism of Paul (and the Corinthians’ wavering fidelity to him and his gospel) was the charge that Paul was weak. He didn’t measure up to the standards of “those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart” (2 Cor. 5:12).

Paul wasn’t a specimen of human strength and beauty. But then again, neither was Jesus, who “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2).

Jesus looked weak. Paul wasn’t afraid to appear weak.

Is today’s church willing to look weak to keep the gospel central?

7. Boast about your weaknesses so Christ’s power may reside in you.

Paul disdained the idea of commending himself: “It is not the one who commends himself who is approved, but the one whom the Lord commends” (2 Cor. 10:18).

Instead, he boasts about the shameful weaknesses obvious in his ministry history:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (11:24–27)

Paul’s list might be seen as triumphal boasting. In this way, these experiences would be testimonies to Paul’s strength in the flesh. But he wants nothing to do with such a conclusion. So he adds a capstone of humiliating weakness: “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (v. 30).

Are we in the church willing to boast about our shameful weaknesses to show Christ’s glorious power?

Does the church take pleasure in humiliation for Christ’s sake?

Are we willing to believe it (and live like it) when Jesus promises, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (12:8)?

Not All Church Planting in Missions Is Created Equal Tue, 04 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Defining our goal for the church will be a determining factor in whether the missions renaissance of our day results in healthy change. ]]> More than any time in recent memory, evangelical missions is focused on planting churches. In the previous century, as the World Council of Churches drifted toward liberalism and ecumenism, some missiologists began to downplay the role of establishing local churches. Instead, they preferred to speak of expanding the kingdom, establishing shalom, or starting missional communities.

This language was thought to carry less rigid expectations for structure, less divisive doctrinal distinctions, and less potential for importing cultural baggage. Today, however, “church” is again in vogue in missiology. Church planting is increasingly seen as the aim of missions.

Despite this positive shift, what missiologists and missionaries mean when they speak of the church often remains unclear. Therefore, defining our goal for the church will be the determining factor in whether this renaissance in church-centeredness results in a healthy course correction. Following Ken Caruthers, I understand a healthy church to be one that is and does what the Bible says a church should be and do.

Mere Church?

One current temptation in missions is to pursue a “mere” ecclesiology for the purpose of reducing cultural imposition and increasing reproducibility. Proponents of mere church are content to focus their efforts on reproducing communities of disciples that follow the Acts 2:37–47 pattern.

Unfortunately, that passage doesn’t intend to define the local church. Nor do the elements recorded there exhaust the biblical descriptions or functions of the local church.

Church planting is increasingly seen as the aim of missions.

If we aim for something less than the full biblical understanding—even for the good reasons of increased multiplication and enculturated contextualization—we endanger those who’ll one day give an account for their role in the church. With that in mind, I’ll offer three important texts that give direction and definition to our goal of establishing churches worldwide.

Pillar and Foundation

Up to the end of 1 Timothy 3, Paul has been discussing how people are supposed to behave in the church and what qualifications there are for being appointed to church offices. He clearly states his rationale for doing so: “I have written so that you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (3:14–15, CSB).

If being church-centered means our missions efforts aim at establishing churches, that aim must be informed by Paul’s definition of the church as the household of God, a pillar and foundation of the truth. To be church-centered in this sense requires us to realize the saints in covenant with one another don’t merely exist for man-centered fellowship, encouragement, or training for evangelism. The local church is to be a God-centered community, gathering as the household of the living God, ordering its behaviors and recognizing its leaders by the standards given.

These standards are provided so the church will be a display (pillar) and support (foundation) of the truth. To display God’s manifold wisdom and truth, it must be protected from swerving toward false doctrine and teaching. Any compromise or misstep in what’s taught and believed will subsequently malform what the church displays to a watching world.

Those entrusted with teaching—the ones Paul identifies as elders earlier in the chapter—must be capable of rightly dividing the Word, guarding doctrine, and identifying false teaching.

Defend and Teach

In multiple places throughout the New Testament, the church and its leaders are instructed to guard and teach doctrine. Second Timothy is an especially helpful example as Paul connects the importance of Scripture as God’s inspired Word with his solemn charge to his protégé—a church elder—to preach and teach the Word (2 Tim. 2:2; 4:1–2). This is important for church-centered missions because it addresses doctrine’s source and its transmission within the church.

To display God’s manifold wisdom and truth, it must be protected from swerving toward false doctrine and teaching.

By contrast, Paul highlights those whose teaching and conniving have attempted to woo people toward harmful and false teachings. He reminds Timothy his truth source is the faithful teaching he’s received from Paul, rooted in the God-breathed Scriptures (2 Tim. 3:16). It’s useful—and to be used for—teaching, rebuking, correcting, training in righteousness, and equipping.

Despite the proper desire to avoid passing along cultural preferences and extrabiblical understandings, missionaries and those they equip to lead must be able to divide the Word of truth, to identify false teaching, and to teach true doctrine. This is the role of the church and its elders. While the preaching might take a different form from one context to another, authoritative instruction from the Word is necessary as part of the noble shepherding task for which every elder will one day give an account.

Authority and Accountability

Scripture reminds believers we’ll give an account for our lives. While our salvation is secured in Christ, there’s the possibility our work might yet be burned up (1 Cor. 3:10–15). In addition to that general warning, elders and overseers are told they’ll be held to a higher standard. James 3:1 states this explicitly: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.”

If we’re to be truly church-centered in our missions, we must be committed to equipping local elders to know how to rightly divide the Word (2 Tim. 2:15), to watch their life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), and to contend for the faith delivered to the saints once for all (Jude 3).

Lest we appoint people too hastily to a role—and a judgment—for which they aren’t prepared, we must recognize the missionary task doesn’t just require preparing a church for growth and reproduction. We must ultimately prepare churches and their leaders to give an account for all that Scripture calls us to be and do.

Why We All Long for Home Mon, 03 Jun 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Our forebears give us the first example of life under exile.]]> “He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.” (Gen. 3:24)

The waves were strong but safe. The sargassum near the shore of our Airbnb meant we had to look for somewhere else to swim, so we found a beautiful beach a mile or two from our rental. The white sand and turquoise water more than made up for the lack of accommodation.

I was soaking it all in, watching my family enjoy an unforgettable day in the sun. However, I had to stay behind to look after the bags. This was a mostly unspoiled beach, away from the touristy part of Punta Cana. There was no security around the premises, and I know enough stories of friends wrapping up a great swim only to find their things stolen.

I live in the Dominican Republic, a small country in the middle of the Caribbean Sea. No matter where I go on our island, there’s a beautiful beach a quick drive away—some of them counted among the best in the world, boasting homes the biggest celebrities frequent. And yet, while the beach is nearby and inexpensive, I hardly ever go.

The reason is exactly what you’d expect: life gets in the way. We have three young kids with school and activities to attend. We have jobs. We have dogs. What’s more, I’m a pastor. We planted a church in 2022 that the Lord has blessed enormously, and the blessings of ministry usually result in more ministry. Preaching, yes, but also counseling and administration and meetings and visitations.

I need to be honest with you: I’m not a fan of the beach. I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. But my family loves the beach, my wife especially. And if I find good shade and get to sit down with a good book and a cool breeze, I can enjoy it too. Over the years, we’ve made good memories at the beach.

I do regret not going more often. And I long for days gone by.

In this longing, I join our forebears, Adam and Eve. They, too, looked back at a time of beauty, safety, and companionship. Yet they also experienced, however briefly, what I haven’t—a life with no death, a world without regret and without deceit. We don’t live in that world, but we do live under the same Ruler, so our forebears give us the first example of life under exile.

Our First Home

The beginning of Genesis reads as if nothing could go wrong. In Genesis 1, God speaks, matter takes shape, and the universe falls into place. Yet suddenly, near the end of the chapter, the pace changes. God speaks reality into existence, then God speaks with humanity (v. 28), showcasing a relationship with humankind. After Genesis 1 details the forming, organizing, and establishing of the earth and the land and the sky and the sea, with all their beauty and splendor, the second chapter is dedicated fully to the creation of Adam and Eve.

In the garden, at the outset of civilization, man and woman are together—truly together: “The man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed” (2:25). In them, the seed of all mankind was found. They were to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (1:28). All creation would be shepherded as they exercised “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (v. 28). What’s more, they could have their fill and sustenance from creation (vv. 29–30).

God’s plan was in motion. Through his Word, he’s Creator of all. And through his words, he engages his image-bearers (v. 26). Consequently, Adam and Eve can speak words of faithfulness and companionship and commitment (2:23). Truly, everything God made was very good (1:31). A garden with no sin, no death, no defiance.

This is the world we were made to inhabit. Though our minds have no recollection of our creation and our brains have no memories of our first home, we were made from Eden’s dust (2:7). We were created for beauty and splendor, for companionship and commitment, and for a close relationship with the Creator.

We were created for beauty and splendor, for companionship and commitment, and for a close relationship with the Creator.

The beginning of Genesis reads like nothing could go wrong in God’s world. But we live in a world where the most perfect beaches are filled with sargassum. You go out for a swim and your things can get stolen. The sun is hot, sand is coarse, and even if you find the best possible job and live in the most developed nation in the world, you’re one phone call away from your whole life falling apart.

Beginning of the Yearn

As Genesis 3 brings a new character into the conversation, we’re immediately brought down to a reality more like ours. The crafty Serpent lures the woman into conversation. Familiarity with the scene keeps us from grasping the gravity of what’s happening. God’s goodness and provision are being questioned. The very means of creation—his Word—is indicted. The Creator is judged by his creation.

Eve listens and is deceived. Adam joins her, and all humanity falls into temptation and sin:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. (vv. 6–7)

This moment’s effects would be felt by every human being. It’s the dawn of our exile, put into motion in these verbs—seeing, delighting, desiring, taking, eating, and giving of a fruit of disobedience. As the Lord approached, Adam and Eve recoiled from his presence. They could no longer rejoice in him, and they were afraid (v. 10). They blamed everyone but themselves (pinning it on each other, the snake, and the Lord). But God is not mocked. The consequences of their actions brought a curse to all of creation, accompanied by a fresh and ever-present sensory experience: pain.

God said to Eve, “I will surely multiply your pain.” And to Adam, he said, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life. . . . For you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (vv. 16–19).

Can you feel how our exile began? It’s possible—desirable, truly—to feel at home in the most undesirable circumstances. “Home is where the heart is” sells as home decor because home is about people—our loved ones—more than a place. But before sin brought the curse, before pain, and before death, Adam and Eve felt shame. Sin led them to retreat from God instead of rejoicing in his presence. They were afraid of their Creator, and they blamed each other. There was no longer a sense of trust. In the absence of a loving relationship with each other and with God, how could they ever feel at home? The result is irrevocable:

Therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life. (vv. 23–24)

It was a mercy that God reached out to them as quickly as he did. And it was mercy that exiled them out of the garden. Left to themselves, we can only imagine what they would’ve made of Eden.

So mankind was cast out, and every boy and girl born after Adam and Eve has been born outside the garden. Let that thought sit for a second. We were created out of Eden’s dust, in an idyllic garden where the Lord himself would stroll by our side, where animals would do our will, and where death wouldn’t exist. But now we spend our days and weeks and months struggling in prayer. We’re afraid of animals. Funerals are far too familiar. The curse has been so destructive—our exile so prolonged—that we don’t even know how to find Eden, our first home.

This is life in exile, east of Eden, outside the garden. But not outside hope.

People on the Move

A well-known Persian proverb says, “We come into this world crying while all around us are smiling. May we so live that we go out of this world smiling while everybody around us is weeping.” I appreciate the sentiment: the desire to live a good life that influences those around us. But notice the uplifting message is underscored by pain: A new life brings happiness, but the baby is in tears of confusion and dismay. Meanwhile, a good death will always be surrounded by the tears of those who loved.

Since we don’t live in paradise, even on our best days there’s an undercurrent of unease. Suffering is never theoretical and never far. No matter how much we try to ignore it (and some of us are really good at it), there’s been no human being ever born who hasn’t experienced pain.

And yet the pervasiveness of suffering is a reason for hope for those in exile. When Elijah is persecuted because of his faithfulness and wishes for death, crying in his loneliness in the wilderness, the Lord responds that the prophet isn’t alone: he’s joined by 7,000 others (1 Kings 19:4, 18). To the church, we hear a clear command to resist the Devil, “knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by [our] brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Pet. 5:9). In Christ, our transient suffering is the fulfillment of his promise, a demonstration of his victory over the world ( John 16:33).

In Christ, our transient suffering is the fulfillment of his promise, a demonstration of his victory over the world.

If you’re regularly singled out as the one who needs to do a “special assignment” for school or work while everybody else is enjoying his or her day, it’s hard not to feel treated unfairly. But this exile experience—of being outside our home, uneasy, on the move, with suffering as a constant—isn’t a special assignment. It’s part of the job. And Christians find comfort in knowing our forebears felt it, the best prophets felt it, and our brothers and sisters all over the world are feeling it today too. As was promised to another of our fathers, those who are joining us in our pilgrimage are as many as the grains of sand on that beach where my family swam (Gen. 22:17).

So as we struggle with the sense of longing for another home, as we notice our souls yearning for better days, we must find rest in looking to our left and to our right and seeing with our spiritual eyes that we’re joined by a multitude larger than the stars. What started with Adam and Eve and Elijah and Peter is true of Christians all over the world today: we’ve been exiled but not left to ourselves. We’re not home, but we’re not homeless.

Returning Home

Every time I teach on Genesis, I’m asked some variation of the questions “Why did they sin? Why did they eat of that fruit?” Many better theologians have provided excellent responses, and one thing is clear: the human heart wants more.

Our desire for more—to create, to innovate, to build relationships and robots and rollercoasters—is in part because of God’s image in us. But Adam and Eve’s appetite for more demonstrated their distrust of God and discontentment with his good gifts. Just as the flaming sword turned every way, if our hearts aren’t put in check—if our lives aren’t submitted to his rule—God will continue to exile us with the flame of hell until sin is put in its right place.

Adam and Eve didn’t leave Eden on their own; they were cast out. After their sin, they tried to hide, but there was no way out until they faced God. At the end of the day, all our struggles begin and end with the Creator.

Because our first father and mother were created in his image, they made themselves a pseudo solution for their perceived problem immediately after they sinned. Likewise, when we’re in an inescapable situation, our hearts try to fashion a way out, to spin an upside.

But instead, we need to face the One who casts us out.

In their sin, Adam and Eve ran from God. They exiled themselves from his presence before he exiled them. Feeling his nearness, they must have noticed not just the gravity of their actions but the feebleness of their fashioned solutions. “But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, ‘Where are you?’” (Gen. 3:9). God doesn’t play their games. He doesn’t let them run away. He goes after his beloved, and he chases after us. Sin starts in us, but salvation belongs to the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Because there’s no way home until we meet him, and because he’s sovereign over Eden and earth, he’s the One calling us to his presence.

Because there’s no way home until we meet the Lord, and because he’s sovereign over Eden and earth, he’s the One calling us to his presence.

Suffering is never far from us. Flung from Eden, we experience discomfort from life’s first cry. No human being experiences life without death. That’s the word of the Lord to the woman and man. But it’s not his only word. To the deceiving Serpent, he said, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen. 3:15).

The woman’s offspring, born east of Eden, would experience pain and death. Jesus is that offspring, and suffering wasn’t theoretical for him. He was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). He too suffered exile, not only being hated by the world but also suffering “outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Heb. 13:12). With his bruised heel, with his pierced side, he has opened a way back into God’s presence. So we can draw near with confidence, not shame, dressed in his righteousness, not in clothes of our own making.

This is our present and constant hope. We’re not alone in our exile; we join in the yearning of our forefathers since the beginning of creation. We have lost our home but not our family. We’re not in the garden, so we lament. But while we suffer, we do so in the presence of him who was pierced to bring us back to God.

Holy Haggling: Learn to Pray like Abraham Mon, 03 Jun 2024 04:00:08 +0000 Abraham’s haggling with God on behalf of Sodom reveals at least four characteristics that should shape our prayers.]]> At first glance, Abraham’s conversation with God in Genesis 18 may seem like one of the oddest stories in Scripture. Abraham haggling with God over the destruction of Sodom—and God negotiating the terms of judgment with a mere man? It’s a story I’d never have been bold enough to make up.

On reflection, however, I suggest this scene (like all Scripture) is profitable for training in righteousness, particularly in the area of prayer. I call it “prayer” because prayer is talking to God, and that’s what Abraham is doing (though unlike with most prayers, God is physically present for the conversation). Abraham’s prayer has at least four characteristics that ours could stand to include more of.      

1. Specificity

Abraham could’ve prayed, “LORD, suppose there are several righteous people there. Perhaps a handful.” But no. He gives God exact numbers—“Suppose there are fifty . . . forty-five . . . forty . . . thirty . . . twenty . . . ten.”

He reminds me of George Müller, the 19th-century saint famous for running orphanages. Instead of vague requests like “Father, please provide for our needs,” Müller’s prayers tended to sound more like “Father, we need 110 loaves of bread and 75 pairs of shoes—by tomorrow morning.” One time he was sailing to America for a preaching crusade, and the ship was stuck in a dense fog, threatening to derail his entire preaching tour. According to the captain, Müller knelt and prayed, “O Lord, if it is consistent with Thy will, please remove this fog in five minutes.” He could’ve said, “Lord, please remove this fog as soon as possible.” But since he thought five minutes was perfectly possible for the Almighty, he figured he’d be specific. And why not?

I’m reluctant to pray that specifically because then it’d be clear if God didn’t answer—and I’d look like a loser in front of the ship’s captain, or else I’d be privately disappointed. It’s true that if we only pray hazy, fortune-cookie prayers, we’re much less likely to be disappointed. Then again, we’re also more likely to wonder whether what happened later was an answer to our prayer. The flip side of avoiding disappointment is that we also miss out on the encouragement Müller experienced when the fog did lift in five minutes (and it did).

Similarly, Sodom isn’t spared. But when it goes up in smoke, Abraham can at least conclude, “Unbelievable! There weren’t even 10 righteous people!” because his prayer had been that specific.

2. Compassion

We’re often ready to write off an otherwise good church or organization because of a few bad apples within it. But Abraham is the exact opposite—he asks God to spare an entire city of bad apples for the sake of a few good apples within it.

In this, Abraham’s heart is a reflection of God’s heart. Ours is a God who delays the day of judgment because he’s “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). He’s a God who says, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked . . . and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? . . . I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord GOD; so turn, and live” (Ezek. 18:23, 32).

In praying like this, Abraham is loving his enemies and being kind to the unthankful and evil (Luke 6:35). It’s the kind of prayer we’re called to imitate as the salt of the earth. Perhaps the reason God hasn’t yet destroyed the United States is because, for all her faults, there are a lot more than 10 righteous people within her borders—people who pray like Abraham. If so, may our tribe increase.

3. Importunity

No, I didn’t misspell that. This is an old King James word that means “persistence, especially to the point of annoyance or intrusion.” I’m not suggesting the Lord actually was annoyed with Abraham. Still, it’s hard to read this interchange without thinking, Wow, this guy has some nerve. God says yes, and instead of being thankful or content, he takes it as an encouragement to keep on asking.

It almost feels irreverent—kind of like when Daniel prays, “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act” (Dan. 9:19). Or when the psalmist says, “O LORD, I am calling to you. Please hurry . . .” (Ps. 141:1, NLT).

Perhaps the reason God hasn’t yet destroyed the United States is because, for all her faults, there are a lot more than 10 righteous people within her borders—people who pray like Abraham.

If you heard someone praying those words (and you didn’t realize they were from the Bible), you’d be tempted to rebuke them. And yet these prayers are meant to serve as models for us.

It’s like that parable about the guy persistently knocking on his friend’s door late at night, asking him for three loaves. Jesus says that “because of [the knocker’s] importunity” (KJV; “impudence,” ESV) the friend will “rise and give him whatever he needs” (Luke 11:8; cf. 18:5). The difference is that while that guy refused to take no for an answer, Abraham refuses to take yes for answer.

And yet God isn’t offended. He wants us to “always pray and not lose heart” (18:1). Sometimes we have not because we ask not (James 4:2). Other times we have little because we give up too soon. If Abraham had stopped at 50 people, he would’ve walked away with a promise of 50. Instead, as Matthew Henry says, “He brought the terms as low as he could for shame . . .”

Perhaps the only thing more striking than Abraham’s shameless persistence is God’s willingness to keep granting his requests. As Henry puts it,

The importunity which believers use in their addresses to God is such that, if they were dealing with a man like themselves, they could not but fear that he would be angry with them. But he with whom we have to do is God and not man; and, [however] he may seem, [he] is not really angry with the prayers of the upright (Ps. 80:4), for they are his delight (Prov. 15:8), and he is pleased when he is wrestled with.

So let’s learn to wrestle.

4. Reverence

As bold-faced as this whole story sounds, you can’t miss Abraham’s humility. This isn’t him telling God, “If you destroy Sodom, I won’t be your friend anymore.” Instead, his whole speech is peppered with statements like “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I am but dust and ashes” (Gen. 18:27). Or again, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak” (vv. 30, 32). It’s not that he thinks God is touchy—it’s that God is a great King, and Abraham knows he’s pushing the limits of familiarity.

We, too, must be cautious. If we’re going to ask God to “please hurry” like the psalmist did or to “pay attention” like Daniel did, we also need to remember who we are and who we’re talking to. We need to be bold enough to be specific and to keep pressing even when he says yes. But we also need to have the attitude that says something like this:

Lord, what do I know? I’m only dust and ashes. I’m not your counselor, and I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I’m telling you what I want because you invite me to bring my requests to you. Lord, you’re all-wise—what you ultimately decide to do with Sodom is your business—but if you’re asking me what I want, this is what I want.

So let’s not assume we always know what prayer has to sound like. Let’s allow passages like this to press into our hearts and push the boundaries of our current practice.

How to Not Exasperate Your Children Sun, 02 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Paul’s instruction to parents to not exasperate their children is often pointed to as a biblical standard for parenting. But what does it mean? ]]> Many Christian parents are aware of Paul’s instructions to not exasperate or provoke their children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). But the line between loving discipline and exasperating discipline can be difficult to discern as parents engage their children’s unique personalities.

Though there’s no universal formula for disciplining and nurturing a child, Paul gives two clear indicators a child is feeling exasperated: anger and discouragement.

Spending more than 15 years counseling young adults wrestling with the ramifications of how they were parented has prompted me to think deeply about specific parenting behaviors that lead to feelings of anger and discouragement in most children. There’s a type of parenting that crosses the line from instructive and nurturing to oppressive and exasperating. And it’s important we understand the difference both because our parenting has ramifications for our children and because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

What’s the Big Deal?

If you read the chapters leading up to these parental commands, one thing is apparent: Paul can’t get enough of the gospel. Before issuing practical commands about family dynamics, Paul takes the time to convey the glorious reality that God “predestined” us for adoption “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4–5) to the “praise of his glorious grace” (v. 6).

Paul explains that being God’s child has nothing to do with our performance or our ability to repay him. Our adoption was a rescue operation, a “redemption” plan that cost Jesus his “blood” (v. 7). To cleanse us from sin, God “lavished” his “grace” on us “in all wisdom and insight” (vv. 7–8) so that “things in heaven and things on earth” would be united in him (v. 10).

Those undeservedly adopted into God’s family receive a “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator,” leading to “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Col. 3:10, 12). Salvation produces peace, love, and thankfulness in the hearts of believers (vv. 14–15; Eph. 2:17; 5:2) because the gospel “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Col. 1:13).

On the heels of these rich chapters overflowing with gospel truth, Paul says, “Do not provoke your children to anger” (Eph. 6:4) and “Do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col. 3:21). We should take seriously the call to avoid parenting that exasperates and provokes, because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

Three Ways to Exasperate Kids

Parents are wise to take note when their child seems angry or discouraged and consider how their own behavior may have affected the child. After years of conversations with adolescent and adult children raised in Christian homes, I’ve noticed three parenting behaviors that, whether intentional or unintentional, commonly exasperate children to the point of anger and discouragement.     

1. Guilt-Tripping

Guilt-tripping tries to make people feel guilty to shape or control their behavior. It may come out of a desire to keep children from potential danger or future pain, but it often demonstrates a personal sense of entitlement. The parent might say statements like these:

  • “Did you not care about me?”
  • “If I weren’t here to help you, your life would be a mess.”
  • “I work so hard for you, and this is how you repay me?”
  • “When I was your age, I was already . . .”

Instead of gently and creatively directing the child to God’s empowering love that motivates us to do what’s right, the parent makes her own needs, desires, and accomplishments primary.

We should take seriously the call to avoid parenting that exasperates and provokes, because our parenting is a reflection of the gospel.

If our primary reaction when our kids do something disobedient or dangerous is to make the situation about us, we should consider whether we’re engaging in guilt-tripping. Are we training our kids to believe that Jesus should have “first place in everything” (Col. 1:18, CSB) or that we should?

When we resort to guilt-tripping to shape our child’s behavior, we replace the gospel story of grace with a worldview of entitlement. The reality of Christ’s death and resurrection should free Christian parents to calmly create a safe environment for productive dialogue and “sincere” fellowship (1 Pet. 1:22) centered around the supremacy of Christ (Col. 1:18). Conversations steeped in gospel truths will promote peace (3:15); conversations steeped in entitlement will cause confusion, anger, and discouragement.

2. Man-Made Laws

As we point our kids to the gospel of grace, we have a responsibility to teach them to love and submit to God’s law, as it’s a reflection of his perfect goodness, wisdom, and love. In the process, we must be careful to differentiate between God’s law and our preferences.

It’s good to have reasonable standards for a child as a functioning part of a family system, but if these standards are inconsistent, unpredictable, or unfair, the child may become exasperated. For example, if a child consistently responds to a particular rule or expectation with anger or discouragement, parents are wise to consider whether that rule is necessary. Would removing it cause your child to disobey God’s law in any way? Or is it primarily a matter of parental preference?

Consider what issues and occasions tend to evoke conflict between you and your child. Particularly as we engage with teenage and adult children, expectations about how to celebrate holidays, how often to call or text each week, how to raise kids, and how to make decisions can lead to anger and discouragement if we make our preferences into laws.

When a child disagrees with his parents’ rules or opinions, it can be easy to chalk it up to disobedience or disrespect. But the gospel should free us to hear our children out if they feel discouraged or angered by a particular standard. Before dismissing a child’s, teenager’s, or adult’s frustration, parents should consider whether their expectations have been clearly communicated and are appropriate for their child’s season of life.

3. Anger

Anger can seem easy to justify in parenting. We often think it’s the only thing that’ll get through to our kids. But if we’re honest, our anger toward our kids is rarely, if ever, righteous (Eph. 4:26). It usually flows from an inappropriate sense of entitlement or a prideful demand for respect.

I’ve heard too many stories of Christian parents pointing knives at their children, throwing objects at them, shoving them against walls, and verbally threatening them. These behaviors aren’t just exasperating; they’re abusive.

But even if we haven’t resorted to those means, there are other ways to express anger that shouldn’t be normalized: speaking harshly, yelling, mean looks, name-calling, mocking, and sarcasm. These behaviors don’t promote peace, unity, and understanding; they alienate us from our children and deeply discourage them. Anger may get our children to obey us temporarily, but it won’t help them grow in godly righteousness (James 1:20).

What If I’ve Already Exasperated My Child?

Not all anger and discouragement in children results from their parents’ behavior. There are many other reasons a child might struggle with these feelings. But Ephesians 6:4 and Colossians 3:21 remind us to consider how our behavior affects our children, and they exhort us to parent in ways consistent with the gospel of Christ.

Anger may get our children to obey us temporarily, but it will not help them grow in godly righteousness.

Whether our kids are living in our home or off on their own, the gospel should free us to humbly invite their feedback, genuinely try to understand them, sincerely apologize for exasperating behavior, and intentionally treat them with dignity and respect. Those conversations may be long and painful, and they might require the help of a pastor, mediator, or counselor. But they’re necessary for true reconciliation. If you know your child has been angered or discouraged because of your behavior, pursue peace “so far as it depends on you” (Rom. 12:18).

You need not worry that sincerely apologizing to your kids will cause them to take advantage of you. You may be surprised to find the opposite is true. When parents confess their sins openly and seek effective accountability, their children feel safer and more free to enjoy their parents’ company and pursue a healthy relationship. This is what true gospel living produces—sincere parent-child relationships grounded in love, peace, and thankfulness, not in anger and discouragement.

Announcing TGC’s 2024 Essay Contest for Young Adults Sat, 01 Jun 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Calling all young adults (aged 16–22) with something to say! Enter our contest and you could win $500.]]> The Gospel Coalition announces its 2024 essay contest, inviting young adults (ages 16–22) to explore and write about God’s faithfulness, their relationship with technology, and their heart for full-time ministry in our secular age.

Winning authors will receive a prize, and their essays will be published on TGC’s website. In addition, every writer who submits an essay will receive a coupon code for $50 off the Gen-Z registration for our TGC25 conference.

Essay Requirements

Each 800–1,000 word essay must be original, previously unpublished, and must respond to one of the following three prompts. With each of these prompts, contestants should draw from their own experiences and convictions, and use Scripture to support their conclusions. (Want examples? Read the winning essays from 2022 and 2023.) Contestants must give permission to TGC to publish their work, and each essay will be judged by TGC’s editorial team.

Submissions will be accepted from June 1 to July 1 and winners will be announced on September 2, 2024.

1. When did the Lord love you by not giving you what you wanted?

Many of us have unfulfilled desires. When was a time you saw the Lord’s love and kindness when he withheld something from you? What was it that you wanted and how did you see the Lord’s faithfulness through not giving it to you? Tell us what you learned from your experience, especially considering that our culture tells us we deserve to have all our desires fulfilled.

2. How has the gospel changed your relationship with your phone?

Today, phones are considered a necessity rather than a luxury. How does the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ change how you view your phone and how you use it? How has your phone been a hindrance and how has it been an asset to your relationship with the Lord? Tell us what you’ve learned in navigating how to use your phone for the glory of God.

3. Why are you considering full-time ministry?

There’s a greater need than ever for young people to pursue full-time ministry. Why are you considering making ministry your vocation? Tell us your heart behind it, why you think it’s important, and what influences in your life have led you to move forward in this direction.


The contest winner will receive $500; second place will receive a $100 gift card to the TGC bookstore; third place will receive an assortment of books. The winning essays will be published on TGC’s website, as will any other essays the judges select.

Read the full contest rules and upload your essay. Questions? Contact

How to Hope in Hard Times Fri, 31 May 2024 04:04:53 +0000 Ligon Duncan, Nancy Guthrie, and James Anderson encourage Christians to hold on to hope amid suffering and loss.]]> James Anderson opens this two-part breakout session by sharing how to cultivate a biblically formed understanding of our present cultural realities and maintain confidence and hope when we might otherwise be tempted to despair. Ligon Duncan and Nancy Guthrie follow with a discussion of theological foundations and pastoral approaches for helping one another walk through suffering.

The session covers

  • how suffering can shape faith and trust in God’s goodness,
  • how to cope with suffering and anger toward God, and
  • how to find comfort from God’s Word in times of tribulation.

As we cling to biblical truth for our circumstances and rest in the hope of the resurrection, God can work in our suffering to deepen our faith and teach us to depend on him.

Shine Light Through Cracks in a Worldview Fri, 31 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Books like ‘Morning After the Revolution’ are useful when they reveal the God-shaped hole in the human heart. If Christians are attentive, we’ll read books like this to help us communicate the gospel in a way that shines the light of grace through the cracks of a fractured worldview.]]> Schadenfreude is a sense of pleasure that comes from someone else’s misfortune. There are corners of the internet that exist to laugh at the hypocrisy and inconsistencies of the cultural left, delighting when people’s intellectual world is shattered by reality. It’s easy to feel superior when our critiques are validated, but reading books that slam our ideological opponents can tempt us to pride if we’re not careful.

In Morning After the Revolution: Dispatches from the Wrong Side of History, Nellie Bowles documents the self-destructive excesses of the New Progressive movement. It’s tempting to read her account just to taste progressive tears. Part memoir, part exposé, her story lacks analytical rigor, but it reveals cracks in the progressive worldview that will let light through.

Barely Heretical

Bowles was formerly a writer for the New York Times. She now writes for The Free Press, working for Bari Weiss, a woman to whom she’s legally married. Despite Bowles’s progressive bona fides, her association with the supposedly anti-ideological media company positions this debut book as edgy and provocative, as if she’s part of an intellectual dissent against the ideas of New Progressivism. In fact, she continues to affirm the central tenets of the movement, though she is critical of its sometimes absurd hypocrisy. Thus the Publishers Weeklys review isn’t fair when it pans the book as “a toothless recap of anti-woke talking points.”

Inasmuch as it is a coherent movement, New Progressivism is a reaction to older forms of cultural liberalism. The emphasis in the movement’s name should be on the word “new” because “progress” requires a definable goal, which New Progressivism lacks. As Bowles shows, the primary purpose of the movement is to leave the past behind, even if that past occurred mere months ago. Any notion of truth and justice is inherently fluid for New Progressivism. It’s chronological snobbery on steroids.

This book is likely to gain attention among conservatives because it riles some on the cultural left. As the old saying goes, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Yet this isn’t a conservative manifesto. It isn’t a manifesto at all. It’s a journalistic account of some obvious excesses of New Progressivism, written by someone pushed out by the movement’s rabid resistance to internal diversity.

By her account, Bowles was nudged out of the movement because she wouldn’t publicly attack a friend for dissenting from the latest vibe. She was exhausted from the drama. Describing her fatigue with the movement, she concludes, “I couldn’t prioritize the political over the personal. I couldn’t be a good soldier” (239).

Bowles was barely heretical, but that was enough to earn exile from a movement that requires ideological purity. Yet as she states throughout the book, she has rethought none of her positions; she has merely softened her posture toward those who disagree.

For Christian readers, the sliver of redeeming value in Morning After comes from Bowles’s underdeveloped observations of her worldview’s inability to improve the human condition.

Cracked Foundation

The New Progressive movement, according to Bowles, comes “with politics built on the idea that people are profoundly good, denatured only by capitalism, by colonialism and whiteness and heteronormativity” (xv). Its roots are in a Rousseauian concept of humanity built onto a Marxist scaffold that pits oppressor against oppressed on a treadmill of grievances.

Despite those philosophies’ perpetually bloody histories, their utopian hopes and fear of being ostracized cause some progressive journalists to turn a blind eye to excesses. As Bowles recounts, “If anything going on in the movement looked anything but perfect, the good reporter knew not to look” (xx).

Bowles reveals some of the bankruptcy of New Progressivism in her description of the decline of her hometown, San Francisco, “where every progressive idea bumping around America came to be tried out” (189). And yet, despite the city’s efforts to be good, “the reality is that with the smartest minds and so much money and the very best intentions, San Francisco became a cruel city. It became so dogmatically progressive that maintaining the purity of the politics required accepting—or at least ignoring—devastating results” (192).

In response, Bowles appeals to “common sense” (201) and “reality” (213). Her critique made me think there was some redemptive shift in progress in her thinking, but it never materializes. She never recognizes the need for an objective truth. Rather, Bowles appeals merely to personal comfort and utilitarian calculus toward an undefined concept of “good.”

She never recognizes the need for an objective truth. Rather, Bowles appeals merely to personal comfort and utilitarian calculus toward an undefined concept of ‘good.’

Meanwhile, by her account, tent cities filled with activists demand the abolition of the police. Yet the activists have to create their own armed security squads to enforce community norms. Additionally, supposedly good activists so frequently lash out against their neighbors—even those who provide material support to them—that, because of the diminished police engagement, “there are twice as many private security guards in America today as there were twenty years ago” (112). The breadcrumbs lead down an obvious path, but Bowles doesn’t follow the trail far. And yet, careful readers will see where the path leads.

Toward the end of the book, Bowles recognizes that what she witnessed “is just the human condition. . . . Liberalism, tolerance, living among and working with people we disagree with? That is what is completely unnatural” (236). However, other than lamenting the movement’s tendency to “eat its own” (234), she basically ends where she starts. She still seems to believe that, despite its rotten fruit, the ideas of New Progressivism are basically good as long as they aren’t taken too far. She argues, “The movement fell apart because of how fully it succeeded” (237). Or, maybe, it fell apart because its foundation is cracked.

Illuminating the Dark

The book is likely to gain some traction in politically conservative circles because it throws an egg on the face of the cultural left. But the real value is that it reveals the cracks in a worldview that can let the light of the gospel through.

The real value of this book is that it reveals the cracks in a worldview that can let the light of the gospel through.

Beneath her accounts of the movement’s excesses, we see a deep desire for redemption and for a sense that cultural sins can be propitiated. Yet New Progressivism offers no hope because it misunderstands the human condition.

In contrast, Christianity teaches that humans aren’t as bad as they could be (common grace) but that every aspect of culture is affected by sin (total depravity). These fundamental truths explain why the utopian visions of New Progressivism can never work. Moreover, they reveal the problem is supernatural, which means it can’t ultimately be overcome by better policies and character education. Those measures can help, but humanity needs a radical renewal that only comes through God’s power. The gospel offers that renewal. Christians have the best explanation for the problem and the only real solution to it.

Books like Morning After the Revolution are useful when they reveal the God-shaped hole in the human heart. If Christians are attentive, we’ll read books like this to equip us to communicate the gospel in a way that shines the light of grace through the cracks of a fractured worldview.

Hope for Struggling Christians During Pride Month Fri, 31 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Pride Month can provoke questions about your worth. But what the world thinks of you, and what you think of yourself, isn’t as important as what God thinks of you.]]> June is Pride Month. For some, that means nothing. For others, it means everything. And for many Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction, the hurricane of emotions is precarious to navigate. Rainbow propaganda floods our streets and screens, tempting some to wonder if “love is love” after all.

Because of the spiritually treacherous terrain many face, I’d like to offer six encouragements to help Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction to persevere in putting to death sinful desires and holding to a biblical sexual ethic.

1. Soak in Scripture.

Nothing is more important for children of God than to hear from their heavenly Father, especially during an extreme spiritual attack. This month, millions of voices will attempt to tell you how to think. That’s why it’s dangerous to neglect your Bible. Heed the command of Romans 12:2: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God.”

The world wants to make you callous toward your Creator. God’s will is to conform you to his glorious image (Col. 3:10). Jesus says feasting on God’s Word is as essential to your spiritual survival as eating food is to your physical survival (Matt. 4:4). Child of God, turn up the volume on your Bible reading this month so you can hear your heavenly Father’s voice.

Spend extra time at his feet (Luke 10:38–42). Guard your time with him as you’d guard your most precious possessions. Don’t just survey Scripture; soak in it. Hear his promises. Heed his warnings. Trust his assurances. Memorize sections that stir your soul. Discuss what you’re reading with Christian friends. If there’s ever a time you need to feast on God’s Word, it’s now.

2. Shut off the world.

As you turn up your heavenly Father’s voice, mute the father of lies. Satan is a deceiver, and the world is his megaphone. Everywhere you look, colorful symbols call you to reconsider your commitment to Jesus. Celebrations of sin assure you that anything other than affirmation is oppression. Social media parades before your eyes the lie that true freedom is found outside the bounds of your heavenly Father’s loving law.

The world wants to make you callous toward your Creator. God’s will is to conform you to his glorious image.

Fasting from worldly influences should be a normal part of the Christian life. Embrace it this month. Be vigilant to shut off the world’s influence. Ask a friend to change your social media passwords to reduce the influx of deceptive messages. Abstain from shows that provoke unhealthy romantic feelings or sexual indulgence. If your company hosts Pride celebrations and you find them tempting, consider taking vacation days off. If old friends invite you to compromising parties, don’t go. Your sinful flesh only gets stronger when you feed it. So starve it by keeping your heavenly calling in view.

3. Surround yourself with godly Christian friends.

One of the most appealing qualities of the LGBT+ movement is the community. The LGBT+ family welcomes those who feel misunderstood and marginalized. Tales of painful pasts are met with open arms. Fierce loyalty defends each person’s right to self-expression without judgment or correction. It’s a “found family” with the “love is love” banner as their rallying point.

But not all “love” is love. Freedom isn’t found in doing all we desire. God is love, and he gives definition to true human love so we won’t be deceived by counterfeits. True love never harms another person’s relationship with God. Love leads people toward the true Jesus, not away from him.

This is why you must surround yourself with godly Christian friends who’ll encourage you to keep trusting Jesus without compromising what his Word declares. This month, fill your time with friends from your church who love Jesus. Share your story with them. Ask them to pray with you. Express your vulnerabilities and share why talking with them is scary. Sing together. Spend time outside together. Laugh, play games, and enjoy hobbies together.

Satan wants to trap you into thinking your life is empty. But when a different community looks inviting, godly Christian friends can help you weather the storm by pointing you to the only One who can fulfill your heart’s longings.

4. Shut down self-pity.

Following Jesus is costly. He tells any who follow him they must lose their lives to gain true life (Matt. 16:25). This is why self-pity’s whispers can be so tempting. You may begin to think about how difficult Jesus’s path is or about how much you’ve given up to follow him. You may think of the pain that comes with dying to desires and surrendering the hope of a “normal” life.

Guard yourself from self-pity. Though your struggle may be unique, the Christian life is costly for all. Everyone who follows Jesus is called to give up his or her entire life. And we’re called to trust he’s worth it: That his presence is more precious. That his encouragement is more enlivening. That his joy and peace cannot be taken away.

We’ve been taught to sing, “Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay; from His own fullness all He takes away.” Shut down self-pity by seeing Jesus as supremely precious.

5. Stay near the cross.

Pride Month can provoke questions about your worth. But what the world thinks of you, and what you think of yourself, isn’t as important as what God thinks of you. How do you know what God thinks of you? Look at the cross. There you’ll see his love for you on full display.

On the cross, God’s love for sinners like you and me is unveiled for all to behold. Our record of debt has been nailed to the cross. Now God declares that because of Christ, every believer is loved and forgiven (Col. 2:13–15).

Pride Month can provoke questions about your worth. But what the world thinks of you, and what you think of yourself, isn’t as important as what God thinks of you.

God isn’t ashamed of you (Heb. 2:11). Your condemnation has been canceled (Rom. 8:1). Your shame and guilt are gone (Ps. 103:12). Your faults are forgotten (Heb. 8:12). Your sins have been drowned at the bottom of the sea (Mic. 7:19). Wasted years can be restored (Joel 2:25).

Keep your eyes on the cross of Christ, and be assured you’re more than your sinful desires. Jesus isn’t withholding good from you. You are beloved, saved, sealed, and kept by the God of the universe. He doesn’t offer you less than the world does but more and better love than the world can offer.

6. See the rainbow rightly.

You’ll certainly see more rainbows during June. When you do, remember what the rainbow really means. Long before the LGBT+ community used the rainbow to communicate their message, it belonged to God, and he was sending a different message.

After God’s flood of judgment (Gen. 6–8), he gave a sign to Noah and all who would come after him. That sign? A rainbow. God told Noah, “I have set my bow in the cloud” (9:13). The word “bow” is the same word for the instrument of war ancient archers used to shoot down their enemies. When God set the rainbow in the sky, he declared with blazing colors, “I am retiring my weapon of war against you.”

God didn’t hang up his bow because humanity ceased sinning but because God delights in extending mercy. It was a banner of hope, declaring not that we can do whatever we want but that God gives mercy to undeserving sinners like you and me. Every time you see a rainbow in the sky, on a screen, or on a sign, remember what it really means. God has mercy on you despite your sin. Let the rainbow point you to Jesus who died for your sin and rose to help you live in true freedom.

As you put each of these encouragements into practice, remember a day is fast approaching when sin and temptation shall be no more. The celebration of Pride will give way to a celebration of the humble One who died and rose so we might truly live.

Keep your eyes on Jesus, dear saint; we’re almost home.

How the Legal System Enabled—and Will Curtail—the Transgender Movement Thu, 30 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 The laws that support and promote the transgender movement are a fragile network.]]> As the number of children identifying as transgender has increased enormously, the gender debate has taken center stage in the American culture war. How did we get here?

For years, the answer has evaded many—but not for lack of trying. In the quest to understand the transgender boom, many wide-ranging theories have surfaced, focusing on social progress, coping mechanisms in adolescent development, social media, and even the massive profits for healthcare providers.

But these theories often overlook one factor: the law.

Transgender Conveyor Belt

Recently, my colleague Luke Goodrich at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty outlined what he calls the “Transgender Conveyor Belt”—a complex network of state and federal laws that pressures children toward gender transition and contributes to the explosive rise in children identifying as transgender.

It works like this:

  • Step 1: As early as pre-K, schools begin teaching children to question their gender identity.
  • Step 2: For those children who begin to question their identity, teachers must not only affirm the child’s transition—with new pronouns, clothes, and bathrooms—but also hide it from parents.
  • Step 3: If parents learn about their child’s new gender identity, the law prohibits them from seeking professional counseling that would help the child become comfortable with his or her biological sex.
  • Step 4: At this point, for parents who continue to resist, the state threatens to take custody away.
  • Step 5: Now that the child is well on the way to transitioning, the government guarantees access to gender-transition drugs and surgery.
  • Step 6: To ensure cost is no roadblock, insurance companies must cover gender-transition procedures.

At each step, the law operates to move children down the path of gender transition. The conveyor belt is, in other words, a one-way track—and it won’t change unless the conveyor belt is challenged head-on.

Fortunately, the conveyor belt is being challenged at every step.

Conveyor Belt in the Classroom

Step 1. The transgender conveyor belt begins where children are most impressionable—in the classroom. As conveyor belt supporters explain, preschool is “the ideal time” to begin introducing subjects like “gender diversity, gender nonconformity, and gender-based oppression.”

And that’s exactly what schools have begun to do. For example, just outside our nation’s capital, the county of Montgomery in Maryland required pre-K and elementary-aged children to read controversial books that promoted transgender ideology and encouraged gender transitioning—all without parental notice or opt-out. The school board encouraged teachers to “disrupt students’ either/or thinking” about gender. To that end, one book tasked 3- and 4-year-old children to search for images from a word list that includes “intersex flag,” “[drag] queen,” “underwear,” and the name of a celebrated LGBT+ activist and sex worker.

At first, the school board assured parents they’d be able to opt their children out of this instruction. But it later inexplicably withdrew that right—making these books the only part of the school’s curriculum that parents cannot opt children out of for religious reasons.

With the Becket Fund’s help, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian families sued Montgomery County to restore their parental religious liberty rights to opt their children out. Unfortunately, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled for Montgomery County. As a result, the religious parents will ask the Supreme Court to protect their parental religious liberty rights later this summer.

Step 2. It doesn’t end there. Some school districts have pushed further, requiring teachers not only to affirm a child’s new gender identity—with new pronouns, clothes, and bathrooms—but also to hide the transition from parents.

That’s what California did to Jessica Konen. According to the lawsuit, several teachers and administrators secretly (without telling Jessica) worked to convince Jessica’s daughter she was transgender. After succeeding, they created a personal gender support plan and supplied her with new pronouns and clothes. This plan even instructed her to hide the transition from her mother because, according to the school, Jessica couldn’t be trusted.

As a result, Jessica didn’t learn about her daughter’s transition until the next year—when her daughter eventually felt comfortable sharing her new identity. Yet even after being confronted, the school confirmed it would continue to refer to and treat Jessica’s daughter as a boy. So Jessica sued the school district for violating her parental rights, after which the district paid her $100,000 to settle the case.

On the flip side, however, states like California and New Jersey are suing local school districts for telling parents like Jessica that their child is transitioning.

Conveyor Belt in the Home

Step 3. After parents learn about their child’s transition, the conveyor belt leaves them powerless to do much. That’s because 22 states and more than 100 local governments have adopted counseling censorship laws, which prohibit parents from getting counseling services designed to help their children become comfortable with their biological sex.

Essentially, these laws make it illegal for counselors to talk to children about behavior that aligns with their biological sex, which can even prohibit discussion of the underlying issues causing the child’s discomfort. Because of these laws, counselors must affirm a child’s transition.

Parents and counselors have challenged these laws with mixed results. For example, in Otto v. City of Boca Raton, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that the First Amendment “does not allow communities to determine how their neighbors may be counseled about matters of sexual orientation or gender.”

But the Ninth Circuit reached the opposite conclusion in Tingley v. Ferguson. There, the court ruled that counseling censorship laws address “professional speech,” which means the government can implement them to “protect the physical and psychological well-being of its minors.”

Although the Supreme Court ultimately declined to review the Tingley decision, several justices signaled interest in taking a case like this in the future.

Step 4. Any parents who continue to resist their child’s transition risk losing custody altogether.

That’s what happened to Catholic parents Mary and Jeremy Cox in Indiana. After someone reported that the couple wouldn’t refer to their son by a girl’s name and pronouns, the state swooped in and took the son into foster care. What was it that made the Cox home so unsafe? They dared to seek help for their son’s existing mental health struggles rather than treat him as a girl.

Even though Indiana ultimately concluded there wasn’t any abuse or neglect, it still permanently removed Mary and Jeremy’s son from their home. The state believed the boy “should be in a home where she is [ac]cepted for who she is,” and the Indiana courts agreed. The Becket Fund then asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene, but the Court declined to help.

This is unlikely to be an isolated incident. Illinois is currently considering legislation that would make it child abuse for a parent not to support a medical transition. And Oregon, Massachusetts, Washington, and New Jersey have all rejected loving foster parents because they wouldn’t support hypothetical future gender transitions.

Conveyor Belt in the Doctor’s Office

Steps 5 and 6. Finally, now that both children and parents have been pushed toward a gender transition, the conveyor belt reaches its endgame—medical transition.

Recently, Biden finalized a new rule that requires doctors and hospitals to guarantee access to gender-transition drugs and surgery, regardless of their religious beliefs. The rule also requires insurance companies to cover these experimental procedures.

Although this is frightening, the good news is that Biden’s transgender mandate isn’t likely to succeed. It’s the second attempt to impose such a mandate—the Becket Fund defeated Obama’s earlier attempt in 2016. Courts have held that transgender mandates trample the rights of religious healthcare providers because they impose a substantial burden on the exercise of religion and can’t satisfy the strictest legal test.

Science Rejects the Conveyor Belt

While much is still to be legally decided, scientific evidence is mounting that the conveyor belt is harmful.

Last month, in “the largest review ever undertaken in the field of transgender health care,” a new report condemned the transgender practices that “remain widespread in . . . America” and debunked many widely held beliefs about transgender care. For example, the report busted the myth that puberty blockers merely “pause” sexual development and buy more “time to think.” As the report explained, puberty blockers can permanently inhibit a child’s development by preventing critical events in puberty.

In reality, the report only confirmed what many already knew: transgender procedures inflict severe (and often irreversible) harm. The child’s body, after being both “permanently and profoundly altered,” becomes “sterile”—to say nothing of the emotional trauma that can eventually lead to suicide. That’s why the United Kingdom, Sweden, and France—all former gender-affirming pioneers—are pressing the brakes on medical transitions for children.

Despite all these harms, some still argue that children “have a right to the hazards of their own free will.” But aside from being wrong, that’s cold comfort to the kids rushed down the conveyor belt only to later regret the hasty transition foisted upon them.


Although the fight is ongoing, there’s cause for hope.

The transgender conveyor belt is a fragile network that contradicts basic principles of religious freedom, free speech, parental rights, and medical science. Important victories have already been won, and through the courageous individuals who continue to stand up, there’ll no doubt be many more.

Understanding the Metamodern Mood Thu, 30 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 For Christians and church leaders, knowing what ‘metamodernism’ describes—and how it finds expression in pop culture—will be helpful for our mission. ]]> Why, when we look at contemporary pop culture—movies, music, TV, campus protests, meme culture, and TikTok (especially TikTok)—does the word “incoherence” often come to mind? Why does so much today feel random, disconnected, contradictory, aimless, and altogether void of coherent logic and purpose?

Part of it is that social media’s inherent denarratived randomness has powerfully shaped a schizophrenic cultural consciousness. We see the world as we see our scrolling feeds: one random thing after another, ephemeral and quickly forgotten, providing mild amusement and occasional resonance but without an anchoring narrative that offers lasting satisfaction. As Byung-Chul Han puts it in The Crisis of Narration, digital platforms provide “media of information, not narration. . . . The coherence from which events derive their meaning gives way to a meaningless side-by-side and one-after-the-other.”

Charles Taylor’s concept of “cross-pressures” also helps explain the situation. Contemporary people are bombarded from all directions by information, ideas, experiences, affinities, and spiritual quests—each pulling them in a different direction. Naturally, the experience of cross-pressured life (and its artistic expression) tends to be dizzying, conflicted, and incoherent.

One term academics, artists, and critics have started to use to explain what’s going on is “metamodernism.” For Christians and church leaders, knowing what this term describes—and especially how it finds expression in pop culture—will be helpful for our mission.

Metamodernism: What It Is

Metamodernism is what came after postmodernism, which is what came after modernism. If postmodernism cynically reacts against and deconstructs modernism, metamodernism reacts against modernism and postmodernism, affirming and critiquing aspects of both. Metamodernism opposes the “either/or” bifurcation of modernism and postmodernism. It refuses to choose between sincerity/certainty/hope (modernism) and irony/deconstruction/nihilism (postmodernism). It values both, even if—or perhaps precisely because—such a synthesis is, in the end, illogical and incoherent. Metamodernism accepts this incoherence because it values mood and affect (how I’m feeling / what I’m resonating with) more than rigid logic.

If this seems like a “have your cake and eat it too” philosophy, that’s sort of the point. Shaped by the endless, have-it-your-way horizons of the internet (a structural multiverse of innumerable “truths”), metamodernism is a worldview as wide open and consumer friendly as the smartphone. Take or leave what you want, follow or unfollow, swipe right or left: it’s your iWorld, so make it a good one.

Metamodernism is a worldview as wide open and consumer friendly as the smartphone. Take or leave what you want, follow or unfollow, swipe right or left: it’s your iWorld, so make it a good one.

The nice academic term for metamodernism’s hyperconsumerist, bespoke toggling between seemingly contradictory ideas is “oscillation.” The metamodern outlook constantly oscillates between the poles of modernism and postmodernism. This has the effect of making the metamodern posture impossible to pin down and ultimately hyperindividualistic. Each person, in any given moment, might swing multiple times between deconstruction and construction, truth and relativism. It seems to depend only on a vague mood disposition mixed with a cautious sense of avoiding “all-in” commitment to any one direction.

Here’s how one writer describes it:

Metamodernism considers that our era is characterized by an oscillation between aspects of both modernism and postmodernism. We see this manifest as a kind of informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, a moderate fanaticism, oscillating between sincerity and irony, deconstruction and construction, apathy and affect, attempting to attain some sort of transcendent position, as if such a thing were within our grasp. The metamodern generation understands that we can be both ironic and sincere in the same moment; that one does not necessarily diminish the other.

This last oscillation—between irony and sincerity—is especially noticeable when you start to look at contemporary pop culture.

Metamodernism in Movies

The best analysis I’ve seen on metamodernism in movies is a video essay by media critic Thomas Flight (embedded below). It’s long (about 40 minutes) but well worth the time if you’d like to learn how the cerebral concepts of metamodernism show up in concrete ways in contemporary movies.

Flight highlights Top Gun: Maverick as an example of a recent “modernist” film and gives an array of examples of “postmodernist” films (Pulp Fiction, No Country for Old Men). Among his examples of “metamodern” movies are the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019), Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans (2022), and most of Wes Anderson’s filmography. These movies are characterized both by postmodern reflexivity (self-aware movies about the artifice of movies) and sincere appreciation for real, uncynical emotional encounters, both a postmodern suspicion of narrative optimism and an unabashed desire for the possibility of a “Hollywood ending.”

Three Recent Examples

Once you understand metamodernism, you start to see it everywhere in movies and TV. Here are a few examples of “metamodern movies” from the last year.

1. The Fall Guy (2024)

This recent Ryan Gosling action blockbuster epitomizes metamodernism. The “movie within a movie” plot follows a stunt man (Gosling) who, while on a film set in Australia, gets tied up in real-life peril as well as real-life romance (with Emily Blunt, who plays a film director). The Fall Guy is heavy on postmodern reflexivity and constant self-referential jokes about Hollywood. It’s hyperaware of its artifice.

And yet the film’s central romance is sweet and sincere and appeals to the audience’s nostalgic hunger for earnest, straightforward love stories in movies. In the film’s (spoiler alert) happily-ever-after ending, Gosling says, “What we got is even better than the movies.” The ending is simultaneously sincere and ironic, playfully acknowledging its “Hollywood ending” cheesiness, even as it gives audiences permission to sincerely love and desire such an ending.

2. Love at First Sight (2023)

This Netflix rom-com was a hit with audiences last fall, likely because it embodies the metamodern approach to ironic but sincere romance. The film follows a young woman and young man who meet on a flight to London and, you guessed it, fall in love. The Hallmark-esque plot is unabashedly cheesy but knows it, and this is the key.

The film is just self-aware enough to make it palatable to metamodern audiences who’d otherwise find its love story too naive. The film’s postmodern street cred is reinforced when one character regularly breaks the fourth wall, speaking to the audience in a wink-wink way. Yet this ironic detachment is interspersed with heaps of sincerity and real moments of emotional affect. “We know love stories like this don’t happen in real life,” the film communicates. “But it feels good and right to desire that they do.”

3. Barbie (2023)

Greta Gerwig’s record-breaking blockbuster showcases the “OK with incoherence” nature of metamodernism. The film constantly oscillates between detached, ironic self-awareness (“Yes, we know how ridiculous it is to take seriously a movie about plastic dolls”) and earnest attempts at meaningful reflection (“How might we see ourselves in Barbie’s and Ken’s existential conundrums?”).

As I wrote last summer, Barbie is disorienting yet “at ease in its contradictions.” I found the film unsatisfying due to its incoherent, “have my cake and eat it too” approach to questions of gender. But clearly, most audiences didn’t mind. Indeed, Barbie’s box-office dominance is the clearest signal yet that metamodernism has gone mainstream—and needs to be taken seriously.

Metamodernism’s Implications for the Church

Much more needs to be written about metamodernism’s implications for culture and Christianity, and I hope to revisit these questions in subsequent essays. But for now, here are two brief reflections on the “so what?” of this admittedly cerebral concept: one observation of concern and one reason to be encouraged.

1. Aversion to Logic and ‘Adjusted to Incoherence’

I’ve long been haunted by a phrase Neil Postman used in his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death to describe the way television had eroded our logical faculties: we’d become “adjusted to incoherence.” How much more is this the case in the social media era? And this is indeed what metamodernism reflects.

Metamoderns have become so adjusted to incoherence that they no longer recognize inconsistencies and seem not to mind art, politics, philosophies, and activism rife with internal contradictions. This explains the illogical phenomenon of “woke jihad” that has become ubiquitous on college campuses of late: kaffiyeh-clad hipsters who denounce the patriarchy and promote LGBT+ equality even as they declare solidarity with patriarchal, anti-LGBT Islamist terrorists.

Metamoderns have become so adjusted to incoherence that they no longer recognize inconsistencies and seem not to mind art, politics, philosophies, and activism rife with internal contradictions.

This is but one of countless examples of our adjusted-to-incoherence culture, which shows up in metamodernism’s oscillation between contradictory ideas (can you really believe in both absolute truth and relativism?).

The biggest challenge here is that many metamoderns don’t flinch when their illogical views are pointed out. They aren’t bothered by the internal incoherence of their contradictory stances. This will no doubt pose new challenges to Christian pastors, church leaders, evangelists, and apologists: How do we disciple people toward a coherent, consistently biblical view of the world when they’re increasingly at ease in whatever contradictions best suit them?

2. Real Desire for Meaning and Certainty

Likely because metamodernism is fundamentally subjective, it contains within it an awareness of subjectivity’s limits. Relativism won’t ultimately satisfy. There has to be more than me and my oscillating mood.

This is why the certainty and optimism of modernism appeals. Metamodern people have seen the unsustainability of postmodern deconstruction, and they desire construction. They want to believe problems can be solved and progress can be made. Even as they’re suspicious of absolute truth in theory, their existential reality leads them to desire it. After all, to construct anything, one must have foundations.

It’s here that Christians can find a hopeful inroad with metamodern seekers. Insofar as our faith offers solid foundations and, as a result, demonstrates ongoing construction in a world of deconstruction, it holds natural appeal. The church is well positioned to meet people in the acedia of postmodernity’s afterglow and invite them into a time-tested community of truth, growth, and purposeful mission.

Fall in Love with the Old Testament Wed, 29 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 ‘Delighting in the Old Testament’ is a first-rate guide to reading and understanding Scripture’s full testimony and its fulfillment in Jesus. Pastors, students, and church leaders will benefit greatly from this book as they continue to read the whole Bible with believing eyes.]]> According to a 2019 Pew Research study, evangelical pastors are about 27 percent more likely to reference the New Testament than the Old Testament in a given sermon. Though the Old Testament makes up about three-quarters of all Scripture, far too many Christians neglect reading and studying it. As a result, they fail to see the richness of the Bible’s story and its full witness to Christ’s glories.

Jason S. DeRouchie’s central aim in Delighting in the Old Testament: Through Christ and for Christ is to help Christians see Jesus as they read the Old Testament faithfully.

He writes, “Jesus’s saving work supplies the spiritual light that enables one’s spiritual senses to see and savor rightly, and his saving work provides the interpretive lens for properly understanding and applying the Old Testament itself in a way that most completely magnifies God in Christ” (66). He brings readers along on a journey of rediscovering the theological significance and trajectory of the Old Testament, centered on Christ and culminating in his work on the cross.

Redemptive-Historical Christocentric Hermeneutic

Accordingly, DeRouchie, professor of Old Testament and biblical theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, proposes a redemptive-historical Christocentric interpretation of the Old Testament. This approach to Scripture “requires that we consider every text in view of its close, continuing, and complete contexts within Scripture as a whole to fully discern what God meant in any passage” (73).

Some Christocentric readings of the Old Testament unintentionally distort the author’s intended meaning by turning all texts into word pictures that somehow foreshadow and predict Jesus’s person and work. In contrast, DeRouchie offers a more exegetical approach without allegorical or artificial manipulation: “By Christocentric I mean that our biblical interpretation and application must in some way be tied to the cross for it to be Christian (1 Cor. 2:2). I also mean that we are to interpret Scripture through Christ and for Christ” (73).

Thus, this isn’t a book about looking for appearances of Jesus in the Old Testament, as if every verse must contain a hidden allusion to Christ for it to be Christocentric. Rather, it’s about how the Bible’s message is centered on Jesus. Everything in the Old Testament leads up to Christ’s incarnation; his fulfillment of its law, types, and shadows; and his work of redemption on the cross. There’s a big difference between finding Jesus in the Old Testament through hidden allusions versus seeing Jesus in the Old Testament through progressive revelation.

Old Testament as Christian Scripture

DeRouchie argues from Luke 24, John 5, and other texts that the adjective “Christian” should characterize all of Scripture since the Old Testament is about Christ, for Christ, and written for believers in Christ. All evangelicals believe that the Old Testament is Scripture, but some hold it at arm’s length.

There’s a big difference between finding Jesus in the Old Testament through hidden allusions versus seeing Jesus in the Old Testament through progressive revelation.

The way Jesus and the apostles treat the text makes clear that the Old Testament is Christian Scripture. When we ensure all Scripture remains hitched together, we avoid the Marcionite heresy. We also avoid antinomian tendencies and promote the Bible’s unity in a way that doesn’t discount its diversity and its lasting significance for believers.

Still, DeRouchie may slightly overstate his case when he claims the whole Old Testament is about Christ. Jesus says in Luke 24:44, for example, that there are many things written about him in the Law, Prophets, and Psalms that must be fulfilled. But he doesn’t say everything written in the Law, Prophets, and Psalms is about him. Similarly, Jesus’s post-resurrection hermeneutic interprets in all the Old Testament “the things concerning himself” (v. 27), but he never says every Old Testament text concerns himself.

Nearly every New Testament text about Christ in the Old Testament has some qualification about its scope (cf. John 5:39, 46; Acts 26:22–23). Yes, the Old Testament anticipates and culminates in Christ (Matt. 5:17–18). Yes, all the promises of God in Christ are yes and amen (2 Cor. 1:20). Yes, the types and shadows of the Old Testament find their substance in Christ (Col. 2:16–17). But does this mean the whole Old Testament is about Christ?

We need to be careful not to overstate our case, because readers might take the application too far. However, this is an intramural debate, where friendly discussion about degrees of continuity are healthy. Considering adjacent perspectives helps sharpen our own thinking and identify common ground. DeRouchie is right to delight that Christ stands as the goal and end of all the Old Testament’s hopes, pictures, and patterns.

Law vs. Gospel

If the Old Testament is Christian Scripture, how do we apply the law? Debate about the relationship between the law and the gospel is perennial. This question has special significance in light of the renewed emphasis on theonomy among proponents of Christian nationalism.

In general, theonomists assert that God defines justice most clearly in the Mosaic law, which should be the central guiding principle for both church and society. DeRouchie is quick to agree that God’s definition of justice informs all spheres of life, but he critiques theonomy—and by extension Christian nationalism—because it places too much importance on the threefold division of the law (moral, civil, ceremonial). Theonomy also assumes too much continuity between the old and new covenants, while it “fails to distinguish laws and justice that Christ would approve (appropriate for nation-states) from a politic under Christ’s leadership (something only realized in the church)” (221).

DeRouchie is right to delight that Christ stands as the goal and end of all the Old Testament’s hopes, pictures, and patterns.

DeRouchie navigates this issue by arguing that the Mosaic law doesn’t directly bind Christians in a legal manner. However, “we treat all the Old Testament laws as profitable and instructive when we read them through the lens of Christ” (193). The law remains both pedagogical and revelatory, which DeRouchie explains in detail in several chapters.

Delighting in the Old Testament is a first-rate guide to reading and understanding Scripture’s full testimony and its fulfillment in Jesus. DeRouchie lays a foundation for Old Testament hermeneutics like a skilled master builder. He reminds us of the gift God has given us in all of Scripture. Pastors, students, and church leaders will benefit greatly from this book as they continue to read the whole Bible with believing eyes.

Does Your Church Have a Narthex Mentality? Wed, 29 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Churches can transform an overlooked space into a context for biblical community building.]]> Community. It seems to be the word of the day. In a culture that increasingly relies on digital connections, churches seek ways to help people build meaningful and supportive in-person relationships.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but a tool under our noses could be useful in this seemingly elusive endeavor. It’s nothing glitzy or glamorous. It’s not cutting-edge or unique. It’s so unbelievably ordinary that it brings to mind bathrooms and bulletins and babies who won’t be quieted. But it’s a physical space that has the capacity to hold great spiritual significance for a church community. Get ready for it.

It’s the lobby. Or in some churches, it’s called the narthex.

My family and I recently moved our membership from a large church with a long corridor to a much smaller one with no corridor at all. I couldn’t help but notice our interactions with fellow churchgoers changed drastically with the move. We went from 15–20 quick hellos in passing to one or two longer conversations each Sunday, and I had a hunch as to why.

Perhaps a church’s architectural footprint influences the way congregants move through the building and therefore has a bearing on how they interact with one another. Winston Churchill put it well when he said, “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.”

Designed with Purpose

I took my thoughts and questions about the relationship between buildings and community to architects Carter Hord and Scott Fleming, both based in Memphis, Tennessee, and both at the helms of their own architecture firms. Hord Architects has designed over 300 church-related spaces, and 4FDesign (Fleming’s firm) has worked with many Christian denominations as well as Jewish synagogues over four decades.

A church’s architectural footprint influences the way congregants move through the building and has a bearing on how they interact.

Hord started by sharing some history behind old European churches. There was always a plaza or piazza with tables, benches, and chairs, offered to the broader community as a gathering place. It was the church’s gift to the community, and Christians and non-Christians alike spent time in the piazza. By doing so, they were offered the shade of the church’s grand facade in which to rest.

On the start of a service, however, those wishing to worship left the piazza and entered the church’s front door, walking into the narthex. “The narthex,” Hord said, “is the interstitial space between the secular and the sacred. It’s where we leave the secular world behind and greet one another as a community of Christ-followers, intentionally administering grace to one another before going into the sacred space in which we worship God as one body of believers.”

Fleming agreed and added, “There again, just after worship, we convene as a congregation in the narthex to catch our breath before we head back out into the secular world and engage the Great Commission.”

How a Narthex Can Build Community

Before these conversations, I’d never considered the spiritual significance of the lobby as I came and went from worship. Merely having this pointed out to me has—in no time—created a more grace-filled heart posture as I approach this preworship and postworship pass-through. I look to connect in ways far beyond a quick “How was your holiday?” simply by understanding the intention behind the architectural design.

If your church has a narthex, consider explaining its architectural significance to the congregation occasionally. This might look like an extra paragraph in the bulletin, an interesting tidbit in the welcome part of the service, or even a sign in the narthex itself. A simple explanation can transform an overlooked space into a context for biblical community building. Consider these three ways to intentionally use the narthex.

Courteous Reception

Of course, not every person entering a narthex will be a church member or even a Christ-follower. This important space is where we offer friendly reception and hospitality as we’re called to in 1 Peter 4:9. Often, people who aren’t members walk in with a level of insecurity, nervous about whether they’ll be welcomed or if people will wonder why they’ve even come.

The word “hospitality” is closely linked to the word “hospital.” Jesus is the Great Physician, and when we open our church doors to guests, our job, like that of medical staff, is to care for them as they move toward Christ. The narthex is often where church guests feel the love of Christ for the first time and where hospitality can encourage them to keep seeking to know more about Christ and his church.

Communal Reconciliation

Relational conflicts are an unfortunate side effect of sin in church communities. Some fractures are deep and need to be mended in private over time. But others can be sorted out when we see one another on Sundays. The narthex has the potential to become known as a place where two people at odds with one another can find peace through confession and forgiveness before worship.

At first glance, this may seem far-fetched. But this is what’s called for in Matthew 5:23–24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” The narthex is ready and waiting for just such an occasion.

Collective Recalibration

A narthex can serve as a physical space where people offer one another personal encouragement to live in light of an eternal perspective. Hebrews 10:24–25 says, “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”

As a body of believers, we’re called to encourage each other to recalibrate our temporal thinking and move toward an eternal mindset as we apply Scripture’s truth to our specific situations. Once again, the narthex provides valuable real estate for this important preworship and postworship endeavor.

Hebrews tells us the temptation to neglect meeting in person has always been around. But our physical presence in a physical building with other physical beings has value both to us and to others. Caring for one another with reminders that this world isn’t our home is part of our God-given purpose for meeting regularly.

No Narthex? What Then?

But what if a church doesn’t have a narthex? What if a church meets in a school cafeteria, a home, a college auditorium, or an office basement? For many congregations worldwide, their physical meeting place doesn’t allow for a narthex. Still, the architectural insight of the narthex can help a congregation craft an intentional time before and after worship where attendees are welcomed and blessed as they come and go.

The architectural insight of the narthex can help a congregation craft an intentional time where attendees are blessed as they come and go.

A friend in Central Asia attends a church where they create a “narthex mentality” by how they structure their schedule. The advertised start time is 10:30 a.m. From 10:30–11:00, the church serves (good!) coffee and snacks outside the front door. It’s considered part of attending worship to come together as a congregation before singing, praying, and hearing from God’s Word. This time offers opportunities for the same things a narthex would: reception of guests, reconciliation between members, and recalibration for everyone. The service that meets later in the day offers sandwiches after church, with 30 minutes built in for communing before reentering the world.

The structures of our spaces and schedules can be important considerations in building community within our churches. Whether we meet in a cathedral or a cafeteria, may we remind one another, as we come and as we go, of the presence of Christ that is now and always will be with us as his people (Matt. 18:20).

How to Nominate a Book for TGC’s 2024 Book Awards Tue, 28 May 2024 04:03:00 +0000 Publishers, here’s how you can nominate books for TGC’s 2024 book awards.]]> Dear publishers,

Each year at The Gospel Coalition we review or spotlight more than 200 books, culminating with our annual book awards where we select winners in the following 11 categories:

  • Popular Theology: Translates theological concepts for the average church member
  • Cultural Apologetics: Investigates current events and cultural narratives to consider how they intersect with the truth, goodness, and beauty of the gospel
  • Biblical Studies (Academic): Covers the academic disciplines related to New Testament, Old Testament, hermeneutics, and biblical theology
  • Theological Studies (Academic): Focuses on academic exploration of disciplines related to systematic theology, philosophy, or ethics
  • Ministry: Focuses on pastoral practice, evangelism, ecclesiology, and apologetic methods for the local church
  • History & Biography: Explores events or individuals who have shaped our world
  • Christian Living: Provides practical tools to encourage discipleship and sanctification in various areas of life
  • Children’s (Picture Books): Aimed at early readers or prereaders and combines illustration and language to communicate deep truths about the Christian faith
  • First-Time Author: Fits into any of the categories but is written by an author who hasn’t previously published a book
  • Devotional Literature: Intended to be engaged incrementally as a means of encouraging discipleship
  • Missions & the Global Church: Emphasizes the ongoing or historical work of God outside North America

Per TGC’s foundation documents, we seek books that meet the following criteria:

1. offers gospel-centered argument and application;

2. includes faithful and foundational use of Scripture, both Old Testament and New Testament;

3. fosters spiritual discernment of contemporary trials and trends; and

4. encourages efforts to unite and renew the church.

Books selected for an award will be featured at our 2025 TGC Conference in Indianapolis (April 22–24, 2025). (See the 2023 award winners.)

Publishers can submit up to two books per category; they can also nominate the same book in multiple categories, though no book will be chosen in more than one category.

Please notice that some categories have shifted this year. For example, we will not evaluate group or individual Bible study materials this year.

We will only consider titles published between January 1, 2024, and December 31, 2024, and only titles published in the United States. The deadline for publisher nominations is Friday, July 5.

There is a $50 entry fee for each title nominated (in each category). To help streamline this process, we’ve set up an online form that will allow each publisher to nominate books online and submit all payments at the same time. Entry fees are nonrefundable. (Note that you can only submit up to 10 books in each form, though you can submit multiple forms.)

Once nominations are submitted on the form, please email a PDF of each title to BookAwards [AT] (If the file size is too large, please send a link to Dropbox.) We may request physical copies of the books to facilitate the initial judging process.

If your book is selected as a finalist, your publicist will be informed by Friday, August 23. Physical copies (even galleys or ARCs) will be requested for finalists.

We will announce the winners near the end of the year.

My Friend, Randy Newman (1956–2024) Tue, 28 May 2024 04:02:17 +0000 Matt Lietzen remembers his friend Randy Newman, the author of many books on evangelism and apologetics.]]> I’m profoundly saddened by the passing of Randy Newman (1956–2024). When news of his death became public, it was touching to see how many people expressed their thankfulness for and appreciation of Randy’s ministry.

Many knew him as an author or a senior fellow at the C. S. Lewis Institute; others were shaped by his teaching as a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary; still others enjoyed a deeper friendship marked by curiosity, encouragement, and laughter.

I thank God I had the privilege to know Randy in each of these capacities.


My first exposure to Randy was through his book Questioning Evangelism (2003), where he modeled Jesus’s posture in using questions to draw out a questioner’s deeper concerns and objections to Christianity. Writing during the height of the New Atheism movement, Randy added a needed voice to the apologetics conversation—not by returning their strident rhetoric about Christian belief with his own sarcastic language but by asking questions.

He was adept at turning a question designed to pin Christians down into an opportunity to have a substantial conversation, all because he saw that questions were a mirror of the questioner’s heart.

Although Randy wrote the book on asking questions (which was republished in a third edition in 2023), his real strength was his ability to listen. Randy’s final book, Questioning Faith, was the product of insights he’d gathered from hundreds of conversations he had with new believers about how they came to faith. He was a present conversationalist whose gift was never asking a close-ended question. Randy would happily sit and listen to you as if you were the only other human on the planet. His ability to make you feel seen was a gift to many, and I’m confident that was what made him such a fruitful evangelist.

His ability to make you feel seen was a gift to many, and I’m confident that was what made him such a fruitful evangelist.


Randy was the consummate encourager, and I became aware of this in perhaps one of the most unlikely environments: seminary. Many Christians lack confidence in sharing their faith and so taking a class on evangelism with an “expert evangelist” could be intimidating.

Where he could have guilted or coerced his students to share their faith, Randy instead led with humility and courage: he would be the first to admit he had squandered evangelistic moments, but his joy in Christ would propel him (and us) to continually try and try again, resting in the truth of God’s sovereignty through—and even in spite of—our evangelistic giftings.

One thing Randy would remind us of again and again in our class was that people who become Christians will often need dozens of interactions with the gospel and several relationships with followers of Jesus. Even if we feel our evangelistic skill is lacking, our friendship with nonbelievers is nonetheless vital in their lives. Conversion involves a change of heart, but it also coincides with a change of relationships, and God rarely brings about the former without the latter. So Randy encouraged us without ceasing to not view non-Christians as projects to complete but as people to love.


For those who’ve read his books or heard him speak, one of the most memorable qualities about Randy was his laughter. Growing up in a Jewish family in New York, he inherited and developed a wry, witty sense of humor and an ability to laugh at himself and to point out the hilarity of the world around him.

Randy once said to me that his favorite C. S. Lewis book was The Screwtape Letters, a work of satire Lewis wrote from the perspective of a senior demon writing to a younger demon about tempting humanity. Lewis recognized humor’s power to overcome evil and the Devil. Randy embodied what it looked like to have a levity of spirit that buoyed the soul amid despair, and he’d draw on humor not to distance himself from the world or from pain, or to shield a hidden wound, but to remind him and those around him of transcendence, of that consummate fulfillment of heaven that lies at the end of every longing and desire we have.

His joy was the joy of heaven, and the time you spent with Randy made you long to possess that kind of joy for yourself. You knew that if you had what he had, you could face anything.

My Friend, Randy

It was a great privilege to know Randy as a student, a pastor, and a friend. I’ll miss our quarterly conversations about books we’re reading, what evangelistic conversations we’re having (and how to help one another have better conversations), and how Christ is shaping our lives, ministries, and relationships.

His joy was the joy of heaven, and the time you spent with Randy made you long to possess that kind of joy for yourself.

These “evangelistic accountability meetings,” as we sometimes called them, were particularly helpful. I’d ask for advice on how to talk to my retired Jewish neighbors at the dog park, and he’d ask for ideas about how to talk to the young people in the community college class he enrolled in as a way to meet nonbelievers. We’d debrief conversations, talk about the next steps we’d want to take in them, and then laugh about how people are never as predictable as we wish they’d be.

We’d end with prayer and mutual encouragement—Randy encouraging me in my work as a pastor, and me praying for his continued health and stamina to keep writing, speaking, and spending his best efforts on his wife, children, and grandchildren.

It was a great privilege to know Randy as a student, a pastor, and a friend.

When we’d get together, I’d ask Randy what he was working on. “This and that,” he’d say, but then he’d describe a book idea that he said he’d probably never get to. He wanted to write a book about music and how it plays a role in evoking the longing for another world, the world we were all made to inhabit. And though Randy will never write that book, he’s now listening to and participating in the most glorious symphony there is, in an unending chorus with his Lord.

Well done, Randy.

Promise and Exploitation: Marital Abuse in the Genesis Narrative Tue, 28 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The sad pattern holds as the gospel promise is clarified then followed by the specter of abuse.]]> The sentence “marital abuse is anti-gospel” isn’t particularly controversial. God points to marriage as the lived-out picture of Christ’s love for the people he’s redeemed (Eph. 5:22–33). A spouse exploiting the one he or she has promised to love and to cherish paints a diffrent picture than the one marriage is meant to display.

But the anti-gospel nature of marital abuse is multilayered, stretching beyond the obvious. The book of Genesis, in particular, consistently juxtaposes marital abuse and the revelation of the gospel promise. God could have picked any number of sins to highlight at the beginning of his revelation, yet he consistently points us to how the exploitation of one’s spouse is antithetical to the promise of coming redemption.

Beautiful Hope, Ominous Shadow

Genesis 3 is dismal. Adam and Eve rupture the harmony all creation enjoyed, plunging themselves and the earth into ruin. Shame, guilt, alienation, and death become their lot. Then God meets them in their self-created misery and promises that one of the woman’s offspring will one day crush the Serpent’s offspring.

Right after this ray of hope in the darkness, dark clouds loom over the husband and wife’s relationship. Marriage would now be haunted by self-seeking. God tells the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, yet he will rule over you” (v. 16, CSB). The rest of Genesis is often depicted as a struggle between the woman’s offspring and the Serpent’s offspring. But it’s also an unfolding of the dire prediction that enmity would exist within the closest of human covenants.

We don’t have to wait long before threats and oppression enter marriage. Cain’s murder of Abel headlines Genesis 4, but his descendant Lamech rounds out the chapter bragging before his wives that he’s far more violent than Cain.

John Calvin commented that Lamech’s wives were “justly alarmed” on account of his boasts, and “when he saw his wives struck with terror, instead of becoming mild, he only sharpened and confirmed himself the more in cruelty.” Calvin’s reading implies Lamech’s wives must take care—lest Lamech end them like he did the young man who struck him (vv. 23–24).

Covenant Salvation, Covenant Harm

The ascendency of the Serpent’s seed over the woman’s seed appears complete by Genesis 6: “The wickedness of man was great in the earth, and . . . every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (v. 5). God destroys all humanity save one family. Noah and his kin depart the ark into a world washed clean of evil and hear the commands of Eden repeated: “Be fruitful and multiply” (1:28; 8:17). Through that multiplication would come the Savior, the One who’d crush the Serpent.

Yet this harmony is again shattered by intimate trouble. Noah’s son Ham enters the tent of drunk and naked Noah. What exactly proceeds brings more questions than answers. But what’s clear is that some form of intimate violation occurred (cf. Lev. 18:7). Ham violates the Edenic one-flesh union, drawing out another manner in which discord and disorder have struck intimate human relationships. While Genesis 3:16 highlights the abuse that strikes marriage from within, Ham’s actions demonstrate that marital intimacy may also be harmed by outside abuse. The sad pattern holds as the gospel promise is clarified then followed by the specter of abuse.

Promised Seed, Exploited Marriage

In Genesis 12, God reveals himself to Abraham the idol worshiper and promises him that the One who’ll crush the Serpent’s head will be Abraham’s offspring. This promise is especially poignant for the still-childless Abraham. And once again, a restatement of the good news is followed in the next chapter by an incident of marital abuse.

The sad pattern holds as the gospel promise is clarified then followed by the specter of abuse.

Abraham and his wife, Sarah, are promised a child and then immediately travel to Egypt to escape a famine. There Abraham grows conspiratorial, convinced a local will kill him and take his wife. So he declares Sarah to be his sister and allows her to be taken from him and transferred to the royal harem. Immediately after receiving the gospel promise, Abraham forces his wife to submit to sexual exploitation. All to save his own skin. These actions threaten the promise because it’s through procreation that the promise was to advance. Sarah is spared only because of God’s kind intervention.

This isn’t the only time Sarah was rescued from her husband’s willingness to subject her to exploitation. Genesis 15 sees the strongest clarification of the gospel promise yet. Then God later declares Abraham will have a child with Sarah within a year (18:10), and with that promise in hand, Abraham again passes off his wife as his sister, allowing her to be taken into King Abimelech’s harem (20:1–17). Once again, God intervenes.

Abraham’s story brackets yet another awful example of abuse, with Lot offering his virgin daughters to a mob of would-be gang rapists in an attempt to prevent them from harming his male dinner guests (19:8). And in another grotesque account, these two daughters essentially rape their father by plying him with alcohol to the point he has no memory of their sexual encounter (vv. 30–38).

Pattern on Repeat

Isaac, the child promised to Abraham and Sarah, finally receives the gospel promise in Genesis 26:1–6. The very next story (vv. 7–11) finds him following his father’s example by exposing his wife to sexual exploitation to save his own life.

The second half of Genesis follows the same pattern. Jacob, son of the promise, is deceived into marrying a woman he never wanted (Gen. 29:21–27). Later, his daughter is raped by a prince, and his sons use the covenant’s sign as a weapon to destroy the perpetrator’s entire community (Gen. 34:1–31). Reuben seduces Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22), and he consequently forfeits the blessing of having the promised Savior come through his line (Gen. 49:3–4). Upright Joseph faces sexual harassment at the hands of a powerful official’s wife (Gen. 39:1–23) in Egypt—a nation whose king sits with a gold serpent perched on his crown. We see it again and again: the promise’s beauty side by side with abuse’s destruction.

So What?

Genesis consistently and repeatedly highlights marital (and other forms of intimate) abuse. These highlights follow along with the book’s advancing revelation of the gospel promise. Why is this the case, and what we can learn from it?

1. This pattern highlights the pernicious nature of intimate abuse.

To be a manipulative abuser is to act in league with the Serpent, the one whose aim is to ruin humanity. Those who persist in manipulative and abusive behaviors without repentance demonstrate they’re “of [their] father the devil” because their “will is to do [their] father’s desires” (John 8:44).

2. Genesis’s pattern warns us to take marital abuse seriously as one of the most gospel-undermining and human-damaging forms of sin.

When we see abuse within our congregations or in the lives of those we counsel, we should be moved to action. If we’re honest, the church hasn’t always taken abuse as seriously as the Scriptures show us we ought.

To be a manipulative abuser is to act in league with the Serpent, the one whose aim is to ruin humanity.

Revelations of this failure have often played out publicly, damaging our witness to the gospel’s truth and vitality. When Christian leaders defend abusers, hide claims of sexual abuse, or push abused spouses to quickly forgive and reconcile before enough time has passed for repentance to be tested as genuine, we’re in tacit alliance with the Serpent, supporting his destructive, anti-gospel mission.

The great struggle in Genesis between the woman’s offspring and the Serpent’s offspring isn’t a calm and dignified war. It’s the battle between good and evil, a drama within which evil often appears to have the upper hand. And as the pattern of Genesis clearly shows, this battle often plays out in the most intimate human relationship.

Are You Caraway or Cumin? Mon, 27 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The harsh blows we feel are, in God’s mercy and wisdom, given with all precision to produce in us the fruit he longs to see.]]> When suffering comes, we invariably ask questions. Why? Why me? Why this? The questions grow more insistent when we compare our suffering to those around us, when the stacks seem so uneven. Why do I experience chronic pain when he’s carefree? Why did my husband walk out when hers loves dotingly?

Or, when roles reverse, we ask the same questions with a tinge of survivor’s guilt: What have I done to deserve an intact family when they’ve buried three children?

These questions express a struggle to trust, an urge to understand. However, as finite creatures, we might not get it. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite, as the reformers loved to say. So what should we do with our unanswered questions? Isaiah offers help.

When we open our Bibles to Isaiah 28, we see Judah facing a brutal invasion. People clamor for answers. Will they suffer the same fate as conquered Samaria? Must the chastening, sanctifying process look exactly the same for both kingdoms?

Consider the Caraway and Cumin

Not necessarily. Isaiah interrupts his prophecy and bids the people of Judah to consider the farmer. The farmer knows how to prepare the ground. He knows how, where, and when to plant the various types of seeds (vv. 23–26). He knows exactly how to harvest each crop so as not to damage any of the fruit:

Caraway is not threshed with a sledge, nor is the wheel of a cart rolled over cumin; caraway is beaten out with a rod, and cumin with a stick. Grain must be ground to make bread; so one does not go on threshing it forever. The wheels of a threshing cart may be rolled over it, but one does not use horses to grind grain. (vv. 27–28, NIV)

Isaiah’s audience had grown caraway and cumin. They knew the tricks of the trade, the necessary differences in process. So Isaiah isn’t explaining the agricultural process to the people. Instead, he invites them (and us) to put themselves in the place of the caraway and cumin.

How bewildered they must have been amid their suffering—and how sorely tempted to ask, Why am I here? Why do I have to endure the beating? Why am I ground under the threshing cart when my neighbor gets a few gentle whacks with a stick? The answer is that the Farmer knows what he’s doing.

Consider the Farmer’s Goodness and Grace

The Farmer knows how to accomplish his goal. The confused seed may be tempted to believe the farmer aims to destroy it, but he sees the greater potential. The purposed end of the seed is the finished loaf of bread. The breaking down is the building up.

In the same way, the Lord has good and gracious purposes for his children. The farmer knows how best to bring forth fruit from the land, and the Lord knows how best to produce his spiritual fruit in us. Who is this God so working in us? He is “the LORD Almighty, whose plan is wonderful, whose wisdom is magnificent” (v. 29). We can trust the Farmer.

The farmer knows how best to bring forth fruit from the land, and the Lord knows how best to produce his spiritual fruit in us.

We have greater cause to trust, for God has displayed the fullness of his love, the goodness of his plan, and the immensity of his wisdom at Calvary. Jesus was crushed under the full weight of God’s righteous wrath, ground like grain under the burden of our sin, so we might feast on the Bread of Life. Even when we don’t know the why, we know the Who—and we know he’s good. As Spurgeon poignantly quipped, the Christian “trusts him where he cannot trace him.”

Our farmer Father isn’t raising us up to be devoured but to be delighted by seeing and savoring him. That truth steels us to face trials of various kinds. As you compare your suffering to those around you, remember to trust the Farmer.

I don’t know why one person’s body gives out under the mental and physical anguish of trauma. I don’t know why one suffers the tragedy of untimely death while another lives a long, full life. I don’t know why I’ve escaped the suffering some in my congregation have borne with faithful endurance, the weight of which I feel certain would have crushed me. Merely walking with them in their pain has often felt like more than I can handle (and it is, in my flesh). In those moments, when struggling to speak hope into the ache of agony, what can I offer but the simple, beautiful truth that we can trust our Farmer?

Trust with Hope

I see profound trust in the Farmer embodied in Paul’s ministry. Like the caraway, he was “perplexed, but not driven to despair; . . . struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8, 9). Writing of his unjust imprisonment, he noted it had become clear to everyone that he was “in chains for Christ.” As a result of his suffering, the church grew bold to proclaim the gospel without fear (Phil. 1:13–14, NIV).

Our farmer Father isn’t raising us up to be devoured but to be delighted by seeing and savoring him.

That’s the perspective of one who trusts his Farmer. He knew God chose a specific means for his sanctification and that God’s purposes extended beyond his own life. (It’s hard enough to see what God’s doing in our lives; it’s harder still to see what he’s doing through them.) In effect, he says, “Crush, batter, and grind me—but be my strength to endure. Work in and through this frail, finite, fallen being for your glory and your people’s good.”

When life hurts and you ask these questions, trust the Farmer. He puts you exactly where you need to be and prepares the harvest with all wisdom. The harsh blows we feel are, in his mercy and wisdom, given with all precision to produce in us the fruit he longs to see. We’re being prepared like bread for our Master’s enjoyment, only to sit with him at the banqueting table in the end, marveling from the perspective of glory at his wonderful plan and magnificent wisdom.

Trials come by his design—the wisest, surest way to see the harvest he’s promised to produce in us. Trust the Farmer.

New Hymn from Gettys, Sandra McCracken, and Joni Eareckson Tada: ‘Jesus Calms the Storm’ Sun, 26 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Kristyn Getty, Sandra McCracken, and Joni Eareckson Tada reflect on the timely themes of their new hymn, ‘Jesus Calms the Storm.’]]> Jonathan Haidt’s recently published The Anxious Generation (read TGC’s review) is the latest book sounding the alarm about the deteriorating mental health of teens and children today. There’s consensus that youth mental health is in crisis—record numbers of children suffer from anxiety and depression. But opinions differ as to the causes and solutions.

One way Christianity can offer real help and true hope to this “anxious generation” is by pointing them to Jesus—the Good Shepherd, the One who offers rest to the weary, the One who calms the stormiest seas. And Christian music is a great way to center ourselves on this hope.

This is the heart behind the latest hymn from Keith and Kristyn Getty: “Jesus Calms the Storm (Hymn for Anxious Little Hearts).” The new recording (embedded below) features Keith and Kristyn along with their four daughters (Eliza, Charlotte, Grace, and Tahlia), Sandra McCracken, and Joni Eareckson Tada. Written by parents who are part of the Getty Music songwriting team—including Matt Papa, Matt Boswell, Sandra McCracken, Bryan Fowler, and Kristyn Getty—the new hymn is not only for children but for anyone who needs a reminder of the gospel’s hope in a world of anxiety.

“The title and subtitle convey the lyrical intention,” said Kristyn. “The fears and brokenness of the world weigh so heavily on our children’s shoulders. We see it more and more. But we know there is one voice who can calm the storm and breathe courage into a fearful heart.”

In the Q&A below, I asked Kristyn, Sandra, and Joni to reflect on the themes of “Jesus Calms the Storm,” other hymns and songs that bring calming hope, and how Christians can be a nonanxious presence in the world.

I also created a new playlist—Calming Worship for an Anxious Age—that includes “Jesus Calms the Storm” as well as a few other songs suggested by Kristyn, Sandra, and Joni. Enjoy it on Spotify or Apple Music

In your own life, where have you seen the gospel speak directly into anxiety and fear?

Kristyn: Our fears always help us understand what our greatest loves are. It can waken us to see the places in life where love for the Lord and his gospel is no longer first. When I had my first baby I was almost frozen by fear. Some of that was just the shock of something so big turning our lives completely upside down! But it also shook up my faith in such a way that I had to really relearn what it meant to be a Christian and trust in the Lord. Trust his sovereignty, trust his grace, trust him for the future. A lesson I’m still learning!

Joni: Less than two decades ago, I was gripped with fear, thinking I would have to live the rest of my life with increasing chronic pain. But I was helped tremendously by Ephesians 1:17–19. I found refuge and strength in “the hope to which he has called [us], the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” The gospel gives hope, a resource of rich grace, and incomparably great power. If this mighty strength raised Christ from the dead, then it certainly could raise me up out of my fear and anxiety about a future full of pain.

Sandra: Fear keeps us alive in so many risky situations we may face, but then that fear can take over and run on overdrive in our hearts and minds. With the world we live in—news feeds and how many people and situations we hear about each and every day—it just means that we need to hear the good news of the peace of Christ more than ever!

Joni, was there a particular Christian song or hymn that ministered to you in a painful stretch of your life when you were young, in the way ‘Jesus Calms the Storm’ might minister to a young person today?

Joni: Two hymns from childhood stuck with me all the way through my long hospitalization after I broke my neck: “Be Still My Soul” was one. The title says volumes to the anxious heart. And also “Abide with Me.” It was that line “Help of the helpless, O abide with me.” I think these are two wonderful hymns for children today who are fretful.

In a world of anxiety, what does it look like for Christians to be a nonanxious presence? What habits or disciplines can help Christian churches and households cultivate a peaceful, calm presence in a storm-tossed culture?

Kristyn: I think singing to remember his truth is so critical—and singing regularly of eternity and the hope we have. The psalms are helpful here because they carry all the waves of human emotion, but they settle on the shores of his truth. They keep us honest and grounded and hopeful.

Joni: I will speak from my experience with pain. When I am in excruciating pain, I do not reflect on or comment about anxiety. I do not say, “Oh, no! What if my pain doesn’t get better?!” Such fear-filled language only makes things worse. Fretting over anxiety only acquiesces control to these negative emotions. If I’m going to react to chronic pain, I will abide by my long-term habit of finding relief in God’s Word. And I will talk about that!

Sandra: Gospel faith is not just the power of positive thinking, but Christians in community have the power from Christ to speak encouragement and courage to one another in real time, in our real lives—when we’re late to school, or when someone loses their job unexpectedly, or when we receive a diagnosis of illness. Even in our small mistakes or on days when the storms come and we have to face the consequences, we trust that God is working these hard things for our good and his glory. We can make habits of worry, or we can learn to be people who pray and encourage one another in the middle of it. We can expect that sometimes it takes our fearful hearts time to catch up to the truth.

Needed: 30,000 Books for Groundbreaking African Theological Library Sun, 26 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 In a few months, a shipping container will leave the East Coast for Zambia, where a newly constructed theological library will be waiting. All that’s needed is the books.]]> Philip Hunt came to Christ in Maine but learned his theology in Africa.

“The first book a missionary handed me when I got to Kenya was J. I. Packer’s little book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God,” said Hunt, who flew to Mombasa when he was 25 to do mission work. “It really startled me. Those concepts answered questions I had, and that book became a doorway for me to continue to study and read.”

Hunt kept reading as he worked in a church in Kenya and then as he moved to Zambia to plant Faith Baptist Church of Riverside (and later Kitwe Church).

“During those years of church planting and pastoring, it became really evident to me that if we were going to see healthy, reproducing churches, then we needed a place where we could intentionally prepare leaders,” he said.

In 2006, the Central Africa Baptist University (CABU) opened with 12 students. (Ken Mbugua was one of them.) Over the next 18 years, the school grew to about 200 students learning expository preaching, missions and church planting, counseling, sign language, and chaplaincy. CABU faculty began training teachers and launched an MA in Christian studies, and they’re planning to add an MDiv. They added 15 remote training classes—where a teacher spends a week with a group of pastors closer to their homes—and have taught more than 2,000 pastors that way.

“I can’t think of anywhere around the world where I have been more encouraged by the gospel work than in Kitwe, Zambia, around the Central Africa Baptist University,” 9Marks founder Mark Dever, who doesn’t often use superlatives, told a group of pastors a few weeks ago.

CABU has nearly 920 graduates serving in 14 countries, property with classrooms and a student center, and government accreditation.

But what it doesn’t have is a library. Yet.

Christianity in Africa

Zambia is full of pastors, but many of them preach the prosperity gospel.

“Almost all you hear is this message about how God in Christ wants us to be physically healthy and materially prosperous,” said pastor and TGC Africa Council member Conrad Mbewe. “You hardly ever hear sermons about sin and repentance. So salvation has now become deliverance from sickness and poverty.”

Over the last 10 years, the prevalence of the prosperity gospel has been “getting worse,” Mbewe said. “One reason is that there is very little antidote for it. There is little for people to hear concerning the truth, so the noise is what is capturing their attention. And by far, the greatest noise is from the prosperity gospel preachers.”

Prosperity theology has become almost the definitive position of Christianity in Africa, especially south of the Sahara, he said.

Historic and projected regional distribution of Christianity / Courtesy of World Christian Encyclopedia

That’s a problem for Africa’s Christians, and increasingly, it’s a problem for Christianity’s witness worldwide. By 2050, Africa will have both the highest percentage of Christians and the youngest Christians in the world. “The future of world Christianity,” wrote historian Philip Jenkins, “is African.”

That means Africa’s theological education right now is critical.

Part of that is good websites, which can disperse information quickly and cheaply, said Mbewe. But research shows your reading comprehension is six to eight times better if you’re flipping the pages of a physical book.

Plus, books can be accessed without an internet connection, never have broken links, and let you make notes in the margins, Mbewe said.

In Zambia, “the reading of print media is still exceptionally low,” reported a study from the University of Zambia in 2021.

“At least among conservative Bible-believing ministers, that must change—and is changing,” Hunt said. “You cannot educate men without them becoming readers. . . . We need to recognize that Christianity did not begin when we came to faith, but there is a whole history that stretches out.”

He can’t think of a better place to encourage an appetite for reading than at CABU.

“You literally can mandate it,” he said. “And then you’re discipling students, showing them the value of it. Part of your coursework is helping them think critically, to interact with the literature, to encourage writing.”

“Libraries are handmaids to lectures,” Mbewe said. “As a lecturer, you can point in a particular direction and then send your students to do their reading. When you bring them back into a common room, where you give them space to interact intellectually, their minds are being sharpened a bit. They are becoming real thinkers and researchers.”

But that’s hard to do without books. And Zambia—along with other sub-Saharan countries—doesn’t have a lot of those. In 2018, Zambia had just 45 libraries, or one for every 400,000 people. For comparison, the United States had a library for every 3,000 people that year.

“If you went into a public library here in Zambia, you would just shake your head,” Hunt said. “It’s just this little place with ancient, broken books. It’s sad.”

If CABU wanted a library, they were going to have to build their own.

If You Build It

In March, CABU opened a publishing house. They’ve already printed 8 titles, including Mark Dever’s How to Build a Healthy Church, Conrad Mbewe’s God’s Design for the Church, and Greg Gilbert’s What Is the Gospel?

The first batch of How to Build a Healthy Church copies mid-print in April 2024 / Courtesy of Ryan Curia

But 8 books isn’t enough. So in March, CABU broke ground on a theological library. The 9,200-square-foot building, which should be finished in August, will have enough shelf space for 50,000 volumes.

“We anticipate that thousands of students will be able to do research with healthy resources they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to,” Hunt said. “If we could pull this off, it would be unique in our area of Zambia, to have a library of this breadth.”

“If it were available,” Mbewe said, “there’s no doubt that it would be real solid gold.”

The only problem is, Hunt doesn’t have 50,000 books. He only has 16,000.

They Will Come

A few weeks ago, Craig Stoll at Christianbook International Outreach got wind of CABU’s project.

“Hey, I’ve got a 20-foot container we could ship to you from America for free,” he told Hunt. “It will fit 30,000 books. All you have to do is fill it up. You want it? If not, I can find somebody else.”

Hunt’s heart jumped. “No, no, no, no, no, no—don’t give it to anybody else,” he said. “Give me a couple of weeks. I don’t know how we’re going to do it, but this is the opportunity.”

He was already on his way to Washington, DC, for a 9Marks intensive when he started making a list of titles and publishers like Banner of Truth, P&R, and Crossway.

But 30,000 is a lot of books.

The Ask

Hunt thought about the American pastors in the Reformed Resurgence, some with gospel-centered commentaries, biographies, church history books, or systematic theologies they no longer needed. Maybe they’d be interested in helping to shape Africa’s theology?

If that’s you, here’s your chance.

“We don’t want pastors to just grab everything on their shelves and throw them in boxes, thinking, Let me get rid of them. I’ll send them to Africa,” Hunt said. “That’s not what we’re looking to do. We want to be intentional about what goes into that space. We really want to fill it with good books, from Augustine’s City of God to The gods of Africa by Leonard Nyirongo to John Owen’s Mortification of Sin.”

Phil Hunt (middle) shows Mark Dever and Rick Denham around the library construction project in April 2024 / Courtesy of Ryan Curia

You can send those gently used books to Massachusetts to join the shipping container or you can donate financially online. See the Reaching Africa website for details and a list of helpful book topics—such as preaching, education, Christian living, and pastoral care and counseling.

When the container ships in August, it should arrive in time for the books to be sorted and shelved before CABU’s leadership conference at the end of November.

“The invention of the printing press was arguably one of the key features that fueled the Protestant Reformation,” Hunt said. “I think it’s safe to say we need an African reformation. And we cannot devalue the role that access to quality books plays in the shaping of the theology and thinking, and in the direction, of a nation and a continent.”

He thinks CABU’s library could be part of that—if he can get it.

“God is at work,” Hunt said. “If God can provide such a wonderful gift as this shipping container, he can provide the books.”

‘Her,’ ChatGPT, and Fiction’s Reality-Making Power Sat, 25 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 We shouldn’t be surprised Sam Altman wanted to make the dystopian fiction of ‘Her’ a reality. In a secular world without a guiding narrative, any story—even cautionary tales—might inspire imitation. ]]> In a bizarre but not entirely unexpected turn of events, the dystopian sci-fi movie Her has become reality, just 10 years after it was released.

Directed by Spike Jonze and released in late 2013, Her is a wild, slightly creepy depiction of a man (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with his AI virtual assistant (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). The film was provocative at the time because it pictured a near future where smartphones (which by 2013 had already become indispensable appendages in most people’s lives) had evolved, via AI technology, to the point they could believably mimic human love, empathy, and relational connection.

That future is here. And as if to underscore the fulfillment of Her’s prophesies, OpenAI launched its new ChatGPT-4o model complete with a virtual assistant (“Sky”) whose voice is unmistakably similar to Johansson’s. OpenAI CEO Sam Altman basically admitted his intention to mimic Her when, on the day ChatGPT-4o was unveiled, he shared a one-word post on X: her.

Scarlett Johansson was horrified. In a statement released to NPR, she notes she specifically said no to requests from Altman to allow her voice to be used in the OpenAI chatbot. But Altman apparently modeled Sky after her anyway. In response to threatened legal action from Johansson, Altman has since apologized to her and paused the company’s use of the voice.

In addition to being a flashpoint in the ongoing tensions between Hollywood creatives and tech companies over AI threats, this incident vividly illustrates the power of storytelling to shape reality—especially in an aimless secular world increasingly detached from transcendent metanarratives.

Fictional Stories Don’t Just Reflect Reality. They Often Create It.

One of art’s values is that it reflects reality back to us, helping us see ourselves in ways we might miss or be blind to. But art also has the power to create reality, sometimes intentionally but often in inadvertent ways.

Many artists are well aware of this power: artistic works can imagine a world into being or create plausibility structures that pave the way for reality to change. This is why, for example, the LGBT+ movement prioritized pop culture representation in the ’90s and onward (with shows like Ellen, Will & Grace, Glee, and even Friends). To make a world where queer sexuality was normal and accepted, activists recognized that fictional artistic depictions could play a crucial role. The more narratives of a potential reality are seen and shared, the more those potential realities are likely to become actual realities.

The more narratives of a potential reality are seen and shared, the more those potential realities are likely to become actual realities.

This reality-making capacity of art isn’t inherently bad. It’s part of what it means to be human. God created us with the capacity to imagine desirable worlds that don’t already exist. It can be used in helpful ways and dangerous ways. Christians know that storytelling and imagination can be deployed to create visions of goodness, truth, beauty, and virtue that are inspiring and shape audiences’ loves in healthy directions. This is why art has been valued and patronized throughout most of church history. Christians have recognize art’s profound catechetical power and desire-shaping potential.

I’ve been inspired by TV shows like Bluey and Friday Night Lights, which depict healthy, loving family relationships. Watching these fictional narratives gives me a vision of the sort of reality I’d love to cultivate in my household. Reading or watching Tolkien’s fantastical stories in his imagined Middle-earth inspires me to pursue virtue, goodness, and sacrifice in a world of darkness.

But inspiration goes both ways. Art can also present imagery of vice and visions of darkness that plant seeds of imitation in wayward human hearts. Bluey might present an “aspirational reality,” but so do violent films like The Matrix, Scream, and Fight Club, each of which inspired criminal acts in real life. Are artists to blame when their fictional narratives spark real events? Probably not. But creators should at least recognize the power they have to shape imaginations—and steward this power with care.

Absent Metanarrative Anchors, Any Narrative Might Be Imitated

The wildest thing about Altman’s choice to model Sky’s voice after Johansson’s in Her is that he seems to have missed that the film presents a dystopian vision. The film isn’t propaganda for a future we should want to have; it’s a warning about the type of future we might have if we’re not careful.

But in a secular world absent metanarratives and without a solid grid for evaluating things like truth, virtue, and “the good life,” definitions of “dystopia” end up becoming subjective. One man’s dystopia is another’s utopia. Stories intended as cautionary tales can fill the narrative void and become aspirational visions for some, especially if the aesthetic is attractive. Don’t discount the extent to which sleek packaging, cool vibes, and naked pragmatism matter more in a secular age than morally coded attributes.

In Silicon Valley, many tech entrepreneurs seem to recognize that a sufficiently stylish, innovative veneer in their products can cover a multitude of sins (errors in both function and ethics). Apple debuted its new iPad Pro, for example, with an ad that leaned into dystopian imagery of the analog arts being crushed into oblivion by a digital future. Perhaps Apple was betting that consumers would be so wowed by the future-chic design aesthetic that the implications of the imagery wouldn’t register. They admittedly “missed the mark with this video,” but it doesn’t mean they’re wrong about digital culture’s general trajectory.

In the naked public square, devoid of spiritual telos and anchoring truth, the directions we might go—as individuals, communities, and civilizations—are wide open. Stories and visions abound in the limitless spaces of online life, and any number of them might provide ideas, images, and aesthetics that seem interesting enough to pursue.

In a secular world absent metanarratives, one man’s dystopia is another’s utopia.

Just as Jonze’s dystopian vision in Her seems to have inspired Altman, any number of Black Mirror episodes (each depicting a disturbing tech dystopia) likely have inspired tech entrepreneurs to see if they can make that scenario come to fruition. In a world lacking imagination and purpose, creatively rendered prophetic warnings are still creative visions that provide fodder for otherwise aimless culture makers.

Christians should go boldly into this narrative and imaginative void, striving to create stand-out artistic visions that are both beautifully rendered and grounded in solid truth. Our goal shouldn’t be gimmickry and power grabs for the biggest share of the attention-economy pie. It’s not enough to force the Christian story on people by any means necessary. We must do the work of telling good stories, full of beautiful truths, in ways that move audiences to desire Christianity’s grand narrative.

We must show the Greatest Story to be not only a great story but the greatest reality—and, ultimately, the only one that will last.

Don’t Fall into Glory-Days Syndrome this Graduation Season Sat, 25 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Respond in kind to all the honor you receive, and do so with the goal of competitively outdoing those who honor you.]]> Your calendar is full with parties and ceremonies. Cap-and-gown pictures top your social media feed. When you walk the stage, a chapter will close. Ready or not, your graduation season is here.

Recently, I spoke to graduates at my church and told them about a paradox I’ve observed: having an idyllic high school or college experience can sometimes make it extra difficult to adjust to the next stage of life. No graduate wants to peak in high school or college, but it happens. Leaving your family and closest community to take on new responsibilities and challenges can be jarring.

During graduation season, it’s tempting to make an idol of past accomplishments and memories, to let them distract you from what’s most important. I call it glory-days syndrome. But the reality is that the glory days for those of us in Christ are ahead of us, not behind us. We want to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). So how do we avoid peaking in high school or college? How can a graduate navigate commencement season with biblical wisdom? Consider four ways.

1. Show honor.

Romans 12:10 says, “Outdo one another in showing honor.” I’ve noticed that honor during graduation usually flows one way: from caring adults to graduates. Ceremonies, parties, banquets, and gifts are all wonderful, but graduates must take this verse to heart. Respond in kind to all the honor you receive, and do so with the goal of competitively outdoing those who honor you.

Respond in kind to all the honor you receive, and do so with the goal of competitively outdoing those who honor you.

Set aside several hours to write personal thank-you notes or letters to the people who’ve poured into you. You might also buy a meal or coffee for individuals you want to honor. Thank them for how you’ve seen Christ in them. Remind them their labor in the Lord isn’t in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). Before you move out with anticipation and ambition, look back with gratitude for the parents, coaches, teachers, and pastors who’ve invested in you. Don’t assume they’re aware of how God used them in your life. Take the time to honor them.

2. Testify to Christ.

After graduation, friends scatter in every direction. People who’ve been together for years depart and rarely see each other again. How should a Christian treat these precious last days or weeks? In Acts 20, Paul departs Asia and says goodbye to the Ephesian elders. His farewell can be instructive for our farewells.

Paul takes great comfort in knowing he held nothing back: “I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (v. 27). I’ll never forget when my high school friend Adam read out a handwritten letter during the last gathering of our friend group. Ten of my friends had gathered at a lake for one last night together before scattering across the country. Adam wanted to bear witness to the gospel before we went our separate ways. He was a recent convert to the faith, and many of those friends weren’t believers. His words that night were magnified by the farewell moment, and they bore lasting spiritual fruit in my life and the lives of many friends.

In the days before and after your graduation, pray for opportunities to “testify to the gospel of the grace of God” (v. 24). Don’t approach your witness with anxiety. It’s not up to you to make sure your unbelieving friends pray the sinner’s prayer before you all head to what’s next, but you are responsible to be a witness. When we courageously testify to the good news, God is faithful and will often “open . . . a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ” (Col. 4:3).

3. Number your days.

A preacher at my public school’s interfaith baccalaureate ceremony preached on James 4:14: “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” He chose a great text for the event, because few occasions make us “number our days” like graduation does.

Our days on this side of eternity are short, and remembering this makes us wise. Transitions like high school and college graduation remind us that all worldly achievements are written in pencil. Our GPAs, sports records, and social status will be erased. May we remember it, Lord. “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

You may soon experience the hollow feeling of being forgotten. It could be when you return to your high school for the homecoming football game and sit in the bleachers while your old teammates play without you. Perhaps you’ll return to your college’s crowded student union, walk through the building, and discover that no one recognizes you. Maybe you’ll come home one summer and find your old high school bulldozed, well on its way to being turned into condos.

When you feel forgotten, it can be clarifying. It helps you to “look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15–16). But when we’re forgotten on this earth, God still remembers. He writes the stories of his children in pen, not pencil. He never leaves or forgets us. He prepares a place for us, and he won’t let the smallest thing done in his name go unrewarded: “Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matt. 10:42). Though our days are numbered, he makes them count.

4. Savor this season.

There’s a reason we mark graduation with pomp, circumstance, and parties. It’s an occasion to celebrate. Don’t forget to savor it. God gives good gifts to his children, and your time in high school or college was truly a gift. So savor these last days with the people who made this season of your life so special. In Psalm 16:3, David writes, “As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight.” As you make this big transition, don’t be afraid to delight in the excellent ones.

After graduation, friends scatter in every direction. People who’ve been together for years depart and rarely see each other again. How should a Christian treat these precious last days or weeks?

Make dinner reservations. Plan a trip. Order pizza. Don’t be so focused on what you’re headed to next that you forget to rejoice and be glad. Thank God for the opportunity to learn and grow and for the grace to endure and accomplish. Hasn’t he been so kind to carry you through it? Embrace this season with joy in the Lord (Ps. 32:11).

Here’s what it looks like to navigate commencement season wisely. Here’s how you can close this chapter without regrets and start your next chapter with momentum. Show honor. Savor the moment. Count the days. And testify to Christ Jesus. Your glory days are not behind you. They are in front of you, with your Savior in glory.

Narcissism Is Toxic for Pastors. But So Is Lack of Confidence. Fri, 24 May 2024 04:03:00 +0000 Dan Doriani warns pastors against the evils of narcissism while calling them to confidence and resilience in the face of opposition.]]> In this breakout session from TGC23, Dan Doriani addresses the real concern of churches devastated by bullying, immorality, and narcissism at the hands of pastors. But he also addresses the challenges facing pastors as they endure disapproval, opposition, foot-dragging, sabotage, and whisper campaigns.

He challenges pastors to cultivate humility, seek God’s wisdom and mercy, and embrace servanthood while fostering appropriate confidence and resilience in their calling to pastoral ministry.

Resisting Physician-Assisted Death Is a Gospel Imperative Fri, 24 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 The gospel offers us deep, durable meaning­—powerful enough to sustain us through life and through suffering and dying. Our story becomes part of God’s grand story, the story behind all stories.]]> One of the most poignant suicide notes I’ve read was written by Gillian Bennett. A brilliant and articulate woman, and a trained psychotherapist, she was diagnosed with dementia and began to experience the resulting limitations, weakness, and frailty.

She decided to end her own life to avoid experiencing further decline. She wrote about her decision on a dedicated website. The story of her death and her reasons for choosing it were widely discussed in the media. Her words help us to understand the perspective of a patient seeking physician-assisted death:

I will take my life today around noon. It is time. Dementia is taking its toll and I have nearly lost myself. I have nearly lost me. . . .

Understand that I am giving up nothing that I want by committing suicide. All I lose is an indefinite number of years of being a vegetable in a hospital setting, eating up the country’s money but having not the faintest idea of who I am.

Each of us is born uniquely and dies uniquely. I think of dying as a final adventure with a predictably abrupt end. I know when it’s time to leave and I do not find it scary.

According to the website, Gillian Bennett died at 11 a.m. on August 18, 2014, in the presence of her husband. News of her death, and her poignant declaration of her reasons for ending her life, contributed to the growing public support for physician-assisted death. Within a year of her death, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the criminal code prohibiting physician-assisted death. By 2022, 4.1 percent of all deaths in Canada were physician-assisted.

How do we respond to people like Gillian who find no reason to go on, who want life to be over, and who want to control the manner and timing of their deaths? Given this “why,” which seems so intuitive and plausible in our present social milieu, is there a reasonable “why not”?

Wealthy, White, Nonreligious Suicides

A consistent finding from studies of patients who seek euthanasia is that they’re generally from a specific group in society: wealthy, white, nonreligious people.

This observation is sometimes cited in support of physician-assisted death because it’s taken to mean these patients aren’t from so-called vulnerable or marginalized populations. They aren’t being taken advantage of or forced to obtain physician-assisted death. They aren’t vulnerable to coercion. Nobody is making them choose this path.

But are we failing to understand the true nature of vulnerability? What if vulnerability to physician-assisted death arises from within rather than from external social forces? What if people lack the resources offered by spiritual beliefs and community to make sense out of suffering and to transcend it? What if vulnerability isn’t social but rather psychological and spiritual?

The fact that a specific group of people is predisposed to seek physician-assisted death raises the distinct possibility that existential, philosophical, and spiritual concerns—problems of meaning and significance in the face of suffering and loss—are key factors that help explain why people seek death from a doctor.

Decide Your Own Value

Proponents of physician-assisted death claim to care greatly about human value. They insist that physician-assisted death is a matter of respect for intrinsic value and autonomy. Intrinsic value rises from the thing itself. By regarding a person as the source of his or her own value, the person appears to be accorded deep significance and importance. After all, isn’t this “value from inside”?

On the contrary, physician-assisted death doesn’t affirm the intrinsic value of humanity, because it’s based on a sense of value conditional on someone’s self-regard. In fact, it requires viewing humans as having extrinsic value, which comes from the valuer’s opinion. When we treat ourselves as the foundation of our own value, we force ourselves to bear an unbearable weight. If we’re in a situation where we’re unable or unwilling to value ourselves, then we lose our value. If we’re of no use to ourselves, then we really are useless. If I feel my existence is bad for me, then it really is bad to exist.

By contrast, if I had intrinsic value, I’d be obligated as “valuer” to value myself. But if I don’t have such intrinsic value, then I’m under no obligation to value myself, and I’m free to do with myself as I please, no matter how self-destructive my choices might be.

True Value

We’re too weak, too frail, too vulnerable to circumstances for our self-regard to be a firm foundation for our value and significance. And this is a burden we need not bear, for God tells us how valuable we are over and over (Ps. 139; Isa. 43:4; Matt. 6:26; 10:29–31; John 3:16). Yet the tragedy of the human condition is that we’re prone to forget how much we matter.

We’re too weak, too frail, too vulnerable to circumstances to be a firm foundation for our value and significance.

One important way we remember our intrinsic value is through community. When others treat us as if we’re deeply valuable (e.g., kind wishes from friends and family on our birthday), we feel ourselves to be valuable. If we’re ignored, neglected, or forgotten, we quickly doubt our value. Unless we enjoy respect and dignified treatment from others, we’re inclined to feel worthless.

This is the essence of loving community, seen so clearly in the local church. It’s a web of value in action.

Solution to Despair

Physician-assisted death is held up as a solution to the problem of suffering; at bottom, it’s a solution to despair. And the solution is to end the person who’s in despair.

We know a better way.

The gospel offers us deep, durable meaning­—powerful enough to sustain us through life and through suffering and dying. Our story becomes part of God’s grand story, the story behind all stories. It’s the story in which our suffering is shown to be for good, to be meaningful, to matter, to be worth it.

And it’s a happily-ever-after story, a too-good-to-be-true story, a story of faith, hope, and love that culminates in eternal life and everlasting communion with the One who made us for himself. In the kingdom, we discover that God himself is our highest good. In the kingdom, we discover a meaning for our suffering that makes it all worth it. In the kingdom, our suffering isn’t useless. In the kingdom, there’s no despair.

The gospel offers us deep, durable meaning­—powerful enough to sustain us through life and through suffering and dying.

So how should we respond? The church can head off physician-assisted death in our congregations by discipling Christians to suffer well. We must equip believers with the theological, philosophical, and spiritual resources to face suffering, to endure hardness. Our teaching should anticipate suffering, illness, and death.

Those of us privileged to live in democratic societies must ask our elected officials to oppose this practice and to uphold freedom of conscience for healthcare professionals who refuse to participate.

A nation’s laws are a teacher. Legalizing physician-assisted death teaches our society to doubt human value and to see it as merely extrinsic and conditional. Prohibiting this practice reminds us of the true depth of human value. Protecting freedom of conscience allows professionals in healthcare facilities to provide safety for those living with disabilities or chronic illness who see themselves as vulnerable to the suggestion of death.

Impressive ‘Xp.’ YouTube Series Seeks to Reach Unchurched Youth Fri, 24 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The newly released Australian film series ‘xp.’ seeks to engage 13-to-20-year-olds considering Christianity—but also those who may not be curious at all.]]> What do you do when you have the opportunity to share the gospel with youth and young adults who have little knowledge or experience of Christianity—perhaps even little interest? The newly released xp. film series is targeted at 13-to-20-year-old non-Christians who are way, way back on the Engel scale. Xp. isn’t primarily for those seriously considering Christianity; it’s for those who aren’t curious about it at all.

This Australian video course (available free on YouTube) is of a world-class standard, fills a niche few evangelistic resources currently serve, and is open to a range of applications.

This Australian video course is of a world-class standard and fills a niche few evangelistic resources currently serve.

James Baker is founding CEO of xp., the ministry that produced the film series, and he wrote the course. He was struggling to share the gospel with the unchurched coming to the youth group he led in Adelaide, South Australia. A federally funded global research fellowship enabled him to spend six months in the United States, where he discovered there was almost nothing available to reach this audience. Baker was looking for something like a “pre–Alpha Youth” course, so he set out to create it himself.

Format of Xp. Episodes

The debut season of xp. comprises nine episodes, each approximately 10 minutes long. Gorgeous retro videogame animation is provided by 8-bit Bible, and a range of inventive skits keep the videos riveting, even for the most skeptical and distractible teenager.

Each episode crisscrosses the Australian continent and features a diverse range of youth and young adults. The questions put to them range from fun (“What’s for lunch?”) to potentially serious (“If you could unsubscribe from something boring in life, what would it be?”) to existential (“What makes it hard to be real?”). My favorite interview subject was the skater kid who confessed, “I also drank deodorant once.” These question segments are designed to get ideas flowing, so the video can be paused and those involved in the course can then discuss the same question with one another.

The main presenters, Sarah and Isaiha, tie each episode together with earnest and reflective commentary. They’re charismatic, conveying a relaxed sincerity in their interactions with one another and while talking to the camera. In God’s providence, Isaiha was one of the unchurched kids in Baker’s youth group, so “he’s talking to himself,” as Baker puts it.

The choice of topics demonstrates a sensitivity to the challenges and interests of youth and young adults in the Western world today. It reveals thoughtful missiological reflection on how to bring the gospel message into this context. Early episodes consider topics like “Anxious?,” “What does real happiness look like?,” and “What happened to wonder?” The concluding episodes ask “Why are we here?” and “Who are we here for?

The joyful simplicity of the course in no way takes away from the richness of the content and the evangelistic strategy that informs it. Baker used to work as an international lawyer and spent time in Manhattan attending Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Redeemer pastor Tim Keller’s fingerprints “are all over” xp., Baker says.

Redeemer pastor Tim Keller’s fingerprints ‘are all over’ xp.

There are plans for a second and third season of the series, drawing those engaging with it closer and closer to the gospel of Christ. I’m eager to see if they can take the next steps forward as artfully as they’ve managed to progress through this first season.

Investing in High-Quality Video

The xp. videos and accompanying material bear the marks of enormous care, artistic craftsmanship, prayerfulness, thoughtfulness—and likely substantial funding. In all of this, they stand out among similar video material, especially those produced by Reformed evangelicals here in Australia (often with slimmer resources).

Many videos in this genre are lo-fi, recorded and edited on a phone. They function as popcorn-style snack content. Baker wanted xp. to be a more substantial, high-production resource that could have a longer shelf life. For example, Baker explains, they recorded 15 hours of man-on-the-street interviews to find the 27 minutes that appear in the finished episodes.

Xp. was years in the making, with scripts vetted for 12 months, casting calls made for a copresenter position, location filming permits secured, suitably qualified animators and puppeteers sought out, and so on. Baker stressed that the team deliberately looked for collaborators best suited to contribute to the project, often being blessed by God providing just the right people. Christians working in the secular TV and film industry found the opportunity to be a part of xp. a “life-giving project,” he said.

Christians working in the secular TV and film industry found the opportunity to be a part of xp. a ‘life-giving project.’

The videos are rich with details that draw in the viewer and even reward repeat viewings: repeated in-jokes and Easter eggs, TV-style thumbnails in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen, and thoughtful quotes from historical sources. The name of the series even has a double meaning: Within the 16-bit video game aesthetics, “xp.” refers to “experience points.” But it also refers to the ancient Chi Rho Christogram, referring to the first two Greek letters of Christos (Christ), as hinted at with a Chi Rho prop that features in the videos.

Where Is It Located Theologically?

Pastors, campus evangelists, chaplains, youth leaders, and parents considering the course ought to have questions about its theological commitments. Sadly, these aren’t easily discoverable. Baker has wisely established xp. as a not-for-profit with an impressive governing board to oversee his work—and some guesses could be made at xp.’s theological alignment by looking at those who serve on the board. A recommended resources list—provided to those who sign up (for free) to run the course—also provides hints, although the list is broad and gives little theological comment.

It’s disappointingly common for Christian parachurch ministries to fail to make their confessional statements readily available. In some cases, this is because no confessional statement has been adopted to begin with.

I understand why Alpha is regularly referred to on the xp. website and in the leaders’ manual; it’s one of the most well-known evangelical evangelistic courses in the world today. However, I find its inclusion here somewhat off-putting. Although Alpha’s video material and multiple-meals-and-discussion praxis are excellent, the charismatic theology and spirituality taught in the course, along with a weak doctrine of sin and salvation, make it an unsatisfactory course in my view.

Taken on its own merits, though, the content in season 1 of xp. is sound. I’m eager to recommend it.

Using the Series

For those blessed with access to a group of significantly unchurched youth and young adults, the xp. series could be run in full, as intended. In the context of church schools with compulsory religious education but a large proportion of students from non-Christian families, this course would be perfect. I’ve been using it as part of homeschooling my 14-year-old son, and it has been terrific at engaging him and drawing him out.

In many other settings, however, running the course in full would be too great an investment of time for too little educational return. The course starts so far back and nudges participants along so slowly and gently that it might not be worth spending nine weeks going through it. It’s pitched at 13-to-20-year-olds. I’m confident those at the upper end of that age range, if willing to come along to a multiweek course, would be open to more substantial theological input than this one provides. Even in such cases, sections of episodes could be used to add color to youth groups, evangelistic meetings, and courses.

Single episodes could also function well at a one-off pre-evangelistic dinner and discussion event. Videos could be shared on social media or privately with non-Christian friends and acquaintances for them to watch at their leisure. Baker also suggests a youth or young adults group could watch the videos and dissect their missiological approach, as a training exercise of sorts to equip Christian youth for their conversations with unchurched friends.

All in all, xp. is an impressive achievement and a great blessing to youth and young adults ministry. I heartily recommend it and look forward to hearing many stories about its use in Australia and beyond.

The Hebrews Cure for Apostasy Thu, 23 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Hebrews was written to counter apostasy, and its remedy is remarkably simple. ]]> Forsaking Christ (what we call apostasy) is commonplace these days. Many who once walked an aisle, raised a hand, received the Word with joy, and were baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have now renounced that very name.

Since the apostles’ day, apostasies have been always present and ever sad. People like Judas, Demas, Jesus’s “stony ground hearers,” well-known Christian leaders of our day, and some of our own sons and daughters all too frequently forsake Christ to return to their lives before “conversion” or to some other lifestyle or worldview more appealing than the Savior’s (e.g., Matt. 13:20–22; John 6:60–66; 2 Tim. 4:10; Heb. 6:4–6; 2 Pet. 2:1–3, 20–22; 1 John 2:18, 19; Jude 17–19).

The letter to the Hebrews was written to counter apostasy. This makes it a go-to Scripture for any wanting to retether to Christ those who have been adrift (Heb. 2:1). The remedy for apostasy is simple: Hebrews tells those at risk of forsaking Jesus to consider him (3:1). That’s it. Though he’ll fill in the details in the rest of Hebrews, the inspired author’s direct and brief counsel is this: “Consider Jesus.”

Spiritual Cancer and Cure

To consider Jesus is to look at and to him (12:2), to fix our thoughts on Jesus, and to contemplate all we can about him—all he is, says, does, rules, wields, promises, accomplishes, and fulfills.

Contemplate all Jesus is, says, does, rules, wields, promises, accomplishes, and fulfills.

I’m disease-and-cure-minded these days. I currently have two brutal diseases (stage four prostate cancer and actinomycosis, a severe bone disease) that require daily treatment. Apostasy is the same, only this soul disease requires daily meditation on Christ, not daily medicine from a tube (3:12, 13; 10:24, 25). I’ve summarized the Hebrews approach like this: if forsaking Jesus is the cancer, then considering Jesus daily is the cure.

As simplistic as that might sound, it’s anything but. Jesus is the soul (and, with apologies, the sole) cure for apostasy.

What Is It to Consider Jesus?

To know Jesus is eternal life (John 17:3). And considering him means to grow in the knowledge of him and to value knowing him above all else (Phil. 3:8–10; 2 Pet. 1:2; 3:18). It’s to center our adoring attention on the person and work of Christ, which is precisely what Hebrews does.

To consider Jesus is to make the knowledge of Christ—in all his unchanging beauty and unchangeable glory—the center and source of our joy. We can find daily delight in him.

To remedy apostasy in our time, I commend the Hebrews cure: a consideration and contemplation of all of these qualities and more.

Apply the Cure

In that light, I offer three spiritually healing exercises for the soul on the brink of apostasy:

1. Listen to faithful expository preaching on Hebrews (start with anything by R. C. Sproul or John Piper).

2. Read through Hebrews repeatedly (5 to 10 times) and create a list of our Savior’s names, titles, and descriptors—and then explore what each one means. Christ

  • is the radiance of God’s glory, the imprint of his nature, and the upholder of his universe (1:3)
  • commands the hosts of heaven (1:6, 7, 14)
  • is crowned with glory and honor (2:7–8)
  • is our merciful and faithful High Priest (2:17, 18; 3:1; 4:14–16)
  • is the faithful beloved Son over God’s house (3:2–6)
  • gives everlasting rest (4:1–10)
  • learned obedience through suffering (5:3–9)
  • was perfected through suffering (2:10)
  • is the anchor for our drifting and drowning souls (6:19–20)
  • is our refuge and hope (6:17, 18)
  • guarantees and mediates a better covenant (7:22; 8:6–12; 12:24)
  • continues forever (7:21, 24)
  • always lives to intercede for us (7:25)
  • is holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (7:26)
  • is seated at the right hand of the throne of God’s majesty on high (1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2)
  • offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins (7:27; 9:13–14; 10:10–18)
  • writes his law on our hearts (8:10; 10:16)
  • remembers our sins no more (8:12; 10:16–17)
  • is the founder and perfecter of our faith (2:10; 12:2)
  • for the joy that was set before him endured the cross and despised its shame (12:2)
  • has a kingdom that cannot be shaken (12:28–29)
  • promises a better home in a better city in a better country (11:10, 14–16; 13:14)
  • is the Lord our helper so we will not fear (13:6)
  • is in all his ways and works the same yesterday, today, and forever (13:8)
  • bore our reproach outside the camp as the sacrificial scapegoat for our sins (13:12–14)
  • is the great shepherd of the sheep (13:20–21)

3. Become familiar enough with those ascriptions and descriptions to include them in your prayers to the Lord:

  • Dear eternal Son of God. I worship you as Lord of all the heavenly hosts; the One who tells the angels what to do and sends them forth to serve us . . .
  • Dear Apostle of God, who speaks to man for God, and High Priest of our confession, who speaks to God for man . . .
  • Dear Lord Jesus Christ, you are God’s anointed King, whose throne is forever and ever . . .
  • Dear Mediator and merciful High Priest and Savior. You sit at the right hand of the Majesty on high to intercede for me . . .
  • Dear atoning Lord, you are our single sacrifice for sin, our helper forever, the great Shepherd of your sheep . . .
  • Dear sovereign Savior—you are the same yesterday, today, and forever—I worship you, my unchanging God . . .
  • Dear Lord Jesus, you are holy, innocent, undefiled, and separate from sinners—would you please help me to be like you?

Humbly learn of Christ in these ways (through Hebrews and the rest of Scripture), and then address him accordingly, so your knowledge of Christ will grow deep and your soul will be healed of all spiritual wanderlust.

To consider Jesus is to make the knowledge of Christ—in all his unchanging beauty and unchangeable glory—the center and source of our joy.

By considering and then praying the names and titles of Jesus, as well as those of each person of the Trinity, we learn to respect God’s attributes, offices, and roles. We’re led into wonder, love, and praise. We move beyond a quick “Dear [indistinct and undefined] God” and commune instead with the distinct and defined triune God. Such rich contemplation and communion cannot help but cure our prone-to-wander hearts.

Fix Your Eyes

If you are on a path toward apostasy (or “deconstructing”), you may accelerate if you fix your eyes on things that aren’t Christ: the failures of other Christians; evil and suffering in the world; and, chiefly, yourself and your personal desires, doubts, fears, and questions. This gaze away from Jesus naturally causes faith to falter—just as Peter started to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and focused instead on the frightening wind (Matt. 14:29–31).

Hebrews is clear on the cure, and it’s a simple “fix”: fix your eyes on Jesus, “the founder and perfecter” of your faith (Heb. 12:2). None of us will finish the race if our eyes are on our pain, exhaustion, and the many perils ahead on “the race set before us.” We’ll endure only if we keep our eyes on the prize, who is also the power, who is also the founder and perfecter of our faith.

Hebrews tell us what to do next: “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed” (vv. 12–13).

Is your faith weak and ill? Look to Jesus. Be healed. Run on. Finish well.

Pastors Can Lead Well by Preaching Well Wed, 22 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Both ‘Expositional Leadership’ and ‘The Pastor as Leader’ make a case for leading and preaching for God’s glory and the good of God’s people. Both books are wise, biblically infused, and pastoral.]]> Pastors feel intense pressure to successfully lead the organization known as the local church, and it’s burning them out. Over the past few decades, a business leadership model has shaped the expectations for many pastors. People expect them to be shepherds but also to lead the church with vision and strategy. This isn’t fair, and it often pulls pastors in the wrong direction. Inefficiency isn’t a sign of holiness, but too much emphasis on organizational efficiency can deform the pastor’s understanding of his God-given role.

Two books help refocus pastors on the importance of preaching for leading a church. In The Pastor as Leader: Principles and Practices for Connecting Preaching and Leadership, John Currie argues that “an unbiblical divorce often occurs between the pastoral priorities of preaching and leadership more generally.” When this happens, he writes, “the church suffers from either stagnation on its mission or a downgrade in the pulpit” (1).

In Expositional Leadership: Shepherding God’s People from the Pulpit, Scott Pace and Jim Shaddix agree and define “expositional leadership” as “the pastoral process of shepherding God’s people through the faithful exposition of his word to conform them to the image of his Son by the power of his Spirit” (15). Both books contend that preaching is leadership.

Primacy of Preaching

Pastors have been appointed to lead the church (Eph. 4:7–16), yet their primary responsibility is a particular kind of leadership. Paul tells Timothy, a pastor, to “devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim. 4:13). He makes clear the benefit of the taught Word: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17).

Because of the expectations to lead (and all that’s baked into the leadership cake), it’s tempting for the pastor to spend far too much time in organizational strategy and far too little preparing expository sermons. Yet pastoral leadership, at its core, is the preaching of God’s Word to conform God’s people to the image of Christ.

Pastoral leadership, at its core, is the preaching of God’s Word to conform God’s people to the image of Christ.

Currie, professor of pastoral theology at Westminster Theological Seminary, defines pastoral leadership as “the process where, for the glory of God, a man of God, appointed by the Son of God and empowered by the Spirit of God, proclaims the word of God so that the people of God are equipped to move forward into the purposes of God together” (31).

A simple yet integral reality is that the preaching of God’s Word necessarily leads somewhere. Therefore, pastoral leadership and preaching ought not to be divorced. Certainly, when Jesus prayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17), he recognized the core of Christian leadership as teaching God’s Word. However, biblical preaching’s primacy doesn’t mean strategy and vision can be ignored.

Vision and Strategy

In an attempt to keep the preaching ministry primary, pastors may be tempted to neglect vision and strategy wholesale. Overreacting to the pragmatics and trendiness of popular pulpit ministries, faithful men may begin to preach application-light or vision-less sermons.

On the other hand, some pastors have been elevated to celebrity status and have used that status to create a subculture where the pastor, as CEO, preaches his vision for his kingdom rather than God’s vision for God’s kingdom. Pace and Shaddix, who both teach preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, lament, “We’ve created a culture that looks to platform those with magnetic personalities, those who are gifted, and those who have a hip persona” (98).

Though there are abundant extreme examples to avoid, faithful Bible preaching includes providing vision and strategy for God’s people. There’s a healthy way to do this. As Pace and Shaddix explain, “Contextualization and mobilization for our respective spiritual communities can be accomplished through faithful exposition if we cast vision and extend challenges that are dictated by what God says, not what we’ve dreamed up for our ministries” (63).

Rather than running from the concept of vision altogether, pastors should, as Currie affirms, see vision casting as “expounding God’s great purposes for his church, revealed in the Scriptures, and applying them to the particular people in the particular place and period Christ has sent him to serve” (149).

Pastoral leadership thus takes its form from Scripture’s context rather than from the latest cultural trends. And yet it’s sometimes necessary to respond to unexpected events in the world.

Situational Leadership

Some of the most influential pastoral leadership opportunities arise from unforeseen situations—national or local tragedies, church conflicts, or political unrest. Pace and Shaddix argue, “It’s in those times that pastors have some of the greatest opportunities to shepherd people through their preaching” (101). Verse by verse, book by book, expository preaching is their preferred philosophy. Yet rigid adherence to a plan can make a pastor reluctant to pause a sermon series to address an important issue.

Faithful Bible preaching includes providing vision and strategy for God’s people.

Preachers, with their Bibles open, should capitalize on opportunities to address culturally relevant problems their people face. Pace and Shaddix counsel pastors to not run from or ignore a crisis, but they add, “At the same time, don’t rush in and try to navigate it with your own know-how, wisdom, and experience. Your people need to hear from God, and they need to know that you’ve been with him in pursuit of his infinite wisdom” (111).

Leading through a crisis by preaching God’s Word to give a biblical worldview for God’s people is the clearest example of leading by preaching, and all preachers are called to it.

Integrated Pastoral Leadership

Pastoral leadership from the pulpit is critical. Most often, we find books on leadership and books on preaching, but rarely do we find volumes that argue for the interconnectedness of the two. Currie, Pace, and Shaddix make the connection admirably.

Pace and Shaddix address this interconnectedness more succinctly and practically, while Currie’s work is more robust in theological argumentation, with fewer specific applications. Though the two books cover the same subject, their unique attributes make them an excellent pairing for the preacher-leader.

Both Expositional Leadership and The Pastor as Leader make a case for leading and preaching for God’s glory and his people’s good. Both books are wise, biblically infused, and pastoral. They’ve blessed me as a pastor-leader, and, by extension, they’ll bless those the Lord has entrusted to my leadership.

Why the Global Church Still Needs the Creeds Wed, 22 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The creeds are universal not because they are disembodied and atemporal truths but because they are a moment in the organic growth and development of the church, Christ’s body.]]> It can no longer be taken for granted that Christianity’s historic creeds have enduring significance beyond being mere relics of the past. As we walk among the smoldering ruins of Western Christendom, we’re likely to encounter fragments of these creeds, perhaps even in complete form. They are somewhat familiar, but we feel no organic connection with them.

As evangelical Christians, we believe the creeds. We sometimes recite them to remind ourselves we do. But their power is fading. We may feel embarrassed when we collectively recite them, not because we no longer believe them but because we believe them in a different way.

For many, the creeds are no longer self-evident, together with many other religious beliefs that used to hold society together at its seams. People who reject them no longer strike us as irrational or out of the ordinary. We’ve demoted the creeds to the status of hypotheses.

But against the prevailing cultural winds and despite their contextual nature, the creeds must retain a central position in the church’s life.

Outgrowing the Creeds

Charles Taylor explained the subtle change in our rapport with our own beliefs in terms of what he calls “secularity 3”—a change in the mode of believing. In a global world, it’s almost impossible to hold one’s religious opinions as self-evident. The presence of a bewildering diversity of indigenous theologies, particularly in parts of the world where the church is growing quickly, makes the historic creeds seem small indeed.

A double movement has been slowly rendering the creeds irrelevant.

1. Rise of Historical Consciousness

In the West, the past is no longer seen as a depository of eternal truths but as a merely antiquarian interest. Leopold von Ranke’s famous 1824 statement is relevant here: “To history has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high office this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.” But what actually happened has no direct bearing on eternal and necessary truths of reason, which cannot be supported by history’s contingent truths.

The creeds are no longer self-evident, together with many other religious beliefs that used to hold society together at its seams.

The effect of historicization is captured by Robin G. Collingwood’s comments on Johann Gottfried Herder, the first intellectual to describe historical consciousness: “Herder, as far as I know, was the first thinker to recognize in a systematic way that . . . human nature is not uniform but diversified. Human nature was not a datum but a problem.”

The natural is ultimately temporal—it can only be recognized in time, longitudinally, never just synchronically. Time and history are the photographic developers that reveal natural patterns. Debasing the past leads to questioning one’s sense of what is natural in the same way considering very closely the shape of a word defamiliarizes it, rendering it strange and arbitrary. Slicing time carves out the space in which we discover a huge variety of beliefs. A cross-section of history reveals disparate details without any clear means of relating them.

2. Global Dissipation of Truth

While the longitudinal approach of the historical consciousness detaches nature from the past and makes it a problem instead of a datum, the lateral vision of a globalizing approach relativizes nature to various contexts. Truth becomes local, and while other local truths may be interesting, they’re often of no value outside their original contexts.

This bears directly on the creeds, as African American theologian James Cone indicates: “I respect what happened at Nicea and Chalcedon and the theological input of the Church Fathers on Christology. . . . But the homoousia question is not a black question.”

Cone complains about a uniformizing tendency in Christian theology that’s also recognized by W. A. Dyrness and Oscar Garcia-Johnson: “The inherent problem with ‘Christendom’ was its ability to impose a uniformity that ignored or suppressed alternative points of view. . . . At the very least, it sometimes proposed theological formulations that were difficult to put into other cultural frameworks, where, for example, there had been no previous conversations about ‘persons’ and ‘substance.’”

To the extent creeds operate with so-called metaphysical language—and some creeds are more metaphysical than others (e.g., compare the Apostles’ Creed with Chalcedon or the Athanasian Creed)—they’re less interesting outside their original contexts. Each context, both across history and across the globe, presents unique challenges and questions.

The twin movements of historicism and globalization are making creeds cringey, as if you were to ask kids to enjoy their grandparents’ music and movies or expect a Romanian immigrant to the United States to embrace country music.

Creed and Context

The gospel’s propagation, many now suggest, requires recognizing the fertility of various contexts. Out of the soil of cultures spring questions, intuitions, and religious concepts that already provide fecund ground for the gospel. The creeds, particularly in their metaphysical language, are unnecessary for understanding the gospel in these contexts.

For example, Stephen B. Bevans and Roger Schroeder argue the story of Christianity mustn’t be seen as “the expansion of an institution but as the emergence of a movement, not simply as the propagation of ready-made doctrine but as the constant discovery of the gospel’s ‘infinite translatability’ and missionary intention.” The gospel’s “infinite” meanings are brought out through creative engagement with indigenous concepts, as was the case with the historic creeds and their employment of philosophical (Platonic) categories.

The force of these arguments is undeniable. And yet I’d like to put forward two reasons why the historic creeds are still essential for Christianity’s spread, both in and outside the West. The first argument is historical; the second pertains to theology.

1. Historical Argument

The creeds emerged from the gospel’s encounter with a broader cultural context, through missionary expansion. The development of doctrine, as Alister McGrath notes, was “partly on account of the need to interact with a language and a conceptual framework not designed with the specific needs of Christian theology in mind.” Doctrine and creeds arise from the need to explain and defend the gospel message in the face of intellectual and religious challenges, such as polytheism, Gnosticism, or dualism.

The historic creeds are still essential for Christianity’s spread, both in and outside the West.

Donald Fairbairn has recently pointed out the early church’s urgent need to clarify the meaning of its Trinitarian faith in the encounter with polytheistic cultures—something the Bible already asserts in contrast to the ancient world’s religions. He writes, “The church’s call to evangelistic outreach and wide-ranging mission work made this need all the more acute.”

As the church rejected these distortions of the apostolic message, it drew on available philosophical concepts. The terminology was never adopted uncritically, and the metaphysical baggage of the creeds (Nicaea to Chalcedon) is minimal. The debate boils down to the language of substance and persons. As Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves note, the creeds entered a standardization process in the fourth century, because of which “the creeds that we are familiar with today have been agreed on by a wide swath of the Christian church. They are universal in character, even though we should not forget their local, contextual origins.”

2. Theological Argument

Truth isn’t a disembodied spiritual reality. The Enlightenment had initially tried to prize eternal truths from positive historical events and figures. Yet we must reject the extremes of both timeless truth and historicism. The incarnation demonstrates that in Christ’s Jewish flesh, “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). The embodied concreteness of the divine revelation, at the fullness of time in Jesus Christ, is the content of the church’s apostolic and missionary teaching.

The church declares the meaning of these revealed mysteries. Just as these mysteries are revealed in an embodied way, so the church—as the body of Christ—proclaims these mysteries in a concrete cultural-linguistic way. Nevertheless, it’s a language drawn into the orbit of the primary language of Scripture and of the head of the body, Christ.

Why Creeds Are Normative

The historic creeds remain normative not because they lack context or are disembodied but because they represent the organic clarification and explanation of the gospel. They are thus norma normans, a normed norm. Depending on one’s confessional interpretation of Scripture, some creeds will be more normative than others.

The historic creeds remain normative not because they lack context or are disembodied but because they represent the organic clarification and explanation of the gospel.

The gospel’s spread takes place organically, through the outward movement of people and groups, and primarily through the growth of the body from the head, Jesus (Col. 2:19). This means the creeds only have value insofar as they explicate the embodied truth of Israel and Christ. They must never be allowed to achieve escape velocity but must stay in the Scriptures’ orbit.

This is a recognition that the gospel propagates in concentric circles, “to the Jew first, and also to the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). African American theologian J. Kameron Carter rightly stresses that “to be attuned to the divine harmonics is to play Israel’s covenantal song.” To access divine truths, one must go back to the history of the covenant with the Jewish people. But at the same time, it’s a recognition that “the drama of Israel is thus not insular, for it unfolds in such a way as to enfold the nations in its drama.”

Missiologist Andrew Walls has called this the “pilgrim principle,” which is universalizing:

All Christians of whatever nationality, are landed by adoption with several millennia of someone else’s history, with a whole set of ideas, concepts, and assumptions which do not necessarily square with the rest of their cultural inheritance. . . . The adoption into Israel becomes a “universalizing” factor, bringing Christians of all cultures and ages together through a common inheritance . . . bringing into everyone’s society some sort of outside reference.

To summarize, the creeds are universal not because they’re disembodied and atemporal truths—this is the Enlightenment understanding of truth—but because they’re a moment in the organic growth and development of a concrete body of Christ, his church.

Jaroslav Pelikan suggests we can think of these creeds and traditions as parents. Just as life is only available to us in a particular set of parents, so universal truth is, for us humans, only available in a particular embodiment. He writes,

Yet it is to the traditions of Athens and Jerusalem that their spiritual descendants must return, over and over again—not to linger there permanently, but to find there, for each generation of descendants, what we for our part shall not recognize elsewhere (though it certainly is elsewhere, if God is one, as the Shema of Judaism and the Nicene creed of Christian orthodoxy confess) unless we have first seen it there.

The life of the global church, just as much as the life of the Western church, is found only in its Jewish head and its Jewish Scriptures, whose seeds blossom in the creeds.

For a Protestant evangelical, not all creeds will command the same normativity. Some creeds will be like the weird uncle in one’s family tree. The creeds that punctuate the spiritual bloodline of a particular tradition will be more prominent. But the fact that they’re ancient and foreign should take nothing away from their vitality and power here and now.

Let the Bible Help You Understand Depression Tue, 21 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Our Savior has walked in the shadows and can sympathize with us. He knows our groanings, and in love he bore them for our sake.]]> Sarah, a faithful Sunday school teacher who enthralls kids with stories about God’s goodness, misses several weeks of church. When friends reach out, she admits she’s tired, but she offers little other explanation and excuses herself from conversations. Loved ones observe that she seems withdrawn, as if a light within her has gone out.

Then Sarah suddenly resigns from teaching Sunday school. Though at first she’s reticent to admit her struggles, she eventually confides she’s overwhelmed with despair, can’t concentrate, and no longer finds joy in the things she loves. She fears that her inability to overcome her depression with prayer and Bible study disqualifies her from teaching children Scripture. “How can I teach about God’s love when I can’t feel it myself?” she says through tears. “I know the gospel, yet I can’t pull myself out of my sadness. I’m a hypocrite.”

Sarah’s doctor has prescribed an antidepressant, but she feels deep-seated shame that she needs medication for a spiritual matter. The longer Sarah talks, the more her thoughts turn toward her doubts about whether God hears her prayers for relief, whether he loves her, and whether she can be a Christian if she’s wrestling through the darkness of depression.

What does depression have to do with Sarah’s faith? How might we help Sarah understand her depression biblically?

False Impressions About Depression

Sarah’s initial reluctance to divulge her depression stemmed in part from a perceived stigma against mental illness in her church. She recalled one occasion when a church leader said, “Depression isn’t an issue for Christians.” On another occasion, a member of her small group questioned how anyone who knew the gospel could struggle with grief and sadness.

She doubts whether God hears her prayers for relief, whether he loves her, and whether she can be a Christian if she’s wrestling through the darkness of depression.

Unfortunately, Sarah’s experience isn’t unique. On top of the burdens of despondency, hopelessness, and guilt that sufferers of depression already shoulder, too often interactions with those in the church cement their fears about inadequate faith.

Pastor Zack Eswine writes about this tendency: “In the eyes of many people, including Christian people, depression signifies cowardice, faithlessness, or a bad attitude. Such people tell God in prayer and their friends in person that the sufferer of depression is soft or unspiritual.”

Such misconceptions about suffering’s role in the Christian life can dissuade those with depression from seeking help. In some cases, theological misunderstandings or unrepentant sin may indeed contribute to depression, as was true in my case. Cultivating a deeper and more robust understanding of God’s attributes offered an anchor that was crucial to my recovery. But spiritual factors don’t mean depression and faith are mutually exclusive.

More Biblical Perspective

On the contrary, Scripture teaches us that discipleship is costly; that sin still ravages the world; that deep, penetrating pain exists (even for believers); and that God works through such pain for good.

Understanding these truths can guide sufferers back to their hope in Christ when they need it most. In Sarah’s case, a gradual and careful walk through Scripture with compassionate church leaders was life-giving. As she wrestled to see the realities of her depression through a biblical lens, Sarah learned to trust God’s sovereignty and mercy, to express her despair through lament, and to lean on the church for support.

Here are some themes from Scripture that may offer solace, understanding, and hope to those who suffer from depression. A biblical understanding of suffering—and the truth that even those with strong faith can flail in the darkness—can alleviate false guilt, encourage counseling, and ease a sufferer back toward the light.

1. Trials will come.

Christ triumphed over death (1 Cor. 15:55; 2 Tim. 1:10), and when he returns, all its wretched manifestations will wash away (Isa. 25:7–8; Rev. 21:4–5). But for now, we live in the wake of the fall, in a world where sin corrupts every molecule, cell, and wayward breeze (Rom. 8:19–22). Jesus warned us that tribulation and persecution would follow his disciples into the world (Matt. 16:24–25; John 1:10–11; 15:20; 16:33), but in the good news of salvation he provides, he also gives us living hope (1 Pet. 1:3–5), a sturdy limb to which we can cling when storms assail us.

While we await Jesus’s return, the storms still come. Their winds beat on, crippling our bodies. Their torrents lash us, drowning us in misery. Yet in Christ, we need not be subdued. Though pelting hail still stings and can drive even faithful Christians into despondency, we cleave to the firm assurance of eternal life.

When we dismiss depression as a defect in faith, we forget that the Savior we treasure has also known crushing sorrow (Matt. 26:38; 27:46). Though he shared perfect communion with the Father, he was acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). Our Savior has walked in the shadows and can sympathize with us (Heb. 4:15). He knows our groanings, and in love he bore them for our sake.

When we despair and can’t see God, our identity in Christ—and God’s love for us—remains untarnished. The gospel promises not freedom from pain but an abundantly more precious gift: the assurance of God’s love, which prevails over sin and buoys us through the tempests. Christ offers hope that transcends the crooked wantonness of this broken world. Suffering can bear down on us. Depression can crush the faithful. But in Christ, nothing can separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38–39).

2. God meant it for good.

When we dismiss depression as an affliction of faithlessness, we can crush believers during their moments of need and ignore how God uses despair as part of his refining work. We serve a heavenly Father whose love and sovereignty are so great that he can work through our worst anguish for our good and his glory.

Paul prayed three times that God would remove his “thorn in the flesh,” but rather than relieving Paul’s pain, the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7–9). Freedom from pain, though ideal in our eyes, may not always be our greatest good.

Our Savior has walked in the shadows amd can sympathize with us. He knows our groanings, and in love he bore them for our sake.

My first—and worst—depressive episode occurred on the tails of a traumatic event that threw my faith into turmoil, but depression can also descend without any clear trigger or inciting event. I’ve had episodes strike without warning while I watched my kids at a playground or sipped coffee at a sun-soaked breakfast table. I felt as if a switch suddenly flipped in my mind, and as all color and feeling drained away, I looked skyward and prayed: “Oh Lord, please, no. Not this. Not again.”

Before these episodes of depression struck, if I’m honest, I often strutted blithely through life with a hardened, unexamined heart. I sought meaning through my accomplishments rather than through Christ. Just as the obstinate Jonah wouldn’t open his lips in prayer until locked within the gloom of a fish’s belly, I refused to gaze heavenward until driven to my knees, enshrouded in despair I couldn’t escape.

While I’d never wish to return to that desolate place, I’m thankful for how God has worked through my bleakest hours to sanctify me. Only when I was desperate for God’s light did he choose to reveal himself to me through Scripture.

When we discuss God’s sovereignty with a sufferer, we must be careful not to presume suffering strikes people as a punishment for weak faith. If we do, we err like Job’s “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2), who wrongfully accused him of unrepentant sin. While God may allow us to suffer to discipline us or to heighten our sense of reliance on him for life and breath and everything (Acts 17:25), he doesn’t condemn us to depression as punishment for sin. Christ has already borne sin’s penalty for us. His blood washes us whiter than snow (1 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 7:14).

If we doubt that God can work through our sorrows for good, we need only look to the cross. The Father sent his Son to bear the world’s sufferings so we’d have eternal life (Rom. 5:8; Eph. 2:4–9). Through Christ’s suffering, God achieved history’s most beautiful and magnificent act of grace. He saved us, giving us hope amid the despair that afflicts us this side of heaven, and when he returns, our salvation will be complete. He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

3. ‘How long, O LORD?’

Though those who suffer from depression may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to admit their condition, they may reap solace from the truth that they’re not alone. History and Scripture reveal that for centuries, faithful Christ followers who have proclaimed God’s goodness have also grappled with unshakable sorrow. Modern examples include Christian songwriters Michael Card and Andrew Peterson, who have both penned songs about their battles with depression.

These musicians follow in the footsteps of saints over the millennia. Charles Spurgeon fought depression all his life, once reflecting, “I could say with Job, ‘My soul chooseth strangling rather than life.’ I could readily enough have laid violent hands upon myself, to escape from my misery of spirit.” Even David, a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14), cried out to the Lord from the depths (Ps. 13:1–2). He lamented,

All the day I go about mourning,
For my sides are filled with burning,
and there is no soundness in my flesh.
I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart. (38:6–8)

We see many vivid models of how to trust God through the cries of suffering in the Psalms. When depression seizes us, we too may perceive our days “like an evening shadow,” and feel that we “wither away like grass” (102:11). In Psalm 55, David grieves,

My heart is in anguish within me;
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
and horror overwhelms me. (vv. 4–5)

Such passages echo the turmoil within when depression obscures one’s vision of Christ. As we fumble through the shadows in search of God, the Psalms reassure us that even those dearest to him endure such seasons. Those who have known and loved God have also drowned in anguish and cried out in longing for him.

What Should We Think About Paedocommunion? Tue, 21 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Should those who support paedobaptism affirm paedocommunion as well? ]]> In Reformed (and particularly Presbyterian) churches, you may hear about “paedocommunion,” sometimes called “infant communion” or “child communion.” This view maintains that the child of a believer (a “covenant child”) is entitled not only to receive the covenant sign of baptism but also to partake of the bread and the wine in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Proponents argue it’s inconsistent to bestow baptism on a covenant child and withhold from that child the Lord’s Supper. Strikingly, the ad absurdum argument made against paedobaptism by some credobaptists (“paedobaptism logically leads to paedocommunion”) is being championed by paedocommunion’s proponents.

Because of growing interest in paedocommunion within some quarters of the Reformed church over the last half century, the practice merits a closer look. Let’s consider the compelling biblical and theological arguments against paedocommunion. These arguments, furthermore, help to explain why the confessional consensus of the Reformed churches has knowingly rejected the practice. Then let’s review Scripture’s teaching about when and under what conditions a child in the church may come to the Lord’s Table.

Instruction to the Corinthians

The leading argument against paedocommunion comes from Paul’s teaching about the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. Paul responds to gross misuses of the Supper within the Corinthian church (v. 17). Divisions among church members (1:10–17; 3:4) have manifested themselves in the church’s worship (11:18). The “haves” are feasting and getting drunk, while the “have nots” are reduced to playing the part of humiliated spectators (vv. 21–22). The situation appalls Paul, and he isn’t even willing to call what the Corinthians are doing “the Lord’s Supper” (v. 20).

But Paul wounds to heal. He reminds the Corinthians of the Supper’s origin and meaning (vv. 23–26). Christ himself instituted it for his church. The bread and the cup are to be taken “in remembrance of [Christ]” (vv. 24, 25). In particular, the Supper remembers Jesus’s “blood” shed for the sins of his people (v. 25). Therefore, when God’s people observe it, they “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (v. 26).

The apostle then turns to the criteria for coming to the Lord’s Table. Not everyone in the congregation may come. Those who come must “examine” themselves and “[discern] the body”—that is, the “body and blood of the Lord” sacramentally connected with the bread and the cup (11:27–29). Paul issues stern warnings. Those who partake “in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27). A person who eats and drinks without discernment of the body “eats and drinks judgment on himself” (v. 29).

Paul concludes his argument by applying these principles specifically to the Corinthians (vv. 30–34). The church has already been experiencing the severe, chastening hand of the Lord Jesus. They must, then, observe the Supper in a way that honors him.

Instruction for Us

On Paul’s terms, paedocommunion is impossible. An infant is unable to comply with the apostolic qualifications set forth in 1 Corinthians 11:27–29. Only at the point when a covenant child attains maturity and can demonstrate repentance and faith may the church admit him or her to the Table.

Only at the point when a covenant child attains maturity and can demonstrate repentance and faith may the church admit him or her to the Table.

Proponents of paedocommunion often interpret 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 to say that the Lord’s Supper is a family meal, and that Paul’s main point is to rebuke disunity that prevents people from coming to the table. “Body,” they argue, refers throughout this passage to the church as Christ’s body. So long as covenant children can recognize and promote the church’s unity, they should share in this meal.

The problem with this argument is not that Scripture never speaks of the Lord’s Supper as giving expression to the fellowship of the church—it does (see 1 Cor 10:17). The problem with this argument is that it makes fellowship the exclusive (or primary) purpose of the Supper. In doing so it effectively eliminates the Supper as a memorial of Christ’s death for sin and as a believing participation in the crucified Christ. Paedocommunion requires a radical overhaul of the nature and meaning of the Lord’s Supper.

Historic, Reformed Consensus

For these reasons, the Reformed confessions of the 16th and 17th centuries unanimously rejected paedocommunion. The Lord’s Supper, according to the Westminster Larger Catechism, is “only [for] such as are of years and ability to examine themselves” (Q&A 177; compare WCF 29.7). The Belgic Confession (article 35) and Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 81) bear the same testimony.

These confessional rejections of paedocommunion were no innovation. The Genevan reformer John Calvin was not only aware of paedocommunion but advanced a brief but trenchant refutation of the practice (Institutes 4.16.30). His contemporary, the Scottish reformer John Knox, allowed no room for paedocommunion in his Genevan Service Book (1556).

Are Paedobaptists Inconsistent?

This historical Reformed consensus serves as a confirmation of the Bible’s testimony against paedocommunion. The question remains whether paedobaptists are inconsistent in administering baptism to the infant of a believer but withholding the Lord’s Supper from that young person until he or she professes faith in Christ.

This historical Reformed consensus serves as a confirmation of the Bible’s testimony against paedocommunion.

Confessional paedobaptists say no and point to an important difference between the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Christ appointed the sacrament of baptism to be administered to disciples at the commencement of their discipleship (Matt. 28:18–20). It points people to the salvation that Christ alone has accomplished and that’s freely offered in the gospel. If the child of at least one believer is, by birthright and by calling, a disciple of Christ, then that child is entitled to receive baptism (see Mark 10:13–16; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14). Baptism summons this child to look in faith to Christ as Savior and Lord.

Christ has appointed the Supper, on the other hand, to be received by disciples who meet the qualifications of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34. The Supper solemnly sets forth Christ as crucified and involves a believing participation in Christ and in the benefits of his death. In light of this reality, one must publicly declare his or her faith in Christ to be admitted to the Table.

The Table’s Benefit for Children

The church should desire every one of its children to come to the Lord’s Table. The biblical way to fulfill this desire isn’t to invite unqualified covenant children to come to the Lord’s Supper. It is, rather, to teach them the gospel, to point them to Jesus Christ as the only Savior from sin, and to urge them to take hold of the inheritance that can be theirs through faith in Christ. The Table, in other words, calls covenant children to make public profession of faith in Christ.

Seen in this way, the Lord’s Supper is a tremendous help to stir the church to lead its littlest ones to Jesus Christ.

Violent Pornography’s Assault on the Marriage Bed Mon, 20 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 Few influences are more prevalent and influential in shaping sexual desire today than pornography.]]> The most influential source of sex education in America today is pornography. For the majority of young people today—including most Christians—attitudes about sex and sexual practices are being shaped wholly, if not exclusively, by pornography. This is nothing new, of course, but it’s becoming increasingly dangerous because porn is becoming increasingly violent.

Numerous studies have confirmed this finding. For example, a 2020 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior looked at a random sampling of videos on the top two most viewed porn sites in the world. The study found physical aggression against women present in 44.3 percent of one site’s videos and 33.9 percent of the other’s. Put simply, between one-third and almost one-half of porn videos depict some sort of violence—and in 97 percent of cases, they depict violence against women.

This normalization of violence is spilling over into the real world. Three years ago, a study published in the Journal of American College Health found that 26.5 percent of female undergraduate students had been choked during their most recent sexual encounter. Additionally, 24.8 percent of men reported they choked their partner in their most recent sexual encounter. (Notice they weren’t merely responding that this had happened sometime in their life but that it happened in their most recent sexual experience.)

A more recent survey found the practice has increased by about 50 percent in those three years. Nearly two-thirds of women in the survey (5,000 students at an anonymized “major Midwestern university”) said a partner had choked them during sex, with one-third in their most recent encounter. The rate of those women who said they were between the ages 12 and 17 the first time that happened had shot up to 40 percent from one in four.

Why would men do that? Because they see it happening in porn and think it’s what women want. Why do the women go along with it? Because they too see it in porn and think it must be what they’re supposed to want.

External forces mold our wants, often without us realizing it. Few influences are more prevalent and influential in shaping sexual desire today than pornography. One study found that men watch porn for 5 to 17 minutes a day—between 30 and 103 hours a year. If a boy starts looking at pornography at age 12, then by the time he’s 32, he has watched between 600 and 2,000 hours of porn videos. He’ll have been shaped for two decades by the porn industry and by that industry feeding him increasingly more extreme images and examples of sexual acts.

External forces mold our wants, often without us realizing it. Few influences are more prevalent and influential in shaping sexual desire today than pornography.

Because these images are being fed to him when his personality is still being formed and his sexuality is developing, he begins to confuse his desires with those he sees in porn. He thinks that’s what he desires when the reality is that he’s been conditioned to want those things by the porn industry.

But God didn’t design us to want to inflict pain on others during sex, nor did he design us to want that for ourselves. It’s not a natural desire or a natural part of the sexual process. That’s why in earlier times it was considered a perversion. Such actions pervert the nature of sex—which is meant to be beautiful and good—into something ugly and evil. Such acts twist sex in such a way that its purposes, such as creating a one-flesh union, are destroyed.

Why Violence Has No Place in Marital Intimacy

Christians need to be clear that such acts of violence have no place in sexual intimacy. Here are three reasons we must reject sexual violence as incompatible with God’s design for marital intimacy.

1. Sex was designed by God, and he prohibits violence.

The Bible has a lot to say about violence, but let’s look at just one verse as an example. Proverbs 3:31 says, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” We don’t want to adopt the ways of the violent because they’re generally incompatible with the command to love one’s neighbor.

It’s possible, though extremely rare, that the best way to love your neighbor is through the use of violence. You may, for instance, need to resort to violence to prevent him from harming himself or others. But there’s never a time when violence is appropriate within the context of marital intimacy.

2. People get hurt by violent acts, and we’re called to preserve the life of our neighbor.

The sixth commandment compels us to preserve our neighbor’s bodily well-being (Ex. 20:13). Why then would we engage in practices that can cause so much harm?

Such practices as choking, also known as sexual strangulation, are highly dangerous and can lead to serious health risks and even death. Some of the physical dangers include oxygen deprivation, cardiac arrest, stroke, cognitive impairment, damaged blood vessels or larynx, and even death. Equally harmful is the psychological damage it can inflict. Engaging in such a dangerous sexual practice can lead to anxiety, depression, psychological distress, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

3. The nature of sex is contrary to violence.

Violence is characterized by harm, control, and fear. In contrast, intimacy is built on trust, mutual respect, and emotional closeness. Violence is therefore incompatible with intimacy. Love for our spouse should lead us to treat them with gentleness, respect and consideration. There is never a justification for violence, coercion, or abuse within the sacred bond of marriage. Intimacy can only flourish when both partners feel safe from harm.

The effects of sexual violence before marriage can also inhibit intimacy within marriage, even with a partner that isn’t violent. Debby Herbenick notes that choking is among the most frequently listed sex acts young women said had scared them.

“At times some of them literally think someone is assaulting them but they don’t know,” says Herbenick. “Those are the only sexual experiences for some people. And it’s not just once they’ve gotten naked. They’ll say things like, ‘I’ve only tried to make out with someone once because he started choking and hitting me.’”

Some might ask, “What about consent and pleasure? What if a spouse consents to some act that might appear violent, such as choking? What if one of us gets pleasure from such acts?”

For secular culture, consent has become the one and only constraint on sexual acts. If two people have given their consent—that is, if they give their permission to engage in certain sexual acts—then the acts are allowable. No questions asked; no judgments allowed. To express disapproval would be “shaming” and antithetical to the norm of “sex positivity.”

This minimalist standard is being adopted by an increasing number of Christians. Many have come to believe that if both the man and woman consent and at least one of them derives pleasure from the act, then it must be permissible—especially within marriage. They fail to recognize how such thinking is due to the corruption of moral reasoning by sin.

Extend Truth, Grace, and Hope

Even secular counselors are beginning to express concern about sexual violence. As one study concluded, “Clinicians need to be aware of recent potential shifts in sexual behaviors, particularly those such as choking that may lead to harm.”

We owe it to those caught up in such corrupted sexual desires to tell them the truth. To those who’ve been influenced by pornography and feel trapped by violent sexual desires, we need to communicate that there’s hope and healing in Christ. We must walk with them as they begin replacing those false images with truth from God’s Word about his design for healthy intimacy.

Pornography doesn’t just affect men, of course. Many women feel immense pressure to conform to the violent and degrading acts normalized in porn. They may believe that if they don’t consent to aggressive sex acts, they’re prudish or will lose their husbands’ interest. In truth, any sexual coercion is the opposite of the selfless, sacrificial love husbands are called to show their wives (Eph. 5:25).

To those who’ve been influenced by pornography and feel trapped by violent sexual desires, we need to communicate that there’s hope and healing in Christ.

To help young Christians who are preparing for or who have entered the covenant of marriage, it’s crucial we have frank discussions like this about God’s design for sexuality and the ways that design has been distorted in our violent, pornified culture. We must compassionately help them understand how those desires have been shaped by outside influences rather than placed there by God. Truly satisfying marital intimacy flows from sex as God intended it—a beautiful, holy union that brings a man and woman together as one flesh.

Pastors, parents, and counselors must boldly proclaim this truth, especially to the younger generations most influenced by our sexualized culture. We need to show them how God’s boundaries around sexuality, including the prohibition against sexual violence, are for our good and his glory. As the church, we have a responsibility to paint a compelling vision of God-honoring sexuality and to graciously guide people away from the counterfeits that only bring harm.

Ultimately, all of us live in a pornified culture to such a degree that we need to “take every thought captive” (2 Cor. 10:5) and seek to align our minds with God’s design for sexuality. The issue goes beyond just the violent aspects promoted in pornography. Each of us must repent of ways we’ve embraced the world’s distorted vision of sex and instead pursue the beautiful intimacy God intends for marriage. Only by basing our views of love and intimacy in God’s Word can we find freedom from the lies and temptations of our sexualized culture.

Pastoral or Academic Ministry? How a Pastor-Theologian Can Balance 2 Loves Mon, 20 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Pastor-theologians across the spectrum benefit from one another’s gifts.]]> “Since I have a love for both, should I pursue pastoral ministry or academic ministry?”

As a university theology professor, I frequently discuss this question, or a variation of it, with students. Those who ask have a deep love for God’s people. They can envision themselves pouring out their lives as shepherds in the local church; they also love the intellectual life and are pulled toward further study. Often, at the end of their graduate degrees, they must decide between setting sail into full-time pastoral ministry or pursuing doctoral programs for further formal theological training.

This tension between pastoral and academic ministry resonates with me. I’ve often said I live a hybrid life: I have a deep love for both the local church and the academy, and I’ve served as both a pastor and a professor. At times, the tension can feel lonely. But the more I talk to others, the more I see I’m not alone.

Even for those who insist on remaining active in both pastoral ministry and academia, it’s common that one field will get more attention. So how should a young person think about deciding a way forward and balancing the two loves?

Spectrum of Pastor-Theologians

As I’ve taken stock of my proclivities and helped students identify ways they can pursue ministry in light of their own, it has become clear there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to balancing a love for the local church and the academy. There’s a spectrum of valid ways a pastor-theologian’s dual love may be expressed.

There’s a spectrum of valid ways a pastor-theologian’s dual love may be expressed.

I’ve attempted to chart the spectrum between pastoral and academic ministry as I’ve observed and experienced it. You’ll see seven points on the spectrum, five of which I see as faithful options for an individual who loves both local church ministry and academic theology. The two options on the far ends ought to be avoided, but the middle five are commendable for pastor-theologians.

Options to Emulate

Note the arrows at the top of the spectrum. While every pastor-theologian should love both the local church and theology, the reality for most is that only one field will be our primary vocation. Some key questions for self-analysis are these: Do a feel God’s call primarily toward church members, students in a classroom, or fellow academics/researchers. In which type of ministry will I invest most of my time—church body/denomination, or an academic institution? From where to I expect to collect my full-time paycheck?

Answering these questions will help, out of the gate, to determine which side of the spectrum a pastor-theologian falls on. Those on the right side of the spectrum will principally see their vocation in academic institutions while those on the left will primarily see their vocation in churches or denominational ministries.

Now let’s explore each type of pastor-theologian. I’ll start with the five options in the middle that ought to be emulated.

1. Pastors Who Consume Academic Theology

This option includes pastors whose primary vocation and responsibility is in the local church. Their primary income usually comes from the church, or for unpaid pastors, their primary duties are in the day-to-day ministries of a local congregation. These pastors love theology and want to stay informed about the latest trends in academic research. They read theological books, listen to theological discussions via podcasts and lectures, and stay up to date on where the theological pulse of the broader church is at any given moment.

However, these pastors aren’t active contributors to academia. They don’t attend academic conferences or write articles or book reviews for academic journals. Their “production” benefits the life of a particular local church or a group of local churches rather than the broader intellectual development of the global church.

2. Pastors Who Contribute to Academic Theology

Like the first option, this group of pastors sees their primary vocation in the local church or denominational ministries. The bulk of their responsibility resides in shepherding congregants.

But this group still finds time and space to contribute to academic theology in some capacity. While these pastors intend to stay in the pulpit, they may also pursue a PhD, do adjunct teaching for an academic institution, write book reviews and academic articles for peer-reviewed journals, or attend academic conferences like ETS, SBL, AAR, IBR, LATC, and NAPS (even if they don’t read papers or present new research). These pastors not only consume theology but contribute to academic conversations via their lectures, writings, podcasts, and so on.

3. Bivocational Pastor-Theologians

Of the five faithful options, this one is the least frequented. Individuals in this category truly split their time between the church and the academy. It’s understood by both the local churches and their academic institutions that they’ll give paid time and energy to two fields. Examples include those who occupy formal theological residencies in a local church and those who split their time between a church and a Bible college or seminary.

4. Theologians Who Actively Write for and Lead in the Local Church

Number four takes our conversation to the other side of the spectrum. Theologians on this side see their primary vocation in academic institutions. They serve primarily as professors or academic administrators. The bulk of their time is spent among students at their schools.

But while this person spends the bulk of his time in academia, he actively contributes to the discipleship work and ministry life of his local church. He may be an unpaid elder, or much of the writing he publishes may be aimed toward the church. Because academic institutions expect faculty members to remain up to date in their field, these theologians may write academic papers or specialized monographs, but they also regularly write popular-level publications meant to disciple a broader audience in local churches.

5. Theologians Who Write for the Academy but Are Active in the Local Church

The final category is for theologians who not only spend the bulk of their time in the academy but also primarily write for the academy. These theologians spend their career energy and time in academia but remain faithful members of their local churches.

Some people might question whether full-time academic labors are of practical value to the members of the local church. But it’s my contention we need faithful academic theologians who consistently publish specialist monographs and care about the local church (even if they never pastor a church or publish popular-level discipleship resources). Often conversations that begin in the halls of academia show up in local churches a few years later. So it’s good for the church that we have faithful specialist theologians with gifted intellects who have been commissioned to shape such conversations from the start. We shouldn’t bemoan “ivory tower” theologians. In fact, the larger church needs individuals with intellectual ability to sit at the academic table and defend orthodoxy in arenas where it’s consistently under scrutiny.

Having said that, even theologians who publish the most significant theological monographs shouldn’t be exempt from an active life in the local church. The Lord has ordained the church, not the academy, to be the primary overseers of souls, so there’s no such thing as a faithful theologian who isn’t also a faithful church member.

Options to Avoid

When you look back at the chart, you’ll see two unnumbered extremes. Most students I talk to aren’t tempted to these far ends of the spectrum, but there are those in the church convinced nothing good comes from the halls of academia. Such people refer to seminary as “cemetery.” They’re convinced formal education only puffs up with pride and destroys affection and zeal for Christ.

On the other hand, there are those in the academy so entrenched in the life of the mind that they fail to see how their theological reflection bears significance for church life. Though the church is the soil from where theology ought to grow, these theologians have found the everyday life of regular Christians burdensome to their task of developing and advancing theological inquiry.

While I wish it didn’t need to be said, we should avoid both errors.

Know Yourself. Give Thanks for Others.

This spectrum of pastor-theologians isn’t perfect. Many will read this and consider themselves in between two numbers. Moreover, I haven’t even attempted to address those who serve in parachurch ministries and publishing houses. But as I continue to have this conversation with students—and in my head—these working categories help me to remember the path of faithfulness isn’t monolithic.

One of the more important consequences of this working spectrum is how it has freed me to tell students, “It’s OK to be you.” It’s easy to see someone working in one of these categories I’ve outlined and begin to think there’s only one model of faithfulness. But the Lord has gifted, equipped, and called many pastor-theologians in various directions. There may be times when the Lord changes an individual’s ministry context, moving a person from pastoral ministry to academic ministry, or from the academy to the local church. But in keeping with our gifts, there are several noble paths that can be followed to glorify the Lord and serve our neighbors.

As I worked on this article, I discussed the spectrum with one of the elders at my church and we diagnosed where we believe we each fit. It became clear I’m a “four” and he’s a “one.” My full-time job is at a university where I teach theology, but I love pastoral ministry and would like to pursue nonvocational pastoral ministry as long as the Lord allows. My pastor is full-time at our two-year-old church plant, and he wants to spend the rest of his days shepherding a local congregation. On most days, we have no desire for one other’s ministry, but what became clear as we talked is that we’re thankful for and need each other.

Pastor-theologians across the spectrum benefit from one another’s gifts.

Pastor-theologians across the spectrum benefit from one another’s gifts. Those of us in the “four” category often find most of what we read is by those in the “five” category. Those in the “one” and “two” categories tend to read what those in the “four” category write.

On the other side, those in the “four” and “five” categories are almost always shepherded and pastored by those in the “one” and “two” categories. We need each other, and the church needs all of us. However you keep together your loves for the local church and the academy, may the Lord use your hybrid love for his glory.

Fight Political Fear with Kingdom Hope Sun, 19 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Jesus doesn’t need your candidate to win for him to establish his kingdom.]]> In 1984, two of my Christian friends lived together in Washington, DC, as summer interns. One worked full-time to elect Walter Mondale and Democrats. The other worked full-time to elect Ronald Reagan and Republicans. In August, as they returned to California for their last year of college, they laughed that each probably canceled out the efforts of the other.

How many Christian friends would enjoy the same kind of summer together in 2024?

Way too many of us care way too much about who’ll win this year’s presidential election. Though the partisan fires didn’t burn as hot 40 years ago, Richard Lovelace observed a similar spirit then:

Every four years the American people elect a new president with the hope that somehow this will make things better. Economic downturns, crop failures, moral declines and worsening international conditions are all blamed on presidents—who in most cases have little control over events. In the hearts of the people is a groping, inarticulate conviction that if the right ruler would only come along, the world would be healed of all its wounds.

If I’m honest, presidential elections have meant way too much to me. I spent the first decade of my adult life in Washington, DC, including a six-year stint as a political lobbyist for Apple Inc. I know what it is to live and breathe politics as a Christian. During the 1992 election, the Lord began to proportion my political energies with the gospel message revealed in Daniel 2. I’ve returned to the book of Daniel every election year since.

Political History’s Kingdom Climax

In Judah’s exile to Babylon, Daniel sees God’s people suffer on a massive scale. He later sees the Babylonian empire vanquished by the Persians. For Daniel, the question that surfaces is whether the rise of global empires rendered God’s kingdom moot. Despite all the bloodshed and appearances to the contrary, the Book of Daniel’s answer is an emphatic no.

In Daniel 2, the prophet interpreted King Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, where an uncut stone struck and destroyed a great statue representing the world’s mighty empires. Daniel tells us that stone represents God’s kingdom, and he sees God’s kingdom as the climax of all political history: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed. . . . It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms [our world’s successive empires] and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever” (v. 44).

If we read all of Daniel, we note how powerful, awesome, and dangerous the kingdoms of men are. It’s no wonder that, while working in DC, I felt the oxygen sucked out of my chest when I passed a standing president in the doorway.

But Daniel calls us to be captivated by something even more awesome: the kingdom of God. At the end of history, all empires (including America), will be like chaff scattered to the wind (v. 35). Only one empire will be left standing: Jesus’s kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer has us praying for this: “Thy kingdom come . . . on earth as it is in heaven.”

Our Undue Fear and Hope

This frees us to put every political election into perspective. Daniel encourages us to resist undue fear this year. God’s kingdom can’t be hindered by any president. He says, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people” (v. 44).

Scripture encourages us to resist undue fear this year. God’s kingdom can’t be hindered by any president.

It has never been easy to be a follower of Jesus (cf. 2 Tim. 3:12). Daniel’s friends survive execution by furnace. Daniel survives execution by lions. Despite the dangers, Daniel urges us to keep our eyes on the only kingdom that endures. If Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome cannot stop God’s kingdom, neither can any president in our day.

Daniel also exhorts us to resist undue hope: the kingdom of God isn’t established by any political leader but by God himself. Daniel says, “The God of heaven will set up a kingdom . . .”

What the World Needs Most

While working in DC, I volunteered in a college ministry. A retreat speaker once asked the students, “If God made you king or queen of the world, what would you do?”

Students struggled to come up with initiatives worthy of such power. One said he’d make sure every person is offered a great education. Another said she’d distribute the world’s food equitably among all. But the room grew restive. No one felt they were taking full advantage of global sovereignty. One student said, “I’d make sure every kid had a loving family.” How does one politically affect genuine family love? Finally, another asked, “Can we make everyone become a Christian?” The exercise broke down. At this point, everyone saw they couldn’t affect the world’s deepest needs through politics.

This exercise was arresting for me. If global sovereignty was so limited in its effects, what was a puny political affairs professional hoping to accomplish? I have friends who’ve contributed much through politics over the decades. But it’s critical to realize Jesus doesn’t need your candidate to win for him to establish his kingdom.

Our Responsibility

So as we vote this year, let’s turn down the anxiety and frenzy. Billions of dollars and man-hours are being spent to call this the most important election of your lifetime. I’m 61 years old. I’ve been told this every four years. I no longer buy it.

Jesus doesn’t need your candidate to win for him to establish his kingdom.

Instead, let’s humbly seek the Lord’s will, consider the issues and candidates, and confer together as “iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17). Then let’s vote lovingly and respectfully, knowing Jesus’s kingdom isn’t ultimately dependent on the election’s outcome.

And if the relational bonds of your faith community are being fractured by politics, lovingly name the real problem, as 18th-century pastor John Newton did: “Faintly the power of the gospel is felt.” Paul so deeply felt that the gospel was the “power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) that he never worried about who Caesar was. Oh, that Jesus would make us so experience his kingdom as the pearl of great price and as the hidden treasure (Matt. 13:44–46) that we can get our heart-claws out of politicians and into our eternal king, Jesus himself.

5 Servants Every Church Needs Sat, 18 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 When we see teaching and leadership gifts, it’s easy to get excited, to want to nurture those more obvious gifts. But there are many other gifts and members that need to be noticed and encouraged.]]> Jack attended the morning service every Sunday with his wife. In the time I knew him, he never preached from the pulpit or led ministries. But man, he could pray.

He passionately encouraged prayer when decisions needed to be made. He hosted prayer meetings at the church and in his home. He messaged leaders—including my husband—to let them know he was thinking of them, writing out prayers in texts and emails. To hear from Jack was to be drawn into an interminable conversation with God.

Every church needs a servant like Jack—every church probably has a servant like Jack. He or she simply might be overlooked. When we see teaching and leadership gifts in congregants, it’s easy to get excited, to want to nurture those more obvious gifts. Still, many other gifts and members need to be noticed and encouraged.

As the early church displayed, every empowered gift is for the common good, the selfless giving of one’s self for one another (1 Cor. 12:6–7). In Acts, Luke includes stories of men and women who hear the gospel, respond, and serve their churches, keeping pace with the sweeping outward movement of the gospel (Acts 1:8). Many didn’t lead large ministries, write books of the Bible, or preach to crowds. Most remained unnamed. Still, God used these servants where they were—with the gifts they had—to build up and encourage his church. God continues to work through such servants in our churches today, and they need to be encouraged and equipped just like those with more visible gifts.

5 Types of Servants

Here are five servants we see woven throughout Acts that every church needs to nurture.

1. The Servant Devoted to Prayer

Jesus’s closest friends watched as he ascended into heaven, his final words on their minds: don’t leave Jerusalem, but wait until the Father pours out his Spirit (Acts 1:4–5). So they waited with eager expectation—and they prayed.

Luke tells us Mary was numbered with those who prayed continually and with unity (v. 14). We’ve heard her pray before as she humbly accepted her role as Jesus’s mother (Luke 1:46–55), and now we see Mary beside fellow believers doing what Jesus commanded them: Stay. Wait. God will fulfill his promise soon.

Who prays boldly and often in your congregation? Who do you see praying for others after the Sunday service? Like Mary’s, one person’s heart for prayer can encourage others to keep seeking, keep believing, and keep praying.

2. The Servant Who Uses Her Skills for Kingdom Ends

Some 30 miles outside Jerusalem, disciples called for Peter and gathered around Tabitha’s deathbed. Weeping widows held up the clothes she made them, demonstrating why Luke declared her a woman “full of good works and acts of charity” (Acts 9:36). God brought Tabitha to life again, and her resurrection encouraged many to trust in the Lord (vv. 40–42).

One person’s heart for prayer can encourage others to keep seeking, keep believing, and keep praying.

Tabitha used the skills she had to meet needs, and there are those in every congregation who do the same. The man who comes to fix the pastor’s fence, the women who make meals for new moms, those who decorate the sanctuary for Christmas—all use their skills to love fellow church members.

3. The Servant Generous with Resources

After Paul preached the gospel in the Roman colony of Philippi, a businesswoman named Lydia was converted and baptized. Paul and his companions needed a place to stay, and Lydia gladly offered them her home (16:15).

Lydia’s offer of Christian hospitality provided the food and safe lodging these outsiders needed. Her service allowed Paul and his friends to continue preaching the gospel to the end of the earth (1:8).

This was no small expense or use of time. Like the family who invites college students for lunch after the Sunday service, the member who provides missionary housing, and the older woman who buys diapers for single moms, Lydia gave generously of what she had to provide for God’s people.

4. The Servant Who Wisely Discerns

Some people in our churches know their Bibles inside and out—you know who they are. Priscilla and Aquila were two of those people, a trusted husband and wife tentmaking team who worked alongside Paul.

When this couple heard fellow believer Apollos teaching boldly in the synagogue, they pulled him aside and privately “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (18:26). Apollos took what he learned from Priscilla and Aquila to Achaia, where he showed through Scripture that the Christ was Jesus (v. 28). Their discernment bolstered Apollos’s teaching ministry and helped him grow.

I’m encouraged by pastors who invite men and women from their congregations to discuss Scripture and applications for upcoming sermons. This serves as a mutual sharpening, a public reminder that congregants’ engagement with Scripture and life experiences are valued.

Those who live wisely can help answer Monday’s lingering questions for those who preach and teach. Did the applications serve the congregation well? How would the sermon sound to a woman who had an abortion, a man who recently lost his job, or a skeptical unbeliever? We don’t have to answer these questions on our own.

5. The Unnamed Servant Who Loves His Local Church

Throughout Acts, we see the promise-fulfilling pattern of the church’s growth. Often, we remember the growth as larger events that led thousands to believe: powerful sermons, miracles, and the laying on of hands to receive the Holy Spirit.

Yet what happened when those apostles moved on, leaving thousands of unnamed converts? The early church couldn’t have multiplied on the backs of the apostles alone. As Tim Keller pointed out, “Christian laypeople—not trained preachers and evangelists—carried on the mission of the church not through formal preaching but through informal conversation.”

God’s work continued, thanks to the excitement and love these first unnamed converts had for their local churches and the gospel. Yes, they’re unnamed to us, but they certainly weren’t unnamed to God. And if servants like these are in your congregation, they’re not unnamed to you.

Take Time to Encourage

What might it look like if church members knew their gifts were valued—and heard this either from the pulpit or through the personal reassurance of church leaders? I imagine these gifts might be exercised with greater boldness. So where do we start?

Equipping all the saints calls for prayerful self-reflection. It means realizing our possible inclination to value gifts and personalities most like our own, sometimes at the expense of other gifts. It calls for knowing church members, discerning spiritual health, and identifying strengths and weaknesses.

The early church couldn’t have multiplied on the backs of the apostles alone.

Then, we work to rewrite the narrative that less visible gifts are less valuable. With permission, don’t be afraid to share examples from the pulpit of the woman who encouraged you with Scripture or the college student who shared the gospel with his unbelieving roommates. Take time to encourage the member who prays continually, the woman who makes baby quilts, and the men who always clean the kitchen after potlucks.

Since I moved, Jack and I don’t attend the same church anymore. Still, my husband and I receive messages from him letting us know that—you guessed it—he’s praying. This service may not reach a platform or develop into an organized ministry. Simple acts like this may even feel small. But the local church needs all its members and gifts (1 Cor. 12:14–20). When we encourage all members to use their modest gifts for the glory of the Giver, the Spirit uses them to build up his church, near and far.

Hold On to Faith amid Doubts Fri, 17 May 2024 04:04:08 +0000 Michael Kruger explores how Christians can deepen their faith even as they experience doubt amid a skeptical age.]]> In his breakout at TGC23, Michael Kruger argues doubt is a natural part of growing faith and can lead to stronger beliefs if handled with biblical and wise guidance.

He offers suggestions for how Christians can confront and process doubts about their faith, especially in our skeptical age. And he calls the church to be a supportive environment that neither shames nor celebrates doubt but rather encourages constructive dialogue. This session provides hope and guidance for believers grappling with their uncertainties and for those who come alongside them.

Pastors: Be Unapologetic Apologists Fri, 17 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 ‘The Pastor as Apologist’ speaks to an ever-relevant need for pastors and churches in the 21st century: to make churches centers of apologetic engagement and to equip pastors in the basics of apologetic skills.]]> “Why should I trust a man who lived 2,000 years ago, hung out with social outcasts, and got himself killed?”

“Even if there is a God, I’d be only 40 percent sure he’d communicate with us.”

“Isn’t the resurrection of Jesus just an inspiring concept?”

“What do Christians have against the LGBT+ community?”

As a pastor in one of America’s most educated and least religious states, I often hear these questions. In many cases, the inquirer is a sincere agnostic who wants to know whether the Christian faith is intellectually plausible, ethically just, and morally compassionate. But in many other cases, the questions come from church members.

These people are committed to following Jesus, but they feel the pressure of navigating their faith in an increasingly post-Christian culture. They regularly ask me about issues such as the reliability of Scripture, the problem of evil, and the relationship between Christianity and science.

As a pastor, I want answers too. When I was a young graduate student, my doubts about Christianity prompted me to investigate the rational basis for my faith and eventually to discover it was deeper, richer, and more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. So, like all Christians, I long to commend Christ in all his fullness and splendor to everyone I can.

This is why I find Dayton Hartman and Michael McEwen’s book, The Pastor as Apologist: Restoring Apologetics to the Local Church, so relevant. Their central aim is “to recover an ecclesial approach [to] apologetics where apologetic engagement and Christian philosophy is intertwined with the ministry of the local church and not completely detached from it” (26). This book equips pastors to weave apologetics into their preaching and even into the administration of church programs.

Reclaim Apologetics for the Church

The local church is seldom considered the center of apologetic work. For most, the word “apologist” conjures up a picture of a high-profile Christian intellectual with several academic degrees, a broad reach, and a packed speaking schedule. That’s an image far different from a local pastor in his weekly work of shepherding the flock.

The bulk of the work of commending the Christian faith is not done by high-profile speakers, but by little-known pastors.

Hartman and McEwen, both pastors, want to shift apologetics back to the local church, and that’s a good thing. After all, the bulk of the work of commending the faith is not done by high-profile speakers but by little-known pastors. The authors write, “There is no spiritual gifting defined as ‘Christian Thinker.’ On the contrary, you see that God’s plan for the advancement of the gospel is the local church, and pastors, we believe, are called to help serve the local church in apologetic roles” (2).

Pastors must answer the anguished “Why?” written on the faces of the young couple who just had a stillborn baby. They must preach sermons intelligible to both believers and skeptics. And they must present the hope of the resurrection in funeral after funeral.

Yes, the pastor is an apologist. He might as well know how to be a good one.

The authors make their case for an ecclesial and pastoral approach to apologetics by showing that rational defenses of the faith have come from the local church since the New Testament times. Based on that argument, they offer basic terms and example arguments geared toward pastors to help them embed apologetics in their preaching and throughout church ministries.

Basics of Pastoral Apologetics

The book’s weight rests on the rational and liturgical moves a pastor should make in commending the Christian faith: for example, sound arguments for the existence of God, solid historical evidence for the resurrection, apologetic training, and a winsome Easter service. These are nonnegotiables, of course. But in my experience, unbelievers are more often won over by a Christian’s good character than by her good arguments.

The Pastor as Apologist doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive treatment, but it did leave me wishing for a more fleshed-out vision for the task. Specifically, I wanted to know how the rubber hits the road regarding the claim that “apologetics isn’t just a defense with our words, but also a defense with our whole selves” (7). I longed for more specific examples of how a pastor can shape an apologetic community that bears witness to Christ in both word and deed.

The basic tasks of pastoring—faithfully expositing the Word, cultivating love and fellowship among the members, organizing worship gatherings—wield immense apologetic power. Peter Adam, for example, insists that “when the preacher uses biblical theology, the congregation learns more about the coherence of the Bible. . . . In an age in which knowledge is more and more fragmented, they learn the metanarrative that explains human existence and purpose in the context of God’s saving will and the coming of Christ.” Part of the apologetic task is showing how a Biblical worldview is more realistic, credible, and coherent than any other, which a pastor can do simply by faithfully preaching the Bible.

Pastors should be aware that their strongest apologetic work over the long haul is likely their habits of faithful service.

Helping pastors learn how to weave traditional apologetic arguments into their preaching is important. But pastors should be aware that their strongest apologetic work over the long haul is likely their habits of faithful service. So perhaps the best way a pastor can improve as an apologist is to improve as a pastor.

Display the Glories of Christ

The vision presented in The Pastor as Apologist is one which pastors, seminarians, and laypeople alike should hunger for: “to restore apologetics to the local church,” which begins by “restoring our understanding of Christ as King” (116). After all, it’s through the church that “the manifold wisdom of God” is displayed to “the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph. 3:10).

The Pastor as Apologist speaks to an ever-relevant need for pastors and churches in the 21st century: to make churches centers of apologetic engagement and to equip pastors in the basics of apologetic skills. Engaging, accessible, and succinct, it can serve as a primer for pastors needing a first-level orientation to apologetics and even as a refresher for pastors already trained in it.

Hollywood’s Rut: On-Point Style, Aimless Substance Fri, 17 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 Contemporary visual storytelling is stylistically advanced but morally regressive. We’re in a renaissance of style but a dark ages of story. ]]> In today’s streaming-media world, we’re inundated with visual stories. A good number are well done: Engaging and stylish. Well-acted. Killer soundtrack. Meme-worthy moments. We might finish watching and—in a burst of short-lived enthusiasm—tell a friend or post on social media about it, noting some of these “well done” elements. But a week later, we’ve moved on and largely forgotten about it (even though, in many cases, we gave it 10-plus hours of our attention). A few years later, we hardly remember anything about it.

Such is the nature of contemporary media. Most of it is quickly forgotten and leaves us empty. But why? Aren’t we supposed to be living in the “golden age of television” (a.k.a. “peak TV”), where streamers present us with a never-ending buffet of top-shelf series and auteur-helmed movies? We’re glutted with “prestige” narratives. But it’s an abundance that feels oddly meager. It doesn’t satisfy or nourish; if anything, it makes us queasy.

We’re glutted with ‘prestige’ narratives. But it’s an abundance that feels oddly meager.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal recently, Peggy Noonan chalks up the current aesthetic malaise to “the uglification of everything.” She describes it as an artistic attitude that “speaks of self-hatred, and a society that hates itself, and hates life, won’t last. Because it gives those who are young nothing to love.”

She’s partially right. But a distinction needs to be made between form and content. From my vantage point, the paradox is that we have a beautification of form alongside an uglification of content. Televisual technique is ascendent but meaningful stories are in decline. This is why so many shows and films look stunning but leave us confused and depressed.

Renaissance of Style. Dark Ages of Story.

Contemporary visual storytelling is stylistically advanced but morally regressive. We’re in a renaissance of style but a dark ages of story.

The new Netflix show Ripley is a good case study for this theory. Noonan discusses Ripley (the latest adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s Talented Mr. Ripley), but I disagree with her assessment that the series is “unrelievedly ugly.” I’d argue that Ripley, like countless other streaming series these days, is beautifully done on a stylistic level. The Caravaggio-inspired black-and-white cinematography is lush and moody, evoking the best of post-war noir style. The presence of stairs throughout the series underscores the moral elevations the story inhabits. And in the hands of cinematographer Robert Elswit, Italy has never looked so timeless.

But Ripley as a whole feels like an exercise in decadent style more than a consequential narrative with clear ideas. It’s a crime story that boils down to a cat-and-mouse drama (will he get away with it?), but no character is particularly appealing, and viewers leave the show with that all-too-familiar feeling in modern media consumption: “So what?”

Ripley feels like an exercise in decadent style more than a consequential narrative with clear ideas.

In its highly stylized, almost elegant portrayal of skilled criminal behavior, Ripley reminded me of David Fincher’s hit-man drama The Killer, released on Netflix last year. Fincher is one of cinema’s greatest living artisans. He can do style like no one else. But The Killer was all style and no substance; it naturally left viewers empty. The coolest shots, most jaw-dropping set pieces, and most elegant editing sequences only go so far in cultivating resonance within the audience. Much more than a cool vibe is needed—namely, we need a compelling story with a “So what?” purpose and a raison d’être that goes beyond an exercise in genre or style.

Why Style Has Become Everything

Unfortunately, visual storytellers in our secular age increasingly can’t muster a raison d’être beyond style.

This makes sense for a couple reasons. The emerging generation of visual storytellers came of age in a screen-based world, with a highly attuned vocabulary of visual aesthetics. Reared on YouTube, Instagram, iMovie, and Pinterest-style mood boards, they’re saturated in style and speak that language fluently.

Unfortunately, they’re far less literate in the language of virtue and their moral vocabulary is underdeveloped. Having exercised the muscles of scrolling through eye-catching ephemera more than the muscles of flipping through the pages of brain-engaging Great Books, they’re more proficient in the visual logic of good design than in the moral logic of goodness.

A Gen Z friend recently told me not to underestimate how much a good design aesthetic matters in reaching his generation. They’re highly drawn to what’s well-branded and aesthetically fresh, to the point that this can become more important than the substance. In a world where feelings, vibes, and appearances matter more than facts, logic, and reality, it makes sense that form in storytelling would matter more than content.

The other major reason for this style-over-substance dynamic is that a secular culture has little consensus on what constitutes “good.” There’s no longer a transcendent basis on which to determine a “good” story, “good” characters, or “good” endings. There’s no objective grounding for what would make someone heroic or villainous, so the lines are blurred. Most drama now consists of “complicating” those categories and transgressing all established norms, lines, and expectations. Fluidity and ambiguity reign, both in gender and in morality.

This is a major theme in Ripley, where Tom Ripley and almost all the major characters are hard to pin down both morally and sexually. Freddie Miles, for example (portrayed in the 1999 film version by the great Philip Seymour Hoffman), is here played by a woman (Sting’s daughter Eliot Sumner), further underscoring the story’s compassless moral commitments.

But we also see it in the trend of Hollywood films about classic villains, whether Maleficent (2014), Venom (2018), Joker (2019), or Cruella (2021)—the latter of which is essentially a movie-length showcase for Vivienne Westwood–style punk couture. And it was a box office hit! Bespoke costume design and a 1970s Brit-rock soundtrack mattered more to audiences than Cruella’s repulsive, vice-celebrating story. Vibes over vision.

Some might argue there is a moral vision and purpose to these stories because they show the nature of sin and corruption. I think that’s going too far. You might be able to argue this with a “turning inward on himself” series like Breaking Bad. But most of Hollywood’s villain-centric stories don’t explore sin’s nature. They use sin as an occasion for stylish world-building.

Filmmakers keep returning to the Joker not because they want to seriously explore the nature of his depravity but because he’s an irresistible canvas for costume designers, makeup artists, actors, and other creatives. His anarchic sartorial vibe and transgressive brand are tailor-made for the spectacle-addicted social media age.

Christian Mission in an Age of Aesthetics

If it’s true that good design matters more to Gen Z than substance, how should the church respond? The answer is decidedly not to focus on packaging the church or the gospel in trendy branding and cool vibes. But this isn’t to say the church shouldn’t prioritize beauty. Good design isn’t the same thing as beauty. Design is for selling products to consumers; it’s always tied to trends. Beauty is for bearing witness to a higher glory; it’s always tethered to transcendence.

One way the church can connect with young people in an aesthetics-obsessed age is to show how transcendent beauty is far more satisfying than trendy branding. We should lean into the cultural attraction to nice aesthetics but show how unsatisfying this ultimately is. When we notice something aesthetically pleasing, it’s a whispered reminder we were made to worship the God who is the source, standard, and arbiter of beauty. Good design scratches a topical itch. God’s beauty nourishes our whole being.

One way the church can connect with young people in an aesthetics-obsessed age is to show how transcendent beauty is far more satisfying than trendy branding.

The church should also lean into the angst and emptiness people feel in an entertainment world so advanced in style but remedial in substance. We should point people to Scripture as a narrative that celebrates style (poetry, genre, metaphor, imagery, and so on) but in a way that conveys real substance.

The Bible is the perfect fusion of form and content, and Christian storytellers should model this in how we communicate biblical truth. If fewer and fewer secular artists are able to present both impressive artistic technique and a meaningful, compelling narrative, Christian artists are well positioned to do both.

So let’s enter the cultural void and answer the “uglification” with gospel beauty. Let’s tell stories full of style and substance—not to grab the attention of scrolling eyes or the clicks of fidgety fingers but to point restless souls to the satisfaction they need.

Let’s Talk Reunion: The Blessings of Bible Study with Friends Thu, 16 May 2024 04:03:00 +0000 Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger highlight the blessings and benefits of digging into the Bible with other believers.]]> In this reunion episode of Let’s Talk, Jackie Hill Perry, Jasmine Holmes, and Melissa Kruger highlight the blessings and benefits of digging into the Bible with other believers as they discuss their new Bible study on Ephesians. They talk about why they love Ephesians, what’s difficult about it, and what they gleaned from studying it together over the past two years. They also spend time catching up on their personal projects and summer plans.

Why Male Friendships Are Growing in America’s Most Average Town Thu, 16 May 2024 04:02:00 +0000 All over America, men have fewer friends than in years past. In a small town in Wisconsin, that trend is reversing.]]> In the most average town in America, something unusual is happening.

Waupun, Wisconsin, got its name from a misspelling of the Ojibwe word “Waubun” that nobody corrected. It’s been easy to overlook ever since.

The 2020 census counted its population at about 11,000, which was the size of the average American town that year. Around 80 percent of Waupun’s residents were white and Hispanic and about 13 percent were African American—nearly the same as the national numbers. Most had graduated from high school (85 percent vs. a 91 percent national average), lived in a married household (44 percent vs. 46 percent nationally), and earned a median household income of about $66,000 (compared with $68,000 nationally).

And just like the rest of the country, Waupun was wrestling with lower levels of both religiosity and male friendship.

So five years ago, a handful of men in a Bible study decided to try something new.

“We were frustrated because we saw non-Christians looking at the church and being like Why do I want to be part of that? Christians can’t get along together,” said Mike Vander Berg, one of the organizers. “Unity was the primary focus of the first conference we put together.”

On a Saturday in 2019, about 45 men from the Waupun area gathered to work through a six-week Bible study in one day.

The first One Waupun gathering in May 2019 / Courtesy of One Waupun

“We ended the day with all of the guys in one big circle, shoulder to shoulder, with our arms around each other, praying,” Vander Berg said. “Then we came up with some things we could do.”

Over the past five years, several hundred Christian men from local churches have studied the Bible, worked on lawns and house projects for the elderly, built a garage, served weekly meals at the food pantry, constructed shelves for the library, grown friendships, shared their faith, and hosted annual conferences. The last one drew about 150 men from nearly 30 churches in 18 communities—some from more than an hour away.

The fruit is so tangible that the speaker from their 2024 conference, Dordt University dean of chapel Aaron Baart, went home and asked his church how they could start something similar in their town.

The Gospel Coalition asked Vander Berg—now the president of One Waupun—how this got started, how it grew, and what he likes best about it.

Tell me about the Bible study this grew out of. Was it through your church?

No, it was six or seven friends I met through our Christian school community. I knew they were serious about their faith, so I reached out to them to see if we could study God’s Word together. We met on a weekly basis to read a chapter, pray, and talk about the things the Spirit had put on our hearts. Here’s what I learned from that: Every single part of the Bible points to Jesus. Every single one.

Another thing that struck us was the need to move from one-day-a-week Christians to 24/7 Christians. We talked about what it meant to be a Christian in our daily life of work, family, and taking kids to basketball games. I think when you get to be in your 40s and 50s, you start recognizing God working in your life in a different way. We had a desire to be his hands and feet in any way we could.

We met for four or five years until it morphed into what we’re doing with One Waupun.

Why did your Bible study decide to hold a weekend conference? That seems like an odd move.

One Waupun’s 2024 weekend conference / Courtesy of One Waupun

I remember thinking one night about what this could become. It just seems like guys crave Christian fellowship with other guys—that oneness and authenticity. I wondered how we could provide that. I brought it up at the next Bible study meeting and three or four of the others said they had been thinking the same thing. So we thought we should take it seriously.

From our Bible study, we’d recognized that our churches needed to be unified to be a witness to non-Christians. We found a video Bible study about football and unity and decided to invite men from the town to do the whole thing with us in eight hours.

That first time, we pulled in guys from about five churches, most of them Reformed in nature like ours was. At the end of the day, we left time to pray together and brainstorm what this meant for Waupun. We came up with some things we could do.

Your team has done a lot in the last five years. But it didn’t start this busy, did it?

No. We began with some small group Bible studies on topics churches don’t always cover—very practical things, such as discipleship, evangelism, and anxiety.

A Saturday connections breakfast / Courtesy of One Waupun

Then we added connections breakfasts. The guys love that. They show up at 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and the minute they walk in the door four or five guys are asking them how they’re doing, how their month has been. Then they grab some pancakes or French toast and sit down to talk. We watch a video message, talk about it, and spend some time in prayer.

We get around 20 guys a month. There’s been someone new at every one. We never do a series, because I don’t want guys to feel like if they have to miss one then they shouldn’t come at all.

At the first conference, we also recognized that not everybody gravitates to that environment. Some men love to worship God and be the hands and feet of Jesus by doing rather than by sitting and talking.

What did you do for them?

We prayed about it, and then added a serve component—as soon as we did, they stepped up.

To find work, we approached the city council. They said one of the most overlooked populations in our community is the elderly. So we reached out to the senior center and the food pantry here in town. When those leaders receive requests, they screen them. If it’s a good fit, they email me.

Several One Waupun men helped Michael clear out brush from his yard / Courtesy of One Waupun

I used to be in software development, so I created an app database that holds volunteers, recipients, and projects. I have a guy who will go to the potential project site to see what is needed for resources and expenses. He reports back to me.

Then I put the project in the database and contact our pool of volunteers via email. Women can volunteer too—we had a blind lady ask for someone to come once a week and read to her. The women gravitated to that.

Some of the projects we’ve done are landscaping and lawn care, small home repairs, or helping with setting up a new computer. We used to do transportation, but that was too difficult because people would call and say, “Can you bring me to a doctor’s appointment in two hours?” We needed more advance warning than that.

We also used to help people move, but they had us going 30 miles to get stuff and bring it to town. So we restricted it to moving in and out of places in our town.

As our ministry continues to grow, it is clear that we need to find a dedicated serve coordinator. We have been in prayer over the past few months that God will provide the right man.

How do you interact with the local church?

We are a parachurch organization. We are completely set up and run by lay people. We don’t try to undermine the local church but to strengthen it. The pastors in our town love it, because we are coming alongside the men to make a difference. They’re noticing it.

For example, during COVID we did an online Bible study called Downline Discipleship. Afterward, the guys went back to their churches and wanted to do something. In the Evangelical Free Church, they set up a churchwide discipleship program on campuses in four different towns. My church started life groups, prayer partners, and a mentorship program.

If I were to give advice to people who might want to do this in another community, it’s to make sure you don’t alienate the churches. Work with the pastors.

Does this cost money? How do you finance this?

We haven’t asked for much money, but I get checks on a regular basis from individuals and churches who believe in what we are doing. We actually had to ask our donors to pause their gifts for a while, because we have too much.

Have you seen God at work?

Last month we started organizing a branch of the food pantry in our town. Every Friday we provide a meal for people—primarily low-income folks. We sit down with them, get to know their names, and hear their stories.

Ready for the Friday meal / Courtesy of One Waupun

One of the questions we get asked is “Why are you doing this?” We love to use that to lead into sharing our faith.

We see this primarily as an evangelistic organization. We seek out the lost—that’s very much a passion of ours. And we’ve been able to minister to a handful of seekers or new believers. I remember moving one guy who was becoming homeless. We brought his stuff to a storage unit and then we took him out to eat and talked about what was next.

But God isn’t just reaching the lost. Over and over, so many initiatives come back to making a difference in the lives of guys in the church, helping them grow in their faith. I love that too.

Recently we started a mentoring program. We’re trying to find men in our community who are struggling and pair them up with someone. We put it out there—including on signs at the food pantry and coasters at the local bar. Already, several new relationships have formed as a result.

What’s your favorite part of One Waupun?

Beginning after that first conference, I love to walk down the street and see guys I didn’t know before, but now I know they are Christians. I stop and talk to men all over Waupun, and it is so much fun.

Sometimes at the Saturday breakfasts, I just want to sit back and watch. It’s cool to see someone who is 22 sitting and talking with someone who is 72. The men have gotten so close and are caring well for each other.

If someone else wanted to start this in his town, what advice would you have for him?

Lead with prayer. So often we go to prayer when all else fails, but I’m big on leading with prayer.

Create a core group of a few other guys—they’re not as hard to find as you might think. People crave this kind of community—at least, that’s what I’m seeing here. And I’m always open to talking on the phone or seeing how we could help.

It will be slow going—I am finding that out over and over. There’s so much to do, but it is such a joy. If you honestly seek out God’s will, and he puts something in front of you and leads you through the process—there is nothing better.

3 Ways Keller’s Preaching Course Changed My Ministry Thu, 16 May 2024 04:00:00 +0000 The rereleased lecture series ‘Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World’ by Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney can greatly influence your preaching.]]> Co-taught by the late theologians Tim Keller and Edmund Clowney, the lecture series “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World” has been newly released by Reformed Theological Seminary and The Gospel Coalition as a free online course. These lectures were tremendously helpful to me when I first heard them. I’m thrilled about the reintroduction of this material in a better format than the version I listened to more than a decade ago on my second-generation iPod Shuffle.

In this course, Keller and Clowney masterfully explore redemptive-historical preaching—a method of preaching and applying Christ from all of Scripture in a way that connects unbelievers and believers alike with their need for Christ and his grace. The approach isn’t novel. As Keller and Clowney demonstrate, redemptive-historical preaching is both biblical and historical. The apostle Paul summed up his preaching methodology as “declaring . . . the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27)—and elsewhere, to “preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23).

Redemptive-historical preaching is both biblical and historical.

Resources on Christ-centered preaching have experienced a resurgence for nearly 50 years. But with Clowney on the forefront of reintroducing this redemptive-historical approach to a new generation in the 1980s and Keller implementing it at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in the 1990s and beyond, this course is a mother lode of foundational theory and methodology. As such, it’s uniquely suited to help both aspiring and experienced preachers. It may be the most important contemporary treatment of redemptive-historical preaching.

Here are three ways these lectures put Jesus into my sermons—and into the sermons of another pastor in a surprising place.

1. Keller and Clowney had answers to questions I was asking—and questions I didn’t know I needed to ask.

When I first listened to these lectures, I had just graduated Bible college and was serving at a church plant in small-town Kansas. My day job was at a local factory, and on my shifts I devoured every MP3 I could find related to preaching Christ from all of Scripture. I was discovering an interconnectedness and unity to Scripture’s storyline that I hadn’t seen before.

I knew this must affect my preaching, of course, but it wasn’t until Keller and Clowney’s lecture series that the pieces came together: the unity of the Bible’s redemptive narrative and what this meant for preaching Christ from all of Scripture. I listened three times while running my machine and unloading trailers full of materials. I couldn’t get enough.

One of the most profound ways the lectures affected me was through the Q&A sessions, which are included in this free course. There I discovered I wasn’t the only young preacher asking similar questions about Christ-centered preaching:

  • “If Jesus is the point of every sermon, won’t every sermon sound the same?”
  • “Sure, the New Testament authors saw Jesus in this or that text, but they were writing under inspiration. Can we read and preach the Bible that way too?”
  • “Are there controls on our Scripture interpretation if we take this approach?”

Keller and Clowney answered these questions and others (including many that hadn’t occurred to me) with clarity, grace, and good humor. I especially enjoyed hearing the older Clowney rib and course-correct some of Keller’s responses. Keller usually conceded the point, even if he didn’t always agree with his mentor. The personal touch of their interactions is priceless.

2. Keller and Clowney had resources I didn’t know I needed to read.

As Christ-centered preaching became increasingly compelling, it was hard to know where to begin. But these lectures pointed the way. Keller would casually say, “D. A. Carson talks about this”—and I’d jot down the reference. “I was reading Greidanus’s book on that”—another resource would go on the list.

As I now prepare my weekly sermons, many of the books I take from my shelf were put there at Keller’s or Clowney’s recommendation. I encourage you to acquaint yourself with the required and recommended reading for this TGC course. Your ministry will be enriched if you do.

3. Keller and Clowney had experience I needed to learn from.

As with many skills, preaching is often more “caught” than “taught.” My preaching doesn’t follow the same structure as Keller’s or Clowney’s; every preacher is different, and even these brothers preached differently from one another.

Their goal wasn’t to create clones of their styles. Rather, they sought to provide insights that can be adapted and applied to whatever ministry context the Lord calls you to serve in.

Surprising Contexts

For several years, I served in Cuba through a daily radio broadcast and through preaching seminars held across the island. The seminars’ foundation was the beloved “Clowney Triangle,” which he explains in the lectures. (For the Cuban context, we styled this method—moving from type to meaning to Christ to application—as a baseball diamond. We dubbed it “The Baseball of Christ-Centered Preaching.”)

As I now prepare my weekly sermons, many of the books I take from my shelf were put there at Keller’s or Clowney’s recommendation.

After one seminar at a Nazarene seminary outside Havana, a local pastor came up and put his arm around me. I’ll never forget what he said: “I’ve been a pastor for more than 20 years, and no one has ever shown me how to preach Christ from all of Scripture.”

I cherish that moment because it shows that the legacy of this course will carry far beyond a Manhattan church plant or a Reformed seminary campus. “Preaching Christ in a Postmodern World