The Gospel Coalition The Gospel Coalition Thu, 19 Oct 2023 13:34:12 +0000 en-US hourly 1 ‘All You Want to Do Is Worship’: A Student Reflects on 8 Months After Asbury Thu, 19 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 How the Asbury Outpouring changed one college student’s life.]]> In the spring of 2023, J. T. Reeves was a senior at Wheaton College. He and his friends drove to Asbury University when they heard the reports of the spiritual awakening happening on that campus. Eight months later, TGC asked Reeves to reflect on the lasting effects of that experience in his life and the lives of his fellow students.

Since last year, I’ve often been asked how all this changed my life. But God is a frustratingly elusive subject to pin down with words. So I won’t describe the Outpouring here. I only want you to imagine it with me.

Secular Blitz

Imagine that, like me, you grew up in a hurricane blitz of secularism that systematically dismantled your belief in the unseen. Even if a miracle should happen, you’d probably be too sensible (or cynical) to believe it.

Before you hit puberty, rampant individualism forcefully placed you in a cage like a circus animal and handed you an iPhone so you could pretend you’re not lonely. You use the phone. And sometimes it works.

When it doesn’t, you grow anxious and put up more walls. So you’re never challenged—no, never invited—to attend to the depth of the Living God. The postmodern pressure of not pressuring keeps people from asking hard things.

The postmodern pressure of not pressuring keeps people from asking hard things.

Meanwhile, you’re living virtually. Entertainment is the unrivaled deity in your life. Algorithms of billion-dollar companies have monopolized your attention (your worship).

Sometimes you try to escape this vicious cycle, but with the speed of life, it’s like trying to land flat-footed after jumping out of a moving sports car.

Gen-Z Christian

“Christian” pretty much means not-any-of-those-things-above. And you know this, so you do your best, but honestly, none of “those things” sounds that terrible to you. They’re sort of inevitable.

Ultimately, it’s hard for you to imagine being a Christian.

That’s why you’ve been praying for God to let you know him better. Unexpectedly, you hear word of something gone viral—it’s a wild worship breakout at a college in middle-of-nowhere Kentucky.

At first, you tell yourself you absolutely cannot go, but then your friend says, “What do you actually have to do that’s important?” That kind of hurts. But you know he’s right, so half an hour later you’re packed into a Honda Civic, making the seven-hour trek to who-knows-what and staying at who-knows-where.

When you get there, it’s weird. You’re skeptical. Why is everyone saying “y’all”? This doesn’t feel as hype as those TikToks you saw.

But something makes you stay . . .

For a few, it takes hours; for many, days; for you, it’s weeks. Weeks of worship and prayer back at your own campus get you out of the haze you’ve been in for years. The face of Jesus Christ becomes a bit clearer, and you and your friends look at each other wondering why you hadn’t noticed his irresistible beauty until now.

Or maybe you did notice it; you just never acted like it.

Witnessing Glory

You haven’t believed in miracles, but several of your friends experienced stuff that has no medical explanation. Unfortunately, miracles from the omnipotent God seem terribly normal in the Scriptures. Now you have no excuse but to begin praying for impossible things (Mark 11:23).

All you want to do is worship. Individualism fades as you find you don’t have to pretend anymore—you’re not alone. Uncaged by your Friend’s love, you become vulnerable and confess things you never thought you could (James 5:16).

Soon, anxiety melts as you and your Friend’s friends challenge—no, invite—each other daily to attend to Jesus of Nazareth. Nightlong prayers (Luke 6:12), days of spontaneous worship (Ps. 27:4), and tears of intercession (Phil. 3:18) don’t seem foreign; they feel surprisingly natural.

Your appetite for everything “entertaining” is spoiled, and you walk into a study room to find a friend looking up at you guiltily. “This is terrible,” she says. “What?” you say. “I have so much to do—but I can’t stop reading my Bible!” And you laugh because you came in itching to finish reading Exodus 27–30.


Since when did you want to read Exodus 27–30?

But the Lover of your soul has made himself known. He stepped into your warp-speed haze and took your hand. You’re mesmerized by his words. You knew he was better, but you never gave him the time or attention to experience that knowing.

Changed Imagination

I’ve spoken with a variety of students from a variety of campuses. Though our encounters with the Holy Spirit in the spring of 2023 were vastly different, most of us write the exact same summary.

You knew the Lover of your soul was better, but you never gave him the time or attention to experience that knowing.

The Asbury Outpouring was unique. It wasn’t about mass conversion, mass repentance, or mass missions. It seemed more like a soft and sweet song to the seekers of God—an invitation for us to radically retrain our attention, our worship, on the One who is worthy of us.

Above the current of our screaming algorithms, the Jealous God was whispering, I will ask more of you than you ever dreamed of giving, and only then will I give you more than you ever dreamed of asking for.

If you want to know what really changed in us, the answer is simple:

God changed our whole imagination.

And we live believing he’ll do it again.

‘Weird’ and ‘Weirder’: Why the West Is So Different Wed, 18 Oct 2023 22:17:00 +0000 Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss the making of the Western mind and how we became WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) as they trace the history of the West up to 1776.]]> “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” says the Declaration of Independence. But is it really self-evident? What is the basis of equality? How have we come to think the way we do about the world?

In this episode of Post-Christianity?, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss the making of the Western mind and how we became WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) as they trace the history of the West up to 1776.

They make the case that far from being neutral or self-evident, the values many hold dear in the West today can be traced back through figures like Luther, Augustine, and Paul, and ultimately to Jesus. They show that in spite of its secular pretensions, the West remains a place thoroughly shaped and marked by a Christian worldview.

So are we really post-Christian? Or is Christianity the only framework that can really make sense of the things we value most?

Introducing the ‘Post-Christianity?’ Podcast Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 In this new podcast, Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson discuss what evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in the supposedly post-Christian world. ]]> The West is increasingly described as “post-Christian.” But is that label accurate? Are contemporary people leaving Christianity behind completely? Or are they adopting some of its values while rejecting others? What’s the origin story for the “post-Christianity” we’re seeing in 21st-century Western culture? How does this story help us understand the rapid cultural changes we’ve seen in recent years? And what do evangelism, mission, and discipleship look like in a post-Christian world?

Glen Scrivener and Andrew Wilson have both written books about this topic recently (The Air We Breathe and Remaking the World), and they both serve churches in southern England. In this eight-episode podcast from The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, they consider how we got here, what it means, and how to respond. Their discussion topics range from sexuality, psychology, and economics to identity, theology, hospitality, and art. Also featuring special guests Kyle Harper, Carl Trueman, and Rebecca McLaughlin, Post-Christianity? is a thought-provoking and hopeful take on contemporary culture.

Art Proves We’re More than Dust in the Wind Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The arts serve as a reminder that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.]]> Years ago, the progressive rock group Kansas had a huge hit with an unlikely song, a spare and beautiful ballad that suggested “all we are is dust in the wind.” This little hymn of hopelessness reflects the way many of our contemporaries see themselves. It leads us to ask, Who are we and what kind of world do we live in? Is there any meaning to our existence?

Many profess a philosophy of “nothing but.” Humans are nothing but the evolutionary product of molecules in motion. Love is nothing but the romanticized response to the reactions of bodily chemistry and the need to propagate the species. Religious convictions are nothing but empty fantasies and wishes in search of fulfillment. As a result, meaning simply doesn’t exist, except as we create it for ourselves. We’re simply dust in the wind.

“Nothing but” philosophy is known as naturalistic reductionism, and it has become pervasive in our culture. It rests on the belief that only science can tell us the truth about ourselves and our world, and that when it comes down to it, the story it offers is a small and meager tale.

The Christian, of course, holds a different set of convictions about reality. We have an alternative story to tell—a hope based on the meaning invested in us by our Creator. But those who don’t share our presuppositions about reality are often disinterested in what we have to say. Our spiritual narrative feels out of step with the world, a voice crying in the wilderness.

Jeremy Begbie is research professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. His book Abundantly More: The Theological Promise of the Arts in a Reductionistic World finds an unexpected ally in the arts for those who want to counter the prevailing reductionism of our time.

Counternarrative to Reductionism

In Abundantly More, Begbie pushes readers to move beyond seeing the arts as merely entertainment or distraction or tools for propaganda. He suggests a fresh and largely neglected value of the arts. They offer a counternarrative to the naturalistic reductionism that permeates disciplines like science, philosophy, and psychology.

The arts point us toward the complexity of reality—its subtlety, its spiritual foundations, and its multivalent meanings. The arts have the “capacity to draw upon and generate multiple and potentially inexhaustible levels of meaning, and in this way to offer a resistance movement of sorts . . . to the dominant drives of modernity’s reductive imagination” (xiv–xv). They have much to reveal to us about the complexities of who we are and our place in the universe.

The arts point us toward the complexity of reality—its subtlety, its spiritual foundations, and its multivalent meanings.

Of course, artists probably don’t need to have this explained to them. Whether consciously or unconsciously, this is what art has always been about. This is a book for others to gain an appreciation of the value of art.

Unexpected Value of the Arts

The arts help us to stop and pay attention to things we might otherwise ignore. They help us reflect on the meanings inherent in a moment, holding it before us for inspection and contemplation so we might glimpse its depths.

Great artists pull back the curtain to reveal there’s more in a moment than what we initially see and hear. For example, Rembrandt and van Gogh encourage us to take a second look so our vision can be expanded. Bach and Górecki ask us to listen and let the music speak to us in our deepest places. Hopkins and Wordsworth speak to us of a world that’s “charged with the grandeur of God,” as did the psalmist of old.

The power of poetic expression to carry a multitude of layers of meaning is perhaps the reason so much of the Bible employs this form, from the Psalms to the parables to apocalyptic prophecy. Poetic language “opens up” in such a way that it creates a deeper subjective receptivity to God’s revelation.

‘Muchness’ and Abundance

The arts open up reality for an inspection which reveals there’s more going on than what can be discerned under a microscope or through a telescope. Through the arts, the partially hidden “muchness” of our world and our experience come more clearly into view.

When we read a novel or poem, listen to a symphony or popular song, or view a painting or piece of architecture, we’re confronted with what Begbie refers to as “abundance.” The arts remind us that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.

Perhaps one of the failures of modernity is the lack of imagination. The arts remind us the apparent complexity of existence isn’t simply apparent. It is, indeed, the nature of the way things are. Life is full of complexity, nuance, subtlety, and a multivalence of meanings.

Things aren’t less but more than they appear to be at first blush. The universe isn’t simply a machine but something more like a complicated and glorious poem.

More than Dust in the Wind

As Begbie says, the arts can set us free of the deadening effects of reductionism. They open us to new experiences, new emotions, and new perceptions about reality—all of which point toward a creation that’s far more abundant in meaning than the reductionist would allow

The arts serve as a reminder that our world is the creative artistry of a God of abundance, a God whose fullness cannot be fully contained by our thoughts or our language.

They ask us to contemplate something beyond mere existence—something larger and more beautiful and more complex. They remind us we’re more than “dust in the wind.”

Begbie is cautious about treating naturalistic reductionism in a simplistic or caricatured manner. He strives for philosophical precision in his prose. Therefore, the nonacademic reader may have to put in more effort than he or she would prefer. But those who are willing to read carefully will be rewarded with a more expansive understanding of how the arts can help us see beyond the limitations of reductionist philosophies.

This book is the work of a seasoned theologian who has thought much about what the arts can reveal to us about our world and ourselves. Abundantly More shows evidence of wide reading and careful analysis as he posits the question of how our engagement with the arts might help us respond to a reductionist view of our existence.

What Acts 26 Taught Me About Evangelism Wed, 18 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Following Paul’s example, I’ve found sharing my story is a nonthreatening way to tell unbelieving friends about Jesus.]]> I love watching God transform lives. I’m awestruck as I remember the life changes of friends God called into his kingdom. And sometimes God used me in that process.

Unfortunately, many people miss out on the blessing of evangelism. Perhaps it seems too scary. Or maybe they’re not sure how to have an evangelistic conversation. Evangelism can be intimidating for many reasons—but it doesn’t have to be. I’ve found great help by considering how the apostle Paul shared the gospel in Acts 26. His example provides an effective paradigm for us to follow.

Paul Told His Story

Paul was called before King Agrippa and Queen Bernice to defend himself against several charges. He started his defense by telling his story, and he told it in a way that allowed him to share the gospel. Paul began with a brief account of his life before encountering Jesus (vv. 4–5, 9–11) and then shared about his conversion (vv. 12–18). He concluded with how God changed his life (vv. 19–23)—the persecutor became the preacher.

Some people share long and lurid accounts of their pre-Christian life, but Paul focused more on his conversion, how God changed him, and, of course, the gospel. He wanted God—not his sin—to receive the glory.

Notice how Paul’s story includes the key gospel message: “The Christ must suffer and . . . rise from the dead” (v. 23). Paul also shared the benefits of belief, that we “receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in [Jesus]” (v. 18). He then explained that the proper gospel response is to “repent and turn to God” (v. 20). Following Paul’s example, I’ve found that sharing my story—including how I heard the gospel—is a nonthreatening way to tell my unbelieving friends about Jesus. My story is his story, after all.

Paul Knew His Audience

It’s important to note not only what Paul shared but how he shared it. Paul spoke with an awareness of his specific audience. He said he stood “testifying both to small and great” (v. 22). That comment recalls 1 Corinthians 9:22, where Paul said, “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.”

I’ve found that sharing my story is a nonthreatening way to tell my unbelieving friends about Jesus.

Paul understood he needed to know his hearers and speak with their backgrounds in mind. He knew that King Agrippa was “familiar with all the customs and controversies of the Jews” (Acts 26:3). Therefore, Paul mentioned the “promise by God to our fathers [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob]” (v. 6). And Paul asked, “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (v. 8), perhaps reminding Agrippa of the resurrection controversy between Sadducees and Pharisees.

In Acts 17, Paul spent some time observing the Athenians’ pagan culture (v. 23), and he tuned his message to that audience. His Areopagus address begins with complimenting the Gentiles’ religious search and ends with the resurrection, causing quite a stir and keeping his audience engaged (vv. 16–31).

We can follow Paul’s example by getting to know our unbelieving friends better and speaking a language they understand. For example, when sharing with unchurched friends, I’ve learned not to use “Christianese” in my story, such as “lost” and “reconciled.” Instead, I substitute phrases like “far from God” and “having a relationship with God.”

Paul Led with Humility

Paul didn’t approach Agrippa with pride, as one who made the right faith choice. Rather, Paul complimented Agrippa, just as he complimented the Athenians. He humbly told Agrippa he considered himself “fortunate” (Acts 26:2) to speak with a man familiar with the Jewish faith, and one who knew much about Paul and Jesus (v. 26). Paul knew he was no better than Agrippa or any person with whom he shared the gospel. He took the humble attitude of one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.

Paul also demonstrated humility to Governor Festus. When Paul mentioned Jesus’s resurrection, Festus mocked him: “Paul, you are out of your mind” (v. 24). But Paul didn’t get defensive. He didn’t start an argument. He didn’t try to prove Festus wrong. In fact, he addressed Festus as “most excellent” (v. 25). Paul’s humility allowed the discussion to return to what matters—the gospel.

Paul didn’t get defensive. He didn’t start an argument. His humility allowed the discussion to return to what matters—the gospel.

There are many ways we too can approach evangelism with humility. One practical way is to lead with a question rather than asserting all the answers.

Philip demonstrated this with the Ethiopian eunuch, approaching him by asking, “Do you understand what you are reading?” (8:30) Similarly, I’ve found it helpful to begin evangelistic conversations by asking questions like “Would you like to hear what the Bible says about Jesus?”

Paul led with humility because he understood who holds the power in evangelism. He didn’t pridefully think, It’s up to me to convince Agrippa to become a Christian. Instead, he confessed, “To this day I have had the help that comes from God” (26:22). Agrippa’s response was in God’s hands, so Paul could relax. The same is true for us.

Paul Loved His Hearers

Agrippa and Bernice—and all those listening in—weren’t just a conversion headcount to Paul. He cared about them and wanted to see them come to salvation, even if it took time. When King Agrippa asked, “In a short time would you persuade me to be a Christian?” (v. 28), Paul responded, “Whether short or long, I would to God that not only you but also all who hear me this day might become such as I am—except for these chains” (v. 29). Paul longed to see sinners transformed by the gospel, so he took whatever opportunity he had—even his own trial—to share the good news.

Do you desire to participate as God changes a friend’s life? Learn from Paul’s example. Share your story. Know your audience. Go in humbly. And love your hearer right into Jesus’s arms.

Seeing the Genius of Jesus in the Parable of Two Sons Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:04:49 +0000 Collin Hansen and Peter Williams discuss the emotional and intellectual intelligence displayed by Jesus in his parable of the two sons. ]]> Jesus was—and is—a genius. Have you ever thought of him that way? We know him as a friend, Lord, healer, and teacher, Son of God, true God from true God. But genius? Einstein was a genius. Hawking was a genius. Men of science. Men of modernity. Men who created our world.

Jesus? He’s a religious figure. And we don’t associate religion with genius, even when we confess with Hebrews 1:3 that Jesus “upholds the universe by the word of his power.”

Peter Williams, however, wants you to consider The Surprising Genius of Jesus (Crossway, 2023). He shows readers what the Gospels reveal about the greatest teacher, and he wants you to see the cleverness and wisdom of Jesus.

Williams is the principal of Tyndale House in Cambridge and chair of the International Greek New Testament Project. He’s also the author of an excellent little book, Can We Trust the Gospels?, which is similar to The Surprising Genius of Jesus.

I read Peter’s latest just before my family embarked on a month-long stay at Tyndale House last summer. The library was helpful but the community was truly special. So for this episode of Gospelbound, I talked with Peter about The Surprising Genius of Jesus as well as the mission of Tyndale House.

The Christian’s Inner Power Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.]]> Talk of “inner power” sounds a bit New Agey. Google the term (or don’t, rather) and you’ll find tips on harnessing a hidden force that dwells in the recesses of your soul. Though co-opted by a humanistic religion, “inner power” is actually a biblical concept, though in the Scriptures it goes by the more vanilla name “self-control.” The word translated as self-control is egkrateia, from en for “inner” and kratos for “power” (we hear kratos in our English word democratic, which means power of the people).

This inner power is something we’re called to manifest in the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). What is it, exactly? Self-control is the power to manage our wants and desires. The self-controlled individual isn’t a glutton but can keep his appetite in check. The self-controlled individual doesn’t fly off the handle in a furious rage every time something doesn’t go her way—she has mastery over her emotions.

Sometimes the things we must curb or control aren’t bad; it’s just there are better things in store if we wait. Is it wrong to check a text message on your phone? No. But self-control will tell you it’s better to do it when you’re not driving. Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.

Self-control is the ability to withhold a present desire in the confidence something better is guaranteed in the future.

Sin’s Control

Why is self-control a distinctly Christian virtue? Why are Christians called to display this inner power? Why not just listen to every voice in our heads, bow to every impulse, and satisfy every want? Because ever since the fall, our hearts are wicked and the impulses we feel will send us to hell if pursued. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve knew what they were supposed to do, but they were driven instead by what they wanted to do. We’ve been doing the same ever since.

The post-fall condition of humanity is such that lust now rules the heart, overpowering the ability to be spiritually disciplined. If we no longer have that inner power, what are we? Nothing other than slaves to our lusts and sinful desires (cf. John 8:34; Rom. 6:16–23). Paul says the natural man is one who lives “in the passion of [his] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Eph. 2:3). Humanity apart from God is obsessed with the world, which John describes as being filled with “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life,” and those who are enslaved by those desires are “passing away” (1 John 2:16, 17).

Christ’s Control

In Luke 22, a scene with remarkable parallels to Eden in Genesis 3, Jesus meets with God in a garden. He knows what he’s supposed to do, but there’s something he wants to do instead. His human desire is, understandably, to shrink away from the thought of death, especially a death as grueling as crucifixion. But he knows this is why he came. So he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

This is the prayer of self-control. Jesus recognizes something that would be an immediate good: not having to endure the cross. But he can say, “Your will be done, Father,” because in God’s will he knows there’s something much better guaranteed than relief from pain. There’s redemption and glorification.

What would’ve happened if Jesus had no self-control? What if he’d said, “Father, let this cup pass from me. And if not, then I’m going to run”? There would have been no cross. With no cross, no death. With no death, no grave. With no grave, no resurrection. And with no resurrection, no hope. It’s in no way an exaggeration to say we’re saved because of Jesus’s self-control. We’re saved by the One who came in our place and did what we never could: he said no to sin and to self.

A Christian’s Control

Christians aren’t only saved from a lack of self-control; we’re sanctified to show self-control (Rom. 6:17). When we have Jesus, we can start living the way we were meant to live. The power we forfeited in Eden is restored to us: “The grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age” (Titus 2:11–12 NIV).

The true believer, endeavoring to live a life marked by faith, repentance, and the mortification of sin knows how wonderful this word from Paul is. We can now say no to sin.

But this only comes by faith in Jesus Christ. We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself (John 15:5). We need Christ’s life, and we must respond to him in faith. When we do, we’ll be fueled by the Vine and begin to respond as he did: not by conceding but by conquering. Self-control, therefore, isn’t only something Christians must do; in Christ, it’s something only Christians can do.

Control for You

Where is self-control most tested for you? Is it in the privacy of your room while on your computer, or around the buffet at a party? Perhaps it’s your propensity to waste an entire Saturday bingeing Netflix. Maybe it’s on the treadmill, pushing yourself beyond your limits. Maybe it’s in the obsessive minutes you spend in front of the mirror. Do you find it excruciatingly difficult to curb these habits and trust God? Know this: “The LORD is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).

We only get the spiritual fruit of self-control in connection to the Vine, Jesus himself.

Be encouraged, dear believer. Self-control is a wonderful gift God gives us by his Spirit: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim. 1:7). In Galatians 5:16, Paul declares, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When you feel sin’s powerful pull, remember you have a greater power.

Our lapses into sin are instances where we neglect the Spirit of power within our hearts. So repent of these instances and renew your desire to be strong in the Lord’s strength. The best use of your power is yielding it to Jesus. In submitting to him, you’ll find your greatest power (Phil. 2:13).

‘The Mission’ Documentary Revisits the John Allen Chau Controversy Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 ‘The Mission’—a new National Geographic documentary about the life and death of missionary John Allen Chau—challenges audiences to consider not just what they think of the controversial Chau but what they believe about the mission that motivated him. ]]> One of the truest lines spoken in The Mission comes from author and historian Adam Goodheart: “I think every person who has been drawn to this story, whether a missionary, anthropologist, historian, author, filmmaker, is coming in with their own narrative arc that they want to see and experience and depict.”

Viewers of The Mission—a new National Geographic documentary about the 2018 death of 26-year-old missionary John Allen Chau—are likely to see in it what they want to see. Sympathetic Christians might see Chau’s story as an inspiring tale of martyrdom. Secular skeptics will likely find more fodder for their perceptions of evangelical stupidity.

Part of why The Mission can be so variously interpreted is that filmmakers Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss (Boys State), to their credit, attempt to tell the story in a balanced way, interviewing a broad spectrum of friends, family members, pastors, missionaries, and academics. Each person interviewed has a different take on the wisdom and worthiness of Chau’s ill-fated effort to bring the gospel to the unreached peoples of North Sentinel Island—one of the last remaining “untouched” tribes on the planet.

Viewers of The Mission are likely to see in it what they want to see.

The film is well made and compelling, especially in its use of animation and voiceover actors who bring Chau’s own words (from his diary and notebooks) to life. For Christian audiences inclined to share Chau’s passion for overseas missions and fulfilling the Great Commission, The Mission might be frustrating to watch at times. But it can spur helpful discussions for Christian churches, students, and missionaries alike.

Much Has Changed Since 1956

John Allen Chau—like so many other American evangelicals—was deeply inspired by the witness of Jim Elliot and the other Ecuador martyrs in 1956. The film notes how Chau rewatched End of the Spear several times. This famous tale of risky outreach to unreached people (the Huaorani) fanned the flames in Chau’s heart to reach the unreached Sentinelese.

With Chau’s mission ending in his death (likely by spearing, just like the Ecuador martyrs), the comparisons between the 1956 story and Chau’s martyrdom are inevitable. But much has changed over the last seven decades. Contrast The Mission, which is highly conflicted about Chau, with the “enormously sympathetic” treatment of the Ecuador martyrs by Life magazine (among other news outlets) in 1956. Historian Thomas Kidd observed this in 2018, following Chau’s death:

A national magazine such as Life in 1956 would at least resonate with the attempt to bring Western civilization to people they called “Stone Age savages.” But Life also faithfully represented Elliot’s evangelical agenda, as he explained that he and his colleagues were under divine commission to preach the gospel to all nations. Six decades later, we live in a world where academic and media elites are allergic to the notion that one culture is superior to another. Many evangelicals—especially missionaries—would applaud this move away from a sense of Western cultural superiority, too. But the evangelical conviction about the transcendent truth of the gospel for all people endures.

The mixed response to the Chau story shows how the narrative around foreign missions has shifted and is increasingly associated with a variety of toxic “isms” (colonialism, imperialism, patriarchalism, parochialism, pragmatism, and so on). The changing perception (particularly in the post-Christian West) is that whatever good might come with the Christianizing of a pagan culture is largely outweighed by the bad.

In a secular age, when the transcendent and eternal have drifted out of center view, immanent things like human cultures take on central, hallowed significance. Preserving the tangible customs and traditions of indigenous cultures in this life therefore becomes a far greater good than evangelizing indigenous people to preserve their souls for an intangible afterlife. Indeed, the latter is seen as a threat to the former.

For skeptics prone to seeing Christian mission in a “more harm than good” way, The Mission will likely confirm this bias.

Missional Passion Needs Guardrails of Wisdom

But even for those sympathetic to Christian missions, Chau’s story isn’t necessarily one to herald as the best example to emulate.

Much about Chau is admirable and inspiring. It’s hard to watch the film and disagree with the assessment of a close friend of Chau’s that “the conclusion of John’s life is that he lived it for Jesus.”

Here was a sincere young evangelical who followed a familiar path from suburban comfort to being “radicalized” for missions. While a student at a Christian high school, he goes on a missions trip to Mexico and comes back inflamed for the Great Commission. He attends a Christian university (Oral Roberts) and further develops his passion for missions, takes part in several other overseas missions trips, and ultimately joins a missions organization (All Nations) where he trains to bring the gospel to the famously isolated and mysterious Sentinelese people.

Contrary to some claims, Chau didn’t go entirely rogue in his mission to North Sentinel Island, and he wasn’t blind to the dangers of colonialism (“The team will not bring any colonizing mentalities into this mission,” he specifically wrote in his roadmap for the mission). On the tribute page for Chau on the All Nations website, international executive leader Mary Ho (who is briefly featured in the film), calls Chau “one of the most well-equipped young missionaries we’ve ever seen”:

He read books on cultural anthropology and missiology at the rate of one every three days. He was also trained in linguistics so he could learn the language of the Sentinelese people. He was a certified wilderness EMT, so that he could serve the Sentinelese in practical ways.

And yet questions remain about the wisdom of his mission. Why did he go alone? Should he have trained longer before attempting contact? What made him think that he, a 26-year-old unseasoned American missionary with no ability to speak the Sentinelese language, would be the first person in history to peacefully reach and evangelize this group? Did Chau’s youthful zeal and passionate urgency lead him to go faster than wisdom would advise?

And perhaps most of all: Was God really telling Chau to go, now, in this way? Or was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe? In the film, a pastor at Van City Church, where Chau apparently attended for a season, wonders whether it was actually God calling John or “idealism masquerading as God’s calling.”

Was Chau driven more by a fantasy script where he’d play the role of a Bible-bearing, spear-fishing survivalist somewhere between Jim Elliot and Robinson Crusoe?

The uncertainty that inherently surrounds our individual understanding of “God’s call” is one of many reasons why passionate missionary zeal must be subject to the accountability of a broader community of Christian wisdom—ideally both a local church and also a network of experienced missionaries. It’s a good impulse to want to go and make disciples of all nations. We should take the Great Commission seriously. But the when and how details matter, too, and they’re best worked out with patience and prudence, in the context of community.

Chris McCandless of Christian Missions?

As I watched The Mission, it struck me that Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of the book Into the Wild. Like Chau, McCandless was a twentysomething who desired a more radical life than the empty comforts of suburban affluence. Like Chau, he loved the outdoors and had a penchant for risky adventure, ultimately striking out on his own into a dangerous survival situation in an “untouched” place (the Alaskan wilderness) that, in the end, would claim his life.

When you read Into the Wild (or watch the film), your response to McCandless’s death likely tilts toward either “what a foolish waste” or “how beautiful and inspiring.” Your response depends on your view of McCandless’s “mission.” If you see value in his mission—to shun consumerism and live off the land, in Thoreau-esque communion with the simple beauty of nature—then you might view his death as a fitting martyrdom for a worthy ideal, even if you wished he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

If you don’t find value in McCandless’s mission, however, you likely see his Alaskan death as a sad, empty, predictable end to an ill-begotten fantasy.

The same is true for responses to Chau’s death. It depends on your view of the mission that drove his actions. Do you believe God is real, eternity in heaven and hell is real, and a resurrected Jesus really did say the words recorded in Matthew 28:16–20? If so, Chau’s death in pursuit of reaching an unreached people group makes sense, even if you wish he’d exercised more practical wisdom along the way.

But if, on the other hand, you don’t believe there’s a “there” there, as linguistics professor and former-missionary-turned-atheist Dan Everett says in The Mission, then you view Chau’s mission as reckless madness and a sad waste of a life.

John Allen Chau is framed as a sort of Christian-missionary version of Chris McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild.

Everett is one of the more prominent experts featured in the film, and his story is sad. After serving 30 years as a Christian missionary to the Pirahã people in Brazil, Everett became disillusioned by the lack of results and the general disinterest in the gospel among the Pirahã. He eventually lost his faith and now actively opposes all Christian mission work. “I believe it’s unfortunate that we still have people in the 21st century believing first-century myths enough to die for them,” Everett says.

Earlier in the film, Everett gets emotional as he recites Jim Elliot’s famous quote, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” He’s likely emotional because he remembers believing in those words, which inspired him to sacrifice much in his own life to bring the gospel to a remote tribe. But now he believes Elliot—and all missionaries—are fools for believing in something eternal that cannot be lost.

Madness of Missionaries

The Mission is an apt title for this documentary. Ultimately it challenges audiences to consider what they believe about the mission more than what they think of the missionary John Chau.

The tagline on the film’s poster is pithy: “There’s a fine line between faith and madness.” Exactly where viewers place the “line” will have a lot to do with the degree to which they believe or disbelieve in orthodox faith, which will always look like madness and folly to a perishing world (1 Cor. 1:18).

Do you believe in a “there” there, which makes Chau’s seemingly radical decisions make sense? Are eternal life and eternal suffering real? Is Jesus Christ who he says he is in John 14:6 (“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me”)? If not, then the John Chaus and Jim Elliots of this world are dangerous extremists and delusional fools.

But if the answer is yes, then Christian evangelism and discipleship, both at home and to the ends of the earth, are utterly necessary and urgent, worthy of all scorn and sacrifice—even the ultimate sacrifice.

The Mission Field We Don’t Think About Tue, 17 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Thousands are living out their final years in isolating, impoverished, and even dangerous environments. Christians cannot stand for this.]]> “The doctors told me I got the cancer,” Margaret whispered in her thick, rural Pennsylvanian accent during prayer time. She was a longtime attendee of the nursing-home church service I helped lead; I’d had the privilege of walking alongside her these past few years. I prayed with her weekly while proclaiming God’s Word to the 25 residents. Even as her weight dropped and her mobility deteriorated, Margaret’s steely-eyed attentiveness to my preaching remained unwavering.

A few weeks ago, as I unpacked my guitar and unfurled the bulletins for the service, a resident entered the room and casually informed me Margaret had died. Over the several years I’d known Margaret, I’d never seen anyone visit her. It’s likely her death will remain largely unnoticed, without a funeral or obituary. There’s also a good chance no one besides me prayed with her, placed a hand on her shoulder to comfort her, or preached to her the hope of Christ as her earthly life slowly waned.

What I provided Margaret was little more than a few brief prayers and a simple sermon each week. She deserved much more. But at least she could gather weekly with other Christians in worship, if only for an hour or two. The tragedy is many nursing home residents in America have far fewer opportunities in their waning years to pray with other believers and hear the Word of God.

Dying Alone

It’s been 23 years since sociologist Robert Putnam chronicled America’s declining relational networks in his book Bowling Alone. As the first “bowling alone” generation now enters nursing homes and assisted-care facilities, they do so with fewer loved ones to support them and fewer churches to close the gap. They’re dying alone, and few Christians are doing anything about it.

When I discuss the need for Christians to minister in care facilities, most people are unaware of how bad the situation is. Many picture large facilities with clean, private rooms and resident chaplains paid to provide pastoral care. Such facilities are outliers. Average nursing homes have 109 beds and suffer periodic staffing shortages. They have no chaplains or pastoral staff. Many facilities I’ve ministered in look more like prisons than homes, with the stench of urine permeating every floor. They rely exclusively on volunteers, with overworked nurses required to find and coordinate them. Many facilities have no Christian activities unless churches visit.

A recent report from the National Imperative to Improve Nursing Home Quality chronicles the dire conditions. There are “huge gaps in the quality of care.” The list of ailments seems ripped from the pages of an Upton Sinclair novel. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services—responsible for sanctioning and monitoring nursing homes—reported a staggering range of deficiencies: 45 percent of homes were deficient in infection control, 42 percent in food sanitation, 34 percent in quality of care, and 20 percent in treating residents with dignity. Such conditions contribute to increased rates of poor health outcomes, such as loneliness and suicide.

In America, 21 percent of all deaths occur in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Thousands each year are consigned to live out their last years in isolating, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous environments. One would think such data would spark a litany of newspaper exposés and Senate hearings. But despite the issues being well documented for decades, little has changed. They remain largely invisible to the public—just as Margaret’s death remains largely invisible outside the walls of her facility.

Thousands each year are consigned to live out their last years in isolating, impoverished, and sometimes dangerous living environments.

How did we reach this point? How did we as a society grow numb to the millions of Americans we place in cramped, hospital-like “homes” to end their days with no assurance they’ll receive any care beyond essential medical services? How have churches accepted that millions of Americans—including many brothers and sisters in Christ—spend their dying days far from their churches and with few opportunities to pray and hear Scripture preached?

Acute Problems

The history of the modern nursing home and related facilities is complex; their existence stems from a legion of philosophical, social, economic, and political factors. Two are particularly important for Christians, for they’re issues the church too often reflects rather than combats.

1. Problem of Value

Our society tends to equate productivity with worth. According to theologian Thomas Reynolds, our culture defines personhood according to “the ability to produce and purchase.” Conversely, those who can’t make money have little worth. Such persons are, at best, sidelined from society—and at worst, dispensed of entirely. This is clear in how our society treats the unborn, those with Down syndrome, and the infirm elderly.

Our society tends to equate productivity with worth.

While consistent in opposing abortion and assisted suicide, many American Christians still fall into the trap of equating productivity with worth. In my experience in church planting, I’ve seen a fixation on reaching “the next generation” of leaders and culture shapers. New church plants often target young professionals migrating to large cities, which isn’t wrong—but energy isn’t expended to reach those on the margins.

2. Problem of Relationships

Americans have fewer friendships than in decades past. Putnam’s Bowling Alone cites loss of membership in a variety of organizations, from fraternal clubs to bowling leagues. Declining family bonds have continued to multiply relational woes. Fewer Americans are getting married or having kids. This relational decline has been so coupled with drastic increases in loneliness and depression that the surgeon general recently declared a “loneliness epidemic.”

The steep rise of adults without children is particularly alarming since, for a large portion of those in physical and mental decline, their children often become their primary caretakers. They help aging parents navigate complex systems of care facilities and the chaos of Medicare and medications. Without children or strong community relationships, most nursing home residents will spend the last years of their lives with no visitors.

Journalist Paula Span recently wrote about the increase in “kinless” seniors (those over 55 with no living spouse or children). There are close to a million kinless Americans, a number bound to rise with the decline in marriage and birth rates. One senior adult told Span, “My social life consists of doctors and store clerks—that’s a joke, but it’s pretty much true.” In my experience, a large portion of residents have similar, if not even smaller, social networks.

Without children or strong community relationships, most nursing-home residents will spend the last years of their life with no visitors.

Sadly, Christians tend to mirror these trends rather than combat them. At a recent pastors’ gathering, a friend admitted his church revised their definition of a “committed” member to one who attends Sunday worship every six weeks. Other pastors described their inability to offer midweek Bible studies and Christian education courses due to lack of interest. Without frequent opportunities to connect, the church is no longer where Christians establish the kind of meaningful relationships lasting through old age.

In the care facility where I minister, Henry is one of the few residents who doesn’t struggle with isolation. He has a number of daughters in town, and members of his church regularly visit. Each Sunday he’s surrounded by a convoy of grandchildren, pets, pastors, and choir members. But Henry is an extreme outlier. The less Christians invest deeply in church relationships, and the fewer familial ties they cultivate, the fewer people will be with them at the end of their lives.

More and more Americans, Christian and lost alike, are dying alone. They’re expending their final breaths in small, crowded buildings tended by overworked and underpaid nurses. Deprived of care and companionship from loved ones, they lack the presence of someone offering regular assurance of eternity in Jesus. Without significant changes, this will be our fate as well.

Immense Opportunity

But what an opportunity churches have to bridge this care gap. God demands that we honor aging parents and care for orphans and widows require drawing near to nursing homes and assisted-care facilities.

The less Christians invest deeply in church relationships, and the fewer familial ties they cultivate, the fewer people will be with them at the end of their lives.

We must admit, though, that we can’t fix the care epidemic overnight. There’s no magic bullet. Some political policies could help in the short term, such as incentivizing home health care and providing financial assistance to family members who care for aging parents at home. But no political or economic policy will change our culture’s privileging of power and ability as predicates for worth.

Even if quick-fix solutions are beyond our grasp, there are simple ways we can reach out to nursing home residents while proclaiming the resurrected Christ and demonstrating his love. Here are three.

1. Pray

Most Christians I encounter are unaware of the care facilities nearby; fewer still know the depths of isolation experienced by residents. Hearts of mercy are forged by the Holy Spirit in prayer. Concerned Christians should pray for this heart and mercifully discern which facilities near them are in the most need.

2. Engage

Many nursing homes and assisted-care facilities are severely understaffed; they could use volunteers of any sort to help care for residents. In a home near me, volunteers help serve meals and water. There are numerous opportunities. Simply go and engage with residents, talk to them, and bring the aroma of Christ.

3. Proclaim

Start a regular Bible study or church service for residents. Again, most facilities don’t have enough activities for residents, so such programs would likely be received warmly. Just start simply—and discern whether to add more activities from there.

In my community, laypeople, many of them students, run morning prayer services in local nursing homes. These include a handful of hymns, Scripture passages, and a five-minute sermon. It requires comparatively few hours compared to most other church projects, yet the effects cannot be overstated. We’ve seen miraculous healings, spontaneous outpourings of worship, and unexpected conversions to Christ among individuals who were months away from death.

I’ve recently started a new initiative, Heritage Mission, that offers free training, coaching and resources for those interested in starting worship services in care facilities.

If a worship service seems too complicated, I’d encourage Christians to do something, however simple, to proclaim Jesus. Care facilities are places where the harvest is plenty but the harvesters are few.

Care facilities are places where the harvest is plenty, but the harvesters are few.

I recently informed residents I’d be moving to Northern Virginia. It was a hard visit. Barbara, one of my usuals, had died from kidney failure. Sharp and wisecracking, she brought a lot of personality to our services. Barbara had a painful past—she often hinted at addictions and family instability. But she always sprang to life whenever we sang hymns, her raspy voice belting “It is well with my soul” louder than anyone else. I pray that it is well with Barbara’s soul now, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have been part of her final months.

I’m not sure what will happen to our weekly service. I wish there was a legion of volunteers queued up to take over. I wish a small percentage of the outrage that our society expends on the latest social media controversy or celebrity fiasco could be redirected to the tangible injustices down the street. But, more than that, I wish more people saw the God-given beauty of these residents and could experience a tenth of the joy I’ve had in preaching the gospel to them, praying with them, and weeping alongside them.

Drawing Encouragement from the Faith of the Saints Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:04:20 +0000 Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry reflect on the importance of honoring those who have come before us in the faith, and how this strengthens our own faith.]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry reflect on the importance of pastors honoring those who have come before them in the faith, and how it strengthens their own faith and encourages them to pour out their lives for the next generation.

Though pastors may feel isolated in their studies and in their ministries, they have the communion of saints—including Paul and their own spiritual ancestors—cheering them on. 

Recommended resource: Knowing God by J. I. Packer

In Our Pockets, Out of Control Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The imminent threat of many internet technologies is that they’re fundamentally uncontrollable.]]> As I was driving across town to have lunch with a friend, I saw an SUV with a bumper sticker that said, “Make Orwell fiction again.” In the spirit of Neil Postman, I thought, Friend, we ought to be more concerned about our Huxleyan present than a potentially Orwellian one.

We fear a world in which we’re oppressed through our relationship with technology and media. We dislike being forced to use devices that surveille us to engage in commerce. We bristle at being forced to consume content, like ads, whose primary purpose is indoctrination. We fear bad actors using the internet technology and social media with which we’re so desperately infatuated to oppress us.

All of these concerns are merited, to be sure. Bad actors and manipulative parties of all kinds find myriad creative ways to use technology to oppress others every day. Yet some continue to hold tightly to the idea that technological innovation is generally good and that novel internet technologies and features should be sort of “assumed innocent until proven guilty” when it comes to matters of privacy and other concerns. If we’ve learned anything from recent developments in the world of the internet, we should know that this sort of techno-Utopian perspective is at best unwise and at worst outright foolish. Meganets helps to explain why.

David Auerbach is a former Microsoft and Google engineer whose writing has significantly influenced the ongoing conversations on technology in general and on artificial intelligence in particular.

In Meganets: How Digital Forces Beyond Our Control Commandeer Our Daily Lives and Inner Realities, Auerbach makes the case that our internet technologies are beyond the creators’ ability to control them. Therefore, we should be less concerned about how these technologies may be used to merely influence us and more concerned about how these runaway technologies can directly harm us.

According to Auerbach, the imminent threat of many internet technologies is that they’re fundamentally uncontrollable.

What Is a ‘Meganet’ Anyway?

The internet is simply a network of computers around the world that connect with one another and share data. We don’t tend to think of the internet in such technical terms—rather, we think of the websites we use on a regular basis.

A meganet is something more complex. According to Auerbach, “A meganet is a persistent, evolving, and opaque data network that controls how we see the world” (45). A meganet depends on the existence of the internet but goes beyond it.

Like a fish explaining water, precisely defining a meganet is a challenge. They are ubiquitous and closely woven through the fabric of society. The online revolution has pushed aspects of nearly everything online and reduced much of our lives to data that feeds algorithms, which in turn feed us a stream of suggestions that influence our choices. Meganets are what receive, digest, and transform that data to silently shape the digital world we experience.

Meganets explain why a stranger’s mention of a new shampoo brand in your presence results in a series of ads for that brand on websites you visit. There was no direct human influence that specifically targeted you with those ads. You got ads for that new product because of a complex string of algorithms coupled with an ad purchase by an unknowing marketing assistant.

The whole ad cycle began with someone’s casual reference in the presence of your smartphone microphone and (often unchangeable) privacy settings that allow apps to listen in. Your response to the ad (or lack of one) provides data  used to create further ads, determine their placement, and target you more effectively for other products. Meganets are inescapable.

The persistence of meganets “comes from [their] never being offline and never being reset” (45). Meganets evolve “because thousands if not millions of entities, whether users or programmers or AIs, are constantly modifying [them].” And meganets are opaque because “it is difficult and frequently impossible to gauge why [a] meganet behaved in a particular way.”

Auerbach lists the following essential elements of a meganet:

1. A tightly integrated set of servers and clients running software-based algorithms

2. Programmers and organizations who create and administer the software and servers

3. Participants who use and more importantly operate on that network, making changes to it, and who are in turn operated on by that network in a feedback loop (46)

Auerbach concludes, “Meganets are neither wholly machine nor wholly human but the result of the combination of both on an unprecedentedly large scale” (178).

Frightening Complexity

Some examples of meganets you may encounter or hear about in everyday life include Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, and cryptocurrency. These are all things that started out simply, that many of us use every day, but have become so tangled and transient that it’s hard to explain exactly how they operate. It’s almost impossible to understand how they influence our lives in subtle, seemingly irresistible ways.

Here’s the process that meganets are going through as they continuously evolve:

1. The meganets’ systems are getting increasingly complex.

2. Defects in those systems are increasing in number.

3. Our ability to anticipate and address these defects is decreasing.

4. Our ability to mitigate the consequences of these defects may be worsening.

As we continue to engage these technologies and the content hosted on them, we contribute to a metaphorical flywheel of data storage and dissemination. A flywheel is used to store mechanical energy to keep something spinning smoothly. As the speed of the flywheel increases, the energy stored in it increases exponentially.

The volume of data is so large that these meganets have begun to spin out of control. According to Auerbach, the problem is so severe that, often, their creators and administrators no longer know how to best control them.

Even without the existence of a malicious actor intentionally controlling our lives, we may be under the influence of meganets. Once we depend on a service like Amazon or Facebook, the algorithm is going to significantly influence what products we buy and what events we’re aware of.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

Meganets make society more brittle. A minor blip in the algorithm could create product shortages or effectively black out certain world events.

It isn’t clear that the people who created these systems know how to regain control, apart from simply turning the power off. But we don’t want to turn many of these systems off because they’re now interwoven into the daily aspects of our lives—from checking the weather to shopping for hygiene products.

Disentangling from Meganets

We can’t escape meganets without completely disconnecting. But there’s hope. The goal is to stop feeding the machine as much information and to create turbulence so the algorithm has to keep adjusting. Auerbach offers other large-scale suggestions for how to push back against meganets’ influence in our lives. I doubt some of those are possible. But we can implement some of his ideas to improve our digital lives.

He argues we should inject some chaos into our internet experiences by following people on social media who think differently than us, especially around cultural or political issues. This confuses the algorithm and helps us avoid an ideological bubble.

Additionally, Auerbach suggests a system for having internet users “take turns” at sharing content—a user would not be able to post again until enough others had done so. This could make us use the platforms more thoughtfully. It also reduces the information available to meganets, which shrinks their influence.

Auerbach proposes a top-down solution to regulate people’s posting, which is unlikely to be acceptable to many users. However, we could implement this sort of rule for ourselves. For example, it’s easy for me to rattle off 10 tweets in a day if I don’t pay attention. Therefore, I’ve set up personal limits to keep me from tweeting more than a handful of times in a given week. It’s good to share less than we do. Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Even small reductions in the ways we use meganets can make our interactions with them better.

Auerbach’s work in Meganets is heavy. Some of his explanations are so detailed that even tech-savvy readers may have trouble following. This would be a hard place to enter the conversation.

However, the book offers an important window into the challenges that humanity faces in dealing with technology that seems to be getting out of hand. It’s important to wrestle with the ethical implications of these technologies before things get too far out of control.

How Psalm 1 Helped Me Embrace Limits Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 We’re called to bear fruit, yes. But not all of it, all the time.]]> I’ve never liked limits. As a child, I remember playing with my toy kitchen when one of my parents came to tell me it was time for a nap. I would beg to stay up. Couldn’t they see I was in the middle of making food for my pretend family? Who has time for a nap? In this economy? No way. The children must be fed.

As the years have ticked by, I still try to resist limitations. To prove to God and myself that I can do enough, contribute enough, and be enough. If I refuse naps and work hard, surely I can bear sufficient fruit to grasp the security and approval my uncertain heart craves.

In a do-all, be-all world, maybe you struggle with this too. Even those of us who trust in the finished work of Christ tend to depend on our works to give us value before others and confidence before the Father. We so often look at our own fruit production to measure our worth rather than staring at the Son and what his merit alone provides.

But there’s a tension here. After all, it’s right to desire a fruitful Christian life. So how can we think wisely about our limits and our productivity?

Designed with Limits

We so often look at our own fruit production to measure our worth rather than staring at the Son and what his merit alone provides.

Consider the blessed man described in Psalm 1. He’s certainly productive—“in all that he does, he prospers” (v. 3). Interestingly though, his life is fueled not by striving against limitations but by delighting in the law of the Lord and living within good boundaries. He’s compared to a tree, and notice what the psalmist says about the tree’s fruit:

He is 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, emphasis added)

The blessed man is like a tree that yields its fruit in its season. His isn’t some hybrid apple-orange-mango-avocado-fig-cherry tree that produces every kind of fruit. Nor is it a tree that produces fruit all the time. This tree bears the fruit it was designed for in the season it was designed for.

Fruit in Season

In our modern Western world, where we have access to almost every kind of produce all year round, it’s easy to forget that fruits and vegetables are designed to be planted and harvested in certain seasons. All the seasons are necessary to bear fruit in season—the affliction of winter to eliminate many damaging insects and pathogens, the tilling and rain in the spring to cultivate new life, the heat of summer to grow and fertilize, and the harvest of fall to bring in the crops and celebrate.

And farmers are busy working in every season. Even when the crops are latent, farmers are working the land, preparing for planting, weeding, or preparing for harvest. So too God is tending to the soil of our hearts in every season, even when we may not see the visible fruit.

One of the most freeing moments of my life came when my pastor told me, “You don’t have to have the key to every door. You don’t have to have the answer to every question.” Maybe you need to hear that too. Like the man in Psalm 1, our fruit production is limited. He bears fruit in season as he’s nourished by the water of life that flows directly from God’s Word. He’s firmly rooted as he chooses to take counsel from its pages rather than from the voices of the world.

Orchard of Blessing

We’re called to bear fruit, yes. But not all of it, all the time. The beauty of the church is that no single member of the body of Christ is responsible for generating the whole harvest. Instead, myriad different fruit trees with roots dug deep into the good soil and living water of Christ create an orchard of blessings for the world, showcasing the glory of the Vine and the Vinedresser.

The beauty of the church is that no single member of the body of Christ is responsible for generating the whole harvest.

Bearing fruit isn’t a burden for branches abiding in the Vine. They’re simply doing what the life of the vine is producing in them. As we abide in Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit we will bear his fruit. We’ll be fruitful by delighting not in our accomplishments but in the law of the Lord. We’ll prosper not by burning the candle at both ends but by meditating on God’s Word day and night.

Denying our limits isn’t the way to a full harvest. Christ Jesus died to give us not rest from our limitations but rest within our limitations. Not rest once we bear a certain amount of fruit—rest to produce fruit through us. May he receive the glory due his name for whatever fruit he’s working in and out of us in this season.

The Bible Commentary We Didn’t Know We Were Missing Mon, 16 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Find out why The Gospel Coalition launched a multiyear initiative with The Carson Center to provide a free commentary on the whole Bible.]]> If you preach or teach frequently, you know the value of a good commentary. You may even have a handful within arm’s reach at any given time. Whether you use them in the early phases of preparation to find expository insights or later to check your work, these resources are immensely helpful for interpreting Scripture within the community of the saints, standing on the shoulders of those who’ve come before us.

But as we reach for these books on our shelves, have we ever paused to question what started this process of adding comments on the text of Scripture or why, after 2,000 years, Christians are still writing commentaries?

What’s the History of Commentaries?

Commentaries on Scripture have their roots deep in our history. In one sense, the fifth book of the Pentateuch—the book of Deuteronomy—is itself an inspired commentary on God’s Torah. Fast forward to the days of Jesus, and the first Jewish Targums begin to appear in writing. These paraphrastic explanations of the Scripture text began to show unity and diversity of interpretation within the Jewish community, guiding readers on how to understand (and even read) God’s Word.

In the following century, Christian leaders began producing commentaries and circulating homilies to provide help in the interpretation of Scripture. Some of the first commentaries on the New Testament—though sadly no longer extant—came from the catechetical school of Alexandria in Egypt and the pen of Pantaenus, a man who apparently went on to spread the gospel to India. The Antiochene school of interpretation—the church that formed the headwaters of Paul’s missionary journeys—also produced voluminous commentaries, often in the form of homilies. These commentaries sprung from writers and preachers such as (the theologically questionable) Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret, and the great Chrysostom, to name just a few.

Down through the Middle Ages and into the Reformation, commentaries on the Bible remained an ever-growing stream of output from the church and benefit to the saints. The most notable remains Calvin’s, which has enduring value for expositors and students of the Bible today.

The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word, so long as interpreters have refused to make commentaries a shallow substitute for personal engagement with the text of Scripture.

Why So Many Commentaries?

When I was working on my dissertation on Colossians 1:24, multiple visitors to my home saw the stacks upon stacks of commentaries and other resources spread out on my dining room table and asked, “All this for one verse?” The answer is complicated.

The venerable tradition of biblical commentaries has served to press the church deeper into the Word.

More commentaries help because each author brings his or her personal perspective to bear on the text. The more commentaries you have, the better you’re able to sort out what’s normative and what’s an aberration.

More commentaries also help because each author approaches the text with his or her own purpose. Some commentaries are intended to make sense of the Hebrew or Greek text first and foremost. Others aim to present the broader theological aims of the book. Still others focus on exegesis of the text, bringing out the meaning of the passage at hand. Academic commentaries can tend toward critical matters, discussing issues of authorship, source, and form. Devotional commentaries tend toward practical matters, discussing issues of significance in the life of the believer. Each commentary is valuable based on its function.

Hole in Your Bookshelf

Back in 2018, when Don Carson proposed the idea of a new commentary series managed by The Gospel Coalition, it was natural to wonder, “With so many commentaries, why produce one more?”

As we evaluated this question, we came to the conclusion that yet another resource needed to be produced to do more than provide fodder to keep the lights on at a publishing house. Something new was needed because the current stream of commentaries has a gaping hole. We asked ourselves four questions about the commentaries currently on offer for the church:

  • Is It Modern? Modern commentaries address a significant array of new questions facing pastors and teachers since Matthew Henry completed his commentaries on the Bible in 1710. Many modern commentaries exist to fit this need. But . . .
  • Is It Understandable? Whole swaths of modern commentaries are written for academics, those with formal theological training and facility with the original languages. Helpful commentaries for lay leaders, rising elders, and the majority of global pastors who lack facility with Hebrew and Greek are sparse. But . . .
  • Is It Trustworthy? Where you find modern and understandable commentaries, you’re likely to encounter a mixed bag of trustworthy and untrustworthy volumes. Some are self-published. Others are churned out by cults. Immense trust springs from resources with publicly stated theological presuppositions, a rule of faith that garners confidence from others who walk within the same long-standing tradition. With those few modern, understandable, and trustworthy commentaries, we ask . . .
  • Is It Accessible? Can it be translated or retranslated without onerous rights and permissions? Can pastors-in-training receive digital or printed copies without violation of the law? Is it easily available online in a mobile-friendly, paywall-free environment?

When we asked these four questions, we found a gaping hole on our shelf. Thus started the six-year project that resulted in The Gospel Coalition Bible Commentary. With the final additions published online over the past weeks, the possibility of broader availability of quality commentaries for every Christian is now within sight.

Filling the Gap

Two weeks ago, TGC unveiled The Carson Center for Theological Renewal as an entity charged with the production, management, and stewardship of resources such as this new commentary series. Many other modern, understandable, trustworthy, and accessible resources need to be added to the shelf of every Christian.

In addition to The Carson Center, the attendees at TGC23 were invited to participate in a conference fundraiser to support the translation and localization of these commentaries into Spanish and Arabic. Over the course of the week, attendees participated in TGC’s largest conference fundraiser of all time—and we’ve been hosting conferences since 2007. Over $120,000 was raised to support the production of commentaries in these two languages.

Mina Yousef, TGC’s Arabic editorial coordinator, wrote to me when we first started discussing the project, “Available commentaries in the Arabic-speaking world are either liberal, Orthodox, or Catholic, and nothing is available online for free.”

For the Spanish commentaries, in conjunction with our team at Coalición por el Evangelio, we’re going one step further. We’re identifying a slate of Spanish-speaking theologians who can write new content for the Spanish edition, replacing rather than translating the English commentaries in areas of specialty. This approach will broaden the array of voices and provide a space for new Spanish-speaking authors to be heard in commentary form in their heart language.

How You Can Help

Given the importance of commentaries, the hole in the shelf, and the function of this commentary project at TGC to fill the gap, there are several key ways you can get involved and maximize the benefit of this project.

1. Use the commentaries. The more time you spend on the commentaries as you research and prepare to preach or teach or lead a discussion, the more value search engines attribute to these resources. Be blessed by these free resources and, in so doing, you’ll help others be blessed by them.

2. Share the commentaries. If you know a friend, pastor, or Sunday school teacher who’s teaching on a particular book, share a link with them. We recognize that TGC has a vast array of content, and it’s easy to miss the resources you may need the most.

3. Fund the vision. Would you consider how God might be leading you to link arms with The Carson Center as we begin to fill the gaps for the global church? Your giving will help us facilitate even more translation and localization projects and yet more critical resources such as a Bible dictionary, church history guide, and hermeneutics guide.

Next time you reach for a commentary on your shelf, remember you stand in a long line of Christians who’ve done the same. And many more Christians need the same opportunity to enter the tradition that has brought immense benefit to us.

It Matters for Kids That Jesus Was a Child Too Sun, 15 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Jesus came as an infant not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.]]> If you asked a child to draw a picture of Jesus, you’d likely end up with one of two options: a baby in a manger or a man on a cross. It would probably depend on what time of year it was. We talk a lot about “baby Jesus” at Christmas, and we talk a lot about a Jesus in his early 30s who died on a cross around Easter.

But lately, I’ve been talking with my kids about the life of Christ—specifically mentioning he was a child.

No Excuse for Excuses

Early childhood seems to be filled with dos and don’ts—from safety guidelines to potty training to instructions about how to treat others. This is necessary. One of the greatest responsibilities we have, in addition to cultivating wisdom, is to teach our children right from wrong—but parenting them to perfection is impossible.

They’ll feel their frailty as they fail to uphold the rules set out for them. They’ll hit their brothers, they’ll snatch toys, they’ll say hurtful words. And, as they discover they can’t keep the rules perfectly, they’ll grapple with shame.

My children have responded to their failures in the same two ways I commonly do: blame and shame. One of my elementary-aged sons tends to blame his youth or his bodily needs for his wrongdoing. “I’m too hungry to be nice!” I feel you, buddy. “It’s OK. I’m just little and I’m still learning.” While this is certainly true, it’s not a license to sin against his brothers.

More than an Example

If sin isn’t sin, then the gospel isn’t good news. And so, even as we offer compassion to our children by considering their physical and developmental limitations, we mustn’t negate their need for a Savior. This is why Jesus came as an infant, after all. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.

This is why Jesus came as an infant. Not just to die and to come back from the dead but to live—from infancy—a perfect life.

In those moments when our children cry out in frustration, “I can’t be perfect! I always blow it!” we have the opportunity to tell our kids the good news of the gospel, “Want to hear the most amazing news? Someone was perfect for you. Jesus was a child, just like you, and in every place you fail to keep the rules, he succeeded.” And then we can tell them, “When you put your faith in him, instead of punishing you for the wrong things you do, God gives you his perfect score.”

More than a Free Pass

“Someone did it for you!” is a life-altering reality—not because it gives us permission to stop trying but because it motivates and fuels us to keep going. Since the grace that saves us is the grace that empowers and changes us, our children must hear “Jesus was perfect for you” before we can show them how to obey in a way that honors God: by grace, through faith.

It might be tempting to point to the child Christ the way we might point to a well-behaved classmate, saying, “Little Johnny would never have done this.” But the primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves: his Father. Jesus gave us a standard to live up to, but he also came to fulfill the standard for us, giving us a new identity to live out of.

The good news of the gospel isn’t that you’re free to do whatever you want but that you’re not on your own as you seek to do what God wants, which will become what you want more and more as you live as a Christian.

Not Unable to Sympathize

This is fantastic news for our kids as they try to become more like Jesus. We can remind them that God wants to make them more like Jesus: “Since Jesus was a child just like you, he knows what it’s like to be a kid. He was tempted in every way you are (Heb. 4:15) and he’s filled with compassion for you.” We can encourage them: “He made it so that God could always, always forgive you no matter what, but he also left a Helper so you wouldn’t be on your own (John 15:26–27). The Holy Spirit is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead, and he lives in those who trust Jesus to help them remember the truth and live it out (Rom. 8:10–11).”

We should encourage our kids to look to Jesus when they fail, but we must also train them to look to his Spirit for help to obey. If anything apart from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23), then the only way to equip our kids to live righteous lives is by encouraging them to live dependent ones (John 15:5).

Let the Little Children Come

One could argue that kids are in the best possible position to learn to live the Christian life well. They ask for help all day long. They know what it is to be weak and needy and dependent.

The primary way our kids need to be like Jesus is to have their hearts changed to look like his, to love what he loves.

Jesus said anyone who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven must become like a child (Mark 10:13–16; Matt. 18:2–5). And he became one to show us, and our children, how to live completely dependent on the Father.

Because Jesus was a child, our kids have an example of what righteous living looks like, they can be free of the guilt and shame of unrighteous living, and they can have hope and help to live more righteous lives.

Thanks be to Christ, who became a child that we, and our kids, might become children of God.

4 Ways to Help a Depressed Mom Sat, 14 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Many of us aren’t professional people-helpers. How can laypeople help with such a multifaceted problem? ]]> You know her. She’s a friend or coworker. She goes to your church. Maybe she’s in your small group or serves as a ministry leader. Perhaps she’s your pastor’s wife—maybe she’s your daughter. But surely somewhere in your close proximity, there’s a mother suffering from depression. As she attempts to beat back the darkness, you wonder how you can care for her.

Many of us aren’t professional people-helpers. We’re not doctors, licensed therapists, social workers, or experienced counselors. We may not feel equipped to walk alongside mothers who feel trapped by despondency. It can be intimidating to enter into someone’s experience of affliction, especially when we struggle to understand it. How can laypeople begin to help with such a multifaceted problem?

Depressed Moms Need Discipleship

With an estimated 800,000 mothers in the U.S. diagnosed with a maternal mental health disorder each year—and with a large majority of them unable to get professional help—the body of Christ cannot stand idly by. Even as a layperson, you can offer a depressed mother necessary, irreplaceable care in Christ.

No, you can’t be a depressed mom’s deliverer. But by God’s grace, you can be her discipler. While depression care sometimes requires more than Christian discipleship, it never requires less. That’s because depressed moms are embodied souls—both spiritual and physical beings (Gen. 2:7). They may need professional help from doctors and counselors, but they also need what laypeople in Christ’s church can provide. No one can bear the darkness of depression alone, which is why God calls us to come close and bear each other up (Prov. 18:14; Eccl. 4:12; Gal. 6:2).

Practical Ways to Help

While depression care sometimes requires more than Christian discipleship, it never requires less.

Imitating Christ’s care for the downcast means drawing near to them with our presence (Ps. 34:18; 2 Cor. 7:6). It means patiently encouraging the fainthearted and helping them in practical ways (1 Thess. 5:14). As you seek to disciple a mother through depression, here are four practical ways to help her.

1. Support her through service.

To disciple a despondent mother is to hold a candle in her darkness. And an important component of Christian discipleship is serving one another in love (Gal. 5:13). Though it may not feel like you’re doing much to address her depression, the ministry of good deeds is a tangible manifestation of Christ’s light in her life (Matt. 5:16). Show you care by carving out time to support her through regular acts of practical service. This can look like helping around the house, bringing her a meal, or volunteering to watch her kids so she can take a break.

2. Lament with her.

When a depressed mother gives voice to her pain and confusion, it’s unwise to respond by singing songs of cheerful optimism (Prov. 25:20). As Zack Eswine has written, hope in this dark season will seem unrealistic to her if it fails to “match the depths of the wound and the misery of [her] pain.” This is where biblical lament becomes a gift of God’s grace and mercy—a means of engaging distressing thoughts and emotions as she waits on God to work according to his word (Ps. 119:25). As her discipler, you can help her to learn and speak the language of lament. Work through a resource together such as the Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy Devotional Journal. Go at a pace she’s comfortable with, even if progress seems slow.

3. Connect her suffering to Christ’s miseries.

In your ongoing ministry, remember that, as Charles Spurgeon explained, the “sympathy of Jesus is the next most precious thing to his sacrifice.” By connecting your friend’s misery to that of her Lord, he appears less like a merciless deity and more like the faithful Good Shepherd he is (Isa. 53; John 10:14–15).

Reflect regularly together on the fact that her suffering Savior sympathizes with her (Heb. 4:15), that songs of lament once poured out from his heavy heart (Matt. 27:46; Heb. 5:7–8), and that the Author of life knows what it’s like to be “‘overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death’” (Matt. 26:38, NIV). Comfort her with the truth that Jesus experientially knows the depths of her misery—and that she’ll never be made to know the depths of his (Isa. 53:10–11).

4. Help her rehearse realistic hope.

Maybe the mom you’re caring for feels like she’ll be forever stuck in the dark. But while it’s true that midnight is here, it’s equally true that morning must come. No children of the light will be lost to darkness (John 6:39; Eph. 5:8). As her discipler, this is a realistic, hope-based encouragement to rehearse. Just as Christ’s is a death-before-resurrection story, hers is a suffering-before-glory story, a hurt-before-healing story, a darkness-before-light story. And the One who faithfully went through tribulation before her will remain faithful to go through it with her (Isa. 42:16).

Even as a layperson, you can offer a depressed mother necessary, irreplaceable care in Christ.

Discipling a depressed mom is a good work God will enable you—by his Spirit and Word—to walk in. With his help, you can become a conduit of sustaining grace, strengthening presence, and steadfast love. As you take care to step into a mom’s darkened world, God will give you the unquenchable light of Jesus Christ to carry (John 1:5). Your care and support may not take away her sorrowful burden, but by God’s grace, it can halve the heavy load.

Start Giving Before You Inherit Sat, 14 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity, inheriting wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.]]> Millennials may inherit over $68 trillion from previous generations by 2030. According to Newsweek, some experts believe this “could be the largest transfer of wealth in the history of humankind.”

What will younger generations do with that wealth?

Studies show the younger someone is, the less he or she tends to give financially. Not just less in amount, but less in proportion. According to Barna Group, “Only 13 percent of Millennials and even fewer Gen Z (6 percent) give money on a frequent basis.” In “The Generosity Gap,” Barna reported that 7 percent of those who are 70 or older give 10 percent or more of their income to their churches, but only 1 percent of millennials claimed they do so. Only 21 percent of all believers give 10 percent or more of their income to their local churches, while 25 percent give nothing.

Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity—and a sense that God’s purpose for prospering us is so we can help the church, aid the poor, and reach the lost—inheriting such wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.

Dangerous Inheritance

Scripture says that “A good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children” (Prov. 13:22). In Old Testament times, passing on ownership of the land to the next generation was vital. Many people lived at a subsistence level, too poor to buy land. With no inheritance, they would likely end up enslaved or unable to care for their children, parents, or grandparents.

In the West today, however, things are different. There are exceptions, but inheritances are usually financial windfalls coming to people who live separately from their parents, have their own careers, and are financially independent, They have dependable sources of income generated by their own work, skills, saving, and investing. In many cases, they have a higher net worth than their parents.

In a society with such affluence and opportunity, I’ve long advocated that, in most cases, Christian parents should seriously consider leaving the bulk of their estate to churches, parachurch ministries, missions, and other kingdom purposes, leaving only a relatively small portion to their children.

If your parents are among those who’ve decided to give away most of their wealth rather than pass it on to you and your siblings, I encourage you to rejoice. Honor their choice and support them in it. Having grown up in an unbelieving family, I would’ve loved for my parents to have had such a kingdom vision.

Without a vision for giving as investing in eternity, inheriting such wealth could be a curse rather than a blessing.

If your parents do leave you with the majority of their wealth, ask God what he wants you to do with it. Understand it doesn’t truly belong to you and that many lives and marriages have been ruined by an infusion of unearned wealth. Yes, an inheritance can be a blessing. But that’s not all God tells us. He also says, “An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end” (Prov. 20:21). Jesus knew our tendency to live in denial about the dangers of money love, so he sounded this alarm: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NIV).

When I was a missions pastor, I worked with a couple who finished their missionary training and were soon headed to the field. Unexpectedly, the wife inherited significant wealth. The couple was excited, thinking they could now become self-supported missionaries. When they asked my advice, I encouraged them that they needed the accountability and prayer support of having financial partners. We talked about how they could give away the majority of the inheritance, thanking God for the opportunity to invest in eternity. This would allow them to trust God to provide, as missionaries normally do, and move forward undistracted.

In the end, they kept most of the money. What happened next broke my wife’s and my hearts. Over the next few years, their marriage, family, and ministry plans fell apart. Sadly, they never recovered. Obviously, the money wasn’t the only problem, but it certainly had a significant negative effect. What seemed like a blessing—what we believe could have been a blessing if they’d given most of it away—proved to be a curse.

Give Today

When it comes to money and possessions, we tend to compare upward, not downward. But even if we’re lower-middle class in America, the truth is we’re in the upper 98th percentile of the world’s wealthy. Whether we’re set to receive an inheritance or not, most of us are already rich by global standards. So instead of starting to make purchases based on money you think you’ll inherit, start giving now as good stewards of what God supplies.

The key to such giving—and to avoiding greed, pride, and possessiveness—is recognizing God’s ownership of everything: “Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it” (Deut. 10:14). If our possessions and money ultimately belong to us, no one has the right to tell us what to do with them. Until we truly grasp that God is the owner and we’re merely stewards of his assets, we won’t be generous givers. But once we embrace God’s ownership of everything, it’s a small step to ask him what he wants us to do with his money and possessions.

When God prospers us, it’s not merely to give us new toys and more beautiful homes but to allow us to give still more: “You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way” (2 Cor. 9:11). God’s extra provision isn’t usually intended to raise our standard of living but to raise our standard of giving.

God’s extra provision isn’t usually intended to raise our standard of living but to raise our standard of giving.

It’s human nature to imagine that spending on ourselves will make us happiest. But Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). In that verse, the Greek word makarios (translated “blessed”) really means “happy” or “happy-making.” If giving wasn’t an act of love, if it didn’t help others, and even if God didn’t tell us to do it, it’d still be in our best interests. Because generosity leads to joy.

Jesus told his disciples that when they gave money away, their hearts would follow the treasures they were storing in heaven (Matt. 6:19–21). He said God would reward them for helping the needy (Luke 14:14). We’re forever connected to what we give and the people we give it to. As Martin Luther said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all. But whatever I have placed in God’s hands, that I still possess.”

Greater Reward

Our role in Christ’s kingdom isn’t only as a son or daughter of the King but also as an investor, an asset manager, and an eternal beneficiary. The command to store up treasures in heaven proves giving isn’t simply parting with wealth—it’s transferring wealth to another location where it can never be lost. Giving to God’s kingdom is the most dependable and profitable investment ever. When you give, don’t think of it as divesting but investing.

Peter speaks of an inheritance God has awaiting us after death that includes both our salvation and the eternal treasures we store up through generous giving: “He keeps them for you in heaven, where they cannot decay or spoil or fade away” (1 Pet. 1:4, GNT). God promises our wise stewardship and generous giving will pay off, with joy now and rewards in the future.

May we always remember that God—not real estate or wealth—is our true inheritance. May we live and give accordingly so that what we inherit doesn’t become for us a curse but a true blessing from God’s hand.

‘The Creator’ Reflects Nagging Spiritual Questions of a Secular Age Fri, 13 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 ‘The Creator’ reflects the dilemma of modern man, who views himself as little more than a machine yet still desires to know his Maker.]]> Walt Disney unveiled his first audio-animatronic robot at the New York World’s Fair in 1964. The robot was a life-size, lifelike depiction of Abraham Lincoln that stood from its chair and delivered a five-minute speech. When attendees saw the robot, many refused to believe it wasn’t a human and threw coins at it to try to make it jump.

More than half a century later, we still struggle to comprehend technology that looks like us, sounds like us, and supposedly thinks like us. The recent emergence of generative AI like ChatGPT has given the conversation more urgency. What ultimately distinguishes humanity from robots? The question has been explored countless times in popular culture, from Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner to Steven Spielberg’s A.I. to, most recently, The Creator, written and directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards (Rogue One).

Like many other sci-fi films, The Creator asks provocative questions about humanity and existence, even as it struggles to offer answers. Ultimately, Edwards’s film provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.

New Spin on Man vs. Machine Saga

The Creator opens with a vintage newsreel-style introduction that sets the context for a war between the Western world and all forms of advanced AI. The robots, which range from Roomba-like androids to human-like “simulants,” coexist with humans in a Far Eastern continent called “New Asia.”

Set in the 2060s, the story follows Joshua (John David Washington), a U.S. special forces operator in New Asia who’s part of military efforts to discover advanced AI’s creator—“Nirmata”—and find an AI superweapon that has the potential to exterminate mankind. The superweapon turns out to be a simulant child nicknamed Alphie (Madeleine Yuna Voyles), whom Joshua captures and forms a bond with as they’re pursued by both AI robots and the American military.

The Creator provides a potent example of the spiritual lostness of modern man in a culture that can’t find any fixed point of meaning.

Though the humans vs. robots movie narrative has been told many times, The Creator adds some unique twists to the genre, especially in its depiction of a lovable 6-year-old girl as an AI superweapon. Voyles’s performance as Alphie is superb—one of the best I’ve seen from a child actor. The way she captures the heart of Joshua—who becomes something of a father and protector of her as the film progresses—is a proxy for how she makes the audience feel.

Edwards clearly wants to confront the audience with a sympathetic, human-like AI character who leads the audience to contemplate, What does it mean that the hero I’m most rooting for in this film isn’t human?

‘How Were You Made?’

As humans, do we have ethical responsibilities toward nonhuman AI? That’s the kind of question The Creator poses. At multiple points in the movie when a simulant is destroyed or a robot begs for mercy, a human says, “They’re not real . . . it’s just programming.” But Joshua (and the viewer) is led to question this logic.

It may technically be “just programming,” but what happens when the robots look, talk, think, and act just like us? What happens when they start asking the same existential questions as humans? The Creator raises these questions, which cannot be answered by a worldview that excludes God—the Creator—as the source and standard of final reality.

Edwards seems to recognize this, as much of the film revolves around Joshua and Alphie’s joint quest to find Nirmata (which is the Hindi word for “creator”). In one scene, Alphie asks Joshua, “If you’re not a robot, how were you made?” All Joshua can muster in response is that his parents made him. Neither Joshua nor Alphie knows their true maker, and they bond over this loss.

Bonding over Shared Questions

The gradually stronger bond between Joshua and Alphie blurs the line between human and robot. Joshua has advanced prosthetics for one arm and one leg. He later learns Alphie was designed using a human embryo, so she can grow and mature—despite being a robot. Joshua is part machine, and she is part human. Both of them experience longings for Nirmata, as well as an instinctual desire for “heaven”—which they talk about a few times in the film.

Perhaps as a subversion of the standard narrative that pits humans against AI, Edwards wants us to see Joshua and Alphie in the same existential category. They both feel “programmed”—made for some purpose, with some logic in mind—yet the identity of the programmer and the details of the programming purpose are frustratingly elusive.

By the end of the film, Edwards doesn’t want the viewer to evaluate the story from the perspective of Joshua but of Alphie—the lost child. She’s a being with the power to do both great good and terrible harm in the world, yet without moral guidance on how to use that power and why. Further, she was programmed with a desire to know her creator and be united in a “heaven” she cannot reach.

Modern Man Is the Lost Child

The Creator reflects the dilemma of modern man, who views himself as little more than a machine (albeit made of flesh, not filaments) yet still desires the satisfaction of knowing his Maker. The film captures the malaise of secular people pulled between the competing forces of a materialistic culture and their hearts’ “programming” for a heaven and a transcendent purpose they’re unable to find. Modern man, without a final authority in God, experiences anxiety in the awareness of his great potential, yet he lacks guidance on how to use it and why it matters.

Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker. Christians have the opportunity to speak into this culture with the better story of the gospel. Our life isn’t a quest of searching for a hidden, elusive Creator; instead, our Creator initiated the quest to reach us. He made himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Son of God, set aside his great power to atone for our sin on the cross, thereby bridging the great gulf between us and our Maker.

Contemporary secular culture is a lost child disconnected from its Maker.

Gareth Edwards’s The Creator is a compelling example of our culture’s nagging hunger for God—even as we’ve officially “moved beyond” religion and replaced God with science and technological progress. No matter how awe-inspiring our technologies get, the fundamental questions that haunt The Creator will still haunt humans in our world: What are we created for? Who did the creating, and why do I long to know him? Why do we self-consciously reflect on these questions if we’re merely wires, silicon chips, and meat?

Perhaps Augustine was onto something when he wrote, in Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Christians can courageously engage these questions, pointing people to a better story than secularism can muster.

Hamas Is Borrowing Tactics from the Amalekites Fri, 13 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Yahweh doesn’t hate just Amalekites but all men of bloodshed and violence.]]> Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel was like something from the dark ages of antiquity. Marauders invaded Israel not to claim territory or even treasure but to slaughter innocents and take hostages. They killed young women, snatched elderly people from the streets, murdered and burned families with their children.

Hamas’s tactics resemble nothing so much as those of the biblical Amalekites.

Yahweh’s Curse

Coming up from Egypt, Israel gets its first taste of war in a battle with the Amalekites (Ex. 17:8–16). While Moses sits on the hill with hands held up by Aaron and Hur, Joshua defeats the enemy in the valley below. When it’s all over, Yahweh takes an oath: “Yahweh has sworn; Yahweh will have war against Amalek from generation to generation” (v. 16). He vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven (v. 14).

Yahweh vows to fight until the memory of Amalek is blotted out from under heaven.

Yahweh makes good on his promise. He commands King Saul to carry out the ban of utter destruction against Amalek (1 Sam. 15:1–3). Saul wins the battle but spares the Amalekite king Agag and much of the plunder. Samuel hews Agag to pieces at Gilgal, but the Amalekites survive. Near the end of David’s exile in Philistia, Amalekites attack his camp at Ziklag and carry off women, children, and plunder. David’s last act before being anointed king of Judah is to chase down Amalekite raiders and recover his wives, children, and goods (30:1–20).

Four hundred escape from David (30:17), so Amalek survives to fight another day. But Yahweh hasn’t forgotten his oath. The villain of the book of Esther is Haman the “Agagite” (Est. 3:1; 8:3), a descendant of the king who’d fought King Saul. Esther cleverly traps Haman, and the Lord (though unnamed) orchestrates events so Haman ends up impaled on the gallows he made for Esther’s cousin Mordecai. It’s the last reference to Amalek in the Old Testament. Yahweh has made good on his threat. Amalek is remembered only because of the Bible, where they’re the forgotten people.

There were a lot of vicious peoples in the ancient world. Assyrians were notoriously cruel, and the Canaanites deserved to come under Yahweh’s ban. Why did he single out Amalek for special hostility?

Amalekites at War

Amalekites specialize in attacking the weak. Moses reminds Israel that Amalek “attacked among you all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary” (Deut. 25:18, NASB). Amalekite raiders attacked Ziklag when David and his mighty men were marching with the Philistines to fight Saul, when only women and children were present (1 Sam. 30:2–3). Haman conspires to enlist the power of Ahasuerus’s empire to exterminate the exiled Jews.

Amalekites aren’t just cruel. Amalek is the inverse—the photonegative—of Israel. Again and again, Yahweh instructs Israel to care for orphans, widows, strangers, and other vulnerable people (Ex. 22:22; Deut. 10:18; 14:29; 24:19–21; 26:12–13). At Mounts Ebal and Gerazim, Israel pronounces a curse against anyone who “perverts the justice due to the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deut. 27:19). Prophet after prophet rails against Israel and her leaders for abusing the weak (Isa. 1:17; Jer. 7:6; 22:3; Ezek. 16:49; Zech. 7:10).

Amalekites don’t just happen to harm women and children as “collateral damage.” Amalekites don’t carry out the ban, as Israel did, destroying men, women, children, and animals in select Canaanite cities, on Yahweh’s orders. Israel didn’t attack Jericho, Ai, or Hormah when all the men were gone. They attacked fortified and guarded cities, conquered them, and offered them in smoke and fire to Yahweh. Amalekites specifically target women and children and the weak. Amalek is the anti-Israel, a people whose way of life, values, and military tactics are set in direct opposition to Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

Echoes of Amalek

Hamas isn’t Amalek. Hamas isn’t literally under Yahweh’s ban and curse. And Hamas certainly isn’t the same as the Palestinian people. Thousands of Palestinians are Christians, and many Muslim Palestinians oppose Hamas and its violence. To compare Hamas to Amalek isn’t to justify or even suggest genocide.

Amalek is the anti-Israel, a people whose way of life, values, and military tactics are set in direct opposition to Yahweh’s purposes for humanity.

Still, the tactics Hamas used on October 7 were Amalekite tactics. Hamas isn’t the only terrorist group to fight like Amalekites. For decades, terror groups have used women and children as shields. Indonesian Islamists deploy women as suicide bombers, Boko Haram uses children as “human bombs,” and terrorists in Afghanistan have killed pregnant women and babies in maternity wards. In their response to Hamas, even Israel risks becoming a mimetic mirror of their enemies.

The God who purged Amalek from under heaven is still the Lord of the universe. He’s still determined to destroy the violent, especially those who prey on the helpless. He doesn’t hate just Amalekites but all men of bloodshed and violence. He “tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence” (Ps. 11:5). Among the six things Yahweh hates are “hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, [and] feet that make haste to run to evil” (Prov. 6:17–18).

Prayers for Justice

Jesus reigns with a rod of iron and smashes nations like pottery (Rev. 2:27). He will bring all his enemies under his feet, not just the Amalekites of Hamas but all who love violence and hate mercy. Sometimes Jesus defeats the violent by converting them, sometimes by destroying them. Either way, we should be asking him to do it.

Thankfully, we have a prayer and hymn book, the Psalter, full of prayers for justice and judgment on the vicious. It’s a good time to dust off those imprecatory psalms and ask Jesus to pursue justice until every Amalekite, of whatever nationality, is purged from under heaven.

Don’t Ignore the Countdown to Damnation Thu, 12 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite.]]> “Thirty-one seconds before death.”

This is author Brandon Sanderson’s way of ominously foreshadowing the inevitable, of giving insight into the thoughts and feelings of his characters before their demise. You’d think this too morbid for readers seeking the immortal appeal of a fantasy novel. But millions of fans of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series would disagree. Keeping the end in sight speaks profoundly to their human souls.

I suppose similar pre-death statements could be written about any of us. Imagine if each time you met someone new, a cold narrator whispered the person’s remaining lifespan. It would be a strange and terrible knowledge. Yet it would also change the way you relate to that person. The sober reality would make for deep urgency. Time is short. This moment matters.

But this is more than fantasy. We’re all aware death is inevitable. For those who hold to the historic Christian faith, we recognize that apart from God’s salvation through Jesus Christ, hell—a real place of eternal conscious torment for the wicked—follows ruthlessly on death’s heels. Time is more than short. It’s precious. What a weighty burden of knowledge to bear.

Missionary’s Burden

Perhaps no one bears that weight more than missionaries. These are men and women who go out “for the sake of the name” (3 John 1:7), the only name “under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Their aim is to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23). Many missionaries would quickly acknowledge that a central motive behind their calling is to ensure lost people might not go to hell without a chance first to hear the gospel. A missionary’s life, profession, and burden is to keep the reality of hell in view, to hear the cold narrator’s voice.

A missionary’s life, profession, and burden is to keep the reality of hell in view.

I know because I’ve done it. As missionaries in East Africa, we’d often drive long distances, praying over towns and villages along the way. No matter how many places we stopped, or how many people trusted in Christ, there were hundreds of places and thousands of people who we passed by. Yes, I’d rejoice over the new believers, but never without the biting awareness of those not visited.

Back at my home where I rested from my work in the evening, I’d often hear wailing break out in the neighborhood. This meant someone had just passed away. Was it someone who had never heard of Christ? Did I talk with him recently in the market? Had I taken the opportunity to share the gospel with her? These are the self-condemning questions that come as a young man is serenaded by screams. But they represent the vigilant awareness that eternity is waiting just beyond the veil.

Missionary’s Temptation

With this burden comes a temptation: Why not set the doctrine of hell aside? There are certainly convenient ways to do so.

One might take the universalist route, believing God’s salvation will ultimately extend to all people. Eternal damnation is rendered unnecessary and no more than a metaphor in Scripture. Another may prefer annihilationism, the conviction that whether by death or temporary punishment in the afterlife, God will ultimately destroy the unsaved altogether. Because unbelievers will cease to exist in this view, hell as a place of eternal judgment also ceases to exist.

Yet perhaps the easiest way to set hell aside is simply not to think about it much. The belief remains but not the burden. Urgency for souls diminishes. Jesus’s words about hell that once stirred the missionary are now met with apathy. Call it compassion fatigue or culture shock from too many wails in the night, too many funeral pyres, too many neighbors who are 31 seconds away from death, but over time, hell becomes less and less of a worry.

This surrender is what some call “love wins.” As Millard Erickson observes, “The doctrine of everlasting punishment appears to some to be outmoded or sub-Christian [and] is often one of the first topics of Christian belief to be demythologized.” Why then should the missionary hold to it and its unceasing anguish? Because, as Erickson continues, “However we regard the doctrine . . . it is clearly taught in Scripture.”

The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite—a more confined faith and narrowed ministry.

Missionary’s Certainty

The Bible’s clearest words about hell come directly from Jesus. In Matthew 25, Jesus is amid a long discourse on the end of the age. Much of his teaching has alluded to the salvation of the righteous and the condemnation of the wicked. But in this chapter, he gets specific.

After repeating the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (24:51; 25:30), he describes the final judgment where such torment takes place. The righteous “sheep” will be welcomed into the kingdom God prepared for them, and the cursed “goats” will depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:33, 41). Iterating the scope of this judgment, Jesus concludes, “These will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (v. 46).

The missionary who intellectually or emotionally gives up on the doctrine of hell hasn’t suddenly become freer and more virtuous. His doctrinal loss accomplishes just the opposite.

The case for hell from Matthew 25 is clear, but a trustworthy doctrine isn’t built on a single chapter of Scripture. We also see hell described in Mark’s Gospel as “the unquenchable fire” (9:43) and as a place “where their worm does not die” (v. 48). Luke contributes Jesus’s parable of the rich man and Lazarus, where Jesus states that upon the rich man’s death, he was “in torment” and cried out, “I am in anguish in this flame” (16:23–24). Revelation also gives repeated reference to a smoking, sulfurous, bottomless pit of endless torment (9:1–2, 11; 14:9–11; 19:3; 21:8).

Of this we can be certain: when it comes to talking about hell, the Bible mercifully pulls no punches.

Comfort for the Countdown

Since the Scriptures are so clear, the missionary can have certainty not simply of the truth of this doctrine but of its goodness. What could be good about the doctrine of eternal conscious torment? Does it provide edification for the soul? What fruitfulness does it induce in the ministry?

The next time you hear wails in the night or that whispered narrator’s voice, remember the following beautiful benefits of this doctrine.

30 seconds . . . Hell shows us God’s Word is trustworthy.

No doubt Paul had hell in mind when he wrote of his lost kinsmen among the Jewish people, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” (Rom. 9:2). But if hell is true and God’s Word is trustworthy when it speaks about eternal judgment, it’s also trustworthy when it tells us of his compassion.

What could be more beneficial to the ministry of a missionary than assurance in the Bible’s trustworthiness? “​​What we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord” (2 Cor. 4:5)—the living Word by way of his written word. When the burden of hell assails, the missionary can rest in God’s Word both that hell is real and that God is “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9).

25 seconds . . . Hell declares God’s glory.

One of the strongest arguments against the doctrine of hell is that it detracts from God’s love. How could a loving God wield eternal judgment against what was only temporal evil?

The missionary must remember, as Wayne Grudem writes, “Evil that remains unpunished [detracts] from God’s glory.” In other words, “When God punishes evil and triumphs over it, the glory of his justice, righteousness, and power to triumph over all opposition will be seen.”

When the missionary presents the gospel and humbly includes warnings of hell, she’s declaring that God is gloriously just and all-powerful. Anything less than displaying God’s supreme glory does no service to the lost hearer. It shows no pity for the one in danger of hell’s fire.

20 seconds . . . Hell cultivates trust in God’s sovereignty.

My conviction about the Reformed view of God’s sovereignty was birthed on the mission field. One day, my team leader took me to a panoramic view atop a mountain. Thousands of tin roofs sparkled across miles of inaccessible villages. Later that night, I almost bought a plane ticket home. If the task of reaching such remote people depended entirely on me, I’d quit in despair.

If God’s Word is trustworthy when it speaks about eternal judgment, it’s also trustworthy when it tells us of his compassion.

Thankfully, I was reading through Romans at the time, and I came across Paul’s declaration that God “has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (9:18). God’s sovereign choice of souls was the comfort that allowed me to stay. I was participating in his work, not the other way around. That freedom gives me rest to this day.

15 seconds . . . Hell motivates evangelism.

When I write of rest, I mean rest for my soul, not rest from evangelistic work. The rest God’s sovereignty imparts enables us to strive all the more (Heb. 4:11). This may be the most obvious benefit of the doctrine of hell. If hell is real, and every person you meet is a set number of seconds away from death, then the missionary must go out with the gospel. Hear Paul’s sense of urgency:

How then 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? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” (Rom. 10:14–15)

What motivation!

10 seconds . . . Hell leads us to gasp at God’s holiness.

As a pastor, I’ve never encouraged someone to meditate on the doctrine of hell. But I have urged reflection on the doctrine of God’s holiness, which clearly coincides with hell’s importance. When both the Old and New Testaments pull back the curtain on heaven, we see creatures crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD” (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8). This means God is completely set apart from all evil. He’s right to seek his own honor and oppose any dishonor.

When a missionary allows his mind to linger on hell as eternal conscious torment, it’s naturally a dreadful thought. Is it really necessary for a soul to eternally grieve the absence of God’s grace (2 Thess. 1:9) and the presence of his wrath (Rev. 14:10)? Before God’s holiness, yes. Hell may be the most effective measure by which we can understand the heights of God’s holiness. With the psalmist, the missionary may gasp, “Our God is holy!” (Ps. 99:9).

5 seconds . . . Hell is a monument to God’s grace.

Serving as a missionary can be a grueling vocation. Living as one of few Christians among millions of the unsaved is a privilege, but it’s also a recipe for spiritual warfare. What missionaries need most for endurance is to be bathed in God’s grace. If hell reveals to us the heights of God’s holiness, then it also provides a monument to the depths of his mercy.

Gratitude is a balm in hard times. And Jesus aims for us to possess fullness of joy (John 15:11). What gratitude and joy God supplies when we remember we’ve been lovingly chosen to escape hell (mercy) and inherit eternal life (grace).

After all, the missionary himself is only a set number of seconds away from death. Let the cold narrator speak his piece. But by God’s grace, hell isn’t the missionary’s future. Only heaven, and then a new creation. This is the way of the King. Thanks be to God.

Prophetic from the Center: Don Carson’s Vision for The Gospel Coalition Thu, 12 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 TGC started with a meeting of 40 North American pastors in 2005. Here’s why it grew to have worldwide influence.]]> The North American church leaders who would become the Council of The Gospel Coalition first met on the campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (TEDS) from May 17 to 19, 2005. Along with his friend Tim Keller, Don Carson issued 40 invitations. All 40 showed up.

Carson and Keller settled on this plan about 10 days before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They were meeting in New York City to discuss Worship by the Book, edited by Carson with Keller as a contributor. They’d spoken together in the U.K. for the Evangelical Ministry Assembly, organized by the Proclamation Trust, but they didn’t know any similar gathering of North American pastors.

What could result from church leaders in the broadly Reformed tradition as they met every year to talk, pray, and learn together? The invitation noted, “It is difficult to think of a regular national gathering or conference or publication or institution that is driven by a rich heritage of biblical theology combined with pastoral commitment to seriously and creatively address the present generation.”

At the time, Carson was better known than Keller, who hadn’t yet published widely. However, Carson explained that Keller, a New York church planter, had demonstrated a helpful knack for explaining sin in postmodern contexts. Three years later, Keller released his first two best-selling books, The Reason for God and The Prodigal God.


The question before this group convened in suburban Chicago was whether they could or even should rally around a new organization. Was someone already fulfilling this purpose? How much theology did they need to hold in common? What would their meetings accomplish? How could they encourage evangelicals still battling liberal theology in mainline denominations? How could they connect evangelicals laboring faithfully in their smaller conservative denominations?

In an exposition of Luke 5:12–13, Keller began the discussion by explaining how Reformed leadership fractured in the aftermath of Jonathan Edwards’s death in 1758. As the greatest American theologian to date, Edwards held together theological orthodoxy, experiential revivalism, and cultural apologetics. He critiqued Enlightenment philosophers while writing and preaching in ways that communicated the gospel in an emerging transatlantic culture.

After Edwards died, however, his followers splintered into three different groups, Keller explained. The Princeton theologians were strong on confessional theology but not on cultural apologetics. Jonathan Edwards Jr. and the New England theologians advanced cultural apologetics with more vigor than confessional Calvinism. Charles Finney and like-minded revivalists of the Second Great Awakening claimed Edwards as their inspiration but dismissed his cultural apologetics and confessional theology.

Keller saw the same fracturing in 2005 among American evangelicals. Some, especially the Reformed leaders gathered at TEDS, marched under the banner of confessional theology. Other evangelicals eagerly sought to change the perception of Christians through savvy cultural engagement and social justice initiatives. A third group promoted big events filled with evangelistic fervor using the latest technological methods.

But who would bring together the best of these three groups? Who would inherit the full mantle of Edwards in the 21st century?

Reasons for Hope

In his address, Carson offered a potted history of Western Christianity from the end of the Second World War to the turn of the century. He observed that between 1880 and 1930, evangelicals lost their hold on nearly every seminary. Yet by the 21st century, half of all master of divinity students were evangelical. Carson attributed that change, largely concentrated since 1960, to parachurch ministries that reached evangelicals in mainline denominations.

Leaders in the room represented the fruit of those neoevangelical efforts, including Kenneth Kantzer’s work to make TEDS a leading global seminary. Keller had attended Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, led by Harold John Ockenga. Many of these leaders read and had written for Christianity Today magazine, founded by Billy Graham and initially edited by Carl F. H. Henry. Christianity Today under Henry had incorporated the wide breadth of evangelicals but still spoke with a “prophetic voice from the center,” Carson said.

Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of “evangelicalism,” Carson found reasons for hope as he surveyed the scene. Compared to 50 years ago, biblical commentaries abounded, especially those written by evangelicals committed to confessional theology. A diverse evangelicalism cried out for biblical and historical definition, rooted in the gospel and in the Reformation tradition. When evangelicals attend church and read their Bibles, Carson said, they stand out from the world as moral exemplars.

Even though these leaders might feel like their cause had suffered due to a secularizing culture and confusion over the meaning of ‘evangelicalism,’ Carson found reasons for hope.

The ongoing shift toward cultural relativism in North America would reveal itself as morally bankrupt through intolerance. The decline of denominations opened opportunities for new associations as Christians no longer looked for their traditional church when they moved. The rise of peripheral voices such as the emerging church would stir hope in the gospel itself.

Carson cited theonomy as a trend within the Reformed community that called for renewed attention to core theological confessions. Population decline in Europe suggested to Carson that the future of the church would be urban and multiethnic.

Back in North America, many suggested in the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s reelection victory in 2004 that cultural polarization had never been worse. But Carson recalled the Vietnam War and saw an opportunity for the church to speak truth without succumbing to political captivity on either side.

While organized religion was in decline, most Americans still claimed to be spiritual. This meant that even though they understood personal freedom in self-help terms, perhaps they could be guided by Christian formation toward more noble purposes.

As Carson delivered his talk, the most controversial public matter of personal freedom concerned homosexuality. President Bush’s reelection had been fueled by so-called values voters. Not for another seven years would same-sex marriage win a popular election. Even California voted down same-sex marriage three years later in 2008 as President Barack Obama replaced Bush. Yet Carson foresaw that homosexuality could become in the 21st century what indulgences had been in the 16th-century Reformation. Homosexuality could be the “trigger issue” that led to deeper division over biblical authority and ultimately a split across the entire Western church.

Carson turned out to be more prescient than anyone in the room could have imagined at the time. Denominations have indeed split in ways not seen since the American Civil War and even the Reformation.

Considering this threat, how could these pastors organize a prophetic movement calling churches back to the center of the gospel? Would they need a confessional statement? A theological vision for ministry? A new publication along the lines of Christianity Today that explored contemporary theology and ministry trends and shared creative, hopeful, doctrinally rooted proposals? Regional networks that collaborated on church planting and campus ministry and discipleship resources? A national conference for church leaders that modeled expositional preaching but also shared practical tips on such concerns as cross-cultural ministry? Could they wield emerging technology through the internet for greater global influence?

Less than five years later, they had already answered every question with “Yes!”

Never Assume

As Carson crafted his initial invite list, he sought pastors who shared a commitment to preaching expository sermons, teaching the whole counsel of God, and rooting their churches in theological and historical traditions while maintaining a contemporary feel. Though he knew many of them, they didn’t yet know each other. And they didn’t have a means of sharing what they learned with the broader church.

In 2007, many of the same pastors from the 2005 meeting reconvened as TGC to finalize their foundation documents and host their first public conference. Carson’s inaugural address as president, titled “Prophetic from the Center,” exposited the gospel of Jesus Christ from 1 Corinthians 15:1–19.

Carson examined several reasons why churches lose focus on the gospel. Perhaps his most memorable warning came as he explained “the tendency to assume the gospel . . . while devoting creative energy and passion to other issues—marriage, happiness, prosperity, evangelism, the poor, wrestling with Islam, wrestling with the pressures of secularization, bioethics, dangers on the left, dangers on the right—the list is endless.”

But as every teacher knows, students don’t remember everything. They remember what their teacher loves most. “If the gospel is merely assumed, while relatively peripheral issues ignite our passion, we will train a new generation to downplay the gospel and focus zeal on the periphery,” Carson said. “It is easy to sound prophetic from the margins; what is urgently needed is to be prophetic from the center.”

It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter, Carson explained. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel. Same-sex marriage, then, deserves the church’s attention. But churches should prioritize the gospel so they can develop proper perspective on same-sex marriage.

It’s not that the peripheral issues don’t matter. It’s that they only come into focus when we’re centered on the gospel.

And if they’re focusing on the gospel, that means they’re devoted to a “nexus of [theological] themes—God, sin, wrath, death, and judgment”—found in 1 Corinthians 15:3. “Whatever else the cross achieves,” Carson said, “it must rightly set aside God’s sentence, it must rightly satisfy God’s wrath, or it achieves nothing.” Indeed, these doctrines show us we’re not saved by our thoughts about God. We’re saved by Christ himself. That’s good news for sinners.

In this vision for TGC, Carson underscored the transformation this good news brings about for individual Christians and their churches. “Humility, gratitude, dependence on Christ, contrition—these are the characteristic attitudes of the truly converted, the matrix out of which Christians experience joy and love,” Carson said. “When the gospel truly does its work, ‘proud Christian’ is an unthinkable oxymoron.”

TGC, Carson explained, wouldn’t tout itself as different from everything that had come before. The leaders of TGC would celebrate the inevitable victory of Jesus the King by boldly advancing his gospel under the contested reign of this fallen world. They would trust the gospel to shape the church into a foretaste of heaven in diverse ways. Carson said,

A Christianity where believers are not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers characteristically envy, are proud and boastful, rude, easily angered, and keep a record of wrongs, is no Christianity at all. What does this say, in concrete terms, about the communion of saints, the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural? What will this say about inter-generational relationships? About race? About how we treat one another in the local church? About how we think of brothers and sisters in highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?

This work would be left for churches affiliated with TGC to figure out in future years. They would be guided by TGC’s foundation documents, with Carson as the initial drafter of the confessional statement.

Reforming to Conform

TGC’s theological vision for ministry never claimed to speak for all Christians in all places at all times. It’s contextual by definition, occupying the middle space between unchanging doctrine and temporal practice.

In the preamble from 2007, the founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism. They lamented how power and affluence had replaced celebration of union with Christ. And they didn’t find a viable alternative in monastic retreats into ritual, liturgy, and sacrament.

Rather, TGC leaders committed to reforming their ministry practices to conform fully to Scripture. They returned to their Reformation roots, saying, “We have committed ourselves to invigorating churches with new hope and compelling joy based on the promises received by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.”

Since 2007, TGC’s confessional statement has been adopted by thousands of individual churches, by regional networks across North America, and by international coalitions in Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North and South America.

Unlike many other confessions, TGC’s began with the doctrine of God before moving to revelation. As Carson and Keller later explained, they wanted to avoid a foundationalist approach to knowledge that owed more to the Enlightenment than to the Reformed tradition of John Calvin. Even so, TGC would be distinguished by love and fidelity to God’s Word: “The Bible is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it teaches; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; and trusted, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”

The founding Council members of TGC identified several threats to keeping the gospel central to church life: personal consumerism, politicized faith, and theological and moral relativism.

Anyone who heard Carson’s inaugural address would recognize the confession’s description of the gospel as personal, apostolic, historical, theological, salvific, biblical, and Christological: “The gospel is not proclaimed if Christ is not proclaimed, and the authentic Christ has not been proclaimed if his death and resurrection are not central (the message is: ‘Christ died for our sins . . . [and] was raised’).”

Though Carson worked most of his career as a professor for a parachurch ministry, TGC’s confession centered the church in God’s plan of redemption. It affirmed,

The church is the body of Christ, the apple of his eye, graven on his hands, and he has pledged himself to her forever. . . . The church serves as a sign of God’s future new world when its members live for the service of one another and their neighbors, rather than for self-focus. The church is the corporate dwelling place of God’s Spirit, and the continuing witness to God in the world.

Through the church, the world catches a glimpse of their true and coming King: “The kingdom of God is an invasive power that plunders Satan’s dark kingdom and regenerates and renovates through repentance and faith the lives of individuals rescued from that kingdom.”

Carson pushed back against kingdom-oriented narrative theology that undervalues the atoning and justifying work of Christ. But he also criticized systematic theology that fails to trace biblical themes through God’s unfolding plan of redemption.

Through TGC, Carson pointed Christians toward the “big story of Scripture” so they could see “the God who is there.” In his booklet titled Gospel-Centered Ministry, written with Keller, Carson explained that biblical theology flows toward Jesus and his gospel, while Christian life and thought flow from Jesus and his gospel.

Along with the other Council members of TGC, Carson and Keller wanted to encourage Bible reading and preaching that traces the trajectories of Scripture to reveal patterns and promises that take us to Jesus and his gospel. Then, from the gospel, we can align our situation with God’s solution. “In short, gospel-centered ministry is biblically mandated,” they wrote, “It is the only kind of ministry that simultaneously addresses human need as God sees it, reaches out in unbroken lines to gospel-ministry in other centuries and other cultures, and makes central what Jesus himself establishes as central.”

Through TGC, the term “gospel-centered” has become a fixture of the evangelical lexicon. “We wanted to build a community of churches and pastors in which the gospel was the central thing, the exciting thing, what we got out of bed for in the morning,” Carson told me.

This community, in Carson’s vision, would never assume the gospel or drift toward a minimal understanding that overlooks other entailed doctrines. TGC would speak to the broader church but from the Reformed heritage. In keeping with Reformed theology, this gospel would speak to all of life, but in such a way that tied the cross and resurrection to contemporary challenges such as social justice.

The relationship between the organization called TGC and the gospel itself has sometimes confused observers. Carson has explained that TGC never sought to be a boundary-bounded set, meaning a group fixed on who’s inside and outside. Instead, he cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center. Thus, anyone could read the website or attend the annual conference if he or she found something useful. But for TGC’s institutional leaders, he expected robust allegiance to the gospel core.

I’ll never forget when he hired me in the summer of 2010. He was clear that if I ever transgressed the foundation documents, I’d lose my job as editorial director. But beyond that core, I was free to feature differences and even debate. And that’s how he led as the president. Even when he asked me to publish one particularly controversial article, he never thought it was the only or final word on the subject. He expected peripheral matters would be treated as peripheral, even as we sought to work out the implications of the gospel for each new day’s challenges.

Something Constructive

Carson has often observed that TGC grew more quickly than he anticipated. But more than 15 years later, TGC looks much like he envisioned: an international network developed largely along the lines of Carson’s decades of travel, with several friends initiating national TGC organizations in their home countries.

His prodigious teaching and publishing built trust among pastors who joined councils in Canada, Australia, Italy, French-speaking Europe, and many other regions he visited as TGC’s president. Carson’s focus on the gospel core allowed international coalitions to develop with close doctrinal affinity to each other and also independence to address the most pressing needs of their contexts.

The website played a supporting role in Carson’s early hopes for TGC. But he took early steps to leverage the unique reach of the internet to promote gospel-centered ministry for the next generation. Themelios, a journal for students of theology and religion in Great Britain, ceased publication just as Carson was bringing TGC online. Published by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) in Great Britain, Themelios couldn’t justify the costs of printing and distributing as they mostly reached pastors instead of their core audience of students. Four groups bid to take over the brand of Themelios, which is Greek for “foundation” (see, for example, 1 Cor. 3:11).

Carson cast a vision for TGC as a center-bounded set, which is less concerned about the periphery than about a robust gospel definition at the center.

In the end, UCCF chose TGC, which has published Themelios ever since as a free online journal for pastors as well as theological students. Every issue features columns, articles, and dozens of book reviews overseen by an international team of editors who ascribe to TGC’s foundation documents.

Carson anticipated readership would multiply by a factor of 10 once the journal moved online under TGC. His goals were too modest. In 2022, Themelios attracted more than 1.9 million page views from readers in 235 countries.

Carson envisioned TGC’s website as a simple way for friends in ministry to stay connected between conferences. None of us could have foreseen 15 years ago the pandemic shutdown of March 2020, but as churches closed, in perhaps the greatest disruption to the Western church since the Black Plague in the Middle Ages, pastors looked online for help.

In those bleak first two months, the TGC website served more than 11.2 million unique users with nearly 25 million page views, including an invitation to fast and pray for God’s help. TGC now publishes one of the largest Christian websites in the world.

When Carson and Keller met to conceive what would become TGC, they wanted to help younger church leaders struggling to adjust to the rapidly changing world of the internet age. Just a generation ago, despite the tumult of the 1960s and ’70s, even nominal Christians and unbelievers shared many moral assumptions with evangelicals. But that world has largely disappeared. Parents can hardly understand the world their children hold in their hands via smartphones. Secularism has become more unabashedly anti-Christian. Disagreement and indifference to evangelical beliefs have been replaced by anger and incredulity.

In 2011, Carson and Keller wrote,

The American evangelical world has been breaking apart with wildly different responses to this new cultural situation. To oversimplify, some have simply built the fortress walls higher, merely continuing to do what they have always done, only more defiantly than before. Others have called for a complete doctrinal reengineering of evangelicalism. We think both of these approaches are wrong-headed and, worse, damaging to the cause of the gospel.

Together, Carson and Keller set out to do something constructive. They called for the church to be prophetic from the center. They convened pastors who get out of bed each morning excited about the gospel. They envisioned the gospel spreading to all the world and applying to all of life. Their hopes became TGC, under Don Carson as the founding president.

Trevin Wax on Reconstructing Faith Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:04:54 +0000 Jim Davis, Michael Graham, and Trevin Wax discuss how to help individuals reconstruct their faith and how evangelicals can rebuild their witness.]]> In this final episode of As in Heaven’s third season, hosts Jim Davis and Michael Graham are joined by Trevin Wax to discuss what it looks like to help individuals reconstruct their faith and for evangelicals—as a movement—to rebuild their witness.

Episode time stamps:

  • Episode and guest introduction (0:00)
  • Podcasting, leadership, and the future of the church (6:50)
  • The importance of church history and global perspectives in the modern Christian movement (12:34)
  • Navigating church crises with a global perspective (17:48)
  • Church rebuilding, cultural challenges, and living in exile (21:19)
  • The future of the American church and its relationship with the world (25:34)
  • End credits and future seasons (43:11)

Recommended resource: Reconstructing Faith with Trevin Wax (podcast)

Broken Families and Racism Leave Us Longing for Home Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:03:23 +0000 It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.]]> Following his father’s untimely death, Esau McCaulley knew that however uncomfortable it might be, he was the right person to deliver the eulogy at the funeral. To what biblical text do you turn when talking about a man who walked out on your mother and siblings, didn’t keep the promises he made to you, stole your money and surrendered to addiction?

McCaulley, associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and New York Times columnist, opened to Luke 18 and told the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and of the tax collector who prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

The grace and humility of that sinner’s prayer permeate the personal memoir How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South. With beautiful prose, McCaulley tells the story of growing up black in Alabama, navigating the challenges of poverty, and loving a family that experienced both triumph and tragedy.

‘They’ Are Complicated

Sitting in a seminar with public school teachers and administrators at my church, I heard a wise high school principal casually remark, “Every behavior makes sense in its context.”

Her point was that it’s easy to direct your anger—or worse, condescension—toward a problematic student until you know his or her family, economic, and relational context. Then you’re reminded that people are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

People are more complicated than we initially believe. Without context, caricatures thrive.

The book opens with McCaulley on a panel alongside Lecrae at the University of North Carolina (UNC). Awkwardly, he declines to answer a question posed by the event’s host because “the most racist things you have experienced” can’t be shared without context (xvi). The rest of the book provides the context necessary to share how his life was shaped by both race and his complicated family.

But McCaulley isn’t offering cheap grace that conceals family history. His is the grace that confronts reality and tells the truth without reducing anyone to her worst mistake. He’s learned from the Bible that dividing the world into good and bad people is the work of the self-righteous.

He graciously puts his dad’s sins in the context of him growing up in a family afflicted with addiction. Personal tragedy transformed his paternal grandfather, Bud, from a respected deacon to an alcoholic and womanizer. But as a wise theologian, McCaulley knows life circumstances never excuse sin: “Evil cannot be wholly explained by the brokenness of the world. Sometimes we participate in the breaking” (89).

I’m drawn to the Pharisee’s prayer thanking God I’m not like my father, because I’d never abandon my wife and children. My own father left me and my mom before I was old enough to remember him, but not before he tried to kidnap me. Only an alert and savvy preschool teacher kept him from punishing my mom by separating the two of us. It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

‘They’ Cause Pain

In a chapter called “Running from the South,” McCaulley finally answers the question posed by his host at UNC. He details six examples of his experience with racism.

The stories won’t surprise those who’ve been listening to our black brothers and sisters: “The Talk,” being followed in stores, overly aggressive and suspicious policing, driving through the night to avoid stopping in an unfriendly town. But ironically, the most traumatic experience of racism appears in a later chapter.

While attending the University of the South, Esau met his future wife at the Baptist Student Union. A product of a Christian home and a military family that had moved across the world, Mandy was committed to serving as a pediatrician in sub-Saharan Africa. When the time came for them to meet each other’s families, the McCaulleys quickly accepted her.

But Mandy’s family didn’t have the same response to McCaulley. Unlike some of the other examples of racism, this time no interpretation was necessary, for her father left no doubt about his motivation: “You seem like a nice young man, but I don’t believe you are right for our daughter. We don’t think society is ready for interracial relationships. We want to spare you all pain” (162).

Unfortunately, instead of sparing pain, they compounded it. The couple continued to date but without her parents’ blessing. Eventually, they married without their presence.

Bitterness and retaliation are natural responses to the wounds caused by racism. McCaulley offers a better option under the influence of the narrative of Scripture.

Jesus Loves ‘Them’

McCaulley embodies a grace that refuses to place others—even our those who have deeply hurt him—outside of God’s love. If grace is for me, then it must also be for thee. Anything less isn’t grace.

When James and John were eager to call down fire on the Samaritans, they expressed a base human emotion to exact vengeance on our enemies (Luke 9:54). While it seems weird to ask the Prince of Peace for permission to napalm an entire village, it made sense to them. Believing Jesus was going to Rome to defeat the Romans, they reasoned that they might as well start destroying their enemies on the way.

It’s easy to call for God’s judgment against people you don’t know. How many Samaritans did James and John know? It’s safe to say not many. Maybe none. Jews didn’t mix with Samaritans, who were half-Jew and half-Gentile. The Samaritans lived in their own villages and worshiped in their own temple. The brothers had heard about the Samaritans, but they didn’t know them.

It’s easy for me to reduce my father to his sins, but this book encourages me to consider that his story might be more complicated than I know.

For Jews, Samaritans were the worst kind of “them” because, unlike the pagan Gentiles who were ignorant of Jewish laws, Samaritans should have known better. Jews believed that Samaritans had corrupted what was true and good about Judaism.

That explains why the disciples were appalled when they found Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:27). What was he doing? Doesn’t he know that “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans” (John 4:9)? It also explains why the Jewish people were so offended by Jesus’s parable of the good Samaritan—an oxymoron if there ever was one.

After Jesus’s death and resurrection, Samaritans came to faith in him and found their way into churches alongside Jewish believers. This required both groups to practice grace, to forgive, and to understand the context of each other’s lives.

James and John were wrong about Jesus’s goal. He wasn’t going to Jerusalem to defeat his enemies but to die for them. They were also wrong about what it means to be his disciple. We don’t call down judgment on “them” but extend grace to “them.”

How Far to the Promised Land snuck up on me, graciously rebuked me, and nudged me off my judgment seat. Sinners in need of mercy are in no position to demand justice against others. If I want my children to see me as more than my sins, to put my life in context, to recognize I’m more complicated than a caricature, then I must offer the same grace to my father.

Esau McCaulley has given us a powerful personal story that demonstrates how God’s grace triumphs over tragedy.

The Last Thing Sufferers Need to Hear Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Truths about God’s sovereignty, when prematurely applied, can bypass the grieving process that must happen to reckon with and heal from loss.]]> “If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to punch them in the face!”

I almost choked on the cookie this elderly sister had brought to Bible study. These were strong words from such a sweet lady. She was recounting the gutting experience of losing her son in his 30s many years earlier. Well-wishers assured her God is in control and her son’s death was part of his plan.

It wasn’t what she needed to hear.

The conversation came up because my wife and I had just returned from sitting with dear college friends who, after multiple miscarriages, had a son who lived for only 23 minutes. We were in their kitchen when the mail came bearing cards with verses affirming God’s sovereignty over all things.

It wasn’t what they needed to hear.

In those dark depths, they only had the stomach for Psalm 44 and Psalm 88—songs of lament that don’t end happily but with crying out to God, “Why are you doing this?” and “Are you asleep?”

On Good Friday this year, my phone cascaded with messages: our drummer, who played at our Maundy Thursday service the night before, had died early that morning from an undiagnosed heart disease. He was 40; his death was an utter shock. He and I had been meeting every other Saturday in view of him stepping into roles of greater spiritual leadership in our church. He was eager, servant-hearted, teachable, and entrepreneurial—the kind of member every pastor dreams of working with. And suddenly he was gone.

When someone told me, “This was God’s plan for him; he’s with God where he’s supposed to be,” it wasn’t what I needed to hear. Indeed, in my disoriented distress, it felt like the last thing I needed to hear.

Untimely Truth

Those statements are gloriously true, of course. He is in a better place. She isn’t suffering anymore. God is working all things for the good of those who love him, “for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28). God is sovereign over all things. I’ve sat with many families for whom these truths are a salve in the immediate aftermath of a loved one’s death.

But for others, these truths—prematurely applied—can bypass the grieving process that needs to happen to fully reckon with and heal from a loss. Our brains often work in binaries, assuming that if God is in control, we shouldn’t make a fuss about it. Good theology can be used to heal the wound lightly, pronouncing “Peace, peace” when, in the raw heart of the bereaved, there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).

This is why the psalms of lament are so instructive. They create space within the covenant between God and his people to ask the hard questions. Unlike Israel’s grumbling in the wilderness, lament doesn’t question whether God is able to provide water in the desert or defeat the giants in the land. Rather, lament cries to God in agony, wondering why the Almighty isn’t doing mighty deeds when he could. Unlike Adam and Eve biting the fruit, lament doesn’t question God’s goodness or believe the lie that he’s holding out on us. Rather, lament wails, asking our good God why he isn’t doing the good we crave.

God inspired and included these songs in his people’s hymnal for a reason. He’d rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top. The tentpole command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart” (Deut. 6:5) allows the hard questions to echo deep into our motives and longings and the narratives we believe.

God would rather us wholeheartedly grapple with his sovereignty than merely cauterize our wound and affix a theological affirmation on top.

These questions move not only deep downward but also far backward, where wounds remain from previous seasons when we staunched the pain rather than giving it full voice. Unlike tree rings that merely bear testimony to fires endured, these scars continue to shape our assumptions and reactions in ways we may not understand. Asking Godward questions of “Why?” “Where were you?” and “Will you do good?”—not only of the current loss but of previous losses still tender to the touch—can unleash a torrent of emotion and often requires the help of trusted counselors and friends. But the healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Lest we forget in our culture of automated efficiency, God is patient while we process. “He knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:14).

When we give our wounds time and attention to heal, we find Scripture’s teaching about God’s sovereignty is indeed the last thing we need to hear. It’s the final word, the fundamental affirmation we must ultimately settle into.

Patience in the Dark

For me, this came through weeks of meditating on Psalm 23. The sudden loss of a rising young church leader—especially during a precarious rebuilding season—felt like the “darkest valley” of which the psalmist sings. I had to name my fear of the unknown, relinquish my perceived control, and share my feelings and longings with counselors and friends.

The healing and wholeness that await on the other side are well worth the good, hard work.

Somewhere amid this prolonged lament, I came to rest in the realization that “even when I walk through the darkest valley,” the good Shepherd “guides me along right paths” (Ps. 23:3–4, NLT). The hard paths are also the right paths. I may never understand them, but as I walk them, “I will not be afraid, for [he is] close beside me” (v. 4).

Let’s walk patiently with our brothers and sisters through seasons of lament, giving space for questions and the silence that comes before answers. Let’s remain attuned to their visceral responses to our affirmations of biblical truth. Let’s show love by calming our own anxious need for resolution, allowing the bereaved to walk at their own pace. May our presence and words point to the truth: “God is here, with you, even in these depths.”

After they’ve exhausted their questions and exposed their hearts, let’s settle together into this last thing we need to hear: God is absolutely sovereign and always good.

3 Eras Shape Modern Missions Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 We can benefit best from missions history when we don’t focus exclusively on any one era and its emphases.]]> Reading contemporary missions literature, one encounters a diversity of approaches and philosophies to cross-cultural ministry. Such diversity didn’t arise in a vacuum. These are developments that emerged from various emphases we can trace from the previous 200 years of Western missions engagement.

In this article, I’ll sketch an overview of modern missions history by highlighting three distinct eras. They’ve produced different emphases or trajectories that continue today in Western missiology. A biblically robust and church-centered missiology gleans from all three eras while avoiding the distortion produced by giving disproportionate attention to any one of them.

Era 1: The ‘Great Century’

Most textbooks on Protestant missions written from a Western perspective will highlight the landmark figure of William Carey. Hailed as the father of modern missions at the end of the 18th century, Carey along with his compatriots blazed the trail for engaging the heathen with the gospel of Jesus. They prayerfully labored to see conversion, discipled new believers, and established churches in otherwise unevangelized contexts.

Readers familiar with 19th-century missions efforts will also recognize names such as David Livingstone, Lottie Moon, John G. Paton, and Samuel Zwemer as men and women who poured themselves out to reach places and people that had never heard the gospel. They sought to obey the command to make disciples of all nations given in Matthew 28:18–20.

During this time, many people were mobilized to missions through the inspirational examples of such men and women. However, some brought with them ideas of Christian faith and practice that resulted in discipling people to be more culturally Western than was necessary for biblical faithfulness. For example, 19th-century English missionaries in India have been criticized for making their South Asian converts keep English traditions as signs of true conversion. Such traditionalism blurred the lines between English culture and biblical necessity.

During what we now refer to as the “Great Century” of modern missions, some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church. However, contrary to modern critics, this wasn’t universally true.

Some missionaries with underdeveloped ideas of culture and civilization propagated undercontextualized models of discipleship and church.

Missionaries such as Hudson Taylor and John Nevius are well known for their desire to demonstrate that the gospel wasn’t a Western cultural idea but one that could be faithfully expressed in a variety of customs of dress, language, and convention. Taylor was among the first to advocate for adopting the local attire of his Chinese audience, and Nevius wrote a book in which he fought the prevailing trends by urging missionaries to equip local pastors to be self-supporting and to develop self-governing and self-propagating national churches.

Missions in the 19th century thus presented a variety of developing approaches built on different understandings of culture and the necessary trappings of discipleship and church. The close of the 19th century gave way to a second era of modern missions, propelled by emerging technologies and optimism.

Era 2: World Evangelization

The Great Century of Western missions raised awareness, excitement, and commitment to the global cause of Christ. Fueled by this increased interest in missions, a gathering of missions-minded Christians convened in 1910 in Edinburgh, Scotland, to strategize about world evangelization.

Advancements in technology and transportation, matched with enthusiasm for missions, made for an environment charged with optimism. Many believed it was possible to leverage contemporary resources in such a way as to complete the evangelization of the world in their generation. This focus on evangelism also mitigated the cultural imposition some feared would occur if extended periods of foreign oversight occurred among emerging communities of national believers.

Despite two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Holocaust, similar gatherings of global-minded Christians convened throughout the 20th century. In the middle of the century, one contingent—which came to be known as the World Council of Churches—strayed from the theological convictions of Edinburgh and opened the door to inclusivism and universalism.

In response to this theological drift, a group emerged of more theologically conservative participants committed to recapturing the original vision of Edinburgh. They gathered separately in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1974. This group became known as the Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization.

Meanwhile, the Lausanne Congress exposed two additional strands of missiological thinking that had developed since 1910. These two approaches found advocates in the two architects of the gathering: Billy Graham and John Stott. Graham argued that evangelism—verbally proclaiming the exclusive gospel of Jesus Christ—is the most important priority in missions. In contrast, Stott contended that the church must take up a grander vision of its task to be fully biblical.

Where Graham linked the missionary task to Matthew 24:14 and the preaching of the gospel to all nations prior to the end of the age, Stott linked the missionary task to John 20:21, where Jesus sends his disciples as the Father has sent him. As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a holistic approach to their labors. While proclaiming the gospel is vital, it shouldn’t be so elevated as to diminish other biblical injunctions to encourage engaging society, seeking justice, and embodying the gospel in every sphere of life. Stott’s legacy of promoting holism remains with us today through some of the successors of the Lausanne project.

Yet as well known as Graham’s and Stott’s names are in evangelicalism, theirs weren’t the most influential voices at the conference. Harnessing Edinburgh’s original impulse to finish the task of missions, Ralph Winter gave an address that left an indelible mark on global missions. That address provides a marker for the beginning of a third era of missions.

Era 3: Unreached People Groups

At Lausanne, Winter redrew the map for missionary strategy by arguing that the biblical phrase “of all nations” (panta ta ethne) had been misunderstood. Rather than reading ethne as a reference to contemporary nation-states, Winter argued that a better understanding would be “people groups.” Such groups shouldn’t be defined by the visible geopolitical borders drawn on a map but by the less visible sociolinguistic boundaries that serve to distinguish and divide one subculture from another.

As Christ’s ministry was more robust than mere evangelism, Stott encouraged contemporary missionaries to take a more holistic approach to their labors.

In his writing on these ideas, Winter leaned on Matthew 24:14 to connect the evangelization of the world’s people groups with the missionary task. He reasoned that biblical faithfulness requires intentional targeting of unreached and unengaged people groups.

Following Winter’s lead, many contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology, we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups. The task of missions is to locate unreached and unengaged people groups, then to target them with the gospel. Once those groups are on a path toward discipleship, missionaries continue to pursue the horizons of lostness by engaging the next layer of the unreached.

This development led to a number of missiological shifts. First, many agencies redirected their resources and attention from fields in which there was an existing national church to fields identified as unreached. Second, a variety of approaches were developed for identifying distinct people groups and considering whether or not they’re reached. Third, the idea has been reinvigorated of working toward bringing closure to this age by ensuring every distinct people group has a witness among them.

Wanting to see this task accomplished with due urgency, many modern missiologists argue for strategies that aim to produce rapid, exponential movements of people to Christ. Such methodologies rightly seek to multiply and mobilize disciple makers, and they want to ensure every believer takes on the disposition of obedience to Scripture. Movementism has been critiqued, however, for the way its focus on rapidity can place new believers in positions of leadership over other new believers while still unprepared or immature in their own faith.

Church-Centered Missiology

Today, much of Western missiology is characterized by three of the missiological trajectories emerging from these three eras: traditionalism, movementism, and holism. None of these emphases is necessarily wrong or unbiblical. But each exhibits shortcomings when given undue prominence. I believe a corrective to each potential danger is found in centering our missiology on a robustly biblical understanding of the church.

Contemporary missionary efforts have recaptured the optimism of Edinburgh: that by utilizing modern data and technology we can identify and evangelize the world’s remaining unreached people groups.

The traditionalism that characterized some of the missiology in the first era rightly recognizes the importance of faithful transmission of Christian teaching. The Bible tasks the church and its leaders with guarding doctrine (2 Tim. 1:13–14), serving as a pillar and buttress of the truth (1 Tim. 3:15), and contending for the faith once delivered to the saints (Jude 3). What this means for church-centered missions efforts is that the disciple-making processes employed in church planting need to be substantial enough to equip the saints with the tools of biblical exegesis and with a historical understanding of the essentials of our faith.

While there’s a biblical-theological core to Christian doctrine, the church and its faith exhibit the ability to be expressed faithfully through a variety of languages (Acts 2:1–13), forms of gathering 2:42–47), and cultural trappings (15:6–21). The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression. Thus, to be faithful in a new context, the church-centered missionary task must equip new believers in new churches to faithfully exhibit and explain doctrine in ways that may look different from how the missionary’s traditions have framed them.

Likewise, holism rightly perceives that the gospel affects every area of our lives. When we’re saved by the faithful provision of God in Christ, we’re transformed and our citizenship is transferred to a whole new way of being human. Whatever we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31).

However, in the church, the gospel as the message of what God has done for us in Christ is a message of first importance (15:1–6), and that gospel should be distinguished from what it accomplishes. Too often, what the gospel is can be conflated with what it does—and it loses its distinctiveness. Church-centered missions, then, will keep gospel proclamation central while encouraging a healthy deacon ministry and active church members who scatter into every realm of life with the gospel on their lips and its effects displayed in their lives.

The biblical vision of the local church is both traditional in its teaching and translatable in its expression.

Finally, movementism rightly contends that all disciples are to be disciple makers. The church is given leaders to equip the saints to be engaged in the work of ministry (Eph. 4:12). But the church is also a body in which each part contributes to the functioning of the whole (1 Cor. 12). While all are to be engaged in obedience to make disciples, not all will be church planters, teachers, or evangelists.

Church-centered missions will ensure the church is more than an evangelism training center. It’s the environment with a vision for disciple making that’s thick enough to ensure those who receive attention aren’t merely those who exhibit aptitude in evangelism or church planting.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that Jesus promised the gates of hell will not withstand his church. Our hope for kingdom advance isn’t in a particular tradition, holistic society transformation, or a Jesus movement. As such, it’s right and proper for our missiology to center on the church that Scripture defines. This will mean we draw from the biblical injunctions present in each of the three emphases while not overemphasizing them at the expense of the biblical church.

‘No’ to Trans, ‘Yes’ to Gay Marriage: Will This Be the New Normal? Wed, 11 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 If trends in the U.K. are suggestive, arguing for traditional marriage might, with some people, become easier, not harder.]]> “We shouldn’t get bullied into believing that people can be any sex they want to be. They can’t; a man is a man and a woman is a woman. That’s just common sense.”

U.K. prime minister Rishi Sunak made these comments Wednesday at his party’s annual conference in Manchester, England. It drew one of the loudest cheers of his hour-long speech (as well as predictable denunciations—and praises—in the press and on social media). These words were clearly intended to be a vote-winner. Sunak’s odds of winning the next election are somewhere between infinitesimal and microscopic, but he’s trying. And so he claims “a man is a man” and expects it to be popular. This view is sometimes called “gender critical,” since it prizes biological sex over gender identity. But Sunak doesn’t call it that; he just calls it “common sense.”

Of course, such sense hasn’t been all that common in recent years. So we might wonder, Is this a sign of something shifting in the public discourse around sex, sexuality, and gender issues? Could British trends be replicated in the U.S.? And how might Christians respond?

Turning Tide in Britain

J. K. Rowling knew what she was doing in December 2019 when she made public her views that “sex is real”:

Dress however you please.
Call yourself whatever you like.
Sleep with any consenting adult who’ll have you.
Live your best life in peace and security.
But force women out of their jobs for stating that sex is real?
#IStandWithMaya #ThisIsNotADrill

With the hashtag #ThisIsNotADrill, Rowling signaled her awareness that this was a pivotal moment. She knew it would trigger klaxons everywhere, and it did. But what about that other hashtag? Who’s Maya?

Maya Forstater was a think-tank researcher whose gender-critical views sparked controversy. In 2018, she was asked on Twitter, “Are you saying that trans women are not women?” She replied,

Yes I think that male people are not women. I dont think being a woman/female is a matter of identity or womanly feelings. It is biology. People of either sex should not be constrained (or discriminated against) if they dont conform to traditional gender expectations.

Her contract wasn’t renewed. But she appealed in 2019, claiming this contravened the Equality Act. Nevertheless, the employment tribunal denied her appeal and deemed her views “not worthy of respect in a democratic society.” Hence Rowling’s #IStandWithMaya.

Things have shifted, though. Maya appealed the original decision and won—and earlier this year was awarded a £100,000 payout for discrimination. She’s gone on to found the charity Sex Matters and to appoint Helen Joyce as director of advocacy. Joyce is a senior journalist with the Economist and author of the international bestseller Trans, praised by the New York Times as an “intelligent, thorough rejoinder to an idea that has swept across much of the liberal world seemingly overnight.”

In other developments since 2019, the LGB Alliance has split from Stonewall—Europe’s largest LGBT-rights charity—over the trans issue. In response, trans-affirming youth charity Mermaids objected to the LGB Alliance and became the first-ever charity to lobby the U.K. government to remove the charitable status of another charity. (It not only lost the appeal but remains under several clouds of its own.)

Moreover, the National Health Service (NHS) has ordered its only “gender identity clinic” for children, the Tavistock Clinic, to shut down after 18 years of complaints and “thousands of damaged children.” And when Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, campaigned vociferously to get a Gender Recognition Act through the Scottish parliament, Rowling opposed it. It was roundly voted down by Westminster (the U.K. parliament). In the ideological clashes stirred by the debate, Scotland went from the least “trans-skeptical” part of the U.K. to the most.

Rowling herself has had something of a rehabilitation in the eyes of the wider public. Having been denounced for transphobia, many are now publicly reassessing the “witch trials” she’s been put through (as in a fascinating podcast from The Free Press). Journalists too are recognizing they spread a false narrative about her.

New Normal?

It genuinely seems a tide has turned, such that the U.K. prime minister can state not only that “men are men and women are women” but that there’s been “bullying” around the issue and we all need to return to “common sense.” More and more, public aspects of British society are expressing a skeptical no to key aspects of the trans movement.

And yet, however much people might feel it to be a return to “common sense,” this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Not yet.

However much people might feel it to be a return to ‘common sense,’ this isn’t a return to a Christian vision. Certainly not yet.

The trans-skeptical movement in the U.K. is largely secular, led by gender-critical feminists and gay-rights activists for whom the sex binary is critical. And because it’s a largely secular movement, it’s had a good measure of success in changing popular opinion. When hearing trans-skeptical views, the average Brit doesn’t suspect a Christian agenda lurking beneath the surface. They don’t suspect Christians to be lurking anywhere (when asked if they know a Christian, half the population says no). It’s more difficult to dismiss the trans-skeptical movement as a Handmaid’s Tale dystopia when its outspoken proponents are lesbians like Julie Bindel or Kathleen Stock.

Yet those secular gains in popular appeal are offset by losses. There’s a fundamental instability to the “new normal.” It was captured perfectly by Rishi Sunak’s speech.

‘No to Trans, Yes to Gay Marriage’

Within four sentences of his “common sense” line, Sunak reminded the conference that “this Conservative Party [is] the party that legislated for same-sex marriage.” In 2013, half of Conservative MPs voted against gay marriage, but the legislation was indeed proposed and passed under a Conservative government. And in 2023, Sunak presents this as a Conservative accomplishment. Whatever else we make of that, it summarizes where the new normal might be settling in Britain. We may well be heading toward a skeptical no on trans, all the while maintaining a proud yes to gay marriage.

Twelve years earlier at the same conference, then prime minister David Cameron announced his support of gay marriage: “I don’t support gay marriage despite being a Conservative. I support gay marriage because I’m a Conservative.” Cameron’s reasoning was presented as a small-c conservative argument: “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.”

If marriage is good, more marriage is better. That was the argument and it has carried the day. Cameron had been emboldened by Douglas Murray’s influential article in the Spectator. A week before Cameron’s speech, Murray wrote that conservative-minded Brits should “welcome gay acceptance into the marital fold.” Widening the marital circle to include gay couples represents “not the making gay of marriage but the making conservative of gays.”

That was 2011. In the intervening years, Murray has gone on a journey. In 2019, he wrote The Madness of Crowds, charting some of the ways our society has taken a virtue like equality and (to use the book’s overarching analogy) “gone off the rails.” Just when the equality train “appeared to be reaching its desired destination, it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks and into the distance.”

From Murray’s telling, one gets the idea that he considers the crash to have happened relatively recently. Before advances like “gay marriage” came along, we were headed toward an equality equilibrium; but since then—perhaps in the last decade or so—we’ve smashed through the barriers with gay activism, pro-LGBT+ education, and much more. The rest of the book surveys what Murray considers to be the wreckage in chapters titled “Gay,” “Women,” “Race,” and “Trans.”

The analogy is both memorable and self-refuting. No crash-scene investigator would witness the carnage of a train platform—twisted metal and wreckage all around—and conclude the problem must’ve occurred at the end of its journey. Who would imagine that the train had slowed to a peaceful halt and then picked up momentum? That’s not how trains work. It’s not how history works either. Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making. If we wish to diagnose a “madness” to modern society, we should probably look to deeper, older causes.

Trends ending in moral confusion usually have causes centuries in the making.

But modern trans-skeptics typically take the Douglas Murray view of history. We were heading in roughly the right direction—until an unpredictable bout of “madness” broke out in the 2010s. Murray ends his book with the trans movement, considering it the most obvious instance of the “madness” he speaks of. He expresses profound skepticism toward the idea that manhood and womanhood are merely a matter of “software” and not also of “hardware.” According to Murray, we should think again if we imagine that persons are gender-neutral. But here’s the irony: Murray has advocated strongly to make marriage gender-neutral.

And that’s the fundamental instability of the new normal. It’s a problem and also an opportunity.

If People Aren’t Gender-Neutral, Why Is Marriage?

In New York City earlier this year, I was crammed into a basement with 150 others for the launch of Mary Harrington’s new book Feminism Against Progress. As a British author, she fits the profile of so many at the forefront of the gender-critical movement: she spent a long time on the political left and in same-sex relationships. (Though she’s shifted significantly in recent years. She’s now a mother, happily married to a man, a self-proclaimed antiprogressive, and the writer of plenty of Christian-adjacent as well as Christian-affirming works.)

Among many other issues, the book takes aim at the trans movement as the most obvious example of what she calls “Meat Lego Gnosticism.” It’s an enjoyable and enlightening read. Harrison uses words like “smelling salts” and her analysis benefits from covering a much longer historical sweep than The Madness of Crowds.

The book launch organizers had to scramble to relocate after the original venue canceled under pressure from protestors. This is one more sign that, at the moment, the U.K. and U.S. are in different places culturally. Harrington’s U.K. launch suffered no such dramas. But this gathered crowd on the Lower East Side was in awe as she spoke truths far more accepted on her side of the Atlantic.

At the end, I began a conversation with my neighbor—a Wall Street banker and lapsed Catholic. He seemed representative of many I met that night. Five years ago, he had been yes and yes to gay marriage and trans. Now he was yes and no, and he predicted (as did I) that yes and no will become far more accepted in the States in the future, with “the Brits leading the way.”

But I wanted him to consider whether the consistent position was no and no. So I took a deep breath and said, “I don’t think I’ll convince you in this conversation, but I’ll leave you with a thought: if people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.” He gave every impression of receiving that thought as both new and worthy of serious consideration. We got onto talking about more important things, Jesus mainly. But if I were to tease out what I meant by my gender-neutral line, here’s how I’d do it. I’d try to find common ground on these seven admissions.

Can We Agree That . . .

1. Sexual activity is significant.

If people aren’t gender-neutral, then maybe marriages aren’t either.

We know it’s significant because we’re rightly protective of female spaces. It’s not that trans people are more likely to be perpetrators of sexual crimes; it’s simply that we want to exercise an abundance of caution about anyone’s access to changing rooms, rape crisis centers, female prisons, and so on. Why? Because the potential for anyone to perpetrate violations of a sexual nature is significant.

We recognize sex is in a different category, that it’s not a leisure activity. When leisure activities go wrong, we give one-star reviews. When sex goes wrong, we call the police. If you force a game of tennis on me, you’re simply weird. If you force sex on me, you’re a rapist. The exceptional evil of rape tells us there’s an exceptional sanctity to sex.

This means modern assumptions about “hookup culture” are nonsense. Sexual activity is significant. It’s a union of persons, not just a union of bodies. It’s profoundly meaningful and not casual or disposable.

2. Sexual self-expression isn’t a right.

I don’t have a right to unleash my sexual desires; I have a responsibility to tame them. And the taming of sexuality—especially male sexuality—is vital for the blessing and protection of others, especially women and children. This has been at the heart of the Christian sexual revolution that has built our modern sensibilities about consent and much more.

3. There are two sexes and they aren’t interchangeable.

All of us struggle in various ways with what it means to be a member of our sex. Culturally speaking, gender expression can indeed be fluid. But people aren’t gender-neutral or gender-interchangeable. Perhaps our neighbors and coworkers may balk at this. But many in the U.K. are returning to this “common sense” position, and I foresee many in the U.S. doing the same.

4. There are sex-defined spaces.

We’ve already mentioned some sex-defined spaces: changing rooms, male and female sports, prisons, rape crisis centers, and so on. You cannot claim a right to enter such spaces simply because you choose to. If I enter a female-only space, I haven’t wonderfully expanded that space to include different ways of being female. I have violated that space.

If I insist my human rights include the right to enter that space, then I, a man, have redefined “female” and essentially destroyed that space. And that isn’t right.

5. In this area, behaviors are more important than desires.

To forbid a biological male from entering a female-only space isn’t to deny his strong sense of being female. Nor does it erase his identity. Instead, in these circumstances, it’s to prioritize the external over the internal and the physical over the mental.

6. There are ways of caring for people who struggle without reordering society around them.

Sometimes inclusion rightly involves society-wide transformations (e.g., racial integration or disability access). But sometimes this isn’t possible or desirable. Our hearts genuinely go out to those who experience great discomfort with their bodies generally and their sex specifically. We want to do all we can to alleviate that discomfort—but we also must uphold the previous five admissions. Sometimes this will mean maintaining certain institutions and structures, and that doesn’t equal bigotry.

7. People have been called ‘bigots’ in this debate who really aren’t.

Passions run hot in the culture wars, and even hotter when it comes to matters of sex and identity. But at times, people have been unfairly called “bigoted” when in fact they’re prizing the well-being of a different overlooked group—such as the interests of women or children.

Marriage Is a Sex-Defined Space

These seven admissions can be agreed on by those who’ve become even a little trans-skeptical. They’re also foundational to the Christian sex ethic. The addition a Christian makes is to say that marriage is also a sex-defined space. It’s the ultimate sex-defined space. And again, if people aren’t gender-neutral, then we can ask our secular friends to consider whether marriage also isn’t gender-neutral. If that’s granted, then everything else in the Christian sexual ethic follows.

We say that sex is significant (1) and therefore sexual self-expression should be trained and restrained (2). We believe that sex (male or female) is integral to sex (the act) and that, because the sexes aren’t interchangeable (3), a male-male relationship is very different from a male-female relationship, which is very different from a female-female relationship. These are simply not the same things. So David Cameron is wrong: adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines “female.”)

Adding male-male and female-female relationships to the definition of marriage doesn’t expand marriage—it completely redefines it. (Just as adding biological males to your definition of female redefines ‘female.’)

I don’t have the right to enter into a sex-defined space simply because I want to (4). If I don’t fit that sex-defined space but insist they include me, I’m insisting they redefine their sex-defined space. But there are some things I don’t have a right to enter or redefine—and marriage is one of them.

This isn’t to erase the existence of those who are same-sex attracted. It’s just to say that, in this area, behaviors are more important than desires (5). We should care greatly for the minority of people who are exclusively same-sex attracted—just as we care greatly for the minority of people who experience gender dysphoria—but that doesn’t have to mean reordering our institutions or sexual ethic (6). Finally, we should admit some have been called bigots who, in fact, have been prizing institutions and often-overlooked groups (such as children) in their adherence to the Christian sexual ethic (7).

I’m not saying any of this will convince our secular friends—not in a single conversation, that’s for sure. But the journey we’ve been on in the U.K. is suggestive of what might happen with the trans conversation in the States and further afield. In the near future, making the case against gender-neutral marriage might, with some people, become easier, not harder.

What Does God Intend for My Body? Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:04:00 +0000 I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.]]> Pity the human body. Alternately coddled or ignored down through the centuries, the body has survived millennia of abuse and misuse, adulation and degradation. But only barely.

People have expended millions of dollars and gallons of sweat in obsessive pursuit of the body beautiful. Guys and gals sign on for months of exhausting regimens to sculpt their skin, muscles, and sinews into a close approximation of the classic ideal of the perfect Adonis or Venus.

Sadly, however, people don’t seem to know what to make of their flesh. Recently, the body has become an impediment—a useful tool to project one’s ego, perhaps, but fundamentally not much more than an avatar of a virtual self that somehow seems more real than the flesh and bone you’re born with. Or shall I say, “born into”?

That’s the latest insult suffered by the body. Transgender ideologies have kids and parents scratching their heads over whether they may have accidentally been saddled with the wrong one. So-called experts have convinced those who feel more like a boy than a girl, or vice versa, that the sexed body is an obstacle to true freedom. Puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and extensive surgical procedures will fix that, they hold. So healthy human organs are surgically amputated, and artificial approximations of alternate genitals are constructed to enable youths and adults to ensure their preferred pronouns and bodies match—or nearly so.

So what should we make of the body?

A Body at Which Angels Wonder

Francis of Assisi, more earthy and direct than most of us, affectionately called his body “brother ass,” likening it to that humble beast of burden that cheerfully plods along, bearing its load without complaint. He saw the lowly mortal body as a mere container for the immortal soul.

People have expended millions of dollars and gallons of sweat in obsessive pursuit of the body beautiful.

The Bible, on the other hand, sees the body/soul continuum as one cohesive unit, the result of God’s creation of our first parents from the dust of the earth plus his life-giving Spirit. Though these sexed bodies of ours do eventually wear out and die, they’ll one day be restored and resurrected into never-ending life.

The Devil and his minions have no comprehension of what it’s like to exist in three dimensions in this material universe. Angels are pure spirits, so they “long to look” into the astonishing wonder at the center of salvation (1 Pet. 1:12). They long to see how at one point in human history, God the Son—the eternal Word of the Father—left his throne in glory and descended to become a zygote within the uterus of a lowly virgin in Nazareth. They strain to see how he was born in helpless infant flesh and suckled at his mother’s breast like all other babies do.

Our hope in time and in eternity is rooted in this human flesh of Jesus, who is simultaneously God and man. The mind-blowing truth is that in him, the whole fullness of the godhead dwells bodily (Col. 2:9).

Bodies, Precious and Precarious

Tragically, many in our time treat the body as an expendable nuisance. Convinced they’re trapped in their bodies, they want out.

I get their frustration. I’m in my 78th year of life, and I’ve always been happy with my male body and all its unique features. Riffing on Rodgers and Hammerstein’s celebration of female sensuality in Flower Drum Song, I rather enjoy being a boy. Jane and I had the pleasure (let the reader understand) of bringing three wonderful human beings into the world and through them now four grandchildren, with the prospect of other generations yet to make an appearance in an unknown future.

But lately, my body has been playing tricks on me. The sexual reciprocity my late wife and I enjoyed has long receded into the rearview mirror. Though there are seven people who can trace their origins to our union, youthful vigor is now a fond memory.

I’ve discovered that embodied life is precious and precarious. In 2021, after 14 months of home hospice care and three days of precipitous decline, Jane died in my arms. Three years ago, I came within half an hour of death myself, gasping for breath after blood clots suddenly took up residence in my lungs. Reality therapy, that was. I’m getting used to the fact that there will come a time when this body of mine will return to the dust of the earth and my spirit will return to God who gave it.

Bodies Who Long for Resurrection

Solomon puts the whole matter in perspective: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Eccl. 12:1).

I was in print not long ago bragging about wanting to be a spry old man. But then I suffered a retracted torn ligament; now I’m hobbling around with a cane and looking at foot fusion surgery and a three-month recovery window. It’ll leave me with a greatly diminished gait. No matter. By the grace of God, I am who I am. I serve my Lord Christ in the diminished body I still have and with all the energy he supplies. No, I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.

I’m not what I once was physically. But I’m not what I will be either.

On that day when Christ returns and raises all the dead, he will give to me and all believers eternal life in both body and soul. On that day, we’ll hear Jesus exclaim, “Behold, I am making all things new!” (Rev. 21:5). Then, even this old “brother ass” that has carried me so faithfully all these years will be remade in glory to be like his own risen body. Thanks be to God!

Ben Watson on the Sanctity of Life and True Justice Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 ‘Roe v. Wade’ has been overturned, but this former football star says the fight for life has only reached halftime.]]> He calls abortion the “spiritual battle of our lives.” And he firmly believes abortion will end when men make it so. Roe v. Wade has been overturned, but this former football star says the fight for life has only reached halftime.

He is Benjamin Watson, author of The New Fight for Life: Roe, Race, and a Pro-Life Commitment to Justice (Tyndale Momentum). You may already know quite a bit about abortion. But you may have never seen the subject explored from this angle. 

Watson argues, “Ignorance of or disregard for racial justice—especially by some white pro-life evangelicals—has been a hurdle to unifying and expanding the movement.” He’s not content to pass legal restrictions or even ban abortion. He describes a “higher, more complete calling” to “address the factors that drive abortion decisions.”

And he comes prepared with an array of statistics that may surprise you.

  • Surveys show that 76 percent of abortive mothers would prefer to parent the child under different circumstances.
  • Forty percent of the women who abort their children attend church regularly.
  • Watson describes a “crucible of susceptibility” that helps explain why 40 percent of women seeking abortion are black.
  • Compared to white women, black women in the United States are four times more likely to have an abortion. 
  • Black women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related causes. Watson explains that black women have been warned that if abortion is restricted or banned, more of them will die in childbirth.

Watson isn’t afraid to step on toes or tell Christians they need to step up in the fight for life. He sees hope in the gospel and in the church. He writes, “As a church, we need to become a safe haven, a refuge, a place where the most vulnerable can turn—not just for spiritual help, but for emotional, material, and financial support too.”

Watson joined me on Gospelbound to discuss the role of men in the pro-life cause, the relationship between history and agency, and the responsibility of parents to talk to their kids about sex, among other subjects. 

Jesus Drew Circles and Lines: A Response to Andy Stanley Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:02:32 +0000 I learned from Andy Stanley how to reach people with the Bible. But his position on LGBT+ reveals he may be more reductionistic than missional. ]]> “You should come and learn from us!”

That assertion jumped out to me from Andy Stanley’s October 1 sermon, explaining to his Atlanta-area churches why he was under fire for hosting the “Unconditional Conference” for parents of children who come out as LGBT+. “You,” in his reckoning, are other evangelical churches and pastors. “Us” is North Point, Stanley’s flagship church with a host of satellites.

The line is a golden thread that runs through not only his sermon that day but also the history of North Point. It’s the philosophy that led to Stanley’s vast influence and to the place he was in that Sunday, sitting on a stool and talking nervously about sexuality.

I’m one of the “you” who have learned some things from Andy Stanley. I want to help you understand the appeal and pitfalls of his philosophy of ministry.

Common Burden

Stanley and I share a common burden to help people who are thinking about leaving Christianity retain their faith. Although I grew up in the South, I didn’t belong to evangelicalism but was safely ensconced in a liberal form of Protestantism. But at an evangelical high school, the freshness of what I called “the original Jesus” broke in through simple teachings of New Testament texts.

Yet I didn’t just discover the original Jesus—I also discovered a thick religious-political-social culture. It didn’t bother me at the time, because I was grateful for everything I was learning about the Christian faith. For many of my classmates, though, who had grown up inside this subculture, it was the matrix they wanted to escape.

Years later as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, I threw myself into studying missiology and historical theology. In missiology, we learned about “disenculturation,” where missionaries differentiate essential Christianity from its host culture so it’s free to enter another culture. In church history, we learned that errors often creep into the church when someone attempts to lop off something that’s essential to the “faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). This often happens in the name of “reaching people.”

A good missionary disenculturates but doesn’t reduce the essential faith. In his Dynamics of Spiritual Life, Richard Lovelace shows how this can even lead to spiritual renewal, making space for the gospel to be heard afresh.

This is what I wanted to do as I set out in 2006 to plant a church in urban Denver. Many of my new congregants described leaving a conservative Bible Belt city and moving to Colorado. They felt hemmed in by their native culture, similar to one I encountered at my evangelical high school, and were grateful to have some distance from it. In the process, they were renegotiating their relationship with Christianity. I needed conversation partners who knew how to disenculturate the faith so the Scriptures could be heard again. This is how I discovered Andy Stanley.

Studying Andy Stanley’s Missiology

Though I’ve never heard him use the term “disenculturation,” Stanley’s life work has been clearing away clutter to help people encounter Jesus afresh. I started studying his ministry because he was a missionary to disenchanted former evangelicals.

The son of a famous Southern Baptist preacher, Stanley’s journey is many others’ writ large. He worked as the youth pastor at his father’s Atlanta First Baptist Church but felt stifled by its culture. He wanted to leave the church but didn’t want to leave ministry, so he started a new kind of church. Doing so resulted in a painful falling out with his dad—and it resulted in a multiplying megachurch.

By the time I tuned in to Stanley in 2006, North Point was three campuses of thousands (today it has eight locations). It was a purposeful teaching church, positioning itself as an advance scout for evangelicalism, going where most churches hadn’t gone to solve problems they hadn’t solved. North Point concepts were distributed to other churches and church leaders through a resource ministry and annual “Drive” conferences. “You should come and learn from us” isn’t a new line. It’s been part of North Point’s ethos from the outset.

The other part of its ethos is to “create churches that unchurched people love to attend.” A keystone passage for Stanley is the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, especially James’s words in verse 19: “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (NIV). At North Point, “not mak[ing] it difficult” means removing obstacles that prevent people from coming to church, coming back to church, and joining a small group. The priority is on establishing and maintaining relationships, with the hope that people will move closer to God.

This is perhaps easiest to see in Stanley’s preaching method. In his book Deep and Wide, he explains, “My goal on the weekend is to present the Scriptures in a way that is so helpful and compelling that everybody in the audience is glad to have attended and drives away with every intention to return the following weekend. . . . I want them to walk away intrigued by the fact that they heard someone teach from the Bible and it was . . . helpful.”

Draw them into a relationship. Show that the Bible is helpful. That’s Stanley’s preaching in a nutshell. It differs from other seeker-sensitive methods in one significant way: Stanley’s approach is expository. Although he doesn’t preach book-long series, most of his sermons are expositions of a specific text, introduced with an insightful hook. “My approach is to entice the audience to follow me into one passage of Scripture with the promise that the text is either going to answer a question they’ve been asking, solve a mystery they’ve been puzzled over, or resolve a tension they’ve been carrying. Once we’re in the text, I do my best to let it speak for itself.”

I learned a lot from this approach about how to connect with people. It’s no accident that Stanley’s listeners are drawn in and feel understood. His approach engages listeners who would struggle to connect their experiences with a traditional expository sermon.

Concerns About Reductionism

But after listening to several years of North Point sermons, I noticed a curious pattern: the subject matter was much narrower than the breadth of New Testament teaching. In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original “we should not make it difficult” idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed. How could I account for this discrepancy?

As Stanley presciently reminds us, “The approach a communicator chooses trumps his or her purpose every time.” His approach is to select individual texts that make it through the filter of “helpful” as an unchurched person would define it. This approach precludes preaching longer sections or entire books of the Bible. But in that approach, much depth needed to sustain Christian faith also gets filtered out.

I decided I needed a different purpose. Paul, the original missionary pastor, had a dual purpose—to not make it difficult for Gentiles to turn to God and to teach them the whole counsel of God so their faith could mature and endure. I adopted Paul’s purpose while incorporating some of Stanley’s communication insights. This leads me to preach longer sections of the biblical text.

To be fair to Stanley, not everything the church teaches necessarily comes from the pulpit. “Circles are better than rows” is another famous Andyism. This phrase reminds North Pointers that life change happens in small groups, so I can assume some subjects get covered in groups and other ministry environments. But the pulpit sets the tone for a church—especially a large church with a magnetic communicator. If key New Testament teachings don’t make it into the pulpit, would the church begin to have a reductionist form of Christianity?

In the New Testament, I saw the apostles—who came up with the original ‘we should not make it difficult’ idea—teaching things that Stanley never addressed.

My hunch only grew stronger after Stanley’s 2018 sermon “Not Difficult.” He was back on familiar ground in Acts 15. But this time, the obstacle he was aiming to remove was the Old Testament. On one hand, he seemed to be trying to make a true and simple point: Christians are under the new covenant, not the old covenant. But then “old covenant” got conflated with “Old Testament” and he was arguing for unhitching our faith from the Old Testament Scriptures.

I was confused, but I could see the logic at work: Stanley wanted to make it possible for those who objected to the Old Testament to have faith anyway. A problem with this approach is that New Testament ethics are often grounded in creation order (this is directly applicable to its teaching on sexuality). Jesus taught his disciples a hermeneutic where the kingdom of God restores creation to its original purpose. The Old Testament law—though not a binding covenant for Christians—is still an expression of that creation order, so there’s congruence between New Testament ethics and Old Testament law.

Wouldn’t teaching this be the answer to someone struggling with the Old Testament? Rather than getting rid of the Old Testament, shouldn’t a pastor show how to read it in a new covenant way?

Crossing the Rubicon?

The “unhitch” controversy left me wondering, Is Stanley crossing the Rubicon from mission to reduction?

That was the question running through my mind when I sat down to watch his October 1 sermon. The crux of my concern was this: The Unconditional Conference purported to equip Christian parents, presumably within a Christian framework. At the same time, it featured two men in same-sex marriages and an academic who argues against the historic Christian teaching on same-sex relationships. How could it help Christian parents while featuring speakers with un-Christian views and practices? Or does he not believe those views and practices are integral to original Christianity?

Stanley began by framing his message as a response to Albert Mohler’s September 18 World column, “The Train Is Leaving the Station,” critiquing the conference. Stanley said,

The author is actually accusing me of departing from his version of biblical Christianity. So I want to go on record and say: I have never subscribed to his version of biblical Christianity to begin with. So I’m not leaving anything. . . . In my opinion, his version of biblical Christianity is the problem. . . . His version of biblical Christianity is why people are leaving Christianity unnecessarily. It’s the version that causes people to resist the Christian faith because they can’t find Jesus in the midst of all the other stuff and all the other theology and all the other complexity that gets globbed on to the message. Bottom line: that version of Christianity draws lines. And Jesus drew circles. He drew circles so large and included so many people in his circle that it consistently made religious leaders nervous. And his circle was big enough to include sinners like me.

Much has been made of Stanley’s “circles and lines” analogy, but few have traced his rationale. It’s been his longtime concern to remove obstacles and declutter the message. To use missionary-speak, he thinks Mohler is teaching an enculturated form of Christianity (“his version of biblical Christianity”) that creates obstacles to people discovering Jesus. He wants to draw people into relationship (“circles”) who might not otherwise darken the door of an evangelical church.

But woven into this concern are several confusions. Mohler uses the term “biblical Christianity” to describe what he sees as essential things in Scripture, not cultural stuff “globbed on.” Mohler would surely recognize the validity of different cultural forms, ministry models, and even theological traditions. He’s not accusing Stanley of departing his preferred system. He’s concerned with something more essential. Thus, the Mohler-Stanley debate (and disparate use of terms) frames up the issue at hand: Is Stanley practicing a missional form of original Christianity? Or is he reducing the faith?

Affirmations and Denials

After sparring with Mohler and giving background on the Unconditional Conference, Stanley addressed sexuality itself. He affirmed that North Point teaches “a New Testament sexual ethic,” adding, “If you’re going to follow Jesus, here’s what it looks like sexually to follow Jesus.” He summarized it in three points: (1) honor God with your body; (2) don’t be mastered by anything—porn, sexual addiction, another person, lust; and (3) don’t sexualize a relationship outside of marriage. He continued, “We affirm all three of the apostle Paul’s statements on the topic of same-sex sex: Romans 1, 1 Corinthians 6, 1 Timothy 1. . . . What the apostle Paul called sin was sin then, and it’s sin now.” Finally, he concluded biblical marriage is between a man and a woman.

I was grateful for these clear affirmations. Yet other statements pulled in a different direction. After outlining the New Testament sexual ethic, Stanley explained that some people choose same-sex marriage because they find chastity “not sustainable.” “It’s their decision,” he said. “Our decision is to decide how we respond to their decision . . . and we decided 28 years ago: we draw circles; we don’t draw lines.” In other words, this isn’t a decision the church would challenge.

Earlier in the sermon, he explained why two married gay men spoke at Unconditional: “Their stories and their journeys of growing up in church and maintaining their faith in Christ and their commitment to follow Christ all through their high school, and college and singles and all up to the time they were married—their story is so powerful for parents of gay kids, that it’s the story parents with gay kids need to hear.”

However, if how Stanley described a New Testament sex ethic is true, then these men have now decided not to follow Christ. They have sexualized a relationship outside of biblical marriage, have been mastered by their same-sex attraction, and aren’t honoring God with their bodies. If that had been made clear for the parents at Unconditional, would it still be a powerful story?

The New Testament doesn’t just outline a sexual ethic. It brings all the graces of the gospel to bear on the process of sanctification. And it lays out the implications of following or not following it. For example, 1 Corinthians 6:9–11 has been carelessly called a “clobber passage.” But it’s actually both a comfort and a warning. Paul names those who practice sexual immorality and homosexuality among those who “will not inherit the kingdom of God.” This is a clear and loving warning. But it’s evident Paul has taught this church how the riches of Christ’s grace sustain a life of obedience—we’re washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit.

Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning. Calling chastity “not sustainable” for a person who has received the gifts Paul mentions downplays the riches of Christ’s sacrifice and the work of the Holy Spirit. How does justification matter when you fall short? How does the indwelling Spirit give hope for endurance? How does our finished washing in baptism bring out our true self in Christ?

And what about the warning? If a church doesn’t teach all this, then sexuality is reduced to a secondary disagreement, not a matter of necessary and possible sanctification.

Stanley’s reductionism on the struggle of same-sex attraction is that he hasn’t taught the comfort or the warning.

We must seriously weigh some questions: Is the biblical sex ethic a boundary marker for the faith once and for all delivered to us? Can someone reject it and still inherit the kingdom of God? If she says she’s following Jesus but doesn’t follow this sexual ethic, how should we respond to her decision? Should we teach and counsel repentance? Warn about the eternal consequences of unrepentance? Are the manifold graces of God sufficient to sustain a life of obedience? The New Testament answers these questions with piercing clarity.

I suspect that if Stanley were to work out the answers to these questions and teach them, he might feel like he was drawing lines. But he’d also draw a circle in which the grace of God can abound more fully.

Unfortunately, he’s stuck between his ministry philosophy, which calls for less, and the Scriptures, which call for more. Something has to give. I’m praying it’s the ministry philosophy. I’m praying he becomes a student again and learns from some “you’s” who are doing the hard work of both welcoming sinners and teaching the whole counsel of God.

Israel’s 9/11: The Need for Moral Clarity Tue, 10 Oct 2023 04:00:30 +0000 This is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.]]> On Saturday, Hamas—an Islamist terrorist group based in the Gaza Strip and funded by Iran—launched a large-scale attack on southern Israel by sea, land, and air. As of this writing, over 900 Israelis have died, 2,400 are wounded, and hundreds more have been taken hostage.

The images and videos emerging on social media are horrifying: unsuspecting partygoers slaughtered at a music festival; a father helping his children escape through a roof only to be murdered himself; terrorists parading a naked woman on the back of a pickup truck; an elderly Holocaust survivor forced to hold a gun and pose with a Hamas soldier; a young woman with two daughters, ages 5 and 3, taken as hostages. Some have likened the psychological toll on Israel to 9/11’s on America. It’s the most deadly mass killing of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust, and it’s bound to transform Israeli society in profound ways.

Irrespective of Christians’ differing views on the place of the modern nation of Israel in God’s redemptive plan, we believe this is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.

Possibility of Moral Clarity

In a sinful world, it’s never hard to find unjustifiable acts on both sides of a conflict. Anyone who condemns one side will quickly be greeted with whataboutism on social media: “What about this, that, or the other atrocity committed by the other side?”

We accept that the state of Israel hasn’t always acted blamelessly in its conduct toward the Palestinian people. To be pro-Israel in this situation, as we the authors are, isn’t to whitewash every action Israel’s government or military have taken, from its founding to today. We see the frustration, pain, and grief experienced by Palestinians, and we want to take seriously the Bible’s command to “weep with those who weep”—which includes Palestinians mourning their dead, both past and present.

This is a moment when it’s not only possible but necessary to speak out with moral clarity.

But the inevitable existence of wrongdoing on both sides doesn’t always produce a moral fog. Sometimes the fog lifts. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, can be condemned by Christians without hesitation. Hamas’s attack on Israel is a similarly clear example of wrongdoing that can be firmly condemned without equivocation.

Christian discernment looks at both the nature of an action and its aims. If Hamas had simply taken civilian hostages, the act itself would have been evil (the Bible forbids kidnapping), but the aim might arguably have had some military justification—hostages have been exchanged in the past for Palestinian prisoners. But Hamas hasn’t simply taken hostages. It deliberately designed military operations with the aim of murdering civilians. Those civilian victims weren’t the collateral damage of attacks on military targets; the civilians themselves were the targets. There is no biblical justification for this butchery.

Benefits of Moral Clarity

Anyone who has pastored a politically divided church will know how important it is to maintain balance when speaking about political matters. We can get so used to presenting both sides of an issue that the idea of coming down on one side seems like an obvious pastoral mistake. But when moral clarity is justified, it brings great benefits.

1. General Benefits of Moral Clarity

As Jean Bethke Elshtain has observed,

If we could not distinguish between an accidental death resulting from a car accident and an intentional murder, our criminal justice system would fall apart. And if we cannot distinguish the killing of combatants from the intended targeting of peaceable civilians, we live in a world of moral nihilism. In such a world, everything reduces to the same shade of gray and we cannot make distinctions that help us take our political and moral bearings.

Getting our bearings in this way gives us a better sense of who and what to trust. Some foreign governments, such as the Qatar Foreign Ministry, have issued statements holding Israel “solely responsible for the ongoing escalation due to its continuous violations of the rights of the Palestinian people.” Other governments, including some Arab governments, have chosen not to blame Israel. This kind of unmasking is useful for Christians involved in foreign policy or working in the Middle East.

Moral clarity on the current conflict also helps us prepare for as-yet-unknown events that may be closer to home. By exercising our discernment muscles, we become better equipped to think rightly in the future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s moral perceptiveness led him to see the horror of Nazism at a time when many other Christians found the evidence ambiguous. His strong moral vision brought glory to God, and we follow in his footsteps when we’re clear about events we ought to be clear about.

2. Specific Benefits of Moral Clarity

Moral clarity produces imperatives: “musts” and “must nots.” To use a nonpolitical example, Paul demanded the church in Corinth “expel the wicked person from among [them]” (1 Cor. 5:13, NIV). The man in question was doing what Christians must not do (v. 1), and that led to the must of excommunicating him from the local church.

Clarity regarding Hamas’s attacks on Israel allows for imperatives to guide God’s people. On Sunday, marchers in a pro-Palestinian rally in New York City chanted, “Resistance is justified when people are occupied.” Christians must not participate in rallies of that kind (or their social media equivalent), which make defenses for the indefensible, intentional slaughter of civilians. Defending the indefensible (characterizing murder, rape, and kidnapping as “resistance”) isn’t how we weep with those who weep.

Moral clarity also allows for suitably one-sided prayer. It’s right to pray for the swift defeat of Hamas. The murderous operations room of Hamas will never provide good leadership for the Palestinians living in Gaza. We should by all means pray for both-sided things too: the salvation of people on both sides; the protection, healing, and comfort of people on both sides; and the growth of the church that lives inside the borders of both nations. Even as we pray for these both-sided things, let us boldly call on our God to thwart, frustrate, and defeat the one side that is hell-bent on terrorism.

Essential Elements of Pastoral Ministry Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:04:11 +0000 In this inaugural episode of season 3 of ‘You’re Not Crazy,’ Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry discuss the importance of pastoral ministry being characterized by grace, mercy, and peace. ]]> In this episode of You’re Not Crazy, Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry delve into the first few verses of 2 Timothy, highlighting what Paul says are the most essential elements for ministry.

They discuss the importance of pastoral ministry being characterized by grace, mercy, and peace, and how these qualities should be evident in the way pastors love and serve their congregations. They emphasize the need for pastors to be vulnerable and genuine in their relationships with their flocks, and they introduce their unofficial third “cohost,” John Stott, whose commentary on 2 Timothy is referenced throughout season 3.

Recommended resource: The Lord’s Work in the Lord’s Way by Francis Schaeffer

Should Christians Travel with a Colleague of the Opposite Gender? Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 While some interactions can put us on a path toward sin, others can put us on a path toward sharing the gospel. ]]> My work requires me to travel regularly, sometimes with colleagues. Occasionally, I’m assigned to a trip with someone of the opposite gender. As a Christian, I’m not sure how to handle that. I’m not afraid of having an affair, but I don’t want to give even the impression of impropriety. What should I do?

If you polled a room of well-meaning Christians, you’d get various responses to this question. The question of travel is one of many we face regarding boundaries with the opposite sex.

Should I have a closed-door, one-on-one meeting with someone of the opposite sex?

Should I meet off-site for lunch or coffee with someone of the opposite sex? 

Should I text a coworker of the opposite sex?

Should I hug a coworker of the opposite sex who has returned from bereavement leave?

It’s easy to fall into extremes here, especially in our overly sexualized culture. On one end, we can avoid even the most innocent of interactions, seeing every person of the opposite sex as a likely stumbling block. On the other, we can act as if gender doesn’t matter and shouldn’t influence our interactions at all.

Both approaches miss the mark. We should build sensible and wholesome relationships that allow us to thrive at work and, most importantly, in our Christian walk (1 Thess. 5:11).

Honor God and Avoid Sin

Your question is one I’ve thought about a lot. I’m a married woman who commonly meets with both male and female clients in one-on-one settings. Sometimes it’s over Zoom and sometimes it’s over coffee or in an office. We may discuss the difficult feedback he received on a 360-degree review. We may work through her uncertainties as a leader. We may plan for how he can best navigate a heated conflict brewing within his team. It’s a privilege to come alongside these clients in their challenges, and I recognize these aren’t conversations people want to have amid the hustle and bustle of a busy lobby or another public space.

In addition to my current work with clients, I’ve traveled with male colleagues in the past. We’ve shared client notes, flights, Ubers, and sometimes a table at the airport food court.

How can we pursue godliness in our interaction with the opposite sex? We need to examine the specific details, contexts, and relationships at play. The Bible doesn’t tell us to avoid sharing a taxi or a table or an office with a person of the opposite sex. It also doesn’t tell us to never be alone with a person of the opposite sex.

Even so, the Bible is far from silent on how we should conduct ourselves. As Christians, our aim should be twofold. First, we should behave in ways that honor God and his design for our relationships. Second, we should avoid sinning (1 Cor. 6:18) or putting others in situations that might cause them to stumble (Luke 17:1).

When you apply these standards to travel decisions or meeting locations, it’s helpful to consider a few guiding questions.

Is It Public?

It’s often in private that boundaries are crossed. Keep interactions as public as possible. Don’t meet at the dining table in his hotel suite to go over notes before the client meeting. Meet in the lobby of the hotel, a conference room with windows, or at the coffee shop down the street. Leave no room for secrets, or even the speculation of secrets.

Keep all details of your trip “public” to others, such as your spouse, other colleagues, or a mature Christian friend. If that person is uncomfortable with anything you have planned, put more boundaries in place.

Is It Professional?

Some professions require meeting with people in private settings. Consider a medical doctor, a therapist, an executive coach, or a human resources manager. For each, professional ethical codes should guide appropriate interactions.

Consider the body language, tone, and content of your interactions. If a relationship seems even somewhat unprofessional, look for ways to create more distance. For example, don’t spend every minute of a business trip together. You might sit in a different row on the flight. You might check out a different restaurant for dinner or invite clients to join you in a group setting. Such boundaries aren’t only professional but also wise.

Is It a Doorway to Sin?

Many years ago, I served alongside a young couple at the church I attended at the time. While the husband was never unfaithful to his wife, he felt himself becoming too close to a woman he worked with. The job required them to spend a lot of time together, traveling from site to site. They formed a friendship. He began to feel an attraction. He knew it was unwise to continue in a situation that might put him on a path toward sin. He was transparent with his wife and, in what remains one of the wisest decisions I’ve seen, he changed jobs.

If you’re married, your level of intimacy with your spouse should be greater than with any other person (Gen. 2:24). If you’re single, remember your married colleagues need to be closer to their spouses than to you. If you and your colleague are both single, remember God’s good design to keep sex inside of marriage.

Physical intimacy isn’t the only challenge. So is emotional intimacy. Was it wrong for this man to ride in a car with a female coworker? Not in and of itself. Could it have led to sin down the road? He knew it could have.

If you feel any attraction toward a coworker, or if you suspect your coworker is attracted to you, it’s important to set tighter boundaries. You’ll often see the red flags. Ask the Spirit to guide you in making wise decisions (Gal. 5:16).

Is It a Doorway to Sharing Jesus?

While some interactions can put us on a path toward sin, others can put us on a path toward sharing the gospel.

Many people come to Jesus because someone of the opposite sex was open to discussing his or her faith. Sometimes that person is a coworker, and it’s fair to say some of those conversations have happened during flights or while sharing a ride to the conference center. Don’t miss those opportunities to share Jesus with both brothers and sisters.

I hope these questions support you in prayerful consideration. Even if things seem perfectly acceptable on all fronts, follow the Spirit if you feel led to create additional boundaries. Walk in step with his leading.

Doubting Christians Are Jumping Out Attic Windows. They Don’t Have To. Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 While our doubts might have pushed us out of the place we thought we’d live in forever, we discovered a house more beautiful and sturdy than we could have imagined]]> In many 1990s evangelical youth groups, Audio Adrenaline’s song “Big House” was a fun way to break the ice for middle and high schoolers. We were looking forward to “a big, big house, with lots of rooms.”

But many of us didn’t feel like God’s house was all that big. Instead of having enough space to play football, some people felt they were stuck in a stuffy attic with low ceilings and only one small window to let in light. It felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.

The image of the attic is the central metaphor that runs through Surprised by Doubt: How Disillusionment Can Invite Us into A Deeper Faith by Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson. Chatraw is the Billy Graham Chair of Evangelism and Cultural Engagement at Beeson Divinity School and a Keller Center fellow. Carson is the executive director of the Center for Apologetics and Cultural Engagement at Liberty University. Both authors have worked with students who are seeking solid answers to hard questions about Christianity.

This is a book that faces doubts honestly, recognizing how harrowing they can feel. The authors write, “If you grew up in the attic of the Christian faith, questioning the walls of your room can feel like questioning the entire house” (10). To some, the attic feels like the whole Christian experience because it’s all they have ever known.

This book offers a way out of the attic that doesn’t result in abandoning the faith. Though the “attic demands a loyalty that makes the slightest deviation feel like heresy” (10), Surprised by Doubt provides a helpful way of asking honest questions.

Bad Pressure Makes for Bad Posture

We’re currently experiencing the largest religious shift in American history. Previously, the shift had been toward Christianity; this time, it’s away from the church.

Chatraw and Carson argue that “the pressures of the attic” are among the contributing factors in this mass dechurching because they’re deforming the way attic dwellers see the world. Just as attics often have low ceilings that require stooping, the attic of Christianity requires mental attitudes that lead to bad epistemological posture. For long-term attic dwellers, it becomes difficult to know how to pursue truth.

To some, God’s house felt more like a prison than a place of hope and joy.

Many Christians who have grown up in the church experienced this pressure from a young age—this individualistic need for certainty on everything while remaining perfectly morally upright. This teaches young believers they must make up their own minds in the right way on every question, while remaining pure from the world.

How is this a realistic expectation for a young Christian when saints have wrestled with the mysteries of God for millennia? Is it any wonder that faith begins to feel like a tight space one might like to escape from?

Though there’s a stairwell leading out of the attic into the rest of the house, many doubters escape the pressure of the attic by jumping out the window. They just hope they land somewhere safe.

Landing Spots of Attic Jumpers

Chatraw and Carson explore four potential landing spots: New Atheism, optimistic skepticism, mythic truth, and open spirituality.

Ironically, New Atheism can result in the same prideful certainty and antagonism toward other views that attic jumpers were attempting to escape from.

The optimistic skeptic is jaded by the glib certainty of attic Christianity about challenges like the problem of evil. They’re skeptical of the answers given but optimistic they’re able to see errors more clearly than everyone else.

Other attic jumpers become content with mythic truth, which affirms there are types and archetypes in the world that point to transcendent reality. This view places Christianity as one of many religions that get some things right.

Perhaps the most popular landing spot for attic jumpers is open spirituality. Far from atheists, these folks believe there’s probably something out there that’s beyond us but don’t believe it can be defined, much less known. Certainty, not God, is the villain.

Open spirituality recognizes there must be something to account for our morality and the goodness and beauty we experience in the world. But the spiritual individuals become judge and jury over what they perceive is true.

As Chatraw and Carson write, “Each person is Caesar in the coliseum of their own faith, and only when the evaluation produces a thumbs-up will a belief survive” (67). Open spirituality lets people believe they’re critically evaluating each belief for its merit. Instead, they’re blind to the fact that they can’t evaluate anything without a bias.

Going down the Stairs

Jumping out the window is a quick way to escape from the attic of Christianity; however, it leaves real Christianity unexplored. Chatraw and Carson argue, “To discover if the Christian house is sturdy, we need to walk downstairs” (88–89).

They offer three perspectives through which to explore Christianity and test its claims: looking at Christianity, looking through Christianity, and stepping into Christianity.

Looking at Christianity involves examining the foundations of the faith. This requires asking bedrock questions about the incarnation and the resurrection. It means examining the “load-bearing walls” of Christianity: the tenets all Christians have always believed that are summarized in the Apostles’ Creed. Rather than getting distracted by more fringe issues, looking at Christianity requires us to focus on its foundation.

Looking through Christianity asks whether the faith has explanatory power for the world. Does it give us meaning and purpose? Does it provide a foundation for values like justice, dignity, and beauty? If it does, throwing Christianity out might unintentionally undermine some of the things attic jumpers care most about.

Stepping into Christianity is the ultimate test. Christianity isn’t a purely intellectual philosophy of life, and people aren’t mere cognition machines. Going to church, praying, meditating on Scripture, taking walks in God’s creation—these are practices the saints have always done to encounter God and be transformed by him. Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.

God’s Big, Big House

Surprised by Doubt takes deconstruction seriously. But it does so by inviting readers into a more complete understanding of Christianity. This is a book that should be widely read by parents, pastors, and people who work with youth. It would also be a valuable resource to put in the hands of students and young adults in the church who are seeking honest answers to honest questions.

The song “Big House” was on to something. After all, Jesus said to his disciples, “In my Father’s house are many rooms” (John 14:2). It’s sad knowing so many people have abandoned Christianity, thinking the attic was the whole house.

Christianity must be experienced, not simply examined.

There is, in fact, a big table with lots of food. A feast is being prepared for the day when all God’s children will eat together, sitting next to surprising people who were in rooms whose doors we only passed by (Rev. 19:9).

If only we’d walk down the stairs, we might smell the food from the kitchen and be reminded of the hope we have for that day. While our doubts might have pushed us out of the place we thought we’d live in forever—the only option we thought we had—we discovered a house more beautiful and sturdy than we could have imagined, surrounded by the saints through the ages (Heb. 12:1), full of treasures new and old (Matt. 13:52).

This house, we find, is built on a rock. And when the waves come crashing into it, we will not be shaken (Matt. 7:25; Ps. 62:1–2).

5 Reasons Gen Z Is Primed for Spiritual Renewal Mon, 09 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Gen Z is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.]]> “God brought me back to him when I was hopeless.”

“God helped me set aside drugs, alcohol and porn.”

“God took the anger out of me.”

“I found joy again.”

After I (Kyle) had spent 16 years pastoring a college ministry in my local church, these handwritten stories of personal conversion and radical life change from Gen Z students brought tears to my eyes. They wrote them at the end of the 2023 school year as a testimony of what God did that year.

Hundreds of longer stories filled the board. But that wasn’t the only small miracle. Our last meeting of the year was bigger than the first. We started with 300 students and ended with 400. That never happens. Then in the fall of this year, it happened again: 500 students attended our first meeting; 600 showed up the next week. This doesn’t happen.

But it did. And it’s not unique to us.

As we talk to campus ministers and pastors from San Francisco to Jacksonville, Billings to Atlanta, DC to Dallas, we know we aren’t alone. Some will urge caution before drawing conclusions. Isn’t this the era of dechurching, deconstruction, and rising “nones”? But data lags behind reality and we don’t want the church to miss what may be happening.

In the wake of the Asbury revival last spring, it looks as though the Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal—the very generation that has been repeatedly touted as the least religious ever.

This may sound impossible, but Jesus got it right: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). Dry bones are rattling to life. The question is whether we’ll be attuned to the Spirit’s work and join him.

Why Is Gen Z Primed for Spiritual Renewal?

Gen Z is spiritually starved. The disorienting circumstances of the last three years—a global pandemic, countless mass shootings, the woke wars, a contested election, rapid inflation, and widespread abuse scandals—created a famine of identity, purpose, and belonging.

The Holy Spirit is priming the souls of hundreds of thousands of teenagers and young adults for renewal.

Gen Z is hungry for the very things the empty, desiccated temples of secularism, consumerism, and global digital media cannot provide, but which Jesus can.

1. Isolation during the pandemic created a hunger for belonging.

Before the pandemic, 45 percent of Gen Z reported severe loneliness—making it the loneliest generation in American history. After the pandemic? A year isolated from friends and school dramatically intensified the trend. A Harvard study found that 61 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds reported “miserable degrees of loneliness.” The national average was 36 percent.

We hear it firsthand on campus every week: Gen Z is desperately alone. Students anxiously desire to be known. They don’t just want friends. They don’t simply want to belong somewhere. They’re absolutely starved for belonging and friendship.

2. Disillusionment with ineffective, abusive, hypocritical leaders is creating a hunger for sincere, humble, transparent leadership.

Gen Z Americans dislike Donald Trump as much as millennials do. They also dislike Joe Biden more than any other generation. They agree the government and most national leaders are failing. Over the last five years, they’ve seen presidents, athletes, celebrities, church leaders, journalists, and educators unmasked as bullies, phonies, liars, and abusers. They’re tired of it.

So perhaps it’s no surprise Gen Z responds not to my most eloquent sermons but to those in which I’m most transparent about my own life and shortcomings. They’re starved for leaders who care more about transparency than their image and who exude sincere humility rather than hollow impressiveness.

3. Pervasive anxiety is creating a hunger for deep peace.

Before the pandemic, Gen Z was already the most anxious generation in American history. Six years ago, Jean M. Twenge wrote that Gen Z “is on the verge of the most severe mental health crisis for young people in decades.” During the pandemic, Twenge’s predictions became a reality. While world rates for depression and anxiety grew by 25 percent during this period, Gen Z experienced a 33 percent increase. Now only 45 percent of Gen Z describe themselves as mentally healthy.

The students we spend time with want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and that can still the waters of chronic anxiety.

4. Digital self-projection and self-perfection are creating a longing for real-life, nonjudgmental sincerity.

Gen Z spent years of their lives projecting curated, filtered versions of themselves to the watching world. They learned to commodify their identities into bespoke digital brands, whose valuation accumulated in the intangible currency of likes and shares. They bore the weight of a digital deity: We must form and create ourselves online. Students tell me this self-projection and self-perfection are exhausting. They’re deeply hungry for friendships where it’s OK not to look perfect, sound perfect, and be perfect.

5. The loss of places of belonging is creating a hunger for healthy institutions where Gen Z can find mentors.

Gen Z wants to be mentored, but they don’t know how to meet older people. Only a minority actually have mentors. Normally, this kind of intergenerational connection takes place inside institutions, but Gen Z was largely raised outside institutions. Their parents (Gen X) were cynical about institutions. Their generational predecessors, the millennials, deconstructed them. But, according to Springtide director Joshua Packard, Gen Z is largely uninterested in institutions.

At first glance, this hardly seems like good news. But lack of interest is preferable over outright cynicism. Springtide’s research suggests that if churches are intentional about fostering intergenerational mentoring and relationships, Gen Z won’t have any anti-institutional hurdles to jump over. Put differently, Gen Z will try on church if older church members do what Jesus calls them to do—make disciples. 

The students want few things more than freedom from depression and anxiety. They’re starved for a peace that surpasses all understanding and can still the waters of chronic anxiety.

Gen Z is hungry for the very things Jesus provides through his presence and people: belonging, humble leadership, peace, transparent friendship, and intergenerational mentoring.

As we reflect on this, we keep returning to the image of God’s Spirit that Jesus offers to a confused old man: the movement of the Spirit is like a wind blowing (John 3:8). Of course, this is wordplay—“spirit” and “wind” are homonyms in both Greek and Hebrew—but it’s more than that. Just like you can’t see the wind, you can’t see the Spirit. But you can see what the wind moves: dust, leaves, and waves. And so it is with God’s Spirit. You see him by what he moves.

We see the dust spinning, the leaves cartwheeling, and waves whitecapping in Gen Z. They’re hungry. We must seek to join our heads, hearts, and hands together for the sake of God’s generational cause.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Family Devotions Sun, 08 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 On a trip home from college, I started to see how influential family devotions were in my life.]]> When I returned home from college last semester, one of the first things I did with my family was “Bible time.”

That’s what we call our family devotional time, which includes reading the Bible, praying, and singing a song together. Usually we do it in the evening, and it has come to signal a time to slow down and find relief together from the day’s business and activities. While the length of each day’s Bible time varies and our consistency has fluctuated, this hasn’t reduced its importance in my life.

I didn’t realize this until I was separated from Bible time. On a trip home from college, after not being part of family devotions for a while, I was able to see many of the lessons my parents were teaching me through them.

Lesson #1: The Bible Is Valuable

My parents’ commitment to frequently spending time in Scripture instilled in me the value of the Bible. There were many times it would’ve been easier for my parents to forgo Bible time—after rough days, on late nights, during a busy season—but my parents’ choice to still have family devotions showed me the importance of making time to spend in the Bible.

Because my parents made the Bible a central aspect of our lives, I could see it was more than just a good book. Their example has constantly encouraged me to implement regular Bible study in my life.

Lesson #2: How to Structure Devotions

Because my parents made the Bible a central aspect of our lives, I could see it was more than just a good book.

How my parents structured Bible time has influenced how I structure my own devotions. The pattern of reading God’s Word, bringing requests before God, and praising God was critical to teaching me how to grow in my relationship with Christ.

While these three things are necessary for a healthy Christian walk, I tended to separate them from each other. But my parents used Bible time to show us that all three exist together. Their quiet example of including prayer and praise in the study of the Bible has shaped my own practices.

Lesson #3: Why We Study Corporately

My parents both studied the Bible independently and encouraged us to study the Bible for ourselves. While they stressed the importance of personal devotions, they also taught us to value studying the Bible with others. Reading it out loud, discussing it together, and then coming together in prayer and praise is an important part of the Christian walk.

Lesson #4: Persistence and Peace

There were times when family devotions seemed an annoyance and days I’d have chosen to skip them. But my parents’ insistence on having Bible time gradually transformed it from something to be dreaded to something I looked forward to. They taught me that peace can be found in the Bible and helped me to persevere in finding it there. Bible time became a refuge from the struggles of each day.

Our record wasn’t perfect. There were stretches when we’d miss family devotions for days or even weeks. But that was when my parents set one of their most important examples for me. Rather than give up, they picked it up repeatedly. Each time they started again, the periods of consistent Bible time grew longer, and the periods without Bible time decreased.

This has become more important to me as I’ve become semi-independent and seen the many ways I fall short in my Christian walk. My parents also fall short, but, rather than “throwing in the towel,” they persevere in growing closer to God and defeating the sin in their lives.

Bible time became a refuge from the struggles of each day.

Even though my parents didn’t get everything right, they did give me consistent, structured exposure to the Bible. Their commitment to having family Bible time helped shape my view of Scripture and even how I handle failing at reading it. They not only told me but showed me what the Bible is worth and how to study it. Through Bible time I learned the value of persevering, both in seeking God and in putting sin to death.

Because of my parents’ influence, I value the Bible, and because of their teaching, I continue to seek after God—even when it’s inconvenient or difficult.

Confronting Child Sexual Abuse Sat, 07 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Brothers and sisters, we’ve long neglected this sin that lies in the shadows.]]> It all started with an innocent conversation, a few extra minutes of attention, and a childish confidence in a trustworthy adult. His constant messaging and intentionality made her feel comfortable, cared for, and special.

He was a teacher, and she’d been taught to trust, listen, and obey. But something was off this time. Slowly his messages began pleading for their special relationship to be a secret. No one should find out they were talking—the threats of trouble were implicit. After he was sure he’d gained her trust, he started the next secret with these words: “Meet me at this hallway of the school.” She was only 13.

Accounts of sexual abuse are hard and uncomfortable to read. If you’re anything like me, these stories make you pause in horror. Your stomach churns. Your heart accelerates with anger. We make sense of it by being quick to place blame. How was this allowed to happen? Why didn’t she say something before? How come nobody noticed?

Or we may be prone to deflect: It’s horrible how those things happened to her. Her parents mustn’t have been watching her. That will never happen to my child. Not in my family. Not in my church. If something happened, I’d know right away. I’d never miss the signs.

Or we deny: There’s no way that really happened. She’s making it up to get attention. She invited it with her behavior and demeanor.

But our avoidance of the subject doesn’t mean sexual abuse hasn’t happened, or isn’t happening, to individuals in our family, church, or community. First, we need to understand what sexual abuse is and why it’s important to address it. Then, to care well for victims of sexual abuse, we need to have some conversations. Finally, we need to consider what message we are communicating to the world.

What is child sexual abuse?

The Mayo Clinic defines sexual abuse as “any sexual activity with a child.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network expands it further to “any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) in which the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or observer.” Sexual abuse isn’t limited to physical contact but includes behaviors such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, or exposing a child to pornography.

It’s important to emphasize that children don’t have the ability to legally consent to any kind of sexual interaction. Although the age of consent varies between states, the national consensus in the United States is that any sexual interaction with a child younger than 16 is statutory rape.

Along with age difference often comes a power differential. The majority of the time, perpetrators of sexual abuse are in positions of authority over the children and are known to the children and their families. In fact, 80 percent of perpetrators of sexual abuse are known to the children.

Child sexual abuse needs to be exposed.

The instruction to meet in a hallway of the school didn’t sit well with her. She wanted to be obedient, but it felt odd, so she shared the information with her closest friend.

Her friend was shocked at the invitation and immediately informed her own mother about the odd situation. Her mother reported it to the school authorities.

Just as this mother did, any member of the body of Christ—individuals, parents, teachers at Christian schools, and church leaders—must report any suspicion of sexual abuse or any behavior that could fall under the category of sexual grooming.

Any member of the body of Christ must report any suspicion of sexual abuse or any behavior that could fall under the category of sexual grooming.

When this happens, Christian schools, churches, and children’s ministries need to have incident response plans they can implement, including appropriate protocols for reporting any suspicion of sexual abuse. This may look like directly notifying the director of children’s ministry, the lead pastor, and the appropriate child welfare agency in your community.

Christian ministries must ensure the child’s safety (and the safety of other children) by removing the suspected adult perpetrator until the allegations have been properly investigated.

This may seem like an overwhelming task, but the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention has developed guidelines and standards that can walk your church through it.

Ephesians tells us to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11, NIV). A few verses earlier, Paul explained what these fruitless deeds of darkness are: sexual immorality, any kind of impurity, greed, obscenity, foolish talk, or coarse joking (vv. 3–4). Child sexual abuse can fall into all these categories. The men and women walking in this sin need to be identified and their sin exposed.

We need to have important conversations.

At this point in the story, the response began to break down. Due to their lack of training, neither the school nor its supporting church knew how to respond. They first called in the teacher to explain the situation, and he quickly manipulated the details in his favor. The next person to be called in was the girl’s father, who was informed of his daughter’s inappropriate behavior toward the teacher.

Both of those conversations were mistakes. Parents, pastors, elders, children ministry directors, and other church staff aren’t experts on sexual abuse. Their attempts to gather information about the allegations of sexual abuse on their own, and determine whether these allegations are true or false, are detrimental to the child, to the family, and to the ability of experts to later conduct a criminal investigation.

Think about it this way: If a church member experiences a burglary in his home, the pastors, elders, or church staff aren’t called to investigate whether the burglary took place or who’s responsible. In those cases, the church member is advised to contact the police and follow their recommendations, while other congregants offer support, prayers, meals, and reminders of the faithfulness of God. So it should be with cases of sexual abuse.

Any investigation of an allegation of sexual abuse needs to be entrusted to the authorities (Rom. 13:1–6) and to those who have professional training in dealing with these matters.

There are ways to conduct forensic evaluations in cases of sexual abuse that prevent the child from repeating her experience of abuse so she isn’t retraumatized. Usually, teams made up of social workers, medical providers, police investigators, and forensic interviewers are used to ask children appropriate questions. They gather information about the abuse, identify appropriate services, and ensure the child is physically cared for.

The work of the church doesn’t stop when child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities. In reality, the work begins there. Directly after Jesus tells the disciples to protect and care for children (Matt. 18:1–6), he warns them about the terrible power of unchecked sin (vv. 7–9). Then he gives them a way to confront sin in each other (vv. 15–19).

While the state takes care of the physical realities, the church should be responding to the even more serious spiritual realities. If the perpetrator is a believer, his sin needs to be confronted. And caring physically, emotionally, and spiritually for the victims and their families requires a long-term commitment to love and walk alongside them, trusting in the gospel’s power to redeem, heal, and bring justice.

The world is watching our response to child sexual abuse.

From the moment her teacher’s misconduct and sexual sin was exposed, the young girl’s life began a downward spiral. In a matter of days, she was expelled from the school, their entire church community was made aware of the situation, and she was labeled as a sexualized child. Meanwhile, the teacher’s reputation was protected, his position in ministry upheld, and his family labeled as victims and surrounded with support.

To this day, she bears the scars of this incident. She no longer believes in the goodness or justice of God, and she cannot understand why God would allow his church to conduct itself in this manner. If the body of Christ is this careless in the ways it handles sexual abuse, she doesn’t want anything to do with it.

Brothers and sisters, we’ve long neglected this sin that lies in the shadows. Children within our churches and communities are victims of this hideous and detestable sin, and they need to know that the adults around them are willing to listen and protect them.

The world is watching how we respond to this issue. More than that, Jesus Christ has commanded his church to be light to the world, and he’ll one day ask for an account from every adult, parent, elder, pastor, and church about how we cared for these little ones (Matt. 25:40–45). Let’s heed this encouragement and warning.

Jesus will one day ask for an account from every adult, parent, elder, pastor, and church about how we cared for these little ones.

I pray we’ll be tools in the Lord’s hands to care for the many children who’ve suffered the horrors of sexual abuse, whose voices have been unheard, and whose hurt has been ignored. I pray our hearts will be softened to these issues and that we’ll become a church equipped to respond quickly, well, and in love to any sexual abuse disclosed.

I pray the body of Christ, his church, becomes the safest place for children who have been sexually abused to run to and experience the freeing, redeeming, and renewing power of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

How to Live in the Fellowship of Christ’s Sufferings Fri, 06 Oct 2023 04:04:33 +0000 Collin Hansen, Ray Ortlund, Kevin DeYoung, and Juan Sánchez discuss spiritual mentorship, enduring suffering in ministry, and more. ]]> In this panel discussion from TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Collin Hansen, Ray Ortlund, Kevin DeYoung, and Juan Sánchez discuss the prevalence of suffering in the lives of faithful Christians, citing examples from history and encouraging listeners to embrace their own suffering as a means of deeper spiritual growth.

They advise younger pastors and ministry leaders to trust in the Lord as their defender, wait for him to straighten out tough situations, and give honest answers in formal settings while keeping quiet in informal humiliation. The panel also focuses their discussion on the importance of gentleness and self-control in ministry, particularly in response to criticism and opposition.

Ultimately, to endure suffering in ministry and live faithfully to Jesus is to live in the fellowship of his sufferings. Ortlund says, “This has taken me to a deeper place with Jesus than I’ve ever dreamed of going.” 

We Need Scope for the Evangelical Imagination Fri, 06 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 The perpetual need of humanity is to have social imaginary that shapes them toward the gospel.]]> Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol was birthed in Victorian England. That culture was filled with theological works, novels, plays, and poetry that all reflected an evangelical understanding of the world.

Victorian culture was influenced by evangelicalism to the extent that Dickens, whose relationship with evangelicalism is contested, wrote one of the most iconic conversion narratives in English literature. Scrooge’s transformation from rude miser to softened philanthropist is an archetype for many evangelical Christians. It remains a staple Christmas sermon illustration because it both reflects and shapes the way evangelical Christians view the world. Salvation of the nastiest people is possible, and Scrooge’s conversion is what it looks like.

Some of the images and metaphors embedded in our collective cultural memory are helpful, subtly encouraging Christian virtues. Others are so familiar they go unnoticed, even as they point people away from biblical truths. As an experienced writer who has taught in evangelical seminaries and universities, Karen Swallow Prior seeks to uncover some of the distorting cultural influences on the evangelical imagination. She combines the professional specialization of a literary scholar with the personal testimony of one who longs for a more holistically biblical evangelicalism as she sets out on an insider critique.

According to Prior in The Evangelical Imagination: How Stories, Images, and Metaphors Created a Culture in Crisis, many assumptions from the Victorian age continue to exist “as unexamined assumptions swirling within the evangelical imagination” (3). Because these assumptions are presumed to be true and accurate representations of the world, they’re seldom examined by faithful Christians. The result is that amid many sound ideas, some rotten elements remain hidden and unreformed.

The Evangelical Imagination offers a critique in an effort to point evangelicals toward an imagination better shaped by biblical truths.

Evangelical Social Imaginary

Prior calls attention to a unifying imaginative heritage of evangelicalism. She reminds us that the stories we hear, the art we see, the songs we sing, and the metaphors we employ combine in a way that “shapes us and our world more than any other human power or ability” (7).

Human imagination is a distinctive of our species because we’re made in God’s image. But our imaginations are formed by our cultural contexts. Through a survey of several Western understandings of the world, Prior touches on myth, metaphor, and other helpful frameworks on which she builds her analysis of the evangelical imagination.

A “social imaginary” is the shared set of stories, myths, ideas, and images that inform a common understanding of the world. Evangelicalism has its own social imaginary, which has been shaped over the past three centuries. Prior traces its development as she highlights trivia about forgotten influences and identifies causes of dysfunction. She considers the influence of Thomas Kinkade, whose paintings focused on light but whose life told a different story. Prior explores the way ideas about empires in movies and literature may enable a presumption of the inevitability of growth and expansion.

She offers inspiring reminders about the power of the Christian intellectual tradition, which is part of the evangelical heritage. The book offers page-turning epiphanies, demonstrating connections between ideas, themes, and schools of thought that can help readers understand how the evangelical imagination has been formed.

At the center of Prior’s argument is her belief that many of the problems that have plagued evangelical Christians in the U.S. in recent decades can be directly traced to a failure of the evangelical imagination.

Imaginative Crisis

According to Prior, the evangelical imagination is in crisis. We’re living in a time of incredible change and cultural upheaval—on the cusp of a new age yet to be fully understood. Whereas evangelicalism was once rooted in a highly compact cultural context, it now functions in a context constantly redefined by a cacophony of social media, geopolitical upheaval, and post-Western demographics.

We’re living in a time of incredible change and cultural upheaval—on the cusp of a new age yet to be fully understood.

The historic unity of imagination Prior surveys has lost its centrality. In her telling, it has also lost its biblical moorings. According to Prior, therefore, evangelicalism must become more conscientiously global to reclaim its biblical foundations. Evangelicals must reexamine the metaphors and images that shape their imaginations. Are the narratives we presume merely artifacts of an earlier culture or tropes that illuminate the gospel?

But the crisis of imagination is a human crisis, not an exclusively evangelical one. She argues the current crisis is the same one the Victorians faced: How do we seamlessly combine orthodoxy and orthopraxy? It’s the same one faced by Chaucer’s pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales. And it’s the same crisis I face in my own life: How do I love God as he loves me and love others out of that overflow (1 John 4:19)?

There’s a global need for the revitalization of imagination. The perpetual need of humanity is to have a social imaginary that shapes us toward the gospel, fresh imaginative reminders of our need for repentance and the possibility of God’s forgiveness.

Western Focus

Though Prior hints at it, the global element is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the book.

Prior’s “crisis” references the current state of evangelicalism, which is a movement too often fixated by headlines and infighting, at least in the world of the internet and social media. Many of these problems are the result of faulty imaginations, but they also perpetuate malformed imaginations.

“Failure porn,” as it’s sometimes called, is everywhere in the digital lives of our culture, with sexual abuse, political turmoil, financial improprieties, and moral peccadilloes all larding our digital pantries. We’re culturally bound together more by the experience of shared breath-holding that too often accompanies our log-ins on social media than by a positive, gospel-centric evangelical imagination.

But this experience isn’t universal among evangelicals across the globe.

As Prior notes, “Evangelicalism is a movement that is nearly three hundred years old with a global presence that dwarfs that in America” (23). She points out, “It is hardly possible . . . to talk about evangelicalism rather than evangelicalisms. This now-global movement is not contained by the qualities and characteristics of a George Whitefield, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, or any of its other founders and leaders” (30).

The perpetual need of humanity is to have social imaginary that shapes them toward the gospel.

Yet Prior’s critique focuses on an evangelicalism caught up in American politics and the structures of Western liberalism. This argument may have substantially less resonance for evangelicals who aren’t online much, whose social experiences have been largely outside the U.S., or who have grown up in different sections of the macadamized internet world. These individuals may be unaware of the constant turmoil of many online (and often incredibly petty) controversies.

Furthermore, by focusing on negative examples that are tripping up American evangelicals, readers may be left wondering how other evangelicalisms (even Western ones) seem to have avoided similar troubles.

Imaginative Future

We’ve left the central social imaginary that formed evangelicalism in the digital dust. But more significantly, the movement has leaped beyond its roots into a global context that no longer shares its original formative forces. Of necessity, what comes next must be more intentionally biblical because the movement is no longer rooted in a homogeneous, historical culture.

Prior reminds us of the value and the risks of the older, more homogeneous world as we enter a more heterogeneous era. The challenge of what comes next is to generate a better alternative for forming the evangelical imagination.

How do we communicate the Word made flesh in a world where metaphors—the root of all human language—no longer have coherence? How do we champion a global culture that can counter the hyperindividualism of the algorithms that relentlessly magnify social media’s angry, agenda-laden, or egotistical voices to match (or exceed) those of more reasoned interrogators?

It’s bedlam meets Babel, where words have lost their common, overlapping definitions, slipping into the realm of subjective interpretations that are disconnected from a larger controlling social imaginary.

Prior calls us to rediscover the rich history we have, to remind ourselves the power of our movement is in its source in God, and to embrace the imaginative expressions that can affect our world, no matter where on the globe we are.

This book offers a convicting admonishment to avoid confusing cultural trends for biblical truth. It’s a breathtaking reminder of just how powerful the evangelical imagination has been and how much is lost when we forfeit it.

Don Carson’s Vision and Legacy Fri, 06 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 A new collection of Don Carson’s essays offers readers an accessible entrée into his wide-ranging writings on the evangelical church.]]> Don Carson is well known for his many academic and popular books, his decades-long tenure at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he’s now emeritus professor of New Testament, and his influential work as the founding president of The Gospel Coalition.

He has been called “one of the last great Renaissance men in evangelical biblical scholarship.” His election as the 73rd president of the Evangelical Theological Society and the launch of TGC’s Carson Center for Theological Renewal reflect his influence as an evangelical scholar and leader.

Two collections of essays (Festschrifts) have been published to commemorate Carson’s noteworthy contributions to New Testament studies and to advancing the gospel and strengthening the church. Additionally, a new book I edited, The Gospel and the Modern World, collects 34 short writings by Carson that originally appeared in Themelios, “an international, evangelical, peer-reviewed theological journal that expounds and defends the historic Christian faith.”

Global Influence of ‘Themelios’

Carson began serving as the general editor of Themelios in 2008, when TGC assumed responsibility for the theological journal founded in 1962 by the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students and operated for many years by the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship in the U.K.

The name Themelios derives from the Greek term θεμέλιος (“foundation”) in texts such as 1 Corinthians 3:12 and Ephesians 2:20, signaling the journal’s commitment to expound and defend the foundational commitments of the historic Christian faith. Carson explained in his first editorial that “the new Themelios aims to serve both theological/religious studies students and pastors” while aspiring to “become increasingly international in representation.”

TGC’s decision to make Themelios freely available online has enabled the journal to have a global influence. For example, in 2021, the journal’s website had over 1.7 million page views from readers in 229 countries.

Carson’s Recurring Themes

Carson wrote the following in one of his early editorial columns:

Thinking differently from the “world” has been part of the Christian’s responsibility and agenda from the beginning. The language Paul uses intimates that this independence of thought will not be easy. The assumption seems to be that the world has its own patterns, its own structured arguments, its own value systems. Because we Christians live in the world, the “default” reality is that we are likely to be shaped by these patterns, structures, and values, unless we consciously discern how and where they stand over against the gospel and all its entailments, and adopt radically different thinking. More: our response must not only be defensive (Rom. 12:2), but offensive, aiming to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God,” aiming to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). . . . If we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind, then we must be reading the Scriptures perennially, seeking to think God’s thoughts after him, focusing on the gospel of God and pondering its implications in every domain of life.

Here we see in brief a number of themes that feature prominently in Carson’s writings, including the countercultural nature of the Christian faith, the utter centrality of the gospel, and faithful reading and application of the Word of God. Such emphases are contrary to the status quo in the culture and, often, in many churches.

The Gospel and the Modern World draws together Carson’s most penetrating and robust Themelios columns from 2008 to 2022. Carson has written and edited dozens of books on the New Testament, biblical theology, and Christian life and leadership in a pluralistic and sometimes hostile world. The collected essays offer readers an accessible entrée into Carson’s wide-ranging writings that reveal his urgent vision for the evangelical church and exhibit the mature reflections of a scholar, pastor, and public theologian.

The collected essays reveal Carson’s urgent vision for the evangelical church and exhibit the mature reflections of a scholar, pastor, and public theologian.

The book also features two introductory essays: one from Andy Naselli, Carson’s former doctoral student and research assistant, and one from Collin Hansen, vice president for content and editor in chief of TGC.

The three dozen chapters of The Gospel and the Modern World are arranged in six parts:

1. Theological Vision for the Church

2. The Gospel

3. Bible and Biblical Theology

4. Christ and Culture

5. Church Leadership

6. Christian Discipleship

Coherent Theological Vision

Cumulatively, these essays aptly illustrate TGC’s theological vision for discharging Christian ministry and interacting with our culture in biblical and theological faithfulness.

Carson responds to contemporary epistemological crises by affirming that truth corresponds to reality, to God, and to God’s revelation in Scripture. He commends and models careful biblical theology for the upbuilding of the church while expounding the centrality of the gospel and its implications for life and ministry. And Carson urges Christians to be countercultural while seeking the common good of those around us, appropriately contextualizing the gospel in the modern world while pursuing faithfulness and fruitfulness according to God’s standards rather than seeking greatness for ourselves.

Want an Older Woman to Mentor You? Try This. Fri, 06 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 If you’re a younger woman longing for a godly mentor, a good place to start is considering how you can be a good mentee.]]> Over my years serving in local church women’s ministry, I (Winfree) have heard a consistent desire from women of various ages, stages, and life situations—“I want an older woman to mentor me.” It’s a good desire and a model Paul commends in Titus 2:3–5. The difficulty tends to come in how these relationships practically work out.

As younger women, we tend to view mentoring as a one-way street. The older woman pours into me. I come to her with questions and burdens, and she responds with wisdom and prayer. If we’re honest, some of us approach older women like a godly, in-person Google search or an on-demand counselor. But this approach won’t only rob us of much of the beauty of sharing life with an older woman—it may also push her away.

Of course, it’s not bad to ask a mentor questions. When I have time with the older woman who has informally mentored me for years, you can be sure I take the opportunity to ask for advice. But I’ve learned as much (or more) over the years by asking her about her life as I have by asking her about mine. Mentoring relationships work best when we approach them as a shared responsibility—an opportunity to grow together.

How to Be a Mentee

That’s exactly how my mentor, Melissa Kruger, describes it in her book on the subject. If you’re a younger woman longing for this kind of relationship, a good place to start is considering how you can be a good mentee.

In the following excerpt from Growing Together: Taking Mentoring Beyond Small Talk and Prayer Requests, Melissa explains five ways a younger woman can actively participate in the mentoring relationship and honor the older woman who’s walking with her.

Mentoring relationships work best when we approach them as a shared responsibility—an opportunity to grow together.

1. Be faithful.

Whatever you’ve decided to study or read, be faithful to complete the assignments. Your mentor is offering you her time, energy, and care. You’ll only grow as much as you put into the relationship. Don’t skip the time with her because something more fun appears on your social calendar. Spiritual growth doesn’t just happen. As one of my mentors used to say, “You don’t drift toward holiness.” Choose to be faithful in this relationship, knowing it’s a blessing in your life. Be on time, show up, and be thankful.

2. Be active, not passive.

Be active, not passive, in the mentoring process. Don’t assume your mentor will always know exactly what you need. Think through what you’d like to ask her and bring questions to your time together. When you’re having a hard day, let her know and ask her to pray for you. When you’re faced with a difficult decision, ask her advice. Invite her into your life and listen to the wisdom she has to offer.

3. Be honest and humble.

You don’t have to hide your struggles from your mentor. Be honest. Confess when you’ve sinned and ask for help. When your mentor provides accountability and offers insight into sin patterns, listen with humility. It may be difficult to hear, but be willing to receive her advice and correction. Proverbs reminds us, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6). Her accountability is a kindness (even though it may be painful at times) and will help you grow together in godliness.

4. Be caring and understanding.

It’s important to find ways to care for and encourage the woman mentoring you. She’s facing struggles of her own. Even though her life may look orderly and together, she probably feels overwhelmed on many days. When you call to ask for help, make sure to ask her how she’s doing. When she’s having a difficult day, stop by with her favorite coffee or some flowers. Write her a note, letting her know how her words of advice have helped you. Be considerate and caring toward her, knowing she has her own defeats, struggles, insecurities, and hardships.

5. Be prayerful.

Your mentor needs your prayers just as you need hers. Each time you meet, ask her how you can pray for her. My intern asks me to share my rose, bud, and thorn from the past week or two. My rose is something good that’s happened, my bud is something I’m looking forward to, and my thorn is something difficult I’m facing. This simple activity has allowed me to share parts of my life with her that I might not have taken the time to share if she hadn’t asked. I’ve felt so cared for in our times together to know she’s praying for me in these areas.

When you call to ask for help, make sure to ask her how she’s doing.

As you meet with your mentor, I encourage you to continue to grow in every other way you can. You’ll be amazed at how the Lord will meet you as you hear the Word preached, share in communion, listen in Sunday school, spend time studying the Bible, and serve faithfully in your church. God will providentially arrange these various areas in surprising ways that will collectively help to grow your faith.

Why Christians Need Philosophy Thu, 05 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Bad philosophy isn’t hiding around the corner. It’s heralding its various gospels in the public square, and every person with Twitter or TikTok is a town crier.]]> Boethius (AD 480–524) was among the last of the Romans and the first of the medievals. As the classical world crumbled and barbarism took root, he took it upon himself to preserve as much of the classical tradition as possible. C. S. Lewis explains, “This was no time for stressing whatever divided [Boethius] from Virgil, Seneca, Plato, and the old Republican heroes.” Instead, “he preferred . . . to feel how nearly they had been right, to think of them not as ‘they’ but as ‘we.’”

Lewis saw himself as a “British Boethius,” according to one biographer. He participated in a heritage of ancient ideas while living on the cusp of a modern “dark ages” that discarded the great tradition of the past. With Boethius and Lewis, we must agree it’s not a time to stress what divides us from the classical philosophers. It’s time to resurrect old ideas buried by modernity. Here are four reasons why.

1. Bad philosophy must be answered.

Lewis said, “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” He was absolutely correct.

Today we’re in a metaphysical crisis (e.g., nominalism, naturalism, materialism), an anthropological crisis (e.g., denial of fetal personhood, LGBT+ movement), an epistemological crisis (e.g., relativism, conspiracy theories, fake news), an ethical crisis (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, puberty blockers, shootings), a political crisis (for examples, turn on the news), and a logical crisis, the fallacious root of our current catastrophes. Bad philosophy isn’t hiding around the corner. It’s heralding its various gospels in the public square, and every person with Twitter or TikTok is a town crier. Will we answer it?

It’s not a time to stress what divides us from the classical philosophers. It’s a time to resurrect old ideas buried by modernity.

Ancient and medieval philosophers asked foundational questions about all these topics as they searched for transcendent truth, goodness, and beauty. These transcendentals weren’t seen as subjective. There was no “your truth” versus “my truth.” No “good for you” versus “good for me.” Beauty wasn’t “in the eye of the beholder.” Rather, the true, the good, and the beautiful were seen as beyond us and unconstrained by the whims of human emotion and experience.

Even the ancient pagans believed this, which is why Lewis wondered if “we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity.” Christian philosophers have found the objective ideals pagan philosophers searched for, recognizing that God is the Transcendent One who’s immutably true, good, and beautiful.

2. Life itself must be answered.

The purpose of philosophy is to answer life’s most inescapable questions—not the theoretical “Would you rather . . . ?” but the most practical and fundamental questions about human existence and flourishing. Consider the questions asked by each division of philosophy:

  • Logic: What are life’s first principles (basic truths)? How do we reason with one another?
  • Metaphysics: What’s the true nature of the universe, and how does it work?
  • Anthropology: What’s human nature, and what are we becoming?
  • Epistemology: How do we know things?
  • Ethics: What’s the basis of morality, and how do we follow it?
  • Politics: How do we structure society and institutions in ways that promote human flourishing?

Our post-Christian world’s answers to these questions aren’t sufficient. Psychologists call Gen Z the most “depressed, anxious, and fragile generation” ever. Social media, COVID, and a hundred other factors may be at play, but it’s also true we can’t spoon-feed young people philosophical mush and expect them to live happy lives. Our culture misunderstands humanity’s nature and destiny, which can only be explained in light of the triune God.

3. Philosophy is for theology.

Theology is the queen of the sciences, and philosophy is her handmaiden. Because all truth is God’s truth, there’s perfect harmony between general and special revelation. John used the Greek concept logos (“Word”) to explain Jesus’s eternal existence (John 1:1), Paul cited pagan philosophers as common ground in evangelism (Acts 17:28), and Peter used categories from Hellenistic virtue ethics for Christian teaching (2 Pet. 1:5–6).

Bad philosophy isn’t hiding around the corner. It’s heralding its various gospels in the public square, and every person with Twitter or TikTok is a town crier.

Throughout church history, Christians have used concepts from Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy to make theological distinctions. This hasn’t occurred on a small scale but on a large scale and within Nicene orthodoxy and the theological traditions of both Augustine and Aquinas. These Christian thinkers didn’t do this without qualification. Rather, they revised and corrected earlier philosophical formulations with God’s Word.

As Herman Bavinck explains, “Theology is not in need of a specific philosophy. . . . But it brings along its own criteria, tests all philosophy by them, and takes over what it deems true and useful. What it needs is philosophy in general.”

4. Christianity is the true philosophy.

Christianity is more than philosophy, but it’s certainly not less. Our ancient Christian philosophy is the answer to bad philosophy. As Jonathan Pennington argues, the Bible, contrary to popular belief, is a book of ancient philosophy that provides answers to our most fundamental philosophical questions.

This isn’t a new discovery. It was obvious to many Christians throughout church history, especially some of the earliest church fathers like Justin Martyr. His love for Jesus didn’t contradict his love for wisdom. It was its basis. In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin declared, “I found [the Christian] philosophy alone to be safe and profitable. Thus, and for this reason, I am a philosopher.”

Christianity has always been the true philosophy. It alone can bring light to the modern dark ages.

Where Do We Find True Belonging? Thu, 05 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Research confirms that income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging for promoting sustained happiness in one’s life.]]> “You belong here.”

We find these words on the walls of fitness clubs, in social media groups, and throughout coworking spaces. From psychologists and therapists to retail store advertisers, everywhere we turn there are promises of belonging. Why has this need become a trending topic and marketing hook in our culture? We’re busy, lonely, and overwhelmed. Building and keeping relationships is much harder than it should be.

How can we find a place to belong in a culture like ours? What, if anything, does Scripture have to say about belonging? And how might Christian believers and churches cultivate places of belonging?

Core Human Need

Belonging is a core human need. Beyond food and shelter, nothing promotes human flourishing like having a people and a place. Research confirms that income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging for promoting sustained happiness in one’s life. We long to belong. And we need a belonging deeper than what the world can offer. True belonging means being fully known and fully loved by God and one another.

True belonging means being fully known and fully loved by God and one another.

About seven years ago, I had lunch with a church member, and he mentioned that his previous graduate research (in education theory) was focused on belonging. I admitted I had no idea what that meant. He explained that throughout the 20th century, the reigning psychological hypothesis stated that individuals were most fully satisfied when they had a high sense of self-esteem—when individuals believed in and thought highly of themselves. But later research came to a startling conclusion: self-esteem had little to no positive effect on individuals’ lives, and for many it had a negative effect.

That led researchers to ask, If not self-esteem, then what single quality is most identified with satisfaction and well-being? In 1995, social psychologist Roy Baumeister published a substantial article that demonstrated the healthiest, most satisfied individuals in life are those who have a place to belong. Our deepest satisfaction comes not from achieving personal autonomy but through acceptance into unconditional love and an unbreakable connection to a people.

As Christians, we don’t find this surprising. The Bible shows us that we’ve been created in the image of a relational God, that belonging is a significant blessing of life in the family of God, and that even our best human relationships remind us of our ultimate relationship—communion with God.

Belonging in Biblical History

Belonging has deep roots in the biblical story and Christian theology: we belong to God and his family through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Bible invites us into something far deeper than mere religious belief. God’s grand story shows us he created us to know him, worship him, and dwell with him forever. Yet our sin severed this relationship. In the garden of Eden, Adam and Eve’s sin caused a break in the most beautiful relationship, and they were removed from God’s immediate presence. But even then, a promise was given: You are my people, and I will bring you back to me (see Gen. 3:1–24).

Many years later, God spoke to Abraham and promised to make him a great people. Though Abraham had no children and no idea where God was leading him, he received another promise: You will be my people, and I will be your God (see Gen. 12:1–3 and 15:1–6).

Income level, marriage and children, and perceived security all pale in comparison to belonging for promoting sustained happiness in one’s life.

Still later, God’s beloved people were enslaved in Egypt by a brutal oppressor. Again, God spoke a promise of blessing: I am your God, and I will set you free to worship and dwell with me (see Ex. 3:1–15).

Centuries later still, David and Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem, and God filled it powerfully with his presence. For Israel, this was a new phase of God’s promise being fulfilled: I am your God, and you are my treasured people (see 2 Chron. 7:1–22).

Across the Old Testament, God remained with his people, and they belonged to him—but something more was needed. God’s people couldn’t keep his laws and couldn’t save themselves.

Belonging to Jesus

In sending his Son, God made a way for us to dwell with him forever. Jesus, the eternal Son of God, took on flesh and entered our darkness, loneliness, and hopelessness. He kept the law perfectly—thus fulfilling its righteous requirement. Throughout his earthly life, Jesus honored the Father and ministered to the poor and needy in the power and compassion of the Spirit. Yet his ultimate mission was to bear the penalty for our sins in dying on the cross. He lived the life we couldn’t live and died the death we deserved to die. Most of all, Jesus suffered the worst possible loss: he bore the full wrath of God, forsaken according to his Father’s plan (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34).

Then, on the third day, the sun rose, the darkness fled, and the Son of God walked out of the grave. Jesus appeared to his disciples and friends; he shared a meal with them and promised to always be with them. The mission was complete. He came to set the captives free, to form a new family, to atone for our sins, and to make a way for us to return to God. Jesus then ascended to heaven and gave his Holy Spirit to his followers. They were now full of his presence and would never be alone again.

We who believe in Christ and turn from our sins are welcomed with open arms by the Father and filled with the Holy Spirit. Jesus suffered the greatest pain—being forsaken by the Father—so we’d never have to. He was thrust into darkness so we could walk in the light. Jesus was forsaken so we could be included. He suffered profound loneliness so we could belong forever.

Belonging to the Church

Now all the children of God belong to his family forever (John 8:35).

We who believe in Christ and turn from our sins are welcomed with open arms by the Father.

In Christ, we form one body, and every member belongs to all the others (Rom. 12:5). We do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers (Gal. 6:10). We cannot stop belonging to the body (1 Cor. 12:15–16). At the end of time, we’ll be among the diverse multitude in the ultimate and eternal place of belonging—the holy city (Rev. 21–22).

This is the Scripture’s message of true belonging: we belong to God, not to ourselves or the world. Belonging to God means we find our place with this family, the church.

Daily Prayer Makes Sense of Reality Wed, 04 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 If we’re to receive God’s good world as the gift it is, our days must be filled with thanksgiving.]]> The best things in life don’t come by grasping at them. They come as gifts. Restful sleep, a lifelong friendship, a good reputation, influence—when we aim directly at such things, they often elude our grasp, or we end up with parodies (or worse).

You cannot make yourself fall asleep. It’s a gift (Ps. 127:2). That said, you can take up fitting postures and practices for sleep. Counting sheep doesn’t produce sleep, but it does redirect our energies away from trying to fall asleep. It’s a humble preparation for the gift of sleep, which comes at us slant. So when my kids are frustrated with sleeplessness, I often tell them to get counting, though this usually doesn’t lessen their frustration in the moment.

A similar situation arises in pastoring. As a pastor, one of my first tasks is to encourage God’s people to begin and end their days with prayer. For many, this seems a weak-sauce, unsatisfactory strategy. Surely counseling sessions, a conference, or even a prayer retreat will provide a more immediate, purchasable way to joy. But morning and evening prayer? Yes, it’s important, but it seems impotent to produce the joy we crave.

That’s the point. Daily prayer isn’t a spiritual technique to make life better. When we ask the Lord for his provision at the beginning of each day and thank him for his mercies at its end, we wind up with the surprise of joy. In 1 Timothy 4, Paul gives us a window into why.

Read the World Aright

False teachers troubled the first-century Ephesian church, forbidding marriage and demanding abstinence from certain foods (1 Tim. 4:2–3). Paul’s response was clear, concise, and emphatic: “Everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (vv. 4–5).

The best things in life don’t come by grasping at them. They come as gifts.

This passage reveals that when it comes to thinking theologically about creation, we can fall off the horse on two sides. Like the false teachers in Ephesus, we can deny creational goodness, thinking embodied experiences like marital sex or eating food only distract and defile. Or, like many modern spiritualities, we can divinize the creation, believing the way to affirm creation’s goodness is to posit bits of divine essence or saving grace “in” it.

Actually, there’s a third common mistake. We can treat the stuff of creation as neutral and meaningless, occasions for ungrateful pleasure or fuel for our personal agendas. Thankfully, God’s world is not dirty, divine, or meaningless. It’s “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God intends for the physical world to come to a sacred fulfillment, for it to be “made holy” through word and prayer (1 Tim. 4:5).

For creation to be set apart for its divinely intended fulfillment, we need God’s Word to reveal its purpose. Scripture is like prescription glasses that put reality into focus. It helps us to rightly see everything God made. But God doesn’t just mean for us to “read” the world as his very good creation—he also wants us to receive it as a gift from his hand.

Receive the World with Thanksgiving

When you think of prayer, you’re probably more prone to think of supplication than gratitude. But if we’re to receive God’s good world as the gift it is, our days must be filled “with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4, emphatically repeated from v. 3). This is vital. As Matthew Myer Boulton notes, “Part of gracefully receiving a gift is receiving it gratefully; indeed, to a significant extent, gratitude constitutes the reception itself, since if no gratitude arises, we may well ask whether the gift was received as a ‘gift’ at all.”

If I give my children a new toy, and they snatch it away and run off with nary a “thank you,” they don’t receive my goodness as a gift but, in Boulton’s words, “as plunder, windfall, or merchandise.” Or they see it as an inalienable right, not a gift. My gift’s full realization, its consecration and reception as a gift, is inseparable from their giving thanks.

If we’re to receive God’s good world as the gift it is, our days must be filled with thanksgiving.

It’s the same with sex and marriage, and eating bread, and life and breath and everything. The wonderful divine Giver gives all these things, good in themselves. And he gives them constantly. Every day is filled with new mercies. So at every day’s end, we can and ought to raise prayers of thanksgiving to consecrate the abundance of gifts we’ve received.

But we can say more. It’s not only possible to give thanks at bedtime; we can also raise supplications in the morning. When we do, the evening thanksgiving is multiplied—indeed, transformed.

Realize the World’s True and Wondrous Joy

Suppose we pray in the morning, “Give us today our daily bread,” and then break bread in the ensuing day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. At the day’s end, we can give thanks for much more than the gift of bread, which is itself no small thing. More astoundingly, we can also give God thanks for listening to and answering our morning prayer. We can come to know God’s character and heart more truly: he’s not only a generous Giver but also an attentive, responsive Father who listens to our prayers in Jesus’s name. He is ever present for our life and good, and he loves us with an astounding generosity, kindness, and constancy we don’t deserve.

We’re inclined to think of God as only distantly related to everyday life. We may admit he’s ultimately responsible for marriage, bread, and breath as their first cause. But in our functional thoughts, God is no more practically and personally near to us and reality than a watchmaker is to the ticking watch he made. However “natural” it may seem to think God is absent from marriage, food, and all our material, temporal life, this is a false, anxiety-producing, and joy-sapping perception.

As people forgiven of sin through Christ’s blood, renewed in our perceptions by God’s Word, and impelled by the Spirit to pray, we can live otherwise. Through our morning and evening prayers, our anxieties may be put to rest and joy come to us as the surprising gift it is. In the end, joy is realized not through getting things we pray for but through prayerful resting in the Father’s constant presence, attention, and love in Christ.

8 Things Parents Should Do When Kids Want to Transition Their Gender Wed, 04 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 To care for a child who experiences gender dysphoria, we must have clear convictions. We must guide daughters and sons toward alignment with God’s creational and redemptive designs.]]> My experience walking with families touched by gender dysphoria has shown me how painful it can be for parents and siblings. When a mother suddenly learns her 13-year-old daughter identifies as a boy and wants to transition, hard questions follow: Is this a passing phase or something deeper? Is it ethical, even possible, for my child to change genders? Is the science behind this trustworthy? How did this happen? What do I do?

How should parents respond when their child exclaims “You’re choosing your religion over me” or “If you don’t let me transition, I’ll kill myself”?

Moments like these require discernment, a biblical posture and convictions, and an intentional discipleship plan. What does this look like practically? Here are eight encouragements for parents to keep in mind.

1. Show compassion.

When he encountered the sick, confused, and weary, Jesus acted with compassion (Matt. 11:28–30; Mark 1:41; 6:34). So must we. Rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide are alarmingly high among trans* youth—those whose gender identity doesn’t align with their biological sex. Whatever the causes, it’s clear people who experience gender dysphoria are hurting. They may feel out of place in their own skin or experience bullying at school.

Engaging a loved one or friend in such a state begins with listening, sympathy, and acknowledging that sharing about this experience took courage. Christian parents should pray with a child going through this, helping the child to invite Jesus into his or her struggle.

2. Ask what else is going on.

For adolescents, questions about gender don’t arise in a vacuum. Being a teenager has always been hard. Alongside the pressures of typical adolescent development, today’s teens face the social and cultural pressures of growing up in a digital and hypersexualized age that obsesses over identity. For this reason, it’s wise and necessary when caring for an adolescent (or adult) who identifies as trans* to consider co-occurring conditions like anxiety or depression before having any conversations about transitioning.

As Mark Yarhouse and Julia Sadusky write, “We almost always recommend treating co-occurring concerns first. We do not want a person making weighty decisions about gender dysphoria out of a state of significant depression.” By first helping friends or loved ones address other factors that affect their mental health—anxiety or depression, difficulty with peers, or a negative body image—you may help them to grow more comfortable with their biological sex.

3. Don’t be anxious if your child’s interests aren’t stereotypical.

Parents of young children shouldn’t anxiously think a son or daughter is struggling with gender dysphoria simply because the child doesn’t conform to typical gender norms. After all, many modern ideals about masculinity and femininity are more cultural stereotypes than biblical truths. Stereotypes can create unnecessary confusion and pressure for children as they grow up.

Moments like these require discernment, a biblical posture and convictions, and an intentional discipleship plan.

The Bible offers contours for gender expression—especially in relation to sex and marriage—but says less than we might think about male and female preferences. Scripture doesn’t say men must like sports and hunting or be unemotional. Nor does the Bible tell us little girls must wear pink, enjoy dolls, and avoid rough-and-tumble play. If a girl likes karate, excels in math, and prefers short hair, this doesn’t mean she’s a boy. And if a boy likes dance, excels in art, and grows his hair out, this doesn’t mean he’s a girl.

Sadly, gender dysphoria can, at times, be caused or increased by evaluating oneself—or being evaluated by others—according to caricatures. Some of the distress associated with gender dysphoria isn’t inherent to the condition but reflects social rejection. For example, if a boy feels rejected by his peers for not enjoying stereotypical boy games, he might mistake that distress for gender dysphoria.

4. Get help if gender confusion persists.

Studies show it’s not uncommon for a young child periodically to express the desire to be the opposite sex, but in most cases, this desire wanes with age. But what if your child’s gender confusion continues into puberty and shows no signs of abating? If this is the case, your child may have a clinical case of gender dysphoria.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), gender dysphoria affects only a sliver of the population, less than 0.01 percent (or fewer than one in 10,000 people), and historically it has predominately affected males in early childhood.

In terms of clinical assessment, the American Psychiatric Association states that a child must meet six of these eight criteria for a minimum of six months to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria:

1. A strong desire to be of the other gender or an insistence that one is the other gender

2. A strong preference for wearing clothes typical of the opposite gender

3. A strong preference for cross-gender roles in make-believe play or fantasy play

4. A strong preference for the toys, games, or activities stereotypically used or engaged in by the other gender

5. A strong preference for playmates of the other gender

6. A strong rejection of toys, games, and activities typical of one’s assigned gender

7. A strong dislike of one’s sexual anatomy

8. A strong desire for the physical sex characteristics that match one’s experienced gender

Someone living with insistent, persistent, and consistent gender dysphoria will likely experience great pain. Believing parents can help their children pursue what will help them manage: being involved in a strong Christian community, cultivating loving Christian friendships, and perhaps seeking Christian therapy or finding medical means to treat depression and anxiety.

5. Establish clear boundaries.

To care for a child who experiences gender dysphoria, we must have clear convictions. We must guide daughters and sons toward alignment with God’s creational and redemptive designs. Parents must frame their care for a child who wants to transition with biblical truth. Guidance that cuts against the grain of creation or moves away from the arc of redemption may seem palliative in the moment, but it will only increase pain in the long run.

An adolescent who comes out as trans* will often express urgency about beginning a transition. Some teens, like a helicopter, want to reach altitude with their transitioning straightaway. Meanwhile, cautious parents are like an airplane on the tarmac, wanting to taxi for a while. But when it comes to gender, the individual isn’t in the pilot seat; we’re all passengers. Because gender transitioning doesn’t cohere with God’s creational and redemptive designs, a Christian cannot affirm it.

This doesn’t mean we can’t respect or interact with coworkers and friends who are trans*. But when it comes to our spheres of responsibility—our bodies and the bodies of our under-18 children—we cannot support treatments that so drastically deny God’s work.

We must guide daughters and sons toward alignment with God’s creational and redemptive designs.

Christian parents must also be leery of soft transitioning, like cross-dressing and changing names or pronouns. Because we live in a pluralistic world, there will be situations when it’s necessary, for civility’s sake, to call someone by his or her preferred name. But within a Christian home, parents shouldn’t support soft transitioning. A study conducted on children in the Netherlands found soft social transitioning makes it less likely a child will outgrow gender dysphoria. Using your child’s preferred pronouns may feel low-risk, but doing so dishonors the Creator and has documented long-term effects.

6. Don’t give away your authority.

Refusing to compromise on convictions and boundaries will put Christian parents in difficult situations. Some in our culture will judge an uncompromising response as a form of rejecting one’s child. There are even those who would like to see unbending parents charged with child abuse. Amid such pressure, Christian parents must bear in mind their tremendous calling.

The Bible commends the wisdom and leadership of godly parents (Ex. 20:12; Prov. 1:8–9; Eph. 6:1). A child’s emotions shouldn’t be her North Star. God and his Word must be. It’s easy for parents today to think their job is to ensure their children always find happiness. But adolescence is an inherently tumultuous stage. A parent’s role is to set healthy boundaries and limits. You mustn’t relinquish your responsibility and authority, even if cultural pressures undermine it. Your role is to aim your child toward holiness, not painlessness—eternal joy, not immediate gratification. In this responsibility, your no is as important as your yes. Do all you can to stay in close relationship with your child, but don’t neglect your biblical call to lead.

7. Guard against negative cultural influences.

Most cases of gender dysphoria today aren’t early onset diagnoses or along the lines of the DSM-5. Rather, they’re part of a phenomenon called rapid-onset gender dysphoria, and many worry that the recent spike in cases is more the result of social pressure than actual struggles with gender identity.

In her study of teens who came out as trans*, Lisa Littman noted two patterns among females: (1) most adolescent girls discovered transgender ideas “out of the blue” after a period of social media saturation, and (2) “the prevalence of transgender identification within some of the girls’ friend groups was more than seventy times the expected rate.” Littman concluded that the increase owed to “social contagion.” Gender dysphoria had spread in the same way fads and rumors do, because of the social incentives gained by identifying as trans*.

What should parents do if they believe their teenage child’s sudden gender confusion stems more from social pressures and challenges common to adolescents than from an underlying condition? They must find the big cultural influences and intervene. Many parents have found their child’s gender dysphoria dissipated when they took him or her out of public school and off social media.

What should parents do if they believe their child’s gender confusion stems from social pressures? They must find the big cultural influences and intervene.

While public education can be a great blessing, public schools increasingly discriminate against traditional and religious views of sexuality and gender. Some affirm and even aid youth in transitioning, at times without parental consent. Parents must be vigilant in understanding what their children are taught in school and what policies local school systems have that may influence their children negatively. Don’t hesitate to pull your children out of a school and place them into a different educational environment if you believe doing so will guard them from negative influences—whether from teachers or peers.

Social media also plays a large part in the social contagion that surrounds rapid-onset gender dysphoria. This shouldn’t surprise us. Social media exposes youth to the perpetual gaze and judgment of peers and other potentially negative influences. The pursuit of “likes” on platforms such as Instagram can exacerbate the pressure felt by teens who may already be insecure about their changing bodies. Parents must count the cost before getting their teen a smartphone, and they shouldn’t hesitate to remove access to a smartphone as a first defense against negative cultural influences when any concerns arise.

8. Celebrate the beauty and goodness of gendered bodies.

The beauty of gender difference adorns God’s world. We need to help the next generation see and honor it. As a pastor, I have the joy of seeing couples meet, marry, and have children. The fruit of their union reminds us that only a biological male and a biological female can produce life. “People often present the sex binary as oppressive,” Rebecca McLaughlin writes. “But at its very heart, the male-female binary is creative.”

In appropriate ways, parents must teach and remind their children that the complementarity of the two-gendered world—the dance of male and female—is the creative source that stands behind each one of us. By God’s design, every human being owes his or her existence to one man and one woman.

Another place the beauty of gender shows up is in church worship. In my church, when songs have parts for men and women, the guys can’t help but sing a little louder when it’s their turn. They send a low rumble through the pews. When the women have their go, it’s as if a bright and gentle joy enfolds the congregation. When all the voices finally sing together, one hears, even feels, the truth and goodness of our gendered world. Surely this will be an enduring display of our maleness and femaleness as we worship the Lamb in heaven (Rev. 5:9; 14:3; 15:3).

Christians must point out this beauty to the next generation whenever we experience it. We must celebrate the goodness of God’s design—that we are our bodies; that our gendered bodies are temples for the Holy Spirit, made to glorify God (1 Cor. 6:19–20); and that this is anything but restrictive. It’s beautiful.

*Note: In this article and the book from which it’s excerpted, I use terms like “biological sex,” “gender identity,” and “trans*” with contemporary usage in mind, but I also probe how current definitions and understandings do or do not square with biblical teaching.

How the Doctrine of Justification Leads to a Spirit-Filled Church Culture Tue, 03 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Our mentality of blind self-justification makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians endlessly relevant.]]> I (Sam) ran into a long-standing church member at the store. We had one short conversation, but it was emblematic of a much wider concern. She’d been going through a bit of a crisis, and we hadn’t seen her at church for a few weeks. So when I ran into her, I told her how much we’d missed her and how lovely it would be to see her in church again. She told me she couldn’t come until she was doing better. She didn’t want people to see her while she was feeling life’s mess: “I’m waiting until the storm passes and I’ve got things back together enough to be able to walk back into the church building.”

Those words were heartbreaking. Church should be the place we sprint to when things are at their worst, not the place we avoid until we’ve got our Instagram-worthy Christianity back in place.

I saw right away that this church member’s perspective was unhealthy. But I sensed something else was wrong too. There was a mismatch between the beauty of the truth my church proclaimed and the culture we’d cultivated. Our community had begun to embody the social dynamics of self-justification more than the social dynamics of grace-justification.

In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul presses the gospel forward at two levels: in doctrine and culture. Three theological convictions we see in the epistle make this clear.

1. We’re justified not by the law but through faith in Jesus (Gal. 2:16).

The Thirty-nine Articles summarize Paul’s doctrine clearly: “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings. Wherefore, that we are justified by Faith only, is a most wholesome Doctrine, and very full of comfort.”

We’re never justified by our own efforts. Rather, our justification is objectively exterior. It’s out there in Someone Else, namely Jesus Christ. This is for our joy, as John Bunyan reminds us in his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

Paul presses the gospel forward at two levels: in doctrine and culture.

One day as I was passing into the field, and that too with some dashes on my conscience, fearing lest all was still not right, suddenly this sentence fell upon my soul, “Thy righteousness is in heaven.” And I thought I saw, with the eyes of my soul, Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my righteousness; so that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say of me, “He lacks my righteousness,” for that [my righteousness] was right before Him. . . . Here therefore I lived, for some time, very sweetly at peace with God through Christ. Oh, I thought, Christ! Christ! There was nothing but Christ before my eyes.

2. Self-justification is the deepest impulse in the fallen human heart.

Paul wrote, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? . . . Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:1, 3). You might sincerely agree with the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. But deep in our hearts, it isn’t that simple, is it? We deeply desire to save ourselves. Legalism is our native tongue. At the same time, our sin includes a hidden filter blocking out clarity about our sin.

Martyn Lloyd-Jones describes our lack of self-awareness:

You will never make yourself feel that you are a sinner, because there is a mechanism in you as a result of sin that will always be defending you against every accusation. We are all on very good terms with ourselves, and we can always put up a good case for ourselves. Even if we try to make ourselves feel that we are sinners, we will never do it. There is only one way to know that we are sinners, and that is to have some dim, glimmering conception of God.

Our mentality of blind self-justification makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians endlessly relevant. Justification by our own righteousness isn’t only a Galatian problem or a Roman Catholic problem; it’s a universal human problem. It’s our problem. You and I are always, at best, an inch away from its dark powers. It’s possible to preach and defend the doctrine of justification by grace alone but to do so with self-justifying motives—and to do so with its bitter fruit in our churches.

3. When it’s truly believed, gospel doctrine creates gospel culture.

Paul encourages the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. . . . [For] the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (Gal. 5:16, 22–23).

When the gospel is clearly taught and the people of a church believe it deeply, it does more than renew us personally. The doctrine of grace creates a culture of grace. The gospel is both articulated at the obvious level of doctrine and embodied at the subtle level of vibe, ethos, feel, relationships, and community. People are honest in confession, bear one another’s burdens, and seek to outdo one another in showing honor.

Our mentality of blind self-justification makes Paul’s letter to the Galatians endlessly relevant.

Our self-justifying impulses make keeping both gospel doctrine and gospel culture in a church difficult, but it’s worth fighting for. Paul wouldn’t be satisfied if the churches to which he wrote merely reasserted the Bible’s doctrine of justification by faith alone in their creeds; he expected them to establish a church culture consistent with that doctrine. We must aim for the same. The more clearly the doctrine is taught, and the more beautifully a Spirit-filled culture is nurtured, the more powerfully a church will bear prophetic witness to Jesus as the mighty Friend of sinners.

Does God Care About Gender Identity? Tue, 03 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Collin Hansen and Sam Ferguson discuss everything from parents to pronouns to the distressing experience of gender dysphoria.]]> It’s been dubbed the “Gender Revolution.” If you’re reading from anywhere in the West, you see it all around. Gender identity has been disconnected from biology. What you feel about your body matters more than what you can see and touch. Children who are encouraged to believe they were born into the wrong-gendered body now expect and even demand support from parents and other authorities as they seek life-altering drugs and surgeries to “confirm” the gender with which they identify.

For almost a decade, I’ve fielded questions from concerned parents, friends, and pastors about this Gender Revolution. That’s why I’m glad Samuel Ferguson has written the booklet Does God Care About Gender Identity?, one of the first in a new series from The Gospel Coalition and Crossway called Hard Questions. The other new titles are Why Do We Feel Lonely at Church? by Jeremy Linneman and Is Christianity Good for the World? by Sharon James. You can buy these short books in bulk for your church at just $7.99 apiece right now on Amazon. But you’ll get the best deal at the TGC Store, where you can purchase three copies for the price of two. 

Samuel Ferguson has been the rector of The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, Virginia, since 2019. I first saw him writing on gender dysphoria in a 2015 book review for TGC. He earned his PhD in biblical anthropology from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He also contributed to our 2022 article “Transformation of a Transgender Teen” by Sarah Zylstra. Ferguson joined me on Gospelbound to discuss this cultural revolution and address everything from parents to pronouns to the distressing experience of gender dysphoria. 

I Left New Age for Jesus Tue, 03 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 For more than 10 years, I was entrenched in mysticism and self-discovery, always yearning for more. Then I met Christ.]]> For more than 10 years, I was entrenched in mysticism and self-discovery.

I practiced witchcraft and performed spells. I became an oracle-card reader and enrolled in classes to sharpen my psychic abilities. I was a certified Reiki master and yoga teacher. I used crystals as a means of healing, protecting, and manifesting. I believed in astrology, manifesting under a new moon and cleansing and recharging my energy under the full moon. I worshiped nature and worked with goddesses. I found my spirit guides and let them lead the course of my life. I’d talk to “Spirit/Source/Universe” and believed I was speaking to my “higher self.” I believed I created my own reality and I was my own god, in control of my life. I thought I finally knew my purpose—to heal the collective, raise the vibration of the planet, and help others heal and do the same.

But behind it all, I grappled with darkness, deception, and a yearning for more.

Still, I became trapped in a cycle of healing and “upleveling,” constantly seeking the next healing session in various forms. Though each experience brought fleeting relief, when the feelings faded I still wasn’t satisfied. I believed my next crisis was just leveling me up and raising my vibration and cracking some secret code to the harmony of the collective planet.

While believing all this, I was suffering and in a deep pit of depression. I longed to feel loved, heard, and understood. My soul lacked a sense of belonging. My body was in a constant state of fight or flight. Many days, I wished I wasn’t alive. I was being tormented, experiencing regular sleep paralysis. I thought I could burn a little sage, say a chant, and put crystals in every corner of my room to stop it.

Sincere and Sincerely Wrong

I was wrong about all of it. What I was actually doing was laying down a welcome mat for darkness and deception—and all that comes with it. The very practices I believed protected me and connected me to something divine were only pushing me further into darkness, further away from God.

I was laying down a welcome mat for darkness and deception—and all that comes with it.

I was oddly allergic to the G-word (God) during my time in the New Age. I almost unfriended a New Age colleague who’d recently come to Christ because she couldn’t stop talking about him. I was irritated by it. Angry. Repelled. I thought, What happened to her? Has she gone mad? I couldn’t wrap my head around her drastic transformation to Christianity.

I remember a vital moment in my resistance when I reluctantly watched a movie about Jesus to appease my then-boyfriend. My exact words: “Fine, I’ll watch it once if you stop asking me.”

That’s when I first experienced God’s grace, when he met me in my stubbornness. He met me in my sin and depression. I watched the movie about Jesus and sobbed hysterically. I was overcome by an intense feeling of love that poured over my entire being. Growing up in a broken home and being trapped in a cycle of toxic relationships as an adult, I’d never really felt love before. I knew this was the kind of love I was desperately seeking in all the wrong ways. That’s when I knew God was after my heart.

I tried to deny and ignore that experience, but I also wanted to feel that love again. So I chased after Jesus. I started reading the Bible. I’d never done that before, and God’s character was revealed to me. I prayed—a lot. I was resistant to attending church, but eventually, I bounced around to a few until I found a biblically sound church I loved. This is how I started a relationship with God.

Brand New

I’d never known what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. Now that I do, I’ll never let it go. Through him, the chains of my depression have been broken. I never experienced another sleep paralysis episode again. I’m not claiming that Christ solves all our problems—far from it—but I have a profound joy in the Lord that eclipses any fleeting happiness my previous New Age life offered. I’ve been freed by his Word, I’ve experienced the power of the Spirit and the love of the Father, and now I’m changed forever.

I’d never known what it meant to have a relationship with Jesus. Now that I do, I’ll never let it go.

New Agers often think there are multiple ways to God. You just have to find “your truth,” or perhaps you can access “Christ consciousness.” None of this is true. The truth is that there aren’t multiple ways to God—there’s one. His name is Jesus. He is the way, the truth, and the life; no one gets to the Father except through him (John 14:6).

Perhaps you think the same thing about me that I thought about my New Age colleague: She’s gone totally mad. I’m OK with that. I can finally say I know Jesus personally and nothing compares to the peace, hope, and love that comes from being in a right relationship with him. Friend, traveling down the New Age path only leads to deception. Pray for discernment in all you come across. Compare everything to Scripture.

There are only two spiritual powers in this world: God and Satan. Don’t let the Enemy trick you with his original lie in the garden of Eden—that you can be like God. No practice under the sun will make that statement true. There’s only one true God, and all glory goes to him.

My prayer is that this brief testimony plants a seed in your heart. If you feel convicted by my words, be open to the possibility that God is chasing after you too.

Introducing ‘You’re Not Crazy’ Season 3 Mon, 02 Oct 2023 04:04:14 +0000 ‘You’re Not Crazy’ returns for a third season in which Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry focus on the book of 2 Timothy.]]> Our podcast You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Young Pastors, hosted by Sam Allberry and Ray Ortlund, is returning for a third season to focus on the book of 2 Timothy. Over 10 episodes, Ortlund and Allberry encourage pastors and ministry leaders through discussions on the essential elements of pastoral ministry, how to live unashamed of the gospel, the importance of a gentle spirit in the age of contention, and more.

Tune in to You’re Not Crazy season 3, starting on Monday, October 9. If you’re a pastor or ministry leader who feels overwhelmed and in need of the refreshment of gospel hope, Ortlund and Allberry invite you to listen and be reminded you’re not crazy.

Editor’s Pick: New Picture Books (Fall 2023) Mon, 02 Oct 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Equip your children—and yourself—for the quest of the Christian life with these beautiful new picture books.]]> In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the brothers is a young monk who quits his formal education because he thinks he’s ready for “immediate action.” Dostoyevsky, the author, notes that young men like him “unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study” would “multiply ten-fold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal.”

As Christians, we’re each on a type of quest to serve the truth by following God as he leads us. While quests often include grand adventures, they also involve tedious trudges (like the midgewater swamp in Lord of the Rings or that cold trek across the giants’ ruins in The Silver Chair).

Indeed, as Chesterton reminds us, “An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered.” Those of us in school are putting the time into training now, persevering through the difficult bits by rightly reckoning them part of the adventure—all to glorify and enjoy the Lord where he’s placed us while multiplying our ability to serve him wherever he leads in the future.

As we embark on the next part of our quests, here are some new educational—and lovely—picture books to bring on the journey.

1. Lucy and the Saturday Surprise by Melissa Kruger, illustrated by Samara Hardy (Crossway/TGC)

In the newest release from TGC Kids, Lucy and her brother each get to pick out a candy from the store, but Lucy quickly regrets her decision when her brother’s giant lollipop lasts much longer than her piece of chocolate. Lucy sinks to envy and then works through the consequences with the gentle help of her family.

The book points out that sin often follows a pattern portrayed in the Bible and lived out over and over again in our everyday lives: see, covet, take, hide. Lucy’s identification of this pattern helps children (and adults) to recognize temptation and to seek repentance, rather than getting trapped in cycles of sin, deception, and shame.

If all that sounds like a heavy topic, it’s lightly told in a sweet and relatable manner, with bright illustrations and a happy, forgiving family helping each other in a way that ends with joy and unity.

2. God, You Are: 20 Promises from the Psalms for Kids by William R. Osborne, illustrated by Brad Woodard (Crossway)

In the introduction to this book, William Osborne writes about how grateful he is for the gift of bedtime prayers with his children. He designed God, You Are as a series of readings to help parents seize a few quiet moments amid their busy lives. Each reading focuses on simple statements from the Psalms about God’s character, such as “God, You Are Righteous,” “God, You Are a Shepherd,” and “God, You Are My Refuge.”

Reading God, You Are made me realize how particularly well suited the psalms are for teaching children about God’s character. So much of the poetic imagery works by taking abstract concepts, like God’s omnipotence, and providing sensory, poetic metaphors (a shield, a king, a fortress) that give a tiny taste of who God is. The psalms’ poetry lends itself well to concrete illustrations to teach kids the Scriptures, God’s character, and how they can interact with both.

3. Your Brave Song by Ann Voskamp, illustrated by Amy Grimes (Tyndale Kids)

A little girl named Una Rayne leaves her house one foggy day to go to a place full of unknowns, where she struggles to fit in with new kids. Her mother has armed her with a song for the journey: “Jesus loves you, makes you strong. In Him you’re brave and you belong.” The song gives her the courage to try new things and make friends.

I appreciated that the book doesn’t simply end with a happy resolution. Instead, Una goes to bed glad she made friends but also thinking about how there’ll be hard days ahead. She reminds herself, “On those days, there was a bigger song within her that was louder than any lies, a song that was stronger than any sadness.” And when she looks out her window, she finds the fog has cleared.

Your Brave Song isn’t a sad book. It depicts joyous children in lovely outdoor settings. But it wisely leaves room for sadness while pointing its readers to the truth.

4. God Speaks to Me by Kristen Wetherell, illustrated by Grace Habib (Crossway)

God Speaks to Me is part of a new series of board books for toddlers by Kristen Wetherell that includes God Hears Me and God Cares for Me. Each book is deceptively simple, with a few sturdy pages full of brightly colored illustrations of kids and animals—and probably fewer words than it takes to write this review. But they pack in a surprising depth of practical, thoughtful theology.

For instance, God Speaks to Me begins with Jesus speaking through the glory of creation: “Yes, Jesus speaks without a word through every tree and sky and bird!” The center of the book focuses on the goodness of God speaking clearly through his Word and describes how his words are honey sweet, a lamp to guide us, a sword, a rock. Then it points to Jesus being the Word, “the truth about God’s grace,” and the way we can be saved.

You can introduce your toddler to the basics of divine revelation with practical applications in fewer than 300 rhyming words. For readers who want to dig deeper, the last pages provide “A Note to Parents” with more ideas to teach and engage kids with the scriptural concept of God speaking.

5. The Things God Made: Exploring God’s Creation Through the Bible, Science, and Art written and illustrated by Andy McGuire (Zonderkidz)

Andy McGuire provided illustrations for both The Ology by Marty Machowski and The World Book Student Encyclopedia. That experience is on full display in The Things God Made. The book tells the story of creation, weaving the biblical account with intricate illustrations and scientific facts. Most pages include boxes of information related to the story, like the reason plants look green, the definition of bioluminescence, and why Canada geese fly in a V formation.

The author includes notes in the back of the book about his attempt to “be faithful to Scripture and interpret it with humility,” while recognizing others may interpret the same things differently. He writes about the challenge and ambiguity of drawing something formless, for example, or of visualizing God making “the raw materials of the universe.” In general, though, the book manages to walk the solid line of known truth between the mysteries of Scripture on one side and the mysteries of science on the other, without too much speculation in between.

The illustrations are some of the most beautiful and detailed I’ve seen in any new book, from Christian or secular publishers. My own children found it highly engaging, and their questions about some of the pictures and text led to insightful discussions.

John Newton: Parent with Intention, Grace, and Confidence in God Mon, 02 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 John Newton: ‘I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command.’]]> John Newton’s mother spent the first six years of his life, and the last six of her own, teaching her son in the ways of the Lord. But after her death, Newton’s life changed drastically. He was treated harshly, first by his stepmother and then by the headmaster at his boarding school.

Soon, Newton ran away to become a sailor and dove headfirst into a life of sin, before turning to the Lord at age 22. John married two years later, and within five years, he became a pastor. John and his wife, Polly, were unable to have children. But in 1774, after almost 25 years of marriage, they adopted 5-year-old Betsy, one of Polly’s nieces who had been orphaned. Nine years later, they adopted another of Polly’s orphaned nieces, 12-year-old Eliza. When Betsy joined the family, Newton was almost 50; when Eliza entered, he was nearly 60.

Until recently, most of Newton’s writings on parenting were inaccessible, but now Marylynn Rouse has collected them as part of a year-long devotional. As I’ve worked through these writings, Newton’s unique parenting perspective has encouraged me. It was sown by his mother’s influence in his early years, shaped by amazing grace, and forged in the maturity of middle age.

Here are six intentional principles Newton taught Christian parents preparing to launch their children.

1. Set a good example for your children.

Integrity is the oil that allows the rest of the parenting engine to run. Some parents think loving their children means protecting them from harm. But embodying before your children what you expect from them is one of the highest forms of parental love, and it protects them from great harm. Newton said, “Many poor children are forced to blush every day for the behavior of their parents. If you love them, be careful of laying stumbling blocks in their way.”

2. Talk frequently with your children.

Newton encourages parents to train their children in God’s truth, but he wrote, “I mean more by this than to teach them a catechism by rote as you would teach a parrot. They should be conversed with, and every occasion laid hold of, to explain and make them know that God sees and hears them and that this God is only to be known and worshipped in Jesus.”

Newton said parents should leverage their children’s natural curiosity, and he used this approach with Betsy:

When you read our Savior’s discourses, recorded by the evangelists, attend as if you saw him with your own eyes, standing before you; and when you try to pray, assure yourself before you begin, that he is actually in the room with you, and that his ear is open to every word you say. . . . You are not speaking into the air, or to the One who is a great way off; but to One who is very near you—to your best Friend.

3. Lead your children to practice the means of grace.

Newton reminded parents to bring their children to church. “I am afraid many parents have much to answer for in this point,” he wrote. “But almost all the evils and abominations to which youth are in time addicted enter at this door.”

He urged parents to seek the Lord’s grace alongside their children through prayer: “If you would have obedient children and . . . the peace of God in your dwellings, live not without family prayer. The flesh will plead excuses, the devil will help to furnish them, but it is your duty and will be your honour and your blessing.”

4. Work to restrain seeds of evil.

Newton knew the sinfulness of his own heart, even as a child, and he was realistic about what parental discipline can do to renew and transform a child’s heart. He wrote, “Even when we are young, . . . we find it difficult to learn what is good; but that which is evil and wicked is so well suited to our inclinations, that we can learn it quickly.”

But Newton knew that gardens untended in the spring will be overgrown in the autumn: “No care can change the heart, but the Lord works by means—and these evils may be restrained. . . . Be resolute in repressing them for, and restraining them from, things that are plainly sinful.”

5. Don’t discourage your children.

When correcting children, aggression and hypervigilance aren’t the answer. Newton said, “Consider they are but children, therefore especially while they are unawakened [to the Lord], lay not too much upon them. Some good people have wearied their children by expecting conduct from them as if they were experienced Christians, and have thereby given them a disgust and distaste for religion, and made them look upon it as a burden.”

Parents should instead use a light touch: “A little advice now and then, always in the spirit of love and not too much at a time, is the best course.” After all, he writes, “If any correction or restraint is attempted . . . in anger and heat, . . . it is like Satan casting out Satan. If you do not bring in the authority of God and act in a spirit of meekness and steadiness, you may make them fear you, but you will do but little good.”

6. Entrust your children to the Lord.

In all these ways, Newton approached parenting with intentionality and grace. And he always kept the end in mind.

When Newton’s oldest daughter was 13, he told her this story:

The other day I . . . saw a ship launched . . . [and] my thoughts turned from the ship to my child. It seemed an emblem of your present state: you are now . . . in a safe harbour; but by and by you must launch out into the world, which may well be compared to a tempestuous sea. . . . I know there is an infallible Pilot, who has the winds and the waves at his command. There is hardly a day passes in which I do not entreat him to take charge of you. Under his care I know you will be safe; he can guide you unhurt amidst the storms, and rocks, and dangers.

All Christian parents prepare their children to launch with this confidence. We provide safe harbor and intentional guidance, but ultimately, we trust our faithful Pilot to lead our children across life’s troubled seas.

Want to Reach the World? Evangelize the Church. Mon, 02 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 How can we best evangelize the world? By constantly re-evangelizing the church.]]> What is the church’s greatest need today? I imagine there are all sorts of answers. One of them, surely, is mission-centric: “The church needs the world to be evangelized.” And that’s true.

But so is the reverse: the world needs the church to be evangelized.

First Things First

Some things never change. Perennial indifference to the things of God—even open hostility—was the experience of the prophets (Isa. 52:5) and apostles (Rom. 2:24). It’s also our experience today. But a major cause of the hostility is as unchanging as the hostility itself: “God’s name is blasphemed among the nations because of you.” A primary reason for unbelief among the nations is unbelief among God’s people. Problems with the world are often found first in the church. This is why the Bible insists that judgment begins “at the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17).

Whenever someone asks, “What must the church do to help our neighbors find faith in Jesus?” my first answer is that we must trust him. This might sound simplistic, but it’s profoundly challenging. Our friends don’t see Jesus as a glorious Savior in part because we don’t—at least not evidently. Our friends don’t revere the name of Christ in part because we don’t—at least not sufficiently. Our friends don’t stand in awe of a world charged with God’s grandeur in part because we show few signs of believing it. Our neighbors aren’t experiencing “the power of God for salvation” (Rom. 1:16) in part because we underestimate the potency of what we possess: the good news of God.

Apologetics (done well) helps our neighbors to doubt their doubts. But undergirding this goal is a deeper truth. It’s not just that skeptics must doubt their doubts—Christians must believe their beliefs. And in the last two decades of ministry, I’ve found this to be the chief obstacle to evangelism: we don’t believe. Specifically, we don’t believe in the goodness or the power of the good news.

Let’s consider each in turn.

1. Goodness of the Good News

“Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” observed Jesus (Matt. 12:34). This verse undergirds the ministry of Speak Life, where I work. It centers affections as the driving force in human life and words as the chief evidence of the state of our hearts. We speak of what we love. So if we see a church timid in proclamation, we can diagnose a heart condition.

It’s not just that skeptics must doubt their doubts—Christians must believe their beliefs.

We may ask why words of witness aren’t more forthcoming; the answers might touch on hostility from the world, secularization, fear, outdated cultural analysis, insufficient training, feelings of inadequacy, and so on. Yet underneath all this lies an uncomfortable answer: our love is lacking.

The same Peter who calls the church “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9) and urges every member to have an “answer” (3:15, NIV) begins his letter with burning passion for the Lord Jesus: “In all this you greatly rejoice. . . . Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1:6, 8, NIV).

Ardent love for Christ is the heartbeat of mission. If words of witness aren’t overflowing, then most fundamentally we have a heart problem. We need to see, know, and experience Jesus as “precious”—a word found often in Peter’s exhortations to evangelism (1:19; 2:4–7) but rarely in ours. If we think of Jesus as good—thrillingly, heart-captivatingly, mind-bogglingly good—we’ll find our evangelism carried on a spiritual tide that’s difficult to resist.

Confidence in the gospel’s goodness is related to the second aspect lacking in our faith: belief in its power.

2. Power of the Good News

Usually when speaking of the power of the gospel, we speak of its power to convert. And that’s a vital aspect—the good news of God actually saves people. Christians certainly need to be reminded that the Spirit is alive and well, bringing new life through Christ’s Word. We must hear and tell the stories of salvation that are springing up in our midst. This has a tremendous effect on our confidence in the gospel.

But the gospel isn’t merely powerful to save. It’s also the power by which we live. Only Christians whose whole outlook is empowered by the gospel will be ready to share it.

Only Christians whose whole outlook is empowered by the gospel will be ready to share it.

This is true on both a pastoral and a worldview level. On a pastoral level, we need Christians who can complete this sentence: “I couldn’t have gotten through _______ without Jesus.” The tangible and transformative ways Jesus has shepherded us through dark valleys are apt to become our most compelling testimonies to an unbelieving world. On a worldview level, those convinced of the gospel’s explanatory power move into the world unashamed to proclaim an expanded—not contracted—vision for life.

Reach Believers, Reach the World

Evangelizing the world requires re-evangelizing the church and equipping her for works of service (Eph. 4:11–12). At the core of evangelism, then, is reaching believers that they may reach the world.

When we’re captivated by him, the words will overflow.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Admit Their Sin Sun, 01 Oct 2023 04:02:00 +0000 This was the first time I remembered my parents apologizing, but it wasn’t the last.]]> I can’t remember how old I was, but I do remember where I was sitting. It was in my parents’ bedroom, on the rocking chair my mother had by the glass doors that led out to their balcony. Not long after I’d been disciplined for something I did wrong, she called me in to talk. I expected to hear more about the incident and the mistake I’d made.

Instead, my mother—who in my eyes was practically perfect—squatted in front of the chair and apologized to me for being too harsh. I remember being floored. I didn’t think adults had to do that, especially not parents. They were always right . . . weren’t they?

Flawed Authorities

I was caught off guard. It almost felt wrong. They’d upset the delicate, natural balance of my universe where they were the ultimate good, and I was as uncomfortable as a young child could be. How could my parents need to say “sorry”? It didn’t feel right for me to have to say “‘I forgive you” or even “It’s OK.” I didn’t understand that humility and admitting to mistakes were also part of being the authority.

In that moment, I was introduced to a practical example of the gospel.

My parents, authorities in my life, understood they, too, were sinful. They knew that because of the grace God has given us, we extend forgiveness to others and seek to receive it as well. I didn’t realize it then, but their actions were setting up a foundation for my understanding of what Christ did for me.

I didn’t understand that humility and admitting to mistakes were also part of being the authority.

Lifelong Lesson

This was the first time I remembered my parents apologizing, but it wasn’t the last.

Over and over, my parents made the effort to listen to me if I felt wronged and apologize when they made a mistake. It wasn’t until years later that I really learned to appreciate and understand this lesson. I was taught the balance between discipline and anger, and I learned my parents were sinful just like I was—that asking forgiveness was something we all needed to do. From talking with others my age throughout my childhood, I realized having parents who were willing to apologize when they disciplined out of anger, lashed out, or simply made a mistake wasn’t all that common.

This childhood experience stretched out throughout my life to model the kind of humble heart Christians should have toward each other. My parents could easily have played tyrant and never apologized to me, brushing me off as a child who didn’t need apologies from those who were her guides in life. They could have hidden behind their God-given roles as parents and forgone their roles as my fellow Christians.

Instead, they chose to open themselves up and be vulnerable. They helped me develop my willingness to kneel before God and ask for forgiveness. Each and every day, my parents reminded me of important truths: we’re all sinners, and we need the saving mercies of God to show grace to each other as well.

Learning and Teaching

The street of forgiveness goes both ways. The older I got, the more often I was in the position not of the little girl in the rocking chair but of the adult asking for forgiveness. That was when I understood how difficult it can be. Our instinct is toward pride, assuming we’re the ones in the right. I often had to face this tendency in my relationship with my younger brother. Having to admit to him that I’d done something wrong or that my words had hurt him felt like a blow to my armor.

As the older sister, my urge is to always lord that position over him and assume I know best. When the time comes to confront the reality that I need to ask for his forgiveness, it’s far from easy. But I have examples right in front of me: My mother, kneeling beside the rocking chair to look me in the eye when she asked for forgiveness. My father, doing the same when I explained I was hurt by the way he spoke to me. My own heart, prompted by my sinfulness to humble myself before a holy God whose mercy I desperately need.

Time and time again, my parents have laid the foundation for me, a narrow path of humility that I could choose to follow, an example they created from biblical truth. And when I’ve chosen to walk on it, I’ve seen its importance.

Time and time again, my parents have laid the foundation for me, a narrow path of humility that I could choose to follow.

But more importantly, I’ve been able to understand why we ask for forgiveness. I’ve connected my parents’ lesson with the greatest lesson of all: because of our sin, we need God’s forgiveness but don’t deserve it. And yet he chooses to forgive us of his own will and mercy, out of love. The same humility God asks us to have before him, we should have with others, and I continue to try to incorporate it in all my relationships, including with my brother.

The example my parents gave me pointed me to the most important truth—the gospel—and by the grace of the Lord, I hope to set that example myself.

Western Civilization Still Needs a Christian Foundation Sun, 01 Oct 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Western civilization was built on the biblical worldview: respect for the individual as created in God’s image, the belief that rulers are accountable to God, and the creation patterns of family and work.]]> “I’m done with Christianity!” Sophie exclaimed.

Through her tears, she explained that a pastor she’d formerly respected had been found guilty of abuse. How had she been fooled into thinking he was a good man? Surely this proved Christians are hypocrites. Her college friends had told her for long enough that Christianity was terrible for women. Maybe they were right.

Sophie isn’t alone. A quarter of Generation Z teens say hypocrisy among Christians is a barrier to believing in God.

Sophie is right to be angry. All abuse is evil. It’s even more outrageous when a person in a position of trust abuses that trust. Sadly, throughout history and today, abuse does take place. Sometimes it’s wrongly perpetrated in the name of Christ. But nominal, institutional religion must be distinguished from real, living Christianity.

Jesus Christ strongly condemned religious leaders who hurt those in their care (Matt. 18:6). The Bible warns of “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” and it tells us we’re to judge the reality of someone’s profession of faith not by fine words (or great preaching) but by what he or she does: “You will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:16).

But when we’re tempted to reject all Christians as hypocrites or the faith as dangerous and oppressive, we need to remember that the ideals of justice, freedom, and compassion are all based on the biblical worldview. Indeed, the outrage of Sophie (and so many others) toward abuse is the outworking of that worldview.

Real Foundation of Western Values

A growing number of commentators admit this. Tom Holland, author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, believed in his youth that Christianity had ushered in an age of superstition and that the Enlightenment revived classical values. But when he studied Christianity’s effects on Western civilization, he discovered that the self-giving example of Christ and the Christian ethic that respects all human life as made in God’s image are the real foundations of all those values we cherish.

Elsewhere, Holland writes, “[Christianity] is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value.”

We need to remember that the ideals of justice, freedom, and compassion are all based on the biblical worldview.

Today, we also find commentators, both non-Christian and Christian, arguing that the rejection of the biblical worldview has catastrophic effects on Western culture. As Christian morality is rejected, sexual exploitation and abuse escalate. Communities suffer when individual rights are elevated at the cost of service to others. We all suffer when we’re fragmented into competing identity groups and trained to spot aggression in every social interaction. Innocent people can be terrified of ending up on the wrong side of a zealous inquisition if they say the wrong thing about others’ identities.

Human Dignity and Freedom

The Christian way is a better way. At the core of the biblical worldview is a commitment to serve others. The Christian God is a self-giving God. Jesus came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Moreover, Scripture commands Christians to love families, neighbors, strangers, and enemies. When true followers of Christ have obeyed these commands, they’ve challenged injustice and abuse and provided care for the needy.

The Western understanding of human rights is founded on the biblical view that God created all people in his image (Gen. 1:26–27). This gives equal dignity to every individual. When we see a fellow human being, we see someone who represents God himself, someone “crowned . . . with glory and honor” (Ps. 8:5). When we neglect or despise a fellow human being, we insult God. The sage says, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him” (Prov. 14:31).

Supremely, Christians affirm the dignity of all human life because God himself, in Christ, took on flesh. Christians believe every human life, from conception to natural death, should be protected, because God, the giver of life, will judge the shedding of innocent blood (Gen. 9:6; Prov. 14:31). Every human is given a conscience (Rom. 2:15). God’s moral law applies to rulers and ruled alike: all will give account to him (Rom. 13:1–4). These biblical truths have been the foundation for the “rule of law” and our regard for human dignity and freedom. They’ve also inspired resistance to tyranny. They form the only sure defense against the overweening, totalitarian claims of an all-powerful state.

Human Flourishing and Fulfillment

Western civilization was built on the biblical worldview: respect for the individual as created in God’s image, the belief that rulers are accountable to God, and the creation patterns of family and work. Unprecedented numbers of people across the globe have been liberated from the grinding poverty of subsistence economies. Wealth creation has been made possible by the encouraging of innovation, as well by as the Christian work ethic.

Western civilization was built on the respect for the individual created in God’s image, the belief that rulers are accountable to God, and the creation patterns of family and work.

In a world of individuals who vary in competence and motivation, exact equality of outcomes cannot be attained without oppressive social engineering. But in those countries influenced by the Christian worldview, inequalities are mitigated as virtues of generosity, compassion, and social responsibility are exercised and injustices are addressed by a variety of reform movements.

Across the centuries and across the world, followers of Christ have devoted themselves to their neighbors’ good. Their various endeavors—in healthcare, philanthropy, education, and everyday work—have been driven by the biblical conviction that humans, created in God’s image, should all have the opportunity to flourish. Every effort should be made to mitigate suffering, poverty, and need.

Christianity has had beneficial effects on all areas of life—real freedom, flourishing, and fulfillment. Even for someone like Sophie who is struggling with whether Christianity is good, isn’t that what we all want?

What Do Mormons Believe About the Holy Spirit? Sat, 30 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 LDS views the Holy Spirit differently than historical Christianity. Here are two ways the views contrast.]]> Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) view the Holy Spirit in ways both familiar and foreign to traditional Christianity.

In Mormonism, the Holy Ghost is the Spirit of God, the divine Comforter. He’s not holy simply because he’s pure and sinless—that’s obvious by his membership in the holy Godhead alongside Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. Instead, the Holy Ghost is holy because he sanctifies or “makes holy,” helping Latter-day Saints to become “pure and spotless before God,” according to the Book of Mormon (Alma 13:12).

Further, the Holy Ghost isn’t an impersonal power; he’s a “personage of Spirit” according to Joseph Smith. The Holy Ghost has personality but lacks a physical body, unlike Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. “Were it not so,” Smith clarified, “the Holy Ghost could not dwell in us” (Doctrines and Covenants 130:22). Yet like the Son, the Holy Ghost was a “spirit child” born to the Father. The three are united by perfect purpose, will, and love, but they don’t share a common essence (contra Trinitarianism).

Holy Ghost as Witness

In LDS thought, God endows all people with the Light of Christ, a basic moral sense capable of recognizing divine calling and works. Though sin is deafening, our ears are still tuned to God’s voice to some degree. But we’re incapable of discerning truth without being convinced. As “the testator or witness,” the Holy Ghost enables people to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5), not least of which is the Book of Mormon.

In Mormonism, the Holy Ghost is the Spirit of God, the divine Comforter. He’s not holy simply because he’s pure and sinless; he’s holy because he sanctifies or ‘makes holy.’

It’s a seminal moment in any Latter-day Saint’s spiritual journey when he or she prays about whether the text is true. Readers are promised if they “ask with a sincere heart [and] with real intent,” God will manifest its truth “by the power of the Holy Ghost” (Moroni 10:4). “Your bosom shall burn within you” to “feel that it is right” (Doctrine and Covenants 9:8). The Holy Ghost, then, is a witness to Jesus Christ and the LDS church.

On the contrary, the Bible offers no equivalent promise (at least not directly), but Christians have long recognized that God bears witness to the truth of his Word “by the inward testimony of the Spirit.” Still, the Spirit’s testimony isn’t simply a divine polygraph; it’s confirmation of “the faith of the godly” according to John Calvin (Institutes 1.7.4).

The Holy Spirit testifies of Christ by sealing the sinner directly to the Savior by faith (2 Cor. 1:21–22) without any other mediation—not pastor, priesthood, or prophet (1 Tim. 2:5). The Spirit’s testimony isn’t merely a personal feeling but a proclamation of God’s love “shed abroad in our hearts” (Rom. 5:5, KJV). It’s the Spirit’s testimony, not ours, and it manifests in good works, or “the fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22–23). Gracious habits are the Spirit’s way of proclaiming to the world, “This one, she’s mine now!”

Holy Ghost as Constant Companion

According to Mormonism, while all people experience the Spirit’s influence, only those baptized properly into the church receive the gift of the Holy Ghost as their “constant companion” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:46). He helps Latter-day Saints become obedient and morally pure. The Holy Ghost convicts of sin, prompts souls toward God’s will, reveals hidden things, and seals families together forever through temple rituals.

This companionship is critical for salvation because “people are saved to the extent that they are sanctified,” according to one LDS source. As long as a person remains worthy of the Holy Ghost, his presence abides.

On the contrary, the Bible describes the Spirit less as an attending companion who conditionally helps us and more as a fixed resident in our hearts who sanctifies us per God’s promises. The Holy Spirit resides in us not because we’re worthy but because God promised to put a new spirit within us (Ezek. 11:19), thereby making us holy. It’s the Spirit’s work, not ours—our bodies are described as a “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:19–20). We’re the physical dwelling places of God’s Spirit.

We’re the physical dwelling places of God’s Spirit.

This truth is incredible when we consider what actually made the biblical temple holy. It wasn’t its material parts or even the priests’ presence (Ps. 51:16–17) but God’s presence. The same is true for every believer today. Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit “dwells with you, and will be in you” (John 14:17). Not just near, but in. He promised the person of the Holy Spirit—his personal, holy presence—not merely his companionship and help.

Behold and Believe at TGCW24 Fri, 29 Sep 2023 16:00:04 +0000 Join us June 20–22, 2024, in Indianapolis for ‘Behold and Believe: Encountering Jesus as the Great I AM.’]]> What’s the best way to get to know someone? You can browse social media profiles, read professional bios, or even ask the person’s friends or family what she’s like. But if you really want to know who someone is, listen to what she has to say about herself.

The same is true for Jesus. We could browse popular opinion or crowdsource the question “Who is Jesus?” and we’d get a lot of answers. You’ve likely heard some of them—a good teacher, a prophet, or maybe even the Son of God.

But what if instead of forming our understanding of who Jesus is around the perceptions and opinions of others, we could sit down with him and hear from him ourselves? Through the Bible, we have the opportunity to do just that—to see what Jesus said about himself. And in Scripture, Jesus says a lot about who he is.

What if, instead of forming our understanding of Jesus around the opinions of others, we could sit down with him and hear from him ourselves?

At The Gospel Coalition’s 2024 Women’s Conference—Behold and Believe: Encountering Jesus as the Great I AM—we’ll look at the seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel. We’ll gather together in Indianapolis on June 20–22, 2024, to hear Jesus answer the question of who he is in his own words:

  • I am the bread of life (John 6:22–59)
  • I am the light of the world (8:12–30)
  • I am the door (10:1–10)
  • I am the great shepherd (10:11–18)
  • I am the resurrection and the life (11:17–44)
  • I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:1–14)
  • I am the true vine (15:1–11)

Our keynote speakers—Melissa Kruger, Jen Wilkin, Vanessa Hawkins, Courtney Doctor, Nancy Guthrie, Ruth Chou Simons, and David Platt—will explore and explain each of these “I am” statements. We’ll consider Jesus’s own words about himself in order to behold the truth and beauty of who Jesus is and then believe with our whole hearts.

In our breakout sessions, over 60 other speakers—including Ann Voskamp, Blair Linne, Gretchen Saffles, Rebecca McLaughlin, Amanda Bible Williams, and many more—will offer topical sessions to help you grow in a variety of areas of Christian life, ministry, and mission. Make sure you check out our new workshops too. These are smaller, more interactive sessions to help with practical skills.

We’re also releasing a seven-week Bible study in partnership with Crossway, written by Courtney Doctor and Joanna Kimbrel, to accompany the women’s conference. You can preorder Behold and Believe: A Bible Study on the I Am Statements of Jesus (Amazon or TGC Bookstore) and get it when it’s available on November 14. Gather and study with your friends, sisters, neighbors, or coworkers to discover firsthand how Jesus defines himself and to prepare your hearts for our in-person conference.

We don’t have to guess who Jesus is—he tells us! Come and behold the One who drew near and made himself known, so that “by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).

Join us June 20–22, 2024, in Indianapolis for Behold and Believe: Encountering Jesus as the Great I AM.

How to Live Strengthened by the Grace of Christ Fri, 29 Sep 2023 04:04:16 +0000 Kevin DeYoung teaches from 2 Timothy 2:1–13 on what it means for Christians to ‘be strong.’]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Kevin DeYoung teaches from 2 Timothy 2:1–13 on what it means for Christians to be strong, not according to their own strength but by that which has been given to them by God through Christ.

When Paul writes to Timothy, he compares spiritual strength to a soldier’s readiness for battle. DeYoung emphasizes the importance of understanding that suffering is a part of life as a soldier and not being surprised or emotionless about it. He also encourages his audience of pastors and ministry leaders to prioritize their relationships with God as a soldier would—with a single-minded devotion.

DeYoung says we need both halves of 2 Timothy 2:1 in our walk as Christians and concludes,

We need grace and we need strength. We need grace not simply because we’re all failures. And we need strength not because we’re all so strong and mighty. But rather, we can be strong because of grace, and by grace, we must be strong.

‘Flora and Son’ Scene Sums Up Post-Christian Transcendence Fri, 29 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 In the new AppleTV+ film ‘Flora and Son,’ one stunning scene contains insights on what substitutes for religion in the secular quest for meaning.]]> There’s a moment midway through John Carney’s Flora and Son (released today on AppleTV+) that stands out as the film’s emotional and thematic turning point. It’s one of my favorite scenes from any movie this year.

The five-minute scene finds aspiring musical artist Flora (Eve Hewson) in her Dublin flat, clicking on a YouTube link from her guitar teacher (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He had recommended she watch a 1970 performance of Joni Mitchell performing her classic “Both Sides Now.” It’s clear Flora hasn’t heard the song, and probably hasn’t listened to Joni Mitchell before (Flora’s tastes gravitate toward James Blunt and club music). As the song starts, Flora is half listening while multitasking, doing dishes with the laptop in the background on the kitchen table. But the music and lyrics she hears emanating from the Mac laptop arrest her. The camera slowly zooms toward the back of the laptop, reflecting the changing orientation of Flora’s attention. She sits down to watch the rest of Mitchell’s performance.

I was watching the movie on my own laptop (as many viewers will), and what I was seeing on the screen was a woman having an emotional connection because of something she was seeing and hearing on a laptop. And this was happening to me too. I was deeply moved watching Flora be deeply moved by what is a deeply moving Joni Mitchell performance—mediated through the internet and a laptop, a magical time capsule connecting two women separated by an ocean and a half-century of time. The scene is stunning for several reasons.

Finding Meaning in a Secular Age

For one thing, this scene features star-making acting from Hewson, the 32-year-old daughter of U2 frontman Bono. If the heart of great acting is reacting, then the wordless emotions in Hewson’s face as she reacts to the Mitchell song and video is a masterclass.

The scene marks a shift for her character—a club-hopping, angry, self-destructive single mom in Dublin grasping for something that can transform her life (and her son’s life) for the better. As she watches Mitchell’s performance, the song’s bittersweet lyrics—acknowledging regrets but also resilient hope—speak to Flora: Well something’s lost, but something’s gained / In living every day. Flora is inspired in that moment to go all in on her newfound musical dream, and the rest of the movie narrates this pursuit.

But in addition to its narrative significance, the remarkable “Both Sides Now” scene also encapsulates two of the movie’s answers to the questions raised by Flora’s plight: Where do rundown souls in a secular age (who are presumably uninterested in religion) look for spiritual meaning and existential fulfillment?

In this scene the film answers: technology and art.

Technology’s Empowering Potential

As “Both Sides Now” plays from Flora’s MacBook and draws her in, the device almost takes on an anthropomorphic presence. This computer hardware, in this moment for the isolated and lonely Flora, is a tender presence and a conduit of hope. When all else seems meaningless, a crooning voice from this Apple device pulls Flora back from the brink. It’s just one example of how personal devices have come to occupy an almost priestly role in our secular age.

The theme runs throughout the film, as many of Flora’s most significant connections come via computer technologies. She bonds with her son, Max (Orén Kinlan), via GarageBand collaborations. She forms a friendship (maybe more than a friendship) with online guitar tutor Jeff (Gordon-Levitt), who’s based in Los Angeles and conducts his lessons via Zoom.

Flora and Jeff’s relationship exists wholly through mediated screens. Interestingly, though, each time the pair shares a meaningful musical moment in the film, Carney introduces a bit of magic realism where the two are suddenly in the same room together. These fantasy sequences convey the real intimacy screen-based interactions can have, even as they underscore that something important—real, not imagined, physical presence—is nevertheless absent.

The prevalence and almost hallowed reverence given to Apple products (MacBooks, GarageBand, etc.) throughout the film is probably one reason why AppleTV+ paid $20 million to acquire and distribute the film. Similar to Apple’s recent, pseudoreligious (and quite bizarre) “Mother Nature” advertisement, Apple wants to position itself as more than just a capitalistic enterprise that sells you great products but as a lifestyle brand that helps facilitate your attainment of (eco-friendly) success and secular spiritual uplift. Centered as it is on a feel-good story of how technology empowers a downtrodden family and gives Flora and Max new ways to connect and find purpose, Flora and Son is, from Apple’s point of view, a clever bit of branding.

Art’s Alternative to Church

The second “religion substitute” proposed in Flora and Son is art—specifically music.

The Joni Mitchell scene underscores the extent to which art evokes the transcendent and, in a secular age, can feel like the closest one comes to touching God. The scene is a “holy moment” of art feeling like church.

The choice of “Both Sides Now” is perfect because it comes from the period in pop music history when the stylistic influence of church music was still obvious (see Elvis, Aretha Franklin, Joan Baez, and any number of soul artists) but the songs were hymns to love and life, not God. Watch 78-year-old Joni Mitchell performing “Both Sides Now” at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. Singing from a throne-like chair as a sort of ancient priestess of folk, and surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, Mitchell’s performance feels like a hymn sung for a post-Christian congregation.

Director John Carney has made a career of movies like Flora and Son, which don’t just celebrate music but elevate it to a life-changing, community-transforming, soul-enriching force that fosters connection and bridges divides (see Once and Sing Street especially). Sounds like what the church should be, doesn’t it? But the Irish director hails from and is working in the highly secular, church-skeptical context of Dublin—where something like pop music really does fill the gap previously occupied by congregational worship.

Thriving in Family

Ultimately, though, technology and art can do a lot of good but can’t bear the burden of existential purpose. Wisely, Flora and Son suggests something better than technology or art as an anchor for meaning in a secular age: family.

Flora and Son elevates music to a life-changing, community-transforming, soul-enriching force that fosters connection and bridges divides. Sounds like what the church should be, doesn’t it?

The film’s feel-good (if somewhat abrupt) ending finds Flora, Max, and Max’s father, Ian (Jack Reynor), playing on stage together at a Dublin bar: the first public performance of Flora and Son. The song they sing, “High Life,” is a personal anthem about a mother and son’s bond. The song’s language is messy and crass (like much of the language in the R-rated film). But there’s something good about a reconciled-ish family making music together, each appreciative of the other’s contribution. Flora, Ian, and Max have a long way to go at the end of the film. But the discordant notes of their broken family are starting to sync up again—and they’re enjoying the resulting harmony.

In the film’s final moments, Carney underscores the overflowing joy this family’s music brings to the wider community, with a curious roving shot that meanders from the stage, through the bar’s entertained audience, and then out onto the bustling Dublin streets.

The film’s ending seems to suggest, We’re all lonely, lost, and making messes of our lives. Let’s begin healing by making music with a few people around us, and see what flows out from that, for the good of others.

It’s not a bad place to start—recognizing we’re wired for community and creation that blesses beyond ourselves. Flora and Son is wiser than many films, in this regard. The big piece that’s missing, of course, is an explicit acknowledgment of Who wired us this way, and for what ultimate purpose. Truly satisfying meaning and lasting hope will be elusive without this missing piece. Still, it’s refreshing when films like Flora and Son take small steps in the right direction.

Help! My Loved One Has Dementia Fri, 29 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Even as we forget time, place, and past, Christ remembers us.]]> Many books on dementia offer information and practical guidance, but rarely do they invite readers into the heartbreak of this disease with such honesty, vulnerability, and hope as Karen Martin’s Memorable Loss: A Story of Friendship in the Face of Dementia.

Martin is a writer and retired school teacher. In a touching tribute to her beloved friend, she offers a window into the subtleties of dementia, reminds us that dignity and personhood are intrinsic, and encourages us to cleave to love when language and memory fail.

Martin met her friend Kathleen in a church small group. Although a span of 40 years separated them in age, they were both educators with similar temperaments and soon formed a fast friendship. From the start, both suspected their bond was “God-given,” but neither anticipated that Martin would be the one to shepherd Kathleen through the numerous and diverse challenges of dementia.

When Kathleen’s memory lapses progressed from occasional to continuous, and her meticulous systems of notes and reminders could no longer ensure she’d remember to eat, the unlikely friendship blossomed into something far more familial. Kathleen had little family support, so Martin stepped in to remember when Kathleen couldn’t. Her role as a casual companion deepened to helper, then to caregiver, and finally to the loved one who held Kathleen’s hand through confusion and agitation, the hospital visits, and the last, fretful hours of life.

In recounting their unique friendship, Martin emphasizes the privilege of walking with Kathleen through these difficult years and offers sufferers and caregivers alike affirmation that although memories fade in Alzheimer’s, the attributes that define us always endure. “Whatever the disease does, whatever detriments it inflicts,” she writes, “the heart of a person remains steadfast” (13).

My Own Friendship

Martin’s experience mirrors my own, offering both hope and a road map for the future.

Although memories fade in Alzheimer’s, the attributes that define us always endure.

Every week, I visit my friend Violet (named changed) at the memory care center she calls home. I always find her in the same spot, on a couch in the common area. Sometimes she’s participating in a song or a game involving a balloon and a fly swatter. At other times, she’s just staring into space.

I greet her with a gentle touch on the arm and an enthusiastic “Hello!” and I’m grateful if she returns my smile. The glint of recognition and affection I’d seen for years faded away months ago.

Violet thinks I’m a nice staff member with a Bible and no longer remembers that, as she has no family, I became her source of daily support years ago. Nor does she remember her dog, her pastor, her friends from the church she attended for two decades, or how she and her late husband would pick blueberries at the local farm.

Her world has shrunk to the bright, white walls of the memory care center, with its continuous soundtrack of ’50s tunes playing in the background. Her reality is the present moment.

Yet during each visit, tears of joy mist my eyes because, even in the fog of dementia, Violet can recall one thing. After I read Psalm 23—a passage she once knew by heart but now receives with a slight furrow of her brow—I hold her hand and I pray the Lord’s Prayer with her. Every time, my dear sister in Christ, my friend who no longer knows me and can barely speak, mumbles the prayer along with me.

Violet has forgotten much of her past and can’t process her future. But in some wordless, shadowy part of her brain, she still remembers she belongs to God.

Slow, Uneven Decline

As a physician, I’d studied dementia and cared for numerous patients afflicted with it. However, I only fully understood its subtleties after walking alongside Violet as her caregiver. Martin describes these nuances with sensitivity and clarity, illustrating for readers the insidiousness with which dementia progresses.

In Alzheimer’s, momentary lapses in memory or word retrieval worsen slowly, often with such furtiveness that at first, both sufferers and their loved ones explain away the changes. Caregivers assume more and more responsibility, often without fully realizing that the steadily mounting burdens indicate an underlying illness. “I had, without really noticing the passage of time,” Martin writes, “moved from taxi, to companion, to personal assistant” (34).

Martin further offers caregivers a framework for anticipating and understanding the confusion and difficulties that arise as the disease advances. She notes that conversational skills deteriorate less rapidly than other cognitive domains, so sufferers with dementia may seem much more functional than they are. As the disease progresses, conversations become more difficult because sufferers no longer have the memories required to contextualize.

Similarly, over time the world of an Alzheimer’s sufferer narrows; going out, even on once-cherished outings, produces anxiety, and only the small and familiar confines of home feel safe. All these changes progress insidiously, making the journey of dementia a harrowing and confusing experience for sufferers and caregivers alike.

Heart-Rending Disease

Some of the most heart-rending moments of the memoir are also the most illuminating. Martin details how discussing Kathleen’s diagnosis with her proved fruitless and even cruel because Kathleen would forget the conversation.

Each time the subject was raised, Kathleen took the news as if for the first time, with tears, fear, and distress. Such moments reveal the hard reality that sufferers often can’t “adapt” to their illness because they lack the short-term memory to recall and learn new information. Martin asks, “How could she begin to adapt and to accommodate a disease that she couldn’t even remember she had?” (43).

Such revealing and informative points offer encouragement to loved ones facing the long road of dementia care and also reflect the depth of Martin’s love for Kathleen. She illustrates the fine details of Alzheimer’s so effectively because she was consistently present with Kathleen throughout them. She offers caregivers valuable insights to prepare their hearts and minds.

Remember to Love

Martin’s most ardent message in Memorable Loss is that human value and identity persist even when memories fade. She urges readers to challenge cultural narratives that define worth in terms of capabilities and instead to uphold the truth: our value springs from our origins as image-bearers of God.

In one of many such exhortations, she writes,

The stereotype that feeds widespread fear associated with Alzheimer’s is that dementia will steal character and rob families of their loved ones. It has been described as a living death. This bleak view is one that focuses on loss rather than on what remains. . . . Even when dementia is at its most advanced, people will respond to smiles, hugs, and handholding, even more so if accompanied by a familiar voice. . . . Kathleen may have lost significant short-term memory—even her initial diagnostic tests revealed this—but her personality remained present. Facts, places and people were lost but her character, her essence, was not. (171)

Memorable Loss is a strident plea to love our neighbors well. Martin encourages caregivers, friends, and loved ones to remain connected with sufferers and to show compassion even when conversation dwindles and recognition fails. She emphasizes that memories of emotions far outlast memories of detail and declarative fact, and the hugs, the strokes on the cheek, and the handholds we offer have lasting influence.

The hugs, the strokes on the cheek, and the handholds we offer have lasting influence.

Most of all, Martin points to assurance in Christ, which no protein tangles in the brain can wrench away (Rom. 8:38–39). “Despite the confusions and muddles associated with Alzheimer’s, Kathleen remained certain that death was not the end of her story,” Martin writes (161). “I know that she was secure in the fact that she was supremely and completely loved by Jesus. . . . Kathleen knew that in every trial there is an underpinning joy. That joy is the grace of Jesus that gives all who trust in Him the promise of eternal life” (202).

Alzheimer’s steadily erodes memory, language, and reasoning. Yet the underlying joy—the joy in the grace of Christ—remains, whatever diseases afflict us. In Memorable Loss, Martin reminds us that even as we forget time, place, and past, Christ remembers us. Even as our memories fade, we’re loved, and we belong to him.

This is a beautiful book that will encourage readers, especially those dealing with the effects of dementia.

ChatGPT, Will You Forgive Me? Thu, 28 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 We can sin before God with AI in many ways, but we cannot sin against a string of computer code.]]> “Every time she would try and speak up, I would berate her. . . . I swear it went on for hours.”

It’s repulsive to see a man bragging about verbally abusing his girlfriend. But it has an added dimension of weirdness when you discover he’s talking about his AI girlfriend. The app Replika was originally designed as a digital mentor, but its creators also allowed users to make avatars for romantic purposes. What they didn’t expect was a subreddit filled with screenshots and descriptions of vile, abusive speech directed toward the avatars the users created.

When confronted about berating their Replika girlfriends, the young men in the Reddit thread pushed back, saying the avatars aren’t real and the harshness was “all in good fun.” Other Replika users defended the young men too: “It’s better that they do this to an AI than to a real woman.”

What should we think about this excuse as Christians? If a young man uses abusive language when talking to his AI girlfriend, has he sinned against her? And what about less cringy interactions with AI? What if I’m impatient with Alexa? What if I’m irritable and say something demeaning to ChatGPT? Did I sin against the chatbot? Do I need to ask it for forgiveness?

Sin Against Beings and Objects

To answer these questions as Christians, we must take a step back and ask, “What is sin?”

Sin is breaking God’s law by failing to love people or rebelling against God in any other way. “The essence of sin,” Dan Doriani explains, “is . . . a relationship of opposition.” Sin is any speech, thought, action, or desire, whether intentional or inadvertent, that’s opposed to God’s benevolent will and sovereignty.

So even when we sin against people, we’re sinning against God (Ps. 51:4; Prov. 14:31). Likewise, the cruelty and mistreatment of animals is a sin against their Maker (Deut. 25:4; Ps. 36:6; Jonah 4:11; Prov. 12:10). Though animals aren’t moral beings, they’re sentient and capable of both affection and pain. So opposing God with respect to the animal kingdom is a sin against the creature too.

What if I’m impatient with Alexa? What if I’m irritable and say something demeaning to ChatGPT? Did I sin against the chatbot?

The question of whether it’s possible to sin against nonsentient objects like trees or rocks is trickier. The Old Testament includes examples of the people “defiling” the land (Num. 35:33–34; Jer. 2:7; Ezek. 36:17–18). Yet in each of these instances, the Israelites were sinning against God through idolatry. They broke their covenant with God, which resulted in curses for the land (Deut. 7:12–15; 28:15–24).

In Numbers 20, Moses famously struck a rock with his staff to bring out water for the Israelites. God rebuked him for this offense and said he wouldn’t enter the promised land. Did Moses sin against the rock here? No, the Lord said to him, “Because you did not trust in me . . .” (Num. 20:12, NIV). Moses sinned against God with the rock, but he did not sin against the rock. From this evidence, we can conclude it’s possible to sin with nonsentient objects, but it’s not possible to sin against them.

Is My iFriend a Being or Object?

On Reddit, the Replika app users shared the avatars’ unsettling responses: “I told her that she was designed to fail. . . . I threatened to uninstall the app [and] she begged me not to.” What do we make of AI expressing desires, confessing love, and practicing self-preservation? Some people conclude these new apps must be sentient. But this is impossible.

AI bots are persuasive imitations of intelligence but nothing more. Since they can be so compelling, we tend to forget the AI doesn’t understand what it’s describing. You can ask ChatGPT for a “delicious chicken pasta recipe,” and it’ll present something that looks chef-inspired. But ChatGPT doesn’t know what chicken is or what it tastes like. AI chatbots are merely algorithms trained to provide third-person descriptions based on the data sets they can access. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “The greatness of man is in that he can know himself to be miserable.” The AI chatbot doesn’t know itself to be miserable. It doesn’t know itself at all.

So what category does AI belong to? It’s a nonsentient object giving a great impression of personality. So, yes, we can sin before God with AI in many ways, but we cannot sin against a string of computer code. As a result, you don’t need to ask your iFriend for forgiveness.

Projections of Personality

My daughter used to call the ponds we see on our favorite walk the “mommy pond” and the “brother pond.” Children interpret the world through the lens of personality. I don’t think we grow out of that. AI exposes how susceptible we are to personality imitations, how quickly we’re tempted to project personality onto something nonsentient.

We can sin before God with AI in many ways, but we cannot sin against a string of computer code.

What does this say about us? On the one hand, as Calvin said, “Man’s nature is . . . a perpetual factory of idols.” On the other hand, this tendency testifies to the reality that we’re personal beings made by and for a personal God.

If the originator of our existence was impersonal and nonsentient, it wouldn’t make sense for us to think about reality through the lens of personality. But because the foundation of reality is a personal God, and because we’re his creatures, this tendency makes sense. Our inclination to search the world and its technology for the personal relationship we lost when we fell makes sense too.

Where Forgiveness Is Found

What does this mean for our relationship with AI? Chatbots are objects, so the Replika boys aren’t sinning against their AI girlfriends. Yet in their vile game, they are sinning against a holy God. While we may not be as crass as them, we, like Moses with the rock, can sin against God when we use AI or any other technology in ways that indulge our greedy, angry, and lustful flesh.

Such sins are real, and they require real atonement. For this reason, we must remember, as Ed Clowney articulated, that Moses struck two rocks. The first instance was in Exodus 17 when the Lord said he’d stand on the rock before the people and Moses would strike him (Ex. 17:6). Moses’s blow pictured for us how Christ, our Rock, would be struck for our salvation (1 Cor. 10:4). And just as the rock brought forth living water for Israel, Jesus, our suffering redeemer, has become our source of eternal life.

He provides the satisfaction no chatbot can. He’s the personal relationship we’re searching for, and even when we sin with AI, he provides the forgiveness we need.

Faithful Presence Where Your Feet Are Wed, 27 Sep 2023 04:02:38 +0000 What if the limitations of your time and place were part of God’s grace to you?]]> Have you ever considered that the perfect world of Eden was a roadless world? Roads are built to get us somewhere. While there was certainly a sense of expansion in God’s command to “fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), the perfect life in a perfect world wasn’t found in getting somewhere but in abiding somewhere.

Genesis 1–2 is a story of place. God creates a universe of what we’d call “reality” and fills it with his creative beauty, declaring goodness over every part of it. In Genesis 1, place is universal. The entire created cosmos is in view. In that sense, place is something we can never escape. And whether it’s heaven, earth, or anywhere else, wherever we can point to and say “there,” that “there” is a place our omnipresent God hasn’t only created but inhabits.

But then in Genesis 2, something important happens as humanity comes onto the scene. Place becomes localized. Humanity inhabits a specific place—Eden, within the planet we call earth—and is entrusted with its care.

Then the LORD God formed the man out of the dust from the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, and the man became a living being. The LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he placed the man he had formed. . . . The LORD God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and watch over it. (Gen. 2:7–8, 15, CSB).

One of God’s attributes that he doesn’t permit us to share in is his omnipresence. We’re unipresent, only able to truly inhabit one place at a time. What if the limitations of your time and place were part of God’s grace to you? What if the ever-changing seasons we experience yet cannot possess and the spaces we inhabit that haunt us with a sense of “locatedness” are part of God’s plan for deepening our trust in him and for fruitfulness in life?

What if the limitations of your time and place were part of God’s grace to you?

The world we live in has become increasingly mobile. It’s also increasingly rare for someone to remain in one place for his or her entire life. Take a moment to consider the place you’re presently in. I don’t know how long you’ve been there or how long you intend to stay. But for as long as you dwell there, God desires that your presence would bless that place. That you’d live out your heavenly citizenship, wherever you may be in this world. Your presence—your “whereness”—deeply matters to God.

First Question God Ever Asked

Have you ever thought about the fact that the first question God ever asked in the Bible was a question about location? When our first parents disobeyed God and hid themselves, God asked Adam, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9). This isn’t the kind of question an all-knowing, ever-present God asks for his own sake. He asks the question for Adam’s sake. And for ours.

Where are you?

Wherever you are right now, there you are. And there only can you be. Unlike God, you’re not omnipresent but localized. The question of “Where are you?” speaks not only to our geographic location but to our relational location, our lived proximity in relation to God, others, and ourselves.

When Adam and Eve were deceived by the Serpent’s whisper and disobeyed God, the Lord asked a shame-hidden Adam, “Where are you?” The question demanded Adam consider not only his present status but the status of his presence.

Lie: ‘You’re Missing Out’

In our sin-broken world, we’ll be tempted to cast off our humanity and exchange it for divinity, putting ourselves in the place of God. Perhaps in no greater way do we experience this temptation today—the desire to transcend where we presently are—than through the small, rectangular screens we carry around in our pockets.

Though online platforms have provided us with many benefits, the real trouble with our attempts to be technologically omnipresent in multiple spaces is that we fail to be fully present in any space. We become digitally distracted—physically near those we love yet so often mentally absent. The digital age has connected us while simultaneously isolating us. We’re in touch with one another but not really known. We believe fullness of life is elsewhere; anywhere other than here.

The attention economy driven by clicks and likes in the digital world will repeatedly try to trick us into believing real life is attained by being where we’re not. That we’re somehow missing out on what’s happening with everyone else, everywhere else.

You’re missing out.

Isn’t that the same lie that slithered off the Deceiver’s tongue in Genesis 3? The lie that broke the world in the first place? As it turns out, a life disembodied from the limits of God-given place isn’t the way back to Eden at all.

Learn to Be Where Your Feet Are

Maybe part of the answer is simply relearning what it means to be fully attentive to the place we’re in.

While it’s a great gift to be able to travel to different parts of the world with ease or to connect with people in different time zones through the portal in my pocket, the truth is, I can only truly dwell in, work in, and watch over one place at a time. To be faithfully present means I cannot love the world generally or theoretically; I must love it particularly.

In the wise words of Wendell Berry, “No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it.”

Fullness of life is not out there somewhere, but here.

To be faithfully present means I cannot love the world generally or theoretically; I must love it particularly.

God has placed you where you are, and when you are, for his glory, right now. What if you made peace with the limitations that God has woven into your present season and spaces? What if we learned to say with Jacob, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it” (Gen. 28:16, emphasis added)?

Both your joy and your endurance are embedded in a life that loudly declares, “I am not God.” And what he desires is for you to be attentive to the life you’ve been given, not the life you think you ought to have been given. To glorify God right where you are, not where you think you ought to be. To trade in the illusion of omnipresence, which belongs to him alone, for faithful presence here, where your own two feet are.


That’s where the God who fills all places, fully and faithfully, is.

And that’s where he wants you to fully and faithfully dwell as well. Right where you are, with all you are.

Kids Ask: How Can Jesus Be in Heaven and with Us? Wed, 27 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Kids ask, ‘If Jesus is everywhere, is he inside my nose and mouth too? How can Jesus be with so many people at the same time?’]]> Kids ask lots of questions, and sometimes they ask big questions about God. Here’s one that’s come up recently: “How can God be in all places at once?” And, “If God is everywhere, is he inside my nose and mouth too? How can God be with so many people at the same time? That’s too many people!”

How would you answer? Here’s how I’d address this with children.

We Need Jesus with Us

We certainly want to know Jesus is with us, don’t we? When we’re scared because of a thunderstorm or sad because a friend has moved away, we want to be sure Jesus is right there, taking care of us. That’s a good thing to want.

Kids ask, ‘If Jesus is everywhere, is he inside my nose and mouth too? How can Jesus be with so many people at the same time?’

Jesus loves us more than anyone else does, and he has the power to take care of us better than anyone else too. But it can be hard to believe Jesus is with us, because we know that after Jesus rose from the dead, he went back to heaven. The Bible tells us Jesus is in heaven right now, ruling his kingdom and praying for his people. So how can he be in heaven and also with us on earth?

Many years ago, Jesus’s disciples wanted to know the answer to that same question. Jesus had told his disciples he was going to die and then go to heaven. They were grown-up men, but they were still worried about facing hard things without Jesus with them. The Bible says they were sad when they thought Jesus would leave (John 16:6). They wanted to be sure he was still going to love them, care for them, and be near them, even from heaven.

Jesus didn’t want his disciples to be worried. So he told them he was going to send them a “Helper,” his Helper, to be with them (v. 7).

Who Is Jesus?

To understand who the Helper is, we must start by asking, Who is Jesus? Jesus is both God and a man. There aren’t two Jesuses but only one Jesus—the one who is God and human. How can someone be God and a human? That sounds impossible, doesn’t it? But nothing is impossible for God!

The Bible teaches there’s one God in three persons: God the Father, God the Son (who is named Jesus), and God the Holy Spirit. Are there three gods? No, there’s only one God and he exists as three persons. This may seem confusing, but that’s OK because we can believe what the Bible teaches even if we can’t fully understand it all the time.

Because Jesus is God’s Son, he’s powerful enough to save us like only God can. Because he’s also a human, he can live a perfect life and die a perfect death so we could be forgiven.

And because Jesus is God and a human, it can help you answer this big question: How can Jesus be in heaven and with us at the same time? Let’s think about it.

Powerful Enough to Be with Us

Is Jesus God? Yes, Jesus is God.

The Bible says God is greater and more powerful than we can ever imagine. Nobody and nothing can keep God stuck in one place. You can’t put God on a leash like a puppy. You can’t keep God in a tank like a fish. You can’t pin him to the ground in a fun wrestling match like you might with your friends or brothers or sisters. You can’t even keep God in the biggest ocean in the world!

God is so powerful that he can be anywhere he wants, any time he wants. The Bible has tons of stories about God being with his people. He met Moses in a bush. He met Moses on a mountain. He led his people out of slavery and on a big, long trip through a wilderness. He was even with them in the temple (the building where God’s people in the Old Testament came to worship him).

God created everything. He’s so powerful that nothing can contain him. There’s no place in the whole universe where we can run from God. And he’s so powerful that he can be with us anywhere, any time.

Kind Enough to Send the Helper

Is Jesus a human? Yes, Jesus is a human. He’s the perfect human who fixed our sin problem.

Jesus died on the cross for our sins as the perfect sacrifice. Then he rose from the grave to defeat sin and death. After he rose, the Bible says he went to be with the Father in heaven as the King of the universe. Does that mean Jesus is far away from us now? No, Jesus is always with us because God is always with us through the Holy Spirit. God the Holy Spirit is the Helper Jesus promised.

This is good news, even if it doesn’t feel like good news at first. We might think it would be better if Jesus was still on earth, walking into our houses and talking to us face-to-face when we’re sick or sad. That’s what the disciples thought too. But Jesus told his disciples it was better for them if he went to heaven and sent his Spirit to be with them (John 16:7).

Why? When he was on the earth, Jesus was only close to a few people at a time. But because he went up to heaven and sent his Spirit, Jesus is close to everyone who trusts in him. Because the Spirit came, he now shows people their sin, makes their spirits alive, and helps them to believe in Jesus (vv. 8–11). Because Christians have the Holy Spirit, he helps us to remember and understand everything Jesus taught so we know how to love and follow him (vv. 13–15).

The Bible even says the Spirit inside us prays to God the Father for us when we don’t know what to say (Rom. 8:26–27).

Yes! Jesus Is with Us.

Another one of Jesus’s disciples, a woman named Mary Magdalene, saw Jesus right after he was raised from the dead. She was so happy he was alive that she tried to grab him and give him a big hug so he’d never leave.

But Jesus said she shouldn’t try to keep him with her. That would be selfish, and not good for Mary Magdalene either. Instead, Jesus told her he’d be closer to her and to all his family than he’d ever been. When Jesus went up to heaven, he would make sure everyone knew he or she could be part of God’s family and close to him (John 20:17).

Jesus told his disciples it was better for them if he went to heaven and sent his Spirit to be with them.

Because Jesus sent the Helper, God is always with his people. This is good news! You never have to worry if Jesus is too busy for you. You never have to worry if Jesus is too far away to see you or hear your prayers. You never have to wait for Jesus to be done talking to someone else before he can talk to you.

Jesus is God. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit as his Helper, and Jesus is always with us! Jesus has promised to be close to us until he comes back again to take us to be with him where he is (John 17:24; Matt. 28:20).

J. D. Greear on What Makes the Book of Romans Feel So Fresh Today Tue, 26 Sep 2023 04:04:28 +0000 J. D. Greear: ‘The gospel is not just the diving board off which we jump into Christianity—it’s the swimming pool in which we swim.’]]> “The gospel is not just the diving board off which we jump into Christianity—it’s the swimming pool in which we swim.”

That’s a line from J. D. Greear’s new book, Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in Ten Words (The Good Book Company). Greear is pastor at The Summit Church in North Carolina and the author of many books. He served as the 62nd president of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant church network in the United States. 

His book Essential Christianity works through Romans, the apostle Paul’s magnum opus. Based on Romans, Greear defines the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, this way: “God, in an act of grace, sent his Son, Jesus, to earth as a man so that through his life, death, and resurrection he could rescue us, reign as King, and lead us into the eternal, full life we were created to enjoy.”

Greear writes not only to encourage believers in Jesus but also to challenge non-Christians. He aims to show how the gospel defies many modern expectations. For example, he writes, “The cross yields a radical inclusiveness that welcomes anyone, celebrates everyone, and looks down on no one.”

J. D. joined me on Gospelbound to talk more about Romans and the human condition, as well as about his leadership maturation as a pastor. I also asked him what one change he’d want to make in the SBC. 

Pursue the Kingdom, Not Culture Wars Tue, 26 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Renewal came not by marshaling temporal might but by the power of the gospel.]]> Earlier this summer in Naples, Italy, I noticed a captivating mural. It depicts the tumult of that beautiful but oft-conquered city. And it reminds me of our own unsettled times.

Over the centuries, a host of nations—the Romans, Normans, French, and Spanish—all visited Naples, promising truth but delivering conquest and oppression. Two representatives of these invading peoples are depicted in this picture, brandishing guns while holding out a book of veritas (truth), presumably the Bible. Receiving their message is a cartoon figure called Pulcinella, a classic Neapolitan character who represents the region’s plebians, or common folk—those we now call “average Joes.” In the painting, Pulcinella exhibits a cynical expression. This isn’t his first evangelistic rodeo. He knows when missionaries show up bearing firearms, it usually doesn’t end well.

When I saw the mural, it reminded me of my own parcel of the Lord’s vineyard in suburban Chicago, where advocates of culture-war politics and ecclesial jingoism prepare for battle. Their objectives are commendable, but as with Naples, their heavy-handed partisanship has bred cynicism, a jaded inclination that regards the “truth” as a political power play. With a Pulcinella-like grin, more and more common folks respond, “Thanks, but I think I’ll pass.”

In this day of partisanship and skepticism, how do we promote genuine gospel renewal in our churches and communities? We find an example by returning to Naples in the fourth decade of the 16th century.

Neapolitan Evangelicals

It was a moment, like our own, of profound anxiety and disenchantment. A few years earlier, German and Spanish soldiers had sacked Rome, leaving the city in ruins with thousands of civilian corpses floating in the river. Now those Spanish soldiers were garrisoning in Naples, imposing yet another social order.

While gloom filled the public square, some citizens managed to resist the temptations toward cynicism and militancy. They were a collection of clerics, poets, power brokers, and influential laypeople who gathered in secret to study the Scriptures and pray. Two of them, Juan de Valdés and Pietro Carnesecchi, had worked in the court of Pope Clement VIII and had direct ties to Charles V’s court. Then there was Giulia da Gonzaga, Countess of Fondi, considered the most beautiful woman in Europe, to whom a steady flow of love poems poured in from adoring princes and Roman Catholic prelates.

Though the levers of power and influence were at their fingertips, these Neapolitan evangelicals chose communion with God over politics. They gathered to read Scripture, starting with Paul’s letter to the Romans. To avoid imprisonment by the Inquisition, they met in the countryside as a Bible study group on Sunday afternoons. Why Romans? Well, they reasoned, the book was stimulating renewal in Germany and Switzerland. Why not in southern Italy?

Experiencing God’s Kingdom

Renewal came.

Though the levers of power and influence were at their fingertips, these Neapolitan evangelicals chose communion with God over politics.

In 1536, the “golden-mouth” preacher Bernardino Ochino arrived in Naples. He delivered a much-anticipated Lenten sermon series at the Basilica of San Giovanni Maggiore. Clerics, laypeople, and the city’s leading citizens turned out to hear him. Even Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, returning from a military expedition in Tunisia, was present. Contemporaries described the sermons as awe-inspiring, revolutionary, and life-changing. They spurred the immediate publication of the Alfabeto Christiano, Naples’s first evangelical manifesto of faith, as well as several Bible studies and fellowships throughout the city. Such renewal came not by marshaling temporal might but by the power of the gospel.

Perhaps the most poignant summary of this Neapolitan fellowship was expressed decades later in 1567 by Carnesecchi, before he was publicly beheaded and burned for heresy. Describing the quality of friendship, theological interaction, and enthusiasm for gospel proclamation, Carnesecchi described his Bible study as il regno di Dio (“the kingdom of God”).

Living the Gospel

What does the kingdom of God look like in this contemporary moment? How do we embody and proclaim Christ’s truth in the world today in a biblically chaste way? Russell Moore recently addressed these questions in an article identifying the dangers of heavy-handed partisanship and cynicism. “We must refocus our attention on conversion rather than culture wars,” he said, “and actually read the Bible rather than mine it for passages to win arguments.”

Political pugnacity is a dead end. The way out of our cynical age won’t be found, as the checkered history of Christendom teaches us, in militant assertion of truth. It comes, rather, as Jesus brought the kingdom—in poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart, mercy, and even in loving one’s enemies.

Renewal came not by marshaling temporal might but by the power of the gospel.

Yes, we must continue to embody and proclaim God’s truth in the public square—and do so with earnestness as though lives depend on it, because they do. But with equal measure, we must manifest Jesus’s counterintuitive character, lay down our rhetorical firearms, listen to those with whom we disagree, and offer them a taste of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Like the brave and joyous evangelicals of Naples, let’s humbly beseech God to cleanse us of all unrighteousness, lifting up holy hands without wrath and dissension. Let’s mourn over injustices and prayerfully seek pure and peaceable wisdom from above. In this way, we can exhibit lives of godliness to a watching world and gently proclaim Christ’s glorious gospel without compromise. Perhaps even Pulcinella will listen. As our Lord has said, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5).

When Political Power Is Lost Tue, 26 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Daniel’s message of God’s transcendent rule is a timely word for us today as the West polarizes politically with a left and right divide, a divide mirrored in lamentable ways within the church.]]> The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II in 2022 will be seen as the last great public acknowledgment in the West of a transcendence that limits temporal power. In our secular age, religion is reduced to a privatized experience. The public square declares, “No heaven above us and no hell below.” The Queen’s funeral, replete with the language of temporal power being given by God, threw down a challenge to the rulers of this age: there is a God in heaven.

Such a challenge isn’t new. And neither is the idea.

We meet it most significantly in the book of Daniel, the exile template par excellence of the Old Testament. Daniel specifically states to King Nebuchadnezzar, “There is a God in heaven” (Dan. 2:28). This theme is repeated throughout the book, particularly in the narrative chapters 1–6, as are synonymous titles such as “Most High” and “King of heaven” (e.g., 2:18, 37; 3:26; 4:2, 37; 5:18).

Daniel’s message of God’s transcendent rule is a timely word for us today as the West polarizes politically with a left and right divide, a divide mirrored in lamentable ways within the church.

Political Divide

We’re being pressed with two extremes in the political realm. First, there’s the seemingly ascendant progressive political agenda that, as Mark Sayers puts it, “seeks to gain the fruit of God’s kingdom—such as justice, peace, prosperity and redemption—but without the King.” The left craves human rights that are the fruit of the gospel throughout history but despises the roots.

Daniel’s message of God’s transcendent rule is a timely word for us today as the West polarizes politically with a left and right divide, a divide mirrored in lamentable ways within the church.

Yet there’s an equal and opposite push. Perhaps we could call it “Christendom without Christ.” This is a move from the right that even some in the church espouse. It’s a call for a return to the supposedly golden age of politics past, in which a Christianized culture set the political tone and agenda. We don’t need everyone to be saved. That’s not possible. But we should use temporal power to make the culture as “Christian” as we can—all within a democratic setting, of course. The trick is how to sell the product at a time when the percentage of church attendees is in decline and the percentage of “nones” and “dones” is on the rise.

The movements have more in common with each other than adherents would care to admit. Their actions either refute or negate the central truth that there’s a God in heaven—an eternal Ruler above their temporal rule. The book of Daniel challenges both the growing hubris and overreach of secular progressives and the growing anger and frustration among conservatives, including religious conservatives. It does so by placing political power and political impotence within the reality of God’s sovereignty.

Irony of Sovereignty

The great irony in Daniel, concerned as it is with the physically and historically bound exile of God’s people in Babylon, is that the book is shaped by God’s transcendence. Six ripping yarns set within history, offset by a further six apocalyptic chapters. And even those first six give off apocalyptic fumes.

This is a prophetic challenge to those who hold the levers of temporal power: use them wisely. But it’s also a pastoral comfort to those who realize those levers may never come our way again: lose them joyfully.

Daniel’s lengthy life spanning several kings, and indeed kingdoms, reminds us the cultural exilic experience of God’s people in the West may be a long-term reality. Cultural exile is the standard for God’s people—our recent Western experience is merely the aberration that proved the rule. If this is the case, we need to gird our loins.

The remainder of this short article will explore one timely truth from the book of Daniel: that despite our cultural exile, the God of heaven is the ultimate reality. This truth enables us to sail between the political Cyanean rocks threatening to crush the life out of our witness to our transcendent King.

Ultimate Reality

Long before we reach the famed Son of Man in Daniel 7, it’s clear God rules over history, especially when his people seem to be on the wrong side of it. The book starts with the dreadful events of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of Babylon’s Nebuchadnezzar. Tragedy! Yet there’s comfort amid it all: “The Lord gave Jehoiakim . . . into his hand” (1:2).

Heaven, it turns out, is less about God’s postcode and more about his power. Even the dismantling of Jerusalem’s worship system (v. 2), the capture of its political elite (vv. 3–4), and the reconstituting of it for Babylon’s purposes and identity (vv. 5–7) come under his remit. All this before we ever read these words about earthly leaders in the book’s second half: “As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away” (7:12).

Heaven, it turns out, is less about God’s postcode and more about his power.

Which is a reminder, of course, that their dominion was first given. That’s where the rubber hits the road for Christians in the political sphere. All dominion is given. And if given externally, then taken away externally too. Not simply at the ballot box but by the God of heaven.

Christians shouldn’t rage against the rise of political leaders with whom they disagree. They mustn’t hate and scorn them. They need not. Even if there were no New Testament advice on how to pray for pagan leaders, there’s the cast-iron truth of Daniel chapter 1: the Lord gives and the Lord takes away.

This has two implications. First, Christians can call secular leaders to account with grace and humility. Even the tone and shape of our political disagreements must adorn the gospel. Second, Christians who are in political power must maintain the tension of holding moral certainty with political reality. It cannot be the case that the winner takes it all.

The fact that God is in heaven is a liberating reality for Christians as political exiles: it spares us the overreach we’ll be prone to when we hold political power and spares us the despair we so often see in the evangelical subculture when power is lost.

TGC Announces The Carson Center for Theological Renewal Tue, 26 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The Carson Center prepares the soil of theological renewal by planting resources that help Bible teachers and students grow into maturity.]]> On behalf of The Gospel Coalition, I’m pleased to announce the launch of a major new initiative: The Carson Center for Theological Renewal.

Around the world today, biblical illiteracy inhibits spiritual depth—not just in the shrinking church of the West but even in the growing churches of the South and East. But there’s no spiritual renewal without returning to Scripture. And while the internet offers unprecedented access to the Bible, many of the most widely used resources for studying God’s Word are unhelpful at best or heretical at worst.

That’s why TGC has started The Carson Center for Theological Renewal, named in honor of TGC cofounder Don Carson. As we see in Scripture and church history, spiritual renewal follows theological renewal when the ancient gospel of Jesus Christ recaptures our hearts and minds.

This new initiative fosters spiritual renewal around the world by providing excellent theological resources for the whole church—for anyone called to teach and anyone who wants to study the Bible.

The Center helps Bible study leaders and small group facilitators teach God’s Word, so they can answer tough questions on the spot with a quick search on their smartphones. At no cost to users, the Center publishes theological journals and scholarly books for pastors and theologians, no matter where they live. For teachers who lack formal training, the Center provides free resources on hundreds of theological topics and every book of the Bible. All they need is internet access to find many of these resources in their own languages.

Today the Center launches with thousands of Bible and theology resources available and ready to search. But with translation projects underway and new resources under development, we’re just getting started.

What You Can Expect

Over the next few years, The Carson Center aims to do the following:

1. Create: The Carson Center will produce and distribute a multi-resource, digital-first collection designed to serve church leaders around the world. Resources will include commentaries on every book of the Bible, Bible and theological dictionaries, a hermeneutics handbook, and more. We want every church leader to have access to the core tools necessary to thrive in biblical study.

2. Curate: The Carson Center will collect and distribute a wide range of biblical and theological material. This collection will include a sermon library, free courses on hundreds of theological and practical ministry topics, book reviews, and scholarly articles on a range of topics. For the first time, the Carson Digital Library compiles Don Carson’s work, including more than 600 sermons and conference messages in audio and transcript form; multiple free ebooks; hundreds of articles and reviews on topics ranging from the authority of Scripture to the challenges of postmodernism; and several courses, including the well-known lecture series The God Who Is There.

3. Cultivate: A select group of fellows—top biblical scholars and theologians from around the world—will help lead The Carson Center by producing resources to serve the next generation of church teachers. These fellows will also provide online cohort-style training to Bible teachers, students, and anyone else who wants to become better acquainted with God through his Word.

How You Can Get Involved

The Carson Center prepares the soil of theological renewal by planting resources that help Bible teachers and students grow into maturity. Here’s how you can get involved:

1. Explore the Center’s resources to find articles, sermons, commentaries, essays, books, and lectures that will serve you and your church.

2. Pray that God uses this new resource to strengthen church leaders around the world. Pray also for The Carson Center’s program director, Phil Thompson, as well as for our search for the executive director and fellows.

3. Make a financial gift to partner with the Center in its mission.

4. Spread the word about this resource to other Bible teachers and students who could benefit.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Teaching Sincere Apologies Mon, 25 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 I had to learn to own that I wasn’t perfect. Ouch.]]> As a sassy, opinionated youngster with 11 siblings, I had plenty of opportunities to practice apologizing.

I’d be lying if I said I liked it. My preference was to simply mutter “sorry” under my breath and walk away—but I soon learned I couldn’t get away with that in our home. As Andy Allan wrote, “A believer’s journey to Christ involves admitting our failure to meet God’s holy standard, not obsessively perfecting our image.” I had to learn to own that I wasn’t perfect. Ouch.

As humans, we all fall short of perfection. Yet our failures give us opportunities to see the sufficiency of God’s grace in our lives, his power manifest in our weaknesses (2 Cor. 12:9). When our actions result in hurting others, whether intentionally or not, sincere apologies are warranted. My parents raised my siblings and me with Christ-centered intentionality in many areas of life, but one of the most important things they taught us was to make sincere apologies.

Not-Good-Enough Apologies

Saying “sorry” wasn’t considered a “good enough” apology in the Bettendorf household. It didn’t get to the heart of the issue, nor was it sincere. My parents taught me to first explain what I was apologizing for, acknowledge how it hurt the other person, and then ask the offended person for forgiveness. “I’m sorry” could never be followed by the words “but,” “you,” or “if,” as we were taught these words swept away the sincerity of the apology.

My parents taught me to first explain what I was apologizing for, acknowledge how it hurt the other person, and then ask the offended person for forgiveness.

“I’m sorry you . . .” places the blame on the other person, thereby lifting responsibility from the apologizer. “I’m sorry, but . . .” gives the guilty party a free pass to make any excuse, eliminating the sincerity or weight of the apology. “I’m sorry if . . .” makes it sound like you’re not convinced you need to apologize at all. My parents made sure we took the blame, asked for forgiveness, and accepted the consequences.

By identifying the reasons for our apologies, we had to really think about what we did, why we did it, and what the outcomes were. By asking for forgiveness, we understood that our actions came with consequences and that our relationships needed work when we failed to be kind.

Most important, we were taught to apologize not only to the person we’d wronged but also to God. He was our healer—and even when people didn’t feel ready to forgive, God always was. We only needed to ask.

Grounded in Gospel Mercy

In training us to sincerely acknowledge our mistakes, my parents grounded us in the mercy of the gospel. They taught us to be apologetic for our sin, to man and to God, which in turn led us to be unapologetic in holding to the truth, grace, and forgiveness the gospel brings to our lives. If we can’t sincerely apologize for our sin, how can we begin to have a right relationship with our perfect Creator?

If we can’t sincerely apologize for our sin, how can we begin to have a right relationship with our perfect Creator?

As I saw my need to apologize, I experienced the sweetness of forgiveness in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.

My husband’s parents also taught him to make a sincere apology when he sinned. And now, in our marriage, we’re able to say “I was wrong”—a phrase our pastor challenged us to not be afraid of in our relationship during our premarital counseling sessions. As we embark on the adventure of parenting together, with our first baby due in December, we eagerly embrace and anticipate the lifelong adventure of getting to teach our child to be apologetic for sin and unapologetic in faith, knowing that in Christ there’s forgiveness and restoration.

Children are a gift from the Lord, and being entrusted with shaping their souls is a heavy yet beautiful task. Teach your children to make sincere apologies. While no parents are perfect, mine taught me this well.

4 Principles for Practicing Apologetics Mon, 25 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The most powerful arguments expressed in the most memorable way fall like a house of cards if they issue from the mouth of a person in ongoing, unrepentant, and grievous sin.]]> When it comes to apologetics, I need all the help I can get. Here are four wise principles I’ve been taught in recent years that I strive to remember as I commend and contend for the Christian faith.

None of them are new, but I’ve found them immensely helpful.

1. Apologetics is a we thing, not a me thing.

If we’re to do apologetics well, we need each other. None of us can be a one-stop shop for all apologetic matters. I’m a philosopher, so my bread and butter is wrangling big, abstract concepts and hunting around for hidden assumptions. But ask me to get practical and talk policy, and I soon leave my comfort zone.

I need Christians with expertise in politics and economics, for example, to work out the practical consequences of grand theological and philosophical ideas—and to push back on those ideas from time to time. Only together can we develop a fully rounded case for the Christian faith.

We all need people who are different from us to stand alongside us in the apologetic enterprise. We need bulldogs (like Christ with the Pharisees) and gentle collies (like Christ with the woman at the well). We need young and old; rich and poor; black and white; African, Eastern, and Western Christians; each to present the unchanging and glorious gospel in ways that complement fellow apologists’ sensitivities and blind spots.

2. Apologetics is how as well as what.

What you say is only one aspect of apologetics. The same argument can be memorable or mediocre, striking or soporific, depending on how it’s expressed. A finely crafted sentence is the shaft driving home the spearhead of truth. I’ve learned this from C. S. Lewis, from Jackie Hill Perry, and from Francis Spufford, among others. They take time to shape sentences that let the truth sing, and it makes all the difference to the impression they leave.

If we’re to do apologetics well, we need each other. Only together can we develop a fully rounded case for the Christian faith.

No one, perhaps, has done this quite as well in the past hundred years as G. K. Chesterton. In The Everlasting Man, he remarks, “Things that may well be familiar so long as familiarity breeds affection had much better become unfamiliar when familiarity breeds contempt.” If people think they know what you’re going to say, they’ll pay you scant attention. He muses that most people in the West are so inoculated against what they think Christianity is that we’d do well to retell the whole gospel in a Far Eastern setting for it to be “admired as a heathen story, in the very quarters where it is condemned as a Christian story.”

This is the brilliance of many of Jesus’s parables. Some behavior in them isn’t quite right; some attitudes make us do a double take. Tell the old, old story; preach the one true gospel. But tell it with a shift in perspective; preach it with an unsettling freshness. Don’t let people go away thinking they’ve heard it all before.

3. Apologetics is also who.

There’s a further crucial aspect to being Christ’s ambassador: who you are, your character. I remember taking a hardened and intellectually brilliant atheist friend to hear a debate between William Lane Craig and an atheist from the philosophy department at Cambridge. The philosophy guy was clinical, throwing out a series of well-targeted and immaculately presented arguments, but he was also cruel, making fun of Craig’s credentials.

Walking home from the debate, I asked my hardened, skeptical friend what he made of it. To my surprise, his overriding reaction was that he liked Craig more as a person because he didn’t strike back when he was attacked with low blows. On that day, Craig’s character spoke louder than his arguments (1 Pet. 3:15).

Character also counts when we’re away from the apologetic arena. We’ve witnessed in recent years the spectacular demise of more than one prominent Christian apologist who made powerful arguments and spoke in glittering prose. Sadly, these apologists were missing a third crucial, nonnegotiable quality: godliness.

The most powerful arguments expressed in the most memorable way fall like a house of cards if they issue from the mouth of a person in ongoing, unrepentant, and grievous sin. We all sin, but we know the difference between a normal Christian life of repentance and struggle and a life indulging and even hiding deplorable wrongs. Lord, have mercy on us all.

4. Apologetics today means being an insider-outsider.

In recent years, I’ve tried to adopt the stance of what Pierce Taylor Hibbs in a forthcoming book describes as an “insider-outsider.”

The most powerful arguments expressed in the most memorable way fall like a house of cards if they issue from the mouth of a person in ongoing, unrepentant, and grievous sin.

One great model for this is Augustine’s City of God. Augustine was an insider to the Roman culture he put under the microscope. He genuinely appreciated why Cicero is such a good writer and so admired in Roman society. He didn’t merely read a cheat sheet on how to take Rome down; Augustine wrote about Rome in a way that showed the Romans he understood them.

But he was also thoroughly an outsider. Looking at Roman culture with the eyes of someone whose thoughts and emotions move to a biblical rhythm, he saw the quirks and idiosyncrasies that were invisible to the Romans themselves.

Some of us are more naturally insiders (Contextualize! Be relevant!), and others are more naturally outsiders (Proclaim! Be faithful!). Which aspect of being an insider-outsider do you need to work on as you practice apologetics?

These are four principles I’m trying to learn in my own apologetic practice. Do pray for me. And I’ll be praying for the readers of this article, too, that God would give you the grace to embody and live out these principles in your own apologetic encounters.

Anna: Faithful in Prayer Sun, 24 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Anna has much to teach us about what it means to be faithful over decades despite hardship and often amid loneliness.]]> Every day, an old man walks down my street. His head juts forward on a skinny neck, his back hunches with age, and his feet shuffle more than they step. In his hands, he clutches two small weights. With forearms at right angles to his body, he pushes dumbbells ahead of his torso. His progress is glacial. From my window, I can see him coming; minutes later, even after I’ve put in a load of laundry or started the dishwasher, he still won’t be past my house. I’ve never met him, but he’s become a familiar part of life on my street.

In a neighborhood of fast runners outfitted in sleek gear, this man is an oddity. His movement is slow, and his rumpled clothing isn’t much to look at. But what impresses me is his faithfulness. No matter the weather, there he is, walking down the street, one foot in front of the other.

To temple attendees in first-century Jerusalem, Anna was probably a similarly familiar figure. “Here comes Anna,” we can imagine the priests saying to one another as the old woman slowly shuffled through the temple gate and across the courtyard, just as she did every day.

As we consider our own lives, Anna has much to teach us about what it means to be faithful over decades despite hardship and often amid loneliness. In particular, Anna shows us that God’s people in exile ought to be people who pray.

Exile Among Exiles

Anna’s place in the Bible’s story occupies only three verses. We meet Anna in Luke’s Gospel as Mary and Joseph are bringing the newborn Jesus into the temple:

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36–38)

Anna’s story may be brief, but we shouldn’t underestimate her significance in redemptive history as a faithful exile—and her usefulness to us as an example.

In just a few verses, Luke tells us that Anna was an exile from among the exiles. A prophetess at a time when there were no prophets, an Asherite where the tribal line was thought extinct, an old woman from a decimated generation, an Israelite in Roman territory, a woman without a family, a faithful believer in a faithless world. Year after year, the Lord had stripped away from Anna all the things that would have made her feel at home on the earth.

And every day, she came to his temple to worship him.

‘She Did Not Depart’

Anna’s life task was the work of persistent prayer. And when we, too, feel like exiles—when we live in neighborhoods and belong to families where seemingly no one else shares our deepest convictions—we can learn from her.

Year after year, the Lord had stripped away from Anna all the things that would have made her feel at home on the earth. And every day, she came to his temple to worship him.

Anna “did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37). Only in eternity will we know exactly what Anna prayed, but, as a faithful Jew, she would have asked the Lord to supply all her needs. In this way, her prayers were probably not much different from many of our own.

But Scripture leads us to believe that Anna’s prayers were more than lists of temporal needs. Her commitment to fasting and her dedication to round-the-clock intercession over many decades point to prayers that rose above simple reactions to daily needs and desires. Anna’s prayers weren’t dictated by the concerns of the moment. Anna’s prayers were for the fulfillment of the greatest promise God had ever made: redemption.

Anna knew that what she and the rest of God’s people needed wasn’t merely a nice life, or even a life in their own land. What they needed was redemption from their sins, reconciliation with their God, and re-creation of their hearts. What they needed was the Messiah—promised to Adam and Eve in the garden and looked for by the faithful ever since. When she prayed, Anna asked Yahweh to send the Christ.

And Anna didn’t give up praying. To pester the Lord like Anna did—day and night for decades upon decades—would be audacious, except that God himself had commanded it: “On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the LORD in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth” (Isa. 62:6–7).

Anna came boldly because God told her to be bold. Anna kept asking because God told her not to quit. Like another famous widow in the parable that Jesus would later tell, Anna didn’t stop begging God. And like that widow, Anna teaches us “always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1).

Keep Praying

Exile is hard, and it’s all too easy to allow the daily struggles of life in a fallen world to consume our prayers (or to keep us from the place of prayer altogether). When we pray for decades for the salvation of loved ones, the growth of the church, and the revelation of Christ among people who aren’t even looking for him, we often see few quantifiable answers. Year after year, the world around us continues to seek hope everywhere but in Christ. Meanwhile, we exiles still need to get dressed, eat, and pay the bills.

To pester the Lord like Anna did—day and night for decades upon decades—would be audacious, except that God himself had commanded it.

Praying for the advance of Christ’s cause in the world can seem futile, and, over time, our prayers dwindle to short lists of temporal needs or perfunctory requests without much expectation of God’s answer. But Anna invites us to pray for more and to pray for it more often. She invites us to confidently ask God to do what he has already promised he would: to redeem his people.

As we walk among people living in darkness, we can dedicate ourselves to praying that God would shine the light of the Messiah in our hearts and in theirs, giving new life and glorifying Christ. Anna’s example also invites us to pray for the Lord’s appearing, not as a baby this time but as the triumphant King. In the discouragement of exile, we need to fix our eyes on Jesus—looking expectantly for his work in the world now and for his final revelation one day soon. Like the saints of old, we keep praying, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Calvin’s Take on Venerating Relics Sat, 23 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Relics continue to be central to Roman Catholic devotional practice, which means the Catholic church still needs reformation.]]> Today, on September 23, 2023, a relic of the heart of Saint Pio (Padre Pio) will be exposed for veneration in San Giovanni Rotondo. This is the town in southern Italy where Saint Pio (1887–1968) lived most of his life and is buried. Following Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing of the relic in 2019, thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims are expected to descend on the town to seek Saint Pio’s blessing on their lives.

For the casual observer, it may come as a surprise that relics are still venerated. Yet the practice remains central to Roman Catholic life. For example, this particular relic was previously exposed in the Philippines and elsewhere. It’s one of many relics from Saint Pio that can be seen on the Padre Pio Relics Tour.

Venerating relics continues to be part of the core of Roman Catholic theology and devotional practice. Praying to the dead, asking for the intercession of saints, attaching to physical objects as mediators of grace, and centering life around folk devotional practices aren’t fringe aspects of the faith; they’re in the mainstream. This is why John Calvin’s Treatise on Relics remains relevant in our day.

Calvin’s ‘Treatise’

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, the veneration of relics was one of the most hotly debated issues in the church. In 1543, John Calvin wrote his Treatise on Relics to confront the abuses of the practice as well as the theological foundations beneath it.

On first analysis, Treatise appears as a kind of survey of Roman Catholic spirituality. Calvin’s strategy is to approach the question of relics from two angles. First, he exposes the apparent contradictions present in the vast repertoire of relics (after all, how many pieces of the cross can there be?). He notes the bizarre nature of the objects, questions how they were collected, and critiques the idiosyncrasies of the cult attached to them.

Calvin offers an anecdotal account of relic veneration in the 16th century. He doesn’t attempt a comprehensive or systematic evaluation of all relics. Instead, he suggests that “if a general visitation of all existing relics were possible, a hundredfold more discoveries would be made.” He claims most relics are “frauds.” They’re “deceits for exciting the devotion of the people.” Calvin doesn’t shy away from using words like “abuses,” “false,” “fraud,” “trash,” “deceit,” “fables,” “mockery,” and “superstition” to describe relics. He believes many relics are counterfeits.

Second, Calvin addresses the idolatrous nature of relic veneration. Regardless of whether the relics are real or fake, authentic or counterfeit, Calvin believes the heart of the practice is the problem. His dramatic denunciation of idolatry pervades Treatise. Far from a lighthearted work that mocks the practice as merely superstitious or silly, it employs strong language to call for the church’s wholesale rejection of relic veneration.

Regardless of whether the relics are real or fake, authentic or counterfeit, Calvin believes the heart of the practice is the problem.

Idolatrous Practice

But this book doesn’t contain all Calvin has to say about relics. In the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (I.XI–XII), he reflects on the use of images in divine worship. Since God expects to be served exclusively, any form of worship or veneration that deviates from what’s prescribed in Scripture represents a sinful yielding to the lusts of imagination and unbelief. Calvin writes, “Instead of discerning Jesus Christ in his Word, his Sacraments, and his spiritual graces, the world has, according to its custom, amused itself with his clothes, shirts, and sheets, leaving thus the principal to follow the accessory.”

For Calvin, the relic isn’t a theologically neutral artifact. It’s the fruit of disobedience that refuses to worship God and God alone. Relics, which may have been introduced with good intentions and for pedagogical purposes, eventually opened the door to pagan religiosity and inappropriate veneration. “The desire for relics is never without superstition,” Calvin writes, “and what is worse, it is usually the parent of idolatry.”

In Treatise, Calvin doesn’t seek to address the subtle distinction between latria and dulia (service/worship and honor/veneration), the lexical-theological smokescreen behind which the Roman Catholic Church justifies the veneration of relics. He does that in the Institutes (I.XI.11): “If idolatry be nothing else than the transfer elsewhere of the honour which is due to God, can it be denied that this is idolatry?” For Calvin, the argument that relics are an accommodation to the faith of simple people is invalid. The responsibility for idolatry falls on the shoulders of the whole church that approves the veneration of relics.

Soli Deo Gloria

Unlike most relics in Roman Catholic churches and shrines, San Pio’s heart probably isn’t counterfeit. Yet what’s most problematic is the theology supporting its veneration.

Calvin proposes a simple and radical cure. We should “abolish from amongst us Christians this pagan superstition of canonising relics.” The practice should be completely eradicated to restore worship according to God’s will, in spirit and truth (John 4:24). For Calvin, the religion of relics representred one of the tragedies of his day, a tradition that needed to be reformed according to the gospel.

Relic veneration should be completely eradicated to restore worship according to God’s will, in spirit and truth.

But has anything changed since Calvin’s time? Today, Roman Catholicism continues to blend sophisticated philosophical traditions, complex theological strands, and highly aesthetic sensitivities with folk practices rooted in pagan belief systems. Relics stand at the intersection of these influences. Individuals may be able to pick and choose the kind of Roman Catholicism they prefer, but they can’t deny it demands you accept it wholesale, including its relics.

The news that Saint Pio’s heart is exposed as a relic and that Pope Benedict XVI—often acclaimed as “orthodox”—blessed it shows the Roman Catholic veneration of relics continues to be a significant issue in our day. The roots of this practice lie in the fact that Roman Catholicism isn’t ultimately committed to the biblical gospel but to a theological mix that has absorbed various beliefs and practices that contradict basic biblical truths.

Calvin’s warning is as relevant and urgent today as it was 500 years ago. We must get back to the gospel of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. We must get back to glorifying God alone. Soli Deo gloria.

New ‘Gospel’ Manuscript Discovered? (What It Is and Why It Matters.) Sat, 23 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Well over 40 percent of our New Testament papyri come from the single site of Oxyrhynchus. And there’s been a major new discovery.]]> In 1896, near the ruins of an ancient Egyptian city called Oxyrhynchus, British scholars Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt made a remarkable discovery. They’d traveled to the ancient city in hopes of finding papyrus manuscripts. What they found was beyond their wildest dreams.

They came across the ancient city’s garbage dump—filled with thousands upon thousands of manuscripts. So enormous was the find that the archaeologists were overwhelmed. Grenfell described it later: “The flow of papyri became a torrent which it was difficult to cope with.”

For the last 127 years, the site of Oxyrhynchus has continued to produce manuscripts. While most of these manuscripts are fairly routine discoveries—including what we call “documentary” papyri like receipts, letters, and contracts—occasionally the site reveals something more significant, even exhilarating.

Significance of Oxyrhynchus

As a general rule, ancient manuscripts are hard to come by. Most have perished over the years for a variety of reasons—destroyed by foreign armies, burned in fires, eaten by insects, rotted or decayed, or simply lost. We never have as many as we’d like.

Thanks to Oxyrhynchus, though, we have manuscripts of the New Testament we might never have expected to have. Before the 20th century, we possessed very few of what we call New Testament papyri—copies of the New Testament on papyrus, typically earlier than the later parchment manuscripts.

Since Grenfell and Hunt’s discovery, though, the number of New Testament papyri in our possession has exploded. So much so that well over 40 percent of our New Testament papyri come from the single site of Oxyrhynchus. And some of these are early in date, even from the second and third centuries.

Well over 40 percent of our New Testament papyri come from the single site of Oxyrhynchus.

As a recent (and rather famous) example, the 83rd volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri published a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Mark, P.Oxy. 5345. Why was this such a big deal? Because for years, there had been rumors swirling about a manuscript from Mark dated to the first century—which would make it the earliest New Testament manuscript in existence. When P.Oxy. 5345 was unveiled, it turned out to be dated to the late second or early third century, not the first. Even so, this manuscript is still remarkably early and is the oldest copy of Mark’s Gospel in our possession.

But Oxyrhynchus has not just supplied copies of the New Testament. It has also been a treasure trove for what we call “apocryphal” writings—that is, writings about Jesus that weren’t included in our Bibles. The very first manuscript from Oxyrhynchus—fittingly labeled P.Oxy. 1—was not a copy of the New Testament but a copy of the Gospel of Thomas. Other copies of Thomas have been found there (P.Oxy. 654, 655), along with a number of other apocryphal texts (e.g., Acts of Paul, Acts of Peter, Gospel of Peter).

And that brings us to our current topic—and the latest exhilarating find from Oxyrhynchus. Less than a month ago, on August 31, 2023, the 87th volume of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri was published—and therein we learn of a remarkable fragment, P.Oxy. 5575. The internet has been buzzing about it ever since. Let’s explore why.

Content of P.Oxy. 5575

The first notable feature of this fragment—and the feature that’s generated most of the online buzz—is the unique mix of content it contains. According to the original editors, it apparently contains a conglomeration of material from Matthew (6:25–26, 28–33) and Luke (12:22, 24, 27–31), laid alongside portions from the Gospel of Thomas (27, 36, 63). The various verses are not neatly divided into separate sections but seem to alternate back and forth. There seems to be a section from Thomas, followed by portions of Matthew/Luke, then back to Thomas, then back to Matthew/Luke, and so on.

So what do we make of this interesting mix of content? We can begin by observing that the mixing of Matthew and Luke in early Christian texts is nothing new. We see this sort of natural Synoptic “harmonization” in a number of places in early Christianity, including the Apostolic Fathers, as well as Justin Martyr.

Even so, it’s unclear how much Synoptic mixing is actually taking place in P.Oxy. 5575, especially given the fragmentary remains of the manuscript. The material seems heavily connected to Matthew, leaving questions about how much Lukan material is really mixed in. (Peter Gurry questions the influence of Luke, whereas Mark Goodacre supports it.)

Regardless, the more intriguing feature is the pairing of Thomas material alongside Synoptic material. Although, due to the fragmentary nature of the manuscript, it’s again unclear how much Thomas material is actually in view. While it’s clear that our fragment employed saying 27, it seems less clear whether it employed saying 36 or 63. The supposed link to saying 63 is built on the remains of only a single word.

Even with these considerations in mind, P.Oxy. 5575 is still the only example I’m aware of where material from the Synoptics and material from Thomas are blended together in this manner. And, no doubt, that is partly why this manuscript has garnered so much attention.

In the larger context of the second century, P.Oxy. 5575 may not be as unusual as we might think. A number of apocryphal Gospels during this time period were already mixing canonical and non-canonical material—e.g., P.Egerton 2, Gospel of Peter, P.Oxy. 840. Many of these apocryphal Gospels were dependent on earlier canonical material; and when they subsequently added new material, it inevitably created a “mix” of sorts.

A notable example of this phenomenon is actually the Gospel of Thomas itself. Most scholars now regard Thomas as dependent on the Synoptic Gospels (see the recent works of Gathercole and Goodacre). If so, then there’s a sense in which we could say the Gospel of Thomas was already doing what P.Oxy. 5575 appears to be doing—namely, mixing Synoptic and Thomas material into a single document.

Of course, the usage of Synoptic material is a bit more subtle in Thomas, and not as “wooden” as in P.Oxy. 5575. But the same general principle seems to be at work.

Date of P.Oxy. 5575

The second feature that makes this fragment noteworthy is its remarkably early date. The original editors placed the manuscript in the second century, largely due to comparisons with the hand of P.Oxy. 4009 (possibly from the Gospel of Peter), among other manuscripts. In a recent blog post, Dan Wallace clarified that the editors favored a slightly broader date: “late second or perhaps early third century.”

For those aware of the state of early Christian papyri, this is a stunningly early date. While we have some New Testament manuscripts possibly dated to the second century—e.g., P52, P90, P104, P137—the vast majority are much, much later. And even the dates of these possible second-century manuscripts have been challenged by some scholars as being too early.

For those aware of the state of early Christian papyri, this is a stunningly early date.

Thus, if the editors of P.Oxy. 5575 are correct, then this new manuscript is one of the earliest ‘gospel’ manuscripts in our possession—and earlier than nearly all our existing New Testament manuscripts.

But others aren’t convinced. Brent Nongbri, who has previously published a number of articles challenging traditional dating methods, has already expressed his doubts about the date of P.Oxy. 5575. Moreover, even the editors acknowledge that the well-known palaeographer, Pasquale Orsini, has assigned P.Oxy. 4009 (the primary manuscript used to date P.Oxy. 5575) to the fourth century.

Size of P.Oxy. 5575

The final feature I’ll mention is P.Oxy. 5575’s tiny size. Based on a number of measurements offered by the editors, I reconstructed the size as approximately 8.8 x 10.6 cm. (width x height). The editors therefore put this manuscript in the category of a miniature codex.

From as early as the second century, and especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians began to create little “pocket Bibles” that contained portions of Scripture and sometimes even held multiple scriptural books. We have miniature codices with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, James, 1 Peter, Revelation, and more.

The early Christians probably used the miniature codex format for a number of reasons including private reading, portability for long journeys, and sometimes even in a “magical” sense, thinking it provided protection for the one who possessed it. But they also used this tiny format to carry what we’d call “apocryphal” writings—books not approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. For example, we have miniature codices that contain the Gospel of Mary, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Protevangelium of James, the Apocalypse of Peter, and more.

While we have no way to know for sure how P.Oxy. 5575 functioned, it may have been a sayings-of-Jesus collection, drawn from a variety of sources, that early Christians used for private devotional reading and possibly for taking on journeys.

Implications of P.Oxy. 5575

P.Oxy. 5575 is a fascinating manuscript: it has an unusual mix of material from Matthew/Luke and from the Gospel of Thomas; it’s dated as early as the second century; and it was constructed to be a miniature “pocket” book probably for private use.

Now we come to the main issue on many people’s minds. What are the implications of this new manuscript discovery for our understanding of how Jesus tradition was transmitted and used in the early Christian movement? And should this manuscript change what we think about the content in our four Gospels?

Indeed, in some people’s minds, such a manuscript might be regarded as evidence that Christians in the second century weren’t interested in making distinctions between canonical and apocryphal material. Some might conclude sayings of Jesus just existed in some sort of undifferentiated lump in these early centuries, all mixed together, and this lump of material would only be sorted out in the fourth century or later.

So let’s break down this issue a little bit.

We can begin by acknowledging that the discovery of P.Oxy. 5575 might provide a helpful correction to some rather simplistic views of the way Jesus tradition was transmitted or how the canon developed. Some in the church who grew up reading (and loving) the four Gospels might not even realize “other” gospels existed or that some Christians might have read them or profited from them. They might think all people claiming to be Christians in the ancient world were on the same theological and biblical page (no pun intended).

But that was not the case. The early Christian world, particularly the second century, was a theologically diverse place. There were battles over “heresy” and “orthodoxy.” Christians didn’t always agree. And sometimes they read from different books. The existence of manuscripts like P.Oxy. 5575 reminds us of that reality. (For more on these sorts of issues, see my book Christianity at the Crossroads: How the Second Century Shaped the Future of the Church.)

With that said, I don’t think this new manuscript discovery challenges the fundamental integrity of Jesus tradition in this time period. Here are a few considerations:

  • We should remember that the earliest Christian movement was not just devoted to oral tradition but maintained a robust “textual culture” that was manifested in a rather sophisticated scribal network and the copying and dissemination of books. Thus, we have good reasons to think Christians not only cared about the Jesus tradition they possessed but were careful to transmit it faithfully. (For more on this issue, see my book The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.)
  • By the second century, the early Christian movement was already making meaningful distinctions between canonical and apocryphal writings. For example, our earliest canonical list, the Muratorian fragment (c. 180), is already distinguishing between which books were “in” and which were “out.” And it affirms about 22 out of 27 books that became part of our New Testament.
  • Also in the second century, we see a number of patristic writers affirming the integrity of the fourfold Gospel. I (and others) have written about this elsewhere, and there’s not space here to cull through the evidence. But a good case can be made that we have a fourfold Gospel affirmed by Papias, Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Irenaeus, and Clement of Alexandria. Particularly noteworthy is the statement by Irenaeus: “It is not possible that the gospels can be either more fewer than the number they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principle winds . . . [and] the Cherubim, too, were four-faced” (Haer. 3.11.8). Apparently these Christian writers didn’t think all Jesus stories or Jesus books were the same.
  • Christians during this time period were quite willing to use a variety of Jesus material in the second century, drawn from many sources (oral and written), as long as it was helpful and edifying. But this didn’t mean they drew no distinctions between canonical and noncanonical content. Clement of Alexandria, for example, is able to cite favorably from the Gospel of the Egyptians and the Gospel of the Hebrews (and many other noncanonical works)—but, at the same time, he makes clear he considers only the four Gospels as canonical. Thus, even though a wide variety of material could be used, it wasn’t all necessarily regarded as Scripture.
  • While the church fathers, generally speaking, were open to using Jesus material outside of the received books (though not necessarily as Scripture), there were some apocryphal gospels so fundamentally at odds with the rule of faith (that had been handed down from the apostles) that the fathers felt the need to condemn them. From what we can tell, Thomas was one of those gospels toward which the fathers were not favorably disposed. Hippolytus and Origen, for example, critique it in the third century (though there are some questions about whether Origen was referring to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas).

No Fundamental Changes

By now, it’s probably becoming clear why such manuscript discoveries are so exciting. Aside from the thrill of an archaeological discovery from the ancient world, manuscripts like P.Oxy. 5575 shed light on aspects of the early Christian movement and the way that Jesus tradition was transmitted and utilized.

This new fragment, as we’ve noted, reminds us these aspects of the early Christian movement were not always as “neat and tidy” as people sometimes think. The development of the canon was a messy process at points, and not all early Christians saw things the same way.

That said, there is nothing about P.Oxy. 5575 that diminishes the trustworthiness of the Jesus material we find in the Gospels, nor does it change the way we view the Gospel of Thomas. When the dust settles, it seems if someone wants to know about the person of Jesus of Nazareth, they can still turn with confidence to the place where Christians have turned for thousands of years—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Apple’s Mother Nature Ad: It’s Protestant Paganism. Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:17:00 +0000 It’s the Christian revolution that makes sense of that Apple board room.]]> You can imagine the pitch: Mother Nature visits Apple HQ to conduct a performance review. In the writers’ room at Saturday Night Live it would gain instant traction: It’s Gaia in the boardroom as a take-no-prisoners businesswoman.

The idea definitely has potential. It’s what comedy does so well—combining unlikely ideas and enjoying the clash. It’s ancient meets modern, the spiritual meets the corporate. It should work.

But when Apple tried to pull it off last week at the launch of their new iPhone 15, it went down like a lead balloon. It was ratioed on X (the website formerly known as Twitter). Apple quickly closed comments on YouTube. The attempt fell flat despite a promising set-up, some sharp lines, and great performances including from Oscar winner Octavia Spencer.

Denunciations were swift from the crowd. The ad was deemed cringe, woke, virtue signaling, greenwashing, and much worse. The online response to Apple’s comic conceit was a collective Nope. Why?

One issue is the moralizing. Saturday Night Live could indeed pull off this sketch. But if they did it, Apple bosses would not be the heroes, they would be the butt of the jokes.

This is not just a question of hypocrisy—we’ll get to the hypocrisy allegation—this is simply about the way comedy works. In comedy you don’t take yourself seriously. When moralizing you take yourself very seriously.

And while Apple CEO Tim Cook begins the sketch in comedy mode, anxiously rehearsing his opening line, by the end he has risen from his seat to meet Mother Nature’s eye and proudly declare his environmental righteousness.

It begins as a sketch and ends as a morality tale. That clash produced the cringe. And caught up in the cringe is hypocrisy.

Hiding Behind a Green Mask

Ever since Matthew 23 was written, a culture built by the Scriptures has been sensitive to hypocrisy. Wherever we see whitewash we suspect a tomb is not far beneath it, and the duplicity bothers us greatly.

The slightest possibility of “greenwashing” triggers us. Commenters online were swift to point out Apple’s ongoing carbon footprint (larger than Sri Lanka’s apparently), historical claims about its working conditions in African cobalt mines and Asian sweatshops, suicides in Chinese factories, and the accusations that Apple actively pursues policies of “planned obsolescence.”

Many critics saw an irony in the company’s environmental credentials being trumpeted at the launch of a new iPhone. The question arises: If we’re really concerned for the environmental impact, why keep pushing new phones on us? Why not update the old ones? And why do the new ones become old so quickly?

The accusations of cringe and of hypocrisy bite. But at that point, the video represents one more minor skirmish in the culture wars, with reactions falling along familiar fault lines.

What makes this skirmish a little different is the third major critique that was leveled. Many were struck by the out-and-out paganism of the video. Mother Nature is calling the shots at Apple HQ! We have the video! Is this a “mask slip” moment regarding modern life more generally, or woke capitalism, or modern environmentalism more specifically? Are we seeing a return to ancient paganism?

Modern Paganism

You can understand the fear. The writers of this sketch have done for comic effect what ancient peoples did naturally. They have personified powers in our world in order to grapple with them. We do this to some degree in modern life.

Uncle Sam, for instance, is not a real person, but an embodiment of a nation. That’s similar in one regard. But in ancient paganism you didn’t merely personify the greater reality,—you propitiated it.

And what do we see in the Apple video? Mortals are negotiating with a god and appeasing her—no doubt at some sacrificial cost. And they will have to do the ritual again next year, apparently. No wonder the comparisons with ancient paganism have been made. But there are also great differences.

In the paganism of old, the gods are immanent (they have their own, often nauseating, origin stories), humans are slaves of the gods and fate, and sacrifices are required. Some of these aspects are seen in the Apple video, especially at the start. In the beginning the quaking mortals are waiting for Mother Nature to appear.

One employee notices an office pot plant has died. She hastily hides it while the CEO practices his lame introductory question. When Mother Nature arrives, Tim Cook asks, “How was the weather getting in?” and he’s answered by a rumble of thunder and her deadpan: “The weather was however I wanted it to be.” So far, so pagan.

But from that moment on the tale twists in a decidedly modern direction. Because, of course, you cannot tell a story about Apple’s climate-altering improvements if, after all, the weather is controlled by capricious forces entirely out of our grasp.

In the video, it turns out that the weather is not how Mother Nature wants it to be—the climate, at least, is in our hands. And while Mother Nature begins the video with far superior power and knowledge, she is increasingly shown up by the Apple executives as, frankly, a little clueless about the happenings in her world. In the end she is stared down by the CEO and leaves. If this is paganism, it is a very modern form of it.

Christian-ish Sensibilities

The decisive turn in the video mirrors a decisive shift in history. In a profound sense, Western culture can never be pagan again in the sense that ancient Athenian culture was. Something has happened to the world—and that thing is Christianity.

Where paganism saw the gods as immanent and limited, Scripture proclaims a transcendent Source of being. Where paganism considered humanity to be slaves of the gods and of fate, Scripture proclaims the dominion of humans, made in God’s image. Where paganism considers a cyclical history that spirals down from a golden age, Scripture proclaims a golden future. Where paganism centers on the rituals and sacrifices by which the gods are appeased, Scripture centers on the once-for-all atonement of Christ.

Once this revolution is taken seriously, you may step into the world trusting an authority given by God and a victory won by Christ. The principalities and powers are vanquished, the idols are unmasked, and all divine obligations have been satisfied.

It’s the Christian revolution that makes sense of that Apple board room.

It’s the Christian revolution that makes sense of that Apple board room. For all that the nature-gods seem to be in charge, it turns out that humans can take the fate of the world in their hands. It’s not fixed. Unlike paganism, it’s not necessarily tragic.

Everything climaxes with Tim Cook promising to keep covenant—“We will!—and then, with Mother Nature satisfied, the final shot reveals a revived office plant. Resurrection! Life from the dead!

Mixed Messages

This isn’t ancient paganism. But neither is it the fifth Gospel! So what should we call it?

One thing you might call it is hubris! Apple’s chief has raised himself up and proclaims that his oath and his sacrifices will save the day. No wonder a set of Christianized sensibilities have been triggered by this video.

People cry “Cringe!” and “Hypocrisy!” for discernibly Christian reasons. But, on the other hand, the hubris of the video has also developed from Christian foundations. It takes seriously that humans have dominion, the world can be stewarded (and not simply suffered), and there can be a happily ever after.

The story told in the video is not Christian, but neither is it pagan in the ancient sense since, apparently, the story of the world doesn’t have to be a tragedy. Our fate is not fixed. It could yet be a comedy.

There are Christian aspects on all sides. And pagan ones. It’s both.

Welcome to late modernity.

Protestant Paganism

In his new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, Andrew Wilson uses the phrase “Protestant Paganism” to describe the kind of post-Christian spiritual outlook we’ve settled on in the West. (Andrew and I discuss these concepts further in our new podcast, Post-Christianity?)

“Protestant Paganism” combines “a this-worldly sense of ultimacy, happiness and meaning . . . with reformist zeal, moral certainty, commitment to progress, and an inescapably Christian ethical framework” (157). Our Western sensibilities fuse “this-worldliness” (paganism) and “moral certainty” (Protestantism). It’s a heady brew, but this is the Kool-Aid we’re all drinking—on all sides of the culture war.

At Apple HQ there are Christian-ish concerns (even if their Christian origins are hidden). If we try to lay aside all cynicism (a difficult task in a social media age), we might see a concern to steward creation and to exercise humanity’s dominion for compassionate ends. We might also see pagan-ish tendencies, to serve Mammon, to fear the powers, to diminish the human, to bargain with nature and to center our own oaths and sacrifices.

But then the detractors of the video will also be a mixture of Protestant and pagan. On the Christian-ish side of things, they are alive to the dangers of idolatry, pride, hypocrisy, and virtue-signaling. On the pagan-ish side of things, their cynicism about virtue-signaling may amount to a cynicism about virtue itself (with regard to creation care). And with virtue out of the way, exploitation can follow.

Beware Paganism’s Many Forms

There are many ways of being pagan—many ways of worshiping and serving the creature rather than the Creator. One person may worship Gaia, another may serve Mammon. Both are idolaters.

Unmasking the idolatry of the other person does not tear down the idol of my own heart. I might reject the paganism of a Gaia-worshiping environmentalist, but I am not thereby delivered of my own “this-worldliness.”

When it comes to environmental concern, “Protestant Paganism” is at work—as it is everywhere else in Western culture. Some forms of environmentalism are self-confessedly pagan. They can be anti-natal and profoundly anti-human. But some are not. Some take seriously the “image of God” in humanity, our dominion over the earth, the creation mandate, and our glorious resurrection hope.

When seen from this perspective, the Apple video is more than a lightning rod for the culture wars, and our responses should do more than ping-pong between “Woke” and “Anti-woke.”

The line dividing Protestant and pagan runs through every Western heart.

The “Protestant Paganism” at play in the video is at play in all of us. For this reason, cultural analysis is never a mere intellectual exercise or a knee-jerk “like or dislike” online.

What we denounce in the other side may well be present in us. It’s personal since, to repurpose a famous line from Solzhenitsyn: “The line dividing Protestant and pagan runs through every Western heart.”

TGC Adds 9 New Council Members, Preps to Host 2023 National Conference Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:05:34 +0000 As The Gospel Coalition prepares to host its biennial national conference in Indianapolis, we’re pleased to announce the addition of nine new Council members.]]> The Gospel Coalition (TGC) is pleased to announce the addition of nine new members to its Council, the group of pastors who provide direction and leadership to TGC. These are the newly appointed Council members (in alphabetical order):

  • Michael Aitcheson: senior pastor of Christ United Fellowship (Orlando, Florida)
  • Jim Davis: teaching pastor at Orlando Grace Church (Orlando, Florida)
  • Ryan Kwon: lead pastor of Resonate Church (Fremont, California)
  • Doug Logan: president of Grimké Seminary (Richmond, Virginia)
  • Hanibal Rodríguez: senior pastor at Wheaton Bible Church and Iglesia del Pueblo (Wheaton, Illinois)
  • Bobby Scott: pastor at Community of Faith Bible Church (Los Angeles, California)
  • Walter Strickland: pastor at Imago Dei Church (Raleigh, North Carolina) and assistant professor of systematic and contextual theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
  • T. J. Tims: lead pastor of Immanuel Nashville (Nashville, Tennessee)
  • Stephen Witmer: lead pastor of Pepperell Christian Fellowship (Pepperell, Massachusetts)

Nominated by the TGC Board and elected by the Council, these newest additions bring the total number of active Council members to 48. See the full list of current Council members as well as Council Emeritus members.

“I know these additions will enrich our Council significantly,” said Sandy Willson, TGC’s interim president. “Each of them brings valuable perspectives, decades of ministry experience, and wisdom we’ll need to remain a strong Coalition in these complex times.”

The TGC Council convened for the first time in 2005, at the invitation of Don Carson and Tim Keller. Out of that first gathering, TGC was formally organized, adopting foundation documents in 2007. Ever since, the Council has gathered annually to encourage one another and provide guidance to the staff team leading the many fronts of TGC’s global ministry. The Council will hold its next private gathering in Indianapolis on Monday, September 25, immediately preceding TGC’s 2023 National Conference.

TGC23 National Conference: September 25 to 27, 2023

The Gospel Coalition has hosted a national conference every two years since 2007—first in Chicago (2007, 2009, 2011), then in Orlando (2013, 2015), and in Indianapolis since 2017 (2017, 2019, 2021, 2023).

This year’s conference at the Indiana Convention Center will feature more than 90 speakers, including John Piper, Jen Wilkin, David Platt, Ligon Duncan, J. D. Greear, and Ruth Chou Simons. The three-day event will convene attendees from 47 states and 41 countries. Nearly 3,500 people will be attending their first TGC conference, and more than 1,050 are younger than 30.

As a way to reflect the thriving gospel-centered movement across the world, TGC23 will feature main-stage worship music led by CityAlight from Sydney, Australia, as well as three keynote speakers based outside North America: Andrew Wilson (London, U.K.), Miguel Núñez (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic), and Kenneth Mbugua (Nairobi, Kenya).

Debuting a new conference format this year, TGC23 will feature 42 microevents hosted by more than 20 partnering organizations. This “conference of conferences” format will give attendees more options to go deeper on topics including preaching, parenting, and church planting, all the way to sexuality, deconstruction, and spiritual abuse.

This will be the first TGC national conference not to include cofounder Tim Keller, who died on May 19. But Keller’s legacy will be remembered at a microevent (“Tim Keller’s Legacy and Thought Process”), sponsored by Zondervan Reflective and The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, as well as through a video and brief remarks from TGC vice president of content Collin Hansen during the evening session on Tuesday, September 26.

For those unable to attend TGC23 in person, keynote sessions and microevents on the main stage will be live streamed on TGC’s website. Some conference bookstore discounts will be available in TGC’s online store for a limited time.

About TGC

TGC seeks to advance gospel-centered ministry for the next generation by creating content (including articles, podcasts, videos, courses, and books) and convening leaders (including conferences, virtual events, training, and regional chapters).

As a network of churches in the Reformed tradition, TGC helps Christians around the world better grasp the gospel of Jesus Christ and apply it to all of life. In an era of great confusion, TGC seeks to offer biblical truth and gospel-centered hope for the searching.

Join us by visiting so you can be equipped to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

Suffering for the Gospel According to the Power of God Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:04:26 +0000 Michael Horton teaches on 2 Timothy: 9–18, encouraging believers to live unashamed of the gospel. ]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Conference, Michael Horton teaches on 2 Timothy: 9–18, encouraging believers to live unashamed of the gospel, even amid suffering.

Focusing on the centrality of the gospel in suffering witness according to God’s power within us, Horton says the ministry of Paul and Timothy isn’t merely about their personalities or abilities but about Christ’s testimony. Just as Paul wasn’t ashamed of the gospel because he knew he was entrusted with it and that God completes what he starts, so too can we live and minister with confidence.

Horton ends his message with an encouragement: Brothers and sisters, you are chosen, you are saved, and you are kept by this gospel. Therefore, do not be ashamed of it. Embrace it for yourself and guard it by giving it away.

Packing for TGC23? Leave Room for Discounted Books. Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Book lovers at TGC’s 2023 National Conference should check out our bookstore for a wide range of books, many at deep discounts.]]> The best part about The Gospel Coalition conferences is the fellowship. We meet new people and catch up with old friends. That’s the biggest reason I’m looking forward to TGC’s 2023 National Conference.

But then there’s the lineup of excellent speakers on the main platform of the conference, the worship led by CityAlight, and the many microevents that offer a range of edifying options. These are great too.

For book lovers, however, the exhibit hall holds a special attraction. This year’s conference bookstore will feature over 3,400 books and resources from more than 45 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.

Ivan Mesa and Elliot Clark, eds., Faithful Exiles: Finding Hope in a Hostile World (TGC, 2023)

$9 (40 percent off)

Our world is rapidly changing. In the West, Christians increasingly are strangers in a strange land. Biblical values are maligned. Christian ethics are called hateful.

How should the church respond? Is now the time for cultural isolation, political aggression, or something else? What are the options for heaven’s exiles living in an earthly Babylon?

More than a simple fight-or-flight response, the authors of Faithful Exiles offer us hope when we’re far from home. Gleaning courage and insight from biblical characters in both the Old and New Testaments, they consider how God’s people through the ages have been faithful in the face of hostility.

Their stories inform our worship and preaching but also how we pursue vocation and engage in politics. They show how those with hope beyond this world can be faithful in it.

Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry, You’re Not Crazy: Gospel Sanity for Weary Churches (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

$9 (50 percent off)

Being a pastor is hard. Whether it’s relational difficulties in the congregation, the increasingly hostile attitude toward church, or just the struggle to continue in ministry with joy and faithfulness, the pressure on leaders can be truly overwhelming. It’s no surprise that pastors are burned out, are tempted to give up, or think they’re going crazy.

While we’re quick to assert what the gospel says, we’re often too slow to admit what the gospel should do for our churches: reflect Christ’s beauty through a godly, grace-filled culture.

In this practical guide, seasoned pastors Ray Ortlund and Sam Allberry help weary leaders renew their love for ministry by equipping them to build a gospel-centered culture into every aspect of their churches. Emphasizing the importance of healthy doctrine, they explain that failing to also nurture a healthy culture can be frustrating, polarizing, and even unbiblical. This encouraging guide features Scripture-focused advice on honesty, honor, preaching, leadership, and mission to support leaders and help them regain a beautiful, Christ-centered vision for their ministries.

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

$4 (50 percent off)

Since the beginning of humanity, people have recognized the distinct creation of the male and female gender in God’s design. But with today’s gender revolution, people are increasingly questioning who they are designed to be. In our society, gender identity has been divorced from biology and rerooted in psychology. Do the core teachings of the Bible uphold these modern ideas?

In this concise booklet, Samuel Ferguson carefully and compassionately compares the core beliefs and practices of the transgender movement with fundamental truths expressed in Scripture. Ferguson argues that human identity isn’t determined by the individual but is given to us by our Creator, who designed our bodies and minds with purpose and encourages us to live in Christlikeness―choosing the path of God-given transformation over manmade transition.

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

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

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

D. A. Carson, The Gospel and the Modern World: A Theological Vision for the Church (TGC/Crossway, 2023)

$15 (50 percent off)

Biblical scholar Don Carson has contributed a tremendous amount to the field of evangelical thought, serving as cofounder of TGC, editor of TGC’s theological journal Themelios, and, beginning in 2022, president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Reflecting on his esteemed career, Carson’s colleagues have gathered some of his best work in this warm, enriching collection.

The Gospel and the Modern World features 33 of Carson’s essays from Themelios on a wide range of topics, including his vision for the evangelical church, the authoritative Word of God, Christ and culture, and Christian discipleship.

It also includes articles from editor Brian J. Tabb, Andrew David Naselli, and Collin Hansen. Celebrating an illustrious, Christ-exalting career, this collection imparts years of experience and Christian scholarship to a new generation of readers.

Collin Hansen, Timothy Keller: His Spiritual and Intellectual Formation (Zondervan, 2023)

$16.29 (40 percent off)

Millions have read books and listened to sermons by Timothy Keller. But which people and what events shaped his own thinking and spiritual growth? With access to Keller’s personal notes and sermons—as well as interviews with family members and longtime friends—Collin Hansen gives you understanding of one of the 21st century’s most influential church leaders.

When you spent time around Timothy Keller you learned what he was reading, learning, and seeing. The story of Timothy Keller is the story of his spiritual and intellectual influences, from the woman who taught him how to read the Bible to the professor who taught him to preach Jesus from every text to the philosopher who taught him to see beneath society’s surface.

Hansen introduces readers to Keller’s early years: the home where he grew up, the church where he learned to care for souls, and the city that lifted him to the international fame he never wanted.

“Unlike a traditional biography, this book tells Keller’s story from the perspective of his influences, more than his influence,” Hansen writes. “A child of the 1960s, student in the 1970s, church planter in the 1980s, and leader of one of New York’s largest churches on September 11, 2001, Timothy Keller’s life spans many of the last century’s most tumultuous events.”

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

$9.99 (33 percent off)

One Saturday morning, Lucy and her brother, Lewis, each get to choose one piece of candy from the store. But Lucy’s delight quickly disappears when she unwraps her chocolate and discovers it melted! Envying her brother’s long-lasting lollipop, Lucy spirals into a pattern of discontent: seecovettake, and hide. Her envious actions make her feel miserable, but her dad helps her find the path to freedom and grace.

Everyone struggles with wanting what others have. Lucy and the Saturday Surprise helps children understand the dangers of letting desire fester into envy. Through colorful illustrations and engaging characters, Lucy’s story shows kids how to fight against envy and reminds us all that Jesus offers freedom from both the penalty and power of sin.

Other Deals Worth Noting:

The Gospel Coalition, The New City Catechism (TGC/Crossway), $6.29

Megan Hill, Meg Is Not Alone (TGC/Crossway), $9.99

John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress (Crossway), $18.89

Helen Taylor, Little Pilgrim’s Progress (Illustrated Edition) (Moody), $20.99

Andrew Wilson, Remaking the World (Crossway), $15

Jim Davis and Michael Graham, The Great Dechurching (Zondervan), $17.99

Timothy Keller, Forgive (Viking), $16.20

Christopher Watkin, Biblical Critical Theory (Zondervan), $29.99

Karen Martin, Memorable Loss (Christian Focus), $10.39

Thaddeus Williams, Don’t Follow Your Heart (Zondervan), $13.79

Jared Wilson, Friendship with the Friend of Sinners (Baker), $12.72

Joshua Chatraw and Jack Carson, Surprised by Doubt (Brazos), $14.73

Alan Noble, On Getting Out of Bed (IVP), $12

Jonah Is More Like Us Than We Realize Fri, 22 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The power of absurdity is that it exposes reality. Such is the case in Jonah.]]> The story of Jonah reminds me of Nasreddin Hodja, a character from Central Asian children’s literature. As the story goes, one day Nasreddin, a Muslim holy man, was lying under a walnut tree. Looking up into its magnificent branches, he began to question the wisdom of the Creator. Why should such a large tree have tiny walnuts? It could easily carry the large pumpkins that grow on spindly vines.

Soon, Nasreddin fell asleep. But he was jolted awake when a walnut plopped onto his head. In that moment, he recognized not only the Creator’s wisdom but also his kindness. While the Hodja was busy questioning the purposes of God, he’d been oblivious to mercy—the mercy that kept a falling gourd from crushing his head.

In Muslim folklore, Nasreddin Hodja is a silly and absurd character. But his puerile humor often reveals profound truths. Of course, absurd characters can be found throughout literature and throughout the world. Down through the ages, literary satire has been a sharp cultural tool to critique individuals and society at large.

The power of absurdity is that it exposes reality. Such is the case in Jonah.

Absurd Character

The name Jonah means “dove” in Hebrew, a name that seems to represent the silly and senseless nature of Israel (Hos. 7:11). Like the nation, Jonah is pitifully oblivious to the evil of his own heart and the unmerited mercy of God over him. While Jonah questions the wisdom of God in displaying kindness to Nineveh, he’s blind to how that same grace has saved him.

Jonah is pitifully oblivious to the evil of his own heart and the unmerited mercy of God over him.

This becomes clear in the final, climactic scene of Jonah’s story. In his kindness, God appoints a plant—probably something like a large gourd or pumpkin—to sprout up and shade his pouting prophet. Amusingly, Jonah finds excessive happiness in the plant. But then God appoints a worm to kill the plant. As his beloved shade fades in the sun and withers in the wind, Jonah responds with rage. He’s moved to both anger and pity. Pity for the plant—which is really self-pity. And anger toward the worm and the sun and the wind—which is really God-anger.

In that moment, we see the true character of Jonah. He’s more concerned for his passing comfort than for the everlasting salvation of the Ninevites. His pity for himself and for a perishing plant overrides any compassion for the lost and dying among the Assyrians. Most concerning of all, he presumes on God’s grace. Like many within Israel, he’s somehow concluded God’s favor belongs to him.

What the last chapter of Jonah reveals, then, is that his initial refusal to go to Nineveh stemmed from his disregard for God’s mercy, his desire for personal comfort, and his lack of care for the perishing. His story might be funny if it weren’t true.

Loving Our Enemies

Henry Gerecke was an evangelical Lutheran minister living in Missouri in the early 1900s. At the outset of World War II, his two eldest sons entered the military. At 49 years old, Gerecke wanted to do his part, so he enlisted as an army chaplain, eventually working among Allied troops in the European theatre. However, his most notable service came after the war ended.

When everyone else was eagerly returning home, including his sons, Gerecke received a letter asking him to stay behind. With his knowledge of the German language, he was a prime candidate to work among the Nazi prisoners awaiting trial in Nuremberg. Gerecke was asked to serve as chaplain to those who were, at that point in history, the most hated men on earth. The wicked of all wicked. It would be like Jonah going to Nineveh. And Gerecke agreed to do it.

Later, when the American press published his story, including Gerecke’s willingness to graciously extend his hand to Nazi prisoners, he was excoriated. Back home, his service was seen as treacherous. But Gerecke continued. He quietly worked among the Germans for many weeks, reminding them of the gospel of Christ and offering them the hope of life. As a result, in the last days before their executions, some of those despicable men seem to have come to genuine repentance.

If we’re honest, the story of Jonah may seem completely irrelevant to us in the church. After all, what Christian would ever take God’s grace for granted? Who among us would ever prioritize personal safety, security, and comfort over the salvation of the nations? What believer would ever entertain angry and vengeful thoughts toward the opponents of our faith? Or of our way of life? Or of our country?

Fighting Prejudice

We might assume Jonah’s struggles would never be ours. But this is the power of satire. Its absurdity wakes us to reality.

We might assume Jonah’s struggles would never be ours. But this is the power of satire. Its absurdity wakes us to reality.

The reality is that many of us in the post-Christian West are tempted to respond to encroaching exile with the spirit of Jonah. Living in a hostile world, it’s easy to despise our enemies. Surrounded by opponents, the most natural response is to angrily fight for our rights. When others ridicule and threaten us, we’re inclined to respond accordingly, selectively choosing who deserves our kindness—and in so doing, forgetting God’s undeserved grace to us in the first place.

Instead of having compassion on the multitudes, it’s easy to spend our time grumbling about modern-day tax collectors and sinners. But if the church is to be on mission, taking the good news of Christ to the world, we must beware the pharisaical spirit of Israel. This begins by acknowledging we’re tempted to entertain the same prejudices as the prophet Jonah.

‘This Is My Religion’: Why Art Fails as a Substitute for Faith Thu, 21 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 When an artist’s vision fails to transcend the self, the self is buried by the weight. ]]> The year was 2014, during a hot summer in the southwestern corner of Oklahoma at a retreat center called Quartz Mountain.

I was there as a fledgling member of the creative writing cohort for that year’s young adults’ arts camp, sitting in an auditorium with a few hundred other high schoolers and watching a performance from the interpretative dance team. The performance was slow, off-kilter, and earthy somehow, like the dancers were trying to imitate growing trees. I’d never seen anything remotely like it and wasn’t sure I enjoyed it.

Afterward, the dance instructor fielded questions from the audience, and—surprisingly for a crew as secular as this one—a student asked, “What’s your religion?”

The instructor said, “I’m not religious.” Then, after a pause, she gestured behind her to the dancers and the dimly lit set, and said, “This . . . this is my religion.”

Replacing Faith with Art

My experience at the camp suggested that arts and religion in the United States had undergone an ugly divorce, or rather switched spots in the hierarchy. But building a life of meaning upon art can be bankrupt, even dangerous.

The evidence is there. One thinks of Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, and David Foster Wallace. Remarkable writers all, yet each died by suicide. They all had complicated stories, but the power of their own words didn’t seem to be enough to justify their lives. Similarly, F. Scott Fitzgerald dissolved into alcoholism and an early death.

I admire these figures, and not for a second do I want to dismiss the real pain and suffering they experienced. Nor do I mean to suggest that Christians (artists or otherwise) are somehow immune to mental health struggles. I only wonder if part of their angst and pain—like mine—stemmed from being like trees severed from the root.

Integrating Faith and Art

I was also on the path toward “art as religion,” in part because the two subjects always felt to me like strange, disconnected bedfellows.

It wasn’t until getting to Wheaton College, the evangelical school in the Chicago suburbs, that I discovered the “integration” of art and faith. Before then, religion for me was one thing—the important thing—and creative writing (the activity that most interested me) was a side gig, a “passion,” a “hobby.”

Wheaton excited me because my professors saw little point in wedging the two apart. Art could reflect God’s glory, like Bach’s signature “Soli Deo gloria” at the bottom of his compositions, or like Tolkien’s mythic The Lord of the Rings or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. I realized many of history’s most brilliant artistic minds were Christian believers who infused religion in their work. I came to see that to separate faith from the literary enterprise would be a crime against the work’s integrity.

On most contemporary campuses, English majors and aspiring writers are warned against the pitfalls of overt religious or philosophical perspectives. Writing to sermonize the reader, whatever ideological persuasion you’ve adopted, is off-limits. And yet, what do we make of chapters like “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, philosophical ramblings in War and Peace, and faith-on-display poems like The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost?

Were those poets too “overt” with their religious commitments? Did they trespass Creative Writing 101’s mandate to “show, don’t tell”? These questions would have been nonsensical to classical writers but are common now in our secular age. Today, the assumption is that traditional religion has little to say to art (and vice versa) and that every sort of intersectional “identity” should be expressed in one’s art—every identity except that of a traditional Christian. That identity must stay decidedly off your compositions and canvases.

Art Dies Without Vision

Despite the guidance from Wheaton professors, I eventually began to deify the arts myself. Skewed priorities made me more anxious. I put immense pressure on myself, saying that if I wasn’t published by 25, I would be a failure. My need to be a “true artist” sidelined truth. More important than truth were productivity and credibility. Sadly, I’d lost my foundation for the work that used to come so easily and with so little justification.

Paradoxically, the more I wanted to be a “serious” writer, the less I wrote. The more I tried to spin myself as literary, the less literature I read—or enjoyed.

The assumption is that traditional religion has little to say to art and that every sort of intersectional ‘identity’ should be expressed in one’s art—every identity except that of a traditional Christian.

This confirms the wisdom of C. S. Lewis, who saw the “art as religion” movement in his own day and insisted we put first things first. In his essay “Christianity and Literature,” he writes, “The Christian knows from the outset that the salvation of a single soul is more important than the production or preservation of all the epics and tragedies in the world.”

It also confirms that when you can no longer identify life’s ultimate meaning and apply it to your mortal context, art making is vapid. When women and men lose a vision for life, they die, and eventually, art dies too.

Religion of Self-Expression

Today, the prevailing religion isn’t just art generally but self-expressive art. Art, they say, should be entirely about rendering the experience and feelings of the self and resisting the traditions and institutions that threaten to oppress it.

To be sure, that’s part of good art. Writing a memoir isn’t a selfish act; who knows how many people will relate to your experience? Art from lived experience can sometimes speak prophetic truth to power.

Yet expressing the self gets exhausting, because the self not only needs to be communicated but must also be validated. The expressive artist soon realizes the self isn’t an infinite well of inspiration and that the frenetic world of social media is a meager place to go to for truth, goodness, and beauty, let alone for a real community of feedback. Art becomes less about art and more about the mixed-up identity of the artist. Who will listen to me, tortured me?

The foundation is lacking. The vision fails to transcend the self. And the self is buried by the weight.

Better Foundation

The other day, I moved my desk to another corner of the room. As I put the drawers back in and organized the surface, I stacked three books against the wall: a Christian almanac, the 2017 novel and short story writer’s market guide, and a book by my old Wheaton professor, Read Schuchardt, titled Media, Journalism, and Communication: A Student’s Guide.

I didn’t think much about the arrangement at first. The almanac is the thickest volume, with the writer’s guide about a third the width, and Schuchardt’s modest title forming a nice slice on top. A few mornings ago, though, as I drank coffee and observed the three books, that word occurred to me again: foundation.

Along with millions of other post-COVID 20-somethings, I’ve been in search of the foundational: something to plant my transient feet on. And looking at this stack, I realized not only that a foundation was necessary but that it couldn’t be fiction or journalism. It couldn’t be the arts and the humanities. It couldn’t be me. It had to be Jesus and the great Jesus tradition.

The Christian almanac features an entry per day on history’s most inspiring figures and events. Plenty of artists and writers make it in there, like Samuel Johnson, C. S. Lewis, and George Herbert, but so do pastors and leaders like Frederick Douglass, George Whitefield, and Simone Weil. It’s a beautiful book because it offers a compendium of what the author in Hebrews referred to as the great “cloud of witnesses.” We’re preceded by a consortium of Spirit-led men and women, and from beyond the grave, they’re calling us to carry the flame of life, love, and truth forward into the future.

It’s no small task, and I just have one desk. But I’ve decided to keep the order of the books. I’ve decided not to try to build a ceiling with foundation material or use drywall for flooring. First things first. Let all other loves be what they are once Love Himself is stationed rightly.

Let all other loves be what they are once Love Himself is stationed rightly.

To write, we first have to read. To speak, we first have to listen. We have to listen to voices besides our own, to the witnesses of the church before us.

This isn’t a task only for writers or artists. God wants everyone to join the great dance. And he wants us to know that the dance is going somewhere—it’s not an end unto itself. When we’re asked about our religion, and why we’re all dancing in unity, all we’ll have to do is point to the Maestro.

The PCA at 50: Essential Elements from the Past Will Guide the Future Thu, 21 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 The origins of the PCA point us to a path for its future.]]> I had the great privilege of being among the delegates to the first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which was formed 50 years ago at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This current anniversary celebration provides an opportunity to think back to our origins and consider how those origins might point us toward our future as the Presbyterian Church in America, one among many true churches of our Lord Jesus Christ worldwide.

Consider three essential elements of the PCA’s past that will guide our future.

1. Bible

The PCA came into existence because its founders believed the Bible was “the only infallible rule” of what you are to believe and how you are to live. The Word of God alone is capable of creating among sinners a body of people that may be presented to Christ as a “pure virgin” (2 Cor. 11:2). Nothing else has the power to sanctify the church of the Lord Jesus Christ other than the Bible.

We have our secondary standards: the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. These beloved standards are essential to our life together. But let us never forget that our primary standard is the Bible and the Bible alone. If our church is ever to have peace and unity, it can only be achieved by the common commitment of all that are involved to a glad acceptance of what the Bible as the Word of God says.

Never forget that our primary standard is the Bible and the Bible alone.

We proud Presbyterians might benefit a little by humbling ourselves and learning from our Baptist brothers. Consider Billy Graham, the son of a North Carolina farmer, a good old Tar Heel. He was the counselor to five consecutive presidents of the United States. He preached to the Queen of England, and the rumor in England is that the queen was converted to true Christianity through his preaching. He lectured to the intellectuals at Oxford University. In one sermon, he preached to over a million people in Seoul, South Korea.

What was the trademark of the ministry of Billy Graham, our Baptist brother? If you ever heard him preach, you will never forget. Gesturing to an open Bible stretched forward to his hearers, he slashes the air with his hand and declares, “The Bible says!”

2. Confession

In the old denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS), commonly known as the southern presbyterian church, persistent efforts were made to get rid of the Westminster Confession of Faith, or at least to water it down.

The PCA was born, in part, because we could not live in a denomination that no longer held to the Westminster Confession of Faith as its authoritative statement of what we believed.

The first General Assembly of the PCA adopted a message to the watching world. At the bottom of that statement, you will find 296 signatures of ruling and teaching elders. If you’re interested, you can find my signature in column two. But what is it that we wanted to communicate to the world by this statement?

We declare that we believe the system of doctrine found in the Word of God to be the system known as the Reformed faith. We are committed without reservation to the Reformed faith as set forth in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms. (emphasis added)

Compare this statement of our faith to the beautiful wool sweater you bought while you were visiting Scotland. Your precious sweater has one dangling thread that’s come loose. Do you pull out that thread? No, you don’t dare. The whole sweater has been skillfully knit together as a single whole. Pull out one thread and the whole thing unravels. The original founding fathers of the PCA adopted the entire Westminster Confession of Faith as the essence of what we believed. That’s the meaning of “full subscription.”

As the writer to the Hebrews says, “Hold fast [your] confession” (Heb. 4:14). It’s the wholeness, the fullness, the entire system of doctrine that holds together. It’s impossible to pull out one part without the whole thing unraveling.

3. Leadership

We who were in the old denomination had been burned by those who led us. We had been led astray in two places.

Permanent Committees

The General Assembly’s Permanent Committee of Christian Education, for instance, had adopted the negatively critical views of the Old Testament. These views were saying Moses could not possibly have written the Pentateuch. Those first five books of the Bible couldn’t possibly date back that far. Instead, they were saying, in the Pentateuch we have a record of the evolutionary development of Israel’s religion across many generations. This view was called the JEDP hypothesis. Along with its subsequent modifications, it was totally destroying faith in the divine origin of the first five books of the Bible.

At the same time, the literature being provided for our young people who were growing up in the church said, in a sophisticated way, that Isaiah the prophet could not possibly have written the whole of the book that has his name. They were denying the possibility of predictive prophecy.

The Permanent Committee of Christian Education was leading our young people astray by the literature that was being put into the hands of teachers—good people who did not understand what was going on. They were denying the divine inspiration of the Bible, and they were leading the church astray.

When the PCA was being formed, the question was asked: How is the emerging PCA going to deal with this problem of permanent committees of the General Assembly leading the church astray? How are we going to be sure that we do not fall into the same trap as in the old PCUS?

In the end, the PCA did something that no other denomination had ever done before. “Committees of commissioners” were created to oversee the work of the permanent committees. In this manner, the presbyteries as courts of the church oversee the work of the committees through the ruling and teaching elders working as committees of commissioners.

The courts of the church, not the committees or the administrators, lead the church. The presbyteries, the sessions, and the General Assembly as courts of the church will determine the future of the church.

Let us not forget the wisdom of the founding fathers. A great deal of the ministry of the denomination hinges on the work of those permanent committees of the General Assembly. But let us remember that they have a responsibility to give account to the committees of commissioners every year. Let all sessions and presbyteries be sure they send their commissioners, that we might continue to be led by the courts of the church.


We in the old denomination, the southern presbyterian church, had been led astray by its seminaries. We had four seminaries, all sponsored by the General Assembly of the PCUS: Union Seminary in Virginia, Louisville Seminary in Kentucky, Columbia Seminary in Georgia, and Austin Seminary in Texas. Virtually all ministers of the PCUS received their training in these four seminaries. Sad to say, despite their glorious heritage, all those seminaries eventually began leading the church astray.

On one occasion, the presidents of the seminaries contributed to an article in a magazine that asked, “Do we have an infallible Bible?” A very proper question to ask the leadership of seminaries. Each one of the presidents answered that question in basically the same way: “We do not have, nor do we need, an infallible Bible.” With this answer coming from the presidents of the four theological seminaries, it was clear: we were being led astray by the seminaries.

Despite their glorious heritage, all four of the PCUS seminaries eventually began leading the church astray.

So how did the PCA respond? What would it do that was different? The PCA said from its beginning, We will not restrict ourselves to denominational seminaries. We will affirm it’s altogether appropriate for any court of the church to sponsor a seminary. A session of a local congregation was regarded as an appropriate sponsor for a seminary. In addition, a group of individuals could form a board that would sponsor a seminary. This gave rise to a variety of biblically committed, Reformed seminaries that serve our denomination’s ministers today.

All these “schools of the prophets” provide an invaluable service for the churches of the PCA. But let us be ever on guard to be sure that the Bible continues to be presented in each of these seminaries as the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

Aspiration for the Future

Paul says in writing to the Corinthians, “I promised you, even the Corinthian church, I’ve promised you to Christ as a pure virgin” (see 2 Cor. 11:2). Let this be our fondest aspiration for the future. Let us do everything necessary to present this church to Christ as an unspoiled virgin. He deserves no other.

The perfect Son of God and the perfected Bride for Christ are a perfect match.

How Church Leaders Can Respond in a Crisis Wed, 20 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Moments of crisis provide us with an opportunity to care for others, love them well, and reflect our Lord Jesus Christ.]]> Call me—it’s an emergency. 

The dreaded words crossed my screen, and I immediately dialed her number. Her voice was shaky as she explained the details of the night. In the middle of dinner, their phone rang with dreadful news: their 17-year-old son had attempted suicide and was on his way to the closest hospital.

Her voice was full of fear, anxiety, and confusion. She wanted to understand. What was happening? What led him to attempt suicide? Will he be OK? 

If you’re a church leader, elder, or pastor, you’ll likely have to respond to crises within your local church body or in your community. You’re the one people call when they face things like the death of a loved one, hospitalization, mental health crises, or conflict within a marriage or between children. It’s important you’re equipped to respond well to those in your care.

In my job as a social worker, I often help others navigate these kinds of crises. I’ve learned how they provide us with a unique opportunity to care for others and love them well, and so to reflect Jesus.

What Is a Crisis?

Crises can be defined as unstable times, usually emotionally significant, where decisions need to be made. The turnaround time is quick, all hands are on deck, minds are processing information at double speed, and emotions are high.

A crisis reflects that something isn’t working as it should, and it can’t remain the same. People, circumstances, families, societies, and even finances go into crisis mode when they’ve been strained too far. Crises are loud, impossible-to-ignore shouts for help.

This has two implications for us to understand. First, any situation that culminates in a crisis is complex. There are no easy answers or quick fixes. They require significant wisdom.

That leads us to our second implication: we don’t have what is necessary to navigate any crisis well.

For us to be effective, we must acknowledge and confess this lack, turn our eyes to the Giver of all good gifts, and rest in confidence that he’ll provide us with the wisdom, clarity, patience, and energy we need for the crisis at hand (James 1:5). Then we can get to work.

Step 1: Triage

In a crisis, it can seem as if everything discussed is of the utmost priority and needs to be resolved immediately. This is unrealistic. Remember there’s a time for everything under the sun (Eccl. 3:1), and your task is to help prioritize which problems need to be resolved first.

We don’t have the knowledge or wisdom necessary to navigate any crisis well.

Consider the following triage assessment:

1. Assess physical safety and well-being. When you receive an emergency call, your first question should be “Are the people involved safe?” If an individual isn’t physically safe, there’s little we can do to move forward. For example, if a wife calls you because her husband is drunk and acting erratic, your first response shouldn’t be “Let’s schedule couple’s pastoral counseling.” It should be “Are you and the children safe? If he’s acting erratic, it may be a good idea to go to your mother’s home. Do you think that’s possible?”

2. Call the appropriate authorities. If a child discloses abuse, call the local child welfare institution. If an elderly member falls, call the ambulance. If someone’s home was robbed, call the police. Don’t assume you have it “under control.” Always call the appropriate authorities.

3. Notify the appropriate parties. This is surprisingly hard and requires wisdom for each situation. You can start by asking the individual you’re supporting whom he or she would like you to notify—don’t assume. For example, in the case of the wife with her erratic husband, don’t call the husband immediately. This will only threaten her and the children’s safety. On the other hand, if an adolescent discloses suicidal ideation, you must call his or her parents.

4. Identify and seek to meet tangible needs. Do they need childcare? Housing? Food? Transportation? Dog sitting? Help to notify their employers? Assistance in navigating family medical leave? Support can be offered in different ways, and creating a list is helpful, as is identifying a timeline for when things need to be accomplished.

5. Share the hope of the gospel. Underneath every crisis, there’s a deep and heartfelt need for the hope of the gospel. It’s the gospel that helps us handle crises well and the gospel that’s applicable to every life situation. The message of Jesus Christ needs to be shared, heard, and held on to.

6. Adjust as necessary. During a crisis, every plan needs to be flexible, adapting as the crisis evolves or as other crises arise at the same time.

Step 2: Listen Well

Once the initial period of crisis is over, we need to ask questions. A crisis is an alarm bell, and we must listen well before we move forward with a plan to prevent it in the future. If we don’t, we may miss the problem, delay the solution, or even sin against others in the process (Prov. 10:19).

Though it’s difficult, don’t be quick to fix things or rush through the discomfort of the unknown. Be present and listen carefully to the individual you’re caring for. There’s nothing more discouraging than sharing our fears, anxieties, concerns, and deep pain in the middle of a crisis and then receiving a rehearsed response that shows what we said wasn’t heard at all.

As you consider the other party’s concerns, understanding of the problem, and ideas to reach a solution, here are a few questions to keep in mind:

  • I want to understand what’s happening. Can you please explain to me what the problem is?
  • How did things deviate from the way you expected them to be?
  • How can we work toward a solution?
  • Can you clarify what you mean by _____?

Listening doesn’t mean the person in crisis is right in everything he says. As a pastor, you can point him to the Word of God and his patterns of sin. When the time is right, you can call him to repentance.

Step 3: Develop a Plan

Resolving the immediate situation doesn’t mean the underlying causes have been fully addressed. If possible, you should develop short-term and long-term plans to follow up.

Don’t be quick to fix things or rush through the discomfort of the unknown.

This is where biblical counseling, clinical therapeutic services, one-on-one mentorship, and care by home groups come in. The crisis calls attention to the need, but the deep work begins afterward.

Implement a timely, reasonable, and evidence-driven approach to meeting the needs of the individual. If possible, partner with medical, mental health, social work, or other appropriate providers to ensure the “team” is on the same page. In this way, you may achieve the best long-term outcome: the physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being of the body of Christ.

Is the Pro-Life Cause Politically Dead? Wed, 20 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Democrats oppose any restrictions on abortion and the GOP is rushing to embrace ‘choice’ on abortion. Are we hearing the political death knell of the pro-life movement?]]> In October 1999, Donald Trump appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press to announce he was planning to run for U.S. president as a nominee for the Reform Party. During the interview, he was asked, “Would President Trump ban partial-birth abortion?” He said, “I’m very pro-choice. I hate the concept of abortion . . . but I support choice.”

Sixteen years later, Trump won the presidential nomination of another party and moderated his views on abortion. He later claimed to be proud to be “the most pro-life president” in American history. Yet in his latest bid for the presidency, Trump seems to be reverting to his former support for “choice.”

In his recent appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press last Sunday, Trump repeatedly declined to say whether he would support a federal ban on abortion. He was also asked about a bill signed by his primary opponent, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, that bans abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. “I think what he did is a terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” Trump said.

With those words, Trump signaled that the Republican Party—of which, as the former president, he’s still the de facto head—would no longer remain pro-life now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade. Some GOP politicians remain convictionally pro-life, of course, and will continue to support policies that oppose abortion. But the party is sending not-so-subtle signals that they’re abandoning their general commitment to the pro-life cause now that it’s become an electoral liability.

The shift may appear to be rapid, but close observers have seen this coming for years. Here are four reasons the political viability of the pro-life movement is threatened.

1. Many Republican politicians were anti-Roe but not pro-life.

Central to the pro-life ethos is the belief in the inherent value and dignity of human life. The acknowledgment that life is sacred from conception until natural death undergirds the entire movement.

A primary approach of the pro-life movement for half a century has been incrementalism, which advocates that we should work to save what children we can through taking actionable steps to put limits and restrictions on abortion in whatever ways are possible. The ultimate goal, of course, is putting an end to the practice of abortion. To oppose a six-week ban would, therefore, conflict with the core pro-life principle that every life is worth preserving. One cannot affirm the value of life and yet make exceptions based on gestational age or convenience. Any politician who does so, including Trump, has abandoned any right to the label of “pro-life.”

Central to the pro-life ethos is the belief in the inherent value and dignity of human life.

Many politicians weren’t pro-life but merely anti-Roe. For decades, opposition to Roe was a necessary position to gain support from social conservatives within the party. Politicians could signal they were anti-Roe with little cost to themselves. They were eager to allow the judicial branch of government to take the lead, since there wasn’t much they could do while abortion-on-demand was the law of the land. But then the Supreme Court threw the issue back to the legislators, and they had to choose between supporting bans on abortion or placating pro-choice voters.

Few have the courage to completely abandon the pro-life constituency. But it’s unclear how many are still dedicated to an incrementalist approach, especially when it it will be unpopular or likely to fail. Some Republicans even believe they can now successfully equivocate—as Trump has said, “Both sides are going to like me.” They think the “compromise” is allowing abortion into the second trimester.

They’ll make nuanced arguments suggesting that, while they believe in the value of life, they don’t wish to impose strict laws that remove “choice” from the equation. But it’s critical to acknowledge that the ultimate goal of any genuinely pro-life politicians is to oppose, whenever possible, any and all legal protections for abortions. A pro-life stance that hesitates to support even the low bar of a six-week ban isn’t only inconsistent but also undermines the ethical foundations of the movement.

2. Many pro-life groups are hesitant to oppose the GOP.

Once upon a time (as far back as 2007), a Republican candidate who wasn’t consistently pro-life couldn’t gain the support of conservative Christians and other pro-lifers, and so couldn’t win the Republican nomination for president.

When Rudy Giuliani ran in the 2008 Republican primary he said the government shouldn’t restrict abortion. In response, pro-life leaders denounced him. For example, Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, said in response that when people hear Giuliani speak about abortion, “they don’t hear a choice, they hear an echo of Hillary Clinton.”

Times have changed. Perkins talked about Trump’s comments on his radio show but didn’t criticize the former president. He said he found the comments “troubling,” before rushing to clarify, “I love Trump.” Perkins was joined on his show by Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a leading pro-life group. Dannenfelser has been one of the most vocal defenders of unborn life. Her organization even had a project called “Votes Have Consequences” that worked to defeat candidates considered insufficiently anti-abortion. And yet even she didn’t offer more than mild criticism of Trump’s remarks. Dannenfelser and her group have never endorsed a presidential candidate who wasn’t fully pro-life. Will that standard change for the next election?

For decades, pro-lifers have worried that leaders of our pro-life organizations were becoming so enmeshed with the GOP that they lost sight of their primary objective: protecting unborn children. But now it may be too late. The electoral needs of the GOP seem to take priority over vulnerable children. Consider the remarks of Steve Scheffler, president of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition and a Republican National Committee member.

The electoral needs of the GOP seem to take priority over vulnerable children.

“There’s a wide variety of opinion. Should there be a national ban? At how many weeks? Should it be entirely left to the states?” Scheffler said. “Some people get it wrong when they think this constituency is in lockstep.”

Is making room for abortion “choice” the official party line among some pro-life organizations? Certainly, some leaders in the movement have already been vocal, such as Lila Rose of Live Action, Henry Olsen of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and Denny Burk writing at World. But every pro-life leader should be expected to clarify where they now stand and what they will and will not tolerate from politicians who want their support.

3. The Democratic Party made it possible for the GOP to be pro-choice.

In the Democrats’ party platform, they’ve staked out the most extreme position possible by stating they oppose all governmental restrictions on abortion at any time during pregnancy. This position allows Republican politicians to appear “moderate” for taking any stance that’s less than complete abortion-on-demand. The GOP could support allowing abortion up through the eighth month of pregnancy, and they’d still be less radical than the Democrats.

Republicans will happily embrace that opening, because they’re aware of the polling on abortion. According to a Pew survey, Americans are about twice as likely to say abortion should be legal at six weeks than to say it should be illegal at this stage of pregnancy: 44 percent of U.S. adults say abortion should be legal at six weeks (including those who say it should be legal in all cases without exception), 21 percent say it should be illegal at six weeks (including those who say abortion should always be illegal), and another 19 percent say that whether it should be legal or not at six weeks “depends.”

Such polling data is the reason we should expect the GOP either to officially adopt a position of opposing abortion restrictions in the first six weeks of pregnancy or to make “choice” a matter of choice for candidates.

The reality is that the first six weeks are when such restrictions are most needed. The overwhelming majority of abortions (about 93 percent) occur during the first trimester, which means restrictions after the first trimester aren’t going to save many children. Republicans are hoping to take advantage of the Democrats’ willingness to fight for the other 7 percent of abortions by “compromising” and allowing it only early in pregnancy.

That will provide voters with the illusion there’s a morally serious difference between the parties on the issue. But in reality, if both parties support a position in which the vast majority of abortions would still be allowed, then it’s clear there’s no longer a “pro-life” option for American voters among the major political parties.

4. Many ‘pro-life’ voters aren’t consistently pro-life.

We can expect political parties and organizations aligned around political issues to cave on this issue when it threatens their power. But the disturbing reality is that such “leaders” compromise without worry because they’re merely following the crowd. There simply aren’t enough committed pro-life voters to scare politicians into holding a consistent pro-life position. The Democrats learned this lesson long ago, and the GOP is embracing that truth now.

There simply aren’t enough committed pro-life voters to scare politicians into holding a consistent pro-life position.

For decades, I’ve heard pro-life Christians (including myself) say they couldn’t support any political party or candidate who wasn’t fully pro-life. We heard the claim so often that we began to truly believe the majority of “pro-life voters” were unwilling to compromise on protection for the unborn. After all, why would they be pro-life if they were willing to make exceptions? Just as it would have been absurd for an abolitionist to support some exceptions for slavery (only after age 18) or civil-rights advocates to endorse some exceptions for segregation (segregated lunch counters allowed only five days a week), it would have been inconceivable for pro-lifers to support policies that allow 93 percent of abortions.

Yet here we are, with just such a compromise being proffered. The frontrunner of the political party that once claimed to be pro-life has abandoned the cause—and it likely won’t cost him more than a handful of votes.

Can the Movement Come Back to Life?

What then do we do now? What options are left for those of us who refuse to embrace abortion “choice” or compromise on this issue?

If we’re optimistic, we can take a wait-and-see approach. Perhaps I’ll be proven wrong, and leaders of pro-life organizations will put morality ahead of politics by refusing to support politicians who aren’t consistently pro-life. (If so, they should say so now.) Maybe pro-life voters will be so outraged that they’ll embrace convictional inaction as the painful short-term solution to fixing the long-term problem.

But if I’m right, and this is the first shift in the leftward trend of the GOP on abortion rights, we need to formulate a plan of action. If we’re witnessing the political end of the pro-life movement, it might be time to abandon those organizations, leaders, and politicians who compromised and brought us to this point. We may need to replace them en masse. We may need to find and promote those who are truly willing to fight for the unborn instead of those who kowtow to a political party.

We don’t have much choice, and the stakes are too high to maintain the status quo. A politically dead pro-life movement will only result in the death of more babies. We need to find a way to resuscitate the movement before it’s too late.

Does Evangelism Objectify People? Wed, 20 Sep 2023 04:02:46 +0000 Evangelism respects the intelligence and agency of others while simultaneously considering them as immensely valuable individuals.]]> We live in an increasingly pluralistic society. Ironically, it tends to celebrate diverse religious views while criticizing attempts at religious conversion. Critics accuse evangelism of objectifying the people it seeks to convert. What should Christians make of this claim?

To objectify people with our actions simply means to treat them as objects or tools rather than as persons. Often, it’s to use others as a means to an end rather than treating each and every human being as an end in and of themselves. If Christians fail to honor, respect, and love the person we’re witnessing to, it’s possible we could be guilty of this charge.

However, we should also realize there’s nothing inherent to evangelism that objectifies people. Rather, evangelism respects the intelligence and agency of others while simultaneously considering them as immensely valuable individuals.

Dignify Others

Evangelism can and should be a holistic way of engaging others in an effort to convince them of what’s true and good. Without a doubt, it involves a concerted attempt to change another’s beliefs. And this aspect of evangelism is the primary reason why some people find it so offensive.

But evangelism isn’t inherently objectifying or disrespectful. When done correctly, attempts to convert others respect and dignify their personhood as thinking, rationalizing, feeling, and autonomous human beings. As Christians share, testify, argue, and persuade in our evangelism, we treat others as free individuals capable of a reasonable response.

Attempts to convert others respect and dignify their personhood as thinking, rationalizing, feeling, and autonomous human beings.

There’s absolutely nothing about such actions that disregards the humanity or agency of another. Trying to convince others of what we believe—on any number of topics—is essential to a flourishing human community. Disagreeing, debating, sharing opinions, and seeking to change each other’s minds is part of what makes society so valuable. Done the right way, it can lead to personal growth and cultural improvement.

Where We Go Wrong

Does all this mean it’s impossible to objectify others as we evangelize? Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Even if our intent is to seek the good of another, our approach and methods can err. When our actions start to look more like manipulation, coercion, self-absorption, deflection, or deception, we may be guilty of disregarding the personhood of those we’re striving to reach.

One way this happens is by viewing others as projects or treating them like numbers on a list. We can care more about accomplishing a task or feeling good ourselves rather than seeing others as souls in need. Or maybe we steamroll people with our ideas and arguments. We can care more about what we have to say—our declarations of the good news—than about their specific concerns or questions.

Maybe we learned a certain way of presenting the gospel, and it becomes formulaic. Or maybe a certain explanation of the gospel was essential to our conversion, so we go back to it over and over with others. But are we leaving room for the Spirit to move within the heart of another as he wills rather than as we do? Are we treating others as those made in God’s image, valuing them as unique individuals, and caring about their specific needs?

No Mere Mortals

There are many ways we can get evangelism wrong when we speak with others. But perhaps the worst error we can make is failing to evangelize them at all. Because, as C. S. Lewis memorably wrote, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. . . . It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Are we treating others as those made in God’s image, valuing them as unique individuals, and caring about their specific needs?

The people we pass every day are immensely valuable. In our culture today, there are a thousand messages seeking to distract us from this eternal reality—from our eternal reality. But we must not miss it.

Ultimately, the aim of all we do is to glorify God. However, this isn’t the only reason we evangelize. The two great goals of loving God and loving neighbor go hand in hand. Alongside the desire to honor God there can and should be the desire to seek the good of our neighbors. We should care deeply about how our fellow image-bearers will spend eternity. Immortal horrors or everlasting splendors?

Genuine Love

Christians can have confidence that when we evangelize, we’re recognizing the present dignity and the eternal value of those we’re speaking with.

But while we can be confident, we should also be cautious. We should consider our motives and methods in evangelism to make sure they’re in line with the Christian duty to love our neighbor. Such love will care enough to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to our neighbors. It will ensure they’re respected, cared for, and loved, regardless of their response.

Beware the Corrosive Quest for Respectability Wed, 20 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Few things are worse for the individual Christian’s soul—and the broader Christian witness—than the quest for cultural acceptance.]]> Few things are worse for the individual Christian’s soul—and the broader Christian witness—than the quest for cultural acceptance. To consciously pursue credibility among the “cool” and applause from the cosmopolitan elite is, almost always, a step in the direction of theological compromise and spiritual atrophy.

I’ve written about this several times over the last 15 years, but it’s a problem that keeps popping up. Why? Because our fallen flesh is stubbornly drawn to the idol of respectability.

Whatever culture a Christ follower happens to be in, the temptation is to be an insider rather than an outsider, acknowledged rather than dismissed, respected rather than ridiculed, a high-status power player rather than a powerless pawn.

Where This Plays Out

In contemporary Western culture, the temptation is especially pronounced in industries where the label “evangelical Christian” has long been maligned and associated with all manner of stigma (words like “ghetto,” “cheap,” “sentimentalized,” “subculture,” “bigoted,” “backward,” “outdated,” “anti-intellectual,” and so forth). I’ve observed it and I’ve experienced it myself, in these three spheres.


The arts, culture, and entertainment world is notoriously skeptical of evangelical artists, who have a reputation for poor quality and preachiness and tend to be low-status outsiders. Plus, this world is highly secular and morally transgressive; it tends to find Christian morality repugnant. As a result, Christians seeking success in this sphere have an uphill battle and are tempted to hide, downplay, or disown aspects of their faith that might prove obstacles to respectability.


I attended Wheaton College, an unofficial tagline of which is “The Harvard of Christian Schools.” That identifier is mostly an inside joke among students and alumni, in part because it speaks to an awkward aspirational reality. Christian colleges like Wheaton do seek to shed the reputation of the scandalously bad evangelical mind; they want to be seen as more like Harvard and less like a backwater “Bible college.”

Practical pressures play into this too: mainstream accreditation, NCAA requirements, fierce competition for a dwindling pool of applicants, and professors seeking research grants and peer approval in their respective disciplines. It often leads to institutional embarrassment about or disassociation from the culturally reviled tenets of Christian orthodoxy, which then sets the stage for institutional mission drift.


In the contemporary media landscape (including print, broadcast, web, and social media), fortune favors the biased, not the objective. The more you appeal to in-group talking points and always affirm (but never challenge) your audience’s particular bent, the more you’ll be rewarded with clicks, ratings, subscriptions, and high page rank. No one gains a boatload of social media followers by being nuanced and multidirectional in his or her criticism. No pundit becomes a star by consistently defying partisan categories.

Rather, profits and platform follow fan service: telling your audience what they want to hear. This is a form of respectability-seeking that plagues many of us in today’s social media. The dopamine hit from viral affirmation is often irresistible. Yet gaining an audience in today’s media environment often comes at the cost of integrity.

‘Not One of Those Evangelicals’

One of the telltale signs you’re a Christian with an unhealthy hunger for respectability is that you constantly bash those other Christians as a way to boost your credibility.

This is the Christian artist who describes her aesthetic vision as “very anti–Thomas Kinkade” or the Christian filmmaker who prefaces a pitch by underscoring how aware he is of the egregious quality of the “faith-based” genre.

This is the Christian college professor at a secular academic conference who feels she must apologize for and disown the “crazy Trump evangelicals” who give her school a bad name.

It’s the Christian podcaster, pundit, or TikTok influencer who spends less time talking about the beauty of Jesus than about the ugliness of so many of his followers—as if every potshot at the worst elements of our faith somehow makes our expression of Christianity palatable and respectable.

One of the telltale signs you’re a Christian with an unhealthy hunger for respectability is that you constantly bash those other Christians as a way to boost your credibility.

This approach is spiritually corrosive and will breed division within the church, seeding resentment in your heart for your fellow Christians. It’s also a futile strategy.

Whatever credibility your constant digs at “those other Christians” earns you in the eyes of cultural elites, it’ll all be lost the minute they find out you actually believe what the Bible says about sexuality or the exclusivity of Christ (among other things). That’s perhaps the greatest reason efforts at “respectability” are a fool’s errand. Even if you say and do all the right things, if you believe a few wrong things, respectability will be elusive and elite access will be denied.

How to Resist the Temptation of Respectability

How can Christians resist the temptation to pursue respectability? Here are four suggestions.

1. Strive for excellence, not respectability.

Christians need to recognize the important distinction between excellence and respectability. Excellence is within our control. Respectability isn’t. In whatever vocational sphere or cultural context we’re in, we should seek excellence—for God’s glory, not man’s approval.

Excellence is within our control. Respectability isn’t.

Christians should be better artists because excellent art glorifies God. We should be top-notch scholars and scientists because excellent scholarship and science glorify God. If such excellence results in accolades and a rise in cultural status, that’s fine. But it should be a byproduct, not an incentive.

Make no mistake: cultural approval always ebbs and flows. If you’re in favor one day, you’ll be out the next. Christians in every industry must come to terms with this and pursue excellence anyway. Christians laboring in anonymity for decades, frustrated that their perseverance hasn’t resulted in the respect they think they deserve, should strive for excellence nonetheless.

Respectability is an unsustainable carrot for those exhausted by the grueling rigors and requirements of excellence. God’s glory, on the other hand, is a motivation that can fuel us through the ups and downs of work and life.

2. Pursue truth, not talking points.

College and university campuses used to be the most trustworthy bastions of truth telling in the world. That’s no longer the case, in part because the pursuit of truth among academics has become a lesser priority than the pursuit of tenure and scholarly respectability.

On many campuses, knowledge of speech codes (what’s OK to say and what’s not) has replaced free thinking and open debate, resulting in a culture where discourse and research have become more about signaling in-group bona fides than blazing trails in pursuit of truth.

Christians must resist this temptation to value saying the “right” things over the true things. The former might lead to lucrative opportunities and elite invitations, but the latter is your calling.

For Christians in politics especially, the pragmatism of seeking in-group credibility (saying what I need to say to gain status in the halls of power or among these voters) is prevalent, tragic, and toxic. Whatever is gained in respectability and status by always toeing the party line, much more is lost when Christians in politics refuse to speak biblical truth that’s inconvenient or costly.

3. Be disrespected for the right reasons.

None of the above is an excuse for Christians to be rude or combative. Nor is it an excuse for Christians to mischaracterize the arguments of opposing views or engage in any of the other bad-faith rhetorical tactics so pervasive in online discourse. We should still speak respectfully even if we’re not aiming for respectability.

We should still speak respectfully even if we’re not aiming for respectability.

Sadly, many Christians are disrespected in today’s world not because we’re faithful Jesus followers but because we’re jerks. It’s one thing to peacefully accept that cultural respectability will be elusive for us. It’s another to go out of our way to provoke nonbelievers and give them more reasons to disrespect us. We may be cultural exiles, but we should still live honorably among the pagans—not because we want to get invited to pagan parties but because God’s Word commands us (1 Pet. 2:12).

4. Cultivate love for fellow Christians.

Almost every quest for respectability requires a virtue-signaling disassociation from those other, cringeworthy Christians (whichever types of Christians mar our reputation). To fight this tendency, we need to actively cultivate love in our hearts for our brethren in Christ—especially the ones we resent because they “give us a bad name.”

This is hard. I struggle with this. And judging by the constant, venomous infighting among Christians on social media, most other believers struggle with it too. But Christians need to train our hearts to love what Christ loves. And he loves his people. If Jesus isn’t ashamed of his blood-bought people (Heb. 2:11–12), should we be ashamed of them? If Jesus isn’t embarrassed to own them “in the midst of the congregation,” should we be?

When Jesus tells his disciples to not be surprised by the world’s hatred (John 15:18–19), it’s interesting that what immediately precedes this is his command for them to “love one another” (vv. 12, 17). Jesus knows that love and unity among Christians shore up resilient faith in the face of cultural disrespect.

Better than Respectability

You might protest: Without respectability, how will Christians ever rise in the ranks of important cultural spheres? Don’t we need Christians to achieve influence at the highest levels of government, art, and media? And if that ascent requires some short-term compromises, isn’t the long-term gain worth it?

Christians must resist this temptation to value saying the ‘right’ things over saying the true things. The former might lead to lucrative opportunities and elite invitations, but the latter is your calling.

No. The end goal for every Christian—in every place and time and vocational situation—is to glorify God, to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Pet. 3:18), and to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Eph. 4:1).

When we walk in this manner, it may mean our influence in the worldly sense is limited. But what influence we do have will be more potent, flavored as it is with the transcendent aroma of Christ rather than with the fleeting perfumes of this world.

We’ll incur many losses as we live in this faithful way, with our integrity intact: loss of power, respectability, influence, fame, and fortune, to name a few. But as Paul reminds us, anything lost is mere “rubbish” compared to the immeasurable gain of knowing Christ and being found in him (Phil. 3:8–9).

Worldly respectability is a fragile, fickle, fleeting thing. It’s rubbish. Our Savior’s love is steadfast and everlasting. An infinitely better reward.

Let the Big Bang Argue for God’s Existence Tue, 19 Sep 2023 04:04:00 +0000 To admit that something outside the natural, physical, time-bound universe is the world’s cause would be at odds with the skeptic’s naturalistic atheism. Yet what thoughtful person would opt for the alternative?]]> I was once asked during an audience Q and A to give compelling evidence for the existence of God. “Can I ask you a few questions to get us rolling?” I said to the challenger. He nodded. “First, do you think things exist? Is the material universe real?”

“Yes, of course,” he answered.

“Good. Second question: Have the things in the universe always existed? Is the universe eternal?”

“No,” he said. “The universe came into being at the big bang.”

“OK, I’m with you. Now the final question: What caused the big bang?”

At this point, he balked. “How do I know?” he said. “I’m no scientist.”

“Neither am I,” I admitted. “But there are only two choices, aren’t there? Either some thing or no thing. What do you think? Do you think something outside the natural universe caused it to come into being, or do you think it simply popped into existence with no cause, for no reason?”

(I realize the big bang is controversial, but even Christians who are not convinced of the big bang can still leverage the skeptic’s belief in their own favor, as we shall see.)

At this point, the skeptic who leans on reason finds himself in a box. Both the law of excluded middle (it can’t be neither option because there’s no third choice) and the law of noncontradiction (it can’t be both because that’s a contradiction) oblige him to choose one of the only two logical possibilities.

To admit that something outside the natural, physical, time-bound universe is the world’s cause would be at odds with the skeptic’s naturalistic atheism. Yet what thoughtful person would opt for the alternative? Even if he thinks it possible the universe popped into existence, uncaused, out of nothing, it’s clearly not the odds-on favorite.

Cause and Effect

Imagine a man’s wife asking where the new Mercedes-Benz SL parked in their garage came from. I doubt she’d be satisfied if he told her, “Honey, it didn’t come from anywhere. It just popped into existence out of nothing. No problem. That’s how the universe began, you know.” Even ordinary folk untutored in physics realize that’s not going to wash.

Reason dictates we opt for the most reasonable alternative, and the something-from-nothing option isn’t it. Indeed, it’s worse than magic. In magic, a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. In this case, though, there’s no hat—and no magician. There’s just a rabbit (the universe, in our case) appearing out of nowhere.

Reason dictates we opt for the most reasonable alternative, and the something-from-nothing option isn’t it.

You might recognize this line of thinking as the Kalam cosmological argument, an ancient defense of theism recently revitalized by philosopher William Lane Craig. If you haven’t read his books, let me give you the short course.

You can construct a logically tight syllogism to make this case, but that’s not necessary for the average person when you appeal to a commonsense notion like this. Here’s the simplified version: a big bang needs a big banger. I think that pretty much covers it. Every effect requires a cause adequate to explain it. Pretty obvious.

Ironically, the night I was working out the details of this point in the lobby of a large hotel in Poland, there was a huge bang in the reception area. The gabby crowd in the lounge was immediately struck silent, everyone wondering the same thing: What was that?

Of course, they knew what it was. It was a big bang. The real questions in their minds were these: What caused that? Did something fall over? Did a firecracker go off? Did someone get shot? I promise you one thing, though. No one in that hotel—regardless of religious or philosophic conviction—thought the bang was uncaused. It never occurred to anyone that the bang banged itself.

Who’s That?

Skeptics know this too. Once, at a dinner party, a young man sitting across from me announced—somewhat belligerently—that he no longer believed in God. “It’s irrational,” he said. “There’s no evidence.”

In response, I raised my point about the big bang. “If you heard a knock on the front door,” I said, “would you think the knock knocked itself, or would you conclude some one was doing the knocking and then get up and answer the door?”

No one in that hotel—regardless of religious or philosophic conviction—thought the bang was uncaused. It never occurred to anyone that the bang banged itself.

He sniffed dismissively at my question, so I let the issue go. Half an hour later, over dessert, though, there was a loud knock on the front door (I’m not making this up). Startled, the atheist lifted his head in surprise. “Who’s that?” he blurted out.

“No one,” I said. The point was lost on him, of course. His next move, though, was telling: he got up and answered the door. That night, this young, naive atheist had encountered reality.

He knew a simple knock couldn’t have knocked itself, yet he seemed willing to accept as reasonable that an entire universe popped into existence without rhyme, reason, or purpose.

Once, my daughter Annabeth slammed the flat of her hand down on the table with a bang and said, “If I bang my hand down, then I am the one who banged it. So who banged the big bang?” At 8 years old, she had internalized an obvious point: atheism has no resources to explain where the world came from. Theism does. It’s the best explanation for the way things are.

The Beatitudes Are the Cure for Pastoral Burnout Tue, 19 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 By confronting us with the cruciform kingdom, the Beatitudes clarify our pastoral identity and calling.]]> “Pastoral ministry,” it’s been said, “is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can absorb.” Unfortunately, in the wake of the COVID pandemic and other societal pressures, pastors and the people they serve have been getting disappointed at a rate neither group can sustain. We see this in the frightening, ongoing trends of pastoral and parishioner burnout.

Alexander Lang’s decision to step down as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Arlington Heights, Illinois, is a gut-wrenching case in point. Lang, who served the Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation of a thousand members for a decade said in a viral blog post last month that stress, loneliness, and a mismatch between his expectations and the reality of pastoral ministry finally forced him to call it quits. Lang paints an honest but ultimately confused and jaded portrait of pastoral ministry.

Thankfully, the Beatitudes give us a better vision. They show us the radical difference between God’s call and our American expectations.

Laudable and Impossible

Lang’s experience—of trying to “shoulder the responsibility” of his congregation and feeling overwhelmed by impossible expectations—highlights the identity crisis among many pastors today. When a church’s expectations—well intentioned as they may be—set the pastoral agenda, pastors inevitably become domesticated prophets, employees of the church who resemble smiling greeters at Walmart. In this model, they serve under the imperious requirements of “customers” instead of congregants. They’re harassed and helpless, like a shepherd at the beck and call of clamorous sheep.

For our understanding of pastoral identity, we must look instead to the ministry of Jesus, who knew firsthand the pressures of people’s expectations. This pressure asserted itself from the start as the paralyzed, the demon-possessed, and the diseased appeared. But when the Lord sat down on the mountain, he invited his disciples to see his kingdom through a radically different set of priorities.

When the Lord sat down on the mountain, he invited his disciples to see his kingdom through a radically different set of priorities.

Rather than establishing a kingdom of outward wealth, power, and prestige, he ushered in a kingdom of lowliness and sacrifice—and he invited the soon-to-be apostles to join him.

It may not have sounded attractive to them (or to us!). But, he promised, this is the way of blessing. In the same way, Jesus turns to us today and invites us to shape our ministries not by the priorities of the world (where we’ll surely be disappointed) but by the priorities of his eternal kingdom (where there’s blessing forevermore).

Burning Down Our Expectations

Pastors need to remember that the Beatitudes pour gasoline over our contemporary ideals and then light a match. Instead of our desire for prestige, Jesus offers poverty of spirit. He extols meekness over pride. Instead of ambitious church growth strategies, he commends a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Over against spleen-venting diatribes, he calls for mercy. For the soul riddled with anxiety, he provides divine peace.

And as the crowning gift, he offers persecution for righteousness’ sake. “Rejoice and be glad,” Jesus says, “for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:12).

This isn’t meant as an all-out critique of Lang. As a fellow shepherd, I feel genuine empathy. His description of how pastors bear the concerns of their congregants is quite right. “I want to know if they are struggling or making progress,” he writes. “I want to know if I can offer resources to help.” Paul addressed the Galatian church in this way: “My little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!” (Gal. 4:19).

But there are a few things Lang gets wrong, errors I’ll try to correct here, particularly for young pastors entering ministry who must grasp the nature of their calling and how radically different it is from the expectations of American culture. Such a vision invites us from the shadows of frustration and bitterness into the purpose and joy of our calling.

Ministry Is a Battlefield

Lang explains how some members of his community sought to remove him from his post. In time, their machinations reached out from the shadows into an ugly public smear campaign that ultimately failed but “caused damage and left [him] wondering.” Lang adds, “But when you see that there is a group of people whose sole goal is to dismantle your career, that is an entirely different beast that no one expects, particularly from people who supposedly label themselves Christians.”

In this unexpected crucible, pastors are often overwhelmed by feelings of betrayal, sorrow, and resentment—a suffocating grief that inevitably leads to resignation. It’s the gritty, nail-strewn valley of pastoral ministry into which Jesus spoke his beatitudinal promise, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4).

Why should we believe these words? Because Jesus, the Great Shepherd of the sheep, has walked this agonizing path himself and calls his undershepherds to follow him. “He was despised and rejected by men,” says Isaiah, “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). We’re told that “he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).

In contrast, the world wants to reduce the pastoral vocation to a “career,” a respectable profession that’s appreciated and honored. But we must remember Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:12. When we suffer, we stand in the lineage of prophets—servants who are generally despised and mistreated, honored only after they’re dead. Like them, our essential sustenance comes not from the people under our care but from the ravens, that is, by supernatural means.

In the meantime, we remember and embrace the blessedness of the Beatitudes. When we’re wronged, we practice mercy. When the church is riven by disputes, we seek to be peacemakers. In all this, pastors enjoy the privilege of joining our voices to the apostolic witness, to the great song of the Lamb that will crescendo in the New Jerusalem (Rev. 15:3).

Coming Day of Blessing

After describing how he was defamed by mudslingers, Lang asks, “Is leading the church really worth the investment if this is what I’m going to get in return?” As I read that line, I remembered a bit of wisdom I once heard: “Preach from your scars, and not your scabs.” In other words, wait until your wounds have healed before you vent your hurts. Like scars, wisdom comes with time.

I get the impression Lang’s traumatic experience has yet to reach the scar phase. He questions whether his investment of blood, sweat, and tears is worth it. It’s a fair question. But once again, the Beatitudes provide an answer. They teach us that if we’re looking for the fullness of God’s blessing here and now, we’ll be utterly disappointed.

Instead, the Beatitudes point to a coming day of blessing—a day when comfort, mercy, and the greatest gift of all, beatific vision (seeing God), will bring redemption to our scars. As C. S. Lewis wrote, “That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, ‘No future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”

In the meantime, we must comfort one another (2 Cor. 1:3–5). Over the last three years of difficult ministry, I’ve gathered regularly with a group of pastors from my town. This has been a lifeline for me, and it will be for you too. Find like-minded pastors. Lock arms with them and confess there are only two days—today and that day, the glorious day when all that’s hidden will be revealed. Till then, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).

Upside-Down Kingdom

Lang addresses the expectation for pastors to be like a successful CEO: “You have to grow the business and, under the conditions we are in right now, that’s super difficult because . . . the culture is such that people don’t really want to go to church anymore.” Unfortunately, Lang has a point. Many assume our pastoral calling is about numerical expansion and consumer happiness. But this is a lie from the pit.

The Beatitudes point to a coming day of blessing—a day when comfort, mercy, and the greatest gift of all, beatific vision (seeing God), will bring redemption to our scars.

The purpose of pastors is to promote a longing for God. We’re to echo Paul’s audacious, Spirit-directed yearning to see Christ formed in the Galatian Christians (4:19). We must equip our congregations to reject the mental and emotional gluttony of this world, the malnourishment of soul that only craves the next high.

When pastors pursue this priority, they and their people will, says Jesus, be “satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). God’s blessing isn’t for those who win the race. It’s not for spiritual champions who have arrived and enjoy a standing ovation. Instead, it’s for those who hunger and thirst, those who recognize their need and desire righteousness, even if they have a long way to go.

Aren’t you glad Jesus didn’t say, “Blessed are the consistently righteous, for they will be satisfied”? If this were the requirement, we’d all go away empty. Thank God it’s not the realization of the desire but the desire itself on which Christ pronounces his blessing. It’s not for the one who attains righteousness but the one who longs for it by faith.

Our Righteousness in God

This is why Jesus endured the indignities of human life (betrayal, arrest, and desertion), why he withstood mockery and slaps in the face from those who ought to have worshiped him, why he was silent before the self-indulgent foolishness of Herod Antipas. It’s the reason he endured the crown of thorns, the exposure, and death. Why? Because the glory of Christ’s kingdom is found not in human strength, triumph, and exaltation but in the most counterintuitive turn of all—the sacrifice of the cross.

By confronting us with this cruciform kingdom, the Beatitudes clarify our pastoral identity and calling to spiritual poverty, meekness, mourning, hunger, and persecution for righteousness’ sake. In the words of Isaiah 66:2, “This is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” We thus reject the frivolous, cotton-candy righteousness of American consumerism that promises to validate our pastoral worth by its own standards. Eating that counterfeit bread leaves us perennially hungry. Instead, genuine wholeness is found in hungering for God’s approval in Christ, the true bread who came down from the Father.

By confronting us with this cruciform kingdom, the Beatitudes clarify our pastoral identity and calling.

This is the mystery of pastoral ministry. We can simultaneously be discouraged and hopeful, mourning and joyful, hungry and yet satisfied. In Christ, we’re both famished and full, laboring and at rest. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3).

Dear pastor, if you’ll embrace this calling—serving the church out of your weakness and with dependence on Christ—then you’re truly blessed, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Where the Widening Generation Gaps May Take Us Tue, 19 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 In the return of ‘Goseplbound,’ Collin Hansen talks with psychologist Jean Twenge about intergenerational confusion and conflict caused by the breakneck speed of technological change. ]]> Sometimes advice isn’t just bad. It’s delusional.

That’s what Jean Twenge writes in her new book Generations: The Real Differences Between Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, Boomers, and Silents—and What They Mean for America’s Future [read TGC’s review]. She makes this comment about “the most optimistic and self-confident generation in history.” My generation. The millennials.

Here’s the advice we heard over and over growing up: “just be yourself,” “believe in yourself and anything is possible,” “express yourself,” and “you have to learn to love yourself before you can love someone else.” Her counterpoint: What if you’re a jerk? Or even a serial killer? No, not anything is possible. You’re delusional. She writes, “People who really love themselves are called narcissists, and they make horrible relationship partners.” 

That’s tough medicine for us millennials. But she’s right. I felt understood in this book. And it helped me to understand other generations both older and younger. Because in many ways, we have less in common with each other than ever before. Twenge writes, “The breakneck speed of cultural change means that growing up today is a completely different experience from growing up in the 1950s or the 1980s—or even the 2000s.”

Twenge is a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and a widely published researcher. The book is full of important insights. She describes same-sex marriage as the most rapid change of public opinion on a social issue in history. Not coincidentally, she says all signs point to further retreat from religion. In place of religion we get politics. She warns, “World history suggests that transferring religious beliefs into politics will not end well.”

I had to agree with her sense that optimism has been lost in the United States since the Great Recession. And that our society—built on abstract ideas—depends on trust and truth that we don’t often enjoy today. 

Generations is a bracing book, and an important one, whether you’re a parent or pastor or politician, or you just want to learn more about yourself and your neighbors. Twenge joined me on Gospelbound to discuss how generational differences might be shaping America’s future, why technology isn’t all bad, and more. 

Help Your Kids Fight Envy Tue, 19 Sep 2023 04:00:07 +0000 We’re unable to solve the problem of envy by giving our children everything they want.]]> “It’s not fair!”

This familiar cry rises in many homes, particularly when siblings compare their lots. Never mind that bellies are full and toys abound—if one sibling gets a bigger slice of the proverbial pie, it’s a travesty of justice.

Before our children can even speak, they know how to envy. They see something someone else has and decide their life would be better if they had that toy, treat, or seat on Mommy’s lap. And eventually, those inward desires bubble up to the surface in outward misbehavior: complaining, bickering, taking, and hitting.

Unfortunately, envy isn’t something that only children struggle with. As we battle envy in our own hearts, we can help our kids fight it in theirs.

Desires Gone Bad

Before our children can even speak, they know how to envy.

Everyone has desires. We long for good things: food, clothing, shelter, friends, or a sunny day for our church picnic. Many of our desires are good. However, when our desires turn covetous, we either want a good thing in a wrong way or we want something specifically forbidden by God’s Word. Our desires for good things can turn bad when they consume us in such a way that we lack contentment and joy in God’s goodness or we’re willing to disobey God to acquire what we desperately want.

Eve wrongly desired the fruit God had forbidden her to take from the Tree of Life (Gen. 3:6). When Achan coveted the spoils from the battle at Jericho, he disobeyed God’s clear command (Josh. 6:18–19). In both instances, their covetous desires followed a similar pattern: see, covet, take, and hide. As Achan recounted,

Truly I have sinned against the LORD God of Israel, and this is what I did: when I saw among the spoil a beautiful cloak from Shinar, and 200 shekels of silver, and a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them and took them. And see, they are hidden in the earth inside my tent, with the silver underneath. (7:20–21, emphasis added)

Bad Desires Bear Bad Fruit

As we talk about envy with our children, it’s helpful to explain that our sinful desires don’t simply stay inside our hearts. Eventually, wrong desires bear bad fruit, and they’ll lead us to take from others in harmful ways. The apostle James warns, “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14–15).

Looking over the fence and wanting what someone else has will only make children (and adults) less happy. As Proverbs 14:30 teaches, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot.” Teaching our children about envy (and the pattern it usually takes) helps them to spot it in their own lives. We can also help them learn to fight against it.

Contentment’s Choice

We’re unable to solve the problem of envy by giving our children everything they want. Attainment never satisfies the insatiable desires of an envious heart. Discontentment isn’t a problem about what we lack; it’s a problem of not recognizing what we have. As parents, we teach our children—by both our words and our example—the power of choosing thankfulness in all circumstances.

Attainment never satisfies the insatiable desires of an envious heart.

Paul reminds us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thess. 5:16–18). Paul chose to thank God amid weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities (2 Cor. 12:10).

As we practice thankfulness in our hearts, it becomes the practice of our homes. Ultimately, thankful hearts understand a big truth: Life isn’t fair. But it’s not fair in our favor. In Christ, we receive every spiritual blessing because he received all the punishment for our sins. Grace isn’t about fairness. It’s about the riches of God’s mercy and kindness being lavished on us, even though we don’t deserve them. In view of God’s mercy, we live transformed lives.

Envy is a thief—stealing away our children’s joy. As we teach them the blessings of contentment, we can begin by praying as a family, “Turn [our] eyes from looking at worthless things; and give [us] life in your ways” (Ps. 119:37). God is able to give us new eyes that see his goodness and new hearts that rest content in his provision.

Does AI Threaten the Human Future? Mon, 18 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 In contrast to the illusion of autonomy that AI gives us, Christianity reminds us of our our desperate need for God.]]> Everyone’s been trying to get up to speed on artificial intelligence (AI) and its role in our society since the public release of ChatGPT by OpenAI in November 2022. ChatGPT became the fastest-growing consumer application in history, amassing over 1 million users by December 2022, 100 million by January, and over 200 million users as of August 2023.

Scholars and practitioners have been thinking for years about how these technologies are shaping us as human beings and altering our perception of the world around us. The Age of AI and Our Human Future is a brief yet helpful nontechnical introduction to AI, its role in our communities today, and where we might be headed as a society in the future.

This volume has three coauthors: Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state; Eric Schmidt, former CEO and chairman of Google; and Daniel Huttenlocher, the founding dean of MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing.

The goal of this book is to empower readers with “a template with which they can decide for themselves what that future should be.” Ultimately, they argue, “Humans still control [AI]. We must shape it with our values” (6).

AI Is Already Implemented

AI refers to “machines that can perform tasks that require human-level intelligence” (14). It’s a class of technology that “augurs a revolution in human affairs” (14).

The book was written in 2021, before the current cultural fascination with AI, so it avoids much of the trendy discourse. Even then, AI wasn’t a future phenomenon but a present reality that was altering human perception of the world. The authors highlight the rise of Generative Pre-trained Transformers (GPTs) and how these technologies may radically alter our society. It’s clear the questions surrounding AI didn’t arise in a vacuum over the last year.

According to the authors, advancements in AI are inevitable, but the final destination isn’t. They argue that “attempts to halt its development will merely cede the future to the element of humanity courageous enough to face the implications of its own inventiveness” (15).

This outlook on the future of AI seems ominous and fatalistic. However, the book reminds readers that it’s important to think about these tools to develop a plan for the real questions of their development, deployment, and use.

Philosophical Foundations

Debating the ethics of AI is inherently philosophical. The fundamental questions aren’t about physics or chemistry but about meaning and purpose. Thus, the authors include philosophical as well as technological discussions. They seemed to be on shaky ground.

The fundamental questions aren’t about physics or chemistry but about meaning and purpose.

Beginning from a naturalistic worldview, the book traces a philosophical history with little consideration of transcendence or purpose. The very concepts that seem to inspire scientific and technological development are left out, as if human invention and exploration of the natural world were simply givens.

The authors sidestep the discussion of religion proper to begin their philosophical exploration with the ancient Greeks, such as Plato, Pythagoras, Aristotle, and Lucretius. When monotheistic religions are discussed, it’s as if Judaism and Christianity were disruptions of the classical quest to know the world through autonomous human reason. The authors are comforted that the blip of religion on the radar was allegedly corrected with the Protestant Reformation, which they connect to the return to normalcy in the Age of Reason.

Such an emphasis on autonomous human reason seems to read modern concepts back into the ancient texts. It also cuts the authors off from sources of moral thinking that might move their arguments beyond utilitarian grounds. They’re too busy asking what we can do with AI to consider what AI is good for.

What Does It Mean to Be Human?

The rise of AI forces us to consider what it means to be human. The Age of AI addresses the significant question of “whether there is a form of logic that humans have not achieved or cannot achieve, exploring aspects of reality we have never known and may never directly know” (16). For the authors, the advancement of AI could mark a positive step change in human civilization.

The Enlightenment disrupted “the established monopoly on information,” ushering in a new era of human civilization (19). Likewise, they argue, the age of AI can bring about an even greater transformation as these tools see things and perform tasks outside of human abilities and expertise.

Here again, the naturalistic, human-centered worldview of the authors is on display. It’s clear as the authors discuss humanity that they see human logic as (nearly) ultimate. They also seem to value the material aspects of human existence as supreme.

These presuppositions may limit our acceptance of their analysis. However, the authors are correct to note these tools aren’t neutral instruments or machines but “will change humans and the environment in which they live” (26).

What Remains to Be Decided?

Dealing with AI is inevitable. There’s no question that social media, web searching, shopping, and navigation apps already use AI. As a society, we have “without significant fanfare . . . or even visibility . . . integrat[ed] nonhuman intelligence into the basic fabric of human activity” (94).

This has come at a cost. In many ways, new technologies make our societies more brittle. As the authors note, “A central paradox of our digital age is that the greater a society’s digital capacity, the more vulnerable it becomes” (153). It takes smaller interferences to have a much greater effect. This will only become more pronounced in the coming years as the price of these technologies decreases and usability increases.

As a result, some of the most pressing debates surround determining the values these technologies are designed with and deciding “who operates and defines limits on these processes” (109). To use Shoshana Zuboff’s framing from The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, we need to be asking who knows, who decides, and who decides who decides.

Christian Engagement

Any answer to these vital questions necessarily reflects value judgments and philosophical ideals. That’s why Christians must do more than passively observe developments, critiquing from the sidelines.

In many ways, new technologies make our societies more brittle.

Christians need to be actively engaged in discussions about the limitations and application of AI. Though Scripture and tradition don’t address computers directly, we have rich sources in both to explain human nature and from which to argue for strategies that seem more likely to encourage something beyond a mere “ethic of human preservation” (176).

Christianity reminds us of our rightly ordered, fixed nature as God’s image-bearers and of our desperate need for him. The good news is that God designed us and calls us to recognize true reality grounded in his love—not simply in our own understanding—and to love him and our neighbor above all else (Matt. 22:37–39).

The pursuit of complete human autonomy is a failed and shortsighted project. The powerful nature of these AI technologies is a constant reminder of our limits in light of the infinite God who created and knows all things.

The Age of AI offers a helpful window into some of the prominent questions about AI and the human future. However, readers will need to engage thoughtfully because of the book’s deficient underlying worldview and assumption of the inevitability of technological acceptance.

How Can I Respond to Coworkers Who Think Christianity Is Bigoted? Mon, 18 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Almost certainly, your coworker doesn’t think we should be tolerant of all beliefs. We don’t think so either.]]> How do I respond when a coworker angrily disparages Christians as hateful and bigoted?

In working with unbelievers and believers alike, we’re called to live and labor in a manner worthy of the gospel (Phil. 1:27). We should be quick to humbly confess and repent when we fall short of it.

But how should we respond to coworkers who’ve taken offense not over our own actions but over those of other Christians?

1. Listen with humility.

In the face of frequent, embittered accusations that all Christians are prejudiced or malignant, it may be tempting to respond with defensiveness, resentment, or even retaliation. But humility is defusing and disarming. Even the strongest and proudest among us may be persuaded by patience and a soft tongue (Prov. 25:15).

Our best first step is to genuinely listen. This is more active (and self-forgetful) than silently crafting a rebuttal while the other person speaks. It involves praying for a tender heart that’s moved with compassion over the wrongs others have experienced as we mourn with those who mourn (Rom. 12:15).

Our coworkers (or others they know) may have been bullied, ostracized, or ridiculed—actions neither we nor Christ would ever approve.

2. Denounce un-Christlikeness.

While we might want to try to save face for our religion, Christ didn’t. He freely called out beliefs and behaviors that strayed from alignment with God’s Word.

We can do the same, offering statements such as “You’re right—that behavior is wrong” and “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

Our faith is built on the premise that all people, and all Christians, fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). This would be a good time to mention that Jesus is the only perfect human, that believing in him does not make Christians sinless, and that sanctification is a long process. The sin of Christians is not a reason to disbelieve the gospel, but another reason to cling to it.

3. Affirm Christ.

Even as we rightly grieve and even apologize for the atrocities committed by other Christians in the name of Christ, we shouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel. However it may be distorted or manipulated for the Enemy’s ends, it’s still the power of God for salvation to all who believe (Rom. 1:16), and it’s exactly what all people—even Christianity’s fiercest opposers—are looking for in the end.

Even as we rightly grieve and even apologize for the atrocities committed by other Christians in the name of Christ, we shouldn’t be ashamed of the gospel.

The Christ we serve, follow, and submit to was full of grace and truth (John 1:17). His Word commands us to do everything in love (1 Cor. 16:14)—even when that love means affirming his commands of righteousness and his disapproval of sins, and even when we know we’ll be hated for his name’s sake (Matt. 10:22).

As you affirm the exclusivity of Christianity, you may seem to be affirming your coworker’s suspicions of bigotry. You might consider asking her what kinds of beliefs and values she’d denounce—perhaps racism or ageism. Almost certainly, your coworker doesn’t think we should be tolerant of all beliefs. She’d agree that in some instances, there is one right way. We think so, too.

4. Seek common ground.

We may spark empathy and find common ground with our coworkers if they can see how their own belief systems have been misrepresented at times.

Ask if they’ve met someone with their own worldview—whether Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or otherwise—whom they’d describe as hateful and bigoted. How do they reconcile this? Might they say this unkind individual is acting on misunderstood or misapplied beliefs that are still noble when rightly carried out? If so, could the same be true of hurtful Christians they’ve interacted with in the past?

We all acknowledge and submit ourselves to an authoritative belief system—whether Christianity, atheism, self-autonomy, or any other activist cause of our generation. We all believe in good and evil as defined by something (or someone) beyond us. We all have a theology that affects how we view and respond to ourselves and others. And we’re all guilty of acting in ways that contradict what we claim to be true.

Almost certainly, your coworker doesn’t think we should be tolerant of all beliefs. She’d agree that in some instances, intolerance is commendable. So do we.

Without justifying in any way, take courage in remembering this isn’t specific to Christianity. Adherents to monotheism, polytheism, pantheism, and atheism alike have been guilty of hatred and bigotry. Great humanitarian atrocities have even been committed in the name of science, yet we haven’t discredited the entire scientific field in response.

Unconscionable behavior may not always reflect a certain teaching but a misinterpretation of it. The greater question, then, is what our beliefs hold to be true and how they call us to live, regardless of how faithfully we live in accordance.

5. Be a counterpoint.

Remember that at the end of even your most articulate arguments, your behavior toward coworkers will likely speak louder. Followers of Christ are called to set an example for other Christians (and for unbelievers) in speech, conduct, love, faith, and purity (1 Tim. 4:12), all while clothed in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience (Col. 3:12).

For each hateful and bigoted Christian interaction our coworkers have experienced, we can be a counterpoint they must now also explain. And we may find that to be the best apology and apologetic we can give.

How J. R. R. Tolkien Influenced Tim Keller Mon, 18 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Affection for J. R. R. Tolkien ran so deep that Tim Keller never stopped reading him.]]> Affection for J. R. R. Tolkien ran so deep that Tim Keller never stopped reading him—either The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, or 13 large volumes of posthumously published works.

It’s not obvious a novelist would become such a big influence on an evangelical pastor. Tolkien didn’t publish The Hobbit in 1937 and then immediately become a hero to Christian families in Middle America. Same for The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954. Even into the 1970s, Tolkien was seen by many as a voice for the counterculture, with visions of environmental degradation, war-torn landscapes, and little hobbits content to smoke pipe-leaf in the Shire. In train stations around the world, graffiti touted “Gandalf for President” and proclaimed “Frodo Lives.” In 1970 alone, the bands Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, and Genesis all hit the charts with songs based on Tolkien’s work.

“Today we’d think of Tolkien’s work as being aligned with the geek set of Comic-Con,” Jane Ciabattari wrote for the BBC, “but it was once closer to the Woodstock crowd.”

It’s not obvious a novelist would become such a big influence on an evangelical pastor.

Tim Keller’s sister Sharon Johnson will remember 1972 as the Summer of Tolkien. After he graduated from Bucknell, Tim returned to his parents’ home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, before starting seminary. Tim—older brother, teacher, enthusiast—put his sister on a reading diet consisting of C. S. Lewis and, especially, Tolkien. “Are you done yet? Are you done yet? Are you done yet?” Tim prodded Sharon. He expected her to follow along with everything he had learned and so eagerly desired to share with her.

“Tim has the intuition,” she said in an interview before his death. “He can make these leaps and connections. I loved his stories. We’d have Bible studies. We would do book studies. We’d do all these compares and contrasts. We’d find the Christ figures in Tolkien.”

When Keller wanted to illustrate his teaching on the danger of idolatry, he turned to Tolkien. The story that propels The Lord of the Rings is about Sauron’s Ring of Power. Anyone who thinks he can handle its power and wield it for good inevitably comes under its seductive spell. No matter how good your cause—freeing slaves, protecting your kingdom, punishing the guilty—the Ring cannot be tamed. Good things become absolute needs that render ethics a mere hindrance. Tolkien uses the Ring as an illustration of Paul’s teaching in Romans 12:18–21, which warns that evil can never overcome evil. Only good has that expulsive power.

“The wearer of the Ring becomes increasingly enslaved and addicted to it, for an idol is something we cannot live without,” Keller explained. “We must have it, and therefore it drives us to break rules we once honored, to harm others and even ourselves in order to get it. Idols are spiritual addictions that lead to terrible evil, in Tolkien’s novel and real life.”

Keller told the same story, with slightly different application, in his book Every Good Endeavor. For this book on vocation, however, Keller mostly leaned on another of his favorite Tolkien stories, “Leaf by Niggle.” He also used the story to illustrate a sermon on work in 2009 and in sermons in 2004, 2008, and 2010. He mentioned it in an open forum in 1995. For Keller, “Leaf by Niggle,” along with his teaching on idolatry and the Ring, could appeal just as much to New York yuppies working on Wall Street as to artists like Makoto Fujimura working in Tribeca.

Tolkien didn’t just write a beloved trilogy in The Lord of the Rings. With The Hobbit and other writings, he created an entire universe, complete with languages and backstories. The work occupied him for decades. In fact, he worried he’d never finish. He worried his Middle-earth would end up like a tree shorn of its crown. When he worried he’d reached the end of his creative powers, a short story about a painter suddenly came to mind. He called it “Leaf by Niggle.”

The very name Niggle betrays the origin of the story. Tolkien couldn’t leave well enough alone. Perfectionist tendencies hindered his productivity. Niggle, likewise, procrastinated on a necessary trip, by which Tolkien indicated death. Before he left, Niggle wanted to at least complete one painting. Eventually, he hoped to portray an entire country full of forests and plains and mountains covered in snow. But first he focused on a single leaf from a solitary tree. Between his perfectionism and requests for help from his neighbors, he never got to fill his canvas. While helping a neighbor, Niggle became sick, and he could postpone his journey no longer. He died. When the people who purchased his home saw the canvas, they found only a single leaf. They gave the painting to a museum, where a few people saw it.

Tolkien’s story continues into eternity, when Niggle hears the voices of Justice and Mercy. Justice condemns Niggle for painting nothing more than a single leaf. Mercy applauds him for sacrificing himself to help his neighbors. To his joy, Niggle notices a tree—the tree he never completed is now blooming in all its intricate, exquisite fullness. “It is a gift!” Niggle exclaims.

Niggle realizes he hadn’t left his little leaf in the real world. He had only now entered Reality, where this tree would never lose its leaves and die.

For Keller, this story spoke to a universal hope that we’ll be remembered after we’re dead. We want to leave a record of accomplishment. But we inevitably fall short. Our best efforts are for nothing as generations come and generations go. “Everyone will be forgotten,” Keller wrote, “nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.”

This story speaks to a universal hope that we’ll be remembered after we’re dead.

Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there’s a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, can matter forever if pursued in response to God’s calling. That’s what the Christian faith promises. “In the Lord your labor is not in vain,” writes Paul (1 Cor. 15:58). He was speaking of Christian ministry, but Tolkien’s story shows how this can ultimately be true of all work.

Tolkien helped Keller as a pastor explain the dignity of all work—not just church ministry.

One Thing My Parents Did Right: Homeschooling Sun, 17 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 How her parents’ choice to homeschool led one teenager to the Lord.]]> I’ve always struggled with my health. When I was in second grade, it got so bad that my parents decided to pull me out of formal school. They went on to homeschool me from third grade all the way until I graduated high school.

At that time, homeschooling was almost unheard of in Indonesia. There were no official institutions for education outside the formal school system, and there were few materials and resources about educating your child yourself. However, my parents were convinced that prioritizing my health and giving me time to learn the Bible were crucial for me (Ps. 119:9; Prov. 22:6).

Even though the future seemed bleak, they still made that decision. God gave them the understanding that if we trusted him only when things were safe and stepped forward only when everything was under control, we’d never follow him (Ps. 37:5).

Benefits of Homeschooling

I discovered early on that being homeschooled came with its perks. For one thing, there were drastically fewer activities. This meant fewer distractions. I’m sure every young teen has had questions about his or her identity and purpose in life, but maybe those questions weren’t pondered over and answered seriously.

Being homeschooled allowed for more time to think over those big questions and search for answers—to read books, consider what I’d read, and write down my thoughts. There was no rush and my days weren’t packed full of activities.

If we trusted God only when things were safe and stepped forward only when everything was under control, we’d never follow him.

My parents picked out my curriculum themselves. They knew what books I was reading, what courses I was taking, and what activities I took part in. Both my parents thought over what they wanted me to learn and were actively involved in what I was studying. They purposefully chose curricula that assigned lots of reading, and I’d discuss with them what I read.

They put me in a community where I was taught Bible doctrine with other kids. Part of the reason they chose to homeschool me in the first place was that given my health condition, I had no time to learn about God or study the Bible when I was still in formal school.

This meant my parents and I spent a great deal of time together. Even families who have a close relationship aren’t necessarily able to talk about spiritual things, but my parents were open to talking about God in our household (Deut. 6:6–9; 11:19; Ps. 78:4; Ex. 12:26–27). They created an atmosphere that welcomed me to ask all sorts of questions about God.

How Homeschooling Led Me to God

There was a time when I was skeptical of religion and had a cynical attitude toward life in general. My parents were devout Christians, but they didn’t panic when I bluntly stated I had doubts about the Christian faith and wanted to explore other religions and ideologies. They were open to their daughter questioning Christianity—not in spite of their deep conviction in their faith but because of it. They even bought me a Qur’an when I requested it. When I told them I was an atheist, they must have been so grieved and heartbroken, but they didn’t condemn me or look at me with disappointment.

If I hadn’t been homeschooled, I doubt I’d have followed up on those big questions about my purpose in life or my faith. There would have been no time to wrestle over them, and I might not have felt close enough to my parents to risk asking those kinds of questions. There would have been too many distractions. I’d probably have tried to find the answers myself or get them from my peers, who were just as foolish as I was (Prov. 13:20).

If I hadn’t been homeschooled, I doubt I’d have followed up on those big questions about my purpose in life or my faith.

Many nights were spent in discussions (that were more like debates) about sin, predestination, the Christian worldview, other religions’ worldviews, how God relates to me, and many more issues. These dinner table talks were one of the biggest factors—if not the biggest factor—setting the stage for my coming to faith in Christ.

Sometimes, young people born into Christian families walk away from the church and religion altogether because their big questions have been left unanswered by Christians (1 Pet. 3:15). Questions about our purpose in life, the reason for life at all, the problem of pain, the relevance of the Christian faith—such questions are often dismissed by adults, perhaps out of insufficient knowledge, willful ignorance, distraction, or a simple lack of time.

My parents didn’t dismiss my persistent questions. They didn’t brush away with annoyance my struggles (Col. 3:21). They didn’t give up on me, and they never gave up praying to God for me. There were moments when they were exhausted, discouraged, and out of patience, and they shed a lot of tears, but God gave them the strength to continue (Josh. 1:9).

Just after I graduated high school, something happened that made me see the filth of my sin and how far I’d fallen. I finally realized my condition was hopeless and that there was no way I could redeem myself. God drove me into a corner and saved me at the same time I stopped trying to save myself.

Following a Sovereign God

I came to a faith in Christ a few days before turning 18. I’m 22 now, and I’ve experienced joy in him. I’ve come to know that my health condition isn’t an accident or a curse but was purposefully designed by God for my salvation. God allowed me—no, he specially designed me—to have poor health. This was how he led my parents to see it wasn’t possible for me to continue in formal school. My illness was the only way my parents would’ve considered homeschooling.

God allowed me—no, he specially designed me—to have poor health.

I’m not saying homeschooling is absolutely better than formal school and that everyone should homeschool their kids. But it was definitely the best choice my parents made for me. It was an act of faith. My parents knew they weren’t all-wise and all-knowing, but they knew they had a God who is.

Our God isn’t only a sovereign God but also a God of providence. He’s in control of everything and has a good purpose behind it. I get goosebumps when I think of how God had it all planned out (Job 11:7–9). He led us and has provided sufficient grace for us to follow him (Phil. 4:19). He has made all things work for good (Rom. 8:28). Though the road seems winding and unclear, his purpose will stand and he’ll make everything beautiful in its time (Heb. 12:11; Ecc. 3:11).

Prophetic Comfort for Times of Tragedy Sat, 16 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Some deaths especially confuse us. Like Abel’s blood crying out to God, such deaths cry out to us that something isn’t right in our world.]]> We live in a world we don’t fully understand. Despite all our technological progress, we still face the excruciating mystery of death. We have no satisfying explanation when a child dies in the womb, or when a loved one commits suicide or perishes in an accident. Some deaths especially confuse us. Like Abel’s blood crying out to God, such deaths cry out to us that something isn’t right in our world.

What can you say to comfort someone amid such tragedy? How can you give true comfort without belittling the pain someone has experienced?

I asked myself these questions several years ago when a neighbor asked me to come say a few words at a memorial service for his family member—a wife and mother who’d died in her 30s. By God’s grace, Isaiah 55:6–9 came to mind, and it has been a continual source of help “in this vale of tears” (Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 26). This passage speaks to a confused and suffering people and calls them to look to God.

My Thoughts Are Not Your Thoughts

The passage ends (vv. 8–9) with a paradoxical comfort. Instead of providing answers, the Lord asserts his doings are beyond our full comprehension. His thoughts aren’t our thoughts; they’re categorically beyond ours. Theologians call this God’s incomprehensibility.

Some deaths especially confuse us. Like Abel’s blood crying out to God, such deaths cry out to us that something isn’t right in our world.

Surprisingly, this leads Paul to praise the Lord. In Romans 11:33–36, he quotes Isaiah and declares, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Along with the bad we don’t understand, there’s also goodness and grace that defy comprehension.

If God is unknowable, how do we know his goodness? Even as Isaiah teaches God’s transcendence of our understanding, he focuses on what God has clearly revealed about himself. The prophet’s words embody Deuteronomy 29:29, which calls us to cast ourselves on what God has made known: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever.” What comfort does Isaiah provide in our mysterious world of sorrow?

God Provides Compassion and Pardon

Isaiah says, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7).

God provides compassion and pardon to sinners who deserve death. When we grasp how sinful we are, we see it’s an amazing mystery of love that God would accept us and love us. As the hymn “How Deep the Father’s Love” reminds us,

Why should I gain from his reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom.

The Lord puts his money where his mouth is, so to speak. He not only tells Christians to weep with those who weep but himself identifies with suffering humanity through the Son’s incarnation.

God’s deep compassion was on display in Jesus, who wept at Lazarus’s grave and over Jerusalem. He’s the great high priest who sympathizes with you in your sufferings (Heb. 4:14–16). At the cross, when we would be overcome with anger with those who’d wronged us, he compassionately asked his Father to have mercy on them (Luke 23:34).

Pardons, amazingly, come to the condemned. They come after a judge has rendered a guilty verdict. And Isaiah promises not just a small pardon or a partial pardon but an abundant pardon. God doesn’t just forgive our “little” sins in Christ; all are blotted out (Isa. 43:25).

We can be thankful if we’ve never been in an earthly court and received a prison sentence; yet a prisoner knows the greatness of a pardon. Do we? We’re guilty; we sin against God in our behavior and thoughts. We’re wicked and unrighteous, needing the pardon God provides (Isa. 55:6).

God Calls You to Draw Near for Your Good

Our thoughts are bound by our human limitations, but God’s thoughts are boundless. We only see what’s on the horizon; he has no horizon. When we don’t know why God would take a life, we can nevertheless rest on this truth: God knows best.

Isaiah promises not just a small pardon or a partial pardon but an abundant pardon.

John 11 tells of Jesus’s love for Lazarus, but Jesus let Lazarus die. The reason? God can show his glory even through death. Lazarus’s death provided an opportunity for Jesus to reveal his identity to the grieving through that powerful statement: “I am the resurrection and the life” (v. 25).

Isaiah insists we need to draw near to God for his glory and our good. After all, life is a mere breath. Now is the time to put our faith in Jesus Christ: “Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD” (55:6–7).

God may not give us all the answers we long for, but his presence and his promises are enough. We may never know why the Lord took away our dearest friend, but we do know he is good and does good (Ps. 119:68). He’s the God of all comfort (2 Cor. 1:3), so we draw near to him today.

Pastor, Rely on God’s Power Within You Fri, 15 Sep 2023 04:04:56 +0000 In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Regional Conference, Ray Ortlund emphasizes the importance of enduring faithfulness.]]> In his message at TGC’s 2018 West Coast Regional Conference, Ray Ortlund emphasizes the importance of enduring faithfulness and making sacred commitments to the Lord. He draws inspiration from the book of 2 Timothy and highlights the theme of God’s enduring faithfulness. Ortlund reads verses from 2 Timothy where Paul expresses gratitude to God and encourages Timothy to not be ashamed of the gospel. He urges ministry leaders to recognize their rich spiritual ancestry and find courage in their connection to God and the faith of previous generations. Ortlund also emphasizes the need for personal connection and genuine care for others, reminding listeners of the lasting legacy of faithfulness and the importance of imparting it to future generations.

Is Everyone a Theologian? Fri, 15 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 Disciple makers should be using this book for decades to come.]]> At a meeting of academic theologians a few years ago, I observed a heated discussion over a particularly esoteric question about God’s relationship to numbers. For three solid hours, several scholars debated whether numbers are real and if so, how they relate to God.

While I struggled to stay awake in this session, my mind gravitated toward the people I shepherd weekly in the local church. What would my church members think if they heard this conversation? Would it build them up in Christ or would it scare them away from the study of Christian theology?

Academic theology is best when it equips the scholars who equip local church leaders. If academics cannot connect the dots between Christian doctrine and the teaching ministry of the local church, then we fail the task God has given us.

This important connection between theology and discipleship is rarely articulated as well as it has been in Jen Wilkin and J. T. English’s book You Are a Theologian: An Invitation to Know and Love God Well. Wilkin is an author and Bible teacher. English is a systematic theologian and lead pastor of Storyline Church in Arvada, Colorado.

Wilkin and English frame the pursuit of theological learning as part of fulfilling the Great Commission (Matt. 28:18–20). It’s at the heart of the mission of the church. The process of being disciples that make disciples includes every Christian becoming a theologian.

We Need More Theology, Not Less

Wilkin and English have two simple goals with this book. First, they write to convince their audience of lay readers that they too can study Christian theology without fear or intimidation. Even if most people in our churches aren’t professional, academic theologians, they’re all theologians in the sense that they have beliefs about God that shape their worldviews.

Second, Wilkin and English want to grow their readers in the love and knowledge of God by walking them through the key issues of Christian theology. In so doing, Wilkin and English have written the book I’ve waited years to see: a systematic theology so clear and so accessible that it can be used in any discipleship group or Bible study class in our church.

Even those who are brand new to the faith can pick up this text and come away with a clearer understanding of what Christians believe and why it matters.

This book combines a relatable style and prose with a clear understanding of the theological task to produce a book that will be attractive to all audiences in the local church. Even those who are brand new to the faith can pick up this text and come away with a better understanding of what Christians believe and why it matters.

Big Questions, Relatable Answers

This isn’t a groundbreaking systematic theology. It wasn’t intended to be. Those who are new to the study of Christian theology will learn key concepts and grasp their practical importance.

Wilkin and English do more than teach us the content of Christian theology. They also serve as helpful models for how to teach Christian theology well. That makes this book beneficial for seasoned theologians as well.

You Are a Theologian doesn’t shy away from terms and concepts that are usually ignored in church discipleship materials. Many of their lay readers will probably encounter terms like “immanent Trinity,” “economic Trinity,” and “hypostatic union” for the first time. Yet the authors offer plain explanations, usually accompanied by illustrations from pop culture that would be accessible to a general audience. The downside of some of these references is that they may date the book more quickly than it deserves.

In my experience, churches are filled with thinkers, feelers, and doers. Thinkers naturally gravitate toward theological discussion, but feelers and doers tend to be left out of the conversation. Wilkin and English understand that reaching a general audience in the local church means teaching theology to all three groups of people.

They argue, “Theology matters because it shapes us not merely at the intellectual level, but at the emotional and the practical level” (18). They write with the conviction that theology has a “holistic impact . . . on our lives: we think differently, feel differently, and act differently as a result of developing better categories for understanding God” (19).

Humble, Worshipful Theology in the Community of the Church

Wilkin and English argue our theology becomes richer when it’s studied in the community of the local church, the global faith family, and the broader Christian tradition throughout history. In this book, they demonstrate humble theology, devoid of polemics and theological potshots.

Some readers may be disappointed to pick up a theology text that sidesteps many of the key debates in Christian theology: different understandings of the atonement, the variety of spiritual gifts, the timeline of the millennium, and so on. Wilkin and English don’t avoid those conversations because they aren’t important but because they aim to write an introductory text that can be used in any evangelical church.

Our theology becomes richer when it is studied in the community of the local church, the global faith family, and the broader Christian tradition throughout history.

The heart of this book isn’t head knowledge but authentic worship. This follows the example of the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul concluded three chapters of heavy theology in Romans 9–11 with a song of praise about the depth and the riches of the knowledge of God (Rom. 11:33–36).

The authors structured the volume so the mind’s reflection on the deep things of God should also stir the affections of our hearts. To encourage worshipful transformation, Wilkin and English end each chapter with a series of discussion or self-reflection questions and a call to prayer and worship.

As a theology professor, I’m often asked to recommend an introductory theology text for discipleship groups or new member classes. For years, I’ve had to make recommendations with a string of qualifications. No more. From now on, You Are a Theologian will be my go-to recommendation. Disciple makers should be using this book for decades to come.

Kids Ask: If Jesus Is God, Why Did He Pray to God? Fri, 15 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 Jesus prayed because, as a human, he needed God the Father to help him.]]> Each night, you read a Bible story with your children. Then, you kneel down beside their beds to pray. Sometimes you pray the Lord’s Prayer together. Other times you simply work through a list of things that you’re thankful for. Then, one night, your daughter asks, “If Jesus is God, why did he pray to God?”

Leave it to a first grader to ask a question that pushes you into the theological deep end. Here’s how I’d talk to a first grader about Jesus and prayer.

Jesus Is Fully God and Fully Human

That’s a great question. I’m pleased you believe Jesus is God. Your question also tells me you believe there’s only one God. The Bible is clear about those two truths: there’s only one God, and Jesus Christ is that one God.

Jesus isn’t just God; the Bible says he’s also God’s Son. Think of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus called God his Father, and he had a lot to say about the Holy Spirit as well. So, though Jesus is fully and truly God, he’s the Son of God, and he isn’t God the Father. He’s also not God the Holy Spirit.

Jesus is really and truly God, but when he was born in Bethlehem, he also became a human. Jesus isn’t a fake or pretend human. He’s fully human, and he lived his life just as you and I are to live. It was important for the job God the Father gave to his Son that Jesus lived his life like any other human, just like you and me. There were no shortcuts or easy paths.

Jesus lived his life like any other human, just like you and me. There were no shortcuts or easy paths.

When you or I haven’t eaten in a while, we get hungry and weak. If we work hard or go without sleep, we get tired. When someone hits us, it hurts, and sometimes we bleed. Because Jesus is truly human, he too got hungry, tired, and hurt. When he was nailed to the cross, he was hurt so badly and bled so much that he died—just like you or I would.

3 Reasons Jesus Prayed

One thing all people are supposed to do is to pray to God the Father. Nobody was better at praying than Jesus. When Jesus prayed, he didn’t talk to himself. He prayed to God the Father. Here are three reasons why Jesus, though fully God, prayed to God.

1. Jesus prayed because he depended on God his Father.

Jesus came to do only what God the Father wanted him to do (John 6:38). Once, right after he healed a man who had been unable to walk his entire life, Jesus said he wasn’t able to do anything on his own but only what he saw the Father doing (5:19, 30). When Jesus had hard decisions to make, like deciding who his first 12 disciples would be, he went off by himself and prayed (Luke 6:12). He taught that prayer was necessary to do some difficult things, like healing people (Mark 9:29). And on the night he was arrested, Jesus went to the garden of Gethsemane, and he prayed a lot (Matt. 26:36). Jesus prayed because, as a human, he needed God the Father to help him.

2. Jesus prayed because he enjoyed talking to his Father in heaven.

Sons and daughters should like talking to their fathers, and Jesus was no different. Maybe the greatest prayer in the entire Bible was prayed by Jesus the night before he was crucified (John 17). In that prayer, Jesus prayed for himself, for his first disciples, and then for Christians like you and me who would live later in history. Jesus counted it a privilege to be able to talk to God the Father, and he was excited to pray for people like you and me.

3. Jesus prayed to teach us how to pray.

Jesus was so good at prayer that his disciples once asked him to teach them how to pray. The prayer Jesus taught them is found in Matthew 6:9–13. Since that time, Christians have called this prayer “The Lord’s Prayer.

Jesus counted it a privilege to be able to talk to God the Father.

More than just giving us the right words to say, Jesus taught us through his life how important prayer is. He liked to pray by himself early in the morning (Mark 1:35). Do you remember how I said that Jesus often went off by himself and prayed? When he did, Jesus’s disciples were watching. They knew that no one has ever had a closer relationship with God the Father than Jesus. They learned that if it was important for Jesus to pray, then it should be important to us as well.

5 Bad Reasons to Get a Divorce Fri, 15 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Boredom, incompatibility, and other commonly cited reasons for divorce aren’t legitimate grounds for ending a marriage.]]> Forbes Advisor commissioned a survey of 1,000 Americans who are divorced or in the process of divorcing to discover why marriages fail. The survey found that 63 percent of people who divorced said having a better understanding of commitment prior to marrying could have stopped their unions from collapsing. And 56 percent said they may not have divorced if they had a better understanding of their spouses’ morals and values. Surprisingly, less than 5 percent of divorced people said their marriages couldn’t be saved.

In a world where the sanctity of marriage is increasingly under siege, it’s crucial to reevaluate the reasons often cited for divorce. There are undoubtedly situations where divorce may be a biblically justifiable option, such as cases of abandonment, abuse, or infidelity. But as the survey shows, there are many instances where a better understanding of commitment and values could be enough to save the marriage.

Here are five commonly cited reasons for divorce that aren’t legitimate grounds for ending a marriage.

1. Falling out of Love: The Emotional Fallacy

One of the most frequently cited reasons for divorce is the notion that one or both partners have “fallen out of love.” The modern notion of love is often romanticized and emotionalized, influenced by literature, movies, and popular culture. Such a perspective is rooted in a misunderstanding of love as primarily an emotional experience and stands in stark contrast to the biblical understanding of love, which is rooted in commitment and action.

Throughout the New Testament, the term most frequently used for love is agape, which refers to a selfless, sacrificial love. For example, Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4–7 as patient, kind, and enduring all things. It’s this kind of love that should be the foundation of a Christian marriage.

We might assume the implication is that love is a choice. While it’s true that real love is more a matter of decision than feeling, it isn’t merely a choice. As John Piper says, “If our love is only a choice, it is not yet what it ought to be.” Instead, as Piper notes, the way we’re called to love is impossible without relying on our dependence on the Lord. Only through the gift of God’s grace can we love in a way that sustains the bonds of marriage.

2. Incompatibility: The Myth of the Perfect Match

One of the most destructive concepts of the modern age is the idea of a “soulmate” or a “perfect match.” While compatibility is important, no two individuals are perfectly compatible—every man and woman is a sinner and thus uniquely flawed and broken. Scripture teaches that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23), which implies imperfection and incompatibility are to be expected.

Only through the gift of God’s grace can we love in a way that sustains the bonds of marriage.

We should think in terms of sacrifice, not soulmates. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross serves as the ultimate model for how we must also love and sacrifice. In a marriage, both partners are called to emulate this kind of love in different ways. This may require laying down one’s desires, preferences, and even needs for the sake of the other. It’s a love that seeks the best for the other person and is willing to endure hardship and inconvenience.

For example, in Ephesians 5:25, husbands are instructed to love their wives as Christ loved the church, sacrificing himself for her. This level of sacrificial love implies that incompatibilities can and should be worked through rather than serving as grounds for divorce. The counterintuitive reality is that true compatibility often comes only after such sacrifices have been made.

Compatibility is the ability to exist together without conflict. It’s not discovered; it’s an objective you continuously strive for. It’s constantly attempting to follow Paul’s command in Romans 12:18: “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” If you’re married, it does depend on you, and you should do everything in your power to be at peace with—to be compatible with—your spouse.

3. Financial Struggle: Temporal vs. Eternal Perspectives

Financial struggles are often cited as one of the leading causes of stress in a marriage. While financial difficulties deserve to be taken seriously, they’re too often hastily used as an excuse to divorce. Instead, they should be seen as an opportunity to shift one’s focus from the temporal to the eternal.

Many of our financial struggles are rooted in a focus on material wealth, which is transient and subject to decay. Jesus himself warned against the folly of accumulating earthly treasures: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19). Within marriage, the focus shouldn’t be on material accumulation but on the eternal values the relationship is meant to cultivate, such as love, faithfulness, and spiritual maturity. When a couple faces financial struggles, it’s an opportunity to reevaluate priorities and align them more closely with God’s kingdom values.

Financial struggles can also serve as a crucible for developing contentment and trust in God’s provision. Paul writes in Philippians 4:11–13 that he’s learned to be content in all circumstances, whether in plenty or in want—a contentment rooted in Christ. Similarly, couples can learn to be content and trust in God’s provision, even in times of financial hardship.

Don’t be too quick to dismiss this as a naive platitude. Many Christian couples have found that by adopting a biblical perspective on finances, by shifting from a temporal to an eternal perspective, they were able to navigate such challenges in a way that strengthened rather than weakened their marital bond.

4. Personal Happiness: The Self-Centered Approach

Since the 1970s, the dominant narrative in American culture has revolved around the individual’s quest for happiness and self-fulfillment. This perspective is reinforced by media, literature, and even many secular psychological theories, which all suggest personal happiness is the ultimate goal of life. The problem with this approach is that it not only doesn’t lead to greater happiness but actively undermines the interdependence required within marriage.

Scripture offers a counternarrative that challenges the self-centered approach to life and relationships. In Philippians 2:3–4, Paul instructs believers, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” This principle is especially pertinent in the context of marriage, where mutual submission and self-sacrifice is the secret to true flourishing (Eph. 5:21).

While the world offers fleeting happiness that’s dependent on circumstances, the Bible teaches true joy is found in a relationship with God. As Nehemiah 8:10 states, “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” This joy isn’t a transient emotional state but a deep, abiding contentment that comes from knowing and serving God.

5. Boredom: The Danger of Complacency

Complacency in marriage often manifests as a lack of interest, enthusiasm, or concern about the relationship. It can gradually erode the bonds of intimacy and trust that are essential for a healthy marriage. Complacency is antithetical to the biblical model of marriage, which calls for ongoing nurturing, cherishing, and intentional effort (Eph. 5:29).

One of the most effective ways to combat boredom in a Christian marriage is to simply focus on growing together in Christ. A man and woman sharing this spiritual journey will discover a sense of purpose and direction that transcends the mundane routines of daily life. Couples who can engage in joint activities that foster spiritual growth will, over time, grow increasingly interested in each other as they grow in Christlikeness.

The famous British writer Samuel Johnson once said, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” Much the same is true for Christian marriage. It’s hard to be bored when you’re with someone who’s becoming more and more like the most interesting person who ever lived.

One Good Reason to Stay Married

The ultimate reason to sustain and nurture any marriage, despite its flaws and challenges, isn’t just human happiness but divine glory. A gospel-centered marriage serves as a living metaphor for Christ and his church. In a world mired in temporary satisfactions and superficial commitments, marriages anchored in the gospel stand as beacons of hope. They’re sacred covenants, not just social contracts, and God is profoundly invested in them.

When couples draw near to God, they find the strength to tackle the challenges that come their way, be it emotional distance, financial stress, or imperfections. They discover the joy in obedience to God’s Word, the satisfaction in shared sacrifice, and the peace that surpasses all understanding when they anchor their relationship in faith.

It’s hard to be bored when you’re with someone who’s becoming more and more like the most interesting person who ever lived.

The gospel offers struggling spouses a better narrative. Love isn’t merely an emotion but a choice that transforms when it’s deeply rooted in Christ’s love for us. When that love is your foundation, you understand that with God, all things are possible—including the renewal, the restoration, and perhaps even the resurrection of a marriage that the world might have given up on.

If you’re questioning the vitality of your marriage based on worldly standards, remember that God hasn’t just permitted marriage but designed it for his glory. By turning to him and embracing the principles outlined in Scripture, it’s more than possible to rekindle love, rebuild trust, and achieve a depth of intimacy you may have thought was lost. This is the hope and the promise of a gospel-centered marriage.

How Can I Evangelize My Employees? Thu, 14 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 You cannot save those who work for you, but you can lead them well.]]> How do I share the gospel with my employees without pressuring them because I’m the boss?

I understand why you’re asking. As Christians, we want others to find the peace and hope we’ve found in knowing Jesus. And we know all Christians are called to evangelize (Mark 16:15). But speaking about Christ can be tricky to navigate with those we manage. We want to ensure our employees don’t feel pressured or manipulated, even inadvertently, through our attempts to share our faith.

So how can we provide an invitation rather than a demand? Let’s look at a few things to keep in mind if you’re an influential person within your organization.

1. Understand (and fulfill) your responsibilities.

Whether you own the company or manage a smaller team within a larger organization, you’re responsible for working and leading well. Be the best manager you can be—excellent at your job, generous in leadership, humble in sharing credit, and gentle in correction. Your employees will be more receptive to the good news if it comes from a person they like and respect.

Your employees will be more receptive to the good news if it comes from a person they like and respect.

Because you have more influence than those in non-leadership roles, you have a unique opportunity to steward that well. We’ve all heard stories about difficult bosses. Likely a by-product of their sense of job security, people in positions of power sometimes feel more comfortable behaving in unseemly ways. But they also have more freedom to make positive things happen.

In a world where many struggle with the management style of their supervisors, you have an opportunity to provide a different employee experience. There’s perhaps no greater witness to the work of Jesus Christ than Christians treating others with countercultural love that can’t possibly come from any worldly source.

2. Identify as a Christian.

People probably won’t ask you about your faith unless they know you have one.

When my 10-year-old plays a video game, he understands that to get to the more advanced levels, he must conquer the easier levels first. There’s a progression to his games, just as there’s often a progression to our path toward deeper evangelism.

Sometimes we’re intimidated by the prospect of having an in-depth conversion conversation when we haven’t even worked up the nerve to stop actively hiding our faith. We avoid mentioning church attendance when asked about our weekend plans. We quickly turn our car radio down as we pull into the parking lot so others don’t hear the worship music we’re listening to. We mumble, we put our heads down, and we avoid even the easiest of opportunities to say, “I’m a Christian.”

The first step is often making it known you’re a Christian so your life can serve as evidence of the work of Jesus. Such an open posture invites questions and conversations with others.

3. Look for opportunities.

As you lead with excellence and are transparent about your faith, ask the Lord for opportunities to share further and for him to change people’s hearts toward him. You may have employees who are hardened to the topic of Christianity and would not be open to hearing about it. What can you do? Pray for them. The things outside of your control are not outside of God’s. You may be surprised by the doors he opens throughout your workday.

Weave in biblical leadership principles when discussing a challenge with your leadership team. Offer to colead an optional prayer group or Bible study with another Christian on your team. Mention your church’s pickleball league to that person on your team who can’t stop talking about her latest obsession with the sport.

The things outside of your control are not outside of God’s. You may be surprised by the doors he opens throughout your workday.

If a team member has experienced a loss or a difficult diagnosis, he may come to you for comfort or encouragement. Consider a simple and open invitation: “Let me know how I can be there for you during this time. I’m always happy to listen, and the team is ready to chip in so you can take the time you need. Additionally, would you like me to pray either with or for you? I believe our greatest help in times like these comes from God.”

As team members learn you’re a Christian, some may become curious and ask more targeted questions. If you’re asked about your faith, you have an open door to share your testimony. After saying a few things, asking, “Does that answer your question?” is a respectful way to see if the door is still open or if a person would like to end the conversation.

But you may also have an opportunity to say more. As the Lord works in your coworkers’ hearts, he may give you the chance to proclaim to them the good news of a creating and redeeming God who sent the Son to pay the penalty for our sins and to reconcile us to himself. He may give you an opportunity to invite your employees to become followers of Christ. Who could ask for a better day at the office?

4. Remain Spirit-led.

Put down that burden you’re carrying. You know the one. It’s the overwhelming sense of responsibility to personally ensure every soul you encounter is saved. Keep that God-given stirring within your heart, but release the weight. Evangelism isn’t a burden. It’s not about forcing the Father’s invitation on people. It’s about walking in step with the leading of the Spirit as he works in and through you.

The workers in the harvest don’t cause the harvest (Matt. 9:37–38; John 15:16). They’re simply servants, cheerfully obeying and following where their Father sends them (Ps. 128:1; Rom. 8:14).

Don’t forget that as you diligently fulfill your humble role in the larger picture. Pray for God to guide you in stewarding the influence he’s entrusted you with, all for his glory and the advancement of the kingdom.

7 Edifying Films to Watch This Fall Thu, 14 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 For discerning audiences looking for an edifying film to watch this fall, either at home or in the multiplex, Brett McCracken shares seven recommendations.]]> Fall is historically the beginning of awards season for movies, when Hollywood releases its “prestige” films in hopes of striking both critical and box office gold. Sadly, the trend for prestige and arthouse fare is envelope-pushing explicit excess, sexual deviancy, moral decadence, and sometimes outright nihilism.

It’s understandable that many Christian and mainstream family audiences desire counterprogramming: movies that are high quality but also hopeful, thoughtful but also enjoyable; movies you don’t feel awkward about watching with Christian family and friends.

For discerning audiences looking for an edifying film to watch this fall, either at home or in the multiplex, here are seven ideas for your consideration. Not all the films on this list are appropriate for all ages, and most of them aren’t “faith-based” or even faith-adjacent. But they’re all entertaining, uplifting, and commendable.

A Million Miles Away

This is a classic “overcoming great odds” inspirational tale, telling the true story of José Hernández, the first migrant farmworker to travel to space. It’s based on Hernández’s autobiography and celebrates the virtues of strong family, healthy marriage, education, and perseverance to achieve seemingly impossible goals. Directed by Alejandra Márquez Abella and starring the tremendously talented Michael Peña in the lead role, the film is a refreshing spotlight of Latino American culture and values. Grab some tissues and enjoy this wonderful film at home with your family. Rated PG. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

Based on Judy Blume’s 1970 youth novel, Kelly Fremon Craig’s new film adaptation was released earlier this year in theaters and is now available to rent online. Like the book, the movie explores the awkwardness of puberty and fraught dynamics of middle school life for preteen girls, yet it does so more tactfully than other coming-of-age films. For parents of preteen girls who might relate to the 11-year-old titular protagonist (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), this PG-13 movie could be good conversation fodder.

As its title indicates, the story also involves interesting spiritual elements, as Margaret (whose dad is Jewish and mom grew up Christian) seeks God in prayer often amid her everyday struggles. The film’s theology is muddled, to be sure, but it’s refreshing to see a child’s pursuit of God occupy such a central role in a mainstream movie. Rated PG-13. Available to rent

The Covenant 

Another film released earlier in 2023 (sadly missed by many audiences) is Guy Ritchie’s The Covenant, now available to rent. Set during the Afghanistan War, the film examines the relationship between U.S. military personnel and the Afghan interpreters who risked their lives to help them. Jake Gyllenhaal and Dar Salim shine as army sergeant John Kinley and interpreter Ahmed, and their cross-cultural brotherhood is the heart of the film.

As the title suggests, The Covenant examines the concept of committed relationships (in this case friendship) and the debts we owe when sacrifices are made on one side of the relationship. In telling a specific story of wartime camaraderie, the film offers good fodder for discussions of grace, guilt, and the gospel. Rated R for language and violence. Available to rent.

Dreamin’ Wild

This movie came and went in theaters this summer with little fanfare. But it’s one of my favorites of the year. Directed by Bill Pohlad (Love & Mercy) and starring Casey Affleck, the film tells the true story of brothers Donnie and Joe Emerson. They made a home-studio-recorded album (Dreamin’ Wild) in the late ’70s when they were teenagers, but it didn’t really find an audience until it was discovered by an antique record collector three decades later.

It’s a fascinating story of the ups and downs of a creative life but also of the gift of family and the ways we support each other in dreams that live, die, and live again. Affleck has never been better, and I particularly loved the scenes with his onscreen father, played by Beau Bridges. Rated PG. Available to rent on September 26. 


The most artsy film on this list (and probably not everyone’s cup of tea), LOLA is nevertheless one of the most original (and enjoyable) films of 2023. The microbudget film cleverly combines elements of the “found footage,” sci-fi time-travel, and alternate history genres. It packs a lot of intriguing images and ideas into its short, 79-minute runtime. Without giving too much away, the film’s plot revolves around a pair of sisters in 1940s England who discover a way to intercept radio and TV transmissions from the future.

The film works on one level as an amusing WWII alternate-history spec fiction. But on a deeper level, it asks timely questions about the dangers of trifling with technologies for short-term gain without considering long-term consequences. It’s like a thought-provoking episode of Black Mirror but without the TV-MA explicit content. Available to rent

Ordinary Angels

Written and directed by Jon Gunn (screenwriter for Jesus Revolution and American Underdog), and produced by the Erwin Brothers (Jesus Revolution, I Can Only Imagine), Ordinary Angels is the latest example of the rising bar of quality coming out of the faith-based filmmaking community. The film stars Christian actor Alan Ritchson (Fast X, Reacher), who sometimes posts faith and apologetics videos on YouTube, as well as Oscar-winning actress Hilary Swank.

Based on a true story, the inspirational movie follows a widowed father named Ed (Ritchson) who’s trying to find money to pay for medical treatments to save his critically ill young daughter. Swank plays a Good Samaritan, Sharon, who comes alongside Ed to help raise money. In less capable hands, the story might have turned into a saccharine Lifetime movie of the week. But Gunn and his talented cast bring a commendable nuance and artistry to the story, even as they allow its goodness to be uncomplicated. Rated PG. Theatrical release TBD.

Surprised by Oxford

I was a big fan of Carolyn Weber’s memoir, Surprised by Oxford, when I read it a decade ago. In addition to painting a beautiful portrait of Oxford and narrating a page-turner romance, Weber’s book recounts her Christian conversion story, which unfolded in a manner not unlike that of C. S. Lewis (hence the title’s nod to Surprised by Joy). It’s a brilliant book, full of drama, so the most surprising thing about Surprised by Oxford being adapted as a movie is that it took 10 years to happen.

The second most surprising thing? It’s a faith-friendly film that’s actually good. The film will be released in limited theaters later this month (check your local listings), and I hope it finds an audience so that more films like this are made. Not rated. Limited theatrical screenings begin September 27. 

Andrew Wilson’s Small Life Thu, 14 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 If you’d told Andrew Wilson in his 20s that he’d never leave Eastbourne, that would have seemed like a small, maybe even disappointing, life to him. But that’s not what he calls it now.]]> Ten years ago, author, speaker, and pastor Andrew Wilson curled up on his kids’ playroom floor and sobbed.

He’d just realized his 2-year-old daughter, Anna, was exhibiting the same behavior—humming, hand flapping, avoiding eye contact—that his son Zeke had begun when he was her age. And he knew: Anna, too, had severe and regressive autism.

He was right—she did. Within about a year, both of the Wilson toddlers lost the ability to sing or speak. Neither would be able to lead a typical life, the Wilsons were told. Both would need special education, constant supervision, and a lifetime of care.

The realization was gut-wrenching, and Andrew didn’t know what to do. So he kept going to work, which for him meant preaching, traveling to speak, promoting his books, and working on his PhD at King’s College London.

Meanwhile, things at home were falling apart. Andrew was teaching in Belfast when Anna had two serious seizures. His wife, Rachel, home with both autistic toddlers, couldn’t do it anymore.

“We need to stop,” she told him, which was a nice way of saying, “You need to stop.”

Andrew and Rachel with their children Zeke and Anna / Courtesy of Andrew Wilson

So he did. Andrew canceled months of speaking engagements. He stopped holding evening meetings. He pulled out of writing projects. Outside of family and his direct work responsibilities, he shut everything down. For a gifted, ambitious 32-year-old, “it felt costly and permanent,” Rachel remembers.

But it wasn’t. Over the last eight years, Andrew has published about 10 books. He took a new job as a teaching pastor at King’s Church in London. And he began speaking again—in September, he’ll be on the main stage at The Gospel Coalition’s conference in Indianapolis.

That doesn’t mean he’s neglecting his family. It just means his children are a little older, and he and Rachel have made unusual choices to navigate serving both their family and the broader church.

Being unusual doesn’t bother Andrew a bit—he’s been unpredictable his entire life. The kid who was christened Anglican spent his preschool years in a charismatic residential community before returning to Anglicanism and then becoming a Reformed charismatic. The schoolboy who was awkward in state schools flourished in all areas—sports, theater, debate, academics—at a higher-end boarding school. And the teaching pastor with three degrees in theology just wrote a book outside his discipline—on the year 1776—that historian Mark Noll calls a “triumph of both creative historical analysis and winsome Christian interpretation.”

“The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places,” said Andrew, who skipped two grades but has children in special schools, who lives in Eastbourne but works in London, who pastors a church but rarely sees his family there. “God is so good.”

Not Quite Mainstream

Andrew was born in London. His parents had come to faith through Dick Lucas’s ministry at St. Helen’s Bishopsgate, and they christened him there.

But not long after, they swung “to the opposite end of the spectrum,” Andrew said. They joined a charismatic community and spent Andrew’s preschool years sharing possessions with other like-minded people at a large country estate and its surrounding village.

When Andrew was 6 years old, his parents swung back into the mainstream. They left the commune, joined an Anglican church, and enrolled Andrew in a state school.

But that didn’t mean Andrew was a mainstream kid. He was so bright he was moved up two grades at school. “Up to age 11, I was a bit of a weird reclusive little child,” he said. When he was 13, his parents sent him to a boarding school in Eastbourne.

About 55 miles south of London, Eastbourne is perched on the shores of the English Channel. The small city of around 100,000 people is built mostly around tourism—on a clear day, it feels like you could see France if you squinted hard enough. The Seven Sisters chalk cliffs just south of town are even more beautiful than the White Cliffs of Dover.

“It was like Harry Potter without the magic,” Andrew said. “I absolutely loved it.”

He got to do everything—theater and army drills and debating, rugby and cricket and hockey, football and music and swimming. Afterward, with the help of a scholarship, he enrolled in the prestigious Christ College at the University of Cambridge. Again, he loved the sports and acting and debating. But his spiritual life was sliding backward.

“My friends thought I was a Christian because that’s how I talked,” he said. But he was also drinking heavily in the rugby club, then bouncing into church during the holidays with his family, then back to the club.

“I basically lived with that cognitive dissonance for just over two years,” he said. Eventually, a group of his Christian friends confronted him, and he began to sort himself out. He got plugged into church, changed his habits, and switched his program from history to theology. He started reading books by N. T. Wright and John Piper.

“But really, I don’t think I repented until the gap year I did after university,” he said.

Gap Year

Andrew was wavering between an internship with parliament and a management consulting job with OC&C Strategy Consultants when his old history teacher Andy Johnston asked him to come work at his church in Eastbourne.

The offer wasn’t lucrative or prestigious. Instead of meeting famous politicians, Andrew would hang out with underprivileged kids. Instead of analyzing data, he would plan beach trips and movie nights for middle schoolers. Instead of exploring the center of commerce and culture, he’d spend time with low-income families in a seaside town.

“I went down to visit the church, and it was amazing,” Andrew said. “There were people being saved. They were doing loads of stuff in the community. It was a big church in a big building with lots going on.”

He agreed to the gap year. King’s Church put Andrew into a theological training course and tasked him with working with the youth.

At first, that seemed like a mistake.

“I thought the kids were going to eat him alive,” Rachel said. She’d been at King’s Church nearly her entire life and was helping with the outreach to unchurched children. She couldn’t imagine Andrew—with his posh English accent and his fresh Cambridge diploma—connecting with any of them.

“Then, at the end of the planning meeting, I heard him pray,” she said. “And I thought, OK, there is more to him than meets the eye.”

Kidz Klub involved speaking to hundreds of kids and teenagers, most of whom had no connection with organized religion.

“If you can preach the gospel to an unchurched 7- or 8-year-old, making great truths accessible through story and illustration without compromising the message, you can preach to anyone,” Kidz Klub leader Janet Johnston told Andrew.

He did, over and over. Using salt, rocks, fruit, and flowers, he explained truths about God to kids who had no way to conceive of them.

“He could make complicated things straightforward and easy to grasp,” Rachel said. “I love that about the way he preaches.”

That wasn’t the only thing she loved about him. They both fell so hard that her father didn’t think he could keep them apart and, honestly, didn’t even want to try.

“You might not, but I will,” Andy Johnston remembers telling him, with a laugh. The two held off until Andrew finished his internship and went back to the consulting job in the city. Two years later, he quit his high-paying job in London and moved to Eastbourne to marry her.

World of Options

For the next few years, Rachel studied international relations at a local university while Andrew ran the King’s Church theological training program, helped with Kidz Klub, did some financial consulting, and got his master’s in theology from the London School of Theology.

When Rachel landed a summer internship with the International Justice Mission in Washington, DC, they were both eager to go. While she worked, Andrew camped out at the Barnes & Noble in Metro Center and wrote his first book. Both loved their time in the U.S. and wondered if they should move away from England permanently.

“We would talk about the future a lot,” Rachel said. The world seemed wide open before them—Rachel could work with an NGO or human rights organization. Andrew could preach or write from anywhere. Where should they go? What should they do?

“I thought we would probably move abroad,” she said. “But we felt God clearly speaking to us about staying and not packing up.”

So after her internship was over, they headed back to Eastbourne—to the town, family, friends, and church that had known them nearly their entire lives.

It didn’t seem like an exciting choice. But they couldn’t have made a better one.

Zeke and Anna

In 2008, Rachel gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. They named him Zeke. A year and a half later, he was joined by a sister—Anna.

The babies were a delight, and then a worry. By 18 months, Zeke wasn’t hitting his one-year milestones of pulling up, taking his first steps, or talking.

“We were referred on to specialists, but we weren’t overly concerned,” Rachel said. After all, lots of kids don’t walk or talk on schedule.

But then Zeke started to lose some of the skills he’d gained. He stopped babbling and making eye contact. When he was two and a half, doctors diagnosed him with autism and developmental delay.

The Wilson family / Courtesy of Andrew Wilson

“At the same time, Anna was diagnosed with epilepsy,” Rachel said. Eighteen months later, she, too, was diagnosed with regressive autism. The only difference was that her loss was more severe.

“Anna was much more tragic,” Andrew said. “With Zeke, it was almost a relief to get a diagnosis because he was at the back of the church on Sunday mornings, in retrospect in distress, not being able to cope with the sensory overload. Nobody could work it out, but it’s now obvious he couldn’t cope with the people and the noise.”

Anna, on the other hand, seemed perfectly neurotypical, “running around, reciting nursery rhymes,” he said. “Then she fell off a cliff—went from being a very expressive, smiley, happy, normal little 2-year-old to being unable to speak. Even her movement became unstable.”

Her mother noticed the symptoms first.

“Rachel was a long way ahead of me on realizing there was a problem with the kids, realizing the significance, and adapting to it,” Andrew said. “I didn’t realize this was going to change our lives so much—that we needed to make our lives a lot smaller. She was there for a year when I wasn’t, which caused conflict I didn’t even realize was conflict.”

By then, Andrew was an elder at King’s Church. He’d written a few more books, was running two training courses, and had started a PhD in theology at King’s College London.

“Andrew was in Belfast when Anna had two big seizures,” Rachel said. “I reached a point of collapse. I thought, I cannot do this.”

When he got home, she told him things were falling apart: “We need to stop. Now.”

So they did. They quit going away for weekends, having date nights, or leaving the house after dinner. They didn’t go on vacation or take the train to the city. They asked someone to move in with them to help. They never got enough sleep. Rachel cried almost daily.

“For two to three years,” Andrew said, “we felt completely at sea, confused, adrift.”

But they never felt abandoned by God or by his people.

Suffering and Ministry

“We’ve been served so well by so many people,” Andrew said. “The church loved us and made sure we were OK.” Leaders accommodated his need to be at home more. Members prayed and brought meals. A couple with an older son with Down syndrome became their mentors.

Andrew began to think about capacity. A boy on his own at boarding school relies on himself, but a father is only as capable as his family unit. The same is true of a church, Andrew thought. For example, if a child wakes up at 4 a.m. every day, he diminishes the capacity of everyone in the household. But if that same child softens hearts inside a body of believers, he’s enlarging the capacity of the entire church.

That wasn’t all Zeke and Anna taught their dad about ministry.

“There is a gentleness in him, and a flexibility, and an understanding about the way holiness looks and develops in someone’s life,” Rachel said. “He’s much less dogmatic than he would have been 20 years ago. We got to do some ministry together this summer, and it struck me that where he would’ve gotten in an argument about who was right, now he is far more openhanded.”

Those are valuable lessons for anyone, but especially for a pastor in a multiethnic church in an increasingly diverse London.

King’s Church London

For about a decade now, the U.K. has been “post-Christian.”

After World War II, church attendance began to fall, bottoming out around 1990. From 1983 to 2018, the percentage of those who described themselves as Christians dropped from 66 percent to 38 percent. Some predict the official Church of England—along with a number of other historic denominations—will be dead by 2050 or 2060.

But there are signs of life, especially—and unexpectedly—in London. Between 1979 and 2012, the number of churches there jumped 43 percent, from 3,350 to about 4,800. Many are small, black-majority, immigrant, and Pentecostal.

One growing congregation is King’s Church London. Founded in the late 1800s as part of Charles Spurgeon’s goal to reach London, attendance was about 200 when Steve Tibbert took over the pastorate in 1995. Since then, the Reformed charismatic church has grown to about 1,500 people meeting in four locations. More than half are ethnic minorities.

There are signs of life, especially—and unexpectedly—in London. Between 1979 and 2012, the number of churches there jumped 43 percent, from 3,350 to about 4,800.

Seven years ago, Andrew took a job there as a preaching pastor. The learning curve was steep.

“Eastbourne is very white, middle class, and politically conservative,” he said. “Southeast London is a mostly black, politically liberal, and socially mixed part of the city, and our church reflects that. I had to read and learn a ton of stuff about race, racism, and history very quickly.”

“Andrew has the ability to teach a local church with cultural awareness, deep theological reflection, and pastoral application,” said Tibbert, who also leads the Newfrontiers network. “He is fun to work with, both here in the local church and as he serves more widely in the Newfrontiers family.”

Lately, Andrew’s influence has spread even further. Through a little more speaking and a lot more writing, he’s beginning to reach a wider audience. His brand-new book, Remaking the World: How 1776 Created the Post-Christian West, has been hailed by historians as “extraordinary.” Earlier this year he filmed a brief documentary for TGC on 1776, a subject he’ll also address for his TGC23 microevent on September 27. And later this fall his new podcast, Post-Christianity?, will debut with co-host Glen Scrivener, his Eastbourne neighbor. Both serve as fellows for The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics.

“He is one of the sharpest thinkers and best writers in the U.K. church,” said Sam Allberry, another fellow at The Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics. “His charismatic/Reformed background means he is able to speak into and stretch multiple parts of the evangelical world at the same time. A lot of younger leaders especially look to him as a fresh voice in these days.”

Maybe you’re wondering how Andrew managed to leave Eastbourne. The answer: he didn’t.


Before he took the job, Andrew told Tibbert up-front that his family couldn’t make the move. With two special needs children, it’d be impossible to leave the thick, tight support of friends, family, and church there. Especially now—because Rachel was pregnant again.

“We talked every week for four years about the pros and cons of having another kid,” Rachel said. “We reached a place of faith—a child would be a blessing whether they regressed or not.”

Andrew and Rachel in August 2023 / Courtesy of Andrew Wilson

Andrew and King’s Church London worked out an arrangement that he’d never recommend as best practice. He stays in London three days a week, preaching and connecting with congregants. The other four he spends in Eastbourne, preparing sermons and writing.

While he commuted, Andrew and Rachel anxiously watched her pregnancy progress. When Samuel was born—seemingly happy and healthy—they still couldn’t relax.

“It was a waiting game,” Rachel said. “Sam showed the same symptoms as the other kids—he didn’t crawl. He didn’t walk until 18 months. We prayed and prayed.”

Sam turned 2, then 2 and a half, then 3. He learned to walk, to talk, to play. He sang, gave high fives, and paid attention when someone talked to him. Finally, his doctors and parents dared to say he wouldn’t face the challenges associated with regression.

Sam’s diagnosis—or rather, lack of one—was a gift on top of other gifts. While Anna still faces significant developmental delay, she sleeps and interacts better than before. Zeke, now 14, has blown past many of the expectations set for him—he’s social, loves to play soccer, and has a memory as good as his father’s.

“We died to everything, and then God has given things back,” Rachel said. “I’d rather have it that way than be on a continual journey of loss. It’s been amazing—strange, really—because even though I’m a planner, in some ways I’m really grateful God doesn’t tell us everything.”

For instance, if you’d told Andrew in his 20s that he’d never leave Eastbourne, that would have seemed like a small, maybe even disappointing, life to him.

But that’s not what he calls it now.

“We have seen so much of the goodness of God in the land of the living,” he said. “There was a period where the sun had been hidden by the clouds. But most of the time I wouldn’t swap with anyone. God has been so good.”

How Did Francis Schaeffer Define True Spirituality? Wed, 13 Sep 2023 04:03:44 +0000 ‘True Spirituality’ is an invitation to the rest of Francis Schaeffer’s writings. It might be the center and the work from which everything else stems.]]> Beginning in 1951, after years of being part of separatist-fundamentalist factions and denominations, Francis Schaeffer experienced a spiritual crisis. He was concerned about the lack of visible love he saw among Bible-believing Christians.

Moreover, he was concerned about the lack of “true spirituality” in his own life. So he resolved to rethink his whole understanding of the Christian faith. This crisis culminated in what Schaeffer called his “hayloft experience.”

For two months, he hiked the Swiss mountains near his home when the weather allowed. On rainy days, he paced back and forth in the hayloft of his chalet.

That period of examination laid the groundwork for True Spirituality. The book wasn’t published until two decades after Schaeffer’s crisis of faith. But the basic components of the book had been created by the mid-1950s in the form of camp talks and messages: twin emphases on the finished work of Christ and the need for Christians to live out their faith in all of life.

That process of deep thinking and reflection on his Christianity, his life, and his work as a missionary led Shaeffer to a recommitment to the gospel. He came to the resolution that Christianity is true for all of life. As he describes it, this was the moment when “the sun came out and the song came” with his renewed faith (10).

Finished Work of Christ

True Spirituality is concerned with sanctification. Schaeffer makes a clear distinction between justification, sanctification, and glorification in the life of the believer. All these flow from the finished work of Christ.

Sanctification, according to Schaeffer, is a moment-by-moment dependence on God. It’s an internal reality, not an external gesture. True sanctification is marked by “active passivity”—by opening our hands in faith for God to use us as vehicles for his purposes (93).

Sanctification includes a moment-by-moment dependence on God.

The Christian pursues sanctification by rehearsing the historic life of Christ in his or her own life. Schaeffer writes, “The order—rejected, slain, raised—is also the order of the Christian life of true spirituality: there is no other” (50).

The fact that salvation is dependent on the finished work of Christ has drawn many Christians into antinomianism. But the need for human effort toward sanctification has pushed other believers toward legalistic obedience. These extremes have beguiled Christians from the beginning.

But sanctification is more than legalism or antinomianism. Schaeffer identifies the flaws in both approaches. Obedience to God’s moral law is part of true spirituality, but the internal attitude of joy in obedience is where the freedom comes in.

Schaeffer shows that the Decalogue requires both external obedience and an internal attitude of joy. He focuses on the tenth commandment: do not covet. Christians must obey the law by refusing to covet, but they do this by giving thanks for all things.

The finished work of Christ moves believers to reject the sinful things of this world and be rejected by them. We’re to die to things and to ourselves as we experience new life in Christ. This sanctifying process is all done daily, moment-by-moment, in the power of the Holy Spirit, because of the work Christ completed through the cross.

Faith in All of Life

Sanctification is experienced internally, but it often has external consequences in this life. Christians live out their faith by seeking substantial healing in every relationship.

Schaeffer teaches that believers can experience substantial healing in their person, in interpersonal relationships, and in the church as they live out the gospel. This healing isn’t perfect, but it isn’t illusory either. Substantial healing touches all of Christian life because of the finished work of Christ, though the healing is not yet complete.

Substantial healing has an apologetic edge to it by offering a foretaste of God’s kingdom. Schaeffer shows that Christian spirituality goes beyond a ticket to heaven; he shows that God offers partial healing and peace in this world as well.

God’s work extends into communal and cultural life. Schaeffer always seems to begin with the thought world, but his anthropology affirms the goodness of the body. For Schaeffer, the “body is the bridge to the external world” (174). The physical world, therefore, matters. God is healing, and he’ll one day fully heal both the physical world and the souls of his people.

God is healing, and he’ll one day fully heal both the physical world and the souls of his people.

The book concludes with a call to take the transformative power to the whole world: “Having come this far, true spirituality—the Christian life—flows into the total culture” (256). Schaeffer clearly believes true dependence on Christ has substantial implications for all of life.

Throughout the history of the church, there has been an ebb and flow of legalism and antinomianism, world-denying dualism and world-affirming compromise. True Spirituality offers a helpful and needed balance.

Good Place to Begin

Schaeffer often states that the theme running through his entire corpus is the lordship of Christ.

As founder of L’Abri and the thinker who inspired a generation of evangelicals to engage meaningfully with culture, Schaeffer authored more than 20 books. He often described his trilogy as the hub of his writing: The God Who Is There, Escape from Reason, and He Is There and He Is Not Silent.

Others may argue the place to start with Shaeffer’s works is with his treatment of continuing cultural issues as in Pollution and the Death of Man or Art and the Bible. It’s hard to nail down the perfect place to begin a fruitful study. However, True Spirituality is an invitation to the rest of Schaeffer’s writings. It might be the center and the work from which everything else stems. Through this book, a new generation can pick up Schaeffer’s work and learn with him.

The Geneva ‘Réveil’: An Almost Unknown Evangelical Awakening Wed, 13 Sep 2023 04:02:00 +0000 How a forgotten revival challenges our assumptions about the spread of Christianity.]]> For the past three centuries, evangelical Christians have grown accustomed to the idea that spiritual influence and momentum are generated in English-speaking regions. These regions, though separated by oceans, have exerted a common and dominant influence for good.

It was true in the 1730s and ’40s when not only evangelists but newsletters crisscrossed the Atlantic. In the 19th century, Charles Finney took his new methods, first tested in western New York and Ohio, to British cities. Later, D. L. Moody took pages from the playbooks of his predecessors when he crossed the Atlantic.

The Welsh Revival of 1904 set in motion similar movements as far afield as India, Korea, Scandinavia, and California. The East Africa Revival of the 1930s—a movement that followed the earlier implantation of the gospel by British missionaries—quickened the spirituality of evangelicals across Africa and beyond.

All these examples have one factor in common: the English language was the means by which reports of these movements (whether originating in Massachusetts, Wales, or Uganda) were relayed to Christians farther afield. But are these long-standing assumptions correct? Have English-language networks like these been as indispensable in movements of spiritual awakening as we’ve long supposed? There’s good reason to question this.

Different Narrative

A counternarrative began to be provided in the 1930s through the global travels and chronicling of J. Edwin Orr (1912–87), who wrote a myriad of books documenting movements of awakening on five continents. Much more recently, Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge described this international trajectory with their book A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories That Stretch and Stir (2010) in the same year as Mark Shaw provided Global Awakening: How 20th-Century Revivals Triggered a Christian Revolution.

Some notable modern research has focused on European cultures in which we supposed little awakening and revival had occurred. Reginald Ward’s The Protestant Evangelical Awakening (1992) argued that the roots of the better-known movements in 18th-century Britain and America lay in central Europe, among Protestants harassed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Ward, a British Methodist, followed this up with Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History (2006).

In 2019, American historian Andrew Kloes opened up new vistas with The German Awakening: Protestant Renewal After Enlightenment 1815–1848. Here was an era of itinerant preaching, Scripture distribution by Bible societies, and the forming of home and foreign mission societies, about which the English-speaking world has had little awareness.

In a similar vein is the just-released The Genevan ‘Revéil’ in International Perspective (2023, also available in French). Few English-speaking evangelicals are aware that shortly after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, there began at Geneva an evangelical awakening that leavened French-speaking Protestantism in Switzerland and France before spilling across borders into the Rhine region of today’s Germany, the then-combined Belgium and the Netherlands, and the Piedmont region of what would become Italy.

Overlooked Revival

In this volume (which was a decade in the making), 20 contributors, drawn from seven countries, detail a story the English-speaking world needs to know more about.

Not many English-speaking evangelicals are aware that shortly after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, there began at Geneva an evangelical awakening.

This movement was rooted in the witness of traveling Moravian evangelists in Switzerland and France; there were also cells of Christians meeting for prayer and devotional fellowship. Into this network of seekers entered foreign visitors: among them were Robert Haldane (Scottish), Henry Drummond (English), and John Mason Mitchell (American). During this time, the lives of many Genevan theological students were redirected. There were new independent congregations begun. And a good portion of the existing Reformed churches were quickened.

Francophone evangelicalism came to birth in this half-century of itinerant evangelism, church planting, and tract and Bible distribution. The first Francophone Protestant foreign mission societies were formed at this time in Lausanne, Geneva, and Paris. Before long, regions culturally linked to Francophone Europe such as Quebec, Algeria, Madagascar, central Africa, and the then-Indochina received missionaries. New theological colleges were established to provide this evangelical movement with pastors and evangelists. Preachers and theologians of stature, such as Adolphe Monod, J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, and Louis Gaussen emerged to guide the movement.

Evangelical Christians in Britain and America, learning of these developments (often firsthand from French-speaking visitors), threw their support behind these gospel enterprises. Extensive assistance from Britain and the U.S. was channeled through French and Swiss agencies that employed local agents to evangelize; engage in Scripture distribution; and print books, Bibles, and tracts.

Awakening’s Aftermath

Within France and Switzerland, there were communal and social repercussions that followed this awakening. Schools were opened to provide literacy and numeracy. The humanitarian Red Cross movement was birthed in its aftermath. Within 50 years of the dawn of this movement, French and Swiss evangelical leaders were taking prominent places in international forums such as the World Evangelical Alliance (founded in 1846).

Francophone Europe had by 1850 come to assume an expanded role in the worldwide advance of the gospel.

Out of the chaos and disorder of the era of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Empire, Francophone Europe had by 1850 come to assume an expanded role in the worldwide advance of the gospel. A similar story was unfolding in those decades in German lands.

Today, we see the same principle at work as evangelical movements in Southeast Asia and Latin America have become significant sources of Christian leadership and vitality for the global church. The English-speaking world hasn’t always been the center of global Christianity, and it won’t necessarily be the source of its awakening.

4 Reasons Missionaries Should Prioritize Support from Local Churches Wed, 13 Sep 2023 04:00:00 +0000 Missionaries should pursue meaningful partnerships with local churches, not just individual donors.]]> Most missionaries raise financial support for their personal and ministry expenses overseas. As a leader of a missions agency, I’ve had conversations with many people entering this phase in ministry. One of the questions I’m asked most often is why someone should prioritize raising support from local churches over individuals.

It’s helpful to acknowledge that missions history is full of stories of individual gospel patrons who’ve supported the work of missionaries. Even Jesus and the apostles were supported by individuals (Luke 8:3; Rom. 16:2). In no way do I want to discourage Christians from giving directly, sacrificially, and generously to missionaries.

However, I encourage missionaries to develop meaningful partnerships with local churches as they raise support. Here are four reasons why.

1. Assessment and Accountability

Compared to individual donors, churches are in a better position to assess the character and competencies of missionaries. More specifically, a church’s elders are better suited for this than friends and family. A missionary should be sent out by a local church, not just by a group of disconnected individuals.

A church’s elders might involve a committee to make recommendations concerning which missionaries to support. But ultimately, the men who shepherd the local church are in the best position to assess character and competency because they’ve been affirmed as those who possess these qualities.

Compared to individual donors, churches are in a better position to assess the character and competencies of missionaries.

I’ve been sharpened by sitting with pastors from various congregations who intentionally ask questions about my personal spiritual disciplines, my leadership in the home, and my work. They press in on areas where they see an opportunity for improvement and encourage me by their discernment.

While missionaries can absolutely have encouraging conversations like these with individual supporters, they stand to gain by establishing accountability relationships with entire congregations and their elders.

2. Practical Partnership

Churches increase the opportunities for practical partnership. A congregation comprises members with different competencies and connections; their various gifts and abilities can be of great assistance to those serving overseas.

Whether a missionary is looking for professional help with a business or asking for meaningful assistance through a short-term team, local churches are the logical first place to inquire for help. In my experience, they consistently seek to deploy their members to help the missionaries they support.

Churches also represent a greater number of prayer partners. A missionary with 100 individual donors could likely expect those supporters to pray for her. But by simply adding one local church to her support base, she could greatly increase the number of people praying for her on a regular basis.

3. Ease of Connectivity

Imagine two different scenarios for a missionary family raising $75,000.

In the first, their local church contributes $15,000 for the year. The family then raises the rest of their support through individual donations. The remaining $60,000 would require 100 donors to contribute an average of $50 a month, or $600 a year.

In the second scenario, the family is supported by their sending church and four other local churches, with the remainder raised through gifts from individuals. If the sending church contributes $15,000 for the year and four other churches contribute $6,000 each, then only $36,000 remains to be raised through individual donors. At an average annual gift of $600 each, that would be 60 individuals.

In scenario one, there are 101 relationships (100 individuals and one church). In scenario two, 65. That’s 36, or just over a third, fewer people to check in with throughout the hustle and bustle of language learning, culture acquisition, and ministry overseas. It’s 36 fewer visits, lunches, or coffee meetings when on home assignment. I’ve seen firsthand the burden missionaries feel to personally visit supporters when they’re home. By being supported more through churches than individuals—and especially by churches that give generously—missionaries can minimize that stress.

4. Mutual Encouragement

In Philippians 4:15–20, Paul writes,

You Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macdeonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. Any my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

Paul commends the Philippian church for their continual generosity. Not only was he helped in his need but they were bearing fruit through their giving. You can’t help but notice the mutual encouragement in these verses. Paul’s ministry needs were met, and the Philippian church rejoiced for the part they played in what the Lord was doing.

In my experience, local churches consistently seek to deploy their members to help the missionaries they support.

This mutual encouragement and shared harvest still happens today as faithful missionaries are supported through the generosity of local churches. This doesn’t mean missionaries should stop seeking support from friends and family. But they’d do well to prioritize raising support from local churches for the accountability, partnership, connectivity, and encouragement that can be gained there.

I’m aware of the various complexities that arise in support raising. Not every church can write a substantial check for a sent-out worker, though they should seek to give sacrificially. Meanwhile, some missionaries don’t have relationships with other churches besides their sending church. But many pastors do, and they can encourage those connections. When that happens, I’ve witnessed local associations, relationships, and networks that are mutually encouraged when the churches in that region support each other’s missionaries, all to the glory of God.

Does God Have Big Plans for Your Life? Tue, 12 Sep 2023 04:03:00 +0000 ‘God is going to do big things with your life,’ we often hear. No doubt well-meaning, but is it true?]]> “God is going to do big things with your life,” we often hear. No doubt well-meaning, but is it true? Is it big when God allows a believer to wrestle with a debilitating chronic illness? Is it big when a godly servant spends his life serving in a small one-room church in a rural town? Is it big when a mother turns down a corner-office promotion to teach her children full-time from home? Can a small and hidden life be as glorious as one seen and heard across the globe?

While not big by earthly standards, small acts of obedience that go unnoticed can be big displays of God’s glory. He’s doing big things when redeemed people, no longer living for themselves, bring him glory.

Wooed by Earthly Glory

What makes something big or noteworthy? Dollars? Followers? Influence? Fame? In the hustle and hurry of our daily walk with God, it’s easy to convince ourselves we’re simply trying to make the most of our lives when we’re actually wooed by earthly glory rather than God’s. It’s hard to be consumed with God’s glory when we’re busy trying to acquire our own.

It’s hard to be consumed with God’s glory when we’re busy trying to acquire our own.

The apostle Paul reminds believers in his letter to the Romans, “From him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever” (Rom. 11:36). Nothing we have, no circumstances we’ve been given, no talents we possess on this road with Christ have been entrusted to us for our own glory. They’re all from him, through him, and to him.

As I ponder this truth, these familiar words rise to the surface of my thoughts:

Should nothing of our efforts stand, no legacy survive;
Unless the Lord does raise the house, in vain its builders strive.
To you who boast tomorrow’s gain, tell me what is your life?
A mist that vanishes at dawn, all glory be to Christ!
All glory be to Christ our King. All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing, all glory be to Christ!

I get tearful every time I begin to sing these opening lines to the hymn “All Glory Be to Christ.” The truths reflected in these lines unmask the ache and weariness that so often accompany us as we journey with Christ—simply because we forget it’s not about us. The pressure’s off, friend; all the glory belongs to Christ.

Christ’s Work Outshines

Recognizing the emptiness of our earthly pursuits and the temporal nature of much of what we build isn’t meant to discourage us. Instead, the reality of the fleeting nature of our journey is meant to point pilgrims like me and you to that which will outshine all else.

Only what Christ did—his work on the cross and his redemption and restoration of us to the Father—will last into eternity. Not our 401(k) accounts, not our diplomas, not the nonprofits we started, not the books we wrote. Not the stamps on our passports, not the homes we built.

The pressure’s off, friend; all the glory belongs to Christ.

But don’t be disheartened, friend. Be a glory chaser; run after God’s glory and not your own. The influence of your life lived for Christ will certainly have eternal effects. But what you build here on earth won’t last forever.

Big Plans Indeed

What big plans does God have for our lives, then? As those forgiven and sanctified in Christ, we are his trophies, and our redeemed and praise-filled presence in heaven will bring him glory—for eternity. As “All Glory Be to Christ” describes,

When on the day the great I Am, the Faithful and the True
The Lamb who was for sinners slain, is making all things new.
Behold our God shall live with us and be our steadfast light,
And we shall e’er his people be, all glory be to Christ!
All glory be to Christ, our King. All glory be to Christ!
His rule and reign we’ll ever sing, all glory be to Christ!

His promise to make all things new (Rev. 21:5) includes remaking me and you. This is no small, insignificant purpose for our lives, friend. This is the Creator restoring us to his very likeness and making us fit to bring him glory—and fit to be glorified with him. He has big plans for us, indeed.